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Category Archives: Modern Times

Transfixed by 1996

I’m afraid I don’t have a regular article for you this week. By way of compensation, I do have a new ebook for you, compiling all of the articles from our recently concluded historical year of 1995, along with the special “Web Around the World” series about the birth of worldwide communications networks and (eventually!) the Internet. Because some of you have requested it, Richard Lindner and I have also prepared a special ebook volume that includes only the latter series. If you enjoy these ebooks, don’t hesitate to drop Richard a line at the email address on their frontispieces to thank him for his efforts.

We’re a couple of articles into 1996 already; I’ve covered Toonstruck and the first Broken Sword game. In keeping with a developing Digital Antiquarian tradition, let me tell you what else I have planned for the year as a whole:

  • The Discworld and Discworld II adventures, preceded by a short digression about Terry Pratchett and his literary Discworld universe in general, which has intersected with games on multiple occasions. (As many of you doubtless know, Terry Pratchett himself was a dedicated gamer, and his daughter Rhianna Pratchett has become a notable games journalist and designer in her own right.)
  • The second (and, sadly, last) Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes game, which plunges you even deeper into Victoriana than does its predecessor.
  • Rama and The Martian Chronicles, which are by no means great games. Nevertheless, they are on one level fairly typical exemplars of the Myst variants that were everywhere in the mid-1990s, and make for worthy objects of inquiry on that basis alone. And on another level, I think it will be interesting, constructive, and maybe even a bit nostalgic to compare them with earlier adaptations of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, from the first era of bookware. (The Martian Chronicles was even created by Byron Preiss Productions, the same folks behind the old Telarium bookware line.)
  • Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, the penultimate million-selling adventure of the 1990s, a case study in being in the right place at the right time — said time being in this case very close to the release date of a certain blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
  • The Pandora Directive. Enough said. Tex Murphy needs no justification.
  • Spycraft, an interactive spy movie by Activision, one of the more elaborate multimedia productions of its day, which courted controversy by letting you torture prisoners while playing the role of a CIA agent. Almost a decade later, the revelations about Guantánamo Bay would give this scene an uncomfortable aura of verisimilitude.
  • Star Control 3, Legend Entertainment’s much-maligned sequel to a much-beloved game.
  • Wing Commander IV. If anyone was wondering why Toonstruck‘s $8 million budget made it only the second most expensive computer game ever as of 1996, this article will provide the answer.
  • Battlecruiser 3000 AD. Because sometimes you just need a good laugh, and this story is like an Onion satire of the games industry come to life.
  • Terra Nova, Looking Glass’s next, somewhat less successful but nevertheless innovative experiment with immersive, emergent 3D world-building after the seminal System Shock.
  • Civilization II, Master of Orion II, and Heroes of Might and Magic II. I lump these three games together here because they are all strategy sequels — a thought-provoking concept in itself, in that they are iterations on gameplay rather than the next chapters of ongoing stories. They will, however, each get an article of their own as part of a mini-series.
  • The post-DOOM generation of first-person shooters, up to Quake and the advent of hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. I know some of you have been itching for more coverage of these topics, to which I can only plead that they just aren’t my favorite sorts of games; chalk me up as too old, too slow, too pacifistic, and/or too bookish. This means I’m really not the best person to cover most first-person shooters in great individual depth. But I’ll try to do a group of them some sort of historical justice here, and spend some time on the software and hardware technology behind them as well, which I must confess to finding more interesting in some ways than the actual games.
  • Tomb Raider. Lara Croft has become arguably the most famous videogame character in the world in the years since her debut in 1996, as well as a lightning rod for discussion and controversy. Is she a sadly typical example of the objectification of women for the male-gamer gaze, or a rarer example of a capable, empowered female protagonist in a game? Or is she perhaps a little of both? We shall investigate.
  • Her Interactive. The story of the earliest games of Her Interactive, who would later carve out a permanent niche for themselves making Nancy Drew adventure games, is another fascinating and slightly bizarre tale, about attempting to sell games to teenage girls through partnerships with trendy fashion labels, with plots that might have been lifted from Beverly Hills 90210, in boxes stuffed with goodies that were like girlie versions of the Infocom gray boxes of yore. Do the games stay on the right side of the line between respectful outreach and pandering condescension? Again, we shall investigate.
  • Windows 95. The biggest topic for the year, this will serve as a continuation of not one but two earlier series: “Doing Windows” and the recently concluded “A Web Around the World.” Windows 95 was anything but just another Microsoft operating system, reflecting as it did its maker’s terror about a World Wide Web filled with increasingly “active” content that might eventually make traditional operating systems — and thus Microsoft themselves — irrelevant. And Windows 95 also introduced a little something called DirectX, which finally provided game developers with a runtime environment that was comprehensively better than bare-bones MS-DOS. But why, you may be asking, am I including Windows 95 in the coverage for 1996? Simply because it shipped very late in its titular year, and it took a while for its full impact to be felt.

