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Byron Preiss’s Games (or, The Promise and Peril of the Electronic Book)

Byron Preiss in 1982 with some of his “Fair People.”

We humans always seek to understand the new in terms of the old. This applies as much to new forms of media as it does to anything else.

Thus at the dawn of the 1980s, when the extant world of media began to cotton onto the existence of computer software that was more than strictly utilitarian but not action-oriented videogames like the ones being played in coin-op arcades and on home consoles such as the Atari VCS, it looked for a familiar taxonomic framework by which to understand it. One of the most popular of the early metaphors was that of the electronic book. For the graphics of the first personal computers were extremely crude, little more than thick lines and blotches of primary colors. Text, on the other hand, was text, whether it appeared on a monitor screen or on a page. Some of the most successful computer games of the first half of the 1980s were those of Infocom, who drove home the literary associations by building their products out of nothing but text, for which they were lauded in glowing features in respected mainstream magazines and newspapers. In the context of the times, it seemed perfectly natural to sell Infocom’s games and others like them in bookstores. (I first discovered these games that would become such an influence on my future on the shelves of my local shopping mall’s B. Dalton bookstore…)

Small wonder, then, that several of the major New York print-publishing houses decided to move into software. As is usually the case in such situations, they were driven by a mixture of hope and fear: hope that they could expand the parameters of what a book could do and be in exciting ways, and fear that, if they failed to do it, someone else would. The result was the brief-lived era of bookware.

Byron Preiss was perhaps the most important of all the individual book people who now displayed an interest in software. Although still very young by the standards of his tweedy industry — he turned 30 in 1983 — he was already a hugely influential figure in genre publishing, with a rare knack for mobilizing others to get lots and lots of truly innovative things done. In fact, long before he did anything with computers, he was already all about “interactivity,” the defining attribute of electronic books during the mid-1980s, as well as “multimedia,” the other buzzword that would be joined to the first in the early 1990s.

Preiss’s Fiction Illustrated line produced some of the world’s first identifiable graphic novels. These were comics that didn’t involve superheroes or cartoon characters, that were bound and sold as first-run paperbacks rather than flimsy periodicals. Preiss would remain a loyal supporter of comic-book storytelling in all its forms throughout his life.

Preiss rarely published a book that didn’t have pictures; in fact, he deserves a share of the credit for inventing what we’ve come to call the graphic novel, through a series known as Fiction Illustrated which he began all the way back in 1975 as a bright-eyed 22-year-old. His entire career was predicated on the belief that books should be beautiful aesthetic objects in their own right, works of visual as well as literary art that could and should take the reader’s breath away, that reading books should be an intensely immersive experience. He innovated relentlessly in pursuit of that goal. In 1981, for example, he published a collection of stories by Samuel R. Delany that featured “the first computer-enhanced illustrations developed for a science-fiction book.” His non-fiction books on astronomy and paleontology remain a feast for the eyes, as does his Science Fiction Masterworks series of illustrated novels and stories from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, Philip Jose Farmer, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov.

As part and parcel of his dedication to immersive literature, Preiss also looked for ways to make books interactive, even without the benefit of computers. In 1982, he wrote and published The Secret: A Treasure Hunt, a puzzle book and real-world scavenger hunt in the spirit of Kit Williams’s Masquerade. As beautifully illustrated as one would expect any book with which Preiss was involved to be, it told of “The Fair People,” gnomes and fairies who fled from the Old to the New World when Europeans began to cut down their forests and dam the rivers along which they lived: “They came over and they stayed, and they were happy. But then they saw that man was following the same path [in the Americas] and that what had happened in the Old World would probably happen in the New. So the ones who had already come over and the ones who followed them all decided they would have to go into hiding.” They took twelve treasures with them. “I have been entrusted by the Fair People to reveal the whereabouts of the [treasures] through paintings in the book,” Preiss claimed. “There are twelve treasures hidden throughout North America and twelve color paintings that contain clues to the whereabouts of the treasure. Then, there is a poem for each treasure. So, if you can correctly figure out the poem and the painting, you will find one of the treasures.” Each treasure carried a bounty for the discoverer of $1000. Preiss’s self-professed ultimate goal was to use the interactivity of the scavenger hunt as another tool for immersing the reader, “like in the kids’ books where you choose your own ending.”

The Secret failed to become the sales success or the pop-culture craze that Masquerade had become in Britain three years earlier. Only one of the treasures was found in the immediate wake of its publication, in Chicago in 1983. Yet it had a long shelf life: a second treasure was found in Cleveland more than twenty years later. A 2018 documentary film about the book sparked a renewal of interest, and the following year a third treasure was recovered in Boston. A small but devoted cult continues to search for the remaining ones today, sharing information and theories via websites and podcasts.

In a less enduring but more commercially successful vein, Preiss also published three different lines of gamebooks to feed the hunger ignited by the original Choose Your Own Adventure books of Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery. Unsurprisingly, his books were much more visual than the typical example of the breed, with illustrations that often doubled as puzzles for the reader to solve. A dedicated nurturer of young writing and illustrating talent, he passed the contracts to make books in these lines and others to up-and-comers who badly needed the cash and the measure of industry credibility they brought with them.

