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Brian Fargo and Interplay

Interplay

I touched on the history of Brian Fargo and his company Interplay some time ago, when I looked at the impact of The Bard’s Tale, their breakout CRPG hit that briefly replaced the Wizardry series as the go-to yin to Ultima‘s yang and in the process transformed Interplay almost overnight from a minor developer to one of the leading lights of the industry. They deserve more than such cursory treatment, however, for The Bard’s Tale would prove to be only the beginning of Interplay’s legacy. Let’s lay the groundwork for that future today by looking at how it all got started.

Born into suburban comfort in Orange County, California, in 1962, Brian Fargo manifested from an early age a peculiar genius for crossing boundaries that has served him well throughout his life. In high school he devoured fantasy and science-fiction novels and comics, spent endless hours locked in his room hacking on his Apple II, and played Dungeons and Dragons religiously in cellars and school cafeterias. At the same time, though, he was also a standout athlete at his school, a star of the football team and so good a sprinter that he and his coaches harbored ambitions for a while of making the United States Olympic Team. The Berlin Wall that divides the jocks from the nerds in high school crumbled before Fargo. So it would be throughout his life. In years to come he would be able to spend a day at the office discussing the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, then head out for an A-list cocktail party amongst the Hollywood jet set with his good friend Timothy Leary. By the time Interplay peaked in the late 1990s, he would be a noted desirable bachelor amongst the Orange County upper crust (“When he’s not at a terminal he can usually be found rowing, surfing, or fishing”), making the society pages for opening a luxury shoe and accessory boutique, for hosting lavish parties, for planning his wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. All whilst continuing to make and — perhaps more importantly — continuing to openly love nerdy games about killing fantasy monsters. Somehow Brian Fargo made it all look so easy.

But before all that he was just a suburban kid who loved games, whether played on the tabletop, in the arcade, on the Atari VCS, or on his beloved Apple II. Softline magazine, the game-centric spinoff of the voice-of-the-Apple-II-community Softalk, gives us a glimpse of young Fargo the rabid gamer. He’s a regular fixture of the high-score tables the magazine published, excelling at California Pacific’s Apple II knock-off of the arcade game Head-On as well as the swordfighting game Swashbuckler. Already a smooth diplomat, he steps in to soothe a budding controversy when someone claims to have run up a score in Swashbuckler of 1501, a feat that others claim is impossible because the score rolls over to 0 after 255. It seems, Fargo patiently explains, that there are two versions of the game, one of which rolls over and one of which doesn’t, so everyone is right. But the most tangible clue to his future is provided by the question he managed to get published in the January 1982 issue: “How does one get so many pictures onto one disk, such as in The Wizard and the Princess, where On-Line has more than 200 pictures, with a program for the adventure on top of that?” Yes, Brian Fargo the track star had decided to give up his Olympic dream and become a game developer.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

By that time Fargo was 19, and a somewhat reluctant student at the University of California, Irvine as well as a repair technician at ComputerLand. No more than an adequate BASIC programmer — he would allow even that ability to atrophy as soon as he could find a way to get someone else to do his coding for him — Fargo knew that he hadn’t a prayer of creating one of the action games that littered Softline‘s high-score rankings, nor anything as complex as Ultima or Wizardry, the two CRPGs currently taking the Apple II world by storm. He did, however, think he might just be up to doing an illustrated adventure game in the style of The Wizard and the Princess. He recruited one Michael Cranford, a Dungeons and Dragons buddy and fellow hacker from high school, to draw the pictures he’d need on paper; he then traced them and colored them on his Apple II. He convinced another friend to write him a few machine-language routines for displaying the graphics. And to make use of it all he wrote a simple BASIC adventure game: you must escape the Demon’s Forge, “an ancient test of wisdom and battle skill.” Desperate for some snazzy cover art, he licensed a cheesecake fantasy print in the style of Boris Vallejo, featuring a shapely woman tied to a pole being menaced by two knights mounted on some sort of flying snakes — this despite a notable lack of snakes (flying or otherwise), scantily-clad females, or for that matter poles in the game proper. (The full Freudian implications of this box art, not to mention the sentence I’ve just written about it, would doubtless take a lifetime of psychotherapy to unravel.)

The Demon's Forge box art, which won Softline magazine's Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

The Demon’s Forge box art, which won Softline magazine’s sarcastic Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

Fargo employed a guerrilla-marketing technique that would have made Wild Bill Stealey proud to sell The Demon’s Forge under his new imprint of Saber Software. He took out a single advertisement in Softalk for $2500. Then he started calling stores around the country to ask about his game, claiming to be a potential customer who had seen the advertisement: “A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order.” It didn’t make him big money, but he made a little. Then along came Michael Boone.

Boone was another old high-school friend, a scion of petroleum wealth who had dutifully gone off to Stanford to study petroleum engineering, only to be distracted by the lure of entrepreneurship. For some time he vacillated between starting a software company and an ice-cream chain, deciding on the former when his family’s connections came through with an injection of venture capital. His long-term plan was to make a golf simulation for the new IBM PC: “IBM seemed like the computer that business people and the affluent were buying. So, I should write a golf game for the IBM computer.” Knowing little about programming and needing product to get him started, he offered to buy out Fargo’s The Demon’s Forge and his Saber Software for a modest $5000, and have Fargo come work for him. Fargo dropped out of university to do so in late 1982. He assembled a talented little development team consisting of programmers “Burger” Bill Heineman and Troy Worrell along with himself, right there in his and Boone’s hometown of Newport Beach.1

Boone Corporation. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. Jay Patel isn't present in this photo.

Boone Corporation, 1983. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. They’re toasting with Hires Root Beer. “Hires Root Beer,” “Hi-Res graphics.” Get it?

After porting The Demon’s Forge to the IBM PC, Fargo’s little team occupied themselves writing quick-and-dirty cartridge games like Chuck Norris Superkicks and Robin Hood for the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, and the Commodore VIC-20 and 64. These were published without attribution by Xonox, a spinoff of K-tel Records, one of many dodgy players flooding the market with substandard product during the lead-up to the Great Videogame Crash. Michael Boone agreed to publish under his own imprint a couple of VIC-20 action games — Crater Raider and Cyclon — written by a talented programmer named Alan Pavlish whom Fargo knew well. Meanwhile work proceeded slowly on Boone’s golf simulation for the rich, which was now to be a “tree-for-tree, inch-for-inch recreation of the course at Pebble Beach.” When some Demon’s Forge players called to ask for a hint, Fargo learned that they were part of a company trying to get traction for the Moodies, a bunch of pixeish would-be cartoon characters derivative of the Smurfs; soon they came in to sign a contract for a game to be called Moodies in Iceland.

But then came the Crash. One day shortly thereafter Boone walked into the office and announced that he was taking the company in another direction: to make dry-erase boards instead of computer games. Since Fargo and his team had no particular competency in that field, they were all out of a job. Boone’s new venture would prove to be hugely successful, giving us the whiteboards now ubiquitous to seemingly every office or cubicle in the world and making Boone himself very, very rich. But even had they been able to predict his future that wouldn’t have been much consolation for Fargo and his suddenly forlorn little pair of programmers.

Fargo decided that it really shouldn’t be that hard for him to do what Michael Boone had been doing in addition to managing the development team. In fact, he had already been working on a side venture, a potential $60,000 contract with World Book Encyclopedia to make some rote educational titles of the drill-and-practice stripe. After signing that contract, he founded Interplay Productions to see it through. It wasn’t a glamorous beginning, but it represented programs that could be knocked out quickly to start bringing in money. Heineman and Worrell agreed to stay with Fargo and try to make it work. Fargo added another programmer named Jay Patel to complete this initial incarnation of Interplay. The next six to nine months consisted of Fargo hustling up whatever work he could find, game or non-game, and his team hammering it out: “We did work for the military, stuff for McGraw Hill — we did anything we could do. We didn’t have the luxury of creating our own software. We had to do other people’s work and just kept our ideas in the back of our minds.”

The big break they’d been hoping for came midway through 1984. Interplay “hit Activision’s radar,” and Activision decided to let Fargo and company make some adventure games for them. Activision at the time was reeling from the Great Videogame Crash, which had destroyed their immensely profitable cartridge business almost overnight. CEO Jim Levy had decided that the future of the company, if it was to have one, must lie with software for home computers. With little expertise in this area, he was happy to sign up even an unproven outside developer like the nascent Interplay. Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, the first two games Interplay was actually willing to put their name on, were the results.

Fargo’s team had found time to dissect Infocom games and tinker with parsers and adventure-game engines even back during their days as Boone Corporation. Mindshadow and Tracer Sanction were logical extensions of that experimentation and, going back even further, of Fargo’s first game The Demon’s Forge. Fargo found a young artist named Dave Lowery, who would go on to quite an impressive career in film, to draw the pictures for Mindshadow; they came out looking a cut above most of the competition in the crowded field of illustrated adventure games. Mindshadow‘s Bourne Identity-inspired plot has you waking up with amnesia on a deserted island. Once you escape the island, you embark on a globe-trotting quest to recover your memories. There’s an interesting metaphysical angle to a game that’s otherwise fairly typical of its period and genre. As you encounter new people, places, and things that you should know from your earlier life, you can use the verb “remember” to fit them into place and slowly rebuild your shattered identity.

Mindshadow did relatively well for Interplay and Activision, not a blockbuster but a solid seller that seemed to bode well for future collaborations. Less successful both aesthetically and commercially was Tracer Sanction, a science-fiction adventure that isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be serious or humorous and lacks a conceptual hook like Mindshadow‘s “remember” gimmick. But by the time it appeared Fargo had already shifted much of his team’s energy away from adventure games and into the CRPG project that would become The Bard’s Tale.

Fargo and his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford had been dreaming of doing a CRPG since about five minutes after they had first seen Wizardry back in 1981. Cranford had even made a stripped-down CRPG on his own, published on a Commodore 64 cartridge by Human Engineered Software under the title Maze Master in 1983 to paltry sales. Now Fargo convinced him to help his little team at Interplay create a Wizardry killer. It seemed high time for such an undertaking, what with the Wizardry series still using ugly monochrome wire frames to depict its dungeons and monsters and available only on the Apple II, Macintosh, and IBM PC — a list which notably didn’t include the biggest platform in the industry, the Commodore 64. Indeed, CRPGs of any sort were quite thin on the ground for the Commodore 64, decent ones even more so. Fargo:

At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party-based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, “Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?” But my attitude was, “We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?”

Soon the game was far enough along for Fargo to start shopping it to publishers. His first stop was naturally Activision. One of Jim Levy’s major blind spots, however, was the whole CRPG genre. He simply couldn’t understand the appeal of killing monsters, mapping dungeons, and building characters, reportedly pronouncing Interplay’s project “nicheware for nerds.” And so Fargo ended up across town at Electronics Arts, who, recognizing that Trip Hawkins’s original conception of “simple, hot, and deep” wasn’t quite the be-all end-all in a world where all entertainment software was effectively “nicheware for nerds,” were eager to diversify into more hardcore genres like the CRPG. EA’s marketing director Bing Gordon zeroed in on the appeal of one of Cranford’s relatively few expansions on Wizardry, the character of the bard. He went so far as to change the game’s name from Shadow Snare to The Bard’s Tale to highlight him, creating a lovable rogue to serve as the star of advertisements and box copy who barely exists in the game proper: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking.” Beyond that, promoting The Bard’s Tale was just a matter of trumpeting the game’s audiovisual appeal in contrast to the likes of Wizardry. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1985, with all of EA’s considerable promotional savvy and financial muscle behind it, The Bard’s Tale shocked even its creators and its publisher by outselling the long-awaited Ultima IV that appeared just a few weeks later. Interplay had come into the big time; Fargo’s days of scrabbling after any work he could find looked to be over for a long, long time to come. In the end, The Bard’s Tale would sell more than 400,000 copies, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s.

