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Death Gate

Licensed games are often dismissed as supremely cynical cash grabs. And for the most part, this judgment is correct: the majority of them are indeed dispiriting affairs.

But no thing in life is all one thing. Take, for instance, the story of Legend Entertainment, which upends all of our prejudices about the licensing racket. Rather than being some evil marketing genius’s idea for maximizing revenue, Legend’s reputation as a peddler primarily of licensed product arose all but accidentally, and at least in the beginning involved very little cynicism at all. It all stems from 1991, when Legend co-founder Mike Verdu decided that he’d really, really like to write a game set in the universe of Gateway, a series of science-fiction novels by Frederick Pohl which he happened to love for reasons pure as the driven snow. When that game was well-received, Legend designer Michael Lindner piped up to say that he would like to make an adaptation of his favorite fantasy series, the Xanth novels of Piers Anthony. And when that too went well, Glen Dahlgren asked for a license to adapt Death Gate, another series of fantasy novels, these ones by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. It was all quite shockingly organic — just like one of the press releases put out by one of the other makers of licensed games, the kind that claim that they were actually passionate about Brand X since long before they were given a chance to make a game out of it. In this case, though, it’s the truth.



Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were among a new group of authors who began reaching bookstores shelves in the 1980s with novels that had begun as games; thus there was a certain poetic symmetry in Legend eventually completing the circle. Indeed, Weis and Hickman had at least as much impact on gaming writ large over the course of their careers as they did on the state of the art of the fantasy novel.

It all began for Tracy Hickman, as it did for so many others, with tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. He was introduced to the game by his fiancée Laura Curtis in the late 1970s, when the two were starving university students in their home town of Salt Lake City, Utah. After getting married and starting a family, the couple looked for a way to justify their hobby when they couldn’t even afford “church shoes” for their two young children. (Like a surprising number of significant figures in gaming history, they were and remain devout Mormons.) So, they founded DayStar West Media to publish two pre-written Dungeons & Dragons “adventure modules.” These sold in fairly minuscule numbers, but provided an entrée to TSR, the maker of the game. In 1982, TSR offered Tracy Hickman a job as an in-house designer. And so the couple piled their children and all the luggage that would fit into the back of their battered old Volkswagen Rabbit and set off for Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the tabletop RPG scene’s Mecca.

Tracy has since said many times that the idea for Dragonlance, the Hickmans’ master stroke in the fields of both games and books, was born on that long drive. They’d been sent a copy of a marketing study TSR had commissioned, which said that, as Tracy remembers: “1) Dungeons & Dragons is your core product. 2) You have lots of dungeons. 3) You need more dragons.” Ergo, Dragonlance would be a series of adventure modules, each revolving around a different type of dragon.

But its short-term goal of injecting more dragons into the mix has little to do with Dragonlance‘s ultimate importance. The Hickmans conceived it as a series of adventures which would be, as tabletop-gaming historian Shannon Applecline puts it, “plot-oriented” rather than “location-based.” Instead of engaging in the mere tactical challenge of clearing a dungeon of monsters and traps and looting its contents, players would get to live out a complicated epic story worthy of Tolkien himself, set in a brand new, richly detailed fantasy world.

Dragonlance evolved into one of the most ambitious projects TSR ever undertook, one that remains to this day an enduring icon of its hobby. A groundbreaking trans-media experience at a time when such things were much rarer than they’ve become today, its story filled twelve adventure modules, supported by numerous source books — and, most importantly for our purposes, by a trilogy of thick novels which walked its readers through the modules. TSR’s management was first inclined to hire a “real” author to write them, but when the initial pool of applicants proved underwhelming they agreed to let Tracy Hickman and another staffer named Margaret Weis have the assignment. (The important contributions of Laura Hickman — née Laura Curtis — not only in the beginning stages of the project but throughout its duration, went sadly uncredited.)

Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles, appeared in late 1984. It wasn’t quite at the level of Tolkien; you could almost hear the dice rolling behind the scenes during its lovingly detailed round-by-round descriptions of Dungeons & Dragons combat. Still, it offered up a fast-paced story with appealing characters, and for many or most of its readers the Dungeons & Dragons-ness of the whole affair was actually a feature rather than a bug. It launched TSR into a whole new field of publishing, one that would eventually become more profitable than the games which continued to inform the novels so intimately.

Weis and Hickman, meanwhile, saw their names suddenly at the top of genre-fiction bestseller lists. Almost overnight, the two heretofore obscure game designers became household names among fans of fantasy fiction, bankable enough to be sought after by the old guard of American publishing. They stuck with TSR long enough to write a second, standalone trilogy of Dragonlance novels, but then departed the games industry entirely for more lucrative climes, leaving others there — perhaps most notably the company White Wolf, with their World of Darkness series of Gothic-horror RPGs — to build upon the storytelling revolution they had fostered.

After signing with the Random House imprint of Bantam Books, Weis and Hickman churned out the paperbacks at the steady pace of a novel every six to nine months: first came a Darksword trilogy, then a Rose of the Prophet trilogy. And then, beginning in 1990, came the seven-book Death Gate Cycle.

Dragon Wing, the first of the Death Gate novels. (You can’t ever go wrong with dragons, right?)

Like so many fantasy novels, the Death Gate books are most of all an exercise in world-building, and so your level of enjoyment of them must ultimately be determined by your level of interest in their elaborate castles in the air. As my regular readers know all too well by now, I haven’t been part of that target market for a long time. Nevertheless, here’s the capsule version:

The books involve two races of ultra-advanced beings, known as the Patryns and Sartans, who inhabit the far future of what would appear to be our own planet Earth. Long before the main story of the novels begins, these two races went to war with one another. The Sartans won the war, whereupon they placed the remaining Patryns in an inter-dimensional prison known as the Labyrinth. For rather convoluted reasons, they then sundered the Earth into four separate worlds, each based upon one of the Aristotelian elements — air, water, earth, and fire — and each inhabited mostly by less godly races, whom the Patryns and Sartans traditionally call the Mensch. So much for the backstory. The books proper describe how the Patryns and Sartans finally reconcile and heal their shattered realm. Weis and Hickman were just publishing the fifth of the seven books when Glen Dahlgren over at Legend decided that he’d like to make a game out of them.



Dahlgren had originally been hired to work at Legend as an assistant programmer. But, as was typical of most employees of the tiny company, his responsibilities bloomed in all sorts of unexpected directions after he arrived there. A talent for music led him to become Legend’s in-house sound man, responsible for soundtracks and sound effects alike. A talent for organization led him to become Legend’s quality-control man, overseeing a far-flung network of outside testers. And then he was selected to become one of the three men who put together Gateway, a project consciously engineered by Bob Bates, who had co-founded Legend alongside Mike Verdu, as a boot camp for training up new designers. After that, Dahlgren did half of the design work on Gateway 2, before being given permission to make his own game from start to finish; that game became Death Gate. Bates and Verdu put an enormous amount of faith in him — the sort of faith which one usually only sees manifested at small, young companies like this one, where bureaucracy is minimal and second-guessing rare. Whether or not Dalhgren realized it at the time, his bosses gave him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Of course, Legend had to secure the license before anything else could happen. Fortunately for everyone, this proved not to be terribly difficult. The negotiations were aided by the fact that Weis and Hickman remained enthusiastic gamers themselves; they made sure that their agent and publisher got the deal done with very little hassle, and even agreed to provide an original novella to include in the box. Like Bates and Verdu, they were almost bizarrely trusting of Dahlgren. They didn’t even blink when he proposed packing the entire story arc of the Death Gate series — some 3000 pages in text form — into a single game. Although only five of the planned seven novels had yet appeared when the project began, Weis and Hickman freely shared their plans for the remainder of the series — most importantly, for the big finale where the worlds would be unified once again.

In  what he called his “high concept” proposal for the game, Dahlgren laid out the plot in the broadest possible strokes:

This game is about a warrior whose race was imprisoned thousands of years ago in a place called the Labyrinth. His people were defeated by another race who broke up the world into four realms connected only by the Death Gate. In the game, the hero seeks to re-form the world by finding and assembling the scattered pieces of the World Seal.

None of it should work; it should feel like the Cliff’s Notes abridgement of the novels that it is. And yet Dalhgren made it work against all odds, largely by emphasizing the worlds of the books over the details of their plots. His most dazzling stroke was the insertion of the aforementioned World Seal as his McGuffin — one piece of it on each of the four worlds, in classic adventure-game fashion. With this scavenger hunt to serve as a straightforward motivation, you can get a taste of each world and interact with some of its characters without getting too bogged down in the more elaborate plot machinations of the books. Then fast-forward to the reunification, and you’re done.

This isn’t to say that well-nigh encyclopedic amounts of material from the books aren’t missing from the game. These leavings encompass not just countless details of the environments and cultures that Weis and Hickman created, but also nuances of theme and character. The central protagonist of both the novels and the game is a Patryn named Haplo, but he cuts a very different figure in the two mediums. In the books, he’s a morally ambiguous character at best, a cold fish full of prejudice and at times outright malevolence; in the game, he’s a naïve innocent whose mistakes all arise from the deceptions perpetrated upon him by his master Xar, a fellow the player can see is up to no good about five minutes after meeting him for the first time. It’s telling that Dahlgren refers to Haplo as his game’s “hero” in the extract above; few readers of the books would choose that word. To wit: in the first of the novels, Haplo deliberately engineers a war on the world known as Arianus; in the game, he prevents one instead with a dose of good old-fashioned peace, love, and understanding. Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine as well as precisely the fan of the books that I am not, wrote in his otherwise positive preview of the game that “I just wish Haplo had a little more anger in him.”

Sometimes Death Gate can feel a bit like a vintage Star Trek episode, with Haplo in Captain Kirk’s role of the man who swoops in to solve centuries of conflict between two commercial breaks.

Nevertheless, even Wilson admitted that Death Gate passed the acid test of any adaptation: if you didn’t know that the game was based on a series of books before playing it, you wouldn’t feel like you were missing anything. It truly works as a self-contained experience, while still capturing the feel of its source material. It manages to present the complex cosmology of the novels in an intuitive, natural way, without ever burying you under info-dumps.

Death Gate has much else going for it as well. By the time of its release in late 1994, Legend had quietly turned into the most consistent adventure studio in the industry, with a design aesthetic defined by an absolute commitment to fairness which even LucasArts couldn’t match. If at times this commitment could lead Legend to play it a bit too safe — Legend’s puzzles seldom evince the inspired lunacy of LucasArts at their best — it’s vastly preferable to the other extreme, as exemplified by the sloppy designs of Sierra, their other major competitor. Glen Dahlgren recently wrote on the subject, using terms that seem suspiciously similar to the design philosophy which Bob Bates has repeatedly explicated in his own writings and lectures:

Every puzzle should provide an “Aha!” moment, where either you feel smart for having figured it out, or you discover the answer elsewhere and smack your head for NOT figuring it out. If you don’t have enough information in the game to figure out the solution logically, you never get that moment. In an adventure game, that moment is the fun!

The design isn’t intended to torment you or to “beat” you (the designer isn’t even there to enjoy besting the player, so it isn’t a satisfying goal to begin with). My philosophy has always been that a player puts his trust in the designer to take care of him. Once the player has lost that trust, he’ll give up.

So, while there are no puzzles in Death Gate that you’ll remember for years — or even days — afterward, there are likewise none that unduly block your progress through the story. Thanks to its conversations that can go on for minutes at a time, it plays almost as much like an interactive storybook as a puzzle-solving adventure game.

Is this a puzzle I see before me?

Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its share of more conventionally gamey pleasures as well. A highlight is its rune-based magic system, which smacks of the classic CRPGs Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld more than that of any other adventure game with which I’m familiar. Combining the runes into magical recipes, then trying said recipes out on anything and everything, is a consistent source of fun. A surprising number of the silly things you can try are implemented, usually to very amusing effect. You can’t lock yourself out of victory without knowing it when doing stuff like this, and, while you can die, resurrection is always just a click of the “undo” button away. Thus you can experiment to your heart’s content.

Mucking about with magic runes…

The interface is the one which Legend introduced in Companions of Xanth: fully point and click now rather than parser-based, but still retaining a pronounced literary feel that betrays Bates and Verdu’s original conception of Legend as the heirs to Infocom’s legacy. Although the characters you meet are voice-acted, descriptions and narrations are still presented only in text.

It’s easy to see which screens (like this one) are rendered in SVGA and which screens (like the previous one) are not.

Death Gate was, however, the first Legend game to make partial use of SVGA graphics, at a resolution of 640 X 480 rather than the 320 X 200 of VGA. The difference is marked. In fact, I’d go so far as to call the transition to SVGA the most significant transformation in computer-game audiovisuals since the Commodore Amiga appeared on the scene in 1985. SVGA games of the 1990s — the non-3D ones, at least — no longer have to be graded on a curve when it comes to their visual aesthetics. Much of the art in Death Gate would fit perfectly well into the latest indie sensation on Steam.

In another first for Legend, the opening movie and some of the later cut scenes are pre-rendered 3D, built using 3D Studio, a tool which was making a steady march across the games industry at the time.

All of these good qualities serve to make the rather negative review of Death Gate which Computer Gaming World published after Johnny Wilson’s positive preview seem all the more jarring. Peter Olafson dinged the game for its supposed inconsistencies of tone, for thoughtlessly mixing the serious with the comedic. This really is a problem with many adventure games then and now, which tend to collapse into comedy as a crutch for their ridiculously convoluted puzzles. And yet I don’t see Death Gate as one of those games at all. On the contrary: it strikes me as doing an admirable job of sticking to its guns and avoiding this tendency. The humor here is actually of a piece with the humor of the source material, as even Olafson admits in a tossed-off sentence that desperately needs further elaboration: “Even though this comic relief is present in the books, it seemed distracting and inappropriate in the game.” (Why exactly is that, Mr. Olafson?) Whether or not one finds the befuddled old wizard Zifnab, who wandered into the Death Gate universe from a dimensional warp in the Dragonlance world of Krynn, as hilarious as he’s obviously meant to be, his portrayal in the game isn’t notably different from his portrayal in the novels.

