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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

The Mortgaging of Sierra Online

The Sierra Online of the 1980s and very early 1990s excelled at customer relations perhaps more than anything else. Through the tours of their offices (which they offered to anyone who cared to make the trip to rural Oakhurst, California), the newsletter they published (which always opened with a folksy editorial from their founder and leader Ken Williams), and their habit of grouping their games into well-delineated series with predictable content, they fostered a sense of loyalty and even community which other game makers, not least their arch-rivals over at LucasArts, couldn’t touch — this even though the actual games of LucasArts tended to be much better in design terms. Here we see some of the entrants in a Leisure Suit Larry lookalike contest sponsored by Sierra. (Yes, two of the contestants do seem suspiciously young to have played a series officially targeted at those 18 and older.) Sadly, community-building exercise like these would become increasingly rare as the 1990s wore on and Sierra took on a different, more impersonal air. This article will chronicle the beginning of those changes.

“The computer-game industry has become the interactive-entertainment industry.”

— Ken Williams, 1992

Another even-numbered year, another King’s Quest game. Such had been the guiding rhythm of life at Sierra Online since 1986, and 1992 was to be no exception. Why should it be? Each of the last several King’s Quest installments had sold better than the one before, as the series had cultivated a reputation as the premier showcase of bleeding-edge computer entertainment. Once again, then, Sierra was prepared to pull out all the stops for King’s Quest VI, prepared to push its development budget to $1 million and beyond.

This time around, however, there were some new and worrisome tensions. Roberta Williams, Sierra’s star designer, whose name was inseparable from that of King’s Quest itself in the minds of the public, was getting a little tired of playing the Queen of Daventry for the nation’s schoolchildren. She had another, entirely different game she wanted to make, a sequel to her 1989 mystery starring the 1920s girl detective Laura Bow. So, a compromise was reached. Roberta would do Laura Bow in… The Dagger of Amon Ra and King’s Quest VI simultaneously by taking a sort of “executive designer” role on both projects, turning over the nitty-gritty details to assistant designers.

Thus for the all-important King’s Quest VI, Sierra brought over Jane Jensen, who was fresh off the task of co-designing the rather delightful educational adventure EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus with Gano Haine. Roberta Williams described her working relationship with her new partner in a contemporary interview, striking a tone that was perhaps a bit more condescending than it really needed to be in light of Jensen’s previous experience, and that was oddly disparaging toward Sierra’s other designers to boot:

I took on a co-designer for a couple of reasons: I wanted to train Jane because I didn’t want Sierra to be dependent on me. Someone else needs to know how to do a “proper” adventure game. We’re all doing a good job from a technology standpoint, but not on design. In my opinion, the best way to learn it properly is side by side. Overall, it was a positive experience, and it was very good for the series because Jane brought in some new ideas. She learned a lot, too, and can take what she’s learned to help create her new games.

There’s something of a consensus among fans today that the result of this collaboration is the best overall King’s Quest of them all. This strikes me as a fair judgment. While it’s not a great adventure game by any means, King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow isn’t an outright poor one either in terms of writing or design, and this is sufficient for it to clear the low bar of the previous games in the series. The plot is still reliant on fairy-tale clichés: a princess imprisoned in a tower, a prince who sets out to rescue her, a kingdom in turmoil around them. Yet the writing itself is more textured and coherent this time around, the implementation is far more complete (most conceivable actions yield custom messages of some sort in response), the puzzles are generally more reasonable, and it’s considerably more difficult than it was in the earlier games to wander into a walking-dead situation without knowing it. Evincing a spirit of mercy toward its players of a sort that Sierra wasn’t usually known for, it even has a branching point where you can choose from an easier or a harder pathway to the end of the game. And when you do get to the final scene, there are over a dozen possible variants of the ending movie, depending on the choices you’ve made along the way. Again, this degree of design ambition — as opposed to audiovisual ambition — was new to the series at the time.

The fans often credit this relative improvement completely to Jensen’s involvement. And this judgment as well, unkind though it is toward Roberta Williams, is not entirely unfounded, even if it should be tempered by the awareness that Jensen’s own later games for Sierra would all have significant design issues of their own. Many of the flaws that so constantly dogged Roberta’s games in particular were down to her insistence on working at a remove from the rest of the people making them. Her habit was to type up a design document on her computer at home, then give it to the development team with instructions to “call if you have any questions.” For all practical purposes, she had thus been working as an “executive designer” long before she officially took on that role with King’s Quest VI. This method of working tended to result in confusion and ultimately in far too much improvisation on the part of her teams. Combined with Sierra’s overarching disinterest in seeking substantive feedback from players during the development process, it was disastrous more often than not to the finished product. But when the time came for King’s Quest VI, Jane Jensen was able to alleviate at least some of the problems simply by being in the same room with the rest of the team every day. It may seem unbelievable that this alone was sufficient to deliver a King’s Quest that was so markedly better than any of the others — but, again, it just wasn’t a very high bar to clear.

For all that it represented a welcome uptick in terms of design, Sierra’s real priority for King’s Quest VI was, as always for the series, to make it look and sound better than any game before. They were especially proud of the opening movie, which they outsourced to a real Hollywood animation studio to create on cutting-edge graphics workstations. When it was delivered to Sierra’s offices, the ten-minute sequence filled a well-nigh incomprehensible 1.2 GB on disk. It would have to be cut down to two minutes and 6 MB for the floppy-disk-based release of the game. (It would grow again to six minutes and 60 MB for the later CD-ROM release.) A real showstopper in its day, it serves today to illustrate how Sierra’s ambitions to be a major media player were outrunning their aesthetic competencies; even the two-minute version manages to come off as muddled and overlong, poorly framed and poorly written. In its time, though, it doubtless served its purpose as a graphics-and-sound showcase, as did the game that followed it.

My favorite part of the much-vaunted King’s Quest VI introductory movie are the sailors that accompany Prince Alexander on his quest to rescue Princess Cassima. All sailors look like pirates, right?

A more amusing example of the company’s media naiveté is the saga of the King’s Quest VI theme song. Sierra head Ken Williams, who like many gaming executives of the period relished any and all linkages between games and movies, came up with the idea of including a pop song in the game that could become a hit on the radio, a “Glory of Love” or “I Will Always Love You” for his industry. Sierra’s in-house music man Mark Seibert duly delivered a hook-less dirge of a “love theme” with the distressingly literal title of “Girl in the Tower,” then hired an ersatz Michael Bolton and Celine Dion to over-emote it wildly. Then, Sierra proceeded to carpet-bomb the nation’s radio stations with CD singles of the song, whilst including an eight-page pamphlet in every copy of the game with the phone numbers for all of the major radio stations and a plea to call in and request it. Enough of Sierra’s loyal young fans did so that many a program director called Ken in turn to complain about his supremely artificial “grass-roots” marketing strategy. His song was terrible, they told him (correctly), and sometimes issued vague legal threats regarding obscure Federal Communications Commission laws he was supposedly violating. Finally, Ken agreed to pull the pamphlet from future King’s Quest VI boxes and accept that he wasn’t going to become a music as well as games impresario. Good Taste 1, Sierra 0. Rather hilariously, he was still grousing about the whole episode years later: “In my opinion, the radio stations were the criminals for ignoring their customers, something I believe no business should ever do. Oh, well… the song was great.”

The girl in the tower. Pray she doesn’t start singing…

While King’s Quest VI didn’t spawn a hit single, it did become a massive hit in its own right by the more modest sales standards of the computer-games industry. In fact, it became the first computer game in history to be certified gold by the Software Publishers Association — 100,000 copies sold — before it had even shipped, thanks to a huge number of pre-orders. Released in mid-October of 1992, it was by far the hottest game in the industry that Christmas, with Sierra struggling just to keep up with demand. Estimates of its total sales vary widely, but it seems likely that it sold 300,000 copies in all at a minimum, and quite possibly as many as 500,000 copies.

But for all its immediate success, King’s Quest VI was a mildly frustrating project for Sierra in at least one way. Everyone there agreed that this game, more so than any of the others they had made before, was crying out for CD-ROM, but too few consumers had CD-ROM drives in their computers in 1992 to make it worthwhile to ship the game first in that format. So, it initially shipped on nine floppy disks instead. Once decompressed onto a player’s hard drive, it filled over 17 MB — this at a time when 40 MB was still a fairly typical hard-disk size even on brand-new computers. Sierra recommended that players delete the 6 MB opening movie from their hard disks after watching it a few times just to free up some space. With stopgap solutions like this in play, there was a developing sense that something had to give, and soon. Peter Spears, author of an official guide to the entire King’s Quest series, summed up the situation thusly:

King’s Quest VI represents a fin de siecle, the end of an era. It is a game that should have been — needed to be — first published on CD-ROM. For all of its strengths and gloss, it is ill-served being played from a hard drive. If only because of its prominence in the world of computer entertainment, King’s Quest VI is proof that the era of CD playing is upon us.

Why? It is because imagination has no limits, and current hardware does. There are other games proving this point today, but King’s Quest has always been the benchmark. It is the end of one era, and when it is released on CD near the beginning of next year, it should be the beginning of another. Kill your hard drives!

Sierra had been evangelizing for CD-ROM for some time by this point, just as they earlier had for the graphics cards and sound cards that had transformed MS-DOS computers from dull things suitable only for running boring business applications into the only game-playing computers that really mattered in the United States. But, as with those earlier technologies, consumer uptake of CD-ROM had been slower than Sierra, chomping at the bit to use it, would have liked.

Thankfully, then, 1993 was the year when CD-ROM, a technology which had been around for almost a decade by that point, finally broke through; this was the year when the hardware became cheap enough and the selection of software compelling enough to power a new wave of multimedia excitement which swept across the world of computing. As with those graphics cards and sound cards earlier on, Sierra’s relentless prodding doubtless played a significant role in this newfound consumer acceptance of CD-ROM. And not least among the prods was the CD-ROM version of King’s Quest VI, which boasted lusher graphics in many places and voices replacing text absolutely everywhere. The voice acting marked a welcome improvement over the talkie version of King’s Quest V, the only previous game in the series to get a release on CD-ROM. The fifth game had apparently been voiced by whoever happened to be hanging around the office that day, with results that were almost unlistenably atrocious. King’s Quest VI, on the other hand, got a professional cast, headed by Robby Benson, who had just played the Beast in the hit Disney cartoon of Beauty and the Beast, in the role of Prince Alexander, the protagonist. Although Sierra could all too often still seem like babes in the woods when it came to media aesthetics, they were slowly learning on at least some fronts.

In the meantime, they could look to the bottom line of CD-ROM uptake with satisfaction. They shipped just 13 percent of their products on CD-ROM in 1992; in 1993, that number rose to 36 percent. Already by the end of that year, they had initiated their first projects that were earmarked only for CD-ROM. The dam had burst; the floppy disk was soon to be a thing of the past as a delivery medium for games.

This ought to have been a moment of unabashed triumph for Sierra in more ways than one. Back in the mid-1980s, when the company had come within a whisker of being pulled under by the Great Home Computer Crash, Ken Williams had decided, against the conventional wisdom of the time, that the long-term future of consumer computing lay with the operating systems of Microsoft and the open hardware architecture inadvertently spawned by the original IBM PC. He’d stuck to his guns ever since; while Sierra did release some of their games for other computer platforms, they were always afterthoughts, mere ways to earn a little extra money while waiting for the real future to arrive. And now that future had indeed arrived; Ken Williams had been proved right. The monochrome cargo vans of 1985 had improbably become the multimedia sports cars of 1993, all whilst sticking to the same basic software and hardware architecture.

And yet Ken was feeling more doubtful than triumphant. While he remained convinced that CDs were the future of game delivery, he was no longer so convinced that MS-DOS was the only platform that mattered. On the contrary, he was deeply concerned by the fact that, while MS-DOS-based computers had evolved enormously in terms of graphics and sound and sheer processing power, they remained as cryptically hard to use as ever. Just installing and configuring one of his company’s latest games required considerable technical skill. His ambition, as he told anyone who would listen, was to build Sierra into a major purveyor of mainstream entertainment. Could he really do that on MS-DOS? Yes, Microsoft Windows was out there as well — in fact, it was exploding in popularity, to the point that it was already becoming hard to find productivity software that wasn’t Windows-based. But Windows had its own fair share of quirks, and wasn’t really designed for running high-performance games under any circumstances.

