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Death Gate

Licensed games are often dismissed as supremely cynical cash grabs. And for the most part, this judgment is correct: the majority of them are indeed dispiriting affairs.

But no thing in life is all one thing. Take, for instance, the story of Legend Entertainment, which upends all of our prejudices about the licensing racket. Rather than being some evil marketing genius’s idea for maximizing revenue, Legend’s reputation as a peddler primarily of licensed product arose all but accidentally, and at least in the beginning involved very little cynicism at all. It all stems from 1991, when Legend co-founder Mike Verdu decided that he’d really, really like to write a game set in the universe of Gateway, a series of science-fiction novels by Frederick Pohl which he happened to love for reasons pure as the driven snow. When that game was well-received, Legend designer Michael Lindner piped up to say that he would like to make an adaptation of his favorite fantasy series, the Xanth novels of Piers Anthony. And when that too went well, Glen Dahlgren asked for a license to adapt Death Gate, another series of fantasy novels, these ones by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. It was all quite shockingly organic — just like one of the press releases put out by one of the other makers of licensed games, the kind that claim that they were actually passionate about Brand X since long before they were given a chance to make a game out of it. In this case, though, it’s the truth.



Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were among a new group of authors who began reaching bookstores shelves in the 1980s with novels that had begun as games; thus there was a certain poetic symmetry in Legend eventually completing the circle. Indeed, Weis and Hickman had at least as much impact on gaming writ large over the course of their careers as they did on the state of the art of the fantasy novel.

It all began for Tracy Hickman, as it did for so many others, with tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. He was introduced to the game by his fiancée Laura Curtis in the late 1970s, when the two were starving university students in their home town of Salt Lake City, Utah. After getting married and starting a family, the couple looked for a way to justify their hobby when they couldn’t even afford “church shoes” for their two young children. (Like a surprising number of significant figures in gaming history, they were and remain devout Mormons.) So, they founded DayStar West Media to publish two pre-written Dungeons & Dragons “adventure modules.” These sold in fairly minuscule numbers, but provided an entrée to TSR, the maker of the game. In 1982, TSR offered Tracy Hickman a job as an in-house designer. And so the couple piled their children and all the luggage that would fit into the back of their battered old Volkswagen Rabbit and set off for Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the tabletop RPG scene’s Mecca.

Tracy has since said many times that the idea for Dragonlance, the Hickmans’ master stroke in the fields of both games and books, was born on that long drive. They’d been sent a copy of a marketing study TSR had commissioned, which said that, as Tracy remembers: “1) Dungeons & Dragons is your core product. 2) You have lots of dungeons. 3) You need more dragons.” Ergo, Dragonlance would be a series of adventure modules, each revolving around a different type of dragon.

But its short-term goal of injecting more dragons into the mix has little to do with Dragonlance‘s ultimate importance. The Hickmans conceived it as a series of adventures which would be, as tabletop-gaming historian Shannon Applecline puts it, “plot-oriented” rather than “location-based.” Instead of engaging in the mere tactical challenge of clearing a dungeon of monsters and traps and looting its contents, players would get to live out a complicated epic story worthy of Tolkien himself, set in a brand new, richly detailed fantasy world.

Dragonlance evolved into one of the most ambitious projects TSR ever undertook, one that remains to this day an enduring icon of its hobby. A groundbreaking trans-media experience at a time when such things were much rarer than they’ve become today, its story filled twelve adventure modules, supported by numerous source books — and, most importantly for our purposes, by a trilogy of thick novels which walked its readers through the modules. TSR’s management was first inclined to hire a “real” author to write them, but when the initial pool of applicants proved underwhelming they agreed to let Tracy Hickman and another staffer named Margaret Weis have the assignment. (The important contributions of Laura Hickman — née Laura Curtis — not only in the beginning stages of the project but throughout its duration, went sadly uncredited.)

Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles, appeared in late 1984. It wasn’t quite at the level of Tolkien; you could almost hear the dice rolling behind the scenes during its lovingly detailed round-by-round descriptions of Dungeons & Dragons combat. Still, it offered up a fast-paced story with appealing characters, and for many or most of its readers the Dungeons & Dragons-ness of the whole affair was actually a feature rather than a bug. It launched TSR into a whole new field of publishing, one that would eventually become more profitable than the games which continued to inform the novels so intimately.

Weis and Hickman, meanwhile, saw their names suddenly at the top of genre-fiction bestseller lists. Almost overnight, the two heretofore obscure game designers became household names among fans of fantasy fiction, bankable enough to be sought after by the old guard of American publishing. They stuck with TSR long enough to write a second, standalone trilogy of Dragonlance novels, but then departed the games industry entirely for more lucrative climes, leaving others there — perhaps most notably the company White Wolf, with their World of Darkness series of Gothic-horror RPGs — to build upon the storytelling revolution they had fostered.

After signing with the Random House imprint of Bantam Books, Weis and Hickman churned out the paperbacks at the steady pace of a novel every six to nine months: first came a Darksword trilogy, then a Rose of the Prophet trilogy. And then, beginning in 1990, came the seven-book Death Gate Cycle.

Dragon Wing, the first of the Death Gate novels. (You can’t ever go wrong with dragons, right?)

Like so many fantasy novels, the Death Gate books are most of all an exercise in world-building, and so your level of enjoyment of them must ultimately be determined by your level of interest in their elaborate castles in the air. As my regular readers know all too well by now, I haven’t been part of that target market for a long time. Nevertheless, here’s the capsule version:

The books involve two races of ultra-advanced beings, known as the Patryns and Sartans, who inhabit the far future of what would appear to be our own planet Earth. Long before the main story of the novels begins, these two races went to war with one another. The Sartans won the war, whereupon they placed the remaining Patryns in an inter-dimensional prison known as the Labyrinth. For rather convoluted reasons, they then sundered the Earth into four separate worlds, each based upon one of the Aristotelian elements — air, water, earth, and fire — and each inhabited mostly by less godly races, whom the Patryns and Sartans traditionally call the Mensch. So much for the backstory. The books proper describe how the Patryns and Sartans finally reconcile and heal their shattered realm. Weis and Hickman were just publishing the fifth of the seven books when Glen Dahlgren over at Legend decided that he’d like to make a game out of them.



Dahlgren had originally been hired to work at Legend as an assistant programmer. But, as was typical of most employees of the tiny company, his responsibilities bloomed in all sorts of unexpected directions after he arrived there. A talent for music led him to become Legend’s in-house sound man, responsible for soundtracks and sound effects alike. A talent for organization led him to become Legend’s quality-control man, overseeing a far-flung network of outside testers. And then he was selected to become one of the three men who put together Gateway, a project consciously engineered by Bob Bates, who had co-founded Legend alongside Mike Verdu, as a boot camp for training up new designers. After that, Dahlgren did half of the design work on Gateway 2, before being given permission to make his own game from start to finish; that game became Death Gate. Bates and Verdu put an enormous amount of faith in him — the sort of faith which one usually only sees manifested at small, young companies like this one, where bureaucracy is minimal and second-guessing rare. Whether or not Dalhgren realized it at the time, his bosses gave him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Of course, Legend had to secure the license before anything else could happen. Fortunately for everyone, this proved not to be terribly difficult. The negotiations were aided by the fact that Weis and Hickman remained enthusiastic gamers themselves; they made sure that their agent and publisher got the deal done with very little hassle, and even agreed to provide an original novella to include in the box. Like Bates and Verdu, they were almost bizarrely trusting of Dahlgren. They didn’t even blink when he proposed packing the entire story arc of the Death Gate series — some 3000 pages in text form — into a single game. Although only five of the planned seven novels had yet appeared when the project began, Weis and Hickman freely shared their plans for the remainder of the series — most importantly, for the big finale where the worlds would be unified once again.

In  what he called his “high concept” proposal for the game, Dahlgren laid out the plot in the broadest possible strokes:

This game is about a warrior whose race was imprisoned thousands of years ago in a place called the Labyrinth. His people were defeated by another race who broke up the world into four realms connected only by the Death Gate. In the game, the hero seeks to re-form the world by finding and assembling the scattered pieces of the World Seal.

None of it should work; it should feel like the Cliff’s Notes abridgement of the novels that it is. And yet Dalhgren made it work against all odds, largely by emphasizing the worlds of the books over the details of their plots. His most dazzling stroke was the insertion of the aforementioned World Seal as his McGuffin — one piece of it on each of the four worlds, in classic adventure-game fashion. With this scavenger hunt to serve as a straightforward motivation, you can get a taste of each world and interact with some of its characters without getting too bogged down in the more elaborate plot machinations of the books. Then fast-forward to the reunification, and you’re done.

This isn’t to say that well-nigh encyclopedic amounts of material from the books aren’t missing from the game. These leavings encompass not just countless details of the environments and cultures that Weis and Hickman created, but also nuances of theme and character. The central protagonist of both the novels and the game is a Patryn named Haplo, but he cuts a very different figure in the two mediums. In the books, he’s a morally ambiguous character at best, a cold fish full of prejudice and at times outright malevolence; in the game, he’s a naïve innocent whose mistakes all arise from the deceptions perpetrated upon him by his master Xar, a fellow the player can see is up to no good about five minutes after meeting him for the first time. It’s telling that Dahlgren refers to Haplo as his game’s “hero” in the extract above; few readers of the books would choose that word. To wit: in the first of the novels, Haplo deliberately engineers a war on the world known as Arianus; in the game, he prevents one instead with a dose of good old-fashioned peace, love, and understanding. Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine as well as precisely the fan of the books that I am not, wrote in his otherwise positive preview of the game that “I just wish Haplo had a little more anger in him.”

Sometimes Death Gate can feel a bit like a vintage Star Trek episode, with Haplo in Captain Kirk’s role of the man who swoops in to solve centuries of conflict between two commercial breaks.

Nevertheless, even Wilson admitted that Death Gate passed the acid test of any adaptation: if you didn’t know that the game was based on a series of books before playing it, you wouldn’t feel like you were missing anything. It truly works as a self-contained experience, while still capturing the feel of its source material. It manages to present the complex cosmology of the novels in an intuitive, natural way, without ever burying you under info-dumps.

Death Gate has much else going for it as well. By the time of its release in late 1994, Legend had quietly turned into the most consistent adventure studio in the industry, with a design aesthetic defined by an absolute commitment to fairness which even LucasArts couldn’t match. If at times this commitment could lead Legend to play it a bit too safe — Legend’s puzzles seldom evince the inspired lunacy of LucasArts at their best — it’s vastly preferable to the other extreme, as exemplified by the sloppy designs of Sierra, their other major competitor. Glen Dahlgren recently wrote on the subject, using terms that seem suspiciously similar to the design philosophy which Bob Bates has repeatedly explicated in his own writings and lectures:

Every puzzle should provide an “Aha!” moment, where either you feel smart for having figured it out, or you discover the answer elsewhere and smack your head for NOT figuring it out. If you don’t have enough information in the game to figure out the solution logically, you never get that moment. In an adventure game, that moment is the fun!