But another of Olafson’s criticisms is more telling, so much so that I’d like to quote it in full here:

I occasionally was haunted by a feeling that Death Gate’s technology has outstripped its genre. All the amenities lavished on the game — the enormous reservoir of digitized speech, the SVGA graphics, the animated cut scenes — build expectations for a game mechanism to complement them. And as agreeable as the engine may be, the game proper is essentially the same old object-oriented adventuring: take everything that’s not nailed down and use it in a conspiracy to take everything that is. There is something inherently trivial about inhabiting a lavish world and being stranded simply by want of a certain item. [It] is rather like having an orchestra play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

If there is an overarching criticism to be raised against Death Gate, it’s this lack of will to innovate beyond the traditional confines of its genre. Indeed, the same criticism can be leveled against Legend’s catalog as a whole. While their adventures were the most consistently fair and literate in the industry during the 1990s, they were far from groundbreaking in formal terms. But then again, this eschewing of dizzying leaps in favor of keeping their feet planted firmly on solid ground does much to explain just why their games remain so playable to this day. In an industry that often fetishizes vision at the expense of craft, Legend’s games show how satisfying the tried and true can be when executed with thoroughgoing care.



Death Gate is a typical Legend game in another respect: it sold in reasonable but not overwhelming numbers; its sales figures remained in the five digits rather than the six or even seven to which the flashiest releases could aspire by 1994. Despite that, it wound up playing a role in Legend’s long-term evolution which was belied by its middling commercial performance.

Like many other small publishers, Legend found themselves increasingly threatened by the winds of change which blew through their industry as the 1990s wore on. The arrival of CD-ROM increased budgets enormously, thanks to the voice acting and richer and more elaborate graphic presentations that became not just possible but expected in this new era of 650 MB of storage. Meanwhile there arose a CD-ROM-fueled bubble in the marketplace, an ironic parallel to the bookware flash in the pan of exactly a decade earlier: titans of old media, from Disney to Random House, once again turned their attention to computer games as the potential Next Big Thing in publishing. How could little Legend hope to compete with the likes of them?

Well, as a wise person once said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. By this point, Legend had established a solid relationship with Random House, first through their adaptations of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway novels and now with their work on Death Gate. With Random House eager to jump into computer games in a more concerted way, it made sense to both parties to cement the relationship — to, as they put it in their corporate-speak press release, “intensify the synergy established between them.” Mike Verdu spoke to me about it recently using more recognizably human language:

What drew Random House’s attention was the identity we had developed as a company that could take literary licenses and create properties out of them with the respect their authors thought they deserved. We had credibility as people who could take other authors’ worlds and build essentially new fictions in them, and take care of them and be a trusted partner in doing that. That had become sort of our trademark. As Random House was surveying what was then called “the new-media landscape,” they saw this as a very natural extension of their strength; it seemed like a very happy partnership.

Random House injected $2.5 million into Legend in the fall of 1994, at virtually the same instant that Death Gate was hitting store shelves. The first fruits of the investment would appear the next year, when Legend released a three-CD full-motion-video extravaganza starring Michael Dorn, the actor best known as Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation. That game cost almost an order of magnitude more to make than the ones Legend had been making before it, but its budget didn’t stem from arrogance or decadence. Legend was just trying to survive. And, accordingly to the conventional wisdom anyway, this was the only way to do it in the midst of the CD-ROM bubble.

In the end, the Random House deal would prove a mixed blessing at best. It gave the larger company a great deal of control over the smaller one — more control in reality than the latter had realized it would. It was structured to indemnify Random House against loss, such that Legend was on the hook to pay much of the investment back if they didn’t meet certain financial targets. For this reason not least, Random House would play an outsize role in the future in deciding which games Legend got to make. Not coincidentally, licensed games would come to dominate Legend’s output more than ever. In fact, during the entirety of their existence after the Random House deal Legend would release just one more game that wasn’t based on someone else’s preexisting intellectual property.

It was good, then, that they had a special talent for building upon the creativity of others. For they’d be doing a lot more of that sort of thing, sometimes for reasons that perhaps weren’t quite as pure as the honest love for the books in question that had spawned Gateway, Companions of Xanth, and Death Gate. Such was life if you wanted to run with the big boys.

(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons, ’70 to ’79 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of June 1993, November 1994, and February 1995; Questbusters 115; Retro Gamer 180. Online sources include Glen Dahlgren’s memoir of the making of Death Gate and Tracy Hickman’s interview at Mormon Artist. And my huge thanks to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for their insights about Death Gate and all other things Legend during personal interviews.

Death Gate was briefly available for digital purchase at GOG.com, but has since disappeared again, presumably due to the difficulties associated with clearing the rights for licensed titles. It’s too large for me to host here even if I wasn’t nervous about the legal implications of doing so, but I have prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and an ISO image of the CD-ROM. A final hint: as of this writing, you can find the latter on archive.org if you look hard enough.)

 
 

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Superhero League of Hoboken

 

Please bear with me as I begin today with an anecdote from Beatles rather than gaming fandom.

Paul McCartney was having a rough time of it in 1973, three years after the Beatles’ breakup. He’d been thrown off balance by that event more than any of his band mates, and had spent the intervening time releasing albums full of far too many flaccid, underwritten songs, which the critics savaged with glee. They treated Wings, the new band he had formed, with the same derision, mocking especially the inclusion of Paul’s wife Linda as keyboard player. (“What do you call a dog with wings?” ran one of the uglier misogynist jokes of the time. “Linda!”) Then, just as it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, two of the three members of Wings who weren’t part of the McCartney family quit just as they were all supposed to fly to Lagos, Nigeria, to record their latest album.

It ought to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. But instead, Paul, Linda, and their faithful rhythm guitarist Denny Laine went to Nigeria and delivered what many still regard as the finest album of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. “Paul thought, I’ve got to do it. Either I give up and cut my throat or get my magic back,” said Linda later. He did the latter: Band on the Run marked the return of the Paul McCartney who had crafted the astonishing medley that closed out Abbey Road, that parting shot of the greatest rock band ever. As Nicholas Schaffner wrote in The Beatles Forever, “Band on the Run more than sufficed to dispel the stigma of all that intervening wimpery. And the aging hippies all said: McCartney Is Back.”

I tell this story now because I had much the same feeling when I recently played Superhero League of Hoboken, Steve Meretzky’s game from 1994: “Meretzky Is Back.” And a welcome return it was.

Meretzky, you see, spent the period immediately following the breakup of Infocom in 1989 pursuing his own sort of peculiarly underwhelming course. The man who had strained so hard to bring real literary credibility to the medium of the adventure game in 1985 via A Mind Forever Voyaging spent the early years of the 1990s making lowbrow sex comedies seemingly aimed primarily at thirteen-year-old boys. Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, the first of the bunch, was defensible on its own merits, and certainly a solid commercial choice with which to kick-start Legend Entertainment, the company co-founded by former Infocom author Bob Bates with the explicit goal of becoming the heir to Infocom’s legacy. By the time of Spellcasting 201 and Spellcasting 301, however, the jokes were wearing decidedly thin. And the less said the better about Activision’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, the comprehensively botched graphical sequel to arguably Meretzky’s best single Infocom text adventure of all. By 1992, it was time for a change. Oh, boy, was it time for a change.

Thus it was a blessing for everyone when Meretzky decided not to make the fourth game in what had been planned as a Spellcasting tetralogy, decided to do something completely different for Legend instead. The change in plans was readily accepted by the latter, for whom Meretzky worked from home on a contract basis. For, in a surprising indication that even the timeless marketing mantra that Sex Sells isn’t complete proof against a stale concept, sales of Spellcasting 301 hadn’t been all that strong.

The concept for Meretzky’s next game was fresh in comparison to what had come immediately before it, but it wasn’t actually all that new. In 1987, after finishing Stationfall for Infocom, he’d prepared a list of eight possibilities for his next project and circulated it among his colleagues. On the list was something called Super-Hero League of America:

When Marvel Comics asked if we’d be interested in a collaboration, I thought, Steve, old buddy, old pal, you could think up a lot more interesting and weird and fun superheroes than those worn-out boring Marvel Comics superheroes. Such as Farm Stand Man, who can turn himself into any vegetable beginning with a vowel. Dr. Madmoiselle [sic] Mozzarella, who can tell the toppings on any pizza before the box is even opened! I see this as a Hitchhiker’s/Rashomon type game in which you can play your choice of any of half a dozen superheroes. The story would be slightly different depending on which one you chose. If you elected to portray Annelid Man (able to communicate with any member of the worm family), you wouldn’t command as much respect as Dr. Asphalt (able to devour entire eight-lane highways), and the other superheroes wouldn’t obey you as readily. Potential for lots of interesting puzzles. Possible RPG elements.

“I like this!” scribbled one of his colleagues on the memo. “The superheroes shouldn’t be so silly, though… maybe?” But in the end, Meretzky wound up doing the safest project on the list, yet another Zork sequel. After releasing a whole pile of unique and innovative games over the course of 1987, to uniformly dismal commercial results, Infocom just didn’t feel that they had room to take any more chances.

Still, the idea continued to resonate with its originator, even through all of the changes which the ensuing five years brought with them. In late 1992, having decided not to do another Spellcasting game, he dusted it off and developed it further. He had the brilliant brainstorm of setting it in Hoboken, New Jersey, a real town of 35,000 souls not without a record of achievement — it’s the birthplace of baseball, Frank Sinatra, and Yo La Tengo — but one whose very name seems somehow to hilariously evoke its state’s longstanding inferiority complex in relation to its more cosmopolitan neighbor New York. Hoboken was the perfect home for Meretzky’s collection of low-rent superheroes with massive inferiority complexes of their own. Even more notably, the “possible RPG elements” of the first proposal turned into a full-fledged adventure/CRPG hybrid, a dramatic leap into unexplored territory for both Mereztky and Legend.

It was new territory for Meretzky the game designer, that is, but not for Meretzky the game player: he had long been a fan of CRPGs. Among the documents from the Infocom era which he has donated to the Internet Archive are notes about the games from other companies which Meretzky was playing during the 1980s. One finds there pages and pages of lovingly annotated maps of the likes of Might and Magic. Meretzky:

I’d been wanting to make an RPG for many years. But I thought that the usual Tolkienesque fantasy setting and trappings of RPGs had been done to death, and it occurred to me that superheroes was an excellent alternate genre that worked well with RPG gameplay, with superpowers substituting for magic spells. I originally planned to make it a full RPG, but Legend had never done anything that wasn’t a straight adventure game and were therefore nervous, so the only way I could convince them was to make it an RPG/adventure hybrid.

Meretzky’s characterization of Legend here is perhaps a touch ungenerous. They were a small company with limited resources, and were already in the process of moving from a parser-based adventure engine to a point-and-click one. Adapting it to work as a CRPG was a tall order.

Indeed, Superhero League of Hoboken remained in active development for more than eighteen months, longer than any Legend game to date. In the end, though, they succeeded in melding their standard graphic-adventure interface to a clever new combat engine. By the time the game was released in the summer of 1994, Meretzky had already moved on from Legend, and was working with fellow Infocom alum Mike Dornbrook to set up their own studio, under the name of Boffo Games. As a parting gift to Legend, however, Hoboken could hardly be beat. It had turned into a genuinely great game, Meretzky’s best since Stationfall or even Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

It takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, a choice that was much in vogue in the mid-1990s; I’m now reviewing my third post-apocalyptic adventure game in a row. But, whereas Under a Killing Moon and Beneath a Steel Sky teeter a little uncertainly between seriousness and the centrifugal pull that comedy always exerts on the adventure genre, Hoboken wants only to be the latter. It’s extravagantly silly, so stupid that it’s smart — Meretzky at his best, in other words.

The premise is that a considerable percentage of the population have become “superheroes” in the wake of a nuclear war, thanks to all of the radiation in the air. But most of the actual superpowers thus acquired are, shall we say, rather esoteric. For example, you play the Crimson Tape, whose superpower is the ability to create organizational charts. That makes you ideal for the role of leader of the Hoboken chapter of the Superhero League. Your gang there includes folks like the Iron Tummy, who can eat spicy food without distress; the ironically named Captain Excitement, who puts others to sleep; Robo Mop, who can clean up almost any mess; Tropical Oil Man, who raises the cholesterol levels in his enemies; the holdover from the Infocom proposal Madam Pepperoni, who can see inside pizza boxes; and my personal favorite, King Midas, who can turn anything into a muffler. (For my non-American readers: “Midas” is the name of a chain of American auto-repair shops specializing in, yes, mufflers.) Some of these superpowers are more obviously useful than others: Captain Excitement’s power, for example, is the equivalent of the Sleep spell, that staple of low-level Dungeons & Dragons. Some of them are sneakily useful: the game’s equivalent of treasure chests are pizza boxes, which makes Madam Pepperoni its equivalent of your handy trap-detecting thief from a more ordinary CRPG setting. And some of the superpowers, including your own and that of many others, are utterly useless for fighting crime — until you stumble upon that one puzzle for which they’re perfect.

The game has a smart and very satisfying structure, playing out in half a dozen chapters. At the beginning of each of them you’re given a to-do list of five tasks in your superhero headquarters. To accomplish these things, you’ll naturally have to venture out into the streets. Each chapter takes you farther from home and requires you to explore more dangerous areas than the last; by its end, the game has come to encompass much of the Northeastern Seaboard, from Philadelphia to Boston, all of it now plagued by radiation and crime.

Your handy to-do list for Chapter 1.

In the Spellcasting games, Meretzky had a tendency to ask the player to do boring and/or irritating things over and over again, apparently in the mistaken impression that there’s something intrinsically funny about such blatant player abuse. It’s therefore notable that Hoboken evinces exactly the opposite tendency — i.e., it seeks to minimize the things that usually get boring in other CRPGs. Each section of the map spawns random encounters up to a certain point, and then stops, out of the logic that you’ve now cleaned that neighborhood of miscreants. I can’t praise this mechanic enough. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to move quickly through explored areas in a typical CRPG, only to be forced to contend with fight after mindlessly trivial fight. Likewise, the sense of achievement you get from actually succeeding in your ostensible goal of defeating the forces of evil and making a place safe again shouldn’t be underestimated. Among CRPGs that predate this one, Pool of Radiance is the only title I know of which does something similar, and with a similar premise behind it at that; there you’re reclaiming the fantasy village of Phlan from its enemies, just as here you’re reclaiming the urban northeast of the United States. Hoboken is clearly the work of a designer who has played a lot of games of its ilk — a rarer qualification in game design than you might expect — and knows which parts tend to be consistently fun and which parts can quickly become a drag.