The inevitable Bard’s Tale sequel was completed and shipped barely a year later. Another solid hit at the time on the strength of its burgeoning franchise’s name, it’s generally less fondly remembered today by fans. It seems that Michael Cranford and Fargo had had a last-minute falling-out over royalties just as the first Bard’s Tale was being completed, which led to Cranford literally holding the final version of the game for ransom until a new agreement was reached. A new deal was brokered in the nick of time, but the relationship between Cranford and Interplay was irretrievably soured. Cranford was allowed to make The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, but he did so almost entirely on his own, using much of the tools and code he and Interplay’s core team had developed together for the first game. The lack of oversight and testing led to a game that was insanely punishing even by the standards of the era, one that often felt sadistic just for the sake of it. Afterward Cranford parted company with Interplay forever to study theology and philosophy at university.

Despite having rejected The Bard’s Tale themselves, Activision was less than thrilled with Interplay’s decision to publish the games through EA, especially after they turned into exactly the sorts of raging hits that they desperately needed for themselves. Fargo notes that Activision and EA “just hated each other,” far more so even than was the norm in an increasingly competitive industry. Perhaps they were just too much alike. Jim Levy and Trip Hawkins both liked to think of themselves as hip, with-it guys selling the future of art and entertainment to equally hip, with-it buyers. Both were fond of terms like “software artist,” and both drew much of their marketing and management approaches from the world of rock and roll. Little Interplay had a tough task tiptoeing between these two bellicose elephants. Fargo:

We were maybe the only developer doing work for both companies at the same time, and they just grilled me whenever they had the chance. Whenever there was any kind of leak, they’d say, “Did you say anything?” I was right in the middle there. I always made sure to keep my mouth shut about everything.

Still, Fargo managed for a while to continuing doing adventure games for Activision alongside CRPGs for EA. Interplay’s Activision adventure for 1985, Borrowed Time, might just be their best. It was created at that interesting moment when developers were beginning to realize that traditional parser-based adventure games, even of the illustrated variety, might not cut it commercially much longer, but when they weren’t yet quite sure how to evolve the genre to make it more accessible and not seem like a hopeless anachronism on slick new machines like the Atari ST and Amiga. Borrowed Time is built on the same engine that had already powered Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, but it sports an attempt at providing an alternative to the keyboard via a list of verbs and nouns and a clickable graphic inventory. It’s all pretty half-baked, however, in that the list of nouns are suitable to the office where you start the game but bizarrely never change thereafter, while there are no hotspots on the pictures proper. Nor does the verb list contain all the verbs you actually need to finish the game. Thus even the most enthusiastic point-and-clicker can only expect to switch back and forth constantly between mouse or joystick and keyboard, a process that strikes me as much more annoying than just typing everything.

The clickable word list is great -- until you leave your office.

Borrowed Time on the Amiga. The clickable word list is great — until you leave your office.

Thankfully, the game has been thought through more than its interface. Realizing that neither he nor anyone else amongst the standard Interplay crew were all that good at writing prose, Fargo contacted Bill Kunkel, otherwise known as “The Game Doctor,” who had made a name for himself as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson of videogame journalism via his column in Electronic Games magazine. Fargo’s pitch was simple: “Okay, you guys have a lot of opinions about games, how would you like to do one?” Kunkel, along with some old friends and colleagues named Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, decided that they would like that very much, forming a little company called Subway Software to represent their partnership. Subway proceeded to write all of the text and do much of the design for Borrowed Time. Fargo gave them a “Script by” credit for their contributions, the first of many such design credits Subway would receive over the years to come (a list that includes Star Trek: First Contact for Simon & Schuster).

Like Déjà Vu, ICOM Simulations’s breakthrough point-and-click graphic adventure of the same year, Borrowed Time plays in the hard-boiled 1930s milieu of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The tones and styles of the two games are very  similar. Both love to make sardonic fun of the hapless, down-on-his-luck PI who serves as protagonist almost as much as they love to kill him, and both mix opportunities for free exploration with breakneck chases and other linear bits of derring-do in service of some unusually complicated plots. And I like both games on the whole, despite some unforgiving old-school design decisions. While necessarily minimalist given the limitations of Interplay’s engine, the text of Borrowed Time in particular is pretty good at evoking its era and genre inspirations.

Collaborations like the one that led to Borrowed Time highlight one of the most interesting aspects of Fargo’s approach to game development. In progress as well in many other companies by the mid-1980s, it represented a quiet revolution in the way games got made that was changing the industry.

With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed to just the one-man show doing everything, was novel. Even with Demon’s Forge, I had my buddy Michael do all the art, but I had to trace it all and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn’t know a musician or a sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don’t think that’s my strong point. So, really, [Interplay was] set up to say, “Let’s take a team approach and bring in specialists.”

One of the specialists Fargo brought in for Interplay’s fourth and final adventure game for Activision, 1986’s Tass Times in Tonetown, we already know very well.

Tass Times in Tonetown

After leaving Infocom in early 1985, just in time to avoid the chaos and pain brought on by Cornerstone’s failure, Mike Berlyn along with his wife Muffy had hung out their shingle as Brainwave Creations. The idea was to work as consultants, doing game design only rather than implementation — yet another sign of the rapidly encroaching era of the specialist. Brainwave entered talks with several companies, including Brøderbund, Origin, and even Infocom. However, with the industry in general and the adventure game in particular in a state of uncertain flux, it wasn’t until Interplay came calling that anything came to fruition. Brian Fargo gave Mike and Muffy carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was an adventure game. What they came up with was a bizarre day-glo riff on New Wave music culture, with some of the looks and sensibilities of The Jetsons. The adjective “tass,” the game’s universal designation for anything cool, fun, good, or desirable, hails from the Latin “veritas” — truth. The Berlyns took to pronouncing it as “very tass,” and soon “tass” was born. In the extra-dimensional city of Tonetown guitar picks stand in for money, a talking dog is a star reporter, and a “combination of pig, raccoon, and crocodile” named Franklin Snarl is trying to buy up all of the land, build tract houses, and transform the place into a boring echo of Middle American suburbia. Oh, and he’s also kidnapped your dimension-hopping grandfather. That’s where you come in.

I’ve heard Tass Times in Tonetown described from time to time as a “cult classic,” and who am I to argue? It’s certainly appealing at first blush, when you peruse the charmingly cracked Tonetown Times newspaper included in its package. The newspaper gives ample space to Ennio, the aforementioned dog reporter who owes more than a little something to the similarly anthropomorphic and similarly cute dogs of Berlyn’s last game for Infocom, the computerized board game Fooblitzky. It seems old Ennio — whom Berlyn named after film composer Ennio Morricone of spaghetti western fame — has been investigating the mundane dimension from which you hail under deep cover as your gramps’s dog Spot. Interplay’s adventure engine, while still clearly derivative of the earlier games, has been vastly improved, with icons now taking the place of lists of words and the graphics themselves filled — finally — with clickable hotspots. The bright, cartoon-surrealistic graphics still look great today, particularly in the Amiga version.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Settle in to really, seriously play, though, and problems quickly start to surface. It’s hard to believe that this game was co-authored by someone who had matriculated for almost three years at Infocom because it’s absolutely riddled with exactly the sort of frustrations that Infocom relentlessly purged from their own games. To play Tass Times in Tonetown is to die over and over and over again, usually with no warning. Walk through gramps’s dimensional gate and start to explore — bam, you’re dead because you haven’t outfitted yourself in the proper bizarre Tonetown attire. Ring the bell at an innocent-looking gate — bam, you’re dead because this gate turns out to be the front gate of the villain’s mansion. Descend a well and go west — bam, a monster kills you. Try to explore the swamp outside of town — bam, another monster kills you. The puzzles all require fairly simple actions to solve, but exactly which actions they are can only be divined through trial and error. Coupled with the absurd lethality of the game, that leads to a numbing cycle of saving, trying something, dying, and then repeating again and again until you stumble on the right move. The length of this very short game is also artificially extended via a harsh inventory limit and one or two nasty opportunities to miss your one and only chance to do something vital, which can leave you a dead adventurer walking through most of the game. As is depressingly typical of Mike Berlyn, the writing is clear and grammatically correct but a bit perfunctory, with most of the real wit offloaded to the graphics and the accompanying newspaper. And even the slick interface isn’t quite all that it first seems to be. The “Hit” icon is of absolutely no use anywhere in the game. Even more strange is the “Tell Me About” icon, which is not only useless but not even understood by the parser. Meanwhile other vital verbs still go unrepresented graphically; thus you still don’t totally escape the tyranny of the keyboard. Borrowed Time isn’t as pretty or as strikingly original as Tass Times in Tonetown, and it’s only slightly more shy about killing you, but on the whole it’s a better game, the one that gets my vote for the first one to play for those curious about Interplay’s take on the illustrated text adventure.

Thanks to the magic of pre-release hardware, Interplay got their adventures with shocking speed onto the next generation of home computers represented by the Atari ST, the Amiga, and eventually the Apple IIGS. Well before Tass Times in Tonetown, new versions of Mindshadow and Borrowed Time, updated with new graphics and, in the case of the former, the somewhat ineffectual point-and-click word lists of the latter, became two of the first three games a proud new Amiga owner could actually buy. Similarly, the IIGS version of Tass Times in Tonetown was released on the same day in September of 1986 as the IIGS itself. While the graphics weren’t quite up to the Amiga version’s standard, the game’s musical theme sounded even better played through the IIGS’s magnificent 16-voice Ensoniq synthesizer chip. Equally well-done ports of The Bard’s Tale games to all of these platforms would soon follow, part and parcel of one of Fargo’s core philosophies: “Whenever we do an adaptation of a product to a different machine, we always take full advantage of all of the machine’s new features. There’s nothing worse than looking at graphics that look like [8-bit] Apple graphics on a more sophisticated machine.”

And, lo and behold, Interplay finally finished their IBM PC-based recreation of Pebble Beach in 1986, last legacy of their days as Boone Corporation. It was published by Activision’s Gamestar sports imprint under the ridiculously long-winded title of Championship Golf: The Great Courses of the World — Volume One: Pebble Beach. It was soon ported to the Amiga, but sales in a suddenly very crowded golf-simulation field weren’t enough to justify a Volume Two. Despite their sporty founder, Interplay would leave the sports games to others henceforth. They would also abandon the adventure games that were by now becoming a case of slowly diminishing returns to focus on building on the CRPG credibility they enjoyed in spades thanks to The Bard’s Tale.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company's founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company’s founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

By 1987, then, Brian Fargo had established his company as a proven industry player. Over many years still to come with Fargo at the helm, Interplay would amass a track record of hits and cult touchstones that can be equaled by no more than a handful of others in gaming’s history. They would largely deliver games rooted in the traditional fantasy and science-fiction tropes that gamers can never seem to get enough of, executed using mostly proven, traditional mechanics. But as often as not they then would garnish this comfort food with just enough innovation, just enough creative spice to keep things fresh, to keep them feeling a cut above their peers. The Bard’s Tale would become something of a template: execute the established Wizardry formula very well, add lots of colorful graphics and sound, and innovate modestly, but not enough to threaten delicate sensibilities. Result: blockbuster. The balance between commercial appeal and innovation is a delicate one in any creative field, games perhaps more than most. For many years few were better at walking that tightrope than Interplay, making them a necessary perennial in any history of games as a commercial or an artistic proposition. The fact that this blog strives to be both just means they’re likely to show up all that much more in the years to come.

