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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Opening the Gold Box, Part 6: A Troubled Marriage

This pie chart prepared by the investment firm Piper Jaffray Research provides a snapshot of the American computer-game industry as of 1993. Sierra leads the pack with a market share of 11.8 percent, trailed closely by Spectrum Holobyte, who have just increased their profile dramatically by acquiring MicroProse Software. Electronic Arts comes in at only third place here, even following their recent acquisition of Origin Systems, but this chart reflects only their computer-game sales; their total sales including computers and consoles are vastly higher than those of Sierra by this point. SSI manages to come in at a respectable fifth place, thanks not least to the two aforementioned acquisitions of comparably sized competitors, but their trend lines are all moving in the wrong direction; their last new release to cross the magical threshold of 100,000 copies sold was Eye of the Beholder from February of 1991, while their biggest game of 1993 will sell just over 70,000 copies.

Two individually unhappy spouses aren’t the recipe for a happy marriage. By 1992, the computer-game publisher SSI and the tabletop-game publisher TSR, whose announcement of a partnership had so shocked both of their industries back in 1987, were learning this reality the hard way. Dungeons & Dragons, both on the computer and on the tabletop, was in trouble, and the marketing synergy which the two companies had so successfully created just a few years before had now turned into a deadly embrace that threatened to pull them both under.

In many ways, SSI’s problems were typical of any small publisher in their changing industry. Players’ audiovisual expectations of the games they purchased were growing rapidly, and it just wasn’t clear where the money to meet them was to come from. SSI had ridden their Gold Box engine for Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs way too hard, churning out nine games using it — eleven if you count two reskinned science-fictional Buck Rogers games — in a span of less than four years. The engine had received some modest improvements over the course of that time, in the form of rudimentary mouse support and VGA- rather than EGA-standard graphics, but at bottom it still played like what it was: an artifact from an entirely different epoch of gaming, designed around the affordances of the 8-bit Commodore 64 rather than the latest 32-bit Intel wonders. It was so outdated as to seem almost laughable beside a boundary-pushing wunderkind like Origin Systems’s Ultima VII.

Just as distressingly, SSI hardly seemed to be trying anymore even when it came to their Gold Box designs. No later Gold Box game had possessed anything like the creative flair of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, the first two games of the line and by far the best.

And so, as the technology had aged and design standards had fallen, gamers had reacted appropriately: sales had dropped almost linearly from title to title. Pool of Radiance had sold 264,536 copies upon its release in August of 1988; Dark Queen of Krynn, the anticlimactic end of the Gold Box line, sold 40,640 copies after its release in May of 1992. SSI was still profitable that year, but only by a whisker: during the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1992, profits amounted to just $168,000 on sales of a little under $13 million, the latter of which fell short of expectations by $1 million. What would the next year bring?

TSR was a larger and more diversified company, but they were facing the same essential problem: sales of their own Dungeons & Dragons line for the tabletop had been going in the wrong direction as well for the past couple of years, and it wasn’t immediately clear how to reverse that trend. A flood of new rules supplements and settings — by 1993, TSR would offer an extraordinary eight separate boxed “worlds” in which to play the game, ranging from traditional high fantasy to the Arabian Nights to the depths of outer space — certainly wasn’t doing the trick. In fact, by making Dungeons & Dragons ever more impenetrable to newcomers, the torrent of product was arguably hurting TSR more than it was helping them.

Thanks to these trends, Dungeons & Dragons was in danger of seeing its position as the commercial ne plus ultra of tabletop RPGs usurped for the first and only time in the history of the hobby. The biggest threat to its status came from a new RPG called Vampire: The Masquerade, whose rules-lite, storytelling-oriented approach was the antithesis of the baggy monstrosity which Dungeons & Dragons had become. By catching a wave of “goth” inspiration that was sweeping pop culture more generally, Vampire had even accrued a degree of street cred the likes of which TSR’s nerdier, more pedantic offerings couldn’t have hoped to match even in their early 1980s heyday. TSR’s entire Dungeons & Dragons gaming line was in danger of becoming the world’s most elaborate loss leader, fueling sales of the one part of their empire that was still consistently earning money: their vast and ever-growing lineup of fantasy novels based on their gaming properties.

Human nature being what it is, it was perhaps inevitable that SSI and TSR, these two partners with good reason to be profoundly worried about their futures, would each come to blame the other for at least some of their difficulties. SSI noted pointedly that the Gold Box line was supposed to have been a creative as well as financial partnership between the two companies, with TSR’s staff contributing much of the content for the computer games and TSR themselves publishing tie-in products for the tabletop. All of those synergies, however, had dried up after Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. (The status of these two very first games as the very best of their line begins to seem like less of a puzzle in light of TSR’s active involvement with them.) SSI had been left to their own devices from 1990 on, albeit still subject to the frequently exercised veto power which TSR enjoyed over their ideas.

Meanwhile, even as SSI complained about their creative abandonment, it was hardly lost on TSR that the Gold Box engine had fallen badly behind the state of the art. As they judged it, its antiquity had become extreme enough to actively hurt their brand, not only on the computer but on the tabletop as well; when struggling against their tabletop game’s popular image as a kitschy relic of the 1980s, TSR’s marketers weren’t excited to be confronted with computers games that themselves looked like products of the previous decade. TSR was also unhappy with SSI’s failure to port the Gold Box games from computers to consoles; out of all of them, only Pool of Radiance had been ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, by a Japanese developer rather than SSI themselves. SSI tried to point out that this port, which played badly and sold worse, only served to illustrate all the ways in which this style of game just wasn’t suitable for consoles, but TSR was having none of it. In their view, the porting issue was a problem for SSI to solve rather than to explain away.

Behind all the bickering loomed a daunting reality: SSI’s exclusive license to Dungeons & Dragons was due to expire on January 1, 1993. One of the partners had far more cause for concern about this fact than the other. For those in the boardroom at TSR, the question of the contract’s renewal was just another business debate to be hashed out, but for SSI it was quite possibly of existential importance. After signing his first contract with TSR, Joel Billings, SSI’s founder and president, had rejiggered the public and private face of his company, from that of a maker of hardcore wargames inspired by the tabletop grognard tradition of Avalon Hill and SPI into the Computerized Home of Dungeons & Dragons. While SSI still published some wargames in the early 1990s, they generally sold even worse than the final stragglers from the Gold Box line, and were made strictly by outside developers; almost the entirety of SSI’s internal development efforts had been devoted to Dungeons & Dragons for the past five years. SSI’s identity had become so bound up with TSR’s flagship property that it wasn’t clear what they could or should be without the Dungeons & Dragons license.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of the contract left SSI paralyzed. It was obvious that they needed a better, more modern engine if they were to continue to make Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, but it would be foolhardy to embark on that expensive project before they were sure of retaining the license that would let them use it for its intended purpose.

Thus Billings must have breathed a sigh of relief in early 1992, when TSR, despite all their recent misgivings about SSI’s handling of the license, agreed to an eighteen-month contract extension. It would take the license out to July 1, 1994, giving SSI enough time to make a new engine and at least one new game with it. Still, the short length of extension served notice that they were on probation; if the marriage was to continue, SSI would have to deliver a hit of Pool of Radiance proportions.

Billings put his people to work on an engine that would build upon the best ideas of SSI’s competitors, not least Origin’s much-admired Ultima VII engine. Like that one, this one would be designed with a mouse in mind from the start; would offer free-scrolling real-time movement over a large world; would go almost entirely mode-less in terms of interface, integrating combat into the same view where conversation and exploration took place. Gone would be the fussy paragraph books, graph-paper maps, and code wheels of the Gold Box games, which could make the experience of playing them feel almost like a hybrid between a computer and tabletop game. SSI had a very different experience in mind this time out. They planned make the engine effortless enough for the player that it could be ported to the Super Nintendo for play on living-room couches. And if that version did well, other console ports would follow.

TSR, eager to give a boost to one of their sales-challenged alternate settings, convinced SSI to set the first game made with the new engine in the land of Dark Sun, a desert world with a vaguely post-apocalyptic feel. Billings, aware that he was on shaky ground with TSR, also initiated development of an original science-fiction game that was to use the engine as well, just in case the Dungeons & Dragons license went away.

Creating such a complex engine alongside the first two games to use it was a truly enormous task — by far the biggest thing SSI had ever attempted, dwarfing even the initial software engineering that had gone into the Gold Box engine. Development dragged on and on after the Gold Box line had petered out with Dark Queen of Krynn. SSI attempted to plug the Gold Box-sized gap in their product line with such second-string releases as Prophecy of the Shadow, an internally developed, non-licensed CRPG-lite (25,875 copies sold); Pirates of Realmspace, a buggy computerized take on TSR’s Spelljammer setting from an outside developer known as Cybertech (23,280 copies sold); The Summoning, a simple action-RPG from Event Horizon Software (25,273 copies sold); Veil of Darkness, a game of a similar stripe to the previous from the same developer (9866 copies sold); Legends of Valor, a poor man’s Ultima Underworld from Synthetic Dimensions (12,588 copies sold); and Unlimited Adventures, a final hurrah for the Gold Box in the form of a public release of many of SSI’s internal development tools, thereby to let the diehards make more games of their own of the old type (32,362 copies sold).

As the sales figures above attest, none of these games set the world on fire. Indeed, their sales managed to make even the latter days of the Gold Box line look pretty good by comparison. In all, SSI released just three games between the summers of 1992 and 1993 that managed to top 40,000 units: Great Naval Battles in September (43,774 copies sold), Tony La Russa Baseball II in March (70,902 copies sold), and Eye of the Beholder III in May (50,664 copies sold). Of this trio, only the last was a Dungeons & Dragons title, and only the last was developed internally. Needless to say, the bottom line suffered. During the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1993, revenues fell to $10.5 million, and the company lost $500,000 — the first annual loss SSI had posted in more than a decade.

Joel Billings wrote in that year’s annual report that it had been “the most difficult year in SSI’s 14-year history.” He spoke his personal truth not least. Throughout this period, over the course of which development of the Dark Sun game and its engine kept dragging on far longer than expected, Billings was scrambling madly to stem the bleeding. He put an organization that had always had the atmosphere of a family company through the trauma of its first-ever layoff, slashing the employee rolls from 115 to 75 employees; the memory of doing so still haunts Billings, a gentle soul at heart, to this day. Having been forced to cut the staff needed to create the science-fiction game earmarked for the new engine, he cut that as well, putting all his eggs into the single basket that was the Dark Sun game. Even the Super Nintendo version of that game, which his programmers had been struggling mightily to realize, would have to be set aside as well, at least for now. Much to TSR’s chagrin, this latest Dungeons & Dragons game too would have to live or die on computers.

Yet all of Billings’s scrambling constituted no more than financial triage. The existential obstacle which SSI faced was that of being a small, boutique publisher in an industry whose economies of scale were making it harder and harder for such an entity to survive. It was getting ever harder to win shelf space at retail, harder to pay for advertising in the glossy magazines — and, most of all, harder to foot the ever-increasing bill of developing modern games that met all of the expectations of the 1990s. Billings reluctantly concluded that he had but one choice: he had to sell out, had to find a buyer for the family business he had spent almost a decade and a half building from the ground up.

