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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Titanic Visions, Part 2: A Night to Remember

Why does the sinking of the Titanic have such a stranglehold on our imaginations? The death of more than 1500 people is tragic by any standard, but worse things have happened on the world’s waters, even if we set aside deliberate acts of war. In 1822, for example, the Chinese junk Tek Sing ran into a reef in the South China Sea, drowning all 1600 of the would-be immigrants to Indonesia who were packed cheek-by-jowl onto its sagging deck. In 1948, the Chinese passenger ship Kiangya struck a leftover World War II mine shortly after departing Shanghai, killing as many as 4000 supporters of Chiang Kai-shek’s government who were attempting to flee the approaching Communist armies. In 1987, the Philippine ferry Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker near Manila, killing some 4300 people who were just trying to get home for Christmas.

But, you may object, these were all East Asian disasters, involving people for whom we in the West tend to have less immediate empathy, for a variety of good, bad, and ugly reasons. It’s a fair point. And yet what of the American paddle-wheel steamer Sultana, whose boiler exploded as it plied the Mississippi River in 1865, killing about 1200 people, or only 300 fewer than died on the Titanic?

I’m comfortable assuming that, unless you happen to be a dedicated student of maritime lore or of Civil War-era Americana, you probably don’t know much about any of these disasters. But everyone — absolutely everyone — seems to know at least the basic outline of what happened to the Titanic. Why?

It seems to me that the sinking of the Titanic is one of those rare occasions when History stops being just a succession of one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee, and shows some real dramatic flair. The event has enough thematic heft to curl the toes of William Shakespeare: the pride that goeth before a fall (no one will ever dare to call a ship “unsinkable” again); the cruelty of fate (experts have estimated that, if the Titanic somehow could have been raised and put into service once again, it could have made a million more Atlantic crossings without bumping into any more icebergs); the artificiality of money and social status (a form of communism far purer than anything ever implemented in the Soviet Union or China reigned in the Titanic‘s lifeboats); the crucible of character in the breach (some people displayed tremendous, selfless bravery when faced with the ultimate existential impasse of their lives, while others behaved… less well). Unlike the aforementioned shipwrecks, all of which were short, sharp shocks, the sinking of the Titanic was a slow-motion tragedy that took place over the course of two and a half hours. This gave ample space for all of the aforementioned themes to play out. The end result was almost irresistibly dramatic, if you’ll excuse my callousness in writing about it like a film prospectus.

And then, of course, there is the power of the Titanic as a symbol of changing times, as an almost tangible way point in history. The spirit of a century doesn’t always line up neatly with the numbers in our calendars; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were actually unusual in setting the tone for our muddled, complicated 21st-century existences so soon after we were all cheering our escape from the Y2K crisis and drinking toasts to The End of History on January 1, 2000. By way of contrast, one might say that the nineteenth century didn’t really get going in earnest until Napoleon was defeated once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Similarly, one could say that the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 makes for a much more satisfying fin de siècle than anything that occurred in 1900. On that cold April night in the North Atlantic, an entire worldview sank beneath the waves, a glittering vision of progress as an inevitability, of industry and finance and social refinement as a guarantee against any and all forms of unpleasantness, of war — at least war between the proverbial great powers — as a quaint relic of the past. Less than two and a half years after the Titanic went down, the world was plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever known.

That, anyway, is how we see the sinking of the Titanic today. Many people of our own era are surprised, even though they probably shouldn’t be, that the event’s near-mythic qualities went completely unrecognized at the time; the larger currents of history tend to make sense only in retrospect. While the event was certainly recognized as an appalling tragedy, it was not seen as anything more than that. Rather than trying to interrogate the consciousness of the age, the governments of both Britain and the United States took a more practical tack, endeavoring to get to the bottom of just what had gone wrong, who had been responsible, and how they could prevent anything like this from ever happening again. There followed interminable hearings in the Houses of Parliament and the Capitol Building, while journalists gathered the stories of the 700-odd survivors and wrote them up for a rapt public. But no one wrote or spoke of the event as any sea change in history, and in due course the world moved on. By the time the British luxury liner Lusitania, the queen of the Atlantic-crossing trade prior to the construction of the Titanic and its two sister ships, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915 — loss of life: 1200 — the Titanic was fading fast from the public consciousness, just another of those damn things that had happened before the present ones.

“Had the Titanic been a mud scow with the same number of useful workingmen on board and had it gone down while engaged in some useful social work,” wrote a muckraking left-wing Kansan newspaper, “the whole country would not have gasped with horror, nor would all the capitalist papers have given pages for weeks to reciting the terrible details.” This was harsh, but undeniably true. The only comfort for our Kansan polemicists, if it was comfort, was that the Titanic looked likely to be forgotten just as completely as that hypothetical mud scow would have been in the fullness of time.

But then, in the 1950s, the Titanic was scooped out of the dustbin of history and turned into an icon for the ages by a 30-something American advertising executive and part-time author named Walter Lord, who had crossed the Atlantic as a boy aboard the Titanic‘s sister the Olympic and been fascinated by the ships’ stories ever since. Lord’s editor was unenthusiastic when he proposed writing the first-ever book-length chronicle of that fateful night, but grudgingly agreed to the project at last, as long as Lord wrote “in terms of the people involved instead of the ship.” Accordingly, Lord interviewed as many of the living survivors and their progeny as he could, then wove their stories together into A Night to Remember, a vividly novelistic minute-by-minute account of the night in question that has remained to this day the classic book about the Titanic, a timeless wellspring of lore and legend. It was Lord, for example, who first told the story of the ship’s band bravely playing on in the hope of comforting their fellow passengers, until the musicians and their music were swallowed by the ocean along with their audience. Ditto the story of the ship’s stoic Captain Edward Smith, who directed his crew to save as many passengers as they could and then to save themselves if possible, while he followed the unwritten law of the sea and went down with his ship. Published in November of 1955, A Night to Remember became an instant bestseller and a veritable cultural sensation. Walter Lord became Homer to the Titanic‘s Trojan War, pumping tragedy full of enough heroism, romance, and melodrama to almost — almost, mind you — make us wish we could have been there.

The book was soon turned into an American teleplay that was reportedly seen by an astonishing 28 million people. “Millions, perhaps, learned about the disaster for the first time,” mused Lord later about the evening it was broadcast. “More people probably thought about the Titanic that night than at any time since 1912.” (Sadly, every trace of this extraordinary cultural landmark has been lost to us because it was shot and broadcast live without ever touching film or videotape, as was the norm in those days). The book then became a lavish British feature film in 1958. Surprisingly, the movie was a failure in the United States. Walter Lord blamed this on poor Stateside distribution on the part of the British producers and a newspaper strike in New York. A more convincing set of causes might begin with its lack of big-name stars, continue with the decision to shoot it in stately black and white rather than garish Technicolor, and conclude with the way it echoed the book in weaving together a tapestry of experiences rather than giving the audience just one or two focal points whom they could get to know well and root for.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1950s the Titanic had been firmly lodged in the public’s imagination as mythology and metaphor, and it would never show any sign of coming unstuck. The first Titanic fan club — for lack of a better term — was founded in Massachusetts in 1960, whence chapters quickly spread around the country and the world. Initially called the Titanic Enthusiasts Society, the name was changed to the Titanic Historical Society after it was pointed out that being an “enthusiast” of a disaster like this one was perhaps not quite appropriate.  But whatever the name under which they traveled, these were obsessive fans in the classic sense, who could sit around for hours debating the minutiae of their favorite ship’s brief but glamorous life in the same way that others of their ilk were dissecting every detail of the starship Enterprise. (Doug Woolley, the first person to propose finding the wreck and raising it back to the surface, was every inch a product of this milieu.)

“The story of the Titanic is a curious one because it rolled on and on,” said Walter Lord decades after writing his seminal book, “becoming more newsworthy as time went by.” Needless to say, A Night to Remember has never come close to going out of print. Even as the 83 survivors who were still around in 1960 died off one by one and the mass-media spotlight shifted from them to the prospects of finding the wreck of the ship on which they had sailed all those years ago, it was always the stories of that one horrible night, with all of their pathos and their bizarre sort of glamour, that undergirded the interest. If there had been no Walter Lord to turn a disaster into a mythology, it would never have occurred to Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard to go in search of the real ship. It was thanks to 30 years of tellings and retellings of the Titanic story that those first pictures of the ship sent up from the depths by Ballard felt like coming face to face with Leviathan. For by the 1980s, you could use the Titanic as a simile, a metaphor, a parable, or just a trope in conversation with absolutely anyone, whether aged 9 or 90, and be certain that they would know what you were talking about. That kind of cultural ubiquity is extremely rare.

Thus we shouldn’t be stunned to learn that this totem of modern culture also inspired the people who made computer games. Even as some of their peers were casting their players as would-be Robert Ballards out to find and explore the wreck, others were taking them all the way back to the night of April 14, 1912, and asking them to make the best of a no-win situation.


The very first Titanic computer game of any stripe that I know of was written by an American named Peter Kirsch, the mastermind of SoftSide magazine’s “Adventure of the Month” club, whose members were sent a new text adventure on tape or disk every single month. Dateline Titanic was the game for May of 1982. Casting you as the ship’s captain, it begins with one of the cruelest fake-outs in any game ever. It seems to let you spot and dodge the deadly iceberg and change the course of history — until the message, “Oh, my God! You hit another one!” pops up. Simple soul that I am, I find this kind of hilarious.

Anyway, we’re back in the same old boat, so to speak. The game does permit you to be a bit less of a romantic old sea dog than the real Captain Smith and to save yourself, although you’re expected to rescue as many passengers as you can first. In an article he wrote for SoftSide a few months after making the game, Kirsch noted that “the days of simply finding treasure and returning it to a storage location are gone forever.” But, stuck as he was with an adventure engine oriented toward exactly this “points for treasures” model, he faced a dilemma when it came time to make his Titanic game. He ended up with a design where, instead of scarfing up treasures and putting them in your display case for safe keeping, you have to grab as many passengers as possible and chunk them into lifeboats.

That said, it’s a not a bad little game at all, given the almost unimaginable technological constraints under which it was created. The engine is written in BASIC, and it combined with the actual game it enables have to be small enough to fit into as little as 16 K of memory. You can finish the game the first time whilst rescuing no one other than yourself, if necessary, then optimize your path on subsequent playthroughs until you’ve solved all of the puzzles in the right order, collected everyone, and gotten the maximum score; the whole experience is short enough to support this style of try-and-try-again gameplay without becoming too annoying. Whether it’s in good taste to treat a tragedy in this cavalier way is a more fraught question, but then again, it’s hard to imagine any other programmer doing much better under this set of constraints. It’s hard to pay proper tribute to the dead when you have to sweat every word of text you include as if you’re writing a haiku.

(Although Dateline Titanic was made in versions for the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Atari 8-bit line, only the last appears to have survived. Feel free to download it from here. Note that you’ll need an Atari emulator such as the one called simply Atari800. And you’ll also need Atari’s BASIC cartridge. Unfortunately, the emulator is not a particularly user-friendly piece of software, with an interface that is entirely keyboard-driven. You access the menu by hitting the F1 key. From here, you want to first mount the BASIC cartridge: “Cartridge Management -> Cartridge.” Press the Escape key until you return to the emulator’s main screen. You should see a “READY” prompt. Now you can run the “.atr” file by pressing F1 again, then choosing “Run Atari Program.” Be patient; it will take the game a moment to start up fully.)


Four years later, in the midst of the full-blown Titanic mania ignited by Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, another Titanic text adventure appeared, again as something other than a standard boxed game. Beyond the Titanic by Scott Miller is interesting today mostly as a case of humble beginnings. After releasing this game and a follow-up text adventure as shareware to little notice and less profit, Miller switched his focus to action games. He and his company Apogee Entertainment then became the primary impetus behind an underground movement which bypassed the traditional publishers and changed the character of gaming dramatically in the early 1990s by providing a more rough-and-ready alternative to said publishers’ obsession with high-concept “interactive movies.” For all that it belongs to a genre whose commercial potential was already on the wane by 1986, Beyond the Titanic does display the keen instinct for branding that would serve Miller so well in later years. The Titanic was a hot topic in 1986, and it was a name in the public domain, so why not make a game about it?

Beyond the Titanic itself is a strange beast, a game which is soundly designed and competently coded but still manages to leave a laughably bad final impression. Miller obviously didn’t bother to do much if any research for his game. Playing the role of a sort of anti-Captain Smith, you escape from the sinking ship all by yourself in one of its lifeboats and leave everyone else to their fate. Luckily for you, in Miller’s world a lifeboat is apparently about the size of a canoe and just as easy for one person to paddle. (In reality, the lifeboats were larger than many ocean-going pleasure boats, being 30 feet long and 9 feet wide.)

Your escape doesn’t mark the end of the game but its real beginning. Now aliens enter the picture, sucking you into a cave complex hidden below the ocean. From this point on, the game lives up to its title by having nothing else to do with the Titanic; the plot eventually sends you into outer space and finally on a trip through time. “Overstuffed” is as kind a descriptor as I can find for both the plot and the writing. This one is best approached in the spirit of an Ed Wood film; Miller tries valiantly to grab hold of the right verbs and adjectives, but they’re forever flitting out of his grasp like fireflies on a summer night. Suffice to say that Beyond the Titanic won’t leave anyone regretting that he abandoned text adventures for greener pastures so quickly.

(Beyond the Titanic has been available for free from Scott Miller’s company 3D Realms since 1998. In light of that, I’ve taken the liberty of hosting a version here that’s almost ready to run on modern computers; just add your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


A relatively more grounded take on the Titanic‘s one and only voyage appeared in 1995 as one of the vignettes in Jigsaw, Graham Nelson’s epic time-travel text adventure, which does have the heft to support its breadth. Indeed, Nelson’s game was the first ever to deliver a reasonably well-researched facsimile of what it was actually like to be aboard the doomed ship before and after it struck the iceberg. A fine writer by any standard, he describes the scenes with the appropriate gravity as you wander a small subsection of the ship’s promenades, staterooms, lounges, and crew areas.

Making a satisfying game out of the sinking of the Titanic presents a challenge for a designer not least in that really is the very definition of a no-win scenario: to allow the player to somehow avert the disaster would undercut the whole reason we find the ship so fascinating, yet to make a game simply about escaping doesn’t feel all that appropriate either. Many designers, including Scott Miller and now Graham Nelson in a far more effective way, therefore use the sinking ship and all of the associated drama as a springboard for other, original plots. (Because you’re a time traveler in Jigsaw, escape isn’t even an issue for you; you can ride the time stream out of Dodge whenever you feel like it.) Nelson imagines that the fabulously wealthy Benjamin Guggenheim, one of the glitterati who went down with the ship, is also a spy carrying a vital dispatch meant for Washington, D.C. Because Guggenheim, honorable gentleman that he is, would never think of getting into a lifeboat as long as women and children are still aboard the ship, he entrusts you with getting the message into the hands of a co-conspirator whose gender gives her a better chance of surviving: the “rich and beautiful heiress Miss Shutes.”

It must be emphasized that the Titanic is only a vignette in Jigsaw, one of fifteen in the complete game. Thus it comes as no surprise that the espionage plot isn’t all that well developed, or even explained. In addition, there are also a few places where Nelson’s background research falls down. The Titanic was not the first vessel ever to send an “SOS” distress signal at sea, as he claims. And, while there was an Elizabeth Shutes aboard the ship, she was a 40-year-old governess employed by a wealthy family, not a twenty-something socialite. On the more amusing side, Jigsaw walkthrough author Bonni Mierzejewska has pointed out that the compass directions aboard the ship would seem to indicate that it’s sailing due east — a good idea perhaps in light of what awaits it on its westward progress, but a decidedly ahistorical one nonetheless.

