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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Out with 1992, In with 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Return to Zork

Where should we mark the beginning of the full-motion-video era, that most extended of blind alleys in the history of the American games industry? The day in the spring of 1990 that Ken Williams, founder and president of Sierra On-Line, wrote his latest editorial for his company’s seasonal newsletter might be as good a point as any. In his editorial, Williams coined the term “talkies” in reference to an upcoming generation of games which would have “real character voices and no text.” The term was, of course, a callback to the Hollywood of circa 1930, when sound began to come to the heretofore silent medium of film. Computer games, Williams said, stood on the verge of a leap that would be every bit as transformative, in terms not only of creativity but of profitability: “How big would the film industry be today if not for this step?”

According to Williams, the voice-acted, CD-based version of Sierra’s King’s Quest V was to become the games industry’s The Jazz Singer. But voice acting wasn’t the only form of acting which the games of the next few years had in store. A second transformative leap, comparable to that made by Hollywood when film went from black and white to color, was also waiting in the wings to burst onto the stage just a little bit later than the first talkies. Soon, game players would be able to watch real, human actors right there on their monitor screens.

As regular readers of this site probably know already, the games industry’s Hollywood obsession goes back a long way. In 1982, Sierra was already advertising their text adventure Time Zone with what looked like a classic “coming attractions” poster; in 1986, Cinemaware was founded with the explicit goal of making “interactive movies.” Still, the conventional wisdom inside the industry by the early 1990s had shifted subtly away from such earlier attempts to make games that merely played like movies. The idea was now that the two forms of media would truly become one — that games and movies would literally merge. “Sierra is part of the entertainment industry — not the computer industry,” wrote Williams in his editorial. “I always think of books, records, films, and then interactive films.” These categories defined a continuum of increasingly “hot,” increasingly immersive forms of media. The last listed there, the most immersive medium of all, was now on the cusp of realization. How many people would choose to watch a non-interactive film when they had the opportunity to steer the course of the plot for themselves? Probably about as many as still preferred books to movies.

Not all that long after Williams’s editorial, the era of the full-motion-video game began in earnest. The first really prominent exemplar of the species was ICOM Simulations’s Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series in 1992, which sent you wandering around Victorian London collecting clues to a mystery from the video snippets that played every time you visited a relevant location. The first volume of this series alone would eventually sell 1 million copies as an early CD-ROM showcase title. The following year brought Return to Zork, The 7th Guest, and Myst as three of the five biggest games of the year; all three of these used full-motion video to a greater or lesser extent. (Myst used it considerably less than the other two, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the member of the trio that holds up by far the best today.) With success stories like those to look to, the floodgates truly opened in 1994. Suddenly every game-development project — by no means only adventure games — was looking for ways to shoehorn live actors into the proceedings.

But only a few of the full-motion-video games that followed would post anything like the numbers of the aforementioned four games. That hard fact, combined with a technological counter-revolution in the form of 3D graphics, would finally force a reckoning with the cognitive dissonance of trying to build a satisfying interactive experience by mixing and matching snippets of nonmalleable video. By 1997, the full-motion-video era was all but over. Today, few things date a game more instantly to a certain window of time than grainy video of terrible actors flickering over a background of computer-generated graphics. What on earth were people thinking?

Most full-motion-video games are indeed dire, but they’re going to be with us for quite some time to come as we continue to work our way through this history. I wish I could say that Activision’s Return to Zork, my real topic for today, was one of the exceptions to the rule of direness. Sadly, though, it isn’t.

In fact, let me be clear right now: Return to Zork is a terrible adventure game. Under no circumstances should you play it, unless to satisfy historical curiosity or as a source of ironic amusement in the grand tradition of Ed Wood. And even in these special cases, you should take care to play it with a walkthrough in hand. To do anything else is sheer masochism; you’re almost guaranteed to lock yourself out of victory within the first ten minutes, and almost guaranteed not to realize it until many hours later. There’s really no point in mincing words here: Return to Zork is one of the absolute worst adventure-game designs I’ve ever seen — and, believe me, I’ve seen quite a few bad ones.

Its one saving grace, however, is that it’s terrible in a somewhat different way from the majority of terrible full-motion-video adventure games. Most of them are utterly bereft of ideas beyond the questionable one at their core: that of somehow making a game out of static video snippets. You can almost see the wheels turning desperately in the designers’ heads as they’re suddenly confronted with the realization that, in addition to playing videos, they have to give the player something to actually do. Return to Zork, on the other hand, is chock full of ideas for improving upon the standard graphic-adventure interface in ways that, on the surface at any rate, allow more rather than less flexibility and interactivity. Likewise, even the trendy use of full-motion video, which dates it so indelibly to the mid-1990s, is much more calculated than the norm among its contemporaries.

Unfortunately, all of its ideas are undone by a complete disinterest in the fundamentals of game design on the part of the novelty-seeking technologists who created it. And so here we are, stuck with a terrible game in spite of it all. If I can’t quite call Return to Zork a noble failure — as we’ll see, one of its creators’ stated reasons for making it so callously unfair is anything but noble — I can at least convince myself to call it an interesting one.


When Activision decided to make their follow-up to the quickie cash-in Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 a more earnest, better funded stab at a sequel to a beloved Infocom game, it seemed logical to find themselves a real Infocom Implementor to design the thing. They thus asked Steve Meretzky, whom they had just worked with on Leather Goddesses 2, if he’d like to design a new Zork game for them as well. But Meretzky hadn’t overly enjoyed trying to corral Activision’s opinionated in-house developers from a continent away last time around; this time, he turned them down flat.

Meretzky’s rejection left Activision without a lot of options to choose from when it came to former Imps. A number of them had left the games industry upon Infocom’s shuttering three years before, while, of those that remained, Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, and Bob Bates were all employed by one of Activison’s direct competitors. Activision therefore turned to Doug Barnett, a freelance artist and designer who had been active in the industry for the better part of a decade; his most high-profile design gig to date had been Cinemaware’s Lords of the Rising Sun. But he had never designed a traditional puzzle-oriented adventure game, as one can perhaps see all too well in the game that would result from his partnership with Activision. He also didn’t seem to have a great deal of natural affinity for Zork. In the lengthy set of notes and correspondence relating to the game’s development which has been put online by The Zork Library, a constant early theme on Activision’s part is the design’s lack of “Zorkiness.” “As it stands, the design constitutes more of a separate and unrelated story, rather than a sequel to the Zork series,” they wrote at one point. “It was noted that ‘Zork’ is the name of a vast ancient underground empire, yet Return to Zork takes place in a mostly above-ground environment.”

In fairness to Barnett, Zork had always been more of a state of mind than a coherent place. With the notable exception of Steve Meretzky, everyone at Infocom had been wary of overthinking a milieu that had originally been plucked out of the air more or less at random. In comparison to other shared worlds — even other early computer-game worlds, such as the Britannia of Richard Garriott’s Ultima series — there was surprisingly little there there when it came Zork: no well-established geography, no well-established history which everybody knew — and, most significantly of all, no really iconic characters which simply had to be included. At bottom, Zork boiled down to little more than a modest grab bag of tropes which lived largely in the eye of the beholder: the white house with a mailbox, grues, Flood Control Dam #3, Dimwit Flathead, the Great Underground Empire itself. And even most of these had their origin stories in the practical needs of an adventure game rather than any higher world-building purpose. (The Great Underground Empire, for example, was first conceived as an abandoned place not for any literary effect but because living characters are hard to implement in an adventure game, while the detritus they leave behind is relatively easy.)

That said, there was a distinct tone to Zork, which was easier to spot than it was to describe or to capture. Barnett’s design missed this tone, even as it began with the gleefully anachronistic, seemingly thoroughly Zorkian premise of casting the player as a sweepstakes winner on an all-expenses-paid trip to the idyllic Valley of the Sparrows, only to discover it has turned into the Valley of the Vultures under the influence of some pernicious, magical evil. Barnett and Activision would continue to labor mightily to make Return to Zork feel like Zork, but would never quite get there.

By the summer of 1992, Barnett’s design document had already gone through several revisions without entirely meeting Activision’s expectations. At this point, they hired one Eddie Dombrower to take personal charge of the project in the role of producer. Like Barnett, Dombrower had been working in the industry for quite some time, but had never worked on an adventure game; he was best known for World Series Major League Baseball on the old Intellivision console and Earl Weaver Baseball on computers. Dombrower gave the events of Return to Zork an explicit place in Zorkian history — some 700 years after Infocom’s Beyond Zork — and moved a big chunk of the game underground to remedy one of his boss’ most oft-repeated objections to the existing design.

More ominously, he also made a comprehensive effort to complicate Barnett’s puzzles, based on feedback from players and reviewers of Leather Goddesses 2, who were decidedly unimpressed with that game’s simple-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence puzzles. The result would be the mother of all over-corrections — a topic we’ll return to later.

Unlike Leather Goddess 2, whose multimedia ambitions had led it to fill a well-nigh absurd 17 floppy disks, Return to Zork had been planned almost from its inception as a product for CD-ROM, a technology which, after years of false promises and setbacks, finally seemed to be moving toward a critical mass of consumer uptake. In 1992, full-motion video, CD-ROM, and multimedia computing in general were all but inseparable concepts in the industry’s collective mind. Activision thus became one of the first studios to hire a director and actors and rent time on a sound stage; the business of making computer games had now come to involve making movies as well. They even hired a professional Hollywood screenwriter to punch up the dialog and make it more “cinematic.”

In general, though, while the computer-games industry was eager to pursue a merger with Hollywood, the latter was proving far more skeptical. There was still little money in computer games by comparison with movies, and there was very little prestige — rather the opposite, most would say — in “starring” in a game. The actors which games could manage to attract were therefore B-listers at best. Return to Zork actually collected a more accomplished — or at least more high-profile — cast than most. Among them were Ernie Lively, a veteran supporting player from television shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard; his daughter Robyn Lively, fresh off a six-episode stint as a minor character on David Lynch’s prestigious critic’s darling Twin Peaks; Jason Hervey, who was still playing older brother Wayne on the long-running coming-of-age sitcom The Wonder Years; and Sam Jones, whose big shot at leading-man status had come with the film Flash Gordon back in 1980 and gone with its mixed reception.

If the end result would prove less than Oscar-worthy, it’s for the most part not cringe-worthy either. After all, the cast did consist entirely of acting professionals, which is more than one can say for many productions of this ilk — and certainly more than one can say for the truly dreadful voice acting in Leather Goddess of Phobos 2, Activision’s previous attempt at a multimedia adventure game. While they were hampered by the sheer unfamiliarity of talking directly “to” the invisible player of the game — as Ernie Lively put it, “there’s no one to act off of” — they did a decent job with the slight material they had to work with.

The fact that they were talking to the player rather than acting out scenes with one another actually speaks to a degree of judiciousness in the use of full-motion video on Activision’s part. Rather than attempting to make an interactive movie in the most literal sense — by having a bunch of actors, one of them representing the protagonist, act out each of the player’s choices — Activision went for a more thoughtful mixed-media approach that could, theoretically anyway, eliminate most of the weaknesses of the typical full-motion-video adventure game. For the most part, only conversations involved the use of full-motion video; everything else was rendered by Activision’s pixel artists and 3D modelers in conventional computer graphics. The protagonist wasn’t shown at all: at a time when the third-person view that was the all but universal norm in adventure games, Activision opted for a first-person view.

The debate over whether an adventure-game protagonist ought to be a blank slate which the player can fill with her own personality or an established character which the player merely guides and empathizes with was a longstanding one even at the time when Return to Zork was being made. Certainly Infocom had held rousing internal debates on the subject, and had experimented fairly extensively with pre-established protagonists in some of their games. (These experiments sometimes led to rousing external debates among their fans, most notably in the case of the extensively characterized and tragically flawed protagonist of Infidel, who meets a nasty if richly deserved end no matter what the player does.) The Zork series, however, stemmed from an earlier, simpler time in adventure games than the rest of the Infocom catalog, and the “nameless, faceless adventurer,” functioning as a stand-in for the player herself, had always been its star. Thus Activision’s decision not to show the player’s character in Return to Zork, or indeed to characterize her in any way whatsoever, is a considered one, in keeping with everything that came before.

In fact, the protagonist of Return to Zork never actually says anything. To get around the need, Activision came up with a unique attitude-based conversation engine. As you “talk” to other characters, you choose from three stances — threatening, interested, or bored — and listen only to your interlocutors’ reactions. Not only does your own dialog go unvoiced, but you don’t even see the exact words you use; the game instead lets you imagine your own words. Specific questions you might wish to ask are cleverly turned into concrete physical interactions, something games do much better than abstract conversations. As you explore, you have a camera with which to take pictures of points of interest. During conversations, you can show the entries from your photo album to your interlocutor, perhaps prompting a reaction. You can do the same with objects in your inventory, locations on the auto-map you always carry with you, or even the tape recordings you automatically make of each interaction with each character.