The design isn’t intended to torment you or to “beat” you (the designer isn’t even there to enjoy besting the player, so it isn’t a satisfying goal to begin with). My philosophy has always been that a player puts his trust in the designer to take care of him. Once the player has lost that trust, he’ll give up.

So, while there are no puzzles in Death Gate that you’ll remember for years — or even days — afterward, there are likewise none that unduly block your progress through the story. Thanks to its conversations that can go on for minutes at a time, it plays almost as much like an interactive storybook as a puzzle-solving adventure game.

Is this a puzzle I see before me?

Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its share of more conventionally gamey pleasures as well. A highlight is its rune-based magic system, which smacks of the classic CRPGs Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld more than that of any other adventure game with which I’m familiar. Combining the runes into magical recipes, then trying said recipes out on anything and everything, is a consistent source of fun. A surprising number of the silly things you can try are implemented, usually to very amusing effect. You can’t lock yourself out of victory without knowing it when doing stuff like this, and, while you can die, resurrection is always just a click of the “undo” button away. Thus you can experiment to your heart’s content.

Mucking about with magic runes…

The interface is the one which Legend introduced in Companions of Xanth: fully point and click now rather than parser-based, but still retaining a pronounced literary feel that betrays Bates and Verdu’s original conception of Legend as the heirs to Infocom’s legacy. Although the characters you meet are voice-acted, descriptions and narrations are still presented only in text.

It’s easy to see which screens (like this one) are rendered in SVGA and which screens (like the previous one) are not.

Death Gate was, however, the first Legend game to make partial use of SVGA graphics, at a resolution of 640 X 480 rather than the 320 X 200 of VGA. The difference is marked. In fact, I’d go so far as to call the transition to SVGA the most significant transformation in computer-game audiovisuals since the Commodore Amiga appeared on the scene in 1985. SVGA games of the 1990s — the non-3D ones, at least — no longer have to be graded on a curve when it comes to their visual aesthetics. Much of the art in Death Gate would fit perfectly well into the latest indie sensation on Steam.

In another first for Legend, the opening movie and some of the later cut scenes are pre-rendered 3D, built using 3D Studio, a tool which was making a steady march across the games industry at the time.

All of these good qualities serve to make the rather negative review of Death Gate which Computer Gaming World published after Johnny Wilson’s positive preview seem all the more jarring. Peter Olafson dinged the game for its supposed inconsistencies of tone, for thoughtlessly mixing the serious with the comedic. This really is a problem with many adventure games then and now, which tend to collapse into comedy as a crutch for their ridiculously convoluted puzzles. And yet I don’t see Death Gate as one of those games at all. On the contrary: it strikes me as doing an admirable job of sticking to its guns and avoiding this tendency. The humor here is actually of a piece with the humor of the source material, as even Olafson admits in a tossed-off sentence that desperately needs further elaboration: “Even though this comic relief is present in the books, it seemed distracting and inappropriate in the game.” (Why exactly is that, Mr. Olafson?) Whether or not one finds the befuddled old wizard Zifnab, who wandered into the Death Gate universe from a dimensional warp in the Dragonlance world of Krynn, as hilarious as he’s obviously meant to be, his portrayal in the game isn’t notably different from his portrayal in the novels.

But another of Olafson’s criticisms is more telling, so much so that I’d like to quote it in full here:

I occasionally was haunted by a feeling that Death Gate’s technology has outstripped its genre. All the amenities lavished on the game — the enormous reservoir of digitized speech, the SVGA graphics, the animated cut scenes — build expectations for a game mechanism to complement them. And as agreeable as the engine may be, the game proper is essentially the same old object-oriented adventuring: take everything that’s not nailed down and use it in a conspiracy to take everything that is. There is something inherently trivial about inhabiting a lavish world and being stranded simply by want of a certain item. [It] is rather like having an orchestra play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

If there is an overarching criticism to be raised against Death Gate, it’s this lack of will to innovate beyond the traditional confines of its genre. Indeed, the same criticism can be leveled against Legend’s catalog as a whole. While their adventures were the most consistently fair and literate in the industry during the 1990s, they were far from groundbreaking in formal terms. But then again, this eschewing of dizzying leaps in favor of keeping their feet planted firmly on solid ground does much to explain just why their games remain so playable to this day. In an industry that often fetishizes vision at the expense of craft, Legend’s games show how satisfying the tried and true can be when executed with thoroughgoing care.



Death Gate is a typical Legend game in another respect: it sold in reasonable but not overwhelming numbers; its sales figures remained in the five digits rather than the six or even seven to which the flashiest releases could aspire by 1994. Despite that, it wound up playing a role in Legend’s long-term evolution which was belied by its middling commercial performance.

Like many other small publishers, Legend found themselves increasingly threatened by the winds of change which blew through their industry as the 1990s wore on. The arrival of CD-ROM increased budgets enormously, thanks to the voice acting and richer and more elaborate graphic presentations that became not just possible but expected in this new era of 650 MB of storage. Meanwhile there arose a CD-ROM-fueled bubble in the marketplace, an ironic parallel to the bookware flash in the pan of exactly a decade earlier: titans of old media, from Disney to Random House, once again turned their attention to computer games as the potential Next Big Thing in publishing. How could little Legend hope to compete with the likes of them?

Well, as a wise person once said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. By this point, Legend had established a solid relationship with Random House, first through their adaptations of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway novels and now with their work on Death Gate. With Random House eager to jump into computer games in a more concerted way, it made sense to both parties to cement the relationship — to, as they put it in their corporate-speak press release, “intensify the synergy established between them.” Mike Verdu spoke to me about it recently using more recognizably human language:

What drew Random House’s attention was the identity we had developed as a company that could take literary licenses and create properties out of them with the respect their authors thought they deserved. We had credibility as people who could take other authors’ worlds and build essentially new fictions in them, and take care of them and be a trusted partner in doing that. That had become sort of our trademark. As Random House was surveying what was then called “the new-media landscape,” they saw this as a very natural extension of their strength; it seemed like a very happy partnership.

Random House injected $2.5 million into Legend in the fall of 1994, at virtually the same instant that Death Gate was hitting store shelves. The first fruits of the investment would appear the next year, when Legend released a three-CD full-motion-video extravaganza starring Michael Dorn, the actor best known as Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation. That game cost almost an order of magnitude more to make than the ones Legend had been making before it, but its budget didn’t stem from arrogance or decadence. Legend was just trying to survive. And, accordingly to the conventional wisdom anyway, this was the only way to do it in the midst of the CD-ROM bubble.

In the end, the Random House deal would prove a mixed blessing at best. It gave the larger company a great deal of control over the smaller one — more control in reality than the latter had realized it would. It was structured to indemnify Random House against loss, such that Legend was on the hook to pay much of the investment back if they didn’t meet certain financial targets. For this reason not least, Random House would play an outsize role in the future in deciding which games Legend got to make. Not coincidentally, licensed games would come to dominate Legend’s output more than ever. In fact, during the entirety of their existence after the Random House deal Legend would release just one more game that wasn’t based on someone else’s preexisting intellectual property.

It was good, then, that they had a special talent for building upon the creativity of others. For they’d be doing a lot more of that sort of thing, sometimes for reasons that perhaps weren’t quite as pure as the honest love for the books in question that had spawned Gateway, Companions of Xanth, and Death Gate. Such was life if you wanted to run with the big boys.

(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons, ’70 to ’79 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of June 1993, November 1994, and February 1995; Questbusters 115; Retro Gamer 180. Online sources include Glen Dahlgren’s memoir of the making of Death Gate and Tracy Hickman’s interview at Mormon Artist. And my huge thanks to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for their insights about Death Gate and all other things Legend during personal interviews.

Death Gate was briefly available for digital purchase at GOG.com, but has since disappeared again, presumably due to the difficulties associated with clearing the rights for licensed titles. It’s too large for me to host here even if I wasn’t nervous about the legal implications of doing so, but I have prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and an ISO image of the CD-ROM. A final hint: as of this writing, you can find the latter on archive.org if you look hard enough.)

 
 

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Superhero League of Hoboken

 

Please bear with me as I begin today with an anecdote from Beatles rather than gaming fandom.

Paul McCartney was having a rough time of it in 1973, three years after the Beatles’ breakup. He’d been thrown off balance by that event more than any of his band mates, and had spent the intervening time releasing albums full of far too many flaccid, underwritten songs, which the critics savaged with glee. They treated Wings, the new band he had formed, with the same derision, mocking especially the inclusion of Paul’s wife Linda as keyboard player. (“What do you call a dog with wings?” ran one of the uglier misogynist jokes of the time. “Linda!”) Then, just as it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, two of the three members of Wings who weren’t part of the McCartney family quit just as they were all supposed to fly to Lagos, Nigeria, to record their latest album.

It ought to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. But instead, Paul, Linda, and their faithful rhythm guitarist Denny Laine went to Nigeria and delivered what many still regard as the finest album of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. “Paul thought, I’ve got to do it. Either I give up and cut my throat or get my magic back,” said Linda later. He did the latter: Band on the Run marked the return of the Paul McCartney who had crafted the astonishing medley that closed out Abbey Road, that parting shot of the greatest rock band ever. As Nicholas Schaffner wrote in The Beatles Forever, “Band on the Run more than sufficed to dispel the stigma of all that intervening wimpery. And the aging hippies all said: McCartney Is Back.”

I tell this story now because I had much the same feeling when I recently played Superhero League of Hoboken, Steve Meretzky’s game from 1994: “Meretzky Is Back.” And a welcome return it was.

Meretzky, you see, spent the period immediately following the breakup of Infocom in 1989 pursuing his own sort of peculiarly underwhelming course. The man who had strained so hard to bring real literary credibility to the medium of the adventure game in 1985 via A Mind Forever Voyaging spent the early years of the 1990s making lowbrow sex comedies seemingly aimed primarily at thirteen-year-old boys. Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, the first of the bunch, was defensible on its own merits, and certainly a solid commercial choice with which to kick-start Legend Entertainment, the company co-founded by former Infocom author Bob Bates with the explicit goal of becoming the heir to Infocom’s legacy. By the time of Spellcasting 201 and Spellcasting 301, however, the jokes were wearing decidedly thin. And the less said the better about Activision’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, the comprehensively botched graphical sequel to arguably Meretzky’s best single Infocom text adventure of all. By 1992, it was time for a change. Oh, boy, was it time for a change.

Thus it was a blessing for everyone when Meretzky decided not to make the fourth game in what had been planned as a Spellcasting tetralogy, decided to do something completely different for Legend instead. The change in plans was readily accepted by the latter, for whom Meretzky worked from home on a contract basis. For, in a surprising indication that even the timeless marketing mantra that Sex Sells isn’t complete proof against a stale concept, sales of Spellcasting 301 hadn’t been all that strong.

