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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Starcraft (A History in Two Acts)

Act 1: Starcraft the Game



Great success brings with it great expectations. And sometimes it brings an identity crisis as well.

After Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans became a hit in 1995, the company started down a very conventional path for a new publisher feeling its oats, initiating a diverse array of projects from internal and external development teams. In addition to the inevitable Warcraft sequel, there were a streamlined CRPG known as Diablo, a turn-based tactical-battle game known as Shattered Nations, a 4X grand-strategy game known as Pax Imperia II, even an adventure game taking place in the Warcraft universe — to be called, naturally enough, Warcraft Adventures. Then, too, even before Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness was finished, Blizzard had already started on a different sort of spinoff than Warcraft Adventures, one which jettisoned the fantasy universe but stayed within the same gameplay genre of real-time strategy. It was to be called Starcraft, and was to replace fantasy with science fiction. Blizzard thought that one team could crank it out fairly quickly using the existing Warcraft II engine, while another one retooled their core RTS technology for Warcraft III.

In May of 1996, with Warcraft II now six months old and a massive hit, Blizzard brought early demos of Starcraft and most of their other works in progress to E3, the games industry’s new annual showcase. One could make a strong argument that the next few days on the E3 show floor were the defining instant for the Blizzard brand as we still know it today.

The version of Starcraft that Blizzard brought to the 1996 E3 show. Journalists made fun of its florescent purple color palette among other things. Was this game being designed by Prince?

The gaming press was not particularly kind to the hodgepodge of products that Blizzard showed them at E3. They were especially cruel to Starcraft, which they roundly mocked for being exactly what it was, a thinly reskinned version of Warcraft II — or, as some journalists took to calling it, Orcs in Space. Everyone from Blizzard came home badly shaken by the treatment. So, after a period of soul searching and much fraught internal discussion, Blizzard’s co-founders Allen Adham and Mike Morhaime decided not to be quite so conventional in the way they ran their business. They took a machete to their jungle of projects which seemed to have spontaneously sprouted out of nowhere as soon as the money started to roll in. When all was said and done, they allowed only two of them to live on: Diablo, which was being developed at the newly established Blizzard North, of San Mateo, California; and Starcraft, down at Blizzard South in Irvine, California. But the latter was no longer to be just a spinoff. “We realized, this product’s just going to suck,” says Blizzard programmer Pat Wyatt of the state of the game at that time. “We need to have all our effort put into it. And everything about it was rebooted: the team that was working on it, the leadership, the design, the artwork — everything was changed.”

Blizzard’s new modus operandi would be to publish relatively few games, but to make sure that each and every one of them was awesome, no matter what it took. In pursuit of that goal, they would do almost everything in-house, and they would release no game before its time. The time of Starcraft, that erstwhile quickie Warcraft spinoff, wouldn’t come until March of 1998, while Warcraft III wouldn’t drop until 2002. In defiance of all of the industry’s conventional wisdom, the long gaps between releases wouldn’t prove ruinous; quite the opposite, in fact. Make the games awesome, Blizzard would learn, and the gamers will be there waiting with money in hand when they finally make their appearance.

Adham and Morhaime fostered as non-hierarchical a structure as possible at Blizzard, such that everyone, regardless of their ostensible role — from programmers to artists, testers to marketers — felt empowered to make design suggestions, knowing that they would be acted upon if they were judged worthy by their peers. Thus, although James Phinney and Chris Metzen were credited as “lead designers” on Starcraft, the more telling credit is the one that attributes the design as a whole simply to “Blizzard Entertainment.” The founders preferred to promote from within, retaining the entry-level employees who had grown up with the Blizzard Way rather than trying to acclimatize outsiders who were used to less freewheeling approaches. Phinney and Metzen were typical examples: the former had started at Blizzard as a humble tester, the latter as a manual writer and line artist.

For all that Blizzard’s ambitions for Starcraft increased dramatically over the course of its development, it was never intended to be a radical formal departure from what had come before. From start to finish, it was nothing more nor less than another sprite-based 2D RTS like Warcraft II.  It was just to be a better iteration on that concept — so much better that it verged on becoming a sort of Platonic ideal for this style of game. Blizzard would keep on improving it until they started to run out of ideas for making it better still. Only then would they think about shipping it.

The finished Starcraft in action, looking much more chic than it did during its Orcs in Space days.

The exceptions to this rule of iteration rather than blue-sky invention all surrounded the factions that you could either control or play against. There were three of them rather than the standard two, for one thing. But far more importantly, each of the factions was truly unique, in marked contrast to those of Warcraft and Warcraft II. In those games, the two factions’ units largely mirrored one another in a tit-for-tat fashion, merely substituting different names and sprites for the same sets of core functions. Yet Starcraft had what Blizzard liked to call an “asymmetric” design; each of the three factions played dramatically differently, with none of the neat one-to-one correspondences that had been the norm within the RTS genre prior to this point.

In fact, the factions could hardly have been more different from one another. There were the Terrans, Marines in space who talked like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and fought with rifles and tanks made out of good old reliable steel; the Zerg, an insectoid alien race in thrall to a central hive mind, all crunchy carapaces and savage slime; and the Protoss, aloof, enigmatic giants who could employ psionic powers as devastatingly as they could their ultra-high-tech weaponry.

The single-player campaign in which you got to take the factions for a spin was innovative in its way as well. Instead of asking you to choose a side to control at the outset, the campaign expected you to play all three of them in succession, working your way through a sprawling story of interstellar conflict, as told in no fewer than 30 individual scenarios. It cleverly began by placing you in control of the Terrans, the most immediately relatable faction, then moved on to the movie-monster-like Zerg and finally the profoundly alien Protoss once you’d gotten your sea legs.

Although it seems safe to say that the campaign was never the most exciting part of Starcraft for the hyper-competitive young men at Blizzard, they didn’t stint on the effort they put into it. They recognized that the story and cinematics of Westwood Studio’s Command & Conquer — all that stuff around the game proper — was the one area where that arch-rival RTS franchise had comprehensively outdone them to date. Determined to rectify this, they hired Harley D. Huggins II, a fellow who had done some CGI production on the recent film Starship Troopers — a movie whose overall aesthetic had more than a little in common with Starcraft — as the leader of their first dedicated cinematics team. The story can be a bit hard to follow, what with its sometimes baffling tangle of groups who are forever allying with and then betraying one another, the better to set up every possible permutation of battle. (As Blizzard wrote on their back-of-the-box copy, “The only allies are enemies!”) Still, no one can deny that the campaign is presented really, really well, from the cut scenes that come along every few scenarios to the voice acting during the mission briefings, which turn into little audio dramas in themselves. That said, a surprising amount of the story is actually conveyed during the missions, when your objectives can unexpectedly change on a dime; this was new to the RTS genre.

One of the cut scenes which pop up every few scenarios during the campaign. Blizzard’s guiding ethic was to make them striking but short, such that no one would be tempted to skip them. Their core player demographic was not known for its patience with long-winded exposition…

Nonetheless, any hardcore Starcraft player will tell you that multiplayer is where it’s really at. When Blizzard released Diablo in the dying days of 1996, they debuted alongside it Battle.net, a social space and matchmaking service for multiplayer sessions over the Internet. Its contribution to Diablo’s enormous success is incalculable. Starcraft was to be the second game supported by the service, and Blizzard had no reason to doubt that it would prove just as important if not more so to their latest RTS.

If all of Starcraft was to be awesome, multiplayer Starcraft had to be the most awesome part of all. This meant that the factions had to be balanced; it wouldn’t do to have the outcome of matches decided before they even began, based simply upon who was playing as whom. After the basic framework of the game was in place, Blizzard brought in a rare outsider, a tireless analytical mind by the name of Rob Pardo, to be a sort of balance specialist, looking endlessly for ways to break the game. He not only played it to exhaustion himself but watched match after match, including hundreds played over Battle.net by fans who were lucky enough to be allowed to join a special beta program, the forerunner of Steam Early Access and the like of today. Rather than merely erasing the affordances that led to balance problems — affordances which were often among the funnest parts of the game — Pardo preferred to tweak the numbers involved and/or to implement possible countermeasures for the other factions, then throw the game out for yet another round of testing. This process added months to the development cycle, but no one seemed to mind. “We will release it when it’s ready,” remained Blizzard’s credo, in defiance of holidays, fiscal quarters, and all of the other everyday business logic of their industry. Luckily, the ongoing strong sales of Warcraft II and Diablo gave them that luxury.

Indeed, Blizzard veterans like to joke today that Starcraft was just two months away from release for a good fourteen months. They crunched and crunched and crunched, living lifestyles that were the opposite of healthy. “Relationships were destroyed,” admits Pat Wyatt. “People got sick.” At last, on March 27, 1998, the exhausted team pronounced the game done and sent it off to be burnt onto hundreds of thousands of CDs. The first boxed copies reached store shelves four days later.

Starcraft was a superb game by any standard, the most tactically intricate, balanced, and polished RTS to date, arguably for years still to come. It was familiar enough not to intimidate, yet fresh enough to make the purchase amply justifiable. Thanks to all of these qualities, it sold more than 1.5 million copies in the first nine months, becoming the biggest new computer game of the year. By the end of 1998, Battle.net was hosting more than 100,000 concurrent users during peak hours. Blizzard was now the hottest name in computer gaming; they had left even id Software — not to mention Westwood of Command & Conquer fame — in their dust.

There was always a snowball effect when it came to online games in particular; everyone wanted the game their friends were already playing, so that they too could get in on the communal fun. Thus Starcraft continued to sell well for years and years, flirting with 10 million units worldwide before all was said and done, by which time it had become almost synonymous with the RTS in general for many gamers. Although your conclusions can vary depending on where you move the goalposts — Myst sold more units during the 1990s — Starcraft has at the very least a reasonable claim to the title of most successful single computer game of its decade. Everyone who played games during its pre- and post-millennial heyday, everyone who had a friend that did so, everyone who even had a friend of a friend that did so remembers Starcraft today. It became that inescapable. And yet the Starcraft mania in the West was nothing compared to the fanaticism it engendered in one mid-sized Asian country.

If you had told the folks at Blizzard on the day they shipped Starcraft that their game would soon be played for significant money by professional teams of young people who trained as hard or harder than traditional athletes, they would have been shocked. If you had told them that these digital gladiators would still be playing it fifteen years later, they wouldn’t have believed you. And if you had told them that all of this would be happening in, of all places, South Korea, they would have decided you were as crazy as a bug in a rug. But all of these things would come to pass.


Act 2: Starcraft and the Rise of Gaming as a Spectator Sport



Why Starcraft? And why South Korea?

We’ve gone a long way toward answering the first question already. More than any RTS that came before it and the vast majority of those that came after it, Starcraft lent itself to esport competition by being so incredibly well-balanced. Terran, Zerg, or Protoss… you could win (and lose) with any of them. The game was subtle and complex enough that viable new strategies would still be appearing a decade after its release. At the same time, though, it was immediately comprehensible in the broad strokes and fast-paced enough to be a viable spectator sport, with most matches between experienced players wrapping up within half an hour. A typical Command & Conquer or Age of Empires match lasted about twice as long, with far more downtime when little was happening in the way of onscreen excitement.

The question of why South Korea is more complicated to answer, but by no means impossible. In the three decades up to the mid-1990s, the country’s economy expanded like gangbusters. Its gross national product increased by an average of 8.2 percent annually, with average annual household income increasing from $80 to over $10,000 over that span. In 1997, however, all of that came to a crashing halt for the time being, when an overenthusiastic and under-regulated banking sector collapsed like a house of cards, resulting in the worst recession in the country’s modern history. The International Monetary Fund had to step in to prevent a full-scale societal collapse, an intervention which South Koreans universally regarded as a profound national humiliation.

This might not seem like an environment overly conducive to a new fad in pop culture, but it proved to be exactly that. The economic crash left a lot of laid-off businessmen — in South Korea during this era, they were always men — looking for ways to make ends meet. With the banking system in free fall, there was no chance of securing much in the way of financing. So, instead of thinking on a national or global scale, as they had been used to doing, they thought about what they could do close to home. Some opened fried-chicken joints or bought themselves a taxicab. Others, however, turned to Internet cafés — or “PC bangs,” as they were called in the local lingo.

Prior to the economic crisis, the South Korean government hadn’t been completely inept by any means. It had seen the Internet revolution coming, and had spent a lot of money building up the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. But in South Korea as in all places, the so-called “last mile” of Internet connectivity was the most difficult to bring to an acceptable fruition. Even in North America and Western Europe, most homes could only access the Internet at this time through slow and fragile dial-up connections. South Korean PC bangs, however, jacked directly into the Internet from city centers, justifying the expense of doing so with economies of scale: 20 to 100 computers, each with a paying customer behind the screen, were a very different proposition from a single computer in the home.

The final ingredient in the cultural stew was another byproduct of the recession. An entire generation of young South Korean men found themselves unemployed or underemployed. (Again, I write about men alone here because South Korea was a rigidly patriarchal society at that time, although this is slowly — painfully slowly — changing now.) They congregated in the PC bangs, which gave them unfettered access to the Internet for about $2 per hour. It was hard to imagine a cheaper form of entertainment. The PC bangs became social scenes unto themselves, packed at all hours of the day and night with chattering, laughing youths who were eager to forget the travails of real life outside their four walls. They drank bubble tea and slurped ramen noodles while, more and more, they played online games, both against one another and against the rest of the country. In a way, they actually had it much better than the gamers who were venturing online in the Western world: they didn’t have to deal with all of the problems of dial-up modems, could game on rock-solid connections running at speeds of which most Westerners could only dream.

A few months after it had made its American debut, Starcraft fell out of the clear blue South Korean sky to land smack dab in the middle of this fertile field. The owners of the PC bangs bought copies and installed them for their customers’ benefit, as they already had plenty of other games. But something about Starcraft scratched an itch that no PC-bang patron had known he had. The game became a way of life for millions of South Koreans, who became addicted to the adrenaline rush it provided. Soon many of the PC bangs could be better described as Starcraft bangs. Primary-school children and teenagers hung out there as well as twenty-somethings, playing and, increasingly, just watching others play, something you could do for free. The very best players became celebrities in their local community. It was an intoxicating scene, where testosterone rather than alcohol served as the social lubricant. Small wonder that the PC bangs outlived the crisis that had spawned them, remaining a staple of South Korean youth culture even after the economy got back on track and started chugging along nicely once again. In 2001, long after the crisis had passed, there were 23,548 PC bangs in the country, roughly the same number of Internet cafés as there were 7-Elevens.

Of course, the PC bangs were all competing with one another to lure customers through their doors. The most reliable way to do so was to become known as the place where the very best Starcraft players hung out. To attract such players, some enterprising owners began hosting tournaments, with prizes that ranged from a few hours of free computer time to up to $1000 in cash. This was South Korean esports in their most nascent form.