Still, Jigsaw gets more right than wrong within the limited space it can afford to give the Titanic. I was therefore surprised to learn from Graham Nelson himself just a couple of years ago that “the Titanic sequence is the one I would now leave out.” While it’s certainly a famous event in history and an enduring sign of changing times, he argues, it wasn’t of itself a turning point in history like his other vignettes, at least absent the insertion of the fictional espionage plot: “Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their place, and history wasn’t much dented.” This is true enough, but I for one am glad the Titanic made the cut for one of my favorite text adventures of the 1990s.

(Jigsaw is available for free from the IF Archive. Note that you’ll need a Z-Machine interpreter such as Gargoyle to run it.)



Yet the most intriguing Titanic text adventure of all is undoubtedly the one that never got made. Steve Meretzky, one of Infocom’s star designers, was one of that odd species of Titanic “fan”; his colleagues remember a shelf filled with dozens of books on the subject, and a scale model of the ship he built himself that was “about as big as his office.” Shortly after his very first game for Infocom, the 1983 science-fiction comedy Planetfall, became a hit, Meretzky started pushing to make a Titanic game. Just like the previous two designers in this survey, he felt he had to add another, “winnable” plot line to accompany the ship’s dramatic sinking.

You are a passenger on the Titanic, traveling in Third Class to disguise the importance of your mission: transporting a MacGuffin from London to New York. As the [game] opens and you feel a long, drawn-out shudder pass through the ship, you must begin the process of escaping the restricted Third Class section, retrieving the MacGuffin from the purser’s safe amidst the confusion, and surviving the sinking to complete your delivery assignment. The actual events of those 160 minutes between iceberg and sinking would occur around you. I see this as a game of split-second timing that would require multiple [playthroughs] to optimize your turns in order to solve the puzzles in the shortest possible time. But you could also ignore all the puzzles and simply wander around the ship as a “tourist,” taking in the sights of this amazing event.

To his immense frustration, Meretzky never was able to drum up any enthusiasm for the idea at Infocom. In 1985, he was finally allowed to make a serious game as his reward for co-authoring the third best-selling text adventure in history, but even then his colleagues convinced him to opt for a science-fiction exercise called A Mind Forever Voyaging instead of the Titanic game. The latter remained something of a running joke at Meretzky’s expense for years. “It was almost a cliché,” says his colleague Dave Lebling. “Steve would say, ‘We should do a Titanic game!’ And we would all say, “No, no Titanic game. Go away, Steve.'”

The dream didn’t die for Meretzky even after Infocom closed up shop in 1989, and he moved on to design games for Legend Entertainment, a company co-founded by his fellow Infocom alum Bob Bates. Sadly, Bates too saw little commercial potential in a Titanic game, leaving Meretzky stuck in his comedy niche for all four of the games he made for Legend.

And still the fire burned. When Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook, another old Infocom colleague, decided to start their own studio called Boffo Games in 1994, the Titanic game was high on the agenda. The changing times meant that it had by now evolved from a text adventure into a point-and-click graphic adventure, with a fully fleshed-out plot that was to place aboard the ship the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, which really was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. (Ever since the painting was recovered from the thieves two years later, conspiracy theories claiming that the Mona Lisa which was hung once again in the Louvre is a face-saving forgery have abounded.) Meretzky and Dornbrook pitched their Titanic game to anyone and everyone who might be willing to fund it throughout Boffo’s short, frustrating existence, and even created a couple of rooms as a prototype. But they never could get anyone to bite. “We were saying, you know, there’s this new movie coming out,” says Dornbrook. “And it might do well. It will come out about the time the game will. It’s [James] Cameron. He sometimes does good stuff…” But it was to no avail. Meretzky made his very last adventure game to date in 1997, and it had nothing to do with the Titanic.

Instead it was left to another graphic adventure to ride the wave kicked up by the movie Dornbrook mentioned to sales that bettered the combined totals of all of the other Titanic games I’ve mentioned in these last two articles by an order of magnitude. I’ll examine that game in detail in the third and final article in this series. But first, allow me to set the table for its success via the origin story of the highest-grossing movie of the twentieth century.


After the failures of the film versions of A Night to Remember and Raise the Titanic, the Hollywood consensus had become that nothing sank a feature film’s prospects faster than the Titanic. This was weird, given that the book A Night to Remember had spawned a cottage industry in print publishing and a whole fannish subculture to go along with it, but box-office receipts didn’t lie. The movers and shakers of Hollywood could only conclude that the public wanted a happy ending when they handed over their hard-earned money on a Friday night, which spelled doom for any film about one of the most infamously unhappy endings of all time. Even the full-fledged Titanic mania that followed Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck failed to sway the conventional wisdom.

But one prominent Hollywood director begged to differ. James Cameron was coming off the twin triumphs of The Terminator and Aliens in 1987, when he saw a National Geographic documentary that prominently featured Ballard’s eye-popping underwater footage of the wreck. An avid scuba diver, Cameron was entranced. He began to imagine a film that could unite the two halves of the Titanic‘s media legacy: the real sunken ship that lay beneath the waves and the glamorously cursed vessel of modern mythology. He jotted his thoughts down in his journal:

Do story with bookends of present-day scene of wreck using submersibles inter-cut with memory of a survivor and re-created scenes of the night of the sinking. A crucible of human values under stress. A certainty of slowly impending doom (metaphor). Division of men doomed and women and children saved by custom of the times. Many dramatic moments of separation, heroism, and cowardice, civility versus animal aggression. Needs a mystery or driving plot element woven through with all this as background.

The last sentence would prove key. Just like Scott Miller, Graham Nelson, and Steve Meretzky in the context of games, Cameron realized that his film couldn’t succeed as a tapestry of tragedy only. If it was to capture a wide audience’s interest, it needed the foreground plot and obvious set of protagonists that the film of A Night to Remember had so sorely lacked.

Yet Cameron’s own Titanic film would be a long time in coming. The melancholy splendor of that National Geographic documentary first did much to inform The Abyss, his moody 1989 movie about an American nuclear submarine’s close encounter with aliens. There then followed two more straightforward action vehicles starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator 2 and True Lies.

Always, though, his Titanic movie stayed in the back of his mind. By 1995, he had more than a decade’s worth of zeitgeist-defining action flicks behind him, enough to make him the most bankable Hollywood crowd-pleaser this side of Steven Spielberg, with combined box-office receipts to his credit totaling more than $1.7 billion. With his reputation thus preceding him, he finally managed to convince an unusual pairing of 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures to share the risk of funding his dream project. Hollywood’s reluctance was by no means incomprehensible. In addition to the Titanic box-office curse, there was the fact that Cameron had never made a film quite like this one before. In fact, no one was making films like this in the 1990s; Cameron was envisioning an old-fashioned historical epic, a throwback to the likes of War and Peace, Cleopatra, and Gone with the Wind, complete with those films’ three-hour-plus running times.

Cameron’s plan for his movie had changed remarkably little from that 1987 journal outline. He still wanted to bookend the main story with shots of the real wreck. He filmed this footage first, borrowing a Russian research vessel and deep-ocean submersible in September of 1995 in order to do so. Then it was time for the really challenging part. The production blasted out a 17-million-gallon pool on Mexico’s Baja coast and replicated the Titanic inside it at almost a one-to-one scale, working from the original builder’s blueprints. The sight of those iconic four smokestacks — the Titanic is the one ship in the world that absolutely everyone can recognize — looming up out of the desert was surreal to say the least, but it was only the beginning of the realization of Cameron’s vision. Everything that came within the view of a camera was fussed over for historical accuracy, right down to the pattern of the wainscotting on the walls.

Still hewing to the old-school formula for Hollywood epics, Cameron decided to make his foreground protagonists a pair of starstruck lovers from different sides of the economic divide: a prototypical starving artist from Steerage Class and a pampered young woman from First Class. This suited his backers very well; the stereotype-rooted but nevertheless timeless logic of their industry told them that men would come for the spectacle of seeing the ship go down, while women would come for the romance. The lead roles went to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a pair of uncannily beautiful young up-and-comers. Pop diva Celine Dion was recruited to sing a big, impassioned theme song. For, if it was to have any hope of earning back its budget, this film would need to have something for everyone: action, romance, drama, a dash of comedy, and more than a little bit of sex appeal. (DiCaprio’s character painting Winslet’s in the altogether remains one of the more famous female nude scenes in film history.) But whether that would make it an entertainment spectacle for the ages or just an unwieldy monstrosity was up for debate.

The press at least knew where they were putting their money. When the project passed the $170 million mark to officially become the most expensive movie ever made, they had a field day. The previous holder of the record had been a deliriously misconceived 1995 fiasco called Waterworld, and the two films’ shared nautical theme was lost on no one. Magazines and newspapers ran headlines like “A Sinking Sensation” and “Glub! Glub! Glub!” before settling on calling Titanic — Cameron had decided that that simple, unadorned name was the only one that would suit his film — “the Waterworld of 1997.” By the time it reached theaters on December 19, 1997, six months behind schedule, its final cost had grown to $200 million.

And then? Well, then the press and public changed their tune, much to the benefit of the latest Titanic game.

(Sources: the books Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone, Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi, A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, and The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books edited by Jenny Lawrence; SoftSide of August 1982; the Voyager CD-ROM A Night to Remember. The information on Steve Meretzky’s would-be Titanic game is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me many years ago now, and from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Another online source was “7 of the World’s Deadliest Shipwrecks” at Britannica. My thanks to reader Peter Olausson for digging up a vintage newspaper headline that labels the Titanic “unsinkable” and letting me link to it.)

 
 

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Titanic Visions, Part 1: Sifting Through the Wreckage

Games are not made in a vacuum.

This truth ought to be self-evident, but it’s often lost in histories of gaming. People like me tend to rely, perhaps a bit too much, on what I sometimes call the cataloging approach to gaming history. You all know the recipe for such articles: start with a discrete classic (or occasionally infamous) game, add a narrative of who made it and how they did so, pour in an evaluation of its merits and demerits, and season the final concoction with a description of its place in the evolution of gaming in general. I’ve written plenty of such articles in the past, and will doubtless write plenty more of them in the future.

What such articles sometimes lose sight of, however, is a broader cultural context that’s to be found beyond the permeable borders of the gaming ghetto. The ideas and influences that are turned into games come from all over the place, being reflections of the societies that surround them and the interests of the people who make them. (For much of gaming history, these people have been mostly young white and Asian men from fairly privileged socioeconomic circumstances, which, needless to say, has had its own impact on the types of games that exist and the subjects they tackle.) Sometimes the pop culture that influences games is so blindingly obvious that we almost can become blind to it: what would digital games be today if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had never invented the tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons, or if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written The Lord of the Rings, or if George Lucas had never made Star Wars? But it’s the subtler influences that I find most interesting to ferret out — like, for instance, the way that techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s brand of American military triumphalism fed into the combat simulations made by companies like Microprose, which at times commanded a quarter or more of the overall computer-gaming market during the 1980s and 1990s.

When I realized a decade or so ago that I had somehow stumbled into writing a broad, encompassing history of computer gaming, I promised myself that I would try to bring out connections like these whenever possible. I’m not sure that I’ve always kept that promise on an article-by-article basis, but I have always tried to keep one eye at least on the bigger picture, to give this site some credibility as a broad cultural history rather than just a catalog of neat games that appeared down through time — not that it hasn’t also been the latter, of course. In short, I’ve always wanted to understand how outside culture bleeds into the seemingly insular world of gaming, and how gaming has left its mark on the world outside its boundaries. (This last has barely begun to happen at the point in history we’ve reached now, more than ten years into this project, but rest assured that the “gamefication” of everyday life is not that far away.) There are many reasons to play old games, the most popular ones being simply because they’re fun on their own merits and because of the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia they invoke in us folks of a certain age. But another reason, which is no less defensible, is that they give us a chance to become time travelers in a more impersonal sense, by giving us a direct pipeline to a receding past.

So, please indulge me now in a case study about how changing fashions in the way we view one of the most enduring mytho-historical tropes of modern culture impacted games. The sinking of the brand-new, “unsinkable” luxury liner the Titanic following a collision with a North Atlantic iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, is the delicious tragedy that we just can’t seem to let go of, an irresistible mixture of symbolism, theme, romance, pathos, mystery, and heroism to which we keep returning over and over. Just as many historical novels have more to tell us about the times in which they were written than the times they allegedly chronicle, the lens through which we view the Titanic has been as much a mirror we hold up to our contemporary selves as a window into the past. For example, during the unsentimental, materialist 1980s, the last full decade before our virtual online existences started to compete with our flesh-and-blood reality, the Titanic was discussed primarily as a thing, to be found, probed, and perhaps even raised above the waves once again. But then, in 1997 — an altogether dreamier, more fanciful time to be alive — a hit film reminded us why we had all fallen in love with the Titanic to begin with: because it’s such a great story, or rather collection of them, a beautiful canvas for our imaginations. My next three articles will examine these competing visions of the Titanic, and the games that were made in response to them — no fewer than ten games in all, plus one intriguing idea for a game that was never made.


The first person to propose finding and raising the Titanic from its watery grave did so barely a year after the ship had sunk. Charles Smith was a Colorado mining engineer who knew nothing about ships or the sea, but was convinced that his own area of expertise was as applicable to the problem of a seaborne salvage operation as it was to that of cracking open an elusive new seam of gold. It seems that when one goes through life with a miner’s hammer in one hand, everything looks like a suitable nail. “My object is to deliver the Titanic to its owners without further injury so that the great vessel may be rebuilt,” Smith declared. “Much of the cargo, or all of it, would be recovered. All the bodies which sank with the doomed ship have long since been embalmed by the action of the seawater, and when they are at last brought back to the surface they will be easily identifiable and prepared for reverential burial.”

Smith’s plan hinged on electromagnets, one of the trendy technological wonders of his age. He would build a massive one — possibly the most massive one ever built — sail or drag it out to the Titanic‘s last known location, turn it on, and let the sunken ship’s steel hull pull it to its bosom. With the wreck thus pinpointed on the ocean floor, he would descend in a custom-made submarine to attach hundreds more magnets to the hull, each with a rope leading back to a steam-powered winch aboard one of a dozen or so boats on the surface. When all was ready, the winches would all be activated in unison, and the 46,000-ton vessel would be slowly lifted back to the surface, then towed to a dry dock, repaired, and placed back into service. Smith estimated that the whole operation would require just $1.5 million and 162 men, and would take about three months: one month to find the wreck, one month to prepare it, and one month to raise it and tow it to safety. “It is merely a matter of magnets,” he insisted.

The plan left something to be desired in terms of basic physics, not to mention in its understanding of basic human psychology; how many passengers would really want to sail on a ship on which more than 1500 people had died in horrific circumstances? Yet it was taken bizarrely seriously in the popular press, which churned out excited headlines like “Can the Lost Titanic Be Raised?” Alas, potential investors proved less credulous: Smith managed to raise just $10,000 of the $1.5 million he said he needed. After the onset of the First World War, a more diffuse tragedy than the sinking of the Titanic but one that was many orders of magnitude more immense, he and his scheme faded back into obscurity, just another of the frivolous pipe dreams of a more innocent era.

More than half a century later, in the late 1960s, a British odd-jobber and Titanic obsessive named Doug Woolley captured headlines with a scheme that was almost as outlandish as that of Charles Smith. He would attach 200 deflated pontoons all around the Titanic‘s hull. Then they would be filled with hydrogen which would be extracted from the surrounding seawater via electrolysis, and the ship would rise majestically to the surface like the mother of all hot-air balloons. He said the whole operation would cost about £4.8 million and could be accomplished within one year.