The concept for Meretzky’s next game was fresh in comparison to what had come immediately before it, but it wasn’t actually all that new. In 1987, after finishing Stationfall for Infocom, he’d prepared a list of eight possibilities for his next project and circulated it among his colleagues. On the list was something called Super-Hero League of America:

When Marvel Comics asked if we’d be interested in a collaboration, I thought, Steve, old buddy, old pal, you could think up a lot more interesting and weird and fun superheroes than those worn-out boring Marvel Comics superheroes. Such as Farm Stand Man, who can turn himself into any vegetable beginning with a vowel. Dr. Madmoiselle [sic] Mozzarella, who can tell the toppings on any pizza before the box is even opened! I see this as a Hitchhiker’s/Rashomon type game in which you can play your choice of any of half a dozen superheroes. The story would be slightly different depending on which one you chose. If you elected to portray Annelid Man (able to communicate with any member of the worm family), you wouldn’t command as much respect as Dr. Asphalt (able to devour entire eight-lane highways), and the other superheroes wouldn’t obey you as readily. Potential for lots of interesting puzzles. Possible RPG elements.

“I like this!” scribbled one of his colleagues on the memo. “The superheroes shouldn’t be so silly, though… maybe?” But in the end, Meretzky wound up doing the safest project on the list, yet another Zork sequel. After releasing a whole pile of unique and innovative games over the course of 1987, to uniformly dismal commercial results, Infocom just didn’t feel that they had room to take any more chances.

Still, the idea continued to resonate with its originator, even through all of the changes which the ensuing five years brought with them. In late 1992, having decided not to do another Spellcasting game, he dusted it off and developed it further. He had the brilliant brainstorm of setting it in Hoboken, New Jersey, a real town of 35,000 souls not without a record of achievement — it’s the birthplace of baseball, Frank Sinatra, and Yo La Tengo — but one whose very name seems somehow to hilariously evoke its state’s longstanding inferiority complex in relation to its more cosmopolitan neighbor New York. Hoboken was the perfect home for Meretzky’s collection of low-rent superheroes with massive inferiority complexes of their own. Even more notably, the “possible RPG elements” of the first proposal turned into a full-fledged adventure/CRPG hybrid, a dramatic leap into unexplored territory for both Mereztky and Legend.

It was new territory for Meretzky the game designer, that is, but not for Meretzky the game player: he had long been a fan of CRPGs. Among the documents from the Infocom era which he has donated to the Internet Archive are notes about the games from other companies which Meretzky was playing during the 1980s. One finds there pages and pages of lovingly annotated maps of the likes of Might and Magic. Meretzky:

I’d been wanting to make an RPG for many years. But I thought that the usual Tolkienesque fantasy setting and trappings of RPGs had been done to death, and it occurred to me that superheroes was an excellent alternate genre that worked well with RPG gameplay, with superpowers substituting for magic spells. I originally planned to make it a full RPG, but Legend had never done anything that wasn’t a straight adventure game and were therefore nervous, so the only way I could convince them was to make it an RPG/adventure hybrid.

Meretzky’s characterization of Legend here is perhaps a touch ungenerous. They were a small company with limited resources, and were already in the process of moving from a parser-based adventure engine to a point-and-click one. Adapting it to work as a CRPG was a tall order.

Indeed, Superhero League of Hoboken remained in active development for more than eighteen months, longer than any Legend game to date. In the end, though, they succeeded in melding their standard graphic-adventure interface to a clever new combat engine. By the time the game was released in the summer of 1994, Meretzky had already moved on from Legend, and was working with fellow Infocom alum Mike Dornbrook to set up their own studio, under the name of Boffo Games. As a parting gift to Legend, however, Hoboken could hardly be beat. It had turned into a genuinely great game, Meretzky’s best since Stationfall or even Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

It takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, a choice that was much in vogue in the mid-1990s; I’m now reviewing my third post-apocalyptic adventure game in a row. But, whereas Under a Killing Moon and Beneath a Steel Sky teeter a little uncertainly between seriousness and the centrifugal pull that comedy always exerts on the adventure genre, Hoboken wants only to be the latter. It’s extravagantly silly, so stupid that it’s smart — Meretzky at his best, in other words.

The premise is that a considerable percentage of the population have become “superheroes” in the wake of a nuclear war, thanks to all of the radiation in the air. But most of the actual superpowers thus acquired are, shall we say, rather esoteric. For example, you play the Crimson Tape, whose superpower is the ability to create organizational charts. That makes you ideal for the role of leader of the Hoboken chapter of the Superhero League. Your gang there includes folks like the Iron Tummy, who can eat spicy food without distress; the ironically named Captain Excitement, who puts others to sleep; Robo Mop, who can clean up almost any mess; Tropical Oil Man, who raises the cholesterol levels in his enemies; the holdover from the Infocom proposal Madam Pepperoni, who can see inside pizza boxes; and my personal favorite, King Midas, who can turn anything into a muffler. (For my non-American readers: “Midas” is the name of a chain of American auto-repair shops specializing in, yes, mufflers.) Some of these superpowers are more obviously useful than others: Captain Excitement’s power, for example, is the equivalent of the Sleep spell, that staple of low-level Dungeons & Dragons. Some of them are sneakily useful: the game’s equivalent of treasure chests are pizza boxes, which makes Madam Pepperoni its equivalent of your handy trap-detecting thief from a more ordinary CRPG setting. And some of the superpowers, including your own and that of many others, are utterly useless for fighting crime — until you stumble upon that one puzzle for which they’re perfect.

The game has a smart and very satisfying structure, playing out in half a dozen chapters. At the beginning of each of them you’re given a to-do list of five tasks in your superhero headquarters. To accomplish these things, you’ll naturally have to venture out into the streets. Each chapter takes you farther from home and requires you to explore more dangerous areas than the last; by its end, the game has come to encompass much of the Northeastern Seaboard, from Philadelphia to Boston, all of it now plagued by radiation and crime.

Your handy to-do list for Chapter 1.

In the Spellcasting games, Meretzky had a tendency to ask the player to do boring and/or irritating things over and over again, apparently in the mistaken impression that there’s something intrinsically funny about such blatant player abuse. It’s therefore notable that Hoboken evinces exactly the opposite tendency — i.e., it seeks to minimize the things that usually get boring in other CRPGs. Each section of the map spawns random encounters up to a certain point, and then stops, out of the logic that you’ve now cleaned that neighborhood of miscreants. I can’t praise this mechanic enough. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to move quickly through explored areas in a typical CRPG, only to be forced to contend with fight after mindlessly trivial fight. Likewise, the sense of achievement you get from actually succeeding in your ostensible goal of defeating the forces of evil and making a place safe again shouldn’t be underestimated. Among CRPGs that predate this one, Pool of Radiance is the only title I know of which does something similar, and with a similar premise behind it at that; there you’re reclaiming the fantasy village of Phlan from its enemies, just as here you’re reclaiming the urban northeast of the United States. Hoboken is clearly the work of a designer who has played a lot of games of its ilk — a rarer qualification in game design than you might expect — and knows which parts tend to be consistently fun and which parts can quickly become a drag.

You explore the city streets — this CRPG’s equivalent of a dungeon — from a top-down perspective. This interface yields to a separate interface for fighting the baddies you encounter, or to the first-person adventure-game interface when you wander onto certain “special” squares.

The combat system makes for an interesting study in itself, resembling as it does those found in many Japanese console CRPGs more than American incarnations of the genre. It’s simple and thoroughly unserious, like most things in this game, but it’s not without a modicum of tactical depth. Each round, each character in your party can choose to mount a melee attack if she’s close enough (using one of an assortment of appropriately silly weapons), mount a ranged attack if not (using one of an equally silly assortment of weapons), utilize her superpower (which is invariably silly), or assume a defensive stance. Certain weapons and powers are more effective against certain enemies; learning which approaches work best against whom and then optimizing accordingly is a key to your success. Ditto setting up the right party for taking on the inhabitants of the area you happen to be exploring; although you can’t create superheroes of your own, you have a larger and larger pool of them to choose from as the game continues and the fame of your Hoboken branch of the Superhero League increases. But be careful not to mix and match too much: heroes go up in level with success in combat, so you don’t want to spread the opportunities around too evenly, lest you end up with a team full of mediocrities in lieu of at least a few high-level superstars.

Combat on the mean streets of Hoboken. Here we’re up against some Screaming Meemies (“members of a strange cult that worships the decade of the 1970s, identified by their loud cry of ‘Me! Me!'”) and Supermoms (“Bred for child-bearing and child-rearing characteristics by 21st-century anti-feminist fundamentalists”).

As you explore the streets of the city, you stumble upon special locations that cause the adventure side of the game’s personality to kick in. Here the viewpoint shifts from overhead third-person to a first-person display, with an interface that will look very familiar to anyone who has played Companions of Xanth, Legend’s first point-and-click graphic adventure. In addition to conversing with others and solving puzzles in these sections, you can visit shops selling weapons and armor and can frequent healers, all essential for the CRPG side of things. That said, the bifurcation between the game’s two halves remains pronounced enough that you can never forget that this is a CRPG grafted onto an adventure-game engine. Your characters even have two completely separate inventories, one for stuff used to fight baddies and one for stuff used to solve puzzles. Thankfully, each half works well enough on its own that you don’t really care; the adventure half as well marked a welcome departure from Meretzky’s recent tendency to mistake annoyance for humor, whilst offering up some of his wittiest puzzles in years.

Curing a disease contracted in the CRPG section by visiting a healer found, complete with gratuitous Infocom references, in the adventure section.

But by my lights the funniest part of the game remains the rogue’s gallery of superheroes and villains — especially the latter. These provided Meretzky with an opportunity to vent his frustration on a wide array of deserving targets. Some are specific, like Transistor Jowl, a clone of Richard Nixon, right down to his parting line of “You won’t have Transistor Jowl to kick around anymore” (delivered perfectly in the CD-ROM version by voice actor Gary Telles). And some are more generalized, like the marketing executives who chirp, “Let’s do lunch!” in their unflappable cluelessness as you dispatch them. Either way, the social satire here has the sharp edge that was missing from the Spellcasting games:

Junk Bond Amoeba: Environmental toxins have produced these one-celled creatures, twelve feet across, bent on engulfing food morsels and defenseless companies. Beware, for during combat they can divide by mitosis, doubling their number!

Espevangelist: Similar to televangelists of the 20th and 21st centuries, except that espevangelists require no broadcasting equipment to transmit their programming, since they can project their thoughts and words directly into the minds of those around them. In addition to the damage they can thus inflict, espevangelists have been known to separate weak-willed parties from their funds. They are even more dangerous if they FUNDRAISE.

By way of attacking this last-mentioned reprobate, you “reveal details about his affair with an altar boy,” and “all the tears in the world fail to save him.” And all the aging gamers said: Meretzky Is Back.

Unfortunately, Superhero League of Hoboken‘s course after its release was markedly different from that of Band on the Run. The game got a lot of support from the all-important Computer Gaming World magazine, including an extended preview and a very positive review just a couple of issues later that proclaimed it “the first true comedy CRPG ever”; this wasn’t strictly correct, but was truthy enough for the American market at least. And yet it sold miserably from the get-go, for reasons which Legend couldn’t quite divine. Legend was no Sierra or Electronic Arts; they averaged just two game releases per year, and the failure of one of them could be an existential threat to the whole company.