You explore the city streets — this CRPG’s equivalent of a dungeon — from a top-down perspective. This interface yields to a separate interface for fighting the baddies you encounter, or to the first-person adventure-game interface when you wander onto certain “special” squares.

The combat system makes for an interesting study in itself, resembling as it does those found in many Japanese console CRPGs more than American incarnations of the genre. It’s simple and thoroughly unserious, like most things in this game, but it’s not without a modicum of tactical depth. Each round, each character in your party can choose to mount a melee attack if she’s close enough (using one of an assortment of appropriately silly weapons), mount a ranged attack if not (using one of an equally silly assortment of weapons), utilize her superpower (which is invariably silly), or assume a defensive stance. Certain weapons and powers are more effective against certain enemies; learning which approaches work best against whom and then optimizing accordingly is a key to your success. Ditto setting up the right party for taking on the inhabitants of the area you happen to be exploring; although you can’t create superheroes of your own, you have a larger and larger pool of them to choose from as the game continues and the fame of your Hoboken branch of the Superhero League increases. But be careful not to mix and match too much: heroes go up in level with success in combat, so you don’t want to spread the opportunities around too evenly, lest you end up with a team full of mediocrities in lieu of at least a few high-level superstars.

Combat on the mean streets of Hoboken. Here we’re up against some Screaming Meemies (“members of a strange cult that worships the decade of the 1970s, identified by their loud cry of ‘Me! Me!'”) and Supermoms (“Bred for child-bearing and child-rearing characteristics by 21st-century anti-feminist fundamentalists”).

As you explore the streets of the city, you stumble upon special locations that cause the adventure side of the game’s personality to kick in. Here the viewpoint shifts from overhead third-person to a first-person display, with an interface that will look very familiar to anyone who has played Companions of Xanth, Legend’s first point-and-click graphic adventure. In addition to conversing with others and solving puzzles in these sections, you can visit shops selling weapons and armor and can frequent healers, all essential for the CRPG side of things. That said, the bifurcation between the game’s two halves remains pronounced enough that you can never forget that this is a CRPG grafted onto an adventure-game engine. Your characters even have two completely separate inventories, one for stuff used to fight baddies and one for stuff used to solve puzzles. Thankfully, each half works well enough on its own that you don’t really care; the adventure half as well marked a welcome departure from Meretzky’s recent tendency to mistake annoyance for humor, whilst offering up some of his wittiest puzzles in years.

Curing a disease contracted in the CRPG section by visiting a healer found, complete with gratuitous Infocom references, in the adventure section.

But by my lights the funniest part of the game remains the rogue’s gallery of superheroes and villains — especially the latter. These provided Meretzky with an opportunity to vent his frustration on a wide array of deserving targets. Some are specific, like Transistor Jowl, a clone of Richard Nixon, right down to his parting line of “You won’t have Transistor Jowl to kick around anymore” (delivered perfectly in the CD-ROM version by voice actor Gary Telles). And some are more generalized, like the marketing executives who chirp, “Let’s do lunch!” in their unflappable cluelessness as you dispatch them. Either way, the social satire here has the sharp edge that was missing from the Spellcasting games:

Junk Bond Amoeba: Environmental toxins have produced these one-celled creatures, twelve feet across, bent on engulfing food morsels and defenseless companies. Beware, for during combat they can divide by mitosis, doubling their number!

Espevangelist: Similar to televangelists of the 20th and 21st centuries, except that espevangelists require no broadcasting equipment to transmit their programming, since they can project their thoughts and words directly into the minds of those around them. In addition to the damage they can thus inflict, espevangelists have been known to separate weak-willed parties from their funds. They are even more dangerous if they FUNDRAISE.

By way of attacking this last-mentioned reprobate, you “reveal details about his affair with an altar boy,” and “all the tears in the world fail to save him.” And all the aging gamers said: Meretzky Is Back.

Unfortunately, Superhero League of Hoboken‘s course after its release was markedly different from that of Band on the Run. The game got a lot of support from the all-important Computer Gaming World magazine, including an extended preview and a very positive review just a couple of issues later that proclaimed it “the first true comedy CRPG ever”; this wasn’t strictly correct, but was truthy enough for the American market at least. And yet it sold miserably from the get-go, for reasons which Legend couldn’t quite divine. Legend was no Sierra or Electronic Arts; they averaged just two game releases per year, and the failure of one of them could be an existential threat to the whole company.

But they got lucky. Just after Hoboken‘s release, the book-publishing titan Random House made a major investment in Legend; they were eager to make a play in the new world of CD-ROM, and, having been impressed by Legend’s earlier book adaptations, saw a trans-media marketing opportunity for their existing print authors and franchises. This event took some of the sting from Hoboken‘s failure. Random House’s marketing consultants soon joined in to try to solve the puzzle of the game’s poor performance, informing Legend that the central issue in their opinion was that the cover art was just too “busy” to stand out on store shelves. This verdict was received with some discomfort at Legend; the cover in question had been the work of Peggy Oriani, Bob Bates’s wife. Nevertheless, they dutifully went with a new, Random House-approved illustration for the CD-ROM release, splashed with excerpts from the many glowing reviews the game had received. It didn’t help; sales remained terrible.

The revised CD-ROM box art. (The original can be seen at the beginning of this article.)

Steve Meretzky would later blame the game’s failure on its long production time, which, so he claimed, made it look like a musty oldie upon its release. And indeed, it was the last Legend game to use only VGA rather than higher resolution SVGA graphics. Still, and while the difference in sharpness between this game’s graphics and Legend’s next game Death Gate is pronounced, Hoboken really doesn’t look unusually bad among a random selection of other games from its year; there were still plenty of vanilla VGA games being released in 1994 and even well into 1995 as software gradually evolved to match the latest hardware. The real problem was likely that of an industry that was swiftly hardening into ever more rigid genres, each of which came complete with its own set of fixed expectations. An adventure game with hit points and fighting? A CRPG with no dungeons or dragons, hurling social satire in lieu of magic spells? Superhero League of Hoboken just didn’t fit anywhere. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, unlicensed superhero games of any stripe have historically struggled for market share; it seems that when gamers strap on their (virtual) spandex suits, they want them to be those of the heroes they already know and love, not a bunch of unknown weirdos like the ones found here.

A few months after the release of the CD-ROM version, Legend received a cease-and-desist letter out of the blue from Marvel Comics. It seemed that Marvel and DC Comics were the proud owners of a joint trademark on the name of “superhero” when used as part of the title of a publication. (This sounds to my uneducated mind like a classic example of an illegal corporate trust, but I’m no lawyer…) While there was cause to question whether “publications” in this sense even encompassed computer games at all, it hardly seemed a battle worth fighting given the game’s sales figures. Already exhausted from flogging this dead horse, Legend worked out a settlement with Marvel whereby they were allowed to continue to sell those copies still in inventory but promised not to manufacture any more. In the end, Superhero League of Hoboken became the least successful Legend game ever, with total sales well short of 10,000 copies — a dispiriting fate for a game that deserved much, much better.

That fate makes Hoboken a specimen of a gaming species that’s rarer than you might expect: the genuine unheralded classic. The fact is that most great games in the annals of the field have gotten their due, if not always in their own time than in ours, when digital distribution has allowed so many of us to revisit and reevaluate the works of gaming’s past. Yet Superhero League of Hoboken has continued to fly under the radar, despite its wealth of good qualities. Its sharp-edged humor never becomes an excuse for neglecting the fundamentals of good design, as sometimes tends to happen with forthrightly comedic games. It’s well-nigh perfectly balanced and perfectly paced. Throughout its considerable but not overwhelming length, its fights and puzzles alike remain challenging enough to be interesting but never so hard that they become frustrating and take away from its sense of fast-paced fun. And then it ends, pretty much exactly when you feel like you’re ready for it to do so. A lot of designers of more hardcore CRPGs in particular could learn from this silly game’s example of never exhausting its player and refusing to outstay its welcome. The last great narrative-oriented game of Steve Meretzky’s career, Superhero League of Hoboken is also the one most ripe for rediscovery.

Some pop-culture references are truly timeless…

(Sources: the books The Beatles Forever by Nicolas Schaffner and Game Design Theory & Practice (Second Edition) by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of August 1994 and October 1994; Questbusters 113. Online sources include “The Superhero Trademark FAQ” at CBR.com and “Super Fight Over ‘Superhero’ Trademark” at Klemchuk LLC. I’m also greatly indebted to the indefatigable Jason Scott’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents from Steve Meretzky’s exhaustive collection. And my huge thanks to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for their insights about Superhero League of Hoboken and all other things Legend during personal interviews.

Superhero League of Hoboken is available for digital purchase on GOG.com. This is wonderful on one level, but also strange, as it should still be subject to the cease-and-desist agreement which Legend signed with Marvel Comics all those years ago. There is reason to question whether Ziggurat Interactive, the digital publisher currently marketing this game, actually has the right to do so. I leave it for you to decide the ethics of purchasing a convenient installable version of the game versus downloading a CD-ROM image elsewhere and struggling to set it up yourself. Believe me, I wish the situation was more clear-cut.)

 
 

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Companions of Xanth (Preceded by the Worrisome Case of Piers Anthony)

I first read Piers Anthony’s thick 1969 novel Macroscope when I was in my early teens, and haven’t returned to it since. Nevertheless, I still remember the back-of-the-jacket text on my dog-eared old first paperback edition: “Existence is full of a number of things, many of them wondrous indeed — and these are the things of this soaring novel.” This high-flown blurb has remained so memorable to me because it’s so unlike anything anybody would ever write about Anthony’s work today.

Piers Anthony was born in 1934, and first made a name for himself in literary circles as one of the slightly lesser lights among science fiction’s New Wave of the 1960s. He was no Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, or Harlan Ellison, but he was regarded as a modestly promising young writer in his own right; he even contributed a story to the second of Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies in 1972.

But that honor, along with Macroscope, which became his second and last novel to be nominated for a Hugo award in 1970, actually mark the high point of Anthony’s respectable literary career. It had always been difficult for him to pay the bills as a second-string writer of serious speculative fiction, and it only grew more difficult as the luster faded from the New Wave in the 1970s and his books attracted even less attention. He was saved from a perhaps not-undeserved obscurity by Lester del Rey, one of genre fiction’s most legendary editors and curators. As the first to nurture and publish such writers as Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Brooks, and David Eddings, del Rey became largely responsible for the post-Tolkien, post-New Wave boom in epic fantasy fiction. But, apparently seeing a different set of strengths and weaknesses in Anthony than he did in those other charges, del Rey guided him down a rather less epic path. Thus in 1977 Anthony came to write A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in an endless series of them set in the pun-infested light-fantasy world of Xanth.

A Spell for Chameleon certainly wasn’t the worst fantasy novel to be published that year. While it had nothing of any substance on its mind whatsoever, its very lightness made it a welcome alternative to the likes of the three other writers I’ve just mentioned, whose books came complete with all the labored self-seriousness of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album. The fact is, there really wasn’t much else like A Spell for Chameleon on bookstore shelves in 1977; it felt like a genuine breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, that book was as good as Xanth ever got. When it became the best-selling novel he had ever written by far, Anthony recognized it for what it was: a formula for maximum sales with minimum labor investment. And from that point on, he never looked back.

Still, even the first few Xanth novels after A Spell for Chameleon weren’t horribly written by the standards of their kind. Eventually, though, Anthony decided that such niceties as editing were incompatible with his desire to publish one of them every year, along with two or more other books from his other series. In time, he admitted to writing his novels using a “template” in his word processor — ah, the wonders of technology! — that he needed merely fill in, Mad Libs-style. He was actually able to outsource much of the writing to his readers, by inviting them to submit their own jokes and plots and character outlines. But where the rubber meets the road, in the form of sentences on the page, none of these assistants could make up for his refusal to take the time to be any good at his craft. There are sentences in latter-day Anthony in particular which are simply appalling from a writer with decades of experience. Consider, for example, this extract: “So why would I break with him? Because I came to the conclusion that he was a loose cannon. The problem with such a cannon is that it is more dangerous to its friends than to its enemies. I had suffered such looseness before…” If ever a court is established for crimes against the English language, Piers Anthony ought to be one of the first writers it indicts.

Between 1977 and today, Anthony has churned out no less than 42 Xanth novels, with another four reportedly complete and merely awaiting release as of this writing. And in between all those Xanth novels, he’s written dozens of other books. His guiding principle appears to be that not one word he writes should ever be put to waste; he wants somebody to pay for every last stroke of the keyboard. Thus he’s written two rambling, unfocused “autobiographies” which seem to be composed of journal extracts and “how to be a successful writer” advice columns he wasn’t able to place anywhere else. And thus when he wrote a series of letters to a twelve-year-old Xanth fan who had been paralyzed in a car crash, he irretrievably tainted the kindness he had evinced in doing so by compiling all of them into a book and publishing that too.

Anthony’s great stroke of genius for promoting all of these books came right out of the modern social-media playbook: he built his brand out of himself, building a cult of personality that superseded pesky details like the quality of his prose or the originality of his plots. For most people, Xanth fandom has a definite expiration date; it generally begins in one’s preteen years, and is over around the time one learns to drive a car. Within that window of time, however, many youngsters are all in for Xanth, and this is due not least to the connection they feel to its mastermind. Early on, Anthony took to appending an “author’s note” to each of his novels, in which he mused about the circumstances of its creation. That anyone, much less impatient youngsters, should have found these interesting was rather bizarre on the face of it. Anthony didn’t travel much or have adventures in the real world or build or do unusual things. He mostly just sat in front of his computer in his suburban home — not exactly a memorably unusual lifestyle in this modern world of ours. In the context of his author’s notes at least, the purchase of some extra memory for his computer or the switch to a new word processor counted as major life events for him.

