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Shades of Gray

Ladies and gentlemen, come and see. This isn’t a country here but an epic failure factory, an excuse for a place, a weed lot, an abyss for tightrope walkers, blindman’s bluff for the sightless saddled with delusions of grandeur, proud mountains reduced to dust dumped in big helpings into the cruciform maws of sick children who crouch waiting in the hope of insane epiphanies, behaving badly and swamped besides, bogged down in their devil’s quagmires. Our history is a corset, a stifling cell, a great searing fire.

— Lyonel Trouillot

What’s to be done about Haiti?

Generations have asked that question about the first and most intractable poster child for postcolonial despair, the poorest country in North or South America now and seemingly forever, a place whose corruption and futility manages to make the oft-troubled countries around it look like models of good governance. Nowhere feels James Joyce’s description of history as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” more apt. Indeed, Haiti stands as perhaps the ultimate counterargument to the idealistic theory of history as progress. Here history really is just one damned thing after another — differing slightly in the details, but always the same at bottom.

But why should it be this way? What has been so perplexing and infuriating about Haiti for so long is that there seems to be no real reason for its constant suffering. Long ago, when it was still a French colony, it was known as the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” and was not only beautiful but rich; at the time of the American Revolution, it was richer than any one of the thirteen British American colonies. Those few who bother to visit Haiti today still call it one of the most beautiful places of all in the beautiful region that is the Caribbean. Today the Dominican Republic, the nation with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, is booming, the most popular tourist spot in the Caribbean, with the fastest-growing economy anywhere in North or South America. But Haiti, despite being blessed with all the same geographic advantages, languishes in poverty next door, seething with resentment over its condition. It’s as if the people of Haiti have been cursed by one of the voodoo gods to which some of them still pray to act out an eternal farce of chaos, despair, and senseless violence.

Some scenes from the life of Haiti…

…you are a proud Mandingue hunter in a hot West African land. But you’re not hunting. You’re being hunted — by slavers, both black and white. You run, and run, and run, until your lungs are near to bursting. But it’s no use. You’re captured and chained like an animal, and thrust into the dank hold of a sailing ship. Hundreds of your countrymen and women are here — hungry, thirsty, some beaten and maimed by your captors. All are terrified for themselves and their families, from whom they’ve been cruelly separated. Many die on the long voyage. But when it’s over, you wonder if perhaps they were the lucky ones…

The recorded history of the island of Hispaniola begins with the obliteration of the people who had always lived there. The Spanish conquistadors arrived on the island in the fifteenth century, bringing with them diseases against which the native population, known as the Taíno, had no resistance, along with a brutal regime of forced labor. Within two generations, the Taíno were no more. They left behind only a handful of words which entered the European vocabulary, like “hammock,” “hurricane,” “savanna,” “canoe,” “barbecue,” and “tobacco.” The Spanish, having lost their labor force, shrugged their shoulders and largely abandoned Hispaniola.

But in the ensuing centuries, Europeans developed a taste for sugar, which could be produced in large quantities only in the form of sugarcane, which in turn grew well only in tropical climates like those of the Caribbean. Thus the abandoned island of Hispaniola began to have value again. The French took possession of the western third of the island — the part known as Haiti today — with the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the Nine Years War in 1697. France officially incorporated its new colony of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola the same year.

Growing sugarcane demanded backbreaking labor under the hot tropical sun, work of a kind judged unsuitable for any white man. And so, with no more native population to enslave, the French began to import slaves from Africa. Their labor turned Saint-Domingue in a matter of a few decades from a backwater into one of the jewels of France’s overseas empire. In 1790, the year of the colony’s peak, 48,000 slaves were imported to join the 500,000 who were already there. It was necessary to import slaves in such huge numbers just to maintain the population in light of the appalling death toll of those working in the fields; little Saint-Domingue alone imported more slaves over the course of its history than the entirety of the eventual United States.

…you’re a slave, toiling ceaselessly in a Haitian cane field for your French masters. While they live bloated with wealth, you and your fellows know little but hardship and pain. Brandings, floggings, rape, and killing are everyday events. And for the slightest infraction, a man could be tortured to death by means limited only by his owners’ dark imaginations. What little comfort you find is in the company of other slaves, who, at great risk to themselves, try to keep the traditions of your lost homeland alive. And there is hope — some of your brothers could not be broken, and have fled to the hills to live free. These men, the Maroons, are said to be training as warriors, and planning for your people’s revenge. Tonight, you think, under cover of darkness, you will slip away to join them…

The white masters of Saint-Domingue, who constituted just 10 percent of the colony’s population, lived in terror of the other 90 percent, and this fear contributed to the brutality with which they punished the slightest sign of recalcitrance on the part of their slaves. Further augmenting their fears of the black Other was the slaves’ foreboding religion of voodoo: a blending of the animistic cults they had brought with them from tribal Africa with the more mystical elements of Catholicism — all charms and curses, potions and spells, trailing behind it persistent rumors of human sacrifice.

Even very early in the eighteenth century, some slaves managed to escape into the wilderness of Hispaniola, where they formed small communities that the white men found impossible to dislodge. Organized resistance, however, took a long time to develop.

Legend has it that the series of events which would result in an independent nation on the western third of Hispaniola began on the night of August 21, 1791, when a group of slave leaders secretly gathered at a hounfour — a voodoo temple — just outside the prosperous settlement of Cap‑Français. Word of the French Revolution had reached the slaves, and, with mainland France in chaos, the time seemed right to strike here in the hinterlands of empire. A priestess slit the throat of a sacrificial pig, and the head priest said that the look and taste of the pig’s blood indicated that Ogun and Ghede, the gods of war and death respectively, wanted the slaves to rise up. Together the leaders drank the blood under a sky that suddenly broke into storm, then sneaked back onto their individual plantations at dawn to foment revolution.

That, anyway, is the legend. There’s good reason to doubt whether the hounfour actually happened, but the revolution certainly did.

…you are in the middle of a bloody revolution. You are a Maroon, an ex-slave, fighting in the only successful slave revolt in history. You have only the most meager weapons, but you and your comrades are fighting for your very lives. There is death and destruction all around you. Once-great plantation houses lie in smouldering ruins. Corpses, black and white, litter the cane fields. Ghede walks among them, smiling and nodding at his rich harvest. He sees you and waves cheerfully…

The proudest period of Haiti’s history — the one occasion on which Haiti actually won something — began before a nation of that name existed, when the slaves of Saint-Domingue rose up against their masters, killing or driving them off their plantations. After the French were dispensed with, the ex-slaves continued to hold their ground against Spanish and English invaders who, concerned about what an example like this could mean for other colonies, tried to bring them to heel.

In 1798, a well-educated, wily former slave named Toussaint Louverture consolidated control of the now-former French colony. He spoke both to his own people and to outsiders using the language of the Enlightenment, drawing from the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, putting a whole new face on this bloody revolution that had supposedly been born at a voodoo houfour on a hot jungle night.

Toussaint Louverture was frequently called the black George Washington in light of the statesmanlike role he played for his people. He certainly looked the part. Would Haiti’s history have been better had he lived longer? We can only speculate.

…and you are battling Napoleon’s armies, Europe’s finest, sent to retake the jewel of the French empire. You have few resources, but you fight with extraordinary courage. Within two years, sixty thousand veteran French troops have died, and your land is yours again. The French belong to Ghede, who salutes you with a smirk…

Napoleon had now come to power in France, and was determined to reassert control over his country’s old empire even as he set about conquering a new one. In 1802, he sent an army to retake the colony of Saint-Domingue. Toussaint Louverture was tricked, captured, and shipped to France, where he soon died in a prison cell. But his comrades in arms, helped along by a fortuitous outbreak of yellow fever among the French forces and by a British naval blockade stemming from the wars back in Europe, defeated Napoleon’s finest definitively in November of 1803. The world had little choice but to recognize the former colony of Saint-Domingue as a predominately black independent nation-state, the first of its type.

With Louverture dead, however, there was no one to curb the vengeful instincts of the former slaves who had defeated the French after such a long, hard struggle. It was perfectly reasonable that the new nation would take for its name Haiti — the island of Hispaniola’s name in the now-dead Taíno language — rather than the French appellation of Saint-Domingue. Less reasonable were the words of independent Haiti’s first leader, and first in its long line of dictators, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who said that “we should use the skin of a white man as a parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen.” True to his words, he proceeded to carry out systematic genocide on the remaining white population of Haiti, destroying in the process all of the goodwill that had accrued to the new country among progressives and abolitionists in the wider world. His vengeance cost Haiti both much foreign investment that might otherwise have been coming its way and the valuable contribution the more educated remaining white population, by no means all of whom had been opposed to the former slaves’ cause, might have been able to make to its economy. A precedent had been established which holds to this day: of Haiti being its own worst enemy, over and over again.

…a hundred years of stagnation and instability flash by your eyes. As your nation’s economic health declines, your countrymen’s thirst for coups d’etat grows. Seventeen of twenty-four presidents are overthrown by guile or force of arms, and Ghede’s ghastly armies swell…

So, Haiti, having failed from the outset to live up to the role many had dreamed of casting it in as the first enlightened black republic, remained poor and inconsequential, mired in corruption and violence, as its story devolved from its one shining moment of glory into the cruel farce it remains to this day. The arguable lowlight of Haiti’s nineteenth century was the reign of one Faustin Soulouque, who had himself crowned Emperor Faustin I — emperor of what? — in 1849. American and European cartoonists had a field day with the pomp and circumstance of Faustin’s “court.” He was finally exiled to Jamaica in 1859, after he had tried and failed to invade the Dominican Republic (an emperor has to start somewhere, right?), extorted money from the few well-to-do members of Haitian society and defaulted on his country’s foreign debt in order to finance his palace, and finally gotten himself overthrown by a disgruntled army officer. Like the vast majority of Haiti’s leaders down through the years, he left his country in even worse shape than he found it.

Haiti’s Emperor Faustin I was a hit with the middle-brow reading public in the United States and Europe.

…you are a student, protesting the years-long American occupation of your country. They came, they said, to thwart Kaiser Wilhelm’s designs on the Caribbean, and to help the Haitian people. But their callous rule soon became morally and politically bankrupt. Chuckling, Ghede hands you a stone and you throw it. The uprising that will drive the invaders out has begun…

In 1915, Haiti was in the midst of one of its periodic paroxysms of violence. Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, the country’s sixth president in the last four years, had managed to hold the office for just five months when he was dragged out of the presidential palace into the street and torn limb from limb by a mob. The American ambassador to Haiti, feeling that the country had descended into a state of complete anarchy that could spread across the Caribbean, pleaded with President Woodrow Wilson to intervene. Fearing that Germany and its allies might exploit this chaos on the United States’s doorstep if and when his own country should enter the First World War on the opposing side, Wilson agreed. On July 28, 1915, a small force of American sailors occupied the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince almost without firing a shot — a far cry from Haiti’s proud struggle for independence against the French. Haiti was suddenly a colony again, although its new colonizers did promise that the occupation was temporary. It was to last just long enough to set the country on its feet and put a sound system of government in place.

When the Americans arrived in Haiti, they found its people’s lives not all that much different from the way they had lived at the time of Toussaint Louverture. Here we see the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the most “developed” place in the country.

The American occupation wound up lasting nineteen years, during which the occupiers did much practical good in Haiti. They paved more than a thousand miles of roadway; built bridges and railway lines and airports and canals; erected power stations and radio stations, schools and hospitals. Yet, infected with the racist attitudes toward their charges that were all too typical of the time, they failed at the less concrete tasks of instilling a respect for democracy and the rule of law. They preferred to make all the rules themselves by autocratic decree, giving actual Haitians only a token say in goings-on in their country. This prompted understandable anger and a sort of sullen, passive resistance among Haitians to all of the American efforts at reform, occasionally flaring up into vandalism and minor acts of terrorism. When the Americans, feeling unappreciated and generally hard-done-by, left Haiti in 1934, it didn’t take the country long to fall back into the old ways. Within four years President Sténo Vincent had declared himself dictator for life. But he was hardly the only waxing power in Haitian politics.

…a tall, ruggedly handsome black man with an engaging smile.

He is speaking to an assembled throng in a poverty-stricken city neighborhood. He tells moving stories about his experiences as a teacher, journalist, and civil servant. You admire both his skillful use of French and Creole, and his straightforward ideas about government. With eloquence and obvious sincerity, he speaks of freedom, justice and opportunity for all, regardless of class or color. His trenchant, biting criticisms of the establishment delight the crowd of longshoremen and laborers.

“Latin America and the Caribbean already have too many dictators,” he says. “It is time for a truly democratic government in Haiti.” The crowd roars out its approval…

The aspect of Haitian culture which had always baffled the Americans the most was the fact that this country whose population was 99.9 percent black was nevertheless riven by racism as pronounced as anywhere in the world. The traditional ruling class was the mulattoes: Haitians who could credit their lighter skin to white blood dating back to the old days of colonization, and/or to the fact that they and their ancestors hadn’t spent long years laboring in the sun. They made up perhaps 10 percent of the population, and spoke and governed in French. The rest of the population was made up of the noir Haitians: the darker-skinned people who constituted the working class. They spoke only the Haitian Creole dialect for the most part, and thus literally couldn’t understand most of what their country’s leaders said. In the past, it had been the mulattoes who killed one another to determine who ruled Haiti, while the noir Haitians just tried to stay out of the way.

In the 1940s, however, other leaders came forward to advance the cause of the “black” majority of the population; these leaders became known as the noiristes. Among the most prominent of them was Daniel Fignolé, a dark-skinned Haitian born, like most of his compatriots, into extreme poverty in 1913. Unlike most of them, he managed to educate himself by dint of sheer hard work, became political at the sight of the rampant injustice and corruption all around him, and came to be known as the “Moses of Port-au-Prince” for the fanatical loyalty he commanded among the stevedores, factory workers, and other unskilled laborers in and around the capital. Fignolé emphasized again and again that he was not a Marxist — an ideology that had been embraced by some of the mulattoes and was thus out of bounds for any good noiriste. Yet he did appropriate the Marxist language of proletariat and bourgeoisie, and left no doubt which side of that divide he was fighting for. For years, he remained an agitating force in Haitian politics without ever quite breaking through to real power. Then came the tumultuous year of 1957.

Daniel Fignolé, the great noiriste advocate for the working classes of Haiti.

…but you’re now a longshoreman in Port-au-Prince, and your beloved Daniel Fignolé has been ousted after just nineteen days as Provisional President. Rumors abound that he has been executed by Duvalier and his thugs. You’re taking part in a peaceful, if noisy, demonstration demanding his return. Suddenly, you’re facing government tanks and troops. Ghede rides on the lead tank, laughing and clapping his hands in delight. You shout your defiance and pitch a rock at the tank. The troops open fire, and machine-gun bullets rip through your chest…

One Paul Magloire, better known as Bon Papa, had been Haiti’s military dictator since 1950. The first few years of his reign had gone relatively well; his stridently anticommunist posturing won him some measure of support from the United States, and Haiti briefly even became a vacation destination to rival the Dominican Republic among sun-seeking American tourists. But when a devastating hurricane struck Hispaniola in 1954 and millions of dollars in international aid disappeared in inimitable Haitian fashion without ever reaching the country’s people, the mood among the elites inside the country who had been left out of that feeding frenzy began to turn against Bon Papa. On December 12, 1956, he resigned his office by the hasty expedient of jumping into an airplane and getting the hell out of Dodge before he came to share the fate of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The office of the presidency, a hot potato if ever there was one, then passed through three more pairs of hands in the next six months, while an election campaign to determine Haiti’s next permanent leader took place.

Of course, in Haiti election campaigns were fought with fists, clubs, knives, guns, bombs, and, most of all, rampant, pervasive corruption at every level. Still, in a rare sign of progress of a sort in Haitian politics, the two strongest candidates were both noiristes promising to empower the people rather than the mulatto elites. They were Daniel Fignolé and François Duvalier, the latter being a frequent comrade-in-arms of the former during the struggles of the last twenty years who had now become a rival; he was an unusually quiet, even diffident-seeming personality in terms of typical Haitian politics, so much so that many doubted his mental fortitude and intelligence alike. But Duvalier commanded enormous loyalty in the countryside, where he had worked for years as a doctor, often in tandem with American charitable organizations. Meanwhile Fignolé’s urban workers remained as committed to him as ever, and clashes between the supporters of the two former friends were frequent and often violent.

The workers around Port-au-Prince pledged absolute allegiance to Daniel Fignolé. He liked to call them his wuolo konmpresé — his “steamrollers,” always ready to take to the streets for a rally, a demonstration, or just a good old fight.

But then, on May 25, 1957, Duvalier unexpectedly threw his support behind a bid to make his rival the latest provisional president while the election ran its course, and Fignolé marched into the presidential palace surrounded by his cheering supporters. In a stirring speech on the palace steps, he promised a Haitian “New Deal” in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s American version.

The internal machinations of Haitian politics are almost impossible for an outsider to understand, but many insiders have since claimed that Duvalier, working in partnership with allies he had quietly made inside the military, had set Fignolé up for a fall, contriving to remove him from the business of day-to-day campaigning and thereby shore up his own support while making sure his presidency was always doomed to be a short one even by Haitian standards. At any rate, on the night of June 14, 1957 — just nineteen days after he had assumed the post — a group of army officers burst into Fignolé’s office, forced him to sign a resignation letter at gunpoint, and then tossed him into an airplane bound for the United States, exiling him on pain of death should he ever return to Haiti.

The deposing of Fignolé ignited another spasm of civil unrest among his supporters in Port-au-Prince, but their violence was met with even more violence by the military. There were reports of soldiers firing machine guns into the crowds of demonstrators. People were killed in the hundreds if not thousands in the capital, even as known agitators were rounded up en masse and thrown into prison, the offices of newspapers and magazines supporting Fignolé’s cause closed and ransacked. On September 22, 1957, it was announced that François Duvalier had been elected president by the people of Haiti.

Inside the American government, opinion was divided about the latest developments in Haiti. The CIA was convinced that, despite Fignolé’s worrisome leftward orientation, his promised socialist democracy was a better, more stable choice for the United States’s close neighbor than a military junta commanded by Duvalier. The agency thus concocted a scheme to topple Duvalier’s new government, which was to begin with the assassination of his foreign minister, Louis Raimone, on an upcoming visit to Mexico City to negotiate an arms deal. But the CIA’s plans accidentally fell into the hands of one Austin Garriot, an academic doing research for his latest book in Washington, D.C. Garriot passed the plans on to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who protested strongly that any attempt to overthrow Duvalier would be counter to international law — and who emphasized as well that he had declared himself to be strongly pro-American and anti-Soviet. With the top ranks of the FBI threatening to expose the illegal assassination plot to other parts of the government if the scheme was continued, the CIA had no choice but to quietly abandon it. Duvalier remained in power, unmolested.

He had promised his supporters a bright future…

…before a shining white city atop a hill. A sign welcomes you to Duvalierville. As you walk through the busy streets, well-dressed, cheerful people greet you as they pass by. You are struck by the abundance of goods and services offered, and the cleanliness and order that prevails. Almost every wall is adorned with a huge poster of a frail, gray-haired black man wearing a dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses.

Under the figure are the words: “Je suis le drapeau Haitien, Uni et Indivisible. François Duvalier.”