Accordingly, he spent much of his time in 1993 beating the bushes for just such a buyer. Yet here he was stymied once again by the realities of the marketplace. SSI was far from the only small publisher looking for a port in the storm, and many of the others had — or at least were judged to have — more attractive portfolios of extant and forthcoming games. Thus Billings faced a dispiriting, borderline-humiliating series of near misses, of seeing SSI cast aside in favor of alternative acquisitions in the fast-consolidating industry.

At the beginning of June, he thought he had made a deal with Spectrum HoloByte, an oddly bifurcated publisher that was almost entirely dependent on two wildly divergent games: the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon, whose manual was roughly the size of a Tom Clancy novel, and the casual phenomenon Tetris, a game so brilliantly simple that it took only about 30 seconds of experimentation at the keyboard to spawn a lifetime’s addiction. Both of these games, radically different though they were in personality, were equally successful with their own demographics. Just as importantly, Spectrum HoloByte was absurdly well-connected with the movers and shakers of international finance, and was awash in venture capital as a result.

Due diligence between SSI and Spectrum HoloByte was completed, and a plan was made to meet again and sign a letter of intent as soon as that year’s Summer Consumer Electronics Show was behind both of them. At that show, however, Spectrum HoloByte met with Microprose, whose financial circumstances were even more desperate than those of SSI but who had a much more impressive array of upcoming titles to show to potential suitors. To make a long story short, Spectrum HoloByte bought MicroProse instead, leaving SSI stranded at the altar.

A few months later, the same scenario repeated itself. This time the would-be acquirer was Electronic Arts, a company with which SSI already had a longstanding relationship: Trip Hawkins had been a member of SSI’s board since before he founded EA, SSI had been piggybacking on EA’s distribution network as an “affiliated label” since 1987, and EA in fact already owned 20 percent of SSI thanks to an investment made in 1987, when the smaller company was first scaling up to take on Dungeons & Dragons. For all these reasons, the deal at first seemed a natural one. But Hawkins, the biggest proponent of the acquisition on EA’s side, was busy with a new semi-subsidiary known as 3DO and no longer had the day-to-day involvement necessary with the parent company to push it through. After kicking the tires a bit, the rest of EA’s management decided that SSI just wasn’t worth the asking price — especially given that EA already owned Origin Systems, one of SSI’s biggest rivals in CRPGs. Contrary to Joel Billings’s best intentions, SSI would thus be forced to exit 1993 as they had entered it: still an independent company, facing a future that looked more perilous than ever.

SSI’s struggle to find a buyer was a sign not only of their own weakness but of the diminished commercial profile of Dungeons & Dragons. Five years earlier, three quarters of the industry would have rushed to scoop up SSI, if only to acquire the enviable licensing deal they had recently signed. Now, though, the tabletop game was at a low ebb of its own, even as it seemed hopelessly antithetical to all of the winds of change in digital gaming. Where did this nerdy game played in parents’ basements, all tables and charts and numbers, fit in an industry rushing to make slick, kinetic interactive movies featuring real Hollywood actors? Dungeons & Dragons just wasn’t cool. It had never really been cool, of course, but that hadn’t been a problem when the computer-game industry as well was thoroughly uncool. But now, as computer-game moguls were busily penning paeans to themselves as the next wave in mainstream entertainment, its uncoolness was extremely problematic.

Amidst all of this — in September of 1993, to be specific — Dark Sun: Shattered Lands finally got completed and released. It was the most important game SSI had published since Pool of Radiance; the future of the TSR partnership, and thus their own future as a company, rode on its success or lack thereof.

When viewed separately from all of these external pressures, as just a game to be played and hopefully enjoyed, it revealed itself to be a nobly earnest attempt to improve on SSI’s most recent efforts in the realm of CRPGs, even if it wasn’t an entirely unblemished one. On the technological side, SSI’s next-generation engine largely delivered where it needed to: it was indeed vastly slicker, prettier, easier, and more modern than the Gold Box engine, feeling like a true product of the 1990s rather than a holdover from the last decade. It was an engine that could even stand next to the likes of an Ultima VII without undue embarrassment. Indeed, SSI seemed to have learned from their rival’s mistakes and done Origin one better in some places. For example, in place of the real-time, well-nigh uncontrollable frenzy that was combat in Ultima VII, SSI’s engine lapsed seamlessly into a turn-based mode as soon as a fight began; this allowed combat in Shattered Lands to retain most of the tactical complexity and interest that had marked its implementation in the Gold Box games, with the additional advantages of increased audiovisual interest and a less cryptic interface.

At the same time that they endeavored to keep combat interesting, however, SSI’s design team had clearly made a concerted effort to move beyond the exercises in incessant combat and very little else which the Gold Box games had become by the end. Shattered Lands offered much better-developed characters to talk to, along with heaps of real choices to make and alternative pathways to discover. The new approach was enough to impress even so committed an SSI skeptic as Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s longtime adventure columnist, who had been roundly criticizing the Gold Box games in print for their “incessant, fight-after-fight” nature for half a decade by this point. Now, she could write that “SSI is taking their role-playing line in a new direction, which is good to see”: “the solution to every problem is not kill, kill, kill.” Shay Addams, another prominent adventure pundit, had a similar take: “It’s no secret that I never liked the Gold Box games. Dark Sun, however, kept me coming back to the dungeon for more: more combat, more exploring, more story.”

Still, the game had its fair share of niggles — more than enough of them, in fact, to prevent its achieving a classic status to rival Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. While SSI was to be commended for attempting to give the setting and plot more nuance and texture, that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did best, and they were still receiving little to no help from TSR on that front. The writing and plotting were derivative in several different directions at once, hackneyed even by the usual standards of the genre. Mind you, the writing wasn’t actually worse than most of that which had accompanied the Gold Box games — but here, moved as it was from a paragraph book onto the screen and expected as it was to do a lot more heavy lifting, its weaknesses were magnified.

Shattered Lands was also damaged as a computer game by its need to conform to TSR’s tabletop rules. The boxed set which presented the Dark Sun setting for the tabletop included a whole range of new rules complications and variations to distinguish it from the already convoluted Dungeon & Dragons base game, and most of these SSI was expected to implement faithfully as part of their licensing agreement. And so Shattered Lands came complete with a bunch of races and classes unfamiliar even to most Gold Box and tabletop Dungeons & Dragons veterans, along with a veritable baseline expectation that every character would be double- or triple-classed. Clerics suddenly had to choose an “element” to worship, which limited their selection of spells — and now everyone had access to a whole parallel sphere of magic known as psionics, and had to choose a specialty there as well. No game designer starting a CRPG from scratch would ever have inserted so much cruft of such marginal utility to the ultimate goal of fun; it was the sort of thing that could only arise from a company like TSR throwing rule after rule at the wall over the course of years in order to sell more supplements. Certainly none of it made much sense in a game explicitly envisioned as a new beginning for Dungeons & Dragons on computers, a place for fresh players to jump aboard. Nor, for that matter, did the choice of the oddball world of Dark Sun as a setting; for all that critics like me have long railed against the tendency, gamers for time immemorial have been demonstrating their preference for CRPGs set in generic high-fantasy worlds — such as that of TSR’s own Forgotten Realms, home of the most commercially successful of the Gold Box games — over more unique settings like this one.

But whatever its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, Shattered Lands suffered most of all from one undeniable external failing: it was deeply, thoroughly unfashionable in the context of 1993. At a time when the whole industry was moving toward multimedia “talkies,” its many conversations and descriptions were still implemented via screenful after screenful of boring old text. And in addition to the old-fashioned implementation, there also remained the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons name just wasn’t the force it once had been. A measure of the industry’s attitude toward the game and its commercial prospects can be gleaned from its placement in the magazines. Even as they were giving it reasonably positive reviews, Computer Gaming World buried it on page 124 of 276, Shay Addams’s Questbusters newsletter on page 8 of 16. (The lead review of that issue, evidently judged to be more immediately interesting to the newsletter’s readers than a review of Shattered Lands, was of Legend Entertainment’s Gateway 2, a fine game in its own right but one which still had a parser, for God’s sake.)

So, you’ve probably guessed where this is going: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands proved a devastating disappointment to TSR and especially to SSI. After costing more than $1 million and eighteen months to make, with the additional opportunity cost of preventing SSI’s internal developers from doing much of anything else over the course of that period, it sold just 45,917 copies. To put this figure into perspective, consider that it’s barely 5000 more copies than the last tired release of the old Gold Box line, or that it’s about one-sixth of the sales of Pool of Radiance — this in spite of an expanded marketplace in which the number of copies which a hit game could hope to sell was actually far greater than it had been five years before.

When SSI and TSR met again early in 1994, after it had become all too clear that Shattered Lands wasn’t to be the next Pool of Radiance, TSR stated matter-of-factly that they no longer wished to remain in the marriage. Some tense negotiation followed, during which TSR did make some concessions to a frantic SSI, who were facing down the apocalyptic prospect of a license due to expire in less than six months while they still had a lot more Dungeons & Dragons product from third-party developers in the pipeline. TSR agreed to extend the exclusive license for six more months, to January 1, 1995, and to allow SSI to continue to release new games under a non-exclusive license until July 1, 1995. After that, though, the marriage was through. TSR emphasized that there would be no further settlement agreements.

Thus SSI’s final string of Dungeons & Dragons releases, of which there would still be a considerable number, would have something of the feel of a lame-duck session of government. DreamForge Intertainment provided two real-time CRPGs set in TSR’s Gothic world of Ravenloft and a third set in the Forgotten Realms; Cyberlore Studios provided a similar game set in the Arabian Nights World of Al-Qadim; Lion Entertainment provided a Doom-influenced hack-and-slasher set nowhere in particular. An overoptimistic SSI had launched into Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, a sequel to Shattered Lands, before the commercial verdict on the first game and TSR’s final judgment on the whole partnership that had led to it had come in. They finished that game up too, after a fashion anyway, and released it, still full of bugs, unimplemented features, and placeholder writing. It became their final in-house-developed Dungeons & Dragons title. It made for a slightly pathetic way to bow out, but at this point they just couldn’t be bothered to do better; they were now a long way indeed from those enthusiastic early days of Pool of Radiance. None of these games sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies. But then, no one, least of all SSI, had much expected them to.

The news that TSR and SSI were parting ways reached the magazines almost immediately. The two newly minted divorcees couldn’t resist a bit of veiled sniping in the press. SSI, for instance, told Computer Gaming World that they were “unhappy with the rules and restrictions imposed with the license that limited their creativity,” and said they could be perfectly happy and very successful making original CRPGs instead. TSR, for their part, said they’d learned a lesson about binding themselves too inextricably to others, and thus wouldn’t be entering into any more exclusive arrangements at all. Instead they’d play the field, signing deals with publishers on a title-by-title basis, and might just learn how to make computer games of their own.