But they got lucky. Just after Hoboken‘s release, the book-publishing titan Random House made a major investment in Legend; they were eager to make a play in the new world of CD-ROM, and, having been impressed by Legend’s earlier book adaptations, saw a trans-media marketing opportunity for their existing print authors and franchises. This event took some of the sting from Hoboken‘s failure. Random House’s marketing consultants soon joined in to try to solve the puzzle of the game’s poor performance, informing Legend that the central issue in their opinion was that the cover art was just too “busy” to stand out on store shelves. This verdict was received with some discomfort at Legend; the cover in question had been the work of Peggy Oriani, Bob Bates’s wife. Nevertheless, they dutifully went with a new, Random House-approved illustration for the CD-ROM release, splashed with excerpts from the many glowing reviews the game had received. It didn’t help; sales remained terrible.

The revised CD-ROM box art. (The original can be seen at the beginning of this article.)

Steve Meretzky would later blame the game’s failure on its long production time, which, so he claimed, made it look like a musty oldie upon its release. And indeed, it was the last Legend game to use only VGA rather than higher resolution SVGA graphics. Still, and while the difference in sharpness between this game’s graphics and Legend’s next game Death Gate is pronounced, Hoboken really doesn’t look unusually bad among a random selection of other games from its year; there were still plenty of vanilla VGA games being released in 1994 and even well into 1995 as software gradually evolved to match the latest hardware. The real problem was likely that of an industry that was swiftly hardening into ever more rigid genres, each of which came complete with its own set of fixed expectations. An adventure game with hit points and fighting? A CRPG with no dungeons or dragons, hurling social satire in lieu of magic spells? Superhero League of Hoboken just didn’t fit anywhere. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, unlicensed superhero games of any stripe have historically struggled for market share; it seems that when gamers strap on their (virtual) spandex suits, they want them to be those of the heroes they already know and love, not a bunch of unknown weirdos like the ones found here.

A few months after the release of the CD-ROM version, Legend received a cease-and-desist letter out of the blue from Marvel Comics. It seemed that Marvel and DC Comics were the proud owners of a joint trademark on the name of “superhero” when used as part of the title of a publication. (This sounds to my uneducated mind like a classic example of an illegal corporate trust, but I’m no lawyer…) While there was cause to question whether “publications” in this sense even encompassed computer games at all, it hardly seemed a battle worth fighting given the game’s sales figures. Already exhausted from flogging this dead horse, Legend worked out a settlement with Marvel whereby they were allowed to continue to sell those copies still in inventory but promised not to manufacture any more. In the end, Superhero League of Hoboken became the least successful Legend game ever, with total sales well short of 10,000 copies — a dispiriting fate for a game that deserved much, much better.

That fate makes Hoboken a specimen of a gaming species that’s rarer than you might expect: the genuine unheralded classic. The fact is that most great games in the annals of the field have gotten their due, if not always in their own time than in ours, when digital distribution has allowed so many of us to revisit and reevaluate the works of gaming’s past. Yet Superhero League of Hoboken has continued to fly under the radar, despite its wealth of good qualities. Its sharp-edged humor never becomes an excuse for neglecting the fundamentals of good design, as sometimes tends to happen with forthrightly comedic games. It’s well-nigh perfectly balanced and perfectly paced. Throughout its considerable but not overwhelming length, its fights and puzzles alike remain challenging enough to be interesting but never so hard that they become frustrating and take away from its sense of fast-paced fun. And then it ends, pretty much exactly when you feel like you’re ready for it to do so. A lot of designers of more hardcore CRPGs in particular could learn from this silly game’s example of never exhausting its player and refusing to outstay its welcome. The last great narrative-oriented game of Steve Meretzky’s career, Superhero League of Hoboken is also the one most ripe for rediscovery.

Some pop-culture references are truly timeless…

(Sources: the books The Beatles Forever by Nicolas Schaffner and Game Design Theory & Practice (Second Edition) by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of August 1994 and October 1994; Questbusters 113. Online sources include “The Superhero Trademark FAQ” at CBR.com and “Super Fight Over ‘Superhero’ Trademark” at Klemchuk LLC. I’m also greatly indebted to the indefatigable Jason Scott’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents from Steve Meretzky’s exhaustive collection. And my huge thanks to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for their insights about Superhero League of Hoboken and all other things Legend during personal interviews.

Superhero League of Hoboken is available for digital purchase on GOG.com. This is wonderful on one level, but also strange, as it should still be subject to the cease-and-desist agreement which Legend signed with Marvel Comics all those years ago. There is reason to question whether Ziggurat Interactive, the digital publisher currently marketing this game, actually has the right to do so. I leave it for you to decide the ethics of purchasing a convenient installable version of the game versus downloading a CD-ROM image elsewhere and struggling to set it up yourself. Believe me, I wish the situation was more clear-cut.)

 
 

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Beneath a Steel Sky

I would rather see a personal vision onscreen than filmed live-action. I have an idea that with CD technology there are going to be a lot of little-known actors photographed and appearing on our screens. I think if you have a graphic artist involved, you get something even better than reality.

— Dave Gibbons

There’s no reason why hundreds of people in California should know the future any better than ten people based in Yorkshire.

— Charles Cecil

Charles Cecil

Charles Cecil was a part of the British adventure-games scene from the beginning. Born in 1962, he began studying engineering at Manchester University in 1980. There he became friends with a fellow student named Richard Turner, who had just co-founded Artic Computing, one of the very first suppliers of software for the Sinclair ZX80, Britain’s very first mass-market personal computer. Although he was not and never would become a programmer, Cecil got pulled into other aspects of the venture, such as drawing what he describes today as “the shittiest logo.”

Chris Thornton, Richard Turner’s partner in Artic, owned an imported Radio Shack TRS-80; this allowed the group of friends to keep tabs on the American microcomputing scene, which had a few years’ head start on the British. Taking note of the success that Scott Adams was having with his text adventures in the United States, Artic developed an engine for similar games on Sinclair machines. In June of 1981, Turner and Thornton’s Adventure A: Planet of Death became the first home-grown adventure game ever to be sold in Britain.

As the name of that first game would imply, Artic intended from the beginning to make a whole line of text adventures, just as Scott Adams had done. “You like telling stories,” Turner said to Cecil. “Why don’t you write one?” Thus Cecil designed Adventure B: Inca Curse, followed by several more text adventures, all primitive enough — or, if you like, minimalist enough — to fit into a computer with just 16 K of memory. A game designer had been born, alongside a cottage industry of similarly ramshackle semi-professional text adventures that would persist for the better part of two decades. (Artic’s games were particularly noted for their atrocious spelling…)

Cecil continued to design games and do various other odd jobs for Artic for several years, but by the middle of the decade the company’s homespun products were finding the going tough in what had now become a crowded and hyper-competitive British software market. In 1985, Cecil jumped from the sinking ship to found his own Paragon Programming, which specialized in porting American games to European platforms. Two years later, he parlayed that into a short-lived gig as development manager for US Gold, then a longer-lived one in the same role for Activision’s European subsidiary.

But a series of unfortunate events and poor management decisions at the American parent company — a trend which began about the time of Cecil’s arrival, with management’s decision to change the company’s name to the hopeless corporatese “Mediagenic” — ultimately spelled disaster for that international software empire. In 1990, the 27-year-old Charles Cecil, who had recently been enjoying such luxuries as a posh company car and a mobile phone, was left high and dry by Mediagenic’s collapse. What to do now?

All his time spent porting and selling American games had given him a familiarity with goings-on across the Atlantic that was unusual among his countrymen. The one area of gaming where the Americans most obviously outdid the Brits, he realized, was the genre he still loved best: the adventure game. British and, indeed, most European developers had little that could compete with the latest graphic adventures from American publishers like Sierra and Lucasfilm Games. There was a reason for this: thanks to their need for large amounts of single-use visual and audio assets, those games were among the most expensive of all to produce; European studios for the most part simply lacked the resources to make them. The one partial exception to this rule came in the form of a few French studios like Delphine, who made games that were beautiful to look at if often atrociously designed. But Britain had absolutely nothing on offer.

So, Cecil decided for the second time in his young life to found his own company, with the intention of changing that — this despite the fact that he had very little money at all to work with even by the modest standards of British game development. He started Revolution Software in March of 1990 on the back of a £10,000 loan from his mother, and took up residence in an unheated cubbyhole above a fruit market in the struggling city of Hull — “We choose Hull because it was cheap,” admits Cecil — with a few of the folks he’d met during his previous travels through the British games industry. The setting verged on the Dickensian; during the winter months, they would huddle against their computers to try to stay warm.

Still, Cecil did soon convince the British publisher Mirrorsoft to provide some minimal funding for Revolution’s first game in return for the publication rights to the eventual finished product. When Mirrorsoft collapsed in the wake of the suspicious death of its kingpin Robert Maxwell and the postmortem revelation of financial improprieties throughout his organizations, they moved on in fairly short order to Virgin Games — a better partner on the whole, as Virgin came complete with a North American branch.

The core team at Revolution in the early days: Tony Warriner, Adam Tween, David Sykes, Stephen Oades, Dave Cummins, and Charles Cecil.

Tacitly admitting that it would be difficult indeed for a shoestring operation like theirs to compete with a company like Sierra in terms of production values, Revolution settled on a concept and engine to power it which they called “Virtual Theatre.” They envisioned it as nothing less than the next great leap in adventure design. Cecil described it thusly at the time:

Within each game, time advances and people walk around with their own routes: the blacksmith will go into his forge and hammer away, then he’ll go into the pub to have a drink and he’ll talk to other people around the village. You could have fifteen people all walking around, all interacting with each other. So instead of being a game where you’re the key and everything reacts to you, we have a game where you’re just another person.

It was a noble vision in its way, one which aimed to push the frontiers of an oft-hidebound genre. And yet, for all that it reads well on paper, it would prove more than problematic in practice. The disadvantage of making a world which runs along of its own accord is that it can run merrily away without the player, leaving her stranded in some plotting cul de sac. And then, far from being a drawback, most players enjoy adventure games precisely because they let them be the star of the show. After all, If one wants a world where one is “just another person,” one generally need only look up from the computer.

When Cecil expanded yet further on his vision, he wound up in a place to which many designers have dreamed of venturing since the heyday of commercial text adventures, but which has yet to yield a single comprehensively satisfying game: “What we’re planning to do in the future is put in artificial intelligence whereby we set the basic parameters and then we let the characters decide what they’re going to do themselves. Fundamentally, anything could happen.”