The impresario who turned Starcraft into a professional sport as big as any other in the country was named Hwang Hyung Jun. During the late 1990s, Hwang was a content producer at a television station called Tooniverse, whose usual fare was syndicated cartoons. He first started to experiment with videogame programming in the summer of 1998, when he commemorated that year’s World Cup of Football by broadcasting simulated versions of each match, played in Electronic Arts’s World Cup 98. That led to other experiments with simulated baseball. (Chan Ho Park, the first South Korean to play Major League Baseball in North America, was a superstar on two continents at that time.)

But it was only when Hwang tried organizing and broadcasting a Starcraft tournament in 1999 that he truly hit paydirt. Millions were instantly entranced. Among them was a young PC bang hanger-on and Starcraft fanatic named Baro Hyun, who would go on to write a book about esports in his home country.

Late one afternoon, I returned from school, unloaded my backpack, and turned on the television in the living room. Thanks to my parents, we had recently subscribed to a cable-TV network with dozens of channels. As a cable-TV newbie, I navigated my way through what felt like a nearly infinite number of channels. Movie channel; next. Sports channel; next. Professional Go channel; popular among fathers, but a definite next for me.

Suddenly I stopped clicking and stared open-mouthed at the television. I could not believe what I was seeing. A one-on-one game of Starcraft was on TV.

Initially, I thought I’d stumbled across some sort of localized commercial made by Blizzard. Soon, however, it became obvious that wasn’t the case. The camera angle shifted from the game screen to the players. They were oddly dressed, like budget characters in Mad Max. Each one wore a headset and sat in front of a dedicated PC. They appeared to be engaged in a serious Starcraft duel.

This was interesting enough, but when I listened carefully, I could hear commentators explaining what was happening in the game. One explained the facts and game decisions of the players, while another interpreted what those decisions might mean to the outcome of the game. After the match, the camera angle switched to the caster and the commentators, who briefed viewers on the result of the game and the overall story. The broadcast gave the unmistakable impression of a professional sports match.

Esports history is made, as two players face off in one of the first Starcraft matches ever to be broadcast on South Korean television, from a kitschy set that looks to have been constructed from the leavings of old Doctor Who episodes.

These first broadcasts corresponded with the release of Brood War, Starcraft’s first and only expansion pack. Its development had been led by the indefatigable Rob Pardo, who used it to iron out the last remaining balance issues in the base game. (“Starcraft [alone] was not a game that could have been an esport,” wrote a super-fan bluntly years later in an online “Brief History of Starcraft.” “It was [too] simple and imbalanced.”)

Now, the stage was set. Realizing he had stumbled upon something with almost unlimited potential, Hwang Hyung Jun put together a full-fledged national Starcraft league in almost no time at all. From the bottom rungs at the level of the local PC bangs, players could climb the ladder all the way to the ultimate showcase, the “Tooniverse Starleague” final, in which five matches were used to determine the best Starcraft player of them all. Surprisingly, when the final was held for the first time in 2000, that player turned out to be a Canadian, a fellow named Guillaume Patry who had arrived in South Korea just the year before.

No matter; the tournament put up ratings that dwarfed those of Tooniverse’s usual programming. Hwang promptly started his own television channel. Called OnGameNet, it was the first in the world to be dedicated solely to videogames and esports. The Starcraft players who were featured on the channel became national celebrities, as did the sportscasters and color commentators: Jung Il Hoon, who looked like a professor and spoke in the stentorian tones of a newscaster; Jeon Yong Jun, whom words sometimes failed when things got really exciting, yielding to wild water-buffalo bellowing; Jung Sorin, a rare woman on the scene, a kindly and nurturing “gamer mom.” Their various shticks may have been calculated, but they helped to make the matches come alive even for viewers who had never played Starcraft for themselves.

A watershed was reached in 2002, when 20,000 screaming fans packed into a Seoul arena to witness that year’s final. The contrast with just a few years before, when a pair of players had dueled on a cheap closed set for the sake of mid-afternoon programming on a third-tier television station, could hardly have been more pronounced. Before this match, a popular rock band known as Cherry Filter put on a concert. Then, accepting their unwonted opening-act status with good grace, the rock stars sat down to watch the showdown between Lim Yo Hwan and Park Jung Seok on the arena’s giant projection screens, just like everyone else in the place. Park, who was widely considered the underdog, wound up winning three matches to one. Even more remarkably, he did so while playing as the Protoss, the least successful of the three factions in professional competitions prior to this point.

Losing the 2002 final didn’t derail Lim Yo Hwan’s career. He went on to become arguably the most successful Starcraft player in history. He was definitely the most popular during the game’s golden age in South Korea. His 2005 memoir, advising those who wanted to follow in his footsteps to “practice relentlessly” and nodding repeatedly to his sponsors — he wrote of opening his first “Shinhan Bank account” as a home for his first winnings — became a bestseller.

Everything was in flux; new tactics and techniques were coming thick and fast, as South Korean players pushed themselves to superhuman heights, the likes of which even the best players at Blizzard could scarcely have imagined. By now, they were regularly performing 250 separate actions per minute in the game.

The scene was rapidly professionalizing in all respects. Big-name corporations rushed in to sponsor individual players and, increasingly, teams, who lived together in clubhouses, neglecting education and all of the usual pleasures of youth in favor of training together for hours on end. The very best Starcraft players were soon earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from prize money and their sponsorship deals.

Baseball had long been South Korea’s most popular professional sport. In 2004, 30,000 people attended the baseball final in Seoul. Simultaneously, 100,000 people were packing a stadium in Busan, the country’s second largest city, for the OnGameNet Starcraft final. Judged on metrics like this one, Starcraft had a legitimate claim to the title of most popular sport of all in South Korea. The matches themselves just kept getting more intense; some of the best players were now approaching 500 actions per minute. Maintaining a pace like that required extraordinary reflexes and mental and physical stamina — reflexes and stamina which, needless to say, are strictly the purview of the young. Indeed, the average professional Starcraft player was considered washed up even younger than the average soccer player. Women weren’t even allowed to compete, out of the assumption that they couldn’t possibly be up to the demands of the sport. (They were eventually given a league of their own, although it attracted barely a fraction of the interest of the male leagues — sadly, another thing that Starcraft has in common with most other professional sports.)

Ten years after Starcraft’s original release as just another boxed computer game, it was more popular than ever in South Korea. The PC bangs had by now fallen in numbers and importance, in reverse tandem with the rise in the number of South Korean households with computers and broadband connections of their own. Yet esports hadn’t missed a beat during this transition. Millions of boys and young men still practiced Starcraft obsessively in the hopes of going pro. They just did it from the privacy of their bedrooms instead of from an Internet café.

Starcraft fandom in South Korea grew up alongside the music movement known as K-pop, and shares many attributes with it. Just as K-pop impresarios absorbed lessons from Western boy bands, then repurposed them into something vibrantly and distinctly South Korean, the country’s Starcraft moguls made the game their own; relatively few international tournaments were held, simply because nobody had much chance of beating the top South Korean players. There was an almost manic quality to both K-pop and the professional Starcraft leagues, twin obsessions of a country to which the idea of a disposable income and the consumerism it enables were still fairly new. South Korea’s geographical and geopolitical positions were precarious, perched there on the doorstep of giant China alongside its own intransigent and bellicose mirror image, a totalitarian state hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons. A mushroom cloud over Seoul suddenly ending the party remained — and remains — a very real prospect for everyone in the country, giving ample reason to live for today. Rather than the decadent hedonism that marked, say, Cold War Berlin, South Korea turned to a pop culture of giddy, madding innocence for relief.

A 2010 match in the Korean Air Headquarters Hangar in Gimpo.

Alas, though, it seems that all forms of sport must eventually pass through a loss of innocence. Starcraft’s equivalent of the 1919 Major League Baseball scandal started with Ma Jae-yoon, a former superstar who by 2010 was struggling to keep up with the ever more demanding standard of play. Investigating persistent rumors that Ma was taking money to throw some of his matches, the South Korean Supreme Prosecutors’ Office found that they were truer than anyone had dared to speculate. Ma stood at the head of a conspiracy with as many tendrils as a Zerg, involving the South Korean mafia and at least a dozen other players. The scandal was front-page news in the country for months. Ma ended up going to prison for a year and being banned for life from South Korean esports. (“Say it ain’t so, Ma!”) His crimes cast a long shadow over the Starcraft scene; a number of big-name sponsors pulled out completely.

The same year as the match-fixing scandal, Blizzard belatedly released Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. Yet another massive worldwide hit for its parent company, the sequel proved a mixed blessing for South Korean esports. The original Starcraft had burrowed its way deep into the existing players’ consciousnesses; every tiny quirk in the code that Blizzard had written so many years earlier had been dissected, internalized, and exploited. Many found the prospect of starting over from scratch deeply unappealing; perhaps there is space in a lifetime to learn only one game as deeply as millions of South Korean players had learned the first Starcraft. Some put on a brave face and tried to jump over to the sequel, but it was never quite the same. Others swore that they would stop playing the original only when someone pried it out of their cold, dead hands — but that wasn’t the same either. A third, disconcertingly large group decided to move on to some other game entirely, or just to move on with life. By 2015, South Korean Starcraft was a ghost of its old self.

Which isn’t to say that esports as a whole faded away in the country. Rather than Starcraft II, a game called League of Legends became the original Starcraft’s most direct successor in South Korea, capable of filling stadiums with comparable numbers of screaming fans. (As a member of a newer breed known as “multiplayer online battle arena” (MOBA) games, League of Legends is similar to Starcraft in some ways, but very different in others; each player controls only a single unit instead of amassing armies of them.) Meanwhile esports, like K-pop, were radiating out from Asia to become a fixture of global youth culture. The 2017 international finals of League of Legends attracted 58 million viewers all over the world; the Major League Baseball playoffs that year managed just 38 million, the National Basketball Association finals only 32 million. Esports are big business. And with annual growth rates in the double digits in percentage terms, they show every sign of continuing to get bigger and bigger for years to come.

How we feel about all of this is, I fear, dictated to a large extent by the generation to which we happen to belong. (Hasn’t that always been the way with youth culture?) Being a middle-aged man who grew up with digital games but not with gaming as a spectator sport, my own knee-jerk reaction vacillates between amusement and consternation. My first real exposure to esports came not that many years ago, via an under-sung little documentary film called State of Play, which chronicles the South Korean Starcraft scene, fly-on-the-wall style, just as its salad days are coming to an end. Having just re-watched the film before writing this piece, I still find much of it vaguely horrifying: the starry-eyed boys who play Starcraft ten to fourteen hours per day; the coterie of adult moguls and handlers who are clearly making a lot of money by… well, it’s hard for me not to use the words “exploiting them” here. At one point, a tousle-headed boy looks into the camera and says, “We don’t really play for fun anymore. Mostly I play for work. My work just happens to be a game.” That breaks my heart every time. Certainly this isn’t a road that I would particularly like to see any youngster I care about go down. A happy, satisfying life, I’ve long believed, is best built out of a diversity of experiences and interests. Gaming can be one of these, as rewarding as any of the rest, but there’s no reason it should fill more than a couple of hours of anyone’s typical day.

On the other hand, these same objections perchance apply equally to sports of the more conventionally athletic kind. Those sports’ saving grace may be that it’s physically impossible to train at most of them for ten to fourteen hours at a stretch. Or maybe it has something to do with their being intrinsically healthy activities when pursued in moderation, or with the spiritual frisson that can come from being out on the field with grass underfoot and sun overhead, with heart and lungs and limbs all pumping in tandem as they should. Just as likely, though, I’m merely another old man yelling at clouds. The fact is that a diversity of interests is usually not compatible with ultra-high achievement in any area of endeavor.

Anyway, setting the Wayback Machine to 1998 once again, I can at least say definitively that gaming stood on the verge of exploding in unanticipated, almost unimaginable directions at that date. Was Starcraft the instigator of some of that, or was it the happy beneficiary? Doubtless a little bit of both. Blizzard did have a way of always being where the action was…



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Sources: The books Stay Awhile and Listen, Book II by David L. Craddock and Demystifying Esports by Baro Hyun; Computer Gaming World of May 1997, September 1997, and July 1998; Retro Gamer 170; International Journal of Communication 14; the documentary film State of Play.

Online sources include Soren Johnson’s interview of Rob Pardo for his Designer’s Notes podcast, “Behind the Scenes of Starcraft’s Earliest Days” by Kat Bailey at VG247, and “A Brief History of Starcraft at TL.net.

Starcraft and the Brood War expansion are now available for free at Blizzard’s website.

 

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The Journeyman Project


I find that it’s oddly difficult for me to tell the story of Presto Studios, the maker of the Journeyman Project series of cult-classic adventure games, without drawing a lot of parallels and comparisons to Cyan, Inc., the maker of the multi-million-selling mega-hit Myst. This is not only because Presto won the lottery after making their last Journeyman Project game, when Cyan awarded them a contract to make a single-player Myst III while they themselves pursued an online multi-player adventure game that was to be called Uru. It’s also down to other similarities, the same ones that must have made that choice of Presto as a Myst custodian seem like such an obvious one to Cyan.

Both studios were born and bred on the Apple Macintosh in the first blush of excitement over hypertext, CD-ROM, and multimedia, all of which came somewhat earlier to the artsy, freewheeling Mac than they did to the more plebeian, business-oriented MS-DOS and Windows. And both studios saw themselves more as artists’ conclaves than as conventional game-development houses. Four words were to be found in the background of Presto’s logo: “Animation,” “Interactivity,” “Video,” and “Music.” Their “mentality did not include advanced game programming,” as Presto producer Michael Saladino wrote shortly after the company’s final closure. In the early days especially, both Presto and Cyan were happy to leverage off-the-shelf middleware packages in order to string their lovingly sculpted audiovisual assets together into a game. This made them the polar opposite of a house like id Software, for whom Code was the alpha and omega. It’s no surprise that gamers who preferred action to contemplation loved to mock Presto and Cyan for their slow-moving, slideshow-like games.

Said games had in common a first-person perspective on worlds which their players traversed by jumping from static node to static node in a coherent but pre-rendered three-dimensional space. As most of you doubtless know already, these were the hallmarks of the sub-genre that came to be known as “Myst clones.” As we’re about to see, though, the resemblance of The Journeyman Project to Myst had more to do with parallel evolution than rank imitation.

And there’s another, more subjective point that differentiates Presto’s flagship series from Myst and its clones in my mind: I actually like The Journeyman Project better than any of them. Right from the start, there was an ambition about Presto’s approach to their fiction and their world-building that didn’t reach Cyan until they turned their focus to Riven, the big sequel to their zeitgeist-defining hit. Presto rejected the surrealism that was Myst’s hallmark; they wanted to take you somewhere you could really believe in. Their execution of their ambitions was often imperfect, but no studio was more wedded to the idea of games as coherent fictions during the 1990s. The body of work that resulted from their commitment is among the most distinctive and memorable of the decade. Whatever else you can say about them, you can’t say that Presto Studios didn’t have a unique vision. Although they wouldn’t be commercially rewarded for that vision to anywhere near the same extent as Cyan, I for one found The Journeyman Project even more interesting to revisit than Myst all these years later.


