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The Dig

As you would imagine, a lot of the things you can do in a comedy game just don’t work when trying to remain serious. You can’t cover up a bad puzzle with a funny line of self-referential dialog. Er, not that I ever did that. But anyway, it was also a challenge to maintain the tone and some semblance of a dramatic arc. Another challenge was cultural — we were trying to build this game in an environment where everyone else was building funny games, telling jokes, and being pretty outlandish. It was like trying to cram for a physics final during a dorm party. It would have been a lot easier to join the party.

— Sean Clark, fifth (and last) project lead on The Dig

On October 17, 1989, the senior staff of LucasArts[1]LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article. assembled in the Main House of Skywalker Ranch for one of their regular planning meetings. In the course of proceedings, Noah Falstein, a designer and programmer who had been with the studio almost from the beginning, learned that he was to be given stewardship of an exciting new project called The Dig, born from an idea for an adventure game that had been presented to LucasArts by none other than Steven Spielberg. Soon after that bit of business was taken care of, remembers Falstein, “we felt the room start to shake — not too unusual, we’d been through many earthquakes in California — but then suddenly it got much stronger, and we started to hear someone scream, and some glass crash to the floor somewhere, and most of us dived under the mahogany conference table to ride it out.” It was the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which would kill 63 people, seriously injure another 400, and do untold amounts of property damage all around Northern California.

Perhaps Falstein and his colleagues should have taken it as an omen. The Dig would turn into a slow-motion fiasco that crushed experienced game developers under its weight with the same assiduity with which the earthquake collapsed Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway. When a finished version of the game finally appeared on store shelves in late 1995, one rather ungenerous question would be hard to avoid asking: it took you six years to make this?



In order to tell the full story of The Dig, the most famously troubled project in the history of LucasArts, we have to wind the clock back yet further: all the way back to the mid-1980s, when Steven Spielberg was flying high on the strength of blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. During this period, many years before the advent of Prestige TV, Spielberg approached NBC with a proposal for a new anthology series named Amazing Stories, after the pulp magazine that had been such an incubator of printed science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. He would direct the occasional episode himself, he promised, but would mostly just throw out outlines which could be turned into reality by other screenwriters and directors. Among those willing to direct episodes were some of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood: people like Martin Scorsese, Irvin Kershner, Robert Zemeckis, and Clint Eastwood. Naturally, NBC was all over it; nowhere else on the television of the 1980s could you hope to see a roster of big-screen talent anything like that. The new series debuted with much hype on September 29, 1985.

But somehow it just never came together for Amazing Stories; right from the first episodes, the dominant reaction from both critics and the public was one of vague disappointment. Part of the problem was each episode’s running time of just half an hour, or 22 minutes once commercials and credits were factored in; there wasn’t much scope for story or character development in that paltry span of time. But another, even bigger problem was that what story and characters were there weren’t often all that interesting or original. Spielberg kept his promise to serve as the show’s idea man, personally providing the genesis of some 80 percent of the 45 episodes that were completed, but the outlines he tossed off were too often retreads of things that others had already done better. When he had an idea he really liked — such as the one about a group of miniature aliens who help the residents of an earthbound apartment block with their very earthbound problems — he tended to shop it elsewhere. The aforementioned idea, for example, led to the film Batteries Not Included.

The episode idea that would become the computer game The Dig after many torturous twists and turns was less original than that one. It involved a team of futuristic archaeologists digging in the ruins of what the audience would be led to assume was a lost alien civilization. Until, that is, the final shot set up the big reveal: the strange statue the archaeologists had been uncovering would be shown to be Mickey Mouse, while the enormous building behind it was the Sleeping Beauty Castle. They were digging at Disneyland, right here on Planet Earth!

The problem here was that we had seen all of this before, most notably at the end of Planet of the Apes, whose own climax had come when its own trio of astronauts stranded on its own apparently alien world had discovered the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. Thus it was no great loss to posterity when this particular idea was judged too expensive for Amazing Stories to produce. But the core concept of archaeology in the future got stuck in Spielberg’s craw, to be trotted out again later in a very different context.

In the meantime, the show’s ratings were falling off quickly. As soon as the initial contract for two seasons had been fulfilled, Amazing Stories quietly disappeared from the airwaves. It became an object lesson that nothing is guaranteed in commercial media, not even Steven Spielberg’s Midas touch.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to when Spielberg was in the post-production phase of his latest cinematic blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which he was making in partnership with his good friend George Lucas. Noah Falstein of the latter’s very own games studio had been drafted to design an adventure game of the movie. Despite his lack of a games studio of his own, Spielberg was ironically far more personally interested in computer games than Lucas; he followed Falstein’s project quite closely, to the point of serving as a sort of unofficial beta tester. Even after the movie and game were released, Spielberg would ring up LucasArts from time to time to beg for hints for their other adventures, or sometimes just to shoot the breeze; he was clearly intrigued by the rapidly evolving world of interactive media. During one of these conversations, he said he had a concept whose origins dated back to Amazing Stories, one which he believed might work well as a game. And then he asked if he could bring it over to Skywalker Ranch. He didn’t have to ask twice.

The story that Spielberg outlined retained futuristic archaeology as its core motif, but wisely abandoned the clichéd reveal of Mickey Mouse. Instead the archaeologists would be on an actual alien planet, discovering impossibly advanced technology in what Spielberg conceived as an homage to the 1950s science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Over time, the individual archaeologists would come to distrust and eventually go to war with one another; this part of the plot hearkened back to another film that Spielberg loved, the classic Western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Over to you, Noah Falstein — after the unpleasant business of the earthquake was behind everybody, that is.

Noah Falstein

The offices of LucasArts were filled with young men who had grown up worshiping at the shrines of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and who now found themselves in the completely unexpected position of going to work every day at Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by the memorabilia of their gods and sometimes by the deities themselves. Their stories of divine contact are always entertaining, not least for the way that they tend to sound more like a plot from one of Spielberg’s films than any plausible reality; surely ordinary middle-class kids in the real world don’t just stumble into a job working for the mastermind of Star Wars, do they? Well, it turns out that in some cases they do. Dave Grossman, an aspiring LucasArts game designer at the time, was present at a follow-up meeting with Spielberg that also included Lucas, Falstein, and game designer Ron Gilbert of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame. His account so magnificently captures what it was like to be a starstruck youngster in those circumstances that I want to quote it in full here.

The Main House at Skywalker is a pretty swanky place, and the meeting is in a boardroom with a table the size of a railroad car, made of oak or mahogany or some other sort of expensive wood. I’m a fidgety young kid with clothes that come pre-wrinkled, and this room makes me feel about as out of place as a cigarette butt in a soufflé. I’m a little on edge just being in here.

Then George and Steven show up and we all say hello. Now, I’ve been playing it cool like it’s no big deal, and I know they’re just people who sneeze and drop forks like everybody else, but… it’s Lucas and Spielberg! These guys are famous and powerful and rich and, although they don’t act like any of those things, I’m totally intimidated. (I should mention that although I’ve been working for George for a year or so at this point, this is only the second time I’ve met him.) I realize I’m really fairly nervous now.

George and Steven chit-chat with each other for a little bit. They’ve been friends a long time and it shows. George seems particularly excited to tell Steven about his new car, an Acura I think – they’re not even available to the public yet, but he’s managed to get the first one off the boat, and it’s parked conspicuously right in front of the building.

Pretty soon they start talking about ideas for The Dig, and they are Rapid-Fire Machine Guns of Creativity. Clearly they do this a lot. It’s all very high-concept and all over the map, and I have no idea how we’re going to make any of it into a game, but that’s kind of what brainstorming sessions are all about. Ron and Noah offer up a few thoughts. I have a few myself, but somehow I don’t feel worthy enough to break in with them. So I sit and listen, and gradually my nervousness is joined by embarrassment that I’m not saying anything.

A snack has been provided for the gathering, some sort of crumbly carbohydrate item, corn bread, if I remember correctly. So I take a piece – I’m kind of hungry, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I take a bite. Normally, the food at Skywalker Ranch is absolutely amazing, but this particular corn bread has been made extra dry. Chalk dry. My mouth is already parched from being nervous, so it takes me a while before I’m able to swallow the bite, and as I chomp and smack at it I’m sure I’m making more noise than a dozen weasels in a paper bag, even though everyone pretends not to notice. There are drinks in the room, but they have been placed out of the way, approximately a quarter-mile from where we’re sitting, and I can’t get up to get one without disrupting everything, and I’m sure by now George and Steven are wondering why I’m in the meeting in the first place.

I want to abandon the corn bread, but it’s begun falling apart, and I can’t put it down on my tiny napkin without making a huge mess. So I eat the whole piece. It takes about twenty minutes. I myself am covered with tiny crumbs, but at least there aren’t any on the gorgeous table.

By now the stakes are quite high. Because I’ve been quiet so long, the mere fact of my speaking up will be a noteworthy event, and anything I say has to measure up to that noteworthiness. You can’t break a long silence with a throwaway comment, it has to be a weighty, breathtaking observation that causes each person in the room to re-examine himself in its light. While I’m waiting for a thought that good, more time goes by and raises the bar even higher. I spend the rest of the meeting in a state of near-total paralysis, trying to figure out how I can get out of the room without anyone noticing, or, better yet, how I can go back in time and arrange not to be there in the first place.

So, yes, I did technically get to meet Steven Spielberg face-to-face once while we were working on The Dig. I actually talked to him later on, when he called to get hints on one of our other games (I think it was Day of the Tentacle), which he was playing with his son. (One of the lesser-known perks of being a famous filmmaker is that you can talk directly to the game designers for hints instead of calling the hint line.) Nice guy.

The broader world of computer gaming’s reaction to Spielberg’s involvement in The Dig would parallel the behavior of Dave Grossman at this meeting. At the same time that some bold industry scribes were beginning to call games a more exciting medium than cinema, destined for even more popularity thanks to the special sauce of interactivity, the press that surrounded The Dig would point out with merciless clarity just how shallow their bravado was, how deep gaming’s inferiority complex really ran: Spielberg’s name was guaranteed to show up in the first paragraph of every advertisement, preview, or, eventually, review. “Steven Spielberg is deigning to show an interest in little old us!” ran the implicit message.

It must be said that the hype was somewhat out of proportion to his actual contribution. After providing the initial idea for the game — an idea that would be transformed beyond all recognition by the time the game was released — Spielberg continued to make himself available for occasional consultations; he met with Falstein and his colleagues for four brainstorming sessions, two of which also included his buddy George Lucas, over the course of about eighteen months. (Thanks no doubt to the prompting of his friend, Lucas’s own involvement with The Dig was as hands-on as he ever got with one of his games studio’s creations.) Yet it’s rather less clear whether these conversations were of much real, practical use to the developers down in the trenches. Neither Spielberg nor Lucas was, to state the obvious, a game designer, and thus they tended to focus on things that might yield watchable movies but were less helpful for making a playable game. Noah Falstein soon discovered that heading a project which involved two such high-profile figures was a less enviable role than he had envisioned it to be; he has since circumspectly described a project where “everyone wanted to put their two cents in, and that can be extremely hard to manage.”

In his quest for a game that could be implemented within the strictures of SCUMM, LucasArts’s in-house point-and-click adventure engine, Falstein whittled away at Spielberg’s idea of two teams of archaeologists who enter into open war with one another. His final design document, last updated on January 30, 1991, takes place in “the future, nearly 80 years since the McKillip Drive made faster-than-light travel a possibility, and only 50 years since the first star colonies were founded.” In another nod back to Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories outline that got the ball rolling, an unmanned probe has recently discovered an immense statue towering amidst other alien ruins on the surface of a heretofore unexplored planet; in a nod to the most famous poem by Percy Shelley, the planet has been named Ozymandias. Three humans have now come to Ozymandias to investigate the probe’s findings — but they’re no longer proper archaeologists, only opportunistic treasure hunters, led by a sketchy character named Major Tom (presumably a nod to David Bowie). The player can choose either of Major Tom’s two subordinates as her avatar.

A series of unfortunate events ensues shortly after the humans make their landing, over the course of which Major Tom is killed and their spaceship damaged beyond any obvious possibility of repair. The two survivors have an argument and go their separate ways, but in this version of the script theirs is a cold rather than a hot war. As the game goes on, the player discovers that a primitive race of aliens living amidst the ruins are in fact the descendants of far more advanced ancestors, who long ago destroyed their civilization and almost wiped out their entire species with internecine germ warfare. But, the player goes on to learn, there are survivors of both factions who fought the apocalyptic final war suspended in cryogenic sleep beneath the surface of the planet. Her ultimate goal becomes to awaken these survivors and negotiate a peace between them, both because it’s simply the right thing to do and because these aliens should have the knowledge and tools she needs to repair her damaged spaceship.

This image by Ken Macklin is one of the few pieces of concept art to have survived from Noah Falstein’s version of The Dig.

