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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Timequest

Do I detect some innuendo here? No, couldn’t be! A cigar is just a cigar, right?

Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Legend Entertainment’s debut title, had striven to tick every box a parser-driven game possibly could to ensure commercial success in the games market of the early 1990s. It was a fantasy game, traditionally adventurers’ favorite fictional genre; it was written by Steve Meretzky, the lost and lamented Infocom’s most famous author; it had a strong, fairly linear plot line to keep the action moving and keep the player on track; and of course it topped off everything else with the added attraction of sex.

Timequest, Legend’s second game, had none of this going for it. As a time-travel story, it was ostensibly science fiction, but was far more interested in real-world history; it was written by Bob Bates, another former Infocom author but one whose name and games only the most devoted of the old fans recognized; it had little plot to speak of beyond the beginning and the endgame, with a huge middle that was almost aggressively non-linear; and it was usually fairly sober where Spellcasting 101 was silly and titillating. For all these reasons, Timequest was considered by even its author to be an “experiment.”

Its experimental nature wasn’t down to any radical design innovations. On the contrary: if anything its approach was more typical of text adventures past than that of Spellcasting 101Timequest was rather a commercial experiment, which sought to answer the question of whether gamers in 1991 would still buy a game like this one — buy a game that was complicated, nonlinear, and somewhat difficult. As such, it hearkened back to a theme which had been a hidden undercut of Bob Bates’s career in games to date. Raised in a family where really hard puzzles had been a hobby of many, he had originally taken the name of Challenge — the first text-adventure developer he founded, half a decade before he founded Legend — quite literally. Infocom, as he judged it, was going soft by the mid-1980s, focusing too much on easier, more accessible games. Challenge would make hard games for the hardcore puzzlers Infocom was now disappointing.

As things transpired, however, that vision of Challenge never came to fruition. Bates wound up writing games for Infocom instead of in competition with them, and wound up hewing to the directives coming down from them to continue down the road of accessibility. But he never forgot what he had originally intended Challenge to be, and, after co-founding Legend, he jumped at the chance to finally make a game cast in that mold.

Indeed, the game most obviously similar to the one he was now embarking upon has a well-earned reputation as one of the most difficult adventure games ever made. Sierra’s 1982 text adventure Time Zone is, like Timequest, a merry nonlinear romp through history, allowing its player to visit seven continents in eight time periods, ranging from 400 million BC to 4082 AD, with no guidance whatsoever beyond “go forth to explore and solve puzzles.” Even the people who made Time Zone were shocked when someone — likely with a lot of crowd-sourced help from the early online community The Source — managed to solve it in mere weeks rather than months or years.

But the reality of the finished Timequest is actually less intimidating than either that specific point of comparison — a game which Bob had never played or even heard of at the time he began his own time-travel epic — or the general buildup I’ve been giving it might imply. Whatever his stated aspirations for creating a challenging adventure, Bob Bates, throughout his career one of the great advocates for fairness and sanity in adventure design, seems almost congenitally incapable of treating his players too badly. The difficulty of Timequest doesn’t really live in the individual puzzles, about which I’ve actually heard some players complain that they’re too straightforward. No, the difficulty, to whatever extent it exists, is rather bound up in the sheer size of the thing. It’s almost as vast in area as Time Zone and much, much vaster in its historical detail, with a field of play sprawling over six locations in nine time periods, ranging from 1361 BC to 1940 AD. Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels and Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur had already demonstrated — the former in somewhat more compelling fashion than the latter — Bob’s love for history. Timequest, then, was his chance to let that love run wild on a stage that was almost as large as human history itself.

The framing story behind this grand journey through time and space makes only as much sense as it needs to in order to set the adventure in motion, and winds up making even less sense once all is said and done and the inevitable final time-travel twist has been piled on top. It seems — at the beginning, anyway, which is as far as I’ll go here — that a rogue agent of the Temporal Corps of 2090 AD has set off to deliberately wreck the time stream and thus remake all of human history. To do so, he’s visited ten examples of what we might refer to as historical choke points — pivotal, transformational moments — ranging from the brief-lived Roman dictatorship of Julius Caesar in 44 BC to Britain’s refusal to surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940 AD. Although re-doing these events which the rogue agent has undone will be the goal of your quest, you’ll have to visit many more than just these places and times in your “interkron” in order to accomplish that goal, collecting vital objects and information from each possible place and time. Meticulous note-taking — a keeping track of everywhere you’ve been and what you’ve done and found there — is a must. One or two tricky puzzles aside, it’s this combinatorial explosion that’s the real source of Timequest‘s difficulty.

In other ways, though, Timequest rather belies its conception as an experimental throwback to the adventures of yore, as it does its status as a point of comparison with the infamously unfair Time Zone. In what can only be regarded as a remarkable design feat in its own right, Timequest implements all its sprawl while making it very nearly impossible to lock yourself out of victory. (Bob and I have found two exceptions to that rule, one involving a rock you find on the street outside the residence of a certain famous French emperor and the other a lighter used by a certain famous British prime minister, but both are the results of oversights rather than intentional design decisions.)

Sometimes the lengths Timequest goes to to save you from yourself can be almost comical. If, for instance, you fail to visit the stands in the Coloseum of Rome in 44 BC and buy some focaccia from a vendor before the chariot races end and the place is locked down, never fear, Bob Bates has got your back — or your head, as the case may be.

I should love Timequest, given the love for history and the love for challenging-but-fair adventure games which I happen to share with its designer. Yet I have to say that I’m slightly less excited by some of the details of its execution than I am by the core idea. By far the biggest adventure game Legend would ever make in terms of breadth, it’s also, unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, the shallowest in terms of implementation depth. Much that ought to work, but that isn’t required to solve the puzzles, simply fails to work for no good reason. These flaws can feel particularly jarring to the modern player, what with the accepted sweet spot in interactive fiction having long since moved from sparsely implemented epics like this one to smaller but deeper, more richly implemented games.

There’s just not that much to do or even to look at in many of the time/location combinations you visit in Timequest — only as much as is absolutely required by the game’s puzzles and plot. That said, it should also be said that the sparsity isn’t uniform; the various locations fare quite differently by this standard. Dover, England, is reasonably well-done, while Rome feels like the most lovingly fleshed-out of all of the places, with lots of new details to observe when you visit it in a new time and a real sense of a passage of time that reveals both continuities and changes. Predictably enough given the game’s point of origin, the non-European locales —  Peking, Mexico, Baghdad, and Cairo — fare much less well, often remaining in a sort of under-implemented stasis for spans of hundreds or thousands of years. Even the historical choke points that claim to deal with these cultures wind up referring back to their influence on Western history: you must prevent the Arab world in 800 AD from extending its dominion into Europe; similarly, you must make sure that Genghis Khan conquers Peking in 1215 AD only to make sure he doesn’t get frustrated and lash out at Europe instead; you must make sure Hernando Cortez of Spain succeeds in conquering the Aztecs in 1519 AD. Freely acknowledged by Bob as a byproduct of his own American upbringing, the Euro-centric tunnel vision makes this game that claims to be about the entirety of human history rather more provincial than that claim would imply.

Timequest waxes a bit judgmental on the subject of Aztec civilization. But then, if you can’t get judgmental about a civilization with a penchant for human sacrifice on a massive scale, what can you get judgmental about? (Bob’s take on the subject does stand in marked contrast to Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” one of rock music’s many great songs with painfully stupid lyrics.)

But I don’t want to criticize Bob too heavily for this failing; steeped in Western history as I am as well, I’m sure I’d have a hard time doing much better. A fairer point of criticism is a more generalized sense of sketchiness, not only in the implementation but also in the writing. Simply put, Bob’s words here don’t often read as hugely considered — or even as read by anyone much at all prior to the game’s release. In a game that’s intended to evoke history, that’s intended to show changing cultures across huge swathes of time, the fact that the writing often doesn’t even try to evoke any sense of atmosphere is, to say the least, unhelpful. Absolutely everyone you meet speaks in the diction of a late-twentieth-century American — except for those you meet in Dover, who spend their time sitting around the pub speaking Cockney, whether it’s 1361 BC or 1940 AD. (I’ve heard of the timelessness of English pub life, but this is ridiculous.) Combined with the sparse implementation, the dashed-off writing rather smacks of a game released before its time, finished in a last-minute frenzy and pushed out the door. When I asked Bob about this, he didn’t recall feeling like the game had been released too soon; nevertheless, the impression remains, and that’s damning enough in itself.

My final point of contention with Timequest applies to a couple of the puzzles. I won’t spoil either of them here — you’ll have to wait for the conversation with Bob that follows this review for that — but I will say that each hovers right on the borderline of what I consider fair, and each could have been improved greatly in my opinion by either one more little nudge or one less level of complexity. Had Timequest been produced at Infocom when the latter’s storied adventure-making machine was running at its peak mid-1980s efficiency, these are the sorts of puzzles which probably wouldn’t have made it unchanged into the finished product. For that matter, Jon Palace, Infocom’s unsung hero in matters of quality control and so much else, would probably have demanded that the writing be punched up a bit as well. With all its strengths in terms of scope and vision, Timequest also serves to demonstrate that Legend, despite the best of intentions and an understandable eagerness to claim the mantle of heir to Infocom, didn’t quite have the institutional resources at their disposal — at least not yet — to entirely live up to that heritage.

For me, then, Timequest is a mixed bag, a game I certainly don’t hate but one I wish I could love a little more than I do. Of course, it’s possible that my love for the idea of a globe- and century-trotting time-travel game perversely makes me judge the execution of same more harshly than I otherwise might. I can only say that Timequest, while a huge improvement on the likes of Time Zone, still isn’t the time-travel adventure of my dreams.

For Legend as well, Timequest wound up falling into an unsatisfying middle ground, proving neither a dismal flop nor a rousing commercial success. Despite garnering a coveted Computer Gaming World cover feature upon its release in May of 1991, it failed to sell as well as had Spellcasting 101 — nor even as well as would Spellcasting 201, which would be released a few months later in 1991. Legend was thus forced to judge their commercial experiment to have been a qualified failure. Future Legend adventure games, including those from Bob Bates himself, would hew to the Spellcasting rather than the Timequest model in terms of design. It’s hard to lament this turn of events too terribly, given that that approach would yield some very strong work, including some games that are in my opinion considerably stronger than Timequest. But for players who loved big, traditional, wide-open, non-linear text adventures, Timequest was indeed the end of the line in terms of boxed commercial games. Thankfully, an amateur interactive-fiction community — or, perhaps better said, communities — were picking up steam, ready to take up the slack.


Bob Bates on Timequest (or, Hoisting Bob Bates with His Own Petard)

When I first started talking to Bob Bates about Legend’s early history some time ago, we agreed that it would make an interesting exercise for him to revisit Timequest, his largest and most challenging adventure game ever, and see what he himself thought of it now, more than a quarter of a century since he last played it. He’s since taken time out of his busy schedule to do just that. I talked to Bob twice over the course of an endeavor that wound up taking much longer than he had anticipated: we talked once when he was midway through the game, then again just after he finished it. What follows are some of the highlights of those two conversations, at least as they pertain to Timequest. (Bob and I do have a bad tendency to wander off-topic.) For anyone who’s ever wished there was a way to put the designer of the game you’re playing through the same pain you’re going through, this dose of schadenfreude is for you.

In the text that follows, my comments and questions are in boldface and Bob’s responses are in normal print. We do spoil parts of the game, obsessing in particular over two questionable puzzles involving a sultan’s harem and the entrance to the endgame, so you may wish to postpone reading our conversation for the time being if you haven’t yet played the game and would like to tackle it completely unspoiled. And naturally, those of you who have played the game and know the puzzles of which we speak will find what follows most enlightening of all — although I did sneak in some footnotes to explain some of the finer points to the uninitiated.


Part 1: Our intrepid author feels a bit lost within his own game…

So, how goes it with Timequest?