Being a man with a solid claim to the woefully overused title of “visionary,” Preiss was aware of what computers could mean for our relationship with storytelling and information from a very early date. He actually visited Xerox PARC during its 1970s heyday and marveled at the potential he saw there, told all of his friends that this was the real future of information spaces. Later he became the driving force behind the most concentrated and in many ways the most interesting of all the bookware software projects of the 1980s: the Telarium line of literary adaptations, which turned popular science-fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels into illustrated text adventures. I won’t belabor this subject here because I already wrote histories and reviews of all of the Telarium games years ago for this site. I will say, however, that the line as a whole bears all the hallmarks of a Byron Preiss project, from the decision to include colorful pictures in the games — something Infocom most definitely did not provide — to the absolutely gorgeous packaging, which arguably outdid Infocom’s own high standard for same. (The packaging managed to provide a sensory overload which transcended even the visual; one of my most indelible memories of gaming in my childhood is of the rich smell those games exuded, thanks to some irreplicable combination of cardboard, paper, ink, and paste. Call it my version of Proust’s madeleine.) The games found on the actual disks were a bit hit-or-miss, but nobody could say that Telarium didn’t put its best foot forward.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the Telarium games weren’t big sellers, and the line lasted only from 1984 to 1986. Afterward, Preiss went back to his many and varied endeavors in book publishing, while computer games switched their metaphor of choice from interactive novels to interactive movies in response to the arrival of new, more audiovisually capable gaming computers like the Commodore Amiga. Even now, though, Preiss continued to keep one eye on what was going on with computers. For example, he published novelizations of some of Infocom’s games, thus showing that he bore no ill will toward the company that had both inspired his own Telarium line and outlived it. More importantly in the long run, he saw Apple’s HyperCard, with its new way of navigating texts non-linearly through association — multimedia texts which could include pictures, sound, music, and even movie clips alongside their words. By the turn of the 1990s, Bob Stein’s Voyager Software was starting to make waves with “electronic books” on CD-ROM that took full advantage of all of these affordances. The nature of electronic books had changed since the heyday of the text adventure, but the idea lived on in the abstract.

In fact, the advances in computer technology as the 1990s wore on were so transformative as to give everyone a bad case of mixed metaphors. The traditional computer-games industry, entranced by the new ability to embed video clips of real actors in their creations, was more fixated on interactive movies than ever. At the same time, though, the combination of hypertext with multimedia continued to give life to the notion of electronic books. Huge print publishers like Simon & Schuster and Random House, who had jumped onto the last bookware bandwagon only to bail out when the sales didn’t come, now made new investments in CD-ROM-based software that were an order of magnitude bigger than their last ones, even as huge names in moving pictures, from Disney to The Discovery Channel, were doing the same. The poster child for all of the taxonomical confusion was undoubtedly the pioneering Voyager, a spinoff from the Criterion Collection of classic movies on laserdisc and VHS whose many and varied releases all seemed to live on a liminal continuum between book and movie.

One has to assume that Byron Preiss felt at least a pang of jealousy when he saw the innovative work Voyager was doing. Exactly one decade after launching Telarium, he took a second stab at bookware, with the same high hopes as last time but on a much, much more lavish scale, one that was in keeping with the burgeoning 1990s tech boom. In the spring of 1994, Electronic Entertainment magazine brought the news that the freshly incorporated Byron Preiss Multimedia Company “is planning to flood the CD-ROM market with interactive titles this year.”

They weren’t kidding. Over the course of the next couple of years, Preiss published a torrent of CD-ROMs, enough to make Voyager’s prolific release schedule look downright conservative. There was stuff for the ages in high culture, such as volumes dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Einstein. There was stuff for the moment in pop culture, such as discs about Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place, not to forget The Sci-Fi Channel Trivia Game. There was stuff reflecting Preiss’s enduring love for comics (discs dedicated to R. Crumb and Jean Giraud) and animation (The Multimedia Cartoon Studio). There were electronic editions of classic novels, from John Steinbeck to Raymond Chandler to Kurt Vonnegut. There was educational software suitable for older children (The Planets, The Universe, The History of the United States), and interactive storybooks suitable for younger ones. There were even discs for toddlers, which line Preiss dubbed “BABY-ROMS.” A lot of these weren’t bad at all; Preiss’s CD-ROM library is almost as impressive as that of Voyager, another testament to the potential of a short-lived form of media that arguably deserved a longer day in the sun before it was undone by the maturation of networked hypertexts on the World Wide Web.

But then there are the games, a field Bob Stein was wise enough to recognize as outside of Voyager’s core competency and largely stay away from. Alas, Preiss was not, and did not.



The first full-fledged game from Byron Preiss Multimedia was an outgrowth of some of Preiss’s recent print endeavors. In the late 1980s, he had the idea of enlisting some of his stable of young writers to author new novels in the universes of aging icons of science fiction whose latest output had become a case of diminishing returns — names like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. Among other things, this broad concept led to a series of six books by five different authors that was called Robot City, playing with the tropes, characters, and settings of Asimov’s “Robot” stories and novels. In 1994, two years after Asimov’s death, Preiss also published a Robot City computer game. Allow me to quote the opening paragraph of Martin E. Cirulis’s review of same for Computer Gaming World magazine, since it does such a fine job of pinpointing the reasons that so many games of this sort tended to be so underwhelming.

With all the new interest in computer entertainment, it seems that a day doesn’t go by without another company throwing their hat, as well as wads of startup money, into the ring. More often than not, the first thing offered by these companies is an adventure-game title, because of the handy way the genre brings out all the bells and whistles of multimedia. I’m always a big fan of new blood, but a lot of the first offerings get points for enthusiasm, then lose ground and reinvent the wheel. Design and management teams new to the field seem so eager to show us how dumb our old games are that they fail to learn any lessons from the fifteen-odd years of successful and failed games that have gone before. Unfortunately, Robot City, Byron Preiss Multimedia’s initial game release, while impressive in some aspects, suffers from just these kinds of birthing pains.

If anything, Cirulis is being far too kind here. Robot City is a game where simply moving from place to place is infuriating, thanks to a staggeringly awful interface, city streets that are constantly changing into random new configurations, and the developers’ decision to put exterior scenes on one of its two CDs and interior scenes on the other, meaning you can look forward to swapping CDs roughly every five minutes.

Robot City. If you don’t like the look of this city street, rest assured that it will have changed completely next time you walk outside. Why? It’s not really clear… something to do with The Future.

Yet the next game from Byron Preiss Multimedia makes Robot City seem like a classic. I’d like to dwell on The Martian Chronicles just a bit today — not because it’s good, but because it’s so very, very bad, so bad in fact that I find it oddly fascinating.