To say that Woolley lacked qualifications in deep-sea salvage hardly begins to state the case. He was working in a pantyhose factory at the same time that he was holding press conferences about raising the Titanic. He had never personally sailed farther than the width of the English Channel, and was conducting what he insisted were groundbreaking experiments in electrolysis in his dingy flat’s bathtub. And he was rather putting the cart before the horse anyway, given that no one knew precisely where the Titanic lay; whereas Charles Smith had at least made some attempt to address that part of the problem, Woolley just took it on faith that it would turn up when he started to look around for it.

Wooley’s dream never had a chance in the real world, but the world of fiction was another matter. In 1976, the American author Clive Cussler published the third of what would become many pulpy adventure novels featuring his hero Dirk Pitt, a sort of Tom Swift for grown-ups. The novel was called Raise the Titanic!, and had a plot involving byzanium, a precious (and fictional) mineral, a radioactive power source whose potential dwarfs that of uranium or plutonium, whose only known reserves happened to be aboard the Titanic on that fateful night. Pitt and his friends concoct a plan for raising the ship — why they don’t just try to raise the byzanium in its hold is never adequately explained — that bears distinct similarities to Doug Woolley’s scheme: they will seal off the interior of the ship and pump it full of compressed air to cause it to float to the surface. This they succeed in doing, fighting off Soviet saboteurs all the while.

The novel became a bestseller, whereupon Hollywood made it into a big-budget summer movie in 1980. The scale model of the Titanic that was constructed for the film’s climactic scene of the ship breaking the ocean’s surface cost $7 million, as much as the original vessel when not adjusting for inflation. But surprisingly, even the Titanic name and a titanic budget worthy of the ship couldn’t save the film; it was savaged by critics, and turned into a box-office bomb. “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic,” quipped its producer Lew Grade later.

Although the method employed by Dirk Pitt and his friends for raising the Titanic was hopeless for a vessel of this size at this depth, it was adapted from real-world techniques already in use for raising ships that had sunk in shallower waters. For a cottage industry of shipwreck recovery had arisen after World War II. With an estimated quarter of a million or more ships having sunk since humanity first began to ply the world’s waterways, the pickings in the most popular sea lanes were rich. People made fortunes by poring over old nautical records, searching doggedly where the ships they found in them were believed to have sunk, and retrieving the gold, silver, and other valuable in their holds. The Caribbean, which had once positively teemed with Spain’s treasure-laden galleons sailing from the New World back to the Old, was particularly fertile ground.

Meanwhile others had invented the new field of maritime archaeology, with the purpose of studying and preserving the wrecks they found instead of looting them for profit. Soon every other issue of National Geographic seemed to contain some new undersea discovery, illustrated in full-color Kodachrome. For example, the Titanic‘s sister ship the Britannic, which had struck a German mine and sunk off the coast of Greece in 1916 while serving as a hospital ship, was found by the famous French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975.

Admittedly, the boundaries between the treasure hunter and the maritime archaeologist weren’t always clear. Many of the adventurous folks who got into this racket had a little bit of both in them, along with a hefty hankering for the notoriety that would come their way if they became, say, the first person to send back pictures of the most famous of all sunken ships in the world.

The problem with the Titanic, the thing which made it so much harder to find than the likes of the Britannic, was that it had sunk in the deep water of the open ocean rather than the coastal water of the Mediterranean. The deep ocean floor is the most inaccessible geography on our planet; even today, marine scientists like to say that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the landscapes under our own planet’s oceans. That said, people did come up with various ideas for locating the Titanic from the ocean’s surface that were more or less feasible. For example, Commander John Grattan, the Royal Navy’s anointed expert in diving and submersibles, proposed scouring the ocean floor with a huge active sonar array towed behind a trawler. But such plans would be dauntingly expensive to implement. And, even if the Titanic was found from the surface, what next? Only a few submersibles in the world were capable of diving to the wreck’s depth of two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface, and they were all in the hands of the United States Navy, which wasn’t in the habit of renting them out to private treasure hunters to use for snapping pictures and collecting souvenirs.

One man, however, judged that the fame and money that would follow a credible claim of just having found the Titanic — never mind the photographs, much less any salvage operations — would be enough to make the task eminently worth taking on. “Cadillac” Jack Grimm was a flamboyant Texas oilman with a taste for exotic adventure and pseudoscience, who had already mounted expeditions in search of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, who had once traveled to the North Pole in the hope of proving that the Earth was hollow. His greatest achievement to date in this mold, at least if you asked him, was the recovery of a piece of Noah’s Ark from the side of Mount Ararat in Turkey — never mind that the scientific community universally scoffed at his alleged find.

In the summer of 1980, while Raise the Titanic was bombing in box offices, Grimm funded a search for the real ship that was broadly similar to the approach suggested by John Grattan: a trawler dragged behind it a sonar array which hovered a few hundred feet above the ocean floor. Over a period of more than a week, the boat methodically covered an area of about ten square miles that was judged the most likely to contain the wreck. It returned to port without a smoking gun, but its crew did create a list of fourteen sites within the search area that had sent back suspiciously regular sonar echoes, any of which could be indicative of a large human-made object like the Titanic. “I think we got that heifer corralled in a box canyon,” Grimm told the press in his usual colorful diction.

Indeed, Grimm knew how to work the press like the master of ceremonies at a rodeo, and he poured on the juice now. He announced that he would mount a second expedition the following summer to exhaustively search each of the fourteen sites with a more sensitive sonar array, an iron-detecting magnetometer, and a camera capable of sending back grainy photographs. He arranged this time to borrow from the Coast Guard the Gyre, a cutting-edge oceanographic research vessel, and funded a documentary film that was to be hosted by Orson Welles; the film crew would sail with the second expedition in order to capture the instant of discovery. He was, he told the assembled journalists on the day he himself sailed with the Gyre, absolutely convinced that he would be known to the world as the man who had found the Titanic by the time his feet next touched dry land.

Looking for an expert to support, debunk, or qualify his showy optimism, some journalists turned to one Robert Ballard, an oceanographer and diver with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who was arguably the world’s foremost expert on deep-ocean exploration of a more scientific bent, whose greatest achievement to date had been his discovery of underwater hydrothermal vents and the unique forms of animal life that clustered around these precious oases of warmth on the bitter-cold ocean floor. The polar opposite of Grimm in temperament, the cautious Ballard said that, while Grimm’s overall approach was viable if conducted carefully and thoroughly, it would nevertheless be difficult to convince the public that he truly had found the Titanic absent high-quality, closeup photographs of the wreck. He was diplomatic enough not to add that Grimm’s earlier trafficking in mythical monsters and Biblical literalism would cause any claim he made to seem that much more dubious without overwhelming proof.

Meanwhile Grimm’s expedition set to work, contending with unstable weather that kept the Gyre‘s captain on a constant knife-edge. One by one, the crew eliminated the promising locations that had been identified the previous year. As the number of remaining possibilities dwindled, the mood onboard grew dimmer and dimmer. At last, the fourteenth and final site was crossed off the list. They had come up dry.

Or had they? On the way home, flipping in desultory fashion through the photographs that been returned to the surface, Grimm stumbled upon an image that gave him goosebumps: something that looked for all the world like a large human-made object, smoothly tapered like the wings of an airplane, rising out of the mud of the ocean floor. He was sure it must be a blade from one of the Titanic‘s 26-ton propellers.

Grimm immediately radioed the Coast Guard and asked to hang onto the Gyre for another week. But the Coast Guard refused, even when he name-dropped President Ronald Reagan, whom he claimed was a close personal friend. There was nothing for it but to continue the journey home. He was certain he had found the Titanic, but even his own team of experts, never mind outsiders, were unconvinced. They said that the blurry photograph was more likely than not just another rocky outcropping. An extraordinary claim required extraordinary proof, and this one picture was not it. Which didn’t stop Grimm’s documentary, once it was finished, from claiming it to be all but conclusive proof.

Grimm did try one more time to seal the deal. In the summer of 1983, he set off again aboard a research vessel, borrowed this time from Columbia University. But this trip was plagued by even worse weather than the last one. After several days of frantic searching for a propeller which seemed to have disappeared back into the ocean floor whence it had sprouted, 40-knot winds forced him to cut the expedition short. Grimm, who was prone to seasickness and had a deadly fear of water, decided enough was enough after this latest miserable experience. He never mounted a fourth expedition.

But the Titanic wasn’t to remain hidden much longer. For even as Jack Grimm was capturing headlines with his expeditions, Robert Ballard and his colleagues at Woods Hole were quietly developing an uncrewed deep-water sled equipped with an array of powerful searchlights and high-resolution still and video cameras, all operable by remote control from the surface. He called it the Argo, after the ship which the mythical Greek hero Jason had sailed into the unknown sea that lay beyond the Hellespont. Being not without a streak of public-relations savvy of his own, Ballard thought it would be quite a coup to use his expensive new toy to find and send back images of the Titanic, an achievement for which Grimm had obligingly primed the press’s pump.

That, at any rate, was how the story was reported in the 1980s. A more complicated and truthful version emerged years later. It seems that the United States Navy had funded much of the Argo‘s development and construction, with the understanding that it would be able to use it and its creator from time to time for its own purposes. (Ballard had longstanding relationships in the Navy, having served from 1967 to 1970 as an active-duty officer and being still a reservist.) The first favor was called in almost as soon as the Argo was ready for action. The Navy brass were very concerned about two nuclear attack submarines which had been lost in the 1960s in the North Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down. They were eager to ensure that the subs’ reactor cores had not ruptured and, just as importantly, that the Soviets hadn’t found the vessels and looted them for secrets. A search for the Titanic would make the perfect cover story for Ballard’s activities in this otherwise deserted stretch of open ocean. The Navy gave him two months to play with; if he completed his classified investigations more quickly than that, he could use the rest of his time to really search for the Titanic. As it happened, it took him slightly over a month and a half to find the two submarines and put the Navy’s mind at ease that neither was leaking radioactivity and neither had been plundered. He was left with twelve days in which to find the Titanic.

Ballard and his Argo were sailing aboard the research vessel Knorr, the workhorse of Woods Hole. That same summer, a French team under an oceanographer named Jean-Louis Michel had tried to find the Titanic using sonar, but had come up empty. This failure, combined with the failures of Jack Grimm’s expeditions, convinced Ballard that he shouldn’t be looking for a reasonably intact ship on the ocean floor; the area had been scoured so thoroughly with sonar by now that such an object would surely have been found if it existed. He believed that the ship must be far more badly damaged than had been previously assumed — in fact, that it had possibly broken into many pieces during its long plunge to the bottom. Instead of looking for a whole ship, he would look for the debris left by a sinking ship. Since sonar had no way of distinguishing small bits of human-made rubble from the natural detritus of the ocean floor, the only way to conduct such a search was visually, using the Argo‘s camera feeds. Time was short, the area to be searched was large, and this was an exhaustingly tedious way to go about it, but he would do what he could before he had to head home.

The twelve days were half up on the early morning of September 1, 1985, when, with Ballard fast asleep in his cabin, a shout went up from the Argo control room: “Wreckage!” By the time Ballard had burst into the room, the crew had zeroed in on a clearly manufactured metal object that they were certain was a boiler for the great ship’s engines. Everyone in the cramped little room burst into spontaneous cheers. But then, just as quickly, the mood turned sober. “We realized we were dancing on someone’s grave, and we were embarrassed,” remembered Ballard later. He suggested that they all observe a moment of silence. This they did, and then they got back to work.

Ballard and company carefully traced the “debris field” they had found back to each of its termini. At one end lay the front half of the ship, intact enough to still be readily recognizable for what it was; at the other end lay the rear half, so badly mangled that it looked like little more than a colossal pile of rusted metal and other junk. It was obvious what had happened: the ship’s back had broken as it plunged beneath the waves, and the two halves had separated completely from one another and finished the long fall separately, raining boilers, supports, furniture, bric-à-brac, and doubtless plenty of now-vanished human corpses from their open ends down onto the ocean floor between the two, like a gigantic busted piñata.

Needless to say, this discovery caused all but the most committed of dreamers to give up on any hopes of raising the ship. Grimm’s “propeller” lay well away from the real wreck site, proving to be nothing more than the unusual rock formation so many scientists had suspected it to be. On the other hand, it would later emerge that Grimm had towed his sonar array within 500 feet of the real ship’s bow back in 1981. Robert Ballard had been both very good and very, very lucky — a potent combination in any endeavor.

The September 3, 1985, edition of The New York Times included a small article printed near the bottom of the front page: “Wreckage of Titanic Reported Discovered 12,000 Feet Down.” It was the first trickle in what would become a torrent of media coverage. Soon the first photographs began making their way back from the North Atlantic — haunting images of a propeller (the real one this time), of a cabin porthole, of crockery and pots and a stoking port for the boilers. The killer shot captured much of the ship’s bow, its shape unmistakable to even the rankest layperson.

At this point, the story becomes for better or for worse as much a tale of mass media as exploration and discovery. Robert Ballard became more than just a run-of-the-mill celebrity; “folk hero” is a better description of his status. He returned to the wreck in the summer of 1986 with a crewed submersible called the Alvin, one of those aforementioned few vehicles in the world capable of withstanding the almost inconceivable cold and pressure that exist two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface; Ballard’s enviable connections had allowed him to borrow this unique vessel from the Navy. The photographs he came up with this time were stunning, allegories of splendid desolation fit to be framed and hung in a Romantic poet’s library. The press and the public they served couldn’t get enough. They experienced vicariously the same emotions Ballard had felt as he gazed out the window of the Alvin: “As I peered entranced through my viewport, I could easily imagine people walking down the promenade, looking out of the windows I was now looking into. Here I was on the bottom of the ocean gazing at recognizable, man-made artifacts. I was looking [at] decks along which [people] had walked, rooms in which they had slept, joked, made love.”




The wreck of the Titanic was simply inescapable for the next few years in the United States, Britain, and much of the rest of the world, the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentary films, museum exhibits, and even tourism; charter companies sold expensive junkets out to the spot in the ocean directly above the wreck. And, as with any media sensation worth its salt, there were also controversies. Jack Grimm resurfaced with a spurious legal claim, quickly dismissed by the courts, that he rather than Robert Ballard was the rightful discoverer of the wreck by virtue of having passed so close to it with his sonar array. And already in 1987 a dodgy outfit managed to mount an underwater expedition of its own to the site, damaging the wreck in the process of grabbing a handful of objects that were later unveiled in a tacky syndicated-television special. Host Telly Savalas and his panel of “experts” pawing through these precious artifacts was the twentieth-century equivalent of the amateur archaeologists of the nineteenth century blasting away at the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu with gunpowder.


The Titanic wreck site has continued to attract both earnest maritime archaeologists and shameless profiteers ever since, along with every gradient in between the two. But our interest today is in the early years of the Titanic mania spawned by the initial search for and discovery of the wreck. It’s time for us turn in that context to computer games, a very young form of media at the time Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard were making headlines, but one that was already responding to and reflecting the broader landscape of old media around it. In the case of the Titanic mania, this led to an entire sub-genre of games about the discovery of, exploration of, and in some cases the raising of the famous luxury liner. I’ll reveal upfront that none of these games is a deathless classic. Yet each is an instant of cultural history, suspended in the digital ether like the Titanic in its underwater grave.


