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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

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

— Harlan Ellison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no mouth. And I must scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

— Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

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

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

 
 

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Mission Critical

Legend Entertainment fought something of a rear-guard action through the first half of the 1990s. In an industry that had embraced the movies as its aesthetic example, their works remained throwbacks to older ideas about interactive books: “We had the editorial sensibilities of a book publisher rather than a movie company,” says Legend co-founder Mike Verdu. Their games were wordy, and even after the migration to CD-ROM the player was expected to read many of those words for herself rather than have them read aloud to her; they sported illustrations that were carefully composed and lovely to look at, but that were also static in a motion-obsessed gaming milieu, and thus were better suited to stand up well a quarter-century later than they were to wow the masses in their own day. Enough players were intrigued by Legend’s low-key, literary approach to buy 30,000 to 60,000 copies of each new game, but those consistent numbers translated to a steady erosion of Legend’s market share in a fast-expanding industry; by mid-decade, many new games were selling over 100,000 copies each year, and blockbuster million-sellers were appearing at a clip of three or four per annum. Verdu and his partner Bob Bates felt serious pressure to up Legend’s sales and keep pace with their peers.

But, you might say, surely market share isn’t everything. Why couldn’t Legend be content within the niche they had built for themselves? The answer comes down not to hubris but to the harsh realities of game distribution in the 1990s. Games of the type that Legend made still needed to exist as physical products at that time. (Although there was a thriving shareware scene taking advantage of digital distribution, the dial-up online access that was the universal norm could support only small, multimedia-light titles — not the assets-heavy, CD-filling monstrosities of Legend.) Physical products required physical warehousing, physical distribution, and, most critically of all, precious physical shelf space inside brick-and-mortar stores. Here was the real rub. A niche product like a Legend adventure game was a hard sell to a retail purchasing manager who could instead fill the space it would occupy with the likes of a 7th Guest, Myst, DOOM, or Wing Commander III. In short, Legend’s modest product line was in danger of drowning in the flood of flashier, better-advertised games. All of the quality in the world would avail them nothing if they could no longer get their games into the hands of their fans.

So, after the book publisher Random House was inspired by Legend’s literary bona fides to invest $2.5 million in the company in the summer of 1994, Verdu and Bates decided to use a substantial chunk of that money to make a play for the big time. They would make a game set in a node-based, 3D-modelled environment much like that of Myst, and hire a name actor beloved by science-fiction fandom to star in filmed “full-motion-video” sequences, just like Wing Commander III had done. But, because they were Legend, they would invest all of this trend-chasing with meticulous attention to detail in terms of world-building, plot, and puzzle design, and would respect their player’s intelligence and time in a way that too few of their superficially similar peers were doing. What else could Legend do? They were just made that way.

Mike Verdu wrote and designed the game in question, which went by the name of Mission Critical, and shepherded it through every phase of its development. I recently talked with him at some length about the project, and I’ve elected to present this article to a large extent as his own oral history of it. This seemed to me the most appropriate approach, given that he’s more than articulate enough in his own right, and given how his recollections provide such a fascinating picture of how the nuts and bolts of a game came together during the much-ballyhooed era of Siliwood — that semi-mythical convergence of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

For me, full-motion video wasn’t so much the imperative. It was creating the next generation of adventure gaming using immersive environments. With a text adventure, the world is really in your head; it’s created in your mind by the words that we put in front of you. We added illustrations to the picture that the words formed in your mind, but I always dreamed of actually putting you in the world, having it become a fully immersive experience.

So, the primary driver for me was immersiveness. Full-motion video was a cool thing that you got because you had CD-ROM as a storage medium. I had long dreamed of creating a world that you could actually inhabit. The world would feel alive. We wouldn’t have to tell you what it was like, we could show you. That’s where CD-ROM met the state of the art in 3D. We could use AutoCAD and those sorts of tools to deliver a world at a very high level of fidelity through pre-rendered segments. The creative spirit that guided me was bringing a fully realized 3D world to life, and then telling a story in it. That was just delicious. I loved that challenge, couldn’t wait to take it on.

Mission Critical stands today as a landmark in Legend’s history in more ways than one. Legend’s first and, as it would transpire, only serious flirtation with the full-motion-video trend, it would also prove the very last Legend game that was entirely original to them, not being based on any preexisting literary or gaming license. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t derivative in another way: it’s a military space opera of a stripe that will be familiar to readers of David Weber, with some Big Ideas almost worthy of a Vernor Vinge hidden behind its façade of outer-space adventure aboard the Lexington, an interstellar ship of the line in the year 2134.

The Lexington is a combatant in an Earthly world war which has spilled well beyond the boundaries of our solar system. The backstory begins with the evolution of the United Nations into a tyrannical “world government” by the late 21st century. (The political connotations of this setup in the context of our conspiracy-theory-plagued contemporary world are perhaps unfortunate…) Out of fear of a forthcoming technological Singularity, the UN orders a halt to all forms of research and development, opting for a world that is frozen in amber over one where computer brains replace human ones. Feeling that “the cure is worse than the disease,” the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Singapore, along with all of the planet’s nascent space colonies, rebel, and are promptly targeted for “brutal suppression” by the UN. The Lexington, naturally, fights on the side of the freedom-loving pro-techologists, who call themselves the Alliance of Free States.

The game’s backstory is presented in a documentary/propaganda film called Why We Fight, obviously modeled on Frank Capra’s classic World War II productions of the same name.

I had a personal passion for science fiction — not a surprise, given my Gateway games — and had been doing a lot of reading about where technology was at and the Singularity and the early ponderings of what would happen when artificial intelligence surpassed human intelligence. What would that mean? Would it result in an alien form of life, or would it be anthropomorphic in some way because its creators would endow it with human qualities? What would it mean for humanity to reckon with the emergence of artificial intelligence? Would it tear us apart or bring us together? That was the beating heart of the story I wanted to tell.

Then I combined it with a love of ships and the Navy and sailing. I’ve been fascinated by ships forever. I used to draw them and collect models of them and was always thrilled to go down to a port and see the ships there.

I tried to make the science behind the ship’s systems as real as possible. I did a lot of thinking about what actual combat in space might be like. It was certainly not going to be managed by humans; it would be managed by drones. The ships are really just drone carriers. They send the drones out to resolve the battle, and the humans, once the battle starts, are just sitting there going, “Oh, God, I hope this goes our way!”

All of these ingredients came together in a creative stew. But then, there were lots of constraints imposed by the medium. You couldn’t put other characters in there. It had to be a sterile environment, like you saw in The 7th Guest and some of the other earlier products in this space. My answer was to put the other characters in the full-motion-video sequences. Your emotional connections would be made in the opening sequence, and then other video snippets that you would bump into. But it was still pretty thin gruel. A lot of games from this era feel very empty because you couldn’t put other characters in these kinds of environments.

So, that was a major constraint. I was going to have this really cool ship filled with drones that could fight battles, but there couldn’t be anybody else on it. So, there had to be a fictional reason why you were by yourself. But that also is very heroic because, if it’s just you, and you turn the tide of an important event in history, that’s a nice character arc. And there is some artistic resonance to one human alone on a ship light years from anyone else. What that feels like, the lack of connection, the sense that it’s all riding on you.

So, yeah, the story had to be thought-through in a way we had not had to do with previous Legend games, just because, like in a movie, every scene had to be designed, scripted, and then fed to the people who were actually doing all of the rendering. We had very little ability to mess with the story after it had been shaped. That constraint was unfamiliar to me because we had been able to tweak previous Legend games all the way down to the end. It was just writing code — change responses, change puzzles, write some new text, maybe commission a couple of new pieces of 2D art. This time, everything had to be down well in advance, then it was locked down. So, I’d never done so much up-front planning on a game before.

It was a lot of work. I worked harder on that game than I’ve ever worked on anything. The team slept under their desks, worked through the night and into the next day.

The player’s situation is set up in a bravura ten-minute movie that opens the game, filling most of the first of its three CDs. The Lexington is on a beyond-top-secret mission to a planet called Persephone, escorting a science vessel known as the Jericho. But it seems that the Alliance’s security has failed: the ships are met there by a much larger UN cruiser. The Lexington‘s drones are easily defeated, leaving it and the Jericho helpless. At this juncture, the Lexington‘s Captain Dayna, who is played by none other than Michael Dorn — the Klingon Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation — concocts a clever if suicidal plan for preventing the logs of the Jericho, which give the full details of its mission, from falling into enemy hands. He surrenders to his opposite number, and makes arrangements for the crews of both of the vessels in his task force to fly over to the UN cruiser in shuttles. But then he does two things the UN captain does not expect. First, he plants a nuclear bomb in one of the shuttles that will blow up and destroy the UN cruiser and everyone aboard, along with all of the other shuttles and everyone aboard them, as soon as it enters the cruiser’s docking bay. And then he leaves one crew member behind on the Lexington — one person not being worth the UN captain’s bother when he scans the ship to make sure Dayna is abiding by their agreement — to hopefully find a way to complete the original mission alone. That crew member, of course, is you the player.

To say that Mission Critical‘s opening movie owes a “considerable” debt to Star Trek would be a considerable understatement. Meanwhile Captain Dayna’s, shall we say, unorthodox tactics serve to illustrate yet again that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

Michael Dorn and the other actors received top billing in the credits of a game that absorbed at most a few days of their time, while the names of the people who worked for months on end and slept under their desks came in smaller lettering much later in the credits sequence. Such was the strange reality of Siliwood — which, come to think of it, is not that different from standard Hollywood practice.

There was a trend in gaming at the time to lean into celebrities; it was part of this convergence with Hollywood. I knew that I was telling an entirely original story, that we were making one of the biggest bets in the company’s history. I had a sense that we needed a hook that would give a customer reading about the game or looking at it on a shelf some sense of familiarity — a brand that they could latch onto. I knew the market was very crowded with games that looked somewhat like this. So, I thought to cast an actor who would have a resonance with the story we were telling. People would think about the actor in that context, and say, “Oh, I get what kind of story this is going to be.” I was trying to come up with a shorthand way of communicating what it was all about.

We knew absolutely nothing about film making, but I did work with an artist named Kathleen Bober, who had all sorts of connections in the theater scene in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and with a number of video-production companies, including one called Flight Three, which did commercials and other television productions. She and I did a lot of the initial explorations. How do you hire an actor? How does it work? How do you actually do a video shoot? Who can we hire to stage the production? How much does it all cost?

I knew something about dealing with agents because we had dealt with literary agents. So, reaching out to see if we could find an actor who felt right for the role, who had a brand compatible with the story we wanted to tell, was weirdly the least challenging part of it all. The much more challenging part was finding a director and a production facility, learning how to shoot in green screen and composite in environments. Kathleen put together a team for that. The director’s name was Peter Mullett. We brought him on, then worked with Flight Three to create a plan and a budget and a script. I wrote the script; all the painful dialog is my fault. The filming was done in a suburb of Baltimore. We only flew Michael Dorn out for a day or two for the opening movie. It really was that short. Then all of the other little segments took another day or two. The prep for it all and then the post-production took all the time; that was months.

My entire career at that point was just learning, drinking in how to do all kinds of new stuff. I just saw this as one more thing to learn.

When the opening movie finishes and the game proper begins, you find yourself standing in a corridor of the wounded Lexington, observing the world around you from a first-person view. The latter in itself isn’t unusual for Legend; all of their games prior to Mission Critical use the same view. Yet a difference in kind quickly becomes apparent. Whereas the older Legend games, in keeping with the company’s roots in text adventures, use a room-based approach to navigation, Mission Critical‘s is based on nodes within a larger contiguous environment. Thus you can now spin around to view your surroundings in any of four directions. And instead of using pixel art, the views have been pre-rendered in a 3D modeler. Legend, in other words, has seemingly gone full Myst.

You encounter a series of intricate mechanical puzzles as you begin to explore this environment. The first third of the game comes to revolve around repairing the Lexington enough to make it reasonably space-worthy and even combat-worthy again. In the course of doing so, you learn about the lives and personalities of your late fellow crew members by rummaging through their personal effects, and also identify the traitor who betrayed your mission to the UN. Again, the Myst comparisons are unavoidable; the Miller brothers’ game uses much the same kind of environmental storytelling.

There were a bunch of Myst-style games, including some that have faded from memory. CD-ROM enabled a certain kind of production, and then there were a whole bunch of games that seemed similar. It was like this brief emergence of a genre. Then the state of the art moved on, and people figured out how to tell more character-based stories.

I wanted to put real puzzles in one of these games. My sense with these games was that the player interactions were really basic. Legend was known for making great puzzles; I wanted to put great puzzles in one of these games. I wanted to make a true Legend adventure game that just happened to be within this amazing immersive environment. I would like to think that what distinguishes Mission Critical from some of those other products — and may actually have limited its commercial potential, frankly — was the depth and sophistication of the puzzles. The puzzles in this game are serious, hardcore adventure-game puzzles. It was my attempt to make this very rich experience, and not have it be just manipulation of objects. That was my way of differentiating Mission Critical from Myst and other products of that type.

I might quibble with some of Mike’s characterizations of Myst; whatever the design sins of its many imitators, Myst‘s own worlds are scrupulously consistent within the game’s fantastic premise, and its puzzles are quite rigorously logical. Still, there’s no question that Mission Critical boasts a much richer, deeper environment, if perhaps a more prosaic and less evocative one, and that its custom engine admits of forms of interactivity that the simple off-the-shelf software tools employed by the Miller brothers and many of those who followed them couldn’t hope to match. Myst and many other games of its lineage don’t even have player inventories; this may lend them a degree of minimalist elegance in aesthetic terms, but is profoundly limiting in terms of gameplay.