So, whatever else you can say about it, Return to Zork is hardly bereft of ideas. William Volk, the technical leader of the project, was well up on the latest research into interface design being conducted inside universities like MIT and at companies like Apple. Many such studies had concluded that, in place of static onscreen menus and buttons, the interface should ideally pop into existence just where and when the user needed it. The result of such thinking in Return to Zork is a screen with no static interface at all; it instead pops up when you click on an object with which you can interact. Since it doesn’t need the onscreen menu of “verbs” typical of contemporaneous Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, Return to Zork can give over the entirety of the screen to its graphical portrayal of the world.

In addition to being a method of recapturing screen real estate, the interface was conceived as a way to recapture some of the sense of boundless freedom which is such a characteristic of parser-driven text adventures — a sense which can all too easily become lost amidst the more constrained interfaces of their graphical equivalent. William Volk liked to call Return to Zork‘s interface a “reverse parser”: clicking on a “noun” in the environment or in your inventory yields a pop-up menu of “verbs” that pertain to it. Taking an object in your “hand” and clicking it on another one yields still more options, the equivalent of commands to a parser involving indirect as well as direct objects. In the first screen of the game, for example, clicking the knife on a vulture gives options to “show knife to vulture,” “throw knife at vulture,” “stab vulture with knife,” or “hit vulture with knife.” There are limits to the sense of possibility: every action had to be anticipated and hand-coded by the development team, and most of them are the wrong approach to whatever you’re trying to accomplish. In fact, in the case of the example just mentioned as well as many others, most of the available options will get you killed; Return to Zork loves instant deaths even more than the average Sierra game. And there are many cases of that well-known adventure-game syndrome where a perfectly reasonable solution to a problem isn’t implemented, forcing you to devise some absurdly convoluted solution that is implemented in its stead. Still, in a world where adventure games were getting steadily less rather than more ambitious in their scope of interactive possibility — to a large extent due to the limitations of full-motion video — Return to Zork was a welcome departure from the norm, a graphic adventure that at least tried to recapture the sense of open-ended possibility of an Infocom game.

Indeed, there are enough good ideas in Return to Zork that one really, really wishes they all could have been tied to a better game. But sadly, I have to stop praising Return to Zork now and start condemning it.

The most obvious if perhaps most forgivable of its sins is that, as already noted, it never really manages to feel like Zork — not, at least, like the classic Zork of the original trilogy. (Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero, Infocom’s final release to bear the name, actually does share some of the slapstick qualities of Return to Zork, but likewise rather misses the feel of the original.) The most effective homage comes at the very beginning, when the iconic opening text of Zork I appears onscreen and morphs into the new game’s splashy opening credits. It’s hard to imagine a better depiction circa 1993 of where computer gaming had been and where it was going — which was, of course, exactly the effect the designers intended.

Once the game proper gets under way, however, modernity begins to feel much less friendly to the Zorkian aesthetic of old. Most of Zork‘s limited selection of physical icons do show up here, from grues to Flood Control Dam #3, but none of it feels all that convincingly Zork-like. The dam is a particular disappointment; what was described in terms perfect for inspiring awed flights of the imagination in Zork I looks dull and underwhelming when portrayed in the cruder medium of graphics. Meanwhile the jokey, sitcom-style dialog that confronts you at every turn feels even less like the original trilogy’s slyer, subtler humor.

This isn’t to say that Return to Zork‘s humor doesn’t connect on occasion. It’s just… different from that of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. By far the most memorable character, whose catchphrase has lived on to this day as a minor Internet meme, is the drunken miller named Boos Miller. (Again, subtlety isn’t this game’s trademark.) He plies you endlessly with whiskey, whilst repeating, “Want some rye? Course you do!” over and over and over in his cornpone accent. It’s completely stupid — but, I must admit, it’s also pretty darn funny; Boos Miller is the one thing everyone who ever played the game still seems to remember about Return to Zork. But, funny though he is, he would be unimaginable in any previous Zork.


Of course, a lack of sufficient Zorkiness need not have been the kiss of death for Return to Zork as an adventure game in the abstract. What really does it in is its thoroughly unfair puzzle design. This game plays like the fever dream of a person who hates and fears adventure games. It’s hard to know where to even start (or end) with this cornucopia of bad puzzles, but I’ll describe a few of them, ranked roughly in order of their objectionability.

The Questionable: At one point, you find yourself needing to milk a cow, but she won’t let you do so with cold hands. Do you need to do something sensible, like, say, find some gloves or wrap your hands in a blanket? Of course not! The solution is to light some of the hay that’s scattered all over the wooden barn on fire and warm your hands that way. For some reason, the whole place doesn’t go up in smoke. This solution is made still more difficult to discover by the way that the game usually kills you every time you look at it wrong. Why on earth would it not kill you for a monumentally stupid act like this one? To further complicate matters, for reasons that are obscure at best you can only light the hay on fire if you first pick it up and then drop it again. Thus even many players who are consciously attempting the correct solution will still get stuck here.

The Absurd: At another point, you find a bra. You have to throw it into an incinerator in order to get a wire out of it whose existence you were never aware of in the first place. How does the game expect you to guess that you should take such an action? Apparently some tenuous linkage with the 1960s tradition of bra burning and, as a justification after the fact, the verb “to hot-wire.” Needless to say, throwing anything else into the incinerator just destroys the object and, more likely than not, locks you out of victory.

The Incomprehensible: There’s a water wheel out back of Boos’s house with a chock holding it still. If you’ve taken the chock and thus the wheel is spinning, and you’ve solved another puzzle that involves drinking Boos under the table (see the video above), a trapdoor is revealed in the floor. But if the chock is in place, the trapdoor can’t be seen. Why? I have absolutely no idea.

Wait! Don’t do it!

The Brutal: In a way, everything you really need to know about Return to Zork can be summed up by its most infamous single puzzle. On the very first screen of the game, there’s a “bonding plant” growing. If you simply pull up the plant and take it with you, everything seems fine — until you get to the very end of the game many hours later. Here, you finally find a use for the plant you’ve been carting around all this time. Fair enough. But unfortunately, you need a living version of it. It turns out you were supposed to have used a knife to dig up the plant rather than pulling or cutting it. Guess what? You now get to play through the whole game again from the beginning.

All of the puzzles just described, and the many equally bad ones, are made still more complicated by the game’s general determination to be a right bastard to you every chance it gets. If, as Robb Sherwin once put it, the original Zork games hate their players, this game has found some existential realm beyond mere hatred. It will let you try to do many things to solve each puzzle, but, of those actions that don’t outright kill you, a fair percentage lock you out of victory in one way or another. Sometimes, as in the case of its most infamous puzzle, it lets you think you’ve solved them, only to pull the rug out from under you much later.

So, you’re perpetually on edge as you tiptoe through this minefield of instant deaths and unwinnable states; you’ll have a form of adventure-game post-traumatic-stress syndrome by the time you’re done, even if you’re largely playing from a walkthrough. The instant deaths are annoying, but nowhere near as bad as the unwinnable states; the problem there is that you never know whether you’ve already locked yourself out of victory, never know whether you can’t solve the puzzle in front of you because of something you did or didn’t do a long time ago.

It all combines to make Return to Zork one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played. We’ve sunk to Time Zone levels of awful with this one. No human not willing to mount a methodical months-long assault on this game, trying every possibility everywhere, could possibly solve it unaided. Even the groundbreaking interface is made boring and annoying by the need to show everything to everyone and try every conversation stance on everyone, always with the lingering fear that the wrong stance could spoil your game. Adventure games are built on trust between player and designer, but you can’t trust Return to Zork any farther than you can throw it. Amidst all the hand-wringing at Activision over whether Return to Zork was or was not sufficiently Zorky, they forgot the most important single piece of the Infocom legacy: their thoroughgoing commitment to design, and the fundamental respect that commitment demonstrated to the players who spent their hard-earned money on Infocom games.  “Looking back at the classics might be a good idea for today’s game designers,” wrote Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia at the conclusion of her mixed review of Return to Zork. “Good puzzle construction, logical development, and creative inspiration are in rich supply on those dusty disks.” None of these, alas, is in correspondingly good supply in Return to Zork.

The next logical question, then, is just how Return to Zork‘s puzzles wound up being so awful. After all, this game wasn’t the quickie cash grab that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 had been. The development team put serious thought and effort into the interface, and there were clearly a lot of people involved with this game who cared about it a great deal — among them Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick, who was willing to invest almost $1 million to bring the whole project to fruition at a time when cash was desperately short and his creditors had him on a short leash indeed.

The answer to our question apparently comes down to the poor reception of Leather Goddesses 2, which had stung Activision badly. In an interview given shortly before Return to Zork‘s release, Eddie Dombrower said that, “based on feedback that the puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos [2] were too simple,” the development team had “made the puzzles increasingly difficult just by reworking what Doug had already laid out for us.” That sounds innocent enough on the face of it. But, speaking to me recently, William Volk delivered a considerably darker variation on the same theme. “People hated Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 — panned it,” he told me. “So, we decided to wreak revenge on the entire industry by making Return to Zork completely unfair. Everyone bitches about that title. There’s 4000 videos devoted to Return to Zork on YouTube, most of which are complaining because the title is so blatantly unfair. But, there you go. Something to pin my hat on. I made the most unfair game in history.”

For all that I appreciate Volk sharing his memories with me, I must confess that my initial reaction to this boast was shock, soon to be followed by genuine anger at the lack of empathy it demonstrates. Return to Zork didn’t “wreak revenge” on its industry, which really couldn’t have cared less. It rather wreaked “revenge,” if that’s the appropriate word, on the ordinary gamers who bought it in good faith at a substantial price, most of whom had neither bought nor commented on Leather Goddesses 2. I sincerely hope that Volk’s justification is merely a case of hyperbole after the fact. If not… well, I really don’t know what else to say about such juvenile pettiness, so symptomatic of the entitled tunnel vision of so many who are fortunate enough to work in technology, other than that it managed to leave me disliking Return to Zork even more. Some games are made out of an openhearted desire to bring people enjoyment. Others, like this one, are not.

I’d like to be able to say that Activision got their comeuppance for making Return to Zork such a bad game, demonstrating such contempt for their paying customers, and so soiling the storied Infocom name in the process. But exactly the opposite is the case. Released in late 1993, Return to Zork became one of the breakthrough titles that finally made the CD-ROM revolution a reality, whilst also carrying Activision a few more steps back from the abyss into which they’d been staring for the last few years. It reportedly sold 1 million copies in its first year — albeit the majority of them as a bundled title, included with CD-ROM drives and multimedia upgrade kits, rather than as a boxed standalone product. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick in the aftermath.

Perhaps. But more likely not. Even within the established journals of computer gaming, whose readership probably didn’t constitute the majority of Return to Zork‘s purchasers, reviews of the game were driven more by enthusiasm for its graphics and sound, which really were impressive in their day, than by Zork nostalgia. Discussed in the euphoria following its release as the beginning of a full-blown Infocom revival, Return to Zork would instead go down in history as a vaguely embarrassing anticlimax to the real Infocom story. A sequel to Planetfall, planned as the next stage in the revival, would linger in Development Hell for years and ultimately never get finished. By the end of the 1990s, Zork as well would be a dead property in commercial terms.

Rather than having all that much to do with its Infocom heritage, Return to Zork‘s enormous commercial success came down to its catching the technological zeitgeist at just the right instant, joining Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, and Myst as the perfect flashy showpieces for CD-ROM. Its success conveyed all the wrong messages to game publishers like Activision: that multimedia glitz was everything, and that design really didn’t matter at all.

If it stings a bit that this of all games, arguably the worst one ever to bear the Infocom logo, should have sold better than any of the rest of them, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Quality does have a way of winning out in the end. Today, Return to Zork is a musty relic of its time, remembered if at all only for that “want some rye?” guy. The classic Infocom text adventures, on the other hand, remain just that — widely recognized as timeless classics, their clean text-only presentations ironically much less dated than all of Return to Zork‘s oh-so-1993 multimedia flash. Justice does have a way of being served in the long run.

(Sources: the book Return to Zork Adventurer’s Guide by Steve Schwartz; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, July 1993, November 1993, and January 1994; Questbusters of December 1993; Sierra News Magazine of Spring 1990; Electronic Games of January 1994; New Media of June 24 1994. Online sources include The Zork Library‘s archive of Return to Zork design documents and correspondence, Retro Games Master‘s interview with Doug Barnett, and Matt Barton’s interview with William Volk. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in a personal interview.)

 

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An Unlikely Savior

Activision Blizzard is the largest game publisher in the Western world today, generating a staggering $7.5 billion in revenue every year. Along with the only slightly smaller behemoth Electronic Arts and a few Japanese competitors, Activision for all intents and purposes is the face of gaming as a mainstream, mass-media phenomenon. Even as the gaming intelligentsia looks askance at Activision for their unshakeable fixation on sequels and tried-and-true formulas, the general public just can’t seem to get enough Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush Saga. Likewise, Bobby Kotick, who has sat in the CEO’s chair at Activision for over a quarter of a century now, is as hated by gamers of a certain progressive sensibility as he is loved by the investment community.