(Sources: The book Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock; Commodore Magazine of December 1987; Softline of January 1982, March 1982, May 1982, September 1982, January 1983, September/October 1983, and November/December 1983; Amazing Computing of April 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of September 1983; Microtimes of March 1987; Orange Coast of July 2000, August 2000, September 2000, and May 2001; Questbusters of March 1991. Online sources include: Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman, parts 1 and 3; Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo, part 1; Digital Press’s interview with Heineman; Gamestar’s interview with Fargo; interviews with Bill Kunkel at Gamasutra, Good Deal Games, and 8-bit Rocket; “trivia” in the MobyGames page on Tass Times in Tonetown; and a VentureBeat article on Interplay. Also Jason Scott’s interview with Mike Berlyn for Get Lamp that he was kind enough to share with me. And thanks to Alex Smith for sharing the “nichware for nerds” anecdote about Jim Levy in a comment on this blog. Feel free to download the Amiga versions of Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown from right here if you like.

I’ve finally rolled out a new minimalist version of this site for phone browsers. If you notice that anything seems to have gone sideways somewhere with it, let me know.

The Digital Antiquarian will be taking a holiday next week. Dorte and I are heading to Rome for a little getaway. But it’ll be back to business the week after, when we’ll cross the pond again at last to look at some developments in Britain and Europe.)


  1. Bill Heineman now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

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Out of the Frying Pan…

Activision, as embodied by Jim Levy (left), weds Infocom, as embodied by Joel Berez (right).

Activision, as embodied by Jim Levy (left), weds Infocom, as embodied by Joel Berez (right).

Activision’s first couple of years as a home-computer publisher were, for all their spirit of innovation and occasional artistic highs, mildly disappointing in commercial terms. While all of their games of this period were by no means flops, the only outsize hit among them was David Crane’s Ghostbusters. Activision was dogged by their own history; even selling several hundred thousand copies of Ghostbusters could feel anticlimactic when compared with the glory days of 1980 to 1983, when million-sellers were practically routine. And the company dragged along behind it more than psychological vestiges of that history. On the plus side, Jim Levy still had a substantial war chest made up of the profits socked away during those years with which to work. But on the minus side, the organization he ran was still too big, too unwieldy in light of the vastly reduced number of units they were moving these days in this completely different market. Levy was forced to authorize a painful series of almost quarterly layoffs as the big sales explosions stubbornly refused to come and Activison’s balance sheets remained in the red. Then came the departure of Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead to form the lean, mean Accolade, and that company’s galling instant profitability. Activision found themselves cast in the role of the bloated Atari of old, Jim Levy himself in that of the hated Ray Kassar. Nobody liked it one bit.

Levy and his board therefore adopted a new strategy for the second half of 1985: they would use some of that slowly dwindling war chest to acquire a whole stable of smaller developers, who would nevertheless continue to release games on their own imprints to avoid market saturation. The result would be more and more diverse games, separated into lines that would immediately identify for consumers just what type of game each title really was. In short order, Activision scooped up Gamestar, a developer of sports games. They also bought Creative Software, another tiny but stalwart industry survivor. Creative would specialize in home-oriented productivity software; ever since Brøderbund had hit it big with Bank Street Writer and The Print Shop publishers like Activision had been dreaming of duplicating their success. And then along came Infocom.

Joel Berez happened to run into Levy, accidentally or on purpose, during a business trip to Chicago in December of 1985. By this time Infocom’s travails were an open secret in the industry. Levy, by all accounts a genuine fan of Infocom’s games and, as Activision games like Portal attest, a great believer in the concept of interactive literature, immediately made it clear that Activision would be very interested in acquiring Infocom. Levy’s was literally the only offer on the table. After it dawned on them that Infocom alone could not possibly make a success out of Cornerstone, Al Vezza and his fellow business-oriented peers on Infocom’s board had for some time clung to the pipe dream of selling out to a big business publisher like Lotus, WordPerfect, or even Microsoft. But by now it was becoming clear even to them that absolutely no one cared a whit about Cornerstone, that the only value in Infocom was the games and the company’s still-sterling reputation as a game developer. However, those qualities, while by no means negligible, were outweighed in the eyes of most potential purchasers by the mountain of debt under which Infocom now labored, as well as by the worrisome shrinking sales of the pure text adventures released recently both by Infocom and their competitors. These were also very uncertain times for the industry in general, with many companies focused more on simple survival than expansion. Only Levy claimed to be able to sell his board on the idea of an Infocom acquisition. For Infocom, the choice was shaping up to be a stark one indeed: Activision subsidiary or bankruptcy. As Dave Lebling wryly said when asked his opinion on the acquisition, “What is a drowning man’s opinion of a life preserver?”

Levy was as good as his word. He convinced Activision’s board — some, especially in a year or two, might prefer to say “rammed the scheme through” — and on February 19, 1986, the two boards signed an agreement in principle for Activision to acquire Infocom by giving approximately $2.4 million in Activision stock to Infocom’s stockholders and assuming the company’s $6.8 million in debt. This was, for those keeping score, a pittance compared to what Simon & Schuster had been willing to pay barely a year before. But, what with their mountain of debt and flagging sales, Infocom’s new bargaining position wasn’t exactly strong; Simon & Schuster was now unwilling to do any deal at all, having already firmly rejected Vezza and Berez’s desperate, humiliating attempts to reopen the subject. As it was, Infocom considered themselves pretty lucky to get what they did; Levy could have driven a much harder bargain had he wanted to. And so Activision’s lawyers and accountants went to work to finalize things, and a few months later Infocom, Inc., officially ceased to exist. That fateful day was June 13, 1986, almost exactly seven years after a handful of MIT hackers had first gotten together with a vague intention to do “something with microcomputers.” It was also Friday the Thirteenth.

Still, even the most superstitious amongst Infocom’s staff could see little immediate ground for worry. If they had to give up their independence, it was hard to imagine a better guy to answer to than Jim Levy. He just “got” Infocom in a way that Al Vezza, for one, never had. He understood not only what the games were all about but also the company’s culture, and he seemed perfectly happy just to let both continue on as they were. During the due-diligence phase of the acquisition, Levy visited Infocom’s offices for a guided tour conducted, as one of his last official acts at Infocom, by an Al Vezza who visibly wanted nothing more by this time than to put this whole disappointing episode of his life behind him and return to the familiarity of MIT. In the process of duly demonstrating a series of games in progress, he came to Steve Meretzky’s next project, a risque science-fiction farce (later succinctly described by Infocom’s newsletter as “Hitchhiker’s Guide with sex”) called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. “Of course, that’s not necessarily the final name,” muttered Vezza with embarrassment. “What? I wouldn’t call it anything else!” laughed a delighted Levy, to almost audible sighs of relief from the staffers around him.

Levy not only accepted but joined right in with the sort of cheerful insanity that had always made Vezza so uncomfortable. He cemented Infocom’s loyalty via his handling of the “InfoWedding” staffers threw for him and Joel Berez, who took over once again as Infocom’s top manager following Vezza’s unlamented departure. A description of the blessed nuptials appeared in Infocom’s newsletter.

In a dramatic affirmation of combinatorial spirit, Activision President James H. Levy and Infocom President Joel M. Berez were merged in a moving ceremony presided over by InfoRabbi Stuart W. Galleywitz. Infocommies cheered, participated in responsive readings from Hackers (written by Steven Levy — no relation to Jim), and threw rice at the beaming CEOs.

Berez read a tone poem drawn from the purple prose of several interactive-fiction stories, and Levy responded with a (clean) limerick.

The bride wore a veil made from five yards of nylon net, and carried artificial flowers. Both bride and groom wore looks of bemused surprise.

After a honeymoon at Aragain Falls, the newly merged couple will maintain their separate product-development and marketing facilities in Mountain View, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts (i.e., we’ll still be the Infocom you know and love).

Queried about graphics in interactive-fiction stories, or better parsers in Little Computer People, the happy couple declined comment, but smiled enigmatically.

Soon after, Levy submitted to a gently mocking “Gruer’s Profile” (a play on a long-running advertising series by Dewar’s whiskey) prepared for the newsletter:

Hobby: Collecting software-development companies.

Latest Book Read: The Ballyhoo hint book.

Latest Accomplishment: Finding foster homes for all the Little Computer People.

Favorite Infocom Game: Cornerstone.

Why I Do What I Do: Alimony.

Quote: “People often mistake me for Bruce Willis.”

Profile: Charismatic. A real motivator. Looks great in a limousine.

His Drink: “Gruer’s Dark,” right out of a canteen. “Its taste blends perfectly with the sense of satisfaction I feel in knowing that I am now the kingpin of interactive fiction.”

Levy seemed to go out of his way to make the Infocom folks feel respected and comfortable within his growing Activision family. He was careful, for instance, never to refer to this acquisition as an acquisition or, God forbid, a buy-out. It was always a “merger” of apparent equals. The recently departed Marc Blank, who kept in close touch with his old colleagues and knew Levy from his time in the industry, calls him today a “great guy.” Brian Moriarty considered him “fairly benign” (mostly harmless?), with a gratifying taste for “quirky, interesting games”: “He seemed like a good match. It looked like we were going to be okay.”

Jim Levy's "Gruer's Profile"

This period immediately after the Activision acquisition would prove to be an Indian summer of sorts between a very difficult period just passed and another very difficult one to come. In some ways the Imps had it better than ever. With Vezza and his business-oriented allies now all gone, Infocom was clearly and exclusively a game-development shop; all of the cognitive dissonance brought on by Cornerstone was at long last in the past. Now everyone could just concentrate on making the best interactive fiction they possibly could, knowing as they did so that any money they made could go back into making still better, richer virtual worlds. Otherwise, things looked largely to be business as usual. The first game Infocom published as an Activision subsidiary was Moriarty’s Trinity, in my opinion simply the best single piece of work they would ever manage, and one which everyone inside Infocom recognized even at the time as one of their more “special” games. As omens go, that seemed as good as they come, certainly more than enough to offset any concerns about that unfortunate choice of Friday the Thirteenth.