Yet behind all these brave words lurked a difficult reality for both companies; it was by no means clear that either or both of them would really be better off apart than they’d been together. As if it hadn’t had problems enough already, tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was now getting pummeled by a new arrival with huge appeal to the same demographic: Magic: The Gathering, a fast-playing, accessible “collectible card game” of fantasy combat psychologically engineered to sell an endless amount of content to gamers looking for that one perfect card which could give them an edge over their chums. Magic decks were soon eating up much of the shelf space in hobby stores that had once gone to Dungeons & Dragons, and pushing it out of their display windows entirely. TSR’s only solution was the same as it had always been: to churn out yet more source books. And so the spiral of diminishing returns continued.

The contrast between TSR and Wizards of the Coast, the upstart makers of Magic, was a telling one. The latter engaged with their customers directly at every opportunity, skillfully goosing the grass-roots excitement around their products to yet further extremes. But TSR, still led by the widely disliked non-gamer Lorraine Williams, seemed out of touch, utterly disinterested in their fans and their opinions. Ryan Dancey, who has done a lot of research into TSR’s history, sums up the company’s attitude in damning fashion:

In all my research into TSR’s business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found — one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available. No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer.” TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive.

The brainy kids who used to fall into the Dungeons & Dragons rabbit hole around the time they entered junior high were now getting their first Magic decks at that age instead. With the red ink beginning to pile up to a truly alarming extent — even the novels were no longer selling like they used to — TSR looked to be headed for an ugly reckoning.

And yet, if TSR was in dire straits, SSI’s position was if anything even worse. Without Dungeons & Dragons, they had almost literally nothing; the strongest remaining item in their portfolio was the Tony La Russa Baseball franchise developed by Stormfront Studios. But a baseball simulation alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain the company, and the sales picture of their other recent products wasn’t pretty. They were still in desperate need of a savior, but now lacked even the TSR connection to offer to potential buyers. Who in the age of multimedia would want to buy a failing publisher of stats-heavy wargames and traditionalist CRPGs? Joel Billings didn’t know, but he had no choice but to keep looking for someone crazy enough to take the plunge.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of September 1993, December 1993, April 1994, and December 1994; Questbusters of October 1993. Online sources include Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings and David Shelley and Laura Bowen.

The two Dark Sun games are available as digital purchases at GOG.com.)

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

 

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Origin Sells Out

One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.

Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.

But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”

And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!

What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.

For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.

The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.

Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.

But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.

It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)

Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.

Richard and Robert Garriott flank Stan McKee, Electronic Arts’s chief financial officer, as they toast the consummation of one of the more unexpected acquisitions in gaming history at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.

From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)

As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.

Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.

Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time the Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.

On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.

The calm before the storm: the enormous cafeteria at Origin’s new digs awaits the first onslaught of hungry employees. Hopefully someone will scrounge up some tables and chairs before the big moment arrives…

And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.

Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.

The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.

Brian Martin, one of the last two developers remaining on the Arthurian Legends project, made this odd little memorial to it with the help of his partner Sheri Graner Ray after being informed by management that the project was to be cancelled entirely. Ray herself tells the story: “Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King.’ …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. As the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the altar growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.”

Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

Unfashionable though such an approach was in 1993, almost all of the Serpent Isle team’s energy went into gameplay and script rather than multimedia assets; the game looks virtually identical to the first Ultima VII. An exception is the frozen northlands which you visit later in the game. Unfortunately, the change in scenery comes about the time that the design slowly begins to fall apart.

And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:

There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.

Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.

The hype around Strike Commander was inescapable for months prior to its release. At the European Computer Trade Show in London, the last big event before the release, Origin put together a mock-up of an airplane hangar. Those lucky people who managed to seize control for few minutes got to play the game from behind a nose cowl and instrument panel. What Origin didn’t tell you was that the computer hidden away underneath all the window dressing was almost certainly much, much more powerful than one you had at home.

Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.

The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.

Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focused-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”

But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.

Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.

(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.

All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Rick Loomis Could Use Your Help

Rick Loomis, the founder of Flying Buffalo, is ill with lymphatic cancer. His has been one of the quiet voices of influence behind the culture of gaming, both on the tabletop and on the computer, since the early 1970s. His company pioneered one of if not the first play-by-mail game run on a mainframe computer, the great ancestor to the ubiquitous multi-player online games of today. And, perhaps even more relevantly for readers of this blog in particular, it served as an incubator of writing and design talent — names like Michael Stackpole, Elizabeth Danforth, and Ken St. Andre — that would later leave a mark on such fondly remembered computer games as Wasteland, Neuromancer, and Star Trek: 25th Anniversary among others. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him personally, I know that he’s been considered one of the genuine Nice Guys in his industry for many years.

Unfortunately, the American medical system being what it is, Rick is forced to worry over medical bills and mounting debt during this critical time in his life. Anything you could pitch in to help with that would be greatly appreciated. You can do so at the Go Fund Me campaign set up by his friend Steve Crompton. Thanks!

 
 

Alone in the Dark

Most videogame stories are power fantasies. You spend your time getting ever stronger, ever tougher, ever more formidable as you accumulate experience points, gold, and equipment. Obstacles aren’t things to go around; they’re things you go through. If you can’t get past any given monster, the solution is to go kill some other monsters, then come back when you’re yet more powerful and slay the big beast at last. Life, these games tell us, is or ought to be one unadulterated ride up the escalator of success; a setback just means you haven’t yet risen high enough.

That dynamic held true in 1992 just as much as it usually does today. But during that year there came a well-nigh revolutionary game out of France that upended all of these traditional notions about what the medium of videogames can do and be. It cast you as a painfully ordinary, near-powerless individual adrift in a scary world, with no surefire panaceas in the form of experience points, gold, or portable rocket launchers to look forward to. It was just you and your wits, trapped in a haunted house full of creatures that were stronger than you and badly wanted to kill you. Despite its supernatural elements, this game’s scenario felt more disconcertingly close to real life than that of any of those other games. Here, you truly were alone in the dark. Aren’t we all from time to time?


Any story of how this shockingly innovative game came to be must begin with that of Frédérick Raynal, its mastermind. Born in the south-central French town of Brive-la-Gaillarde in 1966, Raynal was part of the first generation of European youths to have access to personal computers. In fact, right from the time his father first came home with a Sinclair ZX81, he was obsessed with them. He was also lucky: in a dream scenario for any budding hacker, his almost equally obsessed father soon added computers to the product line of the little videocassette-rental shop he owned, thus giving his son access to a wide variety of hardware. Raynal worked at the store during the day, renting out movies and watching them to kill the time — he was a particular fan of horror movies, a fact which would soon have a direct impact on his career — and helping customers with their computer problems. Then, with a nerdy young man’s total obliviousness to proportion, he hacked away most of the night on one or another of the machines he brought home with him. He programmed his very first released game, a platformer called Robix, in 1986 on an obscure home-grown French computer called the Exelvision which his father sold at the store. His father agreed to sell his son’s Exelvision game there as well, managing to shift about 80 units to customers desperate for software for the short-lived machine.

Raynal’s lifestyle was becoming so unbalanced that his family was beginning to worry about him. One day, he ran out of his room in a panic, telling them that all of the color had bled out of his vision. His mother bustled him off to an ophthalmologist, who told him he appeared to have disrupted the photoreceptors in his eyes by staring so long at a monitor screen. Thankfully, the condition persisted only a few hours. But then there came a day when he suddenly couldn’t understand anything that was said to him; he had apparently become so attuned to the language of computer code that he could no longer communicate with humans. That worrisome condition lasted several weeks.

Thus just about everyone around him took it as a good thing on the whole when he was called up for military service in 1988. Just before leaving, Raynal released his second game, this time for MS-DOS machines. Not knowing what else to do with it, he simply posted it online for free. Popcorn was a Breakout clone with many added bells and whistles, the latest entry in a sub-genre which was enjoying new popularity following the recent success of the Taito arcade game Arkanoid and its many ports to home computers and consoles. Raynal’s game could hold its head high in a crowded field, especially given its non-existent price tag. One magazine pronounced it one of the five best arcade games available for MS-DOS, whether commercial or free, and awarded it 21 points on a scale of 20.

Raynal was soon receiving letters at his military posting from all over the world. “Popcorn has made my life hell!” complained one player good-naturedly. Another wrote that “I caught acute Popcornitus. And, it being contagious, now my wife has it as well.” When Raynal completed his service in the summer of 1989, his reputation as the creator of Popcorn preceded him. Most of the companies in the French games industry were eager to offer him a job. His days working at his father’s computer store, it seemed, were behind him. The Lyon-based Infogrames, the most prominent French publisher of all, won the Raynal sweepstakes largely by virtue of its proximity to his hometown.

Yet Raynal quickly realized that the company he had elected to join was in a rather perilous state. An ambitious expansion into many European markets hadn’t paid off; in fact, it had very nearly bankrupted them. Bruno Bonnell, Infogrames’s co-founder and current chief executive, had almost sold the company to the American publisher Epyx, but that deal had fallen through as soon as the latter had gotten their first good look at the state of his books. It seemed that Infogrames would have to dig themselves out of the hole they’d made. Thus Bonnell had slashed costs and shed subsidiaries ruthlessly just to stay alive. Now, having staunched the worst of the bleeding, he knew that he needed as many talented programmers as he could get in order to rebuild his company — especially programmers like Raynal, who weren’t terribly assertive and were naive enough to work cheap. So, Raynal was hired as a programmer of ports, an unglamorous job but an absolutely essential one in a European market that had not yet consolidated around a single computer platform.

Bonnell, for his part, was the polar opposite of the shy computer obsessive he had just hired; he had a huge personality which put its stamp on every aspect of life at Infogrames. He believed his creativity to be the equal of anyone who worked for him, and wasn’t shy about tossing his staff ideas for games. He called one of them, which he first proposed when Raynal had been on the job for about a year, In the Dark. A typically high-concept French idea, its title was meant to be taken literally. The player would wander through a pitch-dark environment, striking the occasional match from her limited supply, but otherwise relying entirely on sound cues for navigation. Bonnell and Raynal were far from bosom buddies, then or ever, but this idea struck a chord with the young programmer.

As Raynal saw it, the question that would make or break the idea was that of how to represent a contiguous environment with enough verisimilitude to give the player an embodied sense of really being there in the dark. Clearly, a conventional adventure-game presentation, with its pixel graphics and static views, wouldn’t do. Only one approach could get the job done: 3D polygonal graphics. Not coincidentally, 3D was much on Raynal’s mind when he took up Bonnell’s idea; he’d been spending his days of late porting an abstract 3D puzzle game known as Continuum from the Atari ST to MS-DOS.