Everyone you ask about the man says the same thing: “We all love Papa Doc. He’s our president for life now, and we pray that he will live forever.”

Instead the leader who became known as Papa Doc — this quiet country doctor — became another case study in the banality of evil. During his fourteen years in power, an estimated 60,000 people were executed upon his personal extra-judicial decree. The mulatto elite, who constituted the last remnants of Haiti’s educated class and thus could be a dangerous threat to his rule, were a particular target; purge after purge cut a bloody swath through their ranks. When Papa Doc died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier — Baby Doc — took over for another fifteen years. The world became familiar with the term “Haitian boat people” as the Duvaliers’ desperate victims took to the sea in the most inadequate of crafts. For them, any shred of hope for a better life was worth grasping at, no matter what the risk.

…you find yourself at sea, in a ragged little boat. Every inch of space is crowded with humanity. They’re people you know and care about deeply. You have no food or water, but you have something more precious — hope. In your native Haiti, your life has become intolerable. The poverty, the fear, the sudden disappearances of so many people — all have driven you to undertake this desperate journey into the unknown.

A storm arises, and your small boat is battered by the waves and torn apart. One by one, your friends, your brothers, your children slip beneath the roiling water and are lost. You cling to a rotten board as long as you can, but you know that your dream of freedom is gone. “Damn you, Duvalier,” you scream as the water closes over your head…



And now I have to make a confession: not quite all of the story I’ve just told you is true. That part about the CIA deciding to intervene in Haitian politics, only to be foiled by the FBI? It never happened (as far as I know, anyway). That part, along with all of the quoted text above, is rather lifted from a fascinating and chronically underappreciated work of interactive fiction from 1992: Shades of Gray.

Shades of Gray was the product of a form of collaboration which would become commonplace in later years, but which was still unusual enough in 1992 that it was remarked in virtually every mention of the game: the seven people who came together to write it had never met one another in person, only online. The project began when a CompuServe member named Judith Pintar, who had just won the 1991 AGT Competition with her CompuServe send-up Cosmoserve, put out a call for collaborators to make a game for the next iteration of the Competition. Mark Baker, Steve Bauman, Belisana, Hercules, Mike Laskey, and Cindy Yans wound up joining her, each writing a vignette for the game. Pintar then wrote a central spine to bind all these pieces together. The end result was so much more ambitious than anything else made for that year’s AGT Competition that organizer David Malmberg created a “special group effort” category just for it — which, it being the only game in said category, it naturally won.

Yet Shades of Gray‘s unusual ambition wasn’t confined to its size or number of coauthors. It’s also a game with some serious thematic heft.

The idea of using interactive fiction to make a serious literary statement was rather in abeyance in the early 1990s. Infocom had always placed a premium on good writing, and had veered at least a couple of times into thought-provoking social and historical commentary with A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. But neither of those games had been huge sellers, and Infocom’s options had always been limited by the need to please a commercial audience who mostly just wanted more fun games like Zork from them, not deathless literary art. Following Infocom’s collapse, amateur creators working with development systems like AGT and TADS likewise confined almost all of their efforts to making games in the mold of Zork — unabashedly gamey games, with lots of puzzles to solve and an all-important score to accumulate.

On the surface, Shades of Gray may not seem a radical departure from that tradition; it too sports lots of puzzles and a score. Scratch below the surface, though, and you’ll find a text adventure with more weighty thoughts on its mind than any since 1986’s Trinity (a masterpiece of a game which, come to think of it, also has puzzles and a score, thus proving these elements are hardly incompatible with literary heft).

It took the group who made Shades of Gray much discussion to arrive at its central theme, which Judith Pintar describes as one of “moral ambiguity”: “We wanted to show that life and politics are nuanced.” You are cast in the role of Austin Garriot, a man whose soul has become unmoored from his material being for reasons that aren’t ever — and don’t really need to be — clearly explained. With the aid of a gypsy fortune teller and her Tarot deck, you explore the impulses and experiences that have made you who you are, presented in the form of interactive vignettes carved from the stuff of symbolism and memory and history. Moral ambiguity does indeed predominate through echoes of the ancient Athens of Antigone, the Spain of the Inquisition, the United States of the Civil War and the Joseph McCarthy era. In the most obvious attempt to present contrasting viewpoints, you visit Sherwood Forest twice, playing once as Robin Hood and once as the poor, put-upon Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s just trying to maintain the tax base and instill some law and order.

> examine chest
The chest is solidly made, carved from oak and bound together with strips
of iron. It contains the villagers' taxes -- money they paid so you could
defend them against the ruffians who inhabit the woods. Unfortunately, the
outlaws regularly attack the troops who bring the money to Nottingham, and
generally steal it all.

Because you can no longer pay your men-at-arms, no one but you remains to protect the local villagers. The gang is taking full advantage of this, attacking whole communities from their refuge in Sherwood Forest. You are alone, but you still have a duty to perform.

Especially in light of the contrasting Robin Hood vignettes, it would be all too easy for a reviewer like me to neatly summarize the message of Shades of Gray as something like “there are two sides to every story” or “walk a mile in my shoes before you condemn me.” And, to be sure, that message is needed more than ever today, not least by the more dogmatic members of our various political classes. Yet to claim that that’s all there is to Shades of Gray is, I think, to do it a disservice. Judith Pintar, we should remember, described its central theme as moral ambiguity, which is a more complex formulation than just a generalized plea for empathy. There are no easy answers in Shades of Gray — no answers at all really. It tells us that life is complicated, and moral right is not always as easy to determine as we might wish.

Certainly that statement applies to the longstanding question with which I opened this article: What to do about Haiti? In the end, it’s the history of that long-suffering country that comes to occupy center stage in Shades of Gray‘s exploration of… well, shades of gray.

Haiti’s presence in the game is thanks to the contributor whose online handle was Belisana.1 It’s an intriguingly esoteric choice of subject matter for a game written in this one’s time and place, especially given that none of the contributors, Belisana included, had any personal connection to Haiti. She rather began her voyage into Haitian history with a newspaper clipping, chanced upon in a library, from that chaotic year of 1957. She included a lightly fictionalized version of it in the game itself:

U.S. AID TO HAITI REDUCED TWO-THIRDS

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Oct. 8 — The United States government today shut down two-thirds of its economic aid to Haiti. The United States Embassy sources stressed that the action was not in reprisal against the reported fatal beating of a United States citizen last Sunday.

The death of Shibley Matalas was attributed by Col. Louis Raimone, Haitian Foreign Minister, to a heart attack. Three U.S. representatives viewed Mr. Matalas’ body. Embassy sources said they saw extensive bruises, sufficient to be fatal.

Through my own archival research, I’ve determined that in the game Belisana displaced the date of the actual incident by one week, from October 1 to October 8, and that she altered the names of the principals: Shibley Matalas was actually named Shibley Talamas, and Louis Raimone was Louis Roumain. The incident in question occurred after François Duvalier had been elected president of Haiti but three weeks before he officially assumed the office. The real wire report, as printed in the Long Beach Press Telegram, tells a story too classically Haitian not to share in full.

Yank in Haitian Jail Dies, U.S. Envoy Protests

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (AP) — Americans were warned to move cautiously in Haiti today after Ambassador Gerald Drew strongly protested the death of a U.S. citizen apparently beaten while under arrest. The death of Shibley Talamas, 30-year-old manager of a textile factory here, brought the United States into the turmoil which followed the presidential election Sept. 22 in the Caribbean Negro republic.

Drew protested Monday to Col. Louis Roumain, foreign minister of the ruling military junta. The ambassador later cautioned Americans to be careful and abide by the nation’s curfew.

Roumain had gone to the U.S. Embassy to present the government’s explanation of Talamas’ death, which occurred within eight hours of his arrest.

The ambassador said Roumain told him Talamas, son of U.S. citizens of Syrian extraction, was arrested early Sunday afternoon in connection with the shooting of four Haitian soldiers. The solders were killed by an armed band Sunday at Kenscoff, a mountain village 14 miles from this capital city.

Drew said Roumain “assured me that Talamas was not mistreated.”

While being questioned by police, Talamas tried to attack an officer and to reach a nearby machine gun, Roumain told Drew. He added that Talamas then was handcuffed and immediately died of a heart attack.

The embassy said three reliable sources reported Talamas was beaten sufficiently to kill him.

One of these sources said Talamas’ body bore severe bruises about the legs, chest, shoulders, and abdomen, and long incisions that might have been made in an autopsy.

A Haitian autopsy was said to have confirmed that Talamas died of a heart attack. The location of the body remained a mystery. It was not delivered immediately to relatives.

Talamas, 300-pound son of Mr. and Mrs. Antoine Talamas, first was detained in the suburb of Petionville. Released on his promise to report later to police, he surrendered to police at 2 p.m. Sunday in the presence of two U.S. vice-consuls. His wife, Frances Wilpula Talamas, formerly of Ashtabula, Ohio, gave birth to a child Sunday.

Police said they found a pistol and shotgun in Talamas’ business office. Friends said he had had them for years.

Before seeing Roumain Monday, Drew tried to protest to Brig. Gen. Antonio Kébreau, head of the military junta, but failed in the attempt. An aid told newsmen that Kébreau could not see them because he had a “tremendous headache.”

Drew issued a special advisory to personnel of the embassy and U.S. agencies and to about 400 other Americans in Haiti. He warned them to stay off the streets during the curfew — 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — except for emergencies and official business.

Troops and police have blockaded roads and sometimes prevented Americans getting to and from their homes. Americans went to their homes long ahead of the curfew hour Monday night. Some expressed fear that Talamas’ death might touch off other incidents.

Calm generally prevailed in the country. Police continued to search for losing presidential candidate Louis Déjoie, missing since the election. His supporters have threatened violence and charged that the military junta rigged the election for Dr. François Duvalier, a landslide winner in unofficial returns.

Official election results will be announced next Tuesday. Duvalier is expected to assume the presidency Oct. 14.

The Onion, had it existed at the time, couldn’t have done a better job of satirizing the farcical spectacle of a Haitian election. And yet all this appeared in a legitimate news report, from the losing candidate who mysteriously disappeared to the prisoner who supposedly dropped dead of a heart attack as soon as his guards put the handcuffs on him — not to mention the supreme leader with a headache, which might just be my favorite detail of all. Again: what does one do with a place like this, a place so corrupt for so long that corruption has become inseparable from its national culture?

But Shades of Gray is merciless. In the penultimate turn, it demands that you answer that question — at least this one time, in a very specific circumstance. Still playing the role of the hapless academic Austin Garriot, you’ve found a briefcase with all the details of the CIA’s plot to kill the Haitian foreign minister and initiate a top-secret policy of regime change in the country. The CIA’s contracted assassin, the man who lost the briefcase in the first place, is a cold fish named Charles Calthrop. He’s working together with Michael Matalas, vengeance-seeking brother of the recently deceased Shibley Matalas (né Talamas), and David Thomas, the CIA’s bureau chief in Haiti; they all want you to return the briefcase to them and forget that you ever knew anything about it. But two FBI agents, named Smith and Wesson (ha, ha…), have gotten wind of the briefcase’s contents, and want you to give it to them instead so they can stop the conspiracy in its tracks.

So, you are indeed free to take the course of action I’ve already described: give the briefcase to the FBI, and thereby foil the plot and strike a blow for international law. This will cause the bloody late-twentieth-century history of Haiti that we know from our own timeline to play out unaltered, as Papa Doc consolidates his grip on the country unmolested by foreign interventions.

Evil in a bow tie: François Duvalier at the time of the 1957 election campaign. Who would have guessed that this unassuming character would become the worst single Haitian monster of the twentieth century?

Or you can choose not to turn over the briefcase, to let the CIA’s plot take its course. And what happens then? Well, this is how the game describes it…

Smith and Wesson were unable to provide any proof of the CIA’s involvement in Raimone’s killing, and they were censured by Hoover for the accusation.

The following Saturday, Colonel Louis Raimone died from a single rifle shot through the head as he disembarked from a plane in Mexico City. His assassin was never caught, nor was any foreign government ever implicated.

It was estimated that the shot that killed Raimone was fired from a distance of 450 yards, from a Lee Enfield .303 rifle. Very few professionals were capable of that accuracy over that distance; Charles Calthrop was one of the few, and the Lee Enfield was his preferred weapon.

Duvalier didn’t survive long as president. Without the riot equipment that Raimone had been sent to buy, he was unable to put down the waves of unrest that swept the country. The army switched its allegiance to the people, and he was overthrown in March 1958.

Duvalier lived out the rest of his life in exile in Paris, and died in 1964.

Daniel Fignolé returned to govern Haiti after Duvalier was ousted, and introduced an American-style democracy. He served three 5-year terms of office, and was one of Kennedy’s staunchest allies during the Cuban missile crisis. He is still alive today, an elder statesman of Caribbean politics.

His brother’s death having been avenged, Michel Matalas returned to his former job as a stockman in Philadelphia. He joined the army and died in Vietnam in 1968. His nephew, Shibley’s son Mattieu, still lives in Haiti.

David Thomas returned to Haiti in his role as vice-consul, and became head of the CIA’s Caribbean division. He provided much of the intelligence that allowed Kennedy to bluff the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis before returning to take up a senior post at Langley.

What we have here, then, is a question of ends versus means. In the universe of Shades of Gray, at least, carrying out an illegal assassination and interfering in another sovereign country’s domestic politics leads to a better outcome than the more straightforwardly ethical course of abiding by international law.

Ever since it exited World War II as the most powerful country in the world, the United States has been confronted with similar choices time and time again. It’s for this reason that Judith Pintar calls her and her colleagues’ game “a story about American history as much as it is about Haiti.” While its interference in Haiti on this particular occasion does appear to have been limited or nonexistent in our own timeline, we know that the CIA has a long history behind it of operations just like the one described in the game, most of which didn’t work out nearly so well for the countries affected. And we also know that such operations were carried out by people who really, truly believed that their ends did justify their means. What can we do with all of these contradictory facts? Shades of gray indeed.

Of course, Shades of Gray is a thought experiment, not a serious study in geopolitical outcomes. There’s very good reason to question whether the CIA, who saw Daniel Fignolé as a dangerously left-wing leader, would ever have allowed him to assume power once again; having already chosen to interfere in Haitian politics once, a second effort to keep Fignolé out of power would only have been that much easier to justify. (This, one might say, is the slippery slope of interventionism in general.) Even had he regained and subsequently maintained his grip on the presidency, there’s reason to question whether Fignolé would really have become the mechanism by which true democracy finally came to Haiti. The list of Haitian leaders who once seemed similarly promising, only to disappoint horribly, is long; it includes on it that arguably greatest Haitian monster of all, the mild-mannered country doctor named François Duvalier, alongside such more recent disappointments as Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Perhaps Haiti’s political problems really are cultural problems, and as such are not amenable to fixing by any one person. Or, as many a stymied would-be reformer has speculated over the years, perhaps there really is just something in the water down there, or a voodoo curse in effect, or… something.

So, Shades of Gray probably won’t help us solve the puzzle of Haiti. It does, however, provide rich food for thought on politics and ethics, on the currents of history and the winds of fate — and it’s a pretty good little text adventure too. Its greatest weakness is the AGT development system that was used to create it, whose flexibility is limited and whose parser leaves much to be desired. “Given a better parser and the removal of some of the more annoying puzzles,” writes veteran interactive-fiction reviewer Carl Muckenhoupt, “this one would easily rate five stars.” I don’t actually find the puzzles all that annoying, but do agree that the game requires a motivated player willing to forgive and sometimes to work around the flaws of its engine. Any player willing to do so, though, will be richly rewarded by this milestone in interactive-fiction history, the most important game in terms of the artistic evolution of the medium to appear between Infocom’s last great burst of formal experiments in 1987 and the appearance of Graham Nelson’s milestone game Curses! in 1993. Few games in all the years of text-adventure history have offered more food for thought than Shades of Gray — a game that refuses to provide incontrovertible answers to the questions it asks, and is all the better for it.

In today’s Haiti, meanwhile, governments change constantly, but nothing ever changes. The most recent election as of this writing saw major, unexplained discrepancies between journalists’ exit polling and the official results, accompanied by the usual spasms of violence in the streets. Devastating earthquakes and hurricanes in recent years have only added to the impression that Haiti labors under some unique curse. On the bright side, however, it has been nearly a decade and a half since the last coup d’etat, which is pretty good by Haitian standards. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

(Sources: the books Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change 1934-1957, Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation by Philippe Girard, and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois; Life of June 3 1957; Long Beach Press Telegram of October 1 1957. My huge thanks go to Judith Pintar for indulging me with a long conversation about Shades of Gray and other topics. You can read more of our talk elsewhere on this site.

You can download Shades of Gray from the IF Archive. You can play it using the included original interpreter through DOSBox, or, more conveniently, with a modern AGT interpreter such as AGiliTY or — best of all in my opinion — the multi-format Gargoyle.)


  1. I do know her real name, but don’t believe it has ever been published in connection with Shades of Gray, and therefore don’t feel comfortable “outing” her here. 

 
22 Comments

Posted by on September 14, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Conversation with Judith Pintar

Judith Pintar was responsible for what popular consensus holds to be the two best games ever created using AGT. She wrote 1991’s Cosmoserve herself, then organized the team of authors that created 1992’s Shades of Gray. Both works are inextricably bound up with the online life of their era. Cosmoserve is a simulation and gentle satire of daily life on CompuServe, the most popular of the pre-World Wide Web commercial online services, while Shades of Gray was created by people who had met one another only on CompuServe, who used a CompuServe chat room as their primary means of communication. Given that I’ve written so voluminously on the text adventures of Infocom and others over the years, and given I’ve spent most of the last two months chronicling the net before the Web, a conversation with Judith about text adventures on CompuServe seemed the perfect way to tie the two strands together.

As it happened, though, I got much more than I’d bargained for. Although Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray were written many years ago now, Judith’s interest in interactive fiction has never abated. For years she’s been using it as a tool for pedagogical purposes in the classes she teaches, and she’s recently started some fascinating projects in the realm of what we might call massively-multiauthored interactive fiction. I hope you enjoy this transcript of our wide-ranging conversation on such subjects as the pros and cons of AGT, the life and times of the CompuServe Gamers Forum, the fostering of empathy through interactivity, and the plight of verbally-oriented computer programmers in a STEM-heavy world.


Thank you for agreeing to do this so close to Christmas! It’s a great gift for me and my readers.

I’m so delighted that you got in touch with me. I’ve been a fan of your historical work.

It made a huge difference to me when I realized you had released your extended review and treatment of Cosmoserve in your IF history. It was at a really low point in my academic life, and I found it, and thought, “Oh, my God! This is who I am!” It was very nice.

Anyway, I like your writing style and your approach to the history of IF a lot. I teach from your work.

Thank you!

I played Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray for the first time… oh, must be fifteen years ago now. I had a job working in IT on the graveyard shift. We had twelve-hour shifts, from 7 PM to 7 AM, and a lot of the time there just wasn’t that much to do. I couldn’t play a conventional computer game, but I could play IF games because it would just look like I was working at a terminal, typing commands. So I went through the back-history of AGT, a lot of the games nobody ever plays anymore.

And that’s when I played Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray, which I think were probably just about the two best things that were ever done with AGT. It was a very limited system in some ways, but you certainly bent it to your will.

