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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Magic and Loss, Part 2: Magic on the Screen

It seems poetically apt that Peter Adkison first met Richard Garfield through Usenet. For Magic: The Gathering, the card game that resulted from that meeting, went on to usher in a whole new era of tabletop gaming, during which it became much more tightly coupled with digital spaces. The card game’s rise did, after all, coincide with the rise of the World Wide Web; Magic sites were among the first popular destinations there. The game could never have exploded so quickly if it had been forced to depend on the old-media likes of Dragon magazine to spread the word, what with print publishing’s built-in lag time of weeks or months.

But ironically, computers could all too easily also be seen as dangerous to the immensely profitable business Wizards of the Coast so speedily became. So much of the allure of Magic was that of scarcity. A rare card like, say, a Lord of the Pit was an awesome thing to own not because it was an automatic game-winner — it wasn’t that at all, being very expensive in terms of mana and having a nasty tendency to turn around and bite you instead of your opponent — but because it was so gosh-darned hard to get your hands on. Yet computers by their very nature made everything that was put into them abundant; here a Lord of the Pit was nothing but another collection of ones and zeroes, as effortlessly copyable as any other collection of same. Would Magic be as compelling there? Or, stated more practically if also more cynically, what profit was to be found for Wizards of the Coast in putting Magic on computers? If they made a killer Magic implementation for the computer, complete with Lords of the Pit for everyone, would anyone still want to play the physical card game? In the worst-case scenario, it would be sacrificing an ongoing revenue stream to die for in return for the one-time sales of a single boxed computer game.

Had it been ten years later, Wizards of the Coast might have been thinking about setting up an official virtual community for Magic, with online duels, tournaments, leader boards, forums, perhaps even a card marketplace. As it was, though, it was still the very early days of the Web 1.0, when most sites consisted solely of static HTML. Online play in general was in its infancy, with most computer games that offered it being designed to run over local-area networks rather than a slow and laggy dial-up Internet connection. In this technological milieu, then, a Magic computer game necessarily meant a boxed product that you could buy, bring home, install on a computer that may or may not even be connected to the Internet, and play all by yourself.

That last part of the recipe introduced a whole host of questions and challenges beyond the strictly commercial. Think again about the nature of Magic: a fairly simple game in itself, but one that could be altered in an infinity of ways by the instructions printed on the cards themselves. Making hundreds and hundreds of separate cards play properly on the computer would be difficult enough. And yet that wasn’t even the worst of it: the really hard part would be teaching the computer to use its millions of possible combinations of cards effectively against the player, in an era before machine learning and the like were more than a glint in a few artificial-intelligence theorists’ eyes.

But to their credit, Wizards of the Coast didn’t dismiss the idea of a Magic computer game out of hand on any of these grounds. When MicroProse Software came calling, promising they could make it happen, Wizards listened and agreed to let them take a stab at it.

It so happened that Magic had caught the attention of MicroProse’s star designer, Sid Meier of Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization fame. This was unsurprising in itself; Meier was a grizzled veteran of many a tabletop war, who still kept a finger on the pulse of that space. Although he was never a dedicated player of the card game, he was attracted to Magic precisely because it seemed so dauntingly difficult to implement on a computer. Meier was, you see, a programmer as well as a designer, one with a strong interest in artificial intelligence, who had in fact just spent a year or more trying to teach a 3DO console to create music in the mold of his favorite classical composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. In his memoir, he frames his interest in a Magic computer game as a way of placating the managers in the corner offices at MicroProse who were constantly pushing him and his colleagues in the trenches toward licensed properties. With Magic, he could have his cake and eat it too, pleasing the suits whilst still doing something he could get personally excited about. “It seemed prudent,” he writes dryly, “for us to choose the kind of license we liked before they assigned one to us.”

We cannot accuse MicroProse of thinking small when it came to Magic on the computer; they wound up creating not so much a game as a sort of all-purpose digital Magic toolkit. You could put together your dream deck in the “Deck Builder,” choosing from 392 different cards in all. Then you could take the deck you built into the “Duel” program, where you could participate in a single match or in a full-on tournament against computer opponents. If all of this left you confused, you could work your way through a tutorial featuring filmed actors. Or, last but by no means least, you could dive into Shandalar, which embedded the card game into a simple CRPG format, in which Magic duels with the monsters that roamed the world took the place of a more conventional combat engine and improving your deck took the place of improving your character’s statistics. Suffice to say that MicroProse’s Magic did not lack for ambition.

Like the cheesy advisors in the otherwise serious-minded Civilization II, the tutorial that uses clips of real actors dates the MicroProse Magic indelibly to the mid-1990s. The actress on the left is Rhea Seehorn, whose long journeyman’s career blossomed suddenly into fame and Emmy awards in 2015, when she began playing Kim Wexler in the acclaimed television series Better Call Saul.

Doubtless for this reason, it took an inordinately long time to make. The first magazine previews of the computer game, describing most of the features that would make it into the finished product, appeared in the spring of 1995, just as the craze for the card game was nearing its peak. Yet the finished product wasn’t released until March of 1997, by which point the frenzy was already beginning to cool off, as Magic slowly transformed into what it still is today: “just” an extremely popular card game. “This is the end of a long journey,” wrote Richard Garfield in his foreword to the computer game’s manual, a missive that exudes relief and exhaustion in equal measure.

In fact, by the time MicroProse and Garfield completed the journey a whole different digital Magic game had been started and completed by a different studio. Acclaim Entertainment’s Magic: The Gathering — Battlemage was Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to hedge their bets when the MicroProse project kept stretching out longer and longer. At the surface level, Battlemage played much like Shandalar: you wandered a fantasy world collecting cards and dueling with enemies. But its duels were far less ambitious; rather than trying to implement the real card game in nitty-gritty detail, it moved its broadest strokes only into a gimmicky real-time framework, with a non-adjustable clock that just so happened to run way too fast. “By the time [you] manage to summon one creature,” wrote Computer Gaming World in its review, “the enemy has five or six on the attack.” This, the very first Magic computer game to actually ship, is justifiably forgotten today.

Then, too, by the time MicroProse’s Magic appeared Sid Meier had been gone from that company for nine months already, having left with his colleagues Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds to form a new studio, Firaxis Games. In his memoir, he speaks to a constant tension between MicroProse, who just wanted to deliver the funnest possible digital implementation of Magic, and Wizards of the Coast, who were worried about destroying their cash cow’s mystique. “I was frustrated,” he concludes. “Magic was a good computer game, but not as good as it could be.”

I concur. The MicroProse Magic is a good game — in fact, a well-nigh miraculous achievement when one considers the technological times in which it was created. Yet Shandalar in particular is a frustrating case: a good game that, one senses, just barely missed being spectacular.

The heart of the matter, the Duel screen.

But without a doubt, the most impressive thing about this Magic is that it works at all. The interface is a breeze to use once you grasp its vagaries, the cards all function just as they should in all of their countless nuances, and the computer actually does make a pretty credible opponent most of the time, capable of combining its cards in ingenious ways that may never have occurred to you until you get blasted into oblivion by them. Really, I can’t say enough about what an incredible programming achievement this is. Yes, familiarity may breed some contempt in the course of time; you will eventually notice patterns in some of your opponents’ play that you can exploit, and the computer players will do something flat-out stupid every once in a while. (Then again, isn’t that true of a human player as well?) Early reviewers tended to understate the quality of the artificial intelligence because it trades smarts for speed on slower computers, not looking as far ahead in its calculations. These days, when some of our toasters probably have more processing power than the typical 1997 gaming computer, that isn’t a consideration.

The MicroProse game even manages to implement cards like Magic Hack, which lets you alter the text(!) found on other cards.

Wow. Just… wow.

Meanwhile Shandalar is a characteristic stroke of genius from Sid Meier, who was crazily good at translating lived experiences of all sorts into playable game mechanics. As we saw at length in the last article, it was the meta-game of collecting cards and honing decks that turned the card game into a way of life for so many of its players. Shandalar transplants this experience into a procedurally-generated fantasy landscape, capturing in the process the real heart of its analog predecessor’s appeal in a way that the dueling system on its own never could have, no matter how beautifully implemented. You start out as a callow beginner with a deck full of random junk, just like someone who has just returned from a trip to her friendly local game store with her first Magic Starter Pack. Your objective must now be to improve your deck into something you can win with on a regular basis, whilst learning how to use the cards you’ve collected most effectively and slowly building a reputation for yourself. Again, just like in real life.

The framing story has it that you are trying to protect the world of Shandalar from five evil wizards — one for each of the Magic colors — who are vying with one another and with you to take it over. You travel between the many cities and towns, buying and selling cards in their marketplaces and doing simple quests for their inhabitants that can, among other things, add to your dueling life-point total, which is just ten when starting out. Enemies in the employ of the wizards wander the same paths you do with decks of their own. Defeat them, and you can win one of their cards for yourself; get defeated by them, and you lose one of your own cards. (Shandalar is the last Magic product to use the misbegotten ante rule that the Wizards of the Coast of today prefers not to mention.)

After you’ve been at it a while, the other wizards’ lieutenants will begin attacking the towns directly. If any one enemy wizard manages to take over just three towns, he wins the game and you lose. (Unfortunately, the same lax victory conditions don’t apply to you…) Therefore it’s important not to let matters get out of hand on this front. You can rush to a town that’s being attacked and defend it by defeating the attacker in a duel, or you can even attack an already occupied town yourself in the hope of freeing it again, although this tends to be an even harder duel to win. When not thus occupied, you can explore the dungeons that are scattered about the map, stocked with tough enemies and tempting rewards in the form of gold, cards, and magical gems that confer special powers. Your ultimate goal, once you think you have the perfect deck, is to attack and defeat each wizard in his own stronghold; his strength in this final battle is determined by how many enemies of his color you’ve defeated elsewhere, so it pays to take your time. Don’t dawdle too long, though, because the other wizards get more and more aggressive about attacking towns as time goes by, which can leave you racing around willy-nilly trying to put out fire after fire, with scant time to take the offensive.


The MicroProse Magic was the first Sid Meier-designed game to appear in many years without the “Sid Meier’s…” prefix. His name was actually scrubbed from the credits completely, what with him having left the company before its completion. It was probably just as well: as he notes in his memoir, if MicroProse had tried to abide by its usual practice the game would presumably have needed to be called Sid Meier’s Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Wandering the world of Shandalar.

You can accept quests for cards and other treasures.

When you bump into an enemy, you can either duel him for an ante or give him some money to go away.

You can reclaim towns that have been occupied by one of the enemy wizards, but it’s a risky battle, for which you must ante three cards to your opponent’s one.

Exploring a dungeon.



All told, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, the perfect way to enjoy Magic if you don’t want to spend a fortune on cards and/or aren’t overly enamored with the culture of nerdy aggression that surrounds the real-life game to some extent even today. I spent way more time with Shandalar than I could really afford to as “research” for this article, restarting again and again to explore the possibilities of many different colors and decks and the variations in the different difficulty levels. Shandalar is great just as it is; I highly recommend it, and happily add it to my personal Hall of Fame.

And yet the fact is that the balance of the whole is a little off — not enough so as to ruin the experience, but just enough to frustrate when you consider what Shandalar might have been with a little more tweaking. My biggest beef is with the dungeons. They ought to be one of the best things about the game, being randomly generated labyrinths stocked with unusual opponents and highly desirable cards. Your life total carries over from battle to battle within a dungeon and you aren’t allowed to save there, giving almost a roguelike quality to your underground expeditions. It seems to be a case of high stakes and high rewards, potentially the most exciting part of the game.

It makes no sense to risk the dungeons when you can randomly stumble upon places on the world map that let you have your choice of any card in the entire game. Happy as you are when you find them, these places are devastating to game balance.

But it isn’t, for the simple reason that the rewards aren’t commensurate with the risks in the final analysis. Most of the time, the cards you find in a dungeon prove not to be all that great after all; in fact, you can acquire every single one of them above-ground in one way or another, leaving you with little reason to even enter a dungeon beyond sheer, bloody-minded derring-do. A whole dimension of the game falls away into near-pointlessness. Yes, you can attempt to compensate for this by, say, pledging not to buy any of the most powerful cards at the above-ground marketplaces, but why should you have to? It shouldn’t be up to you to balance someone else’s game for them.

Even looking beyond this issue, Shandalar just leaves me wanting a little more — a bigger variety of special encounters on the world map, more depth to the economy, more and more varied quests. This is not because what we have is bad, mind you, but because it’s so good. My problem is that I just can’t stop seeing how it could be even better, can’t help wondering how it might have turned out had Sid Meier stayed at MicroProse through the end of the project. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try this game if you already enjoy the card game or are even slightly curious about it. The MicroProse Magic retains a cult following to this day, many of whom will tell you that Shandalar in particular is still the most fun you can have with Magic on a computer.

In its own time, however, the most surprising thing about the MicroProse Magic is that it wasn’t more commercially successful. “I’ve found a wonderful place to play Magic: The Gathering,” wrote Computer Gaming World in its review. “I can play as much as I want whenever I want, and use legendary cards like Black Lotus and the Moxes without spending hundreds of dollars.” Nevertheless, the package didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the substandard Acclaim game, which was released just a month before the MicroProse version, muddied the waters too much. Or perhaps even more of the appeal of the card game than anyone had realized lay in the social element, which no digital version in 1997 could possibly duplicate.

Not that MicroProse didn’t try. “This game is exceedingly expandable,” wrote Richard Garfield in his foreword in the manual, strongly implying that the MicroProse Magic was just the beginning of a whole line of follow-on products that would keep it up to date with the ever-evolving card game. But that didn’t really happen. MicroProse did release Spells of the Ancients, a sort of digital Booster Pack with some new cards, followed by a standalone upgrade called Duels of the Planeswalkers, with yet more new cards and the one feature that was most obviously missing from the original game: the ability to duel with others over a network, albeit without any associated matchmaking service or the like that could have fostered a centralized online community of players. Not long after Duels of the Planeswalkers came out in January of 1998, the whole line fell out of print, having never quite lived up to MicroProse’s expectations for it. Wizards of the Coast, for their part, had always seemed a bit lukewarm about it, perchance not least because Shandalar relied so heavily on the ante system which they were by now trying hard to bury deep, deep down in the memory hole. Their next foray into digital Magic wouldn’t come until 2002, when they set up Magic: The Gathering Online, precisely the dynamic online playing space I described as infeasible earlier in this article in the context of the 1990s.