There is an important precursor to the games of both Presto and Cyan, one which probably should have appeared in these histories of mine long before this point. In 1991, Reactor, Inc., a company previously known primarily as the purveyors of a naughty CD-ROM-based “girlfriend simulator” called Virtual Valerie, published a new Mac game called Spaceship Warlock, which advertised itself as an interactive science-fiction flick. Largely inspired by the genre-blending “interactive movies” of Cinemaware that were popular on the Commodore Amiga during the late 1980s, Spaceship Warlock hewed to its chosen metaphor so stubbornly that you didn’t save your “game” from its menu when you decided to take a break; you saved your “movie” instead. In truth, it wasn’t much of a game or a movie, being short, clichéd, relentlessly linear, and supremely unchallenging, good for a couple of evenings’ entertainment at best. It was, one might say, more of a proof of concept for the fast-approaching multimedia future than a real game to be enjoyed in the here and now. Nevertheless, it made a big impression on Mac users, who had never seen anything quite like it.

Spaceship Warlock used a lot of grid-like layouts, such as this city street. They lent themselves very well to node-based navigation, soon to be one of the hallmarks of The Journeyman Project, Myst, and countless “Myst clones.”

A young go-getter named Michel Kripalani, the proprietor of a two-year-old multimedia-services provider called Move Design in San Diego, was among those struck by Spaceship Warlock. At the age of 23, he decided to found his second company already to make a game in the same vein. He recruited four other would-be multimedia revolutionaries to join him in a ramshackle old house, where they could work on their game every evening after getting home from their day jobs. Thanks to one of their number named Dave Flanagan, an old high-school buddy of Kripalani who had a flair for writing, the game’s fiction was more fully developed than that of Spaceship Warlock. It was a time-travel story.

The Presto gang in the early days. Michel Kripalani is the fellow in the dark glasses; Dave Flanagan is second from right.

It is the year 2318. A time machine has recently been invented, only for the technology to be banned just as quickly in light of the threat it poses to humanity’s very temporal conception of itself. Unfortunately, the inventor of the machine has found a way to use it on the sly anyway, and has started mucking about with the past. You play a member of the Temporal Security Agency, a secret police force created for just such a contingency as this one. You must repair the damage that has been done to three different times, all of them well into the future from our perspective as 20th- or 21st-century gamers, and neutralize the mad scientist who is responsible for it.

Presto Studios, as the little group of friends had chosen to call themselves, took a bare-bones demo of the game they called The Journeyman Project to the big annual Macworld conference in January of 1992. It was very positively received there. Suitably inspired, Michel Kripalani and the others quit their day jobs. More people came onboard; the team expanded to nine, filling the original house plus a second one in the same neighborhood. Video shoots were arranged, for what would a 1990s multimedia adventure game be without real actors inserted over the computer-generated backgrounds? With the game’s high system requirements — a thirteen-inch color screen, eight megabytes of memory, and of course a CD-ROM drive — on the already niche platform that was the Macintosh, none of the mainstream game publishers showed much interest. So, Presto decided to publish it themselves, out of those same two suburban houses.

The Journeyman Project series would often be labeled Myst clones in the years to come – but, if so, this first Journeyman Project well and truly put the cart before the horse. Certainly it uses an interface that we would still describe as Myst-like today: first-person, node-based navigation built from pre-rendered 3D graphics. And yet it was pronounced finished by Presto in January of 1993, nine months before Myst’s release and just in time for the next Macworld. No shrinking violet, Kripalani made sure the box was emblazoned with slogans like “The World’s First Photorealistic Adventure Game!” and “the game that will change history!” (A clever double meaning there…) It likewise trumpeted the participation of actor Graham Jarvis, “who guest-starred in the ‘Unification’ episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation!” He perhaps wasn’t a shining example of what most people would call star power, but one does what one can…

This first ever Journeyman Project game was a crude creation in comparison to what would come later. It was short, for one thing, almost as short as Spaceship Warlock. Presto tried to make up for this by making it difficult in all the wrong ways: the game was riddled with deaths that came out of nowhere, which you could learn to avoid only by suffering them once or twice or thrice. Brutal time limits were everywhere as well, while the “integrated arcade games” were exactly as good as such things normally are in adventure games. Playing it today, one gets the pervasive sense of a group of talented young idealists who haven’t quite figured out the fundamental workings of their craft as of yet, much less how to push it forward. But worst of all back in the day was the speed of the game, or rather the lack thereof. It was “programmed” using Macromedia’s Director, a piece of multimedia middleware that was no model of efficiency in its own right, even as it had to unspool its audiovisual assets from CD-ROM drives that could generally manage a transfer rate of no more than 150 kilobytes per second. Macworld magazine awarded the game the unwanted distinction of being “the slowest in a very slow medium.”

A killer robot, the bane of your existence in The Journeyman Project

Thankfully for Presto, the novelty of productions like this one was still sufficient to overcome such objections in the minds of some hardy techno-pioneers. They sold 10,000 copies of the game in the first six months, mostly via mail order at the price of a cool $100. (One of the advantages of selling software for the Mac was that its user base tended to be well-heeled, such that they didn’t blink an eye at prices that would have been a death knell on any other platform.) Such numbers were enough to bring Presto out of their houses and into a proper office. The first order of business thereafter was to move the game to Microsoft Windows — thankfully, there was a version of Director for that platform as well — where many times the number of potential buyers awaited.

Presto signed a contract with a publisher called Sanctuary Woods, who had gone all-in on the premise that CD-ROM adventures like The Journeyman Project and the newly released Myst represented a major part of the future of digital gaming. At their publisher’s behest, Presto reworked the former game, using the latest software from Macromedia along with their own evolving technical skills to produce The Journeyman Project: Turbo! in mid-1994. It still wasn’t a great game by any means, but it did at least play considerably faster. Sanctuary Woods used the new version in a subtly ingenious way. They sold it at retail at a deep discount, whilst signing deals to get it included as an extra in the box with the turnkey multimedia computers and “multimedia upgrade kits” — a CD-ROM drive and a sound card in one convenient package — that were becoming all the rage as the multimedia revolution went mainstream. Deals such as these didn’t tend to be very profitable in their own right. They were rather meant to serve another agenda: by making the first Journeyman Project game so ubiquitous, Sanctuary Woods hoped to prime the pump for the sequel on which Presto was already hard at work.

The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time was envisioned from the start as the game that would take things to the proverbial next level. Michel Kripalani, Dave Flanagan, and Phil Saunders — the last being a new arrival who in previous lives had designed amusement-park rides and automobiles, and now held the title of Creative Director at the growing Presto Studios — spent more than five months sketching out what it should be. They wanted to make a quantum leap over the first game in terms of fiction, graphics, length, complexity… everything. Luckily, they were all fast learners.

The heretofore mostly uncharacterized player-controlled protagonist, who was referred only as “Agent 5” in the first game, got a name and a face in Buried in Time in the interest of deepening the fiction. The former is Gage Blackwood; the latter belonged to an aspiring actor named Todd McCormick. Once again, Buried in Time involves traveling into the past to right acts of vandalism against the temporal stream that have been committed by another time traveler. Now, though, the identity of the villain is not so obvious. In fact, thanks to some machinations on the villain’s part, Gage himself is Suspect Number One in the eyes of the powers that be.

The sequel opens in Gage’s apartment, where he is visited by a version of himself traveling back from the future, to warn him of the impending frame-up and tell him to get cracking on the trail of the real culprit before it’s too late. Instead of being reliant on a clumsy time machine that drags him back to the present after a certain span of time has elapsed — clock time, that is; this time-travel stuff does get confusing, doesn’t it? —  Gage now has access to a “Jumpsuit,” which lets him move back and forth as he wishes. Unfortunately, if any native of any given time should see him wandering around in this bulky monstrosity, the result will be a future-destroying “temporal anomaly.” It therefore behooves Gage to keep to himself. You have to hand it to Presto: as excuses for ensuring that Myst-like adventure games remain strictly solitary experiences go, this is undeniably one of the cleverest.

There are whole layers to the fiction beyond what I’ve just described, involving diplomacy with multiple alien races and all sorts of other political concerns. As with most stories about time travel, there are plot holes in this one big enough to drive a dump truck through if you stop to think too hard about it all, but that shouldn’t detract from the love and care that went into Presto’s future history of the world. They did not want the story and setting to be “just a weak scarecrow frame on which to hang gameplay,” as 3D artist David Sieks puts it. “There was a desire to create a deeper and richer experience than the typical adventure title.” You’re likely to spend your first hour or so in Buried in Time just poking around inside Gage’s stylish bachelor pad, fiddling with the knickknacks on his shelves and taking in the news broadcasts — complete with commercials! — that are available on his television. The only contemporaneous adventure game I can think of that evinces a similar commitment to building a coherent science-fictional universe out of whole cloth, with its own history, politics, and all the other trimmings, is Legend Entertainment’s Mission Critical.

But best of all from the standpoint of many players, myself very much included, are the whens to which you get to travel in Buried in Time after you get tired of futzing around in Gage’s apartment. Three of the four are before our own time, part of the “real” history of our planet. Kripalani, Flanagan, and Saunders debated for many hours where and when those places should be, looking for ones that would be both interesting to explore and manageable to depict using the 3D-rendering technology at their disposal. Some otherwise appealing ones, such as ancient Egypt, were rejected for failing the latter test. They finally settled on three that stem from the first half of the second millennium of the Common Era: the Mayan metropolis of Chichén Itzá in 1050, an English-held castle in France in 1204, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Milanese laboratory and workshop in 1488.

Presto threw an awful lot of balls into the air in thus attempting to combine their commitment to the future history of the world they were building with an equal commitment to making the real places of our real shared past that Gage was to visit as accurate as they could be. And, lo and behold, they dropped astoundingly few of them. As a lover of the Renaissance era, my favorite part of the game is naturally Leonardo’s workshop, which you visit on a sylvan December night, wandering among the genius’s sketches and notes, paintings and inventions, from siege engines to a working elevator built using a system of ropes and locking pulleys. Sometimes knowing too much can be dangerous in these situations, as it leads you to see all of the mistakes; this time, though, it merely helped me to appreciate the re-creation that much more. I consider that to be pretty high praise.

But perhaps the highest praise of all that I can offer Buried in Time is that it made me forgive if not always forget most of the things that tend to make Myst-style adventure games such a hard sell for me, even though those things are still very much present here. When you rotate the view, for example, your degree of rotation is inconsistent; sometimes it’s 90 degrees, sometimes less or more. This introduces a note of fake difficulty, as the simple act of moving about a space, which would be trivial if you were really in the world, suddenly becomes a complicated endeavor in itself. You can stumble around even in Gage’s little apartment for quite some time looking for the “exit” to the node that plants you in front of the television or the kitchen counter, to say nothing of the other, larger and more complicated spaces. Just to make it all even more convoluted, you can now look up or down as well as straight ahead from each node. And make no mistake, you have to check every single view carefully to ensure that you don’t miss a hidden exit to another node, or that little thingamabob that you’ll need to solve a puzzle somewhere (or, more likely, somewhen) else.

In some areas, however, Buried in Time does find ways to remedy the things that typically frustrate me about Myst-like games. In the year 2247 — the one time you visit from Gage’s past that still lies in our future — you can pick up an irreverent  “artificial intelligence” named Arthur, who’s a heck of a lot more fun than ChatGPT. He integrates himself with your Jumpsuit to become your boon companion, offering up a steady stream of banter, ideas, and, most vitally, explanations of the historical places you visit. He functions, that is to say, much like Dalboz, the magic-lantern-imprisoned Dungeon Master whom Zork: Grand Inquisitor later employed so effectively to relieve the pangs of solitude.[1]Laird Malamed, who led the Zork: Grand Inquisitor project at Activision, told me that he had played and enjoyed Buried in Time, but that he can’t remember consciously modeling Dalboz on Arthur. He says the disembodied Dungeon Master was a case of making a virtue out of a necessity: “I had fired the actor I wanted to play Dalboz onscreen.” Somewhat surprisingly to me, some players wind up loathing Arthur. For my part, though, I can hardly imagine Buried in Time without him. By no means do all of his jokes land, but he gives the game personality, keeps you from ever feeling too alone in the usual Myst way, and of course tells you what it is you’re actually looking at in 1050, 1204, and 1488.


Checking the news in Gage Blackwood’s apartment.

The twisty little passages of a Medieval castle. Yes, the view window is always that small, leaving lots of room for cyber-punkish gadgetry all around it. This game is certainly not cleanly, classically minimalist like Myst. Yet the crazily elaborate diegetic interface of your Jumpsuit does add to the mimesis. What can I say? You get used to it.

Floating outside the space station where you can find Arthur. One flaw in the design is an ironic consequence of its determined non-linearity: you can complete a goodly portion of the game before you meet Arthur, thus losing out on a lot of the historical context he lends with his banter. So, you might want to prioritize the year 2247 in the beginning…

The pyramid complex at Chichén Itzá.

The courtyard of Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop. This may not look like a maze, but just wait until you try to navigate it using these controls…



All told, then, Buried in Time really is the quantum leap over its predecessor that Presto intended it to be. It’s not an easy game, but it’s not an unfair one either. The frequency and variety of possible deaths is toned down in comparison to what came before, and they can more often be attributed to you doing something ill-advised than the game just deciding to randomly screw you over. I was able to finish Buried in Time without ever peeking at a hint, walking away proud of both myself and the game that had challenged but never undermined me. There are plenty of silly bits to it, but there’s a gravitas to the whole that comes through despite the silliness, a gravitas that most Myst clones lay claim to as if it is theirs by right but never even attempt to actually earn. Buried in Time’s, by contrast, is weirdly effortless, a byproduct of its steadfast commitment to both its future and past history and to its fiction in general.

Sanctuary Wood published Buried in Time in the summer of 1995. Even the hardcore-gaming press, which tended not to be overly friendly to games made by studios like Presto (or Cyan, for that matter), had to acknowledge that this was not your garden-variety Myst clone. The noted Myst hater Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World magazine admitted that “I didn’t expect to like Buried in Time,” then went on to tell why he ended up doing so after all.

There is no way to move backward; there is no way to move sideways. This is a pain. When you’re trying to race out of Richard the Lionhearted’s bedchamber before his guards discover you, it’s a royal pain. And when you’re in the castle stairwell with a knight waving his blade at you, I am afraid it can turn out to be a bloody pain.

But Buried in Time is an enormously satisfying game in spite of all this. You know it as soon as the game starts, deep in your gut where such knowledge always lurks. It’s the feeling you get ten minutes into a movie when you know the next hundred minutes will be sheer joy. Buried in Time’s opening sequence sets up an intriguing premise and a highly charged level of suspense. And despite the game’s weaker points, it never lets you down from this early high.

