RSS

Tag Archives: discworld

Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 2: The First Three Discworld Games

As a man of wide-ranging curiosity, Terry Pratchett was drawn to personal computers early. In 1981, he purchased a Sinclair ZX81 in kit form and soldered it together successfully. He soon upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum and then to an Amstrad CPC 464, which was his first computer strong enough to run a practical word processor. From the second Discworld novel on, he wrote all of his books digitally; this was undoubtedly a factor in the prodigious writing and publishing pace he maintained for so many years. But computers were more than a tool to him: right from the beginning, he also played computer games enthusiastically. In a 1986 interview, for example, he mentions being obsessed with Infocom’s interactive version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The first Discworld computer game came surprisingly quickly, courtesy of a teenage entrepreneur named Fergus McNeill and his little company Delta 4, who had made a name for themselves by writing slapstick fantasy parodies as Quill-based text adventures, with names like Bored of the Rings (which didn’t share anything but a name and a certain sensibility with the book of the same name) and The Boggit. While it would be a stretch to say that they transcended their author’s age and the technology used to create them, they were amusing in their way, and became quite popular. Some of them reportedly sold as many as 20,000 copies, a very impressive number in the British games industry of the mid-1980s. They made McNeill a natural to adapt Terry Pratchett to an interactive medium, given that the latter’s first couple of Discworld novels were content to plow much the same satirical territory, albeit in a more erudite and sophisticated way.

The Boggit contains its share of literal toilet humor.

McNeill says that he originally bought the novel The Colour of Magic “as a present for someone else, but I accidentally started reading it myself and found myself unable to stop.” It was he who suggested an adaptation to Pratchett’s publisher, to capitalize on the British appetite for bookware. “It’s important to remember that this was Olden Times — the 1980s, for goodness sake,” he says. “So, when I said ‘Terry Pratchett,’ people didn’t laugh at my audacity for wanting to work with the great man. They frowned and said, “Who’s he?'”

Thus McNeill was able to make the deal, and created his Colour of Magic text adventure in short order, with some direct input from Pratchett himself. The end result, which was released in late 1986 in Britain and Europe only, is an abbreviated version of the novel, walking through its plot scene by scene. Solving it entails looking up what Rincewind did in the same situation in the book, then figuring out how to express the concept to the balky, fiddly parser. Those who have read the book, in other words, will vacillate between boredom and frustration, while those who haven’t will be utterly lost. Even in its day, when a disconcerting number of players were willing to accept fighting the parser as an inherent part of the challenge of playing a text adventure, the game was less popular than its license might suggest.

The Colour of Magic replaces the standard text-adventure compass directions with those of the Disc: “hubward,” “rimward,” “turnwise,” and “widdershins.” One plus for verisimilitude, but ten minuses for annoying the heck out of the player.

McNeill speaks of his communications with Pratchett fondly, going so far as to call him “a big inspiration for me,” whilst calling being allowed to make the game at all “a huge privilege.” Yet Pratchett was enough of a gamer himself to recognize how underwhelming the final product really was. In his view, it cheapened the Discworld brand, of which he was always keenly protective; he would refer to the interactive Colour of Magic only as a “bad experience” in later years. It was enough to make him shy away from further game adaptations for quite some time, despite his personal fondness for computers and the games they played. It wasn’t until mid-1993, when Discworld mania was in full swing, that someone managed to convince Pratchett to give the idea of ludic Discworld a second chance.

Actually, there were two someones, the first of whom was one Angela Sutherland, who had gotten her start in the games industry back in 1983. She had been studying to become a sculptor at that time at the Edinburgh College of Art, when a fellow student and good friend named Sandy White had showed her a simple action game called Ant Attack which he had been writing on his Sinclair Spectrum. She helped him to flesh it out and get it published, whereupon it became one of the big early hits on the Speccy. Sutherland worked with White on several more games after that, moved on to become head of development for Firebird and Rainbird, and then became a producer for the British division of Beam Software, the Australian software house famous for The Hobbit, probably the best-selling text adventure of all time (and the thing which Fergus McNeill’s early games were really parodying, at least as much as Tolkien’s books).

Seeing an opportunity in the market, she left Beam and founded her own studio, Teeny Weeny Games, in 1991. Its name reflected its focus: games for handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy. Such gadgets were not yet hugely popular among consumers in her home country, but the average British wage was lower than that of the average American or Japanese, making a British studio such as the one she was setting up a good option for big publishers looking to get a product onto the international market quickly and fairly inexpensively, but also competently. So, Teeny Weeny cut their teeth on playable but forgettable licensed fare and ports. For all that it was the games industry’s version of flyover country, this was also a space where a pragmatist like Sutherland could do very well for herself. These sorts of projects would remain the studio’s bread and butter throughout its lifetime.

Teeny Weeny enjoyed an unusual symbiotic relationship with another studio called Perfect 10 Productions, founded at almost the same time by Gregg Barnett, a former colleague of Sutherland from Beam. Perfect 10 had much the same business philosophy as Teeny Weeny, but focused on the full-sized console systems; this created an opportunity for the two developers to collaborate in order to bring the same game out on living-room and handheld consoles. And indeed, they came to share code, assets, strategies, and even office space and to some extent employees with one another, until it became difficult for the outside observer to see where one stopped and the other began.

Thus it was Sutherland and Barnett together who made the pitch to Terry Pratchett for a Discworld adventure game. It seems that their pragmatism had served to conceal a streak of more ambitious creativity, a desire to make something more exciting than the games that were currently keeping the lights on in their offices. But at the same time, they were still hard-nosed enough to appreciate the value of licenses — particularly a license of the biggest literary phenomenon in Britain, a series of novels which Sutherland and Barnett happened to adore, just like millions of their countryfolk.