I’ll have more to say about the Magic phenomenon in future articles, given that it was the fuel for the most shocking deal in the history of tabletop gaming. The same year that the MicroProse Magic game came out, a swaggering, cash-flush Wizards of the Coast bought a teetering, cash-strapped TSR, who had seen the market for Dungeons & Dragons all but destroyed by Richard Garfield’s little card game. This event would have enormous repercussions on virtual as well as physical desktops, occurring as it did just after Interplay Entertainment had been awarded the license to make the next generation of Dungeons & Dragons computer games.

For today, though, let me warmly recommend the MicroProse Magic — if you can see your way to getting it running, that is. (See below for more on that subject.) Despite my quibbles about the ways in which it could have been even better, Shandalar remains almost as addictive for me today as the card game was for so many teenagers of the 1990s, only far less expensively so. When I pulled it up again to capture screenshots for this article, I blundered into a duel and just had to see it out. Ditto the next one, and then the one after that. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Where to Get It: The MicroProse Magic: The Gathering is unfortunately not an easy game to acquire or get running; the former difficulty is down to the complications of licensing, which have kept it out of digital-download stores like GOG.com, while the latter is down to its status as a very early Windows 95 game, from before DirectX was mature and before many standards for ensuring backward compatibility existed. Because I’d love for you to be able to play it, though, I’ll tell you how I got it working. Fair warning: it does take a bit of effort. But you don’t need to be a technical genius to make it happen. You just have to take it slow and careful.

  1. First of all, you’re going to need a virtual machine running Windows XP. This is not as onerous an undertaking as you might expect. I recommend a video tutorial from TheHowToGuy123, which walks you step by step through installing the operating system under Oracle VirtualBox in a very no-nonsense way.
  2. Next you need an image of the Magic CD. As of this writing, a search for “Magic The Gathering MicroProse” on archive.org will turn one up. Note that these procedures assume you are installing the original game, not Duels of the Planeswalkers. The patches you install will actually update it to that version.
  3. Boot up your virtual Windows XP machine and mount the Magic image from the VirtualBox “Devices” menu. Ignore the warning about not being on Windows 95 and choose “Install” from the window that pops up. Take the default options and let it do its thing. Do not install DirectX drivers and do not watch the tutorial; it won’t work anyway.
  4. Now you need to patch the game — twice, in fact. You can download the first patch from this very site. Mount the image containing the patch in VirtualBox and open the CD drive in Windows Explorer. You’ll see three executable files there, each starting with “MTGV125.” Drag all three to your desktop, then double-click them from there to run them one at a time. You want to “Unzip” each into the default directory.
  5. Restart your virtual Windows XP machine.
  6. Now you need the second patch, which you can also get right here. Mount this disk image on your virtual machine, create a folder on its desktop, and copy everything in the image into that folder. Double-click “Setup” from the desktop folder and wait a minute or two while it does its thing.
  7. Now copy everything from that same folder on your desktop into “C:\Magic\Program,” selecting “Yes to All” at the first warning prompt to overwrite any files that already exist there. If you see an error message about open file handles or the like, restart your virtual machine and try again.
  8. Here’s where it gets a little weird. The “Shandalar” entry on your Start menu is no longer pointing to the Shandalar game, but rather to the multiplayer engine. Go figure. To fix this, navigate into “C:\Magic\Program,” find “shandalar.exe,” and make a shortcut to it on your desktop. Double-click this to play the game. If it complains about a lack of swap space, just ignore it and go on.
  9. You’ll definitely want the manual as well.

Shandalar, the Deck Builder, and the single-player Duel app should all work now. The first does still have some glitches, such as labels that don’t always appear in town menus, but nothing too devastating (he says, having spent an inordinate amount of time… er, testing it thoroughly). I haven’t tested multiplayer, but it would surprise me if it still works. Alas, the cheesily charming tutorial is a complete bust with this setup; you can watch it on YouTube if you like.

Note that this is just one way to get Magic running on a modern computer, the one that worked out for me. Back in 2010, a group of fans made a custom version that ran seamlessly under Windows 7 without requiring a virtual machine, but it’s my understanding that that version doesn’t work under more recent versions of the operating system. Sigh… retro-gaming in the borderlands between the MS-DOS and Windows eras is a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole sometimes. If you have any other tips or tricks, by all means, share them in the comments.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The book Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier with Jennifer Lee Noonan; Computer Gaming World of June 1995, August 1996, May 1997, June 1997, and May 1998. And Soren Johnson’s interview with Sid Meier on his Designer Notes podcast.)

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Magic and Loss, Part 1: Magic in the Cards

 

Imagine a card game where there are hundreds of cards, with more being made all the time. Some cards are rare and some are common. You build a deck with whatever cards you want. You have no idea what’s in your opponent’s deck. And then you duel.

— Richard Garfield to Peter Adkison, 1991

Most revolutions have humble origins. Magic: The Gathering, the humble little card game that upended its industry in the 1990s, is no exception. It began with an ordinary-seeming fellow from the American heartland by the name of Peter Adkison.

Adkison grew up in rural Idaho in a family of Seventh Day Adventists, an idiosyncratic branch of evangelical Christianity. When not in church, the household played card and board games of all descriptions, a hobby for which the dark, snowy winters of their part of the country left ample time.

Adkison had moved to eastern Washington State to attend Walla Walla College when the Dungeons & Dragons craze of the early 1980s hit. Unfortunately, the game was soon banned from his college, itself a Seventh Day Adventists institution, because it was believed to have ties to Satanism. But fortunately, his mother, who had recently left both his father and the faith, gave him and his friends a safe space to play in her basement during vacations and holidays.

In 1985, Adkison graduated with a degree in computer science and went to work for Boeing in Seattle. Half a decade later, having grown disenchanted with the humdrum day-to-day of corporate aerospace engineering, he founded a would-be games publisher called Wizards of the Coast in his own basement. Looking for the right ticket into the hobby-game industry, he posted an open call on Usenet for designers who might be willing to sign on with a new and unproven company such as his. It was answered by two graduate students in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, whose names were Mike Davis and Richard Garfield. They all agreed to meet in person on August 17, 1991, in Portland, Oregon, the home of Garfield’s parents.

Adkison realized quickly at that meeting that the specific design the pair had come to pitch to him was untenable for Wizards of the Coast, at least at this juncture. Called Robo Rally, it portrayed a madcap race by out-of-control robots across a factory floor, the players continually “programming” them a few moves ahead of time to deal with whatever obstacles looked like they were coming next. The game was (and is) pretty brilliant, but it required far too many bobs and thingamajigs in the box to be practical under Adkison’s current budgetary constraints.

Nevertheless, he was impressed by the pair — especially by Garfield, a PhD student in the field of combinatorics, who seemed the more committed, passionate, and creative of the two. Mind you, it wasn’t that he cut a particularly rousing figure by conventional metrics. “Then, as now,” says Adkison, “he wore mismatched socks, had strange bits of thread and fabric hanging from parts of his clothing, and generally looked like someone who had just walked into the Salvation Army [Store] and grabbed whatever seemed colorful.” It was Garfield’s sheer love of games — all kinds of games — that drew Adkison in: “His vision was clear, and went to the heart of gaming. He was looking for entertainment, social interaction, mental exercise, creativity, and challenge. I suddenly felt stupid, remembering the time I had refused to play Pictionary, even though I knew I would probably enjoy it.”

Still, Adkison recognized that he had no choice but to let this weirdly inspiring new acquaintance down as gently as possible: It’s not your game design, it’s my lack of the resources to do it justice. Whereupon Garfield spoke the words that would change both their lives forever: “If you don’t want Robo Rally, what do you want? Describe a game concept — any concept — and I’ll design a game around it for you.”

Adkison was taken aback. He had been hoping to serendipitously stumble upon the ideal game, and now he had the chance to have one designed to order. What made the most sense for getting his company off the ground? It ought to be something small and simple, something cheap and easy to produce. Perhaps… yes! A card game would be ideal; that way, there would be no need for the manufacturing complications of boards or dice or injection-molded plastic figurines. And yet it could still be colorful and exciting to look at, if he brought in some good illustrators for the cards. It could be a snack-sized game for two people that was playable in twenty minutes or less, perfect for filling those down times around the table while waiting for the rest of the group to show up, or waiting for that week’s designated away team to return with the pizzas. There always seemed to be a shortage of that kind of game in the hobbyist market, where everybody wanted to go epic, man all the time. It could be displayed next to the cash register at gaming stores as a potential impulse buy, could become a little stocking stuffer for that special gamer in your life. Such a game would be a splendid way of getting Wizards of the Coast off the ground. Once that was accomplished, there would be plenty of time for the likes of Robo Rally.

A nodding Richard Garfield took it all in and promised to think about it.

They all met up again at a Seattle gaming convention a week later. Here Adkison learned that, true to his word, Garfield had indeed been thinking about his requested snack-sized card game. In fact, he’d been thinking rather hard. He proposed a game in which the players would be wizards who engaged in a duel, summoning minions to do their bidding and hurling spells at one another. Thematically speaking, it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking in a gaming milieu that had J.R.R. Tolkien and Gary Gygax as its patron saints. Nevertheless, as Garfield expanded on his concept, Adkison’s eyes kept getting wider. And when he was done, Adkison ran outside to the parking lot so that he could whoop for joy without inhibition. Garfield’s idea was, he was convinced, the best one to come along in the tabletop space since Dungeons & Dragons. He could already smell the money it was going to make all of them.

The true genius of Garfield’s idea — the reason that Adkison knew it could make him rich — was ironically external to the core gameplay loop that is the alpha and omega of most games. That said, that loop needed to be rock solid for the rest of the magic of Magic: The Gathering to happen. And this it most certainly was. I should take a moment to go over it here before I continue my story.


You Can Do Magic: A Very (Very, Very) Brief Introduction

While it is possible for more than two players to participate in a game of Magic, we’ll play it today as a one-on-one duel, by far its most common incarnation in its glory days of the 1990s. Indeed, because we’re doing history here, I’ll be describing the game in general as it was played in the 1990s. The modern game had not changed markedly, but there has been some tinkering here and there.

Unless another number has been agreed upon, each player starts with twenty life points. The objective is to reduce your opponent’s life points to zero before she can do the same to you. Alternatively — and less commonly — you can win through attrition, by causing her to run out of cards to play before you do.

Each player starts with her own freshly shuffled deck of cards. How many cards? That’s a little bit complicated to get into right now, involving as it does the aforementioned revolutionary aspects of the game that are external to the core rules. Suffice for now to say that the range is usually but not always between about 40 and 60, and that the number of cards is not necessarily the same for both players.

These cards fall into two broad categories. There are land cards, which provide mana, the fuel for the spells you will cast. And there are spell cards, which represent the spells themselves. There are five different types of land, from Swamps to Mountains, and each provides a different color of mana. Likewise, most of the spell cards require some quantity of a specific color of mana to play.

One of the key attributes that sets Magic apart from most card games is its asymmetry. As I already noted, each player has her own deck of cards, and these decks are not identical, what with their contents being selected by the players themselves. Some might go with a completely White deck, some with all Black. Slightly more adventurous souls might mix two colors; the really smart, brave, and/or foolhardy might dare to blend three. To use more colors than that in a deck is generally agreed to be a recipe for disaster.

In theory at least, the cards of each color are equally powerful in the aggregate, but they lend themselves to divergent play styles. White (using mana drawn from Plains) is the color of healing and protection, and its cards reflect this. Black (Swamps), on the other hand, is the color of decay, corruption, and pestilence. And so it goes with the other colors: Blue (Islands) is the color of trickery and deception, Red (Mountains) of unbridled destruction and mayhem, Green (Forests) of nature and life. The Magic colors you prefer to play with are a sort of Rorschach test, defining what sort of player you want to be if not what sort of person you already are.

On the theory that the best way to learn something is often by example, let’s begin a sample duel. I’ll play a Red and Green deck against my much cleverer wife Dorte, who is playing Black and Blue.

At the beginning of the match, Dorte and I each draw the seven cards that compose our starting hand. The game then proceeds in rounds, during each of which each player takes one turn. I’ll be the starting player, the one who takes his turn first each round. (This is not always an advantage.)

Each player gets to draw one more card at the beginning of his or her turn, and each player is then allowed to deploy a maximum of one land card during that turn. I do both, placing a Mountain on the table in front of me.

Most spell cards require you to tap your store of mana — signified by turning one or more deployed land cards sideways — in order to play them. I happen to have in my hand a Lightning Bolt, which, I can see from the symbol at the top right of the card, requires just one Red mana to cast. That’s perfect for an early strike to wake up my enemy! I tap my freshly deployed Mountain and hurl the spell, doing three points of damage to Dorte just like that, reducing her life total to seventeen. “Instant” spells like this one go directly to the graveyard — known in most other card games as the player’s discard pile — once they’ve been cast. They’re gone forever from that point on — except under special circumstances, such as a spell that lets one pull cards out of the graveyard. (One quickly learns that every rule in Magic comes with that same implied asterisk.)


On her turn, Dorte draws a card, deploys a Swamp, and does nothing else. Presumably she doesn’t have any spell cards in her hand that cost just one Black mana to cast — or any that she wants to cast right now, at any rate.

The first round is now finished, so I can untap the Mountain I’ve already put on the table. This means I will be able to use it again on my next turn.

I draw another card to start my second turn. But after doing so, I find that there’s nothing else that I’m willing and able to do with my current hand, other than to grow my Red mana stockpile a bit by deploying another Mountain. Quick turns like the ones Dorte and I have just taken are not at all unusual during the early rounds of a game. Most spells cost more than the Lightning Bolt I happened to have handy at the start, and it can take time to build up the supply of mana needed to cast them. Because land cards that have been deployed in one turn stay deployed in those that follow, the amount of mana in play escalates steadily during a game of Magic, allowing more and more powerful spell cards to be played.

Unhappily for me, Dorte doesn’t need to wait around anymore. After drawing a card and deploying a second Swamp, she has enough mana to summon a Black Knight. As a summoned minion rather than a one-shot spell, he goes out onto the table in front of her, next to her supply of land. He will soon be able to attack me, or do battle with my own minions, should I manage to summon any. Thankfully, though, he is not allowed to attack on the same turn he is summoned. And so the round ends without further ado.

I get some luck of my own on my next turn; I draw the Forest card I’ve been looking for. I immediately deploy my Forest alongside my two preexisting Mountains, giving me one Green and two Red mana to work with this turn.