But Activision’s story could have — perhaps by all rights should have — gone very differently. When Kotick became CEO, the company was a shambling wreck that hadn’t been consistently profitable in almost a decade. Mismanagement combined with bad luck had driven it to the ragged edge of oblivion. What to a large degree saved Activision and made the world safe for World of Warcraft was, of all things, a defunct maker of text adventures which longtime readers of this ongoing history have gotten to know quite well. The fact that Infocom, the red-headed stepchild a previous Activision CEO had never wanted, is directly responsible for Activision’s continuing existence today is one of the strangest aspects of both companies’ stories.



The reinvention of Activision engineered by Bobby Kotick in the early 1990s was actually the company’s third in less than a decade.

Activision 1.0 was founded in 1979 by four former Atari programmers known as the “Fantastic Four,” along with a former music-industry executive named Jim Levy. Their founding tenets were that Atari VCS owners deserved better games than the console’s parent was currently giving them, and that Atari VCS game programmers deserved more recognition and more money than were currently forthcoming from the same source. They parlayed that philosophy into one of the most remarkable success stories of the first great videogame boom; their game Pitfall! alone sold more than 4 million copies in 1982. It would, alas, be a long, long time before Activision would enjoy success like that again.

Following the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, Levy tried to remake Activision into a publisher of home-computer games with a certain high-concept, artsy air. But, while the ambitions of releases like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal still make them interesting case studies today, Activision 2.0 generated few outright hits. Six months after Levy had acquired Infocom, the preeminent maker of artsy computer games, in mid-1986, he was forced out by his board.

Levy’s replacement was a corporate lawyer named Bruce Davis. He nixed the artsy fare, doubled down on licensed titles, and tried to establish Activision 3.0 as a maker of mass-market general-purpose computer software as well as games. Eighteen months into his tenure, he changed the company’s name to Mediagenic to reflect this new identity. But the new products were, like the new name, mostly bland in a soulless corporate way that, in the opinion of many, reflected Davis’s own personality all too accurately. By decade’s end, Mediagenic was regarded as an important player within their industry at least as much for their distributional clout, a legacy of their early days of Atari VCS success, as for the games and software they published under their own imprint. A good chunk of the industry used Mediagenic’s network to distribute their wares as members of the company’s affiliated-labels program.

Then the loss of a major lawsuit, combined with a slow accretion of questionable decisions from Davis, led to a complete implosion in 1990. The piggy bank provided by Activision 1.0’s success had finally run dry, and most observers assumed that was that for Mediagenic — or Activision, or whatever they preferred to call themselves today.

But over the course of 1991, a fast-talking wiz kid named Bobby Kotick seized control of the mortally wounded mastodon and put it through the wringer of bankruptcy. What emerged by the end of that year was so transformed as to raise the philosophical question of whether it ought to be considered the same entity at all. The new company employed just 10 percent as many people as the old (25 rather than 250) and was headquartered in a different region entirely (Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley). It even had a new name — or, rather, an old one. Perhaps the smartest move Kotick ever made was to reclaim the company’s old appellation of “Activision,” still redolent for many of the nostalgia-rich first golden age of videogames, in lieu of the universally mocked corporatese of “Mediagenic.” Activision 4.0, the name reversion seemed to say, wouldn’t be afraid of their heritage in the way that versions 2.0 and 3.0 had been. Nor would they be shy about labeling themselves a maker of games, full stop; Mediagenic’s lines of “personal-productivity” software and the like were among the first things Kotick trashed.

Kotick was still considerably short of his thirtieth birthday when he took on the role of Activision’s supreme leader, but he felt like he’d been waiting for this opportunity forever. He’d spent much of the previous decade sniffing around at the margins of the industry, looking for a way to become a mover and shaker of note. (In 1987, for instance, at the tender age of 24, he’d made a serious attempt to scrape together a pool of investors to buy the computer company Commodore.) Now, at last, he had his chance to be a difference maker.

It was indeed a grand chance, but it was also an extremely tenuous one. He had been able to save Activision — save it for the time being, that is — only by mortgaging some 95 percent of it to its numerous creditors. These creditors-cum-investors were empowered to pull the plug at any time; Kotick himself maintained his position as CEO only by their grace. He needed product to stop the bleeding and add some black to the sea of red ink that was Activision’s books, thereby to show the creditors that their forbearance toward this tottering company with a snot-nosed greenhorn at the head hadn’t been a mistake. But where was said product to come from? Activision was starved for cash even as the typical game-development budget in the industry around them was increasing almost exponentially year over year. And it wasn’t as if third-party developers were lining up to work with them; they’d stiffed half the industry in the process of going through bankruptcy.

To get the product spigot flowing again, Kotick found a partner to join him in the executive suite. Peter Doctorow had spent the last six years or so with Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotten Activision). In the role of product-development guru, Doctorow had done much to create and maintain Accolade’s reputation as a maker of attractive and accessible games with natural commercial appeal. Activision, on the other hand, hadn’t enjoyed a comparable reputation since the heyday of the Atari VCS. Jumping ship from the successful Accolade to an Activision on life support would have struck most as a fool’s leap, but Kotick could be very persuasive. He managed to tempt Doctorow away with the title of president and the promise of an opportunity to build something entirely new from the ground up.

Of course, building materials for the new thing could and should still be scrounged from the ruins of Mediagenic whenever possible. After arriving at Activision, Doctorow thus made his first priority an inventory of what he already had to work with in the form of technology and intellectual property. On the whole, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Activision had never been particularly good at spawning the surefire franchises that gaming executives love. There were no Leisure Suit Larrys or Lord Britishes lurking in their archives — much less any Super Marios. Pitfall!, the most famous and successful title of all from the Atari VCS halcyon days, might be a candidate for revival, but its simple platforming charms were at odds with where computer gaming was and where it seemed to be going in the early 1990s; the talk in the industry was all about multimedia, live-action video, interactive movies, and story, story, story. Pitfall! would have been a more natural fit on the consoles, but Kotick and Doctorow weren’t sure they had the resources to compete as of yet in those hyper-competitive, expensive-to-enter walled gardens. Their first beachhead, they decided, ought to be on computers.

In that context, there were all those old Infocom games… was there some commercial potential there? Certainly Zork still had more name recognition than any property in the Activision stable other than Pitfall!.

Ironically, the question of a potential Infocom revival would have been moot if Bruce Davis had gotten his way. He had never wanted Infocom, having advised his predecessor Jim Levy strongly against acquiring them when he was still a mere paid consultant. When Infocom delivered a long string of poor-selling games over the course of 1987 and 1988, he felt vindicated, and justified in ordering their offices closed permanently in the spring of 1989.

Even after that seemingly final insult, Davis continued to make clear his lack of respect for Infocom. During the mad scramble for cash preceding the ultimate collapse of Mediagenic, he called several people in the industry, including Ken Williams at Sierra and Bob Bates at the newly founded Legend Entertainment, to see if they would be interested in buying the whole Infocom legacy outright — including games, copyrights, trademarks, source code, and the whole stack of development tools. He dropped his asking price as low as $25,000 without finding a taker; the multimedia-obsessed Williams had never had much interest in text adventures, and Bates was trying to get Legend off the ground and simply didn’t have the money to spare.

When a Mediagenic producer named Kelly Zmak learned what Davis was doing, he told him he was crazy. Zmak said that he believed there was still far more than $25,000 worth of value in the Infocom properties, in the form of nostalgia if nothing else. He believed there would be a market for a compilation of Infocom games, which were now available only as pricey out-of-print collectibles. Davis was skeptical — the appeal of Infocom’s games had always been lost on him — but told Zmak that, if he could put such a thing together for no more than $10,000, they might as well give it a try. Any port in a storm, as they say.

As it happened, Mediagenic’s downfall was complete before Zmak could get his proposed compilation into stores. But he was one of the few who got to keep his job with the resurrected company, and he made it clear to his new managers that he still believed there was real money to be made from the Infocom legacy. Kotick and Doctorow agreed to let him finish up his interrupted project.

And so one of the first products from the new Activision 4.0 became a collection of old games from the eras of Activision 3.0, 2.0, and even 1.0. It was known as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and first entered shops very early in 1992.

Activision’s stewardship of the legacy that had been bequeathed to them was about as respectful as one could hope for under the circumstances. The compilation included 20 of the 35 canonical Infocom games. The selection felt a little random; while most of the really big, iconic titles — like all of the Zork games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Enchanter trilogy, and Planetfall — were included, the 100,000-plus-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Wishbringer were oddly absent. The feelies that had been such an important part of the Infocom experience were reduced to badly photocopied facsimiles lumped together in a thick, cheaply printed black-and-white manual — if, that is, they made the package at all. The compilers’ choices of which feelies ought to be included were as hit-and-miss as their selection of games, and in at least one case — that of Ballyhoo — the loss of an essential feelie rendered a game unwinnable without recourse to outside resources. Hardcore Infocom fans had good reason to bemoan this ugly mockery of the original games’ lovingly crafted packaging. “Where is the soul?” asked one of them in print, speaking for them all.

But any real or perceived lack of soul didn’t stop people from buying the thing. In fact, people bought it in greater numbers than even Kelly Zmak had dared to predict. At least 100,000 copies of The Lost Treasures of Infocom were sold — numbers better than any individual Infocom game had managed since 1986 — at a typical street price of about $60. With a response like that, Activision wasted no time in releasing most of the remaining games as The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, to sales that were almost as good. Along with Legend Entertainment’s final few illustrated text adventures, Lost Treasures I and II mark the last gasps of interactive fiction as a force in mainstream commercial American computer gaming.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom — the only shovelware compilation ever to spark a full-on artistic movement.

Yet these two early examples of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of the shovelware compilation constitute a form of beginning as well as ending.  By collecting the vast majority of the Infocom legacy in one place, they cemented the idea of an established Infocom canon of Great Works, providing all those who would seek to make or play text adventures in the future with an easily accessible shared heritage from which to draw. For the Renaissance of amateur interactive fiction that would take firm hold by the mid-1990s, the Lost Treasures would become a sort of equivalent to what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare means to English literature. Had such heretofore obscure but groundbreaking Infocom releases as, say, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It and Plundered Hearts not been collected in this manner, it’s doubtful whether they ever could have become as influential as they would eventually prove. Certainly a considerable percentage of the figures who would go on to make the Interactive Fiction Renaissance a reality completed their Infocom collection or even discovered the company’s rich legacy for the first time thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

Brian Eno once famously said that, while only about 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, every one of them who did went out and started a band. A similar bit of hyperbole might be applied to the 100,000-and-change who bought Lost Treasures. These compilations did much to change perceptions of Infocom, from a mere interesting relic of an earlier era of gaming into something timeless and, well, canonical — a rich literary tradition that deserved to be maintained and further developed. It’s fair to ask whether the entire vibrant ecosystem of interactive fiction that remains with us today, in the form of such entities as the annual IF Comp and the Inform programming language, would ever have come to exist absent the Lost Treasures. Their importance to everything that would follow in interactive fiction is so pronounced that anecdotes involving them will doubtless continue to surface again and again as we observe the birth of a new community built around the love of text and parsers in future articles on this site.

For Activision, on the other hand, the Lost Treasures compilations made a much more immediate and practical difference. What with their development costs of close to zero and their no-frills packaging that hadn’t cost all that much more to put together, every copy sold was as close to pure profit as a game could possibly get. They made an immediate difference to Activision’s financial picture, giving them some desperately needed breathing room to think about next steps.

Observing the success of the compilations, Peter Doctorow was inclined to return to the Infocom well again. In fact, he had for some time now been eyeing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Infocom’s last genuine hit, with interest. In the time since it had sold 130,000 copies in 1986, similarly risqué adventure games had become a profitable niche market: Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, Legend’s Spellcasting series, and Accolade’s Les Manley series had all done more or less well. There ought to be a space, Doctorow reasoned, for a sequel to the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells. Hewing to this timeless maxim, he had made a point of holding the first Leather Goddesses out of the Lost Treasures compilations in favor of giving it its own re-release as a standalone $10 budget title — the only one of the old Infocom games to be accorded this honor.

Doctorow had a tool which he very much wanted to use in the service of a new adventure game. Whilst casting through the odds and ends of technology left over from the Mediagenic days, he had come upon something known as the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, the work of a small internal team of developers headed by one William Volk. MADE had been designed to facilitate immersive multimedia environments under MS-DOS that were much like the Apple Macintosh’s widely lauded HyperCard environment. In fact, Mediagenic had used it just before the wheels had come off to publish a colorized MS-DOS port of The Manhole, Rand and Robyn Miller’s unique HyperCard-based “fantasy exploration for children of all ages.” Volk and most of his people were among the survivors from the old times still around at the new Activision, and the combination of the MADE engine with Leather Goddesses struck Doctorow as a commercially potent one. He thus signed Steve Meretzky, designer of the original game, to write a sequel to this second most popular game he had ever worked on. (The most popular of all, of course, had been Hitchhiker’s, which was off limits thanks to the complications of licensing.)