And yet his fans absolutely ate it up. Most of them were still at an age when books and other creative works seemed to fall out of the sky fully-formed from a realm completely isolated from their own experience. Their glimpses of a real person behind the curtain of the Xanth novels marked for many of them their first exposure to the idea of artistic creation as a human labor — perhaps one they could even engage in themselves. And so, far from being a disadvantage, this sweeping away of the creative mystique was a big part of Xanth’s appeal, inculcating enormous loyalty in Anthony’s young readers. A memorable 2012 episode of the radio show This American Life illustrates the real bond that existed (and presumably still exists) between Anthony and his fans by telling the story of a picked-on teenage boy who ran away to the house of his favorite author — and was, it must be said, treated by said author with great kindness and compassion when he arrived there.

Yet even as he was nurturing such a warm relationship with his fans, Anthony was cementing his reputation among his peers as one of the biggest jerks in genre publishing. His career has been a long string of feuds and shattered friendships, which he describes at length in his autobiographies. His most longstanding battle has been with the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization he claims to have “blacklisted” him during his lean years; no one actually involved with the SFWA is quite sure what he’s talking about. The real core of Anthony’s anger would seem to be his frustration at not being taken seriously by such establishment organs as this one. He’s long since been dismissed — admittedly, on pretty good evidence — as a hack; there will be no more Hugo talk in his future. Anthony complains endlessly about how all of his more “adult” fiction has been overshadowed by the Xanth novels which have made him a rich man, but has never taken the obvious step of simply not writing any more of the latter. The tension between artistic and commercial demands has tortured the psyche of many a writer, but in Anthony’s case it feels more comical than tragic, given that his adult books all tend to read like Xanth novels with more explicit violence — and, most especially, with much more explicit sex. And so we arrive at the really disturbing side of Piers Anthony.

I want to be especially careful in what I say next because I’ve always tried to separate the creator from his work when writing criticism of any stripe. Certainly there’s no shame in writing disposable children’s entertainment. And certainly there have been plenty of other writers who have also been jerks, including some whose talents far exceeded those of Anthony. And certainly writers need to be able to address difficult, uncomfortable subject matter without being accused of promoting or glorifying the things they describe; Vladimir Nabokov should not be deemed a pedophile because he wrote Lolita. But, even having taken all of that to heart, it remains hard for me to avoid the feeling when reading Piers Anthony on the subject of sex that something is simply wrong with this guy.

Anthony’s wrongness about sex, I should emphasize, isn’t the usual science-fiction author’s clunky mawkishness. It’s more extreme even than Robert A. Heinlein during his Dirty Old Man phase, when he wrote about sex like an alien with no understanding of human psychology might, describing it like any other mechanical process might be described by any of the dozens of stock Competent Men who populated his novels: “Now, you see, Friday, it’s just a matter of inserting Tab A here into Slot B, then moving it in and out like so.” No, Anthony’s obsession with girls just past the age of puberty — or in some eye-opening cases with girls who have not yet reached puberty — is more pernicious than this sort of rank cluelessness. It’s the reason that, if I saw a youngster I was fond of reading an Anthony novel, I wouldn’t just shrug my shoulders, but would actively try to steer her toward something I consider more healthy. For there really is, I think, a sickness — moral if not psychological in the clinical sense — running through this man’s body of work.

This side of Anthony isn’t new, although it has grown more pronounced over time as he’s become less beholden to editors. A Spell for Chameleon‘s gender politics weren’t particularly progressive even by the standards of the late 1970s. Its hero is a young man named Bink who wants something which his author considers to be impossible under normal circumstances: a girl with whom he can enjoy a warm friendship-of-intellectual-equals and whom he also finds sexually attractive — for it’s taken as a given by Anthony that a smart girl can never be a sexy one. The solution to Bink’s problem arrives in a girl with the unsubtle name of Chameleon, who cycles over the course of a month between a hideous but brilliant hag and a beautiful but moronic nymphomaniac. (Yes, Anthony’s idea of allegory really is that banal.) And so Bink’s problem is solved. The solution comes complete with a bit of teenage philosophizing, which Bink delivers to Chameleon’s nympho-bimbo incarnation just before they go at it again.

“I like beautiful girls,” he said. “And I like smart girls. But I don’t trust the combination. I’d settle for an ordinary girl, except she’d get dull after a while. Sometimes I want to talk with someone intelligent, and sometimes I want to –” He broke off. Her mind was like that of a child; it wasn’t really right to impose such concepts on her.

“That’s the point,” he said. “I like variety. I would have trouble living with a stupid girl all the time — but you aren’t stupid all the time. Ugliness is no good for all the time — but you aren’t ugly all the time either. You are — variety. And that is what I crave for the long-term relationship — and what no other girl can provide.”

Cringe-inducingly adolescent though this take on guys and chicks might be — especially when one considers that it was written without any apparent irony by a 43-year-old man — it’s pretty harmless compared to where the Xanth novels went later on. Uncomfortably young girls get put in sexually charged situations, often with much older men, over and over. There’s little to no explicit sex — note where Bink “breaks off” in the extract above — but the subtext keeps getting more and more creepy. By 1992, Anthony felt free to entitle one of his Xanth novels The Color of Her Panties. At this point, it was hard to avoid the feeling that he was deliberately trolling the critics who had by now been calling him out for his books’ pervy subtexts for quite some time.

Still, Anthony’s allegedly prurient interest in his young female subjects would be much more speculative — and I would probably not be writing this article — were it not for those other, “adult” books of his. Many of these ooze the same disturbing fixations as the Xanth books, but are able to carry them through to, shall we say, consumation. Exhibit Number One in this category must be Firefly, a 1990 attempt at horror dealing primarily with what Anthony himself describes as “inflamed and perverted sexual desire.” It includes a lengthy sex scene between an adult man and a five-year-old girl, described in minute detail. In fact, the scene is another, rather horrifying example of Anthony’s habit of outsourcing the writing of his books: it came from an imprisoned pedophile with whom he corresponded. Anthony, in other words, literally published child porn. It’s quite simply the most disturbing thing I’ve ever read in a lifetime of prolific reading. Not even Mein Kampf bothers me like this. Needless to say, I won’t be quoting it here.

But, you counter, this was a horror novel, a genre meant to shock and transgress norms. Don’t confuse the author with the work, etc. And I might reluctantly agree with you, even if I didn’t have any personal desire to ever read anything by this writer again. But then comes the author’s note, in which Anthony justifies the rape of this five-old-girl because… she wanted it. She was asking for it, tempting the man who had sex with her into the deed. (Did I mention that she is five years old?) Her name is Nymph. (Did I mention that Anthony isn’t subtle?)

There seems to be a broad spectrum of human desire, and what we call normal is only the central component. It may be that the problem is not with what is deviant, but with our definitions. I suggest in the novel that little Nymph was abused not by the man with whom she had sex, but by members of her family who warped her taste, and by the society that preferred to condemn her lover rather than address the source of the problem in her family.

Those who feel that [the imprisoned pedophile’s] stories represent abnormal taste should read My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, which details some of the sexual fantasies of women. Neither is Nymph an invention; similar cases are all too frequent. These aspects were from my research rather than my imagination. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong; I merely hope to raise some social questions along with the entertainment provided in the novel. I suspect our priorities are confused. We have problems enough with world hunger and injustice, without making more by punishing people for deviant but perhaps harmless behavior.

Here we have it from the horse’s mouth. The rape of a five-year-old girl is “perhaps harmless.”

We often see this pattern of argument — the “hey, I’m just asking questions!” pattern — among those who wish to say something much of the society around them will consider reprehensible but who lack the courage to stand right up and do so. (You see it constantly, for example, in the toxic arena that is present-day American politics.) Added to all of the other circumstantial evidence swirling around Piers Anthony — his many almost-as provocative statements made in interviews; his correspondences with multiple imprisoned pedophiles, not just this one; the unending fascination with pubescent and prepubescent girls running through most of his novels — it raises a strong feeling that something is indeed wrong inside this fellow’s head. I should emphasize that I have no reason to believe that Anthony has ever acted on the urges in question, if they do in fact exist. Has he found a way to satisfy them through his writing instead? That would be a good thing, if so; the crime exists not in the unfortunate psychological kink of being a pedophile, but in acting upon it. Or, that is, it would be a good thing — if only his books weren’t being read.

Once you’ve seen these things, you can never unsee them. Anthony’s cherished relationships with his young fans — and again, I have no reason to believe he has ever abused their trust in any physical sense — takes on a new, creepy flavor. Suddenly all those long letters to the paralyzed girl, as collected in the book Letters to Jenny, begin to read disturbingly like… well, like he’s flirting with her. And suddenly we breathe a sigh of relief that the teenage runaway whose story was chronicled on This American Life was a boy rather than a girl. How much of this is real and how much is projection? It’s impossible to say. (Hey, I’m just asking questions…) I will say only this: please, read someone else’s books, and try to get your children to do so as well. I smell something rotten at the core of this writer’s output, and I know I’m not alone.


All of the foregoing ruminations were prompted by my ostensible “real” subject for today, the 1993 Legend Entertainment game Companions of Xanth. Ironically, I find myself with somewhat less to say about that subject than I do about Piers Anthony’s odd and disturbing career arc as a writer. The game is… reasonably good, actually, if hardly one of the most memorable works in the history of adventure gaming. The creepiness factor is kept surprisingly low under the circumstances, the humor is hit-and-miss but always good-natured, and the design, with one glaring exception which we’ll get to momentarily, is up to Legend’s usual high standard. Further, in one sense at least, the game represents a real landmark in Legend’s history: it marks the point where they finally dumped their parser and embraced the point-and-click paradigm, thus ushering in the second of the three broad phases of the company’s history and ushering out the age of the commercial text adventure writ large.

Companions of Xanth came to exist at all entirely thanks to Legend’s everyday composer and music programmer Michael Lindner, who also happened to be one of those rare readers who defy the usual age-circumscribed window of Xanth fandom; he had retained his affection for the series right into his adult years. He had first supplemented his usual duties at Legend with those of a writer and designer on 1992’s Gateway, a project consciously engineered by the company’s co-founder Bob Bates to serve as a sort of boot camp for training up new designers. Having duly completed that apprenticeship, Lindner begged for permission to make a Xanth game as his first project as a head designer. His managers obligingly made inquiries, and soon brought home a contract to make a game version of Piers Anthony’s latest Xanth novel-in-progress, which was to be titled Demons Don’t Dream. As was more usual than not for licensed projects like this, Lindner had very little direct contact with Anthony in the course of making the game. He largely had to content himself with pre-release proofs of the novel in question, whose plot the game he made follows fairly closely but not slavishly.

We can probably feel pleased for Anthony’s lack of involvement, in that it means that most of the pervier elements of Xanth are missing. While Anthony in his novel dwells at length over the “luscious young women” in the story, Lindner lays it on considerably less thickly.

The pervy aspects of Xanth aren’t overly prevalent in the game, but aren’t entirely absent either. You can look up “panties” in the in-game encyclopedia…

Still, the plot is rife with other Xanthian staples — not least the meta-fictional elements that had become such a hallmark of the series by this point, sixteen books in. Many of the jokes, situations, and characters in both the book and the game come courtesy of Anthony’s army of fans, who are scrupulously credited by name in the book’s author’s note. The most notable example of fan service is the character of Jenny Elf, based on the author’s young friend Jenny, the car-crash victim he wrote to at such length. (By this point, Anthony tells us in his author’s note, she had recovered from her paralysis sufficient to sit and even stand briefly without support. She would make further strides in the years to come, although she would never regain her full range of motion.) Jenny Elf, who is blessedly not overly sexualized even in the book, appears alongside Sammy Cat, the real girl’s favorite pet.

You yourself play as a teenage boy named Dug who lives in Mundania, the non-magical alternative to Xanth; Mundania, that is to say, is our world. As a hater of computer games, Dug has made a bet with his friend Ed that he won’t like one called Companions of Xanth. If his faith in the pointlessness of the gaming hobby holds true, he wins Ed’s motorcycle; if this game proves an exception to the rule, Ed gets a date with Dug’s estranged girlfriend. (“But what if she doesn’t want to go out with you?” asks Dug. “That’s a technicality we’ll deal with at the appropriate time,” answers Ed. Okay, the game isn’t totally without creepy elements…)

So, the earliest stages of the real Companions of Xanth require you to open this virtual Companions of Xanth and boot it up on your in-game computer. (Confused yet?) After some preliminaries, you get sucked through the monitor screen into Xanth. (That is to say, your character in the game you’re playing gets sucked through the monitor of the computer running the game he’s playing.)

Companions of Xanth resoundingly fails to put its best foot forward. Just as you’re about to enter Xanth and get started properly, it lives up to its name by asking you to choose a companion for your adventures from four possibilities. A nice little addition, this, you think to yourself, as you choose the companion that looks most interesting and entertaining. This must be a way to make the game replayable, a la Maniac Mansion. But nope! Think again! There’s just one “correct” companion to be chosen. Naturally, this being a Piers Anthony creation, that companion is the nubile serpent chick named Naga. If you make the supremely non-Xanthian move of choosing any of the others, the game lets you play for a few minutes longer, then dead-ends you; it’s time to restart or restore, my friend.

Such a colossal design fail is downright bizarre to see in a Legend game of this vintage. It struck me immediately that it must be an artifact of an earlier, more ambitious plan to offer four genuinely divergent experiences — a plan which got chopped down to size once the realities of time, labor, and money came home to roost. Unfortunately, neither Bob Bates nor Mike Verdu can recall what might have gone down here, and I haven’t been able to locate Michael Lindner. So, all we can do is speculate.

After a beginning like that, whatever the reason for its existence, one goes into the rest of Companions of Xanth decidedly nervous, wondering if it’s going to be one of those sorts of games. Thankfully, it isn’t; the aforementioned is its only real design pratfall. After it gets going properly, it evinces the meticulous commitment to fair play which the Legend brand was coming to stand for by 1993.