Another reason for it to pique my interest is that it’s such an obvious continuation of what Preiss had begun with Telarium. One of Telarium’s very first games was an adaptation of the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. This later game, of course, adapts his breakthrough book The Martian Chronicles, a 1950 “fix-up novel” of loosely linked stories about the colonization — or, perhaps better said, invasion — of Mars by humans. And the two games are of a piece in many other ways once we make allowances for the technological changes in computing between 1984 and 1994.

For example, Bradbury himself gave at least a modicum of time and energy to both game projects, which was by no means always true of the authors Preiss chose to honor with an adaptation of some sort. In the Telarium game, you can call Bradbury up on a telephone and shoot the breeze; in the multimedia one, you can view interview clips of him. In the Telarium game, a special “REMEMBER” verb displays snippets of prose from the novel; in the multimedia one, a portentous narrator recites choice extracts from Bradbury’s Mars stories from time to time as you explore the Red Planet. Then, too, neither game is formally innovative in the least: the Telarium one is a parser-driven interactive fiction, the dominant style of adventure game during its time, while the multimedia game takes all of its cues from Myst, the hottest phenomenon in adventures at the time of its release. (The box even sported a hype sticker which named it the answer to the question of “Where do you go after Myst?”) About the only thing missing from The Martian Chronicles that its predecessor can boast about is Fahrenheit 451‘s gorgeous bespoke packaging. (That ship had largely sailed for computer games by 1994; as the scenes actually shown on the monitor got prettier, the packaging got more uniform and unambitious.)

By way of compensation, The Martian Chronicles emphasizes its bookware bona fides by bearing on its box the name of the book publisher Simon & Schuster, back for a second go-round after failing to make a worthwhile income stream out of publishing games in the 1980s. But sadly, once you get past all the meta-textual elements, what you are left with in The Martian Chronicles is a Myst clone notable only for its unusually extreme level of unoriginality and its utter ineptness of execution.

I must confess that I’ve enjoyed very few of the games spawned by Myst during my life, and that’s still the case today, after I’ve made a real effort to give several of them a fair shake for these histories. It strikes me that the sub-genre is, more than just about any other breed of game I know of, defined by its limitations rather than its allowances. The first-person node-based movement, with its plethora of pre-rendered 3D views, was both the defining attribute of the lineage during the 1990s and an unsatisfying compromise in itself: what you really want to be doing is navigating through a seamless 3D space, but technical limitations have made that impossible, so here you are, lurching around, discrete step by discrete step. In many of these games, movement is not just unsatisfying but actively confusing, because clicking the rotation arrows doesn’t always turn you 90 degrees as you expect it to. I often find just getting around a room in a Myst clone to be a challenge, what with the difficulty of constructing a coherent mental map of my surroundings using the inconsistent movement controls. There inevitably seems to be that one view that I miss — the one that contains something I really, really need. This is what people in the game-making trade sometimes call “fake difficulty”: problems the game throws up in front of you where no problem would exist if you were really in this environment. In other schools of software development, it’s known by the alternative name of terrible interface design.

Yet I have to suspect that the challenges of basic navigation are partially intentional, given that there’s so little else the designer can really do with these engines. Most were built in either HyperCard or the multimedia presentation manager Macromedia Director; the latter was the choice for  The Martian Chronicles. These “middleware” tools were easy to work with but slow and limiting. Their focus was the media they put on the screen; their scripting languages were never intended to be used for the complex programming that is required to present a simulated world with any dynamism to it. Indeed, Myst clones are the opposite of dynamic, being deserted, static spaces marked only by the buttons, switches, and set-piece spatial puzzles which are the only forms of gameplay that can be practically implemented using their tool chains. While all types of games have constraints, I can’t think of any other strand of them that make their constraints the veritable core of their identity. In addition to the hope of selling millions and millions of copies like Myst did, I can’t help but feel that their prevalence during the mid-1990s was to a large extent a reflection of how easy they were to make in terms of programming. In this sense, they were a natural choice for a company like the one Byron Preiss set up, which was more replete with artists and writers from the book trade than with ace programmers from the software trade.

The Martian Chronicles is marked not just by all of the usual Myst constraints but by a shocking degree of laziness that makes it play almost like a parody of the sub-genre. The plot is most kindly described as generic, casting you as the faceless explorer of the ruins of an ancient — and, needless to say, deserted — Martian city, searching for a legendary all-powerful McGuffin. You would never connect this game with Bradbury’s book at all if it weren’t for the readings from it that inexplicably pop up from time to time. What you get instead of the earnest adaptation advertised on the box is the most soul-crushingly dull Myst clone ever: a deserted static environment around which are scattered a dozen or so puzzles which you’ve seen a dozen or more times before. Everything is harder than it ought to be, thanks to a wonky cursor whose hot spot seems to float about its surface randomly, a cursor which disappears entirely whenever an animation loop is playing. This is the sort of game that, when you go to save, requires you to delete the placeholder name of “Save1” character by character before you can enter your own. This game is death by a thousand niggling little aggravations like that one, which taken in the aggregate tell you that no actual human being ever tried to play it before it was shoved into a box and shipped. Even the visuals, the one saving grace of some Myst clones and the defining element of Byron Preiss’s entire career, are weirdly slapdash, making The Martian Chronicles useless even as a tech demo. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451 had its problems, but it’s Infocom’s Trinity compared to this thing.


It’s telling that many reviewers labelled the fifteen minutes of anodyne interview clips with Ray Bradbury the best part of the game.

Some Myst clones have the virtue of being lovely to look at. Not this one, with views that look like they were vandalized by a two-year-old Salvador Dali wannabee with only two colors of crayon to hand.



Computer Gaming World justifiably savaged The Martian Chronicles. It “is as devoid of affection and skill as any game I have ever seen,” noted Charlies Ardai, by far the magazine’s deftest writer, in his one-star review. Two years after its release, Computer Gaming World named it the sixteenth worst game of all time, outdone only by such higher-profile crimes against their players as Sierra’s half-finished Outpost and Cosmi’s DefCon 5, an “authentic SDI simulation” whose level of accuracy was reflected in its name. (DefCon 5 is the lowest level of nuclear threat, not the highest.) As for The Martian Chronicles, the magazine called it “tired, pointless, and insulting to Bradbury’s poetic genius.” Most of the other magazines had little better to say — those, that is, which didn’t simply ignore it. For it was becoming abundantly clear that games like these really weren’t made for the hardcore set who read the gaming magazines. The problem was, it wasn’t clear who they were made for.