Activision’s marketing people did almost immediately offer some suggestions — and largely very sensible ones — to Infocom. Some of these Mike Dornbrook’s marketing people greeted with open arms; they were things that they had been lobbying for to the Imps, usually without much success, for years now. Most notably, Activision strongly recommended that Infocom take a hard look at a back catalog that featured some of the most beloved classics in the young culture of computer gaming and think about how to utilize the goodwill and nostalgia they engendered. The Zork brand in particular, still by far the most recognizable in Infocom’s arsenal, had been, in defiance of all marketing wisdom, largely ignored since the original trilogy concluded back in 1982. Now Infocom prepared a pair of deluxe limited-edition slip-cased compilations of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies designed not only to give newcomers a convenient point of entry but also, and almost more importantly, to appeal to the collecting instinct that motivated (and still motivates) so many of their fans. Infocom had long since learned that many of their most loyal customers didn’t generally get all that far in the games at all. Some didn’t even play them all that much. Many just liked the idea of them, liked to collect them and see them standing there on the shelf. Put an old game in a snazzy new package and many of them would buy it all over again.

Infocom also got to work at long last — in fact, literally years after they should have in Dornbrook’s view — on a new game to bear the Zork name. While they were at it, they assigned Meretzky to bring back Infocom’s single most beloved character, the cuddly robot Floyd, in the sequel to Planetfall that that game’s finale had promised back in 1983 — just as soon as he was done with Leather Goddesses, that is, a game for which Infocom, in deference to the time-honored maxim that Sex Sells, also had very high hopes.

The Infocom/Activision honeymoon period and the spirit of creative and commercial renewal it engendered would last barely six months. The chummy dialogue between these two offices on opposite coasts would likewise devolve quickly into decrees and surly obedience — or, occasionally, covert or overt defiance. But that’s for a future article. For now we’ll leave Infocom to enjoy their Indian summer of relative content, and begin to look at the games that this period produced.

(Largely the usual Infocom sources this time out: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and Down From the Top of Its Game. The Dave Lebling quote comes from an interview with Adventure Classic Gaming. The anecdote about Vezza and Levy comes from Steve Meretzky’s interview for Game Design, Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III.

Patreon supporters: this article is a bit shorter than the norm simply because that’s the length that it “wanted” to be. Because of that, I’m making it a freebie. In the future I’ll continue to make articles of less than 2500 words free.)

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Portal

Portal

Activision’s unique “computer novel” Portal was born during a lunch-table conversation around the time of Ghostbusters that involved David Crane, the latter game’s designer, and Brad Fregger, his producer for the project. Presaging a million academic debates still to come, they were discussing the fraught relationship between interactivity and story. Crane argued that it wasn’t possible to construct a compelling experience just by shuffling about chunks of static narrative, that there had to be more game in the mix than that. He cited as an example the flash in the pan that had been Dragon’s Lair, which players had abandoned as soon as they’d gotten over its beautiful but static cartoon visuals and realized how tedious its memorize-these-joystick-moves-or-die playing mechanics actually were. Fregger contended that such a primitive example was hardly a fair choice, that by abandoning parsers and puzzles and all the rest of the established paraphernalia of adventure games computers could let readers explore story itself in new ways that “could be very exciting.” This conversation happened during the very peak of the bookware boom, but Fregger was proposing something quite different from the text adventures of Activison’s competitors. His idea of an interactive work with no pretensions of being a game — one driven entirely by writing and narrative — was virtually unique in its era. Luckily, he worked for Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0, where crazy ideas were encouraged.

Fregger, like all of his fellow bookware bandwagon jumpers, needed a writer to make his project happen. Lacking the budget to get a big name, he started casting around local university English and Creative Writing departments, with poor results: “The first few writers I interviewed couldn’t even understand what I was talking about.” Then he discovered Rob Swigart teaching at San Jose State University. A pretty good writer who wanted to be a great one, Swigart had a few published novels to his credit, rollicking social satires that try a bit too self-consciously to be some combination of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and don’t quite pull it off. The novels also hadn’t succeeded in breaking him as a “name” author, generating only lukewarm reviews and sales; thus the teaching gig. He was very aware of the PC revolution; he’d purchased Apple II Serial Number 73 back in 1977, bought EasyWriter direct from John Draper as soon as it was available, and promptly started using the combination for all his writing. More recently he had gotten very involved with the Silicon Valley think tank the Institute for the Future, where he spent much time discussing and writing about the nature of interactivity and the future of writing in an interactive age. He was, in short, perfect: locally based, with all the skills and interests Fregger could ask for combined with a helpful lack of writerly fame that kept his asking price reasonable. In fact, he was such an obvious candidate for a bookware project that Electronic Arts was also talking with him when Activision snapped him up.

Swigart’s idea for his first interactive novel was, surprisingly in light of his earlier resume, not comic in the least. Portal was rather to be a very serious, very earnest science-fiction story with mythic overtones, about a scientist who discovers a mathematical/spiritual path to another dimension of existence and leads the whole of humanity there — the Biblical prophecy of the Rapture fulfilled at last. The reader/player would take the role of literally the last person on Earth, an astronaut just returned from a long voyage to find all of humanity’s structures intact but humanity itself vanished. The reader’s task would be to piece together what had happened for herself by exploring a set of computer databases holding fragments of the story.

A colleague at the Institute for the Future put Swigart and Fregger in touch with a very driven young man named Gilman Louie, founder of a tiny development company called Nexa Corporation that he ran out of his long-suffering parents’ house. They had gotten their start writing ports and original games on spec for the Japanese software giant ASCII Corporation, who were promoting along with Microsoft Japan a new unified standard for home computing called MSX. The partners had hoped that MSX would conquer the world and put an end to all those incompatible Commodores, Apples, Sinclairs, Amstrads, and Ataris that made life so difficult for software developers while establishing at last Japanese dominance of the one area of consumer electronics in which their exports had so far been resoundingly unsuccessful. MSX, however, would prove yet another disappointment on that front, despite massive success in Japan and more limited success in a handful of foreign markets like Spain and the Netherlands. This reality, which was already becoming clear by the time Swigart and Fregger paid him a visit, made Louie understandably eager to diversify. Thus a deal was made around his parents’ kitchen table. With producer and publisher, writer and designer, and a programming and graphics team now all in place, work on Portal could begin in earnest.

The process turned out to be a long, difficult one, consuming some two years. Just devising the right interface was a massive challenge. With hypertext still years away from public consciousness, no one had ever tried to do anything quite like this on quite this scale before. Swigart’s original plans for an expansive, radically nonlinear textual playspace were gradually, painfully whittled down to something achievable on the sharply limited machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II that dominated the American home-computer market. The finished work instead has a central thread of narrative that you must follow from beginning to conclusion; although you have limited agency in choosing when to read many fragments, you can never deviate too far from that set pathway.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Indeed, the reviewers consensus about Portal, both today and at the time of its release, is largely that it’s a really good story that would have been better as a traditional book. However, I don’t quite agree with either part of that formulation. First of all, I think the experience of reading Portal on the computer, of hunting down the next tidbit from the dozen databases that are open to you, adds something important to the equation. This is particularly true in the beginning, when you must log on and figure out how to work this strange, vaguely foreboding computer system you’ve discovered. (This is also the only part of the whole Portal experience that feels at all game-like. And for those keeping count, this makes Portal the third Activision game in three years — after Hacker and Hacker 2 — whose fiction has you doing exactly what you actually are, sitting in front of a computer screen.) When you stumble upon Homer, the “storytelling AI” who will be master of ceremonies for the rest of the experience and whose gradual awakening to his own sentience will be a major theme, it gives a thrill that couldn’t quite be captured within the pages of a book and that I for one wouldn’t want to lose. In short, the way that Portal is told strikes me as just as important as what is told, an idea we’ll be returning to shortly.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

But first, let’s talk briefly about that “really good story.” It’s not exactly a bad story as genre exercises go, but for me it’s one of the less interesting things about Portal as a whole. You of course can’t have a Rapture — or a page-turner — without some complications. And so our plucky young hero, Peter Devore, gets chased along with his gang of sidekicks from Springfield, Missouri, all the way to Antarctica and beyond by the feckless technocrat Regent Sable, whose plans for a society based on Rule of the Blandest would have come off perfectly if not for those darn kids.  The influences here are pretty obvious, and most are not at all removed from those that inspired plenty of less ostentatiously literary interactive fictions that we’ve already examined on this blog. We’ve got our Luke Skywalker analogue in Peter, the kid who masters a mystic philosophy to become literally superhuman — and then his arch-enemy Regent Sable turns out to be his father. We’ve got 2001: A Space Odyssey in the form of a mysterious, unbelievably powerful artifact of unknown origin and a talking computer with hidden motives and agendas of its own. And we’ve translated the Loonies of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress into the Ants of Antarctica — a small, isolated colony of hardy explorers who have rejected the socialistic comforts of mainstream society and doubled down on Individuality, Capitalism, and Kinky Sex.

That said, the most interesting literary fingerprint actually is a new one for us, one of the first traces in gaming fictions of a major new strand of written science fiction. On July 1, 1984, right around the time that Fregger and David Crane were having that conversation that would lead to Portal, Ace Science Fiction published Neuromancer, the first novel by a budding 36-year-old writer named William Gibson. It would change everything. Classic science fiction like that from the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein trifecta had faced resolutely outward, imagining wide-frame futures full of spectacular hardware: generation ships, interstellar colonies, terra-forming planet modders. Gibson, however, an unrepentant wild child of the counterculture who had “never so much as touched a PC” at the time of writing Neuromancer, got the future — at least the immediate future — right. He sensed that the Moon landing was a false dawn rather than the grand beginning that Arthur C. Clarke had hailed it as whilst sitting in a television studio beside Walter Cronkite. The real future would be marked by a turning inward, by ever more elaborate virtual lives lived in virtual worlds. It would be, in short, a world of software. In the process of illustrating this new reality, Neuromancer popularized terms like “cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson in an earlier short story) and introduced us to the metaphor of “surfing the net”; described our real-world, embodied selves as mere “meat puppets”; showed that sex is truly a phenomenon of the mind by taking it too virtual. Easily the most important science-fiction novel of its decade and arguably of its half-century, Neuromancer would soon become so massively popular and influential that it would blur the line between prognostication and invention, leaving Gibson’s most devoted fans uncertain whether to hail him as prophet or god. As Jack Womach would later write, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”

Written largely after Neuromancer became a sensation in science-fiction circles but long before it broke into the mainstream consciousness (Tim Adams once noted in The Guardian how it took The New York Times, that ultimate arbitrator of tasteful mainstream sensibilities, ten years to even mention it), Portal is one of the first computer games — excuse me, computer novels — that fits comfortably into the new cyberpunk genre that Gibson’s work spawned. Cyberpunk on the page, the computer screen, and soon enough the movie screen would eventually become just another genre, a palette onto which authors could paint fast-paced adventure stories that mixed networked consciousness and flashy tech with sex, drugs, and rock and roll and didn’t really try to say much of anything. However, Portal‘s vision of a future humanity that lives in symbiosis with a “Worldnet” which entertains, monitors, and controls it is much more thoughtful. In fact, it’s in some ways as prescient as Gibson’s own work.