I was always a big cheerleader for AGT. It is true that I went into the Pascal source code for both CosmoServe and Shades of Gray, but most of the changes I made were to increase the available resources in order to accommodate the size of these games. I believed at the time that people’s complaints about AGT were not reasonable, that you could do pretty much whatever you wanted with the language if you were creative and diligent. I still believe this. Until Inform 7 came along, AGT was my IF teaching language of choice.

But obviously the technology improved with TADS and Inform. They’re more flexible languages; AGT had a fair number of assumptions about the world and so on built into it. TADS and Inform of course had some as well, but they could be modified much more easily.

And I do think one other thing that came in with what we think of as the modern IF community, with Curses and the first IF competition and so on in 1993 and 1994, was a strong ethic of quality, of testing games and taking the work very seriously. From my standpoint, that’s something that’s missing in a lot of the AGT work. There was more of a tendency for people to just write games and put them out there without seeking out much feedback or focusing on adding that final polish. So, it wasn’t strictly a matter of technology. There was a cultural shift as well.

I’m not sure that’s completely fair. Some different rules maybe came in with the IF Competition that took over from the AGT Competition, and it certainly broadened the number of people who were involved, but I think the situation is more complex.

I think it’s more accurate to say that there were multiple IF worlds. In CompuServe Gamers Forum, people were writing games and sharing them and critiquing them. Even the contest format really had its origins in the AGT Contest. There was no Internet around, so depending on what bulletin board or users group you were a member of, you could run in different circles. The people who wrote AGT games weren’t necessarily in the same circles as those who formed the modern community, and when AGT fell away, it was really…

Well, in my case, for example, I was not very motivated to learn TADS, because I was publicly identified with AGT. I felt protective of it, and of David Malmberg and what he had achieved with AGT, and what his contest did for popularizing the writing of IF in those early days.

I know it looks like I disappeared from the IF world. I had been a presence in the early 1990s, I was being interviewed, I was very active on CompuServe Gamers Forum, etc., etc. And then I just seemed to be gone. I wasn’t actually. I just went to graduate school. I was still writing IF and teaching AGT at a point when David announced he would no longer be maintaining it. That left me without a language. I could program in Pascal, but I wasn’t really able to take it over. When CompuServe was bought by AOL, that left me without my community too, though I was still part of the larger IF world. I never stopped writing and teaching IF.

Well, the “IF community” has always been very fragmented. You have this sort of central community associated with the IF Comp, which is the most academically respected today. But you also have a whole community of people working in a language called ADRIFT, which is easier to use than Inform or TADS. It’s not really a programming-oriented but a database-based system, where you can put a game together using a GUI. Then for a long time there was an “adult” interactive-fiction community, who focused on textual pornography. I’m not really sure how active they still are.

Is it true that they continued to use AGT?

Yes, they stuck with AGT for a long, long time. To whatever extent AGT developed a bad reputation among the larger IF community, I think that may have contributed somewhat to it. Many of the AIF people were using AGT to churn out a lot of junk games meant only for the purpose of getting off. They stuck with AGT well past 2000. If they’re still around, I suspect many of them may still be using it.

My sense of AGT comes from the fact that I taught it to middle-school and high-school kids. I found it to be a really wonderful teaching language. Just a few years ago, I got an email from an old student who now runs a children’s game conference in Austin. He credits that to the fact that I taught him to write games in AGT in the early 1990s.

I actually ported Cosmoserve to Inform; that’s how I learned Inform 7. Going from AGT to Inform 7 was very interesting. There are things — and you must believe me here! — that AGT does better and makes easier than Inform 7, even though Inform 7 is clearly a wildly more powerful language.

It might be useful to look back here to the earliest days of home computers, when BASIC was around, with line numbers and single-letter variable names, GOTO statements everywhere — everything “real” programmers hate.  So, people came along to tell all these computer owners that they should be using Pascal or some other more proper programming language. One famous computer scientist said that anyone who learned BASIC would be “mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.”

But during that era ordinary people were actually programming computers. They were writing games, writing little tools for their own use. That was part of the ethos of owning a computer. The old computer magazines were all very programming-oriented.

Today our programming languages are very well-engineered, excellent tools for professional programmers making heavy-duty applications, but we really do lack any modern equivalent to what BASIC used to be: something not so pretty, not so formally or theoretically correct, but that ordinary people can just pick up and make something with. Maybe in the context of IF it was AGT that was filling that role, to be replaced by slicker languages like TADS and Inform that lacked the same approachability.

I do have a story about AGT that you might like. Earlier I wrote about a game that officially won the 2nd AGT Contest — but it was the first real Contest. That was A Dudley Dilemma by Lane Barrow. I looked him up and interviewed him for the blog, as I’m interviewing you now. We talked quite a lot about his game’s design and what he would do differently if he made it today. He got inspired to pick up the old AGT tools and make some changes, changing a few things that by modern standards were a bit borderline on the fairness scale. That new version’s on the IF Archive now. He said he was shocked at how quickly he was able to pick up AGT again after not using it for 25 or maybe close to 30 years.

So, that’s a story you might appreciate. I never created anything with AGT, so I can’t speak to it that much.

But maybe we could go back and lay some groundwork about the person you were when you created Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray. I’m always amazed by the huge range of backgrounds and experiences that people working in IF have. The thing that leaps out first from your biography is that you were a Celtic harpist throughout the 1980s. That’s certainly an unusual career choice. Would you care to talk a bit about it?

Sure. I’ll tell you the skeleton story.

My BA from the University of Wisconsin was in folklore. It was a degree I put together myself because in my junior year I realized I had no major. So, I made an interdisciplinary major from courses I had already taken: Old Norse, Old English, Greek Mythology. This was the age of Joseph Campbell, and we were all sort of questing.

One summer I hitchhiked through Britain trying to find a harp-maker. My idea about this was intensely romantic, completely based on wanting to be a storyteller — a storyteller needed a harp. I ended up finding a harp-maker in Wales. I had to go back to get it six months later.

To my complete surprise, I was able to play this instrument. I took to it. I learned to play by composing. So I was really quickly performing original music in Milwaukee and around the Midwest.

On the strength of my folklore degree, I applied for a job in the Milwaukee Public School System as a storyteller, even though I had never told a story out loud. I got the job, which was terrifying. I thought I would go in front of a class with my harp and go “pling, pling” and tell little stories, but they walked me into a gym with 500 students waiting for me. I tanked so bad that first time.

Somehow I did become a professional storyteller. I played the harp and told stories in the folk-music circuit, at Renaissance fairs, at Celtic music festivals. I had also landed a recording contract with Sona Gaia, an imprint of the Narada new-age music label. My albums included liner notes with stories that had originally been performed live.

In 1987, I needed to make my third album, so I moved to Colorado, up in the mountains, with two wolf-hybrid dogs and my harp and a little pickup truck. I needed a computer, so for $1000 I bought a used PCs Limited XT clone, 8 MHz in “turbo” mode. On this computer was GAGS by Mark Welch, the precursor to AGT. It was shareware, so I sent a check to Mark Welch. He wrote back to tell me that GAGS was now AGT, and Dave Malmberg was maintaining it. So I purchased AGT.

One fun thing in Cosmoserve is that GAGS is running there.

Yeah, there’s a little GAGS game in there. Is there some in-joke to that, associated with being in Wisconsin on a dairy farm? It was kind of a non sequitur for me as a player. I was thinking, okay, why am I here of all places?

That’s a joke on me! I’m from Milwaukee, I wrote that cow game.

That was your first game?

It was one of them. My first games were written in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. How’s that for a romantic beginning?

Very nice!

When you first got this copy of GAGS, was that actually your first exposure to text adventures?

No, no, no. Infocom, man! Infocom!

Okay, so you were already a hardcore Infocom fan.

My mom was a high-school math teacher, and she in the 1970s was as tech-savvy as a math teacher could be. Our first personal computer was an Apple II. My first gaming experience was typing in little BASIC text adventures. So, going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was already writing IF, as much as that was possible in BASIC. Then I started playing the Infocom games at home with family and friends. I think I may own them all. So, as an Infocom freak, it was very exciting to find GAGS. It was the first time I realize it would be possible to author a full-length game.

Do you have any favorites in the Infocom catalog that spring to mind?

Well, I loved Zork. How do you not love Zork? And what’s the one that has all the little robots?

That’s Suspended.

Okay. I would say that of all the Infocom games I was most influenced by Suspended.

Interesting. That’s in some ways the most unusual Infocom game. It’s more of a strategy game that’s played in text than a traditional text adventure. It was also, incidentally, the game that prompted Douglas Adams to decide he wanted to make The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into an Infocom game. Now that you mention it, I fancy I can see some of it in Cosmoserve.

Absolutely. I wanted to shift or jar the player out of reading text and fool them into being present. I believe I succeeded because I got many emails from people telling me that when they played Cosmoserve they referred to it as “going online.” It felt to them like they were going online when they played. Of course, it looked identical to CompuServe. The logon screen was identical in what it said, and also in how long it took to load. There was some metalepsis because there were limits to how far I could make AGT imitate it. But I did pretty well in some places. When the virus infects your own computer and you do “chkdsk” in DOS, and it starts to show that you have all these files that are replicating at this incredible speed and things are starting to get corrupted, people would quit the game, terrified I had infected their computer.

So, backing up just for a moment, how did you end up on CompuServe in the first place?

I moved at the end of 1988 to Santa Cruz, California, with my husband-to-be. There I became an artist-in-residence and started to teach IF. And it was at that point or possibly earlier that I joined CompuServe Gamers Forum. That was huge for me; that was my IF community. More than an IF community. We talked all kinds of games.

It was very pleasant, very civil. There wasn’t a lot of trolling that I recall. Maybe partly because you were paying to be there. And it was really well-moderated. There was always a sysop present in the scheduled public chats.

My handle was Teela Brown. She’s a character in Larry Niven’s Ringworld; she’s the luckiest woman in the world. That’s how I felt in that era of my life. It’s still my handle now with the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation.

I just have to say that I’m so excited about your work on CompuServe. I’m really so happy that you’ve written about CompuServe because I have a lot of sorrow about it as kind of a lost world. If Cosmoserve can help your project, that would be awesome.

Yeah. The problem is that in histories of these things the focus always goes to the early ARPANET, the invention of TCP/IP, etc. Which is important — incredibly important — but a huge part of contemporary online culture can’t actually be traced back to the ARPANET and early Internet. It was CompuServe that invented and/or popularized real-time chat, e-commerce, online travel reservations, online newspapers, online encyclopedias, much of online gaming, etc., etc. Few people seem to remember that. If you look at what you do on the Internet today, at least as much stems from the early commercial online services as from the early Internet. They should both be given their due.

One of the great tragedies for me as a historian is that all of this stuff that took place on CompuServe has apparently been lost forever. I can go back to look at Usenet discussions that took place 30 years ago; that stuff is still there. CompuServe unfortunately is a different story. That sad reality makes Cosmoserve hugely valuable as more than just an adventure game.

I actually just learned this year that CompuServe is a lost world, that there is no backup. It occurred to me then to be grateful that I had done this. I couldn’t now replicate the experience.

Yes. This to me is one of the fascinating things about text adventures. Unlike the vast majority of games, they’re very personal works, and they tend to be much more reflective of the lives of the people that made them. Of course, you have Cosmoserve, which shows what it was like to log onto this long-gone online service. But it goes even beyond that.

In the case of A Dudley Dilemma, Lane Barrow was a PhD student at Harvard, and he wrote a game about being a PhD student at Harvard. Son of Stagefright, which won the AGT Contest the year after A Dudley Dilemma, was written by a guy who was very active in community theater, so he set his game in the theater where he and his friends would put on plays. Or there’s a game called Save Princeton which was written by a young man who was a student at Princeton at the time, and he included all his friends in the game. That sort of thing is kind of frowned on in IF circles today because it’s not artistic or high-falutin’ enough, but at the same time, when I play that game now there’s actually something very poignant about it. I see all these bright kids who think they’ve got the world figured out, who are going to do this or do that after university. One of them has a Twin Peaks poster on his dorm-room wall; it’s a total time capsule. I wonder where these people are today.  Maybe it resonates more with me than it might with others because I was about their age at about the same time. But I do think that that personal, time-capsule quality is kind of overlooked when people talk about IF.

Yes, I agree. I haven’t read anything addressing that. It’s very interesting.

So, how would you describe the discussions on CompuServe? Was there a lot of talk about how games should be made, what is good and bad design, what is fair and unfair?

Absolutely. We talked about everything, and we absolutely had conversations about what made a good game. There were people in Gamers Forum who wrote games as well as played games. It was really easy to get beta testers.

Those were the people who beta-tested Cosmoserve, which I submitted to the AGT Contest and won. The next year I didn’t want to submit another game; I thought that wasn’t fair. So I decided to organize Shades of Gray instead.

The CompuServe Gamers Forum was a real place to me. It had a geography. There were rooms where you could enter and talk to people, and there was a library. It might seem strange that I would simulate CompuServe through IF, which is traditionally so map-based. But for me CompuServe was mapped too. Gamers Forum had an entirely different feel from other Forums. You traveled between them. They all felt like different geographic destinations in a work of IF. But there were other people there too. You could go into a Forum conference room at any time, day or night, and somebody might be there.

So I recreated that in Cosmoserve. You can just go to a conference and see if anybody is there. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. That part feels really real.

And it’s not a bug in Cosmoserve the way the number of people who are supposedly in the Forum always changes. It’s randomized in Cosmoserve as a joke because I never believed it was true on CompuServe.

In terms of the Gamers Forum members who were writing text adventures, were they all or mostly all working with AGT? TADS came out in 1990, but it wasn’t used anywhere near as much as AGT during the early 1990s.

I wouldn’t say we were an AGT community. People were experimenting with many game-making systems — not just IF but others sorts of games as well. We tried all of them, so there was a discussion about tools too, and comparisons. We were pretty eclectic. We didn’t have an identity like the newsgroups had, of being an IF community. We IF people were just in there, fairly integrated. There was no sense of shame, no sense that we were lesser than other kinds of games at all. It was just one of the kinds of games that were being played by everyone.

I assume you as well were playing other kinds of games — certainly by 1990 or so, with Infocom gone. Do you recall what other games you were playing?

Sure. We played all the Sierra Online games. We enjoyed them, despite people having an attitude about the writing, that the general quality of game writing had declined when games went graphic. But that didn’t stop us from playing them! We all loved Myst when it came out too, and there were barely any words there at all.

I was also a big NetHack addict. It’s one of my favorite games ever. I like to teach it.

Have you ever ascended?

I have!

Congratulations!

Thanks!

I talk about that game because it shows that a good game can evoke emotion using an ASCII character. You cry when your pet dies. Your heart beats hard when the wizard is chasing you, even though it’s just a little letter going across the screen. So I always talk about that game in game-design classes. The power is in the design. You can have gorgeous graphics and interesting mechanics, and it can still be emotionally empty and touch you not at all. NetHack for me is very powerful.

So, as you’re working on Cosmoserve, it’s obviously a huge technical challenge to bend AGT in that direction. You’ve hinted that you were fairly friendly with David Malmberg. Did he help at all with the changes you had to make for Cosmoserve?

No, no. I hacked it. I did have to tell him that I had done it because I was concerned that I was cheating, but he wasn’t bothered. You can’t compile my game files with the regular compiler.

It started out as just a straight-up game, but as it went on it got bigger and there were things I wanted to do, especially how things printed to the screen. Because I was concerned about cheating in the contest, I did less than I might have. The rumors of my hacking are exaggerated! You didn’t need to change the program to do great things with AGT.

One thing about Cosmoserve that’s interesting is that you published it in 1991, but it’s set in 2001. You’re extrapolating what’s going to happen to computer technology in the future. You assume, as anyone might, that Intel would continue with the “x86” nomenclature instead of coming out with the Pentium line, so you have this “786” computer in there. And then it’s funny that you’re still using DOS ten years on.

It’s true that whenever you set a story in the future you have to live with what you imagined. I did imagine that there would be GUIs, but that R.J. Wright himself would still want to use DOS. This is also a self-reference. I miss DOS tremendously. I never liked GUIs. I’m verbally-oriented, not visually-oriented, and I was imagining that I would never give up DOS. On my desktop right now, my garbage can is called “Unnecessary Metaphor.” I used to be able to delete a file by typing “delete,” but now I have to imagine that the file is a little piece of paper and I have to physically pick it up and drag it to a little picture of a garbage can to get rid of it. I hated that from the first time that I saw it.

I thought of R.J. Wright too as the kind of person who into the 21st century would still be using DOS. But I was also imagining that there would be VR.

Yes, that’s a huge contrast. DOS and VR!

Right, I imagined more and less. I imagined VR would be more immersive and multiplayer than it is now, and I imagined that DOS would make it.

And there’s another thing: I never imagined the fall of Borland. The “Orfland” products that the player uses in Cosmoserve, and the quest to get Orfland customer service to provide a patch, are an affectionate send-up of Borland products — Turbo Pascal, Paradox, etc. — and the Borland Forum on CompuServe. When we lived in Santa Cruz my husband did some contract programming for Borland, so we were also in their corporate social circle.

A funny story from that era: while I was writing Cosmoserve, which was really a full time job for months and months, cash was tight. So I tried office temping, though I had no prior work experience. All I wrote on my application at the temp agency under skills, as I recall, was “Can Type Real Fast.” I got one job — I was sent to Borland CEO Philippe Khan’s office, to type all the info from his personal Rolodex into his very large, state of the art mobile phone. Now, this Rolodex was jaw-dropping. It had in it the personal addresses and home phone numbers of pretty much every important personage in computing: Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, everybody. It took two days to finish the job because as soon as Phillipe found out I was a musician we spent a lot of time hanging out and talking. I had heard his band, the Turbo Jazz Band, play at a big Borland employee gathering — he plays sax and flute. So we compared our experiences of composing and improvising and performing and recording and by the time I was finished, we were like friends, just fellow musicians, and we gifted each other with our latest CDs. I remember him as a charismatic man at the top of his game. I was going to write him into a sequel to Cosmoserve, but then Borland fell, and of course I never wrote that sequel. I did name my cat Philippe though.

One aspect of Cosmoserve which a modern player might not be too excited about is the time element. It’s a game which you really have to play several times. When I played it, I had to make a schedule for myself. First I’d go on these reconnaissance missions to see what was going on where and when. Then I could use my schedule to make a winning run. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of modern players who absolutely hate that approach.

That actually got fixed in the 1997 release. I went to the IF Archive and asked them to switch out the old Cosmoserve version for the new version. And they said no, they wouldn’t delete it, because it didn’t belong to me anymore; it belonged to the public, but they’d be happy to add the new version. That was the moment I realized that there was a history of IF bigger than any individual game or designer. Now, being on the IFTF board, I love that caretaking our shared history is part of my job.

The new Inform 7 version of Cosmoserve is much more pleasant to play. I instituted a more comprehensive hint system in every part of the game so that the player can move through the game more smoothly.

I must not have played the 1997 version because I remember this fairly intense time pressure. But I’m an old-school player; I played the Infocom mysteries that were also constructed like this. So, if I know a game is constructed that way going in, it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Just as a design question, how did you approach removing the time pressure?