Speaking of highs: that summer of 1995 was just about exactly the commercial peak of the multimedia adventure game writ large. Helped along by its fortuitous release date, by positive reviews like Charles Ardai’s, and by Sanctuary Woods’s savvy priming of the pump with The Journeyman Project: Turbo!, Buried in Time became a solid second-tier hit, selling 225,000 copies. Presto reveled in the praise and sales, took a deep breath, and augmented their programming staff for a third game in the series, which was finally to abandon Macromedia Director in favor of a proper, in-house-developed game engine of Presto’s own.

As that project was proceeding, however, the adventure genre’s commercial forecast was being clouded by games like DOOM, Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and eventually Quake. The year of 1996 became the first in half a decade not to produce any new million-plus-selling breakout adventure blockbuster, only a plethora of nearly or barely profitable would-be contenders for that status. Sanctuary Woods, finding themselves over-invested in games superficially similar to but usually not as good or as financially rewarding as Buried in Time, sold out to Disney Interactive in May of that year. As a Disney subsidiary, they were to refocus on children’s software, leaving Presto suddenly bereft of the publisher who had played such a big role in Buried in Time’s success.

In the face of these headwinds, Presto, like a fair number of other studios who found themselves in much the same boat, began to cast a hopeful eye outside the traditional computer-gaming space. Some big technology players still believed in the potential of a multimedia set-top box for living rooms, a games console but also more. Apple was among them; it had entered into a partnership with Bandai, a Japanese electronics manufacturer, to make just such a thing, to be called the Pippin. And then there was the Sony PlayStation, the machine that was in the process of unseating Nintendo from its throne as the king of console gaming. The PlayStation sported not only a built-in CD drive and the ability to save state from session to session but a user base that skewed older than the one Nintendo had always courted. If Presto could bring The Journeyman Project to platforms like the Pippin and the PlayStation, who knew how far they could take it?

They decided the best way to introduce this new demographic to the world of The Journeyman Project was to tell the story from the beginning. A team at Presto was set to work remaking the first game in the series, programming it, like the still-in-progress third game, in C++ rather than relying on Macromedia Director. Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime was to be an ideal introduction to adventure games for folks reared on WipEout and the like, being slick and quick to play, with all of the frustrations that had dogged its earlier incarnations smoothed away. For this bunch of creators who were so fixated on crafting coherent fictions as well as fun games, taking the time to do the remake was no real sacrifice at all. On the contrary, it allowed them to ret-con a lot of the additional fictional layers of Buried in Time back into the first story, including Gage Blackwood himself. He was once again played in Pegasus Prime by Todd McCormick, and much of the rest of the cast from Buried in Time returned as well.

And like Buried in Time, the end result succeeds marvelously in being exactly what it was intended to be. In fact, I must confess that, had Pegasus Prime never been made, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article about The Journeyman Project as a whole today. I bounced hard off of the original version of the first game several years ago, and largely wrote the series off as all too typical artifacts of their time, made by people who were better at babbling about a multimedia revolution than they were at making playable games. Only late in the day did I decide to take a flier on Pegasus Prime, just to see. I’m very glad I did so. It comes about as close as any adventure game of this stripe ever has to earning the label of “thrill ride.” Only one puzzle, coming right at the end, stumped me for more than a minute or two. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.


The killer robots are still around in the remake, but they aren’t so irritating as before.

This may look like a scene out of Dante, but rest assured that it’s only the planet Mars.

A cool mechanical puzzle on a submarine loading dock, one of the more intricate in the game.



Sadly, Presto’s grand plans for Pegasus Prime all fell through. The Pippin barely made it to market before it was discontinued, while a deal with Acclaim Entertainment to publish the game for the PlayStation was nixed at the last minute, when Acclaim abruptly decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Bandai Digital Entertainment released Pegasus Prime for the Mac with little fanfare in the fall of 1997, strictly to satisfy their contract with Presto. The remake was barely noticed even in Apple World amidst the excitement over Steve Jobs’s return and rumors of the forthcoming iMac. In business if not artistic terms, the whole project was Presto’s first significant misstep, a lot of money spent for no return whatsoever.

But through it all they had also continued with The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time, which was ready to go for Mac and Windows by the beginning of 1998. They found a more auspicious publisher for this game: Red Orb Entertainment, the new games label of the venerable Brøderbund Software, the publisher of Myst and, most recently, its million-plus-selling sequel Riven. All of this seemed to bode very well indeed.

The fan consensus has it that Legacy of Time is a step down from Buried in Time, and with this I must largely concur. At the same time, however, it’s a fine game in its own right. Gage Blackwood is played for some reason by the actor Jerry Rector this time, but most of the rest of the old cast has returned. That list includes the voice actor Matt Weinhold in the role of Arthur, your disembodied, wise-cracking, information-spewing companion in adventure. Once again, Gage and Arthur must delve into the past to correct the time stream and prevent the end of human civilization as they know it (which does rather lead one to wonder whether someone oughtn’t to just travel back in time and prevent these troublesome time machines from being invented in the first place).

Technologically speaking, Legacy of Time is streets ahead of Buried in Time and even Pegasus Prime; not only is your view of the world sharper and more detailed than ever before, filling much more of the screen now, but within each node you can smoothly pan the view up, down, and sideways. Thanks to this innovation and many others, Legacy of Time feels less like a Myst clone than ever. Gage now has access to a “chameleon” version of his Jumpsuit, which lets him take on the appearance of a native in the times and places he visits, so that he can actually talk to the people there. It’s a brave choice on Presto’s part, emblematic of the thoroughgoing determination to try new things and push the boundaries that remained one of the trademarks of the Journeyman Project series from beginning to end. As a result of it, this Journeyman Project feels more alive than ever before. Although the onscreen actors you encounter in three more times and places from our planet’s past don’t hesitate to ham it up a little, they’re clearly professionals having fun rather than amateurs fumbling their way through their roles. Between chapters of the story, Jerry Rector and his colleagues in the future chew their way through what amounts to a little sci-fi B-movie all its own. These interstitial cut scenes, which often stretch to several minutes in length, aren’t bad at all by the cheesy standards of their breed.

And yet, just as Buried in Time somehow transcends its clunkier aspects, Legacy of Time comes off perhaps a little bit less well than a game made with such evident love and care ought to. The times and places you visit are the biggest source of disappoint for me. Instead of engaging with real history, as Buried in Time did so earnestly and successfully, Legacy of Time treads perilously close to the pseudo-history promulgated by fabulists like Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock; it sends you to Plato’s legendary lost city of Atlantis, to the Peruvian “city of gold” El Dorado, and to the mythical kingdom of Shangri La, nestled here high in the mountains of Nepal. All of these environments are rendered beautifully, even evocatively, but they still make the game feel more generic than its predecessor. I think most of us can probably agree that there ought to have been a moratorium on the use of Atlantis in adventure games a long, long time ago.

Then, too, some of the purported technical improvements in Legacy of Time wind up cutting both ways. The cleaner interface that gives a much larger window on the world you’re exploring seems like it should be an unmitigated good thing, but it turns out that the fiddly, almost cyberpunk look and feel of Buried in Time contributed more to the fiction than even Presto might have realized. The more elaborate filmed sequences likewise subtract as well as add, by making Legacy of Time feel that much less like your adventure. Beyond these obvious things, it’s hard to give a precise name to what is missing from Legacy of Time — call it gravitas; call it soul if you absolutely must — but many players in addition to myself have felt its absence.


Jerry Rector is Gage Blackwood, two-time hero of the Temporal Security Agency. Care to make it three times?

An Atlantean ferryman. Being able to talk to people changes the feel of the game dramatically.

The jungles of Peru, where El Dorado is hidden. Notice the silhouette at the bottom center of the screen. That tells us who the chameleon Jumpsuit is currently showing us to be (in this case, a little boy). We can switch to other personas whenever we like, as long as no one is watching. Doing so is key to solving many of the puzzles.

Shangri La. This winter landscape is my favorite, for whatever that’s worth.



Alas, this third game in the series was a commercial disappointment as well. For many years one of the best promoters and popularizers in their industry — witness what they had done with Myst! — Brøderbund was distracted as they were releasing Legacy of Time in February of 1998, being in the throes of an acquisition by The Learning Company that would be finalized that August. Their promotional efforts were feeble — although, to be fair, full-fledged interactive movies, which The Journeyman Project series seemed to be fast becoming, were beginning to look even more passé than Myst clones in early 1998. Brøderbund may simply have decided it wasn’t worth beating a dead horse after they saw the product that Presto delivered.

A fourth Journeyman Project game never got beyond the early prototyping stage at Presto, who now embarked on an urgent technological retooling in the hope of keeping their head above water in this changed industry, where 3D graphics were expected to be real time rather than pre-rendered and action games ruled the roost more than ever. Fortunately for them, they would soon be thrown a life preserver with the logo of Myst itself — seemingly the one Sure Thing still left in adventure gaming — emblazoned on the front.

We’ll get to that story at a later date. Today, though, let me warmly recommend The Journeyman Project to all of you. Although Buried in Time is the clear standout in the group in my opinion, both Pegasus Prime and Legacy of Time are well worth playing in their own right, suffering only by comparison with the companion piece that stands so tall between them.

In what order should I tackle them, you ask? Well, I wouldn’t be the first person to start my answer to that question by musing on the irony of the temporal confusion that dogs this series of games about time travel, almost as if a rogue inventor went back and scrambled their chronology too. Once I was done doing that, however, I’d recommend prioritizing the internal chronology of the series: start with Pegasus Prime, which has now been digitally re-released for Windows as well as the Macintosh, finally allowing it to fulfill the role Presto always envisioned for it as your introduction to the Journeyman Project universe. Then you can go on to Buried in Time, followed by Legacy of Time. This progression won’t be completely unjarring — suffice to say that you’ll definitely be able to see that Buried in Time is an older game than Pegasus Prime — but the middle game is good enough that you’ll quickly get over the shock of its smaller, blurrier window on the world. Whatever order you choose to play them in, my most important recommendation is to take your time with the games, to let them live in your consciousness the way you might a good book.

Michel Kripalani loves to boast today about how Presto consistently lived on the “bleeding edge” of technology. He’s not wrong in saying this, yet he ironically misses what really made these games special. If they were notable only for their technology, they would be remembered today, now that the state of the art has all too plainly moved on, as mere stepping stones to better interactive experiences. They’re made well worth playing as well as remembering today by their makers’ absolute commitment to their fictions, as demonstrated in their doggedly diegetic interfaces, by the countless little details in their worlds that exist only to further the cause of immersion rather than having anything to do with helping you to “solve” them, even by Presto’s compulsion to remake the first game over and over. (One suspects that, if the series had only lasted a bit longer, they would soon have been turning a jaundiced eye upon Buried in Time as well…)

In light of all this, I was momentarily tempted to complain here that it was Cyan’s Myst rather than these deeper virtual worlds that sold millions of copies and reshaped a portion of the gaming landscape in its image. But of course that’s unfair; Myst is possessed of its own brilliant qualities, of accessibility and universality. The Journeyman Project dared to ask a lot more of its players, which necessarily hindered its mass acceptance. But if you can meet it where it lives, you might be surprised how quickly the patina of age fades away, leaving you with an interactive story that can pull you in every bit as completely as any newer, sexier virtual reality. Whether told around a campfire or on a monitor screen, ripping yarns like these ones have no sell-by date.

The Legacy of Time Jumpsuit, a prop that cost $25,000 to have made, is on display today at the Science and Engineering Library of the University of California, San Diego, the alma mater of Michel Kripalani and a number of other Presto Studios principals.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The book The Secret History of Mac Gaming by Richard Moss; Game Developer of December 1995/January 1996 and December 2002; Computer Gaming World of July 1993, April 1994, November 1995, January 1998, and April 1998; Next Generation of March 1997; InterActivity of January 1996; Macworld of October 1991, February 1993, May 1993, July 1993, and September 1993; MacFormat of July 1994.

Online sources include an Adventure Classic Gaming retrospective of The Journeyman Project by Peter Rooham-Smith, an article by the same author about Pegasus Prime alone, a brief piece about Michel Kripalani from The UCSD Guardian, and Kripalani’s appearance on the Habits2Goals podcast.

The Journeyman Project 1: Pegasus PrimeThe Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time, and The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time are all available for digital purchase on GOG.com.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Laird Malamed, who led the Zork: Grand Inquisitor project at Activision, told me that he had played and enjoyed Buried in Time, but that he can’t remember consciously modeling Dalboz on Arthur. He says the disembodied Dungeon Master was a case of making a virtue out of a necessity: “I had fired the actor I wanted to play Dalboz onscreen.”
 

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The Last Days of Zork

If you follow the latest developments in modern gaming even casually, as I do, you know that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard recently concluded the most eye-watering transaction ever to take place in the industry: the former acquired the latter for a price higher than the gross national product of more than half of the world’s countries. I find it endlessly amusing to consider that Activision may have lived long enough to set that record only thanks to Infocom, that humble little maker of 1980s text adventures, whose annual revenues — revenues, mind you, not profits — never exceeded $10 million before Activision acquired it in 1986. And just how did this David save a Goliath? It happened like this:

After Bobby Kotick arranged a hostile takeover of a bankrupt and moribund Activision in 1991, he started rummaging through its archives, looking for something that could start bringing some money in quickly, in order to keep the creditors who were howling at his door at bay for a wee bit longer. He came upon the 35 text adventures which had been made by Infocom over the course of the previous decade, games which, for all that they were obviously archaic by the standards of the encroaching multimedia age, were still fondly remembered by many gamers as the very best of their breed. He decided to take a flier on them, throwing twenty of them onto one of those shiny new CD-ROMS that everyone was talking about — or, if that didn’t work for you, onto a pile of floppy disks that rattled around in the box like ice cubes in a pitcher of lemonade. Then he photocopied the feelies and hint books that had gone with the games, bound them all together into two thick booklets, and stuck those in the box as well. He called the finished collection, one of the first notable examples of “shovelware” in gaming, The Lost Treasures of Infocom.

It sold 100,000 or more units, at $60 or $70 a pop and with a profit margin to die for. The inevitable Lost Treasures II that followed, collecting most of the remaining games,[1]The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures. was somewhat less successful, but still more than justified the (minimal) effort that had gone into its curation. The two products’ combined earnings were indeed enough to give pause to those creditors who had been pushing for the bankrupt company to be liquidated rather than reorganized.

