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Cinemaware’s Year in the Desert

The last year of the 1980s was also the last that the Commodore Amiga would enjoy as the ultimate American game machine. Even as the low-end computer-game market was being pummeled into virtual nonexistence by the Nintendo Entertainment System, leaving the Amiga with little room into which to expand downward, the heretofore business-centric world of MS-DOS was developing rapidly on the high end, with VGA graphics and sound cards becoming more and more common. The observant could already recognize that these developments, combined with Commodore’s lackadaisical attitude toward improving their own technology, must spell serious trouble for the Amiga in the long run.

But for now, for this one more year, things were still going pretty well. Amiga zealots celebrated loudly and proudly at the beginning of 1989 when news broke that the platform had pushed past the magic barrier of 1 million machines sold. As convinced as ever that world domination was just around the corner for their beloved “Amy,” they believed that number would have to lead to her being taken much more seriously by the big non-gaming software houses. While that, alas, would never happen, sales were just beginning to roll in many of the European markets that would sustain the Amiga well into the 1990s.

This last positive development fed directly into the bottom line of Cinemaware, the American software house that was the developer most closely identified with the Amiga to a large extent even in Europe. Cinemaware’s founder Bob Jacob wisely forged close ties with the exploding European Amiga market via a partnership with the British publisher Mirrorsoft. In this way he got Cinemaware’s games wide distribution and promotion throughout Europe, racking up sales across the pond under the Mirrorsoft imprint that often dramatically exceeded those Cinemaware was able to generate under their own label in North America. The same partnership led to another welcome revenue stream: the importation of European games into Cinemaware’s home country. Games like Speedball, by the rockstar British developers the Bitmap Brothers, didn’t have much in common with Cinemaware’s usual high-concept fare, but did feed the appetite of American youngsters who had recently found Amiga 500s under their Christmas trees for splashy, frenetic, often ultra-violent action.

Yet Cinemaware’s biggest claim to fame remained their homegrown interactive movies — which is not to say that everyone was a fan of their titular cinematic approach to game-making. A steady drumbeat of criticism, much of it far from unjustified, had accompanied the release of each new interactive movie since the days of Defender of the Crown. Take away all of the music and pretty pictures that surrounded their actual game play, went the standard line of attack, and these games were nothing but shallow if not outright broken exercises in strategy attached to wonky, uninteresting action mini-games. Cinemaware clearly took the criticism to heart despite the sales success they continued to enjoy. Indeed, the second half of the company’s rather brief history can to a large extent be read as a series of reactions to that inescapable negative drumbeat, a series of attempts to show that they could make good games as well as pretty ones.

At first, the new emphasis on depth led to decidedly mixed results. Conflating depth with difficulty in a manner akin to the way that so many adventure-game designers conflate difficulty with unfairness, Cinemaware gave the world Rocket Ranger as their second interactive movie of 1988. It had all the ingredients to be great, but was undone by balance issues exactly the opposite of those which had plagued the prototypical Cinemaware game, Defender of the Crown. In short, Rocket Ranger was just too hard, a classic game-design lesson in the dangers of overcompensation and the importance of extensive play-testing to get that elusive balance just right. With two more new interactive movies on the docket for 1989, players were left wondering whether this would the year when Cinemaware would finally get it right.

Lords of the Rising Sun

Certainly they showed no sign of backing away from their determination to bring more depth to their games. On the contrary, they pushed that envelope still harder with Lords of the Rising Sun, their first interactive movie of 1989. At first glance, it was a very typical Cinemaware confection, a Defender of the Crown set in feudal Japan. Built like that older game from the tropes and names of real history without bothering to be remotely rigorous about any of it, Lords of the Rising Sun is also another strategy game broken up by action-oriented minigames — the third time already, following Defender of the Crown and Rocket Ranger, that Cinemaware had employed this template. This time, however, a concerted effort was made to beef up the strategy game, not least by making it into a much more extended affair. Lords of the Rising Sun became just the second interactive movie to include a save-game feature, and in this case it was absolutely necessary; a full game could absorb many hours. It thus departed more markedly than anything the company had yet done from Bob Jacob’s original vision of fast-playing, non-taxing, ultra-accessible games. Indeed, with a thick manual and a surprising amount of strategic and tactical detail to keep track of, Lords of the Rising Sun can feel more like an SSI than a typical Cinemaware game once you look past its beautiful audiovisual presentation. Reaching for the skies if not punching above their weight, Cinemaware even elected to include the option of playing the game as an exercise in pure strategy, with the action sequences excised.


But sadly, the strategy aspect is as inscrutable as a Zen koan. While Rocket Ranger presents with elegance and grace a simple strategy game that would be immensely entertaining if it wasn’t always kicking your ass, Lords of the Rising Sun is just baffling. You’re expected to move your armies over a map of Japan, recruiting allies where possible, fighting battles to subdue enemies where not. Yet it’s all but impossible to divine any real sense of the overall situation from the display. This would-be strategy game ends up feeling more random than anything else, as you watch your banners wander around seemingly of their own volition, bumping occasionally into other banners that may represent enemies or friends. It suffers mightily from a lack of clear status displays, making it really, really hard to keep track of who wants to do what to whom. If you have the mini-games turned on, the bird’s-eye view is broken up by arcade sequences that are at least as awkward as the strategy game. In the end, Lords of the Rising Sun is just no fun at all.

Lords of the Rising Sun's animated, scrolling map is nicer to look at than it is a practical tool for strategizing.

While it’s very pretty, Lords of the Rising Sun‘s animated, scrolling map is nicer to look at than it is a practical tool for strategizing.

Press and public alike were notably unkind to Lords of the Rising Sun. Claims like Bob Jacob’s that “there is more animation in Lords than has ever been done in any computer game” — a claim as unquantifiable as it was dubious, especially in itself in light of some of Sierra’s recent efforts — did nothing to shake Cinemaware’s reputation for being all sizzle, no steak. Ken St. Andre of Tunnels & Trolls and Wasteland fame, reviewing the game for Questbusters magazine, took Cinemaware to task on its every aspect, beginning with the excruciating picture on the box of a cowering maiden about to fall out of her kimono; he deemed it “an insult to women everywhere and to Japanese culture in particular.” (Such a criticism sounds particularly forceful coming from St. Andre; Wasteland with its herpes-infested prostitutes and all the rest is hardly a bastion of political correctness.) He concluded his review with a zinger so good I wish I’d thought of it: he called the game “a Japanese Noh play.”

Many other reviewers, while less boldly critical, seemed nonplussed by the whole experience — a very understandable reaction to the strategy game’s vagaries. Sales were disappointing in comparison to those of earlier interactive movies, and the game has gone down in history alongside the equally underwhelming S.D.I. as perhaps the least remembered of all the Cinemaware titles.

It Came from the Desert

So, what with the game-play criticisms beginning to affect the bottom line, Cinemaware really needed to deliver something special for their second game of 1989. Thankfully, It Came from the Desert would prove to be the point where they finally got this interactive-movie thing right, delivering at long last a game as nice to play as it is to look at.


It Came from the Desert was the first of the interactive movies not to grow from a seed of an idea planted by Bob Jacob himself. Its originator was rather David Riordan, a newcomer to the Cinemaware fold with an interesting career in entertainment already behind him. As a very young man, he’d made a go of it in rock music, enjoying his biggest success in 1970 with a song called “Green-Eyed Lady,” a #3 hit he co-wrote for the (briefly) popular psychedelic band Sugarloaf. A perennial on Boomer radio to this day, that song’s royalties doubtless went a long way toward letting him explore his other creative passions after his music career wound down. He worked in movies for a while, and then worked with MIT on a project exploring the interactive potential of laser discs. After that, he worked briefly for Lucasfilm Games during their heady early days with Peter Langston at the helm. And from there, he moved on to Atari, where he worked on laser-disc-driven stand-up arcade games until it became obvious that Dragon’s Lair and its spawn had been the flashiest of flashes in the pan.

David Riordan on the job at Cinemaware.

David Riordan on the job at Cinemaware.

Riordan’s resume points to a clear interest in blending cinematic approaches with interactivity. It thus comes as little surprise that he was immediately entranced when he first saw Defender of the Crown one day at his brother-in-law’s house. It had, he says, “all the movie attributes and approaches that I had been trying to get George Lucas interested in” while still with Lucasfilm. He wrote to Cinemaware, sparking up a friendship with Bob Jacob which led him to join the company in 1988. Seeing in Riordan a man who very much shared his own vision for Cinemaware, Jacob relinquished a good deal of the creative control onto which he had heretofore held so tightly. Riordan was placed in charge of the company’s new “Interactive Entertainment Group,” which was envisioned as a production line for cranking out new interactive movies of far greater sophistication than those Cinemaware had made to date. These latest and greatest efforts were to be made available on a whole host of platforms, from their traditional bread and butter the Amiga to the much-vaunted CD-based platforms now in the offing from a number of hardware manufacturers. If all went well, It Came from the Desert would mark the beginning of a whole new era for Cinemaware.

Here we can see -- just barely; sorry for this picture's terrible fidelity -- Cinemaware's interactive-movie scripting tool, which they dubbed MasterPlan, running in HyperCard.

Here we can see — just barely; sorry for this picture’s terrible fidelity — Cinemaware’s scripting tool MasterPlan.

Cinemaware spent months making the technology that would allow them to make It Came from the Desert. Riordan’s agenda can be best described as a desire to free game design from the tyranny of programmers. If this new medium was to advance sufficiently to tell really good, interesting interactive stories, he reasoned, its tools would have to become something that non-coding “real” writers could successfully grapple with. Continuing to advance Cinemaware’s movie metaphors, his team developed a game engine that could largely be “scripted” in point-and-click fashion in HyperCard rather than needing to be programmed in any conventional sense. Major changes to the structure of a game could be made without ever needing to write a line of code, simply by editing the master plan of the game in a HyperCard tool Cinemaware called, appropriately enough, MasterPlan. The development process leveraged the best attributes of a number of rival platforms: Amigas ran the peerless Deluxe Paint for the creation of art; Macs ran HyperCard for the high-level planning; fast IBM clones served as the plumbing of the operation, churning through compilations and compressions. It was by anyone’s standards an impressive collection of technology — so impressive that the British magazine ACE, after visiting a dozen or more studios on a sort of grand tour of the American games industry, declared Cinemaware’s development system the most advanced of them all. Cinemaware had come a long way from the days of Defender of the Crown, whose development process had consisted principally of locking programmer R.J. Mical into his office with a single Amiga and a bunch of art and music and not letting him out again until he had a game. “If we ever get a real computer movie,” ACE concluded, “this is where it’s going to come from.”

It Came from the Desert

While it’s debatable whether It Came from the Desert quite rises to that standard, it certainly is Cinemaware’s most earnest and successful attempt at crafting a true interactive narrative since King of Chicago. The premise is right in their usual B-movie wheelhouse. Based loosely on the campy 1950s classic Them!, the game takes place in a small desert town with the charming appellation of Lizard Breath that’s beset by an alarming number of giant radioactive ants, product of a recent meteor strike. You play a geologist in town; “the most interesting rocks always end up in the least interesting places,” notes the introduction wryly. Beginning in your cabin, you can move about the town and its surroundings as you will, interacting with its colorful cast of inhabitants via simple multiple-choice dialogs and getting into scrapes of various sorts which lead to the expected Cinemaware action sequences. Your first priority is largely to convince the townies that they have a problem in the first place; this task you can accomplish by collecting enough evidence of the threat to finally gain the attention of the rather stupefyingly stupid mayor. Get that far, and you’ll be placed in charge of the town’s overall defense, at which point a strategic aspect joins the blend of action and adventure to create a heady brew indeed. Your ultimate goal, which you have just fifteen days in total to accomplish, is to find the ants’ main nest and kill the queen.

It Came from the Desert excels in all the ways that most of Cinemaware’s interactive movies excel. The graphics and sound were absolutely spectacular in their day, and still serve very well today; you can well-nigh taste the gritty desert winds. What makes it a standout in the Cinemaware catalog, however, is the unusual amount of attention that’s been paid to the design — to you the player’s experience. A heavily plot-driven game like this could and usually did go only one way in the 1980s. You probably know what I’m picturing: a long string of choke points requiring you to be in just the right place at just the right time to avoid being locked out of victory. Thankfully, It Came from the Desert steers well away from that approach. The plot is a dynamic thing rolling relentlessly onward, but your allies in the town are not entirely without agency of their own. If you fail to accomplish something, someone else might just help you out — perhaps not as quickly or efficiently as one might ideally wish, but at least you still feel you have a shot.

And even without the townies’ help, there are lots of ways to accomplish almost everything you need to. The environment as a whole is remarkably dynamic, far from the static set of puzzle pieces so typical of more traditional adventure games of this era and our own. There’s a lot going on under the hood in this one, far more than Cinemaware’s previous games would ever lead one to expect. Over the course of the fifteen days, the town’s inhabitants go from utterly unconcerned about the strange critters out there in the desert to full-on, backs-against-the-wall, fight-or-flight panic mode. By the end, when the ants are roaming at will through the rubble that once was Lizard Breath destroying anything and anyone in their path, the mood feels far more apocalyptic than that of any number of would-be “epic” games. One need only contrast the frantic mood at the end of the game with the dry, sarcastic tone of the beginning — appropriate to an academic stranded in a podunk town — to realize that one really does go on a narrative journey over the few hours it takes to play.

Which brings me to another remarkable thing: you can’t die in It Came from the Desert. If you lose at one of the action games, you wake up in the hospital, where you have the option of spending some precious time recuperating or trying to escape in shorter order via another mini-game. (No, I have no idea why a town the size of Lizard Breath should have a hospital.) In making sure that every individual challenge or decision doesn’t represent a zero-sum game, It Came from the Desert leaves room for the sort of improvisational derring-do that turns a play-through into a memorable, organic story. It’s not precisely that knowledge of past lives isn’t required; you’re almost certain to need several tries to finally save Lizard Breath. Yet each time you play you get to live a complete story, even if it is one that ends badly. Meanwhile you’re learning the lay of the land, learning to play more efficiently and getting steadily better at the action games, which are themselves unusually varied and satisfying by Cinemaware’s often dodgy standards. There are not just many ways to lose It Came from the Desert but also many paths to victory. Win or lose, your story in It Came from the Desert is your story; you get to own it. There’s a save-game feature, but I don’t recommend that you use it except as a bookmark when you really do need to do something else for a while. Otherwise just play along and let the chips fall where they may. At last, here we have a Cinemaware interactive movie that’s neither too easy nor too hard; this one is just right, challenging but not insurmountable.

It Came from the Desert evolves into a strategy game among other things, as you manuveur the town's forces to battle new infestations while you search for the main hive with the queen to put an end to the menace once and for all.

It Came from the Desert evolves into a strategy game among other things, as you deploy the town’s forces to battle each new ant infestation while you continue the search for the main hive.