Unsurprisingly, then, the first Revolution game — the one which most wholeheartedly embraced the Virtual Theatre concept — also proved to be the worst one they would ever make. Lure of the Temptress combined a clichéd fairy-tale setting with an awkward interface, sub-Sierra graphics, and well-nigh infuriating gameplay, which mostly entailed chasing all of those vaunted self-directed characters hither and yon through a plot line littered with potential dead ends. Published internationally by Virgin Games for the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS in the spring of 1992, it sold in reasonable quantities, doing best with Amiga owners in Europe. Charles Cecil didn’t hesitate to wave the flag on behalf of the continent. “I believe that European graphic artists are the best,” he said — an assertion which the graphics in Lure of the Temptress utterly failed to prove. Thankfully, better things were still to come from Revolution.

Lure of the Temptress did earn enough money to fund a move to better offices in York, with a corresponding uptick in the budget for their next game. Even so, much of the dramatic improvement evinced by said game was the result of a series of chance events that won Revolution the services of arguably the most respected comic-book illustrator of the era. And yes, he was a European. In fact, he hailed from Britain.

In May of 1989, a popular British gaming magazine known as The One published a feature about Watchmen, a two-year-old book which had done much to inculcate the idea of the graphic novel as a respectable literary form. Amidst much speculation about a potential Watchmen film and game — neither of which would appear until decades later — the article somehow managed to avoid mentioning the name of Dave Gibbons, the man who had drawn writer Alan Moore’s story. Understandably annoyed, Gibbons wrote to the magazine to point out the fact of his existence.

Dave Gibbons

By way of apology, The One sent Gibbons a Commodore Amiga and a copy of Deluxe Paint, then devoted five pages to an interview featuring his impressions of those things and many others. As the fact that he had seen the first Watchmen article in the magazine in the first place would indicate, Gibbons was already following the latest developments in computer gaming fairly closely. (In this respect and in many others, the down-to-earth Gibbons was unlike his sometime partner Alan Moore, an unrepentant eccentric and dyed-in-the wool Luddite.)

It seems that computer games are finding their own level in the same way as comics. I think that a lot of games, like a lot of comics it must be said, are pretty banal, and pretty repetitive — sort of like chewing gum. They won’t do you any harm, but on the other hand they aren’t likely to do much good.

I find puzzle games the most interesting. And the flight simulations… Falcon’s brilliant. You get to the point where you think you are there and you find yourself leaning in the chair. Rocket Ranger is very interesting stuff, that to me is like those role-playing gamebooks. It’s a different game every time you play it.

The magazine’s earlier slight was forgiven; Gibbons went on to draw the cover art for at least one issue of The One. More importantly, he met Charles Cecil through the magazine; Cecil was still with Mediagenic at the time and was also chummy with the staff at The One. The two started tentatively to feel one another out, until finally, after making some suggestions here and there for Lure of the Temptress, Gibbons agreed to become the principal illustrator and art director of Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution’s second game. Not only did he bring his unique talents to the game itself, but the presence on the team of such a high-profile individual did much to drum up interest in the press. Cecil tells of the many journalists who came to the trade shows to meet Gibbons and see the game, in that order. They “began pulling out copies of the old Watchmen comics and Dave spent a while signing the lot. It was very positive, and they were dying to see what he had created in the game.”

Charles Cecil’s games have never been notable for the originality of their subject matter, and Beneath a Steel Sky is no exception to that rule of derivation. It trades in the King’s Quest-like fantasy of Lure of the Temptress for a dystopic science-fiction setting with strong cyberpunk overtones — a mixture of Blade Runner and Neuromancer, not exactly a rare blending among games of the early 1990s. Union City, where this game takes place, is the familiar authoritarian technocracy, a place where class strata have taken on a literal dimension. One has to take originality in such a setting where one can find it: upending a science-fictional trope stretching back at least to Fritz Lang’s classic silent film Metropolis, in Union City the poor and powerless live out their squabbling lives in tenements that scrape the sky, while the rich and powerful live in luxury near ground level. Union City’s most unusual wrinkle of all is the fact that it exists in the far-flung locale of Australia instead of some faded North American or European hegemony. Yet even this fact is disarmingly easy to miss entirely, especially if you happen to be playing the voice-acted CD-ROM version with its distinctly British and American accents — not an Aussie voice to be found.

You play a young man named Robert Foster, who as the introduction begins lives with one of the nomadic tribes that inhabit a place known as The Gap, the vast wasteland separating the cities of Australia. (Said wasteland is known as the Outback today…) But then a military raid kills everyone in the tribe except Foster himself; he is spared, to be spirited away by helicopter to Union City for reasons unknown. He escapes when the helicopter crashes over the city before it can reach its final destination, whereupon the game proper begins. As Foster, you must elude your pursuers as you explore Union City’s nooks and crannies, must learn the secret that makes you of such special interest to the powers who control the city — and must bring about their downfall.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the game — the one thing you’re guaranteed to still remember even years after playing it — is Dave Gibbons’s art. Despite his earlier well-publicized experiments with Deluxe Paint, he elected to draw all of the approximately 90 background scenes for which he was responsible using the same old analog techniques that he had used to bring Watchmen and countless other comics to light. He provided pencil sketches of each scene to Revolution, where an artist named Les Pace, a veteran of such Hollywood productions as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, proceeded to color them in by hand. Only then were the illustrations scanned in on an Apple Macintosh, that being the most affordable platform at the time with good support for 24-bit color. Finally, these “master plates” could be down-sampled to come within the capabilities of Revolution’s two primary target platforms for the finished game: MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics cards (which allowed a maximum of 256 onscreen colors) and the Commodore Amiga (which allowed just 32).

Even in these degraded forms, the game’s imagery is striking. Inspired to some extent by the collapsing factories of hardscrabble Hull, Revolution Software’s original home, Union City manages to be varied but also of a piece, dingy but also coldly clinical, a warren of boldly vertiginous drops and furtively claustrophobic corners. Unlike many games during this era of exploding technological innovation, when the desire for spectacle could often overwhelm consistency and coherence, there’s a thoroughgoing visual aesthetic to Beneath a Steel Sky that stems from something more than a desire to show off the technology that powers it. Charles Cecil’s comment on the subject stood out in an era obsessed with photo-realism in games: “We’re not trying to create reality. We’re trying to create a style.”

The Process


Dave Gibbons sketched each background on paper, just as he would have a comics illustration…

…to produce something like this.

Still working on paper, Les Pace painted the sketch.

Finally, it was scanned in in 24-bit color. This master copy was then down-sampled to 256 colors (MS-DOS) or 32 colors (Amiga) for inclusion in the game. (The image above is from the Amiga version; those below are from the higher-fidelity MS-DOS version.)

The End Results




The writing in the game is a touch weaker than its visuals; scriptwriter Dave Cummins isn’t incompetent by any means, but nor is he another Alan Moore. As tends to happen constantly in the adventure genre, the overarching “dark, serious” plot gets immediately overrun in the details by a collapse into comedy, a genre which seems far better suited to the outlandish puzzles that are the driving force of most adventure games, this one included.

Still, the blow of this failure of the game to stick to its dramatic guns is eased immensely simply because a lot of the humor is really, truly funny; it never feels forced, something which is by no means the case in all or even most of this game’s competitors. This is wry British humor at its best: it’s sneakily smart, and also a bit more deviously risque than what you might find in a contemporary American game of this ilk. (One running gag, for example, has to do with a skeezy character’s collection of “pussy pictures” — which, yes, turns out just to be pictures of cats.) You begin the game with a sidekick already in your inventory: your childhood friend Joey, a synthetic personality on a circuit board who can be transplanted into various robots as you go along. His sarcastic banter is a great source of fun and oblique hints, such that when he’s not with you in some sort of embodied form you genuinely miss him. In fact, I’d like the game even more if it had more of him in it. He’s prevented from joining the absolute highest ranks of classic adventure-game sidekicks only by the fact that he’s onscreen less than half the time.

If you hate convoluted adventure-game puzzles on principle, the ones here will do nothing to convince you otherwise. If you enjoy them, on the other hand, Beneath a Steel Sky is a solid implementation of their ilk. It’s not a particularly easy game, but nor is it an unusually hard one for its time, and it is consistently logical in its silly adventure-game way. (In this sense as in several others, it stood head and shoulders above its few competitors among homegrown British graphic adventures, whose grasp on the fundamentals of good game design tended to be shaky at best.) It eschews the contemporaneous interactive-movie trend, with its chapter breaks and extended cut scenes, for a more old-school non-linear approach; for the bulk of the game, you have a fairly large area to roam and multiple problems to work on. There’s never a sense that the puzzles were hasty additions inserted just to give the player something to do; they’re part and parcel of a holistic experience.

Vestiges of Revolution’s earlier rhetoric about creating more dynamic worlds do remain here. Characters are still a bit more active than you might find in a Sierra or LucasArts game, and an unusual number of the puzzles rely on analyzing their movements and timing your own actions just right. That said, the most frustrating aspects of Lure of the Temptress have been excised. For the most part, the designers opted to return to the things that were known to work in this genre rather than continuing to blaze problematic new trails — and it must be said that the game is all the better for it for their conservatism. Likewise, its straightforward one-click interface wasn’t hugely innovative in itself even at the time — this doing-away-with the old menu of verbs was becoming the norm in graphic adventures by this point — but it is a well-executed example of such an interface. All in all, if you like traditional graphic adventures, you’ll find this game to be a sturdy, perhaps occasionally inspired example of the genre.

Beneath a Steel Sky was a European game made at a time when the Commodore Amiga, although slowly sliding past its peak, was still the most popular gaming platform across much of that continent, and thus one that could not be safely ignored by any European studio. Make no mistake: the challenges of making a game that could run on an Amiga at the same time that it could stand on a reasonable par with the latest adventure games on American shelves were immense. The Amiga was slower than the latest MS-DOS machines and was lacking graphically by comparison, and most European Amiga owners didn’t even have a hard drive, much less a CD-ROM drive. And yet, remarkably, Revolution largely pulled it off. Beneath a Steel Sky shipped in March of 1994 on no fewer than fifteen Amiga floppy disks. You had to swap them constantly in order to play it on a machine without a hard drive, but it wasn’t quite aggravating enough to completely destroy the fun of the game itself for an Amiga-owning adventure fan.

Charles Cecil, whose nebbishy appearance concealed a surprisingly down-and-dirty sort of marketing savvy, cast the game not only as Britain’s answer to the adventures of Sierra and LucasArts but as the savior of adventure gaming writ large on the Amiga, coming as it did just as the aforementioned companies were abandoning the platform. He wasn’t above the occasional gratuitous slam against the Americans in interviews which he knew would remain safely ensconced on his side of the ocean: “Most American graphic adventures are a little shallow because the American public doesn’t see plot as important. However, European game players seem to want to think a lot more about what they’re doing, and we’ve tried to reflect that.” Some of his statements in this mode were just bizarre: “The engine Sierra [is] using is outdated. They introduced it five years ago and really haven’t developed it.” For the record, it should be noted that the five years in question encompass Sierra’s move from parser-driven games to point-and-click ones, along with the jump from 16-color EGA graphics to 256-color VGA and the addition of voice acting, just to list a few highlights. To further confuse the situation, Cecil was seeking and winning a contract from Sierra to port King’s Quest VI to the Amiga — something the American company otherwise had no plans to do — at the very same time he was making such comments. Naturally, the European magazines ate it up, awarding his game gold stars pretty much across the board.