I’ve had occasion to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this burgeoning new approach to game-making in previous articles, so I won’t rehash that material here. Suffice to say that the interest so many European programmers had in 3D reflected not least a disparity in the computing resources available to them in comparison to their American counterparts. American companies in this period were employing larger and larger teams, who were filling handfuls of floppy disks — and soon CD-ROMs — with beautiful hand-drawn art and even digitized snippets of real-world video. European companies had nothing like the resources to compete with the Americans on those terms. But procedurally-generated 3D graphics offered a viable alternative. At this stage in the evolution of computer technology, they couldn’t possibly be as impressively photorealistic as hand-drawn pixel art or full-motion video, but they could offer far more flexible, interactive, immersive environments, with — especially when paired with a French eye for aesthetics — a certain more abstracted allure of their own.

This, then, was the road Raynal now started down. It was a tall order for a single programmer. Not only was he trying to create a functional 3D engine from scratch, but the realities of the European market demanded that he make it run on an 80286-class machine, hardware the Americans by now saw as outdated. Even Bonnell seemed to have no confidence in Raynal’s ability to bring his brainstorm to fruition. He allowed Raynal to work on it only on nights and weekends, demanding that he spend his days porting SimCity to the Commodore CDTV.

An artist named Didier Chanfray was the closest thing to a partner and confidante which Raynal had at Infogrames during his first year of working on the engine. It was Chanfray who provided the rudimentary graphics used to test it. And it was also Chanfray who, in September of 1991, saw the full engine in action for the first time. A character roamed freely around a room under the control of Raynal, able to turn about and bend his body and limbs at least semi-realistically. The scene could be viewed from several angles, and it could be lit — or not — by whatever light sources Raynal elected to place in the room. Even shadows appeared; that of the character rippled eerily over the furniture in the room as he moved from place to place. Chanfray had never seen anything like it. He fairly danced around Raynal’s desk, pronouncing it a miracle, magic, alchemy.

In the meantime, Bruno Bonnell had negotiated and signed a new licensing deal — not exactly a blockbuster, but something commensurate with a rebuilding Infogrames’s circumstances.


Something tentacled and other-worldly, it seems, got into the water at Infogrames from the start: Didier Chanfray provided this very Lovecraftian concept drawing for Raynal’s game long before the conscious decision was made to turn it a Lovecraft pastiche. Raynal kept the sketch tacked on the wall beside his desk throughout the project as a reminder of the atmosphere he was going for.

The American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who died well before the advent of the computer age in 1937, was nowhere near as well-known in 1991 as he is today, but his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos” of extra-dimensional alien beings, terrifying by virtue of their sheer indifference to humanity and its petty morality, had already made appearances in games. The very first work of ludic Lovecraftia would appear to be the 1979 computer game Kadath, an odd sort of parser-less text adventure. Two years later, at the height of the American tabletop-RPG craze, a small company called Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu, a game which subverted the power fantasy of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons in much the same way that Raynal’s project would soon be subverting that of so many computer games. Still, although Call of Cthulhu was well-supported by Chaosium and remained reasonably popular by the standards of its niche industry throughout the 1980s and beyond, its success didn’t lead to any Lovecraftian onslaught in the realm of digital games. The most notable early example of the breed is Infocom’s very effective 1987 interactive fiction The Lurking Horror. But, being all text at a time when text adventures were becoming hard sells, it didn’t make much commercial impact.

Now, though, Bonnell believed the time had come for a more up-to-date Lovecraftian computer game; he believed such a thing could do well, both in France and elsewhere.

Lovecraft had long had a strong following in France. From the moment his books were first translated into the language in 1954, they had sold in considerable numbers. Indeed, in 1991 H.P. Lovecraft was about as popular in France as he was anywhere — arguably more popular on a per-capita basis than in his native land. The game of Call of Cthulhu too had long since been translated into French, giving a potential digital implementation of it as much natural appeal there as in its homeland. So, Bonnell approached Chaosium about licensing their Call of Cthulhu rules for computers, and the American company agreed.

When viewed retrospectively, it seems a confusing deal to have made, one that really wasn’t necessary for what Infogrames would ultimately choose to do with Lovecraft. When Lovecraft died in obscurity and poverty, he left his literary estate in such a shambles that no one has ever definitively sorted out its confusing tangle of copyright claimants; his writing has been for all intents and purposes in the public domain ever since his death, despite numerous parties making claims to the contrary. Prior to publishing their Lovecraft tabletop RPG, Chaosium had nevertheless negotiated a deal with Arkham House, the publisher that has long been the most strident of Lovecraft’s copyright claimants. With that deal secured, Chaosium had promptly trademarked certain catchphrases, including “Call of Cthulhu” itself, in the context of games. Yet as it turned out Infogrames would use none of them; nor would they draw any plots directly from any of Lovecraft’s published stories. Like the countless makers of Lovecraftian games and stories that would follow them, they would instead draw from the author’s spirit and style of horror, whilst including just a few of his more indelible props, such as the forbidden book of occult lore known as the Necronomicon.

The first Lovecraftian game Infogrames would make would, of course, be the very game that Frédérick Raynal had now spent the last year or so prototyping during his free time. By the time news of his work reached Bonnell, most of Infogrames’s staff were already talking about it like the second coming. While the idea that had inspired it had been wonderfully innovative, it seemed absurd even to the original source of said idea to devote the best 3D engine anyone had ever seen to a game that literally wouldn’t let you see what it could do most of the time. It made perfect sense, on the other hand, to apply its creepy visual aesthetic to the Lovecraft license. The sense of dread and near-powerlessness that was so consciously designed into the tabletop RPG seemed a natural space for the computer game as well to occupy. It was true that it would have to be Call of Cthulhu in concept only: the kinetic, embodied, real-time engine Raynal had created wasn’t suitable for the turn-based rules of the tabletop RPG. For that matter, Raynal didn’t even like the Chaosium game all that much; he considered it too complicated to be fun.

Still, Bonnell, who couldn’t fail to recognize the potential of Raynal’s project, put whatever resources he could spare from his still-rebuilding company at the mild-mannered programmer’s disposal: four more artists to join Chanfray, a sound designer, a second programmer and project manager. When the team’s first attempts at writing an authentic-feeling Lovecraftian scenario proved hopelessly inadequate, Bonnell hired for the task Hubert Chardot, a screenwriter from 20th Century Fox’s French division, a fellow who loved Lovecraft so much that he had turned his first trip to the United States into a tour of his dead hero’s New England haunts. One of Chardot’s first suggestions was to add the word “alone” to the title of the game. He pointed out, correctly, that it would convey the sense of existential loneliness that was such an integral part of Lovecraftian horror — even, one might say, the very thing that sets it apart from more conventional takes on horror.

You can choose to enter the mansion as either of two characters.

The game takes place in the 1920s, the era of Lovecraft himself and of most of his stories (and thus the default era as well for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game). It begins as you arrive in the deserted Louisiana mansion known as Derceto, whose owner Jeremy Hartwood has recently hanged himself. You play either as Edward Carnby, a relic hunter on the trail of a valuable piano owned by the deceased, or as Emily Hartwood, the deceased’s niece, eager to clear up the strange rumors that have dogged her uncle’s reputation and to figure out what really went down on his final night of life. The direction in which the investigation leads you will surprise no one familiar with Lovecraft’s oeuvre or Chaosium’s RPG: occult practices, forbidden books, “things man was never meant to know,” etc. But, even as Chardot’s script treads over this ground that was well-worn already in the early 1990s, it does so with considerable flair, slowly revealing its horrifying backstory via the books and journals you find hidden about the mansion as you explore. (There is no in-game dialog and no real foreground story whatsoever, only monsters and traps to defeat or avoid.) Like most ludic adaptations of Lovecraft, the game differs markedly from its source material only in that there is a victory state; the protagonist isn’t absolutely guaranteed to die or become a gibbering lunatic at the end.

One of the in-game journals, which nails the spirit and style of Lovecraft perfectly. As I noted in an earlier article about the writer, the emotion he does better than any other is disgust.

Yet Chaosium wasn’t at all pleased when Infogrames sent them an early build of the game for their stamp of approval. It seems that the American company had believed they were licensing not just their trademarks to their French colleagues, nor even the idea of a Lovecraft game in the abstract, but rather the actual Call of Cthulhu rules, which they had expected to see faithfully implemented. And, indeed, this may have been Bonnell’s intention when he was making the deal — until Raynal’s 3D engine had changed everything. Chaosium, who had evidently been looking forward to an equivalent of sorts to the Gold Box line of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, felt betrayed. After some tense negotiation, they agreed to let Alone in the Dark continue without the Call of Cthulhu name on the box; some editions would include a note saying the game had been “inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft,” while others wouldn’t even go that far. In return for Chaosium’s largess on this front, Infogrames agreed to make a more conventional adventure game that would make explicit use of the Call of Cthulhu trademarks.

Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet, the fruit of that negotiation, would prove a serviceable game, albeit one that still didn’t make much direct use of the tabletop rules. But, whatever its merits, it would come and go without leaving much of a mark on an industry filled to bursting with graphical adventures much like it in terms of implementation. Alone in the Dark, on the other hand, would soon be taking the world by storm — and Chaosium could have had their name on it, a form of advertisement which could hardly have failed to increase their commercial profile dramatically. Chalk it up as just one more poor decision in the life of a company that had a strange talent for surviving — Chaosium is still around to this day — without ever quite managing to become really successful.

Infogrames got their first preview of just what an impact Alone in the Dark was poised to make in the spring of 1992, when Dany Boolauck, a journalist from the French videogame magazine Tilt, arrived to write a rather typical industry puff piece, a set of capsule previews of some of the company’s current works-in-progress. He never got any further than Alone in the Dark. After just a few minutes with it, he declared it “the best game of the last five years!” and asked for permission to turn the capsule blurb about it into a feature-length article, complete with a fawning interview with Raynal. (He described him in thoroughly overwrought terms: as a reincarnation of The Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved novella of the same name.) In a “review” published in the summer of 1992, still a couple of months before Infogrames anticipated releasing the game, he gave it 19 of 20 stars, gushing over its “exceptional staging” and “almost perfect character movement,” calling it “a revolution in the field of play” that “people must buy!”

Bruno Bonnell was pleased with the positive press coverage, but less thrilled by Boolauck’s portrayal of Raynal as the game’s genius auteur. He called in his introverted young programmer, who seemed a bit befuddled by all the attention, and told him to scrub the words “a Frédérick Raynal creation” from the end credits. Alone in the Dark, he said, was an Infogrames creation, full stop. Raynal agreed, but a grievance began to fester in his heart.

Thanks to Bonnell’s policy of not advertising the individuals behind Infogrames’s games, Raynal’s name didn’t spread quite so far and wide as that of such other celebrated gaming auteurs as Éric Chahi, the mastermind of Another World, France’s standout game from the previous year. Nevertheless, upon its European release in September of 1992, Raynal’s game stood out on its own terms as something special — as an artistic creation that was not just fun or scary but important to its medium. As one would expect, the buzz started in France. “We review many games,” wrote one magazine there. “Some are terrible, some mediocre, some excellent. And occasionally there comes along the game that will revolutionize the world of microcomputers, one that causes sleepless nights, one that you cannot tear yourself away from, can only marvel at. We bid welcome now to the latest member of this exclusive club: Alone in the Dark.” By the end of 1992, the game was a hit not only in France but across most of Europe. Now for America.