Widely and justifiably regarded among the old-school Amiga cognoscenti of today as Cinemaware’s finest hour, It Came from the Desert was clearly seen as something special within Cinemaware as well back in the day; one only has to glance at contemporary comments from those who worked on the game to sense their pride and excitement. There was a sense both inside and outside their offices that Cinemaware was finally beginning to crack a nut they’d been gnawing on for quite some time. Even Ken St. Andre was happy this time. “Cinemaware’s large creative team has managed to do a lot of things very well indeed in this game,” he wrote, “and as a result they have produced a game that looks great, sounds great, moves along at a rapid pace, is filled with off-the-wall humor without being dumb, and is occasionally both gripping and exciting.”

When It Came from the Desert proved a big commercial success, Cinemaware pulled together some ideas that had been left out of the original game due to space constraints, combined them with a plot involving the discovery of a second ant queen, and made it all into a sequel subtitled Ant-Heads!. Released at a relatively low price only as an add-on for the original game — thus foreshadowing a practice that would get more and more popular as the 1990s wore on — Ant-Heads! was essentially a new MasterPlan script that utilized the art and music assets from the original game, a fine demonstration of the power of Cinemaware’s new development system. It upped the difficulty a bit by straitening the time limit from fifteen days to ten, but otherwise played much like the original — which, considering how strong said original had been, suited most people just fine.

It Came from the Desert, along with the suite of tools used to create it, might very well have marked the start of exactly the new era of more sophisticated Cinemaware interactive movies that David Riordan had intended it to. As things shook out, however, it would have more to do with endings than beginnings. Cinemaware would manage just one more of these big productions before being undone by bad decisions, bad luck, and a changing marketplace. We’ll finish up with the story of their visionary if so often flawed games soon. In the meantime, by all means go play It Came from the Desert if time and motivation allow. I was frankly surprised at how well it still held up when I tackled it recently, and I think it just might surprise you as well.

(Sources: The One from April 1989, June 1989, and June 1990; ACE from April 1990; Commodore Magazine from November 1988; Questbusters from September 1989, February 1990, and May 1990; Matt Barton’s interview with Bob Jacob on Gamasutra.)

 
 

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Silicon Hollywood: Cinemaware’s Transitional Period

Cinemaware

Bill Williams’s Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon marked the end of the first era of Cinemaware’s existence. Bob Jacob’s original vision for his company had been as a sort of coordinator and advisory board, helping independent developers craft games inspired by the movies — an approach to game development as conceptually original as he hoped the games themselves would prove. The finished results from his initial stable of four such development contracts, however, quickly disabused him of the scheme. The mishmash of styles, platforms, and technical approaches among his developers resulted in games that shared little in common either visually or philosophically — and that was without even considering the near-disaster that had resulted from Sculptured Software’s mishandling of the most ambitious of the four projects, Defender of the Crown. The rescue operation that Cinemaware had been forced to mount to get that game out in time for the Christmas of 1986, involving as it did the taking over of day-to-day management of the project, had proved the old adage that if you want something done properly you just have to do it yourself. By the time that Sinbad, the last of those original contracts by far to reach fruition, trickled out in mid-1987, Jacob was already well along in the task of remaking Cinemaware into a full-fledged development house. This mid-course correction necessitated a dramatic expansion of the operation in terms of assets, office space, and personnel — in other words, the addition of all of the headaches he had hoped to avoid via his original vision. But needs must, right?

Jacob now stopped hedging his bets among the combatants in the 68000 Wars. Cinemaware the full-fledged development house would be built around the Amiga, becoming in the process the American game developer most closely identified with the platform during its best years in its homeland. Given Defender of the Crown‘s huge success, it was natural for Cinemaware to turn to that game among their early titles as their technical and artistic model for the future. Indeed, Cinemaware’s in-house tools were built on the broad base of a reusable “game-playing engine” for the Amiga that R.J. Mical had started developing in the process of making that game. Each Cinemaware game would be developed and released first on the Amiga, with the Amiga graphics and sound then degraded as artfully as possible to the variety of other platforms the company continued to support. Cinemaware’s programmers developed quite a variety of tools to automate this process as much as possible, yielding, if not quite a true cross-platform game engine, a standard approach with many of the benefits of one. It gave Cinemaware what seemed the best of both worlds: the prestige of being the premier developer for the most audiovisually impressive platform of its day combined with the ability to still sell games on the other, less capable but more numerous machines whose owners lusted after a taste of the Amiga’s magic.

Thanks to Defender of the Crown‘s huge success on the Amiga, Jacob had some time and a solid incoming revenue stream to use in executing the transition. He would need it, especially as both artist Jim Sachs and programmer R.J. Mical, the two masterminds who had together brought Kellyn Beck’s Defender design to life at the last, had severed all relations with Cinemaware as soon as their work was done, angered over the extreme pressure Jacob had put on them and what they considered to be a paltry financial reward for their herculean efforts. Rather than hiring computer people who happened to be good at drawing graphics, as most companies did at the time, Cinemaware began to hire conventional artists and to train them if necessary on how to use computerized tools, a key to what would become an almost uniquely refined visual aesthetic. One Rob Landeros, who had worked under Sachs on Defender, became the new art director, while several programmers toiled, as they increasingly would in a transitioning industry in general, in relative anonymity. The days of people like Bill Budge becoming stars for their programming skills alone were quickly fading by the late 1980s, as Design as a discipline unto itself came more and more to the forefront. And no company was closer to the leading edge of that movement than Cinemaware.

Jacob’s first goal for his re-imagined company must be a practical one: to port each of those first four games, a set of one-off designs custom-programmed for the particular platform on which each had been born, to the full suite of machines that Cinemaware planned to support. Doing so was no simple task, involving as it did not only developing the tool chain that would allow it but also effectively re-writing each title from scratch using the new technologies. The process could lead to some strange outcomes. The ports of Defender of the Crown, for instance, had many of the elements that had had to be ruthlessly cut from the Amiga original restored, resulting in games that played much better than the Amiga version even if they didn’t look quite as nice. Purchasers of the Amiga original of Sinbad, meanwhile, didn’t even have the comfort of knowing that their version still looked better: Cinemaware redid Bill Williams’s crude “folk-art” graphics from scratch for the ports, resulting in the very unusual phenomenon of a game that was prettier on the Atari ST and even Commodore 64 than it was on the Amiga. To add a further dollop of irony to the situation, the graphics for those better-looking versions had actually been drawn on Cinemaware’s Amigas, in keeping with their standard practice for all of their art. Ah, well, at least the Amiga version of King of Chicago both looked and played better than the Macintosh original.

In addition to all the ports, Jacob of course also needed to think about new games. With his company now established as a big name in the industry, he turned to licensed properties. This may have marked the joining-in with a mania for licenses that many industry observers were already beginning to find distressing, but it did make a certain degree of sense for Cinemaware, a company whose stated goal was after all to bring movies to monitor screens. Jacob found what he thought was a nice little property to start with, not particularly huge but with its fair share of name recognition and public familiarity thanks to countless television reruns: the old slapstick comedy trio the Three Stooges, a vaudeville act that had made the leap from stage to screen in the 1930s and remained active through the 1960s, creating more than 200 films — mostly shorts of twenty minutes or so, ideal for later television broadcast — in the process. It didn’t hurt that Jacob, something of a connoisseur of B-grade entertainment in all its multifarious forms, had a genuine, abiding passion for Larry, Moe, and Curly, as shown by the unusually lengthy manual he commissioned, dominated by a loving history of the trio that has little to do with how one actually plays the game.

Eager to get his Three Stooges game finished to maintain Cinemaware’s momentum but with his small programming team swamped by the demands of all that infrastructure and porting work, Jacob made the counter-intuitive and potentially dangerous decision to place a game’s programming in outside hands just this one last time. The Three Stooges went to Incredible Technologies, a small programming house based in Chicago. This project, though, would be different from Cinemaware’s previous outside contracts: Incredible wouldn’t be paid to be creative. Instead Cinemaware would provide all of the art and sound assets as well as a meticulously detailed design document, courtesy of Jacob’s right-hand man John Cutter, describing exactly how the game should look and play on the Amiga, the Commodore 64, and the IBM PC. As he had during the latter stages of the Defender of the Crown project, Cutter would then closely supervise — read, “ride herd over” — Incredible’s development process.

Cutter, who wasn’t a fan of the Stooges going into the project but developed a certain affinity for them over the course of it, was inspired by the games of Life he remembered from his childhood to make of The Three Stooges a computerized roll-and-move board game. Many squares lead to one of half-a-dozen or so arcade sequences, each based on an iconic Three Stooges short. About half of these minigames are reasonably entertaining, the other half unspeakably, uncontrollably awful. Among other potential fortunes and misfortunes on the game board, there’s a Three Stooges trivia contest that’s persnickety enough to be daunting even in the age of Google and Wikipedia. The rather noble first goal of the game is to earn enough money during your thirty turns on the game board — it’s single-player only, despite the board-game theme — to save “Ma’s Orphanage.” The rather creepy second goal is to go so far above and beyond that Ma gives her three beautiful daughters to the Stooges, one each for Larry, Moe, and Curly.

Released in early 1988, The Three Stooges is easily the most simplistic of all the Cinemaware games, enough so as almost to read as a caricature of Cinemaware by one of their critics who were always so eager to decry their work as a bunch of pretty graphics and sound all dressed-up with no particular place to go (a criticism that was, it must be admitted, far from entirely unfounded for Cinemaware’s games in general). Cutter has little good to say about his own design today, citing as its greatest strength a brilliant fake-out of a cold open that remains the funniest single instant Cinemaware ever put on disk.


Back in the day as well, Cinemaware was at great pains to emphasize the graphics and sound in The Three Stooges as opposed to the actual gameplay, and understandably so. It marked the first game from Cinemaware to make use of digitized images and sounds, captured from the Stooges’ own films, thus becoming perhaps the first game to deserve to be called a truly multimedia production for this the world’s first multimedia computer. Like all of Cinemaware’s games, it looked and sounded absolutely spectacular in its day on the Amiga. But all that multimedia splendor did come at a cost. Programmed with competence but, one senses, not a lot of inspiration by Incredible, you spend most of your time waiting for all that jaw-dropping media to be shuffled into memory off of floppy disk rather than actually playing. Just to add insult to injury and to further illustrate where Cinemaware’s priorities really lay, the set-piece sequences that introduce each minigame can’t be skipped. No matter how impressive they are (or were in their day), they get a little tedious by the time you’ve seen each a dozen times or more.

Larry finds his "Stradiverius" is busted, in the opening to an arcade game based on Punch Drunks.

Larry finds his “Stradivarius” is busted, in the opening to a minigame based on Punch Drunks.

And yet, despite all these problems, I have an odd fondness for the game, counting it among the few Cinemaware productions I still find tempting to play from time to time today. My fondness certainly isn’t down to any intrinsic interest in the subject matter. The manual opens with a quote from movie critic Leonard Maltin, stating that there are two groups of people in the world: “one composed of persons who laugh at the Three Stooges and one of those who wonder why.” Among the former group was Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who, according to news reports from 1988, “sat in his tent day after day — sulking and staring at old Three Stooges movies.” As for myself… well, what can I say? I’m afraid I’m among the perplexed.

What saves the game, to whatever extent that’s possible, is the real passion for the Stooges that one can sense on the part of its creators, even if one doesn’t quite share it. Passion — or lack thereof — always comes through in a game, as it does in any creative work. Jacob emphasizes that he wanted to create a game that was “100 percent pure” to the Stooges — a game from Stooges lovers for Stooges lovers, if you will. To this day he speaks with real delight of a visit by Moe’s widow to Cinemaware’s offices, and most of all of the approval she expressed of the game’s anarchic spirit.

And there is at least a modicum more strategy in The Three Stooges than you’ll find in the likes of Life. Replacing Life‘s spinner to determine where you go next is a disembodied hand that you can stop just where you want it as long as it’s moving slowly enough. By this means you can avoid the terrible arcade games and the other undesirable squares on the board and maximize your earnings. Unfortunately, the hand gradually gains speed unless you periodically devote a turn to playing a Moe-beating-on-Larry-and-Curly minigame to slow it down. (No, I have no idea why that should have any effect.) The key strategic question of the game, such as it is, is thus when to beat and when to stay your hand. Hey, when you’re playing Cinemaware you have to take your depth where you can find it. The Three Stooges is only slap and stroll, but I like it.

Curly in a cracker-eating contest, based on Dutiful but Dumb.

Curly in a cracker-eating contest, based on Dutiful but Dumb.

In very limited doses, that is.

For Cinemaware’s next game, Jacob again turned to an existing property, albeit a  more obscure one: the Commando Cody serials of the early 1950s, which portrayed the adventures of the titular hero as he flew around with his personal rocket pack to battle against enemies both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. Commando Cody not exactly being a hot property in the late 1980s, Jacob thought the license a slam dunk, to such an extent that he allowed the game to get very far along in the development process without signing a final contract with the owners of the property. He even gave at least one extended preview to a magazine of Cinemaware’s upcoming “Commando Cody” game. But when he returned to Cody’s holding company to finally settle the legalese, he found that none other than Steven Spielberg had “stolen it” from him by making a deal of his own. Jacob then turned to the contemporary comic-book character The Rocketeer, whose creator Dave Stevens had himself been heavily influenced by Commando Cody in creating his own rocket-pack-equipped flyboy. But that also fell through because Stevens was already in talks with Disney, talks that would eventually lead to the 1991 movie The Rocketeer. (I suspect that the explanation for Spielberg never doing anything with his Commando Cody license can be found here as well.) And so Rocket Ranger was completed as an entirely original, unlicensed work — hardly a huge loss, as the various flying rocketmen that preceded Cinemaware’s weren’t really notable for their vibrant personalities anyway.

Like Defender of the Crown, the mechanics of Rocket Ranger were designed by Kellyn Beck under the watchful thematic eye of Jacob himself. Its basic structure is also the same: a light strategy game surrounded by action games that stand in for the dice rolls in the likes of Risk. And once again it plays with the tropes of history without making a whole lot of sense as history. This time we’re in an alternate version of the 1940s where the Nazis have developed space travel and made it all the way to the Moon. Unsurprisingly given advantages like that, they’ve already won World War II. But never fear! Now we’re in the future, time travel has been invented, and we’ve been sent back with a few trusty hi-tech tools — most notably, a personal rocket pack — to sway the balance of power and change the course of history. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you get to fly around the world and — maybe, if you’re good enough — to the Moon to fight evil Nazis. And, this being a Cinemaware game, there’s also the usual sultry love interest along with a whole army of fetching female slaves to rescue, plenty of fuel for the libido of Cinemaware’s many teenage fans.

Whatever Rocket Ranger‘s structural similarities to Defender of the Crown, the criticisms of the latter game and other Cinemaware titles as all show and no substance were beginning to hit home for Jacob and company. This they demonstrated both by their somewhat prickly defensiveness when the subject came up and by their determination to emphasize the greater depth of this latest game. Rocket Ranger is indeed longer, more varied, and much more challenging — more on that in a moment — than the games that preceded it.