Much of the humor, and with it many of the puzzles, revolve around puns and wordplay, long a Xanth staple. Mind you, Companions of Xanth isn’t as clever as something like Infocom’s Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It in this respect. It is, after all, implicitly written for a less sophisticated audience, yet it can still be good fun in its own right. You’ll spend time here battling a censor ship, finding a way to get beyond the pail, and visiting the Fairy Nuff. Sometimes the puns go a little too far out on a limb — the “com-pewter,” an interactive compendium made out of pewter, is one example — but the puzzles themselves are always comprehensible, which is the most important thing. Only those who struggle a bit with idiomatic English in general, such as non-native speakers, are likely to have any major problems solving the game.

Companions of Xanth as a whole is as lightweight as the novels which inspired it. If it never quite dazzles, it never annoys overmuch either, at least once you get past that first hump, and it might even prompt a chuckle or two. It’s a sort of baseline standard game for Legend, never really managing to distinguish itself in either a positive or a negative way. Yet its interface did mark it as something truly new for the four-year-old company at the time of its release, and as such is perhaps worthy of more attention than the game it supports.

As I noted in my last article, in reality the parser disappeared more gradually than suddenly from Legend games; the full run of titles the company released between 1990 and 1993 shows a slow marginalization of the parser, until finally, beginning with Companions of Xanth, it just wasn’t there at all anymore. In fact, this same evolutionary process could be said not to have really ended even here. Although the move to point-and-click has forced the loss of that sense of infinite possibility that so delights people like me and Bob Bates, what remains here is about as text-adventure-like an interface as can be imagined under the new paradigm. Indeed, it smacks of the old ICOM Simulations interface from the mid-1980s, the industry’s earliest serious attempt to recast the classic adventure game in this mold, more so than it does the contemporary interfaces of Sierra and LucasArts. In a sense, one might even say, the parser still exists in this game. It’s just that you now build your imperative sentences with the mouse instead of the keyboard. Such an approach had always been an option in the earlier Legend games; now, it merely becomes a requirement.

Given that the screenshots of the interface included with this article are all but self-explanatory, I won’t dwell too long on its mechanics. Clicking a hotspot in the onscreen picture will highlight a default verb in the list on the left of the screen. Simply clicking on the hotspot again at this point will take that action, but you can also choose another verb from the list, if you wish. Many objects also have unique verbs which show up below the standard list when they’re highlighted; a rock, for example, might have an additional “throw” verb. And indirect objects are connected to certain actions; throwing the rock will require a third click, specifying what to throw it at. As you’re doing all of this, you see your command being built right there on the screen, just as if you were typing it in via a parser. It’s even possible to specify a verb first, then choose the object it acts upon, although this approach is of limited utility in that it doesn’t give you access to the special verbs connected to some objects.

All of which is to say that the new interface truly does represent another evolutionary rather than revolutionary technological step for Legend. What we have here is not a whole new game engine, bur rather the old one with a different front end. Once it gets past the stage of interpreting the player’s command, there’s less difference than you might expect between this Legend game and those that came before it.

This fact is most clearly illustrated in the screenshots by that little “Undo” button in the corner, something you would never — could never — see in a Sierra or LucasArts game. For those games run in real time, while Companions of Xanth, like a text adventure or an ICOM game, is still turn-based. This distinction has an enormous impact on the character of the game, reaching far beyond the welcome ability to instantly undo your last action when you get yourself killed or otherwise try something unfortunate. Legend games even after the parser went away have a more relaxed, contemplative, literary sensibility than the works of Legend’s peers. There’s still quite a lot of text here, and that text is still treated with unusual care and respect. It isn’t hard to divine, after playing around with one of their point-and-click games for just a few minutes, why Legend became the go-to studio for literary adaptations during the 1990s. While it had proved possible to take the type-in parser out of Legend’s engine, it was more difficult to take the literary spirit of the text adventure out of the company’s collective design aesthetic.

One holdover from text adventures that may not thrill some players is the maze…

This held true even when Legend was otherwise embracing the multimedia era with gusto. Although Eric the Unready and Gateway 2: Homeworld had both been released in CD-ROM versions prior to Companions of Xanth, those were mere repackagings of the floppy-disk-based versions into a more convenient format. But when the subject of this article appeared on CD-ROM about six months after its original floppy-based release, it sported voice acting for the first time in a Legend title. And yet even here the voice acting only covered words said by the characters you met; there was no global narrator. Such an approach felt very much in keeping with that overarching literary sensibility that so marked Legend’s work. In this game, and in the next several Legend games to come, you were still expected to do a lot of reading for yourself.

For the record, the voice acting that is to be found in the CD-ROM Companions of Xanth is excellent — an impressive feat considering that this was Legend’s first foray into such a thing. Even here, their first time out, they were wise enough to employ professional actors recruited from the local union for same and recorded at a professional sound studio. It’s obvious that the actors had fun with their roles; my favorite part of the whole game might just be the blooper reel of outtakes which plays over the closing credits.

In the end, though, I find myself torn on the subject of Companions of Xanth in a way I can’t recall being for any other game I’ve written about here. If it existed in a vacuum, shorn of its association with Piers Anthony, I would call it a fun, frothy little fantasy romp, a solid debut for a new interface which retains more of the spirit of the old than we might have dared to hope for. And I would be happy enough to leave it at that. But, even as I believe it’s wrong to judge art on external factors in the vast majority of cases, there are exceptions, and I’m not sure this isn’t one of them.

I don’t blame Legend in any sense for making this game. Many of the more worrisome aspects of Anthony’s oeuvre become obvious only in the aggregate; most or all of those who worked on this game at Legend doubtless believed that they were merely capitalizing on a popular, harmless series of lightweight fantasy books. And yet I do find myself wishing that they had chosen some other series, just as I wish any current readers of Xanth, young or old, would do likewise. In my role of critic, I can tell you that Companions of Xanth is a (mostly) well-constructed game that’s relatively inoffensive in itself. But should you play it? That is, as always — but perhaps here even more so than usual — something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

(Sources: the Piers Anthony books Bio of an Ogre, How Precious was that While, Letters to Jenny, Macroscope, A Spell for Chameleon, The Color of Her Panties, Firefly, and Demons Don’t Dream; Computer Gaming World of July 1993 and March 1994; Questbusters 108. My thanks go to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for talking with me about this period of Legend’s history — but I must emphatically state that all of the opinions expressed herein, especially of Piers Anthony and his work, are mine alone.

Companions of Xanth has not been re-released as a digital edition, doubtless owing to the complications involved with licensed titles. I’d prefer not to host it here due to my distaste for Piers Anthony, but you can find it elsewhere without too much trouble.)

 

BONUS:

The Compiled Life Wisdom of Piers Anthony, as Found in His Autobiographies



Writers like Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany got awards because of their sophistication as writers, which sophistication I do not question, but I was regarded from the outset as an entertainment writer. What I was doing was too complex and subtle, not only for others to understand, but for them even to realize that it existed.



The best guide for a book to avoid is an award winner.



I worried that I would not be able to write fantasy well without Lester del Rey’s editing. But instead it was like a burden lifting from my shoulders. Suddenly I was free of oppressive editing.



Then Lester tried to cut the entire Author’s Note from the fourth Incarnations novel, Wielding a Red Sword. He said it was too long, and anyway, they were in the business of publishing fiction, not nonfiction. This was the Note in which I described my computerization — I had until then written my novels in pencil and then typed them with a manual machine, so it was a significant step for me.



When I read Isaac Asimov’s massive two-volume autobiography I found it interesting, but concluded that the minutia of daily existence are seldom worth recording for posterity.



I dumped SFWA, and have remained hostile to it since. There is evidence that some of its members are still spreading falsehoods about me. If ever push comes to shove, I will put it out of business. Because today I have the resources to sue. All I need is the pretext.



I, like most boys, would have been capable of orgasm at any time in childhood, had I known how to masturbate.



A formula I invented for explaining the ways of publishers: TPB = SOD. What does it mean? Typical Publisher Behavior is Shitting On Dreams.



So are publishers really as rapacious and idiotic as they seem? Yes and no. Just as the intelligence and conscience of a lynch mob may be less than that of any individual person within it, so may the net savvy of a publisher be below that of any of its components.



I feel like a beautiful woman. That is, a lovely woman is pursued by many men — but when she mentions commitment, most of them vanish. Some vanish when they find they can’t get her into bed on the first date. Others vanish after they do get her into bed. So she becomes cynical; it is evident that most of those ardent suitors are insincere; all they want is her body for a night, rather than an enduring relationship, unless she happens to be rich. All the publishers really wanted from me was my best-selling series, Xanth — and those who lost it and those who got it tended to vanish as far as my other novels went.

I pondered, and my agent pondered, and it was my wife, who evidently understands the situation of beautiful women, who came up with an effective notion: link the one to the other. Make a package deal. So when the time for a new multi-novel Xanth contract came up, we put it to TOR: double or nothing. If this man wanted to get this woman in bed again, there would have to be marriage — though TOR’s chief editor is female, and I’m male.



[My wife and I] have what I call a conventional marriage: I earn the money, she spends it. In fact she keeps accounts and does the taxes, which are complicated. I decide on the big things, like the significance of world events, and she decides the small things, like everything else. I’m glad I married her, and believe that I would not be where I am today without her. But if I should find myself alone, I would then consider more carefully what else offers, with strong cautions from my life experience. Meanwhile I have a small category of correspondents I treat politely: those who profess or imply love for me.



Women of any age are interesting, and as a general rule, the younger a woman is, the more interesting she is, because natural selection dictates that the man who controls the greatest part of a woman’s fertile years will have the most children. A girl of twelve may have breasts and be a young woman in appearance; she is sexually desirable, regardless of law or custom. A girl of eleven may lack the breasts but be of similar general appearance, and her clothing masks her lack of maturity. So it is evident that some men aren’t concerned about the distinction, and go for the vagina regardless.



I have an insatiable curiosity about the nature of the universe and mankind’s place in it, and my profession of writing allows me to explore it all, seeking answers. I have fathomed a number of things to my satisfaction before they were clarified by the scientists.



Sometimes I’m stupid. This is annoying when I’m taking an IQ test.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Eric the Unready

In September of 1991, Bob Bates of Legend Entertainment flew to Florida for a meeting of the Software Publishers Association. One evening there after a long day on the job, still dressed in his business suit, he took a walk along the beach, enjoying a gorgeous sunset as he anticipated a relaxing dinner with his wife and infant son, who had joined him on the trip.

Yet his mind wasn’t quite as peaceful as was the scenery around him. He was in fact wrestling with a tension which everybody who does creative work for a living must face at some point: the tension between what the artist wants to create and what the audience wants to buy. Bob had made Timequest, his first game after co-founding Legend, as a self-conscious experiment, meant to determine whether a complicated, intricate, serious, difficult parser-driven adventure game was still a commercially viable proposition in 1991. The answer was, as Bob puts it today, “kind of”: Timequest hadn’t flopped utterly, but it hadn’t sold in notably big numbers either. Steve Meretzky’s decidedly lower-brow games Spellcasting 101 and 201, which had bookended Timequest on Legend’s release schedule, had both done considerably better. Bob had already started making notes for a Timequest II by the time the first one shipped, but he soon had to face the reality that the sales numbers just weren’t there to support more iterations on the concept.

Now, in the midst of his walk on the beach, a name sprang unbidden into his head: “Eric the Unready.” Such a gift from God — or from his subconscious — had never come to him before in that manner, and never would again. But no matter; once in a lifetime ought to be enough for anyone. He found the name hilarious, and chuckled to himself over it the rest of the way to the restaurant. At last, he knew what his next game would be: a straight-up farce about a really, really unready knight named Eric. With that decision made, he was ready to enjoy his evening.

The more he thought about the idea upon returning to daily life inside Legend’s Virginia offices, the more he realized that it had more going for it in practical terms than most rarefied bolts from the blue can boast. Indeed, it was an idea about which no marketer could possibly have complained, being well-nigh precision-targeted to hit the industry’s commercial sweet spot as accurately as any Legend title could hope to. If the success of Legend’s Spellcasting games hadn’t sufficiently proved to the company how potent a combination comedy and fantasy could be, there was plenty of other evidence on offer. Adventure gamers loved comedy, which was just as well given that it was the default setting the form always wanted to collapse back into, a gravitational attraction that could be defied by a designer only through serious, single-minded effort; these realities explained why Sierra made so many comedies, and why LucasArts’s adventure catalog contained very little else. And gamers in general just couldn’t get enough fantasy; this explained the quantity of dungeon-crawling CRPGs clogging store shelves, not to mention the success of Sierra’s King’s Quest adventure series. To complete the formula for sales gold, Bob soon decided that Eric the Unready would also toss aside all of Timequest‘s puzzle complexity to jump onto what Legend saw as another emerging industry trend: that of making adventure games friendlier, more accessible to the non-hardcore. In short, Bob’s latest game would be easy.

So, Eric the Unready was to be an unabashed bid for mainstream success, as safe a play as Legend knew how to make at this juncture. But such a practical commercial profile isn’t necessarily an artistic kiss of death; like all of the best of such efforts, Eric the Unready is executed with such panache that even a jaded old critic like me just can’t help but love it in spite of his snobbishness.

Inveterate student of history that he is, Bob’s first impulse upon starting any project is always to head to the library. In fact, one might say that his research for Eric the Unready began long before he even thought to make the game. The name itself actually has an historical antecedent, one which was doubtless bouncing around somewhere in the back of Bob’s mind when he had his brainstorm: Æthelred the Unready is the name of an English king from shortly before the Norman Conquest. The epithet had always amused Bob inordinately. (For the record: the word “unready” in this context means something closer to poorly advised than personally incompetent. Nevertheless, it was the latter, anachronistic meaning which Bob was about to embrace with glee.)

After the project began in earnest, Bob’s research instinct meant lots of reading of contemporary fantasy, a genre he had heretofore known little about. More out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm, he worked through Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman’s Dragonlance and Death Gate novels, Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, and even Stephen R. Donaldson’s terminally turgid Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

In the end, none of it would prove to have been necessary — and this was all for the best. Eric the Unready has little beyond its “fantasy” label in common with such po-faced epics. The milieu of the finished game is vaguely Arthurian, as you might expect of a game written by the Anglophile creator of Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. This time out, though, Bob tempered his interest in Arthurian myth with a willingness to toss setting and even plot coherence overboard at any time in the name of a good joke. As such, the game inevitably brings to mind a certain Monty Python movie — and, indeed, there is much of that beloved British comedy troupe in the game. Other strong influences which Bob himself names include Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and, hitting closer to home, Steve Meretzky.