I use one of each to summon my first minion (or rather minions): a group of Elven Archers. (The symbols at the top right of this card tell me that it costs one Green mana and one additional mana of any color to play.) And then, because they too aren’t allowed to attack on the turn in which I summoned them, I can do nothing else.

Dorte deploys an Island on her turn, giving her one Blue and two Black mana in her reservoir.

Then she sends her Black Knight to attack me. I’m about to respond with my Elven Archers as defenders. Take a close look at both cards. The numbers at the bottom right tell us that both attack with a power of two, but that, while the Black Knight dies only after absorbing two points of damage, my Elven Archers are more fragile, dying after taking just one point of damage. Both also have special abilities. The Black Knight is invulnerable to White enemies, but this is irrelevant in this match, since I won’t be summoning any of them. On the other hand, both the Black Knight and the Elven Archers have a “First Strike” ability. This requires a bit more unpacking.

When minions clash, they normally damage one another simultaneously. A creature with First Strike, however, damages its enemy first; if and only if the enemy is left alive by the attack does it get to inflict retaliatory damage of its own. Yet in this case, both attacker and defender have First Strike. Their special abilities cancel one another out, causing them to inflict damage on one another simultaneously as usual. The result ought to be that both are killed, going to their respective players’ graveyards. I am, in other words, prepared to sacrifice my Elven Archers in order to get Dorte’s Black Knight — a slightly more formidable pugilist on the whole — out of the game as well.

But that’s not what actually happens here — because Dorte, who hasn’t yet tapped any of her lands, does so now in order to cast a Terror spell, killing my Elven Archers outright before they can move to block her Black Knight. With his way thus cleared, the Black Knight can attack me directly, reducing my life points to eighteen. And so the round ends.

On my next turn, I deploy another Mountain, giving me a total of three Red and one Green mana. That’s more than enough to summon another minion from my hand, a Gray Ogre this time. Having done so, I end my turn.

Dorte now deploys another Island, giving her a pool of two Blue and two Black mana. She uses one Black mana to cast Unholy Strength on her Black Knight, increasing his attack power to four and his hit points to three.

Then she uses one Blue mana to cast a Flight spell, giving the same Black Knight the “Flying” special ability, meaning it will be able to soar right over my (non-flying) Gray Ogre and do four points of damage to me directly. This match does not appear to be going my way.

But appearances can be deceiving. It so happened that I drew another Lightning Bolt on my last turn, and I still have one untapped Mountain left to use to cast it — not directly against Dorte this time, but rather against her augmented Black Knight. The spell’s three points of damage will be just enough to kill him, even with his newfound Unholy Strength; nor can his ability to Fly save him.

But I did tell you that Dorte is clever, right? Not wanting to lose her Black Knight permanently, she hurriedly casts Unsummon with her last remaining point of Blue mana. This allows her to take him back into her hand, to be summoned again on some future turn to fight another day — minus his buffs, which now go to her graveyard without him.

The outcome of the last round has been mixed, but by no means ruinously so for me. I’ve been able to avoid taking any more damage, have forced Dorte’s only minion out of play for the moment, and now have a minion of my own poised to take the offensive next round. I’ll chalk the round up as more successful than not, even as I worry about what Dorte might still have up her sleeve — or rather in her hand — for dealing with my Gray Ogre.

And so it goes. A game of Magic is a cat-and-mouse one of move and countermove, strike and counterstrike, feint and counter-feint.



Although the explanation above is highly simplified, the core gameplay loop of Magic really is fairly easy to teach and to learn. The game’s ability to obsess its players over the long term derives not from its core rules but from the cards themselves. Through them, a simple game becomes devilishly complex — albeit complex in a different sense from, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with its hundreds of pages of closely typed rules. In Magic, by contrast, all of the rules beyond the most basic are literally printed right there on the cards. The rules thus rewrite themselves every time somebody brings a new card to a session. This was unprecedented enough in the early 1990s to be called revolutionary — and not only in the sense of pure game design, but in a cultural and commercial sense as well. For Magic, you see, was envisioned from the start as a collectible card game, the world’s first.

This meant that there wouldn’t be a single monolithic Magic game to buy, containing everything you needed to play. Each player would instead assemble his own unique deck of cards by buying one or more card packs from Wizards of the Coast and/or by trading cards with his friends. All of the card packs produced by Wizards would be randomized. No one — not Wizards, not the store that sold them, definitely not you the buyer — could know for sure what cards any given pack contained. You would have to pay your money and take your chances on whatever pack seemed to be calling to you from its shelf in the store on that day.

The concept was utterly original, arguably more so than anything that had been seen in tabletop gaming since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had unleashed their “single-unit wargame” Dungeons & Dragons. But because of its unprecedented nature, Magic took a long, long time to turn into a reality. For, whatever its other merits, Magic did not live up to Peter Adkison’s request for a card game that would be simple and cheap to turn into a finished product.

First there was the work of making up hundreds of cards and their abilities, then of testing them against one another over and over to find out which ones were too powerful, which ones weren’t powerful enough, and which ones had been a bad idea from the get-go. Richard Garfield’s expertise in combinatorics was a godsend here, as was that of the other mathematicians who surrounded him at the University of Pennsylvania. “Richard would grab people for games all the time,” remembers one of those colleagues, the fellow who had the office across the hall from his. “If you said yes once, you were in the loop.” Magic became a way of life at the math department, threatening to derail graduations and theses. The University of Pennsylvania was the first educational institution to be so afflicted; it would not be the last.

The process of hewing a real game out of Garfield’s stroke of genius took so long that Peter Adkison came close to writing the whole project off, notwithstanding his bellow of enthusiasm in that Seattle parking lot after he had first been told of it. While he waited to see if Garfield would come through, he tried to bootstrap Wizards of the Coast by making supplements for established RPG lines. But his very first effort in this direction, a source book dealing with deities and their religions, nearly brought an end to the whole operation; the included notes on how to use the material with The Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game got him sued. He wound up having to scrap the source book and pay Palladium Books a settlement he really couldn’t afford. All he could do was chalk it up as a lesson learned. It wasn’t worth it to piggyback on anyone else’s intellectual property, he decided. Better for Wizards of the Coast to build its own inviolate empire with Magic.

Early in 1993 — fully eighteen months after that eureka moment in Seattle — Garfield finally delivered an initial slate of 300 different cards that he judged to be adequately tested and balanced. Now Adkison’s work began. He considered it essential that Magic look as good as it played; a part of the appeal of collecting the cards should be purely aesthetic. He farmed the illustrations out to a small army of freelance artists, most of them students at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, who agreed to work for royalties and stock in lieu of the up-front fees that Adkison couldn’t afford to pay them; he also offered them the unusual bonus of seeing their names featured right there on the fronts of the cards themselves.

You would begin your journey into the realms of Magic by buying a 60-card “Starter Deck,” at a price of $7.95. After that, you could add to your deck’s possibilities by buying 15-card “Booster Packs,” which would sell for $2.45 each. Working out the top-secret algorithms that would dictate the card packs’ contents was an enormously complicated exercise in combinatorics, one that put even Garfield’s skills to the test. Starter Decks, for example, had to be reasonably playable all by themselves, with a balance between types of land and spells that required that color of mana. To introduce a modicum of balance into the Magic economy as a whole, Garfield classified each card as common, uncommon, or rare, with their proportions in a print run and in each individual pack within that run to be dictated accordingly. Adkison awarded the contract to print the cards to a firm in far-off Belgium, the only one he could find that was willing and able to piece together so many bespoke packages.

He planned to introduce Magic to the world in August of 1993 at Gen Con, the highlight of the hobbyist-gaming calendar. It very nearly didn’t happen. Having paid for a booth at the tabletop-gaming Mecca, he was flustered when the cards he intended to show and sell there failed to arrive in time from Belgium. He spent the first and most of the second day of the four-day show standing in front of the empty booth, telling nonplussed gamers about the revolutionary game he would like to be showing them but for a logistical snafu. Needless to say, it was not a good look.

At long last, on the afternoon of the second day, the truck he had been waiting for arrived from the East Coast. Adkison and his people ripped open the shipping boxes right there on the show floor and began stacking the card packs around them. The show attendees still looked skeptical, still didn’t quite seem to understand the concept: “What? Each player needs his own deck?” But eventually a few took the plunge on a Starter Pack, then a few more. Then a lot of people did so, even as the earliest adopters started coming back to pick up Booster Packs. And then the second wave of Starter Pack buyers returned to buy more Booster Packs, as the future of Magic played out in microcosm right there in the hallways, hotel rooms, cafeterias, and gaming halls of Gen Con. Adkison sold $25,000 worth of Magic that weekend. On Monday morning, he walked into Boeing and tendered his resignation.

Dragon magazine, the journal of record of hobbyist gaming on the tabletop, had a reporter on the scene at the show. Allen Varney’s article is prescient in many ways, although even he couldn’t possibly know just how big Magic would become.

Through the Gen Con Game Fair, people clustered three deep around the Wizards of the Coast table, craning to see the ongoing demonstrations of this game. Everywhere I went I saw someone playing it. In discussing it, some players showed reserved admiration, others enthusiasm, but body language told more than words. Everyone hunched forward intently, the way you do in deep discussions of politics or religion. Onlookers and devoted fans alike felt compelled to grapple with the idea of this game. It achieved more than just a commercial hit; it redefined gamers’ perspectives on their hobby.

The Magic: The Gathering card game, the trailblazer in what may become an entire industry category, combines card-game rules with trading-card collectability…

The Magic game requires a medium to large league of players to bring out its magic. Fortunately, its low entry price, simplicity, and quick play make this easier to achieve. It makes an ideal choice for conventions or lunch boxes. Its drawbacks seem minor beside its groundbreaking achievement.

Things happened quickly after Gen Con — so quickly that Dragon saw the need to append a hasty postscript to Varney’s original review in the very same issue in which it first appeared. Already at this point Magic could only be described as a “phenomenon.”

As I write this postscript, about six weeks after the game’s release, Magic has attracted legions of instant fanatics. The decks have sold out everywhere. Retailers frantically await follow-up shipments of millions of cards. I know lots of gamers who play the game long into the night, and weigh trade offers the way home buyers study mortgage contracts. I wonder what these junkies did before the game appeared; probably the junkies wonder too.

Yes, if you must know, I have become a junkie myself. The review above fails to highlight the game’s addictive quality, which clicks in when you appreciate the diverse strategies you can pursue in tailoring your deck or decks; you may create decks for different situations, like a golfer choosing irons. These decks display fascinating contrasts keyed to the colors and creatures they use, and to the players who use them…

Owning a large number of different cards seems to confer an odd, unspoken status. So does ownership of a particular rare card that no one else owns. Because every deck contains rare cards, this means a neophyte can buy one Magic deck and acquire instant stature among these long-time players: “Wow, he’s got a Lord of the Pit!” This seems to me something new in the gaming subculture, another sign of the game’s pioneering nature…

The allure of the rarest cards was partially down to the collector instinct alone; while those who called Magic the nerdy kid’s version of baseball cards overlooked much of the full picture, they weren’t entirely wrong either. In addition, though, uncommon and especially rare cards tended to be, when played properly, more powerful than their more plebeian comrades that might have been acquired inside the same cellophane wrapping.

It’s extraordinary to think that all of this was happening already just six weeks after Magic‘s debut. No other game in the hobby market had ever exploded out of the gates like this. Peter Adkison had used every dime he could scrape together from family, friends, bankers, and personal savings to fund an initial print run of 2.6 million cards, which he had thought should get him through the next year if the game took off like he hoped it would. It sold out within a week, leaving him scrambling to put together a second run of 7.3 million cards. That one too sold out in pre-orders before it had even arrived Stateside from Belgium. Not only were gamers demanding more cards in general, but also more types of cards. Adkison set Richard Garfield, who had just received a PhD after his name that he would never need to use now, to dreaming up and play-testing new cards.

Why was Magic such a hit? The answer is not that hard to grasp in the broad strokes, but there were some troubling ethical dilemmas lurking behind its success. While there’s no doubt that Magic was a genuinely great, compelling game, there’s also little doubt that it ruthlessly exploited the insecurities of its primary fan base: teenage males of a, shall we say, mathematical rather than athletic disposition. As anyone who has ever seen a computer-coding contest or a DOOM deathmatch can tell you, these kids aren’t a jot less competitive than the jocks that they mock and are mocked by; they’ve just transferred their competitive instinct to a different arena. It does seem to me that hyper-competitiveness is rooted in personal insecurity. And who is as insecure as a teenage boy of any high-school clique, other than perchance a teenage girl?

In practice, then, the story might go something like this:

A kid keeps hearing about this neat new game called Magic, and finally goes out and buys himself a Starter Pack. Now, he needs people to play with. So he shows his cards to some of his buddies, and convinces them to go out and buy Starter Packs of their own. They all start to play together — in fact, they start to play every chance they get, because the game turns out to be really, really fun. Taking less than twenty minutes to play a match as it does, it’s perfect for squeezing into school lunch breaks and the like.

So far, so good. But one kid in the group is having a bit more trouble than the others coming to terms with the game. He loses more than any of his friends, perhaps even becomes known as the pushover of the group, to be teased accordingly. Being a teenage boy, he likes that not at all. He’s been seeing these Booster Packs at the local gaming store. Could one of those give him a leg up? He decides to take a chance. And he’s rewarded for his initiative: he gets one or two powerful new cards, and suddenly he isn’t losing so much anymore.

Of course, the other kids in the group are hardly unaware of the source of their friend’s novel formidability. They grumble about how pathetic it is to go out and buy your way to victory. Eventually, though, one of them breaks down and buys a Booster Pack of his own. And so the arms race begins. Soon the boys are spending allowances, lawn-cutting and paper-route earnings, paychecks from Burger King on more and more Booster Packs. They tear each new one open, flinging the common and even uncommon cards into a big pile of the undesirable in the center of their bedroom, which sits there like vanities awaiting the bonfire while their owners look desperately for that Time Walk or Ancestral Recall that will let them dominate. The blessed day comes they do find what they’ve been looking for — but then they find that it’s still not enough, because the other boys have also upgraded their decks. And so the vicious cycle continues, fueled by the more cards that Wizards of the Coast is constantly inventing and churning out as quickly as a body ludic of adolescent addicts can absorb them into its bloodstream.