At the same time, though, it is still a Cinemaware game, which means the majority of the team’s efforts were still expended on presentation. Unlike so many flashy games then and even today, there’s a real aesthetic behind all of its screens, echoing the gargantuan Futurist sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis almost as much as the pulpy serials of Jacob’s childhood. It remains to this day lovely to look at, while the music — composed and programmed by Bob Lindstrom, editor of the Apple II magazine A+ but a “secret Amiga fanatic” in his free time — is also pitch perfect, owing a lot to John Williams’s work for movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. As in The Three Stooges, digitized sound is used sparingly but effectively, including real airplane noises recorded at Los Angeles Airport, just down the road from Cinemaware’s offices. There’s also a bit of digitized speech here and there, performed by whomever was judged to have the right chops among Cinemaware’s staff; John Cutter’s wife Melanie, for instance, played the love interest. To pack all of these elements onto the game’s two Amiga disks and, just as importantly, to move it all it in and out of memory during play with reasonable alacrity, Cinemaware developed a custom data format they called “Quick-DOS.” It let them compress 4 Mb of code and data into less than 2 Mb of standard Amiga disk space, and to read it in at three times the usual speed.

Rocketman versus Zeppelin.

Rocketman versus Zeppelin.

Cinemaware was very proud of Rocket Ranger, the first original game they’d developed completely in-house using all of their shiny new tools. And no employee was prouder than their leader and founder, who viewed the game as something of a coming to fruition of the original vision for interactive movies that had prompted him to start the company in the first place. “We really got the format right with Rocket Ranger,” he said. Never one to mince words, Jacob declared Rocket Ranger nothing less than “the best game ever done” and, as if that wasn’t hyperbole enough, “the biggest project ever tackled by a computer company” to boot. To his mind the game had “so many twists and turns, permutations of the story, and branch points that you can’t believe it.” John Cutter, who oversaw this project as he did all other Cinemaware games as the company’s only producer, said he was “more satisfied with Rocket Ranger when it was done than any other project I have ever worked on.” Both men remain very proud of the game today, especially Jacob, for whom it quite clearly remains his personal favorite of all the Cinemaware games.

For my part, I think it comes very, very close to nailing the gameplay as thoroughly as it does the presentation, but is ultimately undone by balance issues — ironically, balance issues of the exact opposite kind to those that plagued Defender of the Crown. Simply put, this game is just too hard. The arcade-style minigames are mostly entertaining but also extremely punishing, while the strategic game feels all but impossible in itself, even without the added pressure of needing to succeed at every single minigame in order to have the ghost of a chance. Just an opportunity to practice the minigames — as usual for Cinemaware games of this era, in-progress saving isn’t possible — would have made a huge difference. As it is, very few players have ever beaten Rocket Ranger. It feels like a game whose difficulty level has been set to “Impossible” — except that there are no difficulty levels. An extreme over-correction in response to the criticism of the ease with which Defender of the Crown can be won, it serves as one more object lesson on the need to test games with real players and to work however long it takes to get their balance exactly right.

Cinemaware's trademark sultry damsel in distress, 1940s version.

Cinemaware’s trademark damsel in distress, World War II edition.

Cinemaware’s final release of 1988 marked both a major departure from their usual brand of interactive movies and an innovation easily as prescient in its own sphere as Defender of the Crown had been in its. It was called TV Sports: Football, and it introduced a whole new approach to the idea of the sports simulation.

Those wishing to trace the history of the modern “EA Sports” stripe of sports simulations, cash cows that generate billions of dollars every year, generally reach back to one of Electronic Arts’s first titles, a little 1983 basketball game called One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird. From there the history proceeds to John Madden Football, the 1988 genesis of the series that would come to personify the whole genre of mainstream sports games when it reached Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo in 1991. All of this is valid enough, but it nevertheless misses the other important blueprint for sports gaming as it would come to be known in the 1990s. “Early on,” says Jacob, “I saw that people relate to sports through television and the way to do it was to emulate the TV broadcast. I think of EA Sports and I go, ‘Yes, that was my idea.'”

TV Sports: Football

On the field, complete with a television-style perspective and helpful caption.

What’s striking about TV Sports: Football and all those games that would follow is that these aren’t really simulations of their sports as real players or coaches know them. They’re rather simulations of the televised presentations of their sports, interactive spectacles that cleave as closely to the programs we see on our televisions as they possibly can. This is, when you stop to think about it… well, it’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Cinemaware went so far as to include spoof commercials (“Stop Sine Nasal Spray: We’re not #1… but we’re right up there!”) in their game. The modern sports-simulation landscape is an amalgamation of Electronic Arts’s early forays into league licensing and star-athlete branding with TV Sports: Footballs faux-television presentation.

Electronic Arts may have had John Madden, but Cinemaware had Don Badden.

Electronic Arts may have had John Madden, but Cinemaware had Don Badden.

There’s much of social or philosophical import that we might say about lives that have become so mediated that we crave an extra layer of it even within our mediated simulations. But then, for many — most? — of us this is what sports are today: not a beat-up glove, a homemade bat, and a brand new pair of shoes out there on the field, but rather afternoons gathered around the television. We’re the people who go to a real event and find that it just doesn’t feel right without the comforting prattle of the announcers, the people who make it a point to remember to bring a radio next time. Is this part of the tragedy of the modern condition? I don’t know. You can debate that question for yourself. Suffice to say that Cinemaware struck a rich cultural vein with TV Sports: Football that continues to geyser to this day. Sports as spectacle, sports as multimedia entertainment… this is what the people really want, not sports as icky sweat and effort.

How appropriate then that it was the Amiga, the world’s first multimedia computer, that first brought it to them. Another design by the stalwart John Cutter, TV Sports: Football comes complete with everything you’d expect from a Cinemaware take on football: two disks worth of thrilling graphics and sound, buxom cheerleaders to keep the old spirits up, and gameplay that’s a little sketchy but serviceable enough until you figure out the can’t-miss tricks that can yield a touchdown on every drive and rack up scores of 70-0.

The inevitable cheerleaders.

The inevitable cheerleaders.

Although no later Cinemaware game would ever approach the sales numbers of Defender of the Crown, each of this new generation of titles did quite well in its own right, not only in North America but also in Europe, where Cinemaware was becoming just as well known as they were on their home continent thanks to a distribution deal with the major British publisher Mirrorsoft. Like Americans, Europeans found Cinemaware’s games just too sexy to pass by even if they ought to have known better — and, with Amigas already selling so much better in some European markets than they were in North America, there were a lot more customers there with the computer best equipped to strut Cinemaware’s stuff. It was easy enough to overcome some subject-matter choices that weren’t terribly well-calibrated to European sensibilities. The Three Stooges, for instance, were virtually unheard of even in English-speaking Britain, and American football also remained a mystery to most Europeans, much less the television broadcasts on which Cinemaware was riffing in TV Sports: Football. (One British reviewer decided there was nothing for it but to start from first principles: “The ball has to cross an imaginary barrier that rises horizontally from the opposition’s base line. This move is known as a Touchdown.”) Rocket Ranger represented the most uncomfortable culture clash of all; Cinemaware was forced to strip out all of the Nazi imagery and make the bad guys into generic aliens in order to sell the game in the Amiga hotbed of West Germany.

Sizzle without steak or hat without cattle though their games still to some extent may have been, Cinemaware was clearly doing something right. Jacob was happy to reinvest their earnings in yet bigger, bolder plans, all still in service of his vision of games as overwhelming multimedia experiences. We’ll see where that vision took him and his company next in future articles.

(Sources: Amazing Computing of July 1988, November 1988, and June 1989; Amiga Power of November 1991; Commodore Magazine of November 1988; Computer and Video Games of April 1988; The Games Machine of April 1988; The One of January 1989 and June 1989; Retro Gamer 123; the book On the Edge by Brian Bagnall; Matt Chat 292; two Gamasutra interviews of Bob Jacob, one by Matt Barton and the other by Tristan Donovan.

Rocket Ranger and TV Sports: Football are available as part of a Cinemaware anthology on Steam. You can download the Amiga version of The Three Stooges from here if you like.)

 
 

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Bill Williams: The Story of a Life

I’ve already devoted a couple of articles to the early history of Cinemaware, the American publisher and developer whose games anticipated the future of interactive multimedia entertainment. I plan to continue that history in later articles.

This, however, isn’t quite one of those articles, even if it does touch upon the next title in our ongoing Cinemaware chronology. Rather than the story of that game, this is the story of the man who created it — a man whose pain-wracked yet extraordinary life demands a little pause for thought. It may serve as a welcome reminder that the story of games is ultimately the story of the real people who make and play them. Escapism is no escape, only a temporary reprieve. In the end we all have to wrestle with the big questions of our own reality — questions of Life and Death and Love and Hate and God — whether we want to or not. Because none of us — no, not even you, over there in the back with the game controller in your hand — gets out of this life alive.

Bill Williams

Once again the day came when the members of the court of heaven took their places in the presence of God, and Satan was with them. God asked him where he had been. “Ranging over the earth,” Satan said, “from end to end.” Then God asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? You will find no one else like him on earth: blameless and upright, fearing God and setting his face against evil. You incited me to ruin him without good reason, but his integrity is still unshaken.”

Satan answered, “Skin for skin! There is nothing that fellow will grudge to save himself. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and see if he will not curse you to your face.”

Then God said, “All right, then. All that he has is now in your hands, but you must spare his life.”

— The Book of Job

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease for which there is still no cure. One aspect of the body’s delicate internal balance, the regulators that govern mucus production, is out of whack in the sufferer. What begins as a tendency to contract respiratory infections and a general frailness during childhood progresses at different rates in different cases to a body that is drowning in its own mucus. If the lungs don’t fail first, the pancreas eventually will. When that happens, the patient, unable to produce the digestive enzymes necessary to break down her food, can starve to death no matter how much she stuffs in her mouth. While there is no cure, there are various complicated treatments that can delay the inevitable. Today a cystic-fibrosis sufferer may make it as far as age 50. In earlier decades — the disease was only first definitively identified in 1938 — that number was drastically less.

As a genetic disease, cystic fibrosis is passed down via a defective gene most commonly found in people of Northern European extraction. Each person carries two copies of the gene in question, of which only one need be correct to enjoy a healthy, normal life. Thus most carriers of the disease have no idea of their status. For a child to be born with cystic fibrosis, two carriers or full-blown sufferers — although cases of the latter having children are extremely rare, as infertility in males is an almost universal common side-effect of the disease — must be the parents. Even then, in the case of two healthy carriers as parents the risk of the child being born with the disease is only one in four.

The parents of Bill Williams experienced a run of bad luck of Biblical proportions. Unwitting carriers before marrying and having children, all three of their offspring were born with the disease. The two eldest, a boy and a girl, died in childhood. The last was little Bill, born in 1960 in Pontiac, Michigan, and promptly pronounced by his doctors as unlikely to reach age 13.

Right from the beginning, then, Bill’s experience of time, his very view of his life, was different from that of the rest of us. We are born in hope. We spend our childhood and adolescence dreaming of becoming or doing, and if we are diligent and bold we gradually achieve some of those early dreams, or others that we never quite knew we had. Then, when we reach a certain age, we begin to make peace with our life as it is, with the things we’ve done and with those that we never will. Perhaps we learn at last to accept and enjoy our life as it is rather than how we wish it could be. And then, someday, the final curtain falls.

But what of Bill, born with the knowledge that he would likely never see adulthood, much less a reflective old age? How must it affect him to hear his classmates discussing college funds, hopes and dreams for travel, for love, for that shiny new Porsche or that shiny new Bunny found inside a father’s Playboy? “I never thought I’d have a job or a spouse, or a house, or anything that most little boys think is their birthright,” he later remembered.

As a boy with no future and thus no need to choose a direction in life for himself, Bill learned from an early age how it felt to always have things done to him rather than doing for himself. His own body was never quite his own, being treated as a laboratory by the doctors who, yes, hoped to keep him alive as long as possible, but who also wanted him for the more horrifyingly impersonal task of learning from his illness.

Many of those diagnostics were scary and incomprehensible to a small child: tubes, wires and circling graphs, dark little closets with windows. I remember being surrounded by terrifying tangles of equipment, isolated from my family, hearing beeps and hisses. I remember hating the pulmonary-function machine.

“Why do I have to sit in the pressure chamber again?”

“Because…”

“Why do I have to have another enema, doctor?”

“Because…”

So you lie down and take it.

The doctors’ curiosity only grew when, unlike his two siblings, Bill didn’t die as they had expected. Indeed, apart from the death sentence always hanging over his head and the endless hours spent in doctors’ offices, his childhood was almost normal. For some time he could even run and play like other children.

One day whilst sitting in a doctor’s office awaiting yet another round of tests, Bill met another boy with cystic fibrosis, one who wasn’t so blessedly free of the disease’s worst symptoms as he was at the time. As he watched the boy cough and gag into a thick wad of Kleenex, his reaction was… disgust. He felt toward the boy the anger the healthy sometimes can’t help but feel toward the sick, as if they are the way they are on purpose. When, soon after, his own cough began to manifest at last, it felt like a divine punishment for his act of judgment that day. He returned to the scene in the waiting room again and again in his memory, cursed with the knowledge of how others must see him.

Bill was now a teenager, afflicted with all of a teenage boy’s usual terror of being perceived as different in the eyes of his peers. As his coughing worsened, he desperately tried to cover up his condition, even though for a cystic-fibrosis sufferer to deliberately choose not to cough is to slowly commit suicide; coughing is actually the most welcome thing in the world, because it gets the mucus that will otherwise drown him up and out. Sometimes he could duck into a restroom when he felt a coughing fit coming on, where he could crouch spitting and puking in privacy over a toilet. But then sometimes his classmates would come in and ask what was wrong: “Should I call someone?” Those times were the worst because of the curse Bill bore of being able to see himself through their eyes. He started to swallow cough drops by the handful, poisoning himself and stripping his tooth enamel away right down to the gum line; the dentist whom he would finally visit in his twenties would say he had never seen so much erosion in anyone’s mouth before.

He found solace and camaraderie only with the burnouts, the kids in the torn denims out smoking in the school parking lot — even though smoking or even being around smokers was pretty much the stupidest thing a cystic-fibrosis sufferer could do. “They had no ambition, they knew they were on the outside,” he later wrote. “They had been told in various ways that they would never amount to much. We had something in common!”

Together with the burnouts, he got into punk rock, the sound of powerlessness empowered. He formed a band with three of his friends. They called themselves “Sons of Thunder,” and made a glorious racket in dives all around Detroit. Philip, the guitarist, had a 900-watt amp that made as much noise as “a jet taking off,” as Bill later remembered it, giving the whole band a lifelong case of tinnitus. But no matter; that was the least of Bill’s health problems. He played keyboards and screamed himself raw on the mic. His music restored his voice in the metaphorical sense even as it destroyed it in the literal. He exorcised his pain and frustration — at the world, at himself, at God — via many of his own compositions.

They’ll find me in the morning,
With a razor in my hand,
My faded jeans stained with scarlet blood,
The aftermath of slashing pain,
That cut my cord of life and,
Tore all the fibers that it could.