Mike Verdu was obviously aiming for something else. The Lexington is not just vividly but realistically realized once one accepts the black-box premise of faster-than-light travel. Its systems work in a consistent, thought-through way, with nary a gratuitous slider puzzle nor instance of awkward self-referential humor to be found. Anyone annoyed by the artificiality of most adventure-game puzzles needs to play this game. One might go so far as to say that the Lexington itself is Mission Critical‘s most impressive single achievement. The game’s commitment to the lived reality of the ship remains complete from first to last.

I did a stint in defense contracting where I worked on Navy projects, including a lot of submarine-related projects. If you see any verisimilitude — a feeling that the world of the Lexington has some degree of reality to it — that’s me drawing on experiences of visiting Navy yards and tramping around submarines and reading lots and lots of documents. The Lexington is really a submarine in space. I drew on my experience to make it feel like a lived-in ship.

Your efforts to repair the Lexington are lent an added sense of urgency when you learn that another UN force is on its way to Persephone to investigate the fate of the first one. Dealing with it comes to occupy the middle third of the game. Space combat is implemented in the form of a surprisingly well-realized real-time strategy game that’s embedded within the adventure game. While the graphics don’t rival the likes of its standalone contemporary Warcraft II, much less a modern release in the genre, I find that it defies a long tradition of dubious adventure mini-games by being genuinely engaging. As usual, Legend’s design instincts are good; instead of plunging you into a fight to the death within a mini-game interface you’ve never seen before, they introduce it through a series of training simulations that get you up to speed within the framework of the story.

What you’re seeing there is my love of strategy gaming shining through. It’s probably no surprise that I went on to make a bunch of real-time-strategy games after my adventure games because my two great loves are storytelling and strategy. I grew up playing Avalon Hill board games; my dad taught me to play Tactics II and Afrika Korps and Squad Leader. Then I played a lot of the first generation of computer strategy games. I dearly, desperately wanted to make my own strategy game at some point. This game seemed to offer the opportunity to put in a little taste of strategy that would feel very natural. So, why not? Bob Bates was sort of horrified that I wanted to put an entirely different genre of experience into an adventure game. The compromise we reached was a button you could hit to just have it resolved. You never really had to do the strategy game.

Mark Poesch, the engineer who did most of the coding on Mission Critical, spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to build it out. We wanted to bring to life this notion that the battles were fought with drones, and also that fighting in 3D is very different from fighting in 2D. Almost all outer-space strategy games take place on a plane. Those games like Homeworld that tried to introduce a third dimension found that it’s very hard to convey the sense of fighting in 3D space.

In the last third of the game, we shift gears dramatically once again. Now you finally make your way down to the surface of the planet Persephone to find out what the science team aboard the Jericho was so interested in. It’s here that our relatively well-grounded military-science-fiction tale spirals off into Vernor Vinge territory. You encounter an almost godlike race of multidimensional “electronic life forms” who send you hopscotching over vast distances in time and space. The last of the Myst comparisons fall away, as Mission Critical seems to lose interest in immersive environmental storytelling and becomes a much more typical Legend adventure game, full of character interactions and gallons and gallons of plot coming at you thick and fast. Instead of a single ship, you now hold the fate of the entire human race and, indeed, much of the multiverse in your hands.

This is the most problematic part of the game in many ways. The ideas being explored are certainly audacious, for all that they aren’t strikingly original for anyone versed in recent trends in literary science fiction at the time of Mission Critical‘s creation. Yet the contrast with what came before remains jarring, as the game turns into an exponentially less granular experience. It used to take a couple of dozen clicks to repair a breach in the hull of a spaceship; now it takes one or two to change the destiny of billions of sentient beings. My first instinct, born from researching the development history of countless other games, was that constraints of time and money had forced Legend to put the game on fast-forward when the project was already in midstream; Mission Critical would hardly be the first adventure game whose early environments are far more fully realized than its later ones. Mike Verdu confirmed that there was some of that going on, but also revealed that it was more planned and less improvised than I first suspected.

There was supposed to be a sense of increasing momentum, of the sense of scale increasing, the stakes increasing… that was a conscious decision. But you’re right that my ambition was too great for my budget and my schedule. I really hoped the latter part of the game would have the same production values and 3D assets as the first part. Instead things move more and more toward shorthand as you move toward the end.

I came to this upfront because we had to lay everything out then. Do I tell the story I want to tell and scrimp a bit on the assets and the fidelity toward the end? Or do I limit the ambition of the story? I decided I didn’t want to tell a story that was just about wandering around a spaceship fixing things. I made a bet that the first part of the game would ground the player in the world through fidelity and verisimilitude and immersion. Then they would forgive us for moving to a more shorthand sort of storytelling toward the end. Because at that point, what really matters is the story. You’re either hooked by the story or you’re not. If you are, you’re probably going to push on through, and what you’ll remember are the big ideas and the resolution more than the fact that Persephone was not rendered with the same level of fidelity as the Lexington and our cool AI environments were just paintings.

Legend had once hoped to release Mission Critical in the summer of 1995, but that date was eventually pushed back to November. It appeared at that time simultaneously with Shannara, their other game for the year. Neither was an outright commercial failure, but neither provided the commercial paradigm shift Legend had been looking for either.

Mission Critical didn’t sell a ton  — maybe 70,000 copies, which meant that it probably broke even at best. Random House was disappointed. The hope had been that it would catapult us out of that range of 30,000 to 100,000 in sales. But we spent three times the budget and got essentially the same result. In that sense, it was a failure.

Yet Mission Critical, despite being so thoroughly of its time in terms of technology and approach, would prove oddly enduring in the memories of both its principal creator and the select group of gamers whom it touched. This lumpy amalgamation of full-motion video, Myst-style pre-rendered environments, real-time strategy, and the traditional Legend approach to interactive storytelling is an artifact from a time when games were not yet all sorted on the basis of gameplay genre alone, when a designer could begin with a narrative experience in mind and just go from there, employing whatever approach seemed best suited to bring his imaginative conceptions to life. Mike Verdu would go on to a high-profile career after Legend at companies like Electronic Arts, Zynga, Facebook, and now Netflix, but he would never again get the opportunity to be a gaming auteur like he was on Mission Critical.

It’s the thing I’ve created that’s lasted the longest. The story seemed to really strike a chord with some people. I would get emails from people saying I’d blown their mind, or it was the most immersive thing they’d ever played. When it reached somebody, it really reached them. But that wasn’t a huge number of people. As an artist, if you reach a small number of people in a profound way, is that better than reaching a million people in a very shallow way? Because this was the game I created that reached a few people in a profound way. The rest of the games I’ve created, especially in the latter part of my career, reached in some cases tens of millions of people, but in a light-touch kind of way.

From a creator’s standpoint, Mission Critical is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever made. It astounds me, but people still play it. I’d always thought of computer games as an ephemeral medium — something you create that quickly becomes obsolete because the advance of technology makes it literally unplayable. People can experience it for a brief window of time, then all they have is their memories. I had resigned myself to that. But it astounds me now that people are still playing the game and posting reviews. This is a much more enduring medium than I thought.

I’ve been delighted that Mission Critical and some of the other Legend games have stood the test of time.

(Sources: This article is drawn in its virtual entirety from the recollections of Mike Verdu. I thank him for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk with me, and wish him all the best in his latest gig with Netflix.

Mission Critical is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com. It comes highly recommended.)

 
 

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Shannara (or, Bookware Mark 2)

Book publishers, book authors, and booksellers first discovered computer software in 1983. Spurred by the commercial success of early text adventures like Zork and The Hobbit and by the rhetoric surrounding them, which described the new frontier of text-based digital interactive storytelling as the beginning of a whole new era in literature, publishers like Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Random House made significant investments in the field, even as authors from Isaac Asimov to Roger Zelazny signed on for book-to-text-adventure conversions. Meanwhile B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the two largest bookstore chains in the United States, set aside substantial areas in their stores for software. (Ditto W.H. Smith in Britain.) Those shelves were soon groaning with “computer novels,” “interactive novels,” and “living literature.” Well-known books in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, along with mysteries, thrillers, horror novellas, comic novels… all became computer games. Even the venerable likes of William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen, and Robert Louis Stevenson appeared in shiny new interactive editions. A future American Poet Laureate wrote a text adventure, and Simon & Schuster came within a whisker of buying Infocom, the king of what the latter now preferred to call “interactive fiction” rather than mere text adventures.

This era of “bookware” was as short-lived as it was heady. In 1983, contracts were signed and groundwork was laid; in 1984, bookware products began reaching the public in large numbers; in 1985, with only Infocom’s adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy having lived up to its maker’s commercial expectations, book publishers began nervously formulating their exit strategies; in 1986, the last stragglers reached the market almost unremarked and bookware passed into history. With computer graphics and sound rapidly improving, game makers now set off to hunt the chimera of the interactive movie instead of the interactive book. It seemed that bookware had been nothing more than an exercise in faulty metaphors.

But then, exactly one decade after the beginning of the first bookware boom, it all started up again, as many of the same big names from last time around woke up to the potential of computer software all over again. Instead of parser-driven text adventures, however, they were now entranced by the notion of the CD-ROM-based electronic book: a work of non-fiction or fiction that was designed to be read non-linearly, for which purpose it was strewn with associative hyperlinks, and that incorporated photographs, illustrations, diagrams, sound effects, music, and video clips to augment the text wherever it seemed appropriate. In the face of all these affordances, some believed that the days of the paper-based book must surely be numbered. The big book publishers themselves weren’t so sure, but were terrified of being left behind by something they didn’t quite understand. “Everyone knows this business [of multimedia CD-ROMs] is potentially enormous,” said Alberto Vitale, Random House’s hard-driving CEO. “But what kind of shape it will take, how big it will actually be, and how it will evolve remains a very big question mark.” Laurence Kirshbaum of Warner Books was blunter: “I don’t know if there’s the smell of crisis in the air, but there should be. Publishers should be sleeping badly these days. They have to be prepared to compete with software giants like Bill Gates.”

The book publishers coped with the uncertainty in the way that big companies often do: by throwing their weight and money around in an attempt to bludgeon their way into continued relevance. And none of them did so more energetically than Alberto Vitale’s Random House. In 1993, they signed a high-profile deal with Broderbund Software to produce multimedia versions of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s books, sending the smaller company’s share price soaring from $3.75 to $41 and sending a sum of money “well into the seven figures” to the late author’s widow. They also invested in Humongous Entertainment, a publisher of children’s edutainment founded by the Lucasfilm Games veteran Ron Gilbert, to create a series of “Junior Encyclopedias.” They formed their own software-distribution arm, under the tech-trendy portmanteau appellation of RandomSoft, to move the products of their partners and friends into bookstores. And, in the summer of 1994, in a deal that represented the most obvious throwback yet to the previous era of bookware, they invested $2.5 million in Legend Entertainment.

The investment didn’t come out of the blue: the two companies had worked together before. In 1991, Legend had sought and acquired a license to make a pair of games based on Random House author Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. That deal had been followed by two more, to make games based on Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate series. Legend, in other words, had been making bookware games for Random House on their own initiative since before the latter even knew they wanted such things. Now that that realization had dawned, Random House’s investment would serve to bind Legend closer to them and ensure that more of their books could become well-executed games. They already had a first candidate in mind: the bestselling Shannara series of high-fantasy novels.



The Sword of Shannara, the first book in the series, had appeared in 1977, one of the early heralds of a post-Dungeons & Dragons boom in fantasy fiction that would soon cause the fantasy genre to utterly eclipse its traditional sibling genre of science fiction in sales. The author of the 700-plus-page epic was Terry Brooks, a 33-year-old attorney who had spent the last ten years working on it intermittently in his spare time. The very first novel to be published by the new science-fiction and fantasy imprint Del Rey Books, it was a huge success right from the start; it sold 125,000 copies in its first month and became the first fantasy novel to make the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperbacks. But at the same time, it was savaged by even much of the genre-fiction establishment as little more than bad Lord of the Rings fan fiction. The prominent editor and critic Lin Carter, for example, pronounced it “the single most cold-blooded, complete ripoff of another book that I have [ever] read.” From a further remove in time, the J.R.R. Tolkien expert John Lennard can describe it only slightly more kindly today as “the first of a number of overt imitations of The Lord of the Rings that are, however popular, manifestly inferior works, but testify to the taste for [the] high and extended fantasy epic that Tolkien created.”

As Lennard’s recent dismissal of Shannara suggests, the combination of big sales and deep-seated critical antipathy has clung to the series right to the present day, as has Terry Brooks’s status as Public Offender #1 in the rogue’s gallery of Tolkien ripoff artists. Shannara is, the scoffers say, a simulacrum of the surface elements of The Lord of the Rings — warriors and wizards, magical swords and apocalyptic battles — without any of its thematic depth or philosophical resonance, a charge which even Brooks’s fans must find difficult to entirely refute. On the other hand, the same description applies to thousands of other works of fantasy in book, movie, and game form, so why single this one out so particularly? Brooks himself was and is by all indications a decent sort, who loves his work and has few illusions about his place in the literary pantheon. “I don’t have any desire to write the great American novel,” he said in 1986. “Why experiment with something that’s an unknown quantity when I’m comfortable working with fantasy?” He noted forthrightly in 1995 that he wasn’t exactly catering to the most refined literary tastes: “I think you are most intense in your reading habits when you’re in your teenage years. Magic is ‘real,’ your hormones are raging, and you’re more open. When I’m writing, I’m always writing to that group of people.” For all that I may have no personal use for the likes of a Terry Brooks novel at this stage of my life, I and every other critic should keep in mind the wise words of Edmund Wilson before rushing to condemn his books too lustily: “If other persons say they respond, and derive from doing so pleasure or profit, we must take them at their word.”

Brooks himself was not a gamer in 1994, but his twelve-year-old son was: “I enjoy watching him,” he said at the time. He hit it off wonderfully with Bob Bates of Legend at their first meeting, and was excited enough to describe this partnership as the potential beginning of a whole new, trans-media era for the Shannara series: “I like the idea that I will continue to write the books and others will work on projects which surround the timeline, characters, and settings I’ve established.”