Still, Byron Preiss Multimedia continued to publish games betwixt and between their other CD-ROMs for another couple of years. The best of a pretty sorry bunch was probably the one called Private Eye, which built upon the noir novels of Raymond Chandler, one of Preiss’s favorite touchstones. Tellingly, it succeeded — to whatever extent it did — by mostly eschewing puzzles and other traditional forms of game design, being driven instead by conversations and lengthy non-interactive cartoon cut scenes; a later generation might have labeled it a visual novel. Charlies Ardai rewarded it with a solidly mediocre review, acknowledging that “it don’t stink up da joint.” Faint praise perhaps, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The Spider-Man game, by contrast, attracted more well-earned vitriol from Ardai: “The graphics are jagged, the story weak, the puzzles laughable (cryptograms, anyone?), and the action sequences so dismal, so minor, so clumsy, so basic, so dull, so Atari 2600 as to defy comment.” Tired of what Ardai called Preiss’s “gold-into-straw act,” even Computer Gaming World stopped bothering with his games after this. That’s a pity in a way; I would have loved to see Ardai fillet Forbes Corporate Warrior, a simplistic DOOM clone that replaced monsters with rival corporations, to be defeated with weapons like Price Bombs, Marketing Missiles, Ad Blasters, Takeover Torpedoes, and Alliance Harpoons, with all of it somehow based on “fifteen years of empirical data from an internationally recognized business-simulation firm.” “Business is war, cash is ammo!” we were told. Again, one question springs to mind. Who on earth was this game for?

Corporate Warrior came out in 1997, near the end of the road for Byron Preiss Multimedia, which, like almost all similar multimedia startups, had succeeded only in losing buckets and buckets of money. Preiss finally cut his losses and devoted all of his attention to paper-based publishing again, a realm where his footing was much surer.

I hasten to add that, for all that he proved an abject failure at making games, his legacy in print publishing remains unimpeachable. You don’t have to talk to many who were involved with genre and children’s books in the 1980s and 1990s before you meet someone whose career was touched by him in a positive way. The expressions of grief were painfully genuine after he was killed in a car accident in 2005. He was called a “nice guy and honest person,” “an original,” “a business visionary,” “one of the good guys,” “a positive force in the industry,” “one of the most likable people in publishing,” “an honest, dear, and very smart man,” “warm and personable,” “charming, sophisticated, and the best dresser in the room.” “You knew one of his books would be something you couldn’t get anywhere else, and [that] it would be amazing,” said one of the relatively few readers who bothered to dig deep enough into the small print of the books he bought to recognize Preiss’s name on an inordinate number of them. Most readers, however, “never think about the guy who put it together. He’s invisible, although it wouldn’t happen without him.”

But regrettably, Preiss was a textbook dilettante when it came to digital games, more intrigued by the idea of them than he was prepared to engage with the practical reality of what goes into a playable game. It must be said that he was far from alone in this. As I already noted, many other veterans of other forms of media tried to set up similar multimedia-focused alternatives to conventional gaming, and failed just as abjectly. And yet, dodgy though these games almost invariably were in execution, there was something noble about them in concept: they really were trying to move the proverbial goalposts, trying to appeal to new demographics. What the multimedia mavens behind them failed to understand was that fresh themes and surface aesthetics do not great games make all by themselves; you have to devote attention to design as well. Their failure to do so doomed their games to becoming a footnote in history.

For in the end, games are neither books nor movies; they are their own things, which may occasionally borrow approaches from one or the other but should never delude themselves into believing that they can just stick the adjective “interactive” in front of their preferred inspiration and call it a day. Long before The Martian Chronicles stank up the joint, the very best game designers had come to understand that.


Postscript: On a more positive note…

Because I don’t like to be a complete sourpuss, let me note that the efforts of the multimedia dilettantes of the 1990s weren’t always misbegotten. I know of at least one production in this style that’s well worth your time: The Dark Eye, an exploration of the nightmare consciousness of Edgar Allan Poe that was developed by Inscape and released in 1995. On the surface, it’s alarmingly similar to The Martian Chronicles: a Myst-like presentation created in Macromedia Director, featuring occasional readings from the master’s works. But it hangs together much, much better, thanks to a sharp aesthetic sense and a willingness to eschew conventional puzzles completely in favor of atmosphere — all the atmosphere, I daresay, that you’ll be able to take, given the creepy subject matter. I encourage you to read my earlier review of it and perhaps to check it out for yourself. If nothing else, it can serve as proof that no approach to game-making is entirely irredeemable.

Another game that attempts to do much the same thing as The Martian Chronicles but does it much, much better is Rama, which was developed by Dynamix and released by Sierra in 1996. Here as well, the link to the first bookware era is catnip for your humble author; not only was Arthur C. Clarke adapted by a Telarium game before this one, but the novel chosen for that adaptation was Rendezvous with Rama, the same one that is being celebrated here. As in The Martian Chronicles, the lines between game and homage are blurred in Rama, what with the selection of interview clips in which Clarke himself talks about his storied career and one of the most lauded books it produced. And once again the actual game, when you get around to playing it, is very much in the spirit of Myst.

But Dynamix came from the old school of game development, and were in fact hugely respected in the industry for their programming chops; they wouldn’t have been caught dead using lazy middleware like Macromedia Director. Rama rather runs in a much more sophisticated engine, and was designed by people who had made games before and knew what led to playable ones. It’s built around bone-hard puzzles that often require a mathematical mind comfortable with solving complex equations and translating between different base systems. I must admit that I find it all a bit dry — but then, as I’ve said, games in this style are not usually to my taste; I’ve just about decided that the games in the “real” Myst series are all the Myst I need. Nevertheless, Rama is a vastly better answer to the question of “Where do you go after Myst?” than most of the alternatives. If you like its sort of thing, by all means, check it out. Call it another incarnation of Telarium 2.0, done right this time.