For better or for worse, this pared-down but still ambitious vision for The Dig never developed much beyond that final design document and a considerable amount of accompanying concept art. “There was a little bit of SCUMM programming done on one of the more interesting puzzles, but not much [more],” says Falstein. He was pulled off the project very early in 1991, assigned instead to help Hal Barwood with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. And when this, his second Indiana Jones game, was finished, he was laid off despite a long and largely exemplary track record.

Meanwhile The Dig spent a year or more in limbo, until it was passed to Brian Moriarty, the writer and designer of three games for the 1980s text-adventure giant Infocom and of LucasArts’s own lovely, lyrical Loom. Of late, he’d been drafting a plan for a game based on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the franchise’s slightly disappointing foray into television, but a lack of personal enthusiasm for the project had led to a frustrating lack of progress. Moriarty was known as one of the most “literary” of game designers by temperament; his old colleagues at Infocom had called him “Professor Moriarty,” more as a nod to his general disposition than to the milieu of Sherlock Holmes. And indeed, his Trinity is as close as Infocom ever got to publishing a work of high literature, while his Loom possesses almost an equally haunting beauty. Seeing himself with some justification as a genuine interactive auteur, he demanded total control of every aspect of The Dig as a condition of taking it on. Bowing to his stellar reputation, LucasArts’s management agreed.

Brian Moriarty

Much of of what went on during the eighteen months that Moriarty spent working on The Dig remains obscure, but it plainly turned into a very troubled, acrimonious project. He got off on the wrong foot with many on his team by summarily binning Falstein’s vision — a vision which they had liked or even in some cases actively contributed to. Instead he devised an entirely new framing plot.

Rather than the far future, The Dig would now take place in 1998; in fact, its beginning would prominently feature the Atlantis, a Space Shuttle that was currently being flown by NASA. A massive asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Humanity’s only hope is to meet it in space and plant a set of nuclear bombs on its surface. Once exploded, they will hopefully deflect the asteroid just enough to avoid the Earth. (The similarity with not one but two terrible 1998 movies is presumably coincidental.) You play Boston Low, the commander of the mission.

But carrying the mission out successfully and saving the Earth is only a prelude to the real plot. Once you have the leisure to explore the asteroid, you and your crew begin to discover a number of oddities about it, evidence that another form of intelligent being has been here before you. In the midst of your investigations, you set off a booby trap which whisks you and three other crew members light years away to a mysterious world littered with remnants of alien technology but bereft of any living specimens. Yet it’s certainly not bereft of danger: one crew member gets killed in gruesome fashion almost immediately when he bumbles into a rain of acid. Having thus established its bona fides as a serious story, a million light years away from the typical LucasArts cartoon comedy, the game now begins to show a closer resemblance to Falstein’s concept. You must explore this alien world, solve its puzzles, and ferret out the secrets of the civilization that once existed here if you ever hope to see Earth again. In doing so, you’re challenged not only by the environment itself but by bickering dissension in your own ranks.

This last element of the plot corresponded uncomfortably with the mood inside the project. LucasArts had now moved out of the idyllic environs of Skywalker Ranch and into a sprawling, anonymous office complex, where the designers and programmers working on The Dig found themselves in a completely separate building from the artists and administrators. Reading just slightly between the lines here, the root of the project’s troubles seems to have been a marked disconnect between the two buildings. Moriarty, who felt compelled to create meaningful, thematically ambitious games, became every accountant and project planner’s nightmare, piling on element after element, flying without a net (or a definitive design document). He imagined an interface where you would be able to carry ideas around with you like physical inventory items, a maze that would reconfigure itself every time you entered it, a Klein bottle your characters would pass through with strange metaphysical and audiovisual effects. To make all this happen, his programmers would need to create a whole new game engine of their own rather than relying on SCUMM. They named it StoryDroid.

A screenshot from Moriarty’s version of The Dig. Note the menu of verb icons at the bottom of the screen. These would disappear from later versions in favor of the more streamlined style of interface which LucasArts had begun to employ with Sam and Max Hit the Road.

There were some good days on Moriarty’s Dig, especially early on. Bill Tiller, an artist on the project, recalls their one in-person meeting with Steven Spielberg, in his office just behind the Universal Studios Theme Park. Moriarty brought a demo of the work-in-progress, along with a “portable” computer the size of a suitcase to run it. And he also brought a special treat for Spielberg, who continued to genuinely enjoy games in all the ways George Lucas didn’t. Tiller:

Brian brought an expansion disk for one of the aerial battle games Larry Holland was making. Spielberg was a big computer-game geek! He was waiting for this upgrade/mission expansion thing. He called his assistant in and just mentioned what it was. She immediately knew what he meant and said she’d send it home and tell someone to have it installed and running for him when he arrived. I decided at that moment I would have an assistant like that someday.

Anyway, when we were through we told him we had a few hours to kill and wondered what rides we should get on back at the theme park. He said the E.T. ride, since he helped design it. It was brand new at the time. His people said that he was really crazy about it and wanted to show it off to everyone. One of his assistants took us there on a back-lot golf cart. We didn’t have to get another taxi. We didn’t even have to stand in line! They took us straight to the ride and cut us in the line in front of everyone, like real V.I.P.s. Everyone had to stand back and watch, probably trying to figure out who we were. All I remember is Brian with the stupid giant suitcase going through the ride.

But the best part of the whole thing for me was [Spielberg’s] enthusiasm. He really likes games. This wasn’t work to him to have to hear us go on about The Dig.

Brian Moriarty’s version of The Dig was more violent than later versions, a quality which Steven Spielberg reportedly encouraged. Here an astronaut meets a gruesome end after being exposed to an alien acid rain.

But the bonhomie of the Universal Studios visit faded as the months wore on. Moriarty’s highfalutin aspirations began to strike others on the team — especially the artists who were trying to realize his ever-expanding vision — as prima-donna-ish; at the end of the day, after all, it was just a computer game they were making. “I used to tell Brian, when he got all excited about what people would think of our creation, that in ten years no one will even remember The Dig,” recalls Bill Eaken, the first head artist to work under him. He believes that Moriarty may even have imagined Spielberg giving him a screenwriting or directing job if The Dig sufficiently impressed him. Eaken:

I liked Brian. Brian is a smart and creative guy. I still have good memories of sitting in his office and just brainstorming. The sky was the limit. That’s how it should be. Those were good times. But I think as time went on he had stars in his eyes. I think he wanted to show Spielberg what he could do and it became too much pressure on him. After a while he just seemed to bog down under the pressure. When all the politics and Hollywood drama started to impede us, when it wasn’t even a Hollywood gig, I [got] temperamental.

The programming was a complete disaster. I had been working for several years at LucasArts at that time and had a very good feel for the programming. I taught programming in college, and though I wasn’t a programmer on any games, I understood programming enough to know something was amiss on The Dig. I went to one of my friends at the company who was a great programmer and told him my concerns. He went and tried to chat with the programmers about this or that to get a look at their code, but whenever he walked into the room they would shut off their monitors, things like that. What he could see confirmed my worries: the code was way too long, and mostly not working.

The project was “completely out of control and management wouldn’t listen to me about it,” Eaken claims today. So, he quit LucasArts, whereupon his role fell to his erstwhile second-in-command, the aforementioned Bill Tiller. The latter says that he “liked and disliked” Moriarty.

Brian was fun to talk with and was very energetic and was full of good ideas, but he and I started to rub each other the wrong way due to our disagreement over how the art should be done. I wanted the art organized in a tight budget and have it all planned out, just like in a typical animation production, and so did my boss, who mandated I push for an organized art schedule. Brian bristled at being restricted with his creativity. He felt that the creative process was hindered by art schedules and strict budgets. And he was right. But the days of just two or three people making a game were over, and the days of large productions and big budgets were dawning, and I feel Brian had a hard time adjusting to this new age.

Games were going through a transition at that time, from games done by a few programmers with little art, to becoming full-blown animated productions where the artists outnumber the programmers four to one. Add to the mix the enormous pressure of what a Spielberg/Lucas project should be like [and] internal jealousy about the hype, and you have a recipe for disaster.

He wanted to do as much of the game by himself as possible so that it was truly his vision, but I think he felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the game, which required so much graphics programming and asset creation. He was used to low-res graphics and a small intimate team of maybe four people or less. Then there is the pressure of doing the first Spielberg/Lucas game. I mean, come on! That is a tough, tough position for one guy to be in.

One of LucasArt’s longstanding traditions was the “pizza orgy,” in which everyone was invited to drop whatever they were doing, come to the main conference room, eat some pizza, and play a game that had reached a significant milestone in its development. The first Dig pizza orgy, which took place in the fall of 1993, was accompanied by an unusual amount of drama. As folks shuffled in to play the game for the very first time, they were told that Moriarty had quit that very morning.

We’re unlikely ever to know exactly what was going through Moriarty’s head at this juncture; he’s an intensely private individual, as it is of course his right to be, and is not at all given to baring his soul in public. What does seem clear, however, is that The Dig drained from him some fragile reservoir of heedless self-belief which every creative person needs in order to keep creating. Although he’s remained active in the games industry in various roles, those have tended to be managerial rather than creative; Brian Moriarty, one of the best pure writers ever to explore the potential of interactive narratives, never seriously attempted to write another one of them after The Dig. In an interview he did in 2006 for Jason Scott’s film Get Lamp, he mused vaguely during a pensive interlude that “I’m always looking for another Infocom. But sometimes I think we won’t give ourselves permission.” (Who precisely is the “we” here?) This statement may, I would suggest, reveal more than Moriarty intended, about more of his career than just his time at Infocom.

At any rate, Moriarty left LucasArts with one very unwieldy, confused, overambitious project to try to sort out. It struck someone there as wise to give The Dig to Hal Barwood, a former filmmaker himself who had been friends with Steven Spielberg for two decades. But Barwood proved less than enthusiastic about it — which was not terribly surprising in light of how badly The Dig had already derailed the careers of two of LucasArts’s other designers. Following one fluffy interview where he dutifully played up the involvement of Spielberg for all it was worth — “We’re doing our best to capture the essence of the experience he wants to create” — he finagled a way off the project.

At this point, the hot potato was passed to Dave Grossman, who had, as noted above, worked for a time with Noah Falstein on its first incarnation. “I was basically a hedge trimmer,” he says. “There was a general feeling, which I shared, that the design needed more work, and I was asked to fix it up while retaining as much as possible of what had been been done so far — starting over yet again would have been prohibitively expensive. So I went in with my editing scissors, snip snip snip, and held a lot of brainstorming meetings with the team to try to iron out the kinks.” But Grosssman too found something better to do as quickly as possible, whereupon the game lay neglected for the better part of a year while much of Moriarty’s old team went to work on Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle: “a project that the company loved,” says Bill Tiller, drawing an implicit comparison with this other, unloved one.

In late 1994, The Dig was resurrected for the last time, being passed to Sean Clark, a long-serving LucasArts programmer who had moved up to become the producer and co-designer of Sam and Max Hit the Road, and who now saw becoming the man who finally shepherded this infamously vexed project to completion as a good way to continue his ascent. “My plan when I came in on the final incarnation was to take a game that was in production and finish it,” he says. “I didn’t get a lot of pressure or specific objectives from management. I think they were mainly interested in getting the project done so they could have a product plan that didn’t have The Dig listed on it.” Clark has admitted that, when he realized what a sorry state the game was actually in, he went to his bosses and recommended that they simply cancel it once and for all. “I got a lot of resistance, which surprised me,” he says. “It was hard to resist the potential [of having] a game out there with a name like Spielberg’s on it.” In a way, George Lucas was a bigger problem than Spielberg in this context: no one wanted to go to the boss of bosses at LucasArts and tell him they had just cancelled his close friend’s game.

Sean Clark with a hot slice. Pizza was a way of life at LucasArts, as at most games studios. Asked about the negative aspects of his job, one poor tester said that he was “getting really, really tired of pizza. I just can’t look at pizza anymore.”

So, Clark rolled up his sleeves and got to work instead. His first major decision was to ditch the half-finished StoryDroid engine and move the project back to SCUMM. He stuck to Brian Moriarty’s basic plot and characters, but excised without a trace of hesitation or regret anything that was too difficult to implement in SCUMM or too philosophically esoteric. His goal was not to create Art, not to stretch the boundaries of what adventure games could be, but just to get ‘er done. Bill Tiller and many others from the old team returned to the project with the same frame of reference. By now, LucasArts had moved offices yet again, to a chic new space where the programmers and artists could mingle: “Feedback was quick and all-encompassing,” says Tiller. If there still wasn’t a lot of love for the game in the air, there was at least a measure of esprit de corps. LucasArts even sprang for a couple more (reasonably) big names to add to The Dig‘s star-studded marque, hiring the science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, author of the much-admired Ender’s Game among other novels, to write the dialogue, and Robert Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s principal antagonist from Terminator 2, to head up the cast of voice actors. Remarkably in light of how long the project had gone on and how far it had strayed from his original vision, Steven Spielberg took several more meetings with the team. “He actually called me at home one evening as he was playing through a release candidate,” says Sean Clark. “He was all excited and having fun, but was frustrated because he had gotten stuck on a puzzle and needed a hint.”