I just started the story earlier in the day. The player now has nearly 24 hours to get their Pascal program ready for the courier coming to pick it up the next morning. That seems to be enough time, though I will be looking for additional beta-testing feedback on that. I also removed the much-hated “you must eat pizza or you will die” mechanic. If someone really misses these old-style pressure puzzles they can still play the original version. But the Inform 7 version is more pleasant for the modern player.

Then I also added a hint system using Aunt Edna. Did the version you played have Aunt Edna?

I think I remember her coming by and complaining that I’ll never get a girlfriend or a boyfriend if I keep living like this.

In the new Inform 7 version, you can send her away if you don’t want her. But she’s basically giving you hints to get you through the first phase in your house, to get you online faster. Without breaking the mood, she’ll give you hints to get that first part solved.

And then I’m in the game as Teela Brown. I always was, in VR, but I really improved that so that the game is tracking what you’ve done and not done. Instead of a big laundry list of things you can ask me, which breaks the mood, if you ask me for a hint I’ll tell you, “You need to do this by this time of night” or “This happened at 7:00 and you missed it,” so you don’t go all the way to the end of the game and realize, oh, my, God, I needed to have done this thing. That’s horrible; everybody hates that.

So, let’s talk about Shades of Gray just a little. Which part of that was yours?

The Tarot card reader.

Okay. She’s kind of the jumping-off point to all of the different vignettes.

Yes. I wrote the code that links them all. I also took the individual pieces and made them narratively coherent.

Shades of Gray was unusual for its era in that there’s an overt message to the game; it’s trying to say something. Infocom had done a little bit of that with A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, but their options were always limited by being a commercial game company, by not wanting to offend anybody. Steve Meretzky at Infocom had a lot of ideas for other very political games, and his managers always said, no, you can’t do that.

Of course, later on in the IF community there would be a lot of people making very self-consciously “literary” games. But that was a little later than the AGT era. Do you recall how you decided you wanted to make a game that would not just be another adventure game, that would leave the player with a message?

We didn’t start with that. I started with a message asking who wanted to make a game for the next Competition. And a bunch of people said yes, they did. The team I wound up putting together included Mark Baker, Steve Bauman, Belisana, Hercules, Mike Laskey, and Cindy Yans in addition to myself.

There were a lot of logistics just getting to the nitty-gritty of game design. We didn’t have any clear idea what the game would be. And of course, trying to drive a carriage with twelve horses is really, really difficult. Everybody wanted to do their own thing.

We let people do that for a while while we continued to discuss themes, but pretty soon we came to the idea of moral ambiguity. Robin Hood is a scoundrel from the Sheriff’s point of view, for example. We wanted to show that life and politics are nuanced.

Belisana came up with the overarching narrative, and she wrote the ending.

Was she responsible for the Haiti historical material?

Yes.

For an American in 1992, that’s a little bit of an esoteric choice of subject. Did she have some connection to Haiti? Do you know where that came from?

I don’t. She came up with the idea and we all loved it. Without giving away any spoilers here, it is fair to say that this is a story about American history, as much as it is about Haiti. And she executed it brilliantly, in her vignette, and in the game ending.

Yes, that was definitely the most powerful part of the game for me.

The making of Shades of Gray was a CompuServe story, a pretty profound one, about what the service made possible, collaboratively. We didn’t know anything about each other personally. We were fellow forum members who became a team.

It was expensive to go on CompuServe; you had to pay per minute. So you rationed the amount of time you spent online. You wrote all your messages offline, then logged on to send them.  In order to do Shades of Gray on CompuServe, I had to convince the Gamers Forum to give us the “free flag.”

And this meant you got to be online for free?

Yes. Anybody involved with the project would get a free flag while they were working on this game. Not only did we get this free flag, but we got a room of our own. I never met any of the other people who worked on the game. That’s really normal now, in the age of the Internet, but at that time it was really strange.

We talked and talked and talked about what Shades of Gray would be; everybody had their own ideas. We had this general theme of moral ambiguity. Everybody wrote their code separately, then I had the job of taking it all and merging it, which was insanely difficult. And we won the AGT Competition. They had to make a special “group project” category for us, to be fair to the shorter games.

Creating Shades of Gray was really fun, and I’d say that the game was more influential on my career path in IF than Cosmoserve was. It’s the inspiration for what I do now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where my students engage in massive, ongoing  collaborative IF.

Wow!

I’ve just finished my third year teaching Inform 7 in an IF programming and design course at the U of I. Besides working on their own games, students collaborate on a game that is set on our campus — that is, if our campus had toilet stalls collapsing into underground tunnels with zombies gnawing on the bones of graduate students. Called The Quad Game, it’s an IF sandbox with hundreds of locations and fifty or so endings — so far. It is rough in patches and extravagantly incomplete, deliberately so.

On the first day of class I let the students play the game in groups, each group setting out in a different direction from the center of the campus. I ask them to write down everything that happens that is annoying or buggy or incomplete. I really encourage them to complain. Then I tell them to write at the top of the paper, “To Do.” By the end of the semester they will have to fix it all.

More ambitiously, I’m in the process of developing a public history/collaborative programming project called The Illinois Map. I usually explain it as something like Wikipedia-meets-Minecraft. The vision is to get the entire state of Illinois to become programming literate, by learning the Inform 7 language in order to write interactive, immersive games that simulate key moments in Illinois history.

The site will be like Wikipedia in that every project submitted will need to be referenced. Someone who wants to write a simulation on Abraham Lincoln’s career as a lawyer, for example, will have to provide historical background with primary sources and a justification for why their simulation is historically significant, using secondary sources. They also have to come up with a compelling little story, and then write the Inform 7 code to carry it out.

I’ve taught another IF class for the last two years in which students submit an Illinois Map proposal as their final project– I’ve got fifty of these ready to go as soon as the site is ready. They’re at various stages of narrative development and coding sophistication, but that’s the point. Like Wikipedia, multiple people will be able to collaborate on revising and improving the various parts of any project page.

I imagine that a High School Social Studies teacher will send their students to the Illinois Map. A student will search to see if anybody has done anything on their hometown, and lo and behold: there’s already a little game somebody has started. Maybe the research is good, but the story is lame and the code is pretty weak. They can give some feedback, suggests some edits, or offer code corrections. If their project veers too much, they can submit a new one.

They will gain status as they contribute to the Map, and will aspire to become proficient enough to take the best projects and incorporate them into a Master Game that will let players explore Illinois history from one end to  the other, from its prehistoric beginnings to its imagined future.

And do you hope to release this publicly at some point?

The Quad Game is already available to the public. I’ve got some grant-writing to do before the Illinois Map goes live.

Then the other thing I’m working on is to teach Inform 7 inside an Inform 7 game. I want to write a game where the object is to write code, and where the code the player is writing changes the game they’re playing. You can see my first pass at that. What you get at the end is code which you can cut and paste and drop into Inform to play it.

A couple of people have done something similar to that. A game called Informatory some years ago taught not Inform 7 but Inform 6. And then Andrew Plotkin, whom I’m sure you know, made a game called Lists and Lists to teach a dialect of LISP.

That was actually one of my first languages! I learned LISP, then Pascal, then C++.

I have found Inform 7 to be an ideal first programming language. It introduces the concepts students need to pass a Python class: objects, inheritance, recursion, variables, loops, lists, tables, but it teaches them through story.  I don’t know of a Python course that doesn’t make you learn these concept through algebra. But Inform 7 teaches data relationships and ontologies through metaphor, which everyone’s brain is wired to understand. Pedagogically I call this approach “narrative-based computational thinking.”

This approach is also academically practical. We have an informatics minor here for which students must complete a CS class. These students come from any number of programs across campus — business, arts, journalism — and some of them have a hard time passing a CS course. We had the idea that students taking my Inform 7 class would be able to get through a Python class afterwards, no problem. I think that’s true, but I don’t have the research — yet! We’re going to try to demonstrate it.

I would like to make Inform 7 as ubiquitous as PowerPoint. I think it could be a breakthrough in widespread programming literacy.

So, I think you and I agree with each other philosophically. Our sense of the significance of IF, of where it belongs in the world.

I’m a very strange case. I got my first computer when I was quite young. I grew up with computers, have always loved them. At the same time, though, in everything apart from computers I’m a very verbally-oriented person. When I’d take standardized tests, I’d always score fifteen or twenty points higher on the verbal versus the math component. 

In a way, I think I’ve always seen programming a little bit differently. When I write code, my algorithms aren’t necessarily that wonderful, but I load up the code with commentary. So, the Inform 7 natural-language approach feels very natural to me. In a sense, I was already describing what I was doing in natural language, then having to translate it down to C or whatever. With Inform 7, I don’t have to take the second step.

I know you’re very busy with these massively collaborative IF projects, but have you ever thought about doing another game on your own or as part of a smaller team?

I never stopped writing games. I just didn’t release them publicly. I had won the two competitions I entered, so I was done with competitions, but competitions were how games were still being released. So for a decade or more, I mostly shared my games with my students, as tutorials, sort of like Emily Short’s games in the Inform 7 Cookbook.

But now I do have an Inform 7 game of my own in beta. I wrote it just because it was fun, and for the technical challenge. It’s an IF poker game. You’re Alice, and you’re falling down the well as you play poker with the white rabbit. You’re going down as the rabbit is going up. The cards are scattered randomly through the well. He picks up cards and you pick up cards, and the game keeps track of your hands. But the cards are alive; they fight with each other. So, there’s a story, but you can only access it by having certain cards together in your hand. On the one hand you’re trying to win the poker game, but on the other you can’t really win unless you have in your hand the right characters who will reveal information to you to get the backstory. This was so much fun to write.

Then I have another massive project…

Instead of publishing my sociology dissertation as an academic book, I wrote a novel based on my field experiences in Croatia in the late 1990s. I spent much of that time in Dubrovnik, where Game of Thrones and Star Wars both have filmed. The story tells the 1500-year history of Dubrovnik as a series of failed love affairs. I never found an agent to represent this opus — no one liked the asynchronous relationship between the contemporary story and the vignettes. It finally occurred to me that the real problem was that I had written a novel with the narrative sensibility of an IF. It needs to be read in a non-linear way.

So, now I want to turn it into an actual IF. I’m thinking of making it a multi-platform work where I would use Twine for some aspects of the game along with some parser-based elements. Maybe I can weigh in on the battle between choice-based and parser-based IF by embracing them both. And it also fulfills my other idea, which is IF as historical simulation. I’m interested in broadening IF beyond both games and literature. All of that is packed into the project, which unfortunately I can’t afford to take the time to do. I will eventually get to it.

That’s very interesting direction which is under-explored. If you look at IF’s intrinsic qualities, probably the thing it does best of all — certainly the thing it does most easily — is setting. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for putting you in a place, whether it’s a fantastical place or an historical place. That’s actually something that comes more naturally to the form than narrative or plot, although ever since Infocom there’s been this huge focus on “waking up inside a story,” as they liked to put it.

Certainly IF as history hasn’t been done all that much. Trinity did it of course, and there’s a game called 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery that did it very well, but most IF tends to veer off toward science fiction or fantasy.

Yes. That’s what I’m investigating pedagogically: how to use IF in history classes, in social-science classes. An example of a student project from a class taught on American minority groups:

In Illinois in the early 1990s we had a controversy over a Native American burial mound which had become a museum called Dixon Mounds in Lewiston, Illinois. They had open graves; they’d been open since the 1930s, when an amateur anthropologist found this place and put up a museum around it. In the 1990s Native Americans started protesting Dixon Mounds. It was a really tangled couple of years between people who supported the museum and people coming into town to protest; one governor got involved, then another, etc.

So, my students studied this last year. Then they were divided up into six groups and they wrote an IF simulation of the same physical place from six different points in history: at the point when the people who made the burial mounds lived, then later when another Native group lived in the area, then when the bones were found, then when the museum was active, then the protests, and finally the present, when a new museum has covered the bones. The idea is to explore this geographic space through time, using real sources to make responsive NPCs. So a player going into the games could find out about the controversy by talking to people and experiencing it.

It’s not fun. A lot of the students in their reflections at the end of the semester said, “I wish you’d just let us write games.” To them I said, “Well, take my other class!” But the question on the table is whether a game can create empathy. Can we write a simulation that will cause players not to “have fun” — although it would be nice if they could enjoy themselves — and not even just to learn what happened, but to see another perspective.

I think you’re right that IF’s potential for this sort of thing has been under-explored. I really need to play Trinity again. I think I could use it to show my students what’s possible at the high end.

You know, games are or can be so good at fostering empathy. When you read a book or watch a movie, you’re always at a certain remove. But when you play a game, that’s you in the game.

And if you can put a player in the role of somebody else and say, “Okay, walk a mile in these shoes,” maybe you can do some good. What about a game that places you in the role of a Palestinian dealing with the situation in Jerusalem? Somebody who supports the recently announced move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, who believes the Israelis are entirely right and the Palestinians entirely wrong… well, we kind of come back to what your team did in Shades of Gray, right? Maybe if you put that player in the role of somebody from the other side, you can actually foster some empathy, make the player realize that there are two sides to this story.

Yes. I mentioned that I did role-playing with my students before they started to write code. It was based on an approach to classroom role-playing called “Reacting to the Past.” It’s a new thing in history education. You have these really complicated games which sometimes take a whole semester to play. The students immerse themselves in a character, become that character. They read historical documents and learn to act as that character. Some of these games are fairly brutal. You might to be a slave owner and have to make speeches arguing for slavery. It can be difficult for students to do this, but it gets inside history in a way that’s incredibly powerful.

In reviews of that approach, there are stories like what you’re describing, where somebody takes the role of somebody politically opposite to their own point of view. It’s not that they change their mind, but that they come away with a more nuanced view of the opposition — they understand where the others are coming from.

I’m trying to see whether I can use some of these techniques in computer games. Can I get students writing scenarios, writing characters, that will provide the same thing for players?

Last year a student wrote a game for The Illinois Map where you start out in a Holocaust museum. You’re just looking at objects in the museum, learning a little bit of history. Then you open a closet door and find yourself on the streets of Skokie, Illinois. There’s a big protest going on. You start to chat with people, and realize these are Holocaust survivors and others protesting the fact that the KKK wants to have a rally here. Of course, you’re on their side because you’ve just come out of the Holocaust museum. But then a guy from the ACLU is there, and starts to talk to you about free speech.

And that’s the whole scenario. It just takes you and drops you into that morally ambiguous moment. And that’s the end of the game. These are the kinds of things I’m encouraging my students to write — not huge games, just moments.

Some students are working on a simulation of the Springfield race riots of 1908. You start as a little African-American girl hiding in the attic of her house, peeking out the window watching the riot approach. Then you shift to being a white teenager on the ground, with the riot going past you. Your father is there, going to the riot. As the player, you can go or not go. Just the power of that juxtaposition is really effective.

What if our way of teaching history incorporated interactivity and immersion? I can’t say I’m succeeding. I’m just trying. I can’t suggest it to anybody else until I myself try it.

You’ve been involved with an amazing range of pursuits over your life. In addition to the things we’ve talked about today, you’ve worked as a sociologist, studied trauma in Croatia, written a history of hypnotism. Why so many eclectic choices?

I would say that the thing that connects my entire career is narrative and the power of storytelling — collective storytelling, collective memory, collaborative storytelling. I have an academic interest in that, and I have a creative interest as well. Let’s Tell a Story Together… the name of your IF history. There’s something fairly profound in that. It’s why IF really is different from other types of games and other types of literature.

I think that may be a good note to leave on. Thank you again for doing this!

Thank you! This has been so much fun!

The feeling is mutual. This has been great. Take care, Judith.


Do remember to check out Judith’s personal projects and her fascinating classroom experiments, both now and in the future. I know that I for one will be watching with interest to see how her work evolves.

 
 

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Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 3: The Persistent Multiplayer CRPG

Black Dragon, CompuServe’s first CRPG, was popular enough that the service sold tee-shirts.

The first CRPG to go online with CompuServe was also one of the first entirely original games to appear on the service, following the initial glut of institutional-computing refugees. Black Dragon, written by a programmer of telephone switching systems named Bob Maples, was at bottom a simplified version of Wizardry — not a hugely surprising state of affairs, given that it made its debut in 1981, at the height of the Wizardry craze. The player created a character — just one, not a full party as in Wizardry — and then began a series of expeditions into the game’s ten-level labyrinth, fighting monsters, collecting equipment and experience, and hopefully penetrating a little deeper with each outing. Only the character’s immediate surroundings were described on the scrolling, text-only display, so careful mapping became every bit as critical as it was in Wizardry. The ultimate goal, guaranteed to consume many hours — not to mention a small fortune in connection charges — was to kill Asmodeus, the black dragon of the title, who lurked down on the tenth level. Any player who managed to accomplish that feat and escape back to the surface was rewarded by seeing her name along with her character’s immortalized on the game’s public wall of fame.

Those bragging rights aside, Black Dragon had no multiplayer aspect at all, which might lead one to ask why its players didn’t just pick up a copy of Wizardry instead; doing so would certainly have been cheaper in the long run. But the fact is that not every CompuServe subscriber’s computer could run Wizardry in those early days. Certainly Black Dragon proved quite popular as the first CompuServe game of its kind. Sadly lost to history now, it has been described by some of its old players as far more cleverly designed than its bare-bones presentation and its willingness to unabashedly ride Wizardry‘s coattails might lead one to believe.

Black Dragon‘s success told Bill Louden, the “games guy” at CompuServe, that subscribers had a taste for this sort of experience. In 1982 a second, somewhat more sophisticated single-player CRPG went up. Known as Dungeons of Kesmai, it was, as the name would imply, another work of the indefatigable John Taylor and Kelton Flinn — i.e., Kesmai, the programmers also responsible for CompuServe’s MegaWars III and, a bit later, for GEnie’s Air Warrior. Like so many of CompuServe’s staple games, both Black Dragon and Dungeons of Kesmai would remain on the service for an absurdly long time, until well into the 1990s.


But more ambitious games as well would come down the pipe well before then. A few years later after these first single-player online CRPGs debuted, CompuServe made the leap to multiplayer virtual worlds. As we’ve already seen in my previous article, MUD washed up from British shores in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends, bringing with it the idea of the multiplayer text adventure as virtual world. Yet even before that happened, in December of 1985, the CRPG genre had already made the same leap thanks to still another creation from Kesmai: Island of Kesmai.

Taylor and Flinn had originally hoped to make Dungeons of Kesmai something akin to the game which Island would later become, but that project had been cut back to a single-player game when Bill Louden deemed it simply too ambitious for such an early effort. Undaunted, Kesmai treated Dungeons as something of a prototype for their real vision for a multiplayer CRPG and just kept plugging away. They never saw nor heard of MUD when developing the more advanced game, meaning that said game’s innovations, which actually hew much closer than MUD to the massively-multiplayer games to come, were all its own.

Island of Kesmai demonstrated just how far games’ presentation had come on CompuServe in the four years of creeping advancement that had followed Black Dragon. While it was still limited to text and crude character graphics, the latest terminal protocols did allow it to make use of color, and to divide the screen into quadrants dedicated to different purposes: a status “window” showing the state of the player’s character, a pseudo-graphical overhead view of the character’s surroundings, a text area for descriptions of the environment, a command line for the player to issue orders. Island of Kesmai looked like a roguelike, a genre of hardcore tactical CRPG that was a bigger favorite with hackers than with commercial game developers. This roguelike, however, was a multiplayer game set in a persistent world, and that changed everything.