The earliest game I know of which tackles the subject of the discovery and salvage of the Titanic predates Robert Ballard’s finding of the wreck by well over a year. Released in early 1984 in Britain only for the Sinclair Spectrum, the oddly titled Titanic: The Adventure Begins… is rather a reflection of the hype which surrounded Jack Grimm’s three expeditions. It was re-released two years later in not only the original Spectrum but a Commodore 64 version, doubtless in response to the news of Ballard’s discovery. It’s very much a product of the collective sugar rush that was the early British games industry, when just about any enterprising bedroom coder could slap a game together, pay a duplication house for a run of cassettes containing it, pay a print shop for a simple insert for the case, and sell the end result for a few quid in corner software shops all over the country.

Programmer Paul Hill, who called himself R&R Software, was clever enough to recognize that at least a third of the battle of finding the Titanic was funding the expedition. Accordingly, the first of the three radically different stages of his game involves finding a sponsor and outfitting your boat and crew, whilst keeping enough cash in reserve to pay your running costs once you head to sea. Stage two is the search for the wreck, which you conduct by sending diving teams down to promising locations identified on the NASA satellite photo you hopefully purchased during the previous stage; matters are complicated here by the icebergs that dot the ocean’s surface. Finally, stage three lets you actually explore the wreck, which in this alternate reality sits on the ocean floor conveniently intact. This stage, the most elaborate by far, is an exercise in mapping a three-level maze of almost 500 locations, looking for the game’s MacGuffin, a fortune in gold that supposedly went down with the ship.

Paul Hill’s knowledge of the realities of deep-water exploration is clearly nonexistent; the scuba divers he imagines frolicking through the wreck would have been crushed like bugs before they made it halfway down to 12,500 feet. Nor is his game any paragon of thoughtful design; much of your success or lack thereof depends on blind luck. Nevertheless, there’s a certain gonzo charm to the thing, a product of a time well before gameplay genres calcified into a set of straitjacketed expectations, when a game could do and be almost anything its programmer could dream up and dare to implement with the primitive tools at his disposal. In this sense, it’s a time capsule par excellence. I only wish I could hear the song which Paul Hill put on the tape’s flip side, an “epic rock track” by a bunch of his mates who called themselves Rare Breed. Sadly, this exposure did not lead to a record deal…

(You can download the original Spectrum version of Titanic: The Adventure Begins… from this site. Note that you’ll need a Spectrum emulator such as Fuse to run it.)


In Sinkable, his recent book-length meditation on the wreck of the Titanic and the hold it continues to exert on our imaginations, Daniel Stone writes that “the complexity of salvage can make it painfully boring. Like building an amusement park or passing a law, the process is far less interesting than the finished product. The film Raise the Titanic was a commercial flop because the title was the most breathtaking part.” Much the same might be said about many of the games featured here; an archaeological expedition to the Titanic is one of a surprisingly large number of possible game subjects which sound exciting in the abstract, but which are damnably difficult to turn into a satisfying gameplay loop once you drill down to the details. Unsurprisingly, then, those designers who came closest to making a compelling go of it were the ones who were willing to season their simulations with a degree of whimsy. The British game R.M.S. Titanic, which was also released in the United States as a budget title under the name of Titanic: The Recovery Mission, is a case in point.

Appearing in Britain in early 1986, R.M.S. Titanic technically postdates Robert Ballard’s discovery of the real ship, but was probably already in development before that point. It’s the product of a small studio who called themselves Oxford Digital Enterprises, whose one previous game was thoroughly in keeping with the highbrow expectations engendered by that name, being a four-stage journey through William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was published at the height of the bookware boom. R.M.S. Titanic, which was released for the Commodore 64 only, is by contrast all of a piece. Although you have to manage your finances and logistics much like in The Adventure Begins, you do so side-by-side with your exploration of the wreck.

All of the facets of this game are much more involved. You have half a dozen fickle backers whom you must keep mollified in order to keep the funding coming in; this you do by recovering alluring artifacts from the wreck and generating favorable press coverage. Indeed, working the press is another important part of the game. You field questions from reporters in press conferences, trying to tailor your responses to the organs they write for; the Titanic Historical Society has different priorities than Pravda.

But the heart of the game still takes place underwater, as it should. The game presumes that you have already located the wreck, and thus focuses only on your exploration of same with an uncrewed, remote-controlled submersible, which is simulated in some detail. You control its movements, set the intensity of its light, and can pick up and manipulate objects using its mechanical arm, keeping one eye always on its battery level; running out of juice under the ocean is disastrously expensive. As in The Adventure Begins, the ship here is conveniently intact, a maze of decks and rooms to be explored. Here, however, your way is blocked by lots and lots of locked doors. The game’s fanciful side comes to the fore via your method of opening them: each door is a little object-combination puzzle. For example, you might need to combine a cherry with a sundae in order to open the door that leads into an ice-cream parlor.

The game’s fiction, such as it is, has it that a previous expedition has already placed eight deflated balloons in the ship, then somehow lost track of where they are (and apparently locked all of the doors behind themselves). Your ultimate goal is to reach all of the balloons and inflate them, in order to raise the ship to the surface. As must be abundantly clear by now, there is much about this game that makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re wondering how a sundae and a cherry have survived for more than 70 years on the ocean floor, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you.

Still, much the same sense of giddy possibility clings to R.M.S. Titanic as to The Adventure Begins, combined with more sophisticated programming. The underwater scenes are almost unnervingly atmospheric despite — or because of? — the low resolution of the graphics, all flickering light peering into the eerie gloom. I remember being quite captivated by this game for several weeks as a young teenager, even though I never got very far in it.

For its difficulty is its real Achilles heel. As you move deeper and deeper into the ship, the object combinations you must divine grow more and more esoteric and the sheer quantity of objects and geography to reckon with grows more and more daunting. The first documented instance of anyone solving this game dates from after the millennium, when a patient German named Stefan Schönfelder finally accomplished the feat by making extensive use of emulator save states. The ending sequence proved predictably underwhelming; in this era of gaming, the journey had to be its own reward.

(You can download R.M.S. Titanic from this site. Note that you’ll need a Commodore 64 emulator such as VICE to run it.)


By the late 1980s, the shift to more powerful computers made a credible full-on simulation of marine archaeology seem like an increasingly realizable possibility. This would prove a mixed blessing, for all of the reasons listed by Daniel Stone above.

Search for the Titanic was released in 1989 by the American budget software house Capstone, who were best known for casino simulations. There were a flagship version for MS-DOS and a heavily redacted one for the trusty old Commodore 64. Despite or because of having been “reviewed for authenticity by the staff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute,” it’s one of the most brutally boring computer games ever made. The broad strokes are familiar: you have to deal with the business aspects of an expedition to the Titanic alongside the seaborne bits. This time out, however, you have to build up your reputation and financing by exploring a dozen or so less famous wrecks before you get a crack at the Titanic.

The actual dives are almost totally beyond your control; the game is primarily a simulation of finding the location of the wrecks from the surface. In this and much else, the designers’ guiding principal seems to have been, “Implement all the boring stuff, but be sure to leave out all the fun stuff.” If this is what you get when you do the research and take marine archaeology seriously, give me scuba divers swimming around at 12,500 feet and doors with ham-sandwich-activated locks any day.

There are two things that I find hilarious about this game. The first is that your reward for slogging through this simulation that has less pizazz than your average Excel spreadsheet is a set of digitized photographs of the wreck; it reminds me of those awful games of computerized strip poker I used to play as a sexually frustrated teenager, giving a whole new dimension to the neologism “disaster porn.” The other is that someone recently saw fit to dredge this stinker of a game up off the bottom and put it up for sale on a digital storefront for a fiver. To call that an audacious move is the understatement of the year. For, as Trent Nickson wrote in his 2005 review of Search for the Titanic for the Lemon 64 website, “I don’t really know how you could tart this game up to make it fun.” Suffice to say that the designers never even tried.

(The truly dedicated gaming historians among you can buy this game from GOG.com.)


Thankfully, someone else did try very hard to make marine archaeology fun. Sea Rogue was the first game by a small San Diego studio called Software Sorcery, and was published by Microprose for MS-DOS on their Microplay budget label in 1992. It was created with the assistance of a retired Navy captain whose expertise was underwater salvage, and was billed as a simulation. None of this sounds overly promising in light of the previous game in this survey.

But when you start to play the thing, it quickly becomes clear that Software Sorcery has made an aesthetic rather than a literal simulation — a game which endeavors to give you a taste of its real-world subject matter, but which never overwhelms you with boring detail, which understands that games need to be fun first and foremost. The Titanic is pushed somewhat into the background here; it’s just one of about 150 different wrecks you can find and explore, from the Spanish treasure galleons that litter the floor of the Caribbean to such other legendary modern wrecks as the World War II German battleship Bismarck. Sea Rogue is by far the most ambitious game on this list; there are a lot of moving parts here. I want to say that it’s the best game here as well.

The older game which Sea Rogue immediately brings to mind, even before any of the ones above, is the Sid Meier classic Pirates!. You start out in Norfolk with an old trawler, eager to make your fortune as a wreck hunter. So, you sail up and down the east coast of the United States and into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, seeking clues to wreck sites at each port of call. As you find and dive the wrecks and sell off the loot you acquire thereby back on land, you gradually improve your boat and your equipment. Eventually, you’ll have enough dosh to replace your rusty old tub entirely, first with a state-of-the-art research vessel and then with a beyond-state-of-the-art submarine, the Sea Rogue from which the game takes it name. These vessels make it practical to travel much farther — all the way to Britain, Europe, Africa, and into the Mediterranean, another veritable watery junkyard. And the Sea Rogue allows you to reach deep-water wrecks like the Titanic.

As I said, there’s a lot going on here. You have a crew to manage, who have CRPG-style statistics that improve with experience, assuming you invest in shore-based training every time they level up. Your relationships with different countries are affected by how much respect — or lack thereof — you show to their ships’ wreck sites; aggravate them too much and they’ll send their navies after you. You can hire research assistants, take on salvage contracts, even detect undersea mineral deposits and earn a finder’s fee.

Meanwhile up to five computer-managed competitors are doing the same things you are. One of them, the fellow named Evil Eddie, is particularly nasty, and will sometimes attack your vessel at sea or ambush your divers underwater. This means you need to make provisions for defending yourself, need to have some guns of your own available.

I absolutely love the premise, love the way it blends the unabashedly fantastic with the real-world subculture of wreck hunting. Half of the thick manual is given over to a list of every single one of those 150 ships that are waiting to be found, each and every one of them a real, documented wreck, ranging from Viking longboats to modern Soviet submarines. In order to earn full value for any treasures you recover, you have to ferret out the name of any ship you find from clues at the site, cross-referenced with the descriptions in the manual. The Titanic and Bismarck aren’t the only ships in this game that you’ve heard of before: there are also vessels like the Hunley, the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, and much of the Spanish Armada to be found. If you approach your endeavors in the right imaginative spirit, you’ll feel a genuine shiver go up your spine when you discover one of these storied ships, and may just go scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about it.

Still, it’s possible that my love for the premise makes me more kindly disposed toward the game than it deserves. For it lacks the compulsive playability of Pirates!. The interface is clunky, and, while the big manual does a reasonably good job of telling which keys to press and where to click the mouse, it often fails to explain why you’re doing so; I must confess that I still don’t completely understand the sonar-scanning screen even after playing the game for a considerable number of hours. And then, for all that the developers strained mightily to give you lots of different things to do, from decoding radio messages to chasing down Pirates!-style treasure maps, it never quite gels into a cohesive whole. The competition aspect of the affair never feels all that urgent even when Evil Eddie starts shooting at you. It all becomes a bit samey sooner than it ought to, sorely lacking Pirates!‘s addictive kinetic quality; in the older game, you actually sail your ship from place to place with the joystick, where here you just plot a course on a map, hit a key, and jump instantly to your destination. Perhaps the game’s biggest weakness is the wreck-diving mini-game, which consumes far more time than anything else you do but plays like a not especially exciting board game, complete with an ocean floor made up of discrete squares. Again, the developers plainly tried to spice it up, by introducing roaming sharks that occasionally attack your divers. But there’s no variety from wreck to wreck to keep your interest up; you’ll quickly develop a rote approach to the task that works every time, one that is about as exciting as cutting your lawn (a task with which it has much in common).

In the end, then, Sea Rogue is more of a game that I want to love — that I sometimes manage to convince myself that I at least like — than one I really can enjoy over the longer haul. Call it a brilliant concept, imperfectly realized. In all the years since its release, there’s been nothing else quite like it. I remain convinced that there’s a great game in there somewhere, and I’d be thrilled to see the idea revived with richer and more varied content, ideally spanning all of the world’s oceans, with the sense of atmosphere that Sea Rogue‘s workmanlike graphics and sound struggle to inculcate. We have hugely successful games today in which you do nothing but drive a truck around a continent’s highways and byways. Why not one where you travel its seaways in search of treasures from the past?

(I’ve prepared a Sea Rogue download for you which should be fairly simple to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


Whatever else one can say about Capstone, someone there clearly had a real interest in marine archaeology. For in 1993, four years after Search for the Titanic, they returned to the scene of that crime with Discoveries of the Deep for MS-DOS. It’s a vastly better effort. Then again, how could it not be?

Discoveries of the Deep is an edutational product aimed at youngsters, and sports the sense of whimsy that Search for the Titanic so sorely lacked, including a credible darts game and a shoot-em-up arcade game in your boat’s galley, ready to play when all of this oceanography business starts to become too much. The main game is structured around seven missions which you may undertake in any order. Only one of them involves the Titanic; the others range from investigating airplane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle to disposing of underwater toxic waste. It plays as a simplified version of the premise we’ve been seeing over and over: sail out to the general vicinity of your goal, search from the surface until you pinpoint it precisely, then get into your submersible to complete your mission. Only the economic element is lacking, replaced with a refreshing focus on environmental science; you definitely won’t be looting the Titanic this time out. Although there’s not overmuch to the experience in the final analysis, what there is is colorful and good-hearted. One can easily imagine this game going down a treat in a classroom back in the day, and it still wouldn’t be a bad choice for a kid of the right age — about ten years old is probably the sweet spot — with an interest in the ocean and the things that lie beneath it. Chalk it up as a partial atonement for Search for the Titanic.

(Like Search for the Titanic, Discoveries of the Deep is available on GOG.com as a digital purchase.)


The last wreck-hunting game of this lineage to date appeared in 1998, the year after James Cameron’s film about the disaster rejiggered all of the pop culture surrounding the Titanic in a way which we’ll examine in my next two articles. Titanic: Challenge of Discovery is simultaneously one of a number of cash-in products made in response to the film’s enormous success and a throwback to an earlier era, when the ship existed in the public’s imagination primarily as a wreck. The game’s box copy would have one believe that Robert Ballard himself made it, declaring it “a dramatic game of deep-sea exploration from the man who discovered the Titanic.” This only serves as grist for the mill of Ballard’s critics, who have been muttering behind the scenes for decades now that he is a bit too eager for the limelight and the money that comes with it, having by now lent his name to a jumble of slapdash products like this one that’s about as large as the sunken Titanic‘s debris field.

Challenge of Discovery was created by a “multimedia” studio rather than a games studio, an outfit called Maris Multimedia to be exact, and was published by Panasonic Interactive for Windows. It came rather late in the day of the multimedia boom, but otherwise bears all the hallmarks of its checkered lineage: a surfeit of video clips, including some featuring Ballard himself, and a paucity of worthwhile gameplay. I’ve written about the problems which plagued creations of this sort at some length elsewhere, so I won’t belabor those points here.