But from the beginning, the project was beset by cognitive dissonance, alongside extreme pressure, born of Activision’s precarious finances, to just get the game done as quickly as possible. Activision’s management had decided that adventure games in the multimedia age ought to be capable of appealing to a far wider, less stereotypically eggheaded audience than the games of yore, and therefore issued firm instructions to Meretzky and the rest of the development team to include only the simplest of puzzles. Yet this prioritization of simplicity above all else rather belied the new game’s status as a sequel to an Infocom game which, in addition to its lurid content, had featured arguably the best set of interlocking puzzles Meretzky had ever come up with. The first Leather Goddesses had been a veritable master class in classic adventure-game design. The second would be… something else.

Which isn’t to say that the sequel didn’t incorporate some original ideas of its own; they were just orthogonal to those that had made the original so great. Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X really wanted to a be a CD-based title, but a critical mass of CD-ROM-equipped computers just wasn’t quite there yet at the time it was made. So, when it shipped in May of 1992 it filled 17 (!) floppy disks, using the space mostly for, as Activision’s advertisements proudly trumpeted in somewhat mangled diction, “more than an hour of amazing digital sound track!” Because a fair number of MS-DOS computer owners still didn’t have sound cards at this point, and because a fair proportion of those that did had older models of same that weren’t up to the task of delivering digitized audio as opposed to synthesized sounds and music, Activision also included a “LifeSize Sound Enhancer” in every box — a little gadget with a basic digital-to-analog circuit and a speaker inside it, which could be plugged into the printer port to make the game talk. This addition pushed the price up into the $60 range, making the game a tough sell for the bare few hours of content it offered — particularly if you already had a decent sound card and thus didn’t even need the hardware gadget you were being forced to pay for. Indeed, thanks to those 17 floppy disks, Leather Goddesses 2 would come perilously close to taking most gamers longer to install than it would to actually play.

That said, brevity was among the least of the game’s sins: Leather Goddesses 2 truly was a comprehensive creative disaster. The fact that this entire game was built from an overly literal interpretation of a tossed-off joke at the end of its predecessor says it all really. Meretzky’s designs had been getting lazier for years by the time this one arrived, but this game, his first to rely solely on a point-and-click interface, marked a new low for him. Not only were the brilliant puzzles that used to do at least as much as his humor to make his games special entirely absent, but so was all of the subversive edge to his writing. To be fair, Activision’s determination to make the game as accessible as possible — read, trivially easy — may have largely accounted for the former lack. Meretzky chafed at watching much of the puzzle design — if this game’s rudimentary interactivity can even be described using those words — get put together without him in Activision’s offices, a continent away from his Boston home. The careless writing, however, is harder to make excuses for.

In the tradition of the first Leather Goddesses, the sequel lets you choose to play as a man or a woman — or, this time, as an alien of indeterminate sex.

Still, this game is obviously designed for the proverbial male gaze. The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?

Earlier Meretzky games had known they were stupid, and that smart sense of self-awareness blinking through between the stupid had been their saving grace when they wandered into questionable, even borderline offensive territory. This one, on the other hand, was as introspective as one of the bimbos who lived within it. Was this really the same designer who just seven years before had so unabashedly aimed for Meaning in the most literary sense with A Mind Forever Voyaging? During his time at Infocom, Meretzky had been the Man of 1000 Ideas, who could rattle off densely packed pages full of games he wanted to make when given the least bit of encouragement. And yet by the end of 1992, he had made basically the same game four times in a row, with diminishing returns every time out. Just how far did he think he could ride scantily clad babes and broad innuendo? The shtick was wearing thin.

The women in many games of this ilk appear to be assembled from spare parts that don’t quite fit together properly.

Here, though, that would seem to literally be the case. These two girls have the exact same breasts.

In his perceptive review of Leather Goddesses 2 for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chris Lombardi pointed out how far Meretzky had fallen, how cheap and exploitative the game felt — and not even cheap and exploitative in a good way, for those who really were looking for titillation above all else.

The treatment of sex in LGOP2 seems so gratuitous, and adolescent, and (to use a friend’s favorite adjective for pop music) insipid. The game’s “explicit” visual content is all very tame (no more explicit than a beer commercial, really) and, for the most part, involves rather mediocre images of women in tight shirts, garters, or leather, most with impossibly protruding nipples. It’s the stuff of a Wally Cleaver daydream, which is appropriate to the game’s context, I suppose.

It appears quite innocuous at first, yet as I played along I began to sense an underlying attitude running through it all that can best be seen in the use of a whorehouse in the game. When one approaches this whorehouse, one is served a menu of a dozen or so names to choose from. Choosing a name takes players to a harlot’s room and affords them a “look at the goods.” Though loosely integrated into the storyline, it is all too apparent that it is merely an excuse for a slideshow of more rather average drawings of women.

You have to wonder what Activision was thinking. Do they imagine adults are turned on or, at minimum, entertained by this stuff? If they do, then I think they’ve misunderstood their market. And that must be the case, for the only other possibility is to suggest that their real target market is actually, and more insidiously, a younger, larger slice of the computer-game demographic pie.

On the whole, Lombardi was kinder to the game than I would have been, but his review nevertheless raised the ire of Peter Doctorow, who wrote in to the magazine with an ad hominem response: “It seems clear to me that you must be among those who long for the good old days, when films were black and white, comic books were a dime, and you could get an American-made gas guzzler with a distinct personality, meticulously designed taillights, and a grill reminiscent of a gargantuan grin. Sadly, the merry band that was Infocom can no longer be supported with text adventures.”

It seldom profits a creator to attempt to rebut a reviewer’s opinion, as Doctorow ought to have been experienced enough to know. His graceless accusation of Ludditism, which didn’t even address the real concerns Lombardi stated in his review, is perhaps actually a response to a vocal minority of the Infocom hardcore who were guaranteed to give Activision grief for any attempt to drag a beloved legacy into the multimedia age. Even more so, though, it was a sign of the extreme financial duress under which Activision still labored. Computer Gaming World was widely accepted as the American journal of record for the hobby in question, and their opinions could make or break a game’s commercial prospects. The lukewarm review doubtless contributed to Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2‘s failure to sell anywhere near as many copies as the Lost Treasures compilations — and at a time when Activision couldn’t afford to be releasing flops.

So, for more reasons than one, Leather Goddesses 2 would go down in history as an embarrassing blot on the CV of everyone involved. Sex, it seemed, didn’t always sell after all — not when it was done this poorly.

One might have thought that the failure of Leather Goddesses 2 would convince Activision not to attempt any further Infocom revivals. Yet once the smoke cleared even the defensive Doctorow could recognize that its execution had been, to say the least, lacking. And there still remained the counterexample of the Lost Treasures compilations, which were continuing to sell briskly. Activision thus decided to try again — this time with a far more concerted, better-funded effort that would exploit the most famous Infocom brand of all. Zork itself was about to make a splashy return to center stage.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1992, July 1992, and October 1992; Questbusters of February 1992 and August 1992; Compute! of November 1987; Amazing Computing of April 1992; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; .info of April 1992. Online sources include Roger J. Long’s review of the first Lost Treasures compilation. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk and Bob Bates for sharing their memories and impressions with me in personal interviews.)

 
 

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Interplay Takes on Trek

Original-series Star Trek is the only version I’ve ever been able to bring myself to care about. Yet this Star Trek I once cared about a great deal.

Doubtless like many of you of a similar age, I grew up with this 1960s incarnation of the show — the incarnation which its creator Gene Roddenberry so famously pitched to the CBS television network as Wagon Train to the Stars, the one which during my childhood was the only Star Trek extant. Three or four Saturdays per year, a local UHF television station would run a Star Trek marathon, featuring nine or ten episodes back to back, interspersed with interviews and other behind-the-scenes segments. Strange as it now sounds even to me in this era when vintage media far more obscure than Star Trek is instantly accessible at any time, these marathons were major events in my young life. I particularly loved the give and take on the bridge of the starship Enterprise during episodes such as “Balance of Terror,” which were heavily inspired by the naval battles of World War II. Upon realizing this, I became quite the little war monger for a while there, devouring every book and movie I could find on the subject. Even after it had slowly dawned on me that in the final reckoning the death and suffering brought on by war far outweigh any courage or glory it might engender, the fascination with history which had been thus awakened never died.

I loved the Star Trek movies of the 1980s as well. Young though I was, I recognized the poignancy inherent in watching the now middle-aged cast cram their increasingly substantial frames back into the confines of their Starfleet uniforms every couple of years. Yes, this made effortless fodder for the late-night comedians, but there was also a wry wisdom to these movies that one doesn’t usually find in such blockbuster fare, as the actors’ aging off-screen selves merged with their onscreen personas in a way we don’t often see in mainstream mass media. Think, for example, of the scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where McCoy comes to visit Kirk and present him with his first pair of reading glasses. Decades before I fully understood what that moment — not to mention an expanding middle-aged waistline! — means in real life, I could sense the gravitas of the scene. I credit this side of Star Trek with showing me that there is as much drama and interest in ordinary life as there is in fantastic adventures in outer space. It primed me for the evening I begrudgingly opened Ethan Frome for my English class, and proceeded to devour it over the course of the next several rapt, tear-streaked hours. My English teacher was right, I realized; books without any spaceships or dragons in them really could be pretty darn great. Some years later, I took my bachelor degree in literature.

It must have been about the time I was discovering Ethan Frome that Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted on television. Like most of my peers, I was hugely excited by the prospect, and tuned in eagerly to the first episode. Yet I was disappointed by what I saw. The new incarnation of the Enterprise seemed cold and antiseptic in comparison to the old ship’s trusty physicality. Nor did I care for the new crew, who struck me as equally bland and bloodless. Being smart enough even at this tender age to recognize that fictional personalities, like real ones, need time to ripen and deepen, I gave the show another chance — repeatedly, over the course of years. But it continued to do nothing for me. Instead of Wagon Train to the Stars, this version struck me as Bureaucrats in Space.

All of this, I’ll freely admit, may have more to do with the fact that The Next Generation came along after I had passed science fiction’s golden age of twelve than anything else. Nevertheless, it does much to explain why I’m the perfect audience for our subject of today: the two Star Trek adventure games which Interplay made in the early 1990s. Throwbacks to the distant past of the franchise even when they were brand new, they continue to stand out from the pack today for their retro sensibilities. Fortunately, these are sensibilities which I unabashedly share.



Star Trek hadn’t been well-served by commercial computer games prior to the 1990s. Corporate nepotism had placed its digital-game rights in the slightly clueless hands of the book publisher Simon & Schuster, which was owned, like the show’s parent studio Paramount Pictures, by the media conglomerate known as Gulf and Western. The result had been a series of games that occasionally flirted with mediocrity but more typically fell short of even that standard. Even as each new Star Trek film topped the box-office charts, and even after Star Trek: The Next Generation became the most successful first-run series in the history of syndicated television, Simon & Schuster’s games somehow managed not to become hits. At decade’s end, Paramount granted the rights to a game based on the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to the dedicated computer-game publisher Mindscape, but the end product proved little better than what had come before in terms of quality or commercial success. Still, the switch to Mindscape did show that an inkling of awareness of the money all these half-assed Star Trek games were leaving on the table was dawning at last upon Paramount.

As the new decade began, the silver anniversary of the original series’s first broadcast on September 8, 1966, was beginning to loom large. Paramount decided to celebrate the occasion with something of a media blitz, anchored by a two-hour television special that would air in 1991 as close as possible to the show’s exact 25th anniversary. For the first time on this occasion, Paramount decided to make digital games into a concerted part of their media strategy rather than an afterthought. They signed a contract with the Japanese company Konami to make a game, entitled simply Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the heart of the videogame mass market, and for the Nintendo Gameboy, the hot new handheld videogame system. Rather than the Next Generation crew or even the original Enterprise crew in their most recent, most rotund incarnations, these games were to wind the clock all the way back to those heady early days of 1966, when Captain Kirk was still happy to appear on camera with his shirt off.

That deal still left a space for an anniversary title in the computer-game market. Said market was, it was true, much smaller than the one for Nintendo games, but it was notable for its older, more well-heeled buyers willing to pay more money for more ambitious games. Yet computer-game publishers proved more reluctant to sign on for the project than the broad popularity of the Star Trek brand in general might lead one to believe.

It didn’t require the benefit of hindsight to see that the Star Trek franchise, although it was indeed more popular than ever before, was going through a period of transition in 1990. The Next Generation had been on the air for three seasons now and was heading into a fourth; it was thus about to exceed the on-air longevity of the series that had inspired it. Meanwhile the cast of that older series were bowing to the realities of age at last; it had been announced that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, due for release in late 1991, was to be the last feature film in which they would star. A time when the Next Generation crew would become the default face of Star Trek, the original crew creaky anachronisms, was no longer impossible to imagine.