Even as MS-DOS and Windows thus struggled with issues of affordability, approachability, and user-friendliness in the context of games, new CD-based alternatives to traditional computers were appearing almost by the month. NEC and Sega were selling CD drives as add-ons for their TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis game consoles; Philips had something called CD-i; Commodore had CDTV; Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, had split away from his old company to found 3DO; even Tandy was pushing a free-standing CD-based platform called the VIS. All of these products were designed to be easy for ordinary consumers to operate in all the ways a personal computer wasn’t, and they were all designed to fit into the living room rather than the back office. In short, they looked and operated like mainstream consumer electronics, while personal computers most definitely still did not.

But even if one assumed that platforms like these were the future of consumer multimedia, as Ken Williams was sorely tempted to do, which one or two would win out to become the standard? The situation was oddly similar to that which had faced software makers like Sierra back in the early 1980s, when the personal-computer marketplace had been fragmented into more than a dozen incompatible platforms. Yet the comparison only went so far: development costs for the multimedia software of the early 1990s were vastly higher, and so the stakes were that much higher as well.

Nevertheless, Ken Williams decided that the only surefire survival strategy for Sierra was to become a presence on most if not all of the new platforms. Just as MS-DOS had finally, undeniably won the day in the field of personal computers, Sierra would ironically abandon their strict allegiance to computers in general. Instead, they would now pledge their fealty to CDs in the abstract. For Ken had grander ambitions than just being a major player on the biggest computing platform; he wanted to be a major player in entertainment, full stop. “Sierra is an entertainment company, not a software company,” he said over and over.

So, at no inconsiderable expense, Ken instituted projects to port the SCI engine that ran Sierra’s adventure games to most of the other extant platforms that used CDs as their delivery medium. In doing so, however, he once again ran into a problem that Sierra and other game developers of the early 1980s, struggling to port their wares to the many incompatible platforms of that period, had become all too familiar with: the fact that every platform had such different strengths and weaknesses in terms of interface, graphics, sound, memory, and processing potential. Just because a platform of the early 1990s could accept software distributed on CD didn’t mean it could satisfactorily run all of the same games as an up-to-date personal computer with a CD-ROM drive installed. Corey Cole, who along with his wife Lori Ann Cole made up Sierra’s most competent pair of game designers at the time, but who was nevertheless pulled away from his design role to program a port of the SCI engine to the Sega Genesis with CD drive:

The Genesis CD system was essentially identical to the Genesis except for the addition of the CD. It had inadequate memory for huge games such as the ones Sierra made, and it could only display 64 colors at a time from a 512 color palette. Sierra games at the time used 256 colors at a time from a 262,144 color palette. So the trick became how to make Sierra games look good in a much smaller color space.

Genesis CD did supply some tricks that could be used to fake an expanded color space, and I set out to use those. The problem was that the techniques I used required a lot of memory, and the memory space on the Genesis was much smaller than we expected on PCs at the time. One of the first things I did was to put a memory check in the main SCI processing loop that would warn me if we came close to running out of memory. I knew it would be close.

Sierra assigned a programmer from the Dynamix division to work with me. He had helped convert Willy Beamish to the Genesis CD, so he understood the system requirements well. However, he unintentionally sabotaged the project. In his early tests, my low-memory warning kicked in, so he disabled it. Six months later, struggling with all kinds of random problems (the hard-to-impossible kind to fix), I discovered that the memory check was disabled. When I turned it back on, I learned that the random bugs were all caused by insufficient memory. Basically, Sierra games were too big to fit on the Genesis CD, and there was very little we could do to shoehorn them in. With the project now behind schedule, and the only apparent solution being a complete rewrite of SCI to use a smaller memory footprint, Sierra management cancelled the project.

While Corey Cole spun his wheels in this fashion, Lori Ann Cole was forced to design most of Quest for Glory III alone, at significant cost to this latest iteration in what had been Sierra’s most creative and compelling adventure series up to that point.

The push to move their games to consoles also cost Sierra in the more literal sense of dollars and cents, and in the end they got absolutely no return for their investment. Some of the porting projects, like the one on which Corey worked, were abandoned when the target hardware proved itself not up to the task of running games designed for cutting-edge personal computers. Others were rendered moot when the entire would-be consumer-electronics category of multimedia set-top boxes for the living room — a category that included CD-i, CDTV, 3DO, and VIS — flopped one and all. (Radio Shack employees joked that the VIS acronym stood for “Virtually Impossible to Sell.”) In the end, King’s Quest VI never came out in any versions except those for personal computers. Ken Williams’s dream of conquering the living room, like that of conquering the radio waves, would never come to fruition.

The money Sierra wasted on the fruitless porting projects were far from the only financial challenge they faced at the dawn of the CD era in gaming. For all that everyone at the company had chafed against the restrictions of floppy disks, those same restrictions had, by capping the amount of audiovisual assets one could practically include in a game, acted as a restraint on escalating development budgets. With CD-ROM, all bets were off in terms of how big a game could become. Sierra felt themselves to be in a zero-sum competition with the rest of their industry to deliver ever more impressive, ever more “cinematic” games that utilized the new storage medium to its full potential. The problem, of course, was that such games cost vastly more money to make.

It was a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Ken Williams was convinced that games had the potential to appeal to a broader demographic and thus sell in far greater numbers than ever before in this new age of CD-ROM. Yet to reach that market he first had to pay for the development of these stunning new games. Therein lay the rub. If this year’s games cost less to make but also come with a much lower sales cap than next year’s games, the old financial model — that of using the revenue generated by this year’s games to pay for next year’s — doesn’t work anymore. Yet to scale back one’s ambitions for next year’s games means to potentially miss out on the greatest gold rush in the history of computer gaming to date.

As if these pressures weren’t enough, Sierra was also facing the slow withering of what used to be another stable source of revenue: their back catalog. In 1991, titles released during earlier years accounted for fully 60 percent of their sales; in 1992, that number shrank to 48 percent, and would only keep falling from there. In this new multimedia age, driven by audiovisuals above all else, games that were more than a year or two old looked ancient. People weren’t buying them, and stores weren’t interested in stocking them. (Another chicken-or-the-egg situation…) This forced a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality toward development, increasing that much more the perceived need to make every game look and sound spectacular, while also instilling a countervailing need to release it quickly, before it started to look outdated. Sierra had long been in the habit of amortizing their development costs for tax and other accounting purposes: i.e., mortgaging the cost of making each game against its future revenue. Now, as the size of these mortgages soared, this practice created still more pressure to release each game in the quarter to which the accountants had earmarked it. None of this was particularly conducive to the creation of good, satisfying games.

At first blush, one might be tempted to regard what came next as just more examples of the same types of problems that had always dogged Sierra’s output. Ken Williams had long failed to instill the culture and processes that consistently lead to good design, which had left well-designed games as the exception rather than the rule even during the company’s earlier history. Now, though, things reached a new nadir, as Sierra began to ship games that were not just poorly designed but blatantly unfinished. Undoubtedly the most heartbreaking victim of these pressures was Quest for Glory IV, Corey and Lori Ann Cole’s would-be magnum opus, which shipped on December 31, 1993 — the last day of the fiscal quarter to which it had been earmarked — in a truly woeful condition, so broken it wasn’t even possible to complete it. Another sorry example was Outpost, a sort of SimCity in space that was rendered unplayable by bugs. And an even worse one was Alien Legacy, an ambitious attempt to combine strategy with adventure gaming in a manner reminiscent of Cryo Interactive’s surprisingly effective adaptation of Dune. We’ll never know how well Sierra’s take on the concept would have worked because, once again, it shipped unfinished and essentially unplayable.

Each of these games had had real potential if they had only been allowed to realize it. One certainly didn’t need to be an expert in marketing or anything else to see how profoundly unwise it was in the long run to release them in such a state. While each of them met an arbitrary accounting deadline, thus presumably preventing some red ink in one quarter, Sierra sacrificed long-term profits on the altar of this short-term expediency: word quickly got around among gamers that the products were broken, and even many of those who were unfortunate enough to buy them before they got the word wound up returning them. That Sierra ignored such obvious considerations and shoved the games out the door anyway speaks to the pressures that come to bear as soon as a company goes public, as Sierra had done in 1988. Additionally, and perhaps more ominously, it speaks to an increasing disconnect between management and the people making the actual products.

Through it all, Ken Williams, who seemed almost frantic not to miss out on what he regarded as the inflection point for consumer software, was looking to expand his empire, looking to make Sierra known for much more than adventure games. In fact, he had already begun that process in early 1990, when Sierra acquired Dynamix, a development house notable for their 3D-graphics technology, for $1 million in cash and some stock shenanigans. That gambit had paid off handsomely; Dynamix’s World War II flight simulator Aces of the Pacific became Sierra’s second biggest hit of 1992, trailing only the King’s Quest VI juggernaut whilst — and this was important to Ken — appealing to a whole different demographic from their adventure games. In addition to their flight simulators, Dynamix also spawned a range of other demographically diverse hits over this period, from The Incredible Machine to Front Page Sports: Football.

With a success story like that in his back pocket, it was time for Ken to go shopping again. In July of 1992, Sierra acquired Bright Star Technology, a Bellevue, Washington-based specialist in educational software, for $1 million. Ken was convinced that educational software, a market that had grown only in fits and starts during earlier years, would become massive during the multimedia age, and he was greatly enamored with Bright Star’s founder, a real bright spark himself named Elon Gasper. “He thinks, therefore he is paid,” was Ken’s description of Gasper’s new role inside the growing Sierra. Bright Star also came complete with some innovative technology they had developed for syncing recorded voices to the mouths of onscreen characters — perhaps not the first problem one thinks of when contemplating a CD-ROM-based talkie of an adventure game, but one which quickly presents itself when the actual work begins. King’s Quest VI became the first Sierra game to make use of it; it was followed by many others.

Meanwhile Bright Star themselves would deliver a steady stream of slick, educator-approved learning software over the years to come. Less fortunately, the acquisition did lead to the sad demise of Sierra’a in-house “Discovery Series” of educational products, which had actually yielded some of their best designed and most creative games of any stripe during the very early 1990s. Now, the new acquisition would take over responsibility for a “second, more refined generation of educational products,” as Sierra’s annual report put it. But in addition to being more refined — more rigorously compliant with established school curricula and the latest pedagogical theories — they would also be just a little bit boring in contrast to the likes of The Castle of Dr. Brain. Such is the price of progress.

Sierra’s third major acquisition of the 1990s was more complicated, more expensive, and more debatable than the first two had been. On October 29, 1993, they bought the French developer and publisher Coktel Vision for $4.6 million. Coktel had been around since 1985, unleashing upon European gamers such indelibly (stereotypically?) French creations as Emmanuelle: A Game of Eroticism, based on a popular series of erotic novels and films. But by the early 1990s, Coktel was doing the lion’s share of their business in educational software. In 1992, estimates were that 50 to 75 percent of the software found in French schools came from Coktel. The character known as Adi, the star of their educational line, is remembered to this day by a whole generation of French schoolchildren.

Sierra had cut a deal more than a year before the acquisition to begin distributing Coktel’s games in the United States, and had made a substantial Stateside success out of Gobliiins, a vaguely Lemmings-like puzzle game. That proof of concept, combined with Coktel’s educational line and distributional clout in Europe — Ken was eager to enter that sprawling market, where Sierra heretofore hadn’t had much of a footprint — convinced the founder to pull the trigger.

But this move would never quite pan out as he had hoped. Although the text and voices were duly translated, the cultural idiom of Adi just didn’t seem to make sense to American children. Meanwhile Coktel’s games, which mashed together disparate genres like adventure and simulation with the same eagerness with which they mashed together disparate presentation technologies like full-motion video and 3D graphics, encountered all the commercial challenges that French designs typically ran into in the United States. Certainly few Americans knew what to make of a game like Inca; it took place in the far future of an alternate history where the ancient Incan civilization had survived, conquered, and taken to the stars, where they continued to battle, Wing Commander-style, with interstellar Spanish galleons. (The phrase “what were they smoking?” unavoidably comes to mind…) Today, the games of Coktel are remembered by American players, if they’re remembered at all, mostly for the sheer bizarreness of premises like this one, married to puzzles that make the average King’s Quest game seem like a master class in good adventure design. Coktel’s European distribution network undoubtedly proved more useful to Sierra than the company’s actual games, but it’s doubtful whether even it was useful to the tune of $4.6 million.