It sounded like an excellent plan to everyone involved. But alas, Shannara‘s computer debut would turn into a “troubled” project, the first of that infamous breed of game in Legend’s relatively drama-free history up to that point. It was plagued by communications problems and a mismatched set of expectations on the part of Legend and Corey and Lori Ann Cole, the game’s out-of-house design team. But, having talked at length to both Bob Bates and Corey Cole about what went down, I can confidently say that no one involved is angry or vindictive about any of it today; “sad” would be a more accurate adjective. Everyone involved was genuinely trying to make his or her own vision of Shannara into the best game it could possibly be. And, as we’ll see in due course, the end result actually succeeds pretty darn well in spite of itself.

The Coles first came to work with Legend due to a pressing lack of in-house designers capable of taking on the Shannara project. At the time the Random House deal was consummated, Bob Bates was working on an “ethics training game” for the American Department of Justice, an odd but profitable sideline from Legend’s main business of making adventure games, while Steve Meretzky had recently moved on to start his own software studio. Of the three trainee designers who had made Gateway a few years before — a project consciously conceived as a sort of designer boot camp — Glen Dahlgren was finishing up Death Gate, Mike Verdu was in the planning stages of a non-licensed game called Mission Critical, and Michael Lindner was planning a sequel to the non-Legend game Star Control II. Programmers were in similarly short supply. Legend was a company with more food on its plate than it could eat, which was definitely better than the opposite situation, but a problem nonetheless. They wanted very much to please Terry Brooks and Random House by making a great Shannara game in a timely fashion, but they just didn’t have the bodies to hand to do so. So, they decided to look for outside help.

Bob Bates had met the Coles for the first time before Legend even existed, at a dinner hosted by Computer Gaming World editor Johnny L. Wilson during the late 1980s. He liked them personally, and was pleased for them when the Quest for Glory series which they were creating for Sierra did well. He started to talk seriously with them about doing a game for Legend in early 1994, when their future with Sierra was looking more and more uncertain in light of that company’s push into bigger-budget interactive movies starring real actors. Within weeks of that conversation, the worst happened: Quest for Glory V was cancelled in its early design phase and the Coles were told that their services were no longer required by Sierra.

Thus when Random House strongly suggested that Legend make a Shannara game, it seemed like kismet to everyone concerned. Not only were the Coles highly respected adventure-game designers, but specialists in the fantasy breed of same. Still, the source material initially “gave us pause,” admits Corey.

Both Lori and I had read The Sword of Shannara in college, and we weren’t impressed. We considered it a blatant Lord of the Rings copy. Sad to say, we enjoyed both Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings more than Terry Brooks.

However, we decided to keep our minds open and reread The Sword of Shannara. My revised opinion was that the first one-third of the book was a blatant ripoff, but after that, the book delved into new territory and became its own work. We went on to read The Elfstones of Shannara [the second book in the series] and agreed that it had merit. Our belief is that Brooks started out as a beginning writer thinking the way to make a book as successful as The Lord of the Rings was to essentially write the same book. But as he went along, he developed his own authorial voice and became a much stronger writer.

Terry Brooks gave the Coles his all-important nod of approval after they met with him and showed themselves to be familiar with his work. “There’s the matter of losing control,” he conceded, “but when I talked to these folks and realized how much they cared about the books and the characters, I felt better.” The Coles proposed slotting an original story between the first and second books in the series — for here there was, as Bob Bates puts it, “a generational gap”: “the hero of the second book was the grandson of the hero of the first book.”

The hero of the Coles’ game, then, would be the son of the hero of the first book. The game would take place about ten years after said book’s conclusion, casting the player in the role of Jak Ohmsford, son of Shea. (The Ohmsfords and their fellow residents of the bucolic Shady Vale are the equivalent of Tolkien’s hobbits of the Shire). Jak would learn from the wizard Allanon (Gandalf) that Brona (Sauron) was feeling his oats once again and was up to no good. The quest that followed would take Jak and the party of companions he would acquire across the length and breadth of Brooks’s well-developed if less than breathtakingly original fantasy world, at minimal cost to the continuity of the extant novels.

The Coles were friendly with a fellow named Bob Heitman, who had worked for years at Sierra as one of the company’s best software engineers, until he had left with Sierra’s chief financial officer Edmond Heinbockel and Police Quest designer Jim Walls to form Tsunami Media, a somewhat underwhelming attempt to do what Sierra was already doing. (Tsunami was also another player in the second bookware boom, creating a pair of poorly received games based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld series.) Now, Heitman had cut ties with Tsunami as well and set up his own software house, which he called Triton Interactive. Between them, the Coles and Triton should be able to make the Shannara game using Legend’s technology, with only light supervision from Bob Bates and company — which was good, considering that Legend was located in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chantilly, Virginia, the Coles and Triton three time zones away in rural Oakhurst, California. The project began in earnest in the fall of 1994. All parties agreed that the Shannara computer game would be finished within one year — i.e., in time for the Christmas of 1995 — for a budget of $362,000.

The problems began to crop up on several separate fronts soon after the new year of 1995. Heitman could be abrasive; Corey liked to say that “some people do not suffer fools gladly, but Bob Heitman doesn’t suffer them at all.” Bob Bates, whom Heitman may or may not have considered a fool, was unimpressed with his counterpart’s shoot-from-the-hip way of running his development studio. Following a visit to Oakhurst in February, his assessment of Triton’s performance was not good:

1) No one is really taking charge of project management.

2) The animation requirement is up to 60 man-weeks, and they haven’t been able to hire any artists yet.

3) One background artist we supplied simply isn’t producing.

4) They’re not segmenting text from code, so there’s a big localization problem coming.

5) Internal personality problems are plaguing the team.

Bob Bates was also worried that Triton might use the software technology Legend was sharing with them in other companies’ projects, and almost equally worried that other companies’ code might sneak into Shannara with potential legal repercussions, given the chaos that reigned in their offices.

With tempers flaring, the Coles stepped in to try to calm the waters. They formed their own company, which they called FAR Productions, after Flying Aardvark Ranch, their nickname for their house in Oakhurst. Officially, FAR took over responsibility for the project, but the arrangement was something of a polite fiction in reality: FAR leased office space from Triton and continued to work with largely the same team of people. Nevertheless, the arrangement did serve to paper over the worst of the conflicts.

Meanwhile Bob Bates had other issues with the Coles themselves — issues which had less to do with questions of competence or even personality and more to do with design philosophy. The Coles had enjoyed near-complete freedom to make the Quest for Glory games exactly as they wanted them, and were unused to working from someone else’s brief. They wanted to make their Shannara game an heir to their previous series in the sense of including a smattering of CRPG elements, including a combat engine. Bob Bates, a self-described “adventure-game purist,” saw little need for them, but, perhaps unwisely, never put his foot down to absolutely reject their inclusion. Instead they remained provisionally included — included “for now,” as Bob wrote in February — as the weeks continued to roll by. In July, with the ship date just a few months away, combat was still incomplete and thus untested on even the most superficial level. “This would have been a good time to drop it,” admits Bob, “but we did not.”

While the one source of tension arose from a feature that the Coles dearly wanted and Bob Bates found fairly pointless, the other was to some extent the opposite story. From the very beginning, Bob had wanted the game to include an “emotion-laden scene” near the climax that would force the player to make a truly difficult ethical decision, of the sort with no clear-cut right or wrong answer. The Coles had agreed, but without a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of Lori, the primary writer of the pair. Considering Bob’s cherished ethical dilemma little more than a dubious attempt to be “edgy,” she proved slow to follow through. This caused Bob to nag the Coles incessantly about the subject, until Lori finally wrote a scene in which the player must decide the fate of Shella, the daughter of another character from the first novel and a companion in Jak’s adventures. (We’ll return to the details and impact of that scene shortly.)

But the ironic source of the biggest single schedule killer was, as Corey Cole puts it, having too few constraints rather than too many: “A mentor once told me that the hardest thing [to do] is to come up with an idea, or build something, with no constraints.” Asked by Bob Bates what they might be able to do to make the game even better if they had an extra $50,000 to hand, the Coles, after scratching their heads for a bit, suggested adding some pre-rendered 3D cut scenes. “If I had known then what I found out by the end of the project,” says Corey, “I’d have said, ‘No, thanks, we’ll finish what we started.’ I ended up sleeping at the office, since each render required hand-tweaking and took about four hours.”

Still more problems arose as the months went by. The father of the art director had a heart attack, and his son was forced to cut his working hours in order to care for him. Another artist — the same one who “simply isn’t producing” in the memo extract above — finally confessed to having terminal cancer; he wished to continue working, and no one involved was heartless enough not to honor that request, but his productivity was inevitably affected.

Legend had agreed to handle quality control themselves from the East Coast. But in these days before broadband Internet, testing a game of 500 MB or more from such a distance wasn’t easy. Bob Bates:

All development work had to cease while a CD was being burnt. Then it was Fed-Exed across the country, and then we would boot it. Sometimes it just didn’t work, or if it did work, there would be a fatal bug early in the program. The turnaround cycle on testing was greatly reducing our efficiency. By the time testers reported bugs, the developers believed they had already fixed them. Sometimes this was true, sometimes it wasn’t.

On October 2, 1995, about five weeks before the game absolutely, positively needed to be finished if it was to reach store shelves in time for Christmas, Bob Bates delivered another damning verdict after his latest trip to Oakhurst:

* There is no doc for the rest of the handling in the game. [This cryptic shorthand refers to “object-on-object handling,” a constant bone of contention. Bob perpetually felt like the game wasn’t interactive enough, and didn’t do enough to acknowledge the player’s actions when she tried reasonable but incorrect or unnecessary things. Lori Ann Cole, says Corey, “felt that would distract players from the meaningful interactions; she refused to do that work as a waste of her time, and potentially harmful to her vision of the game.”]

* The final game section is not coded.

* Combat is not done.

* Lots of screen flashes and pops.

* Adventurer’s Journal is not done.

* Too many long sequences of non-interaction.

* Too many places where author’s intent is not clear.

* Map events (major transitions) are not done.

* Combat art is blurred.

* Final music hasn’t arrived from composer.

As Bob saw it, there was only one alternative. He flew Corey Cole and one other Oakhurst-based programmer to Virginia and started them on a “death march” alongside whatever Legend personnel he could spare. Legend was struggling to finish up Mission Critical at the same time, meaning they were suddenly crunching two games simultaneously. “The fall of 1995 was really enjoyable at Legend,” Bob says wryly. “We coded like hell until the thirteenth of November. We hand-flew the master to the duplicators and the game came out Thanksgiving week. Irreparable damage [was done] to the team. We have not worked together since.” The final cost of the game wound up being $528,000.



The scale of Legend’s great Problem Project is commensurable with the company’s size and industry footprint. The development history of Shannara isn’t an epic that stretches on for years and years, like LucasArts’s The Dig; still less is it a tale of over-the-top excess, like Ion Storm’s Daikatana. Shannara didn’t even ship notably late by typical industry standards. Still, everything is relative: as a small company struggling to survive in an industry dominated more and more by a handful of big entities, Legend simply couldn’t afford to let a project drag on for years and years. In their position, every delay represented an existential threat, and outright cancellation of a project into which they’d invested significant money was unthinkable. For those inside Legend, the drama surrounding Shannara was all too real.

But the Shannara story does have an uncommon ending for tales of this stripe: the game that resulted is… not so bad at all, actually. It’s not without its flaws, but it mostly overcomes them to leave a good taste in the mouth when all is said and done. In the interest of being a thorough critic, however, let me be sure to address said flaws, which are exactly the ones you would expect to find after reading about the game’s development.

One might say that Shannara is at its worst when it’s trying to be a Quest for Glory. Lacking the time and resources to make the game into a full-fledged CRPG/adventure hybrid, but determined not to abandon what had become their design trademark, the Coles settled for a half-baked combat engine that’s unmoored from the rest of the game and ultimately, as Bob Bates noted above, rather pointless. With no system of experience points or levels being implemented, you earn nothing from fighting monsters, even as the whole exercise further fails to justify its existence by being any fun in its own right. There are the seeds of some interesting player choices in the combat engine, but they needed much more work to result in something compelling. Legend’s last-minute solution to the problem during that hellish final crunch was to dial the difficulty way, way back, thereby trivializing the combat without eliminating it. Such compromises serve no one well in the end.

In the name of fairness, I should note that Corey Cole offers a different argument for the combat being there at all and taking the form it does — one that I don’t find hugely convincing on the face of it, but to each his own:

The “pointless combat” is very much as planned in the design. It’s an anti-war point that fits closely into the Sword of Shannara zeitgeist, and which we reinforced in the game text: there are no winners in war (or in battle). The enemy forces are vast, and our hopefully realistic characters are not superheroes. Their object is to traverse the map while fighting as little as possible. When they do fight, it is risky and saps the party’s strength. Think of the hobbits vs. the ringwraiths atop Amon Sul (Weathertop). They had no chance. That’s Jak and Shella’s situation against the forces of Brona. The “win condition” is escaping with their lives.

I must confess that I struggle to identify much of an “anti-war point” in a series of books which revels in an endless series of apocalyptic wars, but I’ve only skimmed the surface of Terry Brook’s huge oeuvre. Perhaps I’m missing something.