If you’ve read the papers lately,
Only good kids die.
I wonder where the others are,
And where their bodies lie.
Maybe they’ve been buried,
In some field far away,
Forgotten, faded memories,
Of tainted yesterdays.

I had a dream last night,
Filled me with fright that dream.
In that dream,
God spoke to me:

“I hated you,
From the day you were conceived.
From that point on,
I had decided you’d bleed.
Now you stand before me,
On your judgment day.
I need no excuses.
I’ll just throw you away, away.”

One morning in town, he lapsed into one of his coughing fits, whereupon an old busybody started to lecture him on taking better care of himself, wrapping up properly, etc. If he had done that, she said, he wouldn’t have that awful cough. The old Bill would have listened dutifully and slunk away in shame. The new Bill replied, “No, actually it isn’t a cold, it’s a terminal disease that causes a progressive deterioration of the lungs, no matter how I dress… and thank you very much for reminding of that fact. I’d almost forgotten it for a second.” Powerlessness empowered.

Making music led to making computer programs. Trying to find new sounds for the band, Bill bought a synthesizer kit that included a programmable controller built around the MOS 6502, one of the two little 8-bit chips that made the PC revolution. Despite having no technical training whatsoever, he discovered a “weird affinity” for 6502 assembly language. His father, an engineer with General Motors, was eager for him to find a more stable line of work than screaming himself hoarse every night in bars, and therefore bought him an Atari 800 with the understanding that he would use it to develop some software tools that might prove useful in GM’s factories.

He never got very far with that project. Instead he started working on a game. It felt like coming home. “Computer-game designer,” he came to believe, was somehow inscribed into his very genes, just as much an indelible part of who he was as his cystic fibrosis: “It was my destiny.” His first game was a little thing called Salmon Run (1982), in which the player had to guide a salmon upstream, dodging waterfalls, bears, seagulls, and fishermen all the while, to arrive at the spawning grounds where True Love and Peace awaited. Sweet and simple as it was, it already bore all the hallmarks of a Bill Williams game: nonviolent, laden with metaphor, subtly subversive, and thoroughly original. He was, he would come to realize, “the computer equivalent of an art-folk singer: I couldn’t write a pop hit if my life depended on it.”

Bill had written Salmon Run on a lark, just for fun. But one day he saw an advertisement for a unique new Atari division called The Atari Program Exchange, which promised to publish — paying actual royalties and everything! — the best programs submitted to them by talented amateurs like Bill. He jumped at the chance. Salmon Run was not only accepted, but became one of the Atari Program Exchange’s most popular games, as well as Bill’s own entrée into the industry. Softline magazine, impressed by Salmon Run‘s many and varied sound effects, came to him to write a monthly column on Atari sound programming. And then Ihor Wolosenko came calling from Synapse Software, a company that was making a name for itself as the master of Atari 8-bit action games.

Doing a little catlateral damage in Alley Cat.

Doing a little catlateral damage in Alley Cat.

Alley Cat (1983), one of the three games that Bill wrote for Synapse, is his most accessible and enduring game of all, with a cult following of fans to this day. Impossibly cute without ever being cloying, it casts you as the titular tomcat seeking his One True Love (sensing a theme?). Unfortunately, she’s one of those sheltered inside cats, trapped inside her owner’s apartment. To reach her you have to run a gauntlet of garbage cans, fences, clotheslines, and felicitously feline minigames: stealing fish from a human, stealing milk from dogs, catching mice, knocking over vases.

In 1984, Ihor Wolosenko wrangled for Bill an early prototype of the Commodore Amiga, along with a development deal to die for from Commodore themselves. Desperate for software for their forthcoming machine, they would let Bill develop any game he wanted: “No specifications whatsoever. Complete creative freedom.” He found the Amiga rather terrifying at first — “Oh, my God, what have I got myself into?” — but soon came to see its connection to the Atari 8-bit machines he was used to; Jay Miner had designed the chipsets for both machines. “It was like picking up a conversation with someone who had been thinking for a couple of years and had figured out a lot more stuff,” he later said.

Bill had grown entranced by the new scientific field of chaos theory, an upending of the old Newtonian assumptions of a mechanistic, predictable universe into something more enigmatic, more artistic, more, well, chaotic — and possibly admitting of more spiritual possibility as well. In a chaotic world, there is no Platonic ideal of which everything around us is an imperfect shadow. There is only diversity, a riot of real beauty greater than any theoretical idea of perfection. For a man like Bill, whose own body’s systems were so different from those of the people around him, the idea was oddly comforting. He spent months curating little organic worlds inside the Amiga, grown from randomness, noise, and fractal equations, whilst Wolosenko fretted over his lack of tangible progress in making a concrete game out of his experiments. Bill could spend hours “cloud-watching” inside his worlds: “Oh, that one looks like…” What he saw there was as different from the structured, ordered, Newtonian virtual world of the typical computer game as “a snowflake is from a billiard ball.”

The game that finally resulted from his explorations made this landscape of Bill’s imagination into the landscape of the broken mind of a physics professor. To restore him to sanity, you must reconnect the four shards of his personality — Strong Man, Wizard, Spriggan, and Water Nymph — and clear out Bad Thoughts using your Fractal Ray. By the time Bill was finished Synapse Software was no more, so Commodore themselves released the game as Mind Walker (1986), the first and only Amiga game to appear under the platform’s parent’s own imprint and one of the first commercial games to appear for the Amiga at all. Heady, dense, and unabashedly artsy, it fit perfectly with the Amiga’s early image as an idealized dream machine opening up new vistas — literal vistas in Mind Walker‘s case — of possibility. Whether it really qualifies as a great or even good game to, you know, play is perhaps more up to debate, but then one could say the same about many a Bill Williams creation.

Battling Bad Thoughts armed with Nihlism Beams in Mind Walker.

Battling Bad Thoughts armed with Nihilism Beams in Mind Walker.

Having long since retired from his band to write games full-time, Bill was now beginning to do quite well for himself. By the metrics by which our society usually judges such things, these would prove to be the most successful years of his life; his yearly income would top $100,000 several times during the latter 1980s. His disease was still in relative abeyance. Friends and colleagues who weren’t aware of the complicated rituals he had to go through before and after facing them each day could almost forget that he wasn’t healthy like they were — unless and until he lapsed into one of his uncontrollable coughing fits, that is. Best of all, he now had for a wife an extraordinary woman who loved him dearly. Martha had come into his life around the time of his first computer, and would stand by him, working to keep him as mentally and physically healthy as he could be, for the rest of his days.

Through an old colleague from Synapse, Bill was put in touch with Bob Jacob, just in the process of starting Cinemaware. Along with Doug Sharp, Bill was signed to become one of Cinemaware’s two lone-wolf developers, given carte blanche to independently create a game based on the movies without being actually being based on a movie; the newly formed Cinemaware was hardly in a position to negotiate licenses. Bob had plenty of ideas: “Bob is a generation older, and he would be recommending movies that were more the stuff that really jazzed him when he was twelve or so. I knew if I didn’t come up with a counter-idea, I was going to have to do one of his.” A big fan of the stop-motion visual effects of Ray Harryhausen, Bill settled on an homage to the 1958 adventure classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Bill’s Cinemaware game didn’t turn out to be terribly satisfying for either designer or player. While plenty of his games might be judged failures to one degree or another, the others at least failed on their own terms. Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon (1987) marked the first time that Bill seemed to forfeit some of his own design sensibility in trying to please his client. It attempts, like most Cinemaware games, to marry a number of disparate genres together. And, also like many other Cinemaware games, the fit is far from seamless. Whilst trekking over a large map as Sinbad, talking with other characters and collecting the bits and pieces you need to solve the game, you also have to contend with occasional action games and a strategic war game to boot. None of the game’s personalities are all that satisfying — the world to be explored is too empty, the action and strategy games alike too clunky and simplistic — and taken in the aggregate give the whole experience a bad case of schizophrenia.

Sinbad also attracted criticism for its art. Created like every other aspect of the game by Bill himself, I’ve heard it described on one occasion as “gorgeous folk art,” but more commonly as garish and a little ugly. Suffice to say that it’s a long, long way from Jim Sachs’s lush work on Defender of the Crown. It didn’t help the Amiga original’s cause when Cinemaware themselves ported the game in-house to other platforms, complete with much better art. Nothing was more certain to get Amiga users up in arms than releasing Atari ST and even Commodore 64 versions of a game that looked better than the Amiga version.

Libitina, Sinbad's rather painfully pixelatted lust interest.

Libitina of Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon, the most painfully pixelated of all Cinemaware’s trademark love/lust interests.

Bill himself was less than thrilled with Sinbad when all was said and done, recognizing that he had lost his own voice to some extent out of a desire to please his publisher. He agreed to do sound programming for two more Cinemaware games, as he had for Defender of the Crown before Sinbad‘s release, but backed away from the relationship thereafter.

As a palate cleanser from the big, ambitious Sinbad — or, as the musically-minded Bill liked to put it, as his Get Back project — he wrote a simple top-down shooter called Pioneer Plague (1988). Published by the tiny label Terrific Software, its big technical gimmick was that it ran in HAM, the Amiga’s unique graphics mode that allowed the programmer to place all 4096 colors on the screen at once. Pioneer Plague marked the first time that anyone had seen HAM, normally used only for still images because of its slowness and awkwardness to program, in an action game. Not for nothing did Bill have a reputation among the Amiga faithful as a technically masterful programmer’s programmer.

Bill’s next and, as it would transpire, last game for the Amiga would prove the most time-consuming and frustrating of his career. He called it Knights of the Crystallion (1990).

Knights was the game I threw the most of my soul into, out of all the games I ever did. Knights was my attempt to draw the industry into a different direction. It was going to be my epic, it was going to be my masterpiece — we called it a cultural simulation — and I thought I could pull it off.

Such abstracts aside, it’s very hard to describe just what Knights of the Crystallion is or was meant to be, always a dangerous sign when discussing a game. Like Sinbad, it’s a hybrid, and often a baffling one, incorporating action, adventure, resource management, grand strategy, pattern-matching, puzzle-solving, and board games among other, less definable elements. The complicated backstory is drawn from a science-fiction novel Bill had been contemplating writing, the art style from the old Yes album covers of Roger Dean. The package included a cassette of music and 18 pages of poetry — all, like everything in the game proper, created personally by Bill. It was also a game with a message, one that subverted the typical ludic economic model: “I got into designing an economy in which all of the rules necessary to actually doing well provide an economic reward for thinking charitably and being part of the community, rather than selfishly grabbing all of the resources for yourself.”

It was a long way from the days of Salmon Run and Alley Cat — and, one could argue, not entirely for the better. And yet for all that Knights of the Crystallion‘s overstuffed design contained, Bill estimated that “limits of time, machine, publisher” meant that less than 20 percent of what he’d wanted to put in there was in fact present in the finished product.

Neither of Bill’s last two games did very well commercially, and by the time Knights of the Crystallion was finished in late 1990 the Amiga market in general in North America was quite clearly beginning to fade; the latter game was made available only via mail order in its homeland, a far cry from Bill’s high-profile days with Cinemaware. Looking at his dwindling royalty checks, he made the tough decision to abandon the Amiga, and with it his career as a lone-wolf software auteur. He accepted a staff position, his first and only, with a company called Sculptured Software, who were preparing a stable of games for the forthcoming launch of the Super Nintendo console in North America. (Sculptured was ironically the same developer that had failed comprehensively in creating Defender of the Crown for Cinemaware back in 1986, necessitating a desperate effort to rescue the project using other personnel.) Trying to put the best face on the decision, Bill imagined his discovery of the Super Nintendo as another adventure like his discovery of the Amiga, “a black box with a whole bunch of unknowns and a completely new field to play in.” But he was given nothing like the room to explore that Synapse and Commodore had arranged for him in the case of Mind Walker. Instead a series of disheartening licensed properties came down the pipeline, each exhaustively specified, monitored, and sanitized by the management of Sculptured, the management of Nintendo, and the management of whatever license happened to be in play. It wasn’t quite the way this art-folk singer of software was used to working. Something called The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare (1993) — Bill promptly started referring to it as “Bill’s Nightmare” — proved the last straw. He walked on the project when it was “92 percent” complete, ending his career as a maker of games in order to take the most surprising and remarkable step of his life.

The change had begun with Martha. In the early years of their relationship, Bill affectionately called her “Pollyanna” because of what he took to be her naive faith in a God who “liked matter, still cared for body and soul, still actively loved the world.” How could she believe in a benign God in the face of the suffering inflicted upon him and, perhaps even more so, upon his parents, they of the two dead children and the other who was destined not to live very long? But, observing Martha’s steadfast faith as the years passed, he began to question whether he wasn’t the naive, unsophisticated, ungrateful one. There’s an old saying that God never allows more suffering than we can handle. Looking back on his own life, he saw, apart from that great central tragedy of cystic fibrosis, a multitude of benign serendipities.

I “just happened” to build a synthesizer kit that “just happened” to have an optional computer controller; “just happened” to discover a weird affinity for 6502 machine code, which “just happened” to the heart of the first home videogame system; “just happened” to do a game for my own enjoyment and “just happened” to see an ad from a new Atari division, looking for products… and “just happened” to discover a career that could be done at home, at my own body’s pace and schedule. The royalties, savings, and disability insurance I “just happened” to make from that career just happen to feed us to this day.

One day, after being married to Martha for several years, my eyes were opened, and I saw what I had rather than what I feared I would not have. In fact, I had to admit that none of my fears had panned out. I kept waiting for doom to fall, and bounty kept falling instead.

It’s all just a trick of the eyesight, you know. It all depends on what you’re looking for. As a new acquaintance of mine, Ed Rose, has remarked, you can just as well ask why good happens in the world. In the worst of situations — he served in Vietnam — good keeps breaking out with insane persistence.

Maybe we need a doctrine of Original Charity to balance the weight of Original Sin. Correct the assumptions. In a universe where all the facts seem to point to evolutionary aggression, self-interest, and evil, maybe we need to start wondering why this place isn’t worse, rather than better.

By the time these realizations were breaking through Bill had spent years living a life typical of his profession, “uncomfortable around people,” forever “spelunking his own caverns” inside the computer. For Bill, the life of the technical ascetic had a particular appeal. He had virtually since birth regarded his body as his enemy. The computer provided an escape from his too, too solid flesh. He spent twelve or sixteen hours many days in front of the screen; Martha saw only the back of his head most days.

It’s a symptom — perhaps a blessing? — of the human condition that we all live as if we’re immortal, happily squandering the precious hours of our lives on trivialities. But, noted Bill — echoing in the process the sentiments of another famed game designer — “when you’re dying, no one looks back and says, ‘My God, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.'” In the long term, of course, we’re all dying. But Bill’s long term was much shorter than most.