Inca, one of the strangest games Sierra ever published — and not really in a good way.

Ken Williams was playing for keeps in a high-stakes game with all of these moves, as he continued to do as well with ImagiNation, a groundbreaking, genuinely visionary online service, oriented toward socializing and playing together, which stubbornly refused to turn a profit. All together, the latest moves constituted a major shift in strategy from the conservative, incrementalist approach that had marked his handling of Sierra since the company’s near-death experience of the mid-1980s. From 1987 — the year the recovering patient first managed to turn a profit again — through 1991, Sierra had sold more games and made more money each year. The first of those statements held true for 1992 as well, as sales increased from $43 million to within a whisker of $50 million. But profits fell off a cliff; Sierra lost almost $12.5 million that year alone. Sales increased impressively again in 1993, to $59.5 million. Yet, although the bottom line looked less ugly, it remained all too red thanks to all of the ongoing spending; the company lost another $4.5 million that year.

In short, Ken Williams was now mortgaging Sierra’s present against its future, in precisely the way he’d sworn he’d never do again during those dark days of 1984 and 1985. But he felt he had to make his play for the big time now or never; CD-ROM was a horse he just had to ride, hopefully all the way to the nerve center of Western pop culture. And so he did something else he’d sworn he would never do: he left Oakhurst, California. In September of 1993, Ken and Roberta and select members of Sierra’s management team moved to Bellevue, Washington, to set up a new “corporate headquarters” there; sales and marketing would gradually follow over the months to come. Ken had long been under pressure from his board to move to a major city, one where it would be easier to recruit a “first-rate management team” to lead Sierra into a bold new future. Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle that was close to Microsoft, Nintendo of America, and of course Sierra’s own new subsidiary of Bright Star, seemed as good a choice as any. Ken promised Sierra’s creative staff as well as their fans that nothing would really change: most of the games would still be made in the cozy confines of Oakhurst. And he spoke the truth —  at least in literal terms, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, something had changed. The old dream of starting a software company in the woods, the one which had brought a much younger, much shaggier Ken and Roberta to Oakhurst in 1980, had in some very palpable sense run its course. Sierra had well and truly gone corporate; Ken and Roberta were back in the world they had so consciously elected to escape thirteen years before. Oh, well… the arrows of both revenue and profitability at Sierra were pointing in the right direction. One more year, Ken believed, and they ought to be in the black again, and in a stronger position in the marketplace than ever at that. Chalk the rest of it up as yet one more price of progress.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, Spring 1994, and Fall 1994; The One of April 1989; ACE of May 1989; Game Players PC Entertainment of Holiday 1992; Compute! of May 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1992; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. An online source was the Games Nostalgia article on King’s Quest VI. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.)

 

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Sam and Max Hit the Road

Day of the Tentacle wasn’t the only splendid adventure game which LucasArts released in 1993. Some five months after that classic, just in time for Christmas, they unveiled Sam & Max Hit the Road.

At first glance, the two games may seem disarmingly, even dismayingly similar; Sam and Max is yet another cartoon comedy in an oeuvre fairly bursting with the things. Look a little harder, though, and some pronounced differences in the two games’ personalities quickly start to emerge. Day of the Tentacle is clever and funny in a mildly subversive but family-friendly way, very much of a piece with the old Warner Bros. cartoons its aesthetic presentation so consciously emulates. Sam & Max, however, is something else entirely, more in tune with an early 1990s wave of boundary-pushing prime-time cartoons for an older audience — think The Simpsons and Beavis & Butt-Head — than the Saturday morning reels of yore. Certainly there are no life lessons to be derived herein; steeped in postmodern cynicism, this game has a moral foundation that is, as its principal creator once put, “built on quicksand.” Yet it has a saving grace: it’s really, really funny. If anything, it’s even funnier than Day of the Tentacle, which is quite a high bar to clear. This is a game with some real bite to it — and I’m not just talking about the prominent incisors on Max, the violently unhinged rabbit who so often steals the show.

Max’s partner Sam is a modestly more stable Irish wolfhound in a rumpled three-piece suit who walks and talks like a cross between Joe Friday and Maxwell Smart. Together, the two of them solve crimes in the tradition of hard-bitten detectives like Sam Spade. Or, as Sam the dog prefers to put it, they’re “freelance police,” working “to protect the rights of all those whose rights seem to require protecting at whatever particular time seems appropriate or convenient to all involved parties.” As for Max, he just likes to beat, blow, shoot, and generally eff stuff up.

Sam and Max first made their names as the stars of an indie comic book, and carried a certain indie sensibility with them when they strolled onto our monitor screens. The safe suburban world of gaming had never seen anything quite like this duo — boldly but also smartly written, aggressively confrontational, and absolutely hilarious as they wandered a landscape built out of junk media and decrepit Americana.

This not-so-cuddly duo of anthropomorphized animals was the brainchild of one Steve Purcell, a San Francisco artist who invented them with a little help from his brother while both were still children. When he enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts circa 1980, he started drawing them for the student newspaper there. They fell by the wayside, however, when Purcell graduated and started taking work as an independent illustrator wherever he could find it, drawing everything from computer-game boxes to Marvel comics.

While Purcell was making ends meet thusly, a friend of his named Steve Moncuse was enjoying considerable buzz within the San Francisco hipster scene for his self-published series of Fish Police comics, which bore some obvious conceptual similarities to Sam and Max. Eager to add some mammals to his stable of marine investigators, Moncuse convinced Purcell to make a full-fledged Sam & Max comic book for his own Fishwrap Productions. “I had never written, penciled, and inked my own comic book before that,” remembers Purcell — but he was up for the challenge. In 1987, the first issue of Sam & Max: Freelance Police was published, containing two stories in its 32 pages. Over the next six years or so, more showcases for the animal detectives appeared intermittently under a variety of formats and imprints, whenever Purcell could spare enough time from his paying gigs — there was very little money at all in independent comics — to draw them. By 1993, their scattered canon was enough to fill perhaps half a dozen traditional comic books.

Said canon was marked not only by conventional comics storytelling — if anything involving the pair could ever be described as conventional — but also by a number of more interactive “activities” for the reader: Sam and Max paper dolls, puppets, etc., all sketchily described and sketchily implemented in cheap black-and-white newsprint. (The sketchiness of it all was, of course, part of the joke.) There was even a Sam & Max On the Road Official Board Game, a roll-and-move exercise in random happenstance: “Go back 2 spaces for dried-up donuts and soda”; “Kids unconscious from poisoned hamburgers. Zoom 3 spaces past Santa’s village without a tantrum”; “Get gas — lose a turn and don’t touch anything in the rest room.”

In the meanwhile, Steve Purcell the respectable above-ground commercial artist found himself working for none other than LucasArts. Shortly after the publication of the first Sam & Max comic, he was hired by them to illustrate what he intriguingly describes as “a role-playing game with cat-head babes.” When that project rather unsurprisingly got cancelled, he was laid off, but was soon brought back on again to draw the box art for the second SCUMM adventure game, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. That work won him a full-time job, upon which there followed much more in-game and box art for more adventures: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Loom, the first two Monkey Island games.

Steve Purcell circa 1988.

Purcell didn’t come to LucasArts alone: a certain dog and rabbit accompanied him to his new job. The place was filled with bright young men, with young men’s taste for humor that might not always pass muster with the censors in the executive suites. (For proof, one need only look to the acronyms associated with key components of the SCUMM engine, which were tortured into conformance with various forms of bodily fluid: SPIT, FLEM, BYLE, MMUCUS.) Sam and Max fit right into this milieu. Indeed, the pair began to infiltrate LucasArts’s computers almost immediately, as, bowing to his colleagues’ demands, Purcell conjured up some graphics of them for everyone to play around with. Already by the time a couple of new hires named Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer were enrolled in the so-called “SCUMM University” in late 1989, Purcell’s creations had become fixtures of office life. Schafer:

Every afternoon Ron [Gilbert] would come up and tell us how to do one thing, like, “Here’s how you add a room to the game” or “Here’s how you add a character.” We had this Sam & Max art that Steve Purcell had made just for SCUMM U, which was Sam and Max’s office, which I don’t think ever saw the light of day. It had a few animation states — a staticy television set, rabbit ears made out of a coat hanger that could be in two different positions, and we’d go, “I’m gonna make the static on the TV animate,” and then we’d spend all day doing that, and by the end of it we were pooling in art assets from Indiana Jones, and all the Scummlets started making their own crazy, weird, improvisational SCUMM games set partially in the Sam & Max universe. I had a remote-control car in mine that would drive through a mouse hole in their office and then would come out of a filing cabinet in Nazi Germany…

Except for Nazi Germany, most of these things — including the office, the television with a coat-hanger antenna, and even the mouse hole — would later appear in the official Sam & Max game, albeit with dramatically upgraded graphics.

But even well before that came to be, Sam and Max were already getting a form of official recognition from LucasArts, one that the people in the executive suites probably weren’t really aware of. The first two Monkey Island games, the first two Indiana Jones games, and Day of the Tentacle all found somewhere to shoehorn in a mention of the LucasArts staff’s favorite comics characters. When in 1990 LucasArts instituted a newsletter for their fans in the tradition of Infocom’s old New Zork Times, they asked Purcell to provide a Sam & Max comic strip for each issue.

Still, there’s a considerable distance between such sly insertions as these and a full-fledged Sam & Max computer game. The latter may well owe its existence to expediency as much as anything else. In 1992, LucasArts’s management wanted a second adventure to join Day of the Tentacle on their release docket for 1993, but had yet to approve a project plan for same. As time ran short, Sam and Max had virtually the entire creative staff pulling for them, along with a wealth of rough art and design ideas that had been kicked around through the likes of SCUMM University for years by that point. So, Sam and Max got to make an unlikely transition from indie comics characters to the stars of a very mainstream, very mass-market computer game from The House That Star Wars Built.


Ironically, the Sam & Max game got the green light just as Purcell himself was pulling back a bit from LucasArts. After some three years of full-time employment there, he’d just elected to return to freelancing, sometimes for LucasArts but sometimes for others. Thus the official designers for the game became a heretofore unheralded pair named Sean Clark and Mike Stemmle, who had worked as programmers on earlier SCUMM games. One can all too easily imagine such an arrangement going horribly wrong, missing the unique tone of the comics entirely. But thankfully, Clark and Stemmle proved to have a gift of their own for that trademark Sam & Max form of comedic mayhem, while Purcell himself and his soon-to-be wife Collette Michaud — another LucasArts artist, whom he had met on the job — made time to write or at least to edit most of the dialog.

Another obvious risk to the project was that of bowdlerization by nervous managers and marketers. Here again, though, it got lucky. Purcell:

I think the game is really close to the spirit of the comics. There’s violence, mild cursing, and a commendable lack of respect for authority, not to mention circus freaks and yetis. There’s less gunplay in the game simply because a gun is a terrible object to give someone to use in an adventure game unless you carefully guide the player to use it in a more interesting way. I don’t remember anything getting cut by management. Much to their credit, I think they trusted our judgment.

The theme of the game whose full title became Sam & Max Hit the Road was drawn from that old joke of a board game, as well as from kitschy roadside America more generally. By 1993, the cozy tradition of the cross-country family road trip — Route 66 and all that jazz — was starting to feel a little shabby in a post-oil embargo, post-interstate highway, postmodern America. Sam & Max steers into that shabbiness with a gonzo sensibility that’s more Hunter S. Thompson than Jack Kerouac; none of that romance-of-the-open-road nonsense for this duo! Instead they take us to pathetic would-be tourist traps like “The World’s Largest Ball of Twine!”, “Gator Golf,” “The Mystery Vortex,” “The Celebrity Vegetable Museum,” and “Frog Rock” (which doesn’t look much like a frog at all). The game tempers any sepia-toned nostalgia it might be tempted to evoke with an awareness that, really, all of this stuff was pretty tacky and stupid even in its heyday. And I haven’t even mentioned the spot-on parody of Graceland — presented here as Bumpusville, home of Conroy Bumpus, singer of the country classic “Let’s Get Drunk and Shoot Things.”