The humor of Eric the Unready might best be summarized as “maximalism with economy.” Bob:

My [plots] were always meant to be scrupulously well-designed,. There was never a logical inconsistency. All of them were solidly constructed. But with Eric the Unready, I consciously said, “If I see the opportunity for a joke that doesn’t quite make sense, I’m going to do it anyway.” Toward the end of the project, I wondered how many jokes there were in Eric. I can remember counting that there were over a thousand of them. It’s just crammed full of funny material: in the newspapers, hidden in the conversations, hidden all over the place.

The economy comes in, however, with Eric the Unready‘s determination never to beat any single joke into the ground — something that even Steve Meretzky was prone to do in too much of his post-Infocom work. As Graham Nelson and others have pointed out, one of Infocom’s secret weapons was, paradoxical though it may sound, the very limitations of their Z-Machine. The sharply limited quantity of text it allowed, combined with the editorial oversight of Jon Palace, Infocom’s unsung hero, kept their writers from rambling on and on. But text had become cheap on the computers of the 1990s, and thus Legend’s software technology, unlike Infocom’s, allowed the author an effectively unlimited number of words — a dangerous thing for any writer. A Legend author was under no compulsion whatsoever to edit himself.

Luckily, Bob Bates’s dedication to doing the research came through for him here, in a way that ultimately proved far more valuable than his study of fantasy fiction. He had been interested in the mechanics and theory of comedy long before starting on the game, and now reread what some of the past masters of the form — people like Milton Berle and Johnny Carson — had to say about it. He recalled an old anecdote from the latter, which he paraphrases as, “Not everybody is going to like every joke. But if you can get 60 percent of the people to laugh at 60 percent of your jokes, you’re a success.” One of the funniest writers ever once noted in the same spirit that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Combining these two ideals, Bob’s approach to the humor in Eric the Unready became not to stress over or belabor anything. He would crack a joke, then be done with it and move on to the next one; rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. “There’s always another bus coming,” says Bob by way of summing up his comedy philosophy. “If you don’t get this one, don’t worry; you’ll get the next one.”

At this point, then, I’d like to share some of Eric the Unready‘s greatest comedic hits with you. One of the pleasures for me in revisiting this game a quarter-century on has been remembering all of the contemporary pop culture it references, pays homage to, or (more commonly) skewers. Thus many of the screenshots you see below are of that sort — wonderful for remembering the somehow more innocent media landscape of the United States during the immediate post-Cold War era, that window of peace and prosperity before history caught up with us again on September 11, 2001. (Why does the past always strike us as more innocent? Is it because we know what will come after, and familiarity breeds quaintness?)

But another of my agendas is to commemorate Legend’s talented freelance art team, whose work was consistently much better than we had any right to expect from such a small studio. Being a writer myself, I have a tendency to emphasize writing and design while giving short shrift to the visual aesthetics of game-making. So, let me remedy that for today at least. The quality of the artwork below is largely thanks to Tanya Isaacson and Paul Mock, Legend’s two most important artists, who placed their stamp prominently on everything that came out of the company during this period.


Each chapter includes a copy of the newspaper for that day. Together, they provide a running commentary on Eric’s misadventures of the previous chapters — and lots of opportunities for more jokes. Shay Addams, the publisher of the Questbusters newsletter and book series and a ubiquitous magazine commentator and reviewer, rivaled Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia for the title of most prominent of all the American adventure-game superfans who parleyed their hobbies into paychecks. (Scorpia as well showed up in games from time to time — perhaps most notably, as a poisonous monster in New World Computing’s Might and Magic III, her comeuppance for a negative review of Might and Magic II.) Alas, Addams disappeared without a trace about a year after Eric the Unready was published. Rumor had it that he took up a career as a professional gambler (!) instead.

A really old-school shout-out, to Scott Adams, the first person to put a text adventure on a microcomputer. “Yoho” was a magic word in his second and most popular game of all, Pirate Adventure.

The computer-game industry of the early 1990s still had some of the flavor of pre-Hays Code Hollywood. Even as parents and politicians were fretting endlessly over what Super Mario Bros. was doing to Generation Nintendo, computer games remained off their radar entirely. That would soon change, however, bringing with it the industry’s first attempts at content rating and self-censorship.

The “tastes great, less filling” commercials for Miller Lite were an inescapable presence on American television for almost two decades, placing athletes and B-list celebrities in ever more elaborate beer-drinking scenarios which always concluded with the same tagline. They still serve as a classic case study in marketing for the way they convinced stereotypically manly, sports-loving male beer drinkers that it was okay to drink a (gasp!) light beer.

We couldn’t possibly skip an explicit homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, could we?

Wheel of Fortune — and the bizarre French obsession with Jerry Lewis.

More risque humor…

David Letterman’s top-ten lists were a pop-culture institution for almost 35 years. Note the presence on this one of Vice President Dan Quayle, who once said that Mars had air and canals filled with water, and once lost a spelling bee to a twelve-year-old by misspelling “potato.”

Rob Schneider’s copy-machine guy was one of the more annoying Saturday Night Live characters to become an icon of his age…

Speaking of Saturday Night Live: in one of the strangest moments in the history of the show, the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor belted out a well-intentioned but ham-fisted a-capella scold against human-rights abuse in lieu of one of her radio hits. At the end of the song, she tore up a picture of the pope as a statement against the epidemic of child molestation and abuse in the Catholic Church.

Some of Miller Lite’s competition in terms of iconic beer commercials for manly men came in the form of Old Milwaukee and its “It just doesn’t get any better than this” tagline. (Full disclosure: Old Milwaukee was my dad’s brew of choice, I think mostly because it was just about the cheapest beer you could buy. I have memories of watching John Wayne movies on his knee, coveting the occasional sip of it I was vouchsafed.)

Madonna was at her most transgressive during this period: she had just released an album entitled Erotica and a coffee-table book of softcore porn entitled simply Sex. Looked back on today, her desperate need to shock seems more silly than threatening, but people reacted at the time as if the world was ending. (I should know; I was working at a record store when the album came out. Ah, well… even as an indie-rock snob, I had to recognize that her version of “Fever” slays.) Meanwhile the picture that accompanies the newspaper article above pays tribute to another pop diva: Grace Jones.

My favorite chapter has you exploring a “galaxy” of yet more pop-culture detritus with the unforgettable Captain Smirk, described as “250 pounds of captain stuffed into a 175-pound-captain’s shirt.” (This joke might just be my favorite in the whole game…)

Fantasy Island, in which a new collection of recognizable faces was gathered together each week to live out their deepest desires and learn some life lessons in the process, was one of the biggest television shows of the pop-culture era just before Eric the Unready, when such aspirational lifestyle fare set in exotic locations — see also Fantasy Island‘s more family-friendly sibling The Love Boat — was all the rage. It all really does feel oddly quaint and innocent today, doesn’t it?

Eric the Unready manages to combine all three of actor and decadent lifestyle icon Ricardo Montalbán’s most recognizable personas in one: as Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island, as Khan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and as a pitchman for Chrysler.

And at last we come to Gilligan’s Island, a place within a three-hour sailing tour of civilization which has nevertheless remained uncharted — the perfect scene for a sitcom as breathtakingly stupid as its backstory.


Eric the Unready is the first Legend game to fully embrace the LucasArts design methodology of no player deaths and no dead ends. Even if you deliberately try to throw away or destroy essential objects out of curiosity or sheer perversity, the game simply won’t let you; the object in question is always restored to you, often by means that are quite amusing in themselves. Just as in a LucasArts comedy, the sense of freedom this complete absence of danger provides often serves the game well, empowering you to try all sorts of crazy and funny things without having to worry that doing so will mean a trip back to your collection of save files. Unlike many LucasArts games, though, Eric the Unready doesn’t even try all that hard to find ways of presenting truly intriguing puzzles that work within its set of player guardrails. In fact, if there’s a problem with Eric the Unready, it must be that the game offers so little challenge; Bob Bates’s determination to make it the polar opposite of Timequest in this respect carried all the way through the project.

The game is really eight discrete mini-games. At the start of each of these “chapters,” Eric is dumped into a new, self-contained environment that exists independently of what came before or what will come later. By limiting the combinatorial-explosion factor, this structure makes both the designer’s and the player’s job much easier. Even within a chapter, however, there are precious few head-scratching moments. You’re told what you need to do quite explicitly, and then you proceed to do it in an equally straightforward manner — and that’s pretty much all there is to solving the game. Bob long considered it to be the easiest game by far he had ever designed. (He was, he noted wryly when I spoke to him recently, forced by popular demand to make his recent text adventure Thaumistry even easier, which serves as something of a commentary on the ways in which player expectations have changed over the past quarter-century.)

All that said, it should also be noted that Eric the Unready‘s disinterest in challenging its player was more of a problem at the time of its original release than it is today. Whatever their other justifications, difficult puzzles served as a way of gumming up the works for the player back in the day, keeping her from burning through a game’s content too quickly at a time when the average game’s price tag in relation to its raw quantity of content was vastly higher than today. Without challenging puzzles, a player could easily finish a game like Eric the Unready in less than five hours, in spite of its having several times the amount of text of the average Infocom game (not to mention the addition of graphics, music, and sound effects). At a retail price of $35 or $40, this was a real issue. Today, when the game sells as a digital download for a small fraction of that price, it’s much less of one. Modern distribution choices, one might say, have finally allowed Eric the Unready to be exactly the experience it wants to be without apologies.

Certainly Bob has fantastically good memories of making this game; he still calls it the most purely enjoyable creative endeavor of his life. Those positive vibes positively ooze out of the finished product. Yet there was a shadow lurking behind all of Bob’s joy, lending it perhaps an extra note of piquancy. For he knew fairly early in Eric the Unready‘s development cycle that this would be the last game of this type he would get to design for the foreseeable future. Legend, you see, was on the verge of dumping the parser at last.

They had fought the good fight far longer than any of their peers. By the time Eric the Unready shipped in January of 1993, Legend had been the only remaining maker of parser-based adventure games for the mainstream, boxed American market for over two years. As part of their process of bargaining with marketplace realities, they had done everything they could think of to accommodate the huge number of gamers who regarded the likes of an Infocom game much as the average contemporary movie-goer regarded a Charlie Chaplin film. In a bid to broaden their customers demographic beyond the Infocom diehards, Legend from the start had added an admittedly clunky method of building sentences by mousing through long menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions, along with copious multimedia gilding around the core text-adventure experience.

As budgets increased and the market grew still more demanding, Legend came to lean ever more heavily on both the mouse and their multimedia bells and whistles. By the time they got to Eric the Unready, their games was already starting to feel as much point-and-click as not, as the regular text-and-parser window got superseded for long stretches of time by animated cut scenes, by full-screen static illustrations, by mouseable onscreen documents, by mouse-driven visual puzzles. Even when the parser interface was on display, you could now choose to click on the onscreen illustrations of the scenes themselves instead of the words representing the things in them if you so chose.

Still, it was obvious that even an intermittent recourse to the parser just wouldn’t be tenable for much longer. In this new era of consumer computing, a command line had become for many or most computer users that inscrutable, existentially terrifying thing you got dumped into when something broke down in your Windows. The last place these people wanted to see such a thing was inside one of their games. And so the next step — that of dumping the parser entirely — was as logical as it was inevitable.

Eric the Unready wouldn’t quite be the absolute last of its breed — Legend’s Gateway 2: Homeworld would ship a few months after it — but it was the very last of Bob’s children of the type. Once Eric the Unready and Gateway 2 shipped, an era in gaming history came to an end. The movement that had begun when Scott Adams shipped the first copies of Adventureland on hand-dubbed cassette tapes for the Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1978 had run its course. Yes, there was a world of difference between Adams’s 16 K efforts with their two-word parsers and pidgin English and the tens of megabytes of multimedia splendor of an Eric the Unready or a Gateway 2, but they were all nevertheless members of the same basic gaming taxonomy. Now, though, no more games like them would ever appear again on the shelves of everyday software stores.

And make no mistake: something important — precious? — got lost when Legend finally dumped the parser entirely. Bob felt the loss as keenly as anyone; through all of his years in games which would follow, he would never entirely stop regretting it. Bob:

What you’re losing [in a point-and-click interface] is the sense of infinite possibility. There may still be a sense that there’s lots you can do, and you can still have puzzles and non-obvious interactions, but you’ve lost the ability to type anything you want. And it was a terrible thing to lose — but that’s the way the world was going.

I found the transition personally painful. That’s evidenced by the fact that I went back and wrote another parser-based game more than twenty years later. A large part of the joy of making this type of game for me is the sense that I’m the little guy in the box. It’s me and the player. The player senses my presence and feels like we’re engaged in this activity together. There’s a back-and-forthing — communication — between the two of us. It’s obviously all done on my part ahead of time, but the player should feel like there’s somebody behind the curtain, that it’s a live exchange. It should feel like somebody is responding as an individual to the player.

As Bob says, point-and-click games are … not necessarily worse, but definitely different. The personal connection with the designer is lost.

A long time ago now in what feels like another life, I entitled the first lengthy piece I ever wrote about interactive fiction “Let’s Tell a Story Together.” At its best, playing a text adventure really can feel like spending time one-on-one with a witty narrator, raconteur, and intellectual sparring partner. I would even go so far as to admit that text adventures have cured me of loneliness once or twice in my life. There’s nothing else in games comparable to this experience; only a great book might possibly compare, but even it lacks the secret sauce of interactivity. Indeed, text adventures may be the only truly literary form of computer game. Just as a book is the most personal, intimate form of traditional artistic expression, so is a text adventure its equivalent in interactive terms.

Granted, some of those qualities may initially be obscured in Eric the Unready by all the flash surrounding the command prompt. But embrace the universe of possibilities that are still offered up by that blinking cursor, sitting there asking you to try absolutely anything you wish to, and you’ll find that the spirit which changed the lives of so many of us when we encountered our first Infocom game lives on even here. Don’t just rush through the fairly trivial task of solving this game; try stuff, just to see what the little man behind the curtain says back. Trust me when I say that he’s very good company. One can only hope that all of those who bought Eric the Unready in 1993 appreciated him while he was still around.