To say that the life of a chronic-disease sufferer is a hard one is to state the obvious, but the full spectrum of the pain it brings may be less obvious. There’s the guilt that comes with the knowledge that your loved ones are suffering in their own right every day as well from your illness, and the sneaking, dangerous suspicion that knowledge carries with it that everyone would be better off if you would just die already. And accompanying the guilt is the shame. Why can’t you just get better, like everyone wants you to? What did it say about the young Bill when his parents took him to church and the whole congregation prayed for him and the next day he still had cystic fibrosis? Was he not worthy of God’s grace? To suffer from a genetic disease isn’t like battling an infection from outside, but rather to have something fundamentally wrong with the very structure of you. Bill felt a profound connection to other marginalized people of any sort, those who suffered or who saw their horizons limited — which is often pretty much the same thing, come to think of it — not from anything they had done but from who they were.

And so, perhaps also inspired a bit by the universe of chaotic beauty he had glimpsed inside the virtual world of Mind Walker, he started to open up to the physical world again. He took small steps at first. He volunteered to work in a charity soup kitchen, and he and Martha sponsored a child through Christian Children’s Fund: $25 per month to feed and clothe a fisherman’s son in South America. Writing letters to little Alex, Bill didn’t know how to explain what he did for a living to a boy who had never seen a computer or a computer game. There was something elemental about the concerns of Alex’s life — food, shelter, family, community — that felt lacking in his own. When other people asked him about his job, he caught himself adopting a defensive tone, as if he was “a rep for a tobacco company. And I heard that and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what you think of yourself?'” So at last he quit to attend seminary in Chicago — to become a pastor, to help people, to connect with life.

It proved the most rewarding thing he had ever done. He spent much time counseling patients in a hospital, a task to which a lifelong “professional patient” like himself could bring much practical as well as spiritual wisdom. The experience was many things.

It was listening to a gentle, soft-spoken woman tell me how she met her husband, while he lay in a bed and died.

It was listening to inner-city parents tell of their life’s greatest achievement: keeping their kids out of the gangs.

It was being awed and humbled by the faith of everyday people in outrageous circumstances.

It was listening to folks be brave and strong on the outside while the inside crumbled.

It was standing up for meek patients being railroaded into choices they didn’t have to make.

It was spending five minutes talking about the broken body, and two hours talking about the spouse that died last year. I was amazed to discover how poorly our society provides for psychic hurts — and I began to see how the need for help drives people’s health into the ground, just to obtain some socially acceptable caring.

It was hurting with a woman who didn’t want to get out of the hospital because of what was waiting for her at home.

It was days when an odd, risky thought popped into my head… and a patient’s eyes widened in relief and recognition because I’d said it.

It was the dying man who wanted to confess something, but couldn’t. I pronounced a blessing over his head, trying to work in an absolution for what had not been revealed… and felt so very, very small and human.

It was saying the Psalms as prayers for the first time in my life.

It was reviewing events and tearing myself up for hours, both at the hospital and at home.

The city air of Chicago sadly didn’t agree with Bill’s disease. His condition rapidly worsening, he was forced to give up the four-year program after two years. He and Martha moved to Rockport, Texas, where the warm, dry breezes coming off the Gulf of Mexico would hopefully soothe his frazzled lung tissue.

Warm breezes or no, his condition continued to deteriorate. The death he had been cheating since age 13 was quite clearly now approaching. Most of the hours of most days now had to be devoted to his new job, that of simply breathing. He could sleep for no more than two or three hours at a stretch; to sleep longer would be to drown in the mucus that built up inside his lungs. He was now diabetic, and had to take insulin every day. As with many cystic-fibrosis suffers, his strain of diabetes was peculiarly sensitive and ever-changing, meaning he flirted constantly with an insulin coma. (“To avoid the coma I was letting my blood sugars float way too high, which was killing me slowly instead — but frankly, cystic fibrosis is likely to get me before the organ damage is much of an issue. It takes about ten years to show up.”) He had to take a complicated regimen of enzymes each day to digest his food; otherwise he would have starved to death. (“‘Oh, I wish I had that problem,’ dieters have sometimes said to me. No. You don’t.”) He had a permanent catheter embedded in his chest to deliver the constant assault of antibiotics that kept the prospect of an immediately fatal lung infection at bay; the hole in his chest had to be carefully cleaned every week to prevent a fatal infection from that vector instead. He inhaled a drug called Alupent every day that delivered a shock to his system like a “bottled car accident” and hopefully caused him to cough up some of the deadly mucus in his lungs. His colon had been widened by his surgeons to allow the too-solid waste his body produced passage out; despite the re-engineering, constipation would often leave him writhing in “the most potent pain I experience.” He spent much time each day “communing with Flo,” a big tank of bottled oxygen. (“When she starts to work, my legs tingle, my back stops aching, and I stretch as luxuriously as a cat in the sun. Martha laughs at me. She thinks I enjoy it too much.”) And in order to loosen the mucus inside his lungs he got to endure percussion therapy every day — otherwise known as a righteous beating about the chest and back from Martha that undoubtedly hurt her more than it did him. (A cystic-fibrosis in-joke: “It’s a little perk I get from marrying him. How many women have their husbands ask them for a beating?”) Unable to breathe for very long standing up, he spent most of his days and nights sprawled out on a couch with a 9-degree slope, perfectly calibrated to maximize his air intake.

Bill Williams (right), Marsha Williams, and a friend in a snapshot taken shortly before Bill's death.

Bill Williams (right), Martha Williams, and a friend in a snapshot taken shortly before Bill’s death.

Despite it all, Bill Williams continued to create. He had a special desk rigged up for his 9-degree couch, and, his days in front of a computer now long behind him, wrote out his final creation with a pencil in longhand. Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple (1998) is a 132,000-word last testament to his suffering and his joy, to his faith and his doubt. Like the books of the Bibilical prophets on which it’s modeled, it’s raw, knotty, esoteric, and often infuriatingly elliptical. It is, in other words, a classic Bill Williams creation. This isn’t the happy-clappy religion of the evangelical megachurches any more than it is the ritualized formalism of Catholicism. It’s Christ as his own disciples may have known him, dirty and scared and broken, struggling with doubt and with the immense burden laid upon him — yet finally choosing love over hate, good over evil all the same. Writing the book, Bill said, was like undergoing “a theological meltdown.” “It was a near thing,” he wrote at the end, “but I’m still a Christian.” Whatever our personal takes on matters spiritual, we have to respect his lived faith, formed in the crucible of a short lifetime filled with far more than its fair share of pain.

Since he had been a child, Bill had persevered through all the travails of his disease largely for others: first for his parents, who might not be able to bear losing yet another child; later for Martha as well. “My love,” he said, “is the tether that keeps this balloon tied to earth, even when I’d rather just float away.” As he thought about leaving his wife now, the concerns that popped into his head might have sounded banal, but were no less full of love for that. How would she work the computer without him? Would she be able to do their… woops, her taxes?

This final period of his life was, like that of any terminally ill person, a slow negotiation with death on the part of not just the patient but also those who loved him. As Bill watched Martha, he could see the dawning acceptance of his death in her, as gratifying as it was heartbreaking. One day after another of his increasingly frequent seizures, she quietly said the words that every dying person needs, perhaps above all others, to hear. She told him that he was free to slip the tether next time, if he was ready. She would be okay.

Bill Williams died on May 28, 1998, one day shy of his 38th birthday. “I was pretty privileged,” he said of his life at the last. “I really lucked out.”

(This article is drawn from a retrospective of Bill Williams’s career published in the February 1998 and March 1998 issues of Amazing Computing, and most of all from his own last testament Naked Before God. Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon is available as part of a Cinemaware anthology on Steam.)

 
 

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On S.D.I. (Just a Little) and King of Chicago (Quite a Lot)

In addition to Defender of the Crown, Bob Jacob and Cinemaware were able to deliver two more of their planned four launch titles to Mindscape before the end of 1986. Only Bill Williams’s Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon fell hopelessly behind schedule, getting pushed well into the following year. Of the games that did make it, Sculptured Software’s Atari ST game S.D.I. is mildly interesting as a time capsule of its era, Doug Sharp’s Macintosh game King of Chicago much more so as an important experiment in interactive narrative. Today I’ll endeavor to give each game its just desserts.

S.D.I.

The scenario of S.D.I. is almost hilariously of its time, a weird stew of science fiction and contemporary geopolitics that quotes Ronald Reagan’s speeches in its manual and could never have emerged more than a year or so earlier or later. It’s 2017, the Cold War has gone on business-as-usual for another thirty years, and Ronald Reagan’s vaunted Strategic Defense Initiative is approaching completion at last. In response, a large group of hardliners in the Soviet military have siezed control of many of their country’s ICBM sites to launch a preemptive first strike, while also — this being 2017 and all — flooding Earth orbit with fighter planes to blow up those S.D.I satellites that are already online. This being a computer game and all, the nascent trillion-dollar S.D.I. program comes down to one guy with the square-jawed name of Sloan McCormick, who’s expected to jump into his spaceship to shoot down the rebel fighters in between manually shooting rogue ICBMs out of the sky using the S.D.I. satellites. He’s of course played by you. If you succeed in holding the hardliners’ attacks at bay for long enough, you’ll get a distress call from the legitimate Soviet government’s central command station, whereupon — just in case anyone was thinking you hadn’t done enough for the cause already — you’ll have to singlehandedly enter the station and rescue it from a final assault by the hardliners. Succeed and you’ll get your trademark Cinemaware reward in the form of Natalya, the sultry commander of the station who’s inexplicably in love/lust with you. Who said glasnost was dead?

S.D.I.

Like Defender of the Crown, S.D.I. very nearly missed its planned launch. It took John Cutter stepping in and riding herd over a Sculptured Software that seemed to be just a little out of their depth to push the project along to completion. It isn’t a terrible game, but it is the Cinemaware game that feels least like a Cinemaware game, well earning its status as the forgotten black sheep of the family. Natalya aside, its cinematic influences are minimal. The manual tries heroically to draw a line of concordance through heroes like Flash Gordon and Han Solo to end up at Sloan McCormick, but even it must admit to an important difference: “This time the danger comes, not from an alien invasion, but from a force here on Earth.” Likewise, S.D.I. doesn’t conform to the normal Cinemaware ethos of (in Jacob’s words) “no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.” Flying around in space blasting rebels requires memorizing a number of keyboard commands that can be found nowhere other than the ideally unnecessary manual. What with its demanding, non-stop action broken down into distinct stages, S.D.I. reminds me of nothing so much as Access Software’s successful line of Commodore 64 action games that included Beach-Head and Raid Over Moscow; S.D.I. also shares something of a theme with the latter game, although it didn’t provoke anything like the same controversy. Unfortunately, Cinemaware’s take on the concept just isn’t executed as well. The “flight simulator” where you spend the majority of your time is a particular disappointment; your enemies follow a few distressingly predictable flight patterns, while your control over your own ship is nonsensically limited to gentle turns, climbs, and dives. And the Elite-inspired docking mini-game you have to go through every time you return to your base is just infuriating. But perhaps most distressing, especially to the Amiga owners who finally got their hands on the game when it was ported to their platform almost a year later, were the workmanlike graphics, created in-house by Sculptured Software. One could normally count on great graphics even from Cinemaware games whose gameplay was a bit questionable, but not so much this time. Even Natalya, well-endowed as she was, couldn’t compete with those fetching Saxon lasses from Defender of the Crown.

King of Chicago

King of Chicago is a far more innovative game. This interactive gangster flick stars you as Pinky Callahan, an ambitious young hoodlum in 1931 Chicago. Al Capone has just been sent away for tax evasion, creating an opening for you and your North Side gang of Irishmen, principal rivals of Capone’s Chicago Outfit. But to unite the Chicago underworld under your personal leadership you’ll first have to oust the Old Man who currently runs your own gang. Only then you can start on the Chicago Outfit — or, as the game calls them, the “South Siders.” Swap out medieval England for Prohibition-era Chicago and the scenario isn’t all that far removed from Defender of the Crown: conquer all of the territory on the map that’s held by your ethnic rivals. The experience of playing the two games, however, could hardly be more different.

Like Defender of the Crown, King of Chicago isn’t so interested in the actual history it references as it is in movie history. It doesn’t even bother to get the dates right; the game begins months before the real Capone was sentenced and sent away. Victory in King of Chicago must mean the North Siders rising again to take over the whole city, a scenario as ahistorical as the Saxons defeating the Normans to regain control of England. (Cinemaware did seem to have a thing for historical lost causes, didn’t they?) Prohibition-era Chicago is just a stage set for King of Chicago, Al Capone just a name to drop. The only place where the game notably departs from gangster-movie clichés is in making you and your gang a bunch of Irishmen rather than Italians — and if you don’t pay attention to one or two last names it’s easy to miss even that, given that there’s no voice acting and thus no accents to spot. Otherwise all of the expected tropes are there, from Pinky’s weeping mother who gives all the money he sends her to the church to his devious, high-maintenance girlfriend Lola. But then, as Bob Jacob so memorably put it, all Cinemaware really had to do was “rise to the level of copycat, and we’d be considered a breakthrough.” Fair enough. As homages go — and you’ll find very few computer-game fictions of the 1980s that aren’t an homage to more established media of one sort of another — King of Chicago is one of the better of its era.

Indeed, some may find it a bit too true to its inspirations. King of Chicago is notable for just how hardcore a take on the gangster genre it is. Pinky is a punk. You can play him as a devious sneak or a violent, impulsive psychopath, but he remains a punk. There’s no redemption to be found amongst King of Chicago‘s many possible story arcs, just crime and bloody murder and revenge and, if all goes well, control of the whole of Chicago. While the ledger quietly omits the brothels that provided so much of the real Chicago mob’s income, that’s about the only place where the game soft-pedals. Even Pinky’s interactions with Lola are peppered with crude remarks about how her skills in bed make up for her other failings. Bob Jacob’s original conception of Cinemaware as games for adults finds its fullest expression here, at least if what constitutes “adult” in your view is jaded sex and casual violence.

King of Chicago

More interestingly, King of Chicago represents one of Cinemaware’s most earnest and ambitious attempt at creating an interactive narrative with at least a modicum of depth. You could convert a play-through into a screenplay and have it read as, if not precisely a good screenplay, at least one that wasn’t totally ridiculous. Not coincidentally, King of Chicago contains far more text than the average Cinemaware game. Its formal approach is also unique: it’s essentially a hypertext narrative, years before that term came into common usage. You control Pinky through a bewildering thicket of story branches by clicking on multiple-choice thought bubbles above his head. Occasionally a little action game emerges to provide a change of pace, but these are relatively deemphasized in comparison with most Cinemaware games. If S.D.I. stands at the purely reactive, action-oriented end of the Cinemaware scale, King of Chicago stands at the opposite pole of cerebral storymaking. It has a certain — and I know Bob Jacob would hate this description — literary quality about it in comparison to its stablemates. You can see its unusual narrative sophistication not least in its female cast. While not exactly what you’d call progressive in its handling of women, King of Chicago does give them actual personalities and roles to enact in the drama, rather than regarding them strictly as prizes for a job well done. In this respect it once again stands out as almost unique in the Cinemaware catalog.

Doug Sharp dressed as a gangster for a King of Chicago promotional shoot.

Doug Sharp dressed as a gangster for a King of Chicago promotional photo shoot.