Bob Bates’s own hobby horse — his big ethical dilemma — doesn’t fare much better in my opinion. Near the end of the game, Jak’s companion Shella is mortally wounded by an evil shifter.  (Shifters are Brooks’s version of Tolkien’s ringwraiths). If allowed to expire on her own, her soul will be claimed by Brona. Another of Jak’s companions can heal her using the magical Elfstones he carries, but expending them now will mean he can’t use them for their intended purpose of stopping Brona’s plans for world domination in their tracks. Jak’s only other choice is to kill Shella himself, then perform a Ritual of Release to free her soul; this is what she herself is begging him to do. It certainly sounds like a difficult choice in the abstract. Once again, though, a difference in design priorities resulted in a half-baked compromise in practice. In the finished game, saving Shella with the Elfstones results in a few screens of text followed by a game over — meaning that the ethical choice isn’t really a choice at all for any player who wishes to actually finish the game she paid good money for. The whole comes across as overwrought rather than moving, manipulative rather than earnest.

Yet neither the halfhearted combat nor the half-baked moral choice fills enough of the game to ruin it. Constrained though the Coles may have been from indulging in another of the delightful free-form rambles that their Quest for Glory series was at its best, they remained witty writers well able to deliver an entertaining guided tour through Terry Brooks’s world. And despite all the day-to-day problems on the art front, the final look of the game lives up to Legend’s usual high standards, as does the voice acting and the music by the legendary game composer George “The Fat Man” Sanger. If the puzzles are seldom anything but trivially easy — a conscious design choice for a game that everyone hoped would, as Corey Cole puts it, “attract many Terry Brooks fans who had no previous adventure-game experience” — they give the game a unique and not unwelcome personality: Shannara plays almost like an interactive picture book or visual novel rather than a traditional hardcore adventure game. With so little to impede your progress, you move through the story quickly, but there’s still enough content here to fill several enjoyable evenings.

Upon its release, Shannara approached 100,000 units in sales, enough to turn a solid profit. Although its impact on the market was ultimately less than what Random House and Terry Brooks had perhaps hoped for, its relative success came as a relief by this point to Bob Bates and everyone else at Legend, who had had such cause to question whether the game would ever be finished at all. Reviews, on the other hand, tended to be unkind; hardcore gamers looking for a challenge were all too vocally unimpressed with the game’s simple storybook approach. Computer Gaming World‘s adventure columnist Scorpia went on a rather bizarre rant about the fate of Shella, which she somehow twisted into a misogynistic statement:

I would not have minded had she died gloriously in battle; that is often the fate of heroes and heroines. What happens is: Shella is mortally wounded, but lingering on, and Jake — to save her soul — must kill her on the spot and perform a certain ritual. The only woman in the entire game, and she not only dies, but goes out a helpless lump.

I’ve heard that game designers are wondering how they can get more women playing games; if they keep presenting us with garbage like this, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Far too many products these days have exclusively male heroes doing this, that, and the other; women are either nonexistent or mere adjuncts, at best.

While I agree wholeheartedly with Scorpia’s last sentence in the context of the times, the rest of her outrage seems misplaced, to say the least. Shella is never presented as anything other than strong, smart, and brave in Shannara, and she dies nobly in the end. Any number of other games would have made a more worthy target for Scorpia’s ire.

For my own part, I can happily recommend Shannara to anyone looking for a bit of comfortable, non-taxing fantasy fun. “In hindsight, we’re very proud of the game we made,” says Corey Cole. That pride is justified.


The inclusion of Terry Brooks’s novel in the Shannara box is a throwback to the olden days of bookware.

The graphics are bright and inviting.

There’s a seemingly free-form overland-movement view, although the places to which you can actually travel are always constrained by the needs of a linear plot. Monsters wander the map as well. You can attempt to fight or avoid them; most players will find the latter preferable, given how unsatisfying combat is.

The combat screen. There are the seeds of some interesting ideas here — the Coles could always be counted on to put some effort into their combat engines — but it’s poorly developed.

Shella and Jak keep up a nice, flirting banter throughout most of the game. Like so much here, their relationship has the flavor of a well-done young-adult novel. Belying the bad feelings that came to surround its making at times, Shannara never fails to be likable from the player’s perspective, a tribute to Corey Cole’s professionalism and to Lori Ann Cole’s deft writerly touch.


(Sources: the books Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 by Edmund Wilson, and the post-1991 edition of Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks; Computer Gaming World of November 1994, November 1995, and March 1996; Starlog of June 1986; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994 and January 1995; New York Times of September 11 1993 and May 22 1995; Newsweek of August 13 1995; Los Angeles Times of April 21 1994; Atlantic of September 1994. Most of this article, however, is drawn from an interview with Bob Bates and internal Legend documents shown to me by him, as well as an email correspondence with Corey Cole. My huge thanks go out to both of them for taking the time.

Shannara is not available for purchase today, but you might find the CD image archived somewhere — hint, hint — if you look around. I’ve prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and a BIN/CUE or ISO image of the CD-ROM.)

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Neo-Classical Interactive Fiction of 1995

For all that it was a period with some significant sparks of heat and light, we might reasonably call the time between 1989 and 1994 the Dark Ages of Interactive Fiction. It was only in 1995 that the lights were well and truly turned on again and the Interactive Fiction Renaissance began in earnest. This was the point when a number of percolating trends — the evolving TADS and Inform programming languages, the new generation of Z-Machine interpreters, the serious discussions of design craft taking place on Usenet — bore a sudden and rather shockingly verdant fruit. It became, one might say, Year One of the interactive-fiction community as we know it today.

The year is destined always to be remembered most of all for the very first Interactive Fiction Competition, better known as simply the “IF Comp” to its friends. Its influence on the design direction of what used to be called text adventures would soon become as undeniable as it was unwelcome in the eyes of some ultra-traditionalists: its guidance that entries should be finishable in two hours or so led in the course of things to an interest in depth in place of breadth, in literary and formal experimentation in place of the “gamier” pleasures of point-scoring and map-making.

But the Comp’s influence would take time to make itself known. This first edition of it, organized by an early community pillar named G. Kevin Wilson, was a relatively modest affair, with just twelve entries, six in each of the two categories into which it was divided: one for TADS games, one for Inform games. (This division would fall by the wayside in future Comps.) The entries did prefigure some of the self-referential experimentation to come: Undo by Neil deMause placed you at the very end of a (deliberately) broken, corrupted game and expected you to muddle your way to victory; Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Detective by C.E. Forman made somewhat mean-spirited, television-inspired fun of a really, really bad game released a few years earlier by a twelve-year-old author; The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees took place all in one room, thus becoming the perfect treat for mapping haters. Yet in my opinion none of these games join the ranks of the year’s very best works.

In retrospect, the lineup of games in that first Comp is perhaps most notable for becoming the venue for the first polished work of interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin; his influence on the future direction of the community, in terms of both aesthetics and technology, would be comparable only to that of Mike Roberts and Graham Nelson among the figures we’ve already met in previous articles. But his A Change in the Weather, a punishingly difficult meta-puzzle of a game which one couldn’t hope to solve without many replays, stands as a fairly minor entry in his impressive oeuvre today, despite winning the Inform category of that first Comp.

So, I’d like to reserve any more discussion of this and subsequent IF Comps for future articles, and focus today on what I consider to be the real standout text adventures of 1995, of which there are a gratifying number. The games below evince no concern whatsoever about keeping their playing time down to a couple of hours. On the contrary: all of the games that follow are big enough that Infocom could conceivably have released them, while at least one or two of them are actually bigger than Infocom’s technology could possibly have allowed. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that works like these are my personal sweet spot for interactive fiction: big, puzzly works which are well-written but which aren’t afraid to be games — albeit games which incorporate the design lessons of those pioneers that came before them. Neo-classical interactive fiction, if you will. (Yes, I’m aware that we’ve jumped from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism with dizzying speed. Such is life when you’re making broad — overly broad? — historical metaphors.) If your preferences are anything like mine, the games that follow will be heaven for you.

In fact, let me close this introduction with something of a personal plea. I’ve noticed a reluctance on the part of many diehard Infocom fans to give what came afterward a fair shake. I do understand that nostalgia is a big part of the reason people read sites like this one and play the games that are featured here, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Although I do try very hard to keep nostalgia out of my own game criticism, I firmly believe that no reason to play a game is ever a wrong one, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And yet I also believe, and with equal firmness, that the games you’ll find below aren’t just as good as those of Infocom: in a lot of ways, they’re superior. There’s nothing postmodern or pretentious or precious here (all of these being labels I’ve heard applied to other strands of post-Infocom interactive fiction as a reason for not engaging with it), just good clean old-school fun, generally absent the worst old-school annoyances. Please do consider giving one or more of these games a try, if you happen to be a fan of Infocom who hasn’t yet explored what came afterward. Nostalgia is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to make new memories.


Christminster

You haven't seen your brother Malcolm since he received his fellowship at Biblioll College - pressure of work was his excuse not to come down to London. So when you received that telegram from him you leapt at the excuse to come up to the university town of Christminster for the day and visit him.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Gareth Rees’s “interactive conspiracy” Christminster as a sort of Curses-lite. It shares with Graham Nelson’s epic a droll, very English prose style, an arch sense of humor, and a casual erudition manifested in a love of literary quotations and classical references. Indeed, the connections between the games go deeper still: Graham and Gareth were not only both Oxbridge academics but friends who helped one another out creatively and technically. If you spend enough time poking around in Christminster‘s library, you’ll discover that their games apparently belong to the same universe, when you uncover numerous references to the Meldrew family of Curses fame. But going too far with this line of description is doing Christminster a disservice. It may be smaller than Curses — to be fair, very few games aren’t — but it’s plenty rich in its own right, whilst being vastly more soluble by a reasonably motivated person in a reasonable amount of time.

Christminster takes place in the fictional English university town of the same name, but is obviously drawn to a large extent from the author’s lived experience.[1]For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Professor Bungay,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a history undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.” The time in which it occurs is kept deliberately vague; I vote for the 1950s, but one could almost equally opt for any point within a few decades to either side of that one. You play Christabel, a prim young lady who’s come up to Christminster to visit her brother Malcolm. But she soon discovers that he’s nowhere to be found, and that a shadowy occult enterprise seems to be afoot within his college’s ivy-covered walls. And so the hunt is on to find out what’s become of him and who is responsible.

None of this need be taken overly seriously. The game’s milieu of bumbling, slightly cracked old dons comes straight from the pages of Waugh, Amis, and Wodehouse, while its gloriously contrived central mystery would doubtless have pleased Agatha Christie. Thankfully, Christminster runs on plot time rather than clock time: the story evolves in response to your progress rather than placing you in thrall to some inexorable turn counter, in the way of the polarizing early Infocom mysteries. This leaves plenty of time to poke at every nook and cranny of the musty old campus and to enjoy some ingenious puzzles. In a few places, the design does show its age; the very first puzzle of the game is one of the very hardest, leaving you trapped outside of the college’s walls with nothing to do until you solve it — not exactly the most welcoming opening! But by all means do try to carry on, as the English like to say. If you do, you might just find Christminster to be one of the best cozy mysteries you’ll ever play.


John’s Fire Witch

It’s a cold weekend in December of 1990, and it’s been far too long since you have seen your friend John Baker! But you’ve finally managed to take some time out of your schedule to drive to Columbus and spend some “quality time” together. Quality time, of course, means that you and he are going to sample every bar that Ohio State University’s High Street has to offer.

John was to meet you at a favorite pizza and beer spot to start off the evening, but he hasn’t showed up. John’s always been rather spontaneous (read that as ‘erratic’), so you think he’ll show up eventually. But as the night wears on and you tire of downing beers by yourself, you decide to drive to his place and see if he’s left a note or something for you there.

You find his front door unlocked and John nowhere to be found. Pretty tired from your earlier drive, and also buzzing a bit from the beer you drank, you quickly doze off in the living room.

It is now morning. A terrible snow storm is raging outside, the worst you’ve ever seen. You can’t believe how much snow has piled up over the night. You still haven’t heard from John, and you seem to now be trapped in his apartment.

John’s Fire Witch by John Baker is an example of what we used to call “snack-sized interactive fiction” back in the day. Although the shortest game featured in this collection of reviews, it would be considered medium-sized today, with a typical play time in the range of two to five hours — i.e., not much if any shorter than, say, Infocom’s The Witness.

But no self-respecting member of the interactive-fiction literati would dare to release a game that opens like this one today. Waking up in your slovenly friend’s apartment is just one step removed from that ultimate in text-adventure clichés: the game that starts in your — or rather the author’s — bedroom. Make that half a step removed: note that the guy whose apartment you wake up in and the author of this game are the same person. “John, like many IF characters,” wrote David Welbourn in an online play-through of the game, “seems to live in a pigsty and eat nothing but snow.”

So, John’s Fire Witch is willfully unambitious; all it wants to do is entertain you for a few hours. Poking around your vanished friend’s apartment, you discover that he’s gotten himself caught up in a metaphysical struggle between an “ice wizard” and a “fire witch.” It’s up to you to rescue him by completing a number of unlikely tasks, such as collecting a handy grab bag of the seven deadly sins for a certain pitchfork-wielding character who dwells in the Down Below. (Luckily, good old John tends to partake in just about all of them on a regular basis, so his apartment makes a pretty good hunting ground.)

For two and a half decades now, critics like me have been intermittently trying to explain why John’s Fire Witch succeeds in being so appealing almost in spite of itself. Its prose treads that fine line between breezy and tossed-off, its thematic aspirations are non-existent, its puzzles are enjoyable but never breathtaking. In the end, maybe it just comes down to being good company. Its author’s personality comes through in droves, and you can’t help but like him. Beyond that… well, if it it never does anything all that amazingly great, it never does anything all that egregiously wrong either.

The real John Baker disappeared without a trace after making this modest little game — good luck Googling that name! — leaving it behind as his only interactive-fiction legacy. He tells us that he’d like his players to send him $6, for lunch: “My favorite lunch is a soup & sandwich combo at a restaurant on Sawmill Road.” I for one would be happy to pay. Just drop me a line, John.