Smuckey’s convenience store, a monument to a homogeneous junk-food culture that stretches from sea to shining sea; there are several Smuckey’s in the game, and they all look exactly the same. “Max, crack open the Tang and those little cereal boxes with the perforated backs. I love that crap!”

And the reason for all this cross-country travel? Well, Sam and Max themselves never seem all that interested in the central mystery of the game, so why should we be? For the record, though, it’s something about a Sasquatch or yeti or something who’s escaped — or been kidnapped — from a carnival show. Jump through enough hoops and you’ll be rewarded with a bizarre denouement involving, as Sam puts it, “the wholesale destruction of the modern symbols of civilization in the western United States. You bet we’re proud!”

Suffice to say that you don’t play this game for the plot; you play it for the humor. A quarter century on from its creation, the latter has lost none of its sharpness. Sam & Max Hits the Road remains a veritable master class in comedy writing, with a sense of effortlessness about it that many another adventure game, huffing and puffing all too visibly in its own desperate efforts to be funny, could stand to learn from. Writing this game wasn’t truly effortless, of course, but rather involved countless hours of careful honing; as any of the great comedians working in any medium will tell you, being funny is first and foremost hard work. Yet the end result ought to feel spontaneous and easy, as it does here. The verbal jokes and visual gags are never belabored, never beat into the ground. On the contrary: they come so thick and fast that they can sometimes be a bit difficult to catch and appreciate. This is one of the few games I can think of that benefit from replaying just in order to savor all of the layers of its writing and presentation.


A Brief, Unsatisfying Interview with Sam and Max

Could you introduce yourselves?

Sam: I’m Sam. He’s Max. He’s a bunny. I’m a dog. We’re dangerous, but we work cheap.

How did you two form the Freelance Police?

Max: It was easy once we filed the monolithic heap o’ documents with the local government. They didn’t even notice that in the paperwork I claimed to be a nine-foot hamster and referred to myself as The Scatman.

Sam: Did you know that anybody can walk into a store and buy a real police badge? It really comes in handy when you want to enter the homes of people you don’t know.

What’s the toughest case you’ve ever cracked?

Sam: I guess the toughest case we cracked was when I lost the car keys and went as far as to have Max’s stomach pumped before I realized they fell down behind the radiator.

What special skills do each of you bring to the job?

Sam: Well, I have the ability to drive a car, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and get lost in a good book simultaneously.

Max: I can open a can of tuna fish with my own face.



In the best spirit of postmodern comedy, Sam and Max unleash a constant stream of blatant or subtle meta-textual commentary. When other games try to do this sort of thing, they tend to overplay their hand, with the result coming off as nervous tics on the part of creators who lack confidence in the integrity of their own fictions. Sam & Max Hit the Road, however, knows its fiction has no integrity, and revels in it. Likewise, it knows that we know how the highly artificial guide rails of genre-based storytelling run, and acknowledges that shared understanding. The selection of media tropes the game riffs off of is deep and broad, placing high and low culture on an equal footing, as any good postmodernist should. (“Every time I catch enough fish to fill a net, the helicopter swoops down and carries the fish to the Ball of Twine diner,” says one poor Sisyphus of a fisherman. “It’s like being stuck in a Norman Mailer novel.”)

But the greatest comedy goldmine here is always Max, who’s fun to watch even when he’s not really doing anything. He prowls restlessly about every area you visit, a perpetual live wire who looks likely to do something highly inappropriate and profoundly dangerous at every moment. LucasArts took an interesting approach to controlling the two protagonists. Rather than being able to switch direct control between Sam and Max, as in their previous multi-protagonist games Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, you ostensibly control Sam alone, but can “use” Max upon things in the world like you might an inventory object. It’s a brilliant choice. Max’s greatest comedic virtue is his sheer unpredictability, and this approach preserves that; even when you’re consciously “using” Max on something, you never know quite what he’s going to do.

Dialog works the same way; instead of presenting you with a cut-and-dried menu of questions or statements to make in conversations, the game lets you choose between the abstract options of a question, an exclamation, or the always worthwhile choice of the complete non sequitur. For “nothing would kill a joke worse than reading it before you hear it,” as Steve Purcell puts it.

In other ways as well, Sam and Max became a field for considerable experimentation with what had been the standard LucasArts adventure interface ever since Maniac Mansion: an interactive picture of your surroundings filling the top three-quarters or so of the screen, a menu of verbs filling the bottom of the screen. Sam and Max‘s design team eliminated the latter entirely for the first time since Loom; instead of clicking a verb on a menu here, you right-click to cycle the mouse cursor through them. Although welcome in the sense that it gave LucasArts’s talented artists more room to paint their scenes, the new approach can be just a little awkward to work with, requiring an awful lot of repetitive clicking even once you’ve managed to cement in your mind what each of the cursor icons actually means.

One can make vaguely similar complaint about other aspects of Sam & Max. Certainly in comparison to Day of the Tentacle, a game which LucasArts polished to a well-nigh unprecedented sheen, Sam & Max can come across as ever so slightly ramshackle. Its scenes are often designed to scroll as the protagonists move across them. This is fair enough in itself, but it’s sometimes difficult to identify what is and isn’t a hard edge, especially in certain scenes where you must click in just the right vertical spot on one edge or the other to progress further to the left or right. This was such a problem for me when I played the game recently that I wound up consulting a walkthrough on a few occasions when I thought I was completely stumped, only to find that I simply hadn’t fully explored a location due to this interface confusion. These sorts of issues — sometimes referred to as “fake difficulty” in that they’re fundamentally external to the world being explored — were admittedly par for the course in the games from LucasArts’s contemporaries. But LucasArts themselves had made their name by rising above them to a perhaps greater extent than they manage here.

A particularly hard-nosed critic might also find reason to complain about some of the individual puzzles. Although the game does stay scrupulously true to the letter of the LucasArts design philosophy of no deaths and no dead ends, quite a few of the puzzles here are so warped that they can really only be solved via the tried-and-true “use everything on everything else” approach. While this feels thoroughly true to the anarchic spirit of the game’s source material, it’s much more debatable in the context of good adventure design in the abstract.

But then again, the whole game is so lively, and so full of funny responses and hilarious Easter eggs, that it’s usually more entertaining than tedious to lawn-mower through its scenes in this way. And there is a smattering of really good set-piece puzzles to enjoy as well. The “Gator Golf” scene, in which Sam gets to play golf on an alligator-infested swamp of a course, is an example of a puzzle that’s both intellectually stimulating and absolutely hilarious, the sort of thing that could only have appeared in Sam & Max Hit the Road. To alleviate the tension when you aren’t sure how to proceed, there’s also a few superfluous action games, like the rather grisly take on Battleship that’s known here as Car Bomb and a concoction known as Highway Surfin’ which combines a speeding automobile, Max on the roof of said automobile, and a bunch of low-hanging road signs. If not exactly good in the way we conventionally define such things, the mini-games are, like just about everything else about Sam & Max Hit the Road, really, really funny.

But the game’s rougher edges perhaps aren’t all down to the gleefully low-rent nature of its source material. Once again, a comparison with Sam & Max‘s immediate predecessor on the LucasArts release docket can be instructive in this context. Superlative though Day of the Tentacle‘s execution was, that game was also at the end of the day a thoroughly safe choice for LucasArts — the sequel to a beloved game, built around a style of cartoon humor with which Middle America was long-acquainted. Sam & Max, on the other hand, was a more dangerous proposition in more than one sense of the word. Even as we laud LucasArts’s management for the real bravery it took to let their creative staff make and release it at all, we can also see signs that they weren’t willing to pour quite the same amount of time and money into such a relatively risky concept. Tellingly, they didn’t pull out all the stops to release a CD-ROM-based “talkie” version of Sam & Max at the same time as the floppy-disk-based version, as they had for Day of the Tentacle. Instead they decided to wait a bit, to make sure there was in fact a market out there worthy of the additional investment.

Some of the first reviews would actually seem to confirm any suspicions LucasArts’s management might have had that Sam & Max could be more of a niche taste than a crowd pleaser. Charles Ardai, writing for Computer Gaming World, found all of the “self-referential jokes, sneering remarks, deadpan derision, sarcasm, and ridicule” — even the “unnerving” jazz-influenced soundtrack — to be decidedly off-putting. “Sarcastic New York intellectuals like [some of] my friends will find its tone wholly agreeable,” he concluded, “but whether it plays in Peoria remains to be seen” — thereby echoing a question that was doubtless much on the mind of some at LucasArts.

But, happily for everyone concerned, Sam & Max didn’t prove the commercial disaster which some of the Nervous Nellies at LucasArts might have feared. Right from the beginning, significant numbers of gamers responded strongly to the same edgy humor that seemed to leave some reviewers a little nonplussed. And, make no mistake, some reviewers loved it as well. Certainly Rick Barba, writing for Electronic Entertainment, loved it unreservedly: “It’s hip, funny, adult, and well-written. It’s what literate adventure gamers have been craving for years.” Interestingly, the early British reviews were much more uniformly positive than the American ones, perhaps reflecting the longstanding British taste for a drier, less literal stripe of humor — or perhaps just reflecting the longstanding British fascination with the weirder aspects of Americana.

With the game’s sales and very positive reception in at least some quarters having sufficiently allayed any doubts at LucasArts, the CD-ROM version appeared about six months after the floppy-based version. It was well worth the wait. The same production team that had made Day of the Tentacle such a lesson to the rest of the industry in how to do a talkie right took charge of Sam & Max as well, with similarly stellar results. Sam and Max themselves were voiced by a pair of cartoon veterans named Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson respectively, both of whom were perfect for their roles. After hearing its stars for the first time, it becomes almost impossible to imagine playing Sam & Max without their voices. And this, of course, is just the reaction a talkie ought to provoke.

Since Sam & Max Hit the Road, the titular pair have continued their exploits in the pages of more comic books, in a brief-lived and sadly bowdlerized television series, and eventually in a string of episodic adventure games from Telltale Games, who positioned themselves as the post-millennial heirs apparent to the LucasArts adventure tradition. Yet I’m not sure whether they’ve ever again been quite as sharp and funny as they were here, in their very first computer game. I can certainly write that, despite the competition from all of these other iterations of what’s developed into a minor media franchise in its own right, the stature of the original Sam & Max computer game has only grown over the years. Today it continues to stand out from the field of its contemporaries as a harbinger of a gaming future that would admit more diverse voices to the dialog, drawing from a more sophisticated palette of non-ludic cultural influences. Most of all, however, it remains what it has always been: one of the funniest games ever made. What better reason could you need to play it?

(Sources: the omnibus comic Sam & Max Surfin’ the Highway by Steve Purcell; Computer Gaming World of April 1991, January 1992, August 1993, and February 1994; Retro Gamer 22, 28, 70, 110, and 116; CD-ROM Today of August/September 1994; Edge of February 1994; Electronic Entertainment of March 1994; Game Developer of March 2006; LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Spring 1993, and Winter 1994. Also “The History of Sam & Max,” as presented on the old Telltale Games home page.

Sam & Max Hit the Road is available for purchase from GOG.com and other digital storefronts.)

 

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Day of the Tentacle

Although they didn’t know one another at the time, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer both found themselves at a similar place in life in the summer of 1989: just out of university and uncertain what to do next. Both saw the same unusual advertisement in the newspaper: an advertisement for programmers who could also write. Both applied, both were shocked when they were called out to George Lucas’s beautiful Skywalker Ranch for an interview, and both were fortunate enough to be hired to work for a division of Lucas’s empire that was still known at the time as Lucasfilm Games rather than LucasArts. It was quite a stroke of luck for two innately funny and creative souls who had never before seriously considered applying their talents to game development. “If I hadn’t seen that job listing,” says Schafer, “I would have ended up a database engineer, I think.” Similar in age and background as they were, Grossman and Schafer would remain all but inseparable for the next four years.

They spent the first weeks of that time working intermittently as play testers while they also attended what their new colleagues had dubbed “SCUMM University,” a combination technical boot camp and creative proving ground for potential adventure-game designers. Schafer:

A group of us were thrown into SCUMM University, because all of the LucasArts games used SCUMM [Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion]. The four of us were messing around with it, writing our own dialogue. They gave us some old art to work with, so we were just writing goofy stuff and joking around, trying to make each other laugh. I think LucasArts was watching us the whole time, and they picked me and [Grossman] out and said that they liked the writing.