Island of Kesmai used the ASCII graphics typical of roguelikes. Here “>” represents the player’s character; “A” is a monster; “B” is another player’s character; “@@” is a spider web; and “$” is a treasure or other item. The brackets are walls, while “–” represents a closed door and “/” an open one.

As with British Legends, up to 100 players could share Island of Kesmai‘s persistent world at the same time. Yet Kesmai’s creation was a far more coherent, far more designed experience than the cheerful insanity that was life on MUD. Players chose a class for their characters, along with an alignment, a gender, and even a land of origin. As befitted the game’s grounding in CRPG rather than text-adventure tradition, combat was a far more elaborate and tactical affair than in MUD. You had to reckon with the position of your character and your opponents; had to worry about initiative and fatigue; could be stunned or poisoned or even fumble your weapon. The magic system, too, was far more advanced and subtle than MUD‘s handful of ad-hoc spells that had often been added as much for comedic value as anything else.

The Island that gave the game its name was divided into five regions, comprising in total some 62,000 discrete locations, over which roamed some 2500 creatures in addition to one’s fellow players. The game was consciously designed to support differing levels of player engagement. “A person can play casually or seriously,” said Ben Shih, a “scenario designer” hired by Kesmai to continue evolving the game. “He or she can relax and take out frustrations on a few goblins or unwind by joining other players in hunting bear and griffin. But to become a superstar, a ‘mega-character,’ takes time.”

Ben Shih, John Taylor, and Kelton Flinn of Kesmai.

Scenario designers like Shih added content on a regular basis to keep the game fresh even for veteran players, sometimes giving a unique artifact to the first player to complete a new quest. Kelton Flinn was still excited about adding new stuff to the game three years after it had first gone online:

We don’t feel we’re designing games. We’re designing simulations. We create a world and then we let the players roam around in it. Of course, we’re always adding to our view of the world, fiddling with things all the time, creating new treasures, making things work better. I suppose at some point you have to call a halt and say, “Let’s see if we want to make a clean break and try something bigger.” But we haven’t reached that stage yet.

For all the changes the game went through, the ultimate achievement in Island of Kesmai remained always to kill the dragon, the toughest monster in the game. Players who did so were rewarded with everlasting fame as part of the true elite. As for the dragon: he of course re-spawned in a few days’ time, ready to serve as fodder for the next champion.

Those who hoped to do well were almost forced to buy the 181-page manual for the game, available for the low, low price of $16.50 directly from CompuServe. A rather stunning percentage of the elements described therein would still ring true to any World of Warcraft player of today. There was, for instance, a questing system, a ladder of challenges offering ever greater rewards in return for surviving ever greater dangers. Even those looking for an equivalent to the endless stream of World of Warcraft expansions can find it with Island of Kesmai. In 1988, Kesmai opened up the new lands of Torii and Annwn, filled with “more powerful weapons, tougher monsters, and a variety of treasures.” Advanced players were allowed to travel there only after their characters had hit the old Island’s level cap, and weren’t allowed to return again after they passed through the magic portal, lest they wreak havoc among the less powerful monsters and characters they once left behind.

While play on the Island was much more structured than it was in The Land of MUD, it was still the other players who really made the game what it was. Taylor and Flinn went into the project understanding that, and even anticipating to an extraordinary degree the shape of virtual societies to come. “We fully expect that a political system will evolve,” said Taylor upon the game’s launch, “and someone may even try to proclaim himself King of Kesmai.” Much of the design was put in place to emphasize the social aspect of the game. For example, a conference room was provided for strategizing and conspiring, and many quests were deliberately designed to require the cooperation of several characters. The verbiage adopted by players in relation to the quest system still rings true to modern ears. For example, a verb was coined for those loners determined to undertake quests on their own: to “solo.”

Although player-versus-player combat was allowed, it was restricted to specific areas of the Island; an attempt to attack another character in a “civilized” area, such as the town where new players began their adventures, would be met by the Sheriff, an invincible non-player character guaranteed to grind the brawniest hero into dust. Alignment also played a role: a karma meter kept track of players’ actions. Actions like assault or theft would gradually turn a good character neutral, then finally evil. The last alignment was highly undesirable from many perspectives, not least in that it would prevent you from entering the town, with its shops, bars, and trainers.

And there were still other mechanisms for discouraging the veterans from tormenting the newbies in the way so many MUD players so enjoyed. Players were urged to report griefers who preyed excessively upon newbies, even if they only did so in the dungeons and other “uncivilized” areas where player-versus-player combat was technically allowed. If enough people lodged complaints against them, the griefers might find themselves visited by the wrath of the “ghods of Kesmai,” the game’s administrators — the alternate spelling was used so as not to offend the religious — who might take away experience points, steal back their precious magic items, or just smite them dead as punishment. The game thus tended to foster a less cutthroat, more congenial atmosphere than MUD, with most players preferring to band together against the many monsters rather than fight with one another.

A journalist from the magazine Compute’s Gazette shared this tale of his own almost unbelievably positive first encounter with another player in the game:

I desperately wish I could afford to buy a few bottles of balm sold by the vendor here in the nave, but at 16 gold pieces each they are far above my limited budget. Another player walks in from the square. “Hello, Cherp!” she says, looking at me. Taking a close look at her, I recognize Lynn, a middle-aged female fighter from my home country of Mnar.

“Howdy to you. Are you headed down into the dungeon? I’ve just arrived and this is my first trip down,” I tell her.

“Ah, I see. Yes, I was headed down, but I don’t think it’s safe for you to hunt where I’ll be going. Do you have any balm yet?” she asks as she stands next to the balm vendor.

“No, I haven’t got the gold to afford it,” I say hesitantly.

“No problem. I have a few extra pieces. Come and get them.”

“Thank you very much,” I say. Lynn drops some gold on the ground, and we wait as the vendor takes the gold and drops the balm bottles for us. I pick up the bottles and add them to my meager possessions.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” I say. “Is there some way I can repay you? Perhaps we could meet here again later and I could give you some balms in return.”

“No,” she laughs, “I have no need of them. Just remember there are always other players who are just starting out. They may find themselves in the same position you are in now. Try to lend them a hand when you are sufficiently strong.”

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I will just note one more time that this attitude stands in marked contrast to the newbie-tormenting that the various incarnations of MUD always seemed to engender. At least one player of Island of Kesmai so distinguished himself through his knowledge of the game and his sense of community spirit that he was hired by Kesmai to design new challenges and serve as a community liaison — a wiz mode of a different and much more lucrative stripe.

But the community spirit of Island of Kesmai at its finest is perhaps best exemplified by Valis, one of the game’s most accomplished players. This online CRPG was actually the first RPG of any stripe he had ever managed to enjoy, despite attending university during the height of the Dungeons & Dragons fad: “I could never get into sitting around eating crackers and cheese doodles and arguing for twelve hours at a time. I can do as much in a half hour in Island of Kesmai as they did in twelve hours.” Valis became the first person to exhaustively map the entire Island, uploading the results to the service’s file libraries for the benefit of all. Further, he put together a series of beginners classes for those new to what could be a very daunting game. CompuServe’s hapless marketers advertised his efforts as an “escort service,” a name which perhaps didn’t convey quite the right impression.

We think we’ve come up with the perfect way of teaching a beginners class. We spend an hour or so in the conference area with a lecture and questions. Then we go on a “field trip” to the Island itself. I lead the beginners onto the Island, where we encounter a few things and look for some treasure. That usually is enough to get them started.

In many respects, the personal stories that emerged from Island of Kesmai will ring very familiar to anyone who’s been reading my recent articles, as they will to anyone familiar with the massively-multiplayer games of today. Carrie Washburn discovered the game in 1986, just after her son was born fourteen weeks premature. During the months the baby spent in intensive care, Island of Kesmai became the “link back to reality” for her and her husband. After spending the day at the hospital, they “would enter a fantasy world in order to forget the real one. The online friends that we met there helped pull us through.” Of course, the escape wasn’t without cost: Washburn’s monthly CompuServe bill routinely topped $500, and once hit $2000. Later she divorced her husband and took to prancing around the Island as the uninhibited Lynn De’Leslie — “more of a slut, really” — until she met her second husband there. Her sentiments about it all echoed those expressed by the CB Simulator fraternity on another part of CompuServe: “One of the great things about meeting people online is that you get to really known them. The entire relationship is built on talking.” (Appropriately enough for a talker, Washburn went on to find employment as the administrator of the Multiplayer Games Roundtable on GEnie.)

Kelton Flinn once called Island of Kesmai “about as complicated as a game can be on a commercial system.” Yet it deserves to be remembered for the thought that went into it even more than for its complexity. Almost every issue that designers of the massively-multiplayer games of today deal with was anticipated and addressed by Kesmai — sometimes imperfectly, yes, but then many of the design questions which swirl around the format have arguably still not been met with perfect answers even today. Incredibly, Island of Kesmai went online in December of 1985 with almost all of its checks and balances already in place, so thoroughly had its designers thought about what they were creating and where it would lead. To use Richard Bartle’s terminology from my previous article, Island of Kesmai was a “product” rather than a “program,” and it was all the better for it. While MUD strikes me as a pioneering work with an awful lot of off-putting aspects, such that I probably wouldn’t have lasted five minutes if I’d stumbled into it as a player, Island of Kesmai still sounds like it must have been fantastic to play.

 

One big name in the field of single-player graphical CRPGs took note of what was going on on The Island quite early. In 1987, a decade before Ultima Online would take the games industry by storm, Richard Garriott and Origin Systems began doing more than just muse about the potential for a multiplayer Ultima. They assigned at least one programmer to work full-time on the technology that could enable just such a product. This multiplayer Ultima was envisioned on a more modest scale than the eventual Ultima Online or even the current Island of Kesmai. It was described by Garriot thus: “What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.” Despite the modest number of players the game would support and the apparent lack of plans for a persistent world, Origin did hold out the prospect of a partnership with CompuServe. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere. After 1987 the idea of a multiplayer Ultima was shelved for a long, long time; Origin presumably deemed it too much of a distraction from their bread-and-butter single-player CRPG franchise.

Another of the big single-player CRPG franchises, however, would make the leap — and not just to multiplayer but all way to a persistent virtual world like that of MUD or Island of Kesmai. Rather than running on the industry-leading CompuServe or even the gamer haven of GEnie, this pioneering effort would run on the nascent America Online.

Don Daglow was already a grizzled veteran of the games industry when he founded a development company called Beyond Software (no relation to the British company of the same name) in 1988. He had programmed games for fun on his university’s DEC PDP-10 in the 1970s, programmed them for money at Intellivision in the early 1980s, been one of the first producers at Electronic Arts in the mid-1980s — working on among other titles Thomas M. Disch’s flawed but fascinating text adventure Amnesia and the hugely lauded baseball simulation Earl Weaver Baseball — and finally came to spend some time in the same role at Brøderbund. At last, though, he had “got itchy” to do something that would be all his own. Beyond was his way of scratching that itch.

Thanks to Daglow’s industry connections, Beyond hit the ground running, establishing solid working relationships with two very disparate companies: Quantum Computer Services, who owned and operated America Online, and the boxed-game publisher SSI. Daglow actually signed on with the former the day after forming his company, agreeing to develop some simple games for their young online service which would prove to be the very first Beyond games to see the light of day. Beyond’s relationship with the latter would lead to the publication of another big-name-endorsed baseball simulation: Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball, which would sell an impressive 85,684 copies, thereby becoming SSI’s most successful game to date that wasn’t an entry in their series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons games.

As it happened, though, Beyond’s relationship with SSI also came to encompass that license in fairly short order. They contracted to create some new Dungeons & Dragons single-player CRPGs, using the  popular but aging Gold Box engine which SSI had heretofore reserved for in-house titles; the Beyond games were seen by SSI as a sort of stopgap while their in-house staff devoted themselves to developing a next-generation CRPG engine. Beyond’s efforts on this front would result in a pair of titles, Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier, before the disappointing sales of the latter told both parties that the jig was well and truly up for the Gold Box engine.

By Don Daglow’s account, the first graphical multiplayer CRPG set in a persistent world was the product of a fortunate synergy between the work Beyond was doing for AOL and the work they were doing for SSI.

I realized that I was doing online games with AOL and I was doing Dungeons & Dragons games with SSI. Nobody had done a graphical massively-multiplayer online game yet. Several teams had tried, but nobody had succeeded in shipping one. I looked at that, and said, “Wait, I know how to do this because I understand how the Dungeons & Dragons system works on the one hand, and I understand how online works on the other.” I called up Steve Case [at AOL], and Joel Billings and Chuck Kroegel at SSI, and said, “If you guys want to give it a shot, I can give you a graphical MMO, and we can be the first to have it.”

The game was christened Neverwinter Nights. “Neverwinter” was the area of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting which TSR, makers of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, had carved out for Beyond to set their games; the two single-player Savage Frontier games were also set in the region. The “Nights,” meanwhile, was a sly allusion to the fact that AOL — and thus this game — was only available on nights and weekends, when the nation’s telecommunications lines could be leased relatively cheaply.

Neverwinter Nights had to be purchased as a boxed game before players could start paying AOL’s connection fees to actually play it. It looked almost indistinguishable from any other Gold Box title on store shelves — unless one noticed the names of America Online and Quantum Computer Services in the fine print.

On the face of it, Neverwinter Nights was the ugliest of kludges. Beyond took SSI’s venerable Gold Box engine, which had never been designed to incorporate multiplayer capabilities, and grafted exactly those capabilities onto it. At first glance, the end result looked the same as any of the many other Gold Box titles, right down to the convoluted interface that had been designed before mice were standard equipment on most computers. But when you started to look closer, the differences started to show. The player now controlled just one character instead of a full party; parties were formed by multiple players coming together to undertake a quest. To facilitate organizing and socializing, a system for chatting with other players in the same map square had been added. And, in perhaps the trickiest and certainly the kludgiest piece of the whole endeavor, the turn-based Gold Box engine had been converted into a pseudo-real-time proposition that worked just well enough to make multiplayer play possible.

It made for a strange hybrid to say the least — one which Richard Bartle for one dismisses as “innovative yet flawed.” Yet somehow it worked. After launching the game in June of 1991 with a capacity of 100 simultaneous players, Beyond and AOL were soon forced by popular demand to raise this number to 500, thus making Neverwinter Nights the most populous virtual world to go online to date. And even at that, there were long lines of players during peak periods waiting for others to drop out of the game so they could get into it, paying AOL’s minute-by-minute connection fee just to stand in the queue.

While players and would-be players of online CRPGs had undoubtedly been dreaming of the graphics which Neverwinter Nights offered for a long time, smart design was perhaps equally important to the game’s long-term popularity. To an even greater degree than Island of Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights strove to provide a structure for play. Don Daglow had been interested in online gaming for a long time, had played just about all of what was available, and had gone into this project with a clear idea of exactly what sort of game he wanted Neverwinter Nights to be. It was emphasized from the get-go that this was not to be a game of direct player-versus-player conflict. In fact, Beyond went even Kesmai one better in this area, electing not just to ban such combat from certain parts of the game but to ban it entirely. Neverwinter Nights was rather to be a game of cooperation and friendly competition. Players would meet on the town’s central square, form themselves into adventuring parties, and be assigned quests by a town clerk — shades of the much-loved first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance — to kill such-and-such a monster or recover such-and-such a treasure. Everyone in the party would then share equally in the experience and loot that resulted. Even death was treated relatively gently: characters would be revived in town minus all of the stuff they had been toting along with them, but wouldn’t lose the armor, weapons, and magic items they had actually been using — much less lose their lives permanently, as happened in MUD.

One player’s character has just cast feeblemind on another’s, rendering him “stupid.” This became a sadly typical sight in the game.

Beyond’s efforts to engender the right community spirit weren’t entirely successful; players did find ways to torment one another. While player characters couldn’t attack one another physically, they could cast spells at one another — a necessary capability if a party’s magic-using characters were to be able to cast “buffing” spells on the fighters before and during combat. A favorite tactic of the griefers was to cast the “feeblemind” spell several times in succession on the newbies’ characters, reducing their intelligence and wisdom scores to the rock bottom of 3, thus making them for all practical purposes useless. One could visit a temple to get this sort of thing undone, but that cost gold the newbies didn’t have. By most accounts, there was much more of this sort of willful assholery in Neverwinter Nights than there had been in Island of Kesmai, notwithstanding the even greater lengths Beyond had gone to prevent it. Perhaps it was somehow down to the fact that Neverwinter Nights was a graphical game — however crude the graphics were even by the standards of the game’s own time — that led to it attracting a greater percentage of such immature players.

Griefers aside, though, Neverwinter Nights had much to recommend it, as well as plenty of players happy to play it in the spirit Beyond had intended. Indeed, the devotion the game’s most hardcore players displayed remains legendary to this day. They formed themselves into guilds, using that very word for the first time to describe such aggregations. They held fairs, contests, performances, and the occasional wedding. And they started at least two newsletters to keep track of goings-on in Neverwinter. Some issues have been preserved by dedicated fans, allowing us today a glimpse into a community that was at least as much about socializing and role-playing as monster-bashing. The first issue of News of the Realm, for example, tells us that Cyric has just become a proud father in the real world; that Vulcan and Dramia have opened their own weapons shop in the game; that Cold Chill the notorious bandit has shocked everyone by recognizing the errors of his ways and becoming good; that the dwarves Nystramo and Krishara are soon to hold their wedding — or, as dwarves call it, their “Hearth Building.” Clearly there was a lot going on in Neverwinter.

The addition of graphics would ironically limit the lifespan of many an online game; while text is timeless, computer graphics, especially in the fast-evolving 1980s and 1990s, had a definite expiration date. Under the circumstances, Neverwinter Nights had a reasonably long run, remaining available for six years on AOL. Over the course of that period online life and computer games both changed almost beyond recognition. Already looking pretty long in the tooth when Neverwinter Nights made its debut in 1991, the Gold Box engine by 1997 was a positive antique.

Despite the game’s all-too-obvious age, AOL’s decision to shut it down in July of 1997 was greeted with outrage by its rabid fan base, some of whom still nurse a strong sense of grievance to this day. But exactly how large that fan base still was by 1997 is a little uncertain. The Neverwinter Nights community insisted (and continues to insist) that the game was as popular as ever, making the claim from uncertain provenance that AOL was still making good money from it. Richard Bartle makes the eye-popping claim today, also without attribution, that it was still bringing in fully $5 million per year. Yet the reality remains that this was an archaic MS-DOS game at a time when software in general had largely completed the migration to Windows. It was only getting more brittle as it fell further and further behind the times. Just two months after the plug was pulled on Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online debuted, marking the beginning of the modern era of massively-multiplayer CRPGs as we’ve come to know them today. Neverwinter Nights would have made for a sad sight in any direct comparison with Ultima Online. It’s understandable that AOL, never an overly games-focused service to begin with, would want to get out while the getting was good.

Even in its heyday, when the land of Neverwinter was stuffed to its 500-player capacity every night and more players were lining up outside, its popularity was never all that great in the grand scheme of the games industry; that very capacity limit if nothing else saw to that. Nevertheless, its place in gaming lore as a storied pioneer was such that Bioware chose to revive the name in 2002 in the form of a freestanding boxed CRPG with multiplayer capabilities. That version of Neverwinter Nights was played by many, many times more people than the original — and yet it could never hope to rival its predecessor’s claim to historical importance.