Lethe Flow Phoenix

A cool wind whips across the peak you stand on, sending tiny dust-devils whirling about your feet. The stars above you seem especially bright tonight, their silver light reaching across generations to speak to you. It is midnight, the hour of magic. The moon is not in sight tonight. All is still. All is waiting.

Perhaps it was a mistake to come and camp out here on this night. Not something you could have predicted in advance, of course, but still ... perhaps it was a little foolish. All Hallows’ Eve is not the most auspicious of nights. Still, you packed your bags up, tossed them next to the one-man tent in your trunk, and drove out here to spend a few days and get your life sorted out.

You were awakened in the middle of the night by something. You weren’t quite sure what, but you could tell something was wrong when you woke up. The desert was too quiet, too dark ... too eager. Like a sleep walker, you stumbled to the cliff nearby. You stood for a minute, catching your breath, and looked around. Behind you, at the other end of the shaky dirt trail, your car and tent wait patiently for your return. In other directions, you have a wide-open view of the desert, and can see it stretches in all directions, until it touches the feet of the mountains. The missing moon, curiously, does not concern you, nor does the fact that you can see as well now as if it were there.

You absentmindedly take another step forwards. If possible, the night becomes even more quiet, and the stars even brighter. Another step, and then another. You stand silently at the very edge of the cliff, looking outwards.

Then the ground gives way. “I’ve gone too far,” you think, almost casually. Not even screaming, you fall from the edge of the cliff.

***


There is a sudden sense of a presence around you as you fall. When you are rescued in mid-air, the event seems almost natural – bluesilver wings surround you, feathers caress you, and merciful darkness embraces you.

***

You awaken, and find yourself in a grassy field. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a brook babbles gently as it flows along. A small tree grows in the center of the field, its branches ripe with apples.

If John Fire’s Witch is the My Stupid Apartment sub-genre of interactive fiction elevated to a weirdly sublime pitch, then Dan Shiovitz’s Lethe Flow Phoenix does the same for another hackneyed perennial of the post-commercial era: the Deeply Meaningful Exploration of the Subconscious. One always seems to find one or two games of this stripe, generally the products of younger scribes whose earnestness is almost painfully palpable, sloshing about in the lower rungs of any given IF Comp. Alas, their attempts to reveal inner truths through surrealistic imagery tend to come off as more banal than profound — rather like reading the diary of that angst-ridden fifteen-year-old so many of us used to be.

Dan Shiovitz was himself a fairly young man when he wrote Lethe Flow Phoenix, a game whose labored Latinate title doesn’t appear to bode well. Yet it turns out to be far better than one would ever dare to hope. Shiovitz has a knack for devising and describing beautifully twisted landscapes, through which he then proceeds to thread a series of deviously satisfying puzzles. At times, this game almost plays like a textual version of Myst, with much the same atmosphere of stately desolation and the same style of otherworldly but oddly logical dilemmas to overcome.

And then, around the halfway point, Lethe Flow Phoenix turns into something else entirely. Shiovitz provides an explanation for his protagonist’s personal problems, and it’s not at all what you might expect. I hesitate to say too much more here, but will go so far as to reveal that aliens from outer space — as opposed to just alienated humans — suddenly come into the picture. Again, this development should be disastrous, but somehow it works. The game manages to maintain your interest right up to its happy ending.

Dan Shovitz went on to write several other text adventures after this one, perhaps most notably Bad Machine, an exploration of the frontiers of language sufficient to set any postmodern linguistic theorist’s heart aflutter. But even that experimental masterstroke shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow this early piece of work. Yes, the author of Lethe Flow Phoenix is clearly a young man, but this particular young man is also an observant, talented writer. His protagonist’s final redemption is genuinely moving, the journey to that point satisfying on several levels. Lethe Flow Phoenix pairs heart with craftsmanship, and the results are pretty great.


The Light: Shelby’s Addendum

A strangeness has fallen. You first became aware of it with the darkening of the skies: the majestic, threatening storm clouds that seemed on the verge of deluging the earth in a torrent, yet hung motionless, impatient, as though awaiting further instructions from some unseen and malignant higher power. Of course Holcroft had on many occasions disproved to you the existence of such higher beings with his charts and calculations, and you do not believe in such foolishness as ghosts, gods and goblins, but events such as those unfolding before you now are causing you to question all that you have learned.

First the clouds, then the sudden silence of the birdsong, and the people. Where were the people? The village was deserted as you passed through. Not a soul to be seen. You knew you had to alert Barclay and Holcroft that something was terribly wrong with the balance of things, but before you had reached even the main gate an impenetrable mist had rolled in from below the cliffs and obscured the path to the lighthouse.

You decided to wait in the drum shed until the mist had lifted, rather than risk life and limb on the cliff walk, but you were weary from your journey and fell into a deep sleep. When you awoke it was near nightfall. The mist had barely dissipated, but your task was too important, so you took your chances on the cliff walk regardless. It was so dark. Why hadn’t Barclay or Holcroft lit the beacon? In the two years since beginning your apprenticeship you had never known the Regulators to neglect their duties. On the contrary, you found them to be slavishly by the book. “Routine begets knowledge,” Barclay once told you. (He had obviously never cleaned the septic tank every month for two straight years).

When, at last, you reached the courtyard entrance, something even stranger happened. You began to feel suddenly and inexplicably weak, as though the very life were being drawn from your bones. You had eaten well on the train journey from the Commission’s headquarters in the capital city, and passed your last physical with glowing colors, yet you felt as though you were at death’s door.

You had to see Holcroft. He, perhaps, could explain....

Colm McCarthy’s The Light: Shelby’s Addendum is another game that’s better than its ambiguously pretentious name. You play the eponymous Shelby, a junior — very junior — apprentice in a lonely lighthouse that provides more than just illumination: its beam maintains a delicate balance between our reality and other, alternate planes of existence. The hows and wherefores of its functioning are never explained all that well; ditto just when and where this story is supposed to be taking place. (We’re definitely on the Earth, probably in the near future, but is this our Earth or an alternate Earth?) In the end, the vagueness matters not a whit. A more thorough explanation would only interfere with the game’s atmosphere of mysterious Lovecraftian dread. You can almost smell the fetid seaside air as you play.

As the game opens, you’re returning to your post from a much-deserved holiday, only to find the lighthouse and even the village near it devoid of their usual inhabitants. Worse, the beacon itself has gone haywire, and the multiverse is slipping out of harmony as a result, producing unsettling effects all around you. Exploring the environs, you turn up evidence of the all-too-human disputes that gave rise to this slow-moving cosmic disaster. It looks like you are the only one who can correct the fault in our stars.

A big, lavish game, carefully written and implemented in most ways, The Light does from time to time trade in its polished personality for a more ramshackle old-school feel. If you don’t solve a pivotal puzzle within the first 100 turns — and you almost certainly won’t the first time through — it’s game over, thanks for playing. And there’s a mid-game submarine ride where the atmosphere suddenly changes from Lovecraftian dread to a scene straight out of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Like most reviewers, I can only shake my head at this bit’s existence and wonder what the heck McCarthy was thinking.

Still, such breakdowns are very much the exception to the rule here. I’m nonplussed by some reviewers’ struggles with the puzzles; I solved the entire game without a hint, a feat which I’m happy to consider a testament to good design rather than any genius on my part. I’m kind of bummed that the sequel Colm McCarthy promises us in his denouement has never materialized. I’d love to know whether poor Shelby finally got a promotion after saving the multiverse and all.


Theatre

Another day, another dollar! Life is good at the moment, the property market is booming. Still, it does have its down side; when showing those Mulluer Corporation executives around that old theatre dump, err, opportunity you must have left your pager down in the basement. Better hurry, you have to meet the others at the opera in an hour, and be careful. It wouldn’t do to show up with your clothes all dirty.

Brendon Wyber’s “interactive night of horror” Theatre does us the favor of including its inspiration right in the game itself. As Wyber writes in his introduction, he made Theatre after reading an allegedly true haunted-house story by Joel Furr, one of the early Internet’s more prominent online characters, whose claims to fame include popularizing the term “spam.” Furr’s story, which is readable in its entirety via an in-game menu, is riveting whether you choose to go on to play said game itself or not. It involves the Lyric Theatre of Blacksburg, Virginia, a rambling old place stemming from 1930 that has been restored and is enjoying a new lease on life today, but was at its lowest ebb when Furr made its acquaintance in the early 1990s. As a Kiwi, Wyber had never been to the Lyric, yet that didn’t stop him from using Furr’s description of it as the basis for the setting if not the plot of his game.

You play a yuppie real-estate agent who rushes back inside the old theater he’s trying to unload to retrieve his forgotten pager — this is the 1990s, after all! — only to emerge again to find his car stolen. Rather than venturing out into the seedy neighborhood around the theater on foot, you opt to spend the night inside. Let the haunting begin…

Our frustrations with the medium understandably cause us to spend a lot of time talking about the things that textual interactive fiction, and adventure games in general for that matter, struggle to do well. For better or for worse, we tend to spend less time on the medium’s natural strengths. I’ll just note here, then, that setting must top any list of same. All of the games I’ve featured in this piece make this point, but none do it better than this one. Its name is no misnomer: the theater truly is this game’s main attraction. Its geography expands slowly and organically as you solve puzzles to open up new areas; there’s always some new cranny or crawlspace to uncover in the building, always some new aspect of its sinister history to bring to light. And it’s a fresh spine-shivering delight every time you do.

Before you become a full-fledged participant in the proceedings, you learn about the horror story at the center of it all through the journal pages you discover as you worm your way deeper and deeper into the theater’s bowels, deeper and deeper into its past. I must say that I like the first two-thirds of the game best, when it has a Gothic flavor in complete harmony with Joel Furr’s story. In time, however, it goes full Lovecraft, and not even in the relatively understated way of The Light. Still, one can’t accuse Wyber of pulling any punches; the big climax is as exciting as you could ask for.

Through it all, the real star remains the theater itself, whose faded elegance and delicious decay will remain with you long after you’ve exorcised the malevolent spirits that roam its spaces. You might want to save this one for Halloween.


Jigsaw

New Year's Eve, 1999, a quarter to midnight and where else to be but Century Park! Fireworks cascade across the sky, your stomach rumbles uneasily, music and lasers howl across the parkland... Not exactly your ideal party (especially as that rather attractive stranger in black has slipped back into the crowds) - but cheer up, you won't live to see the next.

As the follow-up to his two-year-old Curses, Graham Nelson’s “interactive history” Jigsaw was the most hotly anticipated text adventure of 1995. This game is even bigger than Curses — so big that Nelson had to employ a new, post-Infocom incarnation of the Z-Machine, a version 8 standard with the ability to handle story files of up to 512 K in size, in order to run the full version.[2]Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file. Although it will never be able to compete with its predecessor in terms of its importance to the history of its medium, in this critic’s opinion Jigsaw is the more accessible and enjoyable of the two games to play today.

It definitely doesn’t lack for ambition. Written just as millennial jitters were beginning to find a home in the minds of many of us, it’s a time-travel caper focusing on the horrible, magnificent century that was about to pass away, ranging in time and space from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the day of the Wright brothers’ first flight to Berlin on the day the Wall came down. The principal antagonist and possible love interest — a timeline-wrecking “rather attractive stranger” of indeterminate gender, whom the game refers to only as “Black” after his or her choice of wardrobe — is misguided rather than evil, attempting to alleviate some of the century’s many injustices rather than bring on any apocalypse. But such retroactive changes are out of our mortal purview, of course, and can only lead to worse tragedies. “The time is out of joint,” as Hamlet said. Now, it’s up to you to set it right.

The amount of research required for the game’s fourteen historical vignettes was considerable to say the least — and that before a universe of information was only a visit to Wikipedia away, when one still had to go to brick-and-mortar libraries with printed encyclopedias on their shelves. Nelson doesn’t always get every detail correct: I could nitpick that the Titanic was actually not the first ship in history to send an SOS distress signal, for example, or note that his depiction of the Beatles of 1967 (“lurching wildly from one project to the next, hardly collaborating, always arguing”) seems displaced in time by at least a year.[3]Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on… Likewise, he’s sometimes a bit too eager to place ironic twists on the things we learned in our grade-school history classes. In light of what Nelson took on here, though, we can forgive him for all of this. He does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of each historical event. I also appreciate that his choices of historical linchpins aren’t always the obvious ones. For every voyage aboard a Titanic, there’s a visit to the cork-lined Parisian flat of Marcel Proust; for every trip to the Moon, there’s a sojourn in the filthy and disorganized laboratory of Alexander Fleming, the luckiest microbiologist who ever lived.

The episodic structure keeps Jigsaw manageable despite its overall sprawl, in marked contrast to Curses. Nelson, who had been thinking and writing seriously about design since his first game, went so far as to include a helpful little gadget which can alert you as to whether you’re leaving behind anything vital in each time period. Meanwhile the puzzles themselves are never less than solid, and are often inspired. One of them, in which you must decode a secret message using an only slightly simplified example of the German Enigma machines from the Second World War, has justly gone down in interactive-fiction lore as one of the best ever. Like so much of Jigsaw, it teaches even as it intrigues and entertains. I missed an important clue when I played through the game recently, which made this particular puzzle much harder than it was supposed to be. No worries — I enjoyed my two or three hours as a member of Alan Turing’s legendary team immensely, and positively jumped for joy when I finally produced a clear, cogent message from a meaningless scramble of letters.

My one real design complaint is the endgame, which takes place in a surreal fantasy landscape of the sort we’ve seen in too many other adventure games already. It feels both extraneous and thoroughly out of keeping with what has come before — and too darn hard to boot. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: by the time an adventurer reaches the endgame, especially of a work of this size, she just wants to be made to feel smart once or twice more and then to win. The designer’s job is to oblige her rather than to try to make himself feel smart. I must confess that I broke down and used hints for the endgame of Jigsaw, after solving the entirety of the rest of the game all by myself.