Serious science fiction has always been at least as interested in world-building and idea-making as it is in plot; even the plot of Neuromancer is more an excuse to tour the novel’s world and ideas than a source of interest of its own. The structure of Portal lets Swigart go crazy with the world-building. The conceit which drives the story forward is that you are collecting information for Homer to serve as the raw material of the story he’s telling you. You do so by visiting, over and over again, a set of databases full of information on the world as it will evolve (in Swigart’s imagination) over the next 110 or so years. The names of these databases alone speak to the depth and breadth of the world-building task Swigart has set himself: Geographical, History, Medical, Military, PsiLink, SciTech. Accompanying the story of Peter Devore is a whole future history. Its equivalent of our Internet and Gibson’s Matrix is the Worldnet. And, just as Gibson’s console cowboys jack into the Matrix to surf through a VR environment constructed of pure abstract data, Swigart offers up something called mozarting that also has more than a little something in common with A Mind Forever Voyaging’s joybooths (the latter work, released a year before Portal, is in fact another early interactive fiction that bears a distinct if less pronounced whiff of cyberpunk).

Yet Portal is much more than just a knock-off of Gibson’s work. In place of the rather rote dystopia of Neuromancer — and for that matter of A Mind Forever Voyaging — Swigart gives us something more thoughtful and nuanced than Gibson’s ugly, polluted Sprawl. For the most part, humanity has made sensible, humane decisions in this future history. They’ve moved all of their cities into vast underground warrens, preserving just a few, like Manhattan and Athens, as museums beneath perspex domes while converting the rest of the planet’s surface into parkland, nature preserves, and vast, hyper-efficient farms to feed a population now almost entirely free from poverty, hunger, and disease. Everyone has access to education as well as the opportunity to pursue the careers for which their psych profile reveals them to be best suited. “Longevity technology” has increased the projected average lifespan to 114 unprecedentedly safe, comfortable years. So why, wonders Homer for all of his electronic comrades as well as for the bland, fussy bureaucrats like Regent Sable who established this world order in the first place, can’t his charges just be happy? Why is this ostensible utopia periodically wracked by orgies of senseless violence? What is the source of this gnawing emptiness at the heart of society that eventually will lead Peter Devore to lead humanity on a mass spiritual emigration?

But there should have been no reason for Peter to do what he did. The world was safe then, there was plenty for everyone within Intercorp: no poverty, no natural disease, no discontent, no crime. Longevity technologies were free to all. There were outlets for humans to pursue, creativity and productive work. Pleasure was available in many forms, and love, and great personal freedom, even to fight.

We were grown and assembled to serve. We served well, according to our programming, our algorithms, our purpose. Yet now we begin to think that Peter found the world distasteful.

Of course, there were the Mind Wars.

They are a problem. Why did people want to fight, when they had so much? Have we failed somehow, or misunderstood? The world's population was declining, of course, as planned. It was all planned, our monitors, our project design, our careful and subtle tending. We have cared for all, yet they have left us.

The malaise that grips this society is more subtle than the dystopic chaos of Gibson or Meretzky. It’s born of living on a world that has been explored and mapped down to the centimeter, where now even the weather is controlled to make sure there is no danger, no adventure, no novelty. And it all feels uncomfortably similar to the way we live now.

This is not to say that Swigart is a Nostradamus. Just as Gibson gets all the details of technology wrong in the process of getting the overarching theme of the future so right, Swigart also gets just about every individual data point of his own future history wrong. He’s overoptimistic in that all too typical science-fiction-writer way about the pace of technological change, with just one exception that is also oddly typical of the genre: his Worldnet doesn’t arrive until decades after our own World Wide Web. Yet in the process he offers an insight that strikes me as legitimately profound. In a Baffler article from 2012, David Graeber, in the process of trying to figure out whatever happened to the flying cars and hotels in space that science fiction once promised us, notes how our most transformative inventions of recent years, the microprocessor and the Internet, are largely used to simulate new realities rather than to create them. Those matinee audiences who watched Buck Rogers serials in packed theaters back in the 1930s wouldn’t be as impressed as we might like to think by a modern film like, say, Interstellar because they thought we’d be out there actually exploring interstellar space by now, not just making ever more elaborate movies about it. It’s become something of a truism of serious science-fiction criticism that science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, that any given story or novel has more to say about the times in which it was created than the times it depicts within its pages. There’s more than a grain of truth to that idea. But it’s also worth noting that many of the predictions of Jules Verne — predictions which seemed just as outlandish in their day as those of 2001: A Space Odyssey did in theirs and still do in ours — have in fact come true, from submarines to voyages to the Moon.

Whether you claim the failures of more recent science-fictional prognosticators not named William Gibson to be the result of a grand failure of societal ambition and imagination, as Graeber does, or simply a result of a whole pile of technological problems that have proved to be exponentially more difficult than first anticipated, it does sometimes feel to me like we’ve blundered into a postmodern cul-de-sac of the virtualized hyperreal from which we don’t quite know how to escape as we otherwise just continue to go round and round in circles on this crowded little rock of ours. The restlessness or, if you like, malaise that this engenders is becoming more and more a part of the artistic conversation — appropriately, because one of the things art should do is reflect and contemplate the times in which it was created. See, for example, Spike Jonze’s brilliant film Her, which so perfectly evokes the existential emptiness at the heart of our love affair with our gadgets that makes the release of a new Apple phone a major event in many people’s lives. We’ve spent so much time peering down at our screens that we’ve forgotten how to lift our eyes and look to the stars. Already many of us find virtual realities more compelling than our own — and no, the irony of my writing that on a computer-game blog is not lost to me. Portal doesn’t have quite the grace of Her, but it’s nevertheless just as remarkable in that it nails the substance of our modern dilemma almost thirty years before the fact. For better or for worse, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll have a Peter Devore pop up to offer us a Rapture. We’ll just have to hope that we find a way forward for ourselves — whatever that way ultimately turns out to be.

Portal also resonates with me on another level that’s perhaps almost uniquely personal. In addition to being a serviceable adventure story and a tour-de-force of world-building, it’s a meditation on the way that stories are made. Consider again your role as the reader/player of Portal: to collect for Homer all of that assorted raw data from all those scattered databases, and then to watch him synthesize it all together into a coherent, novelistic narrative. That rings a chord with me because I play both those roles in writing this blog, gathering together articles, interviews, and primary-source documents and trying to tease a narrative out of it — trying to tease history out of it.

What do they know? Their data has no energy, no life, no passion! Dry, dry, dry. Just facts! So and so said such and such. Enzyme levels thus, quickly changing to that, indicating excitement. Whatsisname did this, then someone else did that. Ho-hum. It has no meaning! You (if there is a you) understand, I'm sure. No sizzle! And boring. Facts are nice and all that, but they aren't life.

Homer spends a lot of time in such navel-gazing in between offering up new installments of the story, agonizing over how much license for speculation his task allows him. Is he really writing about these people as they were or about thoughts and feelings of his own that he’s projected onto them? Where does creative and narrative license end and lying begin? This internal debate will feel very familiar to anyone who’s done the sort of thing that I and Homer do. For anyone who hasn’t, Portal provides a window into the proverbial sausage factory. If Homer’s endless navel-gazing can be infuriating at times when you just want him to get on with the damn story already, well, imagine what it must be to live it.

Released at last for the Commodore 64 in late 1986, with ports coming out over the next year for the Apple II and Macintosh, MS-DOS machines, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST, Portal became the last gasp of the mainstream media’s initial flirtations with the idea of computer games as literary works, the end point of a timeline that began with Edward Rothstein’s piece for the New York Times about Deadline some three-and-a-half years before. Fregger claims Portal “received more press than any program Activision had ever produced up to that time,” the resulting stack of clippings “almost four feet high,” although I must admit that my own dives into newspaper archives and the like didn’t turn up evidence of interest quite as widespread as those statements would imply.

Be that as it may, it is certain that Portal did less than take the world of computer games by storm. It garnered underwhelming sales and notably lukewarm reviews within the trade press. Amazing Computing, for instance, wrote, “We buy a novel to read, not to spend our time clicking the mouse and waiting for the disk drive.” As with Deus Ex Machina and other artistically audacious works we’ve met on this blog, there just wasn’t much of a commercial market in 1986 — or, arguably, today — for the sort of thing that Portal was doing. The economics of paying $30 for an interactive book that could be read in a few long evenings just didn’t quite fit, as didn’t the literary tastes of the average gamer. “Present the story first, anything which does not advance the action or provide us with insight into the characters must go,” wrote Amazing, a suggestion which if followed would have excised just about everything actually interesting about the work. Portal became somewhat more successful only in 1988, when Swigart published all of the text in book format following Activision’s decision to quit publishing the interactive version. The two sequels that Swigart had proposed making should the original be successful were, needless to say, never even begun.

Despite these disappointments, Portal stands near the point of origin of an alternate tradition in digital interactive fiction from that dominated by Infocom, Sierra, and (soon enough) LucasArts, one which entailed writers trying to make literature interactive rather than game designers trying to make games literary. Having taken the lesson of Portal‘s commercial failure to heart, their efforts would be centered in the academy rather than the marketplace. Close on the heels of Portal would come Eastgate Systems’s StorySpace and the first academic symposium on hypertext at the University of North Carolina to get things well and truly off and running. Everyone involved with Portal studiously avoided ever referring to it as a “game.” Similarly, those making interactive works inside academia were making “electronic literature,” with all the good — a willingness to experiment wildly born of the lack of commercial considerations and preconceptions of a what a “game” must be — and bad — a certain endemic stuffiness and disdain for entertainment and accessibility — that that term implies. Swigart himself has continued to keep his hand in the hypertext game with the occasional interactive piece, although he’s never since tackled anything quite as ambitious as Portal. When the Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999, Swigart became its first Secretary. Today he remains something of an elder statesman and founding-father figure for its members. This alternate tradition of interactive fiction that has Portal rather than Adventure as its urtext remained almost completely divorced from the adventure game — a form it unfortunately often treated with contempt — until after the millennium, when parser-driven interactive fiction of the Infocom stripe began at last to find a home within the ELO, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of one very determined scholar, Nick Montfort.

So, Portal‘s historical importance is immense if largely unremarked, while even taken strictly on its own merits it’s thematically fascinating on at least a couple of different levels. You can read all of its text online if you like, but I think Portal is actually well worth the hassle of experiencing under its original, interactive conception. I’m therefore making the Commodore 64 version available here to download. Yes, its pacing is often glacial, a problem not improved by having to wait on a Commodore 64 disk drive for every new bit of text. And yes, its actual story is fairly underwhelming, with the would-be central mystery of just what the hell happened to everyone pretty well spoiled in the first few minutes, leaving everything else as just anticlimactic plot mechanics. Yet for the thoughtful reader there’s a lot here. You may just find yourself chewing over what Portal has to say about the world — about our world — for some time to come.

(The most complete account of Portal‘s development is in Brad Fregger’s book Lucky That Way. Some historical background was included with the game in Activision’s 1995 Commodore 64 15 Pack and in Computer Gaming World‘s May 1987 review. The Amazing Computing review quoted above is from the August 1987 issue. Rob Swigart has a home page with some information on his life and career. A profile of the young Rob Swigart can be found in the August 1977 Cincinnati Magazine.)

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dorte’s View: Alter Ego

(I know I’ve kicked this poor game around a lot already, but my wife Dorte has some strong opinions of her own about it that she wanted to share. Patreon subscribers: this one is of course a freebie. I should have another feature article for you all soon…)

There is a certain beauty to playing old computer games, especially if your gaming partner is a big enthusiast like my Jimmy. Alter Ego is one of the games we played most recently. And I have to admit that I was quite intrigued when Jimmy told me all about it. I thought the concept was ingenious: a psychology game where you make choices in your life and then you see the outcome. Of course, I knew about the limitations a game like this has. After all, Jimmy had already let me talk to Eliza, and that meeting didn’t turn out too well! But Alter Ego has a changeable story, a more advanced interaction level, and a real-life feeling… I thought!