The massively-multiplayer online CRPGs that would follow the original Neverwinter Nights would be slicker, faster, in some ways friendlier, but the differences would be of degree, not of kind. MUD, Island of Kesmai, and Neverwinter Nights between them had invented a genre, going a long way in the process toward showing any future designers who happened to be paying attention exactly what worked there and what didn’t. All that remained for their descendants to do was to popularize it, to make it easier and cheaper and more convenient to lose oneself in a shared virtual world of the fantastic.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsey; Online Today of February 1986, April 1986, August 1986, June 1987, January 1988, August 1988, September 1988, and February 1989; Computer Gaming World of June/July 1986; The Gamers Connection of September/October 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of July 1989; Compute! of November 1991; the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Barbara Baser’s Black Dragon walkthrough, as preserved by Arthur J. O’Dwyer; “The Game Archaeologist Discovers the Island of Kesmai” from Engadget. Readers may also be interested in the CRPG Addict’s more experiential impression of playing Neverwinter Nights offline — and be sure to check out the comments to that article for some memories of old players.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 2: MUD

You are stood on a narrow road between The Land and whence you came. To the north and south are the small foothills of a pair of majestic mountains, with a large wall running round. To the west the road continues, where in the distance you can see a thatched cottage opposite an ancient cemetery. The way out is to the east, where a shroud of mist covers the secret path by which you entered The Land.

— the first text players saw upon entering the University of Essex MUD 


During the time when the original PDP-10 Zork was the hottest game in institutional computing, a fair number of overseas visitors managed to access the machine that ran it at MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group. One day in 1980, one such visitor, from the University of Essex in Britain, left a strange message on the Zork mailing list: “You haven’t lived ’til you’ve died in MUD.”

When the folks inside MIT investigated, they learned that the spirit of hacker oneupsmanship which had caused them to beget Zork as a response to Crowther and Woods’s Adventure had finally come back around to bite them. Zork had perfected the Adventure formula at the same time that it exploded it, applying a much more advanced parser and a much more detailed and coherent world model to a game that was several times as big. Now, MUD — the Multi-User Dungeon — was taking the next step, applying the innovations of its predecessors to the world’s first shared persistent virtual world. The creators of MUD had first encountered Zork in the form of an unauthorized port which bore the name of Dungeon; thus the name of Multi-User Dungeon made the challenge to the existing state of the art in text adventures all too plain.

Later in 1980, Dave Lebling of the Dynamic Modeling Group penned an article for Byte magazine about Zork which, not coincidentally, included this musing about possible future directions:

Another area where experimentation is going on is that of multiplayer CFS [computerized fantasy simulation] games. Each player (possibly not even aware how many others are playing) would see only his own view of the territory. He would be notified when other players enter or leave the room, and could talk to them.

This would not, however, be the road which Lebling and his colleagues would ultimately choose to go down. Instead they would focus their energies on crafting the most polished, compelling single-player text adventures they possibly could, forming the company known as Infocom to publish them on the microcomputers of the time — a story regular readers of this blog already know well.

And yet the idea of the multi-player text adventure — and with it the idea of a text adventure that was a persistent world to be visited again and again rather than a single game to be solved and set aside — wasn’t going to go away either. On the contrary: a direct line can be traced from Adventure and Zork through MUD and its many antecedents, and on to the functioning virtual societies, with populations in some cases bigger than many small countries here on our real planet, that are the persistent online worlds of today.


As has been the case for more seminal developments in computing history than some might like to admit, MUD was spawned less by a grand theoretical vision than a technical quirk in the computer which ran it. In fact, it was the very same quirk as that which would lead Sandy Trevor over at CompuServe in the United States to create the equally seminal CB Simulator, the world’s first real-time chat program.

The big DEC PDP-10 computer, a staple of institutional computing and with it of hacker culture during the 1970s, might host dozens of simultaneous users, many of whom might be running the same program. It would be absurdly wasteful of precious memory to copy this program’s code over and over into each individual user’s private memory space. Therefore each user was given access to two pools of memory. One, used for program code, was shared among all users on the system — so that if, say, many of them were running the same text editor then the code for that text editor would have to exist in the computer’s memory in only one place. The other area was reserved for the unique data — in this example, the actual file being edited — that each user was working with; this private space could only be accessed by her. In itself, none of this constituted a quirk; it was just good system design, and as such is still used by most computers today.

Roy Trubshaw

But something that was a little quirky about the PDP-10 was noticed by a University of Essex student named Roy Trubshaw in 1977: the fact that nothing absolutely demanded that only static program code, as opposed to dynamic data of other sorts, reside in the shared memory space. With a bit of trickery, the PDP-10 could be convinced to use the shared space to facilitate real-time communications between users who would otherwise be isolated inside their own bubbles. Trubshaw’s first experiments along these lines were as basic as could be: he wrote a couple of programs to cause one user’s terminal to echo text being typed into another’s. “It might seem odd to someone who wasn’t there,” he remembers, “but the feeling of achievement when the line of text on one teletype appeared as typed on the second teletype was just awesome.” From such experiments would eventually spring MUD — for, Trubshaw would realize, there was nothing preventing the shared memory space from containing an entire virtual world rather than just lines of typed text.

The road from typed text to virtual world would, like so much else in gaming history, pass through Adventure. The year of 1977 was also the year of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s pioneering creation, which fascinated Trubshaw as much as it did all of the other hackers who encountered it. The source code to Adventure fortuitously popped up on the University of Essex’s PDP-10 the following year, while Trubshaw was still tinkering with his shared-memory experiments. Taking inspiration from Crowther and Woods’s code — but not too much; he considered the game’s implementation “by and large a giant kludge” — Trubshaw developed a markup language for describing a shared world, to be brought to life by an interpreter program. He named his new language MUDDL, for Multi-User Dungeon Implementation Language. (MUDDL was an amusing if coincidental echo of MDL — pronounced “muddle” — the language the Dynamic Modeling Group at MIT had used to implement Zork. Ditto Infocom’s later MDL-based in-house language, ZIL: the Zork Implementation Language.) The first MUDDL-built shared world to go online modeled, in the grand tradition of countless other first text-adventure creations, the house where Trubshaw had grown up and where his parents still lived. While it’s difficult to anchor these developments precisely in time, the project may have reached this point as early as late 1978, and certainly by 1979.

Richard Bartle

Trubshaw’s most enthusiastic fan and assistant was an undergraduate named Richard Bartle with a taste for Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and the single-player text adventures, like Adventure and Zork, which echoed them. With that perfect resume to hand, Bartle began to function as the world designer for the nascent MUD. In the spring of 1980, shortly after Trubshaw and Bartle together had posted that cryptic message to the Zork mailing list, Trubshaw graduated from university — he blamed the time spent working on MUD for having finished with a second rather than a first — and moved to Belgium, bequeathing all of his old code unto Bartle. Trubshaw wouldn’t do any more serious work on MUD for the next several years, and would only very rarely visit it as a player. From this point on, it would be Richard Bartle’s baby. (There is an interesting parallel here with the original Adventure, which was started by Will Crowther largely as a coding experiment, only to be abandoned by him and developed into a full-fledged game later by Don Woods. The notable difference is that Trubshaw and Bartle, unlike Crowther and Woods, did know one another, and actually worked together on the project for a while.)

Bartle was now working earnestly on making the world of MUD, which he called simply The Land, into a place worth visiting. From its modest beginnings as a facsimile of Trubshaw’s parents’ house it would grow over the course of years to become an immense place, with some 600 rooms, encompassing everything from the expected Tolkienesque fantasy to an area based — without authorization, of course — on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock television program.

At first, The Land was inhabited only by a select group of University of Essex students who could locally access the PDP-10 on which it ran. The same PDP-10 was, however, also accessible by a privileged few outside the university who had managed to finagle, by means legal or extra-legal, access to the early Internet. One of the first such outsiders to drop by was a precocious 17-year-old named Jeremy San who spent his days prowling the Internet, looking for interesting things. MUD, he knew immediately, was very interesting indeed. He became its greatest propagandist among the tiny British modem fraternity of the time; a huge percentage of the people who wound up playing MUD did so thanks to his encouragement. (Jeremy San took the handle of “Jez” on MUD, a nickname which leaked out of its virtual context to become his professional name. As Jez San, he would go on to become a major figure in British game development, responsible for Starglider among other hits.)

Enough outsiders like San were soon playing MUD to prompt the division of players into “internals,” meaning people playing from within the university itself, and “externals,” meaning people logging on from outside its hallowed halls. The university’s administrators proved rather astonishingly generous with their computing resources, allowing players from all over the country and, eventually, all over the world to log on and play during evenings and weekends. But make no mistake: doing so was a tall order in the Britain of the early 1980s, where electronic communications in general were still in a far more primitive state than the United States of the period, where even simple local phone calls were still charged by the minute and modems were rarer than hen’s teeth among home-computer owners. To add to the logistical difficulties, MUD didn’t even become available on the university’s PDP-10 until 1:00 AM, after everyone else had presumably finished doing their real work on the machine. Nevertheless, enough people combined the requisite privilege, cleverness, and dedication that the software’s limitation of no more than 36 simultaneous players quickly began to frustrate.

A typical MUD session

For all that even MUD‘s very name implied it to be nothing more than a multiplayer version of Zork/Dungeon, the move from a single-player game to be solved and set aside to a persistent world to be inhabited by the same players for months or years changed everything. The designs questions which confronted Bartle were completely different from those being debated contemporaneously inside the early Infocom. In fact, they had far more in common with those still being debated by the makers of the massively-multiplayer games of today than they did with those surrounding the single-player games of their own time. In a single-player game, the player is the star of the show; the (virtual) world revolves around her. Not so inside The Land. Most traditional text-adventure puzzles made no sense at all there. The first person to come along and solve a puzzle might have fun with it, but after that the shared world meant that what was solved for one was solved for all: the door remained unlocked, the drawbridge remained lowered, etc. This was not, needless to say, a good use of a designer’s energy. MUD did include some set-piece puzzles which could be solved by simply typing an answer, without affecting the environment — riddles, number sequences, etc. — but even these became mere pointless annoyances to a player after she had solved them once, and tended to be so widely spoiled by the first player to solve them that they too hardly seemed a good use of a designer’s time.

The most innovative puzzles in The Land were those which took advantage of this being a multiplayer text adventure to demand cooperation; think of a heavy portcullis which can only be lifted by several players straining together. Perhaps the cleverest example of this species of puzzle was The Swamp, a huge maze with an immensely valuable crown hidden at its center. Because it was a swamp, the tried-and-true drop-and-plot technique for solving mazes was a nonstarter; items dropped would just disappear below the surface. The only way to defeat the maze was rather with a team of a dozen or more players, leaving one player behind in each room to mark its identity.

Yet puzzles — even brilliant puzzles like this one — were never really the heart of MUD‘s appeal; even the Swamp maze became a fairly rote exercise as soon as the first group figured out how to approach it. Although it presented itself in the guise of a text adventure, MUD often played more like a CRPG. Replacing the deterministic behavior of Adventure and Zork was a focus on emergent behavior. Each player had scores for strength, stamina, and dexterity, which determined the outcome of many actions, including combat with the many creatures which dotted the landscape. These attributes increased as one’s in-game accomplishments grew.

Like most traditional text adventures, MUD had a system of points for measuring the player’s achievements. Less typically, but very much in keeping with the CRPG side of the game’s personality, this score translated into levels, which among other things allowed players to attach honorifics (“Hero,” etc.) to their names. Points became a sort of currency within The Land; it was possible to transfer some of your points to another player by “hugging” or “kissing” her, and this was often done in exchange for goods and services.

The most straightforward way of scoring points, however, was at first glance lifted straight from Adventure and Zork: treasures were scattered about The Land, which players could retrieve and drop into a designated location. But this scheme alone was obviously unsuitable to a multiplayer context, at least if Bartle didn’t want to spend all his time hiding new treasures for players to discover. Instead he came up with a scheme, always more tolerated than liked by even the most dedicated players, by which The Land was periodically “reset,” with all treasures moved back to their original starting locations. Such resets, besides being something of a blight on MUD‘s very identity as an allegedly persistent online world, were an imperfect solution in that the more experienced players were the ones who knew where the treasures lay after a reset; they thus could rush over to claim them before the newbies had a chance. It would often take the veterans no more than five minutes to scarf up all the treasures during a “reset rush hour,” an exercise as unchallenging for them as it was baffling for the newbies.

But then, the same newbies who were left nonplussed by the reset rush hour soon found much worse to complain about. Not only did MUD feature permadeath, but it allowed its experienced players to kill the new ones. Indeed, it even encouraged such behavior by rewarding the griefers with one-twenty-forth of the points their victims had accumulated over the course of their careers. Combined with the cliquey nature of MUD‘s culture, it could make The Land a hugely off-putting place to visit for the first time.

Tormenting the newbies was a favorite pastime among the regulars. Richard Bartle tells the sad story of one of MUD‘s first two externals, who managed to connect from all the way over in the United States in 1980 and got nothing but grief for his trouble:

Also in the game was Niatram, one of the system operators (who can’t spell his name backwards). He decided to loom up on this [newbie] character, follow him around a bit, then kill him. This he repeated several times, gaining plenty of points in the process. Finally, the newcomer was at his wits’ end.

“Who’s this Niatram character?” he asked. “He keeps following me around and killing me!” “Yes, he’s done that to me before,” came the reply. “I think he may be dungeon-generated!” At this point Niatram appeared, and out of despair his victim quit, rather than be killed yet again by this “artificial person.”

Today’s virtual worlds are generally wise enough to prevent this sort of thing by one means or another.

Player agency was another area where MUD was dramatically different from the massively-multiplayer games of today, but in this case the difference was, at least from some points of view, a more positive one. Once ordinary players, or “mortals” in MUD speak, reached a certain level, they became “wizards” and “witches” — known by the unisex term of “wizzes” — who were perhaps better described as gods, given that they were granted a stunning degree of control over The Land. “Wiz mode” was originally simply the debug mode used by Trubshaw and Bartle themselves, but it wound up becoming a key part of the game, Bartle’s answer to the expert player’s question of “Well, what now?”

Becoming a wiz required one to amass 76,800 points without getting killed, no mean feat in the cheerfully genocidal realm of The Land. The powers wiz mode conveyed extended to the point of being able to crash the game at will. Tired of watching wizzes invent ways to do so to prove their cleverness, Bartle actually added the verb “crash” to the wizzes’ vocabulary in order to convey the message that, yes, you have the power to do this; you therefore don’t have to bother inventing more convoluted methods for doing so, like, say, plucking the rain from the sky of two separate rooms and mashing the lot together. Safe in the knowledge that they could crash the game at will, effortlessly, most wizzes did indeed see no reason to bother actually doing so. Which didn’t, of course, prevent all the accidental crashes: it was always a sure sign that someone new had attained wiz status and was experimenting with her powers when the game just kept going down over and over.

Once mastered, though, the wizzes’ powers truly were extraordinary. They could snoop on mortals, watching the commands they typed and what appeared on their screens in response; could move objects from any room to any other room without touching them; could move themselves or other players from any room to any other room; could use a “finger of death” spell to instantly kill any mortal, permanently; could grant instant wiz status to any non-wiz they chose.

It seemingly defies all logic — defies everything we know about human nature — that a game willing to grant some of its players such powers could have sustained itself for a week, much less the years during which MUD ran at the University of Essex. It was all indicative of what a different sort of game MUD really was. Running on a university’s computer, free to access by anyone with the wherewithal to make a connection, MUD was a very different proposition from a commercial game, more a joint creative experiment than a product. Bartle:

MUD is an evolving game, and so indeed it should be. It has been incremented gradually, with new ideas put in to be instantly tested by a horde of willing wizzes, or mortals if it was something that they could use (the various “injury” spells — BLIND, DEAFEN, CRIPPLE, DUMB, and CURE — for example). This is one of the great strengths of doing MUD at a university; it’s all research. If a commercial company were to put up a game riddled with bugs, the players would be justifiably upset when it crashed on them. Here, though, it’s free for them to play and they actually like finding mistakes, because it gets them one over on me (and occasionally gets them some points for their honesty!). And it’s also good because we don’t have to pay people to play-test, either — plenty will do it willingly in their spare time for free!

So there will always be a place for MUDs at universities, simply so that research into them can proceed. Universities can have “programs,” whereas commercial companies must have “products.” Products don’t crash (well, not often!) and they are nice and stable. Programs crash like nobody’s business and you never know from one day to the next whether some terrible new command has been added which you don’t know about, but which someone who does is about to use on you. Products are fun, but they don’t change until everything has been thoroughly tested; programs are exciting in their volatility.

Perhaps there is a place for the “not fully tested” system. Even if I as a player did have to put up with a crash every 20 minutes (MUD needs to be reset once a night on average), I think that experiencing the excitement of seeing things evolving and of being among the first to use the novel commands would make me happy to play the program, not the product. Fortunately, enough people think the same way to make debugging that much easier, and to encourage new additions to make the game even more fun for generations of adventurers to come.

Every rule in the game existed, it seemed, to be exploited; mechanically, the place was a leaky sieve that poor Richard Bartle was constantly rushing around to patch. MUD‘s players were endlessly creative when it came to finding exploits. One of Bartle’s favorite anecdotes involves two players who were each about halfway to wiz status. Deciding they’d had enough incrementalism, they hatched a plan to put themselves over the top. First, one of the players kissed the other some 1400 times in succession to transfer all of his points to her, giving her enough to make wiz. Then the newly minted wiz used her special powers to grant instant wiz status to her helper. In response to that, Bartle had to add a rule that players could only use hugs and kisses to transfer points to those with a smaller point total than their own. Just another day at the office…

For all that exploits were a way of life among The Land’s denizens, the absolute power granted to the wizzes proved not to corrupt absolutely. In fact, just the opposite. For all that there was a definite hierarchy in place among the inhabitants of The Land, for all that tormenting the newbies was regarded as such good sport by virtually everyone, a certain attenuated but real code of fair play which Bartle himself did nothing to institute took hold within MUD. And it was the wizzes, the players with the ability to wreck The Land almost beyond redemption if they chose to do so, who came to regard the code as most sacred. Bartle:

The wizzes were once mortals themselves. Wizzes know all too well what it’s like to be summoned to a cold, dark room and left alone with the word “hehehe” ringing in your ears. They know the disappointment in forging through the swamp for half an hour only to find that someone has swapped the incredibly valuable crown in the centre for a fake one. They’ve felt the pangs of outrage when you’ve been attacked by a souped-up bunny rabbit which took you 15 minutes to kill. In short, they know when to stop.

Wizzes make the game. They rule it, they stamp their personalities on it, and they give mortals something to aim for, a goal, a purpose, something which explains why they’re in there hacking and slaying. If MUD does nothing else for multi-user adventure games, for evolving the concept of a wiz it should always be remembered.

By 1984, 53 players had made wiz status: 40 from England, 5 from Scotland, 4 from Wales, 1 from Ireland, 1 from the United States, 1 from Czechoslovakia(!), 1 from Malaysia(!!). The creative powers granted to them made MUD a self-sustaining community. After Bartle built The Land and made it available, he needed do no more. The place was perfectly capable of evolving without him.

