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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Heroes of Might and Magic

The Heroes of Might and Magic series of fantasy strategy games was an anomaly during its period of peak popularity at the turn of the millennium: it remained defiantly turn-based in an industry that had gone almost entirely real-time, and it likewise continued to rely on lovingly hand-drawn pixel art in lieu of trendy 3D graphics. All of this gave the series the feel of — dare I say it? — a board game, at a time when such things were deeply out of fashion with digital gamers looking for the latest and greatest in immersive whiz-bang pyrotechnics. And yet it sold millions upon millions of copies.

When we dig a bit deeper, we find that the origins of Heroes‘s retro tabletop sensibility are as explicable as its popularity is inexplicable. As we learned in the last article, its principal creator Jon Van Caneghem was a tabletop gamer long before he became a computer gamer, much less a computer-game designer and programmer. Heroes of Might and Magic was as heavily influenced by the delightfully tactile boards, cards, counters, and dice which had marked his adolescence as it was by anything he had seen or done on a computer since. More specifically, it was the belated fruit of what had once seemed a quixotic attempt on his part to bridge the analog-versus-digital split in gaming — a venture which dated back to more than seven years before the first game in the Heroes series arrived in late 1995.



One of the young Jon Van Caneghem’s favorite tabletop games was Star Fleet Battles, a “simulation” of outer-space combat in the Star Trek universe. His love for it persisted even after he decided to become a computer-game entrepreneur. Indeed, the self-described Star Fleet Battles “fanatic” found time amidst the run up to the release of the original Might and Magic to win the game’s biggest tournament in 1986, thus securing for himself the status of best player in the world as of that instant in time.

The publisher of Star Fleet Battles was an Amarillo, Texas-based outfit known as Task Force Games. Two plucky freshly minted Texas Tech graduates named Stephen Cole and Allen Eldridge had founded Task Force in 1978, whereupon they had managed to acquire a license for one of the biggest science-fiction properties in the world by employing a circuitous — not to say dubious — stratagem: they had sub-licensed the intellectual property from Franz Joseph, the author of a tome called the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. Task Force would eventually secure a more direct contract with Paramount Pictures, the owners of Star Trek, but their game would always live on precarious legal ground, entirely at the sufferance of a corporate overlord which seemed only intermittently to realize that it existed. The tortuously circumscribed contract which allowed Task Force to make their game stipulated that they could use the ships and hardware and the various alien societies and races from the television show, but that they couldn’t mention specific characters or plot lines. Nevertheless, Star Fleet Battles has survived if not always thrived right up to the present day, even as countless other, higher profile efforts to make interactive versions of Star Trek have come and gone.

In 1983, Cole and Eldridge parted ways to some extent: the former started a new company called Amarillo Design Group to conjure up fresh Star Fleet Battles rules, scenarios, and supplements, while the latter continued as the head of Task Force, which in turn remained the publisher of the aforementioned game line and others. Some five years later, word reached Jon Van Caneghem at New World Computing, now flush with the commercial success which Might and Magic was enjoying, that Eldridge was interested in selling Task Force. It struck Van Caneghem as a chance to become a new type of gaming mogul, uniting the worlds of tabletop and computer gaming under a shared umbrella for the very first time. The dedicated grognards at Task Force could become a “proving ground for systems” on the tabletop before they were implemented on the computer, and product lines too could cross and recross the digital divide in pursuit of synergies no one had yet dared to imagine.

So, New World purchased Task Force and moved them into their offices in Van Nuys, California. Stephen Cole insisted on retaining control of the Amarillo Design Group and keeping it in its namesake city, but he did agree to continue to provide Task Force with their most prominent product line. To run the tabletop side of his empire, Van Caneghem hired one John Olsen, a board-gaming insider with an impressive resume; he had most recently headed the major British tabletop publisher Games Workshop’s American operation.

The whole scheme appealed greatly to a dedicated old-school gamer like Van Caneghem, but it was in reality muddle-headed in the extreme. He had bought into the tabletop industry when it was smack in the middle of a brutal downturn, prompted largely by, ironically enough, computer games. Avalon Hill, the old king of hobbyist wargames, was bleeding money, and even the likes of Dungeons & Dragons was rather less than it once had been. It would be some years yet before collectible card games and a new breed of ruthlessly balanced abstract board games known as “Eurogames” would breathe life back into the tabletop market. In the meantime, it was a disheartening place to be, where the only people making any real money were the big conglomerates marketing hoary family staples like Monopoly. “We really made a go at board games, but compared to the dollars and profitability of software… there was just no comparison,” Van Caneghem would later admit. “It didn’t make any sense.”

But that realization would take some time to fully dawn on him. Thus the output of New World Computing immediately after 1988’s Might and Magic II was dominated by the tabletop-to-computer (or vice versa) synergies Van Caneghem hoped to create. Granted, Task Force’s biggest property of all was a nonstarter here: there was no way that Paramount was going to allow Star Fleet Battles onto computers to compete with other efforts to bring Star Trek to the digital realm. But Task Force also had a long-established relationship with the Arizona game maker Flying Buffalo, and now served as a conduit for bringing some of the latter’s designs to the computer. First came a credible port of the venerable satirical card game Nuclear War. And then came a more ambitious project, a computer game based on Tunnels & Trolls, Flying Buffalo’s simpler would-be rival to Dungeons & Dragons. The system being very popular in Japan, this project became a trans-Pacific collaboration: a design document was written by the Flying Buffalo regulars Elizabeth Danforth and Michael Stackpole (both of whom already had a track record with computer games as well), then passed to a team in Japan for implementation. Finally, said team sent it sent back to New World to be made presentable in its original language. Unsurprisingly, the finished product felt more than a trifle schizophrenic, while its audiovisuals captured the charmingly pulpy, low-rent feel of its tabletop source material perhaps a bit too well for the presentation-driven contemporary computer-game market. “It didn’t go over all that well” in its native country, admits Van Caneghem, although it did do somewhat better in Japan.

But the most interesting of all the products of this rather confused period in New World Computing’s history is also the one which came closest to being a truly synergistic effort. Rather than being a tabletop game ported to the computer, King’s Bounty had one foot planted squarely in each realm from first to last.



It all started when Jon Van Caneghem began musing one day about how to bring some of the flavor of another of his old tabletop favorites to the computer: a board game known as Titan, one of those gloriously messy experiences from the heyday of Avalon Hill, the sort of game in which half the players might be eliminated in the first hour while the other half grind away at one another for five or six hours more. In Titan, players move their “stacks” of monsters over a highly abstracted map, trying to recruit additional monsters to add to their legions even as they also try to outmaneuver and attack the other players’ stacks when the advantage is with their side. When two players’ armies do bump into one another, the focus shifts to a tactical battle map representing the terrain in which the clash is occurring. The ultimate goal is to defeat each of your opponents’ titans — their super-units, the equivalent of the king in chess — as this is the only way to force them out of the game; you must also be careful to protect your own titan, of course. Getting to the end of a game of Titan can be a long journey indeed, one that can be by turns riotously entertaining and numbingly tedious.

Fond though he was of the game, Van Caneghem felt it would be problematic to bring a similar experience to life on the computer, mostly because of the difficulty of implementing an opponent artificial intelligence able to challenge a human player; at the time, New World was still making their games for 8-bit platforms with as little as 64 K of memory, which didn’t leave much scope for such things. But then Van Caneghem happened to talk to John Olsen about a concept Task Force had in development, with the working title of Bounty Hunter. Designed primarily by one Robert L. Sassone, it cast its players as the titular vigilantes for hire, moving around a board trying to nab more fugitives than their opponents. Van Caneghem thought the idea was brilliant in a big-picture sort of way, but a trifle under-baked in the details. But what if they combined it with some of the themes and mechanics of Titan? And what if they then made it into both a computer game and a board game?

The resulting game of King’s Bounty first appeared on computers in 1990, beginning with versions for the Apple II and for MS-DOS machines. Living in the hazily delineated borderlands between the CRPG and strategy genres, it was a refreshingly light-hearted, fast-playing change of pace from the more ponderous epics which dominated to either side of it. You start out by picking one of four protagonists to guide: the Knight, the Paladin, the Barbarian, or the Sorceress. Then you proceed to wander the four continents of its world, fighting some monsters and recruiting others, visiting towns, besieging castles, looting treasure chests, and, yes, capturing villains for bounties, growing steadily stronger all the while. In addition to a cash reward, each successfully hunted bounty reveals another piece of a treasure map, an idea cheerfully stolen from Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Said map points the way to the King’s Sceptre, the recovery of which ends the game in victory. Rather than competing directly against a computer opponent who tries to accomplish the same goal as you, you battle the calendar: you have between 200 and 1000 days to complete your quest for the Sceptre, depending on the difficulty level you choose. By this means was New World able to dodge the problem of creating an artificial intelligence capable of going head to head with a human player.

A complete game of King’s Bounty generally takes only a few hours, making it a positively snack-sized offering in comparison to the 100-hour-plus likes of a Might and Magic. Yet it provides a compressed version of the same satisfying power fantasy — what Alan Emrich, reviewing King’s Bounty for Computer Gaming World magazine, called “expanding megalomania.”

There is some sort of intangible “charge” that comes out of seeing one’s character become a more powerful warlord, leading bigger armies, gaining an ever-increasing commission, subduing ever larger foes, and so forth. While this is hardly an original concept (it dates back to the first games of Dungeons & Dragons), it still holds an endearing appeal when done well. In King’s Bounty, this “Monty Haul” brand of adventuring is exquisitely executed, rewarding the player with plenty of strokes on his way to finding the Sceptre.

Unlike the typical one-and-done CRPG, the computer game of King’s Bounty is designed to be played multiple times, as one would a board game. Not only are there four protagonists and four difficulty levels to choose from, but the placement of monsters, treasures, bounties, and the Sceptre itself are randomized with each new game. If it isn’t a hugely deep game even by the standards of its day, it can be an entertaining one for far more hours than a rundown of its simple mechanics might suggest. As we’ll soon see, this trait along with many of its other, more prosaic qualities would return years later in the more famous series of games for which it served as something of a prototype.

In the here and now of 1990, however, King’s Bounty on the computer proved a modest commercial success but not a sterling one. By the time it appeared, Jon Van Caneghem had reluctantly acknowledged that it was tough enough for his company to survive as a maker of computer games alone, and was in the process of divesting New World of Task Force Games: he sold out to John Olsen, who then moved Task Force back to Amarillo. In 1991, Olsen’s Task Force finally published the board game of King’s Bounty. It preserved most of the key elements of the computer game in forms modified to suit the tabletop, but it attracted little attention in a moribund marketplace, and quickly went out of print. (Task Force itself would continue to release new products until 1996 and to market the best of the old ones until 2004.)

Meanwhile, with the dream of making analog and digital games side by side now consigned to the past alongside other follies of youth, Van Caneghem retrenched and refocused on New World Computing’s core commercial strength: namely, the Might and Magic CRPG series. New World made a slick new engine that left behind 8-bit machines like the Apple II, then made three new Might and Magic games with it between 1991 and 1993. During this period, as these games were garnering strong reviews and equally strong sales, it was easy enough to see King’s Bounty as just one more misbegotten sign of a confused time.

But by 1994, the Might and Magic line seemed to be losing momentum, in tandem with a dramatic downturn in the CRPG market in general. The new standard bearers for narrative-oriented games were tightly scripted “interactive movies” like Under a Killing Moon, along with 3D-rendered slideshow adventures like Myst; many had come to see the sort of sprawling, open-ended high-fantasy CRPGs which New World made as relics of the past. New World stood at a proverbial fork in the road. Their second-generation Might and Magic engine too had now passed its sell-by date. Did they damn the torpedoes and surge ahead with the expensive task of making a new one for a genre that had fallen so badly out of fashion? Or did they try something else entirely? Van Caneghem looked around and weighed his options.

The enormous success of id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM had heralded the emergence of a less highfalutin and more visceral, action-oriented strand of computer gaming to challenge the artsier experiments of the period. Yet computer gaming as a whole has never been a monolithic or even a bifurcated beast. Along with the likes of DOOM and Myst, that yang and yin of the era, strategy games were enjoying a quieter golden age in the wake of such classics as Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and Master of Orion. Further, some of the latest explorations of the genre almost seemed to have taken a lesson from King’s Bounty about the appeal of CRPG-style character building within a strategic framework: X-COM and Master of Magic remain famous to this day for the intense personal bonds they forge between their characters and the players who control them. Perhaps, mused Van Caneghem, King’s Bounty had just been a bit too far ahead of the curve, implemented using technology that couldn’t quite do justice to its concept. Perhaps he should try again.

But, this being an older and wiser Jon Van Caneghem, he would do some things differently this time. Whatever the current state of the CRPG market, the Might and Magic name still had the benefit of widespread familiarity. Why let that go to waste? Why not make the new game a spinoff of Might and Magic rather than a completely new, completely unfamiliar thing?

And so Heroes of Might and Magic was born. Van Caneghem could hardly have imagined how successful it would prove on every level, from the crass commercial measure of units sold to the more idealistic one of hours of fun delivered to millions of people all over the world.



At this point, I owe it to those readers who aren’t among said millions to explain just what Heroes of Might and Magic is all about. It has ironically less to do with the CRPG series whose name it borrows than it does with King’s Bounty. Beyond sharing a fantasy theme that involves plenty of monster killing and leveling up as a reward for it, and some halfhearted efforts to tie it into the CRPG series’s universe, it has almost nothing to do with its older namesake. “If not for copyright lawyers, Heroes of Might and Magic could as easily have been called Heroes of Ultima, Heroes of Wizardry, or Heroes of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” noted Jason Kapalka accurately in his review of the first game in the series for Computer Gaming World.

But even the influence of King’s Bounty shouldn’t be overstated. For all that its roots so plainly lie there, Heroes is at bottom a very different sort of game; there’s far more distance between King’s Bounty and the first Heroes than there is between the latter and any of the subsequent entries in the series. Heroes abandons the business about bounty hunting in favor of being a true strategic wargame, complete with computer and/or human opponents who are trying to conquer the same map that you are. Rather than guiding a single hero, you can now recruit and control up to eight of them, along with the sedentary garrisons you collect to defend your castles against the other players whose heroes are also roaming the map with their armies.

Newbies to the series today are often advised to skip the first game, on the argument that everything it does is done bigger and better by the later ones. This is true enough as a statement of fact; those games are packed full of much more stuff — stuff which, in contrast to that found in many sequels, really does make an already compelling game that much more compelling. Still, I don’t really agree with the argument that this fact makes Heroes I extraneous. On the contrary, it strikes me as a perfect place to start with the series. It introduces the core concepts that carry through all of the subsequent games, leaving those successors free to layer their additional complexities and nuances onto its sturdy frame. So, this article will focus exclusively on the often neglected first game. There will be plenty of time to praise the others in later articles.

At the time of its release in the fall of 1995, Heroes I seemed merely the latest exemplar of what was already a long tradition of fantasy strategy on the computer. The most notable recent game of this sort had been Steve Barcia’s Master of Magic. It and Heroes of Might and Magic share many similarities: both are games of conquest that expect you to recruit and nurture individual heroes to lead your armies, even as you also guide the development of the castles and towns that spawn the soldiers who fight under them; both prominently feature the magic that is found in both their names; both shift between a strategic map where the big decisions are made and a tactical view used for battles. Yet the two games’ personalities are markedly different, so much so that no one who has actually played both of them could ever confuse them. Master of Magic is a gonzo, ramshackle creation, stuffed with so many spells, monsters, treasures, and general flights of fancy that it doesn’t really matter that a third or more of it all doesn’t really work, on a design or even sometimes a purely technical level. Heroes, by contrast, is a much finer honed creation, replacing the fascination of Master of Magic‘s multitudinous sprawl with its own brand of fiendishly addictive playability.

One difference between the two stands out above all the others: while Master of Magic trusts in its random world generator to create interesting dilemmas for the player, Heroes embraces set-piece, human-crafted scenarios. These fall into two categories: there are standalone scenarios you can play — no fewer than 34 of them in the version of the game found at digital storefronts today — and also an eight-scenario campaign which you can play through from the point of view of any of the four factions in the game. This campaign lacks most of the bells and whistles that came in the sequels: each successive scenario is introduced by a bare few sentences of text rather than one of the elaborate cut scenes that came later. As a result, it inculcates little sense of narrative momentum and still less of a sense of identification with the faction leader you’re meant to be playing; if the campaign scenarios had merely been shoveled into the mix as yet more standalone scenarios, no one would likely have been the wiser. Still, it’s a start, the germ of an idea which New World later took to much more ambitious heights.

Whether standalone or a part of the campaign, a scenario generally gives you one hero with a few units under his command and one partially developed castle with which to start. Fog of war means that only a tiny portion of the full map is revealed to you at the beginning. In the example shown below, we’ve started as a Barbarian, one of the four possible factions; the others are the Knights, the Sorceresses, and, replacing King’s Bounty‘s Paladins, the Warlocks. One player of each faction is found in each scenario. All of the factions have their own strengths and weaknesses, but in general the Barbarians and Knights are better suited for physical combat while the Sorceresses and Warlocks are better at casting spells.