To answer another question that will doubtless come up after reading the preceding: no, I’m not going to skip over Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo, one of the most popular games of the decade. I’ve just decided to push it into 1997, given that it appears not to have reached store shelves in most places until just after the new year. And I’ll make time for a round-up of real-time-strategy games, from Blizzard and others, before covering Diablo.

As always, none of this is set in stone. Feel free to make your case in the comments for anything I’ve neglected that you think would make a worthy topic for an article, or just to register your voice as a conscientious objector in the case of the games I won’t be able to get around to.

And if what’s coming up seems exciting to you and you haven’t yet signed up to support this project, please do think about doing so. Of course, I realize all too well that much in the world is uncertain right now and many of us feel ourselves to be on shaky ground, not least when it comes to our finances. By all means, take care of yourself and yours first. But if you have a little something left over after doing so and want to ensure that my voluminous archives continue to grow, anything you can spare would be immensely appreciated. See the links at the top right of this page!

And thank you — a million times thank you — to all of you who have already become Patreon patrons or made one-time or recurring PayPal donations. Your pledges and donations are the best validation a writer could have, in addition to being the only reason I’m able to keep on doing this. It’s been quite a ride already, and yet we have a long, long way still to go. See you next week for a proper article!

 

And Onward to 1995…

No new article this week, folks. Sorry about that! It’s the usual story of a five-Friday month and a chance for me to catch my breath. I’ll have one for you next week.

In lieu of a proper article, some administrative announcements, plus a taster of what will be coming down the pipe in the months to come:

The especially attentive among you have doubtless noticed that we crossed the border into 1995 with my last piece. That means a new slate of ebooks for 1994, the year just finished. As always, their existence is thanks to Richard Lindner. In fact, he’s been extra busy this time: we’ve also put together an ebook gathering all of the Infocom articles, something a number of you have asked me for from time to time. It begins with Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, that necessary prelude to the Infocom story, and continues all the way through my relatively recent series on the resurrection of the Z-Machine and Graham Nelson’s creation of the Inform programming language for making new games in the Infocom spirit; that seemed to me an appropriately hopeful note to end on. You’ll find Richard Lindner’s email address inside all of the ebooks. If you enjoy them, please think about dropping him a line to thank him.

In other news, I did one of my rare podcast interviews a few weeks ago, with the nice folks from The Video Game History Foundation. The subject was the game-content controversy of the early 1990s and the three enduring institutions that came out of it: the Interactive Digital Software Association (now known as the Entertainment Software Association), the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, and the E3 trade show. I’m definitely a better writer than I am an on-air personality, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it nevertheless.

The coverage to come in the immediate future will be quite graphic-adventure-heavy, as we’re now getting into the genre’s last big boom. Rest assured that I haven’t given up on other genres; they’re just in a slight lull.