Well… I’m not done. As I play, I’m sitting here going, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I did that!” The number of restore puzzles that are in there… the overall level of difficulty is so much greater than anything I would make today.

Ha!

But before we get into your recent experiences in the game, maybe we could talk just a little about this idea of Timequest as an experiment to see if there was still a market for a very complicated, very taxing adventure game. That’s a theme that goes back even further in your career. You’ve mentioned before that you took the name of your first company, Challenge, quite literally. You had thought that Infocom was losing their edge, becoming too accessible. You wanted to create more difficult games, harking back to the early Infocom games. Of course, that vision changed once you started actually working for Infocom.

Maybe you could talk about this desire to do a really difficult adventure game, and to what extent Timequest in fact met that standard. It’s a very difficult game in that it demands a lot of note-keeping and planning from the player, but I think that most of the actual puzzles — with maybe one or two exceptions, which we can talk about later — are fairly straightforward. It’s more the combinatorial-explosion factor that makes it more difficult.

I come from a family of puzzle-doers — doers of hard puzzles. During the four years I spent living in England, I was exposed to the English style of crossword puzzle. Are you familiar with English as opposed to American crossword puzzles?

Are you referring to acrostics, or…

No. English crossword puzzles are regular crossword puzzles, but they’re an order of magnitude more difficult. In an American crossword, a clue might be “a kind of boat,” and the answer might be “yacht” or “raft” — very straightforward. English crosswords rely on really obscure puns and references and clues hidden within the clues themselves. A clue might be “united undone.” And the answer is “untied.” In other words, if you “undo” the word “united” by scrambling the letters, you come up with “untied.” That would be considered a no-brainer clue. Take that and make it much harder, where the answer involves a Medieval English word for “plow” or something. They have dictionaries dedicated to these really obscure words. These are the kinds of puzzles my family did; my dad was a cryptographer for the NSA. That’s the level of mental challenge I was used to.

I therefore thought everybody was the same. As you grow up, you think your family is normal and does the things all families do. So, when I’d play an Infocom game, I’d say, “Yeah, okay, it’s hard. But it’s not really hard. Isn’t there a market for really hard?” And that of course was the mistake of Challenge: no, there wasn’t a sufficiently large market for really hard.

So, Infocom comes along and I do games for them. The push there was to make the games easier. Then Infocom went away, and the point-and-click adventure games that were left out there weren’t hard at all. It’s not so much that I wanted to make a really, really hard game with Timequest. I just wanted to make one that was as hard as a Standard-difficulty Infocom game. I wanted to find out if the Infocom market was still there, but hidden within this larger market of point-and-click players. Is there still a market for a reasonably difficult game, or do we have to make all of our games easier?

I have to assume, based on the games Legend went on to release after Timequest, that the answer to that question was yes — that you did have to make all of your games easier. I like the Gateway games and Eric the Unready a lot, but they’re different from Timequest in that they’re much more narrative-driven games — there’s a constantly unfolding plot pushing you through, so that you always have a pretty good idea of what you should be doing. But in Timequest you’re just thrown into this huge labyrinth of time periods and locations, and the game just kind of says, “Okay, figure it out.”

Yeah… I had started out to make a Standard-difficulty Infocom game, but it turns out I made a game that was harder than that. I didn’t understand why people found it more difficult than I had intended. I’m speaking with two minds here because as I play the game now, I’m saying, “What was I thinking?” Now I’m playing like a player instead of like the designer, having not looked at it for a quarter of a century. I’ve forgotten most things in the game, so I’m approaching it fresh.

I remember being bewildered that people were finding the game so hard to approach. I’d put in these mission papers with the critical events. Obviously what you needed to do was to go to the time periods and locations that were called out and look at what clues and puzzles were there, then fan out from there. But I remember the testers saying they didn’t know where to start. So I said, “Okay, I’ll make it even easier.” When you first get into the time machine — the interkron — it will be preset to Rome in 44 BC — a clear indication of where you should go. That’s a self-contained little puzzle environment. When you finish with that, Cleopatra tells you to come see her. So, obviously the next thing to do is to go to Cairo in that same year. And then you can continue to go to the places in the briefing papers. That was my thinking at the time.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago. I picked up the game and started to play, and realized I had no idea where to go or what to do. So, I started in the oldest time slot on the left-hand side of the map — Mexico, 1361 BC — and worked my way across the map. Then I went to the next one, 44 BC, and did the same, and so on and so on. I’ve been doing that for the last ten hours or so, and just before this call I got up to Dover in 1215 AD and the King John puzzle.

My notes are pretty funny. “I did this, then I died. So I restored. I tried this and I died. So I restored. Then I learned this — but I died.” Here I am, priding myself on being a designer who doesn’t make restore puzzles… and, my God, they’re all over the place!

When I played the game, I did exactly as you are. I started in 1361 BC and visited each location, then continued chronologically forward. After visiting a location, I would mark in my notes whether I thought I had done everything there — usually you have a pretty good idea — or whether there were obviously still things to be done, which probably meant I was missing an item from another location. So I lawn-mowered through all of the locations and time periods once. Then I had a big collection of stuff, and I could start through all of the locations that were not yet solved again. I did that two or three times, and I was ready for the endgame. There were only one or two puzzles that really gave me a hard time. Otherwise, I think it was the need for note-keeping and just the logistics of the whole thing that might be a challenge for some players. The puzzles themselves, taken in isolation, are usually quite straightforward.

That’s exactly how it seems to me. I look at some of these puzzles and say, “Well, that’s obvious.” And I do have some memories of some of the puzzles. So, when I came across the Aztec who is looking for the Feathered Serpent… my notes really are kind of funny: “I guess I have to find something that makes me look like that.” And I remember that when I get to the Spanish Armada I find a helmet that plays into the Mexican puzzle line. I’m thinking maybe that helmet has a feather plume or something on it.

Then when the Aztec temple has been built, there’s a maze — I can’t believe I did a maze puzzle, but there it is — and I found a costume there. So obviously I’ve got to go back wearing the costume. But I still haven’t fully solved that. I went back and the guy killed me anyway. Yeah… there’s a guy who throws a spear at me, and I haven’t figured out how to deal with him.

Yeah, you have about two turns before he kills you…

Yeah. How’s that for a restore puzzle?

So, my impressions are the same as yours. I found some chalk in Dover, then I got to Cairo and there’s a deaf beggar standing there with a slate. Okay, “give chalk to beggar.” That’s not brain surgery.

Although I haven’t figured out what these messages are that Vettenmyer is leaving.1

Really, you don’t remember that?

No!

It becomes very important…

The weird thing is that you get a point for each one. I know myself, and I know that it’s really unlikely that I would allow the player to end the game without getting all the points. Maybe I would have done that back in the day, but it doesn’t seem like a part of my personality. I remember having a conversation with Steve Meretzky at one point about the difficulty of ensuring that the points come out right. I said, “Boy, this is really hard!” And he said, “No, it’s not hard at all.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “When you get to the end, for the last puzzle, you just take the total number of points there are supposed to be in the game and give the player the number of points still needed to get to that.” And I thought, Wow! There’s one thing in the world that I’m more particular about than Meretzky.

I think you could finish Timequest without all the points if you didn’t collect all the messages, but you would almost have to be relying on outside knowledge — a walkthrough or hint book, or you would have to have played before and just not have bothered to collect the messages this time through. They’re telling you something which you need to know.

Yeah, that sounds like me. I’m thinking maybe I can arrange them in some order so the first letters or the last letters spell something out. Or maybe take the first word of the first message, second word of the second message, etc. So, I’m just writing them down. At some point I figure I’ll need them.2

Good strategy!

And again, knowing myself, I’d bet that one of the reasons they’re scattered about like this is that I had a lot of locations with nothing to do. Even now as I play the game I’m annoyed when I get to a location where I can’t do anything. I probably used the messages to make at least some of those places not completely worthless. It would surprise me if I left any location completely barren. I’m a designer who wants to reward the player for what he does. If someone does the equivalent of a pixel hunt by, as you put it, “lawn-mowering” through all these locations, he should be rewarded for that. I hope every location does turn out to have something worthwhile.

Timequest has a lot of restore puzzles, but there’s aren’t any places where you can do something wrong and lock yourself out of victory without realizing it, except perhaps for one or two situations that I believe were the result of oversights rather than deliberate design decisions.

Yeah. When that happens, your wristlet vibrates to tell you you’ve screwed up. That’s a mechanic that was put in in order to avoid the “dead man walking” syndrome. That’s something I work hard to avoid.

So, even though you saw Timequest as a kind of throwback to a more classic form of adventure game, that aspect of it is really quite modern, quite forward-looking. Sierra at this time, for instance, was still littering their games with dead ends. And that is of course the thing most players hate worst of all. If a game kills you… okay, you died — restore, life goes on. But to get to the end of the game and realize you needed to have done something 1000 turns ago, that’s just the worst.

Yes, I was certainly aware of that, and would have figured it into my design: to be able to quickly know when you’re in trouble or you’ve done something wrong, and to know that the designer isn’t going to screw you over.

There’s a lot, including that, that I like a lot about Timequest, but there are also some things that don’t thrill me so much. And of course it’s often more educational to talk about where a game falls down a bit than what it does well. So, I thought I would tell you a couple of ways in which I thought Timequest was a little bit lacking.

That would be fine as long as they aren’t things I haven’t encountered yet.

Okay. One is very general, so let me start there.

I couldn’t help but notice that there’s more detail in some places than others, so much so that I wonder if the game was a bit rushed. For instance, the Rome setting is done very well. It feels very fleshed-out; as you visit Rome in different time periods you get a real sense of how the city is changing. But for Mexico, there are several time periods where it just seems like the same place. I’m curious if you noticed that yourself while playing the game now, and if you recall what might have led to that disparity on the design side.

It wasn’t time pressure. It’s more what I knew, what I could bring to the party. I know a lot about English and European history. I don’t know much at all about other regions’ history. And of course the written record for other regions isn’t always there.

I wanted to spread the game out across the world and spread it across cultures that had existed for a very long time. For that reason, Dover, Rome, and Cairo were obvious. Then I looked at a map thinking, okay, what can I do in the Americas? I couldn’t do in anything in North America; we just don’t know enough about those Native American cultures. But there was this rich culture in Central America. But what fits my model there? Well, we’ve got this really unusual occurrence where this guy — Cortez — shows up and conquers the Aztecs. How could that have happened? So, I went with this myth about the Feathered Serpent, which has some basis in history.

So the whole Mexico scenario is built around this one almost unchanging temple complex for two reasons. One of the cool things about a time-travel game is that you can do things in the past that affect the future. By the time this game was being made, mazes were already a subject of much consternation and controversy among players. But I’d done a maze in Arthur where instead of dropping items you have to make marks on the wall. So I did a maze which really wouldn’t be a maze at all if you saw it when it was being built. You had to follow these footprints and write down the directions because in a later time period it would all be dark.

When I first got to the maze, while it was being constructed, I started trying to write on the walls like in Arthur. But now that I’ve solved it I remember my thinking clearly.

The other reasons is that I really don’t know much about Mexican history. I have no idea what the game will do when I get to 1940 AD Mexico because the Mexico puzzle sequence kind of stops before that.3

I think you’ll be surprised and possibly a little disappointed…

There’s probably just another message from Vettenmyer or something.

And the same applies to China. I’d never been to China; I’d never been to Mexico either.

Yes, Peking as well feels very static. It feels like pretty much the same place over a span of thousands of years. Rome and Dover have a much greater sense of changing times.

Yes. You can read about the history when you first enter a time period, but it’s not really important in Peking or Mexico. Whereas in the European locations it is more important.

And often the non-European scenarios end up being important for the effect they could have on European history. So, in one choke point Genghis Khan is trying to invade Peking; if he doesn’t succeed, he’ll turn on Europe instead. And at another point you have to prevent the Muslim lands in the Middle East from taking over Europe. So you’re looking at the histories of these cultures through the lens of their possible effect on European history.

