RSS

Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fritz Bronner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Tags: ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BONUS:

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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



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



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



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

 
54 Comments

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

 

Tags: ,

Eric the Unready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

More risque humor…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Tags: , ,

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 3: A Renaissance is Nigh

In 1397, a Byzantine scholar named Manuel Chrysoloras arrived in Florence, Italy. He brought with him knowledge of Greek, along with many ancient manuscripts in Greek and Latin that had been lost to the West in the chaos following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This event is considered by many historians to mark the first stirrings of the Italian Renaissance, and with them the beginning of the epoch of scientific, material, and social Progress which has persisted right up to the present day.

In 1993, an Oxford graduate student named Graham Nelson released a text adventure called Curses that, among other things, functioned as an advertisement for a programming language he called Inform, which targeted Infocom’s old Z-Machine. This event is considered by most of us who have seriously thought about the history of text adventures in the post-Infocom era to mark the first stirrings of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, and with them the beginning of an interactive-fiction community that remains as artistically vibrant as ever today.

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes at the foregoing. On one level, it is indeed an unbearably pretentious formulation, this comparing of one of the most earthshaking events in human culture writ large with the activities of a small community of niche enthusiasts. Yet, if we can agree to set aside the differences in scale and importance for the moment, the analogy really is a surprisingly apt one. Like the greater Renaissance in Europe, the Interactive Fiction Renaissance prepared a group of people to begin moving forward again by resurfacing old things that had been presumed lost forever. Taking pride of place among those things, being inextricably bound up with everything that followed, was the Z-Machine, functioning first as a means of running Infocom’s classic games, as we saw in the first article in this series; and then as a means of running new games, as we began to see in the second article and will examine in still more detail today.


As Graham Nelson began to pursue the dream of writing new software to run on Infocom’s old virtual machine, he had no access to the refined tools Infocom had used for that task. Thus he was forced to start from nothing — from what amounted to a bare chunk of (virtual) computing hardware, with no compilers or any other software helpers to aid his efforts. He had to start, in other words, at the bare metal, working in assembly language.

Assembly language is the lowest level at which any computer, whether real or virtual, can be (semi-)practically programmed. Its statements correspond to the individual opcodes of the processor itself, which normally encompass only the most granular of commands: add, subtract, multiply, or divide these numbers together; grab the number from this local register and put it into that memory location; etc. Assembly language is the primordial language which underpins everything, the one which must be utilized first to write the compilers that allow programmers to develop software in less granular, more structured, more human-friendly languages such as C, Pascal, and BASIC.

Already at this level, however, the Z-Machine separates itself from an ordinary computer. Alongside the rudimentary, granular opcodes that are common to any Turing-complete computer, it implements other opcodes that are absurdly baroque. The “read” opcode, for example, does all of the work of accepting a full line of text from the keyboard, then separating out its individual words and “tokenizing” them: i.e., looking them up in a dictionary table stored at a defined location in the virtual machine’s memory and converting them into the codes listed there. Another opcode, “save,” simply orders the interpreter to save the current state of the machine to disk, however it prefers to go about it; ditto the “restore” opcode. These complex and highly specialized opcodes exist because the Z-Machine, while it is indeed a Turing-complete, fully programmable anything machine in the abstract, is nevertheless heavily optimized toward the practical needs of text adventures. Thus an object table meant to represent rooms and things in the world of a game is hard-coded right into its memory map, and there are other single opcodes which encapsulate relatively complex tasks like looking up or changing the properties of an object in the world, or moving one object into another object.

Strictly speaking, none of this is really necessary; the Z-Machine is far more complicated than it needs to be in abstract terms. Infocom could have created a robust virtual machine which implemented only traditional low-level opcodes, building everything else out in the form of software libraries running on said virtual machine. But they had a strong motivation for hard-coding so many of the needs of a text adventure right into the virtual hardware: efficiency. A baroque opcode like “read” meant that all of the many steps and stages which went into accepting the player’s command could take place at the interpreter level, running natively on the host computer. Implementing a virtual machine of any sort was a serious challenge on a 1 MHz 8-bit computer like an Apple II or Commodore 64; Infocom needed every advantage they could get.

By the time of Graham Nelson’s experimentation with the Z-Machine, most of the concerns that had led Infocom to design it in this way had already fallen by the wayside. The average computer of the early 1990s would have been perfectly capable of running text adventures through a simpler and more generic virtual machine where the vagaries of the specific application were implemented in software. Nevertheless, the Z-Machine was the technology Graham had inherited and the one he was determined to utilize. When he began to work on Inform, he tailored it to the assumptions and affordances of the Z-Machine. The result was a high-level programming language with an unusual degree of correspondence to its underlying (virtual) hardware. Most obviously, the earliest versions of Inform couldn’t make games whose total compiled size exceeded 128 K, the limit for the version 3 Z-Machine they targeted. (This figure would be raised to 256 K once Inform began to target the version 4 and 5 Z-Machine.)

Yet this limitation was only the tip of the iceberg. Each function in Inform was limited to a maximum of 15 local variables because that was all that the stack mechanism built into the Z-Machine allowed. Meanwhile only 240 global variables could exist because that was the maximum length of the table of same hard-coded into the Z-Machine’s memory map. Much of Inform came to revolve around the Z-Machine’s similarly hard-coded object table, which was limited to just 255 objects in version 3 of the virtual machine. (This limitation was raised to 65,535 objects in the version 4 and 5 Z-Machine, thereby becoming in practice a non-issue.) Further, each object could have just 32 attributes, or states of being — its weight, its open or closed status, its lit or unlit status, etc. — because that was all that was allowed by the Z-Machine’s standard object table. (Starting with version 4 of the Z-Machine, objects could have up to 48 attributes.) All of the dynamic data in a game — i.e., data that could change during play, as opposed to static data like code and text strings — had to fit into the first 64 K of the story file, an artifact of the Z-Machine’s implementation of virtual memory, which had allowed it to pack 128 K or more of game into computers with far less physical memory than that. This limitation too was inherited by Inform despite the fact that by the early 1990s the virtual-memory system had become superfluous, a mere phantom limb which Inform nevertheless had to accept as part of the bargain with the past which it had struck.

Indeed, having been confronted with so many undeniable disadvantages arising from the use of the Z-Machine, it’s natural for us to ask what actual advantages accrued from the use of a fifteen-year-old virtual machine designed around the restrictions of long-obsolete computers, as opposed to taking the TADS route of designing a brand new virtual machine better suited to the modern world. One obvious answer is portability. By the early 1990s, several different open-source Z-Machine interpreters already existed, which between them had already been ported to virtually every computing platform in the world with any active user base at all. Any Inform game that Graham Nelson or anyone else chose to write would become instantly playable on all of these computers, whose combined numbers far exceeded those to which Mike Roberts, working virtually alone on TADS, had so far managed to port his interpreter. (The only really robust platform for running TADS games at the time was MS-DOS; even the Macintosh interpreters were dogged by bugs and infelicities. And as for Graham’s favored platform, the British-to-the-core Acorn Archimedes… forget about it.)

In reality, though, Inform’s use of the Z-Machine appealed at least as much to the emotions as to technical or practical considerations. The idea of writing new games to run on Infocom’s old virtual machine had a romantic and symbolic allure that many found all but irresistible. What better place to build a Renaissance than on the very foundations left behind by the storied ancients? Many or most of the people who came to use Inform did so because they wanted to feel like the heirs to Infocom’s legacy. Poor TADS never had a chance against that appeal to naked sentimentality.

Even as Inform was first gaining traction, it was widely known that Infocom had had a programming language of their own for the Z-Machine, which they had called ZIL: the “Zork Implementation Language.” Yet no one outside of Infocom had ever seen any actual ZIL code. How closely did Inform, a language that, like ZIL, was designed around the affordances and constraints of the Z-Machine, resemble its older sibling? It wasn’t until some years after Inform had kick-started the Interactive Fiction Renaissance that enough ZIL code was recovered to give a reasonable basis for comparison. The answer, we now know, is that Inform resembles ZIL not at all in terms of syntax. Indeed, the two make for a fascinating case study in how different minds, working on the same problem and equipped with pretty much the same set of tools for doing so, can arrive at radically different solutions.

As I described in an article long ago, ZIL was essentially a subset of the general-purpose programming language MDL, which was used heavily during the 1970s by the Dynamic Modeling Group at MIT, the cradle from which Infocom sprang. (MDL was itself a variant of LISP, for many years the language of choice among artificial-intelligence researchers.) A bare-bones implementation of the famous brass lantern in Zork I looked like this in ZIL:

<OBJECT LANTERN 
           (LOC LIVING-ROOM) 
           (SYNONYM LAMP LANTERN LIGHT) 
           (ADJECTIVE BRASS) 
           (DESC "brass lantern") 
           (FLAGS TAKEBIT LIGHTBIT) 
           (ACTION LANTERN-F) 
           (FDESC "A battery-powered lantern is on the trophy 
             case.") 
           (LDESC "There is a brass lantern (battery-powered) 
             here.") 
           (SIZE 15)>


Inform has a fairly idiosyncratic syntax, but most resembles C, a language which was initially most popular among Unix systems programmers, but which was becoming by the early 1990s the language of choice for serious software of many stripes running under many different operating systems. The same lantern would look something like this in a bare-bones Inform implementation:

Object -> lantern "brass lantern"
  with name 'lamp' 'lantern' 'light' 'brass',
    initial
      "A battery-powered lantern is on the trophy case.",
    description
      "There is a brass lantern (battery-powered) here.",
  after [;
    SwitchOn:
      give self light;
      StartDaemon(self);
    SwitchOff:
      give self ~light;
  ],
  size 15,
  has switchable;


After enough information about ZIL finally emerged to allow comparisons like the above, many Infocom zealots couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed about how poorly Infocom’s language actually fared in contrast to Graham Nelson’s. Having been designed when the gospel of object-oriented programming was still in its infancy, ZIL, while remarkable for embracing object-oriented principles to the extent it does, utilizes them in a slightly sketchy way, via pointers to functions which have to be defined elsewhere in the code. (This is the purpose of the “ACTION LANTERN-F” statement in the ZIL code above — to serve as a pointer to the routine that should run when the player tries to light the lantern.) Inform, on the other hand, allows all of the code and data associated with an object such as the brass lantern to be neatly encapsulated into its description. (The “SwitchOn” and “SwitchOff” statements in the Inform excerpt above explain what should happen when the player tries to light or extinguish the lantern.) A complete implementation of the Zork I lantern in Inform would probably fill a dozen or more lines than what we see above, monitoring the charge of the battery, allowing the player to swap in a new battery, etc. — all neatly organized in one chunk of code. In ZIL, it would be scattered all over the place, wired together via a confusing network of pointers. In terms of readability alone, then, Inform excels in comparison to ZIL.

Most shockingly of all given the Infocom principals’ strong grounding in computer science, they never developed a standard library for ZIL — i.e., a standardized body of code to take care of the details that most text adventures have in common, such as rooms and compass directions, inventory and light sources, as well as the vagaries of parsing the player’s commands and keeping score. Instead the author of each new game began by cannibalizing some of the code to do these things from whatever previous game was deemed to be most like this latest one. From there, the author simply improvised. The Inform standard library, by contrast, was full-featured, rigorous, and exacting by the time the language reached maturity — in many ways a more impressive achievement than the actual programming language which undergirded it.

Because it was coded so much more efficiently than Infocom’s ad-hoc efforts, this standard library allowed an Inform game to pack notably more content into a given number of kilobytes. The early versions of Curses, for example, were already sprawling games by most standards, yet fit inside the 128 K Z-Machine. Later versions did move to, and eventually all but fill, the version 5 Z-Machine with its 256 K memory map. Still, the final Curses offers vastly more content than anything Infocom ever released, with the possible exception only of Zork Zero (a game which was itself designed for a version 6 Z-Machine that took the ceiling to 512 K). Certainly any comparison of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity — both famously big games with a story-file size pegged to the version 4 and 5 limit of 256 K — to the final version of Curses — story-file size: 253 K — must reveal the last to be an even more complex, even more expansive experience.

So, the Inform development system could hold its head up proudly next to ZIL; in fact, it was so well-thought-through that ZIL would thoroughly disappoint by comparison once hobbyists finally learned more about it. But what of Curses itself, the game with which Inform was so indelibly linked during the first few years of its existence? Was it also up to the Infocom standard?



Before delving into that question in earnest, I should perhaps elaborate a bit on Graham Nelson’s own description of Curses from the previous article.

In the game, then, you play the role of a rather hapless scion of a faded aristocratic family. Aristocratic life not being what it once was, you’ve long since been forced to register the familial mansion with the National Trust and open it up to visitors on the weekends in order to pay the bills. As the game proper begins, your family is about to take a jaunt to Paris, and you’ve come up to the attic — a place in as shabby a state as the rest of the house — to look for a tourist map you just know is lying around up here somewhere.

It's become a matter of pride now not to give up. That tourist map of Paris must be up here somewhere in all this clutter, even if it has been five years since your last trip. And it's your own fault. It looks as if your great-grandfather was the last person to tidy up these lofts...

Attic
The attics, full of low beams and awkward angles, begin here in a relatively tidy area which extends north, south and east. The wooden floorboards seem fairly sound, just as well considering how heavy all these teachests are. But the old wiring went years ago, and there's no electric light.


A hinged trapdoor in the floor stands open, and light streams in from below.

In the best tradition of shaggy-dog stories, your search for the map turns into an extended adventure through space and time. You just keep finding more and more secret areas and secret things in the attics and the grounds surrounding the house, including a disconcerting number of portals to other times and places. The whole thing eventually comes to revolve around an ancient familial curse reaching back to the time of Stonehenge. If you manage to get to the end of the game — no small feat, believe me! — you can finally lift the curse. And, yes, you can finally find the bloody Paris tourist map.

It’s hard to know where to start or end any discussion of Curses. It’s one of those works that sends one off on many tangents: its technology, its historical importance, its literary worth as a writing exercise or its ludic worth as an exercise in design. Faced with this confusion, we might as well start with what Curses has meant to me.

For Curses is indeed a game which carries a lot of personal importance for me. I first discovered it about four or five years after its original release, when I was working a painfully dull job as a night-shift system administrator — a job which paid not so much for what I did each night as for my just being there if something should go wrong. I had, in other words, copious amounts of free time on my hands. I used some of it playing a bunch of post-Infocom text adventures which I hadn’t previously realized existed. Because they looked — or could be made to look — like just another scrolling terminal window, they suited my purposes perfectly. Thus my memory of many a 1990s classic is bound up with those nights in a deserted data center — with the strange rhythm of being awake when everyone else is asleep, and vice versa.

Of all the games I played during that time, Curses made one of the greatest impressions on me. I was still young enough then to be profoundly impressionable in general, and I found its casual erudition, its willingness to blend science with poetry, mathematics with history, to be absolutely entrancing. Having been a hopeless Anglophile ever since I first heard a Beatles record at circa six years old, I was well-primed to fall in love with Graham Nelson’s dryly ironic and oh-so-English diction. In fact, as I began to write more seriously and extensively myself in the years that followed, I shamelessly co-opted some of his style as my own. I like to think that I’ve become my own writer in the time since that formative period, but some piece of Graham is undoubtedly still hiding out down there somewhere in the mishmash of little ticks and techniques that constitute my writer’s voice.

For all that Curses entranced me, however, I never came close to completing it. At some point I’d get bogged down by its combinatorial explosion of puzzles and places, by its long chains of dependencies where a single missed or misplaced link would lock me out of victory without my realizing it, and I’d drift away to something else. Eventually, I just stopped coming back altogether.

I was therefore curious and maybe even slightly trepiditious to revisit Curses for this article some two decades after I last attempted to play it. How would it hold up? The answer is, better than I feared but somewhat worse than I might have hoped.

The design certainly shows its age. I have less patience than ever today for walking-dead scenarios that are as easy to stumble into as they are here. I wholeheartedly agree with Graham’s own statement that “Curses is by any reasonable standard too hard.”

So far, so expected. But I was somewhat more surprised by my crotchety middle-aged take on the writing. Mind you, some aspects of it still bring a smile to my face; I still can’t resist saying, “It’s a wrench, but I’ll take it,” every time I pick up a wrench in real life, much to my wife’s disgust. (Luckily, as she’d be the first to point out, I’m not much of a handyman, so I don’t tend to pick up too many of them.) In other places, though, what used to strike me as delightful now seems just a little bit too precious for its own good. I can still recognize the influence it had over me and my own writing, but it does feel at times like an influence I’ve ever so slightly outgrown. Today, things like the game’s quotation of the lovely Dorothy Parker poem “Inventory” — “Four be the things I’d been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.” — when you first type the command of the same name can feel just a little bit facile. Curses is constantly making cultural cross-connections like these, but they’re ultimately more clever than they are profound. It’s a game packed with a lot of cultural stuff, but not one with much to really say about any of it. It instead treats its cultural name-dropping as an end unto itself.

Curses strikes me as a young man’s game, in spite of its showy erudition — or perhaps because of it. It was written by a prodigious young man in that wonderful time of life when the whole world of the intellect — all of it — is fresh and new and exciting, when unexpected pathways of intellectual discovery seem to be opening up everywhere one looks. In this light, Emily Short’s description of it as a game about the sheer joy of cultural discovery rings decidedly true. Graham himself recognizes that he could never hope to write a game like it today; thus his wise decision not to return to the well for a sequel.

But to fairly evaluate Curses, we need to understand its place in the timeline of interactive fiction as well as in the life of the man who created it. It’s often billed — not least by myself, in this very article’s introduction — as the game which kicked off the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, the first of a new breed which didn’t have to settle for being the next best thing to more Infocom games. It was the first hobbyist game which could stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with the best works of Infocom in terms of both technical and literary quality.

On the face of it, this is a fair evaluation — which is, after all, the reason I’ve deployed it. Yet the fact remains that Curses‘s mode of production and overall design aesthetic mark it as a distinctly different beast from the best later works of the Renaissance it heralded. While the games of Infocom certainly were an influence on it, they weren’t the only influence. Indeed, their influence was perhaps less marked in reality than one might imagine from the game’s intimate connection to the Z-Machine, or from its borrowing of some fairly superficial aesthetic elements from Infocom, such as the letterboxed literary quotations which were first employed to such good effect by Trinity. While Curses‘s technology and its prose were unquestionably up to the Infocom standard, in spirit it verged on something else entirely.

In the beginning — the very beginning — text adventures were written on big institutional computers by unabashed eggheads for a very small audience of other eggheads. Games of this type were expected to be hard; questions of fairness rarely even entered the conversation. For these games weren’t just designed for single eggheads to play and conquer — they were rather designed for entire teams of same; adventure gaming in these early days was regarded as a group activity. These games were made publicly available while still works-in-progress; their mode of production bore an ironic resemblance to modern attitudes about “software as a service,” as manifested in modern gaming in things like the Steam Early Access program. In fact, these text-adventures-as-a-service tended not to ever really get finished by their designers; they simply stopped growing one day when their designers left the institution where they lived or simply got bored with them. Graham Nelson was exposed to this tradition early on, via his first encounters with the Crowther and Woods Adventure. (Remember his telling reminiscence: “It seemed like something you were exploring, not something you were trying to win.”) When he came to Cambridge in 1987, he was immersed in a sustained late flowering of this design aesthetic, in the form of the text adventures made for the Phoenix mainframe there.

This attitude cut against the one which Infocom had long since come to embrace by the time Graham arrived at Cambridge: the notion that text adventures should be interactive fictions, soluble by any single player of reasonable intelligence in a reasonable amount of time. As the name “interactive fiction” would imply, Infocom adopted a fundamentally literary mode of production: a game was written, went through lots of internal testing to arrive at some consciously complete state, and then and only then was sent out into the world as the final, definitive work. Infocom might release subsequent versions to fix bugs and incongruities that had slipped through testing, just as the text of a book might receive some additional correcting and polishing between print runs, but Infocom’s games were never dramatically expanded or overhauled after their release. Post-Curses, the hobbyist interactive-fiction community would embrace this Infocom model of production almost exclusively. In fact, a game released “before its time,” still riddled with bugs and sketchily written and implemented, would attract the most scathing of rebukes, and could damage the reputation of its author to the point that she would have a hard time getting anyone to even look at a subsequent game.

Yet Curses was anything but an exemplar of this allegedly enlightened interactive-fiction production function. Graham Nelson’s game grew up in public like the institutional games of yore, being expanded and improved in six major stages, with more than two years elapsing from its first release to its last. Betwixt and between them, Graham shared yet more versions on a more private basis, both among his local peer group and among the burgeoning community of Curses superfans on the Internet. As each new version appeared, these armies of players would jump into it to find the new puzzles and give their feedback on what else might be added to or improved, just as an army of MIT students once did every time the people who would eventually found Infocom put up a new build of the PDP-10 Zork. There are, for example, seven separate ways to solve an early puzzle involving the opening of a stubborn medicine bottle in the final version of Curses, most of them the result of player suggestions.

So, Curses should be understood as an ongoing creative effort — almost, one might say, a collaboration between Graham Nelson and his players — that grew as big as it could and then stopped. A scrupulous commitment to fairness just wasn’t ever in the cards, any more than a rigorously pre-planned plot line. In a telling anecdote, Graham once let slip that he was surprised how many people had finished Curses at all over the years. It was designed, like his beloved Crowther and Woods Adventure, to be a place which you came back to again and again, exploring new nooks and crannies as the fancy took you. If you actually wanted to solve the thing… well, you’d probably need to get yourself a group for that. Even the hint system, grudgingly added in one of the later versions, is oblique; many of the hints come from a devil who tells you the exact opposite of what you ought to be doing. And all of the hints are obscure, and you’re only allowed three of them in any given session.

All of which is to say that, even as it heralded a new era in interactive fiction which would prove every bit as exciting as what had come before, Curses became the last great public world implemented as a single-player text adventure. It’s an archetypal Renaissance work, perched happily on the crossroads between past and future. Its shared debt to the institutional tradition that had stamped so much of interactive fiction’s past and to the Infocom approach that would dictate its future is made most explicit in the name of the language which Graham developed alongside the game. As he told us in the previous article in this series, the first syllable of “Inform” does indeed refer to Infocom, but the second syllable reflects the habit among users of the Cambridge Phoenix mainframe of appending the suffix “-form” to the name of any compiler.

Speaking of Inform: Curses also needs to be understood in light of its most obvious practical purpose at the time of its creation. Most new text-adventure creation systems, reaching all the way back to the time of Scott Adams, have been developed alongside the first game to be written using them. As we’ve seen at some length now in this article and the previous one, Inform was no exception. As Graham would add new features to his language, he would finds ways to utilize them in Curses in order to test them out for himself and demonstrate them to the public. So, just as Inform reflects the Z-Machine’s core capabilities, Curses reflects Inform’s — all of them. And because Inform was designed to be a powerful, complete system capable of producing games equal in technical quality to those of Infocom or anyone else, the puzzles which found their way into Curses became dizzying in their sheer multifariousness. Anything ZIL could do, Graham was not so subtly implying, Inform could do as well or better.

Here, then, the Infocom influence on Curses is much more pronounced. You can almost go through the Infocom catalog game by game, looking at the unique new interactive possibilities each release implemented and then finding a demonstration somewhere in Curses of Inform’s ability to do the same thing. Zork II introduced a robot to which the player’s avatar could issue verbal commands, so Curses does the same thing with a robot mouse; Enchanter had an underground maze whose interconnections the player could alter dynamically, so Curses has a hedge maze which let its player do the same thing; Infidel drew hieroglyphic symbols on the screen using groups of ASCII characters, so Curses has to demonstrate the same capability; etc., etc. (One of the few Infocom affordances that doesn’t show up anywhere in Curses is a detailed spell-casting system, the linchpin of the beloved Enchanter trilogy — but never fear, Graham wrote an entirely separate game just to demonstrate Inform’s capabilities in that area.) If all this doesn’t always do much for the game’s internal coherence, so be it: there were other motivations at work.



Graham Nelson’s own story of the first release of Curses is stamped with the unassuming personality of the man. On May 9, 1993, he uploaded it to an FTP site connected with the Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung — a research institute in Bonn, Germany, where a friendly system administrator named Volker Blasius had started an archive for all things interactive fiction. He then wrote up a modest announcement, and posted it to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction — a group originally set up by stuffy academic hypertext enthusiasts of the Eastgate stripe, which had since been rudely invaded and repurposed by unwashed masses of text-adventure enthusiasts. After doing these things, Graham heard…nothing. Feeling a little disappointed, but realizing that he had after all written a game in a genre whose best days seemed to be behind it, he went about his business — only to discover some days later that his incoming Usenet feed was bollixed. When he got it fixed, he found that his little game had in fact prompted a deluge of excitement. No one had ever seen anything like it. Just where had this mysterious new game that somehow ran on Infocom’s own Z-Machine come from? And where on earth had its equally mysterious author gone to after releasing it?

It really is hard to overstate the impact which Curses, and shortly after it Inform, had on the interactive-fiction community of 1993. Text adventures at that time were largely an exercise in nostalgia; even all of the work that had been done to understand the Z-Machine and make new interpreters for it, which had been such a necessary prerequisite for Graham’s own work, had been done strictly to let people play the old games. While some people were still making new games, none of them could comprehensively stand up next to Infocom at their best. Yes, some of them evinced considerable creativity, even a degree of real literary ambition, but these were held back by the limitations of AGT, the most popular text-adventure development system at the time. Meanwhile Adventions, the makers of the most polished games of this period, who were wise enough to use the technically excellent TADS rather than the more ramshackle AGT, were more competent than inspired in churning out slavish homages to Zork. All of the absolute best text adventures, the ones which combined literary excellence and technical quality, were still those of Infocom, and were all more than half a decade old.

And then along came Curses as a bolt out of the blue. Even if we wish to argue that some aspects of it haven’t aged terribly well, we cannot deny how amazing it was in 1993, with its robust determination to do everything Infocom had done and more, with its distinct and confident literary sensibility, and not least — the appeal this held really cannot be emphasized enough — the fact that it ran on Infocom’s own virtual machine. It dominated all online discussion of text adventures throughout the two years Graham spent continuing to improve and expand it in public. The gravitational pull of Curses was such that when Mike Roberts, the creator of TADS, released an epic of his own later in 1993, it went oddly unremarked — this despite the fact that Perdition’s Flames was progressive in many ways that Curses distinctly wasn’t, making it impossible to lock yourself out of victory, prioritizing fairness above all other considerations. It stands today as the better game in mechanical terms at least, recommendable without the caveats that must accompany Graham’s effort. Yet it never stood a chance in 1993 against the allure of Curses.

And so it was that the quiet, thoughtful Englishman Graham Nelson — hardly the most likely leader of a cultural movement — used Curses and Inform to sculpt a new community of creation in his own image.

Graham’s technological choices became the community’s standards to a well-nigh shocking extent. The version 5 Z-Machine, the last and most advanced of its text-only iterations to come out of Infocom, had only been used by a few late Infocom games, none of them hugely beloved. Thus its implementation had tended to be a somewhat low priority among interpreter writers. But when Curses outgrew the 128 K memory space of the version 3 Z-Machine fairly early in its release cycle, and Graham stepped up to the 256 K version 5 Z-Machine, that decision drove interpreter writers to add support for it; after all, any Z-Machine interpreter worth its salt simply had to be able to play Curses, the sensation of the text-adventure world. Thus the version 5 Z-Machine became the new standard for the hobbyist games that followed, thanks not only to its expanded memory space but also to its more advanced typography and presentation options. (Graham would later define two new versions of the Z-Machine for really big games: an experimental and seldom-used version 7 and a version 8 which did come into common use. Both would allow story files of up to 512 K, just like Infocom’s graphical version 6 Z-Machine.)

Graham was utterly disinterested in making money from his projects. He made Inform entirely free, destroying the shareware model of AGT and TADS. David Malmberg, the longtime steward of AGT, stepped down from that role and released that system as well as freeware in 1994, signalling the end of its active development. Mike Roberts did continue to maintain and improve TADS, but soon bowed to the new world order ushered in by Inform and made it free as well. Not coincidentally, the end of the era of shareware text adventures as well as shareware text-adventure development systems coincided with Graham’s arrival on the scene; from now on, people would almost universally release their games for free. It’s also of more than symbolic significance that, unlike earlier hotbeds of text-adventure fandom which had coalesced around private commercial online services such as CompuServe and GEnie, this latest and most enduring community found its home on the free-and-open Internet.

It’s important to note that Graham’s disinterest in making money in no way implied a lack of seriousness. He approached everything he did in interactive fiction with the attitude that it was worth doing, and worth doing well. In the long run, his careful attention to detail and belief in the medium as something worthy of serious effort and serious study left as pronounced a stamp on the culture of interactive fiction as Inform or Curses themselves.

In 1995, he produced “The Z-Machine Standards Document,” which replaced years of speculation, experimentation, and received hacker wisdom with a codified specification for all extant versions of the Z-Machine. At the same time that he worked on that project, he embarked on The Inform Designer’s Manual, which not only explained the nuts and bolts of coding in the language but also delved deep into questions of design. “The Craft of Adventure,” its included essay on the subject, remains to this day the classic work of its type. Working with what was by now an enthusiastic hobbyist community which tempered its nostalgia for the medium’s commercial past with a belief in its possibilities for the present and future, Graham even saw The Inform Designer’s Manual — all 500-plus pages of it — printed as a physical book, at a time when self-publishing was a much more fraught endeavor than it is today.

But the most amusing tribute to the man’s sheer, well-earned ubiquity may be the way that his personality kept peeking through the cracks of every game made with Inform, unless its author went to truly heroic lengths to prevent it. His wryly ironic standard responses to various commands, as coded into the Inform standard library — “As good-looking as ever” when you examined yourself; “Violence isn’t the answer to this one” when you gave in to frustration and started trying to beat on something; “You are always self-possessed” when you attempted to take yourself — proved damnably difficult to comprehensively stamp out. Thus you’d see such distinctly non-Nelsonian efforts as zombie apocalypses or hardcore erotica suddenly lapsing from time to time into the persona of the bemused Oxford don wandering about behind the scenes, wondering what the heck he’d gotten himself into this time.



Seen with the hindsight of the historian, the necessary prerequisites to an Interactive Fiction Renaissance aren’t hard to identify. The Internet gave text-adventure fans a place to gather and discuss the games of the past, as well as to distribute new ones, all unbeholden to any commercial entity. Free Z-Machine interpreters made it easy to play Infocom’s games, widely recognized as the best of their type ever made, in convenient ways on virtually every computer in existence. Activision’s two Lost Treasures of Infocom collections made the complete Infocom canon easy to acquire, placing all text-adventure fans on an even footing in the course of providing them with their equivalent of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. And then Graham Nelson came along and gave so much: a superb programming language in Inform, a superb demonstration of where interactive fiction could go in the post-Infocom era in Curses, documentation that exceeded the standard of most professional efforts, and, perhaps most of all, a living example of how interactive fiction was worth taking seriously in all its aspects, worth doing completely and well — and forget worrying about making money out of it. So, my next statement is as cringe-worthy as it is inevitable: Graham Nelson became interactive fiction’s Renaissance Man.

Now, it was just a matter of time before all of these forces forged something rather extraordinary. The year after Graham arrived on the scene in such exciting fashion was actually one of the quietest in the history of text adventures in terms of new releases; AGT was dying, while Inform was just beginning to pick up steam as an entity separate from Curses. But the following year, 1995, would see an embarrassment of worthy releases, large and small, trying all sorts of things, even as the cultural capstone to the new edifice of post-Infocom interactive fiction — an annual Interactive Fiction Competition — arrived to complete the construction process. The events of 1993 had been the harbinger; 1995 would become the true Year One of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance.

(Sources: the book The Inform Designer’s Manual by Graham Nelson; Stephen Granade’s timeline of interactive fiction on Brass Lantern; archives of rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction, available on the IF Archive. My warmest thanks go once again to Graham Nelson for sharing so much of his story for these articles.

Curses remains available for free. It can of course be played on any Z-Machine interpreter.)

 
42 Comments

Posted by on November 22, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 2: Hacking Deeper (or, Follies of Graham Nelson’s Youth)

Earlier this year, I reached out to Graham Nelson, the most important single technical architect of interactive fiction’s last three decades, to open a dialog about his early life and work. I was rewarded with a rich and enjoyable correspondence. But when the time came to write this article based on it, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. The problem was not, as it too often is, that I lacked for material to flesh out his personal story. It was rather that Graham had told his own story so well that I didn’t know what I could possibly add to it. I saw little point in paraphrasing what Graham wrote in my own words, trampling all over his spry English irony with my clumsy Americanisms. In the end, I decided not to try.

So, today I present to you Graham Nelson’s story, told as only he can tell it. It’s a rare treat given that Graham is, like so many people of real accomplishment, usually reluctant to speak at any length about himself. I’ll just offer a couple of contextual notes before he begins. The “Inform” to which Graham eventually refers is a specialized text-adventure programming language by that name targeting the Z-Machine (and much later a newer virtual machine known as Glulx which has finally come to supersede Infocom’s venerable creation); Inform has been the most popular tool of its type through the last quarter-century. And Curses is the first full-fledged game ever written with Inform, a puzzly yet eminently literary time-traveling epic which took the huddled, beleaguered text-adventure diehards by storm upon its release in 1993, giving them new hope for their beloved form’s future and inspiring many of them to think of making their own games — using Inform more often than not. In the third and final article of this series on the roots of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, I’ll examine both of these seminal artifacts in depth with the detachment of a third party, trying to place them in their proper historical context for you. For today, though, I give you Graham Nelson unfiltered to tell you his story of how they — and he — came to be…


Great Baddow, the quiet Essex village where Graham Nelson grew up.

I was born in 1968, so I’m coeval with The White Album and Apollo 8. I was born in Chelmsford, in Essex, and grew up mainly in Great Baddow, a quiet suburban village. There were arable farms on one side, where in those days the stubble of the wheat would still be burned off once a year. (In fact, I see that the Wikipedia page for “stubble burning” features a photo from the flat countryside of Essex, taken in 1986. The practice is banned now.) My street, Hollywood Close, had been built in the early 1960s on what used to be Rothman’s Farm. The last trees were still being cut down when I was young, though that was mainly because of Dutch Elm Disease. The houses having been sold all at once, to young families of a similar age, my street was full of seven-year olds when I was seven, and full of fifteen-year olds when I was fifteen. I went to local schools, never more than walking distance away. My primary school, Rothman’s Junior, was built on another field of the same farm, in fact.

My father Peter was an electronics engineer at English Electric Valve. My mother Christine — always “Chris” — was a clerical civil servant before she had me, at the National Assistance Board, which we would call social security today. In those days, women left work when they had a child, which is exactly what she did when she had me and my brother. But later on she trained as a personal assistant, learning Pitman shorthand, which I never picked up, and also typing, which I sort of did: I am a two-fingered typist to this day, but unusually fast at it. I did try the proper technique, but on our home typewriter, my little finger just wasn’t strong enough to strike an “A”. Or perhaps I saw no reason to learn how other people did things.

My parents had met in school in Gosport, a naval village opposite Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. As a result, both sides of my family were in the same town; indeed, we were the eccentric ones, having moved away to Essex. My many aunts, uncles, second cousins, and so on were almost all still in Portsmouth, and we would stay there for every holiday or school break. In effect, it was a second home. Though I didn’t know him for long, a formative influence was my mother’s father Albert, a navy regular who became a postman in civilian life. He was ship’s cook on HMS Belfast during the Second World War; my one successful poem (in the sense of being reprinted, which is the acid test for poems) is in his memory.

None of these people had any higher education at all. I would be the first to go to a university, though my father did the correspondence-course Open University degree in the 1970s, and my mother went to any number of evening classes. (She ended up with a ridiculous number of O-levels, rather the way that some Scouts go on collecting badges until their arms are completely covered.) They both came from genuinely poor backgrounds, where you grew a lot of your own food, and had to make and mend. You didn’t buy books, you borrowed them from the library — though my grandmother did have the Pears Cyclopaedia for 1938 and a dictionary for crosswords. But I didn’t grow up in any way that could be called deprived. My father made a solid middle-class income at a time when that could keep a family of four in a house of their own and run a car. He wasn’t a top-bracket professional, able to sign passport applications as a character reference, like a doctor or a lawyer, but he was definitely white-collar staff, not blue-collar. Yes, he worked in a factory, but in the R&D lab at one end. This is not a Bruce Springsteen song. He would not have known what to do with a six pack of beer.

My brother Toby, who later became a professional computer programmer working at Electronic Arts and other places, was two years younger than me, which meant he passed through school with teachers expecting him to be like me, which he both is and isn’t. He’s my only sibling, though I now also have a brother-in-law and sister-in-law. “Graham” and “Toby” are both definitely unusual names in England in our generation, which is the sort of thing that annoys you as a child, but is then usefully distinctive in later life. At least “Graham” is unabbreviable, for which I have always been grateful.

The local education authority would have expected me to pass the eleven-plus exam, and move up the social ladder to King Edward VI Grammar School, the best in the area by far. But my parents, who believed in universal education, chose not to enter me. So at eleven and a half, I began at Great Baddow Comprehensive School. I didn’t regret this then, and don’t now. I had some fine teachers, and though I was an oddity there, I would have been an oddity anywhere. Besides, I had plenty of friends; it wasn’t the social snake-pit which American high schools always seem to be on television.

Until around 1980, there were no commercial home computers in the UK, which was consistently a couple of years behind the United States in that respect. But my father Peter was also an electronics hobbyist. Practical Electronics magazine tended to be around the house, and even American magazines like Byte, on occasion; I had a copy of the legendary Smalltalk number of Byte, with its famous hot-air-balloon cover. But the gap between these magazines — and the book in my school library about Unix — and reality was enormous. All we had in the house was a breadboard and some TTL chips. Remarkably, my father nevertheless built a computer the size of a typewriter. It had no persistent storage; you had to key in opcodes in hex with a numeric keypad. But it worked. It was a mechanism with no moving parts. It’s hard to explain now how almost alchemical that seemed. He would give a little my-team-has-won-again cheer from his armchair whenever the BBC show Tomorrow’s World used the words “integrated circuits”. (I think this was a little before the term “microchips” came into common usage, or possibly the BBC simply thought it a vulgar colloquialism. They were more old-school back then.)

Until I was twelve years old, then, computing was something done on mainframes – or at any rate “minis” like the DEC VAX, running payroll for medium-sized companies. Schools never had these, or anything else for that matter. In the ordinary way of things, I would never have seen or touched a real computer. But I did, on just a few tantalising occasions.

Great Baddow was not really a tech town, but it was where Marconi had set up, and so there were avionics businesses, such as the one my father worked for, English Electric Valve. Because of that, a rising industry figure named Ian Young lived in our street. His two boys were just about the same age as me and my brother, and he and his wife Gill were good friends of my parents — I caught up with them at my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary only a few weeks ago. Ian soon relocated to Reading as an executive climbing the ranks of Digital Equipment Corporation, then the world’s number two computer company after IBM, but our families kept in touch. A couple of times each year my brother and I would go off to spend a week with the Youngs during the school holidays. This is beginning to sound like a Narnia book, and in a way it was a little like that. Ian would sportingly take us four boys to DEC’s headquarters — in particular, to the darkened rooms where the programmers worked, in an industrial space shared with a biscuit factory. (Another fun thing about the Youngs was that they always had plenty of chocolate-coated Club biscuits from factory surplus.) We would sit at a VT-220 terminal with a fluorescent green screen and play the DECUS user group’s collection of games for the VAX. These were entirely textual, though a few, like chess or Star Trek, rendered a board using ASCII art. Most of these games were flimsy nothings: a boxing simulator, I remember, a Towers of Hanoi demo, and so on. But the exception was Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, which I played less than a year after Don Woods’s canonical first version was circulated by DECUS. Adventure was like nothing else, and had a depth and an ability to entrance which is hard to overstate. There was no such thing as saving the game — or if there was, we didn’t know about it. We simply remembered that you had to unlock the grating, and that the rusty iron rod would… and so on. Our sessions almost invariably ended in one of the two unforgiving mazes. But that was somehow not an unsatisfying thing. It seemed like something you were exploring, not something you were trying to win.

It was, of course, maddening to be hooked on a game you could play perhaps once every six months. I got my first actual computer in 1980, for my twelfth birthday: an Acorn Atom. I had the circuit diagram on my wall; it was the first and last computer I’ve ever owned which I understood the physical workings of. My father assembled it from the kit form. This was £50 cheaper — not a trivial sum in those days — and was also rather satisfying for him, both because it was a lovely bit of craftsmanship to put together (involving two weekends of non-stop soldering), and also because he was never such a hero to his son as when we finally plugged it in and it worked flawlessly. Curious how much of this story appears to be about fathers and sons…

At any rate, I began thinking about implementing “adventures” very early on. This was close to impossible on a computer with 12 K of RAM (and even that only after I slowly expanded it, buying 0.5 K memory chips one at a time from a local hardware store). And yet… I can still remember the epiphany when I realised that you could model the location of an object by storing this in a byte which was either a room number or a special value to mean “being carried”. I think the most feasible creation I came up with was a procedurally-generated game on a squared grid, ten rooms wide by infinity rooms long, where certain rooms were overridden with names and puzzles. It had no title, but was known in my family as “the adventure of Igneous the Dwarf”, after its only real character. My first published game was an imitation of the arcade game Frogger for the Acorn Atom. I made something like £70 in royalties from it, but it really had no interactive-fiction content of any kind.

My first experience of commercial interactive fiction came for the BBC Micro, the big brother of the Acorn Atom; my father being my big brother in this instance, since he bought one in 1981. The Scott Adams line made it onto the BBC Micro, and so did ports of the Cambridge mainframe games, marketed first by Acornsoft and then by Topologika. I thus played some of the canonical Cambridge games quite a while before going to Cambridge. (Cambridge was then the lodestone of the UK computing industry; things like the BBC Micro and the ARM chip are easily overlooked in Cambridge’s history, given the university’s work with gravity, evolution, the electron, etc., but this was not a small deal at the time.) In particular, the most ambitious of the Cambridge games, Acheton, came out from Acornsoft on a disk release, and I played it. This was an extraordinary thing; in the United Kingdom, few computer owners had disk drives, and no more than a handful of BBC Micro games were ever released in that format.

I made something fractionally like a graphical adventure, called Crystal Castle, for the BBC Micro. (In 2000, Toby helpfully, if that’s the word, found the last existing cassette tape of this, digitised it to a WAV file, signal-processed the result, and ended up with about 22 K of program and data. To our astonishment, it ran.) It was written in binary machine code, which thus had no source code. Crystal Castle was nearly published, but the deal ultimately fell through. Superior Software, then the best marque for BBC Micro stuff, exchanged friendly letters with me, and for a while it really did look like it would happen. But I really needed an artist, and a bit more design skill. So, they passed. I imagine they had quite a large slush pile of games on cassette sent in by aspiring coders back then. You should not think of me as a teenage entrepreneur; I was mostly unsuccessful.

I did get two BBC Micro games published in 1984 by a cottage-industry sort of software house somewhere in Essex, run by a local teacher. Anybody who could arrange to duplicate cassette tapes and print inlay cards could be a “software house” in those days, and quite a lot of firms with improvised names (“Aardvark Software”, etc.) were actually people running a mail-order business out of their front rooms. They sold my two games as one, in that they were side A and side B of the same cassette. The games had the somewhat Asimovian names Galaxy’s Edge and Escape from Solaris. I honestly remember little about them, except that Escape from Solaris was a two-handed game. To play, you had to connect two BBC Micros back-to-back with an RS-423 cable, and then you had to type alternate commands. One program would stall while the other was active, but the thing worked. I cannot imagine that these games were any good, but the milieu was that of alien science being indistinguishable from magic. The role-playing game Traveller may have been an influence, I suppose, but my local library had also stocked a great deal of golden-age science fiction, and I had read every last dreg of it. (I hadn’t, at that time, played Starcross, though I’d probably seen Level 9’s Snowball.) I do not still have copies, and I am therefore spared the moral dilemma of whether I should make them publicly available. I did get a piece of fan mail, I remember, by someone who asked if I was a chemist. From this memory, I infer that there were some science-based puzzles.

The Quill-written games weren’t any influence on me, nor really the Magnetic Scrolls ones. The Quill was a ZX Spectrum phenomenon — and the Spectrum came from Acorn’s arch-enemy Sinclair. I think my father regarded it as unsound. It certainly did not have a keyboard designed to the requirement that it survive having a cup of coffee poured through it, as the BBC Micro did. But it did have an enormous amount of RAM — or rather, it didn’t consume all of that precious RAM on screen memory. The way that it avoided this was a distasteful hack, but also a stroke of genius, making the Spectrum a perfect games machine. As a result, those of my friends whose fathers knew anything about computers had BBC Micros, and the rest had Spectrums. It is somehow very English of us to have invented a new class distinction in the 1980s, but I rather think we did. Magnetic Scrolls were a different case, since they were adopting an Infocom-like strategy of releasing for multiple platforms, but they came along later, and always seemed to me to be more style than substance. The Pawn was heavily promoted, but I didn’t care for it.

I really must mention Level 9, though. They wrote 200-room cave adventures – albeit sometimes the cave was a starship – and by dint of some ingenious compression were able to get them out on tape. In particular, I played through to completion all three of the original Level 9 fantasy trilogy: the first being an extended version of the Crowther and Woods Adventure, the second and third being new but in the same style. I still think these good, in some relative sense. Level 9’s version of the Crowther and Woods Adventure, Colossal Adventure, was the first version which I fully explored, so that it still half seems to me like the definitive version. Ironically, none of Level 9’s games had levels in the normal gaming sense.

I didn’t play any of Infocom’s games until, I think, 1987. I bought a handful, one at a time, from Harrod’s in Knightsbridge — a department store for the rich and, it would like to imagine, the socially elite. I was neither of those things, but I knew what I wanted. Infocom’s wares were luxury goods, and luxury goods tend to stay on the shelves until they sell. Harrod’s had a modest stock, which almost nobody else in the UK did, though you could find a handful of early Infocom titles such as Suspended for the Commodore 64 if you trawled the more plebeian electronics shops of Tottenham Court Road. The ones I bought were CP/M editions of some of the classic titles of 1983 to 1985: Enchanter, I remember, being the first. These we were able to run on my brother’s computer, which was an Amstrad, a British machine built for word processing, but which — thanks to the cheapness of Alan Sugar, Amstrad’s proprietor, a sort of British version of Commodore’s Jack Tramiel — ran CP/M rather than MS-DOS.

That was just after I had begun as an undergraduate at Cambridge and joined the mainframe there, Phoenix, as a user. Each user had an allocation of “shares”, which governed how much computing time you could have. As the newest kid to arrive, I had ten shares. There were legends of a man in computational chemistry, modelling the Schrödinger equation for polythene, who had something like 10,000. At any rate, ten shares was only just enough to read your email in daytime. To run anything like Dungeon, the IBM port of Zork, you had to sit up at night — which we did, a little. I think Dungeon was the only externally-written game playable on Phoenix; the others were all homegrown, using TSAL, the game assembler written by David Seal and Jonathan Thackray. As I wrote long ago, to me and others who played them them those games “are as redolent of late nights in the User Area as the soapy taste of Nestlé’s vending-machine chocolate or floppy, rapidly-yellowing line printer paper.” As I noted earlier, most of them ultimately migrated to Acornsoft and Topologika releases.

But there were other social aspects to Phoenix as well. There was a rudimentary bulletin board called GROGGS (the “General Reverse-Ordered Gossip-Gathering System”) and it was tacitly encouraged by the Phoenix administrators because it stopped people abusing the Suggest program as a noticeboard. (We did not then have access to Usenet.) GROGGS was unusually egalitarian — students and faculty somewhat mingled, which was not typical of Cambridge then. Its undoubted king was Jonathan Partington (JRP1), a young professor who had a generous, playful wit. The Phoenix administrators dreaded his parodies of their official announcements. In his presence, GROGGS was a little like the salon in which the hangers-on of Oscar Wilde would attempt to keep up. Numerous people had a schtick; mine was to mutate my user-name to some version of the Prufrockian “I am not Prince Hamlet”. Commenting on the new Dire Straits album, I would post as “I am not Mark Knopfler”. That sort of thing. Jonathan wrote some of the Cambridge mainframe games. He taught me for a few second-year options.

There was also a form of direct messaging, the “notify” command, and you had the ability to link your filespace to somebody else’s, in effect giving them shared access. At some point Mark Owen and Matthew Richards, inseparable friends at Trinity College, observed that these links turned the users of Phoenix into a directed graph — what we would now call a social network. Mark and Matthew converted the whole mainframe into a sort of adventure game on this basis, in which user filespaces were the rooms, and links were map connections between them. You could store a little text file in your filespace as your own room description. Mark and Matthew’s system was called MEGA, a name chosen as an anagram of GAME. Mark went on to take a PhD in neural networks, back in the days when they didn’t work and were considered a dead end; he eventually wrote a book on signal processing. Matthew, a gifted algebraist and one of the nicest people I have ever known, died of Hodgkin’s disease only a couple of years into his own PhD — the first shock of death close up that most of us had known. The doctors tried everything to keep him alive. There’s no length they won’t go to with a young, strong patient, however cruel.

At any rate, back in the days of MEGA, it occurred to me that more could be done. Rather than storing just a single room description, each user could store a larger blob of content, and we would then have a form of MUD. This system, jointly coded by myself and a CS student called John Croft, was called TERA (I forget why we didn’t go up from MEGA to GIGA — perhaps there already was one?) and its compiler was “teraform”. This is the origin of the “-form” suffix in Inform’s name.

Cambridge mathematics degrees were in four parts: IA, IB, II, and III. Part III was an optional fourth year, which now earns you a master’s, but which for arcane funding reasons didn’t in my day. The Part III people were the aspiring professionals, hoping for a PhD grant at the end of it. Only seven or eight were available, which lent a competitive edge to a social group which was all too competitive already. I was thoroughly settled in Cambridge, living in an old Victorian house off Trumpington Street with four close friends, down by the river meadows. It was a very happy time in my life, and I had absolutely no intention of giving it up. As a geometer, I was hoping to be a research student of Frank Adams, a legendary topologist but a man with an awkward, stand-offish character. I’m now rather glad that this didn’t happen, though I’m sorry about the reason, which was that he died in a car crash. The only possible alternative, the affable Ray Lickorish, was just going on sabbatical. And so I found myself obliged to apply to Oxford instead. I was very fortunate to become the student of Simon Donaldson, only the fifth British mathematician to win the Fields Medal. (He is warmly remembered at St Anne’s College, where I now am, not for the Fields, or the Crafoord Prize, or for being knighted, or winning a $3 million award — not for any of that, but for having been a good Nursery Fellow, looking after the college crèche.) Having opened up a new and, almost at once, a rapidly-moving field of study, Simon was over-extended with collaborators, and I wasn’t often a good use of his time. Picture me as one of those plodding Viennese students Beethoven was obliged to give piano lessons to. But it was a privilege even to be present at an important moment in the history of modern geometry, and in his quietly kind way, Simon was an inspirational leader.

So, although I did find myself a doctoral perch, I had time on my hands — not work time, as I had plenty to do on that front, but social time, since everyone I knew was back in Cambridge. I read a great many books, buying up remaindered Faber literary paperbacks from the Henry Pordes bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, whenever I was passing through. The plays of Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, David Hare; the poems of Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Auden, Eliot, and so forth. I wrote a novel, which had to do with two people who worked in a research lab doing unethical things attempting to control chimpanzees. He took the work at face value, she didn’t, or perhaps it was the other way around. By the time I finished, I knew enough to know that it wasn’t any good, but in so far as you become a writer simply by writing, I had become a writer. I then wrote four short stories, and a one-act play called A Church by Daylight (a title which is a tag borrowed from Much Ado About Nothing). This play was thin on plot but had to do with loss. I wasn’t much good at dialogue, and in some way I boiled the play down to its essence, which was eventually published as a twelve-line poem called “Requiem”.

It was during my second year as a DPhil student that The Lost Treasures of Infocom came out. At this time my computer was an Acorn Archimedes with a 20 MB hard drive. I bought the MS-DOS box because I could read the story files from the MS-DOS disks, even if I couldn’t run the MS-DOS interpreter. I had no modem or network access from my house, and could only get files on or off by taking a floppy disk to the computing-service building right across town. I used the InfoTaskforce interpreter to actually play the games on my Archimedes.

So, I would say that the existence of a community-written interpreter was an essential precondition for Inform. In the period from 1990 to 1992, there were two significant Infocom-archaeology projects going on independently, though they were certainly aware of each other: the InfoTaskforce interpreter, and a disassembler called “txd” by Mark Howell. The InfoTaskforce people were based in Australia, and I had no contact with them, but I saw their code. Mark, however, I did exchange emails with. I remember emailing him to ask if anyone had written an assembler to make new games for the Z-Machine, and he replied with some wording close to: “Many people have had many dreams”. I set myself the task of faking a story file just well enough to allow it to execute on the InfoTaskforce interpreter.

I recall that my first self-made story file computed a prime factorisation and then printed the result. Except that it didn’t. I would double-click on the story file, and nothing would happen. I would assume that this was because there was some further table in the story file which I needed to fake: that the interpreter was refusing my file because it lacked this table, let’s say. As a result, I got into a cycle of making more and more elaborate fakes, always with negative results. Eventually I found that these faux story files had been correct all along; it was just that the user interface for the Acorn Archimedes port of the InfoTaskforce interpreter displayed nothing onscreen until the first moment when a game’s output hit the bottom of its virtual display and caused a scroll event. My story files, uniquely in the history of the Z-Machine, simply printed a few lines and then quit. They didn’t produce enough output to scroll, so nothing ever showed up onscreen. (This is why, for several years, the first thing that an Inform-written game did was to print a run of newlines.) So, when I finally managed to make a story file which factorised the numbers 2 to 100, and found that it worked correctly, I had a fairly elaborate assembler. This was called “zass”, and eventually became Inform 1.

The project might have gone no further except for the arrival of Usenet and the rec.arts.int-fiction newsgroup. Suddenly my email address was one which people could contact, and my posts were replied to. I was no longer on GROGGS, talking to a handful of people I knew in real life; I was on Usenet, talking to those I would likely never meet. People didn’t really use Inform much until around Inform 3, but still, there was feedback. An appetite seemed to exist.

A curious echo of the fascination the Z-machine held is that a couple of tiny story files produced by me in the course of these experiments — I remember one with two rooms in it and a few sample objects, one of them a football — themselves started to be collected by people. Of course there were soon to be lots of story files, an unending supply of them. But for just a brief period, even the output of Inform had a sort of second-hand glory reflected onto it.

Inform 1 was the result of my experiments to synthesise a story file, so it preceded Curses; it’s not that I set out to create both. Still, I did once write that Inform and Curses were Siamese twins, though the expression makes me flinch now. It’s not a comedic thing to be born conjoined. That aside, was it true, or did it simply sound clever? It’s true in part. I steadily improved Inform as I was building up Curses in size, and Curses undeniably played a role as a proof of concept. Numerous half-finished interactive-fiction systems had been abandoned with no notable games to their credit, but TADS, especially, shone by having been used for full-scale works. Yet this linkage is only part of the story.

In retrospect, the decision to write Curses fits with the pattern of imitation which you tend to find in the juvenilia of writers. I had read some novels, I wrote a novel; I had read some plays, I wrote a play; and so on. Lost Treasures may have played the same role for me, in computer-game terms, that those 1980s Faber & Faber paperbacks played in literary terms. But I also wrote Curses as an entertainment for my friends back in Cambridge, who attacked it without mercy. A very early version caused hilarity not so much for its intrinsic qualities as because the command “unlock fish” crashed it right out.

The title alludes to the recurring ancestral curses of the Meldrew family, each generation doomed never quite to achieve anything. (Read into that what you will, but it caused my father to raise an amused eyebrow.) The name was actually a hindrance for a while. In the days of Archie and Veronica and other pre-Web systems for searching FTP sites, “curses” was a name already taken by the software library for text windows on Unix.

What is Curses about? A few years ago Emily Short and I were interviewed, one after another, at the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture. Emily described Curses as being about the richness of culture and the excitement of discovering it. This may be an overly generous verdict, but I see what she means. Curses has a kind of exuberance to it. The ferment of what I was reading infuses the game, and although most people saw it as a faithful homage to Infocom, it was also a work of Modernism, assembled from the juxtaposed fragments of other texts. At Meldrew Hall, I could connect everything with everything.

There were four main strands here. Most apparent is the many-volume Oxford History of England, an old-school reference work, which lined up on my shelf in pale blue dust jackets. I had collected them by scouring second-hand book shops with the same assiduity as a kid completing an album of football stickers. Something of each went into Curses, from Roman England (Vol. I) through to society paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and so on. The second strand was Eliot and The Waste Land, not solely for its content but also for its permissive style, as if it had authorised me to throw everything together. The third strand was classics: I was reading a lot of those “Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Philosophy” type of books, and I liked to grab the picturesque parts. Lastly, of course, the fourth strand is Infocom. Some of the puzzle design is lovingly imitative of Lebling, especially. The hieroglyphics from Infidel make a direct appearance. I also took affectionate swipes at the conventions, as with the infamous “You have missed the point entirely” death incurred simply by going down from the opening room, or the part where the narrator awards some points and then, a few turns later, takes them back again. Or the devil, who gives hints, all of which are lies. People actually filed bug reports over that. But really, I don’t think I did anything so transgressive that Infocom might not have done the same itself.

Those four strands are the main ingredients, but I should also acknowledge the indirect influence of the 1980s turn towards magical realism in fantasy novels, where it became possible to marry the fantastical with the merely historical. I had certainly read John Crowley’s Little, Big, for example. You could, at a stretch, say that Curses lies in the same genre.

The art of the Modernist collage is to somehow provide some cement which will hold the whole thing together. In the case of Curses, that cement is provided by the continuity of the Meldrew family and of the house – to which, and this is crucial, the player is always returning, and which ramifies with endless secret rooms. Moreover, you always experience the house through its behind-the-scenes places, joined in a skeletal way around the public areas which you never get to visit. The game is at its best when this cement is strongest, with the puzzles directly related to family members or to the house’s nooks and crannies. It loses coherence when it goes further afield, and this is why a final proposed addition, to do with the subway systems of various world cities all being joined up, was dropped. It didn’t feel like Curses any more. The weakest parts of Curses are the last parts added, and I suspect that the penultimate release is probably a better experience than the final one.

I am sometimes asked if Curses was autobiographical. As the above makes clear, in one sense yes, in that it’s a logbook of my reading. And in another obvious sense, no: I never actually teleported to ancient Alexandria. Nor have I ever lived in a grand house. My family home was built around 1960. It had seven rooms, none of them secret, and its map was an acyclic graph. There were early players who imagined that I might really be from some cadet branch of the landed gentry, with spacious grounds out of my window. This was not the case. Our estate consisted of one apple tree and two gooseberry bushes. All the same, England is not like America in this respect. Because of the Second World War, and because of inheritance tax, the great stately homes of England had essentially all become public places by the time I was a child. A routine way to entertain visiting grandparents was to take them around, say, the Jacobean manor house at Hatfield, where the Cecils had lived since the reign of James I. You didn’t have to be at all rich to do this.

The Attic area of Curses, where the game begins, does also contain just a little of my real family. The most intriguing place in my childhood home was, for sure, the attic, because it was so seldom accessible to me: a windowless but large space, properly floored, but never converted into a living area. My father would develop photographs up there, pouring chemicals into a tray, under a red lamp with a pull-cord switch. He would allow me to pull this cord. The house also had an airing cupboard — that is, a space around the hot-water boiler where towels could be dried. In this cupboard, my mother at one time made home-brew wine, in a sort of slow chemistry experiment with evil-looking demijohns. My brother doesn’t really make an appearance in Curses, which I’m sad about now, but it’s essential that the protagonist has ancestors rather than contemporaries. Though the protagonist has a spouse and children, mentioned right up front, they never appear, which I think is worth noting in a game where almost everything else that is foreshadowed eventually comes to pass.

Curses is by any reasonable standard too hard. In its first releases, I would update it with new material each time I made bug fixes, so that the game evolved and grew. Some players would play each version as it came out, and this enabled them to get further in, because they had prior experience from earlier builds. A dedicated fan base sent in bug reports, my favourite being that the brass key could not be picked up by the robot mouse, because brass is non-magnetic. The reward for any bug reported was that the reporter could nominate a new song to be added to the radio’s playlist, provided that it was both catchy and objectively dreadful. It would be interesting to extract that playlist now and put it on Spotify.

Feedback from players gave Curses a certain polish, but it wasn’t the only thing. I think it’s noteworthy that, just as Infocom had an editor as well as play-testers, so too I had an editor for at least part of the process: Gareth Rees, a Cambridge friend, author of the very wonderful Christminster. Richard Tucker also weighed in. I have the impression that before 1992 works of interactive fiction didn’t have much quality control, not so much because people didn’t want it, but because networking conditions didn’t allow for it.

To my great regret, the source code for Curses is now lost. It was for a while on a disk promisingly labelled “Curses source code”, but that disk is unreadable, and not for want of trying. Somewhere in my many changes of address and computer, I lost the necessary tech, or damaged it. (And Jigsaw too, alas.) It wouldn’t be hard to resurrect something, by working from a disassembly of the story file: there’s actually a tool to turn story files into Inform 6 out there somewhere. I occasionally think of asking if anyone would like to do that, and perhaps produce a faithful Inform 7 implementation.

Today, people play Curses with a walkthrough by their sides. But the game never quite goes away. Mike Spivey told me recently that he introduced himself to modern interactive fiction – “modern” interactive fiction – by playing Curses in 2017. A few people, at least, still tread Meldrew Hall. I remain fond of the place, as you can probably gather from the length of this reminiscence. Once in a blue moon I am tempted to write a sequel, Curses Foiled. But no. Sometimes you really can’t go back.

 
 

Tags: , , ,