Grossman and Schafer were assigned to work as understudies to Ron Gilbert on the first two Monkey Island games. Here they got to hone their writing and puzzle-making chops, even as they absorbed the LucasArts philosophy of saner, fairer adventure-game design from the man most responsible for codifying and promoting it. In early 1992, shortly after the completion of Monkey Island 2, Gilbert announced that he was quitting LucasArts to start a company of his own specializing in children’s software. He left behind as a parting gift an outline of what would have been his next project had he stayed: the long-awaited, much-asked-for sequel to his very first adventure game, 1987’s Maniac Mansion. The understudies now got to step into the role of the stars; Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle became Grossman and Schafer’s baby.

Times were changing quickly inside LucasArts, keeping pace with changes in the industry around them. After first conceiving of Day of the Tentacle as a floppy-disk-based game without voice acting, LucasArts’s management decided midway through its development that it should be a real technological showpiece in all respects — the first adventure game to be released simultaneously on floppy disk and CD-ROM. Along with X-Wing, the first actual Star Wars game LucasArts had ever been allowed to make, it would be one of their two really big, high-profile releases for 1993.

It was a lot of responsibility to heap on two young pairs of shoulders, but the end result  demonstrates that Grossman and Schafer had learned their craft well as understudies. Day of the Tentacle is a spectacularly good adventure game; if not the undisputed cream of the LucasArts crop, it’s certainly in the conversation for the crown of their best single game ever. It achieves what it sets out to do so thoroughly that it can be very difficult for a diligent critic like yours truly to identify any weaknesses at all that don’t sound like the pettiest of nitpicking. The graphics are as good as any ever created under the limitations of VGA; the voice acting is simply superb; the puzzle design is airtight; the writing is sharp and genuinely, consistently laugh-out-loud funny; and the whole thing is polished to a meticulous sheen seldom seen in the games of today, much less those of 1993. It’s a piece of work which makes it hard for a critic to avoid gushing like a moon-eyed fanboy, as Evan Dickens of Adventure Gamers did when that site declared it to be the best game of its genre ever made:

The 1993 CD “talkie” version of Day of the Tentacle is a perfectly flawless adventure, the rarest of rare games, that which did nothing wrong. Nothing. There is no weakness in this game, no sieve. Stop waiting for the “but” because it won’t come. This is the perfect adventure game, the one adventure that brought every aspect of great adventures together and created such an enjoyable masterpiece, it almost seems to transcend the level of computer games.

Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. If you loathe cartoons, perhaps you might not like this game. If you prefer more serious plots or more rigorously cerebral puzzles, perhaps you won’t love it. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine very many people not being charmed by its gloriously cracked introductory movie and wanting to play further.

One of the few negative things I can say about Day of the Tentacle is that it’s more fun than it is truly innovative; it doesn’t break any new formal or thematic ground, being content to work entirely within a template which LucasArts and others had long since established by the point of its release. It remains at the end of the day a slapstick cartoon comedy, always the lowest-hanging fruit for an adventure-game design. Within that template, though, it executes everything so well that it’s almost annoying. This is the cartoon-comedy graphic adventure perfected, serving as the ultimate proof that much of what is sometimes forgiven or dismissed as “just the way adventure games are” is really the product of poor adventure-game design. Most of the problems that so many players consider to be intractable ones for the genre simply don’t exist here. The puzzles are goofy but always soluble, the dreaded sudden deaths and dead ends are nonexistent, and pixel hunts aren’t a problem amidst the game’s bright, clearly delineated scenes.



Day of the Tentacle‘s predecessor Maniac Mansion stood out from other adventure games in 1987, as it still does today, for allowing the player to select her own “party” of three characters, each with his or her own special skills, from a total of seven possibilities. The result was an unusual amount of replayability for the adventure-game genre; every possible combination of characters was capable of solving the game, but each would have to do so in a different way. Although this made Maniac Mansion a much more interesting game than it might otherwise have been, it was all nightmarishly complex for the game’s designer Ron Gilbert to map out. He would later state that only sheer naivete could ever have prompted him to expose himself to such pain — and, indeed, his first statement after finishing the game was, “I’m never doing anything like that again!” He held to that resolution throughout the rest of his time at LucasArts; his 1990 game The Secret of Monkey Island was at least as good as Maniac Mansion, but it owed its goodness to its writing, humor, art direction, and puzzle design, not to a similar formal ambition.

Against Gilbert’s advice, Grossman and Schafer first envisioned Day of the Tentacle operating along the same lines as Maniac Mansion, with another group of a half-dozen or so kids from which to choose a team. But the escalating cost of art and sound in the multimedia age played as big a role in nixing those plans as did the additional design complications; the two soon settled for giving the player control of a fixed group of three characters — which, they didn’t hesitate to point out, was still two more than most adventure games.

As this anecdote illustrates, Day of the Tentacle was never overly concerned with aping the details of its predecessor. Certainly if you play it without having played Maniac Mansion before, you’ll hardly be lost. Grossman:

We really couldn’t imitate the style of the original in the way you normally would with a sequel. Too much time had passed and the state of the art was radically different. We stopped thinking of it as a sequel almost immediately and just did our own thing, slathering our own personalities on top of that of Maniac Mansion.

Grossman and Schafer did reuse those elements of the earlier game that amused them most: the mad scientist Doctor Fred and his equally insane wife and son; the rambling old mansion where they all live; a memorable gag involving a hamster and a microwave; a pair of wise-cracking sentient tentacles, one of whom became the centerpiece of their plot and provided their sequel with its name. But of the kids the player got to control in Maniac Mansion, only Bernard, the über-nerd of the bunch, shows up again here. (Not coincidentally, Bernard had always been the favorite of the original game’s players, perhaps because of his range of unusual technical skills, perhaps because — if we’re being totally honest here — he was the teenage archetype who most resembled the typical young player.) Notably, Dave, the oddly bland default protagonist of the earlier game — he’s the only one you have to take with you, even though he’s the dullest of the lot — doesn’t show up at all here. In the place of Dave and the other kids, Grossman and Schafer augmented Bernard with two new creations of their own: a bro-dude “MegaBreth” roadie named Hoagie and a terminally nervous medical student named Laverne.

The story here does follow up on that of Maniac Mansion, but, once again, it doesn’t really matter whether you realize it or not. Five years after his previous adventure, Bernard receives a plea for help from Green Tentacle, informing him that Purple Tentacle has drunk some toxic sludge, which has instilled in him superhuman (supertentacle?) intelligence and a burning desire to enslave the world. Now, Doctor Fred has decided to deal with the problem by killing both tentacles; this is an obviously problematic plan from Green Tentacle’s perspective. Bernard convinces his two reluctant pals Hoagie and Laverne to head out to Doctor Fred’s mansion and stage an intervention. In attempting to do so, they unwittingly help Purple Tentacle to escape, and he sets out to take over the world. And so, just like that, we’re off to save the world.

It doesn’t take Day of the Tentacle long to introduce its secret puzzling weapon: time travel. Doctor Fred, you see, just happens to have some time machines handy; known as “Chron-O-Johns,” they’re made from outdoor port-a-potties. With his plan for summary tentacle execution having failed, he hatches an alternative plan: to send the kids one day back in time, where they’ll prevent Purple Tentacle from ever drinking the toxic waste in the first place. But the time machines turn out to work about as well as most of Doctor Fred’s inventions. One sends Hoagie back 200 years instead of one day into the past, where he finds Ben Franklin and other Founding Fathers in the midst of writing the American Constitution in what will someday become Doctor Fred’s mansion; another sends Laverne 200 years into the future, when Purple Tentacle has in fact taken over the world and the mansion is serving as the dictatorial palace for him, his tentacle minions, and their human slaves; and the last time machine leaves Bernard right where (when?) he started.

You can switch between the kids at any time, and many of the more elaborate puzzles require you to make changes in one time to pave the way for solving them in another. In some instances, the kids can “flush” objects through time to one another using the Chron-O-John. On other occasions, a kid must find a way to hide objects inside the mansion, to be collected by another kid two or four centuries further down the time stream. “It was really fun to think about the effects of large amounts of time on things like wine bottles and sweaters in dryers,” remembers Grossman, “and to imagine how altering fundamentals of history like the Constitution and the flag could be used to accomplish petty, selfish goals like the acquisition of a vacuum and a tentacle costume.” Of course, just like in Maniac Mansion, it doesn’t pay to question how the kids are communicating their intentions to one another over such gulfs. Just go with it! This is, after all, a cartoon adventure.

Hoagie’s part of the plot coincidentally shares a setting and to some extent a tone with another clever and funny time-traveling adventure game that was released in 1993: Sierra’s Pepper’s Adventures in Time. Both games even feature a cartoon Ben Franklin in important roles. Yet it must be said that LucasArts’s effort is even sharper and funnier, its wit and gameplay polished to a fine sheen, with none of the wooliness that tends to cling even to Sierra’s best games. The inability to die or get yourself irrevocably stuck means that you’re free to just enjoy the ride — free, for instance, to choose the funniest line of dialog in any conversation without hesitation, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to do it over again if it all goes horribly wrong. “The player is never, ever punished for doing something funny,” wrote Charles Ardai, the best writer ever to work for Computer Gaming World magazine, in his typically perceptive review of the game. “Doing funny things is the whole point of Day of the Tentacle.”

Although Grossman and Schafer were and are bright, funny guys, their game’s sparkle didn’t come from its designers’ innate brilliance alone. By 1993, LucasArts had claimed Infocom’s old place as makers of the most consistently excellent adventure games you could buy. And as with the Infocom of old, their games’ quality was largely down to a commitment to process, including a willingness to work through the hard, unfun aspects of game development which so many of their peers tended to neglect. Throughout the development of Day of the Tentacle, Grossman and Schafer hosted periodic “pizza orgies,” first for LucasArts’s in-house employees, later for people they quite literally nabbed off the street. They watched these people play their game — always a humbling and useful experience for any designer — and solicited as much feedback thereafter as their guinea pigs could be convinced to give. Which parts of the game were most fun? Which parts were less fun? Which puzzles felt too trivial? Which puzzles felt too hard? They asked their focus groups what they had tried to do that hadn’t worked, and made sure to code in responses to these actions. As Bob Bates, another superb adventure-game designer, put it to me recently, most of what the player tries to do in an adventure game is wrong in terms of advancing her toward victory. A game’s handling of these situations — the elses in the “if, then, else” model of game logic — can make or break it. It can spell the difference between a lively, “juicy” game that feels engaging and interesting and a stubbornly inscrutable blank wall — the sort of game that tells you things don’t work but never tells you why. And of course these else scenarios are a great place to embed subtle hints as to the correct course of action.

Indeed, Grossman and Schafer continually asked themselves the same question in the context of every single puzzle in the game: “How is the player supposed to figure this out?” Grossman:

That [question] has stuck with me as a hallmark of good versus bad adventure-game design. Lots of people design games that make the designer seem clever — or they’re doing it to make themselves feel clever. They’ve forgotten that they’re in the entertainment business. The player should be involved in this thing too. We always went to great lengths to make sure all the information was in there. At these “pizza orgies,” one of the things we were always looking for was, are people getting stuck? And why?

The use of three different characters in three completely different environments also helps the game to avoid that sensation every adventurer dreads: that of being absolutely stuck, unable to jog anything loose because of one stubborn roadblock of a puzzle. If a puzzle stumps you in Day of the Tentacle, there’s almost always another one to go work on instead while the old one is relegated to the brain’s background processing, as it were.

And yet, as in everything, there is a balance to strike here as well: gating in adventure design is an art in itself. Grossman:

We were very focused on making things non-linear, but what we weren’t thinking about was that it’s possible to take that too far. Then you get a paralysis of choice. There’s kind of a sweet spot in the middle between the player being lost because they have too much to do and the player feeling railroaded because you’re telling them what to do. People don’t like either of those extremes very much, but somewhere in the middle, it’s like, “I’ve got enough stuff to think about, and I’m accomplishing some things, and I’ve got some new challenges.” That’s the right spot.