Yeah, that’s just because of me; who I am and what I know.

So, have you gotten to the puzzle sequence that takes place in Baghdad in 800 AD, where you have a sultan and a vizier who’s having an affair with a woman in the sultan’s harem?

Yeah, I’ve solved that one.

Okay. I thought that puzzle had one layer too many.

Yeah, I still don’t understand it.

Yeah. When you can solve a puzzle without understanding it, that’s a problem. Back in Zork II there was this puzzle about the Bank of Zork that everybody hates. Most players would just randomly stumble on the solution and continue, but that’s not satisfying at all.

I’ll tell you exactly where I am with the harem puzzle right now. I’m looking at the vizier, who’s really dressed strangely, wondering if there’s some sort of ROYGBIV puzzle going on. But I think he’s wearing one color too few. If it’s not that, there must be some relationship between the colors and women. The women have all these colored veils, so I’m wondering if it’s a “Dance of the Seven Veils” thing. Should I take all the veils off? But the plural “veils” isn’t even recognized by the game. So, it can’t be that.

So, I brute-forced it. I put on a veil and went and offered a fig to the vizier. Nothing happened. Another veil. Nothing happened. Another veil. And something happened. I figure there must be a clue someplace telling what color of veil you’re supposed to wear.4

Would you like me to tell you what the clue is?

Let me speculate just a little more.

Okay.

Are the colors the vizier is wearing relevant?

Yes. That’s key.

But it’s nothing to do with ROYGBIV?

No. It’s more devious than that.

Okay. Ohhh…. no, I don’t want you to tell me!

Should we table it until next time?

Yes. We’ll just mark it down for now as a bad puzzle.

For what it’s worth, that is in my opinion by far the worst puzzle in the game. That’s as bad as it gets.

So far, I agree with you. If I can figure out what I was thinking, I’ll let you know if I think it was a good idea or not. But right now, it seems kind of stupid. I probably only solved it because I have some trace memory of giving somebody a fig. But maybe I would have figured it out.

Giving him the fig isn’t the part that’s so problematic. The problem area is figuring out which of the veils to wear while you’re doing it. There’s one woman he’s having the affair with; you have to be wearing her veil. The very subtle clue tells you which woman’s veil you have to steal.

The puzzle’s only saving grace is that you can turn it into a save-and-restore puzzle, trying each veil in succession. But if you try the wrong veil — and there are six possibilities, so your first choice most likely will not be the right one — the game doesn’t give you any sign that you’re on the right track but just have the wrong veil. So, you’re likely to try something else rather than plow through all six veils by brute force.

Yeah. The only thing I can say in self-defense is that once you’re in there with the harem, you can’t escape back out until you solve the puzzle. Thank God for that! Otherwise, you’d think you had to go out and find some object. Any time I put a player in that kind of situation, it’s a strong indication that the puzzle is solvable from there. If they’re trapped somewhere, there should be a way out.

But I’ll try to figure it out, then we can talk more about it. There’s got to be some relation between what he’s wearing and which of the wives it is, but it certainly wasn’t obvious to me. I definitely brute-forced it.

Well, you’re on the right track.

That’s about all the questions I can ask you today without spoiling anything for you. Shall we reconvene in a week or so?

That sounds good. I’ve made pretty good progress with my lawn-mowering. My sense is that another several hours should do it.


Part 2: A triumphant Bob Bates celebrates having corrected the time stream — and without hints, as he is at pains to emphasize…

So! You finished, huh?

Yes, I finished.

Congratulations!

Thank you! And I’m happy to say that I finished without hints — mostly because I would have been horrifically embarrassed otherwise. But it was a close call. There were a couple of times I thought I was totally hosed. It was really only knowing myself that led me to the endgame. Here were all these places, and there were some that I’d blocked off, like modern-day Mexico. I’d obviously blocked them off because I didn’t want the player to go there and have nothing to do, which implied that there was something to do in every other place. And I knew I was missing a message. So, I thought, the way to attack this was to find a spot where nothing had happened and to pay really close attention.

That’s how I found the breeze in the Mexican temple — although if I’d been really on the ball I would have found it earlier. In that location in a previous time period, I’d noticed a place with reinforced walls. I should have marked that as an important spot. But then there was an interim time period where you could go to that spot and the passage up wasn’t there. That seems wrong. If they had planned it from the start with reinforced walls, that passage should have been there by the time they finished the temple. A minor point.

There were two puzzles in the game that I really didn’t care for. One we already discussed, but we should maybe discuss it a bit more now. That was of course the business in the harem. Did you ever work out where the missing clue was for that puzzle?

No, I didn’t have the time. I spent way too much time on solving the rest of the game. I thought that if I went back and looked carefully there would be some clue. I thought this even when I first encountered it. There must be something that the vizier does that creates a connection to one of the colors.

Okay. Let me try to remember and explain how this worked. Each woman in the harem is of course wearing a veil of a different color. If you lie on the divan there, they all come together to give you a massage — which sounds like something from a Spellcasting game rather than Timequest, but there you go.

Oh!

Did you not do that?

I did not.

Okay. Each woman massages a different body part.

I remember that! As soon as you mentioned the massage, I thought to myself that everyone would take a different body part.

You have to make note of what color goes with what body part.

Sure.

Oh, boy. I had this in my head ten days ago. Isn’t the vizier wearing some gloves?

He is.

And the gloves… I think they’re green?

I thought they were yellow…

Okay, that could be. But the woman that massaged your hands was wearing the same color as the vizier’s gloves. So you have to make a connection — which doesn’t really make a lot of sense — between the colors the women are wearing and the colors the vizier is wearing.

I thought it had something to do with the purple slipper. I ended up going through the entire game carrying a purple slipper.

Let me look in the hint book…

Okay, the gloves are actually green. The answer starts by saying, “This is pretty complicated”; the hint-book author must have been sneaking in a little design commentary. “The guilty wife is the one whose color matches the color of the piece of the vizier’s clothing that he wears on the part of the body she is massaging.” So, the vizier is described as dressed like a peacock, with all these different colors. If you compare the color of the woman who massages each body part to the color of that same body part on his clothing, the only one that matches is the hands with the green gloves. That’s the clue.

I’ll tell you what I think the problem with this puzzle is. I assumed that all players would lie on the divan — which, by the way, you can’t even call a “couch” or “bed” in the game. It’s the same problem as assuming that players will talk to all the characters, which is a huge problem in this game. Maybe in that era of game-making and game-playing you could assume that everybody would talk to every character, but I wouldn’t assume that today.

But once somebody lies on the divan, I’m not so upset with this puzzle. The words are very clear: “Each woman massages a different part of your body.” And when you look at one of them: “She’s covered from head to toe in a green veil. She is massaging your wrists and hands with a firm but feminine touch.” Once you’ve got all the women so specifically linked to a color and so specifically linked to a body part, then when you look at the picture of the vizier wearing colors that are so vivid and weird and out of place…

Well, I shouldn’t defend the puzzle, but I think the problem is not the connection between the colors. It’s needing the player to lie on the divan in the first place.

When I played I did lie on the divan, but I was nevertheless stumped by it. Some games deal in a very surreal or abstract sort of logic, but Timequest isn’t one of those games; it’s quite grounded. There’s usually very practical reasoning behind the puzzles. I don’t want to use the word “realistic” because it’s obviously not terribly realistic. But there’s a certain physicality to the logic. But this puzzle doesn’t have that sort of real-world logic behind it. Why should the woman wearing the color that corresponds with what the vizier is wearing on her favorite body part suddenly be the one who’s having the affair with him? It just strikes me as very obscure, and doesn’t fit with the style of the other puzzles in the game.

Yeah, I can see that. I’m sure my thinking was that the vizier and the woman wanted a secret way to signal to each other — a secret message between lovers. “We are aligned.” But yes, that’s too obscure.

The problem, then, is maybe that that doesn’t come through to the player. That happens sometimes to writers of adventure games. They have something in their head, but they don’t realize it’s not actually in the game — only in their head.

Yes. I would say that’s entirely accurate. There’s nothing that describes the color choice as a secret signal. Nothing leads you in that direction. I get that. It’s not well-constructed — and not well-explained afterwards.

Yeah, there’s only meta-logic or game logic to it. No real-world logic.

Yeah. The sultan could have said something like, “I’m sure these people have a way of signaling each other.” But that’s just not here.

When I was taking notes about the game, I said about this puzzle that it seemed like you just got a little bit too cute. You took things one level further than they needed to go. I think there’s the makings a really good puzzle there, but it’s just a little bit too obscure.

I’d say it’s not well-grounded, which is kind of what you said before. And not well-communicated.

I’m astonished with this game, actually. One of the things I believe today, and thought I always believed, is that you should be able to figure out a good, fair puzzle without having to die to get information about it. Restore puzzles are bad! Well, my God… this game violates that principle up, down, left, and right. I’m really surprised at it.

The other puzzle I thought could have used a bit more of a nudge was the one that leads you into the endgame. You collect all these messages, then you have to arrange them in the order of the number that’s included in one way or another in each one, and then you have to take the first letter of each to learn the password to enter the endgame. As far as I know, nothing ever said that this was some sort of cryptographic puzzle. I was left at a loss. I had solved the whole game excepting the endgame, and I knew I had just one location left which I hadn’t done anything in, and I knew I needed a password of some sort there. And I knew all that had to involve these messages in some way. But it never really occurred to me to look at them in that way — to ask how I could find a secret message in them. I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad a puzzle as the harem puzzle, but that was the other place where I got stuck and had to go to the hints. Then all I needed was the nudge telling me there was a secret message hidden in there. As soon as I had that nudge, I figured it out quite quickly. I thought that nudge could maybe have been in the game proper without hurting things.

There actually is a nudge. It’s pretty subtle, and I won’t really defend it, but it is there. The sixth message to me, when I read it, leaped off the page like a trumpet call: “Numbers are important when you have no sixth sense and everything seems out of order.”

Okay. I did arrange them all in the correct order before I got the hint. But it never occurred to me to read the first character of each message.

Yeah. To any doer of British crosswords, this would have been second nature. To me, as soon as I knew there were many messages and that they were important, it was pretty clear what I needed to do.

One thing I’ve always hated in adventure games is riddles.

You and me both!

The reason I hate riddles is that you either get it or you don’t, and there’s no middle ground. If you don’t get it, it’s like a door slammed in your face. Your reaction to this strikes me as “riddleish.” Why should I look at the first letter? If I don’t know to do that, then I just don’t know to do that. And there’s nothing that tells you. The sixth clue says to put the messages in order. It would be good if something here said something like, “The thing that comes first is the most important.” It’s a case of a designer thinking that what he knows is known by everybody. The waters that I swim in are these kinds of puzzles. I stand guilty as charged of thinking something was obvious when it wasn’t.

It’s perhaps similar to the harem puzzle in that it feels kind of divorced from the game’s world, kind of abstract.

Well, I don’t agree with that totally. Clearly Zeke is taunting you, clearly he’s sending you messages, testing you. He’s challenging you to figure them out.

One interesting thing is that you can figure it out even if you don’t have all the messages. When I was missing the 17th message, I had “ZEKE IN TOWER, SAY E_ST.” Pretty clearly the password is “east.”

Yeah, I think that’s kind of a nice aspect of this puzzle. If you went through the whole game and somehow missed a few messages, you could still solve the puzzle and win the game.

Anyway, I liked the endgame proper a lot. Do you have any comments on that aspect of the game?

It seems to me that near the end of the game there should be a hard puzzle, kind of a capstone. In Timequest, that turned out to be what I think of as this nice little figure-eight, going backwards and forwards in time. It was difficult enough that I had to sit down and write it all out. It’s totally a restore puzzle, which is horrible. But it was difficult but it was nice.