Clark’s practicality and pragmatism won the day where the more rarefied visions of Falstein and Moriarty had failed: The Dig finally shipped just in time for the Christmas of 1995. LucasArts gave it the full-court press in terms of promotion, going so far as to call it their “highest-profile product yet.” They arranged for a licensed strategy guide, a novelization by the king of tie-in novelists Alan Dean Foster, an “audio drama” of his book, and even a CD version of Michael Land’s haunting soundtrack to be available within weeks of the game itself. And of course they hyped the Spielberg connection for all it was worth, despite the fact that the finished game betrayed only the slightest similarity to the proposal he had pitched six years before.

Composer Michael Land plays a timpani for The Dig soundtrack. One can make a strong argument that his intensely atmospheric, almost avant-garde score is the best thing about the finished game. Much of it is built from heavily processed, sometimes even backwards-playing samples of Beethoven and Wagner. Sean Clark has described, accurately, how it sounds “strange and yet slightly familiar.”


But the reaction on the street proved somewhat less effusive than LucasArts might have wished. Reviews were surprisingly lukewarm, and gamers were less excited by the involvement of Steven Spielberg than the marketers had so confidently predicted. Bill Tiller feels that the Spielberg connection may have been more of a hindrance than a help in the end: “Spielberg’s name was a tough thing to have attached to this project because people have expectations associated with him. The general public thought this was going to be a live-action [and/or] 3D interactive movie, not an adventure game.” The game wasn’t a commercial disaster, but sold at less than a third the pace of Full Throttle, its immediate predecessor among LucasArts adventures. Within a few months, the marketers had moved on from their “highest-profile product yet” to redouble their focus on the Star Wars games that were accounting for more and more of LucasArts’s profits.

One can certainly chalk up some of the nonplussed reaction to The Dig to its rather comprehensive failure to match the public’s expectations of a LucasArts adventure game. In a catalog that consisted almost exclusively of cartoon comedies, it was a serious, even gloomy game. In a catalog of anarchically social, dialog-driven adventures that were seen by many gamers as the necessary antithesis to the sterile, solitary Myst-style adventure games that were now coming out by the handful, it forced you to spend most of its length all alone, solving mechanical puzzles that struck many as painfully reminiscent of Myst. Additionally, The Dig‘s graphics, although well-composed and well-drawn, reflected the extended saga of its creation; they ran in low-resolution VGA at a time when virtually the whole industry had moved to higher-resolution Super VGA, and they reflected as well the limitations of the paint programs and 3D-rendering software that had been used to create them, in many cases literally years before the game shipped. In the technology-obsessed gaming milieu of the mid-1990s, when flash meant a heck of a lot, such things could be ruinous to a new release’s prospects.

But today, we can presumably look past such concerns to the fundamentals of the game that lives underneath its surface technology. Unfortunately, The Dig proves far from a satisfying experience even on these terms.

An adventure game needs to be, if nothing else, reasonably good company, but The Dig fails this test. In an effort to create “dramatic” characters, it falls into the trap of merely making its leads unlikable. All of them are walking, talking clichés: the unflappable Chuck Yeager-type who’s in charge, the female overachiever with a chip on her shoulder who bickers with his every order, the arrogant German scientist who transforms into the villain of the piece. Orson Scott Card’s dialog is shockingly clunky, full of tired retreads of action-movie one-liners; one would never imagine that it comes from the pen of an award-winning novelist if it didn’t say so in the credits. And, even more unusually for LucasArts, the voice acting is little more inspired. All of which is to say that it comes as something of a relief when everyone else just goes away and leaves Boston Low alone to solve puzzles, although even then you still have to tolerate Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the stoic mission commander; he approaches an unknown alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy with all the enthusiasm of a gourmand with a full belly reading aloud from a McDonald’s menu.

Alas, one soon discovers that the puzzle design isn’t any better than the writing or acting. While the puzzles may have some of the flavor of Myst, they evince none of that game’s rigorous commitment to internal logic and environmental coherence. In contrast to the free exploration offered by Myst, The Dig turns out to be a quite rigidly linear game, with only a single path through its puzzles. Most of these require you just to poke at things rather than to truly enter into the logic of the world, meaning you frequently find yourself “solving” them without knowing how or why.

But this will definitely not happen in at least two grievous cases. At one point, you’re expected to piece together an alien skeleton from stray bones when you have no idea what said alien is even supposed to look like. And another puzzle, involving a cryptic alien control panel, is even more impossible to figure out absent hours of mind-numbing trial and error. “I had no clue that was such a hard puzzle,” says Bill Tiller. “We all thought it was simple. Boy, were we wrong.” And so we learn the ugly truth: despite the six years it spent in development, nobody ever tried to play The Dig cold before it was sent out the door. It was the second LucasArts game in a row of which this was true, indicative of a worrisome decline in quality control from a studio that had made a name for themselves by emphasizing good design.

At the end of The Dig, the resolution of the alien mystery is as banal as it is nonsensical, a 2001: A Space Odyssey with a lobotomy. It most definitely isn’t “an in-depth story in which the exploration of human emotion plays as important a role as the exploration of a game world,” as LucasArts breathlessly promised.

So, The Dig still manages to come across today as simultaneously overstuffed and threadbare. It broaches a lot of Big Ideas (a legacy of Falstein and Moriarty’s expansive visions), but few of them really go anywhere (a legacy of Grossman and Clark’s pragmatic trimming). It winds up just another extended exercise in object manipulation, but it doesn’t do even this particularly well. Although its audiovisuals can create an evocative atmosphere at times, even they come across too often as disjointed, being a hodgepodge of too many different technologies and aesthetics. Long experience has taught many of us to beware of creative expressions of any stripe that take too long to make and pass through too many hands in the process. The Dig only proves this rule: it’s no better than its tortured creation story makes you think it will be. Its neutered final version is put together competently, but not always well, and never with inspiration. And so it winds up being the one thing a game should never be: it’s just kind of… well, boring.

As regular readers of this site are doubtless well aware, I’m a big fan of LucasArts’s earlier adventures of the 1990s. The one complaint I’ve tended to ding them with is a certain failure of ambition — specifically, a failure to leave their designers’ wheelhouse of cartoon comedy. And yet The Dig, LucasArts’s one concerted attempt to break that mold, ironically winds up conveying the opposite message: that sometimes it’s best just to continue to do what you do best. The last of their charmingly pixelated “classic-look” adventure games, The Dig is sadly among the least satisfying of the lot, with a development history far more interesting than either its gameplay or its fiction. A number of people looked at it with stars in their eyes over the six years it remained on LucasArts’s list of ongoing projects, but it proved a stubbornly ill-starred proposition for all of them in the end.

(Sources: the book The Dig: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, September 1994, September 1995, October 1995, December 1995, and February 1996; Starlog of October 1985; LucasArts’s customer newsletter The Adventurer of Spring 1993, Winter 1994, Summer 1994, Summer 1995, and Winter 1995. Online sources include Noah Falstein’s 2017 interview on Celebrity Interview, Falstein’s presentation on his history with Lucasfilm Games for Øredev 2017, the “secret history” of The Dig at International House of Mojo, the same site’s now-defunct Dig Museum,” ATMachine’s now-defunct pages on the game, Brian Moriarty’s 2006 interview for Adventure Classic Gaming, and Moriarty’s Loom postmortem at the 2015 Game Developers Conference. Finally, thank you to Jason Scott for sharing his full Get Lamp interview archives with me years ago.

The Dig is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article.
 

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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!

 

Full Throttle

The adventure makers at LucasArts had a banner 1993. One of the two games they released that year, Day of the Tentacle, was the veritable Platonic ideal of a cartoon-comedy graphic adventure; the other, Sam and Max Hit the Road, was merely very, very good.

Following a quiet 1994 on the adventure front, LucasArts came roaring back in the spring of 1995 with Full Throttle, a game that seemed to have everything going for it: it was helmed by Tim Schafer, one of the two lead designers from Day of the Tentacle, and boasted many familiar names on the art and sound front as well. Yet it wasn’t just a retread of what had come before. This interactive biker movie had a personality very much its own. Many soon added it to the ranks of LucasArts’s most hallowed classics.

Sadly, though, I’m not one of these people…



It’s easy — perhaps a bit too easy — to read LucasArts’s first post-DOOM adventure game as a sign of the changes that id Software’s shareware shooter wrought on the industry after its debut in December of 1993. Action and attitude were increasingly in, complexity and cerebration more and more out. One can sense throughout Full Throttle its makers’ restlessness with the traditional adventure form — their impatience with convoluted puzzles, bulging inventories, and all of the other adventure staples. They just want to have some loud, brash fun. What other approach could they possibly bring to a game about outlaw motorcycle gangs?

The new attitude is initially bracing. Consider: after a rollicking credits sequence that plays out behind over-driven, grungy rock and roll, you gain control of your biker avatar outside a locked bar. Your first significant task is to get inside the bar. Experimenting with the controls, you discover that you have just three verb icons at your disposal: a skull (which encompasses eyes for seeing and a mouth for talking), a raised fist, and a leather boot. Nevertheless, the overly adventure-indoctrinated among you may well spend quite some time trying to be clever before you realize that the solution to this first “puzzle” is simply to kick the door in. Full Throttle is a balm for anyone who’s ever seethed with frustration at being told by an adventure game that “violence isn’t the answer to this one.” In this game, violence — flagrant, simple-minded, completely non-proportional violence — very often is the answer.

But let’s review the full premise of the game before we go further. Full Throttle takes place in the deserts of the American Southwest during a vaguely dystopian future — albeit not, Tim Schafer has always been at pains to insist, a post-apocalyptic one. You play Ben, a stoic tough guy of few words in the Clint Eastwood mold, the leader of a biker gang who call themselves the Polecats. “The reason bikers leaped out at me is that they have a whole world associated with them,” said Schafer in a contemporary interview, “but it’s not a commonplace environment. It’s a fantastic, bizarre, wild, larger-than-life environment.” And indeed, everything and everyone in this game are nothing if not larger than life.

Ben, the hero of Full Throttle.

The plot hinges on Corley Motors, the last manufacturer of real motorcycles in the country — for the moment, anyway: a scheming vice president named Adrian Ripburger is plotting to seize control of the company from old Malcolm Corley and start making minivans instead. When the Polecats get drawn into Ripburger’s web, Ben has to find a way to stop him in order to save his gang, his favorite model of motorcycle, and the free-wheeling lifestyle he loves. The story plays out as a series of boisterous set-pieces, a (somewhat) interactive Mad Max mixed with liberal lashings of The Wild One. Although I’m the farthest thing from a member of the cult of Harley Davidson — I’m one of those tree huggers who wonders why it’s even legal to noise-pollute like some of those things to do — I can recognize and enjoy a well-done pastiche when I see one, and Full Throttle definitely qualifies.

Certainly none of this game’s faults are failures of presentation. As one might expect of the gaming subsidiary of Lucasfilm, LucasArt’s audiovisual people were among the best in the industry. They demonstrated repeatedly that the label “cartoon-comedy graphic adventure” could encompass a broader spectrum of aesthetics than one might first assume. While Day of the Tentacle was inspired by the classic Looney Tunes shorts, and Sam and Max Hit the Road by the underground comic books of the 1980s, Full Throttle‘s inspirations were the post-Watchmen world of graphic novels and trendy television: the game’s hyperactive jump cuts, oblique camera angles, and muddy color palette were all the rage on the MTV of Generation Grunge.


In fact, Schafer tried to convince Soundgarden, one of the biggest rock bands of the time, to let him use their music for the soundtrack — only to be rejected when their record company realized that “we weren’t going to give them any money” for the privilege, as he wryly puts it. Instead he recruited a San Francisco band known as the Gone Jackals, who were capable of a reasonable facsimile of Soundgarden’s style, to write and perform several original songs for the game. Bone to Pick, their 1995 album which included the Full Throttle tracks, would sell several hundred thousand copies in its own right on the back of the game’s success. All of this marked a significant moment in the mainstreaming of games, a demonstration that they were no longer siloed off in their own nerdy pop-culture ghetto but were becoming a part of the broader media landscape. The days when big pop-music acts would lobby ferociously to have their work selected for a big game’s in-world radio station were not that far away.

The Gone Jackals. Like so many rock bands who haven’t quite made it, they always seem to be trying just a bit too hard in their photographs…

Full Throttle‘s writing too has all the energy and personality one could ask for. If the humor is a bit broad and obvious, that’s only appropriate; Biker Ben is not exactly the subtle type. The voice acting and audio production in general are superb, as was the norm for LucasArts thanks to their connections to Hollywood and Skywalker Sound. Particular props must go to a little-known character actor named Roy Conrad, who delivers Ben’s lines in a perfect gravelly deadpan, and to Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, who, twelve years removed from his last gig as Luke Skywalker, was enjoying a modest career renaissance in cartoons and an ever-increasing number of videogames. He shows why he was so in-demand as a voice actor here, tearing into the role of the villain Ripburger with a relish that belies his oft-wooden performances as an actor in front of cameras.