Day of the Tentacle nails this particular sweet spot, as it does so many others. It could never have done so absent extensive testing and — just as importantly — an open-mindedness on the part of its designers about what the testers were saying. It’s due to a lack of these two things that the adventure games of LucasArts’s rivals tended to go off the rails more often than not.

In addition to the superb puzzle design, Day of the Tentacle looks and sounds great — even today, even in its non-remastered version. The graphics are not only technically excellent but also evince an aesthetic sophistication rare in games of this era. The art department was greatly inspired by the classic Warner Bros. cartoons of Chuck Jones — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile. E. Coyote and the Road Runner, etc. One day near the beginning of the project, the entire team made a field trip to sit at the feet of the 80-year-old Jones for a day and absorb some of his wisdom. Warner Bros. cartoons were always more visually skewed, more manic, and more deviously subversive than the straighter, more wholesome reels of Disney, and both the visuals and writing in Day of the Tentacle consciously mimic their style. Just as in the cartoons, there isn’t a straight line or right angle to be seen anywhere in the game. Everything, right down to the font in which text is printed, is bent, leaning, crooked, a fun-house world viewed through a fish-eye lens.

The art team, the unsung heroes of Day of the Tentacle. Standing from left to right are Lela Dowling, Sean Turner, Larry Ahern, and Peter Chan. Kneeling in front are Jesse Clark and Purple Tentacle. One additional artist, Kyle Balda, wasn’t present for this photograph.

Peter Chan, one of the artists on the team, notes that Grossman and Schafer “really trusted us and just let us go to town with what we believed would look best. If anybody on the art team had a good idea or suggestion, it was considered.” Here’s Schafer, speaking in an interview at the time of the game’s release, and obviously somewhat in awe himself at what LucasArts’s animators have come up with:

The kids have all kinds of grimaces and gestures and facial twists and contortions while they’re talking. They smile and their mouths open bigger than their heads and their tongues can hang out. They don’t just stand there. They blink, tap their feet, sigh, and even scratch their butts.

As soon as a character appears, you laugh, and that’s really important. You stare at the main characters for about thirty hours when you play the game, so they’d better be entertaining. With Bernard, as soon as you see him walking around for the first time, before he even says or does anything, you laugh. He walks goofy, he talks goofy, he’s even entertaining when he stands still. Walking Hoagie around is like piloting a blimp through a china shop, and Laverne is fun just to walk around because she seems to have a mind of her own — like she might do something dangerous at any moment.

The sound effects are drawn from the same well of classic animation. LucasArts actually bought many of them from a “major cartoon house,” resulting in all of the good old “boings” and “ka-pows” you might expect.

Tamlynn Barra in the production booth at Studio 222.

And the voice acting too is strikingly good. LucasArts was better equipped than almost any of the other game studios to adapt to the brave new world of CD-ROM audio, thanks to the connections which went along with being a subsidiary of a major film-production company. The actors’ dialog, totaling more than 4500 lines in all, was recorded at Hollywood’s Studio 222 under the supervision of a LucasArts associate producer named Tamlynn Barra. Although still in her twenties at the time, she had previously worked with many stage and video productions. She was thus experienced enough to recognize and find ways to counteract the most fundamental challenge of recording voice work for a computer game: the fact that the actors are expected to voice their lines alone in a production box, with no other actors to play off of and, too often, little notion of the real nature of the scene being voiced. “Getting the actors into character is very difficult,” she acknowledged. “Half the studio [time] is spent cueing up the actor for the scene.” And yet the fact that she knew she had to do this cueing was in a way half the battle. In contrast to many other computer-game productions — even those featuring a stellar cast of experienced actors, such as Interplay’s two contemporaneous Star Trek adventuresDay of the Tentacle has an auditory liveliness to it. It rarely feels as if the actor is merely reading lines off a page in a sound-proof booth, even if that’s exactly what she’s doing in reality.

Jane Jacobs, who voiced the Irish maid found inside the present-day mansion, performs before the microphone.

Unsurprisingly given LucasArts’s connections, the voice actors, while not household names, were seasoned professionals who arrived with their union cards in hand. The most recognizable among them was Richard Sanders, best known for playing the lovable but inept newscaster Les Nessman on the classic television sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. During their initial discussions with Barra, Grossman and Schafer had actually suggested Les as the specific role model for Bernard, whereupon Barra made inquiries and found that Sanders was in fact available. He really was a perfect fit for Bernard; the character was “a bit of a stretch” for him, he said with a wink, because he was used to playing “more manly sorts of roles.”

Barra found the other voice talent using a process typical of television and radio productions but not so much of computer games: she sent sketches and descriptions of the characters out to Hollywood agents, who called their clients in to record audition tapes of their impressions. Then she and the rest of the development team chose their favorites. Many another game studio, by contrast, was recruiting its voice talent from its secretarial pool.

All of it led to an end result that feels today like it’s come unstuck from the time which spawned it. Certainly my own feeling upon firing up Day of the Tentacle for the first time in preparation for this article was that I had crossed some threshold into modernity after living in the ancient past for all of the years I’d previously been writing this blog. This impression is undoubtedly aided by the way that LucasArts steered clear of the approaches that generally date a game indelibly to the mid-1990s. Just to name the most obvious dubious trend they managed to resist: there are no digitized images of real actors shoehorned into this game via once cutting-edge, now aesthetically disastrous full-motion-video sequences.

Yet the impression of modernity encompasses more than the game’s audiovisual qualities; it really does encompass the sum total of the experience of playing it. The interface too just works the way a modern player would expect it to; no need to pick up a manual here to figure out how to play, even if you’ve never played an adventure game before. (The sole exception to this rule is the save system, which still requires you to know to press the F5 key in order to access it. On the other hand, keeping it hidden away does allow the game to avoid cluttering up its carefully honed aesthetic impression with a big old disk icon or the like.) Polish is a difficult quality to quantify, but I nevertheless feel fairly confident in calling Day of the Tentacle the most polished computer game made up to its release date of mid-1993. It looks and feels like a professional media production in every way.

The most telling sign in Day of the Tentacle of how far computer gaming had come in a very short time is found on an in-game computer in the present-day mansion. There you’ll find a complete and fully functional version of the original Maniac Mansion in all its blocky, pixelated, bobble-headed glory. This game within a game was inspired by an off-hand comment which Grossman and Schafer had heard Ron Gilbert make during the Monkey Island 2 project: that the entirety of Maniac Mansion had been smaller than some of the individual animation sequences in this, LucasArts’s latest game. Placed in such direct proximity to its progeny, Maniac Mansion did indeed look “downright primitive,” wrote Charles Ardai in his review of Day of the Tentacle. “Only nostalgia or curiosity will permit today’s gamers to suffer through what was once state-of-the-art but is by today’s standards crude.” And yet it had only been six years…

Ardai concluded his review by writing that “it may not hold up for fifty years, like the cartoons that inspired it, but I expect that this game will keep entertaining people for quite some time to come.” And it’s here that I must beg to differ with his otherwise perceptive review. From the perspective of today, halfway already to the game’s 50th anniversary, Day of the Tentacle still holds up perfectly well as one of the finest examples ever of the subtle art of the adventure game. I see no reason why that should change in the next quarter-century and beyond.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of July 1993 and September 1993; LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1992 and Spring 1993; Play of April 2005; Retro Gamer 22 and 81; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of July 1993. Online sources include Dev Game Club podcast 19; Celia Pearce’s conversation with Tim Schafer for Game Studies; 1Up‘s interview with Tim Schafer; The Dig Museum‘s interview with Dave Grossman; Adventure Gamers‘s interview with Dave Grossman.

A remastered version of Day of the Tentacle is available for purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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The Last Works Before the Renaissance

By 1993, textual interactive fiction was reaching the end of the unsettled, uncertain half-decade-and-change between the shuttering of Infocom and the rise of a new Internet-centered community of amateur enthusiasts. Efforts by such collectives as Adventions and High Energy Software to sell text adventures via the shareware model had largely proved unfruitful, while, with the World Wide Web still in its infancy, advertisement and distribution were major problems even for someone willing to release her games for free. The ethos of text and parsers seemed about as divorced as anything could possibly be from the predominant ethos in game development more generally, with its focus on multimedia, full-motion video, and ultra-accessible mouse-driven interfaces. Would text adventures soon be no more than obscure relics of a more primitive past? To an increasing number even of the form’s most stalwart fans, an answer in the affirmative was starting to feel like a foregone conclusion. Few text-adventure authors had serious ambitions of matching the technical or literary quality of Infocom during this period, much less of exceeding it; the issue for the medium right now was one of simple survival. In this atmosphere, the arrival of any new text adventure felt like a victory against the implacable forces of technological change, which had conspired to all but strangle this new literary form before it had even had time to get going properly.

Thankfully, history would later mark 1993 as the year when the seeds of an interactive-fiction rebirth were planted, thanks to an Englishman who repurposed not only the Infocom aesthetic but also Infocom’s own technology in unexpected ways. Those seeds would flower richly in 1995, Year Zero of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance. I’ll begin that story soon.

Today, though, I’d like to tell you about some of the more interesting games to emerge from the final days of the interstitial period — games which actually overlap, although no one could realize it at the time, with the dawning of the modern interactive-fiction community. Indeed, the games I describe below manage to presage some of the themes of that community despite being the products of a text-adventuring culture that still spent more time looking backward than looking forward. I’m fond of all of them in one way or another, and I’m willing to describe at least one of them as a sadly overlooked classic.


The Horror of Rylvania

The hiking trip across Europe has been a wonderful experience for two recent college graduates like yourself and your friend Carolyn. From the mansions of England to the beaches of Greece, you’ve walked in the footsteps of the Crusaders and seen sights that few Americans have ever seen.

Carolyn had wanted to skip the Central European nation of Rylvania. “Why bother?” she’d said. “There’s nothing but farmers there, and creepy old castles - nothing we haven’t seen already. The Rylvanians are still living in the last century.”

That, you’d insisted, was exactly why Rylvania was a must-see. The country was an intact piece of living history, a real treasure in this modern age.

If only you hadn’t insisted! As night fell, as you approached a small farming village in search of a quaint inn to spend the night, the howling began. A scant hundred yards from the village, and it happened...the wolves appeared from the black forest around you and attacked. Big, black wolves that leaped for Carolyn’s throat before you could shout a warning, led by a great gray-black animal that easily stood four feet at the shoulder. Carolyn fell to the rocky path, blood gushing from her neck as the wolves faded back into the trees, unwilling, for some unknown reason, to press their attack.

If she dies, it will be your fault. You curse the darkening sky as you cradle Carolyn’s head, knowing that you have little time to find help. Perhaps in the village up the road to the north.

The Horror of Rylvania marks the last shareware release from Adventions, a partnership between the MIT graduate students Dave Baggett and D.A. Leary which was the most sustained of all efforts to make a real business out of selling interactive fiction during the interstitial period. Doubtless for this reason, the Adventions games are among the most polished of all the text adventures made during this time. They were programmed using the sophisticated TADS development system rather than the more ramshackle AGT, with all the benefits that accrued to such a choice. And, just as importantly, they were thoroughly gone over for bugs as well as spelling and grammar problems, and are free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings that were once par for the course in amateur interactive fiction.

For all that, though, the Adventions games haven’t aged all that well in my eyes. The bulk of them take place in a fantasy land known as Unnkulia, which is trying so hard to ape Zork‘s Great Underground Empire that it’s almost painful to watch. In addition to being derivative, the Unnkulia games think they’re far more clever and hilarious than they actually are — the very name of the series/world is a fine case in point — while the overly fiddly gameplay can sometimes grate almost as much as the writing.

It thus made for a welcome change when Adventions, after making three and a half Unnkulia games, finally decided to try something else. Written by D.A. Leary, The Horror of Rylvania is more plot-driven than Adventions’s earlier games, a Gothic vampire tale in which you actually become a vampire not many turns in. It’s gone down in certain circles as a minor classic, for reasons that aren’t totally unfounded. Although the game has a few more potential walking-dead scenarios than is perhaps ideal, the puzzles are otherwise well-constructed, the implementation is fairly robust, and, best of all, most of the sophomoric attempts at humor that so marked Adventions’s previous games are blessedly absent.