Yeah. There is a difference, which many adventure-game designers fail to understand, between a fair but difficult puzzle and an unfair puzzle. Your final puzzle was difficult, but it was fair and satisfying to solve.

The final thing I’d like to talk about, that bothered me a little bit about the game, has nothing to do with the puzzles or even the design per se. I felt the game was a little lacking in atmosphere. Everybody that you meet, except I think for the people in Dover, speak a very flat, neutral American dialect of English. I think it was explained somewhere that you had some sort of translation technology, but in a lot of locations I just never felt much of a sense of place or even sense of history. This is something we kind of touched on last time we talked; the places that do that best tend to be the European locations. Rome was the best at it. Dover was pretty good too, although it was a little odd that they were talking in a sort of Cockney dialect in 1361 BC. And the pub there never changed, which could of course be read as a commentary on the nature of British pub life.

But some of the text in general…well,  I say this because I’ve played your other games, and know you can write better descriptions than some of what is here. For instance, I’m looking at a screenshot here from the bedroom above the tavern in Dover in 1588 AD: “This is the tavern’s east bedroom. It seems to be a clean and comfortable room with a hardwood floor and a spacious bed. Despite this, there appears to be a leak in the ceiling which has stained the wall.” Why are we using these imprecise weasel verbs like “seems”? If I’m standing in a room looking around, does it “seem” to be clean and comfortable? Wouldn’t I know whether it’s clean and comfortable? Why does there “appear” to be a leak in the ceiling? Again, wouldn’t I know? I feel like the writing is generally stronger in your other games.

I think it’s basically a matter of skill — or a lack thereof — that breaks down into a couple of areas.

I just finished writing a novel that I started in 1995. One of the reasons it took so long to write — apart from the fact that there were big swathes of time when I had to set it aside — is that I’d send a rough draft to a reader, and they’d say, “It’s interesting, but I had some problems with it.” Two things I had to learn how to do over time.

One is exactly what you’re talking about: a sense of place. In the novel, I’d have a scene that might say, “So-and-so walks to the back of the church, kneels down, and starts to pray.” And then I’d go on from there. Readers would ask, “But what is the church like?” You know… it’s a church! Everybody knows what a church is like! It was only after being beaten over the head by many readers over a period of many years that I accepted that you have to describe the environment for the reader in such a way that they can picture it in their own mind. This was a problem for me because I don’t get pictures in my mind when I’m reading other people’s stuff. The author goes to great lengths to describe the environment, and I say, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m in a church.” I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me because I’m plot-driven.

So, as a creator, I didn’t think it was worth spending time on. But I learned that I had to say that it’s a dark church with the light filtering down from a window high on the wall, and you can see the dust motes in the air, and you can smell the incense, and you can hear the echoing footsteps, and so on. I think, okay, what can I do for sight? What can I do for sound? What can I do for smell? What can I do for touch? I run down this list. That’s something that took me years and years to learn how to do. Timequest was made well before I learned that lesson. And there are further lessons to be learned. One reader recently noted that I give sensual information, which is great, but I never interpret what it means to the character. Does he remember when he was a child in church? That’s a level of sophistication I haven’t yet gotten to. It’s a huge flaw in my writing, and certainly in the period of time of Timequest.

In Timequest, my goal was to impart the information the player needed to solve the puzzle. My first writing hero was E.B. White with his Elements of Style. Never put in a word that’s redundant or unnecessary.

When I was writing my game, I was very nervous about describing things too much because anything I described I had to implement.

Exactly! You say, “There’s a red wall here.” The player types, “look at red wall,” and gets back, “You don’t see any red wall here.” So, you say instead, “The room is the color of blood.” Anything to avoid having to implement an object that the player can try to interact with.

It’s a huge problem, and it’s made even worse in a game like Timequest with pictures. Then you have what I call the “farging artist problem.” The artist draws a window with curtains and pictures on the walls…

… and then everyone tries to “examine curtains.”

Exactly. So, you find yourself having to do a bunch of handling that you don’t want to do.

But that was just the first of your criticisms of the writing. The second one is also spot-on. During the last round of revisions of the novel, I realized that everybody in it sounded the same. That’s exactly what you just said about Timequest, and it’s entirely accurate. Maybe there are a couple of spots where I managed to give people a characteristic speaking style, but I’ll bet you that the priests in Mexico probably sound exactly the same as the Chinese emperors, who sound exactly the same as the Baghdad sultan. They probably all have the same freaking voice, which is this kind of pseudo-fantasy, formalized diction: “Here it is that I will go!” “I say this to you!” Again, it comes back to skill. I didn’t have the skill as a writer at that time in my life to even know that this was an issue.

Fair enough. The writing accomplishes what it needs to. It tells you everything you need to know, succeeds very well on a practical, game-playing level. But I could have used a little bit more of a sense of place and history. You don’t get as much of that as you maybe could.

Yeah. The history is present, but in a pretty unsatisfactory way. When you first come out in a new place, there’s a little lump of text which tells you what’s happened in this place since the last time period. Rome has fallen and is in disrepair, or the Mongols have taken over. There is that little paragraph to set the historical context.

But that’s telling, and I think the game needed a little bit more showing. The old cliché of creative writing that you always show and never tell isn’t really true, but you do have to have a balance.

But I think I’ve hit you with more than enough complaints by now. I don’t have too much else. Is there anything else you have to say about Timequest before we wrap up?

I guess I would just say that I tried.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the game is a disaster or anything…

No, I understand.

For every game I did at Legend, I remember feeling as we came down to the end that it was ripped out of my hands. There was always more that I wanted to do. But at the end it was always, “Bob, you have to stop. Step away from the keyboard!”

I think every game developer knows that feeling.

Yeah. I hauled out my time sheets from that period. There are some where I get to the office at 6:00 in the morning, leave at 8:00 the following morning. There’s this saying that an artist never finishes a painting, he only abandons it. That makes sense to me. The game isn’t done; you just have to stop.

We could say the same about this discussion, but it’s probably time to wrap it up. Thanks so much for doing this!

You’re more than welcome. And remember, point of pride: I solved it without hints!

I’m glad you’ll review the game before you share this conversation. There’s the thing as it stands, on its own, in the world. And then there’s something completely different: what was the guy trying to do, what did he have in mind, what did other people think, etc. Those are separate things.

Yeah, the criticism and the history.

Right. But thanks for your interest in it! And thanks for all the work you’re doing in this field.

And let’s see here… “Feel the wall”: “It feels just like you imagined a wall would feel.”

Well, at least it’s implemented.

Yeah! There you go!


You can download a copy of Timequest ready for playing under DOSBox from right here. And be sure to check out Bob Bates’s latest adventure Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way, a game guaranteed to be free of weasel verbs, die-and-restore puzzles, and weird fixations with the fashion accoutrements of ninth-century Baghdad.


  1. Zeke Vettenmyer is the guy we’re chasing, the one who’s mucked up the time stream. The showdown with him will come in the endgame. 

  2. Bob has hit upon the solution already. Each of the 19 messages has a number embedded within it in some fashion, from “Zeke is number one!” to “This is the last message I will leave you in the nineteen-hundreds.” First, you have to arrange the messages in numerical order; then, you have to read down the first letter of each message to learn the password to the endgame area. Bob and I will discuss this puzzle at more length — including why I don’t like it all that much — in our second chat. 

  3. The game just tells you that you can’t go there. 

  4. The sultan’s vizier is suspected of having an affair with one of the wives in the sultan’s harem, and you’ve been charged with figuring out the facts of the case. The vizier is wearing a near-rainbow of colors on his person, while each of the six wives wears a veil corresponding to one of the colors he’s wearing. You need to disguise yourself in the veil of the wife with whom he’s having an affair, then go to him and give him a fig to signal a secret rendezvous later that night, thus setting up a chance for you to catch the two of them in flagrante delicto. That’s the easy part. The hard part is identifying which of the six veils to wear — i.e., identifying which is the wife he’s having the affair with before you actually catch them in the act.

    There are two ways to “solve” this problem. Bob, and by all indications the vast majority of people who’ve ever played the game, treated it as a trial-and-error puzzle and brute-forced it, trying each veil in succession and restoring if it’s the wrong one. (Thank the stars it’s not randomized!) The “correct” solution is to lie on a divan in the area, whereupon all six women will give you a simultaneous massage, each choosing a different body part. (Hey, you… get your mind out of the gutter!) Only one wife is wearing a veil which corresponds to the color the vizier is wearing on her favored body part. She’s the guilty one. Why should this be? Well, we get into that very pertinent question later in the conversation… 

 
 

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The Spellcasting Series (or, How Much Ernie Eaglebeak is Too Much Ernie Eaglebeak?)

In an earlier article, I described Steve Meretzky during his peak years at Infocom as “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.” But his talents encompassed more than just good puzzle design. As an Infocom Imp, he had the unique gift of taking potentially hackneyed or just plain dumb premises and making them subtly, subversively smart. Who would have expected Leather Goddesses of Phobos, his ribald low-brow sex romp, to prove so clever and joyous and downright life-affirming? Who would have expected Stationfall, on its face the most rote sequel Infocom ever made — “Bring back Floyd!” had shouted the masses, and Meretzky had obliged — to turn gradually and without any warning whatsoever into the creepiest, most oppressive game in their canon?

It’s because I know what he’s capable of at his best that I’ve always found Meretzky’s post-Infocom career a little disappointing. He did make good games after Infocom, but his track record from those years was far more mixed. During the 1990s, his dumb premises too often lacked the requisite touch of smarts to leaven the brew, and some of his design genius seemed to desert him. And sadly, his disappointments often smacked not of aiming too high, as he arguably had with his flawed would-be Infocom masterpiece A Mind Forever Voyaging, but rather from aiming too low, from being content to wallow in his established persona as a maker of wacky adventure games without adding that subversive spice that had elevated games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Stationfall to more interesting heights. Seen from this standpoint, his very first game after Infocom’s shuttering, Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, while a perfectly serviceable wacky adventure game in its own right, does rather portend the less inspiring phase of his career that was now beginning.

That said, when removed from the context of the games Meretzky was still to make, and particularly from that of the direct sequels to this game that were to follow, Spellcasting 101 is hardly a crime against adventure gaming. In fact, it was a wise if safe choice of a game to mark Legend Entertainment’s debut as a company and Meretzky’s as a freelance game designer. I already laid out the reasons for that in my last article: Steve Meretzky was well-known for his wacky comedy adventures; his Leather Goddesses of Phobos had been Infocom’s last big hit; Sex Sells in the abstract. Ergo Spellcasting 101. The first release of this very fragile new company was not the time to take too many artistic chances.

Spellcasting 101, then, finds Steve Meretzky sitting very comfortably in his wheelhouse, mixing unabashedly dumb humor — I might use the adjective “sophomoric,” but perhaps I should reserve that for the sequel Spellcasting 201 — with smart puzzles. You play Ernie Eaglebeak, the latest in adventure gaming’s long line of loser protagonists. He’s in love with a hot little number named Lola Tigerbelly, and dreams of going off to Sorcerer University to study magic, but, in a sex-reversed version of the Cinderella story, is prevented from doing either of these things (sorry!) by Joey Rottenwood, his evil stepfather. (With a name like that, I think old Joey should have been fronting a punk-rock band, but what do I know?) In the prologue, you in the role of Ernie defy your stepfather’s wishes in the matter of your education at least by sneaking off to Sorcerer University after your acceptance letter arrives in the mail.

The game’s a little more risque than Leather Goddesses of Phobos, not least in that it now has pictures, but it’s still the sort of thing that only the most hormone-addled teenager is likely to find genuinely titillating; the sex is still very much played for laughs, not for, shall we say, self-gratification. Bob Bates of Legend had a rule of thumb for deciding what was and wasn’t acceptable to portray in the pictures. It’s best described as the “Playboy cover test”: anything that might appear on the cover — not the inside pages — of a Playboy magazine was okay. Like Leather Goddesses and its own two sequels, Spellcasting 101 does let you play in “nice” or “naughty” mode. Indeed, some of the most amusing gags in the games come if you choose to become one of the approximately one percent of players who don’t immediately switch to “naughty” mode. Suddenly nights of passion are replaced by, say, a night spent playing gin rummy. (Any resemblance to my marriage after eight and a half blissful years is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.)