I hasten to add that it never had to go down this way. Theoretically speaking, a group of friends could decide to get into Magic, buy a Starter Pack or two each, and agree that that was as far as they would go. Such disciplined souls would be rewarded with an entertaining, deceptively intricate little card game that was well worth the relatively paltry sum they’d paid for it. But still, the chance that someone would give in to the shrink-wrapped temptations beckoning from the shelves of the local gaming store was always there. And after they did so, all bets were off.

I must acknowledge here as well that the motivation to buy more and more Booster Packs wasn’t always or even usually purely egotistical. Deck-building became a fascinating art and science in itself. Among advanced players, Magic duels tended to be won or lost before they even began, being determined by the mix of cards each player had in his deck. Remember that the number and types of cards in a deck were entirely up to that deck’s owner. Refining a deck into a precision-guided killing machine was an education in itself in probability and statistics. For example, how many land versus spell cards were optimal? If you drew too few land cards, you might find yourself unable to do much of anything while your opponent pounded on you; too many land cards, on the other hand, were clutter in your hand that just as effectively prevented you from getting summoned minions and other spells into play. And how many cards should you have in total, for that matter? Inexperienced players with more money than sense tended to assemble motley monstrosities of decks with 80 cards or more, only to learn that their probability of getting the right combinations of cards into their hand with such a deck was far too low. Lean and mean decks that did just a few things extremely well were almost always better than a random smorgasbord of even the rarest, most powerful cards.

All of which is to say that, at the most advanced level, Magic came to revolve around specific, devious combinations of cards that multiplied one another’s strengths in unexpected ways. Allow me to cite a simple example, laughably so by the standards of skilled players.

Consider the case of the Lifetap. This card is deadly against an opponent who relies heavily on Green mana, because it lets you gain one point of life every single time he taps one of his Forests for the mana he needs. It puts him in a place where literally everything he tries to do to kill you only makes you stronger. Yet it’s useless against an opponent who isn’t using Green mana, nothing but clutter in your deck. Or is it?

If you can put it into a play alongside a Magic Hack, it becomes an all-purpose game changer. For Magic Hack, you see, will let you change the word “Forest” on the Lifetap card to whatever land your opponent happens to be relying on most of all.

Of course, you have to balance the number of Lifetaps and Magic Hacks in your deck to give yourself a reasonable chance of getting them into play in combination, without having so many that you don’t see enough of the other cards you will need to win. And so begins the endless process of tinkering and honing that is the fate and the passion of the serious student of Magic

By way of summation, then, Magic: The Gathering was simultaneously a great game in its own right and a downright dangerous pastime for the right (or wrong?) kind of mind. It could deliver an enormous amount of satisfying fun, or it could eat up all of one’s money and free time, distracting from other, less zero-sum forms of social interaction and trapping its victims into a wallet-emptying spiral of addiction. Even teenage players could recognize its dangers, for all that they often couldn’t see their way clear of them; they took to calling those tempting Booster Packs “Crack in a Pack.” In Generation Decks, his thoughtful book-length history of Magic, Titus Chalk describes the unhealthily cloistered air of the shop backrooms in which Magic thrived.

These shops are turf. The tangible space a community has carved out for itself, and which it is loath to surrender again. Here there is safety in numbers. Reassurance in peers who look, act, and speak the same. And a comfort to looking inwards rather than out through cluttered windows. Hiding in the shadows, these places preserve the community’s cosiness, without holding it up to scrutiny or opening it up to others whose different values might enrich it. The physical environment is a symptom of its inhabitants’ insecurities. In gloomy backrooms, Magic cloaks itself in stigma.

How do you encourage a community to look outwards when it is so accustomed to lurking in the margins?

Richard Garfield insists that exploiting his young players was never on his mind when he was designing Magic, and we have no reason to disbelieve him. Indeed, his original vision for the Magic economy was actually quite different from what the reality became. He imagined that Magic would become primarily a trading game, in which a pool of cards that grew only slowly if at all would circulate busily among a community of players. Barry Reich, a fellow graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who helped Garfield refine the game before its release, says that they imagined back then that “extravagant people might buy two [Starter] Decks and [thereafter] a Booster Pack or two a year.”

The game’s most notorious early rule stemmed directly from this vision of a semi-closed economy with only limited external stimulus in the form of new cards. That rule was the “ante.” It stipulated that, before beginning a game, each player would randomly draw one card from his deck and set it aside; the winner of the match would then get to take the loser’s ante card home with him. If you squint just right, you can sort of see this rule through Garfield’s eyes. The ante would get and keep cards moving through the Magic community.

Still, its problematic aspects ought to have been obvious even to an innocent like him. How much fun could it be for a new player, trying Magic for the first time, to pay for the learning experience by losing card after card? As if that wasn’t argument enough against it, the rule effectively turned Magic into a Wizards of the Coast-sanctioned form of gambling, one that was literally illegal according to the laws of many American states; you were, after all, playing a game with a strong element of chance for objects of real monetary value. The fact that the gamblers in this case were mostly underage only made the optics that much worse. Small wonder that, within a few years of Magic‘s release, the ante would be quietly retired and scrubbed as much as possible from the game’s history. Its only saving grace while it existed was that it was officially described as “optional.”

In the spirit that every rule in Magic comes complete with a card-provided asterisk, some early cards played with the ante mechanic. This one, which lets you draw seven new cards into your hand for the price of just one Black mana, is very potent. But you also pay for that potency by risking two cards instead of one on the outcome of the match.

Wizards of the Coast grew from a handful of people working out of Peter Adkison’s basement in 1993 to 50 employees in 1994, then to 250 in 1995. It even started publishing Magic novels — a rather cheeky move, given how thin the fiction and “universe” of the card game was, drawing indiscriminately on everything from the myths of King Arthur to the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. (Lots of Magic addicts bought the books mainly for the coupons to be found at the back of them, which could be mailed in to receive a card that was otherwise unavailable.) The company was drowning in money, with profit margins on the ubiquitous little cards that the makers of traditional tabletop games could only dream of.

It soon became all too clear that, although Magic was certainly drawing some new folks into the circle of tabletop gamers, most of its success was coming at the expense of every other company in that market — not least the 800-ton mothership, TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame, the host of the Gen Con convention where Magic had gotten its start. The marketplace calculus proved to be as relentlessly zero-sum as a Magic duel: the new game’s young fans had only a limited amount of funds to splash around, so that every dollar they spent on Magic was a dollar they couldn’t spend on Dungeons & Dragons or the like. Anyone from the industry’s old guard who might have been sleeping at the switch was fully alerted to the magnitude of the crisis at the 1994 Gen Con, which seemed to be about little else than this little card game that was now celebrating its first birthday. “The joke of the convention was that if there was any horizontal space, Magic players were playing on it,” says Mark Rosewater, then a writer for The Duelist, Wizards of the Coast’s new in-house magazine. “As you walked through the convention halls, you could see Magic players camped out all over the floor.” The first annual Magic World Championship was held at the convention: 500 players dueling for the title of best in the world, overshadowing everything else that went on there. Soon there would be a Magic Pro Tour to compete with the World Series of Poker.

The growing chorus of grumbles about Magic that could be detected underneath all the hysteria was the very definition of sour grapes, on the part of gamers and companies who saw a silly card game stealing away from them a hobby that they loved. But be that as it may, there were valid points to be detected amidst the chorus. In Dungeons & Dragons, you lived through the triumphs and tragedies of the dice together with your friends; in Magic, you did your level best to beat them. Something about the game seemed to bring out the worst in many of its players. The vibes in the room at Magic tournaments weren’t always the most pleasant.

Then, too, Dungeons & Dragons was a creative endeavor in a way that Magic wasn’t. Although it was easy to forget amidst the torrent of source books and adventure modules unleashed by the TSR of the 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons had once taken it as a given that you would make up your own worlds and adventures from whole cloth, and that ideal was still lodged somewhere deep in even in the current game’s DNA; in principle, you could still have a marvelous time exploring realms of the imagination with your friends after buying no more than the core trio of rule books. Magic, on the other hand, belonged to Wizards of the Coast, not to its players; the latter could only play with the content their ludic overlords deigned to give them, content of which they were forced to keep buying more and more by peer pressure and the need to stay competitive — which were largely one and the same, of course.

Yet such philosophical objections didn’t stop the other gaming companies from doing what they felt they had to in order to survive: making Magic-style collectible card games of their own. TSR was actually one of the first to do so, rushing out a product called Spellfire, reportedly designed over a weekend and then slapped together using recycled Dungeons & Dragons art. When it didn’t set the world on fire, they tried again with Dragon Dice, which at least scored some points for innovation by replacing cards with piles and piles of bespoke dice. Many, many others joined the fray as well. There were collectible card games based on Mortal Kombat, on The Lord of the Rings, on Babylon 5, on Star Wars and Star Trek, even on Monty Python, to say nothing of the dozens of also-rans who tried to make a go of it without the benefit of a license. Some did okay for a while, but none came anywhere close to Magic numbers. This applied even to Netrunner and The BattleTech Collectible Card Game, both designed by Richard Garfield himself for Wizards of the Coast, both commercial disappointments.

And then too there was a Magic computer game, to which one of the most famous designers in that industry lent his considerable talents. It will be our subject next time…



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The books Designers & Dragons: The 80s by Sheldon Appelcline, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs, and Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering by Titus Chalk, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt, and The Fantasy Roleplaying Bible, second edition, by Sean Patick Fannon. Plus the Dragon of January 1994 and the January 2018 issue of Seattle Met. Online sources include interviews with Richard Garfield on Board Game Geek, Vice, Star City GamesMagic F2F, and the official Magic YouTube channel.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Another Year Down, Many More to Go

This new month of September being a five-Friday month, I’ve decided to take this week as an opportunity to bank an article. That way, I’ll be able to travel back to the United States for the holidays later on this year without missing two weeks of content in a row across my two sites. In lieu of a proper article — which you’ll get next week, I promise — how about if we pause today to take a breath and survey the territory behind and ahead of us?

As the more studious readers among you may already have noticed, we finally moved out of the borderlands between 1996 and 1997 and into the new year proper with my last article. That means it’s ebook time. You can find the 1996 volume of the ever-growing Digital Antiquarian archive, in .epub or .mobi editions and with or without reader comments included, in the usual place. I learned how to make these myself this time, but the tools I used to do so are still those of Richard Lindner. Thanks, Richard! I shouldn’t have to bother you so much going forward…

And speaking of going forward: here’s a taster of what I have tentatively planned in terms of 1997 coverage. Looking at the year as a whole, I must admit that I don’t quite see one bursting with perfectly formed classics. But I do, on the other hand, see a year of important experiments that laid the groundwork for classics to come, as designers continued to wrestle the many new technological affordances they had been granted recently into natural-feeling, playable forms. The flood of undeniable classics would come in 1998, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, some quick notes on what’s in store for the immediate future. Needless to say, if you want to be completely surprised by what appears on this site every fortnight, now is the time to stop reading!

  • I’m currently working on a two-parter about the Magic: The Gathering phenomenon, the first part being about the card game that upended the whole tabletop-gaming industry in the 1990s, the second about its digital adaptation, Sid Meier’s last game for MicroProse.
  • The Last Express
  • This topic is a little more unsettled than most of them, but I’d like to do something with sex. No, not in my personal life — I’m too old and too married for that — but in the context of the digital world of the 1990s. I have a minimalist and a maximalist version in mind. The former would look at games like Voyeur I and II, Psychic Detective, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, Blue Heat, and Tender Loving Care, which attempted to carve out a market for “adult” computer entertainment within the interactive-movie space. The latter would survey these games as well, but expand the story to encompass the emergence of an online pornography industry, the first folks to make real money on the Web. I lean toward going for the Full Monty, so to speak, but I’d love to hear your secret thoughts and innermost desires. Or, um, come to think of it, just the surface ones would be fine.
  • Japanese CRPGs, leading up to and then showcasing Final Fantasy VII. This is foreign territory for me in more ways than one, but the story of how this hugely popular strand of gaming emerged out of the Apple II Wizardry strikes me as under-told, while Final Fantasy VII itself is without a doubt one of the most beloved games of all time. It even fulfills the letter of my law of focusing on computer rather than console games here, since it did get a release on Windows…
  • Ultima Online
  • Age of Empires
  • Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror
  • Developments in the realm of the first-person shooter, especially Unreal and Jedi Knight. (I’ve already had a lot of fun playing Jedi Knight start to finish, a first for me with the genre whilst writing these histories. Maybe I can stop worrying and learn to love to run and gun…)
  • Fallout
  • Riven
  • Blade Runner
  • The Curse of Monkey Island
  • Zork: Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Feel free to chime in in the comments with suggestions of what you’d like to see. While I can’t promise to deliver on every request — I do have to follow my own muse to some extent in order to give you good articles, and I do have to keep moving so that our progress through history doesn’t start to take even longer than living through the real events did — I do take them all seriously.

And if you’re a regular reader who hasn’t yet taken the Patreon plunge, please do give that some thought as well if your personal finances are up to it. Your pledges are the only reason I can do this.

Last but by no means least, there is one thing that I can’t say enough to those of you who already pitch in: Thank you for your support! That includes not only existing patrons but all of you who take the time to offer up typo reports, factual corrections, and alternative perspectives in the comments and in emails. I remain as honored today that you consider me worth the effort as I was when all of this began twelve years ago. You remain, as ever, the best readers in the world.

See you next week!

 

From Mechs to Mopar

The future is boring.
— Zack Norman


Prologue: Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

One day in the fall of 1995, two Activision game designers by the names of Sean Vesce and Zack Norman went out to lunch together at their favorite Italian joint. Both had just come off of MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat, an action-packed “simulation” of giant rock-em, sock-em robots that took place in the universe of the popular tabletop game BattleTech. They had done their jobs well: slick and explosive, MechWarrior 2 had become the game of the hour upon its release the previous August, the perfect alternative for players who had been entranced by the Pandora’s Box of 3D mayhem that had been cracked open by DOOM but who were growing a little bored with the recent onslaught of me-too DOOM clones.

There was only one cloud on the horizon: Activision knew already that they wouldn’t be allowed to make a MechWarrior 3. Their rights to BattleTech were soon to expire and were not going to be renewed, what with FASA, the company which owned the tabletop game, having decided to start a studio of its own, FASA Interactive, to produce digital incarnations of its tabletop properties. Activision’s owner Bobby Kotick, who was quickly making a name for himself as one of the savviest and most unsentimental minds in gaming, had accordingly issued orders to his people to milk MechWarrior 2 and its engine, which had required a great deal of time and expense to create, for all they were worth while the opportunity was still there. This would result in two expansion packs for the core game before the curtain fell on the license. Meanwhile Vesce and Norman were tasked with coming up with an idea for another “vehicular combat game” that could be developed relatively quickly and cheaply, to take advantage of the engine one last time before it became hopelessly out of date. They had gone to lunch together today to discuss the subject.

Or Vesce had, at any rate. Norman was still basking in the bonus he had earned from MechWarrior 2, the biggest check he had ever seen with his name on it. A diehard Mopar fanboy, he had just about decided to buy himself a vintage muscle car with his windfall. He had thus brought an Auto Trader magazine along with him to the restaurant, and kept flipping through the pages distractedly while Vesce threw out game ideas, none of which quite seemed right. (“What about a helicopter sim?”) But Norman suddenly stopped turning the pages when he came across a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. “Is that the car?” asked Vesce, a little disinterestedly.

Then he saw the look on Norman’s face — the look of a man who had finally seen something that had been staring him in the face for most of the last hour. It was, after all, a vehicular combat game they had been tasked with making. “No,” said Norman. “That’s the game!” And so Interstate ’76, one of the freshest and cleverest mass-market computer games of the late 1990s, was born.


Part 1: I, Robot

The road to that memorable lunch stretches all the way back to 1980, when the excitement around Dungeons & Dragons was inspiring many tabletop gamers to start companies in the role-playing space which it had opened up. Among their number was a pair of Chicago boys named Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock. They formed FASA that year; the acronym was an elaborate high-school joke that owed a debt to the Marx Brothers, standing for “Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration.” They scrounged together $300 in seed capital, just enough to run off a bunch of copies of an adventure module they had created for Traveller, the most popular of the early science-fiction RPGs. Then they took their adventure to that year’s Gen Con to sell it, sleeping in their van in the parking lot for lack of the funds to pay for a hotel room.

From those humble beginnings, FASA scraped and clawed their way within two years to landing a stunner of a deal: to make a tabletop RPG based on Star Trek. It shipped in 1983, whereupon critics lauded the system for its simplicity and approachability, and for the way it captured the idealistic essence of Star Trek at its best, with its ethos of violence as a last rather than a first resort. (A comparison might be mooted with Call of Cthulhu, another tabletop RPG that turned the Dungeons & Dragons power-gaming approach on its head in the service of a very different mission statement.) “To make Star Trek: The RPG a Klingon shoot would be in violation of everything the series represented,” said Guy W. McLimore Jr., one of the game’s trio of core designers. “Man-to-man-combat and starship-combat systems were important, and had to be done right, but these were to take a backseat to the essential human adventure of space exploration.”

FASA supported their Star Trek RPG lavishly, with rules supplements, source books, and adventure modules galore during the seven years they were allowed to hang onto the license. Many a grizzled tabletop veteran will still tell you today that FASA’s Star Trek was as good as gaming on the Final Frontier ever got. When you did engage in spaceship combat, for example, the game did an uncanny job of putting you in the shoes of your character standing on the bridge, rather than relegating you to pushing cardboard counters around on a paper map in the style of Star Fleet Battles.

Still, if you were more interested in shooting things than wrestling with ethical dilemmas, FASA had you covered there as well. The same year as the Star Trek RPG, they published Combots. Inspired by Japanese anime productions that enjoyed no more than a tiny following in the United States as yet, it was a board game of, as the name would imply, combat between giant robots, co-designed by Jordan Weisman himself and one Bill Fawcett.

They refined and added to the concept the following year with a miniatures-based strategy game called Battledroids. A year after that, Battledroids became BattleTech in response to legal threats from Lucasfilm of Star Wars fame, who felt the term “droid” rightfully belonged to them alone. (“I politely wrote back,” says Weisman, “to point out that Isaac Asimov had been using the word ‘android’ since something like 1956. They wrote back to point out that they had a lot more lawyers than we did.”)

By now, the wave of Japanese giant robots had fully broken Stateside; the Saturday morning cartoon lineup showcased Transformers prominently, and that show’s associated line of action figures was flying off store shelves even faster than their Star Wars brethren. BattleTech was the right game at the right time, perfect for people who were too old to play with action figures that were intended as mere toys but still young enough at heart to appreciate duels between gargantuan armor-plated “mechs” bristling with laser cannons, missile launchers, and just about every other imaginable form of futuristic destruction.

From the beginning, BattleTech incorporated some RPG elements. It came complete with a detailed setting whose history was laid out in a timeline that spanned over a millennium of humanity’s future. Likewise, players were encouraged to keep and slowly improve the same mech over the course of many battles. At the same time, though, the game required no referee and was quick to pick up and play, keeping the focus squarely on the combat. In 1986, FASA released a supplement called MechWarrior that moved the system further into RPG territory, for those who so desired, adding the missing referee back into the equation. It placed players in the roles of individual mech pilots, a new breed of knights in shining armor who had much in common with their Medieval ancestors, being fixated on chivalry, noblesse oblige, and blood feuds. BattleTech and MechWarrior spawned a cottage industry, one which by the late 1980s rivaled the Star Trek RPG in terms of its contributions to FASA’s bottom line as well the sheer quantity of supplements that were available for it, full of background information, scenarios, and most of all cool new mechs and mech kit, things its fans could never seem to get enough of.

FASA had had the opportunity to study up close and personal the way that a huge property like Star Trek sprawled across the ecosystem of media: television, movies, books, comics, toys, tabletop and digital games. They saw no reason that BattleTech shouldn’t follow its example. Thus they commissioned a BattleTech comic, and hired the tabletop-gaming veteran Michael Stackpole to write a series of BattleTech novels. If the latter read like a blow-by-blow description of someone’s gaming session, so much so that you could almost hear the dice rolling in the background… well, that was perhaps a feature rather than a bug in the eyes of the target audience.

Only three of his hastily loosed missiles made their target, but those hit with a vengeance. One exploded into one of the Rifleman’s autocannon ejection ports, fusing the ejection mechanism. The other missiles both slammed into the radar wing whirling like a propeller above the ‘Mech’s hunched shoulders. The first explosion froze the mechanism in place. The second blast left the wing hanging by thick electrical cables…

Then, too, FASA didn’t neglect the digital space. From 1987, Jordan Weisman devoted most of his energy to the creation of “BattleTech Centers,” which played host to virtual-reality cockpits where players could take on the role of mech pilots far more directly and viscerally than any mere tabletop game would allow. A radically ambitious idea that wasn’t at all easy to bring to fruition, the first BattleTech Center didn’t open until 1990, in Chicago’s North Pier Mall. But it was very successful once it did, selling 300,000 tickets for time in one of its sixteen cockpits over its first two years. After a cash injection from the Walt Disney family, this proof of concept would lead to at least 25 more BattleTech Centers in the United States and Japan by the turn of the millennium.

And then there was also digital BattleTech for the home. FASA signed a deal with Activision in 1987, giving them the right to make BattleTech games for personal computers for the next ten years. The first fruit of that deal appeared in late 1988 under the name of BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. It was published under the Infocom imprint, but that storied text-adventure specialist, a somewhat reluctant member of the Activision family since 1986, had little to do with it; the real developer was Westwood Associates. In its review, Computer Gaming World magazine called The Crescent Hawk’s Inception a cross between Ultima and the BattleTech board game, and this strikes me as a fair description. You wandered the world, following the bread-crumb trail of the story line, building up your finances and your skills, recruiting companions, and improving your collection of mechs, the better to fight battles which were quite faithful to the tabletop game, right down to being turn-based from an overhead perspective. It wasn’t a bad game, but it wasn’t an amazing one either, feeling more workmanlike than truly inspired. All indications are that it sold fairly modestly.

One year later, Activision returned with another BattleTech game. Developed by Dynamix, MechWarrior borrowed the name of FASA’s RPG expansion to the core tabletop game, yet was actually less of a CRPG than its predecessor had been. You still wandered from place to place chasing the plot and searching out battles, but the latter were now placed front and center, and had more in common with the still-in-the-works BattleTech Centers than the tabletop game, taking place in real time from a first-person perspective. MechWarrior sold much better than The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, proving that many others agreed with Computer Gaming World‘s Johnny L. Wilson when he said that this was the kind of BattleTech computer game “I was looking for.”

It was followed another year later by another Westwood game, a direct sequel to The Crescent Hawk’s Inception entitled The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. In spite of its sequel status, it dispensed with the CRPG aspects entirely, in favor of a simple branching mission tree. These were shown once again from an overhead perspective, but played out in real time rather than in turns. These qualities make the game stand out as an interesting progenitor to the full-fledged real-time-strategy genre, which Westwood themselves would invent less than two years later with Dune II. In the meantime, Computer Gaming World declared it “the game every BattleTech devotee has been waiting for.”

Unfortunately for everyone, Activision imploded just weeks after publishing The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge in late 1990, brought down by an untimely patent-infringement lawsuit and a long string of bad decisions on the part of CEO Bruce Davis. The company was rescued from the brink of oblivion by the opportunistic young wheeler and dealer Bobby Kotick, who had been itching for a computer-game publisher of his very own for several years already. He declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, moved the whole operation from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, cut its staff from 150 to eight, and kept it alive by digging deep into his capacious bag of tricks to wheedle just a little more patience out of its many creditors, a few months at a time.

It is one of the little-known ironies of modern gaming that Bobby Kotick’s Activision — the same Activision that brought in revenues of almost $9 billion in 2021 — owes its ongoing existence to the intellectual property of Infocom, a company which in its best year as an independent entity brought in $10 million in revenue. Casting about for a product he could release quickly to bring in some much-needed cash, Kotick hit upon Infocom’s 1980s text-adventure catalog. He published all 35 of the games in question in two shovelware collections, The Lost Treasures of Infocom I and II, the first of which alone sold at least 100,000 copies at $60 a pop and a profit margin to die for. He followed that triage operation up by going all-in on Return to Zork, a state-of-the-art graphic adventure that capitalized equally on the excitement over multimedia CD-ROM and older gamers’ nostalgia for the bygone days of a purely textual Great Underground Empire.

But if the Lost Treasures stopped the bleeding in 1992 and Return to Zork took the patient off life support in 1993, it was MechWarrior 2 in the summer of 1995 that announced Kotick’s Activision to be fully restored to rude health, once again a marquee publisher of top-shelf gamer’s games that didn’t need to shirk comparisons with anyone else’s.

That said, actually making MechWarrior 2 had been a rather tortured process. Knowing full well that the first MechWarrior had been the old Activision’s last real hit, Kotick would have preferred to have had the sequel well before 1995. However, Dynamix, the studio that had made the first game, had been bought by Activision’s competitor Sierra in 1990. Kotick thus decided to do the sequel in-house, initiating the project already by the end of 1992. It was ill-managed and under-funded by the still cash-strapped company. Artist Scott Goffman later summed up the problems as:

  1. Over-eager PR people hyping a game that was not even close to being done. This led to forced promises of release dates that were IMPOSSIBLE to make.
  2. Lack of a design. There was no clear direction for the first year and a half on the game, and no solid style.
  3. Featuritis. A disease that often afflicts game developers, causing them to want to keep adding more and more features to a game, rather than debugging and shipping what they already have.
  4. Morale. As they fell further and further behind schedule, the programmers and artists felt less and less inclined to produce. This led to departures.

By early 1994, the entire original team had left, forcing Activision to all but start over from scratch. The project now had such a bad odor about it that, when producer Josh Resnick was asked to take it over, his first instinct was to run the other way as fast as he could: “I actually thought this was a demotion and went so far as to ask if I had done something wrong.”

To his credit, though, it all started to come together after he bit the bullet and took control. He brought Sean Vesce and Zack Norman aboard to tighten up the design, combining elements of the last two licensed BattleTech computer games to arrive at a finished whole that was superbly suited to the post-DOOM market: the first-person action of MechWarrior 1 and the no-nonsense, straightforward mission tree of The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. (Or rather missions trees in this case: MechWarrior 2 had two campaigns, each from the point of view of a different clan.) And everything was suitably updated to take advantage of the latest processors, graphics cards, and sound cards, of course.

It had now been almost five years since the last boxed BattleTech game for personal computers. In the interim, FASA, having lost their Star Trek license in 1989, had made the franchise their number-one priority. It was more popular than ever, encompassing more than 100 individual tabletop-gaming products, plus novels and comics, a line of toys, and even a televised cartoon series. Meanwhile a downloadable multi-player BattleTech computer game, developed by the online-gaming pioneer Kesmai, was doing very good business on the GEnie subscription service. So, there was a certain degree of pent-up demand among the FASA faithful for a new BattleTech computer game that you didn’t have to pay to play by the minute, even as there was also a fresh audience of rambunctious young men who had come to computer gaming through the likes of DOOM, who might not know BattleTech from Battle Isle, but who thought the idea of giant battling robots was hella cool in its own right.

MechWarrior 2 disappointed the expectations of neither its creators nor its consumers; it exploded out of the gate like a mech in its death throes, generating sales that made everything Bobby Kotick’s Activision had done before seem quaint. The party continued in 1996, when Activision released a free add-on that made online multiplayer games a possibility, thus destroying the Kesmai BattleTech‘s market at a stroke. When the first hardware-accelerated 3D graphics cards began to appear in the summer of 1996, MechWarrior 2 was there once again. With his customary savvy, Kotick went to the makers of these disparate, mutually incompatible cards one by one, offering them a special version of one of the most popular games of the era, optimized to look spectacular with their particular card, ripe for packing right into the box along with it. All they had to do was pay Activision to make it for them. And pay they did; MechWarrior 2 became the king of the 3D-card pack-in games, a strange species that would exist for only a sharply limited period of time, until the switch from MS-DOS to Windows 95 as computer gaming’s standard platform made the need for all these custom builds for incompatible hardware a thing of the past. But it was very, very good for Activision while it lasted.

And then there was that other game that was to be made using the MechWarrior 2 engine. I must confess that it’s with that game that my heart really lies, and so it’s there that we’ll turn now.


Part 2: Feel Like Funkin’ It Up

When Sean Vesce and Zack Norman stood up from what had proved to be an inordinately long lunch, they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted Interstate ’76 to be. It was to be “a game with soul,” as Vesce puts it — soul in more ways than one. They wanted to make a tribute to the television shows of the 1970s, in which irreverent two-fisted heroes with names like Rockford and Ponch had scoured the nation’s highways and byways of ne’er-do-wells, sharing top billing in the minds of the audience with the vehicles they drove. Children of the 1980s that the two friends were, those shows had been one of the entertainment staples of their youth, to be enjoyed along with a cold soda and a sandwich as afternoon reruns after a long day at school. “We wanted to make a game that could capture a mood in a way that goes beyond just lighting things on fire and blowing them up,” says Norman, in a not-so-oblique reference to the game he worked on just before Interstate ’76. The new game’s soul was to be found as much as anywhere in the soundtrack, which was to draw from the 1970s heyday of blaxploitation flicks in the theaters as well as television.

In short, Vesce and Norman wanted to steer clear of all the usual gaming clichés, even as they embraced a whole pile of older ones, like tires that inexplicably squealed on dirt roads. They were adamant that, although it would feature battling automobiles, this was not to be yet another post-apocalyptic exercise; surely games had milked The Road Warrior enough by now. No, in their dystopian wasteland the bad guys would be OPEC and their mobster cronies, who were starving the nation of the gasoline it needed to keep its Mopar Hemis humming. It was to be, in other words, an exaggerated version of what was really going on in 1976, when the last of the muscle cars were being strangled by federal fuel-economy standards and the mad scientist’s tangle of emissions dampeners that was now required under each and every American hood. Only in this timeline vintage American muscle might just be able to win out rather than shuffle quietly off to extinction.

All of this may not have been a recipe for high art, but it was as foreign a notion for the increasingly risk-averse, perpetually lily-white executives of the games industry as an avant-garde character study would be to Jerry Bruckheimer. Vesce and Norman had a damnably hard time selling it to the suits; Vesce admits that “the first pitch meeting was disastrous.” But slowly they made headway. After all, they noted, it wasn’t as if the young males who constituted the heart of the gaming demographic wouldn’t get where they were coming from; plenty of them had grown up with the same afternoon television as Vesce and Norman. And by reusing the MechWarrior 2 engine, keeping the scope modest, and avoiding such misbegotten indulgences as live-action cut scenes, they could get by with a relatively small development team, a compressed development cycle, and a reasonable development budget. Thanks to MechWarrior 2‘s success, Activision finally had a little bit of cash on hand to take a flier on something a little bit different, without the fate of the whole company hanging on the outcome. First the Director of Creative Affairs saw the light. Then, one by one, his colleagues in business suits fell into line. The game got the green light.

Making Interstate ’76 proved a happy experience for everyone involved. And in the end, they delivered exactly the game they had promised, more or less on time and on budget. It was released by Activision in the spring of 1997, garnering very favorable reviews and solid if not stupendous sales, despite graphics that were the state of the art of two years ago.

The only reason to play the game today is its story mode — or, the “T.R.I.P.” (“Total Recreational Interactive Production”), as it prefers to call it. This T.R.I.P. takes us to the desolated landscapes of West Texas and New Mexico (whose lack of such complications as trees makes them much easier for the engine to render). Your avatar is a white soul brother by the name of Groove Champion, with a rather glorious handlebar pornstache and a preference for huge collars and unbuttoned shirt fronts. His sister Jade — “Jade was always a better racer than me, man,” he confesses — has just been violently killed. Groove has inherited her car, a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda like the one Zack Norman stumbled across in that Auto Trader on that memorable day in an Italian restaurant. (Well, it’s actually called a “Picard Piranha” in the game; all of the cars were rebranded for legal reasons, but all are based on real-world models that the aficionado will readily recognize.) Groove is no natural-born killer, and it takes quite some cajoling from Jade’s best friend, a spiffy dude named Taurus, to convince him to hit the road to find her killer and avenge her death.

Groove Champion, proving that real men drink Slurpees.

Taurus is the funkiest cat ever to appear in a game. Vesce calls him “the embodiment of the attitude and soul we were trying to inject into the game. He was Shaft, Super Fly and Samuel L. Jackson all rolled into one. Plus, he was a poet.” Indeed, one of your options in your car is to “ask Taurus for a poem.” The verses he intones over the CB radio when you do so are… not too bad, actually.

Looking out the window of your room onto a wet rainy day
Main street under a slate grey afternoon sky
The light on your face is soft and dim under the lace curtain
And the streets are empty
In the distance, there is a flash and a rumble
Clouds sail the sky like giant wooden ships
On a blackened evergreen sea
Capped with foam

(All of the poems are the work of Zack Norman.)

Taurus, who takes his Slurpees red.

Soon after meeting Taurus, you meet the story’s third and final good guy, a seemingly slow-witted country bumpkin of a mechanic named Skeeter who, in one of the game’s best running gags, turns out to have a savant-like insight on the things that really matter. Add in Antonio Malochio, the oily Mafia don and OPEC stooge who eventually emerges as Jade’s murderer, and the cast of characters is complete. Interstate ’76 is a masterclass in tight, effective videogame storytelling, giving you exactly what you need to motivate you through its seventeen missions — or “scenes,” as it prefers to call them — and nothing that you don’t. (In this sense as in many others, it’s the polar opposite of Realms of the Haunting, the hilariously piebald everything-but-the-kitchen-sink “epic” I wrote about in my last article.)

From the moment you start the game, everything you see and hear draws you into its world; nothing jars with anything else. The soundtrack is credible 1970s funk, where the booty-shaking bass lines do the heavy lifting. It was a side gig for Arion Salazar, the bassist for Third Eye Blind, whose first hit single was climbing the music charts at the same time Interstate ’76 was on the games charts. As its pedigree would suggest, the music was recorded in a real studio on real instruments by a solid band of real pros.

A Gallery of Fine Motorized Transport


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If you can name all of the vehicles above, your gearhead credentials are impeccable.



In order to keep everything seamless, Vesce and Norman originally wanted to have the cut scenes run in the game engine itself, presaging the approach that Half-Life would employ to such revolutionary effect more than a year later. When this proved impractical, they deliberately made the cut scenes look like they were coming out of the same engine. Somehow the characters here, lacking though they may be such purportedly essential details as eyes and lips, have more character than the vast majority of photo-realistic gaming specimens, proof that good aesthetics and high resolutions are not one and the same. By keeping its visuals all of a piece, the game makes the standard loop of “play a level, watch a cut scene,” which was already becoming tedious in many contexts by 1997, feel much more organic, like it really is all one story you’re living through.

Everything else is fashioned in the same spirit. Everything is diegetic. You upgrade your car between missions by talking it over with Skeeter; your in-mission map had been scrawled on an empty bag of fast-food takeout; even the options menu appears as the check from a roadside restaurant.

Having given praise where it is richly due, I must acknowledge that the gameplay itself is rather less revelatory than that which surrounds it. Unsurprisingly given the origins of the gameplay engine, the cars themselves behave more like BattleTech mechs than real automobiles, even when making allowances for the machine guns and flame throwers that are bolted onto their chassis. Vehicles bounce off of one another and the terrain like Matchbox cars; collisions that ought to leave your Barracuda nothing put a pile of twisted wreckage result in no more more than an artfully crinkled fender. Likewise, the engine doesn’t entirely transcend MechWarrior 2‘s aspirations toward being a real simulation; the controls are a bit fiddly, more Wing Commander than WipEout, and this does clash somewhat with the easygoing immersion of the story line. The worst frustration is your inability to save within missions, some of which are fairly extended exercises. It isn’t much fun to play the first ten minutes of a mission over and over in order to get to the part that’s giving you trouble.

Asked in 1999 about what he would like to have done differently in Interstate ’76, Vesce expressed regrets with which I wholeheartedly agree.

If  I could turn back time and do it again, the first thing I would do is make the game more action-oriented, with easier controls, clearer mission objectives, and greater and more frequent rewards. I would greatly simplify the game’s shell, most importantly the vehicle repair screen that players accessed between missions. I talked to a lot of people who were completely baffled the first time they went through. It was far too complex and difficult to use without the manual. I would split some of the missions into multiple missions (especially the first one), and offer a way to save at any point in the game.

Like a number of games I’ve written about recently, Interstate ’76 could have benefited from being released in the era of digital distribution, when the marketplace would have allowed it to be its best self: a four to six hour romp, to be undertaken more for the joy of the thing than the challenge. As it is, the nature of the engine and bygone expectations about value for money and what boxed games “ought” to be gum up the works from time to time even if you play on “Wimp” level, as I was more than happy to do. We probably could have done entirely without the then-obligatory skirmish and multiplayer modes, which pretty clearly weren’t where the developers’ hearts were.

Yet the way that the game recognizes and even leans into its limitations does soften the blow. It makes an inside joke out of the fact that you can’t ever get out of your car, because the engine wasn’t designed for that sort of thing. Jade, Skeeter tells us, made one fatal mistake: “She got out of the car. Don’t ever get out of the car.” Needless to say, he doesn’t need to worry that Groove will do the same.

Interstate ’76 is a breath of fresh air for any 1990s gamer — or 21st-century digital antiquarian — who’s grown tired of the typical strictures of game fictions, of the endless procession of dragons and spaceships and fighter jets and zombies and, yes, even giant robots. In an article written in 1999, Ernest Adams noted that, two years after the release of Interstate ’76, “Taurus may be the only black character with a central role in any computer game today.” That of course speaks to a colossal failure on the part of the industry as a whole, but at least we have this welcome exception to point to.

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to close this review with two personal anecdotes that might begin to explain why this game hits me right in my sweet spot.

Anecdote #1: I spent the early 1990s working in a record store, back when such places still existed. This was the heyday of grunge, and in the name of pleasing the customers I was forced to listen to way too much flannel-clad whinging, backed by pummeling rhythm sections who thought swinging was something you did on a playground. At the end of a long day of this, it was always a joy for me and my soul sister Lorrie to put on some Althea and Donna or some Spoonie Gee and the Sequence and groove for a while as we closed the store. Coming across this game whilst writing these histories brought the same sweet sense of vive la différence!

Anecdote #2: My second car was a 1965 Ford Mustang, which wound up costing me every bit as much money and trouble as my father told me it would when I bought it. Weirdo that I was, I graduated after selling it to weird foreign cars: a Volkswagen Beetle and camper van, a Datsun 280Z, a Volkswagen GTI. But I had friends who stayed wedded to American muscle, and I was always able to appreciate the basso profondo of a finely tuned V8. I stopped messing around with cars when I moved to Europe in 2009; today I confine my mechanical endeavors to keeping our lawn tractor in good working order. Yet a throaty exhaust note heard through an open window, or just the smell of gasoline in a dimly lit garage, can still take me back to those days of barked shins and grease under the fingernails as surely as a madeleine transported Proust. Add this game to that list as well. I realize now that I lived through the tail end of a period that can never return; we absolutely must wean ourselves off of our addiction to fossil fuels if we’re to continue to make a go of civilization on this long-suffering planet of ours. And that’s okay; change is the essence of existence, as Heraclitus knew more than 2500 years ago, when he wrote that one can never step into the same river twice. Still, there’s no harm in reminiscing sometimes, is there?

All that is just me, though. A more impersonal argument for Interstate ’76 might point to it as a case study in how the best games aren’t really about technology at all. A low-budget affair based on an aging and imperfectly repurposed engine, it was nevertheless all kinds of awesome. For it had that one magic ingredient that most of its wealthier, more attractive peers lacked: it had soul, baby.

Hot rubber eternally pressing against a blackened pavement
A wheel is forever
A car is infinity times four


Postscript: Yesterday, When I Was Young

MechWarrior 2 and Interstate ’76 both proved to be peaks that were impossible to scale a second time, each in its own way.

Activision was indeed forced to give the digital rights to BattleTech to FASA’s new computer-games division, but the latter never managed to thrust its own games into the central spotlight that MechWarrior 2 had enjoyed. FASA itself closed up shop in 2001. “The adventure-gaming world has changed much, and it is time for the founders of FASA to move on,” wrote the old friends Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock in a farewell letter to their fans. BattleTech, however, lives on, under the auspices of WizKids, a new company set up by Weisman. MechWarrior games and other BattleTech games with different titles have continued to appear on computers, but none has ever become quite the sensation that MechWarrior 2 was back in those heady days of the mid-1990s.

Interstate ’76 got one rushed-seeming expansion pack that added support for 3D hardware acceleration — a feature oddly missing from the base game, given its engine’s history — and 20 missions that weren’t tied together by any story line, an approach which the core gameplay arguably wasn’t strong enough to support. Then, in 1999, it got a full-fledged sequel, Interstate ’82, which tried to do for the synth-pop decade what its predecessor had for the decade of funk. But it just didn’t come together somehow, despite Zack Norman once again taking the design reins and despite a much prettier, faster engine. While Interstate ’76 lives on as a cult classic today, Interstate ’82 is all but forgotten. Chalk it up as yet more evidence that advanced technology does not automatically lead to a great game.

If you were to ask my advice, I would suggest that you enjoy Interstate ’76, the only computer game I’ve written about today that transcends the time and circumstances of its creation, and consign the rest to history. But remember: whatever you do, don’t get out of the car.


Where to Get Them: Due doubtless to the complications of licensing, all of the BattleTech and MechWarrior computer games described in this article are out of print. Interstate ’76, however, is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com. Unfortunately, it can be a frustrating game to get working properly on modern Windows, and the version that’s for sale does less than you might expect to help you. In many cases, it seems to degrade rather than fail outright, often in pernicious ways: missions are glitched so as to become impossible to complete, etc. There are solutions out there — I’d suggest starting on the GOG.com forums and the PC Gaming Wiki — but all require some technical expertise. Further, different solutions seem to work (and not work) on different computers, making it impossible for me to point you to a single foolproof set of instructions here. I wish it were otherwise, believe me — this game deserves to be played — but I thought it best to warn you right here. It breaks my heart to say this, but if you aren’t ready to roll up your sleeves, this may be one to just watch on YouTube.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The book Designers & Dragons: The 80s by Sheldon Appelcline. Next Generation of November 1996 and November 1998; Computer Gaming World of January 1989, December 1989, November 1990, February 1991, June 1992, July 1995, August 1996, June 1997, July 1997, July 1998, and January 1999; Space Gamer of July/August 1983; Dragon of March 1988. Online sources include Online Gaming Review‘s interview with Internet ’76 producer Scott Krager, an “overview” and “history” of MechWarrior 2 at Local Ditch Gaming, early MechWarrior 2 programmer Eric Peterson’s beginning of a history of his work on the game, Polygon‘s interview with Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock, and the Interstate ’76 wiki. Also Sarna.net’s surveys of The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, MechWarrior 1, the first would be MechWarrior 2, the finished MechWarrior 2, the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack, and the Mercenaries expansion for MechWarrior 2.