King of Chicago was the creation of a thirty-something former fifth-grade teacher named Doug Sharp, another of Jacob’s old contacts from his days as a software agent that were serving him so well now as a software entrepreneur in his own right. Sharp had first been exposed to microcomputers during the late 1970s, when he was teaching school in the educational-computing hotbed of Minnesota, home of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and their seminal edutainment game The Oregon Trail amongst other innovations. His habit of taking his school’s Apple IIs home with him on weekends soon led to a job writing educational software for Control Data and Science Research Associates. In 1984 he and a partner, Mike Johnson, started working on a spiritual successor to Silas Warner’s Robot War that they called ChipWits. Programmable robots remained the theme, but they were now programmed using a visual, icon-based language instead of Robot Wars‘s cryptic assembly-language-style code. ChipWits represented a kindler, gentler approach to recreational robot programming all the way around. Instead of focusing on free-form robot-against-robot combat, the game was built as a series of missions, a collection of discrete challenges that the player’s cute little robot had to overcome in the course of a grand and non-violent adventure. Written initially for the Commodore 64, ChipWits became one of the breakout stars of the January 1985 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, and did moderately well once released by Epyx shortly thereafter. The agent who brokered that publishing deal was, you guessed it, Bob Jacob, while Kellyn Beeck, soon to become Cinemaware’s most prolific game designer but then in charge of software acquisitions at Epyx, was the latter company’s signatory to the contract.

Sharp’s next game King of Chicago became the first of the eventual Cinemaware titles to go into development, several months before Jacob would even officially form his company. Sharp threw himself into the project with a will. He “collected all the classic gangster films. I picked apart what I enjoyed most about them and used this information to come up with my characters and storyline.” He worked with a graduate student in the University of Toronto’s drama department named Paul Walsh to learn the subtle nuances of pacing and dialog that make a good play or movie. Walsh became quite taken with the project for a while there in his own right. He had a blast coming up with new episodes for Sharp to sort through, chop up, and, truth be told, often discard. “When you work on a play,” Walsh said, “you have to cut out so much good stuff. With this, all your good ideas get thrown in.” True as ever to Cinemaware’s theme, Jacob would wind up giving Walsh a credit as “Dialog Coach” in the finished product. (Walsh would go on to a long and still-ongoing career as a professor, playwright, dramaturg, and translator of Ibsen.)

King of ChicagoApart from Walsh and some music contributed by Eric Rosser, that original Macintosh King of Chicago was the work of Doug Sharp alone. When the coding and writing got to be too much, he would retreat into his workshop to mold the heads of his various characters out of clay. Once crudely digitized and imported into the game, their grotesque shapes — some of the gangsters seem to have been afflicted with whatever strange illness led to Elephant Man Joseph Merrick — certainly gave the game a unique look, if one perhaps more appropriate to a horror movie than a gangster flick.

But no matter. What’s most interesting about King of Chicago is what’s going on beneath its surface. What might first appear to be a simple branching narrative in the tradition of Choose Your Own Adventure turns out to be something much more sophisticated. It is in fact a hugely innovative leap into uncharted waters in the fraught field of ludic narrative. I want to take some time here to talk about what King of Chicago does and how it does it because these qualities make it, so much less splashy than Defender of the Crown though its surface appearance and commercial debut may have been, of equal importance in its own way. More hypertext narrative than traditional adventure game, King of Chicago does its level best to make a story with you rather than merely tell you a story. This distinction is a very important one.

The story in a storytelling game lies waiting to be discovered — but not written — by you as you make your way through the game. Storytelling games can offer strong, interesting stories, but do so at the expense of player freedom. You generally have local agency only, meaning that you may have some options about the order in which you explore the storyworld and even how you cause events to progress, but you’re nevertheless tightly bound to the overall plot created by the game’s designer. The canonical example of a storytelling game, a perpetual touchstone of scholars from Janet Murray to Chris Crawford, is Infocom’s Planetfall, particularly the death therein of your poor little robot companion Floyd. Every player who completes Planetfall will have experienced the same basic story. She may have seen that story in a slightly different order than another player and even solved its problems in slightly different ways, but Floyd will always sacrifice himself at the climactic moment, and all of the other major plot events will always play out in the same way. Storytelling games are Calvinist in philosophy: free will is just an illusion, your destiny foreordained before you even get started. Still, fixed as their overall plots may be, they allow plenty of space for puzzle solving, independent investigation of the environment, and all those other things we tend to wrap up under the convenient term of “gameplay.” I’m of the opinion that experiencing a story through the eyes of a person who represents you the player, whom you control, can do wonders to immerse you in that story and deepen the impact it has on you. Some folks, however, take the Infocom style of interactive fiction’s explicit promise of an interactivity that turns out to exist only at the most granular level as a betrayal of the medium’s potential. This has led them to chase after an alternative in the form of the storymaking game.

The idealized storymaking game is one that turns you loose in a robustly simulated storyworld and allows you to create your own story in conjunction with the inhabitants of that world.1 Unfortunately, it remains an unsolved and possibly unsolvable problem, for we lack a computerized intelligence capable of responding to the player when the scope of action allowed to her includes literally anything she can dream of doing. Since an infinite number of possibilities cannot be anticipated and coded for by a human, the computer would need to be able to improvise on the fly, and that’s not something computers are notably good at doing. If we somehow could find a way around this problem, we’d just ram up against another: stories of any depth almost universally require words to tell, and computers are terrible at generating natural language. In a presentation on King of Chicago for the 1989 Game Developers Conference, Sharp guessed that artificial intelligence would reach a point around 2030 where what he calls “fat and deep,” AI-driven storymaking games would become possible. As of today, though, it doesn’t look like we’ll get there within the next fifteen years. We may never get there at all. Strong AI remains, at it always has, a chimera lurking a few decades out there in some murky future.

That said, there’s a large middle ground between the fixed, unalterable story arc of a Planetfall and the complete freedom of our idealized storymaking game. Somewhere inside that middle ground rests the field of choice-based or hypertext literature, which generally gives the player a great deal of control over where the story goes in comparison to a traditional adventure game of the Infocom stripe, if nothing close to the freedom promised by a true storymaking game. The hypertext author figures out all of the different ways that she is willing to allow the story to go beforehand and then hand-crafts lots and lots of text to correspond with all of her various narrative tributaries. The player still isn’t really making her own story, since she can’t possibly do anything that hasn’t been anticipated by the story’s author. Yet if the choices are varied and interesting enough it almost doesn’t matter.

The adventure game and the hypertext are two very distinct forms; fans of one are by no means guaranteed to be fans of the other. Each is in some sense an exploration of story, but in very different ways. If the adventure game is concerned with the immersive experience of story, the hypertext is concerned with possibilities, with that question we all ask ourselves all the time, even when we know we should know better: what would have happened if I had done something else? The natures of the two forms dictate the ways that we approach them. Most adventure games are long-form works which players are expected to experience just once. Most hypertexts by contrast are written under the assumption that the player will want to engage with them multiple times, making difference choices and exploring the different possible outcomes. This makes up for the fact that the average playthrough of the average hypertext, with its bird’s-eye view of the story, takes a small fraction of the time of the average playthrough of the average adventure game, with its worm’s-eye view. It also, not incidentally for Doug Sharp’s purposes, dovetails nicely with the Cinemaware concept of games that play out in no more time than it takes to watch a film, but that, unlike (most) films, can be revisited many times.

Narrative-oriented computer games in the early days hewed almost uniformly to the adventure-game model. Partly this was a matter of tradition; parsers and puzzles had become so established in the wake of Adventure and Scott Adams that it was seemingly hard for many authors to even conceive of alternative models of interaction (witness Nine Princes in Amber, a game that founders on the rocks between text adventure and hypertext). And partly this was a matter of technical constraints; those early machines were so starved for memory that the idea of a complex branching narrative, most of which the player would never see in any given playthrough, was a luxury authors could barely even conceive of affording. Thus during the early 1980s hypertexts were commonly found not on computers but in the hugely popular Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s books and the many spin-offs and competitors it spawned.

The firewall began to come down at last in 1986, after designers began to realize that it was okay to dump parsers and puzzles if their design goals leaned in another direction, and after microcomputers had progressed enough from the days of 16 K and cassette tapes to crack open the door to more narrative experimentation. We’ve already looked closely at a couple of the works that resulted. Portal and Alter Ego each had the courage to abandon the parser, but neither takes full advantage of the new possibilities that come with placing a computer program — a real simulated storyworld — behind the multiple choices of Choose Your Own AdventurePortal is an exploration of a fixed, immutable story that has already happened rather than an exercise in making a new one. Alter Ego is more ambitious in its way, being an interactive story of a life that keeps track of your alter ego’s level of psychological, interpersonal, and economic achievement. Still, it doesn’t adapt the story it tells all that well to either your evolving personality or your evolving life situation, forcing you to power through largely the same set of vignettes every single time you play. King of Chicago, on the other hand, pushes the envelope of narratogicial possibility harder than any game that had yet appeared on a PC at the time of its release.

Here’s how Sharp describes his conception of his interactive movie:

A guy in a projection booth with hours and hours of film about a group of gangsters. The film is not on reels but in short clips of from a few seconds to a few minutes long. The clips hang all over the walls of the projection room. The projectionist knows exactly what’s on each clip and can grab a new one and thread it into the projector instantly. The audience is out there in the theater shouting out suggestions and the projectionist is listening and taking the suggestions into account but also factoring in what clips he’s already shown, because he wants to put together a real story with a beginning, middle, and end, subplots, introduction and development of characters and the whole narrative works. I wanted to minimize hard branches, to keep the cuts between clips as unpredictable as possible. Yet the story had to make sense, guys couldn’t die and reappear later, you couldn’t treat the gangster’s moll like dirt and expect her to cover your back later.

The second-to-last sentence is key. Hypertexts prior to King of Chicago had almost all been built out of predictable hard branches: “If you decide to do A, turn to page X; if you decide to do B, turn to page Y.” Such an approach all too often devolves after a play or two into a process of methodically lawn-mowering through the branches, looking for the path not yet taken until branches or patience is exhausted. Sharp, however, wanted a story that could feel fresh and surprising over many plays. In short, he wanted to deliver an exciting new gangster movie to his player each time. To do so, he would have to avoid the predictability of hard branches. He dubbed the system he came up with to do so Dramaton.

Like real life, Dramaton deals in probabilities and happenstance as much as cause and effect. The game as a whole can be thought of as a big bag of potential scenes, each described and “shot” much like a single scene from a movie, with the important difference that each offers Pinky one or more choices to make as it plays out. These choices can lead to a limited amount of the dreaded hard branching within each scene. Where Dramaton mixes things up, though, is in the way it chooses the next scene. Rather than inflexibly dictating what comes next via a hard branch, each episode alters a variety of variables reflecting the state of the storyworld and Pinky’s place within it. Some of these are true/false flags. (Has Pinky bumped off the Old Man to assume control of the gang? Has the eminently bribeable Alderman Burke been elected mayor?) Others are numeric measurements. (How happy is Pinky’s girl Lola with her beau? How does the rest of the gang feel about him? How well are the North Siders doing in Chicago at large? How agitated are the police by the gangsters’ activities?)

After an episode is complete, a narrative generator — what Sharp calls the Narraton — looks at all of these factors, then adds a healthy dose of good old randomness to choose an appropriate next episode that fits with what has come before. The player’s specific choices in an episode can also have a direct impact on what happens next, but with rare exceptions such choices are used more to whittle down the field of possibilities than to force a single, pre-determined follow-up episode. For example, if the player has just decided it might be a good idea to go see what’s up with Lola, the following episode will be restricted to those involving her.

To facilitate choosing an appropriate episode, each is assigned “keys,” amounting to the state of affairs in the storyworld that would ideally hold sway for it to fit perfectly into the overall context of the current story. For instance, an episode in which Lola goads Pinky, Lady Macbeth-style, for his failings and lack of ambition might require a low “Lola Happiness” number and a low “Pinky Reputation” score. An episode in which Pinky hears some other gangsters grumbling about the Old Man and must decide how to respond might require a relatively low “Old Man Reputation” number but a high “Gang Confidence” score (thus leading them to feel empowered to speak up). The closer the current reality of the storyworld corresponds with a given episode’s indexes, the more likely that episode is to be chosen.

This method of weaving scenes together had some interesting implications for Sharp himself as he wrote the game, turning the process into something more akin to guiding a child’s growth than constructing a dead piece of technology. He could “improvise” as an author: “If I got a great idea for a new episode, I could set it up in its own sequence, assign it keys, and trust that it would be selected appropriately.” Thus he was actually approaching the storymaking ideal despite being forced to work with fixed chunks of story rather than being able to cause the computer to improvise its own story; he was creating a narrative capable of surprising even him, the author. He notes that there are quite likely episodes in King of Chicago that have never been seen by any player ever because the indexes assigned to them can never be matched closely enough to trigger them — dead ends left behind as the storyworld organically grew and evolved under his careful stewardship.

For the ordinary player of the finished product, there must obviously come a point where episodes begin to repeat themselves and King of Chicago loses its interest. Sharp did his best, however, to delay that point as long as possible. He estimates that all of the episodes in the game played one after another would take about eight hours to get through, while the player is likely to see no more than 20 percent of them in any given playthrough. For a while anyway each of the gangster movies you and King of Chicago generate together really does feel unique. Even the opening scene that kicks off the movie varies with the vicissitudes of the random-number generator. The storyworld of King of Chicago, where your actions have an effect on your own fate and that of those around you but aren’t the whole of the story, can feel shockingly real in contrast to both the canned fictions of adventure games and the hard branches of those less ambitious hypertext narratives that still dominate the genre even today.

Managing a criminal empire by the twenty-question method.

Managing a criminal empire by the twenty-question method.

Unfortunately less effective is the simple economic strategy game that’s grafted onto the interpersonal stories. Here you control how much effort you put into your various criminal endeavors — speakeasies, gambling, and rackets — as well as how much you pay your right-hand man and bean counter Ben, the various officials you bribe, the foot soldiers in the gang, Lola, and of course yourself. In the original Macintosh version of the game this process is almost unbelievably tedious. You’re forced to learn about and control your empire via a question-and-answer session with Ben that takes absolutely forever and that has to be repeated over and over as the months pass. You can easily end up spending more total time having these inane dialogs with Ben then you do with the entire rest of the game.

King of Chicago on the Amiga.

King of Chicago on the Amiga.

Thankfully, the Macintosh version is not the final or definitive one. Over a year after the original release the game finally appeared on the Amiga in a version that isn’t so much a port as a complete remake. While Sharp still acted as programmer and narratologist, Cinemaware’s in-house team completely redid the graphics, ditching Sharp’s Potato Heads in favor of hand-drawn portraits of tough mugs and pouting dames that could be dropped easily into any vintage James Cagney flick. Sharp, meanwhile, took the opportunity to tighten up the narrative, removing some wordy exposition and pointless scenes, rewriting others. The occasional action games were also vastly improved to reflect the Amiga’s capabilities. Best of all, the endless question-and-answer sessions with Ben were replaced with a simple interactive ledger giving an easily adjustable overview of the state of your criminal empire. The strategy angle is still a bit undercooked — the numbers never quite add up from month to month, and cause and effect is far from consistently clear — but it goes from being a tedious time sink to an occasional distraction. The Amiga version plays out in about half the time of the original, with a corresponding additional dramatic thrust.

The Amiga's much-improved economic interface.

The Amiga version’s much-improved economic interface.

Of S.D.I. and King of Chicago, the latter would turn out to be the more successful in the long run, managing to sell more than 50,000 copies — albeit most of them in its vastly improved version for the Amiga and (eventually) the Atari ST, Apple IIGS, and IBM PC rather than its original Macintosh incarnation. Despite its relative commercial success, it’s always been amongst the most polarizing of the Cinemaware games, dismissed by some — unfairly in my opinion, for all the reasons I’ve just so copiously documented — as little more than a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book. Future Cinemaware games would take their cue from Defender of the Crown rather than its companions on the label’s debut marquee. I wish I could say I expect to be revisiting the ideas behind Doug Sharp’s Dramaton soon, whether via a game from Cinemaware or anyone else, but such bold experiments in interactive narrative have been much less common than one might wish in the history of computer gaming. This just makes it all the more important to credit them when we find them.

(The sources listed in the previous article apply to this one as well. In addition: Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Doug Sharp’s blog; and two presentations given by Sharp, one from the 1989 Game Developers Conference and the other from 1995 American Association of Artificial Intelligence Symposium on Interactive Story Systems.

King of Chicago is available in the emulated Amiga version for iOS and Android for those of you interested in experiencing it today.)


  1. I should note at this point that the terms “storytelling game” and “storymaking game” are hardly set in stone. Some prefer to talk of “canned narratives” and “emergent narratives.” Some, such as Brian Moriarty, have even flipped the terms around, considering the stories in storymaking games to be stories made beforehand by a human designer, and the stories in storytelling games to be stories made up and told on the fly by the computer. Doug Sharp himself seems to favor Moriarty’s usage, but I find my approach more intuitive. Regardless, it’s best not to get too hung-up on ever-shifting terminology in this area, and just try to understand the concepts. 

 
 

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Defender of the Crown

Defender of the Crown

If you rushed out excitedly to buy an Amiga in the early days because it looked about to revolutionize gaming, you could be excused if you felt just a little bit disappointed and underwhelmed as the platform neared its first anniversary in shops. There was a reasonable amount of entertainment software available — much of it from the Amiga’s staunchest supporter, Electronic Arts — but nothing that felt quite as groundbreaking as EA’s early rhetoric about the Amiga would imply. Even the games from EA were mostly ports of popular 8-bit titles, modestly enhanced but hardly transformed. More disappointing in their way were the smattering of original titles. Games like Arcticfox and Marble Madness had their charms, but there was nothing conceptually new about them. Degrade the graphics and sound just slightly and they too could easily pass for 8-bit games. But then, timed to neatly correspond with that one-year anniversary, along came Defender of the Crown, the Amiga’s first blockbuster and to this day the game many old-timers think of first when you mention the platform.

Digital gaming in general was a medium in flux in the mid-1980s, still trying to understand what it was and where it fit on the cultural landscape. The preferred metaphor for pundits and developers alike immediately before the Amiga era was the book; the bookware movement brought with it Interactive Fiction, Electronic Novels, Living Literature, and many other forthrightly literary branded appellations. Yet in the big picture bookware had proved to be something of a commercial dud. Defender of the Crown gave the world a new metaphorical frame, one that seemed much better suit to the spectacular audiovisual capabilities of the Amiga. Cinemaware, the company that made it, had done just what their name would imply: replaced the interactive book with the interactive movie. In the process, they blew the doors of possibility wide open. In its way Defender of the Crown was as revolutionary as the Amiga itself — or, if you like, it was the long-awaited proof of concept for the Amiga as a revolutionary technology for gaming. All this, and it wasn’t even a very good game.

The Cinemaware story begins with Bob Jacob, a serial entrepreneur and lifelong movie buff who fulfilled a dream in 1982 by selling his business in Chicago and moving along with his wife Phyllis to Los Angeles, cradle of Hollywood. With time to kill while he figured out his next move, he became fascinated with another, newer form of media: arcade and computer games. He was soon immersing himself in the thriving Southern California hacker scene. Entrepreneur that he was, he smelled opportunity there. Most of the programmers writing games around him were “not very articulate” and clueless about business. Jacob realized that he could become a go-between, a bridge between hackers and publishers who assured that the former didn’t get ripped off and that the latter had ready access to talent. He could become, in other words, a classic Hollywood agent transplanted to the brave new world of software. Jacob did indeed became a modest behind-the-scenes player over the next couple of years, brokering deals with the big players like Epyx, Activision, Spinnaker, and Mindscape for individuals and small development houses like Ultrasoft, Synergistic, Interactive Arts, and Sculptured Software. And then came the day when he saw the Amiga for the first time.

Jacob had gotten a call from a developer called Island Graphics, who had been contracted by Commodore to write a paint program to be available on Day One for the Amiga. But the two companies had had a falling out. Now Island wanted Jacob to see if he could place the project with another publisher. This he succeeded in doing, signing Island with a new would-be Amiga publisher called Aegis; Island’s program would be released as Aegis Images. (Commodore would commission R.J. Mical to write an alternate paint program in-house; it hit the shelves under Commodore’s own imprint as GraphiCraft.) Much more important to Jacob’s future, however, was his visit to Island’s tiny office and his first glimpse of the prototype Amigas they had there. Like Trip Hawkins and a handful of others, Jacob immediately understood what the Amiga could mean for the future of gaming. He understood so well, in fact, that he made a life-changing decision. He decided he wanted to be more than just an agent. Rather than ride shotgun for the revolution, he wanted to drive it. He therefore wound down his little agency practice in favor of spearheading a new gaming concept he dubbed “Cinemaware.”

Jacob has recounted on a number of occasions the deductions that led him to the Cinemaware concept. A complete Amiga system was projected to cost in the neighborhood of $2000. Few of the teenagers who currently dominated amongst gamers could be expected to have parents indulgent enough to spend that kind of money on them. Jacob therefore expected the demographic that purchased Amigas to skew upward in age — toward people like him, a comfortably well-off professional in his mid-thirties. And people like him would not only want, as EA would soon be putting it, “the visual and aural quality our sophisticated eyes and ears demand,” but also more varied and nuanced fictional experiences. They would, in other words, like to get beyond Dungeons and Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek as the sum total of their games’ cultural antecedents. At the same time, though, their preference for more varied and interesting ludic fictions didn’t necessarily imply that they wanted games that were all that demanding on their time or even their brainpower. This is the point where Jacob diverged radically from Infocom, the most prominent extant purveyor of sophisticated interactive fictions. The very first computer game that Jacob had ever bought had been Infocom’s Deadline. He hadn’t been all that taken with the experience even at the time. Now, what with its parser-based interface and all the typing that that entailed, its complete lack of audiovisual flash, its extensive manual and evidence reports that the player was expected to read before even putting the disk in the drive, and the huge demands it placed on the player hoping to actually solve its case, it served as a veritable model for what Jacob didn’t want his games to be. Other forms of entertainment favored by busy adults weren’t so demanding. Quite the opposite, in fact. His conception of adult gaming would have it be as easy-going and accessible as television. Thus one might characterize Jacob’s vision as essentially Trip Hawkins’s old dictum of “simple, hot, and deep,” albeit with a bit more emphasis on the “hot” and a bit less on the “deep.” The next important question was where to find those more varied and nuanced fictional experiences. For a movie buff living on the very doorstep of Tinsel Town, the answer must have all but announced itself of its own accord.

Bookware aside, the game industry had to some extent been aping the older, more established art form of film for a while already. The first attempt that I’m aware of to portray a computer game as an interactive movie came with Sierra’s 1982 text-adventure epic Time Zone, the advertising for which was drawn as a movie poster, complete with “Starring: You,” “Admission: $99.95,” and a rating of “UA” for “Ultimate Adventure.” It was also the first game that I’m aware of to give a credit for “Producer” and “Executive Producer.” Once adopted and popularized by Electronic Arts the following year, such movie-making terminology spread quickly all over the game industry. Now Bob Jacob was about to drive the association home with a jackhammer.

Each Cinemaware game would be an interactive version of some genre of movies, drawn from the rich Hollywood past that Jacob knew so well. If nothing else, Hollywood provided the perfect remedy for writer’s block: “Creatively it was great because we had all kinds of genres of movies to shoot for.” Many of the movie genres in which Cinemaware would work felt long-since played-out creatively by the mid-1980s, but most gaming fictions were still so crude by comparison with even the most hackneyed Hollywood productions that it really didn’t matter: “I was smart enough and cynical enough to realize that all we had to do was reach the level of copycat, and we’d be considered a breakthrough.”

Cynicism notwithstanding, the real, obvious love that Jacob and a number of his eventual collaborators had for the movies they so self-consciously evoked would always remain one of the purest, most appealing things about Cinemaware. Their manuals, scant and often almost unnecessary as they would be, would always make room for an affectionate retrospective on each game’s celluloid inspirations. At the same time, though, we should understand something else about the person Jacob was and is. He’s not an idealist or an artist, and certainly not someone who spends a lot of time fretting over games in terms of anything other than commercial entertainment. He’s someone for whom phrases like “mass-market appeal” — and such phrases tend to come up frequently in his discourse — hold nary a hint of irony or condescension. Even his love of movies, genuine as it may be, reflects his orientation toward mainstream entertainment. You’ll not find him waiting for the latest Criterion Collection release of Bergman or Truffaut. No, he favors big popcorn flicks with, well, mass-market appeal. Like so much else about Jacob, this sensibility would be reflected in Cinemaware.

Financing for a new developer wasn’t an easy thing to secure in the uncertain industry of 1985. Perhaps in response, Jacob initially conceived of his venture as a very minimalist operation, employing only himself and his wife Phyllis on a full-time basis. The other founding member of the inner circle was Kellyn Beeck, a friend, software acquisitions manager at Epyx, fellow movie buff, and frustrated game designer. The plan was to give him a chance to exorcise the latter demon with Cinemaware. Often working from Jacob’s initial inspiration, he would provide outside developers with design briefs for Cinemaware games, written in greater or lesser detail depending on the creativity and competency of said developers. When the games were finished, Jacob would pass them on to Mindscape for publication as part of the Cinemaware line. One might say that it wasn’t conceptually all that far removed from the sort of facilitation Jacob had been doing for a couple of years already as a software agent. It would keep the non-technical Jacob well-removed from the uninteresting (to him) nuts and bolts of software development. Jacob initially called his company Master Designer Software, reflecting both an attempt to “appeal to the ego of game designers” and a hope that, should the Cinemaware stuff turn out well, he might eventually launch other themed lines. Cinemaware would, however, become such a strong brand in its own right in the next year or two that Jacob would end up making it the name of his company. I’ll just call Jacob’s operation “Cinemaware” from now on, as that’s the popular name everyone would quickly come to know it under even well before the official name change.

After nearly a year of preparation, Jacob pulled the trigger on Cinemaware at last in January of 1986, when in a manner of a few days he legally formed his new company, signed a distribution contract with Mindscape, and signed contracts with outsiders to develop the first four Cinemaware games, to be delivered by October 15, 1986 — just in time for Christmas. Two quite detailed design briefs went to Sculptured Software of Salt Lake City, a programming house that had made a name for themselves as a porter of games between platforms. Of Sculptured’s Cinemaware projects, Defender of the Crown, the title about which Jacob and Beeck were most excited, was inspired by costume epics of yesteryear featuring legendary heroes like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, while SDI was to be a game involving Ronald Reagan’s favorite defense program and drawing its more tenuous cinematic inspiration from science-fiction classics ranging from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s to the recent blockbuster Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The other two games went to proven lone-wolf designer/programmers, last of a slowly dying breed, and were outlined in much broader strokes. King of Chicago, given to a programmer named Doug Sharp who had earlier written a game called ChipWits, an interesting spiritual successor to Silas Warner’s classic Robot War, was to be an homage to gangster movies. And Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon was given to one Bill Williams, who had earlier written such Atari 8-bit hits as Necromancer and Alley Cat and had just finished the first commercial game ever released for the Amiga, Mind Walker. His game would be an homage to Hollywood’s various takes on the Arabian Nights. Excited though he was by the Amiga, Jacob hedged his bets on his platforms just as he did on his developers, planning to get at least one title onto every antagonist in the 68000 Wars before 1986 was out. Only Defender of the Crown and Sinbad were to be developed and released first on the Amiga; King of Chicago would be written on the Macintosh, SDI on the Atari ST. If all went well, ports could follow.

All of this first wave of Cinemaware games as well as the ones that would follow will get their greater or lesser due around here in articles to come. Today, though, I want to concentrate on the most historically important if certainly not the best of Cinemaware’s works, Defender of the Crown.

Our noble Saxon hero on the job

Our noble Saxon hero on the job.

Defender of the Crown, then, takes place in a version of medieval England that owes far more to cinema than it does to history. As in romantic depictions of Merry Olde England dating back at least to Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the stolid English Saxons are the heroes here, the effete French Normans — despite being the historical victors in the struggle for control of England — the villains. Thus you play a brave Saxon lord struggling against his Norman oppressors. Defender of the Crown really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as history, fiction, or legend. A number of its characters are drawn from Ivanhoe, which might lead one to conclude that it’s meant to be a sequel to that book, taking place after Richard I’s death has thrown his kingdom into turmoil once again. But if that’s the case then why is Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, who was killed in Ivanhoe, running around alive and well again? Should you win Defender of the Crown, you’ll be creating what amounts to an alternate history in which the Saxons throw off the Norman yoke and regain control of England. Suffice to say that the only history that Defender of the Crown is really interested in is the history of Hollywood. What it wants to evoke is not the England of myth or reality, but the England of the movies so lovingly described in its manual. It has no idea where it stands in relation to Ivanhoe or much of anything else beyond the confines of a Hollywood sound stage, nor does it care. Given that, why should we? So, let’s agree to just go with it.

The core of Defender of the Crown: Risk in Merry Olde England

The core of Defender of the Crown: Risk played in Merry Olde England

Defender of the Crown is essentially Risk played on a map of England. The other players in the game include three of the hated Normans and two other Saxon lords, who generally try to avoid attacking their ethnic fellows unless space starts getting really tight. Your goal is of course to wipe the Normans from the map and make of England a Saxon kingdom again. Woven into the simple Risk-like strategy game are a handful of action-oriented minigames that can be triggered by your own actions or those of the other lords: a grand jousting tournament, a midnight raid on an enemy castle, a full-on siege complete with a catapult that you use to knock down a beleaguered castle’s walls. In keeping with Jacob’s vision of Cinemaware games as engaging but light entertainments, a full game usually takes well under an hour to play, and there is no provision for saving or restoring.

From the beginning, it was Jacob’s intention to really pull out all the stops for Defender of the Crown in particular amongst his launch titles, to make of it an audiovisual showcase the likes of which had never been seen before. Shortly after signing Sculptured Software to do the programming, he therefore signed Jim Sachs to work with them, giving him a title familiar to Hollywood but new to the world of games: Art Director.