One could wish that Meretzky had been able to let the player play as a female, as he had in Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but the need to depict so much of what happens visually, along with a more complicated plot and a more fleshed-out protagonist, precluded that possibility. The enforced male gaze does open the games up to a charge of sexism that it’s pointless to even try to refute. (Just look at those box covers and screenshots!) I suppose one could try to argue that the Spellcasting series is really making fun of the males doing all the leering, in the style of the Leisure Suit Larry series, but the humor doesn’t even have as much edge as those games, making it hard to regard it as satire. In the Spellcasting games’ defense, however, it’s all so over the top that it’s also hard for me at least to take any of it seriously enough to work up much outrage. Certainly Legend got little to no backlash from offended consumers, leaving Steve Meretzky’s wish to author a truly controversial game, which had burned since his stridently anti-Reagan effort A Mind Forever Voyaging back in 1985, still unrealized.

The explicit political statement that opened Leather Goddesses of Phobos felt bracing in its time, but the constant back-patting and referencing of notable contemporary culture warriors in the Spellcasting games gets to be a bit much. We get it, Steve, you’re a real rebel against the Establishment with your wacky adventure games.

The humor in general is a little hit and miss. Where the first Spellcasting game in particular really shines, however, is the puzzle design — which, it must be said, is sometimes inseparable from the humor, and therein lies much of its brilliance. Many of the puzzles rely on wordplay, such as the unexpected use of a spell to “increase bust size.” In fact, there’s an entire extended sequence, “The Island of Lost Soles,” built around a premise that would have suited Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It perfectly. The inhabitants of the titular island have been entrapped within the various objects there. So, for example, “Blaize” is now trapped inside a campfire on the beach, and can be released only by casting a spell to “restore lost souls” on his true name. The usual problem with puzzles like this — and certainly the big problem with the should-have-been-a-classic Nord and Bert — is that they rely so much on the player’s native vocabulary and intuition. There are going to be some connections that even the most gifted player in both categories will simply never make, leaving her wandering hopelessly stuck. Spellcasting 101 solves that problem with a stroke of genius that’s disarmingly simple. Once you’ve wandered for a given amount of time without making further progress, a “hint fairy” will show up, saying something like “Have you seen Blaize around here?” With an actual name now to hand, you can search the island again, looking for the right object to which to apply it. Thereby does the game preserve the joy of making spontaneous intuitive connections without ever allowing you to get hopelessly hung up on those connections you can’t make. This, my friends, is what good design looks like.

Indeed, there’s a lot of attention paid in Spellcasting 101, as there would be in most of Legend’s later games to an even greater extent, to treating the player fairly. Even the combinatorial-explosion problem that made so frustrating Zork Zero, Meretzky’s final epic for Infocom, is addressed here by dividing the game into manageable chapters, each with its own discrete set of goals. Granted, some of the chapters are time-based, requiring you to plan your efforts around a constantly ticking clock. Solving these parts requires a fair amount of trial and error — i.e., figuring out what needs to be done over the course of several passes through a given chapter, then making a plan and bringing it all together via a final speed run. You will, in other words, be saving and restoring quite a lot despite the absence of more egregious design sins. Still, it should also be noted that Spellcasting 101‘s two sequels are much bigger sinners in this department. For long stretches of Spellcasting 101, the ticking clock disappears — something that most definitely can’t be said about the sequels.

So, this first Legend adventure game ever evinces a clear desire to be welcoming and accessible, if necessary at the expense of the sort of really intricate puzzles beloved by some of Infocom’s more hardcore disciples. Suffice to say that it’s a long, long way from the enormous, complicated, bafflingly non-linear Zork Zero. Kudos to Steve Meretzky, who was known to complain during Infocom’s latter days that their games were getting too easy, for recognizing the role his latest game needed to play in getting Legend off the ground, and for adjusting his design to suit the circumstances. Making due accommodation for the fact that this style of humor will never be to everyone’s taste, if there’s a holistic complaint to be leveled against the design it’s probably that the whole thing is just a little schizophrenic. What seems like it’s going to be a game about life at Sorcerer University suddenly transforms just as you’re settling into it into a series of vignettes, played on islands scattered all over the Fizzbuttle Ocean, that could have come from almost any adventure game. The Island of Lost Soles is a prime case in point: delightful as I find it on its own merits, it has nothing really to do with any other part of the game that houses it beyond yielding when all is said and done the requisite piece of the magical whatsit you’re trying to collect. The other island vignettes are less extended but equally isolated from one another and from the overarching plot of the game as a whole. Luckily, they’re all entertaining enough that the objection becomes more philosophical than impedimentary.

Call me overly sensitive if you must, but this scene from Spellcasting 201 is one of those that creeps me out just a bit. It also illustrates one of the inconsistencies in the series’s writing. Ernie Eaglebeak is the classic put-upon nerdy loser who couldn’t buy a date — until it’s time to score, whereupon all the sexy ladies suddenly have the hots for him.

Spellcasting 201: The Sorcerer’s Appliance, Meretzky’s 1991 sequel, does fix this problem; the entire game now takes place inside the confines of a greatly expanded Sorcerer University. (The extended map is explained as the result of “an extensive campus renovation and expansion program.”) Now in his sophomore year, Ernie will need to save the world entirely from within the confines of the university and its immediate environs this time, in between attending classes and pledging to the fraternity Hu Delta Phart — whose name, along with those of its companion fraternities Tappa Kegga Bru, I Phelta Thi, and Gramma Eta Pi, gives a pretty good idea of the sort of humor you’ll find in these games, for anyone still in doubt.

Unfortunately, the previous game’s focus on playability and accessibly falls by the wayside. In Spellcasting 201, which is divided into chapters each representing one day, you’re the constant slave of a ticking clock that runs in increments of no less than five full minutes per turn. (Ernie, it appears, may be not just slothful but a genuine sloth.) While none of the puzzle solutions are out-of-left-field howlers, they do often require lots of trial and error. And thanks to that ticking clock, trial and error in this context means save and restore, again and again and again. As your collection of save files mounts, you also have to contend with a strict inventory limit that forces you to juggle objects in just the right way as you go about each day.

Some of the puzzles seem almost consciously engineered to be as annoying as possible, as if Meretzky has forgotten the lesson, long since taken to heart by his old peers at Infocom, that annoying the player in the name of comedy is seldom a good design strategy. Perhaps the worst offender of all is a magical musical instrument called a moodhorn, whose proper operation also serves as part of the game’s copy protection. You can play moodhorn compositions that are found in a music book that accompanies the game to affect the mood of the people around you — songs like “Happiness Interlude,” “Fear,” “Drippingtreesap’s Love Theme No. 15,” and “Winter Cold.” It sounds fun enough in theory, with, in the best tradition of the Enchanter series that did so much to inspire the Spellcasting games, lots of opportunities for Easter eggs even where puzzles solutions aren’t forthcoming. In practice, however, it’s just excruciating. Each song requires entering a series of six commands for manipulating the moodhorn, typing things like “vomp plunger,” “trib high glupp key,” and “oscilloop half burm lever” one after another in sequence. Because the moodhorn seems like it ought to be useful in many situations, you’ll likely spend much of the game wandering around trying out the twelve separate compositions listed in the music book, looking for the one place where the moodhorn actually is useful. Have I mentioned how excruciating this is? Just to add the final dollop of absurdity to the exercise, the ticking clock means that every moodhorn composition requires fully thirty precious minutes to play. (Even Yes albums don’t have songs that long!)

Legend stepped up to VGA graphics with Spellcasting 301, but the girls continue to look like they were assembled from mismatched spare parts left over after making other girls.

The series wobbled to its anticlimactic close with 1992’s Spellcasting 301: Spring Break, in which Ernie and his fraternity buddies head for the beach. The ticking clock remains and is as annoying as ever, although this time you are granted the mercy of being able to leave some tasks incomplete and still finish the game, albeit at a cost to your final score. Otherwise, the pleasures and pains are largely the same as those of the second game. The one immediately obvious difference is that the pictures, including all those babes that never seem to be put together quite the way real women are, are now in 256-color VGA rather than 16-color EGA. Given how much of a piece the Spellcasting games — particularly the last two — really are, I’d like to use the remainder of this article to try to understand what went so wrong with the series as a whole rather than to dwell on the details of Spellcasting 301‘s individual failings.

If we’re looking for someone to blame for the Spellcasting series’s problems — besides poor Steve Meretzky, that is — our first  candidate has to be Ernie Eaglebeak, the hapless loser you’re forced to play in all three games. Simply put, he’s a horrid little twerp, the sort of kid that you want to drag down to the beach just so you can personally kick some sand in his face. Worse, he’s such a thoroughly uninteresting horrid little twerp. Even as odious adventure-game losers go, he’s no Leisure Suit Larry. And as Ernie Eaglebeak goes, so goes the rest of the cast of bimbos, dirty old men, and fraternity bro-dudes. The most sympathetic character in the series, a dottering old professor by the name of Otto Tickingclock, gets cuckolded and then accidentally killed by Ernie, who cares not a whit. There’s precious little warmth or joy to be found herein. It’s baffling to think that these games were written by the man who gave us Floyd, the first character in a text adventure that we ever really cared about. The death knell for any piece of fiction, interactive or otherwise, comes with the opposite reaction, when the reader says, “I really don’t care what happens to these people.” It’s hard to imagine anyone invested enough in Ernie Eaglebeak to give a damn about him.

As fiction, then, the Spellcasting series has its problems. Ditto as comedy. Various Implementors who worked at Infocom, as well as many commentators over the decades since, have described the strict limitations imposed by Infocom’s original 128 K Z-Machine as a counter-intuitive benefit to their games in that it forced authors to hone their works down to polished jewels, excising all of the weaker bits, retaining only the very strongest material. I’ve always been and to some extent remain a little skeptical of this thesis; as I’ve stated in previous articles, I think that some of the latter-day Infocom games in particular were trying to do a little too much in too small a space, and could have really used a few more kilobytes at their disposal. That said, the Spellcasting series makes a very strong counterargument for the value of restraint, stringently enforced if need be. With a system to hand for the first time that supported effectively unlimited amounts of text, Meretzky felt free to write… and write… and write. Some of the gags go on forever, to little if any comedic payoff. At Infocom, all this material would have been ruthlessly pared down by Meretzky’s fellow Imps and the testers, leaving only the genuinely funny bits behind. In this new order, however, it all just lies there on the screen, limp and lifeless as the comatose girl Ernie crawls into bed with in one of the series’s squickier episodes.

Cringe-worthy meta-textual comments like this one from Spellcasting 201 were par for the course in amateur AGT text adventures of the time, but they’re a little disconcerting to see in a $40 boxed commercial game. This sort of lazy writing would never have made it out of the first round of testing at Infocom.

Having broached the subject of Infocom’s working methods versus those Meretzky would utilize as an independent designer, I’d like to continue to follow that line of thought, for I think it might just lead us to the core reason that the Spellcasting series and so much of Meretzky’s other post-Infocom work pales in comparison to his earlier classics. Even after he became Infocom’s most famous Imp, Meretzky remained just one member of a creative collective which had the willingness and ultimately the authority to restrain his more questionable design impulses. This was the well-honed Infocom process for making great adventure games in action. I think that Meretzky needed that process — or at least a process involving lots of checks and balances — in order to turn out his best work. Legend did try as much as possible to duplicate the Infocom process for making games, even going so far as getting a number of former Infocom employees to help out as testers, but, being a much smaller, decentralized operation, was never able to duplicate the spirited to-and-fro on questions of writing and design that did so much for all of the Infocom Imps’ work. For Steve Meretzky, working hundreds of miles away and accorded a certain untouchable status as Legend’s star designer, the proof of the consequences is in the Spellcasting pudding. I’d like to quote from a recent discussion I had with Bob Bates, in which I asked him his own opinion of the ticking clock and the various other retrograde elements found in the Spellcasting games.