With a modicum of breathing room thus secured, Kotick scraped together every penny he could find for his Hail Mary pass, which was once again to rely upon Infocom’s legacy. William Volk, his multimedia guru in residence, oversaw the production of Return to Zork, a splashy graphical adventure with all the cutting-edge bells and whistles. In design terms, it was an awful game, riddled with nonsensical puzzles and sadistic dead ends. Yet that didn’t matter at all in the marketplace. Return to Zork rammed the zeitgeist perfectly by combining lingering nostalgia for Zork, Infocom’s best-selling series of games, with all of the spectacular audiovisual flash the new decade could offer up. Upon its release in late 1993, it sold several hundred thousand copies as a boxed retail product, and even more as a drop-in with the “multimedia upgrade kits” (a CD-ROM drive and a sound card in one convenient package!) that were all the rage at the time. It left Activision, if not quite in rude health yet, at least no longer on life support. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick.

With an endorsement like that from the man at the top, a sequel to Return to Zork seemed sure to follow. Yet it proved surprisingly long in coming. Partly this was because William Volk left Activision just after finishing Return to Zork, and much of his team likewise scattered to the four winds. But it was also a symptom of strained resources in general, and of currents inside Activision that were pulling in two contradictory directions at once. The fact was that Activision was chasing two almost diametrically opposing visions of mainstream gaming’s future in the mid-1990s, one of which would show itself in the end to have been a blind alley, the other of which would become the real way forward.

Alas, it was the former that was exemplified by Return to Zork, with its human actors incongruously inserted over computer-generated backgrounds and its overweening determination to provide a maximally “cinematic” experience. This vision of “Siliwood” postulated that the games industry would become one with the movie and television industry, that name actors would soon be competing for plum roles in games as ferociously as they did for those in movies; it wasn’t only for the cheaper rents that Kotick had chosen to relocate his resuscitated Activision from Northern to Southern California.

The other, ultimately more sustainable vision came to cohabitate at the new Activision almost accidentally. It began when Kotick, rummaging yet again through the attic full of detritus left behind by his company’s previous incarnation, came across a still-binding contract with FASA for the digital rights to BattleTech, a popular board game of dueling robot “mechs.” After a long, troubled development cycle that consumed many of the resources that might otherwise have been put toward a Return to Zork sequel, Activision published MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat in the summer of 1995.

Mechwarrior 2 was everything Return to Zork wasn’t. Rather than being pieced together out of canned video clips and pre-rendered scenes, it was powered by 3D graphics that were rendered on the fly in real time. It was exciting in a viscerally immersive, action-oriented way rather than being a passive spectacle. And, best of all in the eyes of many of its hyper-competitive players, it was multiplayer-friendly. This, suffice to say, was the real future of mainstream hardcore computer gaming. MechWarrior 2′s one similarity with Return to Zork was external to the game itself: Kotick once again pulled every string he could to get it included as a pack-in extra with hardware-upgrade kits. This time, however, the upgrades in question were the new 3D-graphics accelerators that made games like this one run so much better.

In a way, the writing was on the wall for Siliwood at Activision as soon as MechWarrior 2 soared to the stratosphere, but there were already a couple of ambitious projects in the Siliwood vein in the works at that time, which together would give the alternative vision’s ongoing viability a good, solid test. One of these was Spycraft, an interactive spy movie with unusually high production values and high thematic ambitions to go along with them: it was shot on film rather than the standard videotape, from a script written with the input of William Colby and Oleg Kalugin, American and Soviet spymasters during the Cold War. The other was Zork Nemesis.



Whatever else you can say about it, you can’t accuse Zork Nemesis of merely aping its successful predecessor. Where Return to Zork is goofy, taking its cues from the cartoon comedies of Sierra and LucasArts as well as the Zork games of Infocom, Zork Nemesis is cold and austere — almost off-puttingly so, like its obvious inspiration Myst. Then, too, in place of the abstracted room-based navigation of Return to Zork, Zork Nemesis gives you more granular nodes to jump between in an embodied, coherent three-dimensional space, again just like Myst. Return to Zork is bursting with characters, such as that “Want some rye?” guy who became an early Internet meme unto himself; Zork Nemesis is almost entirely empty, its story playing out through visions, written records, and brief snatches of contact across otherwise impenetrable barriers of time and space.

Which style of adventure game you prefer is a matter of taste. In at least one sense, though, Zork Nemesis does undeniably improve upon its predecessor. Whereas Return to Zork’s puzzles seem to have been slapped together more or less at random by a team not overly concerned with the player’s sanity or enjoyment, it’s clear that Zork Nemesis was consciously designed in all the ways that the previous Zork was not; its puzzles are often hard, but they’re never blatantly unfair. Nor do they repeat Return to Zork’s worst design sin of all: they give you no way of becoming a dead adventurer walking without knowing it.

The plot here involves a ruthless alchemical mastermind, the Nemesis of the title, and his quest for a mysterious fifth element, a Quintessence that transcends the standard Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The game is steeped in the Hermetic occultism that strongly influenced many of the figures who mark the transition from Medieval to Modern thought in our own world’s history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton. This is fine in itself; in fact, it’s a rather brilliant basis for an adventure game if you ask me, easily a more interesting idea in the abstract than yet another Zork game. The only problem — a problem which has been pointed out ad nauseam over the years since Zork Nemesis’s release — is that this game does purport to be a Zork game in addition to being about all that other stuff, and yet it doesn’t feel the slightest bit like Zork. While the Zork games of Infocom were by no means all comedy all the time — Zork III in particular is notably, even jarringly austere, and Spellbreaker is not that far behind it — they never had anything to do with earthly alchemy.

I developed the working theory as I played Zork Nemesis that it must have been originally conceived as simply a Myst-like adventure game, having nothing to do with Zork, until some marketing genius or other insisted that the name be grafted on to increase its sales potential. I was a little sad to be disabused of my pet notion by Laird Malamed, the game’s technical director, with whom I was able to speak recently. He told me that Zork Nemesis really was a Zork from the start, to the point of being listed as Return to Zork II in Activision’s account books before it was given its final name. Nevertheless, I did find one of his choices of words telling. He said that Cecilia Barajas, a former Los Angeles district attorney who became Zork Nemesiss mastermind, was no more than “familiar” with Infocom’s Zork. So, it might not be entirely unfair after all to say that the Zork label on Zork Nemesis was more of a convenient way for Barajas to make the game she wanted to make than a wellspring of passion for her. Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean for any of the preceding to come across as fannish gatekeeping, something we have more than enough of already in this world. I’m merely trying to understand, just as you presumably are, why Zork Nemesis is so very different from the Activision Zork game before it (and also the one after it, about which more later).

Of course, a game doesn’t need to be a Zork to be good. And indeed, if we forget about the Zork label, we find that Nemesis (see what I did there?) is one of the best — arguably even the best — of all the 1990s “Myst clones.” It’s one of the rare old games whose critical reputation has improved over the years, now that the hype surrounding its release and the angry cries of “But it’s not a Zork!” have died away, granting us space to see it for what it is rather than what it is not. With a budget running to $3 million or more, this was no shoestring project. In fact, the ironic truth is that both Nemesis’s budget and its resultant production values dramatically exceed those of its inspiration Myst. Its principal technical innovation, very impressive at the time, is the ability to smoothly scroll through a 360-degree panorama in most of the nodes you visit, rather than being limited to an arbitrary collection of fixed views. The art direction and the music are superb, maintaining a consistently sinister, occasionally downright macabre atmosphere. And it’s a really, really big game too, far bigger than Myst, with, despite its almost equally deserted environments, far more depth to its fiction. If we scoff just a trifle because this is yet one more adventure game that requires you to piece together a backstory from journal pages rather than living a proper foreground story of your own, we also have to acknowledge that the backstory is interesting enough that you want to find and read said pages. This is a game that, although it certainly doesn’t reinvent any wheels, implements every last one of them with care.

My own objections are the same ones that I always tend to have toward this sub-genre, and that thus probably say more about me than they do about Nemesis. The oppressive atmosphere, masterfully inculcated though it is, becomes a bit much after a while; I start wishing for some sort of tonal counterpoint to this all-pervasively dominant theme, not to mention someone to actually talk to. And then the puzzles, although not unfair, are sometimes quite difficult — more difficult than I really need them to be. Nemesis is much like Riven, Myst’s official sequel, in that it wants me to work a bit harder for my fun than I have the time or energy for at this point in my life. Needless to say, though, your mileage may vary.


Zork Nemesis’s story is told through ghostly (and non-interactive) visions…

…as well as through lots of books, journals, and letters. Myst fans will feel right at home.

The puzzles too are mostly Myst-style set-pieces rather than relying on inventory objects.

The macabre atmosphere becomes downright gruesome in places.

Venus dispenses hints if you click on her. What is the ancient Roman goddess of love, as painted by the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, doing in the world of Zork? Your guess is as good as mine. Count it as just one more way in which this Zork can scarcely be bothered to try to be a Zork at all.



Released on the same day in April of 1996 as Spycraft, Activision’s other big test of the Siliwood vision’s ongoing viability, Zork Nemesis was greeted with mixed reviews. This was not surprising for a Myst clone, a sub-genre that the hardcore-gaming press never warmed to. Still, some of the naysayers waxed unusually vitriolic upon seeing such a beloved gaming icon as Zork sullied with the odor of the hated Myst. The normally reliable and always entertaining Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World, the print journal of record for the hobby, whose reviews could still make or break a game as a marketplace proposition even in this dawning Internet age, dinged Zork Nemesis for not having much of anything to do with Infocom’s Zork, which was fair. Yet then he went on to characterize it as a creatively bankrupt, mindless multimedia cash-in, which was not: “Give ’em a gorgeous photo-realistic environment full of fantastic landscapes, some quasi-liturgical groaning on the soundtrack, and a simple puzzle every so often to keep their brains engaged, and you’re off to the bank to count your riches. Throw in some ghostly visions and a hint of the horrific and you can snag the 7th Guest crowd too.” One can only assume from this that Ardai never even bothered to try to play the game, but simply hated it on principle. I maintain that no one who has done so could possibly describe Zork Nemesis‘s puzzles as “simple,” no matter how much smarter than I am he might happen to be.

Even in the face of headwinds like these, Zork Nemesis still sold considerably better than the more positively reviewed Spycraft, seemingly demonstrating that Bobby Kotick’s faith in “Zork on a brick” might not yet be completely misplaced. Its lifetime sales probably ended up in the neighborhood of 150,000 to 200,000 copies — not a blockbuster hit by any means, and certainly a good deal less than the numbers put up by Return to Zork, but still more than the vast majority of Myst clones, enough for it to earn back the money it had cost to make plus a little extra.[2]In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there. Whereas there would be no more interactive spy movies forthcoming from Activision, Zork Nemesis did just well enough that Kotick could see grounds for funding another Zork game, as long as it was made on a slightly less lavish budget, taking advantage of the engine that had been created for Nemesis. And I’m very glad he could, because the Zork game that resulted is a real gem.



With Cecilia Barajas having elected to move on to other things, Laird Malamed stepped up into her role for the next game. He was much more than just “familiar” with Zork. He had gotten a copy of the original Personal Software “barbarian Zork — so named because of its hilariously inappropriate cover art — soon after his parents bought him his first Apple II as a kid, and had grown up with Infocom thereafter. Years later, when he had already embarked on a career as a sound designer in Hollywood, a chance meeting with Return to Zork put Activision on his radar. He applied and was hired there, giving up one promising career for another.

He soon became known both inside and outside of Activision as the keeper of the Infocom flame, the only person in the company’s senior ranks who saw that storied legacy as more than just something to be exploited commercially. While still in the early stages of making Activision’s third graphical Zork, he put together as a replacement for the old Lost Treasures of Infocom collections a new one called Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces: 33 of the canonical 35 games on a single CD, with all of their associated documentation in digital format. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Shogun, Infocom’s only two licensed titles, were the only games missing, in both cases because their licensing contracts had expired). He did this more because he simply felt these games ought to be available than because he expected the collection to make a lot of money for his employer. In the same spirit, he reached out to the amateur interactive fiction community that was still authoring text adventures in the Infocom mold, and arranged to include the top six finishers from the recently concluded First Interactive Fiction Competition on the same disc. He searched through Activision’s storage rooms to find a backup of the old DEC mainframe Infocom had used to create its games. This he shared with Graham Nelson and a few other amateur-IF luminaries, whilst selecting a handful of interesting, entertaining, and non-embarrassing internal emails to include on the Masterpieces disc as well.[3]This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at archive.org. No one at Activision had ever engaged with the company’s Infocom inheritance in such an agenda-less, genuine way before him; nor would anyone do so after him.

He brought to the new graphical Zork game a story idea that had a surprisingly high-brow inspiration: the “Grand Inquisitor” tale-within-a-tale in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, an excerpt which stands so well on its own that it’s occasionally been published that way. I can enthusiastically recommend reading it, whether you tackle the rest of the novel or not. (Laird admitted to me when we talked that he himself hadn’t yet managed to finish the entire book when he decided to use a small part of it as the inspiration for his game.) Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a leading figure of the Spanish Inquisition, who harangues a returned Jesus Christ for his pacifism, his humility, and his purportedly naïve rejection of necessary hierarchies of power. It is, in other words, an exercise in contrast, setting the religion of peace and love that was preached by Jesus up against what it became in the hands of the Medieval Catholic popes and other staunch insitutionalists.

For its part, Zork: Grand Inquisitor doesn’t venture into quite such politically fraught territory as this. Its titular character is an ideological rather than religious tinpot dictator, of the sort all too prevalent in the 20th and 21st centuries on our world. He has taken over the town of Port Foozle, where he has banned all magic and closed all access to the Great Underground Empire that lies just beneath the town. You play a humble traveling salesperson who comes into possession of a magic lantern — a piece of highly illegal contraband in itself — that contains the imprisoned spirit of Dalboz of Gurth, the rightful Dungeon Master of the Empire. He encourages and helps you to make your way into his forbidden realm, to become a literal underground resistance fighter against the Grand Inquisitor.

The preceding paragraphs may have led you to think that Zork: Grand Inquisitor is another portentous, serious game. If so, rest assured that it isn’t. Not at all. Its tone and feel could hardly be more different from those of Zork Nemesis. Although there are some heavy themes lurking in the background, they’re played almost entirely for laughs in the foreground. This strikes me as no bad approach. There are, after all, few more devastating antidotes to the totalitarian absurdities of those who would dictate to others what sort of lives they should lead and what they should believe in than a dose of good old full-throated laughter. As Hannah Arendt understood, the Grand Inquisitors among us are defined by the qualities they are missing rather than any that they possess: qualities like empathy, conscience, and moral intelligence. We should not hesitate to mock them for being the sad, insecure, incompletely realized creatures they are.

Just as I once suspected that Zork Nemesis didn’t start out as a Zork game at all, I was tempted to assume that this latest whipsaw shift in atmosphere for Zork at Activision came as a direct response to the vocal criticisms of the aforementioned game’s lack of Zorkiness. Alas, Laird Malamed disabused me of that clever notion as well. Grand Inquisitor was, he told me, simply the Zork that he wanted to make, initiated well before the critics’ and fans’ verdicts on the last game started to pour in in earnest. He told me that he practically “begged” Margaret Stohl, who has since gone on to become a popular fantasy novelist in addition to continuing to work in games, to come aboard as lead designer and writer and help him to put his broad ideas into a more concrete form, for he knew that she possessed exactly the comedic sensibility he was going for.