Just a month later, Commodore declared bankruptcy. Beneath a Steel Sky was one of the last of its breed on the Amiga.

By way of completing the picture of a work at the crossroads between the old order and the new, Revolution released a voice-acted CD-ROM version for MS-DOS computers shortly after the floppy-based releases. The actors went for the most part uncredited, but it appears that Revolution didn’t look far from home for most of them. The eccentric citizens of Union City deliver their lines with gusto in broad Northern English, a nice contrast to the prim London accents of so many games. Their accents make the humor go down even better, and give the game that much more of a distinctive personality. Meanwhile an American refugee named Adam Henderson voices straight man Robert Foster in the neutral Midwestern tones of a prime-time news anchor, while most of the villains speak Brooklynese straight out of an episode of Law & Order. Go figure…

Helped along by positive reviews and the measure of hype which accompanied the involvement of Dave Gibbons, Beneath a Steel Sky rode Amiga loyalists in Europe and MS-DOS-computer-owning adventure fans in North America to solid sales numbers. Thus Revolution got to live on and make still more games, following a template which was the ironic opposite of their name: solidly constructed adventure games cut from a sturdy traditionalist cloth.

(Sources: Amiga Format of March 1993, December 1993, March 1994; AmigaWorld of December 1993 and August 1994; Amiga Computing of Christmas 1993 and June 1994; Computer Gaming World of July 1992; Computer and Video Games of July 1987 and January 1989; CU Amiga of March 1993 and January 1994; Edge of September 1993; Games TM 9; New Computer Express of August 4 1990; PC Review of May 1992; Questbusters 114; Retro Gamer 56 and 63; The One of May 1989, August 1989, March 1990, November 1991, February 1992, March 1993, and November 1993. Online sources include interviews with Charles Cecil on Gamasutra, Dining with Strangers, and MCV/Develop.

Charles Cecil and Revolution have released Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky as free downloads.)

 

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Ebooks and more as we move into 1994…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Under a Killing Moon

We couldn’t believe one CD could be filled up so quickly.

— Aaron Conners

Bountiful, Utah, is the second city of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Legend has it that its patriarch, a herdsman named Perrigrine Sessions, exclaimed, “Here at last is paradise on earth!” on the day in 1847 when he first looked down upon the lush valley where the city stands today.

Like so many Mormon communities, Bountiful seems frozen in time, or rather out of time, a vision of a bucolic 1950s small-town America that barely ever existed in reality. The city’s newsletters have a weirdly anachronistic tone, regardless of their cover date. An issue from 1993 notes with alarm that a gang (!) has been formed, whilst going on to add a little reluctantly that it doesn’t appear to have committed any actual crimes yet. (“We hope that gang activity can be stopped before it takes a foothold.”) The same issue looks forward to “patriotic Americana” in the city park with “Utah Voices and the 23rd Army Band.” Somewhere in Bountiful, one senses, a middle-aged matron is still shaking her head disapprovingly over Elvis Presley and those gyrating hips of his — “and yet he seems such a nice, well-spoken young man otherwise…”

She was doubtless doing the same in the late 1960s, when a handful of Bountiful kids started to shoot their own movies on the new Kodak film format of Super 8. Chris Jones, Doug Vandegrift, and a collection of assorted siblings, cousins, and friends spoofed the things they were watching at the local cinema and on television: Batman, Tarzan, Mission: Impossible. Judging from the few fragments of their movies that have survived, they were hopelessly square — it’s hard to believe that they’re contemporaneous with the likes of Woodstock and Easy Rider — but also clever and endearingly cheeky. Typical Bountiful art, in other words.

Inspired by these experiments, Vandegrift went off to university to study acting, while Jones, being of a more practical bent, went out for finance. After university, Vandegrift switched from acting for a camera to drawing for one, landing a job with Hanna-Barbera illustrating Saturday-morning cartoons. He parlayed that gig into an impressive career; he won an Emmy Award in 1988 for his work on Muppet Babies. Meanwhile Jones wound up an accountant at an engineering firm in Salt Lake City.

Jones had a friend named Bruce Carver, who in 1982 bought one of the first Commodore 64s ever sold in Utah. He discovered a latent genius in himself as soon as he began to program it, and founded Access Software to publish his work. Jones initially joined the venture, whose offices would move back and forth between Salt Lake City and Bountiful as it grew, as its part-time sales representative and accountant, but he quickly grew fascinated with the creative potential of the new medium his friend was exploring. Thus he sketched out the scenario for a multi-part action game called Beach-Head, which Carver then proceeded to implement in code. Like virtually everything else Jones would ever do on a computer, this first game was inspired by his love of movies — in this case, by rah-rah World War II movies starring John Wayne and similarly lantern-jawed leading men. Thanks to Carver’s programming chops and Jones’s instinct for cinematic drama, Beach-Head became the breakout hit that put Access on the map upon its release in October of 1983. Raid Over Moscow and Beach-Head II, more games in the same style, did almost as well in 1984 and 1985.

After that, however, Bruce Carver stumbled upon the subject matter that would sustain Access for almost two decades. He and his brother Roger Carver made a golf game called Leader Board in 1986, which begot World Class Leader Board the following year, which in turn begot the long-running Links series in 1990. These games were very, very good for Access in general, but something of a mixed blessing for Chris Jones, who was now working full-time for the company, keeping track of all the money they were bringing in. The reality was that he just didn’t have much to contribute creatively to a golf simulation.

So, he decided to get the old gang back together and make another movie instead. Vandegrift had recently returned to Bountiful to take a job as Access’s art director, and was more than up for Jones’s plan. The two had dreams of showing at Sundance as they wrote a script that combined The Maltese Falcon with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jones took the starring role of a private detective born in the wrong time, who channeled not only Humphrey Bogart but also Roy Rogers, what with his penchant for yodeling cowboy tunes. The detective-cum-cowboy’s name was Tex Murphy.

Tex Murphy the yodeling cowboy, as seen in Plan Ten from Outer Space.

But the film went disastrously wrong. All Sundance ambitions went out the window when someone stole the gang’s brand-new 16-millimeter camera, forcing them to switch back to Super 8, then to videotape because, hey, film gets expensive. Most of the soundtrack got lost, forcing everyone to re-dub their lines. The project devolved into Plan Ten from Outer Space, a ludicrous farce whose only obvious advantage over the awful Ed Wood film it purports to spoof is the fact that it knows how terrible it is. And yet it’s also really, genuinely funny, even when it’s abundantly clear that its creators have no idea what they’re doing. It’s smart in its amateurishness, bursting with a joie de vivre that just can’t be faked. In this, it has much in common with what came later from many of the same creators.

Disappointed to have made a film that could only be shown to family and friends, however much fun he’d had with it, Jones proposed adapting it into a computer game built out of spare parts that happened to be lying around the Access offices. Bruce Carver had been blending real-world photography with computer graphics since making the first Leader Board a couple of years before; for that game and its sequel, he had captured Roger Carver swinging a golf club on videotape and imported selected frames using primitive digitization technology, all in order to give a smooth, realistic depiction of the subject. And Access also had a vaguely Starglider-like outer-space shoot-em-up called Echelon on the shelf, which Bruce Carver had worked very hard on but which had given a poor return on his investment; the game had never sold very well. Now, he agreed to let Jones make an adventure game relying heavily on digitized images, its puzzle-solving scenes glued together by a flight-simulator game that re-purposed some of the old Echelon code. It would move Tex Murphy into the dystopian world of the year 2033, largely dropping his Roy Rogers persona but doubling down on Humphrey Bogart. Cheerfully appropriating the name of a classic Martin Scorsese film without giving it a second thought, Jones dubbed the game Mean Streets.

Today Jones regards Mean Streets, like Plan Ten from Outer Space, as non-canonical, a piece of Tex Murphy juvenilia, and that’s probably a fair assessment. But, as with the movie, auguries of what came later are all over this work. Mean Streets mixes wildly disparate interfaces and modes of play with giddy abandon: the flight simulator you use to fly Tex’s speeder from place to place, the side-scrolling shoot-em-up you get dumped into when negotiations go south, the adventure game of searching locations for clues, the menu-driven conversations with some two dozen witnesses and suspects in the crime you’re trying to solve. It stitches this crazy quilt together using cutting-edge technical tricks from its time: all of the characters you meet are presented as 256-color digitized photographs — Jones once again plays Tex — and snippets of digitized speech pop up here and there, thanks to another of Bruce Carver’s brilliant innovations, a technology called Real Sound that let a game play back just what the name would imply on an MS-DOS computer without an add-on sound card.

Such an overweening focus on trendy gimmicks seldom yields a classic game; no surprise, then, that Mean Streets doesn’t quite earn that label. And yet Jones, working with Doug Vandegrift as art director, managed to bring it closer to that status than one might expect, thanks to yet another quality that would show up again in the future: a thoroughgoing willingness among the developers to put themselves in the player’s shoes, to try to play with her rather than against her. In Mean Streets, you can fly your speeder manually everywhere if that’s what you enjoy, or you can turn on the autopilot and zip to your destination; you can screw around in the desert outside of town shooting bounty hunters all day, or you can diligently pursue the resolution of the mystery with the help of the notepad thoughtfully included in the box. Even when it comes to the gimmicks, one never gets the impression the developers were thinking, “Including real pictures in our game will surely make us market leaders and sell a million copies!” No, it’s rather, “Gee, real pictures… in a game! How cool is that? Let’s do it!”

The “cast” of Mean Streets consisted of colleagues and friends, along with a smattering of fashion models recruited from a local agency. This character, whose name is Sylvia Linsky, would later show up in Under a Killing Moon as Tex Murphy’s ex-wife. (The course of love is never straight and true…) Even these few lines of text are enough to demonstrate the awkward writing that dogged these early games, which would be remedied only by the arrival of Aaron Conners on the scene. “If only I knew how she felt for me…” About me, maybe?

Released in late 1989, Mean Streets sold well enough to justify continuing with adventure games as a sideline to Access’s main business of golf simulations. In fact, Jones, Vandegrift and their colleagues made no fewer than three more games in the same general style as Mean Streets, minus only the flight simulator and shoot-em-up sequences, which most players of the first game had agreed were a bridge too far. The games in question were called Countdown, Martian Memorandum, and Amazon: Guardians of Eden, of which trio only the middle entry starred Tex Murphy. Then, the era of juvenilia ended as Jones and company took things to another level entirely.

Access was flying higher than ever at the time, but the reasons for their success still had much more to do with their golf games than their adventure games. In 1992, the year that Chris Jones made Amazon, Bruce Carver made Links 386 Pro, the first major game of any stripe to require a high-resolution “Super VGA” graphics card. It became a smashing hit, selling to many gamers who couldn’t care less about the sport of golf but just wanted to take in the mouth-watering details of the game’s meticulously recreated real-world courses. With Access thus flusher than ever with cash, Jones sought and won permission to, as he put it, “make the Links 386 of adventure games,” employing not only the new technology of SVGA but also CD-ROM. It was a tremendous gamble — the industry had been waiting in vain for CD-ROM to break through for literally years already — but the money flowing in from Links put Access in a position where they could afford to take such risks.