Angela Sutherland, Terry Pratchett, and… Death.

Pratchett, however, was not easy to convince. It took six months of tireless courting, and ultimately the presentation of a complete design document written by Barnett himself, to get him to say yes. “The main reason he signed,” says Barnett, “was that we did a design, which showed we were willing to put in the work without any initial reward, and that we understood and respected the property.” Sutherland and Barnett promised Pratchett that they would wash away the bad taste of the Colour of Magic text adventure by sparing no expense or effort this time around. They would make a fully-voiced point-and-click graphic adventure for the latest CD-ROM-capable personal computers, one that was as good or better than any of the big titles coming out of the United States.

In fact, the Discworld game almost came out under one of those American publishers’ imprint. Using their international connections to maximum advantage, Sutherland and Barnett signed a deal with Sierra, along with LucasArts one of the two biggest names of all in adventure gaming. The agreement would let them make their game using that company’s state-of-the-art SCI engine, with the support of some Sierra personnel who would temporarily relocate to the project’s South London headquarters. But the American publisher didn’t quite seem to grasp what a huge license Discworld really was on the other side of the Atlantic. Bleeding money from their visionary but unprofitable online gaming space The Sierra Network, they backed out of the deal. Talks with the American giant Electronic Arts also fell through, whereupon Sutherland and Barnett finally signed with the homegrown publisher Psygnosis, best known for the global hit Lemmings, the most popular British-developed videogame prior to the Grand Theft Auto franchise many years later. By virtue of their location at Ground Zero of Discworld mania, Psygnosis knew very well how big a Discworld game could be, such that they had already tried without success to pitch the idea directly to the wary Pratchett. At their first meeting with Sutherland and Barnett, they became the suitor rather than the courted: they “wouldn’t leave until we did a deal,” says Barnett.

Pratchett himself was if anything even more into games now than he had been during the previous decade. For a man who had grown up in a house without electricity or an indoor toilet, the games of the 1990s were nothing short of wondrous. “I play games a lot — and I mean a lot,” he said in a contemporary interview. “Sitting in front of a screen writing, you need some relaxation, and what better way than to load in something like Wing Commander, which is one of my faves. One of the nice things about making lots of money from books is that I can go down to the local Virgin Store and buy what I want!” This habit, combined with his protectiveness of Discworld as a property, ensured that he would take a healthy interest in the Discworld game. He went so far as to rewrite some of Gregg Barnett’s dialog.

Barnett’s script borrows heavily from Pratchett’s 1989 novel Guards! Guards!. Given how close Watch Commander Sam Vimes, its protagonist, was to his creator’s heart, it must have rankled Pratchett a bit when Barnett elected to write him out of the story, replacing him with Rincewind as chief investigator and player’s avatar. Ditto when Barnett cut out most of the novel’s serious subtext, leaving behind only the gags, jokes, and tropes. And double ditto when the game’s developers eventually cast Eric Idle of Monty Python — a part of the archly absurdist Oxbridge comedy tradition that also included the likes of Douglas Adams, and to which Pratchett did not see Discworld as belonging — to voice the part of Rincewind.

Yet Pratchett was also a reasonable man with a good grasp of what it took to sell creative product, and he could see the logic behind each of Barnett’s decisions. Rincewind was still the series’s most well-known character at this stage in its evolution; serious themes are even harder to bring off in a comic adventure game than they are in a comic novel; and the casting of a real live member of Monty Python in any game was a tremendous coup, even if Eric Idle wasn’t Barnett’s first choice of John Cleese. (According to Barnett, “Fuck off! I don’t do games,” was the latter’s response to his inquiry…) The finished game does absorb some of the flavor of Monty Python — Barnett admits to making the onscreen Rincewind into something of a doppelgänger of Idle’s typically disheveled Python personae — but the combination works. I dare you to try to read a Discworld novel that stars Rincewind after playing this game without hearing Idle’s voice in your head.

The voice-acting cast was rounded out with some other enviable comedic talents: Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s perpetual sidekick; Kate Robbins of Spitting Image; Jon Pertwee, the third incarnation of Doctor Who; and Rob Brydon, a relative newcomer with a prolific career still in front of him (international audiences may know him best today for starring in the very funny Trip series of travel mockumentaries). The only problem with the cast is that there just aren’t enough of them, meaning that everyone with the exception of Idle is juggling many roles, a fact which mugging and accent-switching can’t completely obscure. Still, if one must settle for a cast of less than half a dozen, one couldn’t do much better these actors. It’s a pleasure to listen to the game’s collection of skittish, skeevy, occasionally lovable characters, every single one of them more or less off their nut, prattle on about nothing much in particular. “Is this fish fresh?” Rincewind asks a fishmonger. “Fresh? Fresh?” he replies. “It just made a pass at my wife, sir!”

The game’s visuals are equally distinctive. Under the direction of veteran artist Paul Mitchell, the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, where the entire game takes place, becomes a Disney film as viewed by a cock-eyed drunk: everything is subtly warped and shifted, with nary a straight line to be seen (or heard, for that matter). Rincewind shuffles from location to location in his bedraggled wizard’s robes, looking like he would rather be anywhere else. (Maybe that’s understandable, given that every other character in the game asks him why he’s wearing a “dress.”) He’s trailed all the time by The Luggage, an inexplicably sentient suitcase with the legs of a centipede, the disposition of a pit bull, and the teeth of a bear trap; this movable feast serves as the means of conveyance of the incredible amount of stuff Rincewind will eventually collect and tote through the city.