Bonnell closed a deal with the American publisher Interplay for distribution of the game there. Interplay had also published Another World, which had turned into a big success Stateside, and the company’s head Brian Fargo was sure he saw similar potential in Alone in the Dark. He thus put the game through his company’s internal testing wringer, just as he had Another World; the French studios had their strengths, but such detail work didn’t tend to be among them. Raynal’s game became a much cleaner, much more polished experience thanks to Interplay’s QA team. Yet Bonnell still had big international ambitions for Infogrames, and he wasn’t willing to let such a remarkable game as this one share with Another World the fate of becoming known to American players simply as an Interplay title. Instead he convinced Fargo to accept a unique arrangement. Interplay and Infogrames each took a stake in a new shared American subsidiary known as I-Motion, under which imprint they published Alone in the Dark.

The game took North America by storm in early 1993, just as it had Europe a few months earlier. It was that rarest of things in games, a genuine paradigm shift; no one had ever seen one that played quite like this. Worldwide, it sold at least 400,000 copies, putting Infogrames on the map in the United States and other non-European countries in the process. Indeed, amidst the international avalanche of praise and punditry, perhaps the most gratifying press notice of all reached Frédérick Raynal’s ears from all the way off in Japan. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Super Mario Bros. and many other iconic Nintendo classics, proclaimed Alone in the Dark to be, more so than any other game, the one he wished he could have come up with.


Arguably the creepiest visual in the game is the weird mannequin’s head of your own character. Its crudely painted expression rather smacks of Chucky the doll from the Child’s Play horror films.

Seen from the perspective of a modern player, however, the verdict on Alone in the Dark must be more mixed. Some historically important games transcend that status to remain vital experiences even today, still every bit as fun and playable as the day they were made. But others — and please forgive me the hoary old reviewer’s cliché! — haven’t aged as well. This game, alas, belongs to the latter category.

Today, in an era when 3D graphics have long since ceased to impress us simply for existing at all, those of Alone in the Dark are pretty painful to look at, all jagged pixels sticking out everywhere from grotesquely octagonal creatures. Textures simply don’t exist, leaving everything to be rendered out of broad swatches of single colors. And the engine isn’t even holistically 3D: the 3D characters move across pasted-on pre-rendered backgrounds, which looks decidedly awkward in many situations. (On the other hand, it could have been worse: Raynal first tried to build the backgrounds out of digitized photographs of a real spooky mansion, a truly unholy union that he finally had to give up on.) Needless to say, a comparison with the lovingly hand-drawn pixel art in the adventure games being put out by companies like LucasArts and Sierra during this period does the crude graphics found here no favors whatsoever. Some of the visuals verge on the unintentionally comical; one of the first monsters you meet was evidently meant to be a fierce dragon-like creature, but actually looks more like a sort of carnivorous chicken. (Shades of the dragon ducks from the original Atari Adventure…)

Dead again! Killed by… Prince during his Purple Rain period?

Then, too, the keyboard-only controls are clunky and unintuitive, and they aren’t made any less awkward by a fixed camera that’s constantly shifting about to new arbitrary locations as you move through the environment; some individual rooms have as many as nine separate camera angles. This is confusing as all get-out when you’re just trying to get a sense of the space, and quickly becomes infuriating when you’re being chased by a monster and really, really don’t have time to stop and adjust your thinking to a new perspective.

The more abstract design choices also leave something to be desired. Sudden deaths abound. The very first room of the game kills you when you step on a certain floorboard, and every book is either a source of backstory and clues or an instant game-ender; the only way to know which it is is to save your game and open it. Some of the puzzles are clever, some less so, but even those that are otherwise worthy too often depend on you standing in just the right position; if you aren’t, you get no feedback whatsoever on what you’re doing wrong, and are thus likely to go off on some other track entirely, never realizing how close you were to the solution. This fiddliness and lack of attention to the else in the “if, then, else” dynamic of puzzle design is a clear sign of a game that never got sufficiently tested for playability and solubility. At times, the game’s uncommunicativeness verges on the passive-aggressive. You’ll quickly grow to loathe the weirdly stilted message, “There is a mechanism which can be triggered here,” which the game is constantly spitting out at you as you gaze upon the latest pixelated whatsit. Is it a button? A knob? A keyhole? Who knows… in the end, the only viable course of action is to try every object in your inventory on it, then go back and start trying all the other objects you had to leave lying around the house thanks to your character’s rather brutal inventory limit.

Fighting is a strange, bloodless pantomime.

Yes, one might be able to write some of the game’s issues off as an aesthetic choice — as merely more ways to make the environment feel unsettling. Franck de Girolami, the second programmer on the development team as well as its project leader, has acknowledged using the disorienting camera consciously for just that purpose: “We realized that the camera angles in which the player was the most helpless were the best to bring in a monster. Players would instantly run for a view in which they felt comfortable.” While one does have to admire the team’s absolute commitment to the core concept of the game, the line between aesthetic choice and poor implementation is, at best, blurred in cases like this one.

And yet the fact remains that it was almost entirely thanks to that same commitment to its core concept that Alone in the Dark became one of the most important games of its era. Not a patch on a contemporary like Ultima Underworld as a demonstration of the full power and flexibility of 3D graphics — to be fair, it ran on an 80286 processor with just 640 K of memory while its texture-mapped, fully 3D rival demanded at least an 80386 with 2 MB — it remained conceptually unlike anything that had come before in daring to cast you as an ordinary mortal, weak and scared and alone, for whom any aspirations toward glory quickly turn into nothing more than a desperate desire to just escape the mansion. For all that it threw the Call of Cthulhu rules completely overboard, it retained this most fundamental aspect of its inspiration, bringing Chaosium’s greatest innovation to a digital medium for the first time. It’s not always impossible to kill the monsters in Alone in the Dark — often it’s even necessary to do so — but, with weapons and ammunition scarce and your health bar all too short, doing so never fails to feel like the literal death struggle it ought to. When you do win a fight, you feel more relieved than triumphant. And you’re always left with that nagging doubt in the back of the mind as you count your depleted ammo and drag your battered self toward the next room: was it worth it?


The legacy of this brave and important game is as rich as that of any that was released in its year, running along at least three separate tracks. We’ll begin with the subsequent career of Frédérick Raynal, its original mastermind.

The seeds of that career were actually planted a couple of weeks before the release of Alone in the Dark, when Raynal and others from Infogrames brought a late build of it to the European Computer Trade Show in London. There he met the journalist Dany Boolauck once again, learning in the process that Boolauck had switched gigs: he had left his magazine and now worked for Delphine Software, one of Infogrames’s French competitors. Delphine had recently lost the services of their biggest star: Éric Chahi, the auteur behind the international hit Another World. As his first assignment in his own new job, Boolauck had been given the task of replacing Chahi with a similarly towering talent. Raynal struck him as the perfect choice; he rather resembled Chahi in many respects, what with his very French aesthetic sensibility, his undeniable technical gifts, and his obsessive commitment to his work. Boolauck called in Paul de Senneville, the well-known composer who had launched Delphine Software as a spinoff from his record label of the same name, to add his dulcet voice to the mix. “We wish to place you in a setting where you will be able to create, where you will not be bullied, where we can make you a star,” said the distinguished older gentleman. “We want to give free rein to the fabulous talent you showed in Alone in the Dark.” When Raynal returned to Lyon to a reprimand from Bruno Bonnell for letting his game’s planned release date slip by a week, the contrast between his old boss and the possible new one who was courting him was painted all too clearly.

Much to Raynal’s dismay, Bonnell was already pushing him and the rest of the team that had made the first Alone in the Dark to make a sequel as quickly as possible using the exact same engine. One Friday just before the new year, Bonnell threw his charges a party to celebrate what he now believed would go down in history as the year when his struggling company turned the corner, thanks not least to Raynal’s game. On the following Monday morning, Raynal knocked on Bonnell’s office door along with three other members of the newly christened Alone in the Dark 2 team, including his most longstanding partner Didier Chanfray. They were all quitting, going to work for Delphine, Raynal said quietly. Much to their surprise, Bonnell offered to match Delphine’s offer, the first overt sign he’d ever given that he understood how talented and valuable they really were. But his counteroffer only prompted Delphine to raise the stakes again. Just after New Years Day, Bonnell bowed out of the bidding in a huff: “You want to leave? Goodbye!”

A couple of weeks later, the videogame magazine Génération 4 held an awards ceremony for the previous year’s top titles at Disneyland Paris. Everyone who had been involved with Alone in the Dark, both those who still worked at Infogrames and those who didn’t, was invited. When, as expected, it took the prize for top adventure game, Bruno Bonnell walked onto the stage to accept the award on behalf of his company. The departure of Raynal and crew being the talk of the industry, the room held its collective breath to see what would happen next. “My name is Bruno Bonnell,” he said from behind the rostrum. “I’d like to thank God, my dog, my grandmother, and of course the whole team at Infogrames for a beautiful project.” And with that he stumped offstage again.

It hadn’t been a particularly gracious acceptance speech, but Raynal and his colleagues nonetheless had much to feel good about. Dany Boolauck and Paul de Senneville were true to their word: they set Raynal up with a little auteur’s studio all his own, known as Adeline Software. They even allowed him to run it from Lyon rather than joining the rest of Delphine in Paris.

Naturally, all of the Alone in the Dark technology, along with the name itself and the Chaosium license (whatever that was worth), stayed with Infogrames. Raynal and his colleagues were thus forced to develop a new engine in the style of the old and to devise a fresh game idea for it to execute. Instead of going dark again, they went light. Released in 1994, Little Big Adventure (known as Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure in North America) was a poetic action-adventure set in a whimsical world of cartoon Impressionism, consciously conceived by Raynal as an antidote to the ultra-violent Doom mania that was sweeping the culture of gaming at the time. He followed it up in 1997 with Little Big Adventure 2 (known as Twinsen’s Odyssey in North America). Although both games were and remain lovely to look at, Raynal still struggled to find the right balance between the art and the science of game design; both games are as absurdly punishing to play as they are charming to watch, with a paucity of save points between the countless places where they demand pin-point maneuvering and split-second timing. This sort of thing was, alas, something of a theme with the French games industry for far too many years.

This, then, is one legacy of Alone in the Dark. Another followed on even more directly, taking the form of the two sequels which Infogrames published in 1993 and 1994. Both used the same engine, as Bruno Bonnell had demanded in the name of efficiency, and both continued the story of the first game, with Edward Carnby still in the role of protagonist. (Poor Emily Hartwood got tossed by the wayside.) But, although Hubert Chardot once again provided their scripts, much of the spirit of the first game got lost, as the development team began letting the player get away with much more head-to-head combat. Neither sequel garnered as many positive reviews or sales as the original game, and Infogrames left the property alone for quite some time thereafter. A few post-millennial attempts to revive the old magic, still without the involvement of Raynal, have likewise yielded mixed results at best.