Regardless of the original reason for the shift in tone, Laird and his team didn’t hesitate to describe Grand Inquisitor later in its development cycle as a premeditated response to the backlash about Nemesis’s Zork bona fides, or rather its lack thereof. This time, they told magazines like Computer Gaming World, they were determined to “let Zork be Zorky”: “to embrace what was wonderful about the old text adventures, a fantasy world with an undercurrent of humor.”

Certainly Grand Inquisitor doesn’t lack for the concrete Zorkian tropes that were also all over Return to Zork. From the white house in the forest to Flood Control Dam #3 to Dalboz’s magic lantern itself, the gang’s all here. But all of these disparate homages are integrated into a larger Zorkian tapestry in a way Activision never managed elsewhere. Return to Zork is a compromised if not cynical piece of work, its slapstick tone the result of a group of creators who saw Zork principally as a grab bag of tropes to be thrown at the wall one after another. And Nemesis, of course, has little to do with Zork at all. But Grand Inquisitor walks like a Zork, talks like a Zork, and is smart amidst its silliness in the same way as a Zork of yore. In accordance with its heritage, it’s an unabashedly self-referential game, well aware of the clichés and limitations of its genre and happy to poke fun at them. For example, the Dungeon Master here dubs you the “AFGNCAAP”: the “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person,” making light of a longstanding debate, ancient even at the time of Grand Inquisitor’s release, over whether it must be you the player in the game or whether it’s acceptable to ask you to take control of a separate, strongly characterized protagonist.

It’s plain from first to last that this game was helmed by someone who knew Zork intimately and loved it dearly. And yet the game is never gawky in that obsessive fannish way that can be so painful to witness; it’s never so much in thrall to its inspiration that it forgets to be its own thing. This game is comfortable in its own skin, and can be enjoyed whether you’ve been steeped in the lore of Zork for decades or are coming to it completely cold. This is the way you do fan service right, folks.

Although it uses an engine made for a Myst-like game, Grand Inquisitor plays nothing like Myst. This game is no exercise in contemplative, lonely puzzle-solving; its world is alive. As you wander about, Dungeon Master Dalboz chirps up from his lantern constantly with banter, background, and subtle hints. He becomes your friend in adventure, keeping you from ever feeling too alone. In time, other disembodied spirits join you as well, until you’re wandering around with a veritable Greek chorus burbling away behind you. The voice acting is uniformly superb.

Another prominent recurring character is Antharia Jack, a poor man’s Indiana Jones who’s played onscreen as well as over the speakers by Dirk Benedict, a fellow very familiar with being a stand-in for Harrison Ford in his most iconic roles, having also played the Han Solo-wannabee Starbuck in the delightfully cheesy old television Star Wars cash-in Battlestar Galactica. Benedict, one of those actors who’s capable of portraying exactly one character but who does it pretty darn well, went on to star in The A-Team after his tenure as an outer-space fighter jockey was over. His smirking, skirt-chasing persona was thus imprinted deeply on the memories of many of the twenty-somethings whom Activision hoped to tempt into buying Grand Inquisitor. This sort of stunt-casting of actors a bit past their pop-culture prime was commonplace in productions like these, but here at least it’s hard to fault the results. Benedict leans into Antharia Jack with all of his usual gusto. You can’t help but like the guy.

When it comes to its puzzles, Grand Inquisitor’s guiding ethic is to cut its poor, long-suffering AFGNCAAP a break. All of the puzzles here are well-clued and logical within the context of a Zorkian world, the sort of puzzles that are likely to stump you only just long enough to make you feel satisfyingly smart after you solve them. There’s a nice variety to them, with plenty of the “use object X on thing Y” variety to go along with some relatively un-taxing set-piece exercises in pushing buttons or pulling levers just right. But best of all are the puzzles that you solve by magic.

Being such a dedicated Infocom aficionado, Laird Malamed remembered something that most of his colleagues probably never knew at all: that the canon of Infocom Zork games encompassed more than just the ones that had that name on their boxes, that there was also a magic-oriented Enchanter trilogy which took place in the same universe. At the center of those games was one of the most brilliant puzzle mechanics Infocom ever invented, a system of magic that had you hunting down spell scrolls to copy into your spell book, after which they were yours to cast whenever you wished. This being Infocom, however, they were never your standard-issue Dungeons & Dragons Fireball spells, but rather ones that did weirdly specific, esoteric things, often to the point that it was hard to know what they were really good for — until, that is, you finally stumbled over that one nail for which they were the perfect hammer. Grand Inquisitor imports this mechanic wholesale. Here as well, you’re forever trying to figure out how to get your hands on that spell scroll that’s beckoning to you teasingly from the top of a tree or wherever, and then, once you’ve secured it, trying to figure out where it can actually do something useful for you. This latter is no trivial exercise when you’re stuck with spells like IGRAM (“turn purple things invisible”) and KENDALL (“simplify instructions”). Naturally, much of the fun comes from casting the spells on all kinds of random stuff, just to see what happens. Following yet again in the footsteps of Infocom, Laird’s team at Activision implemented an impressive number of such interactions, useless though they are for any purpose other than keeping the AFGNCAAP amused.

Grand Inquisitor isn’t an especially long game on any terms, and the fairly straightforward puzzles mean you’ll sail through what content there is much more quickly than you might through a game like Nemesis. All in all, it will probably give you no more than three or four evenings’ entertainment. Laird Malamed confessed to me that a significant chunk of the original design document had to be cut in the end in order to deliver the game on-time and on-budget; this was a somewhat marginal project from the get-go, not one to which Activision’s bean counters were ever going to give a lot of slack. Yet even this painful but necessary surgery was done unusually well. Knowing from the beginning that the scalpel might have to come out before all was said and done, the design team consciously used a “modular” approach, from which content could be subtracted (or added, if they should prove to be so fortunate) without undermining the structural integrity, if you will, of the game as a whole. As a result of their forethought, Grand Inquisitor doesn’t feel like a game that’s been gutted. It rather feels very complete just as it is. Back in the day, when Activision was trying to sell it for $40 or $50, its brevity was nevertheless a serious disadvantage. Today, when you can pick it up in a downloadable version for just a few bucks, it’s far less of a problem. As the old showbiz rule says, better to leave ’em wanting more than wishing you’d just get off the stage already.


 

“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.” Unfortunately, the property has been condemned by the Grand Inquisitor. “Who is the boss of you? Me! I am the boss of you!”

The “spellchecker” is a good example of Grand Inquisitor’s silly but clever humor, which always has time for puns. The machine’s purpose is, as you might have guessed, to validate spell scrolls.

This subway map looks… complicated. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to simplify it in a burst of magic? Laird told me that this puzzle was inspired by recollections of trying to make sense of a map of the London Underground as a befuddled tourist.

Nothing sums up the differences between Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor quite so perfectly as the latter’s chess puzzle. In Nemesis, you’d be futzing around with this thing forever. And in Grand Inquisitor? As Scorpia wrote in her review for Computer Gaming World, “Think of what you’ve [always] felt like doing with an adventure-game chess puzzle, and act accordingly.”

There are some set-piece puzzles that can’t be dispatched quite so easily. An instruction booklet tells you to never, ever close all four sluices of Flood Control Dam Number 3 at once. So what do you try to do?

Playing Strip Grue, Fire, Water with Antharia Jack. The cigars were no mere affectation of Dirk Benedict. His costars complained repeatedly about the cloud of odoriferous smoke in which he was constantly enveloped. A true blue Hollywood eccentric of the old-school stripe, Benedict remains convinced to this day that the key to longevity is tobacco combined with a macrobiotic diet. Ah, well… given that he’s reached 79 years of age and counting as of this writing, it seems to be working out for him so far.

Be careful throwing around them spells, kid! Deaths in Grand Inquisitor are rendered in text. Not only is this a nice nostalgic homage to the game’s roots, it helped to maximize the limited budget by avoiding the expense of portraying all those death scenes in graphics.



Laird Malamed had no sense during the making of Grand Inquisitor that this game would mark the end of Zork’s long run. On the contrary, he had plans to turn it into the first game of a new trilogy, the beginning of a whole new era for the venerable franchise. In keeping with his determination to bring Zork back to the grass roots who knew and loved it best, he came up with an inspired guerrilla-marketing scheme. He convinced the former Infocom Implementors Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn to write up a short text-adventure prelude to the story told in Grand Inquisitor proper. Then he got Kevin Wilson, the organizer of the same Interactive Fiction Competition whose games had featured on the Masterpieces CD, to program their design in Inform, a language that compiled to the Z-Machine, Infocom’s old virtual machine, for which interpreters had long been available on countless computing platforms, both current and archaic. Activision released the end result for free on the Internet in the summer of 1997, as both a teaser for the graphical game that was to come and a proof that Zork was re-embracing its roots. Zork: The Undiscovered Underground isn’t a major statement by any means, but it stands today, as it did then, as a funny, nostalgic final glance back to the days when Zork was nothing but words on a screen.

Unfortunately, all of Laird’s plans for Zork’s broader future went up in smoke when Grand Inquisitor was released in November of 1997 and put up sales numbers well short of those delivered by Nemesis, despite reviews that were almost universally glowing this time around. Those Infocom fans who played it mostly adored it for finally delivering on the promise of its name, even if it was a bit short. The problem was that that demographic was now moving into the busiest phase of life, when careers and children tend to fill all of the hours available and then some. There just weren’t enough of those people still buying games to deliver the sales that a mass-market-focused publisher like Activision demanded, even as the Zork name meant nothing whatsoever to the newer generation of gamers who had cut their teeth on DOOM and Warcraft. Perhaps Bobby Kotick should have just written “Zork” on a brick after all, for Grand Inquisitor didn’t sell even 100,000 units.

And so, twenty years after a group of MIT graduate students had gotten together to create a game that was even better than Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, Zork’s run came to an end, taking with it any remaining dregs of faith at Activision in the Siliwood vision. Apart from one misconceived and blessedly quickly abandoned effort to revive the franchise as a low-budget MMORPG during the period when those things were sprouting like weeds, no Zork game has appeared since. We can feel sad about this if we must, but the reality is that nothing lasts forever. Far better, it seems to me, for Zork to go out with Grand Inquisitor, one of the highest of all its highs, than to be recycled again and again on a scale of diminishing returns, as has happened to some other classic gaming franchises. Likewise, I’m kind of happy that no one who made Grand Inquisitor knew they were making the very last Zork adventure. Their ignorance caused them to just let Zork be Zork, meant they were never even tempted to turn their game into some over-baked Final Statement.

In games as in life, it’s always better to celebrate what we have than to lament what might have been. With that in mind, then, let me warmly recommend Zork: Grand Inquisitor to any fans of adventure games among you readers who have managed not to play it yet. It really doesn’t matter whether you know the rest of Zork or not; it stands just fine on its own. And that too is the way it ought to be.



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Sources: the books Zork Nemesis: The Official Strategy Guide by Peter Spear and Zork: Grand Inquisitor: The Official Strategy Guide by Margaret Stohl; Computer Gaming World of August 1996, February 1997, and March 1998; InterActivity of May 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Los Angeles Times of November 30 1996.

Online sources include a 1996 New Media profile of Activision and “The Trance Experience of Zork Nemesis at Animation World.

My thanks to Laird Malamed for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk to me about his history with Zork. Note that any opinions expressed in this article that are not explicitly attributed to him are my own.

Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor are both available as digital purchases at GOG.com.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures.
2 In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there.
3 This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at archive.org.
 

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1998 Will Be Great

Hi, folks!

I don’t have an article for you this week, but, rather than leave you hanging with nothing whatsoever to read, I thought I would post a little preview of what’s coming over the next year or so. Note that this “year” of mine applies to both real time and to the historical timeline, which have become largely one and the same these days. I do still have one 1997 article in the pipeline, on Activision’s last two graphical Zork games. I’ve also pushed a couple of topics that were originally earmarked for 1997 into 1998.

So, here’s what’s coming, with some further clarifications wherever it feels appropriate. If you like to be totally surprised by each new article, now is the time to stop reading. If, on the other hand, you played a role in any of the following, or know someone who did, or have any other kind of research tips or inside information to share, by all means get in touch via email, Mastodon, or just in the comments below.

  • The Journeyman Project trilogy. I nearly passed these over, but on a whim I decided to try the 1997 remake of the first game, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. This prompted me to play Buried in Time and Legacy of Time as well. To whatever extent these can be considered Myst clones, they stand now as my favorites in the sub-genre.
  • Starcraft.
  • Douglas Adams in the 1990s and beyond, including Starship Titanic. He filled quite a lot in the early years of this blog, and, although he wasn’t such a high-profile presence in games and computing after the 1980s, he deserves to have his story finished.
  • Tex Murphy: Overseer.
  • Might and Magic VI.
  • Sanitarium and Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy. Yes, this is an odd couple. These two games are linked only in being early harbingers of where adventure games would go as their AAA commercial heyday faded into the past. The budgets would get smaller, the list prices would decrease, and most of the studios still making them would be located in Europe rather than North America (although this last is only true of one of this particular pair). None of these changes strikes me as necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, they often gave space for design to come to the fore again.
  • The X-Files. As I promised a reader recently in the comments section, this is also a good chance to talk about the television show, one of the most indelibly 1990s of all media creations. (Wasn’t it nice when our most prominent conspiracy theories revolved around aliens from outer space?)
  • The Windows 98 launch.
  • Grim Fandango.
  • The casual-sports-game phenomenon. Did you know that schlocky little Deer Hunter made way, way more money for its creator than Starcraft or Half-Life or any other iconic late-1990s mega-hit you care to name? I’ve always found these incongruities between gaming history as it’s remembered by the hardcore crowd and the reality on the ground at the time to be fascinating.
  • Game shows. Most years, I allow myself one significant departure from the game-by-game brief, and I think this will be this year’s. It’s a topic I’ve been mulling over for a long time now, given that television game shows were the first “video” games of all in a sense. There’s probably two or three articles here, tying in the end back into 1990s CD-ROMs like Jeopardy! and the You Don’t Know Jack series — the latter of which is another of those hidden moneyspinners of the era, that you would barely know existed from reading Computer Gaming World and the like.
  • Interactive fiction. I never intended to stop writing about text adventures; it’s just that I haven’t had quite enough to say about them in the last few years to make a good article. Now, however, we’ve come to the year of Anchorhead, Spider and Web, and Photopia. In terms of seminal works, 1998 is arguably the interactive fiction community’s biggest single year of all.
  • Half-Life.
  • The first two Oddworld games, which I think are best discussed as a unit.
  • Railroad Tycoon II. (My lord, have I gotten addicted to this game…)
  • Fallout 1 and 2. Again, I think this pair can be most profitably discussed together. And waiting until this point lets me better tie them into the CRPG Renaissance that was cemented by Baldur’s Gate.
  • The downfall of TSR and its purchase by Wizards of the Coast. Another long-running story that deserves a proper conclusion, even if it is more computer-game adjacent than specific.
  • The aforementioned Baldur’s Gate.
  • Speaking of conclusions to long-running stories: the strange and rather anticlimactic end of Ken and Roberta Williams’s Sierra, including coverage of King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity and Quest for Glory V.
  • Boulder Dash and its successors. Yes, you read that right. I spent a lot of time with Boulder Dash as a kid on my Commodore 64, and I think it deserves an article, however belated. I don’t know why I didn’t write one back in the day, but better late than never. I already circled back to pick up Lode Runner
  • Thief.