As in the novel Guards! Guards!, the plot hinges on a fire-breathing dragon which a cabal of less-than-upstanding Ankh-Morpork citizens have summoned. Thwarting the monster and its minions requires playing through three lengthy, non-linear acts, followed by the climactic showdown with the dragon. Two of the main acts are scavenger hunts: find the five ridiculous things that are needed to build a Dragon’s Lair Revealer; steal the six golden talismans from the dragon-summoning cabal. We’ve all been here before — as has Rincewind apparently, judging from the scorn he is constantly heaping on the whole enterprise. Many adventure games use this sort of self-referential humor as a lazy excuse for derivative, uninspired design, and perhaps Discworld cannot be fully absolved of this sin. It does, however, have the virtue of being much, much funnier than the vast majority of such exercises. And, given that it’s meant to evoke the aesthetic of the early Discworld novels, which lampooned the conventions of paperback fantasy fiction in a similar way, the sin is venal rather than mortal.

Still, the game’s satire is at its best when it aims slightly higher in a meta-fictional sense. The point of the third act is to manipulate circumstances so that Rincewind will have exactly a million-to-one chance against the dragon. Because, as Terry Pratchett himself once put it, “we know — it is built into our very understanding of the narrative universe — that if it is a million-to-one chance that might just work, it will work. Because no one has ever heard of a million-to-one chance that just might work not working. In other words, a million-to-one chance is a certainty. It’s a cliché that we accept. We accept it from James Bond and from Bilbo Baggins.”


Josh Kirby, Terry Pratchett’s longtime cover illustrator, provided the art for the Discworld game box as well.

Rincewind with the Luggage.

Unseen University, where Rincewind has been studying without any obvious benefit to himself or society for years and years.

Death makes a cameo in the first Discworld graphic adventure. He will take a starring role in the second.

“A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end of it…”


Released in Britain in early 1995 under the name of simply Discworld, the game was praised to the skies by reviewer after reviewer. PC Zone magazine wasn’t that much of an outlier in calling it “possibly the best point-and-click adventure game ever made.” Everyone marveled over the graphics, the voice acting, and the humor, declaring that it really was like seeing the world of the novels come to life. Most of all, though, they marveled over the sheer size of the thing. They noted, accurately, that each of the game’s first three acts could easily have been a standalone game in its own right. It was and remains abundantly obvious that the people who made this game did so for all the right reasons, that they genuinely loved Anhk-Morpork and wanted to shove as much of it as possible onto a CD.

Unfortunately, these same people had never actually made an adventure game before. And, once the initial euphoria died down, players could all too plainly see this too in the finished product. It is — or at least ought to be — a truism in adventure design that every puzzle you make is ten times harder than you think it is. The only way to calibrate your game’s difficulty is to put it in front of real players and see how much they struggle. Sadly, it is all too clear that the people who made this game failed to do that in the midst of their zeal to keep adding more, more, more to it.

Discworld is for all intents and purposes insoluble. There is simply no way to reason out many of its puzzles; this is where the cockamamie nature of the world comes back to bite. The designers have paid no heed to what Bob Bates calls the “else” rule of good puzzle design. It states that, if the player has not done the correct thing, but she has done some other thing that might make some degree of logical or comedic sense, the game should recognize and acknowledge that in some way, ideally whilst embedding within its response a hint as to the correct way forward. In this game, though, everything you try to do that isn’t the One True Way Forward is met only by a scornful Eric Idle telling you, “That doesn’t work!” This is the one quote from Discworld that absolutely everyone remembers. Long before you finish the first act, it will have begun to haunt your very dreams, will pop back into your head to enrage you at random moments throughout your day. And just to ensure that you get to hear it even more often than you otherwise might, the game is littered with red herrings that have no purpose whatsoever.

To sum up, then, we have a huge environment to wander around in, one which provides no shortcuts to get from place to place, just Rincewind’s lackadaisical stroll; an enormous pile of objects, many of which are literally good for nothing; puzzles whose solutions are amusing in retrospect but cannot possibly be anticipated before the fact; and no middle ground between wrong and right when it comes to solving them, to provide useful feedback or at least some small dollop of amusement. Oh, and there are also dead ends that you can stumble into without realizing it, after which you’ll get to spend hours banging your head against brick walls even more fruitlessly than usual. As a piece of game design, Discworld is hopeless.

When the game came out in the United States several weeks after its British release, the reviewers there were clearer-eyed, being carried away with neither excitement over the very existence of a Discworld game nor home-country partisanship. Computer Gaming World magazine wrote that “the overall impression the game conveys is not one of richness but one of clutter and surfeit.” It sold in only middling numbers in the American market.

But that was not the case in Britain and much of Europe. There the game sold hundreds of thousands of copies before second takes started to appear in the gaming press and on the Internet, noting belatedly that labeling it “best adventure game of all time” may have been laying it on a bit thick. Needless to say, it was full speed ahead on the sequel.

Before starting on it in earnest, Angela Sutherland and Gregg Barnett finally did the logical thing and merged their two companies together as Perfect Entertainment. The new entity continued to devote the preponderance of its effort to workaday projects for the console market, but the connections forged thereby brought more than financial benefits to the passion projects: both Discworld and its sequel would be ported to the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, opening up whole new worlds of potential sales. (Their publisher Psygnosis had in fact been bought by Sony in 1993.)