A Jim Sachs self-portrait

A Jim Sachs self-portrait, one of his early Amiga pictures that won him the job of Art Director for Defender of the Crown.

A self-taught artist from childhood and a programmer since he’d purchased a Commodore 64 just a few years before, Sachs had made quite a name for himself in quite a short time in Commodore circles. He’d written and released a game of his own for the Commodore 64, Saucer Attack, that mixed spectacular graphics with questionable gameplay (an accusation soon to be leveled against Defender of the Crown as well). He’d then spent a year working on another game, to be called Time Crystal, that never got beyond a jawdropping demo that made the rounds of Commodore 64 BBSs for years. He’d been able to use this demo and Saucer Attack to convince Commodore to give him developer’s status for the Amiga, allowing him access to pre-release hardware. Sach’s lovely early pictures were amongst the first to be widely distributed amongst Amiga users, making him the most well-known of the Amiga’s early hacker artists prior to Eric Graham flooring everyone with his Juggler animation in mid-1986. Indeed, Sachs was quite possibly the best Amiga painter in the world when Jacob signed him up to do Defender of the Crown — Andy Warhol included. He would become the most important single individual to work on the game. If it was unusual for an artist to become the key figure behind a game, that itself was an illustration of what made Cinemaware — and particularly Defender of the Crown — so different from what had come before. As he himself was always quick to point out, Sachs by no means personally drew every single one of the many lush scenes that make up the game. At least seven others contributed art, an absolutely huge number by the standards of the time, and another sign of what made Defender of the Crown so different from everything that had come before. It is fair to say, however, that Sachs’s virtual brush swept over every single one of the game’s scenes, tweaking a shadow here, harmonizing differing styles there. His title of Art Director was very well-earned.

This knight, first distributed by Jim Sachs as a picture file, would find his way into Defender of the Crown almost unaltered.

This knight, first distributed by Jim Sachs as a standalone picture, would find his way into Defender of the Crown almost unaltered.

By June of 1986 Sachs and company had provided Sculptured Software with a big pile of mouth-watering art, but Sculptured had yet to demonstrate to Jacob even the smallest piece of a game incorporating any of it. Growing concerned, Jacob flew out to Salt Lake City to check on their progress. What he found was a disaster: “Those guys were like nowhere. Literally nowhere.” Their other game for Cinemaware, SDI, was relatively speaking further along, but also far behind schedule. It seemed that this new generation of 68000-based computers had proved to be more than Sculptured had bargained for.

Desperate to meet his deadline with Mindscape, Jacob took the first steps toward his eventual abandonment of his original concept of Cinemaware as little more than a creative director and broker between developer and publisher. He hired his first actual employee beyond himself and Phyllis, a fellow named John Cutter who had just been laid off following Activision’s acquisition of his previous employer Gamestar, a specialist in sports games. Cutter, more technical and more analytical than Jacob, would become his right-hand man and organizer-in-chief for Cinemaware’s many projects to come. His first task was to remove Sculptured Software entirely from Defender of the CrownS.D.I. they were allowed to keep, but from now on they’d work on it under close supervision from Cutter. Realizing he needed someone who knew the Amiga intimately to have a prayer of completing Defender of the Crown by October 15, Jacob called up none other than R.J. Mical, developer of Intuition and GraphiCraft, and made him an offer: $26,000 if he could take Sachs’s pile of art and Jacob and Beeck’s design, plus a bunch of music Jacob had commissioned from a composer named Jim Cuomo, and turn it all into a finished game within three months. Mical simply said — according to Jacob — “I’m your man.”

Defender of the Crown

He got it done, even if it did nearly kill him. Mical insists to this day that Jacob wasn’t straight with him about the project, that the amount of work it ended up demanding of him was far greater than what he had been led to expect when he agreed to do the job. He was left so unhappy by his rushed final product that he purged his own name from the in-game credits. Sachs also is left with what he calls a “bitter taste,” feeling Jacob ended up demanding far, far more work from him than was really fair for the money he was paid. Many extra graphical flourishes and entire additional scenes that Mical simply didn’t have time or space to incorporate into the finished product were left on the cutting-room floor. Countless 20-hour days put in by Sachs and his artists thus went to infuriating waste in the name of meeting an arbitrary deadline. Sachs claims that five man-weeks work worth of graphics were thrown out for the jousting scenes alone. Neither Sachs nor Mical would ever work with Cinemaware again.

Jousting, otherwise known as occasionally knocking the other guy off his horse but mostly getting unhorsed yourself for no discernible reason

Jousting, otherwise known as occasionally knocking the other guy off his horse for no discernible reason but mostly getting unhorsed yourself.

Many gameplay elements were also cut, while even much of what did make it in has an unfinished feel about it. Defender of the Crown manages the neat trick of being both too hard and too easy. What happens on the screen in the various action minigames feels peculiarly disconnected from what you actually do with the mouse. I’m not sure anyone has ever entirely figured out how the jousting or swordfighting games are even supposed to work; random mouse twiddling and praying would seem to be the only viable tactics. And yet the Risk-style strategic game is almost absurdly easy. Most players win it — and thus Defender of the Crown as a whole — on their second if not their first try, and then never lose again.

Given this, it would be very easy to dismiss Defender of the Crown entirely. And indeed, plenty of critics have done just that, whilst often tossing the rest of Cinemaware’s considerable catalog into the trash can of history alongside it. But, as the length of this article would imply, I’m not quite willing to do that. I recognize that Defender of the Crown isn’t really up to much as a piece of game design, yet even today that doesn’t seem to matter quite as much as it ought to. Simplistic and kind of broken as it is, it’s still a more entertaining experience today than it ought to be — certainly enough so to be worth a play or two. And back in 1986… well, I united England under the Saxon banner a ridiculous number of times as a kid, long after doing so became rote. In thinking about Defender of the Crown‘s appeal, I’ve come to see it as representing an important shift not just in the way that games are made but also in the way that we experience them. To explain what I mean I need to get a bit theoretical with you, just for a moment.

Whilst indulging in a bit of theory in an earlier article, I broke down a game into three component parts: its system of rules and mechanics, its “surface” or user interface, and its fictional context. I want to set aside the middle entry in that trio and just think about rules and context today. As I also wrote in that earlier article, the rise in earnest of what I call “experiential games” from the 1950s onward is marked by an increased interest in the latter in comparison to the former, as games became coherent fictional experiences to be lived rather than mere abstract systems to be manipulated in pursuit of a favorable outcome. I see Defender of the Crown and the other Cinemaware games as the logical endpoint of that tendency. In designing the game, Bob Jacob and Kellyn Beeck started not with a mechanical concept — grand strategy, text adventure, arcade action, etc. — but with a fictional context: a recreation of those swashbuckling Hollywood epics of yore. That the mechanical system they came up with to underlie that fiction — a simplified game of Risk peppered by equally simplistic action games — is loaded with imperfections is too bad but also almost ancillary to Defender of the Crown the experience. The mechanics do the job just well enough to make themselves irrelevant. No one comes to Defender of the Crown to play a great strategy game. They come to immerse themselves in the Merry Olde England of bygone Hollywood.

For many years now there have been voices stridently opposed to the emphasis a game like Defender of the Crown places on its its fictional context, with the accompanying emphasis on foreground aesthetics necessary to bring that context to life. Chris Crawford, for instance, dismisses not just this game but Cinemaware as a whole in one paragraph in On Game Design as “lots of pretty pictures and animated sequences” coupled to “weak” gameplay. Gameplay is king, we’re told, and graphics and music and all the rest don’t — or shouldn’t — matter a whit. Crawford all but critically ranks games based entirely on what he calls their “process intensity”: their ratio of dynamic, interactive code — i.e., gameplay —  to static art, sound, music, even text. If one accepts this point of view in whole or in part, as many of the more prominent voices in game design and criticism tend to do, it does indeed become very easy to dismiss the entire oeuvre of Cinemaware as a fundamentally flawed concept and, worse, a dangerous one, a harbinger of further design degradations to come.

Speaking here as someone with an unusual tolerance for ugly graphics — how else could I have written for years now about all those ugly 8-bit games? — I find that point of view needlessly reductive and rather unfair. Leaving aside that beauty for its own sake, whether found in a game or in an art museum, is hardly worthy of our scorn, the reality is that very few modern games are strictly about their mechanics. Many have joined Defender of the Crown as embodied fictional experiences. This is the main reason that many people play them today. If beautiful graphics help us to feel embodied in a ludic world, bully for them. I’d argue that the rich graphics in Defender of the Crown carry much the same water as the rich prose in, say, Mindwheel or Trinity. Personally — and I understand that mileages vary here — I’m more interested in becoming someone else or experiencing — there’s that word again! — something new to me for a while than I am in puzzles, strategy, or reflex responses in the abstract. I’d venture to guess that most gamers are similar. In some sense modern games have transcended games — i.e., a system of rules and mechanics — as we used to know them. Commercial and kind of crass as it sometimes is, we can see Defender of the Crown straining toward becoming an embodied, interactive, moving, beautiful, fictional experience rather than being just the really bad take on Risk it unquestionably also is.

A fetching lass. Those partial to redheads or brunettes have other options.

A fetching lass gives you the old come-hither stare. Those partial to redheads or brunettes also have options.

A good illustration of Defender of the Crown‘s appeal as an experiential fiction as well as perhaps a bit of that aforementioned crassness is provided by the game’s much-discussed romantic angle. No Hollywood epic being complete without a love interest for the dashing hero, you’ll likely at some point during your personal epic get the opportunity to rescue a Saxon damsel in distress from the clutches of a dastardly Norman. We all know what’s bound to happen next: “During the weeks that follow, gratitude turns to love. Then, late one night…”

Consummating the affair. Those shadows around waist-level are... unfortunate. I don't actually think they're supposed to look like what they look like...

Consummating the affair. Those shadows around waist-level are… unfortunate. I don’t think they’re actually supposed to look like what they look like, although they do give a new perspective to the name of “Geoffrey Longsword.”

After the affair is consummated, your new gal accompanies you through the rest of the game. It’s important to note here that she has no effect one way or the other on your actual success in reconquering England, and that rescuing her is actually one of the more difficult things to do in Defender of the Crown, as it requires that you engage with the pretty terrible swordfighting game; I can only pull it off if I pick as my character Geoffrey Longsword, appropriately enough the hero with “Strong” swordfighting skills. Yet your game — your story — somehow feels incomplete if you don’t manage it. What good is a hero without a damsel to walk off into the sunset with him? There are several different versions of the virgin (sorry!) that show up, just to add a bit of replay value for the lovelorn.

As I’ve written earlier, 1986 was something of a banner year for sex in videogames. The love scene in Defender of the Crown, being much more, um, graphic than the others, attracted particular attention. Many a youngster over the years to come would have his dreams delightfully haunted by those damsels. Shortly after the game’s release, Amazing Computing published an unconfirmed report from an “insider” that the love scene was originally intended to be interactive, requiring “certain mouse actions to coax the fair woman, who reacted accordingly. After consulting with game designers and project management, the programmer supposedly destroyed all copies of the source code to that scene.” Take that with what grains of salt you will. At any rate, a sultry love interest would soon become a staple of Cinemaware games, for the very good reason that the customers loved them. And anyway, Jacob himself, as he later admitted in a revelation bordering on Too Much Information, “always liked chesty women.” It was all horribly sexist, of course, something Amazing Computing pointed out by declaring Defender of the Crown the “most anti-woman game of the year.” On the other hand, it really wasn’t any more sexist than its cinematic inspirations, so I suppose it’s fair enough when taken in the spirit of homage.

Defender of the Crown

Cinemaware wasn’t shy about highlighting one of Defender of the Crown‘s core appeals. Did someone mention sexism?

The buzz about Defender of the Crown started inside Amiga circles even before the game was done. An early build was demonstrated publicly for the first time at the Los Angeles Commodore Show in September of 1986; it attracted a huge, rapt crowd. Released right on schedule that November through Mindscape, Defender of the Crown caused a sensation. Amiga owners treated it as something like a prophecy fulfilled; this was the game they’d all known the Amiga was capable of, the one they’d been waiting for, tangible proof of their chosen platform’s superiority over all others. And it became an object of lust — literally, when the gorgeously rendered Saxon maidens showed up — for those who weren’t lucky enough to own Commodore’s wunderkind.  You could spend lots of time talking about all of the Amiga’s revolutionary capabilities — or you could just pop Defender of the Crown in the drive, sit back, and watch the jaws drop. The game sold 20,000 copies before the end of 1986 alone, astounding numbers considering that the total pool of Amiga owners at that point probably didn’t number much more than 100,000. I feel pretty confident in saying that just about every one of those 80,000 or so Amiga owners who didn’t buy the game right away probably had a pirated copy soon enough. It would go on to sell 250,000 copies, the “gift that kept on giving” for Jacob and Cinemaware for years to come. While later Cinemaware games would be almost as beautiful and usually much better designed — not to mention having the virtue of actually being finished — no other would come close to matching Defender of the Crown‘s sales numbers or its public impact.

Laying seige to a castle. The Greek fire lying to the left of the catapault can't be used. It was cut from the game but not the graphics, only to be added back in in later ports.

Laying siege to a castle. The Greek fire lying to the left of the catapult can’t be used. It was cut from the game but not the graphics, only to be added back in in later ports.

Cinemaware ported Defender of the Crown to a plethora of other platforms over the next couple of years. Ironically, virtually all of the ports were much better game games than the Amiga version, fixing the minigames to make them comprehensible and reasonably entertaining and tightening up the design to make it at least somewhat more difficult to sleepwalk to victory. In a sense, it was Atari ST users who got the last laugh. That, anyway, is the version that some aficionados name as the best overall: the graphics and sound aren’t quite as good, but the game behind them has been reworked with considerable aplomb. Even so, it remained and remains the Amiga version that most people find most alluring. Without those beautiful graphics, there just doesn’t seem to be all that much point to Defender of the Crown. Does this make it a gorgeous atmospheric experience that transcends its game mechanics or just a broken, shallow game gussied up with lots of pretty pictures? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. Artistic truth is always in the eye of the beholder. But one thing is clear: we’ll be having these sorts of discussions a lot as we look at games to come. That’s the real legacy of Defender of the Crown — for better or for worse.

Defender of the Crown

(Sources: On the Edge by Brian Bagnall; Computer Gaming World of January/February 1985, March 1987 and August/September 1987; Amazing Computing #1.9, February 1987, April 1987, and July 1987; Commodore Magazine of October 1987 and November 1988; AmigaWorld of November/December 1986. Jim Sachs has been interviewed in more recent years by Kamil Niescioruk and The Personal Computer Museum. Matt Barton and Tristan Donovan have each interviewed Bob Jacob for Gamasutra.

Defender of the Crown is available for purchase for Windows and Mac from GOG.com, in the Apple Store for iOS, and on Google Play for Android for those of you wanting to visit Merry Olde England for yourselves. All emulate the historically definitive if somewhat broken Amiga version, featuring the original Amiga graphics and sound.)

 
 

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