 
 

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Realms of the Haunting

I like to imagine that Realms of the Haunting, Gremlin Interactive’s bizarre 1996 mélange of first-person shooter, point-and-click adventure, and interactive movie, was the brainchild of Ian and Nigel, students at Thomas Hughes Secondary School in Stow-on-the-Water.

Ian was sitting in a sheltered nook after school one day, sketching notes for a Call of Cthulhu scenario, when Nigel, the local football star, came barreling down the lane on his bicycle. Spotting his nerdy classmate, he dismounted in his customary way, by leaping off the still-moving bike, whose forward progress would have been arrested by Ian’s legs if he hadn’t swung them hastily aside. Nigel then joined his mode of transportation in marching up to see what Ian was up to, not without provoking some consternation from the latter, who wasn’t at all sure how this exchange was going to go. “What’cha up to, dude?”

Ian pushed his spectacles further up his nose. Even under the best of circumstances, he never quite knew how to respond to Nigel’s mix of Americanisms and Cockney, which he found almost incomprehensible at times. But he rallied. “Well, it’s sort of a scenario for a game…”

“A game? What kind of game?”

Call of Cthulhu. It’s sort of a horror game. You get together with some mates, and one of you is sort of the referee. The others are all investigators who learn about this creepy old mystery. First they find this old bunch of letters — letters between some sort of cultist and his girlfriend…” Ian trailed off. He could sense that this was already going horribly wrong.

But it appeared that Nigel had heard only the words “horror” and “girlfriend.” “Dude, I know what you mean!” he cried. “Like Duke Nukem! You know that one? You can shoot blokes in the head with a shotgun, and the blood goes everywhere! And you meet strippers! You can pay’em to get out their titties for you.”

Ian did not know Duke Nukem. His father, a line engineer for British Telecom, was possessed of a streak of patriotism that precluded the purchase of any American personal computer. He insisted the family could get by perfectly well with their homegrown Acorn Archimedes, which advertised its stolid Britishness by means of its incompatibility with everything else. Still, Ian dearly wanted this conversation not to get onto the wrong track, so he nodded, whilst pushing his glasses up once again. “Yes… sort of…”

Any sign of hesitation was lost on Nigel. “Dude, we could work together on it!”

“Um, okay…”

“So, maybe you start in a haunted house — you’ve got to start somewhere, right? — but then it just keeps getting bigger and bigger! You find, like, one of those snakehole thingies and go to other dimensions and stuff, with wickeder and wickeder monsters to fight. And there’ll be a bunch of bosses to fight too. A bloke who’s dressed up like a doctor, like he wants to do human experimentation on you and all, and a creepy evil priest in sunglasses –”

“Wait… why sunglasses?”

“Why not?” shrugged Nigel. He was in the habit of dwelling on the abstract cool in life, not on the details.

Ian felt his blood stirring despite himself. Maybe he should think bigger for once. “Maybe you could sort of go to ancient Egypt,” he piped up cautiously. He’d always loved those ancient-archaelogy picture books his dad collected, so much so that he’d been begging for a trip to Egypt for years. “Just imagine the sort of interesting puzzles we could have around the pyramids…”

“Sure, sure, dude,” said Nigel. All things were possible in his world. “But it’s got to be bigger than that even, you know? I know… maybe in the end you’ve got to go right down into Hell and kill Satan! That would be awesome! I’m sure no one’s ever made a game where you’ve got to kill Satan.”

Again, his words set Ian thinking. They were reading Paradise Lost in his honors literature course this semester, and The Divine Comedy was waiting in the wings. And then he’d read this less respectable thing called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail last summer. “We could sort of pull a lot of the story right out of the Bible and Milton and Dante,” he said. “Sort of build on them. Even have the Garden of Eden in there. And Knights Templar. You’ve always got to have Knights Templar.”

Nigel looked unusually pensive for a moment, so much so that Ian almost thought he was giving serious consideration to the advantages and pitfalls of building a new mythology on the scaffolding of older ones. But he was soon disabused of that notion. “We’re going to need a chick,” said Nigel contemplatively.

“Sure, alright,” said Ian. “She can be sort of your companion, who’ll know a lot more than you do about all the mythology, and can sort of help to explain…”

But again, Nigel had only caught a word or two. “Companion, what?” he leered. “I like the sound of that.”

“Say,” said Ian suddenly, “have you been in the computer lab lately?” When Nigel unsurprisingly shook his head no, he rushed on. “They’ve got this computer version of Connections there. Have you seen that one on the telly?” Another shake of the head. “It’s a show about how everything in history is interrelated –”

“Inter- what? Dude, what are you on about?”

Ian decided to elide further details. “Anyway, the point is that they put the host of the show right in the computer game. I mean, the real host. We could do the same — have real actors in the game.”

Nigel looked dubious. “How will that make it cooler?”

“Well, it would make it seem more real… sort of more believable with real people.” Nigel still looked doubtful. So Ian tried another tack. “Just think how cool all those bosses would look as real people, sort of like they’re in a real horror movie. And then to play your companion we can get a real chick,” he said, pronouncing the word as naturally as he could, like an earnest foreigner trying out his French on the natives.

Nigel was sold. “Right, then, we gotta have that too,” he said. “We’ll look like wankers if we don’t.”

And so it went. Through the sylvan afternoon, Ian and Nigel raised their castle in the air to ever loftier heights, adding battlements and wings and dungeons until the whole edifice teetered in the merest hint of a breeze. When they were finally winding down, Nigel got unexpectedly thoughtful again. “Maybe it’s a bit much,” he mused, expressing a sense of moderation which neither Ian nor any of the adults in his life had ever suspected might lurk within him. “Maybe you shouldn’t actually kill Satan after all…”

Ian nodded. They had gotten rather carried away, hadn’t they? Obviously they would have to rein things in a little. Or a lot.

“We’re gonna need some material for the sequel, right, mate?” Nigel grinned. “And anyway, we got to leave Marilyn Manson a Satan to sing about. Am I right, what?” he queried with a friendly fist jab.

Ian wasn’t sure whether he was right or not, but he could always see the wisdom in restraint; his whole life to date had been a study in it. “Okay, we have enough already without Satan. Maybe too much. But if it does get to be too much, we could always just sort of say it was all in someone’s imagination at the end, like in the last episode of St. Elsewhere.” That last reference spoke to how comfortable he was beginning to feel with his rambunctious design partner. His mother had an eccentric fondness for soapy American television which she’d imparted to her son, but normally he would die before sharing this passion with any of his peers.

Nigel was unfazed, if also uninterested. “Sure, dude. Truth.” He held out his hand for a fist bump, which Ian navigated with only a little awkwardness. It seemed they were now fast friends, but it was also time for Ian to get home for dinner; his mother did scold so when he was late. Nigel nodded his acquiescence, digging his bicycle out of the bushes where it had landed a couple of hours before. “Check you later, mate,” he said as he swung one leg over the saddle.

“Yes… mate” said Ian. “Our game’s going to be… awesome.” He smiled to himself as Nigel rode off into the sunset. He rather liked the feel of the word on his tongue.

One week later, the boys sent their design document to Gremlin Interactive.


Fair warning: this article spoils the “shocking” denouement of Realms of the Haunting as well as some other plot details.

Alas, the real origin story of Realms of the Haunting is somewhat more prosaic. The game’s individual pieces mark it as a thoroughgoing product of its time; it’s only their amalgamation in one place that makes it so bat-guano insane.

The project began when Gremlin Interactive joined three-quarters of the other games studios on the planet in beating the bushes for a DOOM-like 2.5D engine in the wake of that game’s extraordinary success. They wound up sourcing the “True3D” engine — which was actually no more true 3D than DOOM had been — from Tony Crowther, a legendary British games programmer whose career’s beginning predated Gremlin’s own 1984 founding. Crowther also offered Gremlin two ideas for a game to make with his engine. One was a “generic monster game,” as he puts it, while the other had a “devil theme.” Gremlin chose the latter. So far, so DOOM-like, in theme as well as technology.

But here’s where it starts to get weird. Gremlin, virtually alone among the many studios working with engines like this one, thought that theirs could be twisted to suit the needs of a puzzle-based adventure game instead of being strictly a vehicle for first-person carnage. And the odd thing is, they were kind of right. After production had already started on Realms of the Haunting, another team at Gremlin used the True3D engine to create a non-violent comedy adventure in the LucasArts tradition, to surprisingly good effect. Normality‘s ramshackle 2.5D visual aesthetic proved a good fit with its cock-eyed protagonist’s stoner-dude perspective on the world, while its puzzle design was as buttoned down as the rest of the affair was comfortably casual. Despite being started after Realms of the Haunting, it came out months before it in 1996. Unfortunately, it garnered few sales. One senses that, in addition to being confused by the look of the thing, gamers just didn’t quite get its jokes. Nor did it help that the market was flooded with bigger, more expensive adventures from American studios that year, the last in which the adventure genre was still widely perceived as one of the industry’s AAA standard bearers.

Through it all, the Realms project trundled on, determined to be both a kick-ass first-person shooter and a brain-tickling adventure game. Writer Paul Green wanted the story to be “epic.” And indeed, it just kept growing and growing. Then someone got the bright idea to jump on yet another indelibly mid-1990s trend: the “full-motion-video” game, incorporating clips of real actors filmed in front of green screens, which backgrounds were filled in after the fact with conventional computer graphics. Gremlin hired Bright Light Studios, an outside video-production house, to cast and carry out the shoots, then spent much time and money massaging the end results into their Frankenstein’s monster of a game. By the time it came out in Britain, about a week before the Christmas of 1996, Realms of the Haunting had spent a good two and a half years in development — one year longer than had been intended — and had become by far the most expensive game Gremlin had ever made.

Programmer Greg Staples, engine architect Tony Crowther, and writer and designer Paul Green.

And what did they get for their money? Oh, my… where to begin? With the beginning, I suppose…

The very first impression Realms of the Haunting gives is of reaches exceeding grasps, establishing a leitmotif that will persist throughout. It opens with an epigraph that’s attributed only to “anonymous”: “Goodness reflects the light and evil bears the seed of all darkness. These are mirrors of the soul, reflections of the mind. Choose well.” This reads like pieces of other, better epigraphs cut and pasted together into a meaningless word salad. Yet it actually serves its purpose of being a harbinger of what is to come in two separate ways. Realms of the Haunting itself will play like chunks of other, better games cut and pasted together. And everyone you meet in the game will talk just like that epigraph is written.

Next we have the bravura eight-minute opening movie, in which we meet our protagonist Adam Randall, in the back of a taxi on his way to answer a mysterious summons to a deserted house out in the middle of nowhere — a visit he’s decided to make in the middle of a dark and stormy night, of course, as you do in these situations. When I first heard Adam speak, I thought it strange that Gremlin had opted to cast an American actor in the role, given that the actual text of the script shows every indication he ought to be British; the summons to the haunted house came from a self-purported colleague of his recently deceased father, who we’re told was “the pastor in a Cornish village.” But then I started noticing oddities in Adam’s vowels and in his “Ts” that didn’t fit with an American accent either. In the end, I decided he must be Canadian. (Hey, at least that puts him inside the Commonwealth!) But then, after I was finished with the game, I watched Gremlin’s short “making of” video, and all became clear: the actor was a Brit putting on an American accent. But… why, especially when it doesn’t make any sense in the context of the plot? I can only conclude that Gremlin believed they’d have a better chance of cracking the all-important American market with an American-sounding protagonist — plot fidelity be damned. Anyway, not much else about the plot will wind up making much sense. Why should this?

The actor in question is one David Tuomi, who has managed the neat trick of leaving no digital footprint whatsoever in all the years since. It’s as if he was immaculately created just to play Adam Randall, then returned to the dust from which he had been made as soon as shooting wrapped. To this day, his profile on The Internet Movie Database has exactly one entry: Realms of the Haunting. He doesn’t even enjoy the cult celebrity of someone like Dean Erickson, whose acting résumé is almost as scanty and similar long-abandoned, but who still pops up to give an interview from time to time about that one time he got to play Gabriel Knight. No, David Tuomi is just… gone. It seems he took his right to be forgotten seriously.

This is made still weirder by the fact that he really isn’t that bad here. He may not be Laurence Olivier, but he’s a good-looking, likable young man who doesn’t palpitate with nervousness when he speaks his lines, which puts him well ahead of Dean Erickson and many of his other peers in the full-motion-video field. The problems with this game’s storytelling aren’t down to him.

In fact, for all of its haunted-house clichés, the opening movie as a whole strikes a pensive note that raises the hopes of a writerly type like me. The Adam we meet in the back of that taxi is haunted by metaphorical rather than literal demons; he’s filled with regrets about all of the things he never said to his father, all of the times he could have picked up the phone to call him but didn’t. This sense of guilt is joined by other, bitterer sentiments: “He was well-liked. Had time for everyone. Except his son.” (Those might just be the most cogent lines in a script with very few of them.) You can almost begin to believe that, like all the best classic horror, this story will really be about the fears and worries and secret shames that are part and parcel of being a human being, those occasional dark nights of the soul that keep even those of us who don’t believe in ghosts wide awake from time to time. But never fear, would-be demon blasters: the game will never strike a note like this one again, and Adam will never again betray any sign of having an inner life that goes beyond the exigencies of the moment.

Adam pays the taxi driver and enters the house. As he does so, the doors shut behind him with a crash, like the sealing of a tomb. He doesn’t so much as twitch in response to this event. On the one hand, this is a typical discordance of these sorts of productions: the David Tuomi acting in front of a green screen had no slamming doors to react to, because both the sight and the sound of them were painted in later. But it also establishes a precedent in another way. Adam will stumble through everything to come comically unfazed by it all. Even now, at the outset, he just shrugs as he wanders the corridors of a house with glowing pentagrams splashed over the walls and doors, portraits that blink at him with livid red eyes, a fly-encrusted suit of armor that appears to contain a human corpse, decapitated animal bodies strewn randomly about the place, and a typewriter that’s typing “We live!” over and over again of its own accord. Unflappable doesn’t begin to describe this guy. “A rat. No head,” he mutters to himself, and moves on. In the case of the typewriter, he confines his observations to, “Ink ribbon’s missing.” Right. Better buy a new one in the morning, once I’m through with all this tedious business of demon blasting. Which Adam will soon be doing with laconic aplomb, mowing through his enemies like Duke Nukem — until it’s time for a cut scene, at which point he reverts to being the slim, harmless-looking guy we met in the taxi.