  • My next article will deal with The Dig, LucasArts’s second adventure game of 1995 — and what a tortured tale that one is!
  • Then we’ll move on to a very eventful and profitable era at Sierra, with special coverage reserved for the second Gabriel Knight game.
  • This was the year when the Interactive Fiction Renaissance really took flight, with the very first IF Competition and a downright stunning number of other big, rich games released. If you’re an old-school Infocom fan who hasn’t yet tried these games, you might just find yourself in heaven if you give them a chance, as they’re very much in the Infocom spirit, and written and implemented every bit as well.
  • We’ll continue to follow the story of Legend Entertainment in some detail, looking at both of their 1995 releases.
  • We’ll find time for The Dark Eye and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a couple of moody, artsy adventure games with some very interesting personalities behind them.
  • We’ll look at some more attempts to bring full-motion-video interactive movies to the masses, with unusual and sometimes risque subject matter: titles like Voyeur and In the First Degree.
  • We’ll dive into the short and rather disappointing history of Boffo Games, a partnership between Steve Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook that brought us Meretzky’s final adventure game.
  • We’ll backtrack a bit to cover the story of New World Computing and the Might and Magic CRPG franchise, which will set the stage for frightfully addictive strategy game Heroes of Might and Magic.
  • We’ll examine McKenzie & Co., a noble if somewhat confused attempt by a new studio called Her Interactive to make an adventure game that “girls will love!”
  • The big non-gaming story waiting in the wings is that of the World Wide Web, which began breaking into the public consciousness in a big way during 1995. I’ll try to do it justice via a multi-part series that will be slotted into all of the above… somewhere.

If you have a favorite game from 1995 that isn’t listed above, don’t panic. I always shuffle things around a bit for the sake of storytelling. I promise, for example, that Blizzard Entertainment will get their due a little later, as will the debut of Microsoft Windows 95, a truly momentous event in the history of both computer gaming and consumer computing as a whole. Of course, I’m always interested in hearing your suggestions of topics you think would be interesting, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll act on all of them. (Those I decline to pursue are generally the ones which I just don’t feel I have the requisite background and/or level of passion to turn into good articles. Believe me, it’s not you, it’s me.) And if you have a line on a valuable historical source — or if you happen to be one yourself — I’m always eager to hear from you.

And now for my obligatory annual fund-raising pitch: if you like what I do here and haven’t yet signed up to become a Patreon supporter, please think about doing so (assuming of course that your personal finances allow it). Your support will help ensure that this project can keep going for a long time to come. The same naturally goes for The Analog Antiquarian, this site’s alternate-week counterpart. (We’re nearing the end of the Alexandria story there, and will soon be making a brief sojourn in Rhodes before tackling the long arc of China’s history.)

Thanks so much for reading and helping out in all the different ways you do. See you next week!

 

Ebooks and more as we move into 1994…

So, folks, we’re finally through with 1993! Thanks as always to the good offices of Richard Lindner, an ebook compiling the last run of articles is now available to commemorate the occasion. If you enjoy it, please consider sending Richard a thank you at the email address found on the ebook’s first page.

I’ve already opened the curtain on 1994 with my most recent article, on the adventure game Under a Killing Moon, and I anticipate future articles on the graphic adventures Beneath a Steel Sky (odd naming concordance there, eh?), Superhero League of Hoboken, and Death Gate. Still, adventures in general were in a bit of a lull this year while everyone retooled to jump onto the CD-ROM, SVGA, and full-motion-video bandwagons. Luckily, several other genres definitely were not. This was arguably the biggest year of the 1990s for strategy games, with the likes of Theme Park, Transport Tycoon, Master of Magic, Panzer General, Colonization, and X-Com, all of which will get articles. Ditto space simulations, with Microsoft Space Simulator, TIE Fighter, and Wing Commander III. Origin Systems, the purveyor of the last mentioned blockbuster, also published the disastrous Ultima VIII and the sublime System Shock. In the realm of the slightly more esoteric, there’s Lode Runner: The Legend Returns from Sierra/Dynamix, which will provide me with a sneaky way to shoehorn in coverage of the original Lode Runner, one of the Apple II’s iconic titles that I sadly neglected back in the day. (For that matter, coverage of Microsoft Space Simulator should give me a chance to do the same for the similarly neglected Flight Simulator.)