But it’s with Alone in the Dark‘s third legacy, its most important by far, that we should close. For several years, few games — not even its own sequels — did much to build upon the nerve-wracking style of play it had pioneered. But then, in 1996, the Japanese company Capcom published a zombie nightmare known as Resident Evil for the Sony Playstation console. “When I first played Resident Evil,” remembers Infogrames programmer Franck de Girolami, “I honestly thought it was plagiarism. I could recognize entire rooms from Alone in the Dark.” Nevertheless, Resident Evil sold in huge numbers on the consoles, reaching a mass market the likes of which Alone in the Dark, being available only on computers and the 3DO multimedia appliance, could never have dreamed. In doing so, it well and truly cemented the new genre that became known as survival-horror, which had gradually filtered its way up from the obscure works of a poverty-stricken writer to a niche tabletop RPG to a very successful computer game to a mainstream ludic blockbuster. Culture does move in mysterious ways sometimes, doesn’t it?

(Sources: the books La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah, Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry, Volume 1 by Shannon Appelcline, and Alone in the Dark: The Official Strategy Guide by Johan Robson; Todd David Spaulding’s PhD thesis H.P. Lovecraft & The French Connection: Translations, Pulps, and Literary History”; Computer Gaming World of February 1993; Amiga Format of June 1991; Edge of November 1994; Retro Gamer 98. Online sources include Adventure Europe‘s interview with Frédérick Raynal, Just Adventure‘s interview with Hubert Chardot, and the video of Frédérick Raynal’s Alone in the Dark postmortem at the 2012 Game Developers Conference. Note that many of the direct quotations in this article were translated by me into English from their French originals.

The original Alone in the Dark trilogy is available as a package download at GOG.com.)

 
 

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Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

Fair warning: spoilers for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers are to be found herein!

In 1989, a twenty-something professional computer programmer and frustrated horror novelist named Jane Jensen had a close encounter with King’s Quest IV that changed her life. She was so inspired by the experience of playing her first adventure game that she decided to apply for a job with Sierra Online, the company that had made it. In fact, she badgered them relentlessly until they finally hired her as a jack-of-all-trades writer in 1990.

Two and a half years later, after working her way up from writing manuals and incidental in-game dialog to co-designing the first EcoQuest game with Gano Haine and the sixth King’s Quest game with Roberta Williams, she had proved herself sufficiently in the eyes of her managers to be given a glorious opportunity: the chance to make her very own game on her own terms. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition; she was to be given carte blanche by the biggest adventure developer in the industry at the height of the genre’s popularity to make exactly the game she wanted to make. Small wonder that she would so often look back upon it wistfully in later years, after the glory days of adventure games had become a distant memory.

For her big chance, Jensen proposed making a Gothic horror game unlike anything Sierra had attempted before, with a brooding and psychologically complex hero, a detailed real-world setting, and a complicated plot dripping with the lore of the occult. Interestingly, Jensen remembers her superiors being less than thrilled with the new direction. She says that Ken Williams in particular was highly skeptical of the project’s commercial viability: “Okay, I’ll let you do it, but I wish you’d come up with something happier!”

But even if Jensen’s recollections are correct, we can safely say that Sierra’s opinion changed over the year it took to make Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. By the time it shipped on November 24, 1993, it fit in very well with a new direction being trumpeted by Ken Williams in his editorials for the company’s newsletter: a concerted focus on more “adult,” sophisticated fictions, as exemplified not only by Sins of the Fathers but by a “gritty” new Police Quest game and another, more lurid horror game which Roberta Williams had in the works. Although the older, more lighthearted and ramshackle [this, that, and the other] Quest series which had made Sierra’s name in adventure games would continue to appear for a while longer, Williams clearly saw these newer concepts as the key to a mass market he was desperately trying to unlock. Games like these were, theoretically anyway, able to appeal to demographics outside the industry’s traditional customers — to appeal to the sort of people who had hitherto preferred an evening in front of a television to one spent in front of a monitor.

Thus Sierra put a lot of resources into Sins of the Fathers‘s presentation and promotion. For example, the box became one of the last standout packages in an industry moving inexorably toward standardization on that front; in lieu of anything so dull as a rectangle, it took the shape of two mismatched but somehow conjoined triangles. Sierra even went so far as to hire Tim Curry of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, Mark Hamill of Star Wars, and Michael Dorn of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the CD-ROM version’s voice-acting cast.

Jane Jensen with the first Gabriel Knight project’s producer and soundtrack composer Robert Holmes, who would later become her husband, and the actor Tim Curry, who provided the voice of Gabriel using a thick faux-New Orleans accent which some players judge hammy, others charming.

In the long run, the much-discussed union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood that led studios like Sierra to cast such high-profile names at considerable expense would never come to pass. In the meantime, though, the game arrived at a more modestly propitious cultural moment. Anne Rice’s Gothic vampire novels, whose tonal similarities to Sins of the Fathers were hard to miss even before Jensen began to cite them as an inspiration in interviews, were all over the bestseller lists, and Tom Cruise was soon to star in a major motion picture drawn from the first of them. Even in the broader world of games around Sierra, the influence of Rice and Gothic horror more generally was starting to make itself felt. On the tabletop, White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade was exploding in popularity just as Dungeons & Dragons was falling on comparatively hard times; the early 1990s would go down in tabletop history as the only time when a rival system seriously challenged Dungeons & Dragons‘s absolute supremacy. And then there was the world of music, where dark and slinky albums from bands like Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack were selling in the millions.

Suffice to say, then, that “goth” culture in general was having a moment, and Sins of the Fathers was perfectly poised to capitalize on it. The times were certainly a far cry from just half a decade before, when Amy Briggs had proposed an Anne Rice-like horror game to her bosses at Infocom, only to be greeted with complete incomprehension.

Catching the zeitgeist paid off: Sins of the Fathers proved, if not quite the bridge to the Hollywood mainstream Ken Williams might have been longing for, one of Sierra’s most popular adventure games of its time. An unusual number of its fans were female, a demographic oddity it had in common with all of the other Gothic pop culture I’ve just mentioned. These female fans in particular seemed to get something from the game’s brooding bad-boy hero that they perhaps hadn’t realized they’d been missing. While games that used sex as a selling point were hardly unheard of in 1993, Sins of the Fathers stood out in a sea of Leisure Suit Larry and Spellcasting games for its orientation toward the female rather than the male gaze. In this respect as well, its arrival was perfectly timed, coming just as relatively more women and girls were beginning to use computers, thanks to the hype over multimedia computing that was fueling a boom in their sales.

But there was more to Sins of the Father‘s success than its arrival at an opportune moment. On the contrary: the game’s popularity has proved remarkably enduring over the decades since its release. It spawned two sequels later in the 1990s that are almost as adored as the first game, and still places regularly at or near the top of lists of “best adventure games of all time.” Then, too, it’s received an unusual amount of academic attention for a point-and-click graphic adventure in the traditional style (a genre which, lacking both the literary bona fides of textual interactive fiction and the innate ludological interest of more process-intensive genres, normally tends to get short shrift in such circles). You don’t have to search long in the academic literature to find painfully earnest grad-student essays contrasting the “numinous woman” Roberta Williams with the “millennium woman” Jane Jensen, or “exploring Gabriel as a particular instance of the Hero archetype.”

So, as a hit in its day and a hit still today with both the fans and the academics, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers must be a pretty amazing game, right? Well… sure, in the eyes of some. For my own part, I see a lot of incongruities, not only in the game itself but in the ways it’s been received over the years. It strikes me as having been given the benefit of an awful lot of doubts, perhaps simply because there have been so very few games like it. Sins of the Fathers unquestionably represents a noble effort to stretch its medium. But is it truly a great game? And does its story really, as Sierra’s breathless press release put it back in the day, “rival the best film scripts?” Those are more complicated questions.

But before I begin to address them, we should have a look at what the game is all about, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of Gabriel Knights’s acquaintance.

Our titular hero, then, is a love-em-and-leave-em bachelor who looks a bit like James Dean and comes complete with a motorcycle, a leather jacket, and the requisite sensitive side concealed underneath his rough exterior. He lives in the backroom of the bookshop he owns in New Orleans, from which he churns out pulpy horror novels to supplement his paltry income. Grace Nakamura, a pert university student on her summer holidays, works at the bookshop as well, and also serves as Gabriel’s research assistant and verbal sparring partner, a role which comes complete with oodles of sexual tension.

Gabriel’s bedroom. What woman wouldn’t be excited to be brought back here?

Over the course of the game, Gabriel stumbles unto a centuries-old voodoo cult which has a special motivation to make him their latest human sacrifice. While he’s at it, he also falls into bed with the comely Malia, the somewhat reluctant leader of the cult. He learns amidst it all that not just voodoo spirits but many other things that go bump in the night — werewolves, vampires, etc. — are in fact real. And he learns that he’s inherited the mantle of Schattenjäger — “Shadow Hunter” — from his forefathers, and that his family’s legacy as battlers of evil stretches back to Medieval Germany. (The symbolism of his name is, as Jensen herself admits, not terribly subtle: “Gabriel” was the angel who battled Lucifer in Paradise Lost, while “Knight” means that he’s, well, a knight, at least in the metaphorical sense.) After ten days jam-packed with activity, which take him not only all around New Orleans but to Germany and Benin as well — Sins of the Fathers is a very generous game indeed in terms of length — Gabriel must choose between his love for Malia and his new role of Schattenjäger. Grace is around throughout: to serve as the good-girl contrast to the sultry Malia (again, the symbolism of her name isn’t subtle), to provide banter and research, and to pull Gabriel’s ass bodily out of the fire at least once. If Gabriel makes the right choice at the end of the game, the two forge a tentative partnership to continue the struggle against darkness even as they also continue to deny their true feelings for one another.

As we delve into what the game does well and poorly amidst all this, it strikes me as useful to break the whole edifice down along the classic divide of its interactivity versus its fiction. (If you’re feeling academic, you can refer to this dichotomy as its ludological versus its narratological components; if you’re feeling folksy, you can call it its crossword versus its narrative.) Even many of the game’s biggest fans will admit that the first item in the pairing has its problematic aspects. So, perhaps we should start there rather than diving straight into some really controversial areas. That said, be warned that the two things are hard to entirely separate from one another; Sins of the Fathers works best when the two are in harmony, while many of its problems come to the fore when the two begin to clash.

Let’s begin, though, with the things Sins of the Fathers gets right in terms of design. While I don’t know that it is, strictly speaking, impossible to lock yourself out of victory while still being able to play on, you certainly would have to be either quite negligent or quite determined to manage it at any stage before the endgame. This alone shows welcome progress for Sierra — shows that the design revolution wrought by LucasArts’s The Secret of Monkey Island was finally penetrating even this most stalwart redoubt of the old, bad way of making adventure games.