And now to explain why a couple of topics are not on this list. I plan to discuss the two Freespace games as a unit later. And I haven’t forgotten Her Interactive and Nancy Drew; I’m just waiting for the right place to tell that story. I’d like to end it on a triumphant note, and the first Nancy Drew game is still a little rough around the edges.

I know that there’s a (small) minority of you who would like to see more coverage of Voyager Interactive. I’m afraid I just haven’t found the later discs as compelling as I did the early ones, so I think I’m going to table that topic. I’m sorry!

Of course, I’m always eager to read your thoughts on what you find most (and, if you like, least) appealing from the list above and what other topics you’d like to see covered. I can’t promise to follow up on all of your suggestions — I have to be guided as well by the kinds of games I most enjoy, by what I find most interesting in general, and simply by what I think would yield a readable article — but many of them have led me in the past to subjects I never would have thought to write about on my own. (In fact, a couple of these can be seen on the list above…)

If you’re a regular reader and you haven’t yet become a supporter, please do give it some thought if your financial circumstances permit. I depend on all of you to keep writing and to keep this site ad-free.

Most of all, though, thank you for being the best readers in the world! I’ll have a proper new article for you next week, and the 1997 ebook should be coming along in the relatively near future.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

 

Riven

Robyn and Rand Miller.

Sometimes success smacks you right in the face. More often, it sneaks up on you from behind.

In September of 1993, the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller and the few other employees of Cyan, Inc., were prototypical starving artists, living on “rice and beans and government cheese.” That month they saw Brøderbund publish their esoteric Apple Macintosh puzzle game Myst, which they and everyone else regarded as a niche product for a niche platform. There would go another year before it became abundantly clear that Myst, now available in a version for Microsoft Windows as well as for the Mac, was a genuine mass-market hit. It would turn into the gift that kept on giving, a game with more legs than your average millipede. It wouldn’t enjoy its best single month until December of 1996, when it would set a record for the most copies one game had ever sold in one month.

All of this — not just the sales figures themselves but the dozens of awards, the write-ups in glossy magazines like Rolling Stone and Newsweek, the fawningly overwritten profiles in Wired, the comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Michael Jackson’s Thriller — happened just gradually enough that it seemed almost natural. Almost natural. “It took a while for it to hit me that millions of people were buying this game,” says Robyn Miller. “The most I could really wrap my head around would be to go to a huge concert and see all of the people there and think, ‘Okay, this is not even a portion of the people who are playing Myst.'”

The Miller brothers could have retired and lived very comfortably for the rest of their lives on the fortune they earned from Myst. They didn’t choose this path. “We took salaries that were fairly modest and just put the company’s money back into [a] new project,” says Rand.

Brøderbund was more than eager for a sequel to Myst, something that many far smaller hits than it got as a matter of course within a year. But the Miller brothers refused to be hurried, and did not need to be, a rare luxury indeed in their industry. Although they enjoyed a very good relationship with Brøderbund, whose marketing acumen had been essential to getting the Myst ball rolling, they did not wish to be beholden to their publisher in any way. Rather than accepting the traditional publisher advance, they decided that they would fund the sequel entirely on their own out of the royalties of the first game. This meant that, as Myst blew up bigger and bigger, their ambitions for the game they intended to call Riven were inflated in tandem. They refused to give Brøderbund a firm release date; it will be done when it’s done, they said. They took to talking about Myst as their Hobbit, Riven as their Lord of the Rings. It had taken J.R.R. Tolkien seventeen years to bridge the gap between his children’s adventure story and the most important fantasy epic in modern literary history. Surely Brøderbund could accept having to wait just a few years for Riven, especially with the sales figures Myst was still putting up.

Cyan’s digs reflected their rising status. They hadn’t even had a proper office when they were making Myst; everybody worked out of their separate homes in and around Spokane, Washington, sharing their output with one another using the “car net”: put it on a disk, get into your car, and drive it over to the other person. In the immediate aftermath of Myst’s release and promising early sales, they all piled into a drafty, unheated garage owned by their sound specialist Chris Brandkamp. Then, as the sales numbers continued to tick upward, they moved into an anonymous-looking former Comfort World Mattress storefront. Finally, in January of 1995, they broke ground on a grandiosely named “Cyan World Headquarters,” whose real-world architecture was to be modeled on the virtual architecture of Myst and Riven. While they were waiting for that building to be completed — the construction would take eighteen months — they junked the consumer-grade Macs which had slowly and laboriously done all of the 3D modeling necessary to create Myst’s environments in favor of Silicon Graphics workstations that cost $40,000 a pop.


Cyan breaks ground on their new “world headquarters.”

The completed building looked very much apiece with their games, both outside…

…and inside.

The machines that made Riven. Its imagery was rendered using $1 million worth of Silicon Graphics hardware: a dozen or so workstations connected to these four high-end servers that did the grunt work of the ray-tracing. It was a far cry from Myst, which had been made with ordinary consumer-grade Macs running off-the-shelf software.

And the people who made Riven


There were attempts to drum up controversies in the press, especially after Riven missed a tentative Christmas 1996 target date which Brøderbund had (prematurely) announced, a delay that caused the publisher’s stock price to drop by 25 percent. The journalists who always seemed to be hovering around the perimeter of Cyan’s offices claimed to sniff trouble in the air, an aroma of overstretched budgets and creative tensions. But, although there were certainly arguments — what project of this magnitude doesn’t cause arguments? — there was in truth no juicy decadence or discord going on at Cyan. The Miller brothers, sons of a preacher and still devout Christians, never lost their Heartland groundedness. They never let their fluke success go to their heads in the way of, say, the minds behind Trilobyte of The 7th Guest fame, were never even seriously tempted to move their operation to some more glamorous city than Spokane. For them, it was all about the work. And luckily for them, plenty of people were more than willing to move to Spokane for a chance to work at The House That Myst Built, which by the end of 1995 had replaced Trilobyte as the most feted single games studio in the mainstream American press, the necessary contrast to all those other unscrupulous operators who were filling their games and the minds of the nation’s youth with indiscriminate sex and violence.

The most important of all the people who were suddenly willing to come to Spokane would prove to be Richard Vander Wende, a former Disney production designer — his fingerprints were all over the recent film Aladdin — who first bumped into the Miller brothers at a Digital World Expo in Los Angeles. Wende’s conceptual contribution to Riven would be as massive as that of either of the Miller brothers, such that he would be given a richly deserved co-equal billing with them at the very top of the credits listing.

Richard Vander Wende.

Needless to say, though, there were many others who contributed as well. By the time Cyan moved into their new world headquarters in the summer of 1996, more than twenty people were actively working on Riven every day. The sequel would wind up costing ten times to fifteen times as much to make as its predecessor, filling five CDs to Myst’s lone silver platter.

Given the Millers’ artistic temperament and given the rare privilege they enjoyed of being able to make exactly the game they wished to make, one might be tempted to assume that Riven was to be some radical departure from what had come before. In reality, though, this was not the case at all. Riven was to be Myst, only more so; call it Myst perfected. Once again you would be left to wander around inside a beautiful pre-rendered 3D environment, which you would view from a first-person perspective. And once again you would be expected to solve intricate puzzles there — or not, as you chose.

Cyan had long since realized that players of Myst broke down into two broad categories. There were those they called the gamers, who engaged seriously with it as a series of logical challenges to be overcome through research, experimentation, and deduction. And then there was the other group of players — a far, far larger one, if we’re being honest — whom Cyan called the tourists, who just wanted to poke around a little inside the virtual world and take in some of the sights and sounds. These were folks like the residents of a retirement home who wrote to Cyan to say that they had been playing and enjoying Myst for two years and two months, and wanted to hear if the rumors that there were locations to explore beyond the first island — an island which constitutes about 20 percent of the full game — were in fact true.

Riven was meant to cater to both groups, by giving the gamers a much deeper, richer, more complex tapestry of puzzles to unravel, whilst simultaneously being kept as deliberately “open” as possible in terms of its geography, so that you could see most of its locations without ever having to solve a single conundrum. “The two complaints about Myst,” said Rand Miller, “were that it was too hard and too easy. We’re trying to make Riven better for both kinds of players.” Whereas Myst allowed you to visit four separate “ages” — basically, alternative dimensions — after solving those early puzzles which had so stymied the retirees, Riven was to take place all in the same dimension, on a single archipelago of five islands. You would be able to travel between the islands right from the start, using vehicles whose operation should be quite straightforward even for the most puzzle-averse players. If all you wanted to do was wander around the world of Riven, it would give you a lot more spaces in which to do so than Myst.

Of course, while the world of Riven was slowly coming together, the real world wasn’t sitting still. Myst had been followed by an inevitable flood of “Myst clones” from other publishers and studios, which, in lieu of a proper sequel from Cyan, did their best to pick up the slack by offering up their own deserted, 3D-rendered environments to explore. None of them was more than modestly successful; Activision’s Zork Nemesis, which may have done the best of them all, sold perhaps 150,000 copies, barely one-fiftieth of the final numbers that Myst put up when all was said and done. Meanwhile the genre of adventure games in general had peaked in the immediate aftermath of Myst and would be well into an increasingly precipitous decline by the time Riven shipped in October of 1997. The Last Express, the only other adventure that Brøderbund published that year, stiffed badly in the spring, despite sporting prominently on its box the name of Jordan Mechner, one of the few videogame auteurs with a reputation to rival that of the Miller brothers.

Yet Cyan’s own games still seemed weirdly proof against the marketplace pressures that were driving so many other game makers in the direction of real-time strategy and first-person shooters. In June of 1997, the nearly four-year-old Myst was propelled back to the top of the sales charts by the excitement over the approaching debut of Riven. And when it did appear, Riven didn’t disappoint the bean counters. It and Myst tag-teamed one another in the top two chart positions right through the Christmas buying season. Myst would return to number one a few more times in the course of 1998, while an entire industry continued to scratch its collective head, wondering why this particular game — a game that was now approaching its fifth birthday, making it roughly as aged as the plays of Shakespeare as the industry reckoned time — should continue to sell in such numbers. Even today, it’s hard to say precisely why Myst just kept selling and selling, defying all the usual gravities of its market. It seems that non-violent, non-hardcore gaming simply needed a standard bearer, and so it found one for itself.

Riven wasn’t quite as successful as Myst, but this doesn’t mean it didn’t do very well indeed by all of the standard metrics. Its biggest failing in comparison to its older sibling was ironically its very cutting-edge nature; whereas just about any computer that was capable of running other everyday software could run Myst by 1997, you needed a fairly recent, powerful machine to run Riven. Despite this, and despite the usual skepticism from the hardcore-gaming press — “With its familiar, lever-yanking gameplay, Riven emerges as the ultimate Myst clone,” scoffed Computer Gaming World magazine — Riven’s sales surpassed 1 million units in its first year, numbers of which any other adventure game could scarcely have dreamed.[1]An article in the May 17 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times claimed that Riven had sold 4.5 million copies by that point, three and a half years after its release. This number has since been repeated in numerous places, including Wikipedia. I’ll eat my hat if it’s correct; this game would have left a much wider vapor trail behind it if it was. Read in context in the original article, the figure actually comes across as a typo.

Riven was a huge hit by any conventional standard, but it didn’t have the legs of Myst. Already for long stretches during 1998, it was once again being comfortably outsold by Myst. Lifetime retail sales of around 1.5 million strike me as the most likely figure — still more than enough to place Riven in the upper echelon of late 1990s computer games.

Fans and boosters of the genre naturally wanted to see a broader trend in Riven’s sales, a proof that adventures in general could still bring home the bacon with the best of them. The hard truth that the games of Cyan were always uniquely uncoupled from what was going on around them was never harder to accept than in this case. In the end, though, Riven would have no impact whatsoever on the overall trajectory of the adventure genre.


Because Riven is a sequel in such a pure sense — a game that aims to do exactly what its predecessor did, only bigger and better — your reaction to it is doomed to be dictated to a large extent by your reaction to said predecessor. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine anyone liking or loving Riven who didn’t at least like Myst.

The defining quality of both games is their thoroughgoing sense of restraint. When Myst first started to attract sales and attention, naysayers saw its minimalism through the lens of technical affordance, or rather the Miller brothers’ lack thereof: having only off-the-shelf middleware like HyperCard to work with, lacking the skill set that might have let them create better tools of their own, they just had to do the best they could with what they had. In this reading, Myst‘s static world, its almost nonexistent user interface, its lack of even such niceties as a player inventory, stemmed not so much from aesthetic intent as from the fact that it had been created with a hypertext editor that had never been meant for making games. The alternative reading is that the Miller brothers were among the few game developers who knew the value of restraint from the start, that they were by nature and inclination minimalists in an industry inclined to maximalism in all things, and this quality was their greatest strength rather than a weakness. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, as it usually does. Regardless, there’s no denying that the brothers leaned hard into the same spirit of minimalism that had defined Myst when the time came to make Riven, even though they were now no longer technologically constrained into doing so. One camp reads this as a colossal failure of vision; the other reads it as merely staying true to the unique vision that had gotten them this far.

While I don’t want to plant myself too firmly in either corner, I must say that I am surprised by some of the things that Cyan didn’t do with twice the time and ten or fifteen times the budget. The fact that Riven still relies on static, pre-rendered scenery and node-based movement isn’t the source of my surprise; that compromise was necessary in order to achieve the visual fidelity that Cyan demanded. I’m rather surprised by how little Cyan innovated even within that basic framework. Well before Riven appeared, the makers of other Myst successors had begun to experiment with ways of creating a slightly more fluid, natural-feeling experience. Zork Nemesis, for example, stores each of its nodes as a 360-degree panorama instead of a set of fixed views, letting you smoothly turn in place through a complete circle. Riven, by contrast, confines its innovations in this area to displaying a little transition animation as you rotate between its rigidly fixed views. As a result, switching from view to view does become a little less jarring than it is in Myst, but the approach is far from even the Myst-clone state of the art.