In this game, you’re expected to explore three shipwrecks: a man-of-war from the Spanish Armada, the Bismarck (whose wreck was discovered by Ballard in 1989), and finally the Titanic. But it’s painfully clear that far more attention was lavished on the video clips than the gameplay, which is slow, dull, and buggy, to the point that parts of the game are outright broken. Neither the traditional hardcore gamer demographic nor the different, more casual audience whom Panasonic was presumably trying to attract had anywhere near enough patience for this exercise in tedium. All told, it makes for a dispiriting capstone to a strand of games that had a lot of potential in their individual ingredients, but that no one ever quite managed to bake into a comprehensively delicious cake.

(You can find CD images for Challenge of Discovery by searching on archive.org. But, like a lot of shoddily programmed early Windows software, this game is a nightmare to get running on modern systems. I was finally able to succeed by using a Windows 95 — not Windows 98, mind you — installation running through Oracle VirtualBox. If you’re determined to try out this terrible game for yourself, this YouTube video will show you how to get your Windows 95 virtual machine going.)



Next time, then, we’ll turn to a very different way of approaching the Titanic as a gaming subject, and find out whether anyone had more luck there…

(Sources: the books Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone, Into the Deep by Robert Ballard and Christopher Drew, The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard and Ken Marschall, Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler, Beyond Reach: The Search for the Titanic by William Hoffman and Jack Grimm, and Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi; Crash! of June 1984 and October 1984; Your Computer of July 1984; Zzap! of June 1986; Ahoy! of April 1987; Games Machine of April 1990; Computer Gaming World of July 1992 and December 1993; National Geographic of December 1986.)

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Byron Preiss’s Games (or, The Promise and Peril of the Electronic Book)

Byron Preiss in 1982 with some of his “Fair People.”

We humans always seek to understand the new in terms of the old. This applies as much to new forms of media as it does to anything else.

Thus at the dawn of the 1980s, when the extant world of media began to cotton onto the existence of computer software that was more than strictly utilitarian but not action-oriented videogames like the ones being played in coin-op arcades and on home consoles such as the Atari VCS, it looked for a familiar taxonomic framework by which to understand it. One of the most popular of the early metaphors was that of the electronic book. For the graphics of the first personal computers were extremely crude, little more than thick lines and blotches of primary colors. Text, on the other hand, was text, whether it appeared on a monitor screen or on a page. Some of the most successful computer games of the first half of the 1980s were those of Infocom, who drove home the literary associations by building their products out of nothing but text, for which they were lauded in glowing features in respected mainstream magazines and newspapers. In the context of the times, it seemed perfectly natural to sell Infocom’s games and others like them in bookstores. (I first discovered these games that would become such an influence on my future on the shelves of my local shopping mall’s B. Dalton bookstore…)

Small wonder, then, that several of the major New York print-publishing houses decided to move into software. As is usually the case in such situations, they were driven by a mixture of hope and fear: hope that they could expand the parameters of what a book could do and be in exciting ways, and fear that, if they failed to do it, someone else would. The result was the brief-lived era of bookware.

Byron Preiss was perhaps the most important of all the individual book people who now displayed an interest in software. Although still very young by the standards of his tweedy industry — he turned 30 in 1983 — he was already a hugely influential figure in genre publishing, with a rare knack for mobilizing others to get lots and lots of truly innovative things done. In fact, long before he did anything with computers, he was already all about “interactivity,” the defining attribute of electronic books during the mid-1980s, as well as “multimedia,” the other buzzword that would be joined to the first in the early 1990s.

Preiss’s Fiction Illustrated line produced some of the world’s first identifiable graphic novels. These were comics that didn’t involve superheroes or cartoon characters, that were bound and sold as first-run paperbacks rather than flimsy periodicals. Preiss would remain a loyal supporter of comic-book storytelling in all its forms throughout his life.

Preiss rarely published a book that didn’t have pictures; in fact, he deserves a share of the credit for inventing what we’ve come to call the graphic novel, through a series known as Fiction Illustrated which he began all the way back in 1975 as a bright-eyed 22-year-old. His entire career was predicated on the belief that books should be beautiful aesthetic objects in their own right, works of visual as well as literary art that could and should take the reader’s breath away, that reading books should be an intensely immersive experience. He innovated relentlessly in pursuit of that goal. In 1981, for example, he published a collection of stories by Samuel R. Delany that featured “the first computer-enhanced illustrations developed for a science-fiction book.” His non-fiction books on astronomy and paleontology remain a feast for the eyes, as does his Science Fiction Masterworks series of illustrated novels and stories from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, Philip Jose Farmer, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov.

As part and parcel of his dedication to immersive literature, Preiss also looked for ways to make books interactive, even without the benefit of computers. In 1982, he wrote and published The Secret: A Treasure Hunt, a puzzle book and real-world scavenger hunt in the spirit of Kit Williams’s Masquerade. As beautifully illustrated as one would expect any book with which Preiss was involved to be, it told of “The Fair People,” gnomes and fairies who fled from the Old to the New World when Europeans began to cut down their forests and dam the rivers along which they lived: “They came over and they stayed, and they were happy. But then they saw that man was following the same path [in the Americas] and that what had happened in the Old World would probably happen in the New. So the ones who had already come over and the ones who followed them all decided they would have to go into hiding.” They took twelve treasures with them. “I have been entrusted by the Fair People to reveal the whereabouts of the [treasures] through paintings in the book,” Preiss claimed. “There are twelve treasures hidden throughout North America and twelve color paintings that contain clues to the whereabouts of the treasure. Then, there is a poem for each treasure. So, if you can correctly figure out the poem and the painting, you will find one of the treasures.” Each treasure carried a bounty for the discoverer of $1000. Preiss’s self-professed ultimate goal was to use the interactivity of the scavenger hunt as another tool for immersing the reader, “like in the kids’ books where you choose your own ending.”

The Secret failed to become the sales success or the pop-culture craze that Masquerade had become in Britain three years earlier. Only one of the treasures was found in the immediate wake of its publication, in Chicago in 1983. Yet it had a long shelf life: a second treasure was found in Cleveland more than twenty years later. A 2018 documentary film about the book sparked a renewal of interest, and the following year a third treasure was recovered in Boston. A small but devoted cult continues to search for the remaining ones today, sharing information and theories via websites and podcasts.

In a less enduring but more commercially successful vein, Preiss also published three different lines of gamebooks to feed the hunger ignited by the original Choose Your Own Adventure books of Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery. Unsurprisingly, his books were much more visual than the typical example of the breed, with illustrations that often doubled as puzzles for the reader to solve. A dedicated nurturer of young writing and illustrating talent, he passed the contracts to make books in these lines and others to up-and-comers who badly needed the cash and the measure of industry credibility they brought with them.

Being a man with a solid claim to the woefully overused title of “visionary,” Preiss was aware of what computers could mean for our relationship with storytelling and information from a very early date. He actually visited Xerox PARC during its 1970s heyday and marveled at the potential he saw there, told all of his friends that this was the real future of information spaces. Later he became the driving force behind the most concentrated and in many ways the most interesting of all the bookware software projects of the 1980s: the Telarium line of literary adaptations, which turned popular science-fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels into illustrated text adventures. I won’t belabor this subject here because I already wrote histories and reviews of all of the Telarium games years ago for this site. I will say, however, that the line as a whole bears all the hallmarks of a Byron Preiss project, from the decision to include colorful pictures in the games — something Infocom most definitely did not provide — to the absolutely gorgeous packaging, which arguably outdid Infocom’s own high standard for same. (The packaging managed to provide a sensory overload which transcended even the visual; one of my most indelible memories of gaming in my childhood is of the rich smell those games exuded, thanks to some irreplicable combination of cardboard, paper, ink, and paste. Call it my version of Proust’s madeleine.) The games found on the actual disks were a bit hit-or-miss, but nobody could say that Telarium didn’t put its best foot forward.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the Telarium games weren’t big sellers, and the line lasted only from 1984 to 1986. Afterward, Preiss went back to his many and varied endeavors in book publishing, while computer games switched their metaphor of choice from interactive novels to interactive movies in response to the arrival of new, more audiovisually capable gaming computers like the Commodore Amiga. Even now, though, Preiss continued to keep one eye on what was going on with computers. For example, he published novelizations of some of Infocom’s games, thus showing that he bore no ill will toward the company that had both inspired his own Telarium line and outlived it. More importantly in the long run, he saw Apple’s HyperCard, with its new way of navigating texts non-linearly through association — multimedia texts which could include pictures, sound, music, and even movie clips alongside their words. By the turn of the 1990s, Bob Stein’s Voyager Software was starting to make waves with “electronic books” on CD-ROM that took full advantage of all of these affordances. The nature of electronic books had changed since the heyday of the text adventure, but the idea lived on in the abstract.

In fact, the advances in computer technology as the 1990s wore on were so transformative as to give everyone a bad case of mixed metaphors. The traditional computer-games industry, entranced by the new ability to embed video clips of real actors in their creations, was more fixated on interactive movies than ever. At the same time, though, the combination of hypertext with multimedia continued to give life to the notion of electronic books. Huge print publishers like Simon & Schuster and Random House, who had jumped onto the last bookware bandwagon only to bail out when the sales didn’t come, now made new investments in CD-ROM-based software that were an order of magnitude bigger than their last ones, even as huge names in moving pictures, from Disney to The Discovery Channel, were doing the same. The poster child for all of the taxonomical confusion was undoubtedly the pioneering Voyager, a spinoff from the Criterion Collection of classic movies on laserdisc and VHS whose many and varied releases all seemed to live on a liminal continuum between book and movie.

One has to assume that Byron Preiss felt at least a pang of jealousy when he saw the innovative work Voyager was doing. Exactly one decade after launching Telarium, he took a second stab at bookware, with the same high hopes as last time but on a much, much more lavish scale, one that was in keeping with the burgeoning 1990s tech boom. In the spring of 1994, Electronic Entertainment magazine brought the news that the freshly incorporated Byron Preiss Multimedia Company “is planning to flood the CD-ROM market with interactive titles this year.”

They weren’t kidding. Over the course of the next couple of years, Preiss published a torrent of CD-ROMs, enough to make Voyager’s prolific release schedule look downright conservative. There was stuff for the ages in high culture, such as volumes dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Einstein. There was stuff for the moment in pop culture, such as discs about Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place, not to forget The Sci-Fi Channel Trivia Game. There was stuff reflecting Preiss’s enduring love for comics (discs dedicated to R. Crumb and Jean Giraud) and animation (The Multimedia Cartoon Studio). There were electronic editions of classic novels, from John Steinbeck to Raymond Chandler to Kurt Vonnegut. There was educational software suitable for older children (The Planets, The Universe, The History of the United States), and interactive storybooks suitable for younger ones. There were even discs for toddlers, which line Preiss dubbed “BABY-ROMS.” A lot of these weren’t bad at all; Preiss’s CD-ROM library is almost as impressive as that of Voyager, another testament to the potential of a short-lived form of media that arguably deserved a longer day in the sun before it was undone by the maturation of networked hypertexts on the World Wide Web.

But then there are the games, a field Bob Stein was wise enough to recognize as outside of Voyager’s core competency and largely stay away from. Alas, Preiss was not, and did not.



The first full-fledged game from Byron Preiss Multimedia was an outgrowth of some of Preiss’s recent print endeavors. In the late 1980s, he had the idea of enlisting some of his stable of young writers to author new novels in the universes of aging icons of science fiction whose latest output had become a case of diminishing returns — names like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. Among other things, this broad concept led to a series of six books by five different authors that was called Robot City, playing with the tropes, characters, and settings of Asimov’s “Robot” stories and novels. In 1994, two years after Asimov’s death, Preiss also published a Robot City computer game. Allow me to quote the opening paragraph of Martin E. Cirulis’s review of same for Computer Gaming World magazine, since it does such a fine job of pinpointing the reasons that so many games of this sort tended to be so underwhelming.

With all the new interest in computer entertainment, it seems that a day doesn’t go by without another company throwing their hat, as well as wads of startup money, into the ring. More often than not, the first thing offered by these companies is an adventure-game title, because of the handy way the genre brings out all the bells and whistles of multimedia. I’m always a big fan of new blood, but a lot of the first offerings get points for enthusiasm, then lose ground and reinvent the wheel. Design and management teams new to the field seem so eager to show us how dumb our old games are that they fail to learn any lessons from the fifteen-odd years of successful and failed games that have gone before. Unfortunately, Robot City, Byron Preiss Multimedia’s initial game release, while impressive in some aspects, suffers from just these kinds of birthing pains.

If anything, Cirulis is being far too kind here. Robot City is a game where simply moving from place to place is infuriating, thanks to a staggeringly awful interface, city streets that are constantly changing into random new configurations, and the developers’ decision to put exterior scenes on one of its two CDs and interior scenes on the other, meaning you can look forward to swapping CDs roughly every five minutes.

Robot City. If you don’t like the look of this city street, rest assured that it will have changed completely next time you walk outside. Why? It’s not really clear… something to do with The Future.

Yet the next game from Byron Preiss Multimedia makes Robot City seem like a classic. I’d like to dwell on The Martian Chronicles just a bit today — not because it’s good, but because it’s so very, very bad, so bad in fact that I find it oddly fascinating.

Another reason for it to pique my interest is that it’s such an obvious continuation of what Preiss had begun with Telarium. One of Telarium’s very first games was an adaptation of the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. This later game, of course, adapts his breakthrough book The Martian Chronicles, a 1950 “fix-up novel” of loosely linked stories about the colonization — or, perhaps better said, invasion — of Mars by humans. And the two games are of a piece in many other ways once we make allowances for the technological changes in computing between 1984 and 1994.

For example, Bradbury himself gave at least a modicum of time and energy to both game projects, which was by no means always true of the authors Preiss chose to honor with an adaptation of some sort. In the Telarium game, you can call Bradbury up on a telephone and shoot the breeze; in the multimedia one, you can view interview clips of him. In the Telarium game, a special “REMEMBER” verb displays snippets of prose from the novel; in the multimedia one, a portentous narrator recites choice extracts from Bradbury’s Mars stories from time to time as you explore the Red Planet. Then, too, neither game is formally innovative in the least: the Telarium one is a parser-driven interactive fiction, the dominant style of adventure game during its time, while the multimedia game takes all of its cues from Myst, the hottest phenomenon in adventures at the time of its release. (The box even sported a hype sticker which named it the answer to the question of “Where do you go after Myst?”) About the only thing missing from The Martian Chronicles that its predecessor can boast about is Fahrenheit 451‘s gorgeous bespoke packaging. (That ship had largely sailed for computer games by 1994; as the scenes actually shown on the monitor got prettier, the packaging got more uniform and unambitious.)

By way of compensation, The Martian Chronicles emphasizes its bookware bona fides by bearing on its box the name of the book publisher Simon & Schuster, back for a second go-round after failing to make a worthwhile income stream out of publishing games in the 1980s. But sadly, once you get past all the meta-textual elements, what you are left with in The Martian Chronicles is a Myst clone notable only for its unusually extreme level of unoriginality and its utter ineptness of execution.

I must confess that I’ve enjoyed very few of the games spawned by Myst during my life, and that’s still the case today, after I’ve made a real effort to give several of them a fair shake for these histories. It strikes me that the sub-genre is, more than just about any other breed of game I know of, defined by its limitations rather than its allowances. The first-person node-based movement, with its plethora of pre-rendered 3D views, was both the defining attribute of the lineage during the 1990s and an unsatisfying compromise in itself: what you really want to be doing is navigating through a seamless 3D space, but technical limitations have made that impossible, so here you are, lurching around, discrete step by discrete step. In many of these games, movement is not just unsatisfying but actively confusing, because clicking the rotation arrows doesn’t always turn you 90 degrees as you expect it to. I often find just getting around a room in a Myst clone to be a challenge, what with the difficulty of constructing a coherent mental map of my surroundings using the inconsistent movement controls. There inevitably seems to be that one view that I miss — the one that contains something I really, really need. This is what people in the game-making trade sometimes call “fake difficulty”: problems the game throws up in front of you where no problem would exist if you were really in this environment. In other schools of software development, it’s known by the alternative name of terrible interface design.