Although Doug Vandegrift had provided welcome assistance, all of Access’s adventure games to date had been Chris Jones’s babies at bottom, a fact that was perhaps not completely to their benefit. Jones was many things, but he wasn’t a terribly accomplished writer, and it often showed. Luckily, Access had recently hired as a technical writer a fellow named Aaron Conners, holder of a degree in English literature from the University of Utah. He’d become chummy with Jones when he was assigned to write hints for Amazon. Now, Jones asked him to write a full-length script for a third Tex Murphy game that would pull out all the stops.

It was the best move he ever made; Conners brought a whole new dimension to the character, adding not just more layers of humor but a degree of pathos as well. Conners:

He’s a man out of time, which works well because we can put him in an environment that none of us are familiar with, and he doesn’t seem to be familiar with it either. So, we can relate to him.

At the same time, he’s got the sensibilities of the 1940s, which is nostalgic to us. I think it ties in really well together, but it’s inherently humorous because he’s constantly out of place, no matter where he goes. He’s a [private detective], and he doesn’t really have any peers [in the future]. When he goes to the people who hire him, they’re generally higher class and think he’s scum. And yet he thinks that everyone at his level or lower is scum.

Tex’s basic attitude reminds me of the George Carlin line: “When you’re out driving, anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” That’s kind of the way Tex is. He doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone. Tex has an inherent dislike of people who are born privileged. So he just has to poke them all the time. That’s how I see Tex’s character, fueled by this natural irreverence.

In November of 1992, three months after being given the assignment, Conners handed Jones the story for Under a Killing Moon, then stepped up to join him as co-designer. The two have been professionally inseparable ever since.

The story takes place in the San Francisco of 2042, ten years after Mean Streets. The people of the city, who live out their lives in a Blade Runner-esque nocturnal setting, have been segregated into “norms” who don’t evince radiation-induced mutations and “mutes” who do. Tex himself is a norm, but he feels more comfortable among the mutes who inhabit the ghettos of the city. In the course of the game, his investigation of a petty robbery at a local pawnshop puts him on the trail of a worldwide eugenicist conspiracy to cleanse the earth of mutants and re-constitute the human race from pure stock.

Doug Vandegrift crafted the look of the setting, blending film noir with science fiction in a way whose only obvious antecedents were his and Jones’s own earlier works and the aforementioned Blade Runner. Jones:

The model was old-style, rundown, down and out, seedy, making it feel like the [Great] Depression. In Tex’s neighborhood it could be 1938. Dirty, dark alleys and streets, wrecked buildings, that post-apocalypse feel. Then in the new city, Tex moves through beautiful condominiums and high-tech office complexes and facilities.

Like the Access adventure games that had come before it, Under a Killing Moon would knit together all of the trendiest new techniques in game development. But, in a telling sign of the changing times, the nature of those techniques was now such that this game would necessarily be ambitious — and expensive — on an almost unprecedented scale. At its core, it would be built around two seemingly wildly disparate approaches: a 3D-rendered virtual reality and full-motion video starring real actors.

At the time that Under a Killing Moon was first being conceived, the potential for 3D rendering outside the context of vehicular simulations was best demonstrated by two games with polar-opposite personalities: Blue Sky Productions’s CRPG Ultima Underworld and id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. The former was by far the more complete implementation of a 3D environment, but paid the price for it by running rather slowly even on machines that met its steep system requirements. Wolfenstein 3D, on the other hand, was much more limited — it was more of an illusion of a 3D environment than the real thing — but it ran like blazes on almost any computer made during the last five years. Ultima Underworld let you do all sorts of things in its world, from swimming to flying to casting spells; Wolfenstein 3D let you run through suspiciously uniform corridors and shoot Nazis. As the decade progressed, all games that employed 3D rendering would sort themselves on a continuum between these two archetypes.

Under a Killing Moon boasted some of the most impressive 3D environments yet seen on a computer. This part of the game was a technological marvel in its own right.

Jones and Conners, for their part, were interested in using 3D not as a test of reflexes but to bring their world to life in a way that third-person graphic adventures, including Access’s own earlier ones, did not. Although Tex Murphy must sometimes use stealth to hide from enemies in the 3D sequences, he never shoots anyone at all within them. Even all these years later, Under a Killing Moon and its eventual sequels still stand out as unusual, noble efforts to use the potential of 3D in the service of something other than what the politicians would soon be labeling “murder simulators.” Jones:

When we sat down to create this experience, we asked ourselves, “If I’m a private investigator, what do I want to do?” Hey, I want to look in drawers! I want to crawl around, look at footprints on the floor, pull things out and examine them! And I want to do that stuff myself. I want to control the action. I don’t want some mouse click to take me on a path over there. Give me all the freedom that you can, then let me interact with that environment.

In talking about “some mouse click to take me on a path over there,” Jones is implicitly comparing his game to The 7th Guest, the industry’s first big CD-ROM-exclusive hit, which appeared in March of 1993 and paved the way for Under a Killing Moon by unleashing at last the long-anticipated wave of CD-ROM uptake among consumers. And indeed, at a casual glance The 7th Guest seems like a very similar game to Access’s effort: it too blends 3D environments with full-motion-video clips of real actors, and it too is among the earliest games to require an SVGA graphics card.

Look closer, however, and the differences become stark. The 7th Guest uses a node-based movement system; thus Jones’s disparaging reference above. Your movements from node to node inside the haunted mansion where it takes place are presented via pre-rendered 3D animations. Under a Killing Moon, on the other hand, does its rendering on the fly, giving you a glorious free-scrolling environment to roam as you will — crouching, bending, looking on top of things and under things and inside things. It’s an extraordinary achievement, especially given that it’s almost entirely the work of a single programmer, a longtime Access stalwart named Bruce Johnson. In order to get the speed he needed from the hardware available at the time, he had to write it in pure assembly language — an approach which even as storied a programmer as id’s John Carmack had abandoned by that point as just too much trouble. Access Software is seldom mentioned as a 3D pioneer on the level of Looking Glass Technologies (née Blue Sky Productions) and id Software, but perhaps that’s unjust. Their reputation in this field may have been ironically undermined by their other ambitions — for, instead of being content merely to redefine the state of the art in 3D environments, Jones and Conners used 3D as just one component in their game.

The other side of the equation is, as mentioned, full-motion video, which is used for cut scenes that advance the story along and for your menu-driven conversations with others. Like virtually all such productions from the 1990s, Under a Killing Moon leaves much to be desired by the cineastes among us. Even the most experienced professional actors would surely have struggled to deliver good, natural-feeling performances when forced to ply their trade in front of a plain blue screen, waving around clumsy props that would later be painted over by Access’s artists, being directed by Jones and Conners themselves, who, clever and creative though they were, had never been to film school. But then, much of the cast of Under a Killing Moon are not professional actors, and, believe me, it shows.

A conversation with Beek Nariz, who was played by Doug Vandegrift. He “nose” a lot about goings-on in the criminal underworld, and what he doesn’t know he can sniff out.

Whether that quality of rank amateurishness is ultimately to the game’s detriment, however, is a different question. Under a Killing Moon‘s secret sauce, which makes it work even where it really ought not to, is its sheer likability. Chris Jones deadpans his way through the role of Tex in a fashion that will never win him any acting awards, but it does win the viewer’s sympathy. The same applies to virtually every other amateur who appears onscreen, often in ludicrous homemade prosthesis and makeup appropriate for their mutant personae. Whether childhood friends of Jones and Vandegrift or people who just happened to work at Access, they’re clearly having a great deal of fun with their roles, and they clearly want us to have fun watching too.

Deep into production, Jones learned during a chance conversation with his brother that the latter knew a Hollywood talent agent who was in Salt Lake City casting for a movie. Doug Vandegrift:

She said, “If you guys want to hire Hollywood actors, I can arrange that.” But we really didn’t take it seriously until she called up one day and said, “I’ve got Margot Kidder. She’s got to go to the airport in three hours, but right now she’s sitting in Salt Lake City doing nothing. If you’d like for her to come, you can have her for three hours.” Aaron quickly wrote something, she showed up, and had great fun doing it.

We thought, well, if we can get her, maybe we can get somebody else. Before we knew it, Brian Keith came in for a day.

In an amusing reminder of Access’s essential Mormon-ness, Brian Keith, whose gruff persona in television shows like Hardcastle and McCormick apparently wasn’t affected, became in Aaron Conners’s recollection the first person ever to “drop an F-bomb” in the office. This must mark some sort of record; normally the F-bombs flow like soda inside a games studio…

Russell Means, a supporting player in the recent movie The Last of the Mohicans, also joined the cast. These “stars” who came on such short notice and left just as quickly stand out from the amateur thespians considerably less than one might expect. Like so many Hollywood actors who slummed it in CD-ROM during the heyday of the full-motion-video craze, they used Under a Killing Moon as an opportunity to chew up some scenery and have a little fun playing out-sized versions of the roles for which they were best known. “I don’t think she was really quite sure of what we were doing,” says Chris Jones about Margot Kidder. “Her reference point was Nintendo and Sega.”

Undoubtedly Access’s biggest coup was the casting of James Earl Jones, the iconic voice of Darth Vader himself, as narrator. It was really on a lark that they even rang up his agent — and sure enough, the initial response was, to say the least, not positive: “No way, no way will we do this, no way.” In the end, though, James Earl Jones did agree to do the job, and for a fraction of his normal rate at that, because his son had played and loved Access’s earlier adventure games and had been following the progress on this one closely: “Dad, you’ve got to do this!” Consider: LucasArts had just started making Star Wars games at the time, and yet with all their connections were forced to settle for a soundalike in the role of their Darth Vader. But here he was, performing for Access. Under a Killing Moon truly was a charmed project.

But if its makers were lucky, they earned their luck by doing everything they could to make sure that everyone who played it got more fun than frustration out of the experience. For example, it’s impossible to lock yourself out of victory without knowing it. Another telling sign that this game is on its player’s side is its interactive hint system, which you’re free to use as much or as little as you want. There’s even an “easy play” mode that lets you skip the puzzles completely and just explore the story. The designers plainly aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea — “you’ll enjoy a new level of entertainment” if you only use easy mode to “become familiar with the controls” and then move on to the real thing, says the manual — but, hey, if you really want to play that way, that too ought to be your right.

The travel interface, to which locations are added as time goes on and you learn about them. Under a Killing Moon uses plot time instead of clock time: time advances only in response to you making progress in your investigations. This technique, which had been pioneered by Infocom in Ballyhoo and used to good effect in the first Gabriel Knight adventure in the year before this game was released, was by this point becoming a staple of the adventure genre. And small wonder: it allows for a dynamic, unfolding plot without letting said plot run away without the player. What it sacrifices in realism, in other words, it recoups in practicality and mercy.