If the first Discworld game is a sad story of good intentions and soaring ambitions derailed by a lack of experience with the nuts and bolts of adventure design, Discworld II: Missing, Presumed…!? is a happier tale of a development team willing and able to learn from their failures — a less common phenomenon than one might expect in the world of adventure games. It doesn’t so much try to break new ground as to perfect the experience which Perfect Entertainment had attempted to deliver last time around. And it succeeds on these terms rather magnificently. Right from the first page of the manual, where they promise that this Discworld game is “a little easier,” the makers make it clear that they understand what they did wrong last time.

Interestingly, Pratchett was less involved with the sequel. “I let them have their heads a bit more,” he said after its release. “It seemed that they could create a game that had the right kind of feel to it, so I didn’t have to shepherd them so much. There wasn’t quite so much shouting this time around.”

Once again the broad plot is lifted from a beloved Discworld novel: this time it’s 1991’s Reaper Man, in which Death leaves job and retires to the countryside, with chaotic results for the whole Disc. As in the last game, matters are rejiggered to insert Rincewind into the story as the protagonist, while space is also made for elements of the 1990 Discworld novel Moving Pictures, an entertaining if not particularly deep pastiche of old Hollywood (“Holy Wood” on the Disc), with motion-picture cameras which consist of fast-painting imps trapped inside windowed boxes.

The second game is another joy to listen to; Eric Idle agreed to return, as did Kate Robbins and Rob Brydon. Tony Robinson elected not to, however, while the elderly Jon Pertwee was too ill to participate. (He died in May of 1996, leaving Discworld I as one of his last media legacies.) To take up some of the slack, Perfect hired Nigel Planer, another stalwart comedy veteran, who would go on to narrate almost all of the audio-book versions of the Discworld novels. Barnett tried to recruit Christopher Lee for the role of Death — an inspired choice by any standard — but Perfect couldn’t afford his asking price in the end. So, Rob Brydon took the role instead, and did very well with it, bringing out the mix of fussiness, petulance, and compassion that has since made Death arguably the most popular Discworld character of all time. On the whole, then, the voice acting in Discworld II is on a level with that of the first game — including, alas, the same major weakness of there just not being enough different actors. Kate Robbins, for example, voices every single female character in both games, and most of the children to boot.

The truly striking change from the first game to the second is the look of the production; the difference here is truly night and day. The switchover in the mid-1990s from the VGA graphics standard, with a typical resolution of 320 X 200, to SVGA, with a resolution of 640 X 480 or more, strikes me as the second of the two most dramatic inflection points in the history of computer-game graphics. (The first, for the record, is the arrival of the Commodore Amiga in the mid-1980s, followed soon after by VGA on MS-DOS machines.) The first and second Discworld graphic adventures stand on either side of the VGA/SVGA Rubicon, which divides games that look undeniably old today from those that can at least potentially still look quite contemporary. I would place Discworld II among this group without hesitation.

The higher resolution allowed Perfect to outsource the animation to Hanna-Barbera’s studio in the Philippines, a decision which would have made no sense under the constraints of VGA. Characters and backgrounds that looked a bit muddy and blurry in the first game pop on the screen in sharp, vivid cartoon colors this time around. Meanwhile the static views of the first game are replaced by fades, pans, and close-ups; it’s like going from the typical 1930s film to Citizen Kane.

Most importantly of all, Discworld II plays better. We have the same three-act structure as last time, with all of the acts no more than scavenger hunts at bottom. But this time we get to venture beyond Ankh-Morpork to other locations on the Disc. Counterintuitively with this last, the game as a whole is a bit smaller — and yet this is by no means a bad thing. The combinatorial explosion is much reduced, thanks to fewer locations, fewer objects, almost no red herrings, an absence of dead ends, and a much more concentrated effort to calibrate the puzzles to that sweet spot which lies equidistant from the trivial and the impossible. Discworld II isn’t an easy game; its puzzle-dependency chains are sometimes nested a dozen layers deep. Yet it is a soluble one, with puzzles that make a modicum of sense on the vast majority of occasions. Rincewind even deigns to say something other than “That doesn’t work!” some of the time when you try something that, well, doesn’t work. And the world of the game is even more of a delight than last time just to explore, being stuffed to the brim with eccentric characters and curious sights. Meaty, funny, generous, and yet unabashedly traditionalist, it succeeds in actually being everything its predecessor tried but failed to be.


Josh Kirby again provided the cover art for Discworld II.

Eric Idle, who was always Monty Python’s go-to song-and-dance man, contributed an original song to Discworld II.

On a “Holy Wood” set, complete with troll security for the actors’ trailers.

You can move around on a larger world map this time. Notice the Luggage swimming behind Rincewind’s ship.

Visiting Death’s home, which is as Gothic chic as a Bauhaus song.

Oh, my, what’s happened here? In one of the best gags in a game that delights in pulverizing the fourth wall at every opportunity, Rincewind 2.0 gets transported for a few minutes back into the world of Discworld I, where he meets his low-res counterpart.


Thanks to already-built tools and the outsourcing of the animation, Perfect Entertainment was able to finish their second Discworld game in less than eighteen months, and Psygnosis released it in late 1996. By this time the adventure market in the United States was showing undeniable signs of mushiness, but it was still holding up comparatively well in Britain and Germany; Broken Sword, another homegrown British production from Revolution Software, would be a substantial hit that holiday season. Still, a sense of gloom was creeping in even on this side of the Atlantic. Discworld II testifies to this with a considerable amount of gallows humor about its genre. “Aren’t you gonna miss it when they stop making these games?” says Rincewind at one point.