The sweetest story connected with Full Throttle is that of Roy Conrad, a mild-mannered advertising executive who decided to reconnect with his boyhood dream of becoming an actor at age 45 in 1985, and went on to secure bit parts in various television shows and movies. As you can see, he looked nothing like a leader of a motorcycle gang, but his voice was so perfect for the role of Ben that LucasArts knew they’d found their man as soon as they heard his audition tape. Conrad died in 2002.

But for all its considerable strengths, Full Throttle pales in comparison to the LucasArts games that came immediately before it. It serves as a demonstration that presentation can only get you so far in a game — that a game is meant to be played, not watched. And alas, actually playing Full Throttle is too often not much fun at all.

The heart of Full Throttle‘s problem is a mismatch between the type of game it wants to be and the type of game its technology allows it to be. To be sure, LucasArts tried mightily to adapt said technology to Tim Schafer’s rambunctious rock-and-roll vision. They grafted onto SCUMM (“Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion“), their usual adventure-game engine, a second, action-oriented engine called INSANE (“INteractive Streaming ANimation Engine”), which had been developed for 1993’s Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a 3D vehicular rail shooter. This allowed them to interrupt the staid walking-around-talking-and-solving-puzzles parts of Full Throttle with blasts of pure action. “We didn’t think it would fly if we told players they were a bad-ass biker,” says LucasArts animator Larry Ahern, “and then made them sit back and watch every time Ben did a cool motorcycle stunt, and then gave them back the cursor when it was time for him to run errands. With Full Throttle, I think the combination [of action and traditional adventure elements] made a lot of sense, but I think the implementation just didn’t live up to the idea.”

It most definitely did not: the action mini-games range from tedious to excruciating. Schafer elected to partially reverse LucasArts’s longstanding “no deaths and no dead ends” policy, sacrosanct since 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, by allowing the former if not the latter in Full Throttle. This decision was perhaps defensible in light of the experience he was hoping to create, but boy, can it get exhausting in practice. The second-to-worst mini-game is an interminable sequence inspired by the 1991 console hit Road Rash, in which you’re riding on your motorcycle trying to take out other bikers by using exactly the right weapon on each of them, wielded with perfect timing. Failure on either count results in having to start all over from the beginning. To be fair, the mini-game looks and sounds great, with electric guitars squealing in the background and your chopper’s straight pipes throbbing under you like a 21-gun salute every few seconds. It’s just no fun to play.

LucasArts sound man Clint Bajakian captures the sound of a straight-piped Harley. Full Throttle was the first LucasArts game, and one of the first in general, to have an “all-digital” soundtrack: i.e., all of the sound in the game, including all of the music, was sampled from the real world rather than being synthesized on the computer. This was another significant moment in the evolution of computer games.

The very worst of the action mini-games, on the other hand, is a rare moment where even Full Throttle‘s aesthetics fail it. Near the end of the game, you find yourself in a demolition derby that for my money is the worst single thing ever to appear in any LucasArts adventure. The controls, which are apparently meant to simulate slipping and sliding in the mud of a fairground arena, are indeed impossible to come to grips with. Worse, you have no idea what you’re even trying to accomplish. The whole thing is an elaborate exercise in reading the designers’ mind to set up an ultra-specific, ultra-unlikely chain of happenstance. I shudder to think how long one would have to wrestle with this thing to stumble onto the correct ordering of events. (Personally, I used a walkthrough — and it still took me quite some time even once I knew what I was trying to do.) Most bizarrely of all, the mini-game looks like a game from five or eight years prior to this one, as if someone pulled an old demo down off the shelf and just threw it on the CD. It’s a failure on every level.

The demolition derby, also known as The Worst LucasArts Thing Ever. No, really: it’s incomprehensibly, flabbergastingly bad.

All told, the action mini-games manage to accomplish the exact opposite of what they were intended to do: instead of speeding the story along and making it that much more exciting, they kill its momentum dead.

What, then, of the more traditional adventure-game sections threaded between the action mini-games and the many lengthy cut-scenes? Therein lies a somewhat more complicated tale.

Some parts of Full Throttle are competently, even cleverly designed. The afore-described opening sequence, for example, is a textbook lesson in conveying theme and expectation to the player through interactivity. It teaches her that any convoluted solutions she might conceive to the dilemmas she encounters are not likely to be the correct ones, and that this will be an unusually two-fisted style of adventure game, admitting of possibilities that its more cerebral cousins would never even consider. The first extended adventure section in the game sends you into a dead-ender town in search of a welding torch, a set of handlebars, and some gasoline, all of which you need to get your damaged bike back on the road after Ripburger’s goons have sabotaged it. The game literally tells you that you need these things and waits for you to go out and find them; it doesn’t attempt to be any trickier than that. And this is fine, being thoroughly in keeping with its ethos.

But threaded among the straightforward puzzles are a smattering that fail to live up to LucasArts’s hard-won reputation for always giving their players a fair shake. At one point in that first town, you have to trigger an event, then run and hide behind a piece of scenery. But said scenery isn’t implemented as an object that might bring it to your attention, and it’s very difficult to discover that you can walk behind it at all. In some adventure games, the ones that promise to challenge you at every turn and make you poke around to discover every single possibility, this puzzle might fit the design brief. Here, however, it’s so at odds with the rest of the game that it strikes me more as a design oversight than a product of even a mistaken design intent. Such niggles continue to crop up as you play further, and continue to pull you out of the fiction. One particularly infamous “puzzle” demands that Ben kick a wall over and over at random to discover the one tiny spot that makes something happen.

Do you see that thing shaped a bit like a gravestone just where the streetlight is pointing? It turns out you can walk behind that. Crazy world, isn’t it?

As time goes on, Full Throttle comes to rely more and more on one of my least favorite kinds of adventure puzzles: the pseudo-action sequence, where the designer has a series of death-defying action-movie events, improvisations, and coincidences in mind, and you have to muddle your way through by figuring just how he wants his bravura scene to play out. In other words, you have to fail again and again, using your failures as a way to slowly deduce what the designer has in mind. Fail-until-you-succeed gameplay can feel rewarding in some circumstances, but not when it’s just an exercise in methodically trying absolutely everything until something works, as it tends to be here. The final scene of the game, involving a gigantic cargo plane teetering on the edge of a cliff with a staggering quantity of explosives inside, becomes the worst of all of them by adding tricky timing to the equation.

It’s in places like this one that the mismatch between the available technology and the desired experience really comes to the fore. In a free-roaming 3D engine with the possibility of emergent behavior, the finale could be every bit as rousing as Schafer intended it to be. But in a point-and-click adventure engine whose world simulation goes little deeper than the contents of your inventory… not so much. Executing, say, a death-defying leap out of the teetering plane’s cargo hold on your motorcycle rather loses its thrill when said leap is the only thing the designer has planned for you to do — the only thing you’re allowed to do other than getting yourself killed. The leap in question is the designer’s exciting last-minute gambit, not yours; you’re just the stooge bumbling and stumbling to recreate it. So, you begin to wish that all of the game’s action sequences were proper action sequences — but then you remember how very bad the action-oriented mini-games that do exist actually are, and you have no idea what you want, other than to be playing a different, better game.



What happened? How did a game with such a promising pedigree turn out to be so underwhelming? There is no single answer, but rather a number of probable contributing factors.

One is simply the way that games were sold in 1995. Without its more annoying bits, Full Throttle would offer little more than two hours of entertainment. There’s room for such a game today — a game that could be sold for a small price but in big quantities through digital storefronts. In 1995, however, a game that cost this much to make could reach consumers only as a premium-priced boxed product; other methods of distribution just didn’t exist yet. And consumers who paid $30, $40, or $50 for a game had certain expectations as to how long it should occupy them, as was only reasonable. Thus the need to pad its length to make it suit the realities of the contemporary marketplace probably had more than a little something to do with Full Throttle‘s failings.

Then there’s the Star Wars factor. Many of the people who worked for LucasArts prior to 1993 have commented on what a blessing in disguise it was for George Lucas’s own games studio not to be able to make Star Wars games, a happenstance whose roots can be found in the very first contract Lucas signed to make Star Wars toys just before the release of the very first film in 1977. When another series of accidents finally brought the rights back to Lucasfilm, and by extension to LucasArts, in 1992, the latter jumped on Star Wars with a vengeance, releasing multiple games under the license every year thereafter. This was by no means an unmitigatedly bad thing; at least one of their early Star Wars games, TIE Fighter, is an unimpeachable classic, on par in its own way with any LucasArts adventure game, while many of them evince a free-spirited joie de vivre that’s rather been lost from the franchise’s current over-saturated, overly Disneyfied personification. But it did lead in time to a decline in attention to the non-Star Wars graphic adventures that had previously been the biggest part of LucasArts’s identity. So, it was probably not entirely a coincidence that the LucasArts adventure arm peaked in 1993, just as the Star Wars arm was getting off the ground. In the time between Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle, adventure games suddenly became a sideline for LucasArts, with perhaps a proportional drop-off in their motivation to make everything in a game like Full Throttle just exactly perfect.

Another factor, one which I alluded to earlier, was the general sense in the industry that the market was now demanding faster paced, more immediate and visceral experiences. And, I rush to add, games with those qualities are fine in themselves. It’s just that that set of design goals may not have been a good pairing with an engine and a genre known for a rather different set of qualities.

These generalized factors were accompanied by more specific collisions of circumstance. When studying the development history of Day of the Tentacle, one comes away with the strong impression that Tim Schafer was the creator most enamored with the jokes and the goofy fiction of the game, while his partner Dave Grossman obsessed mostly over its interactive structure and puzzle design. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Schafer struck out on his own we got a game with a sparkling fictional presentation and lousy interactive elements.

Full Throttle was not made on the cheap. Far from it: it was the first LucasArts adventure to cost over $1 million to produce. But the money that was thrown at it wasn’t accompanied by a corresponding commitment to the process of making good games. Its development was instead chaotic, improvised rather than planned; Tim Schafer personally took on the titles of Writer, Designer, and Project Leader, and seems to have been well out of his depth on at least the last of them. As a result, the game, which had originally been slated for a Christmas 1994 release, fell badly behind schedule and over budget, and what Larry Ahern describes as a “huge section” of it had to be cut out before all was said and done. (Another result of Full Throttle‘s protracted creation was its use of vanilla VGA graphics, which made it something of an anachronism in the spring of 1995, what with the rest of the industry’s shift to higher-resolution SVGA; fortunately, LucasArts’s artists were so talented that their work couldn’t be spoiled even by giant pixels.) During the making of Day of the Tentacle, the design team had regularly brought ordinary folks in off the street to play the latest build and give their invaluable feedback. This didn’t happen for Full Throttle. Instead there was just a mad rush to complete and release a game that nobody had ever really tried to play cold. Alas, this is an old story in the history of adventure games, and a more depressingly typical one than that of the carefully built, meticulously tested game. The only difference on this occasion was that it hadn’t used to be a story set in LucasArts’s offices.

Still, LucasArts paid little price at this time for departing from their old ethos that Design Matters. Full Throttle was greeted by glowing reviews from magazine scribes who were dazzled by its slick, hip presentation, so different from anything else on the gaming scene. For example, the usually thoughtful Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World gave it four and a half out of five stars even as he acknowledged that “its weakest point is its gameplay.” For all that this might strike us today as the very definition of judging a book by its cover, such formulations were par for the course during the madcap multimedia frenzy of the mid-1990s. Tim Schafer claims that the game sold an eventual 1 million copies, enough to make MTV seriously consider turning it into a television cartoon.

Many of those buyers remember Full Throttle fondly today, although a considerable number of naysayers with complaints similar to the ones I’ve aired in this article have also joined the discussion since the game was remastered and re-released in 2017. It seems to me that attitudes toward this game in particular tend to neatly delineate two broad categories of adventure players. There are those who aren’t overly chuffed about puzzles and other issues of design, who consider a modicum of obtuseness to be almost an intrinsic part of the genre, and who thus don’t hesitate to reach for a walkthrough at the first sign of trouble. This is fair enough in itself; as I’ve said many times, there is no wrong way to play any game as long as you’re having fun. I, however, don’t tend to have much fun playing this way. I consider a good interactive design to be a prerequisite to a good game of any stripe. And when I reach for a walkthrough, I do so knowing I’m going to be angry afterward at either myself or the game. If it turns out to be a case of the latter… well, I’d rather just watch a movie.

And indeed, that has to be my final verdict on Full Throttle for those of you who share my own adventure-game predilections: just find yourself a video playthrough to watch, thereby to enjoy its buckets of style and personality without having to wrestle with all of the annoyances. If nothing else, Full Throttle makes for a fun cartoon. Pity about the gameplay.

(Sources: the book Full Throttle: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of November 1994 and August 1995; LucasArts customer newsletter The Adventurer of Winter 1994/1995 and Summer 1995; Retro Gamer 62; the “director’s commentary” from the 2017 re-release of Full Throttle. Online sources include interview with Tim Schafer by Celia Pearce and Chris Suellentrop.

A “remastered” version of Full Throttle is available for digital purchase.)