“The people,” Bartle noted, “are the game” of MUD. The sense of shared ownership could make The Land a downright cozy place when the inhabitants took a break from killing one another. There was a bizarre craze for Trivial Pursuit for a while, with wizzes shouting out questions which mortals could answer for in-game rewards. And there was at least one MUD wedding, between Frobozz the Wizard and Kate the Enchantress, with the happy couple taking up honeymoon residence in the coveted “Wizard’s Chamber.” (“What interaction occurred thereafter is unknown,” wrote the journalist covering the story.)

Christmas was always a special time of the year, when the wizzes would institute a strictly enforced ban on player-versus-player combat, scatter the landscape with holly, snowmen, wreaths, and plum puddings, and plant Christmas trees in the forests, where one was now apt to encounter a wandering Santa Claus with his reindeer in lieu of the usual monsters. The wizzes desisted from sporting with the newbies to vicariously enjoy their surprise and delight when they logged on to find The Land transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with snow. (“What’s all this snow?” “I don’t know. I just saw Father Christmas go by, and someone has given me this cracker…”) Players would band together to sing Christmas carols, swigging all the while from a shared bottle of rum and diligently role-playing their resulting intoxication.

But who, you might wonder, were all these people who flocked to The Land every night? Like the CB Simulator fraternity on CompuServe, it was a diverse demographic who enjoyed this glimpse of an online future, ranging from teenage hacker whiz kids like Jeremy San to academics in their forties. Perhaps the most dedicated player of all was Sue, the first woman to make wiz, who slept for just three hours or so each night before MUD went online, then played for the full six hours it was available every morning before heading off to her ordinary office job.

Just as on CB Simulator, some of the other people on MUD who claimed to be women weren’t really women at all. Among this group was one Felicity, who was eventually found to be the avatar of a dude named Mark. (Felicity had the reputation, for what it’s worth, of being the “kindest, most responsible wiz of all time.”) Once Felicity/Mark’s deception was uncovered, players claiming to be women were routinely greeted with suspicion. A favorite tactic was to enlist bona-fide females like Sue to engage the latest suspect into a discussion of, say, dress sizes. Thereby were the imposters generally discovered quite quickly.

A wiz called simply Evil gained the reputation of being the most eccentric of all time — quite an achievement with this group. Bartle:

If you wanted to get to any room from any other, no matter how far away, he could give you the shortest route instantly. This was despite the fact that he laboured under a tremendous disability: east-west dyslexia.

It is for this that Evil is best known. His entire in-the-head map of MUD, and all those he wrote down on paper, were flipped east for west. His misapprehension extended to commands, so if he wanted to go west from the start, which is to the left, he’d think it was to the right, and that the command for going to the right was west. So he’d get it correct, but in the wrong way! So absolutely everything was inverted, in a kind of “Evil through the looking glass”. Indeed, when I finally found out about his error I put a looking glass in MUD to celebrate!

He didn’t realise his mistake for years after he’d made it to wiz, and if people used left/right descriptions instead of west/east, he just thought they were barmy. Only when I drew a map of MUD on a blackboard did he finally discover his gaffe, and to this day he thinks a subtle change in the physics of the universe caused everyone in the world to swap east for west in their heads except for him, who remained unaffected due to his enormous and obvious intelligence…

While MUD‘s personality as a game may have been molded more by the cast of eccentrics who inhabited The Land than by Richard Bartle himself, the latter would always remain by far the most important person associated with the game. MUD was, after all, his baby at the end of the day. Even after finishing his degree, he remained at the University of Essex as an artificial-intelligence researcher, with the ulterior motive of continuing to further the cause of MUD. And indeed, from the standpoint of publicity as from so many others, he continued to prove himself to be its greatest asset. As charming and articulate in person as he was an easy and prolific writer, Bartle was able to attract far more press attention for his odd experiment running in the middle of the night on an academic computer than one might expect. He became a fixture in the British computing press of the 1980s, penning long articles about life in The Land for magazines like Practical Computing and Micro Adventurer. His efforts in this regard have proved a goldmine to modern historians, who have come to recognize in the way that his contemporary peers couldn’t possibly be expected to what a landmark creation this first persistent multi-player virtual world really was. It’s largely Bartle’s old articles that form the basis of this new article of mine. With so much in online-gaming history already lost to the ephemerality of the digital medium, we can be thankful that Bartle was as prolific as he was.

Still, preserving MUD culture for posterity wasn’t Richard Bartle’s main motivation for writing these articles. This academic researcher didn’t want MUD to remain a tiny research project at a second-tier university forever; he had a keen interest in moving it beyond the confines of the University of Essex. Early on he gave copies of the software to universities in Portugal, Sweden, Norway, and Scotland, sparking the transformation of the name MUD from a designation for a specific virtual world to a generic tag applied to all parser-driven textual virtual worlds. Despite the identical mechanics, the people who played each incarnation of the software which Bartle shared so freely gave each version of The Land a distinctive character. The MUDs in Scotland and Norway, for instance, were much more easygoing than the one at the University of Essex; delegations from the former expressed horror at the sheer amount of killing that went on in the latter when they came for a visit.

Bartle had no doubt that MUDs represented a better model for adventure gaming, the direction the entire genre by all rights ought to be going:

Like it or not, in the next few years multiplayer games like MUD are going to become the dominating factor in adventure games. The reason for this is quite simple — MUDS are absolutely fantastic to play! The fact that it’s You against Them, rather than You against It, adds an extra electricity you just can’t experience in a single-player game. If you like adventure games already, MUD will absolutely slay you (often literally!).

This quote dates from 1984. As it would imply, Bartle by that year had decided the time was right to start commercializing his research experiment. He made a deal to bring MUD to Compunet, a pioneering online service for British owners of Commodore computers, initially funded largely by Commodore’s own innovative United Kingdom branch. The first service of its kind in Britain, Compunet would muddle along for years without ever achieving the same success as QuantumLink, its nearest equivalent in the United States. The tiny staff’s efforts were constantly undone by the sheer expense of telecommunications in Britain, along with a perpetual lack of funding to set up a proper infrastructure for their service; Compunet had, for instance, only a single access number for the entire country, meaning that the vast majority of potential customers had to pay long-distance surcharges just to access it. Although it was available on Compunet for several years, MUD too just never managed to make much of an impression there.

MUSE hosted a gathering of wizs from the University of Essex MUD to mark the launch of BT MUD. Richard Bartle is the mustachioed fellow standing near the center of the group.

But even as the Compunet MUD was failing to set the world on fire, the game had attracted an important patron. Simon Dally was a longtime gamer, first of tabletop and later of computer games, who had done very well for himself in the book-publishing trade.  When he stumbled across MUD for the first time, it was love at first sight. Dally was certain that MUD could change the world, and that it could make him and its creators very rich in the process. He, Bartle, and Roy Trubshaw — the last had recently returned to England from Belgium — formed Multi-User Entertainments, or MUSE (not to be confused with the American software publisher of the same name), to exploit what Dally, even more so than the always-enthusiastic Bartle, believed to be the game’s immense commercial potential. (Trubshaw was more skeptical, and seemed to have agreed to work on MUD once again more for the programming challenge than for its supposed potential to make him rich or to change the world.)

The first project MUSE undertook was to completely rewrite MUD, with Trubshaw once again doing the low-level architecture and Bartle building a world upon these technical underpinnings. Whereas the old MUD had been inextricably tied to the rapidly aging DEC PDP-10, what became known as MUD2 was designed to “run on just about any minicomputer or mainframe in the world” with a minimum of porting; its first incarnation ran on a DEC VAX, a much newer and more powerful piece of kit than the PDP-10. Among many other improvements came the inevitable increases in scale: the old limit of 36 active players on the original MUD became 100 on MUD2, and The Land itself could now be twice as large. As befitted his day job as an artificial-intelligence researcher, Bartle was particularly proud of his new non-player creatures — known as “mobiles” in MUD speak — which were able to talk and trade with human players whilst pursuing goals of their own.

A proud Simon Dally announces the BT MUD.

Dally took the new-and-improved MUD to British Telecom and convinced them to make it available as a standalone dial-up service. Playing MUD in its latest commercial incarnation wouldn’t be cheap: it cost £20 to buy the starter pack, plus £2 per hour to play, all on top of the cost of the phone call needed to dial in. With prices like these, the new MUD endeavored to shed its scruffy hacker origins and project an upscale image, beginning with a gala launch at The London Dungeon. Dally used his connections to get a glossy book published:  An Introduction to MUD, penned by one Duncan Howard. “I know the BT venture is the just the start of something truly enormous,” Dally said. “Our MUD development language — MUDDL — will allow anyone to come to us with an idea for an interactive type of game, and allow us to implement it quickly and cheaply. We are certainly ahead of the States, where MegaWars III, a rather limited interactive game, is going down well, and we have high hopes of selling MUD to the Americans.” Those hopes would come to fruition in remarkably short order.

But in neither country would the game achieve the “truly enormous” status Dally had so confidently predicted. The BT venture proved particularly disappointing. One step Bartle took which may not have been terribly wise was to convince much of the Essex MUD old guard to migrate over to the new game, pulling strings to get them online at reduced or free rates. Thus he imported the old game’s murderous culture and set up an upper class and a lower class of players at a stroke. A writer for Acorn User magazine who surveyed the newbies found that they “don’t much like MUD. They can’t find any treasure, don’t know what to do, and spend their time waiting for the next reset or chatting to each other in the bar. Typical answers to my inquiries included phrases like ‘bored’ or ‘where’s all the T?'”

In addition to the culture clashes, the BT MUD was also a victim, like the Compunet MUD before it, of all the difficulties inherent in telecommunicating in Britain at the time. MUSE could measure their falling status within British Telecom by the people they were assigned as account managers. “It was a gradual decline,” remembers Bartle, “from speaking to board-level directors to being signed off by a youth-opportunities employee.” The next wave of adventure games in Britain the BT MUD most definitely didn’t become. It continued to run for years, but, after the initial publicity blitz puttered out, it existed as little more than another hangout for the same old small in-group it had attracted at the University of Essex. The BT MUD was finally closed down in early 1991, when British Telecom decided they’d had enough of an exercise that had long since become pointless from their perspective.

MUSE’s efforts did fare significantly better in the United States. Dally convinced no less of an online player than CompuServe to take the game as an offering on their service. It went up there in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends. Perhaps assuming that what had worked for Lord British of Ultima fame could work equally well for them, CompuServe’s marketers emphasized the Anglo connection at every opportunity. They declared over-optimistically that “in England, the game is a sensation,” with “thousands of players.” A couple of years after British Legends made its debut, CompuServe began offering their service in Britain as well the United States, facilitating the first meetings between large numbers of British and American players in the very same MUD. “I’ve learned more about the United Kingdom from the British players than I learned in all my college courses,” enthused one American player.

Mechanically, British Legends remained unchanged from its other incarnations, including the wizzes running roughshod over the place. Still, it tended to be a less cutthroat world than had the Essex MUD, with more time given over to socializing and cooperating and less to fighting. And of course it was blessed with an initial group of players who were all starting alike from scratch, and thus largely avoided the class conflicts which plagued the BT MUD. It would remain available on CompuServe for more than thirteen years, becoming by far the most long-lived of all the MUD incarnations licensed by MUSE. It was successful enough that virtually all of CompuServe’s competitors either made their own licensing deals with MUSE or came up with an alternative MUD of their own — or, in some cases, did both. Some of the latter were very innovative in their own right. GEnie’s Imagine Nation, for example, strained to be a kindler, gentler sort of MUD, eschewing combat and even goals entirely in favor of providing an environment for its denizens just to hang out and socialize, or to invent their own games in the form of scavenger hunts and trivia contests. In later years MUDs in general would increasingly go in this direction. (See, for instance, the modern interactive-fiction community’s longstanding, beloved IF MUD, where people congregate to play text adventures together, to discuss game design, and just to chitchat rather than to chase one another around with virtual swords.)

Yet the relative commercial success MUDs enjoyed in the United States shouldn’t be overstated. Even British Legends, probably the most popular single MUD incarnation ever, was always a niche product even within that small niche of the public with the money and the interest to access a service like CompuServe in the first place. The online services made MUDs available because they could do so fairly cheaply, and because, once they were up, they tended to produce a self-sustaining community of hardcore players which required virtually no nurturing — that is to say, they required virtually no further financial investment whatsoever, thanks to the self-sustaining genius of wiz mode.

But in the big picture, Richard Bartle and Simon Dally’s mutual passion was destined to be far more influential than it would be profitable. The death of the dream of MUDs as the dominant adventure-game form of the future came in a tragically literal fashion in 1989, when Dally killed himself. It’s impossible to say to what extent his suicide was prompted by his disappointment at the failure of MUD to achieve the world domination he had predicted and to what extent it was a product of the other mental-health issues from which he had apparently been suffering, as manifested in behavior his friends and colleagues later described as “erratic.” There can be no doubt, however, that his death marked the definitive end of the MUD’s flirtation with mainstream prominence.

Any attempt to explain why MUDs remained a niche interest must begin with their textual nature. MUSE had been formed just after the text adventure had reached its commercial peak and was about to enter its long decline, over the course of which it would gradually be replaced on store shelves by the graphic adventure. A game that consisted of nothing but text was doomed to become a harder and harder sell after 1985. But MUDs had their problems even in comparison to single-player text adventures — problems which Richard Bartle was always a bit too eager to overlook. Many players of adventure games loved puzzles, but, as we’ve seen, puzzles didn’t really work all that well in MUDs. Many craved the experience of seeing a story through from beginning to end, knowing all the while that they were the most important character in that story; MUDs couldn’t provide this either. Ask many who had tried to like MUDs, and they’d tell you that they were just too capricious, too unstructured, too difficult to get into, even before you started wrestling with a parser that sometimes seemed willfully determined not to understand you. MUDs had invented the idea of the persistent online virtual world, but the millions and millions of players who would later come to live a good chunk of their lives in such places would have a very different technological window onto them.

The way forward, in commercial terms at least, would be through more structured designs attached to cleaner interfaces, eventually using graphics instead of text wherever possible. While the hardcore who loved MUDs for the very things the casual dabblers hated about them complained — and by no means entirely without justification — that something precious was being lost, game developers would increasingly push in this more accessible direction. Instead of making multi-player text adventures with CRPG elements, they would build their persistent worlds on the framework of the traditional CRPG — full stop.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Byte of December 1980; Micro Adventurer of September 1984, October 1984, November 1984, December 1984, January 1985, February 1985, and March 1985; Practical Computing of June 1982 and December 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of December 20 1984, February 28 1985, and May 23 1985; Commodore Disk User of November 1987; Your Computer of September 1985; Sinclair User of November 1985; Computer and Video Games of November 1985; Commodore User of February 1986; Acorn User of July 1985, October 1985, April 1987, and June 1987; New Computer Express of March 9 1991; Online Today of February 1986, January 1988, and March 1988; The Gamer’s Connection of September/October 1988; Questbusters of October 1989. Online sources include the article “CNET — Moving with the Times” from Commodore Apocalypse and Gamespy’s history of MUDs.

You can still play MUD1 today by telnetting to british-legends.com, port 27750. You can play MUD2 by telnetting to mud2.com, port 27723.)

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 1: Strategy and Simulation

Right from the beginning, games were a component of the commercial online services that predated the World Wide Web; both The Source and CompuServe included them among their offerings from the moment those services first went online. In the early years, such online games were mostly refugees from 1970s institutional computing. Classics like Star Trek, Adventure, and Hammurabi had the advantage of being in the public domain and already running without modification on the time-shared computer systems which hosted the services, and could thus be made available to subscribers with a minimum of investment. Eventually even some text-only microcomputer games made the transition. By 1984, CompuServe, now well-established at the vanguard of the burgeoning online-services industry, had a catalog that included the original Adventure along with an expanded version, nine Scott Adams games, and the original PDP-10 Zork (renamed for some reason to The House of Banshi). And those were just the text adventures. There were also the dungeon crawls Dungeons of Kesmai and Castle Telengard and the war games Civil WarFantasy, and Command Decision, while for the less hardcore there were the CompuServe Casino, board games like Reversi, and curiosities like a biorhythm charter and an astrology calculator.

The fact that so many games were on offer so quickly indicates that they must have paid their way, at least to some extent. The hard reality remained, though, that these single-player games which happened to be played online were a hard sell to many subscribers. Paying $6 or more per hour to play a text-only game didn’t make a whole lot of sense to many of them when they could buy or even type in something just as satisfying for their local machines.

Group discussion about games, on the other hand, was something only the online services could offer with any degree of convenience or regularity, and it absolutely thrived in consequence almost from Day One. Adventure games were an especially popular topic, and for very good reason; given the non-sequiturial puzzles those early adventures were so rife with, outside help was about the only way most players had a reasonable chance of solving many of them. When Sierra in 1982 released perhaps the most absurdly unfair early adventure of them all in the form of Time Zone — twelve disk sides and more than a thousand rooms of complete inscrutability — The Source’s users mounted a pioneering crowdsourced effort to solve it. Its home was called The Vault of Ages:

Welcome to the Vault of Ages. Here we are coordinating the greatest group effort in adventure-solving: the complete mapping of On-Line’s Time Zone.

Herein we are gathering, verifying, and correlating information about each time zone. Feel free to visit here anytime, but remember that for the Vault to fill, we need your contributions of information. Any time you have new information about mapping, puzzle solutions, traps overcome, items found, email this info to me. After verification, your contributed jigsaw-puzzle piece will be added to the Vault file, and your name will be entered upon the rolls as a master solver.

Unsurprisingly, the first person known to have solved Time Zone, a tireless adventure fanatic and gaming journalist named Roe R. Adams III, was a Source and Vault of Ages regular.

The online services would continue to be a vital meeting point for gamers, gaming journalists, and, increasingly, the developers that made the games for many years to come, right up until they were superseded by the modern World Wide Web. Countless gamers who weren’t subscribers nevertheless benefited from the walkthroughs and strategy guides that filtered down from the likes of CompuServe onto the network of local bulletin-board systems and into the halls that hosted users-group meetings, to eventually be passed from hand to hand on playgrounds and in lunch rooms as smudged printouts whose unassuming appearance belied the precious information they contained.

But, while it’s certainly noteworthy in itself, our main concern today isn’t with this far-reaching game-solving grapevine. We’re rather concerned with the games that subscribers were actually playing online in increasing numbers by the middle of the 1980s — games which by and large weren’t the roll call of golden oldies that opened this article. We’re interested, in other words, in how the online services learned to take advantage of their uniqueness as interconnected real-time communities of tens or hundreds of thousands of people to offer players something they couldn’t get from an offline game. In doing so, they would give the world a sneak preview of its online future in yet one more way.


One of the executives who worked under Jeff Wilkins at CompuServe in the early 1980s was named Bill Louden. He was an unusual character there in several ways, not least in being a living embodiment of where computing was going as opposed to where it had been. Unlike most of CompuServe’s management, who had been raised at the bosom of institutional computing, Louden had come to his current job through microcomputers. He had been working as a Radio Shack store manager in CompuServe’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when the TRS-80 arrived in 1977, and he became such an instant home-computing zealot that he founded the Central Ohio TRS-80 Users Group shortly thereafter. He joined CompuServe in 1979, hired by Wilkins to be a bridge between the hobbyist-oriented personal-computing community which he knew so well and the dominant culture of business-oriented big-iron computing inside CompuServe.