Discworld II did reasonably well in the friendliest markets, but not as well as the first game. And it again made even less of an impact in the United States, despite a gushing review from Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s long-tenured, infamously cantankerous adventure columnist. “It’s been too long since I could unreservedly recommend a game,” she wrote. “I can do it now.”

Between its computer and console versions, Discworld II sold just well enough to justify one more game. This would be a brave effort which eschewed the low-hanging fruit of cartoon comedy in favor of a dramatically different direction, enough so as to justify comparisons with Equal Rites, the Terry Pratchett novel which proved that the literary Discworld was more than just a fantasy version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We’ll turn to that final Discworld computer game to date, as well as the later years in Pratchett’s life and literary career, in due course, in another article.

For now, though, let me echo Scorpia’s unreserved endorsement of Discworld II. Its predecessor is an interesting but badly flawed creation, best left for hardcore fans of Rincewind who are willing to play with a walkthrough by their side, but the sequel deserves to be better remembered today as the minor classic it is. It represents the Discworld comedy game perfected.

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: The Official Strategy Guide by Glen Eldridge; Starlog of August 1990; CD-ROM Today of April 1995; Computer Gamer of January 1987; Computer Gaming World of June 1995 and May 1997; Computer and Video Games of September 1986; Electronic Entertainment of July 1995; GameFan of September 1997; Next Generation of August 1997; PC Zone of January 1995, August 1996, November 1996, and May 1999; PC Powerplay of November 1996 and July 1997; Sinclair User of December 1986; The One of September 1993; Retro Gamer 94 and 164.

None of the Discworld game are available for legal purchase today, doubtless due to complications with the literary license. Thankfully, Perfect Entertainment’s Discworld and Discworld II are available in ready-to-play Windows versions on The Collection Chamber. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)

 
 

Tags: ,

Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 1: Serious Comedy

One American writer said to me, “Your books will never sell in America because you can’t hear the elves sing. Americans go in for fantasy books where you can hear the elves sing.”

I would like that put on my gravestone: “At least you can say that in Pratchett’s books, the bloody elves never sang!”

— Terry Pratchett

Two arguments are commonly trotted out for the genre literature of the fantastic as actually or potentially something more than mere escapism. One, which applies only to the science-fiction side of the science-fiction/fantasy divide, claims that it can be a form of useful social prognostication. By observing the trends of the current day, the writer can extrapolate where we are likely to end up in the future and present it vividly on the page, whether as a prophecy or a warning. Granted, science fiction’s record of prediction is not particularly good; the writers of just a handful of decades ago almost all believed we would have settled Mars by now, while vanishingly few of them imagined anything like the modern Internet. Still, if you believe that a society’s hopes and fears for the future say a lot about its present, there is a certain sociological value even in the failed prognostications. (Indeed, the academic critic Farah Mendlesohn goes so far as the claim that much classic science fiction is “a sense of wonder combined with [a] presentism” which only masquerades as futurism.)

But it’s the other argument for fantastic literature’s enduring worth that I find most convincing: by transporting some of our most fraught current problems and conflicts into another, less familiar context, we can examine them in a fresh light. Many of us have thought at one time or another how weird our ceaselessly squabbling planet must look to any aliens who happen to stumble across it, what with all the trivialities we continue to fight and kill one another over and the looming existential threats we continue to leave woefully under-addressed. Not only science-fiction but also fantasy literature can literally or figuratively put us in the shoes of those aliens (assuming they wear shoes), allowing us to examine ideas and values with fresh eyes, less cultural baggage, and less of a knee-jerk response.

From the mid-1980s until the mid-2010s, the writer who made perhaps the most consistent case of all for fantasy literature as a laboratory of ideas that are eminently relevant to the real world was Terry Pratchett. And if that didn’t do it for you — well, he really was quite funny to boot.


Terry and Lyn Pratchett on their wedding day in 1968. On their honeymoon, Terry would grow the beard which he would sport for the rest of his life.

Terence David John Pratchett was born on April 28, 1948, in a rural village in Buckinghamshire, England. The only child of an auto mechanic and a secretary, he grew up in a house with no indoor toilet, no hot water, and no electricity. But a less economically advantaged upbringing does not automatically mean a bad one: young Terry spent his days rambling over the same green and pleasant English landscapes that had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, while in the evenings he read books by the light of an oil lamp. Amidst it all, he absorbed his parent’s commonsense belief in what the British call “common decency.” He was not a member of the social class that typically went to university, and this was never regarded as a serious option for him by his teachers or his parents even when he showed an unusual talent for reading and writing. Instead he walked into the office of his local newspaper at the age of seventeen and asked to become an apprentice journalist.

And so he embarked on what his peers and his betters would have considered a perfectly respectable if not quite exciting life for one of his social station. He spent a decade and a half working as a small-town beat reporter, columnist, and editor, before switching to a less demanding job with the civil service, as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board. Betwixt and between his professional accomplishments, he married his first-ever girlfriend before he turned 21, fathered a daughter with her, and lived with his family in a tidy little cottage no better nor worse than a thousand others in its corner of England.

He had just one obvious eccentricity: he loved science-fiction and especially fantasy literature, and wrote some of it himself on and off. By 1982, he had published three competent if derivative novels, in small print runs with the help of a friend with the requisite connections. Yet his closest brush with real literary fame remained the letter he had received from J.R.R. Tolkien back in 1968, in response to a piece of fan mail he had sent to the aging Oxford don.