 

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The Best of Voyager, Part 1

This article contains capsule reviews of ten of the discs that I most appreciate from the early years of The Voyager Company, along with some additional notes on their origins, courtesy of Bob Stein. As the “Part 1” in the article’s title would imply, I’ll be reviewing more of the Voyager standouts later, although not right away; I’m still making my slow way through a rather large catalog. I anticipate that there will come at least two more articles of this sort over the course of the next few years.

Before starting in earnest on this first one, however, some explanations are in order:

I’ve always envisioned this history of digital interactivity as something of an interactive experience in its own right for its readers. I’ve always hoped that some percentage of you will be inspired to check out some of the artifacts I write about for yourself, inspired to go on your own journey through digital history and form your own judgments about what you find there. I’ve always done my best to facilitate that.

In the early years, that sometimes meant rolling up my sleeves and getting down in the weeds with the often-cranky emulators of now-obscure old computers, sharing ROM files and the like and even on one occasion packaging up a whole obsolete computer system in a (virtual) box. In the middle years, things got a bit easier, as I could generally just share disk images of the software I wrote about for you to try out on the more mature emulators of slightly later computers. And still more recently things have gotten easier yet, as most of the stuff I write about these days can be purchased as ready-to-run downloads from digital storefronts like GOG.com. (Indeed, the emergence of a permanent back catalog in a games industry that used to make a policy of forgetting its past is one of the most welcome developments I’ve had the pleasure to witness since I started this site.)

But when it comes to exploring the fascinating catalog of The Voyager Company, we’re kind of back to square one. The sad fact is that classic Macintosh emulation is far less mature than that of MS-DOS, early incarnations of Microsoft Windows, or even the Commodore 64 or Amiga. This isn’t, I rush to add, because the people who work on the three most prominent classic Mac emulators — each focusing on a distinct era of the long-lived platform — are any less capable than those working on other emulators, but just because it’s a big job and there aren’t a lot of people doing it in comparison to those endeavoring to preserve the more popular retro-gaming platforms.

The Voyager oeuvre has a particular knack for finding the weaknesses in the current generation of Mac emulators. Many of Voyager’s early releases are what’s known as “mixed-mode” CD-ROMs: CDs which combine a computer-specific “data track” with multiple other tracks of sound and/or music, readable by any audio-CD player. All of the extant emulators tend to choke horribly on these. Even the later Voyager releases, which generally aren’t mixed-mode, are often a tall order for the emulators, having been built using fiddly middleware like HyperCard or The Director, and being loaded to the gills with multimedia content to be played back using equally fiddly libraries like QuickTime. One usually can get them to work in the emulators, after a fashion, but they’re all too often glitchy and crash-prone.

I’m therefore going to recommend a radical solution to anyone interested in experiencing the Voyager discs I highlight below: don’t try to do it on an emulator. Get yourself a real vintage Macintosh instead.

Specifically, I recommend picking up a G3 iMac or iBook of the turn-of-the-millennium era. Apple sold millions and millions of these little machines, and they can still be found all over the place in North America and Europe: on online marketplaces, at swap meets, in charity shops, in your neighbors’ attic — or perhaps in your own. I bought a 1999-vintage iMac  here in Denmark — not exactly the cheapest country in the world — for the equivalent of $100 US a year and a half ago. I suspect that most of you can do much better than that if you’re willing to look around a bit.

These models have several other advantages beyond their ubiquity and cheapness. They’re easy to set up and take down, for one thing. And they’re just new enough to sport some very useful modern conveniences, like an Ethernet port and a USB port that can handle thumb drives, both a godsend for transferring files. Most importantly, they will run the entire Voyager product line more or less flawlessly. You just need to be sure you have some incarnation of MacOS 8 or 9 installed — the exact version really doesn’t matter — rather than OS X.

With your trusty iMac or iBook running MacOS 8 or 9 and a stack of blank CDs for burning to hand, there are only a couple of other things you need to know in order to dive into the Voyager catalog. All of the discs I describe below are hosted by The Macintosh Garden, a site which performs an invaluable service but which does have its idiosyncrasies. One of these is the use of the Mac favorite Stuff-It rather than a more universal standard as its compression tool of choice. If you use a modern Mac, you probably already have this software; if not, you’ll need to download it and install it on your everyday computer.

The files you’ll find inside the archives will be either ISO disc images, Toast images, or bin/cue images. The first can be burned to a physical CD-ROM for use on your vintage Mac directly from most modern operating systems. The second can be renamed with the extension “.iso” and burned the same way, if you don’t happen to own a modern Macintosh with Roxio Toast installed. The third is the most complicated, as it generally indicates one of the aforementioned mixed-mode CDs; you’ll need to have or acquire third-party software capable of burning these types of discs.

I must say that I’ve been immensely enjoying the tactility of using real hardware to explore the Voyager catalog. Perhaps you’ll feel the same. But the diehards among you can of course still try your luck with emulators; feel free to describe any information or solutions you discover in the process in the comments below. Note as well that a minority of the Voyager discs were also released in versions for Microsoft Windows, or as dual-platform discs that can run on either Mac or Windows. So, that might be another direction of inquiry for some of you in some cases.

And now on to what I really want to tell you about today…

 

AmandaStories (1991)



AmandaStories is one of those quietly influential works that can sometimes make my job so interesting. It’s the creation of a woman named Amanda Goodenough, who was the wife of HyperCard creator Bill Atkinson’s marriage counselor circa 1987. When the latter brought home a pre-release version of HyperCard, courtesy of his client, his wife started to use it to chronicle the adventures of her little black cat Inigo in the form of an interactive picture book.

Amanda Goodenough’s personal story — that of a thoroughly non-technical housewife who was able to create something remarkable thanks to the magic of HyperCard — made her a minor celebrity in the Macintosh world, a living symbol of HyperCard’s ethos of egalitarian creative empowerment. Bob Stein and his colleagues from Voyager first met her at the January 1988 Macworld show, where she was demonstrating her latest stories at the same time that they were demonstrating their HyperCard-and-laser-disc-driven exploration of the National Gallery of Art. They soon inked a deal to release her first four stories on floppy disk under the Voyager imprint. A second collection of stories followed a little later, this time starring a good-natured camel known simply as My Faithful Camel. The CD-ROM version featured here adds two more Inigo stories and supplements the silent black-and-white originals with colorized versions featuring occasional sound effects and music swells.

Yet what these AmandaStories led to is ultimately more important in the context of history than what they were. Among the people who admired them in those heady early days of HyperCard was a professional programmer and amateur Macintosh enthusiast named Rand Miller. They became a profound influence on The Manhole, the interactive picture book he created with his brother Robyn Miller; both works employ the same literally transparent interface, where everything happens as a result of clicking directly on the pictures on the screen rather than on buttons, menus, or other widgets. Voyager came very close to publishing The Manhole as well — “It was clear these guys were going somewhere,” says Stein — but was outbid in the end by Mediagenic.

After making a few more children’s titles, the Miller brothers decided to bring the same minimalist approach to an adventure game for adults. The result was 1993’s Myst, which sold at least 6 million boxed copies during the remaining years of the decade and created a whole sub-genre of adventures in its image. “We might have gotten Myst, and the world might have been very different,” muses Stein today of what is perhaps Voyager’s most obvious missed opportunity.

But they did at least get these stories which did so much to inspire Myst, and we can feel fortunate for that. AmandaStories remains as sweet and clever as ever, suitable for children and adults of any age.

 

I Photograph to Remember (1991)



I Photograph to Remember by the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer tells the story in pictures of the last three years of his parents’ lives, a period during which both were diagnosed with cancer and died of the disease. It engages with the essentials of human life and death in a way that very few digital works dare to do. Meyer’s photographs of his parents’ decline are not always easy to look at, but the unflinching honesty of the presentation makes it a necessary antidote to the escapist entertainments that usually dominate our monitor screens. Anyone who has been a caregiver or even just a witness to someone approaching the end of all ends will recognize the story that unspools here, so unique to Meyer’s family but also so universal.

Once one looks beyond the sadness at its core, the origin story of I Photograph to Remember turns out to be rather amusing. Bob Stein:

I’m at a party talking to a guy I don’t know, and he’s telling me about this amazing CD-ROM he’s gotten, about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When I tell him that I had a hand in making it, he invites me to his home and he shows me these 90 photographs that he took during this period of his parents’ lives. I realize that what’s he just done in effect is to give me a narrated slideshow, and that, because we can now show a high-resolution photograph on a computer screen with audio, we could publish that. It’s completely different from showing it on a television set, which just doesn’t have the resolution. And Pedro says, “Of course we should publish it on CD-ROM.” In retrospect, having known Pedro for years, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what was going to come out of that meeting; he’s very sly.

There was no question about which photographs we were going to show. And Pedro has this beautiful voice. All of that was a no-brainer. He hired a young man named Manuel Rocha to write the music. The first version was the most god-awful European synth-pop. I heard Pedro literally screaming at Manuel about this, telling him how terrible it was. I thought to myself, you can’t treat somebody like that; there’s no way that’s going to get the intended result. But he comes back a week or two later with a gorgeous soundtrack: minimalist and perfect. Who knows how you motivate people?

This is 1991. Up until that moment, as far as I know, nobody has used a computer to present deep emotional content. We showed it for the first time at this fancy conference that took place every year in Los Angeles. There were 500 people in the room, probably 95 percent men, all executives in suits. You could have heard a pin drop. People were stunned: “Oh, my God! This is what we can do with a computer?” That was exciting.

If there’s a complaint to be made about I Photograph to Remember today, it must be that the piece is hardly interactive at all, and could work just as well as a short film presented on a high-definition screen; once you’ve chosen whether you wish to hear Meyer’s narration in Spanish or English, it quite literally plays itself. But no matter: while I might quibble with Bob Stein’s claim that no computer-based work prior to this one attempted “to present deep emotional content,” there is no question that this one positively trembles with the ineffable joys and pains of our feeble mortal existences. If you’ve come to Voyager’s catalog looking for Art, you will most definitely find it here.

 

Last Chance to See (1992)



In the late 1980s, the BBC sent the humorist and novelist Douglas Adams and a zoologist named Mark Carwardine on a series of journeys to remote regions of the world in order to seek out some of our planet’s most unusual and endangered forms of wildlife. The 1989 television series which resulted became a book the following year, and finally this CD-ROM production two years after that. Bob Stein doesn’t think that highly of it, for perfectly coherent reasons: it’s little more than the raw text of the book read aloud by Adams, with occasional embedded sidebars to click on. It is, in other words, more of an ebook than an electronic book of the sort Stein was always trying to create.

Personally, though, I find that its formal limitations do little to diminish its impact. Douglas Adams was a unique mind who left us far too soon and wrote far too little even while he was with us. The Last Chance to See project was particularly welcome for giving him a chance to set aside silly two-headed aliens and towels in space in favor of things that really matter to our world. It’s poignant to hear him read his own words here, knowing that, although he would live for almost nine years after the release of this CD-ROM, he would never complete another book. Listening to his wit and wisdom, dealing not only with the ofttimes bizarre natural world but with the equally bizarre human foibles of the countries the two men visited, one can’t help but lament that fact.

But equally poignant are the fates of some of the strange animals Adams and Carwardine pursue. Few things can better bring home to you what we are losing than the act of listening to this CD-ROM and then looking up the current status of its subjects. The Yangtze river dolphin is probably extinct now; the northern white rhinoceros soon will be, given that the only two specimens that are left are both female. The title of Last Chance to See proved prophetic in those two cases at least, making it all the more precious for us today and those who will follow us as a document of wondrous creatures that used to be.

 

Poetry in Motion (1992)



Poetry in Motion repurposes footage captured for a 1982 documentary film of the same name, itself a work that occupies a special place in the history of Voyager: it was in fact the company’s very first product, published as a videotape in the short interim between Bob and Aleen Stein’s split with their Criterion Collection co-founder Roger Smith and their subsequent re-acquisition of the Criterion name. Bob Stein believes the film is better than the CD-ROM, but the latter does feature performances and interviews that the former lacks. Whichever format you choose to view it in, it’s a riotously good time, capturing the elder statesmen of the Beat Generation in a dialog of sorts with literary and musical up-and-comers, all set against the backdrop of the New York City and Toronto New Wave and No Wave scenes. Here you can see Allen Ginsberg belting out a spirited if harmonically challenged reading with a punk-rock backing band, and Tom Waits captured just as he is making the transition from his 1970s boozy-troubadour persona to the raucous cacophony of his 1980s records.

The Achilles heel of the CD-ROM Poetry in Motion, the primary source of Bob Stein’s dislike for it, is the usual one for Voyager products of this ilk: poor video quality. The film footage is a grainy postage stamp, so much so that it’s often difficult to determine exactly what it is you’re actually looking at. And yet the performances themselves are so bracing that they manage to carry you away anyway. Poetry in Motion is an indispensable snapshot of an instant in literary and musical history.