I was never really a fan of a ticking clock. For me personally, the fun of these games comes in the exploration. It comes often not in the solution to the puzzle, but in all the things you discover while you’re trying to solve the puzzle. As a designer, I try to entertain the player during that time, and to encourage the player to try offbeat stuff. Ninety percent of what a player does in an adventure game is wrong. You have to entertain them during that ninety percent in order for them to get the joy of the ten percent that’s actual puzzle-solving. So, I’m not a fan of the time-restricted thing in the same way that I’m not a fan of limiting what the player can carry, making him have to stop and think about swapping things in and out of his inventory. It doesn’t appeal to me as a player or a designer, but other people are different. With Steve, what you’re probably seeing is a designer choice rather than a company choice.

Bob Bates confirmed that Meretzky, as Legend’s star designer, was afforded lots of freedom to make exactly “the game he wanted to make” — freedom which was not afforded to any of the in-house teams who made Legend’s other games, who were expected to hew closely to the more progressive design philosophy Bob outlines above. There’s an important lesson here — important not just in the context of Meretzky’s career, or the history of the adventure game, or even in the context of game design in general. It’s rather an important lesson for all creators, and for those who would nurture them.

I would submit that allowing Meretzky to make exactly the games he wanted to make was in the end greatly to said games’ detriment. I say this not because Steve Meretzky was an egomaniac, was unusually headstrong, or was ever anything other than a very nice, funny, personable, honest fellow who positively oozed with creativity. I say it because Steve Meretzky was human, and creative humans need other humans to push back against them from time to time. I suspect that many of you could name an author or two who used to write taut, compelling books, until they got big enough that no one felt empowered to edit them anymore. Ditto for music; how many once-great bands have tarnished their image with lazy, filler-laden latter-day albums? Game designers are no different from other creative professionals in this respect. Meretzky needed someone to tell him, “Hey, Steve, this aspect of the game is more annoying than fun,” or “Hey, Steve, this huge text dump doesn’t really say much of anything interesting or funny,” or “Hey, Steve, can’t you do something to make this Ernie twerp a bit less odious?”

If the Spellcasting games on the one hand reflect the lack of a sufficiently rigorous design process, on the other they reflect a certain failure of ambition on the part of their creator. Steve Meretzky was a very practical guy at heart, and seems to have taken a strong lesson from the commercial disappointment that had been A Mind Forever Voyaging. He continued to dream grander dreams than the likes of Ernie Eaglebeak and Sorcerer University, but he never pushed hard enough to make his dreams into actualities. The legendary lost Meretzky game, which he broached so many times that it’s become a sort of in-joke among a whole swathe of industry old-timers, was an historical epic taking place on the Titanic‘s one and only voyage. Bob Bates admits that he didn’t want Meretzky to make this game for Legend. Since, as he put it, “everyone knows how that story ends,” he believed there was little commercial appeal to the idea, an opinion which is cast in a very questionable light by the massive success of the James Cameron movie on the same subject of a few years later. What might have been had Mereztky stuck to his guns and brazened out the chance to make this grander vision? It strikes me as unlikely that anyone today would be saying, “Gee, that Titanic game was okay, but I sure would have liked some more Ernie Eaglebeak instead.”

The irony of the Spellcasting series is that these dissipated games did as much to dissipate whatever commercial momentum the newly independent Meretzky had as surely as might have a more ambitious concept. Sales of the Spellcasting games dropped off markedly after the first sold more than 50,000 copies as Legend’s very first product. The dwindling sales doubtless constitute much of the reason that a planned fourth game, Spellcasting 401: The Graduation Ball, was never made. Few regretted its absence overmuch. Between the Spellcasting games and the downright embarrassing Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, a half-assed graphic adventure he designed for the bankrupt Activision, Meretzky began his career as an independent game designer by ghettoizing himself as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” for years to come.

Ah, well… might-have-beens will always bloom eternal, won’t they? The first Spellcasting game at least can be a lot of fun, and perhaps comes off worse than is really fair here when I place it in the context of the increasingly dispiriting series as a whole. And I do want to note that I uniformly enjoy all of the other Legend text adventures much more than I do Spellcasting 201 and Spellcasting 301. I look forward to having more positive articles to write about them in the future.

The Legend games must still be played as they were originally delivered, as standalone programs running on an old MS-DOS computer or in an MS-DOS emulator, while the games of Infocom and many other earlier text-adventure publishers are much easier to get running thanks to modern interpreters for same. This relative inaccessibility has done much to keep the Legend games from being played as much as they deserve to be. While Bob Bates no longer owns the rights to the Legend games and thus cannot give official permission to host them, he has said that he doesn’t personally object if I do so. So, feel free to download Spellcasting 101Spellcasting 201, and Spellcasting 301 unless and until a scary legal person says it isn’t allowed. Included in each zip files are the associated documentation/feelies and a DOSBox configuration that should work with that particular game, along with a brief note on how to get it running on your system; whether you’re running Windows, OS X, or Linux, it’s all basically the same. I hope this will make it as painless as possible to experience these heretofore hard-to-find and hard-to-get-running pieces of interactive-fiction history.

So, by all means, have a go, starting with Spellcasting 101. Who knows, maybe you’ll find I’m just a boring old stick-in-the-mud and these games are the most hilarious and delightful things ever. Stranger things have happened.

 
 

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A Time of Beginnings: Legend Entertainment (or, Bob and Mike’s Excellent Adventure-Game Company)

As the dust settled and the shock faded in the months that followed the shuttering of Infocom, most of the people who had worked there found they were able to convince themselves that they were happy it was finally over, relieved that a clean sharp break had been made. Sure, they had greeted the initial bombshell that the jig was finally up with plenty of disbelief, anger, and sadness, but the fact remained that the eighteen months before that fateful day, during which they had watched their company lose its old swagger, its very sense of itself, had been if anything even more heartbreaking. And yes, there would be plenty of second-guessing among them in the years to come about what might have been if Cornerstone had never existed or if Bruce Davis hadn’t taken over control of Mediagenic,1 but Infocom’s story did nevertheless feel like it had run its natural course, leaving behind something that all of the Bruce Davises in the world could never take away: that stellar 35-game catalog, unmatched by any game developer of Infocom’s era or any era since in literacy, thoughtfulness, and relentless creative experimentation. With that along with all of their fine memories of life inside Infocom’s offices to buoy them, the former employees could move on to the proverbial next chapter in life feeling pretty good about themselves, regarding their time at Infocom as, as historian Graham Nelson so memorably put it, “a summer romance” that had simply been too golden to stay any longer.

Yet there was at least one figure associated with Infocom who was more inclined to rage against the dying of the light than to go gentle into that good night. Bob Bates had come to the job of making text adventures, a job he enjoyed more than anything else he had ever done, just a little bit too late to share the sense of closure felt by the rest of Infocom. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t managed to accomplish anything in the field: Bob had formed a company to challenge Infocom — a company named, appropriately enough, Challenge — that wound up joining them as the only outside developer ever allowed to copy Infocom’s in-house tools and make games for them under contract. Still, it had all happened very late in the day. When all was said and done, he had the dubious distinction of having made the last all-text Infocom game ever, followed by their very last game of all. His summer romance, in other words, had started in the last week of the season, and he’d barely gotten past first base. When he returned from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his home near Washington, D.C., on the stormy evening of May 5, 1989, having just been informed by Infocom’s head Joe Ybarra that Infocom’s Cambridge offices were being closed and Challenge’s services wouldn’t be needed anymore, his brief life in text adventures just felt so incomplete. And then, he found his roof was leaking. Of course it was.

Some of Bob’s restless dissatisfaction must have come across when, after that unhappy weekend was in the past, he called up Mike Verdu to tell him he would no longer be able to employ Mark Poesch and Duane Beck, the two programmers Mike’s company had sent out to work with Challenge. A remarkably young executive even in a field that has always favored the young, Mike was only in his mid-twenties, but already had an impressive CV.  In his second year at university, he had dropped out to form a consulting company he named Paragon Systems, which had come to employ Poesch and Beck. The two had been sent to Challenge when Bob came calling on Paragon, looking for help programming the games he had just signed a contract with Infocom to create. During the period when Challenge was making games for Infocom, Mike had sold Paragon to American Systems Corporation, a computer-integration firm that did significant business with the Department of Defense. He had stayed on thereafter with the bigger company as director of one of their departments, and Poesch and Beck had continued to work with Challenge, albeit under the auspices of ASC rather than Paragon. But now that would all be coming to an end; thus Bob’s phone call to Mike to inform him that he would have to terminate Challenge’s arrangement with ASC.

In truth, Bob and Mike didn’t know each other all that well prior to this conversation. Mike had always loved games, and had loved having a game company as a client, but Challenge had always had to remain for him as, as he puts it today, “one of many.” The call that Bob now made to Mike therefore began more as a simple transaction between customer and service provider than as a shared commiseration over the downfall of Bob’s business. Still, something that Bob said must have sparked Mike’s interest. The call continued far longer than it ought to have, and soon multiplied into many more conversations. In fairly short order, the conversations led to a suggestion from Mike: let’s start a new company to make and publish text adventures in the Infocom tradition. He even believed he could convince ASC to put up the bulk of the funding for such a company.

Set aside the fact that text adventures were allegedly dying, and the timing was oddly perfect. In 1989 the dominoes were toppling all over Eastern Europe, the four-decade Cold War coming to an end with a suddenness no one could have dreamed of just a few years before. Among the few people in the West not thoroughly delighted with recent turns of events were those at companies like ASC, who were deeply involved with the Department of Defense and thus had reason to fear the “peace dividend” that must lead to budget cuts for their main client and cancelled contracts for them. ASC was eager to diversify to replace the income the budget cuts would cost them; they were making lots of small investments in lots of different industries. In light of the current situation, an investment in a computer-game company didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have a year or two before, when the Reagan defense buildup was still booming, or, for that matter, might have just a year or two later, when the Gulf War would be demonstrating that the American military would not be idle on the post-Cold War world stage.

Though they had a very motivated potential investor, the plan Bob and Mike were contemplating might seem on the face of it counter-intuitive if not hopeless to those of you who are regular readers of this blog. As I’ve spent much time describing in previous articles, the text adventure had been in commercial decline since 1985. That very spring of 1989 when Bob and Mike were starting to talk, what seemed like it had to be the final axe had fallen on the genre when Level 9 had announced they were getting out of the text-adventure business, Magnetic Scrolls had been dropped by their publisher Rainbird, and of course Infocom had been shuttered by their corporate parent Mediagenic. Yet Bob and Mike proposed to fly in the face of that gale-force wind by starting a brand new company to make text adventures. What the hell were they thinking?

I was curious enough about the answer to that question that I made it a point to ask it to both Bob and Mike when I talked to them recently. Their answers were interesting enough, and said enough about the abiding love each had and, indeed, still has for the genre of adventures in text that I want to give each of them a chance to speak for himself here. First, Mike Verdu:

I believed that there was a very hardcore niche market that would always love this type of experience. We made a bet that that niche was large enough to support a small company dedicated to serving it. The genre was amazing; it was the closest thing to the promise of combining literature and technology. The free-form interaction a player could have with the game was a magical thing. There’s just nothing else like it. So, it didn’t seem like a dying art form to me. It just seemed that there were these bigger companies that the market couldn’t support that were collapsing, and that there was room for a smart niche player that had no illusions about the market but could serve that market directly.