Given this passing of the torch that seemed to be in progress, most computer-game publishers were skeptical of Paramount’s plans for games featuring the original Enterprise and its crew in their youngest incarnations. They felt that this version of Star Trek was already all but dead in commercial terms, what with the success of all of the franchise’s more recent productions.

Brian Fargo of Interplay Entertainment was among the few who didn’t agree with this point of view. He pitched a computer game to Paramount that would share a name with Konami’s efforts, but would otherwise be a completely separate experience. Aided by his natural charm and the relative disinterest of most of Interplay’s competitors, he made the deal.

Disinterested competitors or no, it was quite a coup for his company, nowhere close to the largest or most prominent in its industry, to secure a license to make Star Trek games — especially given that the deal was made just months after Interplay had acquired the rights to another holy totem of nerd culture, The Lord of the Rings. While the Tolkien games would prove rather a disappointment, the Star Trek license would work out better all the way around.

Interplay signed an open-ended contract with Paramount which allowed them to make Star Trek games all the way until the year 2000, with some significant restrictions: they would be subject to the studio’s veto power over any and all of their aspects, and they could be set only in the time of Captain Kirk and company’s first five-year mission. With these restrictions in mind, Interplay set out to make a game that would be slavishly faithful to the original television series’s format. Instead of a single epic adventure, the game would consist of eight independent “episodes,” each roughly equivalent in plot complexity and geographic scope to those that had aired on television back in the day.

The structure of each episode would be the same: the Enterprise would be called upon by Starfleet to handle some new crisis at the episode’s beginning, whereupon the player would have to warp to the correct star system and engage in some action-oriented space combat, before beaming down to the real heart of the problem and sorting it all out in the guise of an adventure game. Interplay noted that the episodic format could make for a refreshing change from the norm in adventure games, being amenable to a more casual approach. Each episode would be designed to be completable in an evening; after finishing one of them, you could start on the episode that followed the next day, the next week, or the next month, without having to worry about all of the plot and puzzle threads you left dangling last time you played. From Fargo’s perspective, the episodic structure also had the advantage that each part of the game could be designed without much reference to or dependence on any of the others; this made things vastly easier from the standpoint of project management.

Fargo turned to a familiar source for the episodes’ scripts: Michael Stackpole, a member of the Arizona Flying Buffalo fraternity who had played a leading role on Interplay’s Wasteland CRPG and contributed to such other titles as Neuromancer. Stackpole had been busying himself recently with writing tie-in novels set in the universe of the BattleTech tabletop-game franchise. He thus thought that he knew what to expect from working with a licensed property, but he was unprepared for the degree of micromanagement that a bureaucratic giant like Paramount, stewarding one of the most valuable media properties of the age, was willing to engage in. He submitted scripts for fifteen episodes for a game that was anticipated to contain only eight, assuming that should surely cover all his bases; Interplay and Paramount could decide between themselves which eight they actually wanted to include.

To everyone’s shock, Paramount outright rejected all but a handful of them weeks later, usually for the most persnickety of reasons. Interplay’s frustration was still evident in a preview of the game published much later in Computer Gaming World magazine, which noted that “the film studio decided against plot elements derived from episodes which were already part of the Star Trek legend.” With Stackpole having returned to writing his novels, Fargo brought in Elizabeth Danforth, another Flying Buffalo alumnus who had worked with Interplay before, to write more episodes and shepherd them through the labyrinthine approval process.

All of this was happening during one of the most chaotic periods in Interplay’s history. Their distributor Mediagenic had just collapsed, defaulting on hundreds of thousands of dollars they had owed to Interplay and destroying the company’s precious pipeline to retail. The Lord of the Rings game, which was supposed to have been their savior, missed the Christmas 1990 buying season and, when it did finally ship early the following year, met with lukewarm reviews and disappointing sales. Only the strategy game Castles, an out-of-left-field hit from a third-party developer, kept them alive.

Amidst it all, the team making Star Trek: 25th Anniversary kept plugging away — but, inevitably, the game fell behind schedule. September of 1991 arrived, bringing with it the big television special and the Nintendo Entertainment System game, but Interplay’s own tie-in product remained far from complete. It didn’t ship until March of 1992, by which time all of the anniversary hoopla was in the past. Interplay’s game had all the trappings of an anticlimax; it really should have been known as Star Trek: 26th Anniversary, noted more than one commentator pointedly. For those inside the company, the story of the game was taking on some worrisome parallels to that of their Lord of the Rings title: a seeming surefire hit of a high-profile licensed game that arrived late and wound up underwhelming everyone.

They needn’t have worried. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary was a much more polished, more fully realized evocation of its source material than The Lord of the Rings had been, and it came at one of the Star Trek franchise’s high-water marks in popularity. Star Trek VI, which had hit theaters just three months before Interplay’s game, had become everything one could have hoped for from the original crew’s valedictory lap, garnering generally stellar reviews and impressive box-office receipts. Meanwhile The Next Generation was now in its fifth season on television and more popular than ever. The only shadow over proceedings was the death of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, on October 24, 1991. Yet even that event was more help than hindrance to the Interplay game’s commercial prospects, in that it created an appetite among wistful fans to look back to the franchise’s beginnings.

Interplay dedicated Star Trek: 25th Anniversary to Gene Roddenberry.

Indeed, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary thrived in this febrile atmosphere of contemporary success tinged with nostalgia. It became the biggest Interplay hit since Battle Chess, selling over 250,000 copies in all and doing much to set the company’s feet back on firm financial ground after the chaos of the previous couple of years.



The game continues to stand up fairly well today, with a few caveats. Undoubtedly its least satisfying aspect is the space-combat sequence that must be endured at the beginning of each episode. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is one of the few places where the game isn’t faithful to the spirit of Star Trek.

Science fiction’s two most successful media franchises take very different approaches to battles in outer space: while Star Trek portrays its combatants as lumbering naval vessels, jockeying for position in a slow-paced tactical game of cat and mouse, Star Wars looks to the skies of World War II for inspiration, opting for frenetic dog fights in space. But 25th Anniversary goes all-in for Star Wars instead of Star Trek in this respect; the Enterprise turns into Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter, dodging and weaving and spinning on a dime in response to the joystick. The reason for the switch can be summed up in two words: Wing Commander. Origin Systems’s cinematic action game of outer-space dog-fighting was taking the market by storm as Interplay was starting work on their own science-fiction game, and the company wanted to capitalize on their rival’s success. They described their game as “Sierra meets Wing Commander” at early trade-show presentations, and even made it possible to engage in randomized fights just for fun by visiting star systems other than those to which you’ve been directed, just in case the fighting you get to do in the episodes proper isn’t enough for you.

That was quite the stretch; the combat in 25th Anniversary really isn’t much fun as anything more than an occasional palate cleanser, and it’s hard to imagine anyone voluntarily deciding to look for more of it. Not only does this part of the game clash with its faithfulness to Star Trek in just about every other respect, but it doesn’t work even on its own terms. The controls are awkward, it’s hard to understand where your enemies are in relation to you, and it’s simply too hard — a point I’ll be returning to later. For now, suffice to say that Star Trek: 25th Anniversary ain’t no Wing Commander.

The worst part by far of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary.

Thankfully, the rest of the game — the “Sierra” in Interplay’s pithy formulation — is both more engaging and more faithful to the Star Trek of old. When you leave the Enterprise‘s bridge, the game turns into a point-and-click graphic adventure, marking the first time Interplay had dabbled in the format since Tass Times in Tonetown back in 1986. You control Kirk directly, but Spock, McCoy, and some poor expendable redshirt also come along, ready to offer their advice and use their special talents when needed — or, in the case of the redshirt, to take one for the team, dying so that none of the regulars have to do so.

The interface can be a little confusing at first; it’s not always clear when you should be “using” Spock or McCoy themselves on something and when you should be using their tricorders. But you start to get a feel for things after just a few minutes, and soon the interface fades into the background of what could stand on its own as a solid little graphic adventure — or, rather, eight solid little mini-adventures. Some of the puzzles can get a bit fiddly, but there are no outrageously unfair ones. The episodic nature of the game does much to make it manageable by limiting the possibility space you need to explore in order to solve any given puzzle; most of the episodes play out over just half a dozen or so locations.

Still, what elevates a fairly workmanlike adventure game to something far more memorable is the Star Trek connection. This is clearly a game made by and for fans of the source material. If you count yourself among them, you almost can’t help but be delighted. The writers do a great job of evoking the characters we know and love; McCoy lays into Spock like the old racist country doctor he is, Spock plays such a perfect straight man that one can’t help but suspect that he’s laughing up his sleeve behind his facade of “logic,” and Kirk still loves to egg them both on and enjoy the fireworks.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary apes the look of its source material down to the title card that opens each episode.

The interactive episodes are true to the rhythms of their non-interactive antecedents; each one begins with a title card superimposed over a stately Enterprise soaring toward its latest adventure, and ends with some humorous banter on the bridge and a final command from Kirk of “Warp factor 4!” to send it on its way to the next. Even the visuals, presented in slightly pixelated low-res VGA, conjure up the low-rent sets of the show; more photo-realistic graphics, one suspects, would only ruin the effect. For the music, George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett, whose work was everywhere during this period — they scored Wing Commander and Ultima Underworld as well, among many others — mix the familiar Star Trek theme with their own period-perfect motifs. The only things missing from their score in comparison to that of the original show are those oh-so-sixties orchestral stabs at dramatic moments. (There does come a point, Sanger and Govett must have decided, when nostalgia descends into outright cheese.)

It’s true that the episodes work more on the level of pastiche than that of earnest attempts at storytelling — another reason that enjoying this game probably does require you be a fan of vintage Star Trek. Most of the scripts read like a Mad Libs take on the original series, mixing and matching its most familiar tropes. The crew has to shut down another misguided computer (a la “A Taste of Armageddon”), engage in some gunboat diplomacy with the Romulans (“The Enterprise Incident”), and negotiate an earthly religious mythos transplanted to another planet (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”). Harry Mudd, the intergalactic con man whose antics featured in two episodes of the original series, makes a third appearance here. Even Carol Marcus, scientist and Kirk paramour, shows up to foreshadow the major role she’ll later play in the movie Star Trek II.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in its graphic-adventure mode. The gang’s all here, including the poor terrified red shirt hiding behind a pillar.

If none of the interactive episodes can challenge the likes of “The City on the Edge of Forever” for the crown of Best of Trek, they’re certainly far less embarrassing than most of what the series produced during its painfully bad third season. They encompass the full tonal palette of the show, from screwball comedy to philosophical profundity. The graphic-adventure format does force a shift in emphasis away from dialog and action to more cerebral activities — the Kirk on television never had to slow down to solve set-piece logic puzzles like some of the ones we see here — but that shift is entirely understandable.

Unfortunately, all of the good will the game engenders is undermined to a considerable extent by one resoundingly terrible design decision — a decision that’s ironically built upon a foundation of very good design choices. Each episode permits multiple solutions to most of the problems it places before you; this is, of course, a good thing. At the end of each episode, assuming you don’t get yourself killed, you receive an evaluation from Starfleet Command in the form of a percentile grade. You’re rewarded with a better grade if you’ve managed to keep the poor redshirt who beamed down with you alive — this game’s writers show far more compassion for the expendable crew members than the original series’s writers ever did! — and if you’ve accomplished things with a minimum of violence — i.e., if you’ve kept your metaphorical and sometimes literal phasers on “stun” rather than “kill.” All of this too is a good thing, seeming evidence of a progressive design sensibility that’s become ubiquitous today, when countless games let you finish each scenario with a bronze, silver, or gold star, allowing you to be exactly as completionist and perfectionist as you choose to be.

But now the bad part comes in. The final grades you receive on the episodes affect the performance of your crew during the remaining space-combat sequences, which themselves become steadily more difficult as you progress through the game. In fact, the final battle is so hard that you virtually have to have scored 100 percent on all of the preceding episodes to even have a chance in it. It turns out that the seeming easygoing attitude of the game, encouraging you to do better but letting you slide if you just want to move on through the episodes, has been a colossal lie, an ugly trap to get you 90 percent of the way to the finish line and then stop you cold. This is like a caricature of awful, retrograde game design — something even Sierra at their absolute nadir would have thought twice about. Either tell the player at the end of the episode that she just hasn’t done well enough and make her do it again, or honor your promise to let her continue with a less than stellar score. Don’t lie to her about it and then cackle about how you got her in the end.

Pro tip: this is not good enough to get you through the game.

Not only is this design decision terrible on its own terms, but it clashes with all of the implications of Interplay’s own characterization of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary as a more casual sort of adventure game than the norm, one that will let you play through a satisfying episode in a single relaxing evening. Interplay heard about this cognitive dissonance from their fans — heard so much about it that they begrudgingly issued an optional patch that let players skip past the combat sequences altogether by triggering a hot key. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it was better than nothing.