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1993)



The CD-ROM version of the classic 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night was Voyager’s most successful single product after the CD Companion to Beethoven, selling 100,000 copies in all — i.e., at least an order of magnitude more than the typical Voyager disc. And indeed, I can remember seeing it in software stores regularly during the mid-1990s, a memory I don’t have of any other Voyager product. This disc’s lodging in my brain may have something to do with my personal predilections; I’ve been a rabid Beatles fan ever since my cool big sister introduced them to me while my age was still in the single digits. But I do think that it also reflects the unusual reach of this particular Voyager CD-ROM, which was widely reviewed in such mainstream-media bastions as Entertainment Weekly magazine.

I won’t say too much about the film itself here, other than to note that it’s brilliant, the sights and sounds and excitement of a cultural revolution — thankfully not the kind advocated by Chairman Mao! — distilled into 87 potent minutes. More relevant for our purposes is Voyager’s approach to adapting the movie to this new medium of CD-ROM — if, that is, “adaptation” is even the right word. This is far from the ideal way to view A Hard Day’s Night for pleasure, whether for the first or hundredth time, given the absolutely awful video quality. But by way of compensation, it’s an innovative new way of studying the film. “Nobody was going to take this seriously as film,” Bob Stein says of the Voyager disc, “but we could do something fun with it.”

At first glance, the CD-ROM of A Hard Day’s Night might seem to have much in common with the laser-disc version of the film which Criterion had released earlier: the movie accompanied by a host of extras meant to deepen one’s understanding of it and to lend it context. Look closer, however, and differences quickly emerge. The CD-ROM’s approach is fundamentally textual, making it closer to an electronic book than the notion of a film on CD-ROM might initially imply: its core features are an extended essay by the respected Australian pop-culture journalist Bruce Elder and a complete copy of the shooting script. The latter is especially interesting, offering up the unique opportunity to watch the film in a window as one follows along in the script.

So, rather than being an early, technologically unsatisfactory example of what DVDs would later become, as one might be tempted to assume, the Voyager A Hard Day’s Night is in fact an example of a road not taken in film studies. DVDs and Blu-ray discs are able to combine what Voyager does here with superb video quality, and yet this capability has gone almost entirely unexplored. “To this day, it drives me crazy that Criterion has never tried to merge what we did with A Hard Day’s Night into their usual approach,” says Bob Stein. “Given that all the Criterion stuff is digital at this point, why can’t they associate the script of a movie with the movie itself?” Chalk it up as just one more symptom of our increasingly post-textual culture.

 

Who Built America? (1993)



Who Built America? is a CD-ROM adaption of a paper book of the same name by Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier: a history of the United States from 1876 to 1914. Bob Stein explains how one of Voyager’s most earnest attempts to realize the ideal of the electronic book came to be:

I was browsing the history section of the Harvard bookstore one day and this book popped out at me. It was from Knopf, so I figured it was somewhat credible, and the authors had a point of view which I liked. So, I got on the train to New York the next day and found the authors at Hunter College. I showed them the Beethoven CD-ROM, and said, “Let’s do something together.” They were techie kinds of guys; they were excited about it. We spent a year just talking, trying to figure out what the sweet spots were and what we could add to the equation by making their book electronic.

The breakthrough came for me when I realized that all history books are syntheses of the authors’ readings of documents, conversations they have, etc. Wouldn’t it be interesting to publish a history book including not just the synthesis that the book itself represents, but also with the documents that the synthesis was based on? In effect, let the readers participate as historians, reading the documents for themselves. That’s how we came up with these things we called “excursions”: at most points in the book, you can click on a link and see the original associated documents.

It’s not hard to grasp why Stein would find this particular history book so compelling, what with his own background as an activist for the workers of the world. Both its authored text and the many primary sources that branch off of it emphasize, almost to the exclusion of all else, the experiences of those marginalized and less empowered souls who do not tend to garner much attention in traditional narrative histories: immigrants, ex-slaves, racial and ethnic minorities, the working poor, etc. This determination to focus on the stories that are not usually told prevents the book from being a truly complete chronicle of Gilded Age America; the assassinations of two separate presidents are only a couple of the earthshaking events that it barely even bothers to mention.

And yet, if you go into it understanding the limitations imposed by the authors’ philosophy and perhaps ideology of history, you may just find what is present here extraordinarily compelling. I read literally every word over the course of many evenings, clicking on every link to read the primary-source documents, to view photographs and newspaper cartoons, to watch film clips and listen to songs, interviews, and other audio snippets. So very much of what you find in these excursions is, dare I say it, heartrending. A priceless cache of letters from Polish immigrants to the United States, writing to family members back in the Old World whom they will almost certainly never see in person again, is just one example. Who Built America? is a deeply empathetic social history of a fraught era whose legacy is still an inescapable reality of modern American life.

 

Baseball’s Greatest Hits (1994)



Voyager’s one foray into the world of sports was prompted to a large extent by the rediscovery of an artifact that’s sometimes been called “baseball’s Zapruder film”: a piece of 16mm footage shot by a fan during the 1932 World Series. It shows Babe Ruth hitting what is arguably the most famous home run in baseball history: his “called shot” home run, which receives its name from the tale that he pointed to exactly what corner of the park he planned to hit it to before taking the pitch. While the film is ultimately inconclusive — it appears to show Ruth making some sort of gesture, but it’s impossible to say more than that — it’s tremendous fun to watch it and to speculate about what one might be seeing.

But Baseball’s Greatest Hits has much more than one film clip to offer. It serves as a fine example of what made Voyager different from most of the others rushing to put content onto CD-ROM during the 1990s. Baseball fans’ love of statistics is famous; this made the sport a natural subject for any number of unimaginative encyclopedic CD-ROM data dumps from companies such as Microsoft.

Baseball’s Greatest Hits, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Rather than focusing on the numbers, it’s interested in the legends and lore of America’s Pastime, making it as legitimate a form of social history as the likes of Who Built America?. The heart of this curated collection is a timeline of “Great Moments,” stretching from the 1932 called-shot game to the 1993 World Series. Each great moment is introduced by the unmistakable voice of Mel Allen, the longstanding announcer for the New York Yankees, who died just a few years after this disc appeared. The great moment then goes on to feature radio and/or television clips from the day in question, excerpts from newspaper accounts, and score cards and the like for the stats-heads. The end result is not only a wonderful celebration of baseball, that most lore-rich of all American sports, but also a window into the 60 years of American history that’s reflected by these fields of dreams. Bob Stein:

It’s a fantastic disc.  I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I loved that disc. How come there’s nothing that good now on the Internet, 25 years later? It’s one of the things we did that you look at and wonder… it was great then, how come nobody’s done it since?

I don’t know, Bob. I can say only that Baseball’s Greatest Hits is one of my favorites too of all the Voyager discs, and one I’d encourage everyone to try, baseball fan or no.

 

People: 20 Years of Pop Culture (1994)



“We wanted to experiment with something that you could theoretically sell at a supermarket check-out,” says Bob Stein of what appears at first glance to be the cheesiest disc Voyager ever published. “I wasn’t embarrassed that we did it, but I wasn’t particularly proud of it.” Certainly no one would ever accuse People magazine of being any bastion of hard-hitting journalism, nor of reflecting anything but the most conventional of mainstream conventional wisdom.

And yet this archive of the magazine’s cover stories between 1974 and 1994 is by turns nostalgic, funny, surprising, and informative when revisited today. The magazine’s very ethos of hewing so firmly to the middle of the road in all matters makes it a telling barometer of which way the cultural winds were blowing on any given week. Often this archive serves to illustrate how much the world has changed, as when it treats the virulent white suprematism and segregationism of the former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace as little more than a minor personal foible. For people of a certain age like your humble writer here, it’s constantly bringing on a burst of remembrance, of some actor or television show from your childhood that you haven’t thought of in ages. Flipping through the pages reveals a cornucopia of the petty scandals that once kept people talking in those supermarket-checkout lines — Gary Hart and Donna Rice, Vanessa Williams — and the equally inescapable, “heart-warming” human-interest stories of the moment — the boy in the bubble, the girl down the well — all chronicled in delightfully awful purple prose. From time to time amidst it all, the magazine manages to transcend itself, as in a 1987 piece on the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, describing the lives and deaths of some of the disease’s victims with compassion and a notable lack of judgment. (Of course, that same lack could be taken as an indicator of American society’s glacially shifting attitudes toward homosexuality in general. Again, People magazine is nothing if not a faultless barometer of the mainstream.)

This disc may be the closest thing to a guilty pleasure in Voyager’s catalog. If so, I plead guilty as charged: I love it unashamedly.

 

Ephemeral Films: 1931 to 1960 (1994)



Ephemeral Films collects 38 pieces of celluloid flotsam and jetsam, the sort of movies that will most definitely never be considered for the Criterion Collection: promotional films, corporate training films, educational films for the classroom, etc. They come from the collection of Rick Prelinger, a tireless archiver of pop-culture ephemera who was toiling in obscurity when Bob Stein first met him. “When I saw what he was doing,” says Stein, “which was basically dumpster diving outside some of the most important producers of educational and inspirational films, I started calling him a media archaeologist. I convinced him to work with me to publish some of the films. We chose them and edited them so they would be more compact and interesting.” Prelinger would go on to an important career, working with organizations like the Internet Archive and his and his wife’s own Prelinger Library.

The highlights (lowlights?) here are legion: an Oldsmobile advertisement from 1931 that’s stuffed from top to bottom with sexual innuendo; the 1940 film where a creepy male doctor teaches women how to “relax”; the 1946 promo reel pushing mass-produced homes made out of steel of all building materials on the country’s returning GIs; the 1956 celebration of consumerism known as “Two-Ford Freedom,” which promises that housewives never again will need to feel like “prisoners in their own homes.” (It seems the 1950s were not big on public transport, cycling, or even walking…)

But my personal favorite is the timeless classic A Date with Your Family, a stultifying “social-guidance film” made for the classrooms of 1950. “The women of this family feel that they owe it to the men of the family to look relaxed, rested, and attractive at dinnertime,” says the narrator approvingly; tellingly, the sons have spent their time before dinner doing homework while the daughter spent hers with her mother in the kitchen. “The boys greet their dad as though they were genuinely glad to see him, as though they really missed him and are eager to talk to him,” the narrator continues without a trace of irony. “Pleasant, unemotional conversation helps digestion,” we learn. “Let Father and Mother guide the conversational trend. After all, they made all this possible.”

Films like these are as hilarious as they are horrifying; The Stepford Wives has nothing on them. Taken as a whole, Ephemeral Films explains in the course of an evening or two why the country needed Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

 

The Complete Maus (1994)



Maus by Art Spiegelman is a landmark in the history of the comic as an art form, being the first graphic novel to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. It’s based upon many hours of interviews which Spiegelman conducted with his father, a survivor of Auschwitz who immigrated to the United States from his native Poland after the war. In translating his father’s harrowing stories to the comics medium, Spiegelman turned the Jews into mice — thus the title, which is German for “mouse” — and the Nazis into cats. It took him some twenty years in all to complete the work, which was published in its final form in 1991, long after the death of the man whose travails it chronicled. Bob Stein:

The Museum of Modern Art in New York did an exhibit on Maus. I went to see it. It had a lot of audio of his father and sketches. I said, “This should be a CD-ROM.” Then one day out of the blue we got a phone call from Art’s agent, saying, “Art wants to make a CD-ROM out of Maus.” Obviously, we said yes.

But it turned out that Art did not give a flying fuck about CD-ROM. He wanted somebody who was stupid enough to take on the task of digitizing the 20,000 sketches he had made when he was creating Maus. That was what he wanted, to preserve the sketches. We did that, of course, in return for the right to make the Maus CD-ROM.

The CD-ROM contains the graphic novel in its entirety, supplemented by many of those concept sketches, by film clips and photographs of the places mentioned in the novel, by interviews with Art Spiegelman, and, most intriguingly of all in my opinion, by some of the recordings he made of his father telling the stories that later became the comic. I’ve heard it said that this is not the ideal way to read Maus for the first time, that the work was designed for the paper page and is best experienced there. That may very well be, but this CD-ROM was my own first encounter with it, and I found it a very affecting experience indeed. Real aficionados of comics — I’m afraid I’m not one of these; my wife is the reader of graphic novels in our family — will doubtless find deeper layers of interest than I did, what with all of the insight on process to be discovered here. One might go so far as to say that this CD-ROM is what the Criterion Collection might have been if it had focused on books rather than movies.

 

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Bob Stein and Voyager

Voyager tends to be overlooked in almost every survey because we didn’t really fit into anybody’s category. Librarians didn’t really pay much attention. The computer world never cared. Hollywood never really cared. We touched all these industries, but because we weren’t central to any of them and didn’t really ally with any of them in particular, we were in fact always an outlier.

— Bob Stein

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, an advisor to the American government on the subjects of engineering and technology, published his landmark essay “As We May Think,” which proposed using a hypothetical machine called the memex for navigating through an information space using trails of association. In the decades that followed, visionaries like Ted Nelson adapted Bush’s analog memex to digital computers, and researchers at Xerox PARC developed point-and-click interfaces that were ideal for the things that were by now being calling “hypertexts.” Finally, in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, created the World Wide Web, which moved hypertext onto the globe-spanning computer network known as the Internet. By the mid-1990s, a revolution in the way that all of us access and understand information was underway.