Cyan was likewise disinterested in pursuing other solutions that would have been even easier to implement than panning rotation, but that could have made their game less awkward to play. The extent of your rotation when you click on the left or right side of the screen remains inconsistent, just as it was in Myst; sometimes it’s 90 degrees, sometimes it’s less or more. This can make simple navigation much more confusing than it needs to be, introducing a layer of fake difficulty — i.e., difficulties that you would not have if you were really in this world — which seems at odd with Cyan’s stated determination to create as immersive an experience as possible. Even a compass with which to tell which way you’re facing at any given time would have helped enormously, but no such concessions to player convenience are to hand.

Again, these are solutions that the other makers of Myst clones — not a group overly celebrated for its spirit of innovation — had long since deployed. Cyan was always a strangely self-contained entity, showing little awareness of what others were doing around them, making a virtue of their complete ignorance of the competition. In cases like these, it was perhaps not so much a virtue as a failure of simple due diligence. Building upon the work of others is the way that gaming as a whole progresses.

When it comes to storytelling as well, Riven’s differences from Myst are more a matter of execution than kind. As in Myst, there is very little story at all here, if by that we mean a foreground plot driving things along. A brief bit of exposition at the beginning picks up right where Myst ended, providing an excuse for dumping you into another open-ended environment. Whereas Myst took place entirely in deserted ages, here you’re ostensibly surrounded by the Rivenese, the vaguely Native-American-like inhabitants of the archipelago. Rather conveniently for Cyan, however, the Rivenese are terrified of strangers, and scurry away into hiding whenever you enter a scene. The few named characters you meet, including the principal villain, are likewise forever just leaving when you come upon them, or showing up, giving speeches, and then going away again before you can interact with them. By 1997, this sort of thing was feeling more tired than clever.

Rand Miller, returning in the role of the patriarch Atrus from Myst, gives you your marching orders and sends you on your way in the introductory movie. Riven makes more extensive use of such scenes involving real actors than Myst, but it’s done well, and never overdone. The end result is about as un-cheesy as these techniques can possibly look to modern eyes.

The real story, in both Myst and Riven, is the backstory that caused these spaces to become the places they are, a backstory which you uncover as you explore them. And in this area, I’m happy to say, Riven actually does outdo its predecessor. Almost everything there is to find out about how the ages of Myst became as they are is conveyed in one astonishingly clumsy infodump, a set of books which you find in a library on that first island after solving the first couple of puzzles. These stop your progress dead for an hour or so as you read through them, after which you’re back to exploring, never to be troubled by much of any exposition again.

By the time of Riven, however, the Miller brothers had learned about the existence of something called dramatic pacing. Here, too, most of the real story comes in the form of books and journals, but these are scattered around the islands, providing an enticement to solve puzzles in order to acquire and read them. The Myst “universe” grew considerably in depth and coherency between Myst and Riven, thanks to a trilogy of novels written by the British science-fiction author David Wingrove in close collaboration with the Miller brothers during that interim. In Riven, then, you get some of the same sense that you get in The Lord of the Rings, that you are only scraping the surface of a world that goes much deeper than its foreground sights and sounds. “The Lord of the Rings is so satisfying because of the details,” said Rand Miller at the time. “You get the feeling that the world you’re reading about is real. Different but real. That’s how we go about designing.” Like Tolkien, the Miller brothers went so far as to make up the beginnings at least of a coherent language for their land’s inhabitants. This sense of established lore, combined with the improved pacing and better writing, makes Riven’s backstory more compelling than that of Myst, makes uncovering more of it feel like a worthwhile goal in itself. Instead of providing a mere excuse for the gameplay, as in Myst, Riven’s backstory comes to fuel its gameplay to a large extent.

And this starts to take us into the territory of the first of the two things that Riven does really, really well, does so well in fact that you might just be willing to discount all of the failings I’ve been belaboring up to this point. The archipelago is a truly intriguing, even awe-inspiring place to explore, thanks not just to the cutting-edge 3D-rendering technology that was used to bring it to life, but — and even more so — the thought that went into the place.

Riven makes its priorities clear from the beginning, when it asks you to set up your screen and your speakers to provide the immersive audiovisual experience it intends for you to have.

The adjective “surreal” seems unavoidable when discussing Myst, so much so that Brøderbund built it right into their advertising tagline. (“The Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World.”) Looking back on it now, though, I realize that the surrealism of Myst was as much a product of process as intention. The 3D-modeling software that was used to create the scenery of Myst couldn’t render genuinely realistic scenes; everything it churned out was too geometrical, too stiff, too uniform in color to look in any sense real. The result was surrealism, that forlorn, otherworldly, even vaguely disturbing stripe of beauty that became the hallmark of Myst and its many imitators.

But I would not call Riven surreal. The improved technology that enabled it, on both the rendering side — meaning all those Silicon Graphics servers and workstations, with their complex ray-tracing algorithms — and the consumer-facing side — meaning the latest home computers, with their capability of displaying millions of nuanced shades of color onscreen at once — led to a more believable world. The key to it all is in the textures, the patterns that are overlaid onto the frame of a 3D model in lieu of blocks of solid color to make it look like a real object made out of wood, metal, or dirt. Cyan traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to capture thousands of textures. The same visual qualities that led to that state being dubbed the “Land of Enchantment” and drew artists like Georgia O’Keeffe to its high deserts suffuses the game, from the pueblo walls of the Rivenese homes to the pebbly cliff-side paths, from an old iron tower rusting in the sun to the ragged vegetation huddling around it. You can almost feel the sun on your back and the sweat on your skin.

My wife and I are inveterate hikers these days, planning most of our holidays around where we can get out and walk. Riven made me want to climb through the screen and roam its landscapes for myself. Myst has its charms, but they are nothing like this. When I compare the two games, I think about what a revelation the battered, weathered world of Tatooine was when Star Wars hit cinemas in 1977, how at odds it was with the antiseptic sleekness of the science-fiction films that preceded it. Riven is almost as much of a revelation when set beside Myst and its many clones.



The visuals both feed and are fed by the backstory and the world-building. The islands are replete with little details that have nothing to do with solving the game, that exist simply as natural, necessary parts of this place you’re exploring. In a perceptive video essay, YouTube creator VZedshows notes how “the lived-in world of Riven lets us look at a house and say, ‘Okay, that’s a house.’ And that’s it. A totally different thought than seeing a log cabin on Myst Island and saying, ‘Okay, that’s a house. But what is it for?’ The puzzles in Riven melt into the world around them.”

Which brings us neatly to the other thing that Riven does remarkably well, the one aimed at the gamers rather than the tourists. Quite simply, Riven is one of the most elegantly sophisticated puzzle games ever created. This facet of it is not for everyone. (I’m not even sure it’s for me, about which more in a moment.) But it does what it sets out to do uncompromisingly well. Riven is a puzzle game that doesn’t feel like a puzzle game. It rather feels like you really have been dropped onto this archipelago, with its foreign civilization and all of its foreign artifacts, and then left to your own devices to make sense of it all.

Many of Riven’s puzzles are as much anthropological as mechanical. For example, you have to learn to translate the different symbols of a foreign number system.

This is undoubtedly more realistic than the ages of Myst, whose puzzles stand out from their environs so plainly that they might as well be circled with a bright red Sharpie. But does it lead to a better game? As usual, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Ironically, almost everything that can be said about Riven’s puzzles can be cast as either a positive or a negative. If you’re looking for an adventure game that’s nails-hard and yet scrupulously fair — a combination that’s rarer than it ought to be — Riven will not disappoint you. If not, however, it will put you right off just as soon as you grow bored with idle wandering and begin to ask yourself what the game expects you to actually be doing. Myst was widely perceived in the 1990s as being more difficult than it really was; Riven, by contrast, well and truly earns its reputation.

Each of Myst’s ages is a little game unto itself when it comes to its puzzles; you never need to use tools or information from one age to overcome a problem in another one. For better or for worse, Riven is not like that — not at all. Puzzles and clues are scattered willy-nilly all over the five islands; you might be expected to connect a symbol you’re looking at now to a gadget you last poked at hours and hours ago. Careful, copious note-taking is the only practical way to proceed. I daresay you might end up spending more time poring over your real-world journal, looking for ways to combine and thereby to make sense of the data therein, than you do looking at the monitor screen. Because most of the geography is open to you from the very beginning — this is arguably Riven’s one real concession to the needs of the marketplace, being the one that allows it to cater to the tourists as well as the gamers — there isn’t the gated progress you get in so many other puzzly adventure games, with new areas and new problems being introduced gradually as you solve the earlier ones. No, Riven throws it all at you from the start, in one big lump. You just have to keep plugging away at it when even your apparently successful deductions don’t seem to be yielding much in the way of concrete rewards, trusting that it will all come together in one big whoosh at the end.

All of which is to say that Riven is a slow game, the polar opposite of the instant gratification that defines the videogame medium in the eyes of so many. There are few shortcuts for moving through its sprawling, fragmented geography — something you’ll need to do a lot of, thanks to its refusal to contain its puzzles within smaller areas as Myst does. Just double-checking some observation you think you made earlier or confirming that some effect took place as expected represents a significant investment in time. Back in the day, when everyone was playing directly from CD, Riven was even slower than it is today, requiring you to swap discs every time you traveled to a different island.[2]Some months after its original release, Riven became one of the first games ever to be made available on DVD-ROM. No game benefited more from the switch in storage technology; not only were DVD drives faster than CD drives, but a single DVD disc was capacious enough to contain the whole of Riven. In his vintage 1997 review, Andrew Plotkin — a fellow who is without a doubt much, much smarter than I am, at least when it comes to stuff like this — said that he was able to solve Riven in about twenty hours, using just one hint. It will probably take more mortal intelligences some multiple of one or both of those figures.

Your reaction to Riven when approached in “gamer” mode will depend on whether you think this kind of intensive intellectual challenge is fun or not, as well as whether you have the excess intellectual and temporal bandwidth in your current life to go all-in on such a major undertaking. I must sheepishly confess that my answer to the first question is more prevaricating than definitive, while my answer to the second one is a pretty solid no. In the abstract, I do understand the appeal of what Riven is offering, understand how awesome it must feel to put all of these disparate pieces together without help. Nevertheless, when I approached the game for this article, I couldn’t quite find the motivation to persevere down that road. Riven wants you to work a little harder for your fun than the current version of myself is willing to do. I don’t futz around with my notebook too long before I start looking out the window and thinking about how nice it would be to take a walk in real nature. I take enough notes doing research for the articles I write; I’m not sure I want to do so much research inside a game.

Prompted partially by my experience with Riven, I’ve been musing a fair amount lately about the way we receive games, and especially how the commentary you read on this site and others similar to it can be out of step with the way the games in question existed for their players in their heyday. I’m subject to the tyranny of my editorial calendar, to the need to just finish things, one way or another, and move on. Riven is not well-suited to such a mindset. In my travels around the Internet, I’ve noticed that those who remember the game most fondly often took months or years to finish it, or never finished it at all. It existed for them as a tempting curiosity, to be picked up from time to time and poked at, just to see if a little more progress was possible here or there, or whether the brainstorm that came to them unbidden while driving home from work that day might bear some sort of fruit. It’s an open question whether even folks who don’t have an editorial schedule to keep can recapture that mindset here and now, in the third decade (!) of the 21st century, when more entertainment of every conceivable type than any of us could possibly consume in a lifetime is constantly luring us away from any such hard nut as Riven. As of this writing, Cyan is preparing a remake of Riven. It will be interesting to see what concessions, if any, they chose to make to our new reality.

Even in the late 1990s, there was the palpable sense that Riven represented the end of an era, that even Cyan would not be able to catch lightning in a bottle a third time with yet another cerebral, contemplative, zeitgeist-stamping single-player puzzle game. Both Richard Vander Wende and Robyn Miller quit the company as soon as the obligatory rounds of promotional interviews had been completed, leaving the Myst franchise’s future solely in the hands of Rand Miller. Robyn’s stated reason for departing brings to the fore some of the frustrations I have with Cyan’s work. He said that he was most interested in telling stories, and had concluded that computer games just weren’t any good at that: “I felt like, you know what? It’s not working. This whole story thing is not happening, and one of the reasons it’s not happening is because of the medium. It’s not what this medium is good at.” So, he said, he wanted to work in film instead.

The obvious response is that Cyan had never actually tried to tell an engaging foreground story, had rather been content to leave you always picking up the breadcrumbs of backstory. Cyan’s stubborn conservatism in terms of form and their slightly snooty insistence on living in their own hermetically sealed bubble, blissfully unaware of the innovations going on around them in their industry in both storytelling and other aspects of game making, strike me as this unquestionably talented group’s least attractive qualities by far. When asked once what his favorite games were, Richard Vander Wende said he didn’t have any: “Robyn and I are not really interested in games of any kind. We’re more interested in building worlds. To us, Myst and Riven are not ‘games’ at all.” Such scare-quoted condescension does no one any favors.

Then again, that’s only one way of looking at it. Another way is to recognize that Riven is exactly the game — okay, if you like, the world — that its creators wanted to make. It’s worth acknowledging, even celebrating, as the brave artistic statement it is. Love it or hate it, Riven knows what it wants to be, and succeeds in being exactly that — no more, no less. Rather than The Lord of the Rings, call it the Ulysses of gaming: a daunting creation by any standard, but one that can be very rewarding to those willing and able to meet it where it lives. That a game like this outsold dozens of its more visceral, immediate rivals on the store shelves of the late 1990s is surely one of the wonders of the age.



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Sources: The books The Secret History of Mac Gaming (Expanded Edition) by Richard Moss, From Myst to Riven: The Creations & Inspirations by Richard Kadrey, and Riven: The Sequel to Myst: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Computer Gaming World of January 1998; Retro Gamer 208; Wired of September 1997; Game Developer of March 1998. Plus the “making of” documentary that was included with the DVD version of Riven.

Online sources include GameSpot’s old preview of Riven, Salon’s profile of the Miller brothers on the occasion of Robyn’s departure from Cyan, VZedshows’s video essay on Myst and Riven, and Andrew Plotkin’s old review of Riven.

The original version of Riven is currently available as a digital purchase on GOG.com. As noted in the article above, a remake is in the works at Cyan.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 An article in the May 17 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times claimed that Riven had sold 4.5 million copies by that point, three and a half years after its release. This number has since been repeated in numerous places, including Wikipedia. I’ll eat my hat if it’s correct; this game would have left a much wider vapor trail behind it if it was. Read in context in the original article, the figure actually comes across as a typo.

Riven was a huge hit by any conventional standard, but it didn’t have the legs of Myst. Already for long stretches during 1998, it was once again being comfortably outsold by Myst. Lifetime retail sales of around 1.5 million strike me as the most likely figure — still more than enough to place Riven in the upper echelon of late 1990s computer games.

2 Some months after its original release, Riven became one of the first games ever to be made available on DVD-ROM. No game benefited more from the switch in storage technology; not only were DVD drives faster than CD drives, but a single DVD disc was capacious enough to contain the whole of Riven.
 

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