But the frustration of the endgame pales before the other delights on offer here. Nelson would never attempt a game of this size and scope again, making Jigsaw only that much more worth cherishing. Curses may be his most important game, but by my lights Jigsaw is his masterpiece.

Bonus:

Graham Nelson on Jigsaw


Curses had been written under the spell of the great cave games – Colossal Cave, Zork, Acheton. Games delving into a miscellany of doors, light puzzles, collection puzzles, and the like. Games written incrementally which ended up with epic, sprawling maps, but which started out only as entertainments written for friends. Each of those things is true about Curses as well.

But not Jigsaw. Once again Gareth Rees and Richard Tucker were the playtesters and de-facto editors, and the two games were recognisably from the same stable. There are many similarities, even down to having a one-word title, which I liked because it meant that the filename on an FTP server would likely be the whole title. It was always going to be a Z-machine story file once again, written with Inform. And it was playable under the same .z5 format as Curses, though I also offered a sort of director’s cut version with some extra annotation using the new .z8 format. (This was a sneaky way to try to persuade interpreter-writers to adopt .z8, which I worried people might think bogus and non-canonical, and so would not implement.)

Unlike Curses, though, Jigsaw was conceived holistically, had a rigorous plan, and was meant for the public rather than for friends. I set out to make the sort of rounded cultural artefact which middle-period Infocom might have offered — Dave Lebling’s Spellbreaker and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity are the obvious antecedents, but not the only ones. (Let me also praise Mike Dornbrook here, who was instrumental in making those games into clearly delineated works.) Those mature works of Infocom were satisfying to start, and satisfying to finish, and distinctive from each other. Infocom wasn’t big on historical settings (a shame that Stu Galley never completed his draft about the Boston of 1776), but in presentation, Jigsaw wouldn’t look out of place in their catalogue. In that sense, it’s rather derivative, even imitative, but this wasn’t seen as an eccentric or retro choice at the time; more of a mark of quality. But in any case, Jigsaw had other ambitions as well, and it’s on those other ambitions that it stands or falls.

Jigsaw strains to be a work of art, and though the strain shows from time to time, I think it mostly gets there. There are little embedded prose poems, generally at hinges in the story. Certain images – the nightjar, for example – are suggestive rather than explicated. There is also something a little poetic — and here I’m perhaps thinking more of the modernism of Ezra Pound’s cantos than of his more famous friend Eliot — about the interleaving of old formulations, old turns of speech. Jigsaw plays on the tantalising way that past times were so confident at being themselves. Nobody using an Apollo Guidance Computer thought of it as twee or retro. And you could say the same about a tram-ticket or a gas lamp, things that people used without a second thought. We have absolute confidence only about our own present moment, while the past seems hazy and uncertain. But the people who lived in that past felt exactly the same about their own present moments. For historical fiction to work, it has to side with them, not with us.

And on the other hand, while it is a modernist impulse to clash the old and the new, it’s a Romantic one to re-enact the old, to imaginatively take part in it. I’ve always liked the biographer Richard Holmes’s observation that to write a biography is an inherently Romantic act.

As I wrote Jigsaw in 1995, the twentieth century was coming to a relatively placid end — I hope anyone caught up in the Yugoslav civil wars will forgive me writing that. It was zeitgeisty to see the story of the age as being mostly done, even with a few years still to go. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) was less sceptically received at the time than its later reputation might suggest. People were already gathering and tidying up the twentieth century. So I wasn’t the only one to jump the gun in writing about it.

Jigsaw has a classical IF structure, with a prologue, a middle game, and an end game. Less conventionally, a form of the end game – an area called “The Land” – is seen in a ghostly way throughout, while the middle game is divided into a grid of what amount to mini-games. Notably, these have named chapter headings.

The prologue takes place on the final night of 1999, on the margins of a public festival. I anticipated an event at a London park, and that was indeed the English response, though it turned out to be the ultra-modern Millennium Dome at Greenwich (begun in 1997) and not my more Victorian-sounding “Century Park”. The setting has something of the flavour of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but in fact I semi-lifted it from an episode of Charles Chilton’s iconic BBC radio serial Journey into Space. That involved an enigmatic character named Whittaker who had been taken out of normally-running time in 1924 from a London park celebration (“There are special trains from Baker Street”). Other than scene-setting, the prologue’s goal is to make the complex jigsaw mechanism comprehensible. It’s a familiar IF travel-around-the-map mechanism, with the puzzle pieces serving as objects of desire which unlock further play. But at the same time, it is also the game’s organising metaphor. So these mechanics have to seem natural and fun to players. Getting the textual display and command verbs right was a major concern in early play-testing.

With prologue out of the way, we enter the past. Jigsaw claims in its banner to be “an interactive history”, which is awfully bold of it. As we’ve already established, it’s a work of fantasy. But perhaps the claim to be “a history” can just about be made. Attempts to define what that even means — cf. E. H. Carr, “What Is History?”; Richard Evans, “In Defence of History” — end up devoting much of their space just to enumerating lines of approach, after all. Mine is odder than most, but less odd than some. At its crudest, the historian’s choice is between asking “who took what decisions?” and asking “what was life like?”. Is 19th-century Europe the story of Napoleon and Bismarck and Garibaldi, who started wars and redrew maps, or is all of that froth compared to railways, manufacturing, anesthetics, and newspapers? Jigsaw goes the second way, with Lenin being I think the only world leader seen close up.

The Titanic sequence, the first one I wrote, is the one I would now leave out. Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their places, and history wasn’t much dented. Perhaps it left a greater sense of possible catastrophe in the popular imagination, but the Sarajevo 1914 sequence makes that point better anyway. Besides, having an accidental time traveller arrive on the Titanic is a very hackneyed plot device. (I’ve just been dismayed to find from Wikipedia that it’s even the pilot episode plot of Irwin Allen’s spangly TV show The Time Tunnel.) Still, the ocean liner was fun to recreate as a period piece. The bit where a passenger says, “Never mind, worse things happen at sea,” is my favourite joke in the whole game. And researching this did lead to one happy accident. Going through a heap of books and pamphlets in the Bodleian Library, I chanced on something I remembered from somewhere else, and this led to a short paper in the literary-discoveries journal Notes & Queries. That squib of a paper is still occasionally cited, and I was amused to see “Nelson, Graham” back to back with “Nietzsche, Friedrich” in the bibliography of a monograph as a result.

A better choice was the Apollo programme. The lunar module was controlled using VERB and NOUN commands, which made it pleasingly IF-sounding: why not send the player to the moon? I also wanted to have something about the mid-century zenith of big-state action — a world in which Kennedy could just decide that the United States would do something immense, and it would happen. (The Manhattan Project is another example, but Trinity had already done that.) Another take on Apollo would be that it changed our sensibility, forcing us to see ourselves from the outside. The cover art for Jigsaw is the Apollo 8 shot of the earth rising from lunar orbit, maybe the most reproduced photo of the century. But I also tried to evoke Apollo’s troubling sense of abandonment. First steps were last steps. The century’s most powerful civilisation did something astonishing and then just lost interest. To me, the question about the Pyramids is not why the pharaohs built them, but why they stopped.

In fact, even as I wrote, Apollo’s posthumous reputation was beginning a slow comeback. A new generation of geeks devoured Andrew Chaikin’s landmark book A Man on the Moon (1994). Also, the Internet had arrived. In 1995, Eric Jones’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal became an extremely useful website. I corresponded a little with Eric at the time; he was, tellingly, having trouble finding a publisher. But thanks to his work, the Apollo sequence of Jigsaw — whatever its fantastical additions — is quite true to the actual Taurus-Littrow valley of the moon, and not a grey abstraction.

Fourteen historical vignettes is too many. It was hard to do much in so few rooms and items each, especially as they had to be playable in multiple orders. A fundamentally un-cave-like quality of Jigsaw is that you can’t wander about from era to era, and it is only rarely that something in one era is helpful in another. (Even then, alternative solutions are sometimes provided.) But I worried that the lack of space made these mini-games too easy, and over-compensated with highly convoluted device-based puzzles. Fly your very own B-52! I truly repent of how difficult that sequence is to play.

A happier example was the Enigma machine. I’ve used one in real life, encoding a very short message on a surviving Enigma which belongs to the science writer Simon Singh. Still, this section was really based on the oral histories of Bletchley Park edited by Hinsley and Stripp in 1993; accounts which, a bit madly, had only just been declassified. I imbibed some of the recherché jargon of the codebreakers, who lived in a strangely appealing world of their own. I was very taken with the vulnerability of Enigma, caused by the frequent presence of double letters in German words. One of the myths of Bletchley was that the invention of the computer flat-out defeated Enigma, as if you just had to press a button. It would be fairer to say that the computer made breaking the code just on the edge of what was possible. A certain cunning was still needed, and luck as well. They found ways to make their own luck, but there were also terrible periods when they failed, and when many sailors went to the bottom of the Atlantic as a result. My grandfather served on two Royal Navy convoys to Murmansk, and he was fortunate that those coincided with a good run at Bletchley, though he never knew it. That, and the thought that I might have been there myself if I had been an Oxford maths post-doc in 1942 rather than 1995, made this vignette more personal to me.

Fourteen vignettes is also too few. I chose Marcel Proust and the Beatles as my artists of the century, for example, and with them I had used up the entire space available for cultural history. My fourteen moments have to spread themselves very thinly over a lot of ground, and there is clearly no single or perfect solution to this. Still, Jigsaw has a clear Western bias. I probably should have chosen the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Africa appears only tangentially, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, which has to stand for the whole of postcolonialism. Even then, my main inspiration was Christopher Hampton’s autobiographical play White Chameleon, and Hampton is British. China does not appear at all, which from a 21st-century viewpoint seems very jarring. From the vantage point of 2021, civil rights also look pretty salient, but in 1995 it did not seem that way: the movement for women’s suffrage is all you get. Why no M.L.K.? That now seems very odd, except that I had plenty of the 1960s already. Some potential topics were also dropped just for lack of puzzles about them, or because they didn’t really fit anywhere. Though I don’t know to what extent players were ever aware of it, the connection points on the jigsaw pieces tried to suggest thematic links. The Wright brothers to Apollo, and so on.

Another consideration was, for want of a better word, taste. Fascism seemed mostly done in 1995, but it had clearly been a big part of the story. It isn’t a big part of Jigsaw because, in the end, is there any ethical way to recreate the experience of being massacred for no reason? The Holocaust does have a presence in Jigsaw, but very indirectly. Buried somewhere is a little anecdote about a young Jewish boy in Berlin in the 1930s, who had picked up a shiny badge in the street with no understanding that it was Nazi regalia which he could be killed just for touching – one of the few moments in Jigsaw told to me by an eye-witness, the boy himself, who survived to be a retired professor. What I really did not want to do was to recreate a version of Auschwitz which came with an escape hatch. And then of course Vietnam, Cambodia, the genocide of the Armenian Turks, Kosovo, Rwanda, you name it. Quite the charnal house we made for ourselves, you have to say. In a room of the end game which, if memory serves, was called the Toll Gate, there is a cumulative graph of humans deliberately killed, plotted against time. This graph surges at the World Wars but it certainly isn’t flat in between them.

There are a few other grim moments like that in the endgame, too. The endgame is the strangest part of Jigsaw and probably the least successful. But here’s what I think I was trying for. The Land does partly bring in concerns not tied to specific moments – pollution, for example, though not global warming, which we were all cheerfully ignoring in 1995. (But not now, right? Right?) At the same time, I didn’t want bleakness to dominate, and I wanted to end on brighter, more fantastical colours. There is supposed to be a sort of Eden-like rebirth as another century is coming, with this endgame area as the Garden of that Eden. Underlying all of history, but often invisible from it, there is always the goodness of the world, our one place of happiness. The chapter title for the endgame is “The Living Land”, and it’s about life in opposition to death.

But it is also too fiddly and is not the enjoyable romp I intended it to be. I don’t like the self-indulgent references to past IF games: what are they even for? The extent of the Land was a more understandable mistake — it’s because of the structural obsession of Jigsaw with its key mechanic. Rooms in The Land correspond to the original pieces, but that meant having quite a lot of them, which in turn meant padding out this space with puzzles. In fact, the endgame is so long that it has a little endgame of its own, taking us back to Century Park. But that was absolutely the right way to end. When you are composing a set of variations, finish on a da capo repetition of the original theme.

Finally, whereas Curses has no significant characters other than the protagonist, in Jigsaw the player has a significant other, called Black. In timecop sci-fi novels, the hero generally does battle with a rival time traveller. One tries to rewrite history, the other to keep it on track. Well, that is basically the situation here. Emphasising this, Black is a symbolic and non-human sort of name: White’s opponent in a game. (The Apollo lunar lander shared with Black has the call-sign “Othello”, and this is a reference to the strategy game, not the Shakespeare play.) The neutral name Black also worked better for blurring gender than having to use contrived unisex forenames like Hilary, Pat, or Stevie.

In retrospect, this genderless romance is the main thing people remember about Jigsaw. I wouldn’t make much claim for the depth or solidity of that romantic subplot: but at least it was there, and was something you wouldn’t find in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys sort of milieu of most earlier IF. There is even, however glancingly, a presence of sex. That much was deliberate. But when I was writing, the absence of genders seemed just another narrative choice. I wanted a certain universalism, a sort of every-person quality to the player. And I didn’t want some sort of performative nonsense like the barroom scene at the start of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, where you demonstrate your gender by picking a bathroom, but have no way to demonstrate your orientation.

Anyway, this seemed like a statement only after publication, when I began to get rather touching emails from players. I think Jigsaw may have been quite widely played, and this was easily the aspect most responded to. Happy emails were often from women. I did also get a smaller amount of homophobic mail, and that was invariably from men, who reacted as if they’d been catfished.