Yet I have to suspect that the challenges of basic navigation are partially intentional, given that there’s so little else the designer can really do with these engines. Most were built in either HyperCard or the multimedia presentation manager Macromedia Director; the latter was the choice for  The Martian Chronicles. These “middleware” tools were easy to work with but slow and limiting. Their focus was the media they put on the screen; their scripting languages were never intended to be used for the complex programming that is required to present a simulated world with any dynamism to it. Indeed, Myst clones are the opposite of dynamic, being deserted, static spaces marked only by the buttons, switches, and set-piece spatial puzzles which are the only forms of gameplay that can be practically implemented using their tool chains. While all types of games have constraints, I can’t think of any other strand of them that make their constraints the veritable core of their identity. In addition to the hope of selling millions and millions of copies like Myst did, I can’t help but feel that their prevalence during the mid-1990s was to a large extent a reflection of how easy they were to make in terms of programming. In this sense, they were a natural choice for a company like the one Byron Preiss set up, which was more replete with artists and writers from the book trade than with ace programmers from the software trade.

The Martian Chronicles is marked not just by all of the usual Myst constraints but by a shocking degree of laziness that makes it play almost like a parody of the sub-genre. The plot is most kindly described as generic, casting you as the faceless explorer of the ruins of an ancient — and, needless to say, deserted — Martian city, searching for a legendary all-powerful McGuffin. You would never connect this game with Bradbury’s book at all if it weren’t for the readings from it that inexplicably pop up from time to time. What you get instead of the earnest adaptation advertised on the box is the most soul-crushingly dull Myst clone ever: a deserted static environment around which are scattered a dozen or so puzzles which you’ve seen a dozen or more times before. Everything is harder than it ought to be, thanks to a wonky cursor whose hot spot seems to float about its surface randomly, a cursor which disappears entirely whenever an animation loop is playing. This is the sort of game that, when you go to save, requires you to delete the placeholder name of “Save1” character by character before you can enter your own. This game is death by a thousand niggling little aggravations like that one, which taken in the aggregate tell you that no actual human being ever tried to play it before it was shoved into a box and shipped. Even the visuals, the one saving grace of some Myst clones and the defining element of Byron Preiss’s entire career, are weirdly slapdash, making The Martian Chronicles useless even as a tech demo. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451 had its problems, but it’s Infocom’s Trinity compared to this thing.


It’s telling that many reviewers labelled the fifteen minutes of anodyne interview clips with Ray Bradbury the best part of the game.

Some Myst clones have the virtue of being lovely to look at. Not this one, with views that look like they were vandalized by a two-year-old Salvador Dali wannabee with only two colors of crayon to hand.



Computer Gaming World justifiably savaged The Martian Chronicles. It “is as devoid of affection and skill as any game I have ever seen,” noted Charlies Ardai, by far the magazine’s deftest writer, in his one-star review. Two years after its release, Computer Gaming World named it the sixteenth worst game of all time, outdone only by such higher-profile crimes against their players as Sierra’s half-finished Outpost and Cosmi’s DefCon 5, an “authentic SDI simulation” whose level of accuracy was reflected in its name. (DefCon 5 is the lowest level of nuclear threat, not the highest.) As for The Martian Chronicles, the magazine called it “tired, pointless, and insulting to Bradbury’s poetic genius.” Most of the other magazines had little better to say — those, that is, which didn’t simply ignore it. For it was becoming abundantly clear that games like these really weren’t made for the hardcore set who read the gaming magazines. The problem was, it wasn’t clear who they were made for.

Still, Byron Preiss Multimedia continued to publish games betwixt and between their other CD-ROMs for another couple of years. The best of a pretty sorry bunch was probably the one called Private Eye, which built upon the noir novels of Raymond Chandler, one of Preiss’s favorite touchstones. Tellingly, it succeeded — to whatever extent it did — by mostly eschewing puzzles and other traditional forms of game design, being driven instead by conversations and lengthy non-interactive cartoon cut scenes; a later generation might have labeled it a visual novel. Charlies Ardai rewarded it with a solidly mediocre review, acknowledging that “it don’t stink up da joint.” Faint praise perhaps, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The Spider-Man game, by contrast, attracted more well-earned vitriol from Ardai: “The graphics are jagged, the story weak, the puzzles laughable (cryptograms, anyone?), and the action sequences so dismal, so minor, so clumsy, so basic, so dull, so Atari 2600 as to defy comment.” Tired of what Ardai called Preiss’s “gold-into-straw act,” even Computer Gaming World stopped bothering with his games after this. That’s a pity in a way; I would have loved to see Ardai fillet Forbes Corporate Warrior, a simplistic DOOM clone that replaced monsters with rival corporations, to be defeated with weapons like Price Bombs, Marketing Missiles, Ad Blasters, Takeover Torpedoes, and Alliance Harpoons, with all of it somehow based on “fifteen years of empirical data from an internationally recognized business-simulation firm.” “Business is war, cash is ammo!” we were told. Again, one question springs to mind. Who on earth was this game for?

Corporate Warrior came out in 1997, near the end of the road for Byron Preiss Multimedia, which, like almost all similar multimedia startups, had succeeded only in losing buckets and buckets of money. Preiss finally cut his losses and devoted all of his attention to paper-based publishing again, a realm where his footing was much surer.

I hasten to add that, for all that he proved an abject failure at making games, his legacy in print publishing remains unimpeachable. You don’t have to talk to many who were involved with genre and children’s books in the 1980s and 1990s before you meet someone whose career was touched by him in a positive way. The expressions of grief were painfully genuine after he was killed in a car accident in 2005. He was called a “nice guy and honest person,” “an original,” “a business visionary,” “one of the good guys,” “a positive force in the industry,” “one of the most likable people in publishing,” “an honest, dear, and very smart man,” “warm and personable,” “charming, sophisticated, and the best dresser in the room.” “You knew one of his books would be something you couldn’t get anywhere else, and [that] it would be amazing,” said one of the relatively few readers who bothered to dig deep enough into the small print of the books he bought to recognize Preiss’s name on an inordinate number of them. Most readers, however, “never think about the guy who put it together. He’s invisible, although it wouldn’t happen without him.”

But regrettably, Preiss was a textbook dilettante when it came to digital games, more intrigued by the idea of them than he was prepared to engage with the practical reality of what goes into a playable game. It must be said that he was far from alone in this. As I already noted, many other veterans of other forms of media tried to set up similar multimedia-focused alternatives to conventional gaming, and failed just as abjectly. And yet, dodgy though these games almost invariably were in execution, there was something noble about them in concept: they really were trying to move the proverbial goalposts, trying to appeal to new demographics. What the multimedia mavens behind them failed to understand was that fresh themes and surface aesthetics do not great games make all by themselves; you have to devote attention to design as well. Their failure to do so doomed their games to becoming a footnote in history.

For in the end, games are neither books nor movies; they are their own things, which may occasionally borrow approaches from one or the other but should never delude themselves into believing that they can just stick the adjective “interactive” in front of their preferred inspiration and call it a day. Long before The Martian Chronicles stank up the joint, the very best game designers had come to understand that.


Postscript: On a more positive note…

Because I don’t like to be a complete sourpuss, let me note that the efforts of the multimedia dilettantes of the 1990s weren’t always misbegotten. I know of at least one production in this style that’s well worth your time: The Dark Eye, an exploration of the nightmare consciousness of Edgar Allan Poe that was developed by Inscape and released in 1995. On the surface, it’s alarmingly similar to The Martian Chronicles: a Myst-like presentation created in Macromedia Director, featuring occasional readings from the master’s works. But it hangs together much, much better, thanks to a sharp aesthetic sense and a willingness to eschew conventional puzzles completely in favor of atmosphere — all the atmosphere, I daresay, that you’ll be able to take, given the creepy subject matter. I encourage you to read my earlier review of it and perhaps to check it out for yourself. If nothing else, it can serve as proof that no approach to game-making is entirely irredeemable.

Another game that attempts to do much the same thing as The Martian Chronicles but does it much, much better is Rama, which was developed by Dynamix and released by Sierra in 1996. Here as well, the link to the first bookware era is catnip for your humble author; not only was Arthur C. Clarke adapted by a Telarium game before this one, but the novel chosen for that adaptation was Rendezvous with Rama, the same one that is being celebrated here. As in The Martian Chronicles, the lines between game and homage are blurred in Rama, what with the selection of interview clips in which Clarke himself talks about his storied career and one of the most lauded books it produced. And once again the actual game, when you get around to playing it, is very much in the spirit of Myst.

But Dynamix came from the old school of game development, and were in fact hugely respected in the industry for their programming chops; they wouldn’t have been caught dead using lazy middleware like Macromedia Director. Rama rather runs in a much more sophisticated engine, and was designed by people who had made games before and knew what led to playable ones. It’s built around bone-hard puzzles that often require a mathematical mind comfortable with solving complex equations and translating between different base systems. I must admit that I find it all a bit dry — but then, as I’ve said, games in this style are not usually to my taste; I’ve just about decided that the games in the “real” Myst series are all the Myst I need. Nevertheless, Rama is a vastly better answer to the question of “Where do you go after Myst?” than most of the alternatives. If you like its sort of thing, by all means, check it out. Call it another incarnation of Telarium 2.0, done right this time.

(Sources: Starlog of November 1981, December 1981, November 1982, January 1984, June 1984, April 1986, March 1987, November 1992, December 1992, January 1997, April 1997, February 1999, June 2003, May 2005, and October 2005; Compute!’s Gazette of December 1984; STart of November 1990; InCider of May 1993; Electronic Entertainment of June 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and December 1995; MacUser of October 1995; Computer Games Strategy Plus of November 1995; Computer Gaming World of December 1995, January 1996, October 1996, November 1996, and February 1997; Next Generation of October 1996; Chicago Tribune of November 16 1982. Online sources include the announcement of Byron Preiss’s death and the outpouring of memories and sentiment that followed on COMICON.com.

A search on archive.org will reveal a version of The Martian Chronicles that has been modified to run on Windows 10. The Collection Chamber has a version of Rama that’s ready to install and run on Windows 10. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Case of the Rose Tattoo

What is it that we love about Sherlock Holmes?

We love the times in which he lived, of course, the half-remembered, half-forgotten times of snug Victorian illusion, of gas-lit comfort and contentment, of perfect dignity and grace. The world was poised precariously in balance, and rude disturbances were coming with the years, but those who moved upon the scene were very sure that all was well — that nothing ever would be any worse nor ever could be any better…

— Edgar W. Smith

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Serrated Scalpel was an unusually quiet sort of computer game. It was quiet when you played it, being a game that rewarded contemplation as much as action, and one that placed as much emphasis on its text as its audiovisuals. It was quietly released in 1992 by Electronic Arts, a publisher well along by that point in their transition from being a collective of uncompromising “software artists” to becoming the slick, bottom-lined-focused populist juggernaut we know and don’t always love today. And yet, despite being so out of keeping with EA’s evolving direction, Serrated Scalpel quietly sold a surprising number of units over a span of several years.

That unexpected success had consequences. First it led EA to fund a 1994 re-imagining of the game for the 3DO living-room console, featuring video clips of live actors voicing dialog that had previously appeared only as text on the screen. And then, with the MS-DOS original still selling at a steady clip — in fact, rounding by now the magical 100,000-unit milestone — it led to a somewhat belated full-fledged sequel, which was released in mid-1996.

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo was largely the work of the same crew that had made its predecessor, notwithstanding the gap between the two projects. Once again, R.J. Berg, a former EA manual writer and perpetual Sherlock Holmes fan to the Nth power, wrote the script and generally masterminded the endeavor. And once again a small outfit called Mythos Software, based in Tempe, Arizona, handled all of the practicalities of the script’s transformation into a game, from the art to the programming.

Indeed, Rose Tattoo as a whole is very much a case of not fixing what wasn’t broken in one of my favorite adventure games of the 1990s, so much so that I almost fear that this review will come across as superfluous to those who have already read my homage to the original. The one really obvious difference is a reflection of the four years separating the two games’ release dates, over the course of which the technology of the typical home computer advanced considerably. So, Rose Tattoo is able to present its version of Victorian London with a more vivid clarity, thanks to a screen resolution of 640 X 480 rather than 320 X 200. More ingeniously, Mythos has found a middle ground between the pure pixel graphics of the original game and the awkwardly spliced video clips of the 3DO remake. “Sprites” made from real actors are shrunk down and inserted directly into pre-rendered 3D scenery, making an almost seamless fit.

Otherwise, though, Rose Tattoo is the purest form of sequel, striving not just to duplicate but to positively double down on everything its precursor did. In some contexts, that might be read as a condemnation. But not in this one: Serrated Scalpel was such a breath of fresh air that more of the same can only be welcome.

Once again, then, we have here a plot that is ironically more believable than the majority of Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes tales. Like Broken Sword, another standout adventure from the standout adventure-gaming year of 1996, Rose Tattoo kicks its proceedings off with a literal bang: it opens with Sherlock’s portly brother Mycroft Holmes getting seriously injured by an explosion at his Diogenes Club that everyone is all too eager to blame on a gas leak — “the price of progress,” as they all like to say. Even Sherlock initially refuses to believe otherwise; deeply distraught over his brother’s condition, he retreats into his bedroom to take refuge in his various chemical addictions. Thus you actually begin the game as John Watson, trying to dig up enough clues to shake Sherlock out of his funk and get him working on the case.

Once that has been accomplished, the game is truly afoot. Rather than a random gas explosion, the “accident” at the Diogenes Club turns out to be a deliberate murder plot that is connected to the theft of vital secrets from the British War Office. Your need to avenge Mycroft’s suffering will plunge you into the geopolitics of the late nineteenth century; you’ll even meet face to face with the young Kaiser Wilhelm II of the newly minted nation of Germany, who is depicted here as an intelligent, cultured, and to some extent even open-minded leader, one whose political philosophy has not yet hardened into the reactionary conservatism of his First World War persona. The game captures in their nascent form the political changes and even the evolution of the weaponry of war that would lead to the horrific conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century.

But that is only a small piece of the history which Rose Tattoo allows us to witness up close and personal. The usual videogame’s view of history encompasses war and politics and little else. Rose Tattoo, on the other hand, fastidiously recreates a fascinating time and place in social history, when the world that we know today was in many ways in the process of being invented. Your investigation takes you across the width and breadth of Victorian London and to all of its diverse social strata, from fussy lords and ladies who seem to be perpetually singing “Rule, Britannia!” under their breath to underground radicals who surface just long enough to preach their revolutionary philosophy of Marxism at Speaker’s Corner every Sunday. You visit clubs, hospitals, police departments, morgues, flats, townhouses, lofts, squats, mansions, palaces, monuments, tailors, bathhouses, billiard rooms, photography studios, animal emporiums, parks, gardens, aerodromes, laboratories, greengrocers, phrenologist’s offices, minister’s offices, barrister’s offices, warehouses, and opium dens, all of them presented in rich, historically accurate detail. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” said Samuel Johnson. Indeed.

As in the first game, Sherlock Holmes’s iconic flat at 221B Baker Street serves as the starting point of your investigations and the home base to which you continually return. In addition to being a tribute to Sherlock’s wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a vastly more effective virtual museum of Victoriana than the real one that stands at that London address today. Spend some time here just rummaging about, and maybe follow some of its leads with some independent research of your own, and you’ll begin to feel the frisson of life in this amazing city, the melting pot of the Western world circa 1890. A small sample of the exhibits on hand:

But lest all of this start to sound like a tedious exercise in “edutainment,” know that the whole experience is enlivened enormously by R.J. Berg’s writing, which is even more finely honed here than it was in the first game, managing to be both of the time it depicts and an ongoing delight to read in 1996, 2022, or any other year. He takes a special delight in lacerating with delicate savagery the city’s many stuffed shirts, useless layabouts, and pretentious fools. (Perhaps we can learn something about character from appearance after all, at least in the world of this game…)

  • Chinless and tending to fat, this young man sits like a beluga whale in a steam cabinet. His hooded eyes are partially closed and rivulets of sweat pour down his face. It is not possible to say whether he is enjoying himself.
  • The lady masquerades as a debutante. Dressed in a hideous crepe gown, she has the carriage of a Palladium chorus girl. Possessed only of pretensions, she displays none of the high style to which she aspires.
  • The corpulent, self-important clerk is fussily dressed. If he runs true to form, he spends his leisure time and money indulging passions for art books and Belgian chocolates.
  • The man could pass as a mortician or a bank manager. Below his high domed forehead, his pale, pitted face wears a preternaturally neutral expression. The slow reptilian oscillation of his head is disconcerting.

Then there’s my absolute favorite turn of phrase: “Bledsoe awaits with the equanimity of a ring-tailed lemur in a room full of rocking chairs.

And yet Berg seldom punches down, and is by no means without compassion for the ones who were not born with silver spoons stuck firmly up their derrières: “Like thousands of indigent girls, she was sucked to the city at fourteen by the promise of twelve pounds per annum and a bed in the attic. After 40 years in service, enduring drudgery, discomfort, insult, and every sort of meanness, she has risen to become Assistant Housekeeper at the Cavendish Hotel.”


Sherlock, Watson, and the indomitable Wiggins, head of the Baker Street Irregulars, outside 221B Baker Street. While the game’s graphics aren’t breathtaking, they are, like everything else about it, quietly apropos.

Investigating a suspicious death in the morgue. There will be more than one such corpse to examine before all is said and done.

On one of the newly constructed Thames Embankments, next to Cleopatra’s Needle, recently looted by the British Empire from Alexandria.

The bucolic environs of St James’s Park. We have need of that boy’s new pet dog, which happens to be the best tracker in all of London. Hmm… what could we offer the boy for it?


In addition to gobs of historical verisimilitude and some of the best writing to appear in a game since the heyday of Infocom, Rose Tattoo shares with its predecessor a gratifyingly grounded approach to puzzles. There are problems to solve here, many of which veteran adventure gamers will find very familiar in the abstract, such as the inordinate quantity of human gatekeepers who must be circumvented in one way or another in order to gain access to the spaces they guard. But, instead of employing ludicrously convoluted solutions that could only appear in an adventure game, solving these “puzzles” mostly entails doing what a reasonable person would under similar circumstances. A surprising number of the gatekeepers can be bypassed, for instance, simply by acquiring an official letter from Scotland Yard authorizing you to investigate the case, then showing it to the obstacle in question. Rose Tattoo resists the adventure genre’s centrifugal drift toward slapstick comedy as well any game ever made; Sherlock never gets up to anything really ridiculous, never surrenders his dignity as the world’s most famous detective. He does nothing in this game that one couldn’t imagine him doing in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

As must be abundantly clear by now, I love this game dearly; it joins Serrated Scalpel on the short list of my favorite point-and-click graphic adventures of all time. It must also be acknowledged, however, that it aligns crazily well with my own background and interests. I spent my years in and around university immersed in this setting, reading tens of thousands of pages of Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope (the last being my favorite; as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once said, “there’s nothing better than going to bed early with a Trollope”). And yes, I read my share of Arthur Conan Doyle as well. Playing Rose Tattoo is like coming home for me.

But, to state the obvious, I am me and you are you, and your experience of Rose Tattoo may very well be different. I can all too easily imagine another person finding this game more exhausting than fascinating. It’s out of step with the fashion even of 1996, never mind today, in that it expects you to read all of its long descriptions; only the diegetic words — i.e., those actually spoken by the characters in the game — are voiced. And you can’t just ignore all of the Victorian bric-à-brac that litter its many scenes because there is in fact a smattering of vital clues and objects to be found amongst the clutter. Further, there’s little here to satisfy hardcore puzzle fiends; that ancient adventure-game saw of the newspaper shoved under the door to retrieve the key pushed out of the lock with the pin is about as elaborate as things ever get from that perspective. Solving the mystery rather hinges on collecting physical evidence, interviewing witnesses, and deducing on a broader canvas than that of the individual puzzle.

Of course, a point-and-click adventure game is a discrete possibility space, which means that you could solve the mystery by brute force — by going around and around and around the map of London, talking to everyone and picking up whatever isn’t nailed down and showing it to everyone. But to do so would be to miss the point entirely, in addition to subjecting yourself to mind-numbing tedium. I would rather encourage you to make full use of the in-game journal, in which the tireless Watson records every word of every conversation Sherlock has, and which can even be saved as a text file for perusal outside of the game. (Incidentally: all of the text, in the journal and elsewhere, uses British spellings, despite this being an American game — another nice touch.) I would encourage you, that is to say, to enter into the spirit of the thing and really try to solve the mystery yourself, as a real detective might. I can promise you that it does hang together, and that the game will reward you for doing so in a way that very few other alleged interactive mysteries — excepting its precursor, naturally — can match. If all of those words in the journal and locations on the map start to feel overwhelming, don’t worry about it: just take a break. The mystery will still be waiting for you when you come back. The Victorian Age was a foreign country; they did things more slowly there.

But if all of that is still a bit too tall of an order in this hurly-burly modern world of ours, that’s okay too. No game is for everyone, and this one perhaps less so than many. Certainly it was an anomaly at the time of its release, being about as out of step with an increasingly go-go, bang-bang gaming market as anything could be. Doubtless for that reason, EA released it with almost no fanfare, just as they had its predecessor. Alas, this time it didn’t defy its low expectations once it reached store shelves: it didn’t become a sleeper success like Case of the Serrated Scalpel. The magazines seemed to pick up on the disinterest of the game’s own publisher. Computer Gaming World, the closest thing the United States had to a gaming journal of record, never even gave it a full review, contenting themselves with a two-paragraph capsule summary whose writer betrayed little sign of ever having played it, who made the inexplicable claim that it “tried too hard to be an interactive movie”; in reality, no 1996 graphic adventure was less movie-like.

So, that was that for the Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes series. R.J. Berg continued working for EA as a producer, designer, and writer for years, but on less unique fare that gave him less opportunity to deploy his deliciously arch writerly voice. Mythos Software survived until about 2003 as a developer of multimedia educational products — they were behind the popular BodyWorks series of anatomical explorations — but never made another straight-up game.

Still, to complain that we didn’t get more of these games seems churlish. Better to be thankful that the stars aligned in such a way as to give us the two that we do have. Check them out sometime, when you’re in the mood for something a bit more on the quiet and thoughtful side. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to feel the same way about them that I do.

(Sources: Electronic Games of February 1993, Computer Gaming World of January 1997. Also Mythos Software’s now-defunct home page.

Like its predecessor, The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo has never received a digital re-release. It is, however, supported by the ScummVM interpreter, so getting it running isn’t too much of a challenge on Windows, MacOS, or Linux once you acquire the original CD or an image of same. As of this writing, you can find several of the latter on archive.org, including one version that is already packaged up and ready to go with ScummVM. Just search for “sherlock rose tattoo”; I prefer not to link directly to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their existence from our friends in the legal trade.

And if you enjoy this type of contemplative sleuthing, you might also be interested in the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective board games, which play like analog versions of this game — perfect for a lazy late-summer afternoon on the terrace with a tall glass of something cold and the company of a good friend or two.)

 
 

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Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 2: The First Three Discworld Games

As a man of wide-ranging curiosity, Terry Pratchett was drawn to personal computers early. In 1981, he purchased a Sinclair ZX81 in kit form and soldered it together successfully. He soon upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum and then to an Amstrad CPC 464, which was his first computer strong enough to run a practical word processor. From the second Discworld novel on, he wrote all of his books digitally; this was undoubtedly a factor in the prodigious writing and publishing pace he maintained for so many years. But computers were more than a tool to him: right from the beginning, he also played computer games enthusiastically. In a 1986 interview, for example, he mentions being obsessed with Infocom’s interactive version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The first Discworld computer game came surprisingly quickly, courtesy of a teenage entrepreneur named Fergus McNeill and his little company Delta 4, who had made a name for themselves by writing slapstick fantasy parodies as Quill-based text adventures, with names like Bored of the Rings (which didn’t share anything but a name and a certain sensibility with the book of the same name) and The Boggit. While it would be a stretch to say that they transcended their author’s age and the technology used to create them, they were amusing in their way, and became quite popular. Some of them reportedly sold as many as 20,000 copies, a very impressive number in the British games industry of the mid-1980s. They made McNeill a natural to adapt Terry Pratchett to an interactive medium, given that the latter’s first couple of Discworld novels were content to plow much the same satirical territory, albeit in a more erudite and sophisticated way.

The Boggit contains its share of literal toilet humor.

McNeill says that he originally bought the novel The Colour of Magic “as a present for someone else, but I accidentally started reading it myself and found myself unable to stop.” It was he who suggested an adaptation to Pratchett’s publisher, to capitalize on the British appetite for bookware. “It’s important to remember that this was Olden Times — the 1980s, for goodness sake,” he says. “So, when I said ‘Terry Pratchett,’ people didn’t laugh at my audacity for wanting to work with the great man. They frowned and said, “Who’s he?'”

Thus McNeill was able to make the deal, and created his Colour of Magic text adventure in short order, with some direct input from Pratchett himself. The end result, which was released in late 1986 in Britain and Europe only, is an abbreviated version of the novel, walking through its plot scene by scene. Solving it entails looking up what Rincewind did in the same situation in the book, then figuring out how to express the concept to the balky, fiddly parser. Those who have read the book, in other words, will vacillate between boredom and frustration, while those who haven’t will be utterly lost. Even in its day, when a disconcerting number of players were willing to accept fighting the parser as an inherent part of the challenge of playing a text adventure, the game was less popular than its license might suggest.

The Colour of Magic replaces the standard text-adventure compass directions with those of the Disc: “hubward,” “rimward,” “turnwise,” and “widdershins.” One plus for verisimilitude, but ten minuses for annoying the heck out of the player.

McNeill speaks of his communications with Pratchett fondly, going so far as to call him “a big inspiration for me,” whilst calling being allowed to make the game at all “a huge privilege.” Yet Pratchett was enough of a gamer himself to recognize how underwhelming the final product really was. In his view, it cheapened the Discworld brand, of which he was always keenly protective; he would refer to the interactive Colour of Magic only as a “bad experience” in later years. It was enough to make him shy away from further game adaptations for quite some time, despite his personal fondness for computers and the games they played. It wasn’t until mid-1993, when Discworld mania was in full swing, that someone managed to convince Pratchett to give the idea of ludic Discworld a second chance.

Actually, there were two someones, the first of whom was one Angela Sutherland, who had gotten her start in the games industry back in 1983. She had been studying to become a sculptor at that time at the Edinburgh College of Art, when a fellow student and good friend named Sandy White had showed her a simple action game called Ant Attack which he had been writing on his Sinclair Spectrum. She helped him to flesh it out and get it published, whereupon it became one of the big early hits on the Speccy. Sutherland worked with White on several more games after that, moved on to become head of development for Firebird and Rainbird, and then became a producer for the British division of Beam Software, the Australian software house famous for The Hobbit, probably the best-selling text adventure of all time (and the thing which Fergus McNeill’s early games were really parodying, at least as much as Tolkien’s books).

Seeing an opportunity in the market, she left Beam and founded her own studio, Teeny Weeny Games, in 1991. Its name reflected its focus: games for handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy. Such gadgets were not yet hugely popular among consumers in her home country, but the average British wage was lower than that of the average American or Japanese, making a British studio such as the one she was setting up a good option for big publishers looking to get a product onto the international market quickly and fairly inexpensively, but also competently. So, Teeny Weeny cut their teeth on playable but forgettable licensed fare and ports. For all that it was the games industry’s version of flyover country, this was also a space where a pragmatist like Sutherland could do very well for herself. These sorts of projects would remain the studio’s bread and butter throughout its lifetime.

Teeny Weeny enjoyed an unusual symbiotic relationship with another studio called Perfect 10 Productions, founded at almost the same time by Gregg Barnett, a former colleague of Sutherland from Beam. Perfect 10 had much the same business philosophy as Teeny Weeny, but focused on the full-sized console systems; this created an opportunity for the two developers to collaborate in order to bring the same game out on living-room and handheld consoles. And indeed, they came to share code, assets, strategies, and even office space and to some extent employees with one another, until it became difficult for the outside observer to see where one stopped and the other began.

Thus it was Sutherland and Barnett together who made the pitch to Terry Pratchett for a Discworld adventure game. It seems that their pragmatism had served to conceal a streak of more ambitious creativity, a desire to make something more exciting than the games that were currently keeping the lights on in their offices. But at the same time, they were still hard-nosed enough to appreciate the value of licenses — particularly a license of the biggest literary phenomenon in Britain, a series of novels which Sutherland and Barnett happened to adore, just like millions of their countryfolk.

Angela Sutherland, Terry Pratchett, and… Death.

Pratchett, however, was not easy to convince. It took six months of tireless courting, and ultimately the presentation of a complete design document written by Barnett himself, to get him to say yes. “The main reason he signed,” says Barnett, “was that we did a design, which showed we were willing to put in the work without any initial reward, and that we understood and respected the property.” Sutherland and Barnett promised Pratchett that they would wash away the bad taste of the Colour of Magic text adventure by sparing no expense or effort this time around. They would make a fully-voiced point-and-click graphic adventure for the latest CD-ROM-capable personal computers, one that was as good or better than any of the big titles coming out of the United States.

In fact, the Discworld game almost came out under one of those American publishers’ imprint. Using their international connections to maximum advantage, Sutherland and Barnett signed a deal with Sierra, along with LucasArts one of the two biggest names of all in adventure gaming. The agreement would let them make their game using that company’s state-of-the-art SCI engine, with the support of some Sierra personnel who would temporarily relocate to the project’s South London headquarters. But the American publisher didn’t quite seem to grasp what a huge license Discworld really was on the other side of the Atlantic. Bleeding money from their visionary but unprofitable online gaming space The Sierra Network, they backed out of the deal. Talks with the American giant Electronic Arts also fell through, whereupon Sutherland and Barnett finally signed with the homegrown publisher Psygnosis, best known for the global hit Lemmings, the most popular British-developed videogame prior to the Grand Theft Auto franchise many years later. By virtue of their location at Ground Zero of Discworld mania, Psygnosis knew very well how big a Discworld game could be, such that they had already tried without success to pitch the idea directly to the wary Pratchett. At their first meeting with Sutherland and Barnett, they became the suitor rather than the courted: they “wouldn’t leave until we did a deal,” says Barnett.

Pratchett himself was if anything even more into games now than he had been during the previous decade. For a man who had grown up in a house without electricity or an indoor toilet, the games of the 1990s were nothing short of wondrous. “I play games a lot — and I mean a lot,” he said in a contemporary interview. “Sitting in front of a screen writing, you need some relaxation, and what better way than to load in something like Wing Commander, which is one of my faves. One of the nice things about making lots of money from books is that I can go down to the local Virgin Store and buy what I want!” This habit, combined with his protectiveness of Discworld as a property, ensured that he would take a healthy interest in the Discworld game. He went so far as to rewrite some of Gregg Barnett’s dialog.

Barnett’s script borrows heavily from Pratchett’s 1989 novel Guards! Guards!. Given how close Watch Commander Sam Vimes, its protagonist, was to his creator’s heart, it must have rankled Pratchett a bit when Barnett elected to write him out of the story, replacing him with Rincewind as chief investigator and player’s avatar. Ditto when Barnett cut out most of the novel’s serious subtext, leaving behind only the gags, jokes, and tropes. And double ditto when the game’s developers eventually cast Eric Idle of Monty Python — a part of the archly absurdist Oxbridge comedy tradition that also included the likes of Douglas Adams, and to which Pratchett did not see Discworld as belonging — to voice the part of Rincewind.

Yet Pratchett was also a reasonable man with a good grasp of what it took to sell creative product, and he could see the logic behind each of Barnett’s decisions. Rincewind was still the series’s most well-known character at this stage in its evolution; serious themes are even harder to bring off in a comic adventure game than they are in a comic novel; and the casting of a real live member of Monty Python in any game was a tremendous coup, even if Eric Idle wasn’t Barnett’s first choice of John Cleese. (According to Barnett, “Fuck off! I don’t do games,” was the latter’s response to his inquiry…) The finished game does absorb some of the flavor of Monty Python — Barnett admits to making the onscreen Rincewind into something of a doppelgänger of Idle’s typically disheveled Python personae — but the combination works. I dare you to try to read a Discworld novel that stars Rincewind after playing this game without hearing Idle’s voice in your head.

The voice-acting cast was rounded out with some other enviable comedic talents: Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s perpetual sidekick; Kate Robbins of Spitting Image; Jon Pertwee, the third incarnation of Doctor Who; and Rob Brydon, a relative newcomer with a prolific career still in front of him (international audiences may know him best today for starring in the very funny Trip series of travel mockumentaries). The only problem with the cast is that there just aren’t enough of them, meaning that everyone with the exception of Idle is juggling many roles, a fact which mugging and accent-switching can’t completely obscure. Still, if one must settle for a cast of less than half a dozen, one couldn’t do much better these actors. It’s a pleasure to listen to the game’s collection of skittish, skeevy, occasionally lovable characters, every single one of them more or less off their nut, prattle on about nothing much in particular. “Is this fish fresh?” Rincewind asks a fishmonger. “Fresh? Fresh?” he replies. “It just made a pass at my wife, sir!”

The game’s visuals are equally distinctive. Under the direction of veteran artist Paul Mitchell, the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, where the entire game takes place, becomes a Disney film as viewed by a cock-eyed drunk: everything is subtly warped and shifted, with nary a straight line to be seen (or heard, for that matter). Rincewind shuffles from location to location in his bedraggled wizard’s robes, looking like he would rather be anywhere else. (Maybe that’s understandable, given that every other character in the game asks him why he’s wearing a “dress.”) He’s trailed all the time by The Luggage, an inexplicably sentient suitcase with the legs of a centipede, the disposition of a pit bull, and the teeth of a bear trap; this movable feast serves as the means of conveyance of the incredible amount of stuff Rincewind will eventually collect and tote through the city.

As in the novel Guards! Guards!, the plot hinges on a fire-breathing dragon which a cabal of less-than-upstanding Ankh-Morpork citizens have summoned. Thwarting the monster and its minions requires playing through three lengthy, non-linear acts, followed by the climactic showdown with the dragon. Two of the main acts are scavenger hunts: find the five ridiculous things that are needed to build a Dragon’s Lair Revealer; steal the six golden talismans from the dragon-summoning cabal. We’ve all been here before — as has Rincewind apparently, judging from the scorn he is constantly heaping on the whole enterprise. Many adventure games use this sort of self-referential humor as a lazy excuse for derivative, uninspired design, and perhaps Discworld cannot be fully absolved of this sin. It does, however, have the virtue of being much, much funnier than the vast majority of such exercises. And, given that it’s meant to evoke the aesthetic of the early Discworld novels, which lampooned the conventions of paperback fantasy fiction in a similar way, the sin is venal rather than mortal.

Still, the game’s satire is at its best when it aims slightly higher in a meta-fictional sense. The point of the third act is to manipulate circumstances so that Rincewind will have exactly a million-to-one chance against the dragon. Because, as Terry Pratchett himself once put it, “we know — it is built into our very understanding of the narrative universe — that if it is a million-to-one chance that might just work, it will work. Because no one has ever heard of a million-to-one chance that just might work not working. In other words, a million-to-one chance is a certainty. It’s a cliché that we accept. We accept it from James Bond and from Bilbo Baggins.”


Josh Kirby, Terry Pratchett’s longtime cover illustrator, provided the art for the Discworld game box as well.

Rincewind with the Luggage.

Unseen University, where Rincewind has been studying without any obvious benefit to himself or society for years and years.

Death makes a cameo in the first Discworld graphic adventure. He will take a starring role in the second.

“A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end of it…”


Released in Britain in early 1995 under the name of simply Discworld, the game was praised to the skies by reviewer after reviewer. PC Zone magazine wasn’t that much of an outlier in calling it “possibly the best point-and-click adventure game ever made.” Everyone marveled over the graphics, the voice acting, and the humor, declaring that it really was like seeing the world of the novels come to life. Most of all, though, they marveled over the sheer size of the thing. They noted, accurately, that each of the game’s first three acts could easily have been a standalone game in its own right. It was and remains abundantly obvious that the people who made this game did so for all the right reasons, that they genuinely loved Anhk-Morpork and wanted to shove as much of it as possible onto a CD.

Unfortunately, these same people had never actually made an adventure game before. And, once the initial euphoria died down, players could all too plainly see this too in the finished product. It is — or at least ought to be — a truism in adventure design that every puzzle you make is ten times harder than you think it is. The only way to calibrate your game’s difficulty is to put it in front of real players and see how much they struggle. Sadly, it is all too clear that the people who made this game failed to do that in the midst of their zeal to keep adding more, more, more to it.

Discworld is for all intents and purposes insoluble. There is simply no way to reason out many of its puzzles; this is where the cockamamie nature of the world comes back to bite. The designers have paid no heed to what Bob Bates calls the “else” rule of good puzzle design. It states that, if the player has not done the correct thing, but she has done some other thing that might make some degree of logical or comedic sense, the game should recognize and acknowledge that in some way, ideally whilst embedding within its response a hint as to the correct way forward. In this game, though, everything you try to do that isn’t the One True Way Forward is met only by a scornful Eric Idle telling you, “That doesn’t work!” This is the one quote from Discworld that absolutely everyone remembers. Long before you finish the first act, it will have begun to haunt your very dreams, will pop back into your head to enrage you at random moments throughout your day. And just to ensure that you get to hear it even more often than you otherwise might, the game is littered with red herrings that have no purpose whatsoever.

To sum up, then, we have a huge environment to wander around in, one which provides no shortcuts to get from place to place, just Rincewind’s lackadaisical stroll; an enormous pile of objects, many of which are literally good for nothing; puzzles whose solutions are amusing in retrospect but cannot possibly be anticipated before the fact; and no middle ground between wrong and right when it comes to solving them, to provide useful feedback or at least some small dollop of amusement. Oh, and there are also dead ends that you can stumble into without realizing it, after which you’ll get to spend hours banging your head against brick walls even more fruitlessly than usual. As a piece of game design, Discworld is hopeless.

When the game came out in the United States several weeks after its British release, the reviewers there were clearer-eyed, being carried away with neither excitement over the very existence of a Discworld game nor home-country partisanship. Computer Gaming World magazine wrote that “the overall impression the game conveys is not one of richness but one of clutter and surfeit.” It sold in only middling numbers in the American market.

But that was not the case in Britain and much of Europe. There the game sold hundreds of thousands of copies before second takes started to appear in the gaming press and on the Internet, noting belatedly that labeling it “best adventure game of all time” may have been laying it on a bit thick. Needless to say, it was full speed ahead on the sequel.

Before starting on it in earnest, Angela Sutherland and Gregg Barnett finally did the logical thing and merged their two companies together as Perfect Entertainment. The new entity continued to devote the preponderance of its effort to workaday projects for the console market, but the connections forged thereby brought more than financial benefits to the passion projects: both Discworld and its sequel would be ported to the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, opening up whole new worlds of potential sales. (Their publisher Psygnosis had in fact been bought by Sony in 1993.)

If the first Discworld game is a sad story of good intentions and soaring ambitions derailed by a lack of experience with the nuts and bolts of adventure design, Discworld II: Missing, Presumed…!? is a happier tale of a development team willing and able to learn from their failures — a less common phenomenon than one might expect in the world of adventure games. It doesn’t so much try to break new ground as to perfect the experience which Perfect Entertainment had attempted to deliver last time around. And it succeeds on these terms rather magnificently. Right from the first page of the manual, where they promise that this Discworld game is “a little easier,” the makers make it clear that they understand what they did wrong last time.

Interestingly, Pratchett was less involved with the sequel. “I let them have their heads a bit more,” he said after its release. “It seemed that they could create a game that had the right kind of feel to it, so I didn’t have to shepherd them so much. There wasn’t quite so much shouting this time around.”

Once again the broad plot is lifted from a beloved Discworld novel: this time it’s 1991’s Reaper Man, in which Death leaves job and retires to the countryside, with chaotic results for the whole Disc. As in the last game, matters are rejiggered to insert Rincewind into the story as the protagonist, while space is also made for elements of the 1990 Discworld novel Moving Pictures, an entertaining if not particularly deep pastiche of old Hollywood (“Holy Wood” on the Disc), with motion-picture cameras which consist of fast-painting imps trapped inside windowed boxes.

The second game is another joy to listen to; Eric Idle agreed to return, as did Kate Robbins and Rob Brydon. Tony Robinson elected not to, however, while the elderly Jon Pertwee was too ill to participate. (He died in May of 1996, leaving Discworld I as one of his last media legacies.) To take up some of the slack, Perfect hired Nigel Planer, another stalwart comedy veteran, who would go on to narrate almost all of the audio-book versions of the Discworld novels. Barnett tried to recruit Christopher Lee for the role of Death — an inspired choice by any standard — but Perfect couldn’t afford his asking price in the end. So, Rob Brydon took the role instead, and did very well with it, bringing out the mix of fussiness, petulance, and compassion that has since made Death arguably the most popular Discworld character of all time. On the whole, then, the voice acting in Discworld II is on a level with that of the first game — including, alas, the same major weakness of there just not being enough different actors. Kate Robbins, for example, voices every single female character in both games, and most of the children to boot.

The truly striking change from the first game to the second is the look of the production; the difference here is truly night and day. The switchover in the mid-1990s from the VGA graphics standard, with a typical resolution of 320 X 200, to SVGA, with a resolution of 640 X 480 or more, strikes me as the second of the two most dramatic inflection points in the history of computer-game graphics. (The first, for the record, is the arrival of the Commodore Amiga in the mid-1980s, followed soon after by VGA on MS-DOS machines.) The first and second Discworld graphic adventures stand on either side of the VGA/SVGA Rubicon, which divides games that look undeniably old today from those that can at least potentially still look quite contemporary. I would place Discworld II among this group without hesitation.

The higher resolution allowed Perfect to outsource the animation to Hanna-Barbera’s studio in the Philippines, a decision which would have made no sense under the constraints of VGA. Characters and backgrounds that looked a bit muddy and blurry in the first game pop on the screen in sharp, vivid cartoon colors this time around. Meanwhile the static views of the first game are replaced by fades, pans, and close-ups; it’s like going from the typical 1930s film to Citizen Kane.

Most importantly of all, Discworld II plays better. We have the same three-act structure as last time, with all of the acts no more than scavenger hunts at bottom. But this time we get to venture beyond Ankh-Morpork to other locations on the Disc. Counterintuitively with this last, the game as a whole is a bit smaller — and yet this is by no means a bad thing. The combinatorial explosion is much reduced, thanks to fewer locations, fewer objects, almost no red herrings, an absence of dead ends, and a much more concentrated effort to calibrate the puzzles to that sweet spot which lies equidistant from the trivial and the impossible. Discworld II isn’t an easy game; its puzzle-dependency chains are sometimes nested a dozen layers deep. Yet it is a soluble one, with puzzles that make a modicum of sense on the vast majority of occasions. Rincewind even deigns to say something other than “That doesn’t work!” some of the time when you try something that, well, doesn’t work. And the world of the game is even more of a delight than last time just to explore, being stuffed to the brim with eccentric characters and curious sights. Meaty, funny, generous, and yet unabashedly traditionalist, it succeeds in actually being everything its predecessor tried but failed to be.


Josh Kirby again provided the cover art for Discworld II.

Eric Idle, who was always Monty Python’s go-to song-and-dance man, contributed an original song to Discworld II.

On a “Holy Wood” set, complete with troll security for the actors’ trailers.

You can move around on a larger world map this time. Notice the Luggage swimming behind Rincewind’s ship.

Visiting Death’s home, which is as Gothic chic as a Bauhaus song.

Oh, my, what’s happened here? In one of the best gags in a game that delights in pulverizing the fourth wall at every opportunity, Rincewind 2.0 gets transported for a few minutes back into the world of Discworld I, where he meets his low-res counterpart.


Thanks to already-built tools and the outsourcing of the animation, Perfect Entertainment was able to finish their second Discworld game in less than eighteen months, and Psygnosis released it in late 1996. By this time the adventure market in the United States was showing undeniable signs of mushiness, but it was still holding up comparatively well in Britain and Germany; Broken Sword, another homegrown British production from Revolution Software, would be a substantial hit that holiday season. Still, a sense of gloom was creeping in even on this side of the Atlantic. Discworld II testifies to this with a considerable amount of gallows humor about its genre. “Aren’t you gonna miss it when they stop making these games?” says Rincewind at one point.

Discworld II did reasonably well in the friendliest markets, but not as well as the first game. And it again made even less of an impact in the United States, despite a gushing review from Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s long-tenured, infamously cantankerous adventure columnist. “It’s been too long since I could unreservedly recommend a game,” she wrote. “I can do it now.”

Between its computer and console versions, Discworld II sold just well enough to justify one more game. This would be a brave effort which eschewed the low-hanging fruit of cartoon comedy in favor of a dramatically different direction, enough so as to justify comparisons with Equal Rites, the Terry Pratchett novel which proved that the literary Discworld was more than just a fantasy version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We’ll turn to that final Discworld computer game to date, as well as the later years in Pratchett’s life and literary career, in due course, in another article.

For now, though, let me echo Scorpia’s unreserved endorsement of Discworld II. Its predecessor is an interesting but badly flawed creation, best left for hardcore fans of Rincewind who are willing to play with a walkthrough by their side, but the sequel deserves to be better remembered today as the minor classic it is. It represents the Discworld comedy game perfected.

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: The Official Strategy Guide by Glen Eldridge; Starlog of August 1990; CD-ROM Today of April 1995; Computer Gamer of January 1987; Computer Gaming World of June 1995 and May 1997; Computer and Video Games of September 1986; Electronic Entertainment of July 1995; GameFan of September 1997; Next Generation of August 1997; PC Zone of January 1995, August 1996, November 1996, and May 1999; PC Powerplay of November 1996 and July 1997; Sinclair User of December 1986; The One of September 1993; Retro Gamer 94 and 164.

None of the Discworld game are available for legal purchase today, doubtless due to complications with the literary license. Thankfully, Perfect Entertainment’s Discworld and Discworld II are available in ready-to-play Windows versions on The Collection Chamber. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)

 
 

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