I will say that when Bob and I were looking for publishing partners, and went to some trade conferences — through Bob’s connections we were able to meet people like Ken and Roberta Williams and various other luminaries in the field at the time — everybody said, “You have no idea what you’re doing. The worst idea in the world is to start a game company. It’s the best way to take a big pile of money and turn it into a small pile of money. Stay away!” But Bob and I are both stubborn, and we didn’t listen.

Understanding your market opportunity is really key when you’re forming a company. With Legend, we were very clear-eyed about the fact that we were starting a small company to serve a small market. We didn’t think it would grow to be a thousand people or take over the world or sell a million units of entertainment software per year. We thought there was this amazing, passionate audience that we could serve with these lovingly crafted products, and that would be very fulfilling creatively. If you’re a creative person, I think you have to define how big the audience is that is going to make you feel fulfilled. Bob and I didn’t necessarily have aspirations to reach millions of people. We wanted to reach enough people that we could make our company viable, make a living, and create these products that we loved.

And Bob Bates:

We recognized the risk, but basically we just still believed in the uniqueness of the parser-driven experience — in the pleasure and the joy of the parser-driven experience. By then, there were no other major parser-driven games around, and we felt that point-and-click was a qualitatively different experience. It was fun, but it was different. It was restrictive in terms of what the player could do, and there was a sense of the game world closing in on you, that you could only do what could be shown. Brian Moriarty had a great quote that I don’t remember exactly, but it was something like “you can only implement what you can afford to show, and you can’t afford to show anything.” As a player, I loved the freedom to input whatever I wanted, and I loved the low cost of producing that [form of interaction]. If there’s an interesting input or interaction, and I can address it in a paragraph of text, that’s so much cheaper than having an artist spend a week drawing it. Text is cheap, so we felt we could create games economically. We felt that competition in that niche wasn’t there anymore, and that it was a fun experience that there was still a market for.

Reading between the lines just a bit here, we have a point of view that would paint the failure of Infocom more as the result of a growing mismatch between a company and its market than as an indication that it was genuinely impossible to still make a living selling text adventures. Until 1985, the fulcrum year of the company’s history, Infocom had been as mainstream as computer-game publishers got, often placing three, four, or even five titles in the overall industry top-ten sales lists each month. Their numbers had fallen off badly after that, but by 1987 they had stabilized to create a “20,000 Club”: most games released that year sold a little more or less than 20,000 copies. Taking into account the reality that every title would never appeal enough to every fan to prompt a purchase — especially given the pace at which Infocom was pumping out games that year — that meant there were perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 loyal Infocom fans who had never given up on the company or the genre. Even the shrunken Infocom of the company’s final eighteen months was too big to make a profit serving that market, which was in any case nothing Bruce Davis of Mediagenic, fixated on the mainstream as he was, had any real interest in trying to serve. A much smaller company, however, with far fewer people on the payroll and a willingness to lower its commercial expectations, might just survive and even modestly thrive there. And who knew, if they made their games really well, they might just collect another 30,000 or 40,000 new fans to join the Infocom old guard.

This wasn’t to say that Bob and Mike could afford to return to the pure text that had sufficed for 31 of Infocom’s 35 adventure games. To have any chance of attracting new players, and quite possibly to have any chance of retaining even the old Infocom fans, they were well aware that some concessions to the realities of the contemporary marketplace would have to be made. Their games would include an illustration for every location along with occasional additional graphics, sound effects, and music to break up their walls of text. Their games would, in other words, enhance the Infocom experience to suit the changing times rather than merely clone it.

In the same spirit of maximizing their text adventures’ contemporary commercial potential, they very early on secured the services of Steve Meretzky, Infocom’s single most well-known former Implementor, who had worked on some of the company’s most iconic and successful titles. With Meretzky’s first game for their company, Bob and Mike would try to capitalize on his reputation as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” — a reputation he enjoyed despite the fact that he had only written one naughty adventure game in his career to date. Nevertheless, Bob encouraged Meretzky to “take the gloves off,” to go much further than he had even in his previous naughty game Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Meretzky’s vision for his new game can perhaps be best described today as “Animal House meets Harry Potter” (although, it should be noted, this was many years before the latter was published). It would be the story of a loser who goes off to Sorcerer University to learn the art and science of magic, whilst trying his best to score with chicks along the way. Of course, this being an adventure game, he would eventually have to save the world as well, but the real point was the spells and the chicks. The former would let Meretzky revisit one of the most entertaining puzzle paradigms Infocom had ever devised: the Enchanter series’s spell book full of bizarre incantations that prove useful in all sorts of unexpected ways. The latter would give Bob and Mike a chance to prove one more time the timeless thesis that Sex Sells.

So, the Meretzky game seemed about as good as things could get as a commercially safe bet, given the state of text adventures in general circa 1989. Meanwhile, for those players less eager to be titillated, Bob Bates himself would make what he describes today as a “classical” adventure, a more sober-minded time-travel epic full of intricately interconnected puzzles and environments. Between the two, they would hopefully have covered most of what people had liked about the various games of Infocom. And the really hardcore Infocom fans, of course, would hopefully buy them both.

In making their pitch to ASC and other potential investors, Bob and Mike felt ethically obligated to make careful note of the seeming headwinds into which their new company would be sailing. But in the end ASC was hugely eager to diversify, and the investment that was being asked of them was relatively small in the context of ASC’s budget. Bob and Mike founded their company on about $500,000, the majority of which was provided by ASC, alongside a handful of smaller investments from friends and family. (Those with a stake in Bob’s old company Challenge also saw it rolled over into the new company.) ASC would play a huge role during this formative period, up to and including providing the office space out of which the first games would be developed.

An ASC press release dated January 8, 1990, captures the venture, called GameWorks at the time, at this embryonic stage of high hopes and high uncertainty. Bob Bates is quoted as saying that “GameWorks products combine the best of several existing technologies in an exciting new format,” while Mike Verdu, who would remain in his old role at ASC in addition to his new one as a software entrepreneur for another couple of years, says that “ASC’s interest in this venture stems from more than just making money over the short term. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining software-publishing company.” Shortly after this press release, the name of said company would be changed from GameWorks to Legend Entertainment, harking back to the pitch for an “Immortal Legends” series of games that had first won Bob a contract with Infocom.

The part of the press release that described GameWorks/Legend as a “software-publishing company” was an important stipulation. Mike Verdu:

I remember making these spreadsheets early on, trying to understand how companies made money in this business. It became very clear to me very quickly that life as an independent developer, without the publishing, was very tough. You scrambled for advances, and the royalties you got off a game would never pay for the advances unless you had a huge hit. Your destiny was so tied to the publisher, to the vagaries of the producer that might get assigned to your title, that it just was not an appealing path at all.

In a very fundamental way, Legend needed to be a publisher as well as a developer if they were to bring their vision of text adventures in the 1990s to fruition. It was highly doubtful whether any of the other publishers would be willing to bother with the niche market for text adventures at all when there were so many other genres with seemingly so much greater commercial potential. In addition, Bob and Mike knew that they needed to have complete control of their products, from the exact games they chose to make to the way those games were packaged and presented on store shelves. They recognized that another part of becoming the implicit successor to Infocom must be trying as much as possible to match the famous Infocom packaging, with the included “feelies” that added so much texture and verisimilitude to their interactive fictions. One of the most heartbreaking signs of Infocom’s slow decline, for fans and employees alike, had been the gradual degradation of their games’ physical presentation, as the cost-cutters in Mediagenic’s Silicon Valley offices took away more and more control from the folks in Cambridge. Bob and Mike couldn’t afford to have their company under a publisher’s thumb in similar fashion. At the same time, though, a tiny company like theirs was in no position to set up its own nationwide distribution from warehouse to retail.

It was for small publishers facing exactly this conundrum that Electronic Arts and Mediagenic during the mid-1980s had pioneered the concept of the “affiliated label.” An affiliated label was a small publisher that printed their own name on their boxes, but piggy-backed — for a fee, of course — on the network of a larger publisher for distribution. By the turn of the decade, the American computer-games industry as a whole had organized itself into eight or so major publishers, each with an affiliated-label program of one stripe or another of its own, with at least several dozen more minor publishers taking advantage of the programs. As we’ve seen in other articles, affiliated-label deals were massive potential minefields that many a naive small publisher blundered into and never escaped. Nevertheless, Legend had little choice but to seek one for themselves. Thanks to Mike Verdu’s research, they would at least go in with eyes open to the risk, although nothing they could do could truly immunize them from it.

In seeking a distribution deal, Legend wasn’t just evaluating potential partners; said partners were also evaluating them, trying to judge whether they could sell enough games to make a profitable arrangement for both parties. This process, like so much else, was inevitably complicated by Legend’s determination to defy all of the conventional wisdom and continue making text adventures — yes, text adventures with graphics and sound, but still text adventures at bottom. And yet as Bob and Mike made the rounds of the industry’s biggest players they generally weren’t greeted with the incredulity, much less mockery, one might initially imagine. Even many of the most pragmatic of gaming executives felt keenly at some visceral level the loss of Infocom, whose respect among their peers had never really faded in tune with their sales figures — who, one might even say, had had a certain ennobling effect on their industry as a whole. So, the big players were often surprisingly sympathetic to Legend’s cause. Whether such sentiments could lead to a signature on the bottom line of a contract was, however, a different matter entirely. Most of the people who had managed to survive in this notoriously volatile industry to this point had long since learned that idealism only gets you so far.

For some time, it looked like a deal would come together with Sierra. Ken Williams, who never lacked for ambition, was trying to position his company to own the field of interactive storytelling as a whole. Text adventures looked destined to be a very small piece of that pie at best in the future, but that piece was nevertheless quite possibly one worth scarfing up. If Sierra distributed Legend’s games and they proved unexpectedly successful, an acquisition might even be in the cards. Yet somehow a deal just never seemed to get done. Mike Verdu:

There seemed to be genuine interest [at Sierra], but it was sort of like Zeno’s Paradox: we’d get halfway to something, and then close that distance by half, and then close that distance by half, and nothing ever actually happened. It was enormously frustrating — and I never could put my finger on quite why, because there seemed to be this alignment of interests, and we all liked each other. There was always a sense of a lot of momentum at the start. Then the momentum gradually died away, and you could never actually get anything done. Now that I’ve become a little more sophisticated about business, that suggests to me that Ken was probably running around trying to make a whole bunch of things happen, and somebody inside his company was being the sort of check and balance to his wanting to do lots and lots of stuff. There were probably a lot of things that died on the vine inside that company.

Instead of Sierra, Legend wound up signing a distribution contract with MicroProse, who were moving further and further from their roots in military simulations and wargames in a bid to become a major presence in many genres of entertainment software. Still, “Wild Bill” Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant chief, had little personal interest in the types of games Legend proposed to make or the niche market they proposed to serve. Mike Verdu characterizes Sierra’s interest as “strategic,” while MicroProse’s was merely “convenient,” a way to potentially boost their revenue picture a bit and offset a venture into standup-arcade games that was starting to look like a financial disaster. MicroProse hardly made for the partner of Legend’s dreams, but needs must. Wild Bill was willing to sign where Ken Williams apparently wasn’t.

In the midst of all these efforts to set up the infrastructure for a software-publishing business, there was also the need to create the actual software they would publish. Bob Bates’s time-travel game fell onto the back-burner, a victim of the limited resources to hand and the fact that so much of its designer’s time was being monopolized by practical questions of business. But not so Steve Meretzky’s game. As was his wont, Meretzky had worked quickly and efficiently from his home in Massachusetts to crank out his design. Legend’s two-man programming team, consisting still of the Challenge veterans Duane Beck and Mark Poesch, was soon hard at work alongside contracted outside artists and composers to bring Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, now planned as Legend’s sole release of 1990, to life in all its audiovisual splendor.

Setting aside for the moment all those planned audiovisual enhancements, just creating a reasonable facsimile of the core Infocom experience presented a daunting challenge. Throughout Infocom’s lifespan, from the 1980 release of Zork I through Bob Bates’s own 1989 Infocom game Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, no other company had ever quite managed to do what Legend was now attempting to do: to create a parser as good as that of Infocom. Legend did have an advantage over most of Infocom’s earlier would-be challengers in that they were planning to target their games to relatively powerful machines with fast processors and at least 512 K of memory. The days of trying to squeeze games into 64 K or less were over, as were the complications of coding to a cross-platform virtual machine; seeing where the American market was going, Legend planned to initially release their games only for MS-DOS systems, with ports to other platforms left only as a vague possibility if one of their titles should prove really successful. Both the Legend engine and the games that would be made using it were written in MS-DOS-native C code instead of a customized adventure programming language like Infocom’s ZIL, a decision that also changed the nature of authoring a Legend game in comparison to an Infocom game. Legend’s designers would program many of the simpler parts of their games’ logic themselves using their fairly rudimentary knowledge of C, but would always rely on the “real” programmers for the heavy lifting.

But of course none of these technical differences were the sort of things that end users would notice. For precisely this reason, Bob Bates was deeply worried about the legal pitfalls that might lie in attempting to duplicate the Infocom experience so closely from their perspective. The hard fact was that he, along with his two programmers, knew an awful lot about Infocom’s technology, having authored two complete games using it, while Steve Meretzky, who had authored or coauthored no less than seven games for Infocom, knew it if anything even better. Bob worried that Mediagenic might elect to sue Legend for theft of trade secrets — a worry that, given the general litigiousness of Mediagenic’s head Bruce Davis, strikes me as eminently justified. To address the danger, Legend elected to employ the legal stratagem of the black box. Bob sat down and wrote out a complete specification for Legend’s parser-to-be. (“It was a pretty arcane, pretty strange exercise to do that,” he remembers.) Legend then gave this specification for implementation to a third-party company called Key Systems who had never seen any of Infocom’s technology. “What came back,” Bob says, “became the heart of the Legend engine. Mark and Duane then built additional functionality upon that.” The unsung creators of the Legend parser did their job remarkably well. It became the first ever not to notably fall down anywhere in comparison to the Infocom parser. Mediagenic, who had serious problems of their own monopolizing their attention around this time, never did come calling, but better safe than sorry.


The Legend Interface in a Nutshell

A game can be played in one of three modes. This one, the default, is the most elaborate — not to say cluttered. Note the long menus of verbs — 120 (!) of them, with a commonly used subset thankfully listed first — and nouns to the left. (And don’t worry, this area from Spellcasting 101 is a “fake” maze, not a real one.)

A second mode, which I suspect was the most commonly used by real players in the wild, removes the command-entry menus in favor of allowing more space for the text window, but retains the compass rose and illustrations.

Finally, strict adherents to the ethos of text-and-only-text can indeed play the game as a text-only adventure. The existence of significant numbers of such purists was probably more theoretical than actual, but Legend accommodated them nevertheless.

By tapping the function keys, you can replace the illustration with the current room description or your current inventory without having to burn a turn on the task.

Or you can show a map where the picture usually lives.


 

Anxious to make their games as accessible as possible despite their equally abiding determination to become the implicit heir to Infocom, Legend designed for their new engine a menu-based system for inputting commands that could serve as an alternative to typing them in. Bob Bates, the mastermind behind the system:

One of the biggest barriers to text adventures at the time was that people didn’t know how to type. I knew how to type only because the principal of my high school forced me in my sophomore year to take a typing class instead of a third language. At the time, typing was for girls; men didn’t type. It was a barrier for players.

So, we said that we need an interface that will let somebody play using only the mouse. This was a huge problem. How do you do that without giving too much away? One day as I was pondering this, I realized that once you select a verb you don’t need another verb. So, the menu that contains verbs can go away. You’re looking at a list of verb/noun [combinations]: “get box,” “kick wall.” But if you want a sentence with a preposition, once you’ve clicked on the verb you don’t need another verb, so you can replace that first [verb] list with prepositions — and not only that, but prepositions that are only appropriate to that verb. That was an actual insight; that was a cool idea.

The menu on the left had the twenty or so most common verbs first, but underneath that, going down in alphabetical order, was a list of many, many more verbs. You could scroll down in that list, and it might actually suggest interactions you hadn’t thought of. Basically it preserved the openness of the interaction, but avoided the other big bugaboo of parser-driven games: when the parser will come back and say, “I don’t understand that.” With this system, that could never happen. And that was, I thought, huge. Everything was there in front of you if you could figure out what to do. [Parsing errors] became a thing of the past if you wanted to play in that mode.

Then of course we had full-screen text mode if you wanted to play that way, and we had a sort of hybrid half-and-half mode where there was parser-driven text across the bottom, but you still had graphics at the top. I thought it was important that players could play the game the way they wanted to, and I thought it added to the experience by taking away two of the big problems. One was people who didn’t like to type or couldn’t type or were two-finger typists. Number two was when you would type a whole command and there was an error in the first word; the parser says, “I don’t know that word,” and you have to type the whole command again. That interface took away that pain in the ass.

While Bob’s points are well taken, particularly with regard to the lack of typing skills among so much of the general public at the time, the Legend menu-based interface looks very much of its time today. Having the menu appear onscreen by default has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Legend games look rather cluttered and ugly in contrast to the Infocom classics, with their timeless text-only approach. That does a real disservice to the games hidden inside the Legend interface, which often stand up very well next to many of the works of Infocom.

Aesthetics aside, I remain skeptical of the real long-term utility of these sorts of interfaces in general, all the rage though they were during the twilight of the text adventure’s commercial era. Certainly there must come a point where picking through a list of dozens of verbs becomes as confusing as trying to divine the correct one from whole cloth. A better solution to the guess-the-verb problem is to create a better parser — and, to be fair, Legend games give no ground for complaint on that score; text-adventure veteran though I admittedly am, I can’t recall ever struggling to express what I was trying to do to a Legend game. The problem of correcting typos without having to type the entire command again, meanwhile, could have been efficiently addressed by including a command-history buffer that the player could navigate using the arrow keys. The omission of such a feature strikes me as rather inexplicable given that the British company Level 9 had begun to include it in their games as far back as 1986.

Although I don’t believe any serious surveys were ever made, it would surprise me if most Legend players stuck with the menu-based interface for very long once they settled down to play. “I played the game this way for fifteen minutes before deciding to bag it and type in all my commands,” wrote one contemporary Spellcasting 101 reviewer who strikes me as likely typical. “For me, this was quicker.” “Frankly, I find the menu to be of little use except to suggest possible commands in tough puzzle situations,” wrote another. Even Steve Meretzky, the author of Legend’s first game, wasn’t a fan:

The impetus for the interface was not a particular feeling that this was a good/useful/friendly/clever interface, but rather a feeling that text adventures were dying, that people wanted pictures on the screen at all times, and that people hated to type. I never liked the interface that much. The graphic part of the picture was pretty nice, allowing you to move around just by double-clicking on doors in the picture, or pick things up by double-clicking on them. But I didn’t care for the menus for a number of reasons. One, they were way more kludgey and time-consuming than just typing inputs. Two, they were giveaways because they gave you a list of all possible verbs and all visible objects. Three, they were a lot of extra work in implementing the game, for little extra benefit. And four, they precluded any puzzles which involved referring to non-visible objects.

Like Meretzky, I find other aspects of the Legend engine much more useful than the menu-based command interface. In the overall baroque-text-adventure-interface sweepstakes, Magnetic Scrolls’s Magnetic Windows-based system has the edge in features and refinement, but the Legend engine does show a real awareness of how real players played these types of games, and gives some very welcome options for making that experience a little less frustrating. The automap, while perhaps not always quite enough to replace pen and paper (or, today, Trizbort), is nevertheless handy, and the ability to pull up the current room description or your current inventory without wasting a turn and scrolling a bunch of other text away is a godsend, especially given that there’s no scrollback integrated into the text window.

The graphics and music in the Legend games still hold up fairly well as well, adding that little bit of extra sizzle. (The occasional digitized sound effects, on the other hand, have aged rather less well.) Right from the beginning with Spellcasting 101, Legend proved willing to push well beyond the model of earlier, more static illustrated text adventures, adding animated opening and closing sequences, interstitial graphics in the chapter breaks, etc. It’s almost enough to make you forget at times that you’re playing a text adventure at all — which was, one has to suspect, at least partially the intention. Certainly it pushes well beyond what Infocom managed to do in their last few games. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone since Legend has ever tried quite so earnestly to make a real multimedia production out of a parser-based game. It can make for an odd fit at times, but it can be a lot of fun as well.

Spellcasting 101 was released in October of 1990, thereby bringing to a fruition the almost eighteen months of effort that had followed that fateful Cinco de Mayo when Bob Bates had learned that Infocom was going away. I plan to discuss the merits and demerits owed to Spellcasting 101 as a piece of game design in my next article. For now, it should suffice to say that the game and the company that had produced it were greeted with gushing enthusiasm by the very niche they had hoped to reach. Both were hailed as the natural heirs to the Infocom legacy, carrying the torch for a type of game most had thought had disappeared from store shelves forever. Questbusters magazine called Spellcasting 101 the “Son of Infocom” in their review’s headline; the reviewer went on to write that “what struck me most about the game is that it is exactly as I would have expected Infocom games to be if the company was still together and the veteran designers were still working in the industry. I kid you not when I say to watch Legend over the years.” “It’s such a treat to play an Infocom adventure again,” wrote the adventuring fanzine SynTax. “I know it isn’t an Infocom game as such, but I can’t help thinking of it as that.”

This late in the day for the commercial text adventure, it was these small adventure-centric publications, along with the adventure-game columnists for the bigger magazines, who were bound to be the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Spellcasting 101 succeeded in proving the thesis on which Bob Bates and Mike Verdu had founded Legend Entertainment: that there were still enough of those enthusiasts out there to support a niche company. In its first six months on the market, Spellcasting 101 sold almost 35,000 units, more than doubling Bob and Mike’s cautious prediction of 16,000 units. By the same point, the Legend hint line had fielded over 35,000 calls. For now — and it would admittedly be just for a little while longer — people were buying and, as the hint-line calls so amply demonstrated, playing a text adventure again in reasonable numbers, all thanks to the efforts of two men who loved the genre and couldn’t quite let it go.

A “Presentation to Stockholders and Directors” of Legend from May of 1991 provides, like the earlier ASC press release, another fascinating real-time glimpse of a business being born. At this point Timequest, Bob Bates’s “classical” time-travel adventure, is about to be released at last, Spellcasting 201 is already nearing completion, and a first licensed game is in the offing, to be based on Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. “MicroProse has done an outstanding job of selling and distributing the product,” notes the report, but “has been less than responsive on the financial side of the house. Our financial condition is precarious. We spent most of the Spellcasting 101 revenues in development of Timequest. We are living hand to mouth. We have come a long way and we are building a viable business, but the costs were greater than expected and the going has often been rough.”

Rough going and living hand to mouth were things that Legend would largely just have to get used to. The games industry could be a brutal place, and a tiny niche publisher like Legend was all but foreordained to exist under a perpetual cloud of existential risk. Still, in return for facing the risk they were getting to make the games they loved, and giving the commercial text adventure a coda absolutely no one had seen coming on that unhappy day back in May of 1989. “We did more things right than we did wrong,” concludes the May 1991 report. “This is a workable definition of survival.” Survival may have been about the best they could hope for — but, then again, survival is survival.

(Sources: Questbusters of March 1991; SynTax Issue 11; Computer Gaming World of November 1990 and March 1991; the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Bob Bates’s interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, which Jason was kind of enough to share with me in its entirety. But the vast majority of this article is drawn my interviews with Bob Bates and Mike Verdu; the former dug up the documents mentioned in the article as well. My heartfelt thanks to both for making the time to talk with me and to answer my many nitpicky questions about events of more than 25 years ago.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 
 

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