So runs a condensed history of the most life-changing invention in the realm of information transmission and retrieval since Gutenberg’s printing press. But, like any broad overview, it leaves out the many nooks and crannies where some of the interesting stories and artifacts can be found.

Tim Berners-Lee himself has told how the creation of the World Wide Web was more of a process of assembly than invention from whole cloth: “Most of the technologies involved in the Web had been designed already. I just had to put them together.” To wit: a very workable implementation of hypertext, eminently usable by everyday people, debuted on the Apple Macintosh in 1987, two and a half years before the first website went live. Over the course of that period of time, Apple’s HyperCard was used weekly by millions of people. When combined with the first CD-ROM drives, it gave those lucky people their first heady taste of what computing’s future was to hold for everyone. Even long after the Web had started to hum in earnest, locally hosted experiences, created in HyperCard and similar middleware environments like The Director, were able to combine hypertext with the sort of rich multimedia content that wouldn’t be practical over an Internet connection until after the millennium. This was the brief heyday of the CD as a publishing medium in its own right, a potential rival to the venerable paper-based book.

These CD-based hypertexts were different from the Web in some other, more fundamental or even philosophical ways than that of mere audiovisual fidelity. The Web was and is a hyper-social environment, where everyone links to everyone else — where, indeed, links and clicks are the very currency of the realm. This makes it an exciting, dynamic place to explore, but it also has its drawbacks, as our current struggles with online information bubbles and conscious disinformation campaigns illustrate all too well. Hypertextual, multimedia CD-ROMs, on the other hand, could offer closed but curated experiences, where a single strong authorial voice could be preserved. They were perhaps as close as we’ve ever come to non-fiction electronic books: not paper books which have simply been copied onto an electronic device, like ebooks on the Amazon Kindle and its ilk, but books which could not possibly exist on paper — books which supplement their text whenever necessary with sound and video, books consciously designed to be navigated by association. How strange and sad it is to think that they only existed during a relatively brief interstitial period in the history of information technology, when computers could already deliver hypertext and rich multimedia content but before the World Wide Web was widely enough available and fast enough to do everything we might ask of it.

The gold standard for electronic books on CD-ROM were the ones published by the Voyager Company. These productions ooze personality and quality, boasting innovative presentations and a touching faith in the intelligence of their readers. I would go so far as to say that there’s been no other collection of works quite like them in the entire history of electronic media. They stand out for me as some of my most exciting discoveries in all the years I’ve been writing these chronicles of our recent digital past for you. I’m delighted to bring you their story today.



The founder and head of Voyager was one Bob Stein. He was surely one of the most unlikely chief executives in the annals of American business, a man immortalized by Wired magazine as both “the most far-out publishing visionary in the new world” and “the least effective businessman alive.”

Stein was born in New York City in 1946, the son of a wealthy jewelry importer. His upbringing was, as he described it to me, “extremely privileged,” with all the best schools and opportunities that his parents’ money could buy. In high school, he imagined becoming an accountant or a lawyer. But he wound up going to Columbia University as a psychology undergraduate instead, and there he was swept up in the radical politics of the hippie generation. He found a home in the Revolutionary Communist Party, a group which hewed to the China of Chairman Mao in the internecine split that marked the international communist movement. Stein:

I was a revolutionary. I am not a revolutionary anymore, but, although my ideology has shifted, it hasn’t changed. I think we’re still many, many years away from making a judgment about the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution. Anything that is that broad, that encompasses a billion people over a ten-year period, is going to have so many facets to it. I will go to my grave saying that, from one perspective, the Cultural Revolution was the high point of humanity at the point when it happened. We’d never seen a society that was so good for so many of its people. That doesn’t mean it was good for everybody; intellectuals in particular suffered if they were not onboard with what was happening. And intellectuals are the ones who tell the story. So, a lot of the stories are told by intellectuals who didn’t do well during the Cultural Revolution. It was a hard time in China for a lot of people — but I don’t fault the Chinese for trying. Whether they failed is not as interesting to me as whether they tried.

Stein spent the late 1960s and most of the 1970s as a committed communist revolutionary, even as he was also earning a graduate degree in education from Harvard and working as a teacher and grass-roots community activist. Over the years, however, he grew more and more frustrated as the worldwide communist revolution he had been promised failed to materialize.

By the time I was in my early thirties, it became clear that revolution was much, much further away than I had thought when I signed up, as it were. So I made the extremely selfish decision to go do something else with my life. I did that because I could. With degrees from Columbia and Harvard, the world was my oyster. If a white guy like me wanted to come in from the cold, nobody looked askance. I remember walking down the street in New York with my daughter just after I left the Party, heading to some meeting I had set up with the president of CBS, whom I didn’t know, but I knew how to write a letter. She turned to me and said, “You know, you couldn’t be doing this transition if you didn’t have the background you have.”  And that was right. It wasn’t that I had any illusion that I was suddenly doing from the inside what I couldn’t do from the outside, it was that I was going to do something interesting and of value to humanity. I wasn’t making revolution anymore, but I would do things that had social value.

The question, of course, was just what those things should be. To the extent that he was aware of it at all, Stein had been unimpressed by the technological utopianism of organizations like Silicon Valley’s People’s Computer Company and Homebrew Computer Club. As a thoroughgoing Maoist, he had believed that society needed to be remade from top to bottom, and found such thinking as theirs naïve: “I didn’t think you could liberate humanity by doing cool shit on computers.”

Stein’s eureka moment came in the bathroom of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Propaganda Headquarters in Chicago. (Yes, a place by that name really existed.) Someone had left a copy of BusinessWeek there, presumably to help the party faithful keep tabs on the enemy. In it was an article about MCA’s work on what would become known as the laser disc, the first form of optical media to hit the consumer market; each of the record-album-sized discs was capable of storing up to one hour of video and its accompanying audio on each of its sides. Unlike the later audio-only compact disc, the laser disc was an analog rather than digital storage medium, meaning it couldn’t practically be used to store forms of data other than still and moving images and audio. Nevertheless, it could be controlled by an attached computer and made to play back arbitrary snippets of same. “It just seemed cool to me,” says Stein.

Shortly afterward, he and his wife Aleen Stein left the Party and moved to Los Angeles, where he spent his afternoons in the library, trying to make a plan for his future, and his nights working as a waiter. The potential of random-access optical media continued to intrigue him, leading him in the end into a project for Encyclopedia Britannica.

I failed Physics for Poets; I’ve never been technically oriented. I read an article where the chief scientist for Encyclopedia Britannica talked about putting the entire encyclopedia on a disc. I didn’t realize he meant that you could just do a digital dump; I thought he meant you could put it on there in a way that was interesting. So I wrote a letter to Random House asking if I could buy the rights to the Random House encyclopedia, which I quite liked; it was much less stodgy than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

A friend of mine asked me what I was into these days, and I sent her a copy of the letter, forgetting that her father was on the board of Encyclopedia Britannica. A few weeks later, I got a call from Chuck Swanson, the president of Encyclopedia Britannica. “If you know so much,” he said, “why don’t you come and talk to us?” I didn’t know anything!

I found this guy at the University of Nebraska who had made a bunch of videodiscs for the CIA, and I convinced him to come with me to Chicago to provide the gravitas for the meeting. We did a demo for Chuck Swanson and Charlie Van Doren, who was the head of editorial; he was like a kid in a candy store, he fell in love with this shit. They hired me to go away for a year and write a paper.

Stein was fortunate in having made his pitch at just the right time. Traditional print publishers like Encyclopedia Britannica were just beginning to reckon with the impact that the nascent personal-computer revolution was likely to have on their businesses; at almost the same instant that Stein was having his meeting, no less staid a publishing entity than the Reader’s Digest Corporation was investing $3 million in The Source, one of the first nationwide telecommunications services for everyday computer users. In time, when such things proved to catch on slower than their most wide-eyed boosters had predicted, print publishing’s ardor for electronic media would cool again, or be channeled into such other outlets as the equally short-lived bookware boom in computer games.

Stein’s final paper, which he sent to Encyclopedia Britannica in November of 1981, bore the dizzyingly idealistic title of “Encyclopedia Britannica and the Intellectual Tools of the Future.” He still considers it the blueprint of everything he would do in later years. Indeed, the products which he imagined Encyclopedia Britannica publishing would have fit in very well with the later Voyager CD-ROM catalog: Great Moments in History: A Motion Picture Archive; Please Explain with Isaac Asimov; Space Exploration: Past, Present, and Future; Invention and Discovery: The History of Technology; Everyday Life in the American Past; Origins: Milestones in Archaeological Discovery; Computers: The Mystery Unraveled; A Cultural History of the United States; Britannica Goes to London; The Grand Canyon: A Work in Progress. He pleaded with the company to think in the long term. From the report:

The existing [laser-disc] market is so small that immediate returns can only be minimal. To put this another way, if only the next couple of years are considered, more money can be made by investing in bonds than in videodiscs. On the other hand, the application of a carefully designed program now can minimize risks and put Encyclopedia Britannica in a position to realize impressive profits in a few years when the market matures. Three years from now, when other publishers are scrambling to develop video programs, Encyclopedia Britannica will already have a reputation for excellence and enjoy wide sales as a result. Furthermore, the individual programs we have described are designed to be classics that would be sold for many years.

As we’ll see, this ethic of getting in on the ground floor right now, even though profits might be nonexistent for the nonce, would also become a core part of Voyager’s corporate DNA; it would be a company perpetually waiting for a fondly predicted future when the financial floodgates would open. Encyclopedia Britannica, however, wasn’t interested in chasing unicorns at this time. Stein was paid for his efforts and his report was filed away in a drawer somewhere, never to be heard of again.

But Stein himself no longer had any doubts about what sorts of socially valuable things he wanted to work on. His journey next took him to, of all places, the videogame giant Atari.

At the time, the first wave of videogame mania was in full swing in the United States, with Atari at its epicenter, thanks to their Atari VCS home console and their many hit standup-arcade games. They quite literally had more money than they knew what to do with, and were splashing it around in some surprising ways. One of these was the formation of a blue-sky research group that ranged well beyond games to concern itself with the future of computing and information technology in the abstract. Its star — in fact, the man with the title of Atari’s “Chief Scientist” — was Alan Kay, a famous name already among digital futurists: while at Xerox PARC during the previous decade, he had developed Smalltalk, an object- and network-oriented programming language whose syntax was simple enough for children to use, and had envisioned something he called the Dynabook, a handheld computing device that today smacks distinctly of the Apple iPad. Reading about the Dynabook in particular, Stein decided that Alan Kay was just the person he needed to talk to. Stein:

I screwed up my courage one day and contacted him, and he invited me to come meet him. Alan read the [Encyclopedia Britannica] paper — all 120 pages of it — while we were sitting together. He said, “This is great. This is just what I want to do. Come work with me.”

Stein was joining a rarefied collection of thinkers. About half of Kay’s group consisted of refugees from Xerox PARC, while the other half was drawn from the brightest lights at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Architecture Machine Group, another hotbed of practical and theoretical innovation in computing.

Atari’s corporate offices were located in Silicon Valley, while both Stein and Kay lived in Los Angeles. In a telling testimony to the sheer amount of money at Atari’s disposal, they allowed the two to commute to work every day by airplane. Kay would sit next to Stein on the plane and “talk at me about two things I didn’t really know much about: music and computers. But I knew how to nod, so he thought I was understanding, and kept talking.”

Amidst this new breed of revolutionary dreamers, Stein found himself embracing the unwonted role of the practical man; he realized that he wanted to launch actual products rather than being content to lay the groundwork for the products of others, as most of his colleagues were. He took to flying regularly to New York, where he attempted to interest the executives at Warner Communications, Atari’s parent company, in the ideas being batted around on the other coast. But, while he secured many meetings, nothing tangible came out of them. After some eighteen months, he made the hard decision to move on. Once again, his timing was perfect: he left Atari just as the Great Videogame Crash was about to wreck their business. Less than a year later, Warner would sell the remnants of the company off in two chunks for pennies on the dollar, and Alan Kay’s research group would be no more.

Working independently now, Stein continued to try to interest someone — anyone — in pursuing the directions he had roughed out in his paper for Encyclopedia Britannica and refined at Atari. He got nowhere — until a spontaneous outburst set him on a new course: “At a boring meeting with RKO Home Video, I said off the top of my head, ‘How about selling me a very narrow right to Citizen Kane and King Kong? They said, ‘Sure.'” For the princely sum of $10,000, Stein walked away with the laser-disc rights to those two classic films.

Now all those hours spent hobnobbing with Warner executives paid off. Being idea-rich but cash-poor, Stein convinced a former Warner senior vice president named Roger Smith, who had been laid off in the wake of the Atari implosion, to put up his severance package as the capital for the venture. Thus was formed the Criterion Collection as a partnership between Bob and Aleen Stein and Roger Smith. The name is far better known today than that of Voyager — for, unlike Voyager, Criterion is still going as strong as ever.