We easily forget now that in 1995 gay relationships were socially invisible. There were no openly gay characters in The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. A handful of New York sitcoms were just starting to go there, but for the most part, in popular culture, gay people existed as people with problems. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993, but it’s a movie about a closeted man with AIDS. Sleepless in Seattle, the same year, could easily have played some non-binary games with its two lovers, since they don’t meet until the very end. But it doesn’t. In the 1990s, romance in popular culture was almost exclusively straight. Nobody thought that odd at the time, and nor did I. I didn’t write a gay romance at all, I simply wrote a romance which was whatever you wanted to imagine it was. I would like to say that the gender games in Jigsaw were a nod to the gradual emancipation of love in the twentieth century. But that was the one thing about Jigsaw which was completely unplanned.

One of those emails I received was from the young Emily Short, though we did not meet for many years, and it was in another century that we married. History is full of surprises.


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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Professor Bungay,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a history undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.”
2 Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file.
3 Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on…
 
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Posted by on September 3, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery

Personally, I’ve never been one to imagine small things.

— Jane Jensen

When Jane Jensen first said that she would like to make a dark-tinged, adult-oriented mystery of a Sierra adventure game, revolving around an antihero of a paranormal detective named Gabriel Knight, her boss Ken Williams wasn’t overly excited about the idea. “Okay, I’ll let you do it,” he grumbled. “But I wish you’d come up with something happier!”

What a difference a year and a half can make. At the end of that period of time, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was a hit, garnering vive la différence! reviews and solid sales from gamers who appreciated its more sophisticated approach to interactive storytelling. Rather than remaining an outlier in the company’s catalog, it bent Sierra’s whole trajectory in its direction, as Ken Williams retooled and refocused on games that could appeal to a different — and larger — demographic of players.

There was no question whatsoever about a sequel. In January of 1994, just six weeks after the first Gabriel Knight game had shipped, Jane Jensen was told to get busy writing the second one.



She was more than ready to do so. In fact, she already knew exactly what she wanted the second story to be: a tale of werewolves, Richard Wagner, and Ludwig II, the (in)famously eccentric last king of an independent Bavaria. She’d developed a fascination for all of these subjects when she’d spent nine months living in Germany just before coming to Sierra. “It was initially the plot for the first game,” she says, “but when I started looking at it, I felt I needed to go back further in the characters’ history.” Now, having told how a New Orleans pulp-novel writer, bookstore owner, lady’s man, and general layabout named Gabriel Knight became a “Schattenjäger” — a “shadow hunter” of things that go bump in the night — she was ready to send him to Germany to face The Beast Within.

Very early on during the design phase if not right away, The Beast Within was earmarked to become the second of a new generation of Sierra adventures, which were to be built around filmed snippets of live actors. It was an enormous change from the hand-painted pixel graphics of the first game, but Jensen was, as she says, “all for it.” Although shooting on location in Germany would have been her dream scenario, there was no way the budget would stretch that far. Instead her actors would have to perform in front of a blue screen that would be filled in with computer-generated backgrounds after the shoot, as was the norm for these kinds of productions.

In lieu of taking the whole project to Germany, she did convince management to allow her to bring a piece of that country to Sierra’s offices in Oakhurst, California. During the second half of 1994, she and other Sierra staffers made three separate trips to Germany, spending more than a month there in all, painstakingly photographing among other places Munich’s city center, the Wagner Museum in Bayreuth, and Neuschwanstein, “mad king” Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle. These photos were then touched up as necessary to serve as the scenery behind the actors. This in itself represented a marked change in approach from the 3D-modeled backgrounds employed by Phantasmagoria, Sierra’s first game of this type. It was a wise choice for this project; while the mixing of media is by no means always seamless, the photographic look gives The Beast Within an unusually strong atmosphere of place. The hazy, slightly washed-out look of the backgrounds — an unavoidable byproduct of the state of digital imaging at the time — contributes to rather than detracts from the mood. “We were lucky in all three of the trips over there in that it was fairly overcast, so we didn’t have any harsh, direct lighting on most of the things,” says Nathan Gams, the project’s creative director and chief photographer. “We wanted a soft, gloomy kind of European spring feel. It kind of reflects the alien place where Gabriel is at this time.”

With the background images duly captured, it was time to think about the foreground actors. The budget only allowed for the Screen Actors Guild minimum wage, which precluded “name” stars such as Tim Curry and Mark Hamill, both of whom had provided voice acting in the first game.

Sierra wound up casting in the role of Gabriel one Dean Erickson, a 36-year-old with an interesting story behind him. He had been working in finance on Wall Street at age 30, when he suddenly decided that he wanted to be an actor instead, despite having never performed in so much as a high-school play prior to that point. Six years on from that decision, his chief claim to fame was a bit part in three episodes of the sitcom Frasier. Jane Jensen was initially uncertain that he had the chops to play the role of Gabriel, even though in appearance he was “spookily like what I would have thought the character would be”: “It was more a matter of being sure that he could play all the different faces of Gabriel Knight.” But she allowed herself to be convinced in the end.

Dean Erickson and Jane Jensen.

“I would like to be the lead guy in major features,” Erickson himself said at the time, “and hopefully my performance in this will lead someone to believe that I can help carry a movie.” Hope does tend to spring particularly eternal in Hollywood. In the world of reality rather than Hollywood fantasy, a much older and perhaps wiser Dean Erickson would come to look back on The Beast Within as the best that things ever got for him as an actor, what with “making SAG scale for three and a half months in an idyllic setting under controlled conditions with nice people.”

It was intense in that we shot fairly quickly, only one or two takes per shot. But we were mostly shooting on an air-conditioned sound stage in a beautiful part of the country during the summer near a lake. We worked mostly nine to five, Monday through Friday, so it was about the best situation one could have as an actor. It truly couldn’t have worked out better, other than maybe getting work afterwards.

The role of Grace Nakamura, Gabriel’s strait-laced research assistant and potential love interest, went to Joanne Takahashi, a stage actress and print-advertising model who was also trying to break through in Hollywood. Meanwhile a Polish actor named Peter Lucas would all but steal the show in the role of the darkly enigmatic Baron Friedrich Von Glower, who slowly emerges as the principal antagonist of the story. The cast was rounded out with more than 40 other speaking parts, all recruited like the leads from the ranks of Hollywood hopefuls flashing their SAG membership cards.

Sierra’s original choice as director was an in-demand music-video maker named Mark Miremont, whose grainy, hyperkinetic productions can be credited with inculcating much of the look of MTV during the grunge era. It would have been intriguing indeed to see what he might have done with The Beast Within. But those plans fell through at the last minute, and Sierra instead hired a less distinctive aesthetic personality named Will Binder, a graduate of UCLA film school who had recently been serving as a director’s assistant in such films as The Scent of a Woman.[1]This résumé would later lead to my favorite ever interview opening, from the adorably fannish website Adventure Classic Gaming: “You have worked with some of the best actors in the business — Al Pacino, Michael J. Fox, Bruce Boxleitner, Mira Furlan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of course, Dean Erickson and Joanne Takahashi.” Two of these names are not like the others…

Before talking about how any of these folks performed, it’s only fair that we take a moment to appreciate just how awkward this style of “film-making” really was. The difficulties and constraints extended even to the clothing worn by the cast; the chroma-keying process which allowed the programmers to superimpose the live actors over the digitized photographic backgrounds came complete with many restrictions, as noted by costumer Marcelle Gravel:

There are a lot of limitations in terms of colors. [We can’t use] anything that is close to blue or anything white that can reflect the blue, or any green that has a little blue in it. Sometimes black doesn’t work because when it gets wrinkled, it reflects.

So the wardrobe has to be very safe. Gabriel was supposed to be wearing a black jacket, a white tee-shirt, and blue jeans — an American uniform. It is James Dean, Marlon Brando, all those people. And when I started Gabriel, I can’t use black, I can’t use white, I can’t use blue. So what am I going to do to create that effect?

He ended up wearing green. Since he’s got the red hair, I think the green has a good effect on him.

The blue screen also meant that much or most of the evolved language of film had to be tossed. The camera wasn’t allowed to swoop or soar; it had to remain stock still if the computer-generated backgrounds were to look coherent after they were inserted. Thus the scenes had to be staged and blocked like live-theater productions which happened to perform for a camera rather than a live audience.

Making an interactive story, in which scenes could occur in many different orders, played havoc with the actors’ ability to inhabit their roles. Will Binder:

[The player] can jump around during the game at any point, so the actor has to have a neutral emotion at the start of each scene. [The scene currently being filmed] could [be] before a big scene happened or could [be] after a big scene.

In a regular movie, you would like to tell [the actor], “Okay, this just happened: you just broke up with your girlfriend.” Or, “An hour ago you found out some information about a person you have been dealing with.”

In the game,  [the player] can go anywhere [they] want. So there is no linear progression.

Joanne Takahashi:

With this shoot, you are taking so many different paths you are not sure where the character is going. It is a challenge.

I am just feeling it through and letting things come to me as I go along. It was something to adjust to because a lot of what actresses do is inspired by what they are feeling. That was a difficult challenge, but that was a requirement on this kind of project.

Most of the actors were not technically oriented, and had little concept of how the scenes they were shooting would be cobbled together into a coherent final product. Certainly there was nothing like the daily rushes of conventional filmmaking, which help actors understand how a production is coming together while the shoot is still progress. The actors working on The Beast Within were swimming blind in unknown waters.

Keeping all that in mind, then, how did the actors do?

Dean Erickson is a rather counterintuitive case in some ways. On the one hand, he badly misses the mark of the Gabriel Knight that Jane Jensen likes to describe. Far from a cool lady-killer, he radiates discomfort in his own skin virtually every moment he spends onscreen; he’s forever sighing and twitching and glancing nervously away as if looking for direction (which he quite possibly is, come to think of it), coming across as a guy for whom propositioning a girl comes as naturally as foreign languages. (American to the core, Gabriel has managed to avoid picking up a word of German during the months he’s already spent in the country.) Needless to say, nothing about this performance will convince you that Erickson is Hollywood leading-man material.

And yet Erickson’s take on Gabriel kind of works despite itself. His discomfort before Will Binder’s cameras mirrors that which any born-and-bred New Orleanian would feel after being transplanted to such an utterly foreign clime as southern Germany. For all of Erickson’s manifest limitations as an actor, I have to say that I like his Gabriel more than I do the one Tim Curry voice-acted in Sins of the Fathers. He’s relatable in his way, and, if he doesn’t exactly radiate masculine virility, nor does he come across like a member of the #metoo Most Wanted brigade, as Curry’s Gabriel too often did. He’s not bad company on the whole, once you get used to his incessant fidgeting. In achieving this much, he fulfills the first and most important criterion of any good adventure-game protagonist.

Will Binder directs Joanne Takahashi. She needed all the help she could get.

But Joanne Takahashi’s Grace is, alas, less likeable. This is a problem in that Grace steps up to almost equal time with Gabriel in this second game; the player controls her rather than Gabriel through two and a half of the game’s six chapters. Her apparently unrequited affection for Gabriel and jealousy of his beautiful German secretary Gerde are doubtless intended to be endearing, but are written and acted with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball to the head. Whether because she’s got them old lovesick blues or because she’s just made that way, Grace is bitchy toward everyone and everything she encounters for much of the game. Only toward the end, when she’s finally accepted that Gerde isn’t after her man and that Gabriel really needs her help, does she start to lighten up a bit. But even then, the actress who plays her remains stiff as a board.

Peter Lucas by contrast gives by far the most natural performance, as Baron Von Glower, the libertine leader of a mysterious big-game hunting club which Gabriel stumbles upon in the course of his investigations. Every time he appears, he lights up the screen with his romance-novel looks and his enticing aura of danger; his scenes with Gabriel flare with far more sexual tension than Gabriel ever strikes up with Grace. Lucas’s onscreen performance stands out as one of the best of the entire full-motion-video era of gaming — granted, not an overly high bar to clear, but we should give him his props nevertheless.

The smoldering attraction between Gabriel and Van Glower is remarkable in the context of its time. Mass-market computer games just didn’t go to these places in 1995. If the beats of the plot can be read as allegorical in a thoroughly retrograde way — Gabriel must overcome the temptation of lycanthropy, which in turn becomes accidentally or purposefully associated with homosexuality in the script, in order to return to the good girl Grace — what we see on the screen never feels as judgmental as that formulation would imply. (It is perhaps not completely inappropriate to mention at this juncture that Jane Jensen has become a successful writer of gay romance fiction in recent years.)


The Beast Within took over Sierra’s new Oakhurst sound stage in May of 1995. Filming there lasted almost four months in all. At its conclusion, the crew moved to Seattle for a few days to shoot the game’s climactic scenes on location in the city’s opera house, complete with many of the local opera company’s own players. Here the constraints imposed by the game’s peculiar technological stew fell away, and Will Binder got to shoot something resembling scenes from a proper movie. He was a lucky guy; very few other full-motion-video productions from the 1990s ponied up for a full-fledged location shoot.



Coming to this article, I had fonder memories of The Beast Within than Sins of the Fathers, and I was curious to find out whether that impression would hold up. I was gratified that it generally did. The game is as shaggy as its namesake even if one looks beyond the uneven acting, being full of unnecessary stumbling blocks in its interactivity that prevent me from giving it a full-throated recommendation here or making a place for it in my personal Hall of Fame, where fairness to the player is a prerequisite. But it’s a fascinating piece of work all the same, created as it was just at the apogee of that window of time when interactive narratives starring “real” actors were considered the necessary future of gaming by big companies like Sierra — so much so that they were building million-dollar sound stages for themselves to churn them out with the alacrity of any Hollywood studio. Jane Jensen would never get a chance to work on a scale like this again. And it must be said that she made the most of it: the overweening ambition of The Beast Within — the sheer grandiosity of it all — makes it a sight to behold. This is a computer game for which an opera was composed, for God’s sake. Everyone involved with it was unabashedly shooting for the moon.