Could this library look any more Lovecraftian?

The aforementioned demons show up only after you’ve solved a puzzle or two and found your way into the house’s library, that natural repository of secrets. In the best tradition of a Call of Cthulhu scenario, you find a clutch of 70-year-old letters between a cultist and his paramour, talking about some ominous ritual they’re attempting to enact. And, even more disconcertingly, you meet Adam’s father’s ghost, entwined in chains that make him look like a parody of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.

Then you open the inevitable secret door that’s hidden behind the bookcase, and the first demon comes running at you. With head-snapping speed, we’ve gone from pensive psychological horror to Gothic horror to a vaguely Lovecraftian story to a B-grade zombie flick.

And so it will go for the next couple of dozen hours. The designers’ response to any and all suggestions seems to have been, “Sure! Put it in there!” Realms of the Haunting is a study in excess, a game that wants so very badly to be all things to all people, evincing all of the sweaty desperation in pursuit of that goal that Adam so noticeably fails to display. It just goes on and on and on and on. Most games that tell pre-scripted, set-piece stories have around four or five chapters; this one has twenty.

Sometimes, however, less is more. Perhaps more so than any other game I’ve played, Realms of the Haunting descends linearly in quality — in all measures of quality, from writing to production values to gameplay — as it unspools from beginning to end.

That said, the descent doesn’t happen at the same pace along these different vectors. It’s the story that goes off the rails first. The central problem here is all too typical in videogames: stakes inflation. It’s not enough for this to be a tale of a father and son’s sins and redemption, not even enough for the fate of a family or a town or even a nation to hinge on Adam’s actions. No, the fate of the entire world — no, make that the fate of the entire universe! — has to be borne on the fashionably padded shoulders of Adam Randall.

The flames of Hell are so bright, Florentine’s got to wear shades.

It soon becomes clear that Paul Green has no idea how storytelling works at the most fundamental level. Instead of giving us one central villain to hate, he dilutes the impact with a whole rogue’s gallery of weirdos whose relationships to one another are almost impossible to keep track of: the creepy priest who seems to have been modeled on Rasputin, the guy who runs around in a doctor’s outfit, the guy dressed up like he’s auditioning for a Sam Spade flick who’s always flipping through a deck of cards and giggling like a low-rent Joker. If this was a Nintendo-style level-based videogame, these folks might work as a series of bosses. But as an interactive story told primarily through about 90 minutes of live-action video, it never gives anybody enough screen time to make you care. It’s not a problem of the acting; like David Tuomi, all of the actors perform what’s being asked of them serviceably enough, intoning their lines like the Shakespearean creatures of the British theater scene they probably were. It’s a problem of the writing.

This fellow looks like an evil Tex Murphy.

Your allies are no better. Again, there’s just too many angels and archangels and God knows what else running around, all talking in symbolic gibberish that brings to mind the game’s horrid opening “quotation” and never telling you what you actually want to know. At one point, one of them apologizes for “speaking in metaphors” — which is hilarious because absolutely everybody in this game speaks in nothing but metaphors, and terrible mixed ones at that, until you want to pull out your big old shotgun, point it at their foreheads, and demand a straight fricking answer, for once. The would-be drama has a way of shooting its gravitas in the foot at every turn. Your guardian angel Hawk, for example, runs around in an artfully crumpled tee-shirt that makes him look like a model in a Gap circular. Another character, one who has something or other to do with the Knights Templar, is named “Aelf” — pronounced as far as I can tell just like “Alf,” which always sets me giggling to myself about cat-loving anthropomorphic aliens.

The character you spend the most time with is Rebecca, a fetching lass in a chic pantsuit more appropriate for a day behind a desk in the City than a night in a haunted house. (She’s played by one Emma Powell, who unlike David Tuomi went on to a long and fruitful career as a supporting and voice actress in movies, television, and videogames.) Our avatar of indifference Adam comes across her in the library at the end of Chapter 2, inexplicably just sitting there, and, true to form, never bothers to ask her how she ended up there. For the bulk of the game thereafter, she serves as his sounding board and advisor as he wanders about, offering hints and commentary on the environment and adding a little spark of life to what would otherwise be a decidedly lonely experience. In that sense, she’s not a bad addition at all.

Emma Powell and David Tuomi

Indeed, the gameplay generally declines less precipitously than the writing — with one caveat. That comes in form of the interface, which will first flabbergast you with its inscrutability and then annoy you like a dull foot ache for all the hours to come. Some of this game’s confusions for the modern player exist in many first-person shooters that came out between 1993 and 1998, including to some extent even (un-modded) DOOM itself. These were the years before the control schemes that have been the standard for the last quarter-century had quite stabilized.

Still, Realms of the Haunting‘s problems in this department extend well beyond the lack of mouse-look or the unfamiliar default key mappings. The adventuring interface is fiddly almost beyond belief; everything you try to do is ten times harder than it would be if you were doing it in real life. Using or examining an object entails pressing “I” to bring up the inventory screen, then finding its stamp-sized icon among the four separately sorted categories of junk you’re carrying: “general items,” “weapons,” “mysterious or magical items,” or “documents.” (No, it isn’t always immediately obvious what the game considers to belong in what category.) For some reason, all of this is allowed to fill no more than a quarter of the screen. So, if it’s a document you’re interested in reading, you get to do so by dragging it around inside a small window; it’s like reading a book through a telescope. If you want to try to use an object on something in the world, you first have to place it in Adam’s left hand — his left hand, mind you; the right is reserved for weapons — then exit the inventory system completely before you can click on the target. This is so annoyingly convoluted a process that I’m going to tarnish my cred as a hardcore adventurer by strongly suggesting that you play this game, if you choose to do so, in “easy” adventuring mode, where it automatically uses the correct object in the correct place, as long as you have it in your inventory. What’s truly bizarre about all this is that Normality, the other Gremlin game that was built with the True3D engine, has a fast, elegant popup radial menu for examining and using objects. What on earth were these developers thinking?

You can almost always tell whether the makers of any given game have given it to anyone to actually play before they released it. These ones most definitively did not, as evidenced by the constant unnecessary niggles. When you find a new key, for example, you never know where it will appear among the twenty others you’re already carrying around with you. Why not dispose of the ones that have already served their purpose?

Still, if you can get past the torturous interface, the first chapters, when you’re still exploring the house itself, acquit themselves fairly well. The shooting parts serve their purpose well enough, while the puzzling parts can be surprisingly satisfying, revolving mostly around finding keys that let you open up more and more of the house for exploration. Realms of the Haunting is at its best at this stage, just about making you believe that its chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination of genres has something to recommend it after all. And, while I would by no means call it scary in a “I don’t want to play this alone” kind of way, its aesthetic does qualify as enjoyably creepy.

It’s only after you leave the house to start dimension-hopping about seven chapters in that things begin to fall apart on the gameplay front as well. An engine that can portray shadowy hallways to fairly good effect is less suited to conveying the splendor of ancient Egypt, the beauty of the Garden of Eden (yes, you really do travel there), or the horrors of Hell (yes, you really do travel there as well). All of these environments are much bigger, sprawling places than the house, with unfortunately less inside of them to see and do, a sure sign that constraints of budget and time were catching up with the designers’ ambitions. Even the normal spaces become hard to find your way around in; you are provided with helpful maps of most of them, but consulting them involves scrolling them around in that absurd little inventory window, a process so excruciating that you won’t want to bother until you’re truly at wit’s end. And then there are the deliberate mazes… oh, Lord, save us from the mazes in this game, which are scarier than any of its demons. There are three of them, extended, hair-pulling monstrosities all.

The game gives you maps of most of the larger areas, which is very kind and progressive of it. But then it makes you peer at them through a pointlessly tiny window. And every time you bring a map up again, it resets the view to the top left. The cruel irony here is that the full document seems very close to the size of your monitor screen. This is not rocket science, Gremlin.

As the game wears on, the puzzles become increasingly surreal, to say the least. For example, you run through one of the mazes collecting little brains to shove into a giant brain machine, apropos of nothing that comes before or after. And you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time constructing a bong so one of the angelic beings you meet can toke up properly. (I assume that all of the obvious jokes about what the folks at Gremlin were doing when they made this game have already been told, so I won’t bother.) If you’ve made it this far without ragequitting, you must long since have adopted Adam’s attitude. Just shrug your shoulders and go with it.

It gradually becomes clear that significant chunks of the story are simply missing in action, presumably due to budget shortfalls or space limitations; Realms of the Haunting shipped on four CDs as it was. At one point, Adam and Rebecca stand on the verge of a dramatic showdown with one of the ceaselessly rotating lazy Susan of villains. After everyone has engaged in the usual speechifying that precedes such things, the screen fades to black, a scream sounds, and you flex your mouse hand and get ready for battle… and suddenly Adam is in a prison cell, while Rebecca has somehow escaped and is trying to rescue him from outside the door. The game never explains how any of this happened. Just go with it.

At long last, you get to the very end and save the universe/multiverse/whatever. And then… you join a straitjacketed Adam in a mental hospital, as he finishes telling his tale to a skeptical doctor and a nurse with a syringe at the ready. Oh, my. You can almost hear the writers slapping one another on the back for being so clever. At least now we know why one of the villains was dressed up like a doctor. And perhaps, come to think of it, why we’ve never heard another peep from David Tuomi…

The dominant impression Realms of the Haunting leaves you with is that of bits that don’t fit together. This applies as much at the most granular levels of detail — as in the way that Adam’s reactions never quite seem to be in line with what is actually happening to him — as it is in the big picture. Rebecca, for instance, shows up in the movie bits, and is on-hand to offer commentary in the adventure-game bits, but simply doesn’t exist in the shooter bits. Likewise, we never see the veritable Fort Knox of weaponry Adam is carrying around with him when we see David Tuomi portraying him in the movie bits. Of course, Realms of the Haunting is hardly the first or the last game to hand-wave away inconvenient details like these. If it succeeded on at least one of its three levels — whether as a shooter, a puzzle-driven adventure game, or a well-scripted interactive movie — I’d be more inclined to overlook such inconsistencies. As it is, though, it’s failing everywhere by the time you make it halfway through: the shooter bits have become samey and janky, the adventure bits samey and illogical, the story samey and flat-out incomprehensible. This game is the inversion of the reviewer’s cliché about the creation under review being “more than the sum of its parts.” As bad as these parts are, the whole manages to be less than their sum. Every part of the game actively diminishes every other part.

And yet as hot messes go, this one is as intriguing as they come. Whatever else you can say about Realms of the Haunting, there’s never been another game like it. It’s amazing to think that a purportedly responsible management team ever approved such an outlandish monstrosity as this one. In fact, there’s a melancholy aspect to that: long shot that it was to get made even in 1996, it’s even harder to imagine this game appearing any later in the decade. For as gaming moved into the last third of the 1990s, genres were calcifying into fixed categories with inviolate sets of expectations. Soon absolutely no one would be taking fliers on crazy cross-genre experiments like this one anymore.

To know why, we need only look to Realms of the Haunting‘s commercial performance. Its British release date was not ideal, coming too late to reap the proper benefit of the Christmas buying season. And the circumstances of its American release, in the dog days of March of 1997 under the imprint of an unenthusiastic Interplay Entertainment, were no more auspicious. Yet a game with true mass appeal can overcome such factors — as, for example, Diablo did when it was shipped to American stores between the Christmas and New Years of 1996. Unfortunately, Realms of the Haunting was the antithesis of Diablo, being as clunky, fiddly, and scattered as Blizzard’s juggernaut was frictionless, polished, and laser-targeted. As Computer Gaming World put it in an (overly) generous 4.5 star review, Gremlin’s game had natural appeal to “action gamers looking for some adventure” and “adventure gamers looking for some action.” But just how many people meeting these descriptions were there? Not very many at all, it would appear. Realms of the Haunting was dead on arrival, selling less than 500 units in its first week on the market in Britain. Its high cost combined with its abject commercial failure had much to do with Gremlin’s subsequent collapse, which resulted in the company being bought out by the burgeoning French giant Infogrames in 1999.

Even today, however, some of the delusions of grandeur that allowed this game to be made still persist. Steve McKevitt, Gremlin’s former communications chief, blames its failure on “a backlash against full-motion video.” He claims that the developers “got just about everything right: the script, subject matter, story line, pacing. It was years ahead of its time. More The Last of Us than Quake.” Uh, no, Steve. Just no.

Yet, easy though it is to make fun of, Realms of the Haunting is a hard game to totally hate. It’s just so earnest in pursuit of its lofty ambitions, so fixated on being epic, man. How can you hate something that’s trying this hard to be the best game ever? Chalk it up as a last artifact of an older games industry that frequently had more vision than competence, of a time when budgets were small enough to take a chance on something crazy and just see what happened. In the years to come, both of those equations would be reversed. The result would be tighter, more polished experiences, but very few games that dared to throw out all the rules, whether wisely or unwisely. Instead of logical shorthands to bracket discussions, genres would begin to look like the straitjacket Adam Randall is wearing when we catch our last glimpse of him.

And it’s for that reason really that I’ve chosen to write about this game, even though I’m not at all in the habit of writing about bad games that didn’t sell well and didn’t have much influence on the field. There’s something kind of beautiful about Realms of the Haunting‘s passionate incompetence. I’m not usually an adherent of the “so bad it’s good” school of criticism, but I can almost make an exception in the case of this game. Many critics before me have argued that it would have been a far better game if it had been content to stay inside the haunted mansion and leave off with the apocalyptic fever dreams. They’re almost certainly right, but at the same time I’m not sure I would be talking about it today had anyone involved with it understood the virtues of restraint. Realms of the Haunting is a final holdover from a messier, more freewheeling time, when everyone was still making it all up as they went along. And so, having paid our last respects to the old ways, we can now march onward, into a future that could never give us anything as amateurish, ill-considered, excessive, and lovable as this.



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(Sources: the book A Gremlin in the Works by Mark James Hardisty; Retro Gamer 24 and 108; Computer Gaming World of January 1997 and May 1997; Edge of July 1996; PC Format of December 1996; PC Power of December 1996. Online sources include Sascha Kimmel’s Realms of the Haunting fan site, Jdanddiet’s interview with the aforementioned Sascha Kimmel, Retro Video Gamer‘s interview with Tony Crowther, and a retrospective of the game at The Genesis Temple.

Realms of the Haunting is available as a digital download from GOG.com.)

 
 

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