Each of the four factions has its own style of castle, with its own roster of structures to be built up. Each castle can provide different types of units to fight for you — up to six types in all after you build the appropriate “dwellings” for them by spending your gold and other resources. We’ve been given a very generous start here; we already have four of the six possible Barbarian units types — namely goblins, wolves, orcs, and ogres — available to join our legions. Only trolls and the fearsome cyclopes are still to go.

In fact, we find that we have the necessary resources — 20 ore and 4000 gold — to build a bridge that will produce trolls already. A few of the creatures in question become available to hire as soon as a dwelling is built, followed by more at the beginning of every week; each turn consists of one day.

We can also recruit additional heroes at our castles, at the cost of 2500 gold each. Two are shuffled to the top of the pool for our consideration at any given time. Note that, although our starting faction is the Barbarians, we need not confine ourselves to recruiting only Barbarian heroes; nor must individual heroes “follow suit” in terms of the types of units which join their armies, although there is a morale advantage to grouping units of the same faction together.

With money tight, resources scarce, your armies weak, and your heroes unproven, the early game is always a race to scout out as much of the map as possible in order to better understand your strategic position, whilst also grabbing up any loot you find lying about. (Luckily, our Barbarian hero is particularly well-suited to this stage of the game, being the fastest mover of the four types.) There’s so much that is tempting: gold and other resources to replenish our scant stocks, sawmills and mines that can provide a constant supply of resources, magic artifacts which our heroes can carry around to aid them, obelisks which reveal pieces of a treasure map to an ultra-powerful Ultimate Artifact (a legacy of King’s Bounty‘s King’s Sceptre), even some places where we can recruit new units to join our ranks without having to pay for them, as we must at our castles.

But soon the easy pickings around our starting castle have all been scarfed up, and it’s time to start fighting some of the monsters scattered about the map, who guard things that we want and block passes that can take us farther afield. The hero who commands each of your armies is a typical armchair general: he doesn’t fight directly, but rather stays in the rear, adding his Attack and Defense scores to those of his troops, and casting spells that can become devastating by the late game. (For this reason, Barbarians and Knights tend to do best in the earlier stages of a scenario, but can be in for a rude shock if they don’t eliminate their spell-casting rivals before they grow too powerful.) In a testament to the old adage that heroes never die but only fade away, a hero whose army is defeated is merely returned to the pool of his colleagues that are waiting to be hired; if you’re not careful, you might find yourself fighting against a hero who was once one of yours, whom you spent a long time lovingly parenting for the benefit of one of your opponents.

The turn-based combat is as conceptually simple and fast-playing as the rest of the game, but nevertheless boasts surprising tactical subtleties. Each unit type has its own initiative value, movement speed, attack type (melee or ranged), attack potency, armor class, and hit points, and sometimes its own special strengths and weaknesses on top of all of these basic ones. Learning to build and use your armies most effectively, and learning how best to counter the various types of enemies you meet, takes quite some complete games, but doing so is very rewarding.

Sooner or later, you’ll come into contact with one of the other players — sooner if you’re playing on a smaller map, later in the case of a larger. Once that happens, exploration begins to compete with military strategy in your ranking of priorities. In most scenarios your goal is simply to capture all of your enemies’ castles, although a few of the campaign scenarios do mix things up a bit by asking you to be the first to recover the Ultimate Artifact or to capture a specific neutral castle. Regardless, Heroes shares with King’s Bounty a quality of brevity that sets it apart from most strategy games of the mid-1990s. Even its largest maps seldom take more than a few hours to explore and conquer. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that you won’t immediately start on another scenario…)

Such is a very, very broad overview of Heroes of Might and Magic. Yet it hardly begins to explain what makes it such a great game. This is every critic’s dilemma: it’s always easier to identify the flaws that keep a given game from greatness than it is to capture that peculiar kismet that yields a game as compulsively playable as this one. Still, it’s part of what I’m paid to do here, so I’ll do my best.

Like so many of the great ones, Heroes is perhaps most of all a tribute to its designer’s willingness to test and test and iterate endlessly until he gets it right. Jon Van Caneghem:

Any time you’re creating a new game — a game that has mechanics people haven’t seen before — there’s a lot of resistance to it. They’re used to something they’ve been playing all the time, and now you’re giving them something new. It’s foreign, so the first reaction is, “I don’t like it.” And if the game isn’t really good, that makes it even worse. If it’s not balanced or it’s not playing right, it becomes, “I don’t like this at all.”

So, my testing department on Heroes was not liking the game. They didn’t like the mechanics; it had a lot of imbalance to it; it was too slow; it was too different. And I just kept hammering at it. I said, “I know this is going to be fun. This is gonna work.” I really analyzed what they were doing and what was bothering them. The length of the turns was too long. If I made the distance that the heroes got to move on the map [in a single turn] too short, they didn’t like it. The same if I made it too long. There was a sweet spot. I made all these little tweaks, and said, “Try it again. Try it again. Try it again.”

All of a sudden, they started getting into it. They started battling each other. Then they started arguing over strategies. That’s my usual moment of clarity in game development. The moment QA is arguing over which strategy is best to win, you’re ready to ship.

This willingness to take every scrap of feedback seriously placed its stamp on every aspect of the game, from the interface, which is as well-nigh perfect as the technology of 1995 could possibly have allowed, to more abstract questions of playability and balance. Consider, for example, the limit of eight heroes per player. Such a number gives you a wealth of possibilities each turn by the late game, but keeps the game’s scope from exploding to the point where keeping track of everything becomes a daunting chore rather than a pleasure, as tends to happen in such predecessors as Master of Magic.

The opponent artificial intelligence is another case study in the ruthless pursuit of fun. It’s a virtual given that the computer will be allowed to cheat somehow in a game of this sort stemming from this era; it simply wasn’t possible at this time to program opponents that could give a decent human player a run for her money on a level field. But instead of merely increasing all of the computer players’ relevant numbers by 50 percent or more, as so many strategy games of the 1990s did, Heroes cheats in a way that isn’t so obviously egregious: its computer players suffer from no fog of war, meaning they know where every resource and castle is on the map from the start and can react accordingly. The resulting competition remains decidedly asymmetrical, but it feels like a struggle against deviously clever opponents rather than blatantly cheating ones. And at the end of the day, the subjective feel of the experience is all that matters. (Then again, if you really want a challenge, you can play against up to three human friends in hot-seat mode, or against one friend over a network. These too are options that surprisingly few turn-based strategy games of Heroes‘s era offer.)

In the final analysis, there is no magic bullet that makes Heroes so much fun, just a long string of small decisions, decided almost invariably correctly thanks to Van Caneghem’s willingness to listen to what his first players told him. The result is a game that’s addictive for all the right reasons — one that’s simple and approachable on the surface but is full of unexpected depths, a possibility space that’s enormously rewarding to explore and learn how to optimize. You’ll feel as if you’re leveling up like one of your heroes as you learn how to play on the Easy scenarios, polish your skills on the Normal ones, and at last find ways to triumph even over the Tough and Impossible ones. You might occasionally slam down your computer’s lid in frustration along the way, but you’ll always come back the next day to try again.

To all of this must be added the game’s immensely appealing presentation, which makes its world a nice place to be even when the tide of war is going against you. One similarity it does share with the CRPG series which gives it its name is its eschewing of the “dark, gritty” aesthetic of so many drearily serious fantasy games of its own era and later ones. Heroes is serious about being fun, but it never takes itself all that seriously in any other sense. Its world is one of bright primary colors that pop right on your monitor screen, of cartoon-style monsters duking it out without ever shedding a visible drop of blood. Its stories and settings don’t make a lick of sense, being a pastiche of whatever mythologies, fairy tales, and pop-culture tropes happened to be lying around the offices of New World. Why do the Sorceress’s glitter-splattered sprites, unicorns, and phoenixes look like an explosion at a My Little Pony factory? And why on earth do cyclopes spring forth from Mesoamerican-style pyramids, and what has any of that got to do with Barbarians anyway? Nobody knows and nobody cares. Heroes succeeds to a large degree through its sheer giddy likability, a reflection of the personality of the man who conceived it. No game less pretentious than this one has ever been made.

Another thing to love about the game is the fact that its roster of heroes consists of women and men in nearly equal proportion. The former are every bit as cool and capable as the latter, without ever being over-sexualized in order to please the male gaze. This level of enlightenment was sadly rare among mainstream strategy games of the 1990s. Heroes stands almost alone in being so welcoming to absolutely everyone.

Complaints? Any critic worth his salt must come up with a few, I suppose. So, I’ll note that some of the more difficult scenarios are as much exercises in puzzle solving as pure strategizing, almost demanding that you fail a few times before you can piece together the correct route to victory. Then, too, despite all the extensive play-testing it received, Heroes is no paradigm of balanced game design by modern lights. The Warlock faction is much more powerful than any of the others. Its top-end units are dragons, the best in the game by far. They have an absurd number of hit points, are completely immune to magical attacks, and can kill two stacks of enemies in one shot thanks to their fiery breath; the first player able to start purchasing significant numbers of dragons is all but guaranteed to win. And Heroes by no means resolves what has long been the biggest conundrum in wide-angle strategy-game design: that of the anticlimactic mopping up that follows that tipping point when you know you’re going to win. The need to optimize your play and weigh every decision carefully — do I spend my precious resources on a dwelling that will produce better units or on an addition to my mage guild that will give me better spells? — goes away after this point. All of the most interesting choices and the most nail-biting drama are front-loaded.

On the other hand, none of these things are necessarily unadulterated negatives.”Solving” a difficult map that’s been giving you fits can be a thoroughly satisfying accomplishment in its own right. And any faction can capture a Warlock castle and thereby gain a pathway to dragons, meaning that the starting Warlock player is most definitely not guaranteed to win — and then as well, the sheer joy of romping across the landscape with a ridiculously overpowered army of dragons shouldn’t be taken lightly when considering these matters. Much the same riposte heads off complaints about the anticlimactic endgame. It usually doesn’t take that long to win once the tipping point is reached, and doing so always warms the heart with megalomaniac joy.

I’ve used the word “addictive” a couple of times already in relation to Heroes of Might and Magic. And indeed, the word seems unavoidable in any review of it. The “one more turn” syndrome these games provoke has long been infamous. I’m not overly prone to gaming addiction myself — unlike some of my friends, I have no stories to tell of playing Civilization or Europa Universalis for 48 hours straight — but Heroes of Might and Magic is the closest thing to my personal gaming Kryptonite. Playing Heroes — solo or, even better, with your friends — is so much fun that it can be downright dangerous to your life balance. I do believe I’ve spent more time with this series than any other in the quarter century since I first encountered it. Heroes is just that engaging, even as it remains hard to explain exactly why. Chalk it up to the ineffability of interactive flow.



Upon its release in September of 1995, Heroes of Might and Magic reaped all of the commercial rewards it deserved. It became the biggest hit in the history of New World Computing to that point, and was pronounced Strategy Game of the Year by Computer Gaming World. His CRPG series forgotten for the moment, Jon Van Caneghem went right to work on a Heroes II, which he would make bigger, richer, and even more addictive than its predecessor. I will, needless to say, be writing about that one as well once we reach that point in our journey through time.

(Sources: the books Might and Magic Compendium: The Authorized Strategy Guide by Caroline Spector and Designers & Dragons Volumes 1 and 2 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of October 1988, November 1990, December 1995, and April 2004; Retro Gamer 49; Space Gamer of August 1981; XRDS: The ACM Magazine for Students of Summer 2017. Online sources include the CRPG Addict’s final post on Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, Matt Barton’s interviews with John Van Caneghem and Neal Hallford, Julien Pirou’s interview with John Van Caneghem, the RPG Codex interview with John Van Caneghem, and The Grognard Files interview with Tim Olsen.

Heroes of Might and Magic can be purchased as a digital download at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Might and Magic

Wizardry and Ultima were great inspirations for me. But I wanted to make my own vision for a CRPG. I wanted more of an open-world feel, with quests, puzzles, and an emphasis on exploration and discovery. I wanted party-based tactical combat, tons of magic items to find, and an ever-increasing feeling of power as you leveled your characters. Most of all, I wanted players to feel free to experiment with all of the “tools” I put in the game, so that they could enjoy playing any way they wanted to.

— Jon Van Caneghem

The long-running Might and Magic CRPG series is an easy thing for a project like this one to overlook. These games were never obviously, forthrightly innovative, being content to rework the same high-fantasy territory over and over again. Meanwhile their level of commercial success, although certainly considerable at times, never became so enormous as to make them sit up and demand our attention.

What Might and Magic consistently did have going for it, however, was the quality of being fun. Jon Van Caneghem, the series’s guiding light, was himself a lifelong compulsive gamer, and he stuffed his creations full of the things that he himself enjoyed: quests to fulfill, dungeons to explore, loot to collect, and an absurd variety of monsters to fight, all couched inside a non-linear, open-ended philosophy of gameplay that eschewed the sort of (overly?) elaborate set-piece plots that had begun to mark many of his series’s peers by the dawn of the 1990s. Might and Magic games, in other words, weren’t so much stories to be experienced as places to be explored.

Chet Bolingbroke — better known as The CRPG Addict — names “generous” as his defining adjective for Might and Magic.

The Might and Magic games have always been generous. Jon Van Caneghem clearly had a history with tabletop RPGs and early CRPGs, but he envisioned worlds of bounty where those titles were sparse and unyielding. In Wizardry, Might and Magic’s most obvious forebear, a 16 x 16 map might only hold a couple of fixed combats and two textual encounters. Van Caneghem’s strategy was to give you something in every row and column. I have maps from the first game in which I had to go into the double letters to annotate everything. A Dungeons & Dragons module might take you from Level 2 to 5 over the course of 30 hours of campaigning. Van Caneghem had no problem offering games in which you hit Level 100 or more. Where Dungeons and Dragons and Wizardry regarded attributes as closely policed within a 3-18 range, you might start at 15 strength in Might and Magic and end at 500.

Throughout its long history as a series, Might and Magic never strayed far from this gonzo approach. It remained always that which it had first aspired to be: an exercise in exploring spaces, killing the monsters you met there, and taking their stuff so that you could use it to kill even tougher monsters somewhere else. But within that template, it did find room to innovate — to do so, in fact, in more ways than it’s generally given credit for, including a few innovations that have become staples of the CRPG genre today. If it was no poster child for games as art, it had arguments of its own to make for games as pure fun.



Jon Van Caneghem was in some ways the last of a breed: the last of the living-room gaming entrepreneurs who dominated at the very start of the industry, with their self-coded products, their homemade packaging, and their naïve gumption that took the place of business plans and venture capital.

Van Caneghem grew up as a child of privilege in the 1970s near the heart of Hollywood, the stepson of a prominent neurologist. His parents had high ambitions for him; he attended grade school at the elite bilingual Lycée Français de Los Angeles. But he never quite fit the mold his parents had cast for him. A slow reader and reluctant student, he was obsessed with games from a very young age, beginning with checkers, then moving on to chess, Risk, and Diplomacy, then to Avalon Hill’s wargames and finally, inevitably to Dungeons & Dragons. He entered UCLA as a pre-med student in 1979, but becoming a doctor was his parents’ dream for him, not his own. Once there, he continued to devote the bulk of his energies to playing games, as well as another, more dangerous obsession: racing cars on the legendary Mulholland Drive.

Van Caneghem discovered computers and computer games during his middle years at university, just as many of his friends were finding jobs and significant others, and were left with less time for game nights as a result. “Then a friend of mine showed me an Apple II, and he was playing a bunch of simple games on it,” he remembers. “This was great! I could play any time I wanted and didn’t have to wait for anyone to get together. So, I immediately got one.”

Like at least half of the Apple II world at the time, he was soon in the throes of a full-blown Wizardry addiction; he guesses he must have finished it “seven or eight times.” The original Ultima also consumed plenty of hours. It was ironically the flaws in these pioneering but technologically limited early CRPGs that drove him to go from being a game player to a game maker.

Everyone started to tell me, “You’re always complaining about these games. Why don’t you make your own?” And I said that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to program. But it intrigued me. I switched from being a pre-med student to a math and computer-science major at UCLA and just started delving into the Apple II, absorbing every magazine and piece of information I could find. Everything I was learning at school was just ancient history as far as the computer was concerned, with punched cards and mainframes. There was nothing about personal computers. So I pretty much had to teach myself everything.

Much to his parents’ relief, he finished his Bachelor’s program at UCLA in 1983, albeit not in the major they had planned for him. Then he dropped a bombshell on them: he wanted to make his own computer game and sell it. They reluctantly agreed to give him a couple more years of room and board while he chased his dream.

In the end, it would take him almost three years to make the grandiosely titled Might and Magic: Book One — The Secret of the Inner Sanctum. In what Van Caneghem still calls the most satisfying single creative experience of his life, he designed and programmed the whole thing himself. He drew the graphics with some help from a pair of outside artists he hired, and outsourced some of the writing to his wife. But at least 90 percent of the sprawling final product was his work alone.

When he began to shop the game around to publishers at last in 1986, he found they were very interested; CRPGs were enjoying a boom at that time, with Ultima IV and The Bard’s Tale having been two of the biggest hits of the previous year. Yet he was sadly underwhelmed by the terms he was offered, which might allow him to earn $1 per copy sold at a retail price of $35 or more.