(My huge thanks go to Bob Bates for setting aside yet another few hours to talk about the life and times of Legend circa 1992 to 1993.

Eric the Unready can be purchased on GOG.com. It’s well worth the money.)

 
 

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The Gateway Games of Legend (Preceded by the Legend of Gateway)

Frederik Pohl was still a regular speaker at science-fiction conventions in 2008.

Frederik Pohl, who died on September 2, 2013, at age 93, had one of the most multifaceted careers in the history of written science fiction. Almost uniquely, he played major roles in all three of the estates that constitute science fiction’s culture: the first estate of the creators, in which he wrote stories and novels over a span of many decades; the second estate of the publishers and other business interests, in which he served as a highly respected and influential agent, editor, and anthologist over a similar period of time; and the third estate of fandom, in which his was an important voice from the very dawn of the pulp era, and for which he never lost his enthusiasm, attending science-fiction conventions and casting his votes on fan committees right up to the end.

Growing up between the world wars in Brooklyn, New York, Pohl discovered the nascent literary genre of science fiction in 1930 at the age of 10, when he stumbled upon an issue of Science Wonder Stories. From that moment on, he spent his time at every opportunity with the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars and Doc Smith’s Lensmen — catnip for any red-blooded young boy with any sense of wonder at all. In comparison to other young science-fiction fanatics, however, Pohl stood out for his personableness, his ambition, his spirit of innovation, and his sheer commitment to the things he loved. He became a founding member of the Brooklyn Science Fiction League, one of the earliest instances of organized science-fiction fandom anywhere in the country, and by the ripe old age of 13 or so had become a prolific editor and publisher of fanzines, many of which enjoyed a total circulation reaching all the way into two figures.

The world of science fiction was indeed still a small one, but that had its advantages in terms of access, especially when one was fortunate enough to live in the pulp publishing capital that was New York City. The boundaries between science-fiction fan and the “profession” of science-fiction writer were porous, and by the latter half of the 1930s Pohl was hobnobbing with such luminaries as Isaac Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth in an informal club of like-minded souls who called themselves the Futurians. He stumbled into the job of acting as the Futurians’ literary agent, which entailed buying stamps and envelopes in bulk, mailing off his friends’ stories to every pulp publisher in the Big Apple, and collecting lots of rejection slips alongside the occasional letter of acceptance in the return post.

In 1939, a 19-year-old Frederik Pohl got himself an editor’s job at the pulp house Popular Publications by virtue of knocking on their door and asking for one. He was given responsibility for Astonishing and Super Science Stories, second-tier magazines that paid their writers a penny per word and trafficked in the stories that weren’t good enough for John W. Campbell’s Astounding, the class of the field. Most of the authors whose stories Pohl accepted are justifiably forgotten today, but he did get his hands every now and then on a sub-par offering from the likes of a Robert A. Heinlein or L. Sprague de Camp that Campbell had rejected; Pohl, alas, was in no position to be so choosy.

But then along came the Second World War to put everything on hold for a while. Pohl wound up joining the Army Air Force, and was rewarded with what he freely described as a “cushy” war experience, working as meteorologist for a B-24 squadron based in Italy. When he returned from Europe, he returned to publishing as well but, initially, not to science fiction. Now a married man with familial responsibilities, he worked for a few years as an advertising copywriter, then as an editor for the book adjuncts to the magazines Popular Science and Outdoor Life; this constitutes the only substantial period of his entire professional life spent outside science fiction.

Yet the pull of science fiction remained strong, and in the early 1950s Pohl resumed his old role of literary agent for his writer buddies, albeit now on a slightly more professional footing. The locus of science-fiction profits was moving from the pulps to paperback novels and short-story collections in book form; thus Pohl became an editor for Ballantine’s new line of science-fiction paperbacks. By this point, the name of Frederik Pohl, while still fairly obscure to most readers, was known to everyone inside the community of science-fiction writers. He really was on a first-name basis with everyone who was anyone in the field, from hard science fiction’s holy trinity of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke to lyrical science fiction’s patron saint Ray Bradbury.

In 1960, a 41-year-old Pohl accepted what was destined to become his most influential behind-the-scenes role of all when he agreed to become editor of a troubled ten-year-old also-ran of a magazine called Galaxy Science Fiction. “The pay was miserable,” he would later remember. “The work was never-ending. It was the best job I ever had in my life.”

At that time, science fiction was on the precipice of a new era, as a more culturally, racially, sexually, and stylistically diverse generation of up-and-coming writers — the so-called “New Wave” — began to arrive on the scene with a new interest in prose quality and formal experimentation, alongside an interest in exploring the future in terms of human psychology rather than technology alone. Many or most of the old guard who had cut their teeth in the pulp era, whose politics tended to veer conservative in predictable middle-aged-white-male fashion, greeted this invasion of beatnik radicals with dismay and contempt. The card-carrying John Birch Society member John W. Campbell, who was still editing Astounding — or rather, as it had recently been renamed, Analog Science Fiction — was particularly vocal in his criticism of all this new-fangled nonsense.

Frederik Pohl, however, was different from most of his peers. He had always read widely outside the field of science fiction as well as inside it, and was as comfortable discussing the stylistic experiments of James Joyce and Marcel Proust as he was the clockwork plots of Doc Smith. And as for politics… well, he had spent four years as a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party — take that, John Campbell! — and even after disillusionment with the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin had put an end to that phase he had retained his leftward bent.

In short: Frederik Pohl welcomed the new arrivals and their new ideas with open arms, making Galaxy a haven for works at the cutting edge of modern science fiction, superseding Campbell’s increasingly musty-smelling Analog as the genre’s journal of record. He had to, as he later put it, “encourage, coax, and sometimes browbeat” his charges to get the very best work out of them, but together they changed the face of science fiction. Indeed, it was arguably helping other writers be their best selves that constituted this multifariously talented man’s most remarkable talent of all. Perhaps his most difficult yet rewarding writer was the famously irascible Harlan Ellison, who burst to prominence in the pages of Galaxy and If, its sister publication, with stories whose names were as scintillatingly trippy as their contents: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.” Such stories were painfully shaped over the course of a series of bloody rows between editor and writer. Most readers would agree that Ellison’s later fiction has never approached the quality of these early stories, churned out under the editorship of Frederik Pohl.

Burned out at last by the job of editing Galaxy, Pohl stepped down at the end of the 1960s, a decade that had transformed the culture of science fiction every bit as much as it had the larger American culture that surrounded it. In the following decade, however, he continued to push the boundaries as an editor for Bantam Books. It was entirely thanks to him that Bantam in 1975 published Samuel R. Delany’s experimental masterpiece or colossal con job — depending on the beholder — Dhalgren, nearly 900 pages of digressive, circular prose heavily influenced by James Joyce’s equally controversial Finnegans Wake. Whatever else you could say about it, science fiction had come a long way from the days of Science Wonder Stories and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All of which is to say that Frederik Pohl would have made a major impact on the field of science fiction had he never written a word of his own. In actuality, though, he managed to combine all of the work I’ve described to this point with an ebbing and flowing output of original short stories and novels, beginning with, of all things, a rather awkwardly adolescent poem called “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1937. Through the ensuing decades, Pohl was regarded as a competent but second-tier writer, the kind who could craft a solid tale but seldom really dazzled. Yet he kept at it; if nothing else, continuing to work as a writer in his own right gave him a feeling for what the more high-profile writers he represented and edited were going through. In 1967, he even switched roles with his frenemy Harlan Ellison by contributing a story to the latter’s Dangerous Visions anthology, a collection of deliberately provocative stories — the sorts of things that could never, ever have gotten into print in earlier years — from New Age writers and adventurous members of the old guard; it went on to become what many critics consider the most important and influential science-fiction anthology of all time.

But even Pohl’s contribution there — “The Day After the Day After the Martians Came,” a parable about the eternal allure of racism and xenophobia that was well-taken then and now but far less provocative than many of the anthology’s other stories — didn’t really change perceptions of him as a fine editor with a sideline in writing rather than the opposite. That shift didn’t happen until a decade later, when the now 58-year-old Pohl published a novel called Gateway. Coming after the most important work of the vast majority of his pulpy peers was well behind them, Pohl’s 21st solely-authored or co-authored novel constitutes the most unlikely story of a late blooming in the history of science fiction.

Described in the broadest strokes, Gateway sounds like the sort of rollicking space opera which John W. Campbell would have loved to publish back in the heyday of Astounding. In our solar system’s distant past, when the primitive ancestors of humanity had yet to discover fire, an advanced star-faring race, later to be dubbed the Heechee by humans, visited, only to abandon their bases an unknown period of time later. As humans begin to explore and settle the solar system in our own near future, they discover a deserted Heechee space station in an elliptical orbit around our sun. They find that the station still contains bays full of hundreds of small spaceships, and discover the hard way that, at the press of a mysterious button, these spaceships sweep their occupants away on a non-negotiable faster-than-light journey to some other corner of the galaxy, then (hopefully) back to Earth at the press of another button; for this reason, they name the station Gateway, as in, “Gateway to the Stars.” Many of the destinations the spaceships visit are pointless; some, such as the interior of a black hole, are deadly. Sometimes, though, the spaceships travel to habitable planets and/or to planets containing other artifacts of Heechee technology, worth a pretty penny to scientists, engineers, and collectors back on Earth.

Earth itself is not in very good shape socially, culturally, or environmentally. Overpopulation and runaway capitalism have all but ruined the planet and created an underclass of have-nots who make up the vast majority of the population, working in unappetizing industries like “food shale mines.” The so-called Gateway Corporation, which has taken charge of the station, runs a lottery for people interested in climbing into a Heechee spaceship, pressing a button, and seeing where it takes them. Possibly they can end up rich; more likely, they might wind up dead, their bodies left to decay hundreds of light years from home. But, conditions being what they are among the teeming masses, there’s no shortage of volunteers ready and willing to take such a long shot. These intrepid — or, rather, desperate — explorers are known as the Gateway “prospectors.”


That, then, is the premise —  a premise offering a universe of possibility to any writer with an ounce of the old pulpy space-opera spirit. Who are (or were) the Heechee? Why did they disappear? Did they intend for humans to discover their technology and start using it to explore the galaxy, or is that just a happy (?) accident? Will the two races meet someday? Or, if you like, table all those Big Mysteries for some series finale off in the far distance. Just the premise of flying off to parts unknown in all these Heechee spaceships admits of an infinite variety of adventures. Gene Roddenberry may have once famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” but the starship Enterprise has got nothing on this idea.

Here’s the thing, though: having come up with this spectacular idea that the likes of a Doc Smith could have spent an entire career milking, Frederik Pohl perversely refused to turn it into the straightforward tales of interstellar adventure that it was crying out to become. Gateway engages with it instead only in the most subversively oblique fashion. Half of the novel consists of a series of therapy sessions involving a robot psychologist and a Gateway prospector named Robinette Broadhead who’s neither conventionally adventurous nor even terribly likable. Robinette is the only survivor — under somewhat suspicious circumstances — of a recent five-person prospecting expedition. He’s now rich, but he’s also a deeply damaged soul, just one of the many who inhabit Gateway, a rather squalid place beset by rampant drug abuse, a symptom of the literal dead-enders who inhabit it between prospecting voyages. We spend far more time exploring the origins and outcomes of Robinette’s various psycho-sexual hangups than we do gallivanting about the stars. It’s as if we wandered into a Star Trek movie and got an Ingmar Bergman film that just happens to be set in space instead. Gateway is a shameless bait-and-switch of a novel. Robinette Broadhead, I’m afraid, lost his sense of wonder a long time ago, and it seems that he took Frederik Pohl’s as well.

The best way to understand Gateway may be through the lens of the times in which it was written: this is very much a novel of the 1970s, that long, hazy morning after to the rambunctious 1960s. The counterculture of the earlier decade had focused on collective struggles for social justice, but the 1970s turned inward to focus on the self. Images of feminist activists like Betty Friedan shouting through bullhorns at rallies were replaced in the media landscape with the sitcom character Mary Tyler Moore, the career gal who really did have it all; rollicking songs of mass protest were replaced by the navel-gazing singer-songwriter movement; the term Me Generation was coined, and suddenly everyone seemed to be in therapy of one kind or another, trying to sort out their personal issues instead of trying to fix society writ large. Meanwhile a pair of global oil crises, acid rain, and the thick layer of smog that hovered continually over Hollywood — the very city of dreams itself — were driving home for the first time what a fragile place this planet of ours actually is. Oh, well… on the brighter side, if you were into that sort of thing, lots of people were having lots and lots of casual sex, still enjoying the libertine sexual mores of the 1960s before the specter of AIDS would rear its head and put an end to all that as well in the following decade.

It’s long been a truism among science-fiction critics that this genre which is ostensibly about our many possible futures usually has far more interesting things to say about the various presents that create it. And nowhere is said truism more true than in the case of Gateway. For better or for worse, all of the aspects of fashionable 1970s culture which I’ve just mentioned fairly leap off its pages: the therapy and accompanying obsessive self-examination, the warnings about ecology and environment, the sex. It was so in tune with its times that the taste-makers of science fiction, who so desperately wanted their favored literary genre to be relevant, able to hold its head up proudly alongside any other, rewarded the novel mightily. Gateway won pretty much everything it was possible for a science-fiction novel to win, including its year’s Hugo and Nebula, the most prestigious awards in the genre; it sold far better than anything else Frederik Pohl had ever written; it made Pohl, four decades on from publishing that first awkward adolescent poem in Amazing Stories, a truly hot author at last.

The modern critical opinion tends to be more mixed. In fact, Gateway stands today as one of the more polarizing science-fiction novels ever written. Plenty of readers find its betrayal of its brilliant space-operatic setup unforgivable, and/or find its unlikable, self-absorbed protagonist insufferable, and/or find its swinging-70s social mores and dated ideas about technology simply silly. I confess that I myself largely belong to this group, although more for the latter two reasons than the first. Other readers, though, continue to find something hugely compelling about the novel that’s never quite come through for me. And yet even some of this group might agree that some aspects of Gateway haven’t aged terribly well. With some of the best writers in the world now embracing or at least acknowledging science fiction as as valid a literary form as any other, the desperate need to prove the genre’s literary bona fides at every turn that marked the 1960s and 1970s no longer exists. Gateway today feels like it’s trying just a bit too hard.