(Sources: Starlog of November 1981, December 1981, November 1982, January 1984, June 1984, April 1986, March 1987, November 1992, December 1992, January 1997, April 1997, February 1999, June 2003, May 2005, and October 2005; Compute!’s Gazette of December 1984; STart of November 1990; InCider of May 1993; Electronic Entertainment of June 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and December 1995; MacUser of October 1995; Computer Games Strategy Plus of November 1995; Computer Gaming World of December 1995, January 1996, October 1996, November 1996, and February 1997; Next Generation of October 1996; Chicago Tribune of November 16 1982. Online sources include the announcement of Byron Preiss’s death and the outpouring of memories and sentiment that followed on COMICON.com.

A search on archive.org will reveal a version of The Martian Chronicles that has been modified to run on Windows 10. The Collection Chamber has a version of Rama that’s ready to install and run on Windows 10. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Fahrenheit 451: The Game

Fahrenheit 451

At the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 the game you learn that the nuclear apocalypse that ended the book turned out to not be so apocalyptic after all. It seems the country just got knocked around a bit. Now you’re in New York City looking to continue your rebellion against the book burners in charge of things and hopefully in the process rescue Clarisse, whom your sources tell you is still alive and being held prisoner somewhere in the city; it seems she’s gone from Manic Pixie Dream Girl to hardened resistance fighter.

Fahrenheit 451

Going west or north from the starting location gets you instantly killed by some of the fauna that now inhabits Central Park. Obviously that pile of leaves must be the ticket. Or is it?

>move leaves
Can't understand that.

>look under leaves
This is the southeast corner of Central Park. There is a clearing, with a pond to the west and a path leading north along the shore of the pond.

>push leaves
Can't understand that.

>get leaves
Nothing happens.

After ten more minutes of this sort of thing, you might find the magic verb at last…

>kick leaves
Under the leaves you see an old, rusted grating set into a patch of broken concrete.

To call this beginning of Instadeath combined with Parser Fun inauspicious hardly begins to state the case. What a surprise, then, when the game that follows turns into a worthy design with exactly the spark of passion and innovation that is so conspicuously missing in Rendezvous with Rama. If only the parser didn’t continue to undermine it at every turn…

Byron Preiss and Ray Bradbury first worked together on a book called Dinosaur Tales, which combined a number of old and new Bradbury stories on one of his favorite subjects with Preiss’s signature approach to books as lavishly illustrated objets d’art. When the Telarium project began, Preiss was able not only to convince him to sign a contract for the adaptation of his most famous book but also to involve himself in the project a bit more than Arthur C. Clarke would in Rendezvous with Rama: he wrote a summary of the book to be printed inside the game box, and did some interviews just to promote it. Telarium claimed that he also contributed “ideas” to the project, although that phrase is vague enough to mean almost anything; he did frankly state in one interview that he “wasn’t interested in doing the work himself,” would “trust his longtime friend Preiss to render the work faithfully.”

So, Fahrenheit 451 the game fell to Byron Preiss Video Productions, the shell company he and Spinnaker had set up that also created Rendezvous with Rama and Dragonworld from scratch. Preiss installed another veteran of his Be an Interplanetary Spy book series, Len Neufeld, as designer and writer. Being built with the same technology and employing many of the same programmers, artists, and composers as Rendezvous with Rama, Fahrenheit 451 is inevitably superficially similar in flavor to that game. Certainly the two games have plenty of disadvantages in common, including a stubborn and uninformative parser (the slightly less infuriating “Can’t understand that” replacing “You reconsider your words” as Fahrenheit 451‘s error message of choice) and pictures that sometimes look like little more than a smear of discolored pixels (with an ugly brown replacing an ugly blue as Fahrenheit 451‘s hue of choice). Fahrenheit 451 at least lacks Rendezvous with Rama‘s horrid action games. More importantly, it acquits itself far better by engaging with the themes and ideas of its source material rather than just the window dressing of stage set and plot outline. As blogger Dale Dobson noted in his post on the game, it “takes itself, and its inspiration, seriously, and that is to be commended.”

By making the game a sequel to the novel rather than a recreation, Neufeld is freed to create a design that plays in Bradbury’s world with many of Bradbury’s themes but that also works as an adventure game. You have the run of about twenty blocks of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, an area the team knew well; New York City was the home of Neufeld, Preiss, and most of Preiss’s people. By setting the game in his home town and including famous landmarks like the Plaza Hotel and Tiffany’s, Neufeld manages to make the setting of Fahrenheit 451 feel like a real place, an impression aided by just enough elements of simulation: time passes and day cycles to night, Mechanical Hounds patrol up and down the street on a regular schedule, stores open and close and people come and go from their apartments. You must also eat occasionally and manage your money (which you’ll also need to find more of to complete the game).

The writing is more than solid; it’s sometimes downright lyrical. It’s not afraid to stretch to several paragraphs when the situation calls for it and never feels written down to a computer-game audience. Exploring the world, always one of if not the core pleasure of adventure gaming, is especially pleasurable here, as is solving a collection of interesting puzzles that are always logical and fair. Your ultimate goal is to penetrate the New York Public Library. Your immediate reason for doing so is to rescue Clarisse, who is being held prisoner there, but the goal also has symbolic significance in a game all about the pleasures and importance of books. No, there’s not much of a real story to speak of beyond that goal. And yes, there are a hundred problems I could poke at if we insist on judging the game as a coherent work of fiction, like the way that just about everyone in the whole city seems to be in the Underground, or how Clarisse now seems to be an entirely different person from the one we knew in the book. But this isn’t a book. It’s an adventure game, whose pleasures are anchored in exploring a landscape both physical and mental rather than plot. And the mood of the book is always very present. At the end, you must choose between abandoning the cause and enjoying life with Clarisse or sacrificing yourself on the altar of Literature, a perfect echo of the book’s contrasting of the comfort and superficial happiness of (Bradbury’s perception of) television with the dangerous ideas of the great books.