So, having come this far alone, he decided to self-publish his game. Being a self-described “ultimate Star Trek nut,” he chose New World Computing — as in “strange new worlds and new civilizations” — for the name of his new company. He recruited friends to draw the art for a box and a rather handsome map of his game’s land of Varn, then bought himself a PO Box and a toll-free order line along with advertisements in Computer Gaming World and A+, respectively computing gaming’s journal of record and one of the most popular of the Apple II magazines. Having been taught from a young age that success in life often hinges on looking like a success, he pulled out all the stops for the advertisements. Instead of the quarter-page black-and-white ad with fuzzy stick-figure art that was typical of home-grown software entrepreneurs like him, he convinced his parents to splash out one more time for a professionally laid-out, full-page, full-color spread that looked as good as any of those from the more established competition and better than most of them; this was an advertisement that couldn’t help but get Might and Magic noticed.

The first Might and Magic advertisement, which came complete with veiled jabs at The Bard’s Tale. It’s amusing to see how it describes pencil-and-paper map-making as a virtue rather than a necessary evil. Most gamers apparently didn’t agree: the very next game in the series would feature one of the CRPG genre’s first simple auto-maps.

And it did get noticed: it was a case of the right game at the right time putting its best foot forward, and the response exceeded all of his expectations. The order line which he’d installed in his bedroom rang all night long, and Van Caneghem, who had no intention of missing a single sale, turned into a sleep-deprived zombie thanks to it. Relief came in the form of another phone call, this one from Jim Levy, the CEO of Activision. Levy explained that Activision was starting something they called an “affiliated-label program” to help small developers get their products to market, and he thought that New World Computing would be an excellent candidate. (He may have been motivated to atone, to Activision’s stockholders if no one else, for his infamous rejection of Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale as “niche-ware for nerds” — a rejection which had delivered to Activision’s arch-rival Electronic Arts their biggest hit to date.) Activision could take phone orders and, much more importantly, distribute Might and Magic to stores all over the country, all while taking a smaller cut than a traditional publisher and leaving the New World logo as the only prominent one on the box; they could even put Van Caneghem in touch with people who could port it to other platforms. It sounded very good indeed to the young entrepreneur.

Within weeks of this conversation, Levy was fired from Activision, but the deal he had made with Van Caneghem remained in place. Might and Magic‘s arrival in stores in early 1987 was heralded by a glowing review in Computer Gaming World from Scorpia, the magazine’s longstanding adventure and CRPG columnist. She called it “world touring on a grand scale”: “There is so much to learn and enjoy in Might and Magic because its scope and complexity are amazing.” Ports to the IBM PC and Commodore 64 (the latter done by none other than John Romero of later DOOM fame) were available well before the Christmas of 1987. While it would never quite manage to join Ultima, The Bard’s Tale, and, soon, Pool of Radiance and the other SSI Gold Box games in the very top commercial tier of late-1980s CRPGs, it did become the leading name among the second tier, more than enough to get New World off the ground properly and create high expectations for a sequel.

Despite Scorpia’s rapture over it, this first Might & Magic game was, like all of the ones that would follow it, disarmingly easy to underestimate. It wore the influence of Wizardry and its successors, The Bard’s Tale among them, prominently on its sleeve: it too was an exercise in turn-based, grid-based exploration, which you navigated from a first-person point of view despite controlling a party of up to six characters. (The oddity of this has led to its sub-genre’s modern nickname of “blobber,” for the way it “blobs” all of your characters together into one octopus-like mass of sword-wielding arms and spell-casting hands.) Its technology verged on the primitive even in 1987, the year which saw the introduction of real-time gameplay to the CRPG genre in Dungeon Master. Nor was it any paradigm of balanced design: the early stages, when your newly created party consisted of naked, penniless club-wielders, proved so difficult that Van Caneghem grudgingly added a slightly — slightly, mind you — more hardy pre-made starting party to later releases. Even once your characters made it to level three or so and were no longer as weak as infants, the difficulty level remained more jagged than curved; monsters could suddenly appear on some levels that were an order of magnitude more powerful than anything else you’d met there, killing you before you knew what had hit you. This was an especial problem given that you could only save your game from one of the nine adventurer’s inns scattered around the sprawling world, a result more of technical limitations than designer intent. Meanwhile the story was mostly nonexistent, and silly where it did exist, culminating in the revelation that the entire world of Varn you’d been exploring was really a giant artificial biosphere created by space aliens; “Varn” turned out to be an acronym for “Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle.”

If you could get past all that, however, it was a surprisingly rich game. Caneghem has noted that, though he became a pretty good programmer in the course of making Might and Magic, he was always a game designer first, a game programmer second: “I wasn’t a programmer who knew a neat graphics routine and then turned it into a game. I think most people at the time, except for a few, came from that end of it.” As one of the few who didn’t, Van Caneghem took a more holistic approach. Here we have to return to this idea of generosity that the CRPG Addict broached for us at the beginning of this article. Primitive though it was, Might and Magic was still crammed to bursting with stuff, enough to fill a couple of hundred hours if you let it: 250 different items to collect, 94 different spells to cast, 200 different monsters to fight, 55 individual 16-square-by-16-square areas to map. It boasted not only dungeons and towns, but a whole grid-based outside world to explore. The lumpy amalgamation was riddled with cheap exploits as well, of course, but discovering them was half the fun. One should never dismiss the appeal of building a group of adventurers from a bunch of babes in the woods who fall over dead if a goblin looks at them sideways to a six-person blob of terror that can annihilate a thousand of the little buggers at the stroke of a key.

For all its manifest derivativeness in the broad strokes, Might and Magic wasn’t without a smattering of genuinely new ideas, at least one of which became quietly influential on the future course of its genre. As you explored its maps, you often met people who gave you quests: tasks to accomplish apart from revealing more territory and collecting more experience points. These could range from such practical affairs as delivering a letter to another town to more, shall we say, whimsical endeavors, such as climbing every tree in a given area. Completing these side-quests provided rewards in the form of additional experience points and riches. More importantly, it added an additional impetus to your wanderings, a new dimension of play that was different from methodically lawn-mowering through a sometimes numbing procession of dungeons and monsters. In time, sub-quests like these would become an essential component of many or most CRPGs.

Jon Van Caneghem took advantage of his first game’s success to set up a proper office for New World in Van Nuys, California, and hire a staff made up of people much like himself. “A lot of our employees had met at game conventions, and all of our roots were in gaming,” he says. “At 5:30, the office would shut down and the gaming would start. Everyone was always there until all hours of the night, playing games.” He noted in a contemporary magazine profile that he wished above all to keep the New World offices “loose, friendly, and creative.”

He and his fellow travelers shipped Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World in December of 1988. Although clearly of the same technological lineage as its predecessor, it was a big step forward in terms of the details. Not only did it offer an even vaster profusion of stuff, spread over 60 different discrete areas this time, but it came with some significant quality-of-life improvements, including a reasonably usable auto-map if you chose to invest in the Cartography skill for at least one of your characters. Another subtle but welcome improvement came in your ability to set a “disposition” for your party, from “inconspicuous” to “thrill-seeker”; this allowed you to set the frequency of random monster encounters to your own liking, depending on whether you were just trying to get someplace or were actively grinding for experience points. But the most obvious improvement of all was the revamped graphics, courtesy of the full-time artists Van Caneghem had now hired; a version for the Commodore Amiga, the audiovisual wundermachine of the era, looked particularly good. The story was as daft as the last one, taking place on another world… err, alien biosphere called Cron instead of Varn. (The stories of Might and Magic do rather tend to satirize themselves…) But, just like last time, it really didn’t matter at all in a game that was all about the joy of exploration and exploitation.

The improved audiovisuals of Might and Magic II highlighted another aspect of the series that had perhaps been obscured by the primitiveness of the first game. In keeping with Van Caneghem’s sunny, optimistic personality — writer and designer Neal Halford, who came to work with him at New World during this era, calls him “terminally mellow” — the environs of Might and Magic would always be bright, colorful, fun places to inhabit. The series would never embrace the “dark, gritty” aesthetics that so much of the games industry came to revel in as the 1990s wore on.

Jon Van Caneghem the businessman seemed to live a charmed life not out of keeping with his vaguely fairy-taleish visual aesthetic. For instance, he dropped Activision in favor of becoming an affiliated label of Brøderbund in 1989, just before the former company — by this point officially known as Mediagenic — imploded, defaulting on their payments to their entire network of affiliated labels and destroying many of them thereby. He even escaped relatively unscathed from a well-intentioned but financially ill-advised venture into the board-game market, which I’ll cover in more detail in my next article.

For now, though, suffice to say that it was a big part of the reason that Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra wasn’t released until 1991. Like its predecessors, this latest entry in the series tossed you into another new world and let you have it. Still, while philosophically and even formally identical to the first two games — it remained a turn-based, grid-based blobber — it was a dramatic leap forward in terms of interface and presentation. Designed on and for a 32-bit MS-DOS machine instead of the 8-bit Apple II, it sported 256-color VGA graphics that replaced many of the older games’ numbers with visual cues, a lovely soundtrack composed for the new generation of multi-voice sound cards, and a mouse-driven interface. But its most gratifying improvement of all was more basic: it finally let you save your progress inside dungeons or anywhere else you liked. I would venture to guess that this change alone cut the number of hours the average player could expect to spend finishing the game in half, in spite of the fact that its number of individual areas actually grew slightly, to 64.

Veterans of the series could and sometimes did complain that the new level of professionalism and polish came at the cost of some of its old ramshackle charm, and Van Caneghem himself has confessed to being worried that people would notice how the new game’s average completion time was more likely to be in the tens than the hundreds of hours. But he needn’t have been: gamers ate it up.

In his review for Computer Gaming World, Charles Ardai captured how impressive Might and Magic III was in many ways, but also made note of the ennui that can come to cling to a series like this one — a series which is dedicated to doing the same thing better in each installment rather than doing anything dramatically, holistically new.

Unfortunately, Might and Magic III is also a remarkable exercise in water-treading, which does not advance the genre one inch in terms of plot, event, or ontology. Here we are again, one realizes, a band of hardy adventurers — elves, gnomes, dwarves, clerics, paladins, sorcerers — tramping about the wilderness and facing off against assorted orcs, rats, bugs, and other stock uglies.

Here we are, once more mapping a corner of Middle-earth, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in pursuit of yet another necromatic ne’er-do-well with a faux-mythic name and a bad disposition. Here we are again — will we never be somewhere else?

On the other hand, there is a market for this stuff. David Eddings rewrites the same high-fantasy novel over and over again and never fails to hit the bestseller lists with it…

Ardai concluded that “the gamer who wants to be surprised by discovery, conversation, and story is likely to be disappointed in Might and Magic III, while the gamer who simply wants to play [emphasis original] may be ecstatic with the game.” Few sentences sum up the Might and Magic series as a whole more cogently.

The next pair of games in the series pushed the boundaries in terms of size without even attempting to address Ardai’s complaints. (After all, if it worked for David Eddings…) The name of 1992’s Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen reflected a sudden games-industry conventional wisdom that numbered titles could actually be a drag on sales, being a turn-off to the many folks who were acquiring home computers for the first time in the early 1990s. “I felt strongly that everyone wants to see the next James Bond movie, but no one wants to see Rocky IX,” says Van Caneghem. “So off came the numbers.” This sentiment would die away as quickly as it had flared, both inside and outside of New World.

Both Clouds of Xeen and the would-be Might and Magic V, which was known simply as Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen upon its release in 1993, took place, as you might have guessed, in yet another new land of adventure known as Xeen. More interestingly, when combined they represented another of New World’s subtle experiments with the nuts and bolts of the CRPG form if not the substance. If you installed them both on the same computer, they turned into World of Xeen, a single contiguous game encompassing no less than 201 discrete areas. Outside of its central gimmick, World of Xeen continued the Might and Magic tradition of careful, compartmentalized evolution. It was, for example, the first CRPG I know of that included an automatic quest log as a replacement for the dog-eared, hand-written notebooks of yore. It also added a global difficulty setting. Van Caneghem:

I added a feature when you first start the game where you’re asked if you want an Adventurer game or a Warrior game. This was my wife’s idea. She really liked the game, the adventure. But she wasn’t into combat. She was like, well, you know, monsters are fun, but let’s get on with the story. I said, “Okay, well, I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there just like you, who aren’t into the numbers and the hit points. They just want to get on with the story.” There’s a lot of quests, a lot of fun things to do. So I put the choice in, and what Adventurer does is it makes it easier to win all the battles. So you get through that part of the game a lot quicker.

There’s other stuff to do, and we want to expand our audience, to bring in more and more people who wouldn’t normally play this kind of game.

But this notion of “expanding our audience” was becoming a sticking point for Might and Magic by the time the conjoined World of Xeen appeared in the inevitable single box in 1994. Some of Charles Ardai’s criticisms appeared to be coming home to roost; the market had been flooded with fantasy CRPGs over the last half decade, most of which appeared all but indistinguishable from one another to the casual browser. It was extremely difficult even for a well-done example of the form, such as Might and Magic had always been on the whole, to stand out from the competition. The new generation of gaming neophytes to whom Van Caneghem imagined his Adventurer mode appealing didn’t have the likes of Might and Magic and its peers on their radar at all; they were buying things like The 7th Guest, Myst, and Phantasmagoria. The CRPG genre had transitioned from boom to bust, and was now deeply out of fashion.

This reality left Jon Van Caneghem and his company facing some hard questions. The engine which had powered the last three Might and Magic games was several years old now, its once-impressive VGA graphics looking a bit sad in comparison to the latest high-resolution Super VGA wonders. Clearly it would need to be rethought and rebuilt from scratch for any possible Might and Magic VI. But was there really a business case for taking on such an expensive task in the current market? Or had the franchise perhaps run its course, as such venerable rivals as WizardryThe Bard’s Tale, and Ultima seemed to have done?

Van Caneghem’s solution to this dilemma of what was to be done with a respected CRPG franchise in an era when CRPGs themselves seemed to be dead on the vine would prove as unexpected as it would refreshing, and would spawn a great rarity in gaming: a spinoff franchise that became even more popular than its parent.

(Sources: the book Might and Magic Compendium: The Authorized Strategy Guide by Caroline Spector and the individual hint books published by New World Computing for each of the first five Might and Magic games; Compute! of May 1993; Computer Gaming World of December 1986, April 1987, October 1988, March 1989, May 1989, May 1991, January 1992, September 1993, and April 2004; Retro Gamer 49; XRDS: The ACM Magazine for Students of Summer 2017. Online sources include the CRPG Addict’s final post on Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, Matt Barton’s interviews with Jon Van Caneghem and Neal Hallford, and the RPG Codex interview with Jon Van Caneghem.

The first six Might and Magic CRPGs can be purchased as a digital bundle at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Boffo Games

After Infocom was shut down in 1989, Mike Dornbrook, the mastermind behind the company’s InvisiClues hint books and much else that has become iconic for interactive-fiction fans of a certain generation, was determined to start a company of his own. Indeed, he was so motivated that he negotiated to take much of Infocom’s office furniture in lieu of cash as part of his severance package.

But alas, his entrepreneurial dream seemed vexed. He embarked on a mail-order catalog for maps and travel books — until he learned that Rand-McNally was starting a catalog of its own. He pivoted to offering customized traffic reports for drivers on the go — until it was decided by the authorities in the Boston area where he lived that mobile-phone users would not be allowed to call “premium-rate” numbers like the one he was setting up. So, in January of 1991, he started a regular job at a targeted-marketing and data-processing consultancy that had recently been purchased by American Express. Two years later, he was laid off, but carried his knowledge and contacts into his own data-mining startup. He was still trying to line up enough investment capital to get that company going properly when he got a call from Steve Meretzky, who before becoming a star Infocom designer had been his roommate in a little Boston apartment; in fact, it was Dornbrook who had first introduced Meretzky to the wonders of Zork, thus unleashing him on the world of adventure games.

Unlike Dornbrook, Meretzky had stayed in the games industry since Infocom’s shuttering, designing four adventures for Legend Entertainment and one for Activision from his Boston home. But he had grown tired of working remotely, and dearly missed the camaraderie and creative ferment of life at Infocom. Superhero League of Hoboken, his latest game for Legend (and by far the most inspired of his post-Infocom career in this critic’s opinion), had turned into a particularly frustrating experience for him; delays on the implementation side meant that it was still many months away from seeing the light of day. He had thus decided to start a games studio of his own — and he wanted his old pal Mike Dornbrook to run it for him. “I’ll help you to get it going,” agreed a somewhat reluctant Dornbrook, who after enduring the painful latter years of Infocom wasn’t at all sure he actually wanted to return to the industry.

And so Boffo Games was born. Sadly, all of Dornbrook’s forebodings would prove prescient.



At the time, the hype around multimedia computing was reaching a fever pitch. One of the biggest winners of the era was a Singaporean company called Creative Labs, whose Sound Blaster sound cards had been at the vanguard of a metamorphosis in computer audio since 1989. More recently, they had also begun selling CD-ROM drives, as well as “multimedia upgrade kits”: sound cards and CD-ROM drives in one convenient package, along with a few discs to get purchasers started on their magical journey.

Of late, however, another company had begun making waves in the same market. The Silicon Valley firm Media Vision had first captured headlines in newspaper financial sections in November of 1992, when it raised $45 million in an initial public offering in order to go head to head with Creative. Soon after, Media Vision released their Pro AudioSpectrum 16 sound card, the first to offer 16-bit — i.e., audio-CD-quality — sound playback. It took Creative months to follow suit with the Sound Blaster 16.

In the end, Media Vision would not be remembered for their honesty…

But Media Vision’s ambitions extended well beyond the sound-card and CD-ROM-drive market, which, as most financial analysts well realized, looked likely to plateau and then slowly tail off once everyone who wanted to add multimedia capabilities to an existing computer had done so and new computers were all shipping with these features built-in. To secure their long-term future, Media Vision planned to use their hardware profits to invest heavily in software. By the Christmas buying season of 1993, announced the company’s CEO Paul Jain at the beginning of that same year, they would have ten cutting-edge CD-ROM games on the market. To prove his bona fides, he had recruited to run his games division one Stan Cornyn, a legendary name among music-industry insiders.

Cornyn had been hired by Warner Bros. Records in 1958 to write liner notes, and had gone on to become instrumental in building Warner Music into the biggest record company in the world by the end of the 1980s, with superstars like Madonna and Prince in its stable of artists. During his last years at Warner, Cornyn had headed the Warner New Media spinoff, working on Philips CD-I titles and such other innovations as the CD+G format, which allowed one to place lyrics sheets and pictures on what were otherwise audio CDs. In 1992, he had left Warner. “Corporate [leadership] wanted my company to turn a profit, and I had no idea how our inventions would conquer the world,” he would write later. “That, I left to others.” Instead he decided to reinvent himself as a games-industry executive by signing on with Media Vision. His entrance said much about where the movers and shakers in media believed interactive entertainment was heading. And sure enough, he almost immediately scored a major coup, when he signed press darling Trilobyte to release their much-anticipated sequel to The 7th Guest under the Media Vision banner.

As it happened, Marc Blank, one of the original founders of Infocom, had worked at Warner New Media for a time with Cornyn; he had also remained friendly with both Mike Dornbrook and Steve Meretzky. When he read about Cornyn’s hiring by Media Vision, it all struck Dornbrook as serendipitous. “I thought, ‘Aha!'” he remembers. “‘We have a new person who needs content and has a massive budget, and we have a connection to him.'” It was now the fall of 1993. Media Vision hadn’t published the ten games that Paul Jain had promised by this point — they’d only managed two, neither of them very well-received — but that only made Cornyn that much more eager to sign development deals.

Blank proved as good a go-between as Dornbrook had hoped, and a meeting was arranged for Monday, January 17, 1994, in the Los Angeles offices of Stan Cornyn’s operation. Taking advantage of cheaper weekend airfares, Dornbrook and Meretzky took off from a Boston winter and landed amidst the storied sunshine of Southern California two days before that date. Looking at the pedestrians strolling around in their shorts and flip-flops while he sweated in his winter pullover, Dornbrook said to his friend, “You know, I can kind of see why people want to live out here.”

“You’d never catch me out here,” answered Meretzky, “because of the earthquakes.”

“It would be just our luck, wouldn’t it…” mused Dornbrook.

Fast-forward to 4:30 AM on Monday morning, in the fourth-floor hotel room they were sharing. Dornbrook:

The initial shock threw Steve out of his bed and threw me up in the air. I grabbed onto my mattress and held on for dear life. It was like riding a bucking bronco. The building was shaking and moving in ways I didn’t think a building could survive. I was convinced that at any second the ceiling beams were going to fall on me and crush me. That went on for 35 seconds — which feels like about five minutes in an earthquake. And then it stopped.

We were both fine, but it was pitch black in the room; all the lights were out. But I noticed there was a little red light on the TV. I thought, “Oh, we still have power.” So, I decided to turn the TV on. All my life, the public-broadcast system was telling me, in case of an emergency, they would tell me what to do. While I’m turning it on, Steve is yelling, “We need to get out of here!”

I said, “I want to see what they’re telling us to do.” It was a newsroom in LA, one of the main network stations. The camera was zoomed all the way back in a way you normally didn’t see. There were all these desks, all empty except one. That person was screaming and putting his hands over his head and crawling under the desk — and then the power went out.

I knew the TV station was many, many miles from us. This was not just local; this was a major quake. I’m thinking that the San Andreas Fault might have given way. We might not have water; we’re in a desert. We might be trapped here with no water! So, I crawled into the bathroom and started filling the bathtub with water. Steve is yelling, “What the hell are you doing? We’ve got to get out of here!”

I said, “We need water!”

After the bathtub was full, we got dressed in the dark and worked our way down the hall. We had no way of knowing if there was floor in front of us; it was pitch black. So, I let him go first. He felt his way down the hall, making sure there was a floor there. We got to the exit stairs, and they were pitch black also. We went down step by step, making sure there was another step in front of us, all the way to the first floor.

Then we opened the door into the parking lot, and I remember gasping at the sight. We’re in a desert, it’s dry as can be, and there’s no power for hundreds of miles. You could see stars right down to the horizon. I’ve never seen a sky so clear. It was stunning.

The 1994 Los Angeles earthquake killed 57 people, injured more than 9000, and did tens of billions of dollars of property damage. But the show must go on, as they say in Hollywood. The meeting with the Media Vision games division convened that afternoon in Stan Cornyn’s house, delayed only about six hours by the most violent earthquake in Los Angeles history.

Anyone familiar with my earlier coverage of Steve Meretzky’s career will know that he collected game ideas like some people collect stamps. True to form, he showed up at Cornyn’s house with no less than 21 of them, much to the chagrin of Dornbrook, who would have vastly preferred to pitch just one or two: “Because they don’t really have a clue what will work, and they think you do.” On this occasion, though, everyone in the room was feeling giddy from having survived the morning, not to mention the bottles of good wine Cornyn brought up from his cellar, as they listened to Meretzky work through his list. When he was finally finished, Cornyn and his team huddled together for a few minutes, then returned and announced that they’d take eleven of them, thank you very much, and they’d like the first by Christmas at the latest. As a demonstration of good faith while the lawyers wrote up the final contracts, Cornyn handed Dornbrook and Meretzky a check for $20,000. “Get started right now,” he said. “We don’t want you to lose a day.”

After they’d digested this bombshell, Dornbrook and Meretzky asked each other which idea they could possibly bring to fruition in the span of just nine months or so, given that they were literally starting from scratch: no office, no staff, no computers, no development tools, no investors. (Boffo’s founding capital had been exactly $10.) They decided on something called Hodj ‘n’ Podj.

Hodj ‘n’ Podj wasn’t a traditional adventure game, but it was a classic Steve Meretzky project, a game concept which had caught his fancy a long time ago and had remained in his notebook ever since. Its origins reached back to Fooblitzky, the most atypical Infocom game ever: a multiplayer board game that happened to be played on the computer, designed mostly by Mike Berlyn circa 1984. It was a roll-and-move game which revolved around deducing which four of eighteen possible items your character needed to collect in order to win, and then carrying them across the finish line before your competitors did the same with their collections. Played on the company’s big DEC PDP-10, Fooblitzky was a fixture of life inside mid-period Infocom. In late 1985, it became the one and only Infocom product to use their little-remembered cross-platform graphics engine, becoming in the process something of a case study in why such an engine was more problematic than their ubiquitous textual Z-MachineFooblitzky shipped only for the IBM PC, the Apple II, and the Atari 8-bit line of computers, running on the last two at the speed of treacle on a cold day and not coming close to utilizing the full graphics capabilities, modest though they may have been, of any of its hosts. A casual family game at a time when such things were virtually unheard of on computers, and a completely silent and graphically underwhelming one at that, it sold only about 7500 copies in all.

Meretzky’s idea, then, was to update Fooblitzky for an era of home computing that ought to be more friendly to it. He would retain the core mechanics — roll and move, deduce and fetch — but would polish up the interface and graphics, write a fresh framing story involving a kidnapped princess in a fairy-tale kingdom, and add one important new element: as you moved around the board, you would have to play puzzle- and/or action-based mini-games to earn the clues, items, and money you needed. The game would run under Windows — no futzing about with MS-DOS IRQ settings and memory managers! — in order to reach beyond the hardcore-gamer demographic who would probably just scoff at it anyway. It seemed a more than solid proposition, with an important practical advantage that shot it right to the top of Boffo’s project list: the mini-games, where the bulk of the programming would be required, were siloed off from one another in such a way that they could be developed by separate teams working in parallel. Thus the project should be finishable in the requested nine months or so.

Back in cold but blessedly stable Boston, Dornbrook and Meretzky rented office space, hired staff, and bought computers on Media Vision’s dime. The final contract arrived, and all still seemed fine, so much so that Dornbrook agreed to wind up his data-mining venture in favor of doing games full time again. Then, one morning in early April, he opened his newspaper to read that Media Vision was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for serious accounting malfeasance.

In retrospect, the signs had been there all along, as they usually are. The move into software should have raised antennas already more than a year before. “When a company switches or expands its business line into something completely different, it generally means management fears that growth will slow in the main line,” wrote stock-market guru Kathryn F. Staley as part of the round of Monday-morning quarterbacking that now began. “When they expand into a highly competitive business that costs money for product development (like software game titles) when the base business eats money as well, you sit back and watch for the train wreck to happen.” Herb Greenberg, a financial correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been sounding the alarm about Media Vision since the summer of 1993, noting how hard it was to understand how the company’s bottom line could look as good as it did; for all the buzz around Media Vision, it was Creative Labs who still appeared to be selling the vast majority of sound cards and CD-ROM drives. But nobody wanted to listen — least of all two Boston entrepreneurs with a dream of starting a games studio that would bring back some of the old Infocom magic. Media Vision’s stock price had stood at $46 on the day of that earthquake-addled meeting in Los Angeles. Four months later, it stood at $5. Two months after that, the company no longer existed.

As the layers were peeled away, it was learned that Paul Jain and his cronies had engaged in a breathtaking range of fraudulent practices to keep the stock price climbing. They’d paid a fly-by-night firm in India to claim to have purchased $6 million worth of hardware from them that they had never actually made. They’d stashed inventory they said they had sold in secret warehouses in several states. (This house of cards started to fall when Media Vision’s facilities manager, who was not in on the scheme, asked why she kept getting bills from warehouses she hadn’t known existed.) They’d capitalized the expense of their software projects so as to spread the bills out over many years — a practice that was supposed to be used only for permanent, ultra-expensive infrastructure like factories and skyscrapers. Herb Greenberg revealed in one of his articles that they’d go so far as to capitalize their corporate Christmas party. After long rounds of government investigations and shareholder lawsuits, Paul Jain and his chief financial officer Steve Allan would be convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to prison in 2000 and 2002 respectively. “This was certainly one of the dirtiest cases I was ever involved in,” said one lawyer afterward. There is no evidence to suggest that Stan Cornyn’s group was aware of any of this, but the revelations nevertheless marked the end of it alongside the rest of Media Vision. Cornyn himself left the games industry, never to return — understandably enough, given the nature of his brief experience there.

Showing amazing fortitude, Dornbrook, Meretzky, and the team of programmers and artists they’d hired just kept their heads down and kept working on Hodj ‘n’ Podj while Media Vision imploded. When the checks stopped coming from their benefactor, the founders quit paying themselves and cut all other expenses to the bone. That October, Hodj ‘n’ Podj was finished on time and under budget, but it was left in limbo while the bankruptcy court sorted through the wreckage of Media Vision. In December, the contract was bought at the bankruptcy fire sale by Virgin Interactive, and against all odds the game reached store shelves under their imprint in March of 1995. (Virgin also wound up with The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest — an ironic and rather delicious turn of events for them, given that they had actually been the publisher of The 7th Guest back in the day, only to be abandoned by a starstruck Trilobyte when the time came to make the sequel.)

Hard sales figures for Hodj ‘n’ Podj aren’t available, but we can say with confidence that it wasn’t a big seller. In a 1998 Game Developers Conference presentation, Dornbrook blamed a shakeup at Virgin for its disappointing performance. It seems that the management team that bought it at the bankruptcy sale was excited about it, but another team that replaced the first was less so, and this latter refused to fund any real advertising.

These things were doubtless a major factor in its lack of commercial success, but it would be a bridge too far to call Hodj ‘n’ Podj a neglected classic. Although it’s bug-free and crisply presented, it wears out its welcome way more quickly than it ought to. A big part of the problem is the mini-games, which are one and all reskinned rehashes of hoary old perennials from both the analog and digital realms: Battleship, cryptograms, Solitaire, Kalah, video poker, etc. (“These tired old things are games you could play in your sleep, and a bit of freshening up on the soundtrack does little to encourage you to stay awake,” wrote Charles Ardai, harshly but by no means entirely inaccurately, in his review for Computer Gaming World.) Hodj ‘n’ Podj gives you no reason to explore the entire board, but rather makes the most efficient winning gambit that of simply hanging around the same few areas, playing the mini-games you are best at over and over; this speaks to a game that needed a lot more play-testing to devise ways to force players out of their comfort zones. But its most devastating weakness is the decision to support only two players in a game that positively begs to become a full-blown social occasion; even Fooblitzky allows up to four players. A board filled with half a dozen players, all bumping into and disrupting one another in all kinds of mischievous ways, would make up for a multitude of other sins, but this experience just isn’t possible. Hodj ‘n’ Podj isn’t a terrible game — you and a friend can have a perfectly enjoyable evening with it once or twice per year — but its concept is better than its implementation. Rather than becoming more interesting as you learn its ins and outs, as the best games do — yes, even the “casual” ones — it becomes less so.


The main game board. Whatever else you can say about it, Hodj ‘n’ Podj is beautifully presented, thoroughly belying its hurried assembling by a bunch of short-term hired hands. Its pixel art still looks great today.

Yes, there are riddles, always the last resort of a game designer out of other ideas.

Whack-a-beaver!



After Hodj ‘n’ Podj, the story of Boffo turns into a numbing parade of games that almost were. By Mike Dornbrook’s final tally, 35 of their proposals were met with a high degree of “interest” by some publisher or another; 21 led to “solid commitments”; 17 garnered verbal “promises”; 8 received letters of intent and down payments; 5 led to signed contracts; and 2 games (one of them Hodj ‘n’ Podj) actually shipped. I don’t have the heart to chronicle this cavalcade of disappointment in too much detail. Suffice to say that Boffo chose to deal — or was forced to deal — mostly with the new entities who had entered the market in the wake of CD-ROM rather than the old guard who had built the games industry over the course of the 1980s. As the venture capitalists and titans of traditional media who funded these experiments got nervous about a multimedia revolution that wasn’t materializing on the timetable they had expected, they bailed one by one, leaving Boffo out in the cold. Meanwhile the hardcore gaming market was shifting more and more toward first-person shooters and real-time strategy, at the expense of the adventure games which Steve Meretzky had always created. The most profitable Boffo project ever, notes Dornbrook wryly, was one which disappeared along with Time Warner Interactive, leaving behind only a contract which stipulated that Boffo must be paid for several months of work that they now didn’t need to do.

But Boffo did manage to complete one more game and see it released, and it’s to that project that we’ll turn now. The horrid pun that is its title aside, the thunderingly obvious inspiration for Steve Meretzky’s The Space Bar is the cantina scene from Star Wars, with its dizzying variety of cute, ugly, and just plain bizarre alien races all gathered into one seedy Tatooine bar, boozing, brawling, and grooving to the music. Meretzky wanted to capture the same atmosphere in his game, which would cast its player as a telepathic detective on the trail of a shapeshifting assassin. To solve the case, the player would not only need to interrogate the dozens of aliens hanging out at The Thirsty Tentacle, but enter the minds of some of them to relive their memories. Meretzky:

The main design goal for the project was to create an adventure game which was composed of a lot of smaller adventure games: a novel is to a short-story collection as a conventional adventure game would be to The Space Bar. In addition to just a desire to try something different, I also felt that people had increasingly scarce amounts of [free] time, and that starting an adventure game required setting aside such a huge amount of time, many tens of hours. But if, instead, you could say to yourself, “I’ll just play this ‘chapter’ now and save the rest for later,” it would be easier to justify picking up and starting the game. Secondary design goals were to create a spaceport bar as compelling as the one in the first Star Wars movie, to create a Bogart-esque noir atmosphere, to be really funny, and to prove that you could make a graphic adventure that, like the Infocom text games, could have a lot of “meat on the bones.” As with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, I felt that just a collection of independent games was too loose and required a connecting thread; thus the meta-story involving [the player character] Alien Node’s search for the shapeshifter Ni’Dopal. Empathy Telepathy was just a convenient device for connecting the “short stories” to the meta-story.

In the spring of 1995, the tireless Mike Dornbrook was on the verge of clinching a deal to make this game — and for once it was not a deal with a trend-chasing multimedia dilettante: he had no less enviable a fish than Microsoft on the hook. Then Meretzky learned of a startup called Rocket Science Games that had on its staff one Ron Cobb, a visual-design legend who had crafted the look of such films as Alien, The Terminator, Back to the Future (yes, the Delorean time machine was his…), The Abyss, and Total Recall, who had even according to Hollywood rumor been the uncredited creator of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s $792 million-grossing extra-terrestrial. But before all of that, Cobb had made his name by doing the cantina scene for Star Wars. It would be crazy to pass up the chance to have him create the aliens in The Space Bar, said Meretzky. Dornbrook thought it was far crazier to turn down a deal with Microsoft in favor of an unproven startup, but he sighed and made the calls. Soon after, Boffo signed a contract with Rocket Science.

Once again, the warning signs were all there, at least in retrospect. Rocket Science’s founder Steve Blank (no relation to Marc Blank) was a fast-talking showman fond of broad comparisons. His company was “Industrial Light & Magic and Disney combined!” he said. Or, even more inexplicably, it was Cream, the 1960s rock supergroup. Tellingly, none of his comparisons betrayed any familiarity with the current games industry. “Rocket Science feels good and looks good, even though when someone asks me to describe it, I’m somewhat at a loss,” said Blank. In most times and places, a founder unable to describe his company is cause for concern among pundits and investors. But in Silicon Valley in 1995, it was no problem as long as its products were to ship on little silver discs. Blank told his interviewers that he was so awash in investment capital that he could run his company for five years without pulling in any revenue at all.

That was the version of Rocket Science which Boffo signed on with, the one which was capturing the cover of Wired magazine. The following year, “I found out that our games are terrible, no one is buying them, our best engineers [have] started leaving, and with 120 people and a huge burn rate, we’re running out of money and about to crash,” Blank later remembered in a mea culpa published in Forbes. The games in question consisted mostly of simplistic arcade-style exercises, not terribly well designed or implemented, threaded between filmed video snippets, not terribly well written or acted. Gamers took one look at them and then returned to their regularly scheduled sessions of DOOM and Warcraft.

Just as they had with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, Boffo kept their heads down and kept working on The Space Bar while Rocket Science was “cratering,” to use Steve Blank’s favorite vernacular. Meretzky did get to work with Ron Cobb on the visual design, which was quite a thrill for him. A seasoned animation team under Bill Davis, Sierra On-Line’s former head of game visuals, created the graphics using a mixture of pixel art and 3D models, with impressive results. Everyone kept the faith, determined to believe that a game as awesome as this one was shaping up to be couldn’t possibly fail — never mind the weakness of Rocket Science, much less the decline of the adventure-game market. As the months went by and the reality of the latter became undeniable, Meretzky and his colleagues started to talk about The Space Bar as the game that would bring adventures back to the forefront of the industry. “We concentrated on making The Space Bar such a winner that everyone would want to work with us going forward,” says Dornbrook.

In the meantime, Rocket Science continued its cratering. The embattled Steve Blank was replaced by Bill Davis in the CEO’s chair in 1996, and this bought the company a bit more money and time from their investors. In the long run, though, this promotion of an animation specialist only emphasized Rocket Science’s core problem: a surfeit of audiovisual genius, combined with a stark lack of people who knew what made a playable game. In April of 1997, the investors pulled the plug. “It’s tragic when a collection of talent like Rocket Science assembled is disbanded,” said Davis. “It’s a great loss to the industry.” Yet said industry failed to mourn. In fact, it barely noticed.

The Space Bar was in its final stages of development when the news came. Boffo’s contract was passed to SegaSoft, the software division of videogame-console maker Sega, who had invested heavily in Rocket Science games for the underwhelming Sega Saturn. Dornbrook and Meretzky couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Just as had happened with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, The Space Bar was crawling out from under the wreckage of one publisher into the arms of another who didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it. In the weeks before the game’s release, SegaSoft ran a series of weirdly tone-deaf advertisements for it; for reasons that no one could divine, they were take-offs on the tabloid journalism of The National Enquirer. They were so divorced from the game they claimed to be promoting that the one silver lining, says Dornbrook, was that “at least no one would associate them with our game.”

Unlike Hodj ‘n’ Podj, The Space Bar didn’t prove a commercial disappointment: it turned into an outright bomb. Meretzky still calls its disastrous failure the bitterest single disappointment of his career. Soon after, he and Dornbrook finally gave up and shuttered Boffo. Four years of failure and frustration were enough for anyone.

Dornbrook’s 1998 GDC presentation on the rise and fall of Boffo focused almost exclusively on the little studio’s poor treatment by its larger partners, on the many broken promises and breaches of faith they were forced to endure, until they could endure no more. But at the end of it, he did acknowledge that he might appear to be “blaming all of this on others. Weren’t we also at fault here? Did we have problems on our end?” He concluded that, an unfortunate decision here or there aside — the decision to sign with Rocket Science instead of Microsoft certainly springs to mind — they largely did not. He noted that they never failed to emphasize their biggest strength: “Steve’s a fantastic game designer.”

Does The Space Bar support this contention?

On the surface, the game has much going for it: its rogues’ gallery of misfit aliens is as ingenious and entertaining as you would expect from a meeting of the minds of Steve Meretzky and Ron Cobb; it’s as big and meaty as advertised, packed wall to wall with puzzles; its graphics and voice acting are mostly pretty great; it fills three CDs, and feels like it ought to fill even more. It’s the product of a team that was obviously thinking hard about the limitations of current adventure games and how to move past them — how to make the genre more welcoming to newcomers, as well as tempting once again for those who had gotten tired of the adventure-game status quo and moved on to other things. Among its innovative interface constructs are an auto-map that works wonderfully and a comprehensive logbook that keeps track of suspects, clues, and open puzzles. Dornbrook has called it “a labor of love,” and we have no reason to doubt him.

Nevertheless, it is — and it gives me no pleasure to write this — a flabbergastingly awful game. It plays as if all those intense design discussions Meretzky took part in at Infocom never happened, as if he was not just designing his first adventure game, but was the first person ever to design an adventure game. All the things that Ron Gilbert told the world made adventure games suck almost a decade earlier are here in spades: cul-de-sacs everywhere that can only be escaped by pressing the “restore” button, a need to do things in a certain order when you have no way of knowing what that order is, a need to run though the same boring processes over and over again, a stringent time limit that’s impossible to meet without hyper-optimized play, player deaths that come out of nowhere, puzzles that make sense only in the designer’s head. It’s not just sadistically but incompetently put together as a game. And as a marketplace proposition, it’s utterly incoherent, not to say schizophrenic; how can we possibly square this design with Meretzky’s stated goal of making a more approachable adventure game, one that would be digestible in snack-sized chunks? The Space Bar would seem to be aimed at two completely separate audiences, each the polar opposite of the other; I don’t believe there’s any hidden demographic of casual masochists out there. And there’s no difficulty slider or anything else that serves to bridge the chasm.


One of the oddities of the Boffo story is the sanguine belief on the part of the otherwise savvy Mike Dornbrook that he could use Steve Meretzky’s supposed “star power” to sell games, as demonstrated by his prominent billing here on the cover of the Space Bar box. Meretzky wasn’t any Sid Meier or John Romero; he was a cult figure rather than a household name even among hardcore gamers, adored by a small group of them for his work with Infocom but largely unknown to the rest of them. His last game to sell over 100,000 copies had been Leather Goddesses of Phobos in 1986, his last to manage 50,000 Spellcasting 101 in 1990.

It wouldn’t be a Steve Meretzky game without a bit of this sort of thing…

These aliens are among the funniest. They’re an incredibly advanced and powerful race, but they look like Tiki drinks, and everyone is forever picking them up and trying to sip from them.

The very well-done auto-map.



If The Space Bar sold ten copies, that was ten too many; I hope those ten buyers returned it for a refund. I don’t blame Mike Dornbrook for not being aware of just how terrible a game The Space Bar was; he was way too close to it to be expected to have an objective view under any circumstances, even as he was, as he forthrightly acknowledges, never really much of a gamer after his torrid early romance with Zork had faded into a comfortable conviviality. Still, to analyze the failure of Boffo only in terms of market pressures, bad luck, and perhaps just a few bad business choices is to fail at the task. In addition to all of these other factors, there remains the reality that neither of their two games were actually all that good. Nothing about The Space Bar would lead one to believe that Steve Meretzky is “a fantastic game designer.”

Yet Meretzky could in fact be a fantastic game designer. Back in 2015, writing about his 1987 Infocom game Stationfall, I called him “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.” I continue to stand by that statement in the context of his games of that era. So, how did we get from Stationfall to The Space Bar?

I belabor this question not because I want to pick on Steve Meretzky, whose half-dozen or so stone-cold classic games are half a dozen more than I can lay claim to, but because I think there’s an important lesson here about the need for collaboration in game design. I tend to see Meretzky’s rather disappointing output during the 1990s — including not only his Boffo games but those he did for Legend and Activision — as another ironic testament to Infocom’s genius for process. Infocom surrounded the designer of each of their games with skeptical, questioning peers, and expected him to work actively with a team of in-house testers who were empowered to do more than just point out bugs and typos, who were allowed to dig into what was fun and unfun, fair and unfair. Meretzky never worked in such an environment again after Infocom — never worked with people who were willing and able to tell him, “Maybe this joke goes on a bit too long, Steve,” or, “Maybe you don’t need to ask the player to go through this dozen-step process multiple times. ” The end results perhaps speak for themselves. Sometimes you need colleagues who do more than tell you how fantastic you are.

Steve Meretzky never designed another full-fledged adventure game after The Space Bar. Following a few dissatisfying intermediate steps, he found his way into the burgeoning world of casual social games, distributed digitally rather than as boxed products, where he’s done very well for himself since the turn of the millennium. Meanwhile Mike Dornbrook signed on with a little company called Harmonix that reminded him somewhat of Infocom, being staffed as they were with youthful bright sparks from MIT. After years of refining their techniques for making music interactive for non-musicians, they released something called Guitar Hero in 2005. Both of the principals behind Boffo have enjoyed second acts in the games industry that dwarf their first in terms of number of players reached and number of dollars earned. So, it all worked out okay for them in the end.

(Sources: the books Games Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III Exploding: The Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group by Stan Cornyn, Capital Instincts: Life as an Entrepreneur, Financier, and Athlete by Richard L. Brandt, Thomas Weisel, and Lance Armstrong, and The Art of Short Selling by Kathryn F. Staley; Computer Gaming World of May 1995, August 1995, May 1997, and December 1997; Questbusters 116; Computer Games Strategy Plus of August 1996; Wired of November 1994 and July 1997; San Francisco Chronicle of August 29 2000; the June 1993 issue of Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction. Online source include a CD Mag interview with Steve Meretzky, an Adventure Classic Gaming interview with Steve Meretzky, a Happy Puppy interview with Steve Meretzky, “Failure and Redemption” by Steve Blank at Forbes, and Mike Dornbrook’s presentation “Look Before You Leap” at the 1998 Game Developers Conference. But my most valuable source of all was Karl Kuras’s more than four-hour (!) interview with Mike Dornbrook for his Video Game Newsroom Time Machine podcast, a truly valuable oral history of the games industry from a unique perspective. Thanks, Karl and Mike!)

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Dark Eye

The user-interface constructs that are being developed in computer games are absolutely critical to the advancement of digital culture, as much as it might seem heretical to locate the advancement of civilization in game play. Now, yes, if I thought my worth as a person would be judged in the next century by the body counts I amassed in virtual-fighting games, I guess I’d be worried and dismayed. But if the question is whether a wired world can be serious about art, whether the dynamics of interactive media’s engagement can provide a cultural experience, I think it’s silly to argue that there are inherent reasons why it cannot.

— Michael Nash

Michael Nash

The career arc of Michael Nash between 1991 and 1997 is a microcosm of the boom and bust of non-networked “multimedia computing” as a consumer-oriented proposition. The former art critic was working as a curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art when Bob Stein, founder of The Voyager Company, saw some of the cutting-edge mixed-media exhibitions he was putting together and asked him to come work for him. Nash jumped at the chance, which he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a curator on a much grander scale.

I was very interested in TV innovators like Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman, in the development of music videos, and in the work of artists using the computer. [I believed] that opportunities can open up for artists at key times in the history of media — artists dream up the kinds of possibilities that push media to envision new things before the significance of these things is generally understood. “Where do you want to go today?” the [technical] architects of the new media ask, because they don’t know. They’re waiting for some great vision to make all this abstract possibility into compelling experiences that will provide shape, purpose, and direction. The potential of the new media to express cultural ideas has increased much faster than the development of new cultural ideas, so the potential is there.

Michael Nash’s official title at Voyager was that of Director of the Criterion Collection, the company’s line of classic films on laser disc — also its one reliably profitable endeavor, the funding engine that powered all of Bob Stein’s more esoteric experiments in interactive multimedia. But roles were fluid at Voyager. “It felt like a lair of tech-enamored bohemians,” remembers Nash. “The company style was 1970s laid-back mixed with intense intellectual ferment and communalism. The work environment was frenetic, at times even a little chaotic.”

As the hype around multimedia reached a fever pitch, everyone who was anyone seemed to want a piece of Voyager. In a typical week, the receptionist might field phone calls from rock star David Bowie, from thriller author Michael Crichton, from counterculture guru Timothy Leary, from cognitive scientist Donald Norman, from Apple CEO John Sculley, from computer scientist Alan Kay, from particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann, from evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould, from classical cellist Yo Yo Ma, and from film critic Roger Ebert. The star power on the production side of the equation dwarfed the modest sales of Voyager’s CD-ROMs almost to the point of absurdity. (Only two Voyager CD-ROMs would ever crack 100,000 units in total sales, while most failed to manage even 10,000.)

Another of the stars who wound up working with Voyager — a star after a fashion, anyway — was the Residents, a still-extant San Francisco-based collective of musicians and avant-garde conceptual artists whose members have remained anonymous to this day; they dress in disguises whenever they perform live. Delighting in the obliteration of all boundaries of bourgeois good taste, the Residents both deconstruct existing popular music — their infamous 1976 album The Third Reich n’ Roll, for example, re-contextualized dozens of classic postwar hits as Hitler Youth anthems — and perform their own bizarre original songs. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which is which; their 1979 album Eskimo, for instance, purported to be a collection of Inuit folk songs, but was really a put-on from first to last.

During the 1980s, the Residents began to make the visual element of their performances as important as the music, creating some of the most elaborate concert spectacles this side of Pink Floyd. The term “multimedia” had actually enjoyed its first cultural vogue as a label for just this sort of performance, after it was applied to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows put on by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground in 1966 and 1967. Thus it was rather appropriate for the Residents to embrace the new, digital definition of multimedia when the time came. It was Michael Nash who made the deal to turn the Residents’ 1991 album Freak Show, a song cycle about the lives and loves of a group of circus freaks, into a 1994 Voyager CD-ROM. Nash:

Within alienage, we discover a lot about the paradox of our own alienation. The recognition of difference is the way we establish our identity and the uniqueness of our own point of view. We are drawn to extreme kinds of “alien” identity — freak shows, fanatics, psychotics, serial killers, nightmares, monsters from outer space — because we are fascinated by absolute otherness, lying as it does at the heart of our own sense of self. We never tire of this paradox because it is so charged by opposites: quirky, eccentric, weird, dark, transgressive vision is so different from our own and yet so full of the very thing that makes us different, that gives our identity its integrity. I think it’s a powerful dynamic to draw on in establishing the essential attributes of extraordinary inner realms that distinguish the best work in the field.

Jelly Jack, one of the freaks of Freak Show.

Critics of the capitalistic system though they were, the Residents weren’t above using the Freak Show CD-ROM to sell some other merch — in a suitably ironic way, of course.

Personally, I find the sentiment above — and the tortured grad-school diction in which it’s couched — to be something the best artists grow out of, just as I find raw honesty to produce a higher form of art than the likes of the Residents’ onion of off-putting artificiality and provocation for the sake of it. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, the obvious inspiration for the Residents’ album and the CD-ROM, offers a more empathetic, compassionate glimpse of circus “aliens” in my opinion. But to each his own: there’s no question that Freak Show was another bold statement from Voyager that interactive CD-ROMs could and should deal with any and all imaginable subject matter.

The same year that Freak Show was released, Michael Nash left Voyager to set up his own multimedia publisher. Freak Show had been one of the few Voyager discs that could be reasonably labeled a game. Now, Nash wanted to move further in that direction with the company he called Inscape. In a testament to both the tenor of the times and his own considerable charisma, HBO and Warner Music Group agreed to invest $2.5 million each in the venture. Any number of existing games publishers would have killed for a nest egg such as that.

But then, Inscape and Michael Nash himself were the polar opposite of all existing stereotypes about computer games. Certainly the dapper, well-spoken Nash could hardly have been less like the scruffy young men of id Software, those makers of DOOM, the biggest hardcore-gaming sensation of the year. The id boys were just the latest of the long line of literal or metaphorical bedroom programmers who had built the games industry as it currently existed, young men who played games and obsessed over the inner workings of the computers that ran them almost to the exclusion of all the rest of life’s rich pageant. Nash, on the other hand, was steeped in a broader, more aesthetically nuanced tradition of arts and humanities, and knew almost nothing about the games that had come before the multimedia boom he found so bracing. In an ideal world, each might have learned from the other: Nash might have pushed the existing game studios to mine some of the rich veins of culture beyond epic fantasy and action-movie science fiction, and they in their turn might have taught Nash how to make good games that made you want to keep coming back to them. In the real world, however, the two camps mostly just sniped snidely at one another — when, that is, they deigned to acknowledge one another’s existence at all. Nash was too busy beating the drum for “radical alternative subversive perspectives, what I call transgressive work” to think much about the more grounded, sober craft of good game design.

Most of Inscape’s output, then, is all too typical of such an entity in such an era. The Residents stayed loyal to Nash after he left Voyager, and helped Inscape to make Bad Day on the Midway, another, modestly more ambitious take on the lives of circus freaks. Meanwhile Nash, who seemed to have a special affinity for avant-garde rock music, also joined forces with the only slightly less subversive but much more commercially successful collective known as Devo — in a reflection of their shared sensibilities, both Devo and the Residents had once recorded radically deconstructed versions of the Rolling Stones classic “Satisfaction” — to make something called Adventures of the Smart Patrol. Such works garnered some degree of praise in their time from organs of higher culture who were determined to see that which they most wished to see in them; writing for The Atlantic, Ralph Lombreglia went so far as to call Smart Patrol “the CD-ROM equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s remarkable film Brazil.” Those who encounter these and other, similar rock-star vanity projects today, from artists as diverse as Prince and Peter Gabriel, are more likely to choose adjectives like “aimless” and “tedious.” (“Will we look back in nostalgia on such titles as Bad Day on the Midway and Adventures of the Smart Patrol?” asked Lombreglia in his 1997 article, which was already mourning the end of the multimedia boom. Well, I’m from the future, Ralph… and no, we really don’t.)

It seems to me that the discipline of game design has often suffered from the same fallacy that dogs writing: the assumption that, because virtually everyone can design a game on some literal level, the gulf between bad and good design is easily bridged, with no special skills or experience required. Most of the products of Inscape and their direct competitors serve as cogent examples of where that fallacy — and its associated disinterest in the process that leads to compelling interactivity, from the concept to the testing phase — can lead you.

In the case of Inscape, however, there is one blessed exception to the rule of trendy multimedia mediocrity. And it’s to that exception, which is known as The Dark Eye, that I’d like to devote the rest of this article.


The Dark Eye was Inscape’s very first game, released in late 1995. It’s an interactive exploration of the macabre world of Edgar Allan Poe — not a particularly easy thing to pull off, which explains why games that use Poe’s writings as a direct inspiration are so rare. When we do encounter traces of him in games, it’s generally through the filter of H.P. Lovecraft, the longstanding poet laureate of ludic horror, who himself acknowledged Poe as his most important literary influence. But Poe, whose short, generally unhappy life ended in 1849, was a vastly better, subtler writer than his twentieth-century disciple, with both a more variegated and empathetic emotional range and an ear for language that utterly eluded him. While Poe can occasionally lapse into Lovecraftian turgidity in prose, his poetry is almost uniformly magnificent; works like “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” positively swing with a musical rhythm that belies his popular reputation as a parched, unremittingly dour soul. Like so much of the best writing, they beg to be read aloud.


The problem with adapting Poe’s stories into a computer game — or into a movie, for that matter — is that their action, such as it is, is so internal. Their narrators, who are generally mentally disturbed if not outright insane and therefore thoroughly unreliable, are always their most fascinating characters. Their stories are constructed as epistles to us the readers; we learn of their protagonists not through dialog or their actions in the physical world, but through the words they write directly to us, explaining themselves to us. Without this dimension, the stories would be fairly banal tales of misfortune and mayhem, pulp rather than fine literature.

Bringing the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe to life on the computer, then, requires getting beyond the realm of the literal in which most digital games exist. It requires an affinity for subtlety and symbolism, and a fearless willingness to deploy them in a medium not terribly known for such things. Fortunately, Michael Nash had a person with just such qualities to hand, in the form of one Russell Lees.

In 1994, Lees was an electrical engineer and aspiring playwright who had little interest in or experience with computer games. But then Nash, a “friend of a friend,” happened to show him Freak Show. He found it endlessly intriguing, and was in fact so enthusiastic that Nash suggested he send him a list of possible projects he might like to make for this new venture called Inscape. One of the suggestions Lees came up with was, he remembers, “dropping into the tales of Poe.” Only after Nash gave the Poe project the green light and Lees found himself suddenly thrust into the unlikely role of game designer did the difficulties inherent in such an endeavor dawn on him: “What have I done? Dropping into the tales of Poe? What does that mean? It’s a completely nonsensical sentence!”

Lees and Inscape eventually decided to present three Poe stories in an interactive format, along with an original tale in his spirit that would serve as a jumping-off and landing place for the player’s explorations of the master’s works. Two of the trio, “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” are among Poe’s most famous works of all, the stuff of English-language high-school curricula for time immemorial; the other, “Berenice,” is less commonly read, but is if you ask me the most disturbing of the lot. All are intimate tales of psychological obsession and, in two cases, murder. (“Berenice” settles for necrophilia in its stead…)

The game begins with you knocking on the door of your uncle’s house. Once inside, your casual family visit takes on a more serious dimension, when you become the reluctant go-between in a love affair between your beautiful young cousin and your brother — a love affair of which your uncle most definitely does not approve. (The relationship is a presumably deliberate echo of Poe’s courtship and marriage to his own thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, whose long, slow death from tuberculosis became the defining event of his life, the catalyst for his final descent into alcoholism, despair, and at last the sweet release of death.) As this frame story plays out, you’re periodically plunged into nightmares and hallucinations in which you enact Poe’s tales. In fact, you enact each of them twice: once in the role of the aggressor, once in that of the victim.

Through it all, The Dark Eye shows the unmistakable influence of the adventure games that other studios were making at the time. The creepily expressive human hand it uses for a mouse cursor, for example, is blatantly stolen from The 7th Guest. But the more pervasive model is MystThe Dark Eye‘s node-based navigation through contiguous environments, first-person viewpoint, and minimalist, inventory-less interface are obvious legacies of Myst. The technologies behind it as well are the same as Myst: a middleware presentation engine (Macromedia Director in this case), 3D modelers, QuickTime movie clips, all far removed from the heavily optimized bare-metal code which powered games like DOOM (and thus one more reason for fans and programmers of games like that one to hold this one in contempt).

Likewise, all four of the stories that make up The Dark Eye engage in a style of environmental storytelling — or, perhaps better said, backstory-revealing — that will on one level be familiar to players of Myst and its many heirs. And yet it serves a markedly different agenda here. The character you played in Myst was you or whomever else you chose to imagine her to be, a blank slate wandering an alternate multiverse. Not so in The Dark Eye. Lees:

I think coming from a theater background influenced how I thought about it. In my head, “dropping into the tales of Poe” is only interesting if you drop into a character: if you drop into some character’s head. We’re asking the player to not play themself. In many games, the whole idea is that the player gets to be themself, with all kinds of freedom. If you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, you’re you, but a different version of you who can steal cars.

We weren’t interested in that at all. What we were interested in was… you drop into a character, and basically you’re an actor trying to play that character. What does that mean? If you’re a real actor playing the narrator in “The Tell-tale Heart,” for example, you would read through [the script], come up with some backstory for the character, try to flesh the character out so that every line in the performance resonates with a life lived. As the player, you’re not going to get that. So, how do we make up for that in an interactive situation? The way we solved it — and I feel like we did solve it, in fact — was this:

We tried to map that psychological investigation that an actor would bring to a part onto spatial investigation. You’re exploring a space where certain objects have importance to you. It’s not just, I pick up a letter and learn about my character [by reading it]. It’s, I pick up an object that’s important to my character and I hear my character thinking about it, or that object triggers a movie where I see something from my character’s past, or maybe it just plays a little bit of music. So, all these objects are imbued with something from your past. We were trying to “trick” the player into doing a psychological investigation of the part they were playing.

The Dark Eye is interested in enriching your experience of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, not in giving you a way of changing them; you can’t choose not to plunge the knife into the old man who is murdered in “The Tell-tale Heart.” But you can inhabit the story and the characters in a way interestingly different from, if not necessarily superior to, the way you can understand them through the pages of a book. The best compliment I can give to Russell Lees is that the framing story and the three Poe narratives from the perspective of the victims feel thoroughly of a piece with the three more familiar stories and perspectives. It’s no trivial feat to expand upon the work of a literary master so seamlessly.


The Dark Eye employs many tricks to evoke Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic nineteenth-century world. As you uncover more story segments, for example, you can return to them from this screen. It’s based upon the pseudo-science of phrenology, of which Poe, like many of his peers, was a great devotee. (“The forehead is broad, with prominent organs of ideality,” he wrote in a typical reference to it, in an 1846 character sketch of his fellow poet William Cullen Bryant.)



Like so many of gaming’s more esoteric art projects, The Dark Eye is a polarizing creation. Some people love it, while others greet it with a veritable rage that seems entirely out of proportion to such a humble relic of a bygone age. It rams smack into one of the fundamental tensions that have dogged adventure games as long as they have existed. Ought you to be playing yourself in these games, or is it acceptable to be asked to play the role of someone else, perhaps even someone you would never wish to be in real life? The question was first thrashed over in the gaming press in 1983, when Infocom released Infidel, a text adventure whose fleshed-out protagonist was almost as unpleasant as a Poe narrator. It has continued to raise its head from time to time ever since.

But there’s even more to the polarization than that. It seems to me that The Dark Eye divides the waters so because, although it bears many of the surface trappings of a traditional adventure game, its goals are ultimately different. While a game like Myst is built around its puzzles, The Dark Eye has quite literally no puzzles at all. In fact, admits Russell Lees, freely acknowledging the worst of the criticism leveled against it,  it has “no gameplay beyond exploration.” You don’t “beat” The Dark Eye, in other words; you explore it. More specifically, you explore its characters’ interior spaces. Watching many gamers engage with it is akin to watching fans of genre fiction confronted with a literary novel, except that here “where’s the puzzles?” stands in for “where’s the plot?” This is not to say that those who appreciate The Dark Eye are better, more refined souls than those who find it aimless and tedious, any more than those who enjoy John Steinbeck are superior to readers of John Grisham. It’s just to say that clashes of expectation can be difficult things to overcome. “We need some new words for works that are interactive but aren’t so much games,” says Lees — a noble if hopeless proposition.

We can see these things play out in the reaction to The Dark Eye from the gaming press after its release. Most reviewers just didn’t know what to do with it. The always articulate Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World reacted somewhat typically:

As with many of the new “exploration” adventure games, the environment reeks of emptiness, especially at first. But it’s worse here than in most: not only are there too many empty rooms, but you aren’t asked to solve puzzles of any sort, not even the lame brainteasers most games use as filler. Making matters worse, there are hallways you see that, for no apparent reason, the computer doesn’t let you go down; doors the game doesn’t let you open; and characters the game doesn’t let you click on. Even the few objects you run across — a meat cleaver, a paper knife — the game doesn’t let you take.

But, because he is a thoughtful if not infallible critic, Ardai must also acknowledge The Dark Eye to be “a singular, disturbing vision equal to the task of rendering Poe’s nightmare worlds.” He even calls it “brave.”

Instead of puzzles, The Dark Eye gives you atmosphere — all the atmosphere you can inhale, enough atmosphere to send you running to a less pressurized room of your house after spending a while in its company. You witness no actual violence on the screen; the camera always cuts away at the pivotal moment. Yet the game is thoroughly unnerving, more psychologically oppressive than a thousand everyday videogame zombies; this game will creep you the hell out. It’s in vacant eyes of the stop-motion-animated digitized puppets that are used to represent the other characters; in the way that the soundtrack, provided by associates of avant-rock musician Thomas Dolby, suddenly swells with nerve-jangling ferocity and then fades into silence again just as quickly; in knowing what awaits you as perpetrator or victim in each of the stories, and being unable to stop it.

The crowning touch is the voice of the legendary Beat author William S. Burroughs, a rare instance of stunt casting that worked out perfectly. Michael Nash, who seemed never to have heard of an edgy cultural icon whose involvement in one of his multimedia projects he didn’t want to trumpet in his advertising, sought out and cast Burroughs for the game without Lees even being aware he was attempting to do so. But Lees was very, very happy when he was informed of it. Burroughs plays the part of your crotchety uncle in the game, and also provides two non-interactive Edgar Allan Poe recitals for you to stumble across: of the poem “Annabel Lee,” which you can hear earlier in this article, and of the story “The Masque of the Red Death.” One anecdote which Lees has shared about the three days he spent directing Burroughs’s performances in the author’s Lawrence, Kansas, home is too delicious not to include here.

He liked starting off the day by toking up. We’re in the [sound] booth and he’s lighting up his marijuana and he says, “Do you want a drag?” And I say, “You know, Inscape’s spending a lot of money to send me out here. I think I have to stay on the ball. You go ahead.”

So, he’d start off by getting a little bit high, and that would loosen him up. Then in the afternoon he liked to drink vodka and Sprite. He would start around 3 PM, and things would get a little mushy, but it also brought some interesting performances out.

I have to admit that on the very last day when we were finishing up, he lit up a joint, and I did share it with Bill.

Within two years of these events, the confluence of cultural forces that could produce such an anecdote would be ancient history. Russell Lees was about halfway through the production of a game based on the Tales from the Crypt comic books and television series when Michael Nash sold Inscape to Graphix Zone, a Voyager-like publisher of multimedia CD-ROMs that was scrambling to reinvent itself as a games publisher in a changing world. The attempt wasn’t successful: the conjoined entity, which was known as Ignite Games, disappeared by the end of 1997. Nash went on to a high-profile career as a music executive, and was instrumental in convincing the hidebound powers that were in that industry to reluctantly embrace streaming rather than attempting to sue it out of existence in the post-Napster era. Russell Lees continued to bounce among the worlds of theater, home video, and games for many years, until finding a stable home at last as a staff writer for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise in 2011.

As the fate of the company that developed and published it would indicate, The Dark Eye wasn’t an overly big seller in its day. Yet it’s still remembered fondly in some circles today — and deservedly so. It solves one of the basic paradoxes of licensed works by not attempting to replace the stories on which it’s based, but rather to complement them. If you haven’t read them before playing it– or if haven’t done so since your school days — you might find yourself wanting to when you’re done. And if you have read them recently, the new perspectives on them which the game opens up might just unnerve you all over again. Then again, you might merely be bored by it all. And that’s okay too; not all art is for everyone.

(Sources: in addition to the Edgar Allan Poe collection that belongs in every real or virtual library — the Penguin one is excellent — the book DVD and the Study of Film: The Attainable Text by Mark Parker and Deborah Parker; Computer Gaming World of April 1996 and May 1996; Electronic Entertainment of August 1995; MacAddict of December 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Wired of March 1995; Los Angeles Times of July 12 1994 and February 28 1997; American Literature of November 1930. Online sources include “What Happened to Multimedia?” by Ralph Lombreglia in Atlantic Unbound and an accompanying interview with Michael Nash, Emily Rose’s podcast interview with Russell Lees, and Lees’s own website.

The Dark Eye isn’t available for sale, but the CD image can be downloaded from The Macintosh Garden; note that you’ll need StuffIt to decompress it. Unfortunately, it’s a Windows 3.1 application, which means it’s somewhat complicated to get running on modern hardware. But you can do it with a bit of time and patience: Egee has written a very good tutorial on getting Windows 3.1 set up in DOSBox, and you can find the vintage software you’ll need on WinWorld. Another option is to run it on a real or emulated classic Macintosh, as the CD-ROM is a hybrid disc for both Windows and Mac computers. See my article on ten standout Voyager discs for some advice on doing this.)

 
 

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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

To the person who [is] contemplating buying this game, what would I say? I would say take your money and give it to the homeless, you’ll do more good. But if you are mad to buy this game, you’ll probably have a hell of a lot of fun playing it, it will probably make you uneasy, and you’ll probably be a smarter person when you’re done playing the game. Not because I’m smarter, but because everything was done to confuse and upset you. I am told by people that it is a game unlike any other game around at the moment and I guess that’s a good thing. Innovation and novelty is a good thing. It would be my delight if this game set a trend and all of the arcade bang-bang games that turn kids into pistol-packing papas and mamas were subsumed into games like this in which ethical considerations and using your brain and unraveling puzzles become the modus operandi. I don’t think it will happen. I don’t think you like to be diverted too much. So I’m actually out here to mess with you, if you want to know it. We created this game to give you all the stuff you think you want, but to put a burr into your side at the same time. To slip a little loco weed into your Coca-Cola. See you around.

— Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison made a very successful career out of biting the hands that fed him. The pint-sized dervish burst into literary prominence in the mid-1960s, marching at the vanguard of science fiction’s New Wave. In the pages of Frederick Pohl’s magazine If, he paraded a series of scintillatingly trippy short stories that were like nothing anyone had ever seen before, owing as much to James Joyce and Jack Kerouac as they did to Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Ellison demanded, both implicitly in his stories and explicitly in his interviews, that science fiction cast off its fetish for shiny technology-fueled utopias and address the semi-mythical Future in a more humanistic, skeptical way. His own prognostications in that vein were almost unrelentingly grim: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” dealt with a future society where everyone was enslaved to the ticking of the government’s official clock; “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” told of the last five humans left on a post-apocalyptic Earth, kept alive by an insane artificial intelligence so that he could torture them for all eternity; “A Boy and His Dog” told of a dog who was smarter than his feral, amoral human master, and helped him to find food to eat and women to rape as they roamed another post-apocalyptic landscape. To further abet his agenda of dragging science fiction kicking and screaming into the fearless realm of True Literature, Ellison became the editor of a 1967 anthology called Dangerous Visions, for which he begged a diverse group of established and up-and-coming science-fiction writers to pick a story idea that had crossed their mind but was so controversial and/or provocative that they had never dared send it to a magazine editor — and then to write it up and send it to him instead.

Ellison’s most impactful period in science fiction was relatively short-lived, ending with the publication of the somewhat underwhelming Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972. He obstinately refused to follow the expected career path of a writer in his position: that of writing a big, glossy novel to capitalize on the cachet his short stories had generated. Meanwhile even his output of new stories slowed in favor of more and more non-fiction essays, while those stories that did emerge lacked some of the old vim and vinegar. One cause of this was almost certainly his loss of Frederick Pohl as editor and bête noire. Possessing very different literary sensibilities, the two had locked horns ferociously over the most picayune details — Pohl called Ellison “as much pain and trouble as all the next ten troublesome writers combined” — but Pohl had unquestionably made Ellison’s early stories better. He was arguably the last person who was ever truly able to edit Harlan Ellison.

No matter. Harlan Ellison’s greatest creation of all was the persona of Harlan Ellison, a role he continued to play very well indeed right up until his death in 2018. “He is a test of our credulity,” wrote his fellow science-fiction writer David Gerrold in 1984. “He is too improbable to be real.”

Harlan Ellison on the set of Star Trek with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner.

The point of origin of Harlan Ellison as science fiction’s very own enfant terrible can be traced back to the episode of Star Trek he wrote in 1966. “The City on the Edge of Forever” is often called the best single episode of the entire original series, but to Ellison it was and forever remained an abomination in its broadcast form. As you may remember, it’s a time-travel story, in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are cast back into the Great Depression on Earth, where Kirk falls in love with a beautiful social worker and peace activist, only to learn that he has to let her die in a traffic accident in order to prevent her pacifism from infecting the body politic to such an extent that the Nazis are able to win World War II. As good as the produced version of the episode is, Ellison insisted until his death that the undoctored script he first submitted was far, far better — and it must be acknowledged that at least some of the people who worked on Star Trek agreed with him. In a contemporaneous memo, producer Bob Justman lamented that, following several rounds of editing and rewriting, “there is hardly anything left of the beauty and mystery that was inherent in the screenplay as Harlan originally wrote it.” For his part, Ellison blamed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry loudly and repeatedly for “taking a chainsaw” to his script. In a fit of pique, he submitted his undoctored script for a 1967 Writers Guild Award. When it won, he literally danced on the table in front of Roddenberry inside the banquet hall, waving his trophy in his face. Dorothy Fontana, the writer who had been assigned the unenviable task of changing Ellison’s script to fit with the series’s budget and its established characters, was so cowed by his antics that for 30 years she dared not tell him she had done so.

Despite this incident and many another, lower-profile one much like it, Ellison continued to work in Hollywood — as, indeed, he had been doing even before his star rose in literary science-fiction circles. Money, he forthrightly acknowledged, was his principal reason for writing for a medium he claimed to loathe. He liked creating series pilots most of all, he said, “because when they screw those up, they just don’t go on the air. I get paid and I’ve written something nice and it doesn’t have to get ruined.” His boorish behavior in meetings with the top movers and shakers of Hollywood became legendary, as did the lawsuits he fired hither and yon whenever he felt ill-used. Why did Hollywood put up with it? One answer is that Harlan Ellison was at the end of the day a talented writer who could deliver the goods when it counted, who wasn’t unaware of the tastes and desires of the very same viewing public he heaped with scorn at every opportunity. The other is that his perpetual cantankerousness made him a character, and no place loves a character more than Hollywood.

Then again, one could say the same of science-fiction fandom. Countless fans who had read few to none of Ellison’s actual stories grew up knowing him as their genre’s curmudgeonly uncle with the razor wit and the taste for blood. For them, Harlan Ellison was famous simply for being Harlan Ellison. Any lecture or interview he gave was bound to be highly entertaining. An encounter with Ellison became a rite of passage for science-fiction journalists and critics, who gingerly sidled up to him, fed him a line, and then ducked for cover while he went off at colorful and profane length.

Harlan Ellison was a talk-show regular during the 1970s. And small wonder: drop a topic in his slot, and something funny, outrageous, or profound — or all three — was guaranteed to come out.

It’s hard to say how much of Ellison’s rage against the world was genuine and how much was shtick. He frequently revealed in interviews that he was very conscious of his reputation, and hinted at times that he felt a certain pressure to maintain it. And, in keeping with many public figures with outrageous public personas, Ellison’s friends did speak of a warmer side to his private personality, of a man who, once he brought you into his fold, would go to ridiculous lengths to support, protect, and help you.

Still, the flame that burned in Ellison was probably more real than otherwise. He was at bottom a moralist, who loathed the hypocrisy and parsimony he saw all around him. Often described as a futurist, he was closer to a reactionary. Nowhere could one see this more plainly than in his relationship to technology. In 1985, when the personal-computer revolution had become almost old hat, he was still writing on a mechanical typewriter, using reasoning that sounded downright Amish.

The presence of technology does not mean you have to use that technology. Understand? The typewriter that I have — I use an Olympia and I have six of them — is the best typewriter ever made. That’s the level of technology that allows me to do my job best. Electric typewriters and word processors — which are vile in every respect — seem to me to be crutches for bad writing. I have never yet heard an argument for using a word processor that didn’t boil down to “It’s more convenient.” Convenient means lazy to me. Lazy means I can write all the shit I want and bash it out later. They can move it around, rewrite it later. What do I say? Have it right in your head before you sit down, that’s what art is all about. Art is form, art is shape, art is pace, it is measure, it is the sound of music. Don’t write slop and discordancy and think just because you have the technology to cover up your slovenliness that it makes you a better writer. It doesn’t.

Ellison’s attitude toward computers in general was no more nuanced. Asked what he thought about computer entertainment in 1987, he pronounced the phrase “an oxymoron.” Thus it came as quite a surprise to everyone five years later when it was announced that Harlan Ellison had agreed to collaborate on a computer game.



The source of the announcement was a Southern California publisher and developer called Cyberdreams, which had been founded by Pat Ketchum and Rolf Klug in 1990. Ketchum was a grizzled veteran of the home-computer wars, having entered the market with the founding of his first software publisher DataSoft on June 12, 1980. After a couple of years of spinning their wheels, DataSoft found traction when they released a product called Text Wizard, for a time the most popular word processor for Atari’s 8-bit home-computer line. (Its teenage programmer had started on the path to making it when he began experimenting with ways to subtly expand margins and increase line spacings in order to make his two-page school papers look like three…)

Once established, DataSoft moved heavily into games. Ketchum decided early on that working with pre-existing properties was the best way to ensure success. Thus DataSoft’s heyday, which lasted from roughly 1983 to 1987, was marked by a bewildering array of television shows (The Dallas Quest), martial-arts personalities (Bruce Lee), Sunday-comics characters (Heathcliff: Fun with Spelling), blockbuster movies (Conan, The Goonies), pulp fiction (Zorro), and even board games (221 B Baker St.), as well as a bevy of arcade ports and British imports. The quality level of this smorgasbord was hit or miss at best, but Ketchum’s commercial instinct for the derivative proved well-founded for almost a half a decade. Only later in the 1980s, when more advanced computers began to replace the simple 8-bit machines that had been the perfect hosts for DataSoft’s cheap and cheerful games, did his somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward the nuts and bolts of his products catch up to him. He then left DataSoft to work for a time at Sullivan Bluth Interactive Media, which made ports of the old laser-disc arcade game Dragon’s Lair for various personal-computing platforms. Then, at the dawn of the new decade, he founded another company of his own with his new partner Rolf Klug.

The new company’s product strategy was conceived as an intriguing twist on that of the last one he had founded. Like DataSoft, Cyberdreams would rely heavily on licensed properties and personalities. But instead of embracing DataSoft’s random grab bag of junk-food culture, Cyberdreams would go decidedly upmarket, a move that was very much in keeping with the most rarefied cultural expectations for the new era of multimedia computing. Their first released product, which arrived in 1992, was called Dark Seed; it was an adventure game built around the striking and creepy techno-organic imagery of the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, best known for designing the eponymous creatures in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. If calling Dark Seed a “collaboration” with Giger is perhaps stretching the point — although Giger licensed his existing paintings to Cyberdreams, he contributed no new art to the game — the end result certainly does capture his fetishistic aesthetic very, very well. Alas, it succeeds less well as a playable game. It runs in real time, meaning events can and will run away without a player who isn’t omniscient enough to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time, while its plot is most kindly described as rudimentary — and don’t even get me started on the pixel hunts. Suffice to say that few games in history have screamed “style over substance” louder than this one. Still, in an age hungry for fodder for the latest graphics cards and equally eager for proof that computer games could be as provocative as any other form of media, it did quite well.

By the time of Dark Seed‘s release, Cyberdreams was already working on another game built around the aesthetic of another edgy artist most famous for his contributions to a Ridley Scott film: Syd Mead, who had done the set designs for Blade Runner, along with those of such other iconic science-fiction films as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TRON, 2010, and the Alien sequel Aliens. CyberRace, the 1993 racing game that resulted from the partnership, was, like its Cyberdreams predecessor, long on visuals and short on satisfying gameplay.

Well before that game was completed — in fact, before even Dark Seed was released — Pat Ketchum had already approached Harlan Ellison to ask whether he could make a game out of his classic short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Doing so was, if nothing else, an act of considerable bravery, given not only Ellison’s general reputation but his specific opinion of videogames as “an utter and absolute stupid waste of time.” And yet, likely as much to Ketchum’s astonishment as anyone else’s, he actually agreed to the project. Why? That is best left to Ellison to explain in his own inimitable fashion:

The question frequently asked of me is this: “Since it is common knowledge that you don’t even own a computer on which you could play an electronic game this complex, since it is common knowledge that you hate computers and frequently revile those who spend their nights logging onto bulletin boards, thereby filling the air with pointless gibberish, dumb questions that could’ve been answered had they bothered to read a book of modern history or even this morning’s newspaper, and mean-spirited gossip that needs endless hours the following day to be cleaned up; and since it is common knowledge that not only do you type your books and columns and TV and film scripts on a manual typewriter (not even an electric, but an actual finger-driven manual), but that the closest you’ve ever come to playing an actual computer- or videogame is the three hours you wasted during a Virgin Airlines flight back to the States from the UK; where the hell do you get off creating a high-tech cutting-edge enigma like this I Have No Mouth thing?”

To which my usual response would be, “Yo’ Mama!”

But I have been asked to attempt politeness, so I will vouchsafe courtesy and venture some tiny explication of what the eff I’m doing in here with all you weird gazoonies. Take your feet off the table.

Well, it goes back to that Oscar Wilde quote about perversion: “You may engage in a specific perversion once, and it can be chalked up to curiosity. But if you do it again, it must be presumed you are a pervert.”

They came to me in the dead of night, human toads in silk suits, from this giant megapolitan organization called Cyberdreams, and they offered me vast sums of money — all of it in pennies, with strings attached to each coin, so they could yank them back in a moment, like someone trying to outsmart a soft-drink machine with a slug on a wire — and they said, in their whispery croaky demon voices, “Let us make you a vast fortune! Just sell us the rights to use your name and the name of your most famous story, and we will make you wealthy beyond the dreams of mere mortals, or even Aaron Spelling, our toad brother in riches.”

Well, I’d once worked for Aaron Spelling on Burke’s Law, and that had about as much appeal to me as spending an evening discussing the relative merits of butcher knives with O.J. Simpson. So I told the toads that money was something I had no trouble making, that money is what they give you when you do your job well, and that I never do anything if it’s only for money. ‘Cause money ain’t no thang.

Well, for the third time, they then proceeded to do the dance, and sing the song, and hump the drums, and finally got down to it with the fuzzy ramadoola that can snare me: they said, “Well (#4), you’ve never done this sort of thing. Maybe it is that you are not capable of doing this here now thing.”

Never tell me not to go get a tall ladder and climb it and open the tippy-topmost kitchen cabinet in my mommy’s larder and reach around back there at the rear of the topmost shelf in the dark with the cobwebs and the spider-goojies and pull out that Mason jar full of hard nasty petrified chickpeas and strain and sweat to get the top off the jar till I get it open and then take several of those chickpeas and shove them up my nose. Never tell me that. Because as sure as birds gotta swim an’ fish gotta fly, when you come back home, you will find me lying stretched out blue as a Duke Ellington sonata, dead cold with beans or peas or lentils up my snout.

Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: “I couldn’t help it. I can resist anything except temptation.”

And there it is. I wish it were darker and more ominous than that, but the scaldingly dopey truth is that I wanted to see if I could do it. Create a computer game better than anyone else had created a computer game. I’d never done it, and I was desirous of testing my mettle. It’s a great flaw with me. My only flaw, as those who have known me longest will casually attest. (I know where they live.)

Having entered the meeting hoping only to secure the rights to Ellison’s short story, Pat Ketchum thus walked away having agreed to a full-fledged collaboration with the most choleric science-fiction writer in the world, a man destined to persist forevermore in referring to him simply as “the toad.” Whether this was a good or a bad outcome was very much up for debate.

Ketchum elected to pair Ellison with David Sears, a journalist and assistant editor for Compute! magazine who had made Cyberdreams’s acquaintance when he was assigned to write a preview of Dark Seed, then had gone on to write the hint book for the game. Before the deal was consummated, he had been told only that Cyberdreams hoped to adapt “one of” Ellison’s stories into a game: “I was thinking, oh, it could be ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,’ or maybe ‘A Boy and His Dog,’ and it’s going to be some kind of RPG or something.” When he was told that it was to be “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” he was taken aback: “I was like, what? There’s no way [to] turn that into a game!” In order to fully appreciate his dismay, we should look a bit more closely at the story in question.

Harlan Ellison often called “No Mouth” “one of the ten most-reprinted stories in the English language,” but this claim strikes me as extremely dubious. Certainly, however, it is one of the more frequently anthologized science-fiction classics. Written “in one blue-white fit of passion,” as Ellison put it, “like Captain Nemo sitting down at his organ and [playing] Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” it spans no more than fifteen pages or so in the typical paperback edition, but manages to cram quite a punch into that space.

The backstory entails a three-way world war involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and China and their respective allies, with the forces of each bloc controlled by a supercomputer in the name of maximal killing efficiency. That last proved to be a mistake: instead of merely moving ships and armies around, the American computer evolved into a sentient consciousness and merged with its rival machines. The resulting personality was twisted by its birthright of war and violence. Thus it committed genocide on the blighted planet’s remaining humans, with the exception of just five of them, which it kept alive to physically and psychologically torture for its pleasure.  As the story proper opens, it’s been doing so for more than a century. Our highly unreliable narrator is one of the victims, a paranoid schizophrenic named Ted; the others, whom we meet only as the sketchiest of character sketches, are named Gorrister, Benny, Ellen (the lone woman in the group), and Nimdok. The computer calls itself AM, an acronym for its old designation of “Allied Mastercomputer,” but also a riff on Descartes: “I think, therefore I AM.”

The story’s plot, such as it is, revolves around the perpetually starving prisoners’ journey to a place that AM has promised them contains food beyond their wildest dreams. It’s just one more of his cruel jokes, of course: they wind up in a frigid cavern piled high with canned food, without benefit of a can opener. But then something occurs which AM has failed to anticipate: Ted and Ellen finally accept that there is only one true means of escape open to them. They break off the sharpest stalactites they can find and use them to kill the other three prisoners, after which Ted kills Ellen. But AM manages to intervene before Ted can kill himself. Enraged at having his playthings snatched away, he condemns the very last human on Earth to a fate more horrific even than what he has already experienced:

I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be. Rubbery appendages that were once my arms; bulks rounding down into legless humps of slippery matter. I leave a moist trail when I move. Blotches of diseased, evil gray come and go on my surface, as though light is being beamed from within.

Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance.

Inwardly: alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better. At least the four of them are safe at last.

AM will be the madder for that. It makes me a little happier. And yet… AM has won, simply… he has taken his revenge…

I have no mouth. And I must scream.

Harlan Ellison was initially insistent that the game version of No Mouth preserve this miserably bleak ending. He declared himself greatly amused by the prospect of “a game that you cannot possibly win.” Less superciliously, he noted that the short story was intended to be, like so much of his work, a moral fable: it was about the nobility of doing the right thing, even when one doesn’t personally benefit — indeed, even when one will be punished terribly for it. To change the story’s ending would be to cut the heart out of its message.

Thus when poor young David Sears went to meet with Ellison for the first time — although Cyberdreams and Ellison were both based in Southern California, he himself was still working remotely from his native Mississippi — he faced the daunting prospect of convincing one of the most infamously stubborn writers in the world — a man who had spent decades belittling no less rarefied a character than Gene Roddenberry over the changes to his “City on the Edge of Forever” script — that such an ending just wouldn’t fly in the contemporary games market. The last company to make an adventure game with a “tragic” ending had been Infocom back in 1983, and they’d gotten so much blow back that no one had ever dared to try such a thing again. People demanded games that they could win.

Much to Sears’s own surprise, his first meeting with Ellison went very, very well. He won Ellison’s respect almost immediately, when he asked a question that the author claimed never to have been asked before: “Why are these [people] the five that AM has saved?” The question pointed a way for the game of No Mouth to become something distinctly different from the story — something richer, deeper, and even, I would argue, more philosophically mature.

Ellison and Sears decided together that each of AM’s victims had been crippled inside by some trauma before the final apocalyptic war began, and it was this that made them such particularly delightful playthings. The salt-of-the-earth truck driver Gorrister was wracked with guilt for having committed his wife to a mental institution; the hard-driving military man Benny was filled with self-loathing over his abandonment of his comrades in an Asian jungle; the genius computer scientist Ellen was forever reliving a brutal rape she had suffered at the hands of a coworker; the charming man of leisure Ted was in reality a con artist who had substituted sexual conquest for intimacy. The character with by far the most stains on his conscience was the elderly Nimdok, who had served as an assistant to Dr. Josef Mengele in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

You the player would guide each of the five through a surreal, symbolic simulacrum of his or her checkered past, helpfully provided by AM. While the latter’s goal was merely to torture them, your goal would be to cause them to redeem themselves in some small measure, by looking the demons of their past full in the face and making the hard, selfless choices they had failed to make the first time around. If they all succeeded in passing their tests of character, Ellison grudgingly agreed, the game could culminate in a relatively happy ending. Ellison:

This game [says] to the player there is more to the considered life than action. Television tells you any problem can be solved in 30 minutes, usually with a punch in the jaw, and that is not the way life is. The only thing you have to hang onto is not your muscles, or how pretty your face is, but how strong is your ethical behavior. How willing are you to risk everything — not just what’s convenient, but everything — to triumph. If someone comes away from this game saying to himself, “I had to make an extremely unpleasant choice, and I knew I was not going to benefit from that choice, but it was the only thing to do because it was the proper behavior,” then they will have played the game to some advantage.

Harlan Ellison and David Sears were now getting along fabulously. After several weeks spent working on a design document together, Ellison pronounced Sears “a brilliant young kid.” He went out of his way to be a good host. When he learned, for example, that Sears was greatly enamored with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, he called up said writer himself on his speakerphone: “Hi, Neil. This is David. He’s a fan and he’d love to talk to you about your work.” In retrospect, Ellison’s hospitality is perhaps less than shocking. He was in fact helpful and even kind throughout his life to young writers whom he deemed to be worth his trouble. David Sears was obviously one of these. “I don’t want to damage his reputation because I’m sure he spent decades building it up,” says Sears, “but he’s a real rascal with a heart of gold — but he doesn’t tolerate idiots.”

Harlan Ellison prepares to speak at the 1993 Game Developers Conference.

The project had its industry coming-out party at the seventh annual Computer Game Developers Conference in May of 1993. In a measure of how genuinely excited Harlan Ellison was about it, he agreed to appear as one of the most unlikely keynote speakers in GDC history. His speech has not, alas, been preserved for posterity, but it appears to have been a typically pyrotechnic Ellison rant, judging by the angry response of Computer Gaming World editor Johnny L. Wilson, who took Ellison to be just the latest in a long line of clueless celebrity pundits swooping in to tell game makers what they were doing wrong. Like all of the others, Wilson said, Ellison “didn’t really understand technology or the challenges faced daily by his audience [of game developers].” His column, which bore the snarky title of “I Have No Message, but I Must Scream,” went on thusly:

The major thesis of the address seemed to be that the assembled game designers need to do something besides create games. We aren’t quite sure what he means.

If he means to take the games which the assembled designers are already making and infuse them with enough human emotion to bridge the gaps of interpersonal understanding, there are designers trying to accomplish this in many different ways (games with artificial personalities, multiplayer cooperation, and, most importantly, with story).

If he objects to the violence which is so pervasive in both computer and video games, he had best revisit the anarchic and glorious celebration of violence in his own work. Violence is an easy way to express conflict and resolution in any art form. It can also be powerful. That is why we advocate a more careful use of violence in certain games, but do not editorialize against violence per se.

Harlan Ellison says that the computer-game design community should quit playing games with their lives. We think Ellison should stop playing games with his audiences. It’s time to put away his “Bad Melville” impression and use his podium as a “futurist” to challenge his audiences instead of settling for cheap laughs and letting them miss the message.

Harlan Ellison seldom overlooked a slight, whether in print or in person, and this occasion was no exception. He gave Computer Gaming World the rather hilarious new moniker of Video Wahoo Magazine in a number of interviews after Wilson’s editorializing was brought to his attention.

But the other side of Harlan Ellison was also on display at that very same conference. David Sears had told Ellison shortly before he made his speech that he really, really wanted a permanent job in the games industry, not just the contract work he had been getting from Cyberdreams. So, Ellison carried a fishbowl onstage with him, explained to the audience that Sears was smart and creative as heck and urgently needed a job, and told them to drop their business cards in the bowl if they thought they might be able to offer him one. “Three days later,” says Sears, “I had a job at Virgin Games. If he called me today [this interview was given before Ellison’s death] and said, ‘I need you to fix the plumbing in my bathroom,’ I’d be on a plane.”

Ellison’s largess was doubly selfless in that it stopped his No Mouth project in its tracks. With Sears having departed for Virgin Games, it spent at least six months on the shelf while Cyberdreams finished up CyberRace and embarked on a Dark Seed II. Finally Pat Ketchum handed it to a new hire, a veteran producer and designer named David Mullich.

It so happens that we met Mullich long, long ago, in the very early days of these histories. At the dawn of the 1980s, as a young programmer just out of university, he worked for the pioneering educational-software publisher Edu-Ware, whom he convinced to let him make some straight-up games as well. One of these was an unauthorized interactive take on the 1960s cult-classic television series The Prisoner; it was arguably the first commercial computer game in history to strive unabashedly toward the status of Art.

Mullich eventually left Edu-Ware to work for a variety of software developers and publishers. Rather belying his earliest experiments in game design, he built a reputation inside the industry as a steady hand well able to churn out robust and marketable if not always hugely innovative games and educational products that fit whatever license and/or design brief he was given. Yet the old impulse to make games with something to say about the world never completely left him. He was actually in the audience at the Game Developers Conference where Harlan Ellison made his keynote address; in marked contrast to Johnny L. Wilson, he found it bracing and exciting, not least because “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” was his favorite short story of all time. Half a year or so later, Pat Ketchum called Mullich up to ask if he’d like to help Ellison get his game finished. He didn’t have to ask twice; after all those years spent slogging in the trenches of commerce, here was a chance for Mullich to make Art again.

His first meeting with Ellison didn’t begin well. Annoyed at the long delay from Cyberdreams’s side, Ellison mocked him as “another member of the brain trust.” It does seem that Mullich never quite developed the same warm relationship with Ellison that Sears had enjoyed: Ellison persisted in referring to him as “this new David, whose last name I’ve forgotten” even after the game was released. Nonetheless, he did soften his prejudicial first judgment enough to deem Mullich “a very nice guy.” Said nice guy took on the detail work of refining Sears and Ellison’s early design document — which, having been written by two people who had never made a game before, had some inevitable deficiencies — into a finished script that would combine Meaning with Playability, a task his background prepared him perfectly to take on. Mullich estimates that 50 percent of the dialog in the finished game is his, while 30 percent is down to Sears and just 20 percent to Ellison himself. Still, even that level of involvement was vastly greater than that of most established writers who deigned to put their names on games. And of course the core concepts of No Mouth were very much Ellison and Sears’s.

Pat Ketchum had by this point elected to remove Cyberdreams from the grunt work of game development; instead the company would act as a design mill and publisher only. Thus No Mouth was passed to an outfit called The Dreamers Guild for implementation under Mullich’s supervision. That became another long process; the computer game of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream wasn’t finally released until late 1995, fully three and a half years after Pat Ketchum had first visited Harlan Ellison to ask his permission to make it.

The latter’s enthusiasm for the project never abated over the course of that time. He bestowed his final gift upon David Mullich and the rest of Cyberdreams when he agreed to perform the role of AM himself. The result is one of the all-time great game voice-acting performances; Ellison, a man who loved to hear himself speak under any and all circumstances, leans into the persona of the psychopathic artificial intelligence with unhinged glee. After hearing him, you’ll never be able to imagine anyone else in the role.


Upon the game’s release, Ellison proved a disarmingly effective and professional spokesman for it; for all that he loved to rail against the stupidity of mainstream commercial media, he had decades of experience as a writer for hire, and knew the requirements of marketing. He wrote a conciliatory, generous, and self-deprecatory letter to Computer Gaming World — a.k.a., Video Wahoo Magazine — after the magazine pronounced No Mouth its Adventure Game of the Year. He even managed to remember David Mullich’s last name therein.

With a bewildering admixture of pleasure and confusion — I’m like a meson which doesn’t know which way to quark — I write to thank you and your staff. Pleasure, because everybody likes to cop the ring as this loopy caravanserie chugs on through Time and Space. Confusion, because — as we both know — I’m an absolute amateur at this exercise. To find myself not only avoiding catcalls and justified laughter at my efforts, but to be recognized with a nod of approval from a magazine that had previously chewed a neat, small hole through the front of my face… well, it’s bewildering.

David Sears and I worked very hard on I Have No Mouth. And we both get our accolades in your presentation. But someone else who had as much or more to do with bringing this project to fruition is David Mullich. He was the project supervisor and designer after David Sears moved on. He worked endlessly, and with what Balzac called “clean hands and composure,” to produce a property that would not shame either of us. It simply would not have won your award had not David Mullich mounted the barricades.

I remember when I addressed the Computer Game Designers’ banquet a couple of years ago, when I said I would work to the limits of my ability on I Have No Mouth, but that it would be my one venture into the medium. Nothing has changed. I’ve been there, done that, and now you won’t have to worry about me making a further pest of myself in your living room.

But for the honor you pay me, I am grateful. And bewildered.

Ellison’s acknowledgment of Mullich’s contribution is well-taken. Too often games that contain or purport to contain Deep Meaning believe this gives them a pass on the fundamentals of being playable and soluble. (For example, I might say, if you’ll allow me just a bit of Ellisonian snarkiness, that a large swath of the French games industry operated on this assumption for many years.) That No Mouth doesn’t fall victim to this fallacy — that it embeds its passion plays within the framework of a well-designed puzzle-driven adventure game — must surely be thanks to Mullich. In this sense, then, Sears’s departure came at the perfect time, allowing the experienced, detail-oriented Mullich to run with the grandiose concept which Sears and Ellison, those two game-design neophytes, had cooked up together. It was, one might say, the best of both worlds.

But, lest things start to sound too warm and fuzzy, know that Harlan Ellison was still Harlan Ellison. In the spring of 1996, he filed a lawsuit against Cyberdreams for unpaid royalties. Having spent his life in books and television, it appears that he may have failed to understand just how limited the sales prospects of an artsy, philosophical computer game like this one really were, regardless of how many awards it won. (Witness his comparison of Cyberdreams to the television empire of Aaron Spelling in one of the quotes above; in reality, the two operated not so much in different media galaxies as different universes.) “With the way the retail chain works, Cyberdreams probably hadn’t turned a profit on the game by the time the lawsuit was filed,” noted Computer Gaming World. “We’re not talking sales of Warcraft II here, folks.” I don’t know the details of Ellison’s lawsuit, nor what its ultimate outcome was. But I do know that David Mullich estimates today that No Mouth probably sold only about 40,000 copies in all.

Harlan Ellison didn’t always keep the sweeping promises he made in the heat of the moment; he huffily announced on several occasions that he was forever abandoning television, the medium with which he passed so much of his career in such a deadly embrace, only to be lured back in by money and pledges that this time things would be different. He did, however, keep his promise of never making another computer game. And that, of course, makes the one game he did help to make all the more special. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream stands out from the otherwise drearily of-its-time catalog of Cyberdreams as a multimedia art project that actually works — works as a game and, dare I say it, as a form of interactive literature. It stands today as a rare fulfillment of the promise that so many saw in games back in those heady days when “multimedia” was the buzzword of the zeitgeist — the promise of games as a sophisticated new form of storytelling capable of the same relevance and resonance as a good novel or movie. This is by no means the only worthwhile thing that videogames can be, nor perhaps even the thing they are best at being; much of the story of gaming during the half-decade after No Mouth‘s release is that of a comprehensive rejection of the vision Cyberdreams embodied. The company went out of business in 1997, by which time its artsy-celebrity-driven modus operandi was looking as anachronistic as Frank Sinatra during the heyday of the Beatles.

Nevertheless, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream remains one of the best expressions to stem from its confused era, a welcome proof positive that sometimes the starry-eyed multimedia pundits could be right. David Mullich went on to work on such high-profile, beloved games as Heroes of Might and Magic III and Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines, but he still considers No Mouth one of the proudest achievements of a long and varied career that has encompassed the naïvely idealistic and the crassly commercial in equal measure. As well he should: No Mouth is as meaningful and moving today as it was in 1995, a rare example of a game adaptation that can be said not just to capture but arguably to improve on its source material. It endures as a vital piece of Harlan Ellison’s literary legacy.


In I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, you explore the traumas of each of the five people imprisoned by the psychotic supercomputer AM, taken in whatever order you like. Finding a measure of redemption for each of them opens up an endgame which offers the same chance for the rest of humanity — a dramatic departure from the infamously bleak ending of the short story on which the game is based.

Each character’s vignette is a surreal evocation of his tortured psyche, but is also full of opportunities for him to acknowledge and thereby cleanse himself of his sins. Harlan Ellison particularly loved this bit of symbolism, involving the wife and mother-in-law of the truck driver Gorrester: he must literally let the two principal women in his life off the hook. (Get it?) Ellison’s innocent delight in interactions like these amused the experienced game designer David Mullich, for whom they were old hat.

In mechanical terms, No Mouth is a fairly typical adventure game of its period. Its engine’s one major innovation can be seen in the character portrait at bottom left. The background here starts out black, then lightens through progressive shades of green as the character in question faces his demons (literally here, in the case of Ted — the game is not always terribly subtle). Ideally, each vignette will conclude with a white background. Be warned: although No Mouth mostly adheres to a no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends philosophy — “dying” in a vignette just gets the character bounced back to his cage, whence he can try again — the best ending becomes impossible to achieve if every character doesn’t demonstrate a reasonable amount of moral growth in the process of completing his vignette.

The computer genius Ellen is mortified by yellow, the color worn by the man who raped her. Naturally, the shade features prominently in AM’s decor.

The professional soldier Benny confronts the graves of the men who died under his command.

If sins can be quantified, then Nimdok, the associate to Dr. Mengele, surely has the most to atone for. His vignette involves the fable of the Golem of Prague, who defended the city’s Jewish ghetto against the pogroms of the late sixteenth century. Asked whether he risked trivializing the Holocaust by putting it in a game, Harlan Ellison answered in the stridently negative: “Nothing could trivialize the Holocaust. I don’t care whether you mention it in a comic book, on bubble-gum wrappers, in computer games, or write it in graffiti on the wall. Never forget. Never forget.


People say, “Oh, you’re so prolific.” That’s a remark made by assholes who don’t write. If I were a plumber and I repaired 10,000 toilets, would they say, “Boy, you’re a really prolific plumber?”

If I were to start over, I would be a plumber. I tell that to people, they laugh. They think I’m making it up. It’s not funny. I think a plumber, a good plumber who really cares and doesn’t overcharge and makes sure things are right, does more good for the human race in a given day than 50 writers. In the history of the world, there are maybe, what, 20, 30 books that ever had any influence on anybody, maybe The Analects of Confucius, maybe The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, maybe Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If I ever write anything that is remembered five minutes after I’m gone, I will consider myself having done the job well. I work hard at what I do; I take my work very seriously. I don’t take me particularly seriously. But I take the work seriously. But I don’t think writing is all that inherently a noble chore. When the toilet overflows, you don’t need Dostoevsky coming to your house.

That’s what I would do, I would get myself a job as a plumber. I would go back to bricklaying, which I used to do. I would become an electrician. Not an electrical engineer. I would become an electrician. I would, you know, install a night light in a kid’s nursery, and at the end of the day, if I felt like writing, I would write something. I don’t know what that has to do with the game or anything, but you asked so I told you.

— Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

(Sources: the books The Way the Future Was by Frederick Pohl, These Are the Voyages: Season One by Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: Stories by Harlan Ellison, and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The Official Strategy Guide by Mel Odom; Starlog of September 1977, April 1980, August 1980, August 1984, November 1985, and December 1985; Compute! of November 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1988, September 1992, July 1993, September 1993, April 1996, May 1996, July 1996, August 1996, November 1996, and June 1999; CU Amiga of November 1992 and February 1993; Next Generation of January 1996; A.N.A.L.O.G. of June 1987; Antic of August 1983; Retro Gamer 183. Online sources include a 1992 Game Informer retrospective on I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and a history of Cyberdreams at Game Nostalgia. My thanks also go to David Mullich for a brief chat about his career and his work on No Mouth.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 
 

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