This discordant note aside, the worst complaint you could make about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in 1992 is one that doesn’t apply anymore today: that it was just a bit short in light of its $40 street price. And yet, worthy effort though Interplay’s first Star Trek game is on the whole, they would comprehensively top it with their second.



Given 25th Anniversary‘s commercial success and the open-ended license Interplay had acquired from Paramount, a sequel was rather inevitable. There wasn’t much point in making bold changes to a formula that had worked so well. Indeed, when they made the sequel they elected to change nothing whatsoever on the surface, retaining the same engine, the same episodic structure, and even the same little-loved combat sequences. Yet when we peer beneath the surface we see the product of a development team willing to learn from their mistakes. As sometimes happens in game development, the fact that the necessary enabling technology was already in place in the form of an existing engine allowed design in the abstract to come even more to the fore in the sequel. The end result is a game that, while hardly a transformative leap over its predecessor, is less frustrating, more narratively ambitious, and even more fun to play.

Although Star Trek: Judgment Rites continues with the episodic structure of its predecessor, it adapts it to a format more typical of television shows of the 1990s than those of the 1960s. An overarching “season-long” story arc is woven through the otherwise discrete episodes, to come to a head in a big finale episode. This gives the game a feeling of unity that its predecessor lacks.

Even more welcome, however, is a new willingness within the individual episodes to move beyond pastiche and into some narratively intriguing spaces of their own. Virtually all of Judgment Rites‘s episodes, written this time by the in-house Interplay employees Scott Bennie and Mark O’Green in addition to the returning contractors Michael Stackpole and Elizabeth Danforth, mix things up rather than stick with the unbending 25th Anniversary formula of a space combat followed by Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a semi-anonymous redshirt beaming down somewhere. Combat this time around is neither as frequent nor as predictably placed in the episodes, and the teams that beam down now vary considerably; Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu all get at least one chance of their own to come along and use their special talents.

My favorite episode in Judgment Rites also happens to be the longest and most complex in either of the games. In Bennie’s “No Man’s Land,” a team from the Enterprise beams down to a planet which is being forced to reenact a simulacrum of Earth’s World War I by Trelane, the childish but almost infinitely powerful demigod who was introduced in the original-series episode “The Squire of Gothos.” As his inclusion would indicate, “No Man’s Land” is very aware of Star Trek lore. It’s plainly meant partially as an homage to the original show’s occasional “time-travel” episodes, like “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” “A Piece of the Action,” or “Patterns of Force.” These were beloved by fans for giving the familiar crew the chance to act out a bit in an entirely different milieu. (They were beloved by the show’s perpetually cash-strapped producers for another reason: they let them raid their studio’s stash of stock sets, props, and costumes).

Yet “No Man’s Land” transcends homage to become a surprisingly moving meditation on the tragedy of a pointless war.

Another standout is Stackpole’s “Light and Darkness,” a pointed allegory about the folly of eugenics.

In addition to showing far more confidence in its storytelling, Judgment Rites also addresses the extreme difficulty of the space-combat sequences in its predecessor and the false promise that is letting you continue after completing an episode with a less-than-perfect score. You now have a choice between no combat at all, easy combat, and hard combat. The middle setting is calibrated just about right. Combat at this level, while still a long way from the likes of Wing Commander, becomes an occasional amusing diversion that doesn’t overstay its welcome instead of an infuriating brick wall that kills the rhythm of the game. And, at this level, moving on from any given episode with a score of less than 100 percent is no longer a fool’s gambit.

Although a better game than its predecessor in almost every respect, Judgment Rites couldn’t muster the same sales. It didn’t ship until December of 1993 — i.e., almost two full years after 25th Anniversary — and by that time the engine was beginning to show its age. Nor did it help that Interplay themselves undercut its launch by releasing a “talkie” version of the first game on CD-ROM just a month later.

That said, it’s not hard to understand Interplay’s eagerness to get the talkie version onto the market. In what can only be described as another major coup, Interplay, working through Paramount, brought in the entirety of the original cast to voice their iconic roles. At a time when many CD-ROM-based games were still being voiced by their programmers, it promised to be quite a thrill indeed to listen to the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley in the roles that had made them famous.

The reality was perhaps a little less compelling than the promise. While no one would ever accuse any member of the show’s cast of being a master thespian in the abstract, they had been playing these roles for so long that doing so once more for a computer game ought to have presented little problem on the face of it. Yet they plainly struggled with this unfamiliar medium. Their voice acting runs the gamut from bored to confused, but almost always sounds like exactly what it is: actors in front of microphones reading lines on a page. It seems that none of them knew anything about the stories to which the lines related, which can only be construed as a failure on Interplay’s part — albeit one perhaps precipitated by the sharply limited amount of time during which they had the actors at their disposal. Over the course of a scant few days, the cast was asked to voice all of the dialog not for one but for two complete games; the voices for a CD-ROM version of Judgment Rites were recorded at the same time. And they had to do it all bereft of any dramatic context whatsoever.

Somewhat disapointing though the final result is, these sessions represent a melancholy milestone of their own in Trek history, marking the last time the entire cast to the original show was assembled for a new creative project. As such, the talkie versions of these games are the last gasps of an era.

Personally, though, I prefer the games without voices — not only because of the disappointing voice work but because Interplay chose to implement it in a really annoying way, with Kirk/Shatner saying each choice in every dialog menu before you choose one. Interplay, like most of their peers, was still scrambling to figure out what did and didn’t work in this new age of multimedia computing.

Despite holding a license to the original series for the balance of the decade, Interplay would never release another game set in this era of Star Trek after the talkie version of Judgment Rites shipped in March of 1994. The company did work intermittently on an ambitious 3D action-adventure featuring Kirk and the rest of the classic crew, tentatively entitled Secret of Vulcan Fury, near the end of the decade, but never came close to finishing it. Gamers and Trekkies were moving on, and the newer incarnations of the show were becoming, just as some had predicted they would, the default face of the franchise. Indeed, no Star Trek game since the two Interplay titles discussed in this article has revisited the original show. This fact only makes 25th Anniversary and especially Judgment Rites all the more special today.



That would make for a good conclusion to this article, but we do have one more thing to cover — for no article about Interplay’s takes on classic Trek could be complete without the media meme they spawned.

Like a fair number of other memes, this one involves William Shatner, for more than half a century now one of the odder — and more oddly endearing — characters on the media landscape. Back when he was a struggling young actor trying to make it in Hollywood, it was apparently drilled into him by his agents that he should never, ever turn down paying work of any kind. He has continued to live by this maxim to this day. Shatner will do absolutely anything if you pay him enough: pitch any product, sing-talk his way through fascinatingly terrible albums, “write” a new memoir every couple of years along with some of the worst science-fiction novels in history. He’s the ultimate cultural leveler, seeing no distinction between a featured role in a prestigious legal drama and one in a lowest-common-denominator sitcom based on someone’s Twitter feed.

And yet he manages to stay in the public’s good graces by doing it all with a wink and a nod that lets us know he’s in on the joke; when he goes on a talk show to plug his latest book, he can’t even be bothered to seriously pretend that he actually wrote it. He’s elevated crass commercialism to a sort of postmodern performance art. When the stars align, the kitschy becomes profound, and the terrible becomes wonderful. (“Why is this good?” writes a YouTube commenter in response to his even-better-than-the-original version of “Common People.” “It has no right to be this good.”) For this reason, as well as because he’s really, truly funny — one might say that he’s a far better comedian than he ever was an actor — he gets a pass on everything. At age 88 as of this writing, he remains the hippest octogenarian this side of Willie Nelson.

In keeping with his anything-for-a-buck career philosophy, Shatner is seldom eager to spend much time second-guessing — much less redoing — any of his performances. His reputation among media insiders as a prickly character with a taste for humiliation has long preceded him. It’s especially dangerous for anyone he perceives as below him on the totem pole to dare to correct him, challenge him, or just voice an opinion to him. Like a dog, he can smell insecurity, and, his eagerness to move on to the next gig notwithstanding, he’s taken a malicious delight in tormenting many a young assistant director. Craig Duman, the Interplay sound engineer who was given the task of recording Shatner’s lines for the CD-ROM versions of 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites, can testify to this firsthand.

The problem began when Shatner was voicing the script for the first episode of Judgment Rites. Coming to the line, “Spock, sabotage the system,” he pronounced the word “sabotage” rather, shall we say, idiosyncratically: pronouncing the vowel of the last syllable like “bad” rather than “bod.” A timid-sounding Duman, all too obviously overawed to be in the same room as Captain Kirk, piped up to ask him to say the line again with the correct pronunciation — whereupon Shatner went off. “I don’t say sabotahge! You say sabotahge! I say sabotage!” (You say “potato,” I say “potahto?”) His concluding remark was deliciously divaish: “Please don’t tell me how to act. It sickens me.”


This incident would have remained an in-joke around Interplay’s offices had not an unknown employee from the sound studio they used leaked it to the worst possible person: morning-radio shock jock Howard Stern. Driving to work one morning, Brian Fargo was horrified to hear the outtake being broadcast across the country by this self-proclaimed “King of All Media.” Absent the “it sickens me,” the clip wouldn’t have had much going for it, but with it it was absolutely hilarious; Stern played it over and over again. Fargo was certain he had just witnessed the death of one of Interplay’s most important current projects.

He was lucky; it seems that Shatner wasn’t a regular Howard Stern listener, and didn’t hear about the leak until after both of the talkies had shipped. But the clip, being short enough to encapsulate in a sound file manageable even over a dial-up connection, became one of the most popular memes on the young World Wide Web. It also found a receptive audience within Hollywood, where plenty of people had had similar run-ins with Shatner’s prickly off-camera personality. It finally made its way into the 1999 comedy film Mystery Men, where Ben Stiller parrots, “Please don’t tell me how to act. It sickens me,” on one occasion, and Janeane Garofalo later inserts a pointed, “You say sabotahge! I say sabotage!”

Thank to Howard Stern, Mystery Men, and the mimetic magic of the Internet, this William Shatner outtake has reached a couple of orders of magnitude more people than ever played the game which spawned it; most of those who have engaged with the meme have no idea of its source. If it seems unfair that this of all things should be the most enduring legacy of Interplay’s loving re-creations of the Star Trek of yore, well, such is life in a world of postmodern media. As Shatner himself would attest, just reaching people, no matter how you have to do it, is an achievement of its own. And if you can make them laugh while you’re about it, so much the better.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of December 1991, May 1992, March 1994, and May 1994; Questbusters of April 1992; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 9 1991; the special video features included with the Star Trek: Judgment Rites Collector’s Edition. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo and Fargo’s appearance on Angry Centaur Gaming’s International Podcast. Finally, some of this article is drawn from the collection of documents that Brian Fargo donated to the Strong Museum of Play.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites are both available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 

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Darklands

Darklands may well have been the most original single CRPG of the 1990s, but its box art was planted firmly in the tacky CRPG tradition. I’m not sure that anyone in Medieval Germany really looked much like these two…

Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the genres of the adventure game and the CRPG tended to blend together, in magazine columns as well as in the minds of ordinary gamers. I thus considered it an early point of order for this history project to attempt to identify the precise differences between the genres. Rather than addressing typical surface attributes — a CRPG, many a gamer has said over the years, is an adventure game where you also have to kill monsters — I tried to peek under the hood and identify what really makes the two genres tick. At bottom, I decided, the difference was one of design philosophy. The adventure game focuses on set-piece, handcrafted puzzles and other unique interactions, simulating the world that houses them only to the degree that is absolutely necessary. (This latter is especially true of the point-and-click graphic adventures that came to dominate the field after the 1980s; indeed, throughout gaming history, the trend in adventure games has been to become less rather than more ambitious in terms of simulation.) The CRPG, meanwhile, goes in much more for simulation, to a large degree replacing set-piece behaviors with systems of rules which give scope for truly emergent experiences that were never hard-coded into the design.

Another clear difference between the two genres, however, is in the scope of their fictions’ ambitions. Since the earliest days of Crowther and Woods and Scott Adams, adventure games have roamed widely across the spectrum of storytelling; Infocom alone during the 1980s hit on most of the viable modern literary genres, from the obvious (fantasy, science fiction) to the slightly less obvious (mysteries, thrillers) to the downright surprising (romance novels, social satires). CRPGs, on the other hand, have been plowing more or less the same small plot of fictional territory for decades. How many times now have groups of stalwart men and ladies set forth to conquer the evil wizard? While we do get the occasional foray into science fiction — usually awkwardly hammered into a frame of gameplay conventions more naturally suited to heroic fantasy — it’s for the most part been J.R.R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, over and over and over again.