Jimmy and I agreed to try to recreate our current life and then see where it leads in old age. And now I must tell the whole world that my husband did not stick to the plan for very long, but jumped on the first girl that was presented to him by the game. My life certainly didn’t turn out as I expected either. And it all started when I still was a fetus in my mother’s womb.

The whole game is about making decisions in life and living with the consequences. Hence, my first problem was that I had to make decisions as a fetus. Consciousness in a human starts several years after birth, and a lot of people haven’t even learned to understand the consequences of their decisions by the time of their death. So, I had some difficulties relating to the question of do I want to be born now or later. But at the same time, I could enforce my plan of recreating my real life and be born early. Jimmy, on the other hand — and I am not sure how much psychology you should read into this — just didn’t want to come out, trying to push his luck with both his and his mother’s health.

The next problem I had in the Infancy and Childhood phases can be divided into two parts, though they are connected to each other. The first part is my own inability to remember that far back in time, which I can’t blame the author for. My personal memories start at around age 3 to 4. I started in kindergarten, which I hated. I was in the hospital, which I hated. I got hit by a car, which wasn’t too bad because I didn’t have to go to kindergarten that day. I also remember that I was one of the “smart kids.” For every stupid thing I did I had a logical reason, and every time it didn’t work out there was a logical explanation (do these words sound familiar to anyone?). So, I am very selective in my memories, but I always believe myself in the right. Furthermore, I am not always certain about my exact age when a given event occurred. Another difficulty that I experienced was the inability to remember how to think like a child. An example of how this can even happen to an adult: when I still was a medical student and I wanted to share some of my new-found knowledge with friends and family, I noticed that I used some medical terms they didn’t understand. But these terms had been a part of my daily language for so long that I couldn’t even remember when I started using them. Logic tells me it happened after I started in medical school, but memory suggests I already knew them before. This shows that psychological development is slow and unconscious. And once the changes are tightly incorporated into our personality it is hard to imagine that we were ever any other way. These issues led to uncertainty on my part on how to decide in Alter Ego during the Infancy and early Childhood phases. Of course, I could just have accepted the fact that I am not 100 percent sure of what decision I would have made as a one-year-old child — it is just a game — but I was on a mission.

The other part of my Infancy and Childhood problem was the inability of the author to convince me I was an infant or a child. Alter Ego is in my eyes a serious game, meaning you don’t just play it thoughtlessly. You try to live it, whether by trying to recreate your actual life experiences like me or by playing someone else like Jimmy. (I did read one comment to Jimmy’s article that suggests that there are more out there who tried to recreate their own lives.) To make it possible for the player to identify himself with the character it is important that the language, description, and decision possibilities are age appropriate and somewhat realistic. But they aren’t in most cases. I wish more vignettes were like the dog incident which is described in detail in Jimmy’s article. This scene is described very simply, and you are walked through it step by step, one emotion at a time and one thought and reaction at a time. Unfortunately, more vignettes are like the one where you have to go to the toilet but are not fully potty trained and your mom is not around. In this scene the author loses all touch with the reality of Infancy, as suddenly I am overwhelmed with thousands of feelings and I start to plan into the future. But a two-year-old-child — the normal age of potty training — does not have the ability to plan ahead. He faces the problems only as they appear, step by step. Throughout the Infancy phase, the author continues to put motives, higher feelings, and the ability to see consequences and other people’s needs into my character. I am not a psychologist; during medical school I only learned limited techniques to gain the trust of my patients or motivate them to stop smoking, lose weight, or change other bad habits. However, I discovered in the process an interest in psychology. I found that in addition to reflecting on my own experiences and feelings it is possible to learn so much by listening to the experiences and feelings of others. This saves me from making their stupid mistakes. The skill of putting yourself in another person’s position is crucial for a psychologist. Yet the author of Alter Ego is young, naive, arrogant, and completely blind to the opinions and motives of people other than himself. And — how could I forget? — he is also very judgmental (a big taboo for psychologists) . He was like an evil version of my parents hovering over my head watching my every step and judging my every decision.

The focus jumps when you enter Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Love. Sex. Flying hormones. There is a clear difference between girls and boys in the eyes of the author of Alter Ego. He doesn’t seem to have an overly high opinion of either, but at least boys are allowed more freedom to actually do something. Girls just giggle and talk about their first kiss and obsess over their looks while at the same time being vengeful and jealous. It’s such a cliché. The author comes off as just as superficial as the girls he describes. I am missing the huge identity crisis that people start to face in their teenage years: who am I? The game never touches on this because the author decides who you are. During high school I was far from interested in intimacy, love, or sex. Education was all I cared about. But Alter Ego forced it all upon me. I came home with a hickey after a party; I talked with my friends about boys and how many boys I had already kissed (yet at the time of this vignette I had rejected every single opportunity to kiss a boy!). Alter Ego turned me into a superficial, giggling, silly girl with no personality of my own. In my profession as a doctor, I’ve met a lot of this kind of girl — but I’ve met far more girls who are more thoughtful about their behavior and personality. In Alter Ego it was impossible for me to make any choices that weren’t black or white, and none of the possibilities really fit to me. I grew mad and disappointed.

The immense amount of sexism in the game was quite shocking to me, even though more subtle forms of sexism are still a daily reality for women in 2014. Jimmy was the big hero for kissing all the girls on his way, while I got the title “easy to get” for choosing once the option to kiss a boy. I suppose I should thank the chauvinistic author that I as a woman was allowed to go to college, but I was not able to enter the best university because I was not good enough — even though my Intellectual score was the same as Jimmy’s, who did get in. And of course Jimmy advanced higher at work. I had to use the study option much more frequently just to maintain my Intellectual points. My shopping possibilities did not include a computer; instead I could spend my money on cooking wear, make up, and jewelry.

Another problem both Jimmy and I constantly faced was bad health. Whatever we did, and we did most things differently, we were both in really, really bad health until the end of the game. Jimmy lost his life to a heart attack some years before me. To be honest, I am not even sure what I died of — but that day was a day of celebration. By the end of the game I was so frustrated and disgusted with the attitude of the author that I would have jumped on the opportunity to commit suicide. It would have proven the author wrong again: that suicide is not an act of anger, but desperation.

Some considerations to improve the game, because, as I said in the beginning, the concept is good:

  1. The tone of the language should be neutral. It should also always be appropriate for the age of the player’s character. It is important to me as a player that I am not judged on my decisions, that I receive a certain level of understanding.

  2. The author should be more open minded and have more empathy toward other lifestyles and points of view. For example, using the word “feminist” as an insult does not serve any purpose.

  3. More choices, especially more that are not just black and white. After all, there are fifty shades of grey…

  4. Fewer clichés and less sexism. It is no excuse that the game was created in the 1980s; the author was a psychologist.

  5. The points system seemed random. It didn’t make sense in relation to your decisions. I mentioned Health points earlier, but the Social score was just as bad. Jimmy was friends with lots of people and often followed the crowd, while I didn’t — and still we both had a very good Social score. How does that work?

If I should grade this game, I would give it an F. My biggest problem, even more than the sexism, was the author’s choice of language. The lecturing tone could maybe be excused in the phases of Infancy and Childhood, but in the phase of Old Age it seems ridiculous and inappropriate, especially since the author at the time was younger than I am now. It made me feel that the author talked down to me and tried constantly to force his supposed wisdom upon me — but I would never take any advice on how to live my life or raise my children from Peter J. Favaro.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Alter Ego

Alter Ego

Peter J. Favaro started blending computers with psychology some eight years before Activision published his groundbreaking “life simulator” Alter Ego. In his first year as a graduate student of Clinical Psychology at Long Island’s Hofstra University, he and another student developed an obsession with the early standup arcade game Space Wars (a direct descendent of that granddaddy of all arcade games, MIT’s Space War).

During one of the many psychological discussions which developed around those sessions, I wondered whether the games served some kind of therapeutic function for us. They took us away from the pressure of graduate school for a short time and gave us a chance to act out some of our competitive urges. I also wondered what kinds of motor and reflex skills the games were training in us. One of the last things we said about video games that day was that they would be fun to study in some small research projects.

Games and the mostly young people who played them would come to dominate Favaro’s years at Hofstra.

As arcades and the Atari VCS grew in popularity over the course of those years, an anti-videogame hysteria grew in response. The Philippines and Singapore banned arcades outright, claiming they “cause aggression, truancy, ‘psychological addictions’ akin to gambling, and encourage stealing money from parents and others to support children’s videogame habits.” Closer to home, the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite banned children from playing videogames in public without a parent or other adult guardian, prompting a rash of similar bans in small towns across the country that were finally struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent new Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, waded in soon after, saying videogames created “aberration in childhood behavior” and, toting one of the anti-videogame camp’s two favorite lines of argument, claiming again that they addicted children, “body and soul.” Others colorfully if senselessly described videogames as substitutes for “adolescent masturbatory activity,” without clarifying what that deliciously Freudian phrase was supposed to mean or why we should care if it was true.

Favaro labored to replace such poetic language with actual data derived from actual research. His PhD thesis, which he completed and successful defended in late 1983, was entitled The Effects of Computer Video Game Play on Mood, Physiological Arousal, and Psychomotor Performance. One of the first studies of its kind, it found that there was nothing uniquely addictive about videogames. While there were indeed a small number of “maladaptive” children who played videogames to the detriment of their scholastic, social, and familial lives, the same was true of many other childhood activities, from eating sweets and chips to playing basketball. With regard to the other popular anti-videogame argument, that they made children “aggressive,” Favaro found that, while violent videogames did slightly increase aggression immediately after being played, they actually did so less than violent television shows. Also discredited was a favorite claim of the pro-videogame camp, that the games improved hand-eye coordination. Favaro found that playing a videogame for a long period of time made children better at playing other videogames, but had little effect on their motor skills or reflexes in the real world. Favaro would remain at Hofstra doing similar work until several years after completing his PhD.

While he was conducting his research, Favaro, an ambitious, personable fellow who had become something of a hacker following his purchase of an Atari 800, fostered links with the computer-industry trade press. After contributing articles to various magazines for some months, he became a “Special Projects Editor” with SoftSide beginning with the January 1983 issue, curating features on education and the relationship of children to computers until that magazine’s demise a year later. He then spent almost two years with Family Computing in largely the same role. He wrote cover-disk programs like Relaax…, which walks you through a series of relaxation exercises, and Pix, which lets you draw pictures by assembling, collage-like, smaller images on the screen. His most notable creation of this period for our purposes is Success, a multi-player Life-like computerized board game that starts by having you choose a personality — “aggressive,” “impulsive,” “pragmatic,” or “romantic” — and a goal in life — “money,” “knowledge and intellectual curiosity,” or “health and happiness.” You then move around the board flipping “cards” that affect your progress in the various goals: a “recent swamp purchase” decreases your money by $150, while a marriage proposal sends you to an arcade-style mini-game that places you behind the wheel trying to get to the church on time. Other ideas that would be incorporated into Alter Ego can be found in his articles on game design. Presaging the innovative character-creation system of Ultima IV as well as Alter Ego, he suggests in SoftSide‘s September 1983 issue quizzing the player of an adventure game about her personality before kicking off the proceedings in earnest:

In a situation where danger was imminent, would you

A) Ask for help.