By this point, fantasy literature had well and truly come into its own, thanks to the ongoing popularity of Tolkien and an odd new tabletop game called Dungeons & Dragons that was reaching Britain from American shores. Bookstore shelves were filling up with fat, multi-volume epics from other authors like Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist, who were all straining so hard to be Tolkien that one could almost hear them huffing and puffing in the background as one turned the pages. But Terry Pratchett, despite loving Tolkien so much himself that he claimed to have read The Lord of the Rings at least once per year ever since discovering it at the age of thirteen, wasn’t at all sure that such slavish imitation was the best form of flattery. He decided to write a book making fun of the trend.

To be sure, it wasn’t the highest-hanging of fruit as targets of satire went; these ponderous, interminable, oh-so-serious tomes could almost be read as parodies of Tolkien already, albeit inadvertent ones. Nor was Pratchett the first writer to have the idea; as early as 1969, when “Frodo Lives!” could be found emblazoned on the walls of the Boston subway alongside “Clapton is God!”, a pair of Harvard students had published a satire of the counterculture’s favorite fantasist called Bored of the Rings. But thankfully, Pratchett had a cleverer approach in mind than their frat-boy slapstick.

The germ of it dated back to 1978, and a column he had written poking gentle fun at the Star Wars craze. His long experience as a reporter had taught him that the proverbial little people of our own or, presumably, any other world are more exercised by mundane concerns than epic adventure. Applying this lesson to Star Wars, he offered up a science-fictional take on the banality of evil, in the form of the chief personnel officer on the Death Star, fielding complaints about the lousy coffee in the canteen, parrying worries over all those droids that were taking so many human Stormtroopers’ jobs.

Now, taking the same approach over to a world of epic fantasy, Pratchett considered what the little people there would be doing while the heroes were prattling on about Courage and Sacrifice and all the rest of that rot. The star of this “realist fantasy” — a term invented by Pratchett’s biographer Marc Burrows — would be an inept wizard named Rincewind, a perpetual graduate student at a school of magic called Unseen University. His greatest talent would be that of shirking danger and, when push came to shove, simply running away as fast as his knobby-kneed little legs could carry him. For, as Burrows writes, “when faced with violence and the threat of death, most people do not throw themselves honourably into the fray: they get the hell out of there. Rincewind is the very distillation of Pratchett’s central premise of treating a fantasy world literally.”

The fantasy world in question is, as Pratchett wrote at the beginning of the book and then proceeded to spend the next 30 years patiently repeating at the beginning of every interview he gave to the mainstream media, a flat disc borne on the backs of four giant elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle swimming through the outer space of “a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly”; the premise displays Pratchett’s lifelong interest in astronomy and Hindu cosmology, as well as his love of dreadful puns. The chronically exasperated Rincewind and his unlikely companion, a naïve tourist named Twoflower whose insatiable curiosity causes him to run toward every danger from which Rincewind wants to run away, spend the book traveling across the Discworld and getting caught up in a series of comic misadventures that expose countless inviolate fantasy clichés to the cold, harsh light of real-world logic. At the time, Pratchett seems to have seen the book he called The Colour of Magic as little more than a palate cleanser between more substantial ones. The cliffhanger ending was just another concession to the genre he was lampooning; maybe he’d actually write a sequel someday, maybe he wouldn’t.

The original, rather drab-looking hardcover edition of The Colour of Magic.

The Colour of Magic was published in November of 1983, in a British print run of just 506 copies, a testament to its publisher’s low expectations. Nothing happened right away to prove they were mistaken; the books languished on shelves for months. But then Pratchett had the stroke of luck which every budding superstar author needs. Some years ago now, the BBC had broadcast a radio serial by one Douglas Adams, a comedic send-up of science fiction that was similar in spirit to what Pratchett was now doing for (or to) the fantasy genre. Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had gone on to become a very hot property indeed, spawning three internationally bestselling novels to date along with record albums, a BBC television series, and, soon, a hit computer game. In light of all this, the BBC decided to give The Colour of Magic a try over the airwaves. Between June 27 and July 10, 1984, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an abridged reading of the book by Nigel Hawthorne, one of the stars of the hugely popular television sitcom Yes, Minister. The programs received a very good response, putting Terry Pratchett’s name on the lips of everyday Britons for the first time ever. Just like that, things started to happen. In January of 1985, Corgi, a British division of Bantam Books, published The Colour of Magic in paperback, with an initial print run of no less than 26,000 copies. A second print run was needed well before the end of the year. Discworld was off and running.

With his fiction receiving widespread attention for the first time ever, Pratchett needed little encouragement to write that sequel to The Colour of Magic now rather than later. The Light Fantastic, which was published in June of 1986, was largely more of the same, notable mostly for having a slightly more focused plot and for giving prominent place to the character of Death — you know, the skeleton dressed all in black, with the scythe and so on. Belying his terrifying appearance, Death’s Discworld persona is that of an overworked, sometimes irascible, but basically well-meaning bureaucratic functionary. In time, he became arguably the most beloved of all Pratchett’s recurring characters. Many Discworld fans, facing the last days of a loved one or even their own final exit, have found surprising comfort in the seven-foot-tall, cat-loving apparition who brings peace with him rather than pain or judgment. He was an early sign that there might be something more to Discworld than just a succession of clever gags.

Pratchett was very fortunate to connect with an artist named Josh Kirby, whose colorful, winsome, but often subtly subversive covers became the indelible look of Discworld, impossible to separate in the minds of most fans from the words on the page.