Snarking aside, we shouldn’t dismiss Jensen’s achievement here; it’s not easy to make such an intricately plot-driven game so forgiving. The best weapon in her arsenal is the use of an event-driven rather than a clock-driven timetable for advancing the plot. Each of the ten days has a set of tasks you must accomplish before the day ends, although you aren’t explicitly told what they are. You have an infinite amount of clock time to accomplish these things at your own pace. When you eventually do so — and even sometimes when you accomplish intermediate things inside each day — the plot machinery lurches forward another step or two via an expository cut scene and the interactive world around you changes to reflect it. Sins of the Fathers was by no means the first game to employ such a system; as far as I know, that honor should go to Infocom’s 1986 text adventure Ballyhoo. Yet this game uses it to better effect than just about any game that came before it. In fact, the game as a whole is really made tenable only by this technique of making the plot respond to the player’s actions rather than forcing the player to race along at the plot’s pace; the latter would be an unimaginable nightmare to grapple with in a story with this many moving parts. When it works well, which is a fair amount of the time, the plot progression feels natural and organic, like you truly are in the grip of a naturally unfolding story.

The individual puzzles that live within this framework work best when they’re in harmony with the plot and free of typical adventure-game goofiness. A good example is the multi-layered puzzle involving the Haitian rada drummers whom you keep seeing around New Orleans. Eventually, a victim of the voodoo cult tells you just before he breathes his last that the drummers are the cult’s means of communicating with one another across the city. So, you ask Grace to research the topic of rada drums. Next day, she produces a book on the subject filled with sequences encoding various words and phrases. When you “use” this book on one of the drummers, it brings up a sort of worksheet which you can use to figure out what he’s transmitting. Get it right, and you learn that a conclave is to be held that very night in a swamp outside the city.

Working out a rada-drum message.

This is an ideal puzzle: complicated but not insurmountable, immensely satisfying to solve. Best of all, solving it really does make you feel like Gabriel Knight, on the trail of a mystery which you must unravel using your own wits and whatever information you can dig up from the resources at your disposal.

Unfortunately, not all or even most of the puzzles live up to that standard. A handful are simply bad puzzles, full stop, testimonies both to the fact that every puzzle is always harder than its designer thinks it is and to Sierra’s disinterest in seeking substantive feedback on its games from actual players before releasing them. For instance, there’s the clock/lock that expects you to intuit the correct combination of rotating face and hands from a few scattered, tangential references elsewhere in the game to the number three and to dragons.

Even the rather brilliant rada-drums bit goes badly off the rails at the end of the game, when you’re suddenly expected to use a handy set of the drums to send a message of your own. This requires that you first read Jane Jensen’s mind to figure out what general message out of the dozens of possibilities she wants you to send, then read her mind again to figure out the exact grammar she wants you to use. When you get it wrong, as you inevitably will many times, the game gives you no feedback whatsoever. Are you doing the wrong thing entirely? Do you have the right idea but are sending the wrong message? Or do you just need to change up your grammar a bit? The game isn’t telling; it’s too busy killing you on every third failed attempt.

Other annoyances are the product not so much of poor puzzle as poor interface design. In contrast to contemporaneous efforts from competitors like LucasArts and Legend Entertainment, Sierra games made during this period still don’t show hot spots ripe for interaction when you mouse over a scene. So, you’re forced to click on everything indiscriminately, which most of the time leads only to the narrator intoning the same general room description over and over in her languid Caribbean patois. The scenes themselves are well-drawn, but their muted colors, combined with their relatively low resolution and the lack of a hot-spot finder, constitute something of a perfect storm for that greatest bane of the graphic adventure, the pixel hunt. One particularly egregious example of the syndrome, a snake scale you need to find at a crime scene on a beach next to Lake Pontchartrain, has become notorious as an impediment that stops absolutely every player in her tracks. It reveals the dark flip side of the game’s approach to plot chronology: that sinking feeling when the day just won’t end and you don’t know why. In this case, it’s because you missed a handful of slightly discolored pixels surrounded by a mass of similar hues — or, even if you did notice them, because you failed to click on them exactly.

You have to click right where the cursor is to learn from the narrator that “the grass has a matted appearance there.” Break out the magnifying glass!

But failings like these aren’t ultimately the most interesting to talk about, just because they were so typical and so correctable, had Sierra just instituted a set of commonsense practices that would have allowed them to make better games. Much more interesting are the places that the interactivity of Sins of the Fathers clashes jarringly with the premise of its fiction. For it’s here, we might speculate, that the game is running into more intractable problems — perhaps even running headlong into the formal limitation of the traditional graphic adventure as a storytelling medium.

Take, for example, the point early in the game when Gabriel wants to pay a visit to Malia at her palatial mansion, but, as a mere civilian, can’t get past the butler. Luckily, he happens to have a pal at the police department — in fact, his best friend in the whole world, an old college buddy named Mosely. Does he explain his dilemma to Mosely and ask for help? Of course not! This is, after all, an adventure game. He decides instead to steal Mosely’s badge. When he pays the poor fellow a visit at his office, he sees that Mosely’s badge is pinned, as usual, to his jacket. So, Gabriel sneaks over to turn up the thermostat in the office, which causes Mosely to remove the jacket and hang it over the back of his chair. Then Gabriel asks him to fetch a cup of coffee, and completes the theft while he’s out of the room. With friends like that…

Gabriel is turned away from Malia’s door…

…but no worries, he can just figure out how to steal a badge from his best friend and get inside that way.

In strictly mechanical terms, this is actually a clever puzzle, but it illustrates the tonal and thematic inconsistencies that dog the game as a whole. Sadly, puzzles like the one involving the rada drums are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, you’re dealing instead with arbitrary roadblocks like this one that have nothing whatsoever to do with the mystery you’re trying to solve. It becomes painfully obvious that Jensen wrote out a static story outline suitable for a movie or novel, then went back to devise the disconnected puzzles that would make a game out of it.

But puzzles like this are not only irrelevant: they’re deeply, comprehensively silly, and this silliness flies in the face of Sins of the Fathers‘s billing as a more serious, character-driven sort of experience than anything Sierra had done to date. Really, how can anyone take a character who goes around doing stuff like this seriously? You can do so, I would submit, only by mentally bifurcating the Gabriel you control in the interactive sequences from the Gabriel of the cut scenes and conversations. That may work for some — it must, given the love that’s lavished on this game by so many adventure fans — but the end result nevertheless remains creatively compromised, two halves of a work of art actively pulling against one another.

Gabriel sneaks into the backroom of a church and starts stealing from the priests. That’s normal behavior for any moodily romantic protagonist, right? Right?

It’s at points of tension like these that Sins of the Fathers raises the most interesting and perhaps troubling questions about the graphic adventure as a genre. Many of its puzzles are, as I already noted, not bad puzzles in themselves; they’re only problematic when placed in this fictional context. If Sins of the Fathers was a comedy, they’d be a perfectly natural fit. This is what I mean when I say, as I have repeatedly in the past, that comedy exerts a strong centrifugal pull on any traditional puzzle-solving adventure game. And this is why most of Sierra’s games prior to Sins of the Fathers were more or less interactive cartoons, why LucasArts strayed afield from that comfortable approach even less often than Sierra, and, indeed, why comedies have been so dominant in the annals of adventure games in general.

The question must be, then, whether the pull of comedy can be resisted — whether compromised hybrids like this one are the necessary end result of trying to make a serious graphic adventure. In short, is the path of least resistance the only viable path for an adventure designer?

For my part, I believe the genre’s tendency to collapse into comedy can be resisted, if the designer is both knowing and careful. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, released the year before Sins of the Fathers, is a less heralded game than the one I write about today, but one which works better as a whole in my opinion, largely because it sticks to its guns and remains the type of fiction it advertises itself to be, eschewing goofy roadblock puzzles in favor of letting you solve the mystery at its heart. By contrast, you don’t really solve the mystery for yourself at all in Sins of the Fathers; it solves the mystery for you while you’re jumping Gabriel through all the irrelevant hoops it sets in his path.

But let’s try to set those issues aside now and engage with Sins of the Fathers strictly in terms of the fiction that lives outside the lines of its interactivity. As many of you doubtless know, I’m normally somewhat loathe to do that; it verges on a tautology to say that interactivity is the defining feature of games, and thus it seems to me that any given game’s interactivity has to work, without any qualifiers, as a necessary precondition to its being a good game. Still, if any game might be able to sneak around that rule, it ought to be this one, so often heralded as a foremost exemplar of sophisticated storytelling in a ludic context. And, indeed, it does fare better on this front in my eyes — not quite as well as some of its biggest fans claim, but better.

The first real scene of Sins of the Fathers tells us we’re in for an unusual adventure-game experience, with unusual ambitions in terms of character and plot development alike. We meet Gabriel and Grace in medias res, as the former stumbles out of his backroom bedroom to meet the latter already at her post behind the cash register in the bookstore. Over the next couple of minutes, we learn much about them as people through their banter — and, tellingly, pretty much nothing about what the real plot of the game will come to entail. This is Bilbo holding his long-expected party, Wart going out to make hay; Jane Jensen is settling in to work the long game.

As Jensen slowly pulls back the curtain on what the game is really all about over the hours that follow, she takes Gabriel through that greatest rarity in interactive storytelling, a genuine internal character arc. The Gabriel at the end of the game, in other words, is not the one we met at the beginning, and for once the difference isn’t down to his hit points or armor class. If we can complain that we’re mostly relegated to solving goofy puzzles while said character arc plays out in the cut scenes, we can also acknowledge how remarkable it is for existing at all.

Jensen is a talented writer with a particular affinity for just the sort of snappy but revealing dialog that marks that first scene of the game. If anything, she’s better at writing these sorts of low-key “hang-out” moments than the scenes of epic confrontation. It’s refreshing to see a game with such a sense of ease about its smaller moments, given that the talents and interests of most game writers tend to run in just the opposite direction.

Then, too, Jensen has an intuitive understanding of the rhythm of effective horror. As any master of the form from Stephen King to the Duffer Brothers will happily tell you if you ask them, you can’t assault your audience with wall-to-wall terror. Good horror is rather about tension and release — the horrific crescendos fading into moments of calm and even levity, during which the audience has a chance to catch its collective breath and the knots in their stomachs have a chance to un-clench. Certainly we have to learn to know and like a story’s characters before we can feel vicarious horror at their being placed in harm’s way. Jensen understands all these things, as do the people working with her.

Indeed, the production values of Sins of the Fathers are uniformly excellent in the context of its times. The moody art perfectly complements the story Jensen has scripted, and the voice-acting cast — both the big names who head it and the smaller ones who fill out the rest of the roles — are, with only one or two exceptions, solid. The music, which was provided by the project’s producer Robert Holmes — he began dating Jensen while the game was in production, and later became her husband and constant creative partner — is catchy, memorable, and very good at setting the mood, if perhaps not hugely New Orleans in flavor. (More on that issue momentarily.)