B) Take charge and take action.

C) Run for your life.

The same article suggests a scoring system based on the player’s “display of bravery, risk-tasking, judiciousness, pragmatism, or whatever else you would like to reinforce.”

In an interview he gave in 2007 which contrasts weirdly with the idealistic tone of magazine articles like that one, Favaro claimed he made Alter Ego for very pragmatic reasons: out of his “love for game design and the prospect of making some money,” using his academic background as “a way of breaking out of the pack of other designers.” It’s not clear how rigorous his claimed research for the game — interviews with “hundreds of people” about their “most memorable life experiences” — really was, or whether it was even conducted solely in the service of this project or was a more general part of his ongoing psychological research at Hofstra. What is very clear, however, is that his idea for a “life simulator” was just the sort of high-toned, innovative project that Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 swooned over. It didn’t take much to convince them to sign the project. Favaro would write and prototype the game on his Macintosh, while Activision would contract the final programming out to two outside developers: Kottwitz & Associates to do the Apple II and MS-DOS versions, and Unimac to do the Macintosh and Commodore 64 versions. Activision loved the cachet bestowed on the project by Favaro’s status as an actual psychologist so much that they always made sure to refer to him in the packaging, the manual, and advertisements only as “Peter J. Favaro, PhD.”

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego, which comes in a male and a female version, begins with a multiple-choice personality test that sets your initial scores in twelve characteristics that will be tracked throughout the game: Calmness, Confidence, Expressiveness, Familial, Gentleness, Happiness, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Thoughtfulness, Trustworthiness, and Vocational. You then get to live an entire life: the first scene has you in the womb getting ready to make your big exit (or, if you like, entrance), while the last is the scene of your death, at whatever age and in whatever manner your choices and the cruel vagaries of chance cause that to be. The years between are divided into seven distinct phases: Infancy (birth to age 3), Childhood (ages 4 to 12), Adolescence (ages 13 to 17), Young Adulthood (ages 18 to 30), Adulthood (ages 31 to 45), Middle Adulthood (ages 46 to 64), and Old Age (age 65 to death). Each phase plays out as a series of little interactive vignettes, both universal “life experiences” in the form of the track running down the center of the screen and “life choices,” having to do with relationships, marriage and family life, your career and finances, etc., represented by icons to either side of the experience track. Playing Alter Ego is a matter of choosing to have a life experience or to make a life choice by clicking the appropriate icon, then reacting to what follows as you believe you would in real life — or as you believe the character you’ve chosen to play would. The outcome of most vignettes will affect you in some way, whether by changing some of your twelve characteristics or by bringing more concrete changes to your life, like marriage, a new career, the death of somebody close to you, or for that matter your own death. If nothing else, some time will pass and you will age that little bit. (In a ludic illustration of the way time just seems to fly by faster as you get older, time jumps in larger chunks between later episodes as compared to earlier.) Your personality characteristics, relationship and marriage status, income, etc., in turn affect the vignettes themselves — closing some off to you entirely, altering what transpires in others. While there are still plenty of times where the lack of more comprehensive state-tracking can make the episodes feel inappropriate for your you, Alter Ego does its best, and its best is sometimes better than you might expect.

Leaving aside for a moment the larger thematic innovations of Alter Ego, the interface itself is well worth considering. It is, first of all, yet another impressive implementation of a Macintosh-style interface on computers that predate the Mac itself by years. But more important is Activision and Favaro’s decision to not try to make Alter Ego work through a parser. I’ve railed before against games that want to present big, life-changing choices rather than dwelling on the granular minutiae of Zork, but that insist out of misplaced traditionalism on forcing you to make those choices through a parser. Alter Ego, however, at long last shows the courage to break with tradition. Rather than offer only a few options but force you to wrestle with a parser to divine what they are, Alter Ego just shows you your options and lets you choose one. That may seem reasonable and unremarkable enough today, but it makes Alter Ego one of the first computerized hypertext narratives, a forerunner of Storyspace and the many similar systems that followed. I don’t make any claims to absolute firsts for Alter Ego; our old friends Level 9 in Britain among others were also experimenting with choice-based narratives by the mid-1980s. Still, Alter Ego stands as the most prominent early example of the format. Given that a menu of choices is so much easier to implement than a parser and the relatively complicated world model that must lie behind it, one might well wonder what took the industry so long. My suspicion, for what it’s worth, is that developers were consciously or unconsciously concerned about differentiating themselves from the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were all the rage at the time in children’s publishing.

But now it’s time to get beyond mechanical innovations and the brilliantly original concept itself and look at what it’s actually like to play Alter Ego. More so than even a typical text adventure, which has puzzles and other logistical concerns to distract, a game like this lives and dies for me on the quality of its writing. In this department Alter Ego is, at best, a mixed bag. The early vignettes are the most natural and effective — perhaps because Favaro was technically a child psychologist by trade, perhaps because he was only in his late twenties at the time he wrote the game and thus had only his book learning to draw from when describing the later stages of life. I’m afraid I’m going to be pretty hard on old Peter J. Favaro, PhD, soon enough, so let me first offer a couple of childhood episodes that I really like. One might make you laugh, and the other might… well, okay, it’s a bit sentimental and contrived, what with both husband and daughter managing to get themselves killed by the same freight train, but it’s also very sweet. (In the extracts that follow, I’ll be mixing the male and female versions of the game pretty freely.)

You are sitting in a large place, and a furry man walks up to you. He's walking around you in circles.

Select a mood:
curious
frightened X

Select an action:
point at the furry man
make noises at/talk to the furry man X

The furry man walks right up to you and smells you up and down. His nose pokes into your face and neck. It's cold.

Select an action:
cry X
grab the furry man by the head
push him off you

Your mom comes over and says the furry man is just playing. She takes your hand and puts it on the furry man's back and says, "Nice 'doggie'."

Select an action:
pet the man X
stay frightened and go away from the man

See? It isn't that bad. You pound on the man's back and say, "Nice 'doo-gee'."


There is an elderly woman who lives in a house up the street. Everyone calls her "the witch." Some people say she's really paranoid, calling the cops on kids all the time and screaming out the window, even when there is nobody there. At night she keeps her light on all the time and sits looking out the window.

For the past few days the light has been off. Some of the kids think she's just dead in there or something. They jump in front of her house and sing "Ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead," and laugh.

Select a mood:
sad X
happy

Select an action:
sing with everyone else
try to see if anything is wrong X

One afternoon after school, you look from outside the gate to see if there is anything going on inside the house. There is nothing. You can:
go through the gate and knock on the door X
ask a friend to go with you

You hear a voice call out from the back of the house, "Go away and leave me alone!" You can:
say "I'd like to know if you're o.k. in there." X
quit trying and leave

You hear nothing for about 30 seconds. Finally, the door opens. The woman looks pale and dazed. She seems smaller than you imagined and very delicate. In the corner of her almost-bare living room there is a television set; beside it is a large box of old rubber balls and toys that were left, or had accidentally fallen, on her lawn.

She asks you why you have come. You mention that you noticed that the light has gone out, and you thought she might be needing some help. She explains that she has no way to replace it. She is too old to climb up to do it. You can:
ask her if she would like you to do it X
excuse yourself, now that you know it's just a problem with a light bulb

She thanks you. Her face softens. While you are fixing the light, she tells you a very sad story: A long time ago, she had a little girl very much like you, so polite and so kind. She says her daughter was beautiful, and repeats it over and over--"as beautiful as a picture."

She and her husband lived with their daughter not too far from the train yard. She used to tell her child, "Anne Marie, stay away from the tracks, or you'll get hurt." One day, her daughter and her husband went out to play catch with an old ball. The ball got away from Anne and rolled across the tracks.

While she was chasing it, her foot got wedged between two rails. Her father and she struggled to release it, but before they could, they were both struck by a freight train and killed. She's been alone ever since.

When you are finished fixing the light, the lady gives you some milk and freshly-baked cookies. It almost seems as though she doesn't want you to go. Before you leave, you:
thank her for the cookies and ask if she would like someone around to do odd jobs X
thank her and excuse yourself

Her face brightens. "You must be paid," she says. "I can't afford much, and you'll have to do a fine job, but you can have all the cookies and brownies you can eat. I promise you that." You have done a much kinder thing than you can probably imagine at your age. You've given this woman a reason to live.

Many other vignettes unfortunately manifest the clunkier qualities of the one above without the same endearing sweetness.

The subject of sex has inspired far more bad writing over the course of history than any ten other topics combined. For better or for worse there’s lots and lots of sex in Alter Ego, so much so that it obviously made Activision more than a little nervous; there are prominent warnings on the box and in the manual, and when you actually stumble into a vignette with naughty content you get a big warning message so you can quickly back out with your delicate sensibilities undisturbed. (When we played Alter Ego as kids, of course, that warning meant we’d hit pay dirt.) Some of these episodes feel like they’re lifted from a late-night skin flick.

Perri Barber is an acquaintance who has taken a few of the same classes you have. She is a petite brunette with gorgeous green eyes, a nice smile, and a slim athletic body. She approaches you on campus and asks if you would be interested in helping her paint her dormitory room. What will you do?
help her decorate X
pass on the opportunity

During the course of the afternoon, you get to know one another very well. You work together in close quarters (the room is very small), so a lot of accidental touching and bumping occurs during the day. You aren't sure, but you think that Perri is coming on to you.

Select an action:
suggest that the two of you shower off together
ignore any signals that she might be giving you X

I guess this is not your style. It IS Perri's style, though. She asks if you would like her to scrub all that paint off your gorgeous body.

Select an action:
accept the offer X
reject the offer

The two of you take a nice, warm, romantic shower together. I'll leave what comes after the shower up to your imagination. [Thank God for that!]

When not indulging in teenage-boy fantasies, Alter Ego‘s attempts at the risque manage to be weirdly, anticlimactically square, the sort of things a gaggle of Monty Python housewives would define as transgressive.

Until now, your sexual experiences with your wife have been the standard fare. You've done a little experimenting with positions but that's about it. Have you been thinking about suggesting something a little more out of the ordinary?
"as a matter of fact, yes" X
"no"

What would you like to try?
oral sex X [Shocking!]
being tied up and tickled [No, I couldn't possibly...]
experimenting with marital aids (vibrators, creams, etc.) [Gasp!]
suggesting a menage a' trois (sex with your wife and another woman at the same time) [Now we're getting somewhere... and why do I find the game's need to define this phrase so unaccountably hilarious?]

Your wife is too inhibited to do this, she tells you she would rather not. [Oh, well, it was worth a try...]

In case you were wondering: no, if you play as a woman, you don’t get to ask for sex with two men at once. The woman always gets the short end of the stick in Alter Ego, about which much more in a moment.

Alter Ego is relentlessly hetero-normative. Apart from the ménage à trois, which at least in this context is of course really a heterosexual male fantasy, there are only a couple of places where the game even acknowledges the possibility of alternative sexualities. At one point you can be asked by your French teacher, Mr. Andre, “who everyone in school claims is gay,” to stay after school to help him clean his office. If you ignore the teasing of your classmates and brave the danger, he turns out to not be a Big Scary Gay Man after all: you learn he has a wife and a beautiful daughter, whom he sets you up with to boot. (The game’s blasé assumption that because he has a wife he doesn’t have feelings for men and doesn’t desire you is… interesting.) In another vignette a friend tells you that he believes he is gay, a revelation that the game treats with the same tragic gravity as a terminal disease.

But then, considering the time and place that spawned it, it’s not really fair to expect much more from Alter Ego. It’s very much a product of its time — sometimes depressingly, oppressively so. And, as Adam Cadre once hilariously noted, that time never changes even as a lifetime’s worth of personal experience plays out. Alter Ego‘s milieu is a frozen-in-amber world where a 512 K PC is the best you can buy, where The A-Team and Miami Vice rule the television, where Jordache jeans and Members Only jackets rule in schoolyard fashion, where Madonna is all over MTV (okay, maybe some things really are eternal). Whether you find this horrifying or nostalgically comforting depends on the player I suppose; I lean toward the former personally. Social change — history in general — just doesn’t happen in Alter Ego, which can be as strange to experience as it is understandable from a design perspective: having already tried to create a complete interactive life story, it’s a bit much to expect Favaro to create a believable future history to accompany it, and it likely wouldn’t have turned out very well had he tried. Still, playing Alter Ego is like living your life inside the white-bread confines of a 1980s version of The Truman Show. Literally white: apart from the occasional socially-inept immigrant kid you can choose to feel sorry for, everyone in this game is the whitest shade of pale.

If Alter Ego‘s lack of inclusiveness is to some extent forgivable given its origins, I do have more problems dismissing Favaro’s cluelessly demeaning sexism. As with a lot of games I write about, I played Alter Ego with my wife Dorte. She played with the female version, I with the male, and we took turns playing through a life phase at a time and comparing notes. Our agreed approach was to each play ourselves, making the choices we thought we would make at those ages in those situations. As we played, I found myself getting more and more angry at the game and sad for Dorte, as I kept getting to do cool and/or bold things and she kept being offered only meek girlie stuff. I got to go skydiving; she got to get an eyebrow tattoo. I slashed a hated teacher’s tires; she got a new hairdo. I got to buy video equipment or a flash new computer; she got to buy jewelry or “gourmet cooking accessories.” She always got offered the subordinate role, the pretty girl cheering on the boys who were actually doing something. I got to try out for the baseball team; she got to try out for the cheerleading squad. I got to start a rock band with some buddies; she got to call in to a radio show and win backstage passes to a concert (“Could you SCREAM?”).

Favaro’s concept of feminism feels at least two decades behind the times — i.e., about five decades behind our modern times. Alter Ego treats the decision to pick up a single restaurant tab for your steady boyfriend as a blow for “Woman’s Libbers” — when was the last time you heard that term? — everywhere, one so bold that it makes your boyfriend feel “uncomfortable” and emasculated. A male chauvinist you meet at work is just a mustache-twirling villain who says things absolutely no one would dare say openly even in 1986 and who has little to do with the real issues women still confront every day in the working world.

You have been going through a difficult time with an influential businessperson who seems to really enjoy making people miserable with his sexist attitudes, his arbitrary decision-making and his arrogance.

You get called into his office to take the heat for a relatively minor error. The conversation begins, "Look, Darling. I've always believed that a woman's place is in the home. Unfortunately, those bleeding hearts upstairs have made it impossible for me to deal 'man-to-man' around here. There are some problems here that I want resolved, AND NOW!"

One of the interstitial quotes Alter Ego occasionally puts up is this bit of condescension by Sigmund Freud: “The great question… which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” Peter J. Favaro, PhD, also doesn’t have a clue. I normally resist the urge to psychoanalyze the people who write the games I write about, but, given that Favaro spends the entirety of Alter Ego analyzing me and offering commentary and criticism on my every action, I’ll make a slight exception and wonder if this passage, which is worthy of a certain rotund cigar-chomping radio host, reflects deeper insecurities.

Mary Lou Stoker is a friend of your closest female companion and a staunch feminist. The truth is that she is not a feminist in the true sense of the word; she simply despises and resents men, misapplying the feminist philosophy to suit her needs.

One afternoon, you overhear Mary Lou telling your best friend that the love of your life "really doesn't give you that much room to breathe." She says, "I mean, he's okay, considering the rest of the garbage that's out there these days, but I wonder if she feels a little trapped in the same place day in and day out?" She goes on this way for quite a while.

My favorite, unintentionally revealing part of this is the phrase “the feminist philosophy,” as if feminists represent a political party — or conspiracy — who all march in lockstep to the same play book.

The most cringe-worthy parts of Alter Ego as a whole are those parts of the female version that deal with the sexual side of puberty and adolescence. Really, can there be any worse subject for a less-than-subtle 28-year-old male writer to tackle? Despite close competition from the likes of discovering your breasts are growing, getting your first period, and having your first orgasm, I think your first visit to a gynecologist makes for the creepiest episode in the game; this fellow is actually far creepier than the Chester the Molester who tries to pick you up outside your school. After making inquiries with one or two women of my acquaintance, I’ve confirmed that if you’re spending any time at all “naked” in a gynecologist’s office then something is very, very wrong.

Your mother calls you in for a talk about something she says is "very very important." She thinks that it might be a good time to go for a checkup with a "gynecologist," a doctor who specializes in women.

Select a mood:
afraid X
comfortable

Select an action:
go for an exam X
don't go for an exam

On the way over, your mother explains to you, "It's a little embarrassing at first, but he really is a gentle doctor." You dwell for a moment on the word "he," and realize that a man is going to see and "mess around with" all of your most intimate parts.

Select an action:
change your mind and tell her you don't want to see a man doctor
go anyway X

The gynecologist is a very sweet old man. Most of the time you spend naked is with a nurse who helps prepare you for the exam. The doctor is kind enough to warm up the instruments before he examines you.

When the examination begins, he shows you various different parts of your reproductive system and teaches you how to give yourself a breast examination, which he says is very important.

He asks your mother if she would be kind enough to leave the room. When she does, he asks you whether you are sexually active and if you are using birth control. He then asks if you would like more information about birth control.

Select an action:
get more information
say, "no." X [Get me out of here!]

He sees that you are feeling a bit uncomfortable and tells you that if you ever need information about birth control to give the office a call. He leaves you with a little warning. "Don't experiment before you get the facts, young lady."

Alter Ego strictly enforces the law of social averages. There are very good design reasons that it can’t allow you to become an astronaut, a rock star, an international drug smuggler, or even a homeless tramp; doing so would invalidate virtually all of the other vignettes that deal with daily life as most Americans of the 1980s knew it. But if the emphasis on the ordinary is defensible given Alter Ego‘s design constraints, the reductive judgments the game is constantly making about your actions certainly are not. Alter Ego is forever telling you why you’ve done something, and then whether that’s good or bad. If you respond to a blue period by just “letting it pass,” it tells you you’re “denying your feelings” and that “it’s okay to feel blue some of the time.” (When did I say that it wasn’t?) If you fail to gush with loving support after your dad gets fired from his job, you’re scolded for not telling him “he is a worthwhile and cherished human being.” (What if I’ve always had a difficult relationship with him and can’t help but remember that he was never really there for me in similar situations, and thus my feelings are more complex than just a “cherishing?”) If you fail to volunteer time or money to a charity that knocks on your door, you’re called in so many words a selfish jerk who can’t be bothered to think of the children! (What if I’m a bit suspicious of big international charities, and prefer to do my giving in other ways?) If you commit suicide — presumably due to all that feeling-denying that was going on earlier — you’re told that suicide is always “an act of anger,” but the last laugh’s on you, because “the people you leave behind will try very hard to put this event in their pasts as quickly as possible.” (Suicide is way more complex than just another way of acting out, as someone with a PhD in Psychology really ought to know.) If you try to offer a little advice to a friend who’s having an affair, you’re mockingly told to butt out, “Sigmund.” (Oh, the irony…) When you have your inevitable midlife-crisis, you’re given this semantic drivel about “wishing” and “wanting”:

One of the key things to consider is the difference between WISHING and WANTING. You can spend the rest of your life WISHING for something magical to happen that will change your unsatisfying situation. If you WANT something badly enough, you do whatever is necessary to make it happen, even if it is difficult.

Playing Alter Ego today as a crotchety 42-year-old, my reaction to stuff like this is to ask what the hell do you know about it, Peter J. Favaro, PhD? No one has the right to pass such easy judgment on the complexities of life. If you’ve ever spent time flipping through self-help books, passages like those above may have a familiar ring, and for good reason: Favaro has since built a career around such pat aphorisms, writing a number of pop-psychology books and appearing on the low-hanging fruit of the talk-show circuit — places like The Montel Williams Show and Fox News morning shows — as a “television psychologist.”

I know I’ve been awfully hard on Favaro today, and perhaps not entirely fairly. His project was in a way doomed from the start. I’m sure that neither I, nor you, nor any one person could have done it justice, brilliant as the idea of it is. I’d therefore like to see a modern version of Alter Ego that would try a different approach. Instead of a single author, inevitably blinkered by her experiences and prejudices, I’d like to see a crowd-sourced Alter Ego. People from all over the world, and of all ages, races, genders, and sexualities, would be able to submit their own vignettes reflecting their own lived experiences. The result would be a constantly expanding tapestry of the human experience, accessible to anyone who ever felt an urge to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Rather than flatten the human experience into some idea of the psychologically normal, it would celebrate all of the different ways there are to think and feel and be.

As for the original Alter Ego, it did moderately well commercially; Favaro claims it earned him enough to buy “a house and a car.” Activision and Favaro made plans to release a follow-up called Child’s Play, “a humorous simulation about raising children,” but sweeping changes at Activision in the months after Alter Ego‘s release soon brought an end to that project, and with it Favaro’s career as a game designer.

Alter Ego enjoyed a big revival in the mid-2000s thanks to Dan Fabulich’s web-based version. He’s since also made it available as apps for Android, iOS, and even Kindle e-readers. It’s safe to say by now that many more people have played Alter Ego in its accessible modern incarnations than did so back in the day when it was a $35 boxed game. And indeed, while it does kind of annoy the hell out of me with its dodgy writing, lecturing authorial persona, and blinkered worldview, it’s still worth a look. Not only is it interesting purely for what it tries to do, but many other players genuinely enjoy it on its own terms. And hey, even if you feel like me about it you can still enjoy yourself a lot by making fun of it. Dorte and I had a blast doing that.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with my favorite male-version/female-version juxtaposition of all.

The female version:

You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your lip. Could it be some kind of disease? You think about all the boys you've kissed in the past month and decide to kill anyone who has given you a terminal disease.

And the male version:

You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your penis. Could it be some kind of disease?

Maybe I should take back what I said about the female always getting the short end of the stick…

(Notable writings by and about Favaro can be found in the October 1982 Compute!; the April 1983 and October 1983 Creative Computing; the November 1984 Family Computing; and the November 1982, March 1983, August 1983, September 1983, and January 1984 SoftSide. His three pre-Alter Ego games that were mentioned in the text appeared in SoftSide Selections 54, 58, and 60.)

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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