Many of the puzzles are of the conventional object-oriented stripe — you need this to do that, but to get it you need to find a way to do this, etc. — but the central spine of the design once again finds a way to connect with the themes of the book. You need the assistance of the various members of the Underground who are scattered around the city, but talking with them usually requires a password in the form of a literary quotation. So you spend a lot of your time hunting down and deploying these quotations, which run the gamut from the Song of Solomon to Moby Dick to the inevitable four from Shakespeare. In purely mechanical terms, it’s just another system of magic words, no more complicated or interesting than Adventure‘s PLUGH and XYZZY. Thematically, however, it’s brilliant, especially because the quotes always have something to connect them to the situation or person on which they must be used — even if that something is sometimes only obvious in retrospect. Many were supposedly chosen by Bradbury himself. Indeed, whatever his actual involvement with the development of Fahrenheit 451 the game, Bradbury the author is thoroughly present in it.

Ray Bradbury with his toys

Ray Bradbury with his toys

I actually mean that literally as well as metaphorically. Amidst lots to do and discover, you can find “Ray’s” phone number and call him up. He helps with a puzzle or two directly, but also shares his thoughts on any of the literary quotes you care to ask him about, and will shoot the breeze in the form of a random anecdote if you just TALK TO him. I generally don’t have a lot of patience with the man-child persona Bradbury had by this time well established for his many interviewers. I find it affected and, well, childish, and his art, also long since established by 1984, of sounding profound without actually saying anything drives me nuts. There’s some of that here, but Neufeld and company curate him pretty well; he’s actually fun and interesting to listen to. Most of his responses are phrased as if he’s answering a question you just posed — a neat, verisimilitudinous trick that requires a mere modicum of suspension of disbelief.

We’re all terminally ill. Sickness is merely a factor, like money.

Japanese, Italian, French, Chinese, and other East Asian (Thai, Korean, Philippine, etc.), Middle Eastern — when you`re hungry, everything`s good.

Favorite films? King Kong, Fantasia, Citizen Kane.

I told you — my favorite play is St. Joan.

Moby Dick, Tarzan, and Grapes of Wrath are my favorite books. I also love the stories of Hemingway and Poe.

Many of my early stories were published in the magazine Weird Tales in the early thirties and forties.

My love affair with dinosaurs has lasted as long as my affair with Mars.

Such little extras abound. You can REMEMBER snippets of prose from the original novel; in addition to Ray, you can also call many other people from the handy phone booths, most of whom aren’t strictly needed but all of whom add a touch of atmosphere or something to think about; there are alternate solutions to puzzles and many paths to victory.

I wish I could wrap up this article right here, with the final note that, while I find Fahrenheit 451 the novel rather overrated, this game is not only great fun to play but also left me feeling a bit more kindly disposed toward its inspiration and even its inspiration’s author. Alas, I can’t do that, for reasons I first broached at the beginning of this article.

The parser, you see, ruins everything. Telarium wants and claims it to be a full-sentence jobber to rival Infocom’s, but it barely seems to parse at all, just to match arbitrary sequences of words. (Yes, I have to take back what I said in an earlier article about Telarium’s parser being “adequate.”) The fact that it will accept more than two words just compounds the problem, adding a nice dose of combinatorial explosion when you’re trying to figure out what to type at the thing. Worst of all, it’s not consistent in its whims. Sometimes you must TALK <character>; sometimes you must TALK TO <character>; sometimes you must ASK <character>. Synonyms are virtually nonexistent. There’s a character named Emile Ungar whom you can only refer to as “Ungar” — not “Emile,” not “Emile Ungar.” Similar situations are absolutely everywhere. I was having a great experience with the game until I got stuck and turned to the walkthrough, whereupon I found that I had actually solved every single puzzle I’d found so far. I just hadn’t typed the exact phrasing that the parser wanted.

I can hardly express how disheartening this is to me. At one point I was ready to call Fahrenheit 451 the best non-Infocom adventure game I’d yet played for this blog. Now I can’t even really recommend it at all. What’s doubly frustrating is that the game doesn’t absolutely need a better parser per se; none of these puzzles require complicated parser interactions. Telarium just needed to put the game before testers for a week or so, to note what they tried to type and add those phrasings to the pattern matcher. As it is, it feels like a game that only its creators, who had the magic phrases wired into their subconscious, actually played. For a clue to how that could have happened, we might turn to a Harvard Business School study that describes the frantic push at Spinnaker to get the new line out in time for Christmas 1984. In the words of their chairman Bill Bowman:

We had people working 24 hours a day for a month. We converted the board room into a dormitory, with sleeping bags and pillows. People would work until they couldn’t go on anymore, and then they would go upstairs, sleep for a few hours, come down and start working again. We had a caterer bringing in meals for a month, weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays. It was… ridiculous, that’s what it was. But, we had to have the product in a month. We did meet the deadline, but we won’t do it again. It was extremely painful, although when it was finished, the camaraderie that existed in the team was fantastic. This involved some 30% of the people in the company. I think this is going to be our biggest line next year.

It’s hard to imagine this situation allowing for much testing. This leads to an important point: Infocom is justly celebrated for their ambitious, imaginative writers and designers. Yet it’s also true that they were far from the only such talented folks working in text in the 1980s. Infocom’s triumph was, as much as anything else, a triumph of process, of a commitment to quality and doing things right even if that meant taking the slow, plodding route of releasing a game every few months rather than vomiting out half a dozen on the eve of Christmas. Infocom’s games didn’t suffer from the problems of Fahrenheit 451 because Infocom never allowed themselves to get into a situation like the one described above — a situation which, whatever its value in adrenaline and company camaraderie, doesn’t often lead to the best games.

Still, Fahrenheit 451 does do enough things right, and has enough interesting innovations, that you may want to spend some time on Fifth Street. As an expression of the joys of literature it works for me better than the book. By all means feel free to download the Commodore 64 version and give it a shot if it looks tempting.

(The same references I used for my introduction to Telarium and bookware mostly apply here. The photo of Bradbury was part of an interview to promote Fahrenheit 451 the game in the June 18, 1984, issue of InfoWorld.)

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Fahrenheit 451: The Book

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury enjoys by far the best literary reputation amongst science-fiction writers of the Golden Age. Certainly he’s the only one you’re likely to find on a high-school English syllabus. If you’re feeling cynical, you can attribute much of his reputation to a chance meeting with Christopher Isherwood in a bookstore in 1950. When Bradbury showed considerable chutzpah in pushing a signed copy of his book The Martian Chronicles upon him, Isherwood for some reason actually read it and wrote a glowing review heralding this “very great and unusual talent.” “I doubt if he could pilot a rocket ship, much less design one,” wrote Isherwood, thereby granting Bradbury his bona fides as a suitably scientifically inept literary writer, and making him the only science-fiction writer it was acceptable for the intelligentsia to read despite a bibliography that consisted mostly of the likes of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Weird Tales.

But of course attributing Bradbury’s reputation entirely to one English intellectual’s approbation would be unfair. He was — or eventually flowered into — just about the only one of his peers aware of a deeper, richer literary tradition than the one that began with the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926, the only one who tried to craft beautiful — as opposed to merely functional — prose. He has some entertainingly pulpy adventure stories to his credit and some more labored but lyrical stories, as well as one novel of childhood, Dandelion Wine, that isn’t science fiction at all. Still, his bibliography of truly canonical works is fairly thin for an important writer who claimed to have written every single day for more than seventy years. For all his continuing literary reputation, most of his work after 1962’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was politely received and just as quickly forgotten amongst both genre and literary fans.

Bradbury’s most famous work, Fahrenheit 451, dates to 1953. It’s a book which kind of fascinates me but also frustrates the living hell out of me. If you somehow escaped it in English class, know that Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a fireman named Guy Montag who lives in a future where that profession doesn’t mean what you think it does: firemen now start fires rather than put them out. Specifically, their mission is to burn books, which never caused anyone anything but trouble anyway and have now been replaced by television and other more easy-going entertainments. This mission is considered so essential that houses are built from a special flame-proof material, not out of concern about conventional fire safety but because it makes it easier for the firemen to come and burn any stray books with a minimum of fuss. Because every dystopian novel needs a doomed rebel against the system, Montag grows disillusioned with his profession, and eventually joins the literary underground struggling to keep the flame of knowledge alive. His means of disillusionment is — in another fine dystopian tradition — a girl, a teenage neighbor named Clarisse. And this is where I first start to get really annoyed. Bradbury has been credited, with some truth, with foreshadowing or even inspiring everything from 24-hour news as entertainment to the Sony Walkman in Fahrenheit 451. I’ve never, however, seen him properly credited for his most insidious creation: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first labelled as such by Nathan Rabin in a review of the movie Elizabethtown for the Onion’s AV Club. She has no real existence of her own; we never learn her hopes or fears or anything of her inner life. Her whole purpose rather revolves around the brooding male she has apparently been sent from Manic Pixie Heaven to save through the sheer force of her quirky charm. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” Rabin writes, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” We can add “sensitive young science-fiction writers” to that sentence.

The rain was thinning away and the girl was walking in the center of the sidewalk with her head up and the few drops falling on her face. She smiled when she saw Montag.

“Hello!”

He said hello and then said, “What are you up to now?”

“I’m still crazy. The rain feels good. I love to walk in it.”

“I don’t think I’d like that,” he said.

“You might if you tried.”

“I never have.”

She licked her lips. “Rain even tastes good.”

“What do you do, go around trying everything once?” he asked.

“Sometimes twice.” She looked at something in her hand.

“What’ve you got there?” he said.

“I guess it’s the last of the dandelions this year. I didn’t think I’d find one on the lawn this late. Have you ever heard of rubbing it under your chin? Look.” She touched her chin with the flower, laughing.

“Why?”

“If it rubs off, it means I’m in love. Has it?”

He could hardly do anything else but look.

“Well?” she said.

“You’re yellow under there.”

“Fine! Let’s try you now.”

“It won’t work for me.”

“Here.” Before he could move she had put the dandelion under his chin. He drew back and she laughed. “Hold still!”

She peered under his chin and frowned.

“Well?” he said.

“What a shame,” she said. “You’re not in love with anyone.”

I’m sure that for certain people — probably mostly romantic boys of about the age when Fahrenheit 451 is most often assigned in school — Clarisse reads as delightful. As for me, I find it hard to believe that a married 33-year-old man wrote this tripe that sounds like something I might have written for my high-school creative-writing class. Even making due allowance for different times, passages like this make it hard for me to see Bradbury as the serious writer Isherwood and others would have me believe him to be.

But if we don’t want to place Bradbury alongside Joyce and Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest, what do we want to do with him? I tend to go down the same road as Bryan Curtis, who claimed that Bradbury was not so much a great writer full stop as a great pulp writer. Fahrenheit 451 is… well, it’s a silly book really. This is a world where Benjamin Franklin is honored as the supposed first book burner; where a bunch of maintenance workers who if they lived in our world would be changing the oil in your car come out to do a quick blood exchange on someone who’s taken a few too many pills; where teenage joy-riders run over pedestrians just for fun with no consequences; where semi-robotic, semi-organic Mechanical Hounds chase fugitives through the streets. All of this is described in luridly purple prose that wouldn’t be out of place in a Roger Corman script — or a computer-game instruction manual. A Mechanical Hound, resting after a hard day on the job: “It was like a great bee come home from some field where the honey is full of poison wildness, of insanity and nightmare, its body crammed with that over-rich nectar and now it was sleeping the evil out of itself.” You’re trying way too hard, Ray…

It’s all so over the top that it makes Fahrenheit 451 kind of fun to read, despite the fact that there’s not a hint of conscious humor in the book. Compared to the masterpiece of dystopian literature, Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s just not even operating on the same level. Orwell’s world is horrifying because it is believable; Bradbury’s is anything but. Every sentence Orwell writes is taut, considered; Bradbury just sort of gushes everywhere, piling on the adjectives until sentences threaten to buckle under their weight. The same goes for his other building blocks: he piles on a nuclear war from out of nowhere at the end of the book because, hey, why not add to the dystopian litany? I’m not sure I’m prepared to accept that Bradbury was a better writer than Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein. I just think he was trying harder to be a good writer (in the sense that would lead to acceptance by Isherwood and his peers) than they were. Bradbury post-Isherwood dearly wanted to leave the pulps behind; he allegedly begged his publisher to remove the words “science fiction” from his books entirely. Yet the pulps remained at the core of who he was as a writer, at least when he was at his best. The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951) are my favorite books by him because their style is still easy, relatively unaffected by the call to Literature. Fahrenheit 451, unfortunately, often all but buries its pulpy fun elements underneath all that bloated verbiage.

Still, it’s possible to read Fahrenheit 451 as neither an endeavor in serious world-building nor pulpy adventure, but as an allegory about the threat posed to books and, well, thoughtfulness in general by mass media and the technology that enables it — as, in other words, Bradbury’s version of Animal Farm rather than Nineteen Eighty-Four. Certainly this is the most sympathetic way to approach it today if we’re determined to label it Great Literature, even as we remain in doubt whether that was really Bradbury’s intention.

Bradbury was always more than a bit of a Luddite. In later years he railed against the Internet and computers as only a reactionary old man can, displaying breathtaking ignorance in saying a computer was nothing but a glorified typewriter, and he already had two of them. Similarly, his target in the 1950s was television. Yes, there are ways in which Fahrenheit 451 feels shockingly prescient: the clamshell earphones people use to isolate themselves from the world even when out and about in public; the elaborate home-theater setups in every house; the ATMs. And the questions Bradbury raises are profoundly worth asking still — in fact, more than ever — today, when everyone seems more and more wedded to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and less and less able to just enjoy the proverbial breeze on their cheeks, able to simply be in the non-electronic world of people and physical sensation. It’s also important to note that the dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, unlike that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a populist dystopia. The people have brought this world upon themselves, and fundamentally want things to be this way.

But of course for every point on this chain of thought there’s a counterpoint. If Twitter is a network of narcissistic celebrities and would-be celebrities tweeting about what they had for lunch, it’s also a way for activists in totalitarian countries to communicate outside the reach of the government. If email and the Internet isolate us from our neighbors, they have also opened up a new era of international communication and understanding, not just among the elites and heads of state but amongst ordinary kids in high schools and universities around the world. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about Fahrenheit 451 in what I know has hardly been a glowing review is that it can lead us to think about these issues seriously. That Bradbury saw so much of the future in which we now live in 1953 is indeed remarkable. I just wish all of his arguments about it weren’t so muddled.

I’m a huge lover of books, so I ought to be very sympathetic toward Fahrenheit 451‘s defense of literature. Actually, however, I find it rather wrong-headed in that it misses everything that is personally important to me about literature. The rebellion that Montag finally joins at the end of the novel is made up of aging professors and other erudite types who have each memorized a classic work of literature, to be passed on to future generations of rebels and preserved until humanity decides it is ready for it again. Beyond representing a wonderfully interesting game of Chinese whispers, this scheme bothers me because it treats books as objects to be mothballed away, a static canon of Great Works held sacrosanct. It’s another sign of the conservative, even reactionary viewpoint from which Bradbury writes — a viewpoint I just don’t share and don’t ever want to. I’m for a living literature of creativity and reinvention; I’d rather watch a bunch of Italian prisoners put on an earthy performance of Julius Caesar that really matters to their own lives than watch a meticulously researched reproduction of the Elizabethan theater experience put on by a bunch of fussy scholars — to say nothing of those bores who pride themselves on pulling out an out-of-context Shakespeare quote for every occasion. Bradbury’s rebels should be spending at least as much time creating new books as preserving those that have gone before. The health of a culture is measured not by the size of its museums but by the creative life out there on its streets. And no, the irony of someone who calls himself the Digital Antiquarian writing this is not entirely lost on me. Suffice to say that museums and preservation are important too, but will never be as beautiful as a kid who picks up pen, paintbrush, instrument, or computer for the first time.

Bradbury continually confuses books as physical objects with the idea of books or, if you like, ideas. Frustratingly, at times he does seem to get the distinction:

Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

In another place he rails against what a later generation would come to call political correctness:

Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.

Yet, as he himself noted in the more lucid passage that precedes this one, all of these ideas can be conveyed by other means than paper and print. Nor are all books by some inherent property of the form challenging or enlightening. The bestseller rolls and airport newsstands are filled with volumes that are neither. And what of challenging films, television, even, yes, computer games? How are these things controlled when the firemen are obsessed only with paper books, any and all of them? With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not always the message.

Fahrenheit 451 is a stew of conflated ideas about censorship, the decline of reading, technology, media, government, nuclear apocalypse, even automobiles. Heady, worthwhile topics all, but it’s hard to pull one thing apart from another, hard to extract a cogent point of view on anything. Perhaps the book’s secret weapon is that it’s hard to find anything solid enough in this amorphous mass to really kick against. Bradbury himself became an expert at weaving and dodging through criticisms of the book as times and interlocutors changed. One year he was writing an afterword that was all about censorship in current times; a few years later Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about censorship at all. The only ideas we can fully get our hands around are thoroughly banal: books are good, burning them is bad; everything’s going to hell with the younger generation.

The latter has been key to the book’s popularity with disgruntled authority figures everywhere, just as the pulpy fun and melodrama makes it appealing to teenagers. If it’s not ultimately a great book, it’s certainly one with something to appeal to a lot of different people, which made it a pretty good target for adaptation into a commercial computer game. We’ll see how that fared next time.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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