Still, there are some significant issues with Sins of the Fathers even when it’s being judged purely as we might a work of static fiction. Many of these become apparent only gradually over time — this is definitely a game that puts its best foot forward first — but at least one of them is front and center from the very first scene. To say that much of Gabriel’s treatment of Grace hasn’t aged well hardly begins to state the case. Their scenes together often play like a public-service video from the #MeToo movement, as Gabriel sexually harasses his employee like Donald Trump with a fresh bottle of Viagra in his back pocket. Of course, Jensen really intends for Gabriel to be another instance of the archetypal charming rogue — see Solo, Han, and Jones, Indiana — and sometimes she manages to pull it off. At far too many others, though, the writing gets a little sideways, and the charming rogue veers into straight-up jerk territory. The fact that Grace is written as a smart, tough-minded young woman who can give as good as she gets doesn’t make him seem like any less of a sleazy creep, more Leisure Suit Larry than James Dean.

I’m puzzled and just a little bemused that so many academic writers who’ve taken it upon themselves to analyze the game from an explicitly feminist perspective can ignore this aspect of it entirely. I can’t help but suspect that, were Sins of the Fathers the product of a male designer, the critical dialog that surrounds it would be markedly different in some respects. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this double standard is justified or not in light of our culture’s long history of gender inequality.

As the game continues, the writing starts to wear thin in other ways. Gabriel’s supposed torrid love affair with Malia is, to say the least, unconvincing, with none of the naturalism that marks the best of his interactions with Grace. Instead it’s in the lazy mold of too many formulaic mass-media fictions, where two attractive people fall madly in love for no discernible reason that we can identify. The writer simply tells us that they do so, by way of justifying an obligatory sex scene or two. Here, though, we don’t even get the sex scene.

Pacing also starts to become a significant problem as the game wears on. Admittedly, this is not always so much because the writer in Jane Jensen isn’t aware of its importance to effective horror as because pacing in general is just so darn difficult to control in any interactive work, especially one filled with road-blocking puzzles like this one. Even if we cut Jensen some slack on this front, however, sequences like Gabriel’s visit to Tulane University, where he’s subjected to a long non-interactive lecture that might as well be entitled “Everything Jane Jensen Learned about Voodoo but Can’t Shoehorn in Anywhere Else,” are evidence of a still fairly inexperienced writer who doesn’t have a complete handle on this essential element of storytelling and doesn’t have anyone looking over her shoulder to edit her work. She’s done her research, but hasn’t mastered the Zen-like art of letting it subtly inform her story and setting. Instead she infodumps it all over us in about the most unimaginative way you can conceive: in the form of a literal classroom lecture.

Gabriel with Professor Infodump.

The game’s depiction of New Orleans itself reveals some of the same weaknesses. Yes, Jensen gets the landmarks and the basic geography right. But I have to say, speaking as someone who loves the city dearly and has spent a fair amount of time there over the years, that the setting of the game never really feels like New Orleans. What’s missing most of all, I think, is any affinity for the music that so informs daily life in the city, giving the streets a (literal) rhythm unlike anywhere else on earth. (Robert Holmes’s soundtrack is fine and evocative in its own right; it’s just not a New Orleans soundtrack.) I was thus unsurprised to learn that Jensen never actually visited New Orleans before writing and publishing a game set there. Tellingly, her depiction has more to do with the idiosyncratic, Gothic New Orleans found in Anne Rice novels than it does with the city I know.

The plotting too gets more wobbly as time goes on. A linchpin moment comes right at the mid-point of the ten days, when Gabriel makes an ill-advised visit to one of the cult’s conclaves — in fact, the one he located via the afore-described rada-drums puzzle — and nearly gets himself killed. Somehow Grace, of all people, swoops in to rescue him; I still have no idea precisely what is supposed to have happened here, and neither, judging at least from the fan sites I’ve consulted, does anyone else. I suspect that something got cut here out of budget concerns, so perhaps it’s unfair to place this massive non sequitur at the heart of the game squarely on Jensen’s shoulders.

But other problems with the plotting aren’t as easy to find excuses for. There is, for example, the way that Gabriel can fly from New Orleans to Munich and still have hours of daylight at his disposal when he arrives on the same day. (I could dismiss this as a mere hole in Jensen’s research, the product of an American designer unfamiliar with international travel, if she hadn’t spent almost a year living in Germany prior to coming to Sierra.) In fact, the entirety of Gabriel’s whirlwind trip from the United States to Germany to Benin and back home again feels incomplete and a little half-baked, from its cartoonish German castle, which resembles a piece of discarded art from a King’s Quest game, to its tedious maze inside an uninteresting African burial mound that likewise could have been found in any of a thousand other adventure games. Jensen would have done better to keep the action in New Orleans rather than suddenly trying to turn the game into a globetrotting adventure at the eleventh hour, destroying its narrative cohesion in the process.

Suddenly we’re in… Africa? How the hell did that happen?

As in a lot of fictions of this nature, the mysteries at the heart of Sins of the Fathers are also most enticing in the game’s earlier stages than they have become by its end. To her credit, Jensen knows exactly what truths lie behind all of the mysteries and deceptions, and she’s willing to show them to us; Sins of the Fathers does have a payoff. Nevertheless, it’s all starting to feel a little banal by the time we arrive at the big climax inside the voodoo cult’s antiseptic high-tech headquarters. It’s easier to be scared of shadowy spirits of evil from the distant past than it is of voodoo bureaucrats flashing their key cards in a complex that smacks of a Bond villain’s secret hideaway.

The tribal art on the wall lets you know this is a voodoo cult’s headquarters. Somehow I never expected elevators and fluorescent lighting in such a place…

Many of you — especially those of you who count yourselves big fans of Sins of the Fathers — are doubtless saying by now that I’m being much, much too hard on it. And you have a point; I am holding this game’s fiction to a higher standard than I do that of most adventure games. In a sense, though, the game’s very conception of itself makes it hard for a critic to avoid doing so. It so clearly wants to be a more subtle, more narratively and thematically rich, more “adult” adventure game that I feel forced to take it at its word and hold it to that higher standard. One could say, then, that the game becomes a victim of its own towering ambitions. Certainly all my niggling criticisms shouldn’t obscure the fact that, for all that its reach does often exceed its grasp, it’s brave of the game to stretch itself so far at all.

That said, I can’t help but continue to see Sins of the Fathers more as a noble failure than a masterpiece, and I can’t keep myself from placing much of the blame at the feet of Sierra rather than Jane Jensen per se. I played it most recently with my wife, as I do many of the games I write about here. She brings a valuable perspective because she’s much, much smarter than I am but couldn’t care less about where, when, or whom the games we play came from; they’re strictly entertainments for her. At some point in the midst of playing Sins of the Fathers, she turned to me and remarked, “This would probably have been a really good game if it had been made by that other company.”

I could tell I was going to have to dig a bit to ferret out her meaning: “What other company?”

“You know, the one that made that time-travel game we played with the really nerdy guy and that twitchy girl, and the one about the dog and the bunny. I think they would have made sure everything just… worked better. You know, fixed all of the really irritating stuff, and made sure we didn’t have to look at a walkthrough all the time.”

That “other company” was, of course, LucasArts.

One part of Sins of the Fathers in particular reminds me of the differences between the two companies. There comes a point where Gabriel has to disguise himself as a priest, using a frock stolen from St. Louis Cathedral and some hair gel from his own boudoir, in order to bilk an old woman out of her knowledge of voodoo. This is, needless to say, another example of the dissonance between the game’s serious plot and goofy puzzles, but we’ve covered that ground already. What’s more relevant right now is the game’s implementation of the sequence. Every time you visit the old woman — which will likely be several times if you aren’t playing from a walkthrough — you have to laboriously prepare Gabriel’s disguise all over again. It’s tedium that exists for no good reason; you’ve solved the puzzle once, and the game ought to know you’ve solved it, so why can’t you just get on with things? I can’t imagine a LucasArts game subjecting me to this. In fact, I know it wouldn’t: there’s a similar situation in Day of the Tentacle, where, sure enough, the game whips through the necessary steps for you every time after the first.

Father Gabriel. (Sins of the fathers indeed, eh?)

This may seem a small, perhaps even petty example, but, multiplied by a hundred or a thousand, it describes why Sierra adventures — even their better, more thoughtful efforts like this one — so often wound up more grating than fun. Sins of the Fathers isn’t a bad adventure game, but it could have been so much better if Jensen had had a team around her armed with the development methodologies and testing processes that could have eliminated its pixel hunts, cleaned up its unfair and/or ill-fitting puzzles, told her when Gabriel was starting to sound more like a sexual predator than a laid-back lady’s man, and smoothed out the rough patches in its plot. None of the criticisms I’ve made of the game should be taken as a slam against Jensen, a writer with special gifts in exactly those areas where other games tend to disappoint. She just didn’t get the support she needed to reach her full potential here.

The bitter irony of it all is that LucasArts, a company that could have made Sins of the Fathers truly great, lacked the ambition to try anything like it in lieu of the cartoon comedies which they knew worked for them; meanwhile Sierra, a company with ambition in spades, lacked the necessary commitment to detail and quality. I really don’t believe, in other words, that Sins of the Father represents some limit case for the point-and-click adventure as a storytelling medium. I think merely that it represents, like all games, a grab bag of design choices, some of them more felicitous than others.

Still, if what we ended up with is the very definition of a mixed bag, it’s nevertheless one of the most interesting and important such in the history of adventure games, a game whose influence on what came later, both inside and outside of its genre, has been undeniable. I know that when I made The King of Shreds and Patches, my own attempt at a lengthy horror adventure with a serious plot, Sins of the Fathers was my most important single ludic influence, providing a bevy of useful examples both of what to do and what not to do. (For instance, I copied its trigger-driven approach to plot chronology — but I made sure to include a journal to tell the player what issues she should be working on at any given time, thereby to keep her from wandering endlessly looking for the random whatsit that would advance the time.) I know that many other designers of much more prominent games than mine have also taken much away from Sins of the Fathers.

So, should you play Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers? Absolutely. It’s a fascinating example of storytelling ambition in games, and, both in where it works and where it fails, an instructive study in design as well. A recent remake helmed by Jane Jensen herself even fixes some of the worst design flaws, although not without considerable trade-offs: the all-star cast of the original game has been replaced with less distinctive voice acting, and the new graphics, while cleaner and sharper, don’t have quite the same moody character as the old. Plague or cholera; that does seem to be the way with adventure games much of the time, doesn’t it? With this game, one might say, even more so than most of them.

The big climax. Yes, it does look a little ridiculous — but hey, they were trying.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1993 and March 1994. Online sources include “The Making of… The Gabriel Knight Trilogy” from Edge Online; an interview with Jane Jensen done by the old webzine The Inventory, now archived at The Gabriel Knight Pages; “Happy Birthday, Gabriel Knight from USgamer; Jane Jensen’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. Academic pieces include “Revisiting Gabriel Knight” by Connie Veugen from The Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet Volume 7; Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers: The Numinous Woman and the Millennium Woman” by Roberta Sabbath from The Journal of Popular Culture Volume 31 Issue 1. And, last but not least, press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is available for purchase both in its original version and as an enhanced modern remake.)

 
 

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