The game opens several months after the conclusion of Sins of the Fathers, when a very reluctant Gabriel has moved into his ancestral castle in Germany to take up the family business of shadow-hunting. Meanwhile Grace has been left behind in New Orleans to run his old bookstore.

One dark night, a group of German villagers straight out of Hammer Horror central casting knocks on the front door of Gabriel’s castle. “We have come for the Schattenjäger,” says their leader. It seems that a little girl living in another small town near Munich has been killed — by, the visitors believe, a werewolf. (“At least she died quickly,” says the village patriarch to her grieving father, a line so hilariously tone deaf that one has to assume it was intended to be funny.) Gabriel has his doubts, but he agrees to take the case. His investigations will eventually lead him to the hunting club led by Baron Von Glower.

When Grace learns of the case, she hightails it to Germany, but doesn’t join up directly with Gabriel. Instead she occupies herself with research on the real or mythical history of lycanthropy. She learns that Ludwig II, king of Bavaria from 1864, seems to have become a werewolf himself while still a young man, and that this may account for much of his legendarily strange behavior. Further, she discovers that he told his friend Richard Wagner of his plight, prompting the latter to compose a magical opera which he hoped would be able to drive out the curse. But he was unable to complete it before Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances in 1886 — he had become a persistent irritant to the new, Prussia-dominated united Germany, making his death fodder for all sorts of conspiracy theories — and the opera was never performed. What there was of it was lost, seemingly forever — until the dogged Grace digs it up again. She soon has urgent need of it, as Gabriel has by now gotten himself infected with the curse.

All of this is mind-bogglingly ridiculous, of course, but the game leans into it with a commitment that would make Dan Brown proud, and darned if it doesn’t do a pretty good job of selling it. The Beast Within is nothing if not a slow burn. Gabriel doesn’t meet his first indubitable werewolf in the flesh until over two-thirds of the way in, while Grace’s chapters involve little more than poring over musty books and museum exhibits, giving them at times more of the flavor of an educational CD-ROM than an adventure game.

Much of Grace’s time is spent touring Neuschwanstein Castle, complete with the obligatory tourist audio guide.

Clearly Jane Jensen was touched by the wistful, sorrowful life of Ludwig, enough so as to make it the thematic bedrock of her game. She saw parallels with a certain modern eccentric whose days would also end in tragedy and controversy:

He was a real misfit, never in sync with the world. He lived in a fantasy world, and because he had a lot of money, he could surround himself with fantasy, not unlike Michael Jackson now.

As time went on, he got more and more beaten down by the world. His relationships never worked out, and he was always disillusioned. He was a very sensitive soul who was just hurt by everything, who kept retreating and withdrawing.

When he was young, he was very much a Prince Charming type. And of course his end was very tragic. So I just think it is a very beautiful, sad story of a life.

Grace’s historical research and Gabriel’s more active investigations meet only in the sixth and final chapter of the game, when the former arranges a public premiere of the lost opera in order to cure the latter of the affliction he’s picked up. The audacity of this bit is almost unbelievable. Not only did the game’s soundtrack composer Robert Holmes — also Jane Jensen’s husband — dare to write an opera, he had the colossal cheek to make it a lost Wagner opera. It took him “about a week,” as he remembers it. (One has to assume that the real Wagner devoted somewhat more time to his masterworks). I’m in no way qualified to judge the worthiness of Holmes’s opera, but I must assume it to be dire enough to send aficionados running from the room with their hands over their ears. Nevertheless, here’s to ambition. One certainly can’t accuse this game of pulling any of its punches.

All of its interest in place and history can rather overshadow its bona fides as a work of horror. Much of the time, it’s more eerie than terrifying, more melancholy than thrilling; suffice to say that it lives in a place far removed from the schlocky sensationalism of Roberta Williams’s Phantasmagoria. When the time finally does come to confront werewolves nose to snout, however, The Beast Within doesn’t disappoint. There’s one scene in the penultimate chapter — anyone who’s played the game will know which one I’m talking about — that’s unsettling enough to give you nightmares. While it’s easy enough to laugh off Phantasmagoria‘s cartoonish execution scenes, you won’t be laughing at this one. If the climax in the opera house is ironically less horrifying than what comes immediately before it, fair enough; one scene like that should be enough for any game.

All of which is to say that The Beast Within is a richly textured, admirably complex work of fiction in many ways. At its best and judged in the context of its time, it was one of the most impressive interactive narratives yet attempted on a computer by 1995. But alas, it isn’t always this best version of itself. What with so much love having been so clearly poured into the game from so many different quarters, I can’t help but wonder why Jane Jensen couldn’t manage to make it just a little bit better. Mixed in with all of its rarefied intellectual and thematic aspirations is plenty of B-movie amateurishness. The language barrier gets erected and torn down willy-nilly, depending on whether Jensen wants to make a plot element out of it or not at any given instant; particularly amusing is the Schattenjäger library in Gabriel’s family castle, consisting of a bunch of Medieval texts helpfully written in modern English. There’s no reason that plausible ways around the language problems couldn’t have been built into the game’s puzzle structure, doing much for its sense of mimesis and potentially even for its character-building in the process. (Perhaps Grace needs to enlist the help of the hated Gerde to translate?) Similarly, the game’s timeline makes no sense whatsoever. Gabriel and Grace’s separate investigations overlap with one another in ways that would only be possible if one or both had a time machine to hand.

These may strike some as the pettiest of niggles, but the fact is that continuity matters in the crafting of believable fictions of any stripe. No credible book-publishing house or film studio would allow a story to go out in such a state as this one. Plot may stand at a lower rung on the artistic totem pole than character or theme in the minds of many, but even most of these will acknowledge that a coherent plot is a necessary prerequisite to those other things.

The Beast Within has some really good puzzles that stretch the interface beyond the typical “use item X on hotspot Y.” One, for example, requires you to construct a fake telephone message by splicing together snippets of recorded speech.

And then there is the interactive design. Jane Jensen resisted any pressure that may have come her way to dumb down The Beast Within in the manner of Phantasmagoria: her game is full of real puzzles worthy of the name, in some cases pretty good ones. In fact, it fares considerably better on this metric than Sins of the Fathers. Nevertheless, there remains a smattering of bad design choices that serve to pull you out of the game every time you feel yourself on the verge of becoming truly immersed in its world. A few of the puzzles hinge on the sort of moon logic for which adventure games have been so often justifiably criticized. (Using a cuckoo clock on a potted plant? Really, Jane?) Even one example of this sort of thing can be ruinous to the player’s experience, in that it destroys her trust in the game’s interactive design at the same time that it demolishes the integrity of its fiction.

In Grace’s chapters, Jensen lays claim to the dubious status of being the inventor of the hidden-object genre: you have to pixel-hunt your way through several big areas, looking for that one tiny thing you overlooked the last dozen times through. You see, this game really, really wants you to know everything possible about Richard Wagner and King Ludwig II: it won’t let the plot proceed until you’ve clicked on every last hotspot on every last detail in every last musty little corner of their respective museum and castle — in a few cases twice. Finding it all can be a challenge even if you’re playing directly from a walkthrough.

And when we get to the big finale, Jensen falls into the common trap of assuming that the ending of an adventure game ought to be much harder than what has come before. (In reality, the opposite is true; the player has already done lots of thinking during the mushy middle, and now just wants an exciting climax followed by victory, with a minimum of fuss.) One key puzzle here hinges on manipulating an object in a way that the interface has never allowed before and never even hinted was a possibility. And the literal last action you need to do in the game is a tricky exercise in perfect timing and precise clicking that’s also out of keeping with everything that’s come before, so much so that you could easily assume you’ve missed something and waste hours looking for it.

But regular readers have heard similar litanies of design sins from me many times before, so I won’t belabor these issues further here. The Beast Within is yet another checkered product of Sierra’s creative culture, which, in marked contrast to such other adventure specialists as Infocom, LucasArts, and Legend Entertainment, never emphasized outside play-testing or even serious discussion of the craft of design in the abstract. Interesting and engaging as it is in its present state, it could have been so much better, if only a process had been put in place to make it better. Whatever the merits of his year-to-year choices as a businessman, Ken Williams’s failure to do so — a byproduct of his personal disinterest in actually playing his company’s games — will always stand as his biggest single lapse in my book.


Wagner’s Lost Opera, the grand finale to The Beast Within. Most games, then and since, have tended to front-load their most impressive scenes so that everyone — not least potential buyers — can see them. This one’s willingness to hold off until the very end says something, I think, about the spirit of grandiose (operatic?) idealism that marked the whole project.

The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery shipped on six CDs less than a week before the Christmas of 1995, half a year after Phantasmagoria had been greeted with huge sales and much mainstream-press attention. Everything about this latest release reflected the current ebullient mood at Sierra, where everyone was convinced they were about to truly hit the big time, with a vastly expanded customer base. For example, the box was careful not to say that this was “Gabriel Knight 2,” for fear of scaring away that new generation of buyers, who might not be keen on starting a series in the middle and might be even less keen on playing an “old-fashioned” game like Sins of the Fathers.

Indeed, even Sierra’s new fictional genre of choice reflected the new focus on the mainstream. Horror was a less stereotypically nerdy ghetto than fantasy or science fiction, yet one that was still fairly well-suited to adventure-game modes of interaction. So, after never touching the genre for the first decade and change of their existence, Sierra was now all over it. Three of the five domestically-developed adventures they released in 1995 were horror games. (The third companion to Phantasmagoria and The Beast Within in this respect was the lower-profile Shivers, a solitary Myst-style first-person puzzler created by a breakaway team at Bright Star, Sierra’s educational-software subsidiary.)

In comparison to the adventure-lite Phantasmagoria, The Beast Within was perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing: it was, as we’ve seen, a game that evinced a full measure of respect for its audience’s collective intelligence, with challenging puzzles and complex present-day and historical mysteries to tease out. Still, there’s little reason to believe it was because of this that it failed to sell anywhere near as well as its predecessor. The mainstream magazines and newspapers that had covered the older game as a curiosity showed little interest in the newer one; ditto the many people who had bought Phantasmagoria strictly to show off their new multimedia computer systems. That left only the traditional adventure market, the same people who had bought Sins of the Fathers. It seemed that Sierra was suddenly back to square one.

This state of affairs was, to say the least, deeply disconcerting to everyone there, as they all found themselves having to adjust their paradigm of gaming’s necessary future at lightning speed. Sierra programmer Greg Tomko-Pavia expressed the collective confusion in a contemporary online interview whose frankness presumably wouldn’t have endeared it to his managers:

I must say that I’m surprised Phantasmagoria has done so well. Presently, we’ve sold over 700,000 copies — more than any other Sierra game. I can’t account for it. In my opinion, Phantasmagoria suffered from weak writing, acting, and direction. I don’t understand why Gabriel Knight 2, to my mind superior in every detail, isn’t doing nearly so well. What do I know? I just write code!

At the time of The Beast Within‘s release, Sierra was already filming their third big interactive horror film on their Oakhurst sound stage, a sequel-in-name-only to Phantasmagoria subtitled A Puzzle of Flesh. Its garish grindhouse aesthetic made its two boundary-pushing predecessors look downright prudish — which was, one supposes, further progress of a sort. But it would prove the last production of its type. Once it too had disappointed in the marketplace, its feverish courting of controversy having largely come up dry, the facility Sierra had built with such pride and at such expense would be used only occasionally, for 3D motion captures and the like. It was now clear that gaming writ large was going in a different direction entirely, leaving the sound stage a fork in a world of soup.

As for Gabriel and Grace: against all the odds, they would return for one final game, but that would be a more constrained production than this one, using one of the 3D engines that were taking over the industry. There’s a world-weariness about that game — a sense of existential despair on the part of its creators that’s almost palpable when playing it — that you won’t find in this one, which was created by a team who saw only limitless potential everywhere they looked. The Beast Within is the product of a rare moment when the creative and the commercial impulse seemed united as one. For all its frustrating infelicities, it positively soars with its makers’ enthusiasm, with their bracing willingness to just try. Neither Jane Jensen nor any of the rest of them realized how lucky they were to be given the time and money to do so.

Six months after the release of The Beast Within, Roberta Williams, who was always the bellwether of the current creative direction of Sierra, gave a new verdict on the current state of adventure games that contradicted everything Sierra had been saying and doing for the past couple of years:

I believe adventure games have now gotten too plot-heavy. Not just ours, but also a lot of our competitors’ games. I think game designers need to get back to the game and forget all this wanna-be-writer-and-director stuff. They don’t realize people just want to play a game. They want to have control over what happens. Video clips are fine — if they’re very short, to the point, concise, and then… get out of there.

The times, they were still a-changing.

(Sources: the books Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter and The Beast Within: Official Player’s Guide by Corey Sandler with Jane Jensen; Computer Gaming World of November 1995 and February 1996; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Fall 1994, Spring 1995, Fall 1995, Holiday 1995, Spring 1996, and Summer 1996. Online sources include Anthony Larme’s interview with Greg Tomko-Pavia, “The Making of… the Gabriel Knight Trilogy” at Edge Online, Andrea Santorio’s interview with Jane Jensen, Martin Bourassa’s interview with Dean Erickson, Jane Jensen and Robert Holmes’s appearance on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” and Ingrid Heyn’s interview with Will Binder.

Now re-titled with the numeral Sierra once eschewed, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 This résumé would later lead to my favorite ever interview opening, from the adorably fannish website Adventure Classic Gaming: “You have worked with some of the best actors in the business — Al Pacino, Michael J. Fox, Bruce Boxleitner, Mira Furlan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of course, Dean Erickson and Joanne Takahashi.” Two of these names are not like the others…
 
 

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