Still, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable even at this stage to see Pratchett as an author trying his derivative darnedest to be fantasy fiction’s answer to Douglas Adams. It hadn’t helped his cause when, in a couple of unguarded early interviews, he had admitted that he had been reading the Hitchhiker’s books at the same time he was writing The Colour of Magic. Now, though, he was bristling at the comparison more and more. Adams’s works, he claimed with some truth, were archer, colder, and crueler than his own humor; Adams laughed at his characters, while Pratchett laughed with them at the absurdity of the universe.

Whether it was written in response to the accusations of unoriginality or was just a natural progression, the next book in the Discworld series made the argument that Pratchett was nothing more than a second-rate Douglas Adams untenable. That said, the leap Pratchett made with Equal Rites, the third Discworld novel, was in some ways a fairly obvious one. He was already mining humor from portraying a world of heroic fantasy in a “realistic” way, imagining the experience of the characters there who weren’t larger-than-life heroes on epic quests, and showing how even the fantastic becomes by definition mundane as soon as it becomes the stuff of everyday life. (If you doubt this truism, just look at the technological wonders all around us today which would have seemed almost like magic 30 years ago, but to which we hardly give a thought…) From here, it was a relatively short leap to begin using Discworld as a philosophical laboratory to address the questions and problems with which our own mundane societies are grappling. And yet, short leap though it may have been, it was an audacious one nonetheless. “I want to get away from the idea that I’m automatically sending fantasy up,” Pratchett would say a few years later. “What I’m concerned about now is sending up ideas, ways of looking at the world, people’s expectations.”

The phallic wand the female protagonist of Equal Rites is carrying as she claims powers usually reserved for men is a fine example of Josh Kirby’s subversive edge. Pratchett absolutely loved the image. As his characters loved to sing, “A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end…”

Published barely six months after The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites was the first Discworld novel that could be reasonably said to have overarching themes and a moral compass. Abandoning Rincewind and Twoflower for the time being, it’s a bildungsroman about the coming of age of a young girl — dangerous territory for a middle-aged male author to venture into, but Pratchett pulls it off pretty well. Of course, this being still a fantasy novel, her coming of age involves her coming into her own as a magic user, which in turn involves being apprenticed to the local witch and having many ensuing adventures. Nevertheless, the message the book hammers home relentlessly is as relevant to our own world as any message can possibly be. It’s right there in the book’s title (overlooking another dreadful pun): that women are every bit as capable as men, and deserve to be treated that way. There’s also an even broader and equally important theme, about the value of empathy in general. To illustrate this, Pratchett invents the magical skill of “borrowing,” which lets a being quite literally walk a mile in another being’s shoes — or, rather, in another being’s mind — experiencing the world as they do. If only all of us could and would do the same before we pass judgment…

The next Discworld book, Mort, was published in November of 1987, and remains among the most beloved of the canon, often recommended as an ideal place for beginners to start thanks to its very straightforward, self-contained plot. It involves Mortimer, a hapless young fellow who has just been hired for the dubious position of apprentice to Death. Among other things, the book is a sort of companion piece to Equal Rites, this story being about the travails of male adolescence. Even more so than its predecessor, Mort is elevated by its author’s essential humanity; there is no cruelty in Terry Pratchett. Pratchett:

In Mort, I keep referring to the “sex scenes,” and somebody who was interviewing me said, “But there aren’t any sex scenes in Mort!” I said, “No, but that’s what’s funny!” You see two young people who are terribly embarrassed in each other’s presence, which was about 90 percent of sex when I was a kid. That’s what it was all about: being horribly tongue-tied and embarrassed the whole time.

Much to Pratchett’s gratification, these most recent two, more ambitious Discworld novels sold even better than the first two, allowing him to quit his job in the civil service with the confidence of an established, bankable author. It was at this point that he separated himself from Douglas Adams in another way. If the latter had lived on the Discworld, he would doubtless have been written up as one of the practical jokes the gods there love to play on mortals: he was a brilliant writer who would rather do almost anything else than write, who, as he once memorably put it, preferred to spend his days soaking in a cozy bath and listening to deadlines whooshing by outside the window. Pratchett, on the other hand, had the work ethic of an ant colony. In the first five years after quitting his day job, he published ten Discworld novels, three non-Discworld novels for children, and the standalone novel Good Omens, a much-heralded collaboration with Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comic books. And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, Pratchett also found time to write a few short stories and a non-fiction book about cats.

The middle-aged family man Terry Pratchett and the too-cool-for-school hipster Neil Gaiman, hobnobber with rock stars, made an odd couple to be sure, but the two genuinely liked and respected one another, and many fans consider Good Omens to be among the best things either ever wrote.

Needless to say, we can’t hope to analyze this fire hose of output in any depth here. Suffice to say that Pratchett kept pushing at the boundaries of what a Discworld novel could be, producing everything from intricately plotted detective yarns to poignant character studies, along with the occasional unabashed satirical romp for diehard fans of Rincewind and Twoflower and their ilk. We shouldn’t get too precious about Pratchett’s books from this or any other period; as he would be the first to admit, he was first and foremost a commercial author writing with at least one eye on the needs of the market. He wasn’t above gloating a bit over each huge check that rolled in from his publisher, and very much wanted to keep the money spigot open. Doubtless many of his books could have been even better if he had spent more time with them, if he hadn’t felt compelled to rush pell-mell to the next one. On the other hand, much the same thing can be said of many another highly regarded author, and not just in the genre literatures; the names of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens come to mind as just two of history’s insanely prolific writers-for-hire with a surfeit of genius.