In addition to all of this gaming coverage, I do want to start to take the second part of this site’s subtitle — the “digital culture” part — even more seriously than before. It seems only appropriate: between 1973 and 1993, the microchip revolutionized the way much of the business world conducted itself and changed the way some segments of the general population entertained themselves; between 1994 and 2014, the microchip combined with the Internet reshaped the everyday lives of all of us. I’d like for those changes as well to become a part of this site’s focus.

The big, obvious story lurking out there, of how the Internet and the World Wide Web came to be, is one that I think I’m going to reserve for 1995, when the Web really began to take off as a mainstream phenomenon. But I do want to work in two other non-gaming articles or series of them this year. One will be on the Voyager Company, an ambitious and visionary initiative to publish curated multimedia content on CD-ROM, with results that hold up better than you might expect today. (I bought a 1999-vintage iMac in order to explore the Voyager catalog last December, and it’s cost me a shocking number of hours since.) The shape of the other series is a bit more nebulous in my mind at the moment, but it will involve the music world’s response to the microcomputer revolution, perhaps beginning with early-1980s albums like Kraftwerk’s Computerworld and Prince’s 1999 that were suffused with the new technology in terms of both sound and lyrics, and definitely culminating in the interactive CD-ROMs released in the early- to mid-1990s by such artists as Prince, Peter Gabriel, the Residents, Todd Rundgren, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, and Billy Idol.

Another article or short series of them which I’d like to write kind of sits in the middle of this site’s two briefs: I’d like to examine the controversy over videogame content which flared up around the games Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, and led to the hasty imposition of the first industry-wide content-rating system in 1994. Also somewhere in that mix will be an examination of early “naughty” CD-ROMs, including both the markets for outright pornography and for relatively more respectable fare like Voyeur.

I’m more grateful than ever to those of you who support this work financially, what with these current tough times of ours. If you’re a regular reader who hasn’t yet taken the plunge, please do consider making a Patreon pledge if your finances allow. In return, I promise to keep delivering an interesting, informative, and entertaining article (almost) every other week — every week if you happen to enjoy The Analog Antiquarian as well! — for as long as I possibly can. It does seem that some of us at least may be in and out of lock downs for quite a while to come. It’s good to have things to read there, right?

Thank you for being the best readers in the world! Here’s to many more years and many more ebooks! See you tomorrow with a proper article…

 

Summer Daze


I want to bring a new project by this blog’s friends Corey and Lori Ann Cole to your attention today. Summer Daze at Hero-U builds upon their earlier Hero-U: From Rogue to Redemption, which was a fine revival in spirit of their much-loved Quest for Glory games of yore. This sequel — or actually prequel — goes in a somewhat different direction, with something of a visual-novel aesthetic and markedly fewer CRPG trappings. The Coles are fine game designers as well as fine people, so I’m sure they’ll pull it off with the same aplomb that made the first Hero-U such a pleasure to play.

The economics of game-making being what they are, however, they could use your support to bring the project to fruition. As of this writing, they’re about $30,000 short of their $100,000 goal on Kickstarter, with six days left to go. Please head on over to the Kickstarter site and give the project a look, and think about pitching in if you like what you see. If I know the Coles at all, I know that they’ll undoubtedly give you your money’s worth in the finished product.

 

The Pyramids of Giza (A Wonders of the World Book)

While I normally try not to mix the digital and analog sides of my writing too much, I do just have to announce that an e-book version of my just-completed series on the Pyramids of Giza over at The Analog Antiquarian is now available at Amazon. It’s had much more copy-editing and polishing applied compared to what first went up on the web, and I’m tremendously proud of the end result. By all means, check it out if you’re at all interested in the subject matter. Although the immediate feedback I received as I was first writing the chapters online made the book that much better, the finished product is definitely a more natural fit to this medium than a blog-style presentation.

If you do buy a copy, or you got a free copy as an Analog Antiquarian patron, or if you have just been following the ongoing series on the web, I’d hugely appreciate it if you could write a quick (and honest) review at either the American Amazon site or your local version of same (the book should be available worldwide). Reviews are the currency at Amazon which can make or break a book like this one.

Thanks so much!