That said, the end result still strikes me more as a work of craftsmanship than genius. The writing has been gone over for spelling and grammar without addressing some of its more deep-rooted problems, as shown even by the brief introduction above; really, now, have “few Americans ever seen” sights advertised in every bog-standard package tour of Europe? (Something tells me Leary hadn’t traveled much at the time he wrote this game.) The writing here has some of the same problems with tone as another Gothic horror game from 1993 set in an ersatz Romania: Quest for Glory IV. It wants to play the horror straight most of the time, and is sometimes quite effective at it — the scene of your transformation from man to vampire is particularly well-done — but just as often fails to resist the centrifugal pull which comedy has on the adventure-game genre.

Still, Horror of Rylvania is the Adventions game which plays best today, and it isn’t a bad choice for anyone looking for a medium-sized old-school romp with reasonably fair puzzles. Its theme adds to its interest; horror in interactive fiction tends to hew more to either H.P. Lovecraft or zombie movies than the Gothic archetypes which Horror of Rylvania intermittently manages to nail. Another extra dimension of interest is added by the ending, which comes down to a binary choice between curing your friend Carolyn from the curse of vampirism, which entails sacrificing yourself in the process, or curing yourself and letting Carolyn sod off. As we’ll shortly see, the next and last Adventions game perhaps clarifies some of the reasons for such a moral choice’s inclusion at the end of a game whose literary ambitions otherwise don’t seem to extend much beyond being a bit of creepy fun.


The Jeweled Arena

You let out a sigh of relief as you finish the last paper. “That’s the lot.”

“Good work, ma’am,” says Regalo, your squire. “I was almost afraid we’d be here until midnight.”

“Don’t worry, Regalo, I wouldn’t do a thing like that, especially on my first healthy day after the flu. In any case, Dora wants me home by eight. The papers look dry, so you can take them to Clara’s office.”

As Regalo carries the papers to the adjoining office, you stand up and stretch your aching muscles. You then look through the window and see a flash of lightning outside. It looks like quite a storm is brewing.

“I’m beginning to think my calendar is set wrong,” you say as Regalo returns. “Dibre’s supposed to be cool, dry, and full of good cheer; so far, we’ve had summer heat, constant rain, and far too many death certificates. Perhaps this storm will blow out the heat.”


“I hope it blows out the plague with it, ma’am. I’ve lost three friends already, and my wife just picked it up yesterday. No one likes it when the coroner’s staff is overworked.”

“It doesn’t help that Clara and Resa are both still sick. If we’re lucky, we’ll have Resa back tomorrow, which I’m sure your feet would appreciate. I presume Ernando and Miranda have already left for the day?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now I’m really worried. The only thing worse than being the victim of one of Miranda’s pranks is going a day without one of her pranks -– it usually means you missed something. Perhaps she decided to be discrete [sic] for a change.”

“I didn’t get the impression her sense of humor was taking the day off, but I don’t know what she did. It can wait until tomorrow. Is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?”

Written by David S. Raley, The Jeweled Arena was the co-winner of what would turn out to be the last of the annual competitions organized by AGT’s steward, David M. Malmberg, before he released the programming language as freeware and stepped away from further involvement with the interactive-fiction community. Set in a fantasy world, but a thankfully non-Zorkian and non-Tolkienesque one, it’s both an impressive piece of world-building and a game of unusual narrative ambition for its time.

In fact, the world of Valdalan seems like it must have existed in the author’s head for a long time before this game was written. The environment around you has the feeling of being rooted in far more lore and history than is explicitly foregrounded in the text, always the mark of first-class world-building. As far as I can tell from the text, Valdalan is roughly 17th-century in terms of its science and technology, but is considerably more enlightened philosophically. Interestingly, magic seems to have no place here, making it almost more of an alternative reality than a conventional fantasy milieu.

The story takes place in the city of Kumeran as it’s in the throes of a plague — a threat which is, like so much else in this game, handled with more subtlety than you might expect. The plot plays out in four chapters, during each of which you play the role of a different character. The first chapter is worthy of becoming a footnote in interactive-fiction history at the very least, in that it casts you as one half of a lesbian couple. In later years, certain strands of interactive fiction — albeit more of the hypertext than the parser-driven type — would become a hotbed of advocacy for non- hetero-normative lifestyles. The Jeweled Arena has perhaps aged better in this respect than many of those works have (or will); it presents its lesbian protagonist in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way, neither turning her into an easy villain or victim, as an earlier game might have done, nor celebrating her as a rainbow-flag-waving heroine, as a later game might have done. She’s just a person; the game takes it as a given that she’s worthy of exactly the same level of respect as any of the rest of us. In 1993, this matter-of-fact attitude toward homosexuality was still fairly unusual. Raley deserves praise for it.

Unfortunately, The Jeweled Arena succeeds better as a place and a story than it does as a game, enough so that one is tempted to ask why Raley elected to present it in the form of a text adventure at all. He struggles to come up with things for you to really do as you wander the city. This tends to be a problem with a lot of interactive fiction where the puzzles aren’t the author’s primary focus; A Mind Forever Voyaging struggles to some extent with the same issue when it sends you wandering through its own virtual city. But The Jeweled Arena, which doesn’t have a mechanic like A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s commandment to observe and record to ease its way, comes off by far the worse of the two. Most of the tasks it sets before you are made difficult not out of  authorial intention but due to poor authorial prompting and the inherent limitations of AGT. In other words, first you have to figure out what non-obvious trigger the game is looking for to advance the plot a beat, and then you have to figure out the exact way the parser wants you to say it. This constant necessity to read the author’s mind winds up spoiling what could have been an enjoyable experience, and makes The Jeweled Arena a game that can truly be recommended only to those with an abiding interest in text-adventure history or the portrayal of homosexuality in interactive media. A pity — with more testing and better technology, it could have been a remarkable achievement.


Klaustrophobia

You are standing at the top of an ocean bluff. Wind is whipping through your hair and blowing your voluminous black cape out behind you. You can hear the hiss of the surf crashing far below you. Out towards the horizon, a distant storm sends flickers of lightning across the darkening sky. The last rays of the setting sun reflect red off the windows of the grey stone mansion to the East. As you turn towards the house, you catch a glimpse of a haunting face in one of the windows. That face, you will never forget that face......

> wait
The surf and cliffs fade from sight............


You awake to find yourself in your living room,lying on the couch. Your cat, Klaus, is chewing and pulling on your hair. Static is hissing from the TV, as the screen flickers on a station long off the air. You look at your watch and realize that it is 3 AM.


You must have fallen asleep on the couch right after you got home from work, and settled down to read the newspaper.

I noted earlier that the Adventions games are “free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings” that mark most early amateur interactive fiction. That statement applies equally to The Jeweled Arena, but not at all to Carol Hovick’s Klaustrophobia. The other winner of the final AGT competition, its personality could hardly be more different from its partner on the podium. This is a big, rambling, jokey game that’s anything but polished. And yet it’s got an unpretentious charm about it, along with puzzles that turn out to be better than they first seem like they’re going to be.

What Klaustrophobia lacks in polish or literary sophistication, it attempts to make up for in sheer sprawl. It’s actually three games in one — so big that, even using the most advanced and least size-constrained version of AGT, Hovick was forced to split it into three parts, gluing them together with some ingenious hacks that are doubtless horrifying in that indelible AGT way to any experienced programmer. The three parts together boast a staggering 560 rooms and 571 objects, making Klaustrophobia easily one of the largest text adventures ever created.

Like the Unnkulia series and so much else from the interstitial period, Klaustrophobia is hugely derivative of the games of the 1980s. The story and puzzles here draw heavily from Infocom’s Bureaucracy, which is at least a more interesting choice than yet another Zork homage. You’ve just won an all-expenses-paid trip to appear on a quiz show, but first you have to get there; this exercise comes to absorb the first third of the game. Then, after you’ve made the rounds of not one but several quiz shows in the second part, part three sends you off to “enjoy” the Mexican vacation you’ve won. As a member of that category of text adventure which the Interactive Fiction Database dubs the “slice of life,” the game has that time-capsule quality I’ve mentioned before as being such a fascinating aspect of amateur interactive fiction. Klaustrophobia is a grab bag of pop-culture ephemera from the United States of 1993: Willard Scott, Dolly Parton, The Price is Right. If you lived through this time and place, you might just find it all unbearably nostalgic. (Why do earlier eras of history almost invariably seem so much happier and simpler?) And if you didn’t… well, there are worse ways to learn about everyday American life in 1993, should you have the desire to do so, than playing through this unforced, agenda-less primary source.

The puzzles are difficult in all the typical old-school ways: full of time limits, requiring ample learning by death. Almost inevitably given the game’s premise, they sometimes fail to fall on the right side of the line between being comically aggravating and just being aggravating. And the game is rough around the edges in all the typical AGT ways: under-tested (a game this large almost has to be) and haphazardly written, and subject to all the usual frustrations of the AGT parser and world model. Yet, despite it all, the author’s design instincts are pretty good; most of the puzzles are clued if you’re paying attention. Many of them involve coming to understand and manipulate some surprisingly complex dynamic sequences taking place around you. The whole experience is helped immensely by the episodic structure which exists even within each of the three parts: you go from your home to the bank to the airport, etc., with each vignette effectively serving as its own little self-contained adventure game. This structure lets Klaustrophobia avoid the combinatorial explosion that can make such earlier text-adventure epics as Acheton and Zork Zero all but insoluble. Here, you can work out a single episode, then move on to the next at your leisure with a nice sense of achievement in your back pocket — as long, of course, as you haven’t left anything vital behind.

Klaustrophobia is a game that I regard with perhaps more affection that I ought to, given its many and manifest flaws. While much of my affection may be down to the fact that it was one of the first games I played when I rediscovered interactive fiction around the turn of the millennium, I like to believe this game has more going for it than nostalgia. It undoubtedly requires a certain kind of player, but, whether taken simply as a text adventure or as an odd sort of sociological study — a frozen-in-amber relic of its time and place — it’s not without its intrinsic appeal. Further, it strikes me as perfect for its historical role as the final major statement made with AGT; something more atypically polished and literary, such as Shades of Gray or even Cosmoserve, just wouldn’t work as well in that context. Klaustrophobia‘s more messy sort of charm, on the other hand, feels like the perfect capstone to this forgotten culture of text adventuring, whose games were more casual but perhaps in some ways more honest because of it.


The Legend Lives!

A pattern of bits shifts inside your computer. New information scrolls up the screen.


It is not good.

As the impact of the discovery settles on your psyche, you recall the preceding events: your recent enrollment at Akmi Yooniversity; your serendipitous discovery of the joys of Classical Literature – a nice change of pace from computer hacking; your compuarchaeological discovery of the long-forgotten treasures that will make your thesis one of the most important this decade. But now that’s all a bit moot, isn’t it?

How ironic: You were stunned at how *real* the primitive Unnkulian stories seemed. Now you know why.

David Baggett’s The Legend Lives! is the only game on this curated list that dates from 1994, the particularly fallow year just before the great flowering of 1995. The very last production of the Adventions partnership, it was originally planned as another shareware title, but was ultimately released for free, a response to the relatively tepid registration rate of Advention’s previous games. Having conceived it as nothing less than a Major Statement meant to prod the artistic growth of a nascent literary medium, Baggett stated that he wished absolutely everyone to have a chance to play his latest game.

Ironically, the slightly uncomfortable amalgamation that is The Legend Lives! feels every bit as of-its-time today as any of the less artistically ambitious text adventures I’ve already discussed in this article. Set in the far future of Adventions’s Unnkulia universe, it reads like a checklist of what “literary” interactive fiction circa 1994 might be imagined to require.

There must, first and foremost, be lots and lots of words for something to be literary, right? Baggett has this covered… oh, boy, does he ever. The first room description, for the humble dorm room of the university student you play, consists of six substantial paragraphs — two or three screenfuls of text on the typical 80-column monitor displays of the day. As you continue to play, every object mentioned anywhere, no matter how trivial, continues to be described to within an inch of its life. While Baggett’s dedication is admirable, these endless heaps of verbiage do more to confuse than edify, especially in light of the fact that this game is, despite its literary aspirations, far from puzzleless. There’s a deft art to directing the player’s attention to the things that really matter in a text adventure — an art which this game comprehensively fails to exhibit. And then there are the massive non-interactive text dumps, sometimes numbering in the thousands of words, which are constantly interrupting proceedings. Sean Molley, reviewing the game in the first gush of enthusiasm which accompanied its release, wrote that “I certainly don’t mind reading 10 screens of text if it helps to advance the story and give me something to think about.” I suspect that most modern players wouldn’t entirely agree. The Legend Lives! is exhausting enough in its sheer verbosity to make you long for the odd minimalist poetry of Scott Adams. “Ok, too dry. Fish die” starts looking pretty good after spending some time with this game.