The Criterion Citizen Kane and King Kong hit the market in November of 1984, causing quite the stir. For all that our main interest in this article is the later CD-ROMs of Voyager, it’s impossible to deny that, of all the projects Stein has been involved with, these early Criterion releases had the most direct and undeniable influence on the future of media consumption. Among many other innovations, Criterion took advantage of a heretofore little-remarked feature of the laser disc, the ability to give the viewer a choice of audio tracks to go with the video; this let them deploy the first-ever commentary track on the King Kong release, courtesy of film historian and preservationist Ron Haver. Stein describes how it came about:

At that time, and I don’t think it’s all that different today, transferring an old film to video meant sitting in a dark room (which cost hundreds of dollars per hour) making decisions about the correct color values for each individual shot. That was Ron’s job, and somewhat coincidentally, King Kong was his favorite film, and he kept us entertained by telling countless stories about the history of the film’s production. Someone said, “Hey, we’ve got extra sound tracks… why don’t we have Ron tell these stories while the film is playing?” Ron’s immediate reaction was “Are you kidding, NO WAY!”  The idea seemed too perfect to pass up, though, so I asked Ron if being stoned might help. He thought for a moment and said, “Hmmm! That might work.”  And so the next day we recorded Ron telling stories while the film played.


Criterion also included deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and other materials in addition to the commentary. In doing so, they laid out what would become standard operating procedure for everyone selling movies for the home once the DVD era arrived twelve years later.

Still, Stein himself believes that the real bedrock of Criterion’s reputation was the quality of the video transfer itself. The Criterion name became a byword for quality, the brand of choice for serious aficionados of film — a status it would never relinquish amidst all the changes in media-consumption habits during the ensuing decades.

So, when Bob Stein dies, his obituary is almost certain to describe him first and foremost as a co-founder of the Criterion Collection, the propagator of a modest revolution in the way we all view, study, and interact with film. Yet Criterion was never the entirety of what Stein dreamed of doing, nor perhaps quite what he might have wished his principal legacy to be. Although he had an appreciation for film, he didn’t burn for it with the same passion evinced by Criterion’s most loyal customers. That description better fit his wife Aleen, who would come to do most of the practical, everyday work of managing Criterion. “I’m a book guy,” he says. “I love books.” The Criterion Collection made quality products of which he was justifiably proud, but it would also become a means to another end, the funding engine that let him pursue his elusive dream of true electronic books.

The company known as Voyager was formed already in 1985, the result of a series of negotiations, transactions, and fallings-out which followed the release of the first two Criterion laser discs. The shakeup began when Roger Smith left the venture, having found its free-wheeling hippie culture not to his taste, and announced his determination to take the Criterion name with him. This prompted the Steins to seek out a new partner in Janus Films, a hallowed name among cineastes, a decades-old art-film distributor responsible for importing countless international classics to American shores. Together they formed the Voyager Company — named after the pair of space probes — to continue what Criterion had begun. Soon, however, it emerged that Smith was willing to sell them back the Criterion name for a not-unreasonable price. So, the logic of branding dictated that the already established Criterion Collection continue as an imprint of the larger Voyager Company.

Stein’s dreams for electronic books remained on hold for a couple of years, while the Criterion Collection continued to build a fine reputation for itself. Then, in August of 1987, Apple premiered a new piece of software called HyperCard, a multimedia hypertext authoring tool that was to be given away free with every new Macintosh computer. Within weeks of HyperCard’s release, enterprising programmers had developed ways of using it to control an attached laser-disc player. This was the moment, says Stein, that truly changed everything.

I should note at this juncture that the idea of doing neat things with an ordinary personal computer and an attached laser-disc player was not really a new one in the broad strokes. As far back as 1980, the American Heart Association deployed a CPR-training course built around an Apple II and a laser-disc player. Other such setups were used for pilot training, for early-childhood education, and for high-school economics courses. In January of 1982, Creative Computing magazine published a type-in listing for what was billed as the world’s first laser-disc game, which required a degree of hardware-hacking aptitude and a copy of the laser-disc release of the 1977 movie Rollercoaster to get working. Eighteen months later, laser-disc technology reached arcades in the form of Dragon’s Lair, which was built around 22 minutes of original cartoon footage from the former Disney animator Don Bluth. When the Commodore Amiga personal computer shipped in 1985, it included the ability to overlay its graphics onto other video sources, a feature originally designed with interactive laser-disc applications in mind.

Nevertheless, the addition of HyperCard to the equation did make a major difference for people like Bob Stein. On the one hand, it made controlling the laser-disc player easier than ever before — easy enough even for an avowed non-programmer like him. And on the other hand, hypertexts rather than conventional computer programs were exactly what he had been wanting to create all these years.

Voyager’s first ever product for computers began with an extant laser disc published by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which included still images of the entirety of the museum’s collection along with scattered video snippets. From this raw material, Stein and two colleagues created the National Gallery of Art Laserguide, a tool for navigating and exploring the collection in a multitude of ways. It caused a big stir at the Macworld Expo in January of 1988: “We became stars! It was fucking magic!” Shortly thereafter, Stein demonstrated it on the television show The Computer Chronicles.


Exciting as experiments like this one were, they couldn’t overcome the inherent drawbacks of the laser disc. As I noted earlier, it was an analog medium, capable of storing only still or moving images and audio. And, as can be seen in the segment above, using it in tandem with a computer meant dealing with two screens — one connected to the computer, the other to the laser-disc player itself. The obvious alternative was the compact disc, a format which, although originally developed for music, was digital rather than analog, and thus could be adapted to store any kind of data and to display it right on a computer’s monitor.

After a tortuously protracted evolution, CD-ROM was slowly sputtering to life as at least a potential proposition for the commercial marketplace. Microsoft was a big booster, having sponsored a CD-ROM conference every year since 1985. The first CD-based software products could already be purchased, although they were mostly uninspiring data dumps targeted at big business and academia rather than the polished, consumer-oriented works Stein aspired to make.

Moving from laser discs to CDs was not an unmitigated positive. The video that an attached laser-disc player could unspool so effortlessly had to be encoded digitally in order to go onto a CD, then decoded and pushed to a monitor in real time by the computer attached to the CD-ROM drive. It was important to keep the file size down; the 650 MB that could be packed onto a CD sounded impressive enough, but weren’t really that much at all when one started using them for raw video. At the same time, the compression techniques that one could practically employ were sharply limited by the computing horsepower available to decompress the video on the fly. The only way to wriggle between this rock and a hard place was to compromise — to compromise dramatically — on the fidelity of the video itself. Grainy, sometimes jerky video, often displayed in a window little larger than a postage stamp, would be the norm with CD-ROM for some time to come. This was more than a little ironic in the context of Voyager, a company whose other arm was so famed for the quality of its movie transfers to laser disc. Suffice to say that no Voyager CD-ROM would ever look quite as good as that National Gallery of Art Laserguide, much less the Criterion King Kong.

Still, it was clear that the necessary future of Voyager were CDs rather than laser discs. Looking for a proof of concept for an electronic book, Stein started to imagine a CD-ROM that would examine a piece of music in detail. He chose that theme, he likes to say only half jokingly, so that he could finally figure out what it was Alan Kay had been going on about in the seat next to his during all those airplane rides of theirs. But there was also another, more practical consideration: it was possible to create what was known as a “mixed mode” CDs, in which music and sound were stored in standard audio-CD format alongside other forms of data. These music tracks could be played back at full home-stereo fidelity by the CD-ROM drive itself, with minimal intervention from the attached computer. This usage scenario was, in other words, analogous to that of controlling an attached laser disc, albeit in this case it was only sound that could be played back so effortlessly at such glorious fidelity.

Thus it came to pass that on January 1, 1989, one Robert Winter, a 42-year-old music professor at UCLA, received a visitor at his Santa Monica bungalow: it was Bob Stein, toting an Apple CD-ROM drive at his side. “I thought it was the strangest-looking thing,” Winter says. He had known Stein for some seven years, ever since the latter had sat in on one of his classes, and had often complained to him about the difficulty of writing about music using only printed words on the page; it was akin to “dancing about architecture,” as a famous bit of folk wisdom put it. These complaints had caused Stein to tag him as “a multimedia kind of guy”; “I had no idea what he meant,” admits Winter. But now, Stein showed Winter how an Apple Macintosh equipped with HyperCard and a CD-ROM drive could provide a new, vastly better way of writing about music — by adding to the text the music itself for the reader to listen along with, plus graphics wherever they seemed necessary, with the whole topped off by that special sauce of hypertextual, associative interactivity. The professor took the bait: “I knew then and there that this was my medium.”

Robert Winter became such a star that he was hired by a company called Chinon to pitch their CD-ROM drives.

The two agreed to create a meticulous deconstruction of a towering masterpiece of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Winter:

I simply asked myself, “What is it I would like to know?” It occurred to me that I would like to know what is happening as the piece is playing. I start [my users] at the bubble-bath level, then the score, then the commentary, and a more detailed commentary.

The heart of the program was the “Close Reading,” where one could read a description of each passage, then listen to it from the same screen — or flip to the score to see what it looked like in musical notation, or flip to a more detailed, technical explanation, always with the chance to listen just a button-click away. Lest the whole experience become too dry, Winter sprinkled it with the wit that had made him a favorite lecturer at his university and a frequent guest commentator on National Public Radio. He equated stability in music with “an apartment you can make the rent on”; conflict in music was “sparring with a boss who doesn’t know how to give strokes.” When it came time for that section of the symphony, the one which absolutely everyone can hum — i..e, the famous “Ode to Joy” — “We’ve arrived!” flashed in big letters on the screen. The text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller which Beethoven set to music for the choir to sing was naturally also included, in the original German and in an English translation. Winter even added a trivia game; answer a question correctly, and Beethoven would wink at you and say, “Sehr gut!” aloud.


“I don’t think anything is any good if it doesn’t have a point of view,” said Bob Stein on one occasion. In being so richly imbued with its maker Robert Winter’s personality and point of view, the CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a model for all of the Voyager CDs to come. “You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks,” wrote Wired magazine of Winter’s interactive works years later. “You keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter – more substance – to uncover.” This too would be case for Voyager’s CDs in general. They would really, earnestly engage with their subject matter, rather than being content to coast on the novelty of their medium like most of their peers. “It is one of the few producers to offer actual ideas on CD-ROM,” wrote Wired of Voyager itself.

Stein and Winter brought their finished product to the Macworld Expo of August of 1989, where it caused just as much of a sensation as had the National Gallery of Art laser disc nineteen months before. “People stood there for thirty minutes as if they were deer in front of headlights,” says Winter. He claims that many at the show bought CD-ROM drives just in order to run the CD Companion to Beethoven. If it was not quite the first consumer-oriented CD-ROM, it was among the most prominent during the format’s infancy. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for!” said Bill Gates upon his first viewing of the program. Like all of its ilk, its initial sales were limited by the expensive hardware needed to run it, but it was written about again and again as an aspirational sign of the times that were soon to arrive. “It takes us up to Beethoven’s worktable and lays bare the whole creative process,” enthused the Los Angeles Herald. Voyager was off and running at last as a maker of electronic books.

Their products would never entirely escape from the aspirational ghetto for a variety of reasons, beginning with their esoteric, unabashedly intellectual subject matter, continuing with the availability of most of them only on the Macintosh (a computer with less than 10 percent of the overall market share), and concluding with the World Wide Web waiting there in the wings with a whole different interpretation of hypertext’s affordances. The CD Companion to Beethoven, which eventually sold 130,000 copies on the back of all the hype and a version for Microsoft Windows,[1]This version bore the title of Multimedia Beethoven. would remain the company’s most successful single product ever; the majority of the Voyager CD-ROMs would never break five digits, much less six, in total unit sales. Yet Stein would manage to keep the operation going for seven years by hook or by crook: by “reinvesting” the money turned over by the Criterion Collection, by securing grants and loans from the Markle Foundation and Apple, and by employing idealistic young people who were willing to work cheap; “If you’re over 30 at Voyager,” said one employee, “you feel like a camp counselor.” Thanks not least to this last factor, the average budget for a Voyager CD-ROM was only about $150,000.

During the first couple of years, Robert Winter’s CD-ROMs remained the bedrock of Voyager; in time, he created explorations of Dvorak, Mozart, Schubert, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky in addition to Beethoven. By 1991, however, Voyager was entering its mature phase, pushing in several different directions. By 1994, it was publishing more than one new CD per month, on a bewildering variety of subjects.

In the next article, then, we’ll begin to look at this rather extraordinary catalog in closer detail. If any catalog of creative software is worth rediscovering, it’s this one.

(Sources: the book The DVD and the Study of Film: The Attainable Text by Mark Parker and Deborah Parker; Wired of December 1994 and July 1996; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994; Macworld of November 1988; New York Times of November 8 1992; the 1988 episode of the Computer Chronicles television show entitled “HyperCard”; Phil Salvador’s online interview with Bob Stein. The majority of this article is drawn from a lengthy personal interview with Bob Stein and from his extensive online archives. Thank you for both, Bob!)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 This version bore the title of Multimedia Beethoven.
 

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