Among the many things which Louden understood but CompuServe’s other managers largely did not was the appeal of games. He became the foremost advocate for them inside the company — an advocate for, that is, going beyond just scooping up the low-hanging fruit of Adventure and Hammurabi and calling it a day. He believed that games, if given the proper priority, could become not just an occasional distraction for the service’s subscribers but the primary reason some of them chose to sign up in the first place. By acting upon that belief, he would become another forgotten pioneer, one of the most important architects of online gaming’s future.

The first of Bill Louden’s pet projects to hint at the true potential for online gaming was at first glance just another tired institutional refugee. Back in 1978, a new game had appeared on the DEC PDP-10s that lived at the University of Texas at Austin. DECWAR was at bottom yet another variation on the tried-and-true Star Trek strategy game, but some of its embellishments to the formula were very significant. Instead of a single player hunting computer-controlled Klingons and Romulans, DECWAR had room for up to eight players, who faced off against one another in two teams of four, with the balance of the teams filled up by the computer when fewer than eight humans could be rounded up. Just as significantly, the game was played in real time.

DECWAR first came to Bill Louden’s attention in 1982; he saw the potential it held for CompuServe immediately. Making inquiries with the university, he found the game’s developers were willing to sell him its source code for $50. When his superiors refused to part with that princely sum, he bought the source himself using his own money. Louden then did much of the work that was required to adapt the game to CompuServe himself, excising in the process the last vestigial remnants of the Star Trek intellectual property. (Out of similar legal concerns, the original Star Trek game had itself become the thinly veiled Space Trek on CompuServe by this point.) Louden also added innovations like a leader board which saw players progress in rank from cadet to admiral as they won games and blew up other players’ ships, adding at least a dollop of long-term persistence to tempt them to keep playing. And he gave DECWAR a new name: MegaWars.

CompuServe advertised MegaWars widely for the first year or two, even as their marketers ignored other pioneering initiatives like CB Simulator. Garish MegaWars depictions like these contrasted strangely with the company’s usual staid image. (One can only imagine what those members of the board who had been against launching the consumer service from the start thought of this sort of thing.) As was par for the course during this time period, the imagery of the advertising had almost nothing to do with the game, which featured neither interpersonal combat nor scantily-clad warriors of either sex.

MegaWars went up on CompuServe circa August of 1982, much to the dismay of the University of Texas’s student coders, who had neglected to copyright or attach any legal restrictions whatsoever to the source code they had given to Louden for $50. Playing it was a daunting proposition: it usually required about two to three hours — meaning as much as $20 in connection fees — to finish a complete match, and the player had to learn 32 separate textual commands, which had to be typed in real time as the galaxy exploded in battle all around her. Yet, despite or because of its challenging nature, it proved enduringly popular, spawning a cult of hardcore players who stuck with it for years and years. In fact, it would become CompuServe’s most durable single game of all, remaining on the service for the next fifteen years. “The people that play MegaWars are extremely serious,” CompuServe’s communications director was soon warning. “The expertise level is very high.”

It didn’t take long for MegaWars players to form themselves into consistent teams that themselves sometimes stayed together for years. Intra- and inter-team politics could come to fill as much space as actually playing the game. Team Dune, for instance, was made up of fans of Frank Herbert’s iconic series of science-fiction novels; everyone on the team was expected to take the name of a Dune character as a handle. “Dictators” were selected from among the team’s members for three-month terms in hotly contested elections that could sometimes turn violent. It was all a part of the fantasy. A Team Dune member named Martin Maners, better known on CompuServe as “Leto II,” had this to say:

I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I like science fiction and Star Wars. When you sit down in front of your computer and play MegaWars, you really leave the earth, you’re really out there. It helps me relax, especially with the way MegaWars lets me talk to other players on my team. It’s nice to be able to sit back and do something completely different for a change.

With MegaWars, Bill Louden had put his finger on the real strength of gaming on a service like CompuServe: the opportunity for subscribers to play against one another rather than alone with the computer. “MegaWars is a challenge and is entertaining as well, but the real enjoyment comes from the multiplayer aspect of the game,” said one subscriber. “Interacting with other human players is what makes it interesting in a way that a ‘man vs. computer’ game just can’t match.” Another subscriber noted that it was “not like a game you would run on your personal computer. Here you get to pit yourself against a real person who could be across the street or the country. A much more formidable foe! It’s both entertaining and challenging, and at the same time it’s a great way to meet people and make new friends.”

If CompuServe was to continue to develop their games in this direction, however, they would need to move beyond public-domain institutional refugees like DECWAR/MegaWars. Luckily, Louden had recently been fielding inquiries from a pair of outside programmers with aspirations to do just that. They called themselves Kesmai.

Kelton Flinn and John Taylor, a duo better known as Kesmai.

Kesmai weren’t your stereotypical teenage bedroom coders. John Taylor, who had a masters degree in computer science, worked for General Electric’s High Performance Division, writing software for industrial robots, while Kelton Flinn was working on a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Virginia. They picked their company’s name as their favorite from a long list of random ones that had been spit out by a name-generating program.

Several years before, while still an undergraduate, Flinn had written a very ambitious game on his university’s computer which combined Star Trek-like space combat — played in real time, no less! — with a conquer-the-universe strategic layer of economics and politics. He called it simply S. He remembers one particular incident as the turning point in its development: “One person’s favorite planet was taken, and he picked up a chair and stalked across the room with it to clobber the culprit. ‘Bob, put the chair down, it’s only a game…’ I guess I should have known then we had a potential hit!”

After much lobbying on Kesmai’s part for a development contract, Bill Louden agreed to let them bring S to CompuServe as a sort of trial project, renaming it in the process to MegaWars III. (MegaWars II had been an ill-fated attempt to add graphics and sound, at least of a sort, to the first MegaWars using the character graphics and simple bells and whistles allowed by some otherwise textual communications protocols. Dismissed by Louden himself as “poorly done and abysmally slow,” it didn’t last very long.) Kesmai greatly expanded on the already ambitious S template for CompuServe, making the universe much larger, adding more diplomatic options, and adding a veritable sub-game all its own of starship design. It seems safe to say that, by the time they were done, there was nothing of comparable complexity available even in single-player form on the microcomputers of the time. Indeed, the end result can’t help but remind one of the so-called “4X” games — “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” — that wouldn’t become really practical on PCs until the early 1990s, when the steady march of technology would lead to strategic epics like Civilization and Master of Orion. In contrast to most of those later games, though, MegaWars III offered all the unpredictability of dozens of human opponents, with whom one could communicate at any time using “hyperspace radio,” whether to make or break trade deals and military alliances or just to shoot the breeze.

A single game of MegaWars III could host up to 100 players, and ran for four to six weeks. At the end of that time, the player who had earned the most points through conquest and the economic development of her colonies would be crowned emperor (this system would later be cheerfully nicked by Master of Orion as one of its own victory conditions, thus further cementing the similarities between the two games). With a victor thus declared, it would be time to wipe the slate clean. A brand new universe would be generated, and players who had been disappointed by their performance last time could try their luck on this new playing field. Some modern online games could perhaps take a lesson from this constant rolling-over of the virtual universe, which was done with conscious intent: Louden notes that it “kept newbies from feeling they had no way to catch up and were just meat for the slaughter.”

That said, little else about MegaWars III was forgiving; it was even more demanding than the game to which it had been billed a sequel. Eight hours of real time corresponded to about a month of game time. Those who hoped to have a shot at the winner’s circle knew that they had to sign on every night, sometimes for hours at a time, to maintain their empires. The subscriber known as “L’Eagle,” a self-described “corporate lawyer” in real life, became something of a community legend for winning the very first game of MegaWars III, which ran from January 19 until March 15 of 1984. He was already a veteran grognard at that time, with a history with war games which dated back well into the previous decade. For someone like him, MegaWars III provided an experience that could only have been approached in the past by some of the more elaborate play-by-mail campaigns run by companies like Flying Buffalo. The CompuServe version, however, had the added allure of instant feedback, along with the instant gratification of real-time chat — always useful for taunting a vanquished foe.

Just as with the first MegaWars, interactions with other players in MegaWars III were, even more so than all of the complicated rules, the heart of the game’s appeal. L’Eagle described the game, with its delicate tissue of alliances, in terms that actually smack as much or more of Diplomacy as Master of Orion. Such is the effect of adding the human element to the 4X equation.

The game has very few limitations. That’s part of the charm. But everyone has to work to keep the game good-spirited. At one point, the game’s authors thought that team members would turn on one another, that friends would become enemies. But after six weeks of planning together, the last thing you would do is back-stab.

L’Eagle is perhaps overstating the case just a bit. Back-stabbing was hardly unknown in MegaWars III; in fact, just as in Diplomacy, it was a virtual necessity for those with serious aspirations to win. Still, MegaWars III co-creator Kelton Flinn wasn’t wrong when he noted that “it’s a social game, as well as a competitive one.” Already in 1984, the year of MegaWars III‘s debut, CompuServe hosted a gathering of players in Columbus that attracted several dozen attendees. It was only the first of many.

Journalists, conditioned to think of computer games as strictly kids’ stuff, frequently expressed surprise when they were informed that the average age of a hardcore MegaWars I or III player was somewhere north of thirty. Really, though, it couldn’t have been any other way. The great disadvantage of these early online services, the necessary temper to any nostalgia for the era of the net before the Web, was how expensive they were. The whole time you were playing, the meter was running. Just as with CB Simulator, some people got addicted to the games, often to the detriment of the rest of their lives. Regulars soon noticed cyclical patterns to some of their comrades’ comings and goings. L’Eagle:

You can tell when the MasterCard bills come. People disappear. Later, they come back and say, “Yeah, I just had to cut down a bit.” Teenagers, you might never see them again. Fortunately, I make a lot of money.

As always, digital utopianism only got you so far in a world that at the end of the day still ran on money.

By mid-decade, then, multiplayer gaming — as opposed to the older species of single-player games that happened to be played online — was establishing itself as a staple of online life, not only on CompuServe but also on services like PlayNet and QuantumLink. As we saw in an earlier article, the latter pair offered a variety of simple board games that more casual players could enjoy with the added benefit of graphics, an area CompuServe would soon push into as well. The potential of online games remained sharply limited, however, by the fact that the vast majority of subscribers to the various services were still using 300-baud modems, which transferred data at the glacial pace of approximately 30 to 35 bytes per second — or a little over 2 K per minute.

When that logjam finally broke, it did so, as so often happens in technology, with head-snapping speed. The breakthrough was helped along by GEnie, the new online service which launched in October of 1985 to become the most serious challenger yet to CompuServe’s dominance. A big drag on the adoption of faster modems had actually been CompuServe itself, which charged $6 per hour for 300-baud access but a well-nigh absurd $12 per hour for 1200-baud connections. GEnie, on the other hand, launched at $5 per hour for both 300 and 1200 baud, soon forcing even the industry leader to adjust their own rates in response. With a new standard pricing model thus established, subscribers rushed out to buy the new, faster modems that were also coming down rapidly in price. GEnie reported at the beginning of 1986 that less than 40 percent of their subscribers had upgraded to 1200 baud; by the end of the year, that number had topped 90 percent. And 1200 baud was itself only a beginning rather than an end: 2400 baud was coming on strong, with 9600 baud out there on the not-too-distant horizon. What might developers of online games be able to do with those sorts of connection speeds? Bill Louden and the boys at Kesmai had some ideas.

Louden had left CompuServe in 1984, disaffected by what he saw as too many “corporate people” encroaching on his domain. After some misadventures trying to set up a regional online service of his own called Georgia Online, he was tapped by General Electric to run GEnie. Like any good manager of an upstart, he surveyed the leading company in his industry — i.e., his recent employer CompuServe — for weak spots where GEnie could offer something more to customers. As we’ve just seen, one of these was making higher-speed connections affordable. Another, unsurprisingly given Louden’s reputation as the “games guy” even while he was still at CompuServe, was games. Louden strove to make GEnie a haven for gamers, both for talking about offline games — the service would verge on displacing CompuServe in the years to come as the foremost source for walkthroughs and strategy guides — and for playing online games.

For their part, Kesmai were happy to work for any service willing to pay them. The fact that John Taylor was still going to work every day at GEnie’s corporate parent General Electric, not to mention Kesmai’s established relationship with Louden, made a development contract with the new service a natural step. MegaWars III therefore soon came to GEnie as well in thinly disguised form as Stellar Emperor. But that was merely an old CompuServe glory being revisited. GEnie’s crowning gaming glory would be a radical departure from anything seen online to date.

Air Warrior, a multiplayer air-combat simulator using aircraft from both of the world wars, was first offered to owners of the Apple Macintosh in late 1986. Although the game ran through GEnie, it was provided as a standalone application which handled all of the minutiae of logging in and communications for itself, in lieu of the text-only terminal programs subscribers normally used to access the service. This approach allowed it to make use of cutting-edge 3D graphics, the likes of which had never before been seen in an online context. It was nothing short of revolutionary, the very first game of its kind, and those who wished to play it had to pay for their spot at the bleeding edge — to the tune of no less than $11 per hour, more than twice GEnie’s normal going rate. Luckily for Kesmai, who had expanded greatly and invested a lot of money in the project, a fair number of well-heeled users proved willing to pony up.

Choosing a plane to fly — or, alternately, a vehicle to drive — in Air Warrior.

Ported to the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST in 1987, Air Warrior used what we today would call the “software as a service” model to perpetually evolve throughout its long lifespan, with players expected to download the updates which appeared almost monthly on GEnie and merge them into their local disks. By 1988, this process had brought the game to a certain maturity. Three “theaters” — one for World War I, two for the more popular World War II — were kept in constant operation, complete with leader-board tallies of aircraft shot down and ground targets destroyed. Similarly to MegaWars III, a winner of each campaign was declared every three weeks and the theater reset to keep anyone from running away with things for too long.

During a campaign, players could cast their lot with any of three opposing militaries. Some players preferred to be lone wolves, Red Barons lurking in the cloud cover to swoop down on their prey, but most took it upon themselves to further organize into squadrons, with all the resultant social interaction you might expect. Indeed, Air Warrior became more and more team-oriented as time went on. Lumbering B-17 bombers took off on strike missions with not only a pilot but no fewer than six other players filling the various gun turrets, escorted by more players in single-seater Mustangs and Spitfires. Meanwhile still other players would be mounting a coordinated ground assault in jeeps and tanks. All were bound together by the magic of chat — or, in in-game terms, by their multi-band radios. And on the other side, of course, was a similarly well-coordinated group of defenders hoping to add to their point tallies by taking down some of those juicy B-17s.

The Air Warrior application incorporated a terminal layer for handling logging into GEnie and other command-oriented tasks. Here a player is checking out his personal history.

The obvious forerunner to modern multiplayer wargasms like the Battlefield series, Air Warrior was distinguished, like so many of these early online games, by a devotion to the game’s fiction that would be very foreign to most of today’s eager gibbers and fraggers. Air Warrior billed itself as a flight simulator the equal of the ones being made by companies like subLogic and MicroProse, and many players took it very seriously indeed on those terms, implementing historical tactics and even radio protocols. Inevitably, some new players tried to single-handedly run roughshod over the place, but such respectless cretins usually didn’t live very long; one sign of the game’s worth as a simulation was the fact that the historically accurate tactics were mostly the ones that worked. And of course the fact that you were paying $11 per hour for the privilege had a way of driving up the average participant’s age and assuring that only those who really, really hankered after a vintage air-combat experience stuck around.

In the air in Air Warrior. Note the chat window, vital to squadron coordination, that’s open to the right.

Newbie pilots wishing to find acceptance within a squadron’s ranks had to contend with the realistic flight mechanics while tranquilly accepting their designated role in each operation; true to history, new pilots were usually given sheltered positions as wingmen to more experienced fliers which gave them little opportunity to run up their personal kill tallies. Still, greenhorns quickly learned to appreciate the extra cover, as nothing about Air Warrior was forgiving. Woe betide the pilot who forgot that the escape key was meant literally in this game: it led to an instant, no-questions-asked bailout.

Death meant that you had to start over with a new character, so all serious players practiced their wheels-up landings and their water ditchings extensively using the game’s weapons-less offline practice mode. Even the effects of fuel usage were modeled accurately; planes became faster and more maneuverable as they got lighter. But this too, of course, was a double-edged sword: many an Air Warrior pilot wound up dead because of inattention to the fuel gauge. To help the youngsters out, the experienced pilots instituted a flying-and-tactics clinic which ran every Thursday night for years. The life saved, they reasoned, might just be their own if they got saddled with one of these greenhorns on their wing.

Lining up on a bridge, one of the ground targets which players got points for destroying.

In marked contrast to the Kesmai games that had preceded it, Air Warrior remained always on the cutting edge of audiovisual technology. It shone most of all on the Amiga when that machine was the audiovisual class of the industry; it wasn’t even ported to MS-DOS until 1989. Once there, though, it continued to evolve apace, becoming in early 1993 one of the first games of any stripe to support the new generation of “Super VGA” graphics cards. The Air Warrior community would always remain a relatively small one; a 1993 magazine report describes about thirty players active in each theater most evenings, the very same number cited by another report from 1989. But despite such limited numbers of active players, Air Warrior became, like the MegaWars games, rather astonishingly long-lived, actually managing to outlast its original host service GEnie to make it all the way to 2001. For those seeking a certain kind of historically grounded multi-player combat experience, emphasizing real-world tactics, it was in many ways a better take on online gaming than most of what’s available today. And even for those who didn’t know the difference between a Hellcat and Zero, it remained a living example of the potential for online gaming, an aspirational ideal at the vanguard of the field for many years.

While it may be a little hard to recognize today, the SVGA Air Warrior looked spectacular in its day — not just spectacular for an online game, but spectacular, period.

This survey, sketchy though it’s been, has hopefully been enough to demonstrate both how influential the online services of the 1980s really were on online gaming as we know it today and how compelling the games they offered could be even when taken entirely on their own terms. Yet the creations we’ve seen so far, groundbreaking though they’ve been in their various ways, have all been relatively short-form experiences: games with beginnings, middles, and ends that spanned no more than a handful of weeks. What persistence these games did possess was thanks to players like the desert rats of Team Dune, who found ways to make the fiction last even when the game proper was over. But what of games which truly have no ending? What of games which aren’t so much games at all as virtual worlds, even virtual societies — real Second Lifes for their inhabitants, one might say. Today such virtual worlds consume the free time of millions of rabid players, and stand as the most complex virtual spaces ever created. Next time, then, we’ll find out how game developers discovered the power of persistence, many years before Warcraft — much less World of Warcraft — was a twinkle in its creators’ eyes.

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy; Softline of May 1982; Online Today of June 1987, January 1988, and February 1989; Byte of September 1982; Antic of November 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1985; Family Computing of June 1986; InfoWorld of October 21 1985 and December 2 1985; Compute! of July 1987; Amazing Computing of August 1987 and March 1989; the STart “games issue” for 1988; Computer Gaming World of January 1990 and May 1993; CompuServe’s games catalog/brochure from 1984; the Games of Fame online articles on MegaWars and MegaWars III; the history page from a recent MegaWars revival.)

 
 

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