And yet, clumsy and overwrought though the execution often is, there is a real message here — one I would even go so far as to describe as thought-provoking. The Legend Lives! proves to be an old-school cyberpunk tale — another thing dating it indelibly to 1994 — about a computer virus that has infected Unnkulia’s version of the Internet and threatens to take over the entirety of civilization. The hero that emerges and finally sacrifices himself to eliminate the scourge is known mostly by his initials: “JC.” He’s allegedly an artificial intelligence, but he’s really, it would seem, an immaculate creation, a divinity living in the net. An ordinary artificial intelligence, says one character, “is smart with no motivation, no goals; no creativity, ya see. JC, he’s like us.” What we have here, folks, is an allegory. I trust that I need not belabor the specific parallels with another famous figure who shares the same initials.

But I don’t wish to trivialize the message here too much. It’s notable that this argument for a non-reductionist view of human intelligence — for a divine spark to the human mind that can’t be simulated in silicon — was made by a graduate student in MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab, working in the very house built by Marvin Minsky and his society of mind. Whatever one’s feelings about the Christian overtones to Baggett’s message, his impassioned plea that we continue to allow a place for the ineffable has only become more relevant in our current age of algorithmization and quantization.

Like all of the Adventions games, this one has been virtually forgotten today, despite being widely heralded upon its release as the most significant work of literary interactive fiction to come along since A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. That’s a shame. Yes, writers of later text adventures would learn to combine interactivity with literary texture in more subtle and effective ways, but The Legend Lives! is nevertheless a significant way station in the slow evolution of post-Infocom interactive fiction, away from merely reflecting the glory of a storied commercial past and toward becoming a living, evolving artistic movement in its own right.


Perdition’s Flames

*** You have died. ***

All is dark and quiet. There is no sensation, no time. Your mind floats peacefully in a void. You perceive nothing, you feel nothing, you think nothing. Sleep without dreams.

All is hazy and gray. Sensation is vague and indistinct. Your mind is sluggish, sleepy. You see gray shapes in a gray fog; you hear distant, muffled sounds. You think, but your thoughts are fleeting, disconnected, momentary flashes of light in a dark night. Time is still frames separated by eons of nothing, brief awakenings in a long sleep.

All is clear and sharp. Sensation crystalizes from a fog. You see, you hear, you feel. Your mind awakens; you become aware of a place, and a time.

You are on a boat.

Last but far from least, we come to the real jewel of this collection, a game which I can heartily recommend to everyone who enjoys text adventures. Perdition’s Flames was the third game written by Mike Roberts, the creator of the TADS programming language. While not enormous in the way of Klaustrophobia, it’s more than substantial enough in its own right, offering quite a few hours of puzzling satisfaction.

The novel premise casts you as a soul newly arrived in Hell. (Yes, just as you might expect, there are exactly 666 points to score.) Luckily for you, however, this is a corporate, postmodern version of the Bad Place. “Ever since the deregulation of the afterlife industry,” says your greeter when you climb off the boat, “we’ve had to compete with Heaven for eternal souls — because you’re free to switch to Heaven at any time. So, we’ve been modernizing! There really isn’t much eternal torment these days, for example. And, thanks to the Environmental Clean-up Superfund, we have the brimstone problem mostly under control at this point.”

As the game continues, there’s a lot more light satire along those lines, consistently amusing if not side-splittingly funny. Finishing the whole thing will require solving lots and lots of puzzles, which are varied, fair, and uniformly enjoyable. In fact, I number at least one of them among the best puzzles I’ve ever seen. (For those who have already played the game: that would be the one where you’re a ghost being pursued by a group of paranormal researchers.)

Although Perdition’s Flames is an old-school puzzlefest in terms of categorization, it’s well-nigh breathtakingly progressive in terms of its design sensibility. For this happens to be a text adventure — the first text adventure ever, to my knowledge — which makes it literally impossible for you to kill yourself (after all, you are already dead) or lock yourself out of victory. It is, in other words, the Secret of Monkey Island of interactive fiction, an extended proof that adventure games without deaths or dead ends can nevertheless be intriguing, challenging, and immensely enjoyable. Roberts says it right there in black and white:

Note that in Perdition’s Flames, in contrast to many other adventure games, your character never gets killed, and equally importantly, you’ll never find yourself in a position where it’s impossible to finish the game. You have already seen the only “*** You have died ***” message in Perdition’s Flames. As a result, you don’t have to worry as much about saving game positions as you may be accustomed to.

I can’t emphasize enough what an astonishing statement that is to find in a text adventure from 1993. Perdition’s Flames and its author deserve to be celebrated for making it every bit as much as we celebrate Monkey Island and Ron Gilbert.

Yet even in its day Perdition’s Flames was oddly overlooked in proportion to its size, polish, and puzzly invention alone, much less the major leap it represents toward an era of fairer, saner text adventures. And this even as the merciful spirit behind the humble statement above, found buried near the end of the in-game instructions, was destined to have much more impact on the quality of the average player’s life than all of the literary pretensions which The Legend Lives! so gleefully trumpets.

Roberts’s game was overshadowed most of all by what would go down in history as the text adventure of 1993: Graham Nelson’s Curses!. Said game is erudite, intricate, witty, and sometimes beautifully written — and runs on Infocom’s old Z-Machine, which constituted no small part of its appeal in 1993. But it’s also positively riddled with the types of sudden deaths and dead ends which Perdition’s Flames explicitly eschews. You can probably guess which of the pair holds up better for most players today.

So, as we prepare to dive into the story of how Curses! came to be, and of how it turned into the seismic event which revitalized the near-moribund medium of interactive fiction and set it on the path it still travels today, do spare a thought for Perdition’s Flames as well. While Curses! was the first mover that kicked the modern interactive-fiction community into gear, Perdition’s Flames, one might argue, is simply the first work of modern interactive fiction, full stop. All of its contemporaries, Curses! included, seem regressive next to its great stroke of genius. Go forth and play it, and rejoice. An Interactive Fiction Renaissance is in the offing.

(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)

 

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Out with 1992, In with 1993

First, the bad news: I’m afraid I won’t have a new article for you this Friday. My wife Dorte and I are going to take a long weekend in beautiful Bornholm, and I’ve been using this shortened work week to do some preparations for my next few months of writing. Both this site and The Analog Antiquarian will be pushed back one week because of this.

By way of compensation, though, I do have a new ebook for you, covering 1992 in this blog’s chronology. As usual, its existence is down to the good offices of Richard Lindner. You’ll find his email address on the title page of the ebook, so if you enjoy it, by all means send him an email to thank him.

A new ebook means, of course, that we’ve made it through another year. In fact, we’ve already started on 1993 with the Return to Zork coverage.

This one isn’t just any old year: a strong argument could be made that 1993 was the pivotal year in the entire history of computer gaming, the dividing line between its antiquity and modernity. For this was the year when CD-ROM finally went mainstream, virtually eliminating any and all technical restrictions on the size of games. The transformation this wrought on the graphics and sound of games, on their budgets, on their potential consumer appeal, and, indeed, on their very nature is almost impossible to overstate. We’ll have to wait until the rise of ubiquitous digital distribution well into the 2000s before we again see any single technology remotely as disruptive.

But as if the CD-ROM revolution wasn’t enough to make 1993 a special year, there was also the 3D graphics revolution, as exemplified by Doom, the game many would doubtless consider the game of the 1990s, at least in terms of pure populist appeal.

In addition to these two seismic events, the year is positively bursting with other themes, technologies, and franchises that remain inescapable today. An exciting time indeed.

So, here’s a broad outline of the specific topics I anticipate covering as we make our way through this year for the ages. (Needless to say, if you want to be totally surprised by each new article, skip this section!)

  • In addition to all of the multimedia flash that marked 1993, it was also the year when the groundwork for an Interactive Fiction Renaissance was laid, thanks to a game called Curses! which re-purposed Infocom’s legendary Z-Machine for its own ends. We’ll look at where the technology to make that seminal title came from as well as the game itself.
  • In the view of many fans, 1993 was the year that LucasArts peaked as a maker of graphic adventures, with perhaps the two most beloved games they ever made that don’t have “Monkey Island” in their names. Both will get their due here.
  • 1993 was the year that Sierra went into an economic tailspin, thanks to budgets and multimedia ambitions that were increasing even faster than sales. We’ll follow them as they start down this beginning of the road to acquisition and eventual oblivion — and we’ll also look at some of Sierra’s individual adventure games from the year, especially the much-loved first Gabriel Knight title.
  • 1993 was the year that Legend Entertainment finally had to face market realities and drop the parser from their adventure games, marking the definitive end of the text adventure as a commercial proposition. (Lucky that aforementioned amateur Renaissance was waiting in the wings, eh?) We’ll look at this end of Legend’s first era and beginning of their second, during which they became a maker of point-and-click adventures.
  • 1993 was the year that Alone in the Dark invented the survival-horror genre. We’ll look at where that game came from and how it holds up today.
  • 1993 was the last big year in CRPGs for quite some time, as a glut of samey titles tried gamers’ patience past the breaking point. We’ll look at Sierra’s Betrayal at Krondor, one of the less samey titles, and also at how the end of the CRPG gravy train affected Origin Systems and SSI, two of the leading practitioners of the genre.
  • 1993 was the year that the wheels came off for Commodore even in Europe, thanks to new Amiga models that arrived as too little, too late. We’ll look at the sad end of a company and a platform that once held so much promise.
  • 1993 was the year of the sequel to Lemmings! Enough said.
  • 1993 was the year of a little game from Interplay that I’ve always wished I could like more, Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space. We’ll use the occasion of its release to examine the checkered history of space-program management simulations in general, a sub-genre that seems like it ought to have worked beautifully but somehow never quite did.
  • 1993 was the year of Master of Orion, perhaps not the first grand 4X space opera in absolute terms but the one to which every subsequent game of the type would always be compared. Enough said.
  • 1993 was the year when shareware peaked. We’ll look at this rich culture of amateurs and semi-professionals making games of many stripes and asking people to pay for them after they got them.
  • 1993 was the year that The 7th Guest, the poster child for form over substance in gaming, popularized SVGA graphics, pushing the industry onward at last after six years stuck on the VGA standard. Along with The 7th Guest itself and the meteoric rise and fall of its maker Trilobyte, we’ll find out how a computer industry that had always looked to IBM to set its standards finally learned to drive its own technological evolution in a world where IBM had become all but irrelevant.
  • 1993 was the year of Myst, the best-selling adventure game in history. Was it a brilliant artistic creation, or did it ruin adventure games for the rest of the decade? Or are both things true? We shall investigate.
  • And 1993 was, as mentioned, the year of Doom, the yang to Myst‘s yin, the only shareware product ever to make its sellers multi-millionaires. We’ll try to address the many and varied aspects of what some would consider to be the most iconic computer game of all time. We’ll start with its incredible technology, end with the way its defiantly low-concept, ultra-violent personality coarsened the culture of gaming, and cover a heck of a lot of ground in between.

As some of that last bullet point would imply, not everything that happened in 1993 was unadulteratedly positive, but it was all important. And certainly the year produced more than its share of classic games that still stand up wonderfully today. I’m looking forward to digging into it.

So, let me close by thanking all of you who support this ongoing project in one way or another. Without you, it just wouldn’t be possible. If you’ve been reading for a while and you haven’t yet become a supporter, please do think about contributing through Patreon or PayPal (you’ll find the links in the right-hand sidebar). It really does make all the difference in the world to my ability to continue this work. And if you’re interested in history more generally, do check out The Analog Antiquarian as well. I’m very proud of the writing I’m doing there.

See you all in a week and half, when we’ll buckle down and get started on the to-do list above. Until then, thanks again for being the best readers in the world!