In at least one sense, Gateway did turn into a case of business as usual for a popular genre novel: Frederik Pohl published three sequels plus a collection of Gateway short stories during the 1980s. These gradually peeled back the layers of mystery to reveal who the Heechee were, why they had once come to our solar system, and why they had left, using the same oblique approach that had so delighted and infuriated readers of the first book. None of them had the same lightning-in-a-bottle quality as that first book, however, and Pohl’s reputation gradually declined back to join the mid-tier authors with which he had always been grouped prior to 1977. Perhaps in the long run that was simply where he belonged — a solid writer of readable, enjoyable fiction, but not one overly likely to shift any paradigms inside a reader’s psyche.

At any rate, such was the position Pohl found himself in in early 1991, when Legend Entertainment came calling with a plan to make a computer game out of Gateway.


As a tiny developer and publisher in a fast-growing, competitive industry, Legend was always doomed to lead a somewhat precarious existence. Nevertheless, the first months of 1991 saw them having managed to establish themselves fairly well as the only company still making boxed parser-driven adventure games — the natural heir to Infocom, co-founded by an ex-Infocom author named Bob Bates and publishing games written not only by him but also by Steve Meretzky, the most famous Infocom author of all. Spellcasting 101, the latter’s fantasy farce that had become Legend’s debut product the previous year, was selling quite well, and a sequel was already in the works, as was Timequest, a more serious-minded time-travel epic from Bates.

Taking stock of the situation, Legend realized that they needed to increase the number of games they cranked out in order to consolidate their position. Their problem was that they only had two game designers to call upon, both of whom had other distractions to deal with in addition to the work of designing new Legend adventure games: Bates was kept busy by the practical task of running the company, while Meretkzy was working from home as a freelancer, and as such was also doing other projects for other companies. A Legend “Presentation to Stockholders” dated May of 1991 makes the need clear: “We need to find new game authors,” it states under the category of “Product Issues.” Luckily, there was already someone to hand — in fact, someone who had played a big part in drawing up the very document in question — who very much wanted to design a game.

Mike Verdu had been Bates’s partner in Legend Entertainment from the very beginning. Although not yet out of his twenties, he was already an experienced entrepreneur who had founded, run, and then sold a successful business. He still held onto his day job with ASC, the computer-services firm with many Defense Department contracts which had acquired the aforementioned business, even as he was devoting his evenings and weekends to Legend. Verdu:

I was the business guy. I was the CFO, the COO, the guy who went and got money and made sure we didn’t run out of it, who figured out the production plans for the products, tried to get them done on time, figured out the milestone plans and the software-development plans. I was a product guy inasmuch as I was helping to hire programmers and putting them to work, but I wasn’t a game designer, and I wasn’t writing code or being the creative director on products. And I really wanted to do that.

So, there was this moment when I had to decide between continuing to work with ASC and doing Legend part time or doing Legend full time. I decided to do Legend full time. But as a condition of that, I said, “I’d like to be a part of the teams that are actually making the games.”

But I didn’t believe I had the chops to create a whole world and write a game from scratch. I was sort of looking for a world I could tell a story in. So I talked to Bob about licensing. I was incredibly passionate about Frederik Pohl’s novels. So we talked about Gateway, and Bob made the connection and negotiated the deal. It went so much smoother and easier than I thought it would. I was so excited!

The negotiations were doubtless sped along by the fact that the bloom was already somewhat off the rose when it came to Gateway. The novel’s sequels had been regarded by even many fans of the original as a classic case of diminishing returns, and the whole body of work, which so oozed that peculiar malaise of the 1970s, felt rather dated when set up next to hipper, slicker writers of the 1980s like William Gibson. Nobody, in short, was clamoring to license Gateway for much of anything by this point, so a deal wasn’t overly hard to strike.

Just like that, Mike Verdu had his world to design his game in, and Legend was about to embark on their first foray into a type of game that would come to fill much of their catalog in subsequent years: a literary license. For this first time out, they were fortunate enough to get the best kind of literary license, short of the vanishingly rare case of one where an active, passionate author is willing to serve as a true co-creator: the kind where the author doesn’t appear to be all that interested in or even aware of the project’s existence. Mike Verdu never met or even spoke to Frederik Pohl in the process of making what would turn out to be two games based on his novels. He got all the benefits of an established world to play in with none of the usual drawbacks of having to ask for approval on every little thing.

Yet the Gateway project didn’t remain Verdu’s baby alone for very long. Bates and Verdu, eager to expand their stable of game designers yet further, hit upon the idea of using it as a sort of training ground for other current Legend employees who, like Verdu, dreamed of breaking into a different side of the game-development business. Verdu agreed to divide his baby into three pieces, taking one for himself and giving the others to Glen Dahlgren, a Legend programmer, and to Michael Lindner, the company’s music-and-sound guru. All would work on their parts under the loose supervision of the experienced Bob Bates, who stood ready to gently steer them back on course if they started to stray. Verdu:

We learned how to write code. We learned the craft of interactive-fiction design from Bob, then we would huddle as a group and hash out the storylines and puzzles for our respective sections of the game, then try to tie them all together. That was one of the best times of my career, turning from a defense-industry executive into a game designer who could write code and bring a game to life. Magical… incredibly great!

You were writing, compiling, and testing in this constant iteration. You would write something, then you would see the results, then repeat. I think that was the most powerful flow state I’ve ever been in. Hours would just evaporate. I’d look up at four in the morning and there’d be nobody in the office: Good God, where did the last eight hours go? It was a wonderful creative process.

It was an unorthodox, perhaps even disjointed way to make a game, but the Legend Trade School for Game Design worked out beautifully. When it shipped in the summer of 1992, Gateway was by far the best thing Legend had done to that point: a big, generous, well-polished game, with lots to see and do, a nice balance between plot and free-form exploration, and meticulously fair puzzle design. It’s the adventure-game equivalent of a summer beach read, a page turner that just keeps rollicking along, ratcheting up the excitement all the while. It isn’t a hard game, but you wouldn’t want it to be; this is a game where you just want to enjoy the ride, not scratch your head for long periods of time over its puzzles. It even looks much better than the occasionally garish-looking Legend games which came before it, thanks to the company’s belated embrace of 256-color VGA graphics and their growing comfort working with multimedia elements.

You might already be sensing a certain incongruity between this description of Gateway the game and my earlier description of Gateway the novel. And, indeed, said incongruity is very much present. A conventional object-oriented adventure game is hardly the right medium for delving deep into questions of individual psychology. A player of a game needs a through line to follow, a set of concrete goals to achieve; this explains why adventure games share their name with adventure fiction rather than literary fiction. Do you remember how I described Gateway the novel as setting up a perfect space-opera premise, only to obscure it behind therapy sessions and a disjointed, piecemeal approach to its narrative? Well, Gateway the game becomes the very space opera that the novel seemed to promise us, only to jerk it away: a big galaxy-spanning romp that Doc Smith could indeed have been proud of. Mike Verdu, the designer most responsible for the overarching structure of the game, jettisoned Pohl’s sad-sack protagonist along with all of his other characters. He also dispensed with the foreground plot, such as it is, about personal guilt and responsibility that drives the novel. What he was left with was the glorious wide-frame premise behind it all.

The game begins with you, a lucky (?) lottery winner from the troubled Earth, arriving at Gateway Station to take up the job of prospector. In its first part, written by Mike Verdu, you acclimate to life on the station, complete your flight training, and go on your initial prospecting mission. In the second part, written by Michael Lindner, you tackle a collection of prospecting destinations in whatever order you prefer, visiting lots of alien environments and assembling clues about who the Heechee were and why they’ve disappeared. In part three, written by Glen Dahlgren, you have to avert a threat to Earth posed by another race of aliens known as the Assassins — that race being the reason, you’ve only just discovered to your horror, that the Heechee went into hiding in the first place. The plot as a whole is expansive and improbable and, yes, more than a little silly. In other words, it’s space opera at its best. There’s nothing wrong with a little pure escapism from time to time.

Gateway the game thus becomes, in my opinion anyway, an example of a phenomenon more common than one might expect in creative media: the adaptation that outdoes its source material. It doesn’t even try to carry the same literary or thematic weight that the novel rather awkwardly stumbles along under, but by way of compensation it’s a heck of a lot more fun. As an adaptation, it fails miserably if one’s criterion for success is capturing the unadulterated flavor and spirit of the source material. As a standalone adventure game, however, it’s a rollicking success.

Legend had signed a two-game deal with Frederik Pohl right from the start, and had always intended to develop a sequel to Gateway if its sales made that idea viable. And so, when the first Gateway sold a reasonable 35,000 units or so, Gateway II: Homeworld got the green light. Michael Lindner had taken on another project of his own by this point, so Mike Verdu and Glen Dahlgren divided the sequel between just the two of them, each taking two of the sequel’s four parts.

Reaching stores almost exactly one year after its predecessor, Gateway II became both the last parser-driven adventure Legend published and the last boxed game of that description from any publisher — a melancholy milestone for anyone who had grown up with Infocom and their peers during the previous decade. The text adventure would live on, but it would do so outside the conventional computer-game industry, in the form of games written by amateurs and moonlighters that were distributed digitally and usually given away rather than sold. Never again would anyone be able to make a living from text adventures.

As era enders go, though, Gateway II: Homeworld is pretty darn spectacular, with all the same strengths as its predecessor. In its climax, you finally meet the Heechee themselves on their hidden homeworld — thus the game’s subtitle — and save the Earth one final time while you’re at it. It’s striking to compare the driving plot of this game with the static collections of environments and puzzles that had been the text adventures of ten years before. The medium had come a long way from the days of Zork. This isn’t to say that Legend’s latter-day roller-coaster text adventures, sporting music, cut scenes, and heaps of illustrations, were intrinsically superior to the traditional approach — but they certainly were impressive in their degree of difference, and in how much fun they still are to play in their own way.

One thing that Zork and the Gateway games do share is the copious amounts of love and passion that went into making them. Unlike so many licensed games, the Gateway games were made for the right reasons, made by people who genuinely loved the universe of the novels and were passionate about bringing it to life in an interactive medium.

For Mike Verdu, Michael Lindner, and Glen Dahlgren, the Gateway games did indeed mark the beginning of new careers as game designers, at Legend and elsewhere. The story of Verdu, the business executive who became a game designer, is particularly compelling — almost as compelling, one might even say, as that of Frederik Pohl, the mid-tier author, agent, and editor who briefly became the hottest author in science fiction almost five decades after he decided to devote his life to his favorite literary genre, in whatever capacity it would have him. Both men’s stories remind us that, for the lucky among us at least, life is long, and as rich as we care to make it, and it’s a shame to spend it all doing just one thing.

Gateway and Gateway II: Homeworld in Pictures


Gateway employs Legend’s standard end-stage-commercial-text-adventure interface, with music and sound and graphics and several screen layouts to choose from, straining to satisfy everyone from the strongly typing-averse to the purists who still scoff at anything more elaborate than a simple stream of text and a blinking command prompt.

Mike Verdu wanted a license to give him an established world to play with. Having gotten his wish, he used it well. Gateway puts enormous effort into making its environment a rich, living place, building upon what is found in Frederik Pohl’s novels. Much of this has nothing to do with the puzzles or other gameplay elements; it’s there strictly to add to the experience as a piece of fiction. Thanks to an unlimited word count and heaps of new multimedia capabilities, it outdoes anything Infocom could ever have dreamed of doing in this respect.

We spend a big chunk of Gateway II in a strange alien spaceship — the classic “Big Dumb Object” science-fiction plot, reminding us not just of classic novels but of earlier text adventures like Infocom’s Starcross and Telarium’s adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama. In fact, there are some oddly specific echoes of the former game, such as a crystal rod and a sort of zoo of alien lifeforms to deal with. That said, you’ll never mistake one game for the other. Starcross is minimalist in spirit and presentation, a cerebral exercise in careful exploration and puzzle-solving, while Gateway II is just a big old fun-loving thrill ride, full of sound and color, that rarely slows down enough to let you take a breath. I love them both equally.

Many of the illustrations in Gateway II in particular really are lovely to look at, especially when one considers the paucity of resources at Legend’s disposal in comparison to bigger adventure developers like Sierra and LucasArts. There were obviously some fine artists employed by Legend, with a keen eye for doing more with less.

Some of the cut scenes in Gateway II are 3D-modeled. Such scenes were becoming more and more common in games by 1993, as computing hardware advanced and developers began to experiment with a groundbreaking product called 3D Studio. The 3D Revolution, which would change the look and to a large extent the very nature of games as the decade wore on, was already looming in the near distance.

The parser disappeared from Legend’s games not so much all at once as over a series of stages. By Gateway II, the last Legend game to be ostensibly parser-based, conversations and even some puzzles had become purely point-and-click affairs for the sake of convenience and variety. It already feels like you spend almost as much time mousing around as you do typing, even if you don’t choose to use the (cumbersome) onscreen menus of verbs and nouns to construct your commands for the parser. Having come this far, it was a fairly straightforward decision for Legend to drop the parser entirely in their next game. Thus do most eras end — not with a bang but with a barely recognized whimper. At least the parser went out on a high note…

(Sources: I find Frederik Pohl’s memoir The Way the Future Was, about his life spent in science fiction, more compelling than his actual fiction, as I do The Way the Future Blogs, an online journal which he maintained for the last five years or so of his life, filling it with precious reminiscences about his writing, his fellow authors, his nearly century-spanning personal life, and his almost equally lengthy professional career in publishing and fandom. I’m able to tell the Legend Entertainment side of this story in detail thanks entirely to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu, both of whom sat down for long interviews, the former of whom also shared some documents from those times.

Feel free to download the games Gateway and Gateway II, packaged to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on your modern computer, from right here. As noted in the article proper, they’re great rides that are well worth your time, two of the standout gems of Legend’s impressive catalog.)

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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