Yet another innovation for the player’s sake — perhaps the most enduring of all — is found in the conversation system. Menu-based conversations had been a staple of graphic adventures for quite some time, but Jones and Conners noted how awkward it felt to click on a line of dialog for Tex and then hear him parrot the very same line back. Aaron Conners:

Almost every game at the time would show the full line of dialog. We said, “This is so tedious.” A lot of the wordy games, including some of the best ones, like Monkey Island — fantastic, wonderful humor… but even with that I got tired of reading it and then hearing it. I had to come up with some other way to do it.

So, they implemented a mood-based conversation menu: instead of seeing exactly what Tex will say, you see options like (in the case of a potential love interest) “subtle innuendo,” “lovesick puppy,” and “charmingly curious.” This way, you still feel like you’re directing the course of the conversation, but some element of surprise is preserved. This system went on to influence no less a gaming blockbuster than the Mass Effect franchise, whose development teams included some avowed fans of the Tex Murphy games.

There’s an honesty about Under a Killing Moon, a commitment to its plot and premise that is lacking from most contemporary interactive movies. Again, a comparison to The 7th Guest is unavoidable. The earlier game is the poster child for puzzles that exist purely to give the player something to do, that have no connection whatsoever to a game’s fiction. But, in the words of Chris Jones, “there are no 7th Guest-type things” in Under a Killing Moon: “You know, ‘Here’s a puzzle to solve so you can move to the next room. Move these little marbles around here or whatever. None of that. In Under a Killing Moon, everything is interrelated.” The things you do in the game are mostly the things that a real private detective might be expected to do in order to solve a crime: interviewing people, searching premises for clues, piecing together the evidence to come another step toward the solution. Even those that are thoroughly goofy and would certainly never appear in a detective movie still bear directly on the case you’re trying to solve. And even those puzzles that might initially seem like roadblocks for the sake of roadblocks — like Tex’s urgent need for a new fax machine to replace his broken one — turn out to be useful as background, in this case by establishing just how down and out our hero actually is. At the time of its release, Under a Killing Moon was simply the best, most honest interactive implementation of a mystery — arguably the fictional genre most naturally amenable to becoming an adventure game — to appear since The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.

By the time it was released just in time for the Christmas of 1994, Under a Killing Moon had taken two years and some $2 million to create, making it one of the two most expensive computer games ever made to that point. It was also one of the two biggest games yet made in terms of sheer number of bits: it grew from one CD to two to three to four over the course of its development. In both departments, it was equaled only by the near-simultaneously released Wing Commander III from Origin Systems, another, very different take on the full-motion-video interactive movie. How strange to think that just a year or two earlier developers had been fretting over how they would ever manage to fill up a single CD! Not content with blowing past the one-gigabyte barrier in 1994, these two games had already exceeded two gigabytes in size. It was as frenzied a period of technological change as gaming has ever known.

Under a Killing Moon was greeted with a brutal review in Computer Gaming World, courtesy of Charles Ardai, that magazine’s resident curmudgeon as well as my favorite gaming scribe of the 1990s. His take-down is odd not least because he had previously given Countdown and Martian Memorandum fairly glowing reviews. Nevertheless, his review of Under a Killing Moon makes some very valid points, so much so that I want to quote from it here as the flip-side to my positive take on the game.

With the plot about the cult and the crusade for genetic purity, [the developers] appear to be trying to tell a serious story, with serious threats and grim implications. Yet every time the story threatens to go in an interesting direction, they cut it off at the knees by throwing in lame, inappropriate jokes and cheap slapstick, such as scenes that involve Tex falling over in his chair or walking into walls or getting captured by villains who do Three Stooges-style eye-poking shtick.

This undisciplined willingness to sacrifice the story in order to stick gags in where they don’t belong is typical of amateur writers, and it is deeply unsatisfying. Jones and Conners seem to be hoping that they can make a single game be both a serious thriller and a goofy comedy, both Chinatown and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and it just doesn’t work.

Ardai isn’t precisely wrong about any of this; the game’s tone really is all over the map, in that way all too typical of adventure-game writers — and, yes, amateur writers of all stripes — who lack the courage of their convictions, and seek to head off criticism of their productions’ manifest weaknesses by suddenly playing them for laughs. Normally, this sort of thing irritates me as badly as it does Ardai.

In this case, however, it doesn’t; I recognize the game’s disjointedness, not only in terms of its fiction but in the disparate gallery of techniques and interfaces it uses to present its story, but I’m just not that bothered by it. For me, Under a Killing Moon is a shaggy beast for sure, but also a thoroughly lovable one. When I ask myself why this should be, I find myself tempted to fall back on those vague platitudes that are the hallmark of the amateur critic: that the game has “soul”; that it is, God help us, “greater than the sum of its parts.”

Since that will obviously never do, let me note that it has at least three saving graces. One is a certain cultural sophistication which peeks through the game’s pastiche, telling us that its creators were a bit older than the norm and had a taste for things beyond Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars: the street where Tex Murphy lives is called Chandler Avenue after the beloved crime novelist; the central Mcguffin of the game is a bird statuette, a nod to The Maltese Falcon. Another is its bold spirit of innovation, its willingness to try not just one new thing but a whole pile of them, despite working in the terminally conservative ludic genre of the adventure game, which usually departs from the tried and true only with the utmost reluctance. And a third — probably the most important of all — is one that I’ve already mentioned: its exuberant likability. Just being nice — being the kind of person that other people enjoy being around — will get you a surprisingly long way in life. If Under a Killing Moon is any evidence, the same is true in games.

Here, then, is the ultimate difference maker between Under a Killing Moon and a game like The 7th Guest: the former is generous to its player while the latter is stingy. Although Under a Killing Moon gleefully employs every piece of trendy technology its developers can get their hands on, it’s all done for the purpose of making a fun game of the sort that said developers themselves would like to play; it’s not done merely to make a statement about the alleged multimedia zeitgeist, much less to rake in beaucoups of cash. The money, one senses, was always secondary when it came to Tex Murphy. (Why else invest millions into risky interactive movies at all instead of wallowing contently in the ocean of guaranteed profit from the Links franchise?)

There’s an open-hearted joy about Under a Killing Moon that makes up for a multitude of acting and even writing sins. It’s still bursting with that excitement which Jones and Vandegrift felt as kids — “We’re making a movie!” It’s just that now it’s an interactive movie. Under a Killing Moon is a wonderful tonic in a cynical world. If that sounds odd, given that the game takes place in such a dystopian setting, it serves only to point out how special its personality really is. The game tells us that the best parts of us, the things we sometimes call our basic humanity, will always survive. Chris Jones:

Okay, this world’s worn-out and ugly and partially destroyed, but people are people. People still have their sense of humor. People still have an outlook they can hang onto. Even if the world’s going to hell, it’s the only world they’ve got. To be dragged down in the mud attitude-wise or [imagine] things never improving… well, maybe they will never improve, but there’s got to be some hope that they will.

It strikes me that the most under-discussed aspect of Under a Killing Moon, as well as quite possibly our key to understanding all this, is the Mormon community from which it sprang. There are all sorts of reasons for the silence on the subject, starting with many would-be game historians’ apparent belief that individual games can be understood without taking account of the real-world beliefs and biases that went into them, passing through the way that the people who made this particular game studiously avoid the subject, ending with how loaded any discussion at all of religion has become in our societies. Not everyone who worked on Under a Killing Moon was Mormon — even a community like Bountiful is “only” 75 percent Mormon, with a substantial Catholic minority among its other believers and non-believers — and the game never, ever proselytizes; it wants to entertain you, not convert you. Nevertheless, it has a distinct Mormon sensibility, and is all the better for it.

There is, I think, a tendency among many non-believers who lack experience with religious communities to imagine them as unduly grim milieus, where everyone marches in lockstep as Soldiers of God, where there is no room for warmth or humor or whimsy, no space for secular culture of any stripe. But, as Under a Killing Moon amply demonstrates, that’s not always or even usually the case at all.

Of course, like any dogmatic religion, Mormonism comes complete with a set of Lines That Shall Not Be Crossed, whose nature I won’t belabor here. Yet it’s more forward-looking than many religions, with surprisingly little aversion to modernity within its strict lines of demarcation. Based on my own limited experience, this orientation translates into a genuine desire to see the faithful live up to their individual talents here in the world. You can see this quality manifested in Under a Killing Moon, along with much else that will strike a chord of recognition with anyone who has ever lived among or around Mormons. I recently discussed the subject with Jeff Roberts of RAD Game Tools, a longtime friend of this site who did some contract work on the game’s video-compression system:

Yeah, I joke about how LDS the humor seems to me. It’s super chaste, awkward humor. Very dad-joke humor. I grew up in Utah as a non-Mormon, so I sense that feeling immediately (Book of Mormon nails that perfectly). But yeah, any clips of Access games immediately trigger a “whoa…” in me to this day. They did a “comical” golf game a few years later that really pegs the Mormon meter for me: “Extreme” something… yikes, so bad.

I remember a funny story about Bruce [Johnson] being a henchman that has to grab a girl that was being abducted, but Bruce was embarrassed and it kept filming badly, which led to the actor playing the girl finally just saying, “Look, can you just grab me, so I can go home?”

Tex looks very uncomfortable in this situation…

Under a Killing Moon is the videogame equivalent of Mitt Romney, the whitest man in the world, marching gawkily along with a Black Lives Matter protest, just because, gosh darn it — and Mitt Romney would actually say, “Gosh, darn it,” in 2020 — it’s the right thing to do. As far as the game is concerned, the Right Thing is to try its own earnest, gawky best to give its players the best time ever.

Fortunately for Access, most gamers hewed more to my verdict on Under a Killing Moon than to Charles Ardai’s. In spite of a coveted segment on the television show Entertainment Tonight, the game didn’t become a breakaway mainstream icon of the early CD-ROM era like The 7th Guest or Myst. But it did do well among the slowly expanding audience of core gamers, enough to earn back its development budget and justify another Tex Murphy game. So, one of the most likable series in the history of adventure gaming got to continue on its goofy way, and thus will be making another appearance as part of these histories before all is said and done. In the meantime, give the game a shot if you haven’t already. You might be surprised at how much wholesome fun a post-apocalyptic dystopia can be.

(Sources: the book Under a Killing Moon: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Computer Gaming World of January 1990, January 1991, January 1992, August 1994, and January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of November 1994 and January 1995; Commodore Magazine of July 1987 and August 1987; Provo Daily Herald of January 25 1989, August 1 1990, August 21 1990, June 23 1992, September 19 1993, and October 8 1994; various Bountiful city newsletters. Video sources include the original film of Plan Ten from Outer Space, with commentary from the makers; the documentary The Making of Tex Murphy; and Chris Jones, Aaron Conners, and Mat Van Rhoon on the Back Seat Designers podcast. And I owe a huge thank you to Jeff Roberts for sharing his impressions of working with Access Software.

Under a Killing Moon is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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