This seeming lack of adventurousness (excuse the pun!) among CRPG designers raises some interesting questions. Can the simulation-oriented approach only be made to work within a strictly circumscribed subset of possible virtual worlds? Or is the lack of variety in CRPGs down to a simple lack of trying? An affirmative case for the latter question might be made by Origin Systems’s two rather wonderful Worlds of Ultima games of the early 1990s, which retained the game engine from the more traditional fantasy CRPG Ultima VI but moved it into settings inspired by the classic adventure tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. Sadly, though, Origin’s customers seemed not to know what to make of Ultima games not taking place in a Renaissance Faire world, and both were dismal commercial failures — thus providing CRPG makers with a strong external motivation to stick with high fantasy, whatever the abstract limits of the applicability of the CRPG formula to fiction might be.

Our subject for today — Darklands, the first CRPG ever released by MicroProse Software — might be described as the rebuttal to the case made by the Worlds of Ultima games, in that its failings point to some of the intrinsic limits of the simulation-oriented approach. Then again, maybe not; today, perhaps even more so than when it was new, this is a game with a hardcore fan base who love it with a passion, even as other players, like the one who happens to be writing this article, see it as rather collapsing under the weight of its ambition and complexity. Whatever your final verdict on it, it’s undeniable that Darklands is overflowing with original ideas for a genre which, even by the game’s release year of 1992, had long since settled into a set of established expectations. By upending so many of them, it became one of the most intriguing CRPGs ever made.



Darklands was the brainchild of Arnold Hendrick, a veteran board-game, wargame, tabletop-RPG, and console-videogame designer who joined MicroProse in 1985, when it was still known strictly as a maker of military simulations. As the first MicroProse employee hired only for a design role — he had no programming or other technical experience whatsoever — he began to place his stamp on the company’s products immediately. It was Hendrick who first had the germ of an idea that Sid Meier, MicroProse’s star programmer/designer, turned into Pirates!, the first MicroProse game to depart notably from the company’s established formula. In addition to Pirates!, for which he continued to serve as a scenario designer and historical consultant even after turning the lead-designer reins over to Meier, Hendrick worked on other games whose feet were more firmly planted in MicroProse’s wheelhouse: titles like Gunship, Project Stealth Fighter, Red Storm Rising, M1 Tank Platoon, and Silent Service II.

“Wild” Bill Stealey, the flamboyant head of MicroProse, had no interest whatsoever in any game that wasn’t a military flight simulator. Still, he liked making money even more than he liked flying virtual aircraft, and by 1990 he wasn’t sure how much more he could grow his company if it continued to make almost nothing but military simulations and the occasional strategic wargame. Meanwhile he had Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, the latter being Sid Meier’s latest departure from military games, to look at as examples of how successful non-traditional MicroProse games could be. Not knowing enough about other game genres to know what else might be a good bet for his company, he threw the question up to his creative and technical staff: “Okay, programmers, give me what you want to do, and tell me how much money you want to spend. We’ll find a way to sell it.”

And so Hendrick came forward with a proposal to make a CRPG called Darklands, to be set in the Germany of the 15th century, a time and place of dark forests and musty monasteries, Walpurgis Night and witch covens. It could become, Hendrick said, the first of a whole new series of historical CRPGs that, even as they provided MicroProse with an entrée into one of the most popular genres out there, would also leverage their reputation for making games with roots in the real world.

The typical CRPG, then as now, took place in a version of Medieval times that had only ever existed in the imagination of a modern person raised on Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. It ignored how appallingly miserable and dull life was for the vast majority of people who lived through the historical reality of the Middle Ages, with its plagues, wars, filth, hard labor, and nearly universal illiteracy. Although he was a dedicated student of history, with a university degree in the field, Hendrick too was smart enough to realize that there wasn’t much of a game to be had by hewing overly close to this mundane historical reality. But what if, instead of portraying a Medieval world as his own contemporaries liked to imagine it to have been, he conjured up the world of the Middle Ages as the people who had lived in it had imagined it to be? God and his many saints would take an active role in everyday affairs, monsters and devils would roam the forests, alchemy would really work, and those suspicious-looking folks who lived in the next village really would be enacting unspeakable rituals in the name of Satan every night. “This is an era before logic or science,” Hendrick wrote, “a time when anything is possible. In short, if Medieval Germans believed something to be true, in Darklands it might actually be true.”

He wanted to incorporate an interwoven tapestry of Medieval imagination and reality into Darklands: a magic system based on Medieval theories about alchemy; a pantheon of real saints to pray to, each able to grant her own special favors; a complete, lovingly detailed map of 15th-century Germany and lands adjacent, over which you could wander at will; hundreds of little textual vignettes oozing with the flavor of the Middle Ages. To make it all go, he devised a set of systems the likes of which had never been seen in a CRPG, beginning with a real-time combat engine that let you pause it at any time to issue orders; its degree of simulation would be so deep that it would include penetration values for various weapons against various materials (thus ensuring that a vagabond with rusty knife could never, ever kill a full-fledged knight in shining armor). The character-creation system would be so detailed as to practically become a little game in itself, asking you not so much to roll up each character as live out the life story that brought her to this point: bloodline, occupations, education (such as it was for most in the Middles Ages), etc.

Character creation in Darklands is really, really complicated. And throughout the game, the spidery font superimposed on brown-sauce backgrounds will make your eyes bleed.

All told, it was one heck of a proposition for a company that had never made a CRPG before. Had Stealey been interested enough in CRPGs to realize just how unique the idea was, he might have realized as well how doubtful its commercial prospects were in a market that seemed to have little appetite for any CRPG that didn’t hew more or less slavishly to the Dungeons & Dragons archetype. But Stealey didn’t realize, and so Darklands got the green light in mid-1990. What followed was a tortuous odyssey; it became the most protracted and expensive development project MicroProse had ever funded.

We’ve seen in some of my other recent articles how companies like Sierra and Origin, taking stock of escalating complexity in gameplay and audiovisuals and their inevitable companion of escalating budgets, began to systematize the process of game development around this time. And we’ve at least glimpsed as well how such systematization could be a double-edged sword, leading to creatively unsatisfied team members and final products with something of a cookie-cutter feel.

MicroProse, suffice to say, didn’t go that route. Stealey took a hands-off approach to all projects apart from his beloved flight simulators, allowing his people to freelance their way through them. For all the drawbacks of rigid hierarchies and strict methodologies, the Darklands project could have used an injection of exactly those things. It was plagued by poor communication and outright confusion from beginning to end, as Arnold Hendrick and his colleagues improvised like mad in the process of making a game that was like nothing any of them had ever tried to make before.

Hendrick today forthrightly acknowledges that his own performance as project leader was “terrible.” Too often, the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. An example cited by Hendrik involves Jim Synoski, the team’s first and most important programmer. For some months at the beginning of the project, he believed he was making essentially a real-time fighting game; while that was in fact some of what Darklands was about, it was far from the sum total of the experience. Once made aware at last that his combat code would need to interact with many other modules, he managed to hack the whole mess together, but it certainly wasn’t pretty. It seems there wasn’t so much as a design document for the team to work from — just a bunch of ideas in Hendrick’s head, imperfectly conveyed to everyone else.

The first advertisement for Darklands appeared in the March 1991 issue of Computer Gaming World. The actual product wouldn’t materialize until eighteen months later.

It’s small wonder, then, that Darklands went so awesomely over time and over budget; the fact that MicroProse never cancelled it likely owes as much to the sunk-cost fallacy as anything else. Hendrick claims that the game cost as much as $3 million to make in the end — a flabbergasting number that, if correct, would easily give it the crown of most expensive computer game ever made at the time of its release. Indeed, even a $2 million price tag, the figure typically cited by Stealey, would also qualify it for that honor. (By way of perspective, consider that Origin Systems’s epic CRPG Ultima VII shipped the same year as Darklands with an estimated price tag of $1 million.)

All of this was happening at the worst possible time for MicroProse. Another of Stealey’s efforts to expand the company’s market share had been an ill-advised standup-arcade version of F-15 Strike Eagle, MicroProse’s first big hit. The result, full of expensive state-of-the-art graphics hardware, was far too complex for the quarter-eater market; it flopped dismally, costing MicroProse a bundle. Even as that investment was going up in smoke, Stealey, acting again purely on the basis of his creative staff’s fondest wishes, agreed to challenge the likes of Sierra by making a line of point-and-click graphic adventures. Those products too would go dramatically over time and over budget.

Stealey tried to finance these latest products by floating an initial public offering in October of 1991. By June of 1992, on the heels of an announcement that not just Darklands but three other major releases as well would not be released that quarter — more fruit of Stealey’s laissez-faire philosophy of game development — the stock tumbled to almost 25 percent below its initial price. A stench of doom was beginning to surround the company, despite such recent successes as Civilization.

Games, like most creative productions, generally mirror the circumstances of their creation. This fact doesn’t bode well for Darklands, a project which started in chaos and ended, two years later, in a panicked save-the-company scramble.


Pirates!

Darklands

If you squint hard enough at Darklands, you can see its roots in Pirates!, the first classic Arnold Hendrick helped to create at MicroProse. As in that game, Darklands juxtaposes menu-driven in-town activities, written in an embodied narrative style, with more free-form wanderings over the territories that lie between the towns. But, in place of the straightforward menu of six choices in Pirates!, your time in the towns of Darklands becomes a veritable maze of twisty little passages; you start the game in an inn, but from there can visit a side street or a main street, which in turn can lead you to the wharves or the market, dark alleys or a park, all with yet more things to see and do. Because all of these options are constantly looping back upon one another — it’s seldom clear if the side street from this menu is the same side street you just visited from that other menu — just trying to buy some gear for your party can be a baffling undertaking for the beginner.

Thus, in spite of the superficial interface similarities, we see two radically opposing approaches to game design in Pirates! and Darklands. The older game emphasizes simplicity and accessibility, being only as complex as it needs to be to support the fictional experience it wants to deliver. But Darklands, for its part, piles on layer after layer of baroque detail with gleeful abandon. One might say that here the complexity is the challenge; learning to play the entirety of Darklands at all requires at least as much time and effort as getting really, truly good at a game like Pirates!.

The design dialog we see taking place here has been with us for a long time. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, the co-creators of the first incarnation of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, parted ways not long afterward thanks largely to a philosophical disagreement about how their creation should evolve. Arneson saw the game as a fairly minimalist framework to enable a shared storytelling session, while Gygax saw it as something more akin to the complex wargames on which he’d cut his teeth. Gygax, who would go on to write hundreds of pages of fiddly rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, his magnum opus, was happily cataloging and quantifying every variant of pole arm used in Medieval times when an exasperated Arneson finally lost his cool: “It’s a pointy thing on the end of a stick!” Your appreciation for Darklands must hinge on whether you are a Gary Gygax or a Dave Arneson in spirit. I know to which camp I belong; while there is a subset of gamers who truly enjoy Darkland‘s type of complexity — and more power to them for it — I must confess that I’m not among them.

In an interview conducted many years after the release of Darklands, Arnold Hendrick himself put his finger on what I consider to be its core problem: “Back then, game systems were often overly complicated, and attention to gameplay was often woefully lacking. These days, there’s a much better balance between gameplay and the human psychology of game players and the game systems underlying that gameplay.” Simply put, there are an awful lot of ideas in Darklands which foster complexity, but don’t foster what ought to be the ultimate arbitrator in game design: Fun. Modern designers often talk about an elusive sense of “flow” — a sense by the player that all of a game’s parts merge into a harmonious whole which makes playing for hours on end all too tempting. For this player at least, Darklands is the polar opposite of this ideal. Not only is it about as off-putting a game as I’ve ever seen at initial startup, but it continues always, even after a certain understanding has begun to dawn, to be a game of disparate parts: a character-generation game, a combat game, a Choose Your Own Adventure-style narrative, a game of alchemical crafting. There are enough original ideas here for ten games, but it never becomes clear why they absolutely, positively all need to be in this one. Darklands, in other words, is kind of a muddle.

Your motivation for adventuring in Medieval Germany in the first place is one of Darklands‘s original ideas in CRPG design. Drawing once again comparisons to Pirates!, Darklands dispenses with any sort of overarching plot as a motivating force. Instead, like your intrepid corsair of the earlier game, your party of four has decided simply “to bring everlasting honor and glory to your names.” If you play for long enough, something of a larger plot will eventually begin to emerge, involving a Satan-worshiping cult and a citadel dedicated to the demon Baphomet, but even after rooting out the cult and destroying the citadel the game doesn’t end.

In place of an overarching plot, Darklands relies on incidents and anecdotes, from a wandering knight challenging you to a duel to a sinkhole that swallows up half your party. While these are the products of a human writer (presumably Arnold Hendrick for the most part), their placements in the world are randomized. To improve your party’s reputation and earn money, you undertake a variety of quests of the “take item A to person B” or “go kill monster C” variety. All of this too is procedurally generated. Indeed, you begin a new game of Darklands by choosing the menu option “Create a New World.” Although the geography of Medieval Germany won’t change from game to game, most of what you’ll find in and around the towns is unique to your particular created world. It all adds up to a game that could literally, as MicroProse’s marketers didn’t hesitate to declare, go on forever.

But, as all too commonly happens with these things, it’s a little less compelling in practice than it sounds in theory. I’ve gone on record a number of times now with my practical objections to generative narratives. Darklands too often falls prey to the problems that are so typical of the approach. The quests you pick up, lacking as they do any larger relationship to a plot or to the world, are the very definition of FedEx quests, bereft of any interest beyond the reputation and money they earn for you. And, while it can sometimes surprise you with an unexpectedly appropriate and evocative textual vignette, the game more commonly hews to the predictable here as well. Worse, it has a dismaying tendency to show you the same multiple-choice vignettes again and again, pulling you right out of the fiction.

And yet the vignettes are actually the most narratively interesting parts of the game; it will be some time before you begin to see them at all. As in so many other vintage CRPGs, the bulk of your time at the beginning of Darklands is spent doing boring things in the name of earning the right to eventually do less boring things. In this case, you’ll likely have to spend several hours roaming the vacant back streets of whatever town you happen to begin in, seeking out and killing anonymous bands of robbers, just to build up your party enough to leave the starting town.

The open-ended structure works for Pirates! because that game dispenses with this puritanical philosophy of design. It manages to be great fun from the first instant by keeping the pace fast and the details minimal, even as it puts a definite time limit on your career, thus tempting you to play again and again in order to improve on your best final score. Darklands, by contrast, doesn’t necessarily end even when your party is too old to adventure anymore (aging becomes a factor after about age thirty); you can just make new characters and continue where the old ones left off, in the same world with the same equipment, quests, and reputation. Darklands, then, ends only when you get tired of it. Just when that exact point arrives will doubtless differ markedly from player to player, but it’s guaranteed to be anticlimactic.

The ostensible point of Darklands‘s enormously complex systems of character creation, alchemy, religion, and combat is to evoke its chosen time and place as richly as possible. One might even say the same about its lack of an overarching epic plot; such a thing doesn’t exist in the books of history and legend to which the game is so determined to be so faithful. Yet I can’t help but feel that this approach — that of trying to convey the sense of a time and place through sheer detail — is fundamentally misguided. Michael Bate, a designer of several games for Accolade during the 1980s, coined the term “aesthetic simulations” for historical games that try to capture the spirit of their subject matter rather than every piddling detail. Pirates! is, yet again, a fine example of this approach, as is the graceful, period-infused but not period-heavy-handed writing of the 1992 adventure game The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.

The writing in Darklands falls somewhat below that standard. It isn’t terrible, but it is a bit graceless, trying to make up for in concrete detail what it isn’t quite able to conjure in atmosphere. So, we get money that is laboriously explicated in terms of individual pfenniges, groschen, and florins, times of day described in terms that a Medieval monk would understand (Matins, Latins, Prime, etc.), and lots of off-putting-to-native-English-speakers German names, but little real sense of being in Medieval Germany.

Graphically as well, the game is… challenged. Having devoted most of their development efforts to 3D vehicular simulators during the 1980s, MicroProse’s art department plainly struggled to adapt to the demands of other genres. Even an unimpeachable classic like Sid Meier’s Civilization achieves its classic status despite rather than because of its art; visually, it’s a little garish compared to what other studios were putting out by this time. But Darklands is much more of a visual disaster, a conflicting mishmash of styles that sometimes manage to look okay in isolation, such as in the watercolor-style backgrounds to many of the textual vignettes. Just as often, though, it verges on the hideous; the opening movie is so absurdly amateurish that, according to industry legend, some people actually returned the game after seeing it, thinking they must have gotten a defective disk or had an incompatible video card.

One of Darklands‘s more evocative vignettes, with one of its better illustrations as a backdrop. Unfortunately, you’re likely to see this same vignette and illustration several times, with a decided sense of diminishing returns.

But undoubtedly the game’s biggest single problem, at the time of its release and to some extent still today, was all of the bugs. Even by the standards of an industry at large which was clearly struggling to come to terms with the process of making far more elaborate games than had been seen in the previous decade, Darklands stood out upon its belated release in August of 1992 for its woefully under-baked state. Whether this was despite or because of its extended development cycle remains a question for debate. What isn’t debatable, however, is that it was literally impossible to complete Darklands in its initial released state, and that, even more damningly, a financially pressured MicroProse knew this and released it anyway. To their credit, the Darklands team kept trying to fix the game after its release, with patch after patch to its rickety code base. The patches eventually numbered at least nine in all, a huge quantity for long-suffering gamers to acquire at a time when they could only be distributed on physical floppy disks or via pricey commercial online services like CompuServe. After about a year, the team managed to get the game into a state where it only occasionally did flaky things, although even today it remains far from completely bug-free.

By the time the game reached this reasonably stable state, however, the damage had been done. It sold fairly well in its first month or two, but then came a slew of negative reviews and an avalanche of returns that actually exceeded new sales for some time; Darklands thus managed the neat trick of continuing to be a drain on MicroProse’s precarious day-to-day finances even after it had finally been released. Hendrick had once imagined a whole line of similar historical CRPGs; needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Combined with the only slightly less disastrous failure of the new point-and-click graphic-adventure line, Darklands was directly responsible for the end of MicroProse as an independent entity. In December of 1993, with the company’s stock now at well under half of its IPO price and the creditors clamoring, a venture-capital firm arranged a deal whereby MicroProse was acquired by Spectrum Holobyte, known virtually exclusively for a truly odd pairing of products: the home-computer version of the casual game Tetris and the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon. The topsy-turvy world of corporate finance being what it was, this happened despite the fact that MicroProse’s total annual sales were still several times that of Spectrum Holobyte.

Stealey, finding life unpleasant in a merged company where he was no longer top dog, quit six months later. His evaluation of the reasons for MicroProse’s collapse was incisive enough in its fashion:

You have to be known for something. We were known for two things [military simulators and grand-strategy games], but we tried to do more. I think that was a big mistake. I should have been smarter than that. I should have stuck with what we were good at.



I’ve been pretty hard on Darklands in this article, a stance for which I don’t quite feel a need to apologize; I consider it a part of my duty as your humble scribe to call ’em like I see ’em. Yet there is far more to Darklands‘s legacy than a disappointing game which bankrupted a company. Given how rare its spirit of innovation has been in CRPG design, plenty of players in the years since its commercial vanishing performance have been willing to cut it a lot of slack, to work hard to enjoy it on its own terms. For reasons I’ve described at some length now, I can’t manage to join this group, but neither can I begrudge them their passion.

But then, Darklands has been polarizing its players from the very beginning. Shortly after the game’s release, Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s famously opinionated adventure-game columnist, wrote a notably harsh review of it, concluding that it “might have been one of the great ones” but instead “turns out to be a game more to be avoided than anything else.” Johnny L. Wilson, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, was so bothered by her verdict that he took the unusual step of publishing a sidebar response of his own. It became something of a template for future Darklands apologies by acknowledging the game’s obvious flaws yet insisting that its sheer uniqueness nevertheless made it worthwhile. (“The game is as repetitive as Scorpia and some of the game’s online critics have noted. One comes across some of the same encounters over and over. Yet only occasionally did I find this disconcerting.”) He noted as well that he personally hadn’t seen many of the bugs and random crashes which Scorpia had described in her review. Perhaps, he mused, his computer was just an “immaculate contraption” — or perhaps Scorpia’s was the opposite. In response to the sidebar, Wilson was castigated by his magazine’s readership, who apparently agreed with Scorpia much more than with him and considered him to have undermined his own acknowledged reviewer.

The reader response wasn’t the only interesting postscript to this episode. Wilson:

Later, after 72 hours of playing around with minor quests and avoiding the main plot line of Darklands, I decided it was time to finish the game. I had seven complete system crashes in less than an hour and a half once I decided to jump in and finish the game. I didn’t really have an immaculate contraption, I just hadn’t encountered the worst crashes because I hadn’t filled my upper memory with the system-critical details of the endgame. Scorpia hadn’t overreacted to the crashes. I just hadn’t seen how bad it was because I was fooling around with the game instead of trying to win. Since most players would be trying to win, Scorpia’s review was more valid than my sidebar. Ah, well, that probably isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done when I thought I was being fair.

This anecdote reveals what may be a deciding factor — in addition to a tolerance for complexity for its own sake — as to whether one can enjoy Darklands or not. Wilson had been willing to simply inhabit its world, while the more goal-oriented Scorpia approached it as she would any other CRPG — i.e., as a game that she wanted to win. As a rather plot-focused, goal-oriented player myself, I naturally sympathize more with her point of view.

In the end, then, the question of where the point of failure lies in Darklands is one for the individual player to answer. Is Darklands as a whole a very specific sort of failure, a good idea that just wasn’t executed as well as it might have been? Or does the failure lie with the CRPG format itself, which this game stretched beyond the breaking point? Or does the real failure lie with the game’s first players, who weren’t willing to look past the bugs and other occasional infelicities to appreciate what could have been a whole new type of CRPG? I know where I stand, but my word is hardly the final one.

Given the game’s connection to the real world and its real cultures, so unusual to the CRPG genre, perhaps the most interesting question of all raised by Darklands is that of the appropriate limits of gamefication. A decade before Darklands‘s release, the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG was embroiled in a controversy engendered by God-fearing parents who feared it to be an instrument of Satanic indoctrination. In actuality, the creators of the game had been wise enough to steer well clear of any living Western belief system. (The Deities & Demigods source book did include living native-American, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese religions, which raises some troublesome questions of its own about cultural appropriation and respect, but wasn’t quite the same thing as what the angry Christian contingent was complaining about.)

It’s ironic to note that much of the content which Evangelical Christians believed to be present in Dungeons & Dragons actually is present in Darklands, including the Christian God and Satan and worshipers of both. Had Darklands become successful enough to attract the attention of the same groups who objected so strongly to Dungeons & Dragons, there would have been hell to pay. Arnold Hendrick had lived through the earlier controversy from an uncomfortably close vantage point, having been a working member of the tabletop-game industry at the time it all went down. In his designer’s notes in Darklands‘s manual, he thus went to great pains to praise the modern “vigorous, healthy, and far more spiritual [Catholic] Church whose quiet role around the globe is more altruistic and beneficial than many imagine.” Likewise, he attempted to separate modern conceptions of Satanism and witchcraft from those of Medieval times. Still, the attempt to build a wall between the Christianity of the 15th century and that of today cannot be entirely successful; at the end of the day, we are dealing with the same religion, albeit in two very different historical contexts.

Opinions vary as to whether the universe in which we live is entirely mechanistic, reducible to the interactions of concrete, understandable, computable physical laws. But it is clear that a computer simulation of a world must be exactly such a thing. In short, a simulation leaves no room for the ineffable. And yet Darklands chooses to grapple, to an extent unrivaled by almost any other game I’m aware of, with those parts of human culture that depend upon a belief in the ineffable. By bringing Christianity into its world, it goes to a place virtually no other game has dared approach. Its vending-machine saints reduce a religion — a real, living human faith — to a game mechanic. Is this okay? Or are there areas of the human experience which ought not to be turned into banal computer code? The answer must be in the eye — and perhaps the faith — of the beholder.

Darklands‘s real-time-with-pause combat system. The interface here is something of a disaster, and the visuals too leave much to be desired, but the core idea is sound.

By my lights, Darklands is more of a collection of bold ideas than a coherent game, more of an experiment in the limits of CRPG design than a classic example of same. Still, in a genre which is so often in thrall to the tried and true, its willingness to experiment can only be applauded.

For sometimes experiments yield rich rewards, as the most obvious historical legacy of this poor-selling, obscure, bug-ridden game testifies. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, the joint CEOs of Bioware at the time that studio made the Baldur’s Gate series of CRPGs, have acknowledged lifting the real-time-with-pause combat systems in those huge-selling and much-loved games directly out of Darklands. Since the Baldur’s Gate series’s heyday around the turn of the millennium, dozens if not hundreds of other CRPGs have borrowed the same system second-hand from Bioware. Such is the way that innovation diffuses itself through the culture of game design. So, the next time you fire up a Steam-hosted extravaganza like Pillars of Eternity, know that part of the game you’re playing owes its existence to Darklands. Lumpy and imperfect though it is in so many ways, we could use more of its spirit of bold innovation today — in CRPG design and, indeed, across the entire landscape of interactive entertainment.

(Sources: the book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay; Computer Gaming World of March 1991, February 1992, May 1992, September 1992, December 1992, January 1993, and June 1994; Commodore Magazine of September 1987; Questbusters of November 1992; Compute! of October 1993; PC Zone of September 2001; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of January 17 1992; New York Times of June 13 1993. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Arnold Hendrick, Just Adventure‘s interview with Johnny L. Wilson, and Arnold Hendrick’s discussion of Darklands in the Steam forum.

Darklands is available for purchase on GOG.com.)

 
 

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