We might pull out just a few books from this era by way of illustrating just how far Discworld could stray from the template of The Colour of Magic. Take, for example, the 1989 novel Guards! Guards!, another one often recommended by the Discworld cognoscenti as an excellent starting point.

In it, a cabal summons a dragon to lay piecemeal waste to the sprawling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city on the Disc. One of the usually shiftless Ankh-Morpork police force, a fellow named Sam Vimes who would go on to become the most frequently recurring Discworld-novel protagonist of all, has the bright idea of actually investigating for a change, leading to both comedy and drama. Guards! Guards! can be considered a landmark in the evolution of the Discworld series thanks to the presence of Vimes alone. He is, claims Pratchett’s biographer Burrows, “a character that grew out of Pratchett’s need to put his personality on the page. Vimes is a deposit for the author’s burning anger, and is fueled by a deep sense of injustice that Pratchet had so far managed to keep a lid on. The character is utterly flawed. He’s a drunk, he spends his life miserable, and, despite a keen intelligence, has a habit of speaking truth to power that has kept him from rising further than the city’s least-desirable command — captain of the night watch.”

Writing in a genre famous for seeing good and evil as (sometimes all too literally) white and black, Pratchett understands how the gray of ordinary people leading ordinary lives can slowly but surely turn into deepest ebony.

There are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a touch of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Or take 1991’s Reaper Man, the second Discworld novel with Death as a main protagonist. The books begins with a crazy premise: that Death has retired to become a farmhand, which causes serious problems on the Disc as everyone currently alive becomes suddenly immortal. What initially seems like nothing but another clever gag becomes in due course a wise, compassionate meditation on time and its passing, on how birth and death are the natural, necessary way of the universe, on how old lives must ultimately end to make space for young ones.

No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away — until the clock he made winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence.

Or take 1992’s Small Gods, a simultaneously satirical and sympathetic examination of the eternal human quest for Higher Truths, told from the standpoint of both idealists and cynics.

Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place…

Here’s a riff on Plato that comes about as close as any passage can to summing up Pratchett’s philosophy of a happy life:

Life in this world is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, “Go on, do Deformed Rabbit… it’s my favorite.”

And then there’s my very favorite, as cogent an argument for the value of blue-sky research as I’ve ever read:

It’s always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it’s all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and Does A Falling Tree in the Forest Make A Sound if There’s No One There to Hear It, and then, just when you think they’re going to start dribbling, one of ’em says, “Incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy’s ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles.”

By the early 1990s, Pratchett had managed an incredible, not to say paradoxical, feat: he had busted right out of the fantasy ghetto whilst remaining an unapologetic genre author in outlook and orientation. You were guaranteed to see at least one or two Discworld novels during any given trip on the London Underground, as often as not clutched in the hands of riders who were not your stereotypical fantasy nerds. Discworld cut across all the usual boundaries of class, age, race, and gender. In 1992, W.H. Smith, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, stated that 10 percent of their total science-fiction and fantasy sales consisted of Terry Pratchett books. By 1998, Pratchett accounted for 2 percent of all their revenues. When you combined the sales of all of his novels together, he became simply the most popular single British author of the 1990s. There was something comforting in the way that these unpretentiously entertaining, gently wise books were able to hold their own and then some against all of the latest controversial political screeds and tawdry celebrity memoirs. If Discworld wasn’t quite great literature, it was certainly a cut above most of the rest of the bestseller list.

Pratchett himself was only slightly slowed by the interviews and book signings that came with being Britain’s most popular living author; he continued to crank out a reliable two books per year. Unlike so many authors whose names have become a brand, Pratchett never stooped to hiring ghostwriters to create his content; every word in every Discworld novel was his own. He became a very rich man, but that didn’t slow him down either. Clearly money wasn’t the main reason he wrote. While he enjoyed it in a way, that way was mostly as a handy measure of his success; his actual lifestyle changed surprisingly little.

Pratchett at a 1996 Discworld convention with a costumed fan.

For all of Discworld‘s 1990s popularity in Britain and some other parts of Europe — Germany proved another especially strong market — it never became more than a cult phenomenon in the United States. (Tellingly, the British edition of Good Omens listed Pratchett’s name first as the more salable author, while the American edition did just the opposite.) This relative failure irked Pratchett, who went so far as to rewrite parts some of his books to better suit what he judged to be the American comedic sensibility. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t manage to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list until 2004.

There really are no obvious American analogues for Pratchett’s place in British pop culture during the decade before that one. Piers Anthony churned out whimsical fantasy novels set in his own pun-strewn world of Xanth at almost as prodigious a pace, and fostered a similarly personal connection with his readers, but his series was vastly more crass, formulaic, and juvenile, not at all the sort of thing most respectable adults were willing to be caught reading on a train.

Confined to Europe though it was, the 1990s Discworld mania was very real and very huge. In addition to the novels themselves, there were television cartoons, audio books, music CDs, collectible figures and toys, tee-shirts and other clothing, jewelry, candles, maps, companion source books, quiz books, a tabletop role-playing game, paper fanzines, conventions, websites, and one of the most popular newsgroups on Usenet: alt.fan.Pratchett, where the author himself occasionally dropped by to leave a post. “Anyone could be a Discworld fan,” writes Marc Burrows, “and sometimes it felt like just about everybody was.”

Naturally, then, there were also computer games…

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; Starlog of August 1990 and May 2000. And of course the many books of Terry Pratchett!)

 

Tags: