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System Shock

We approached games as immersive simulations. We wanted to build game environments that reacted to player’s decisions, that behaved in natural ways, and where players had more verbs than simply “shoot.” DOOM was not an influence on System Shock. We were trying something more difficult and nuanced, [although] we still had a lot of respect for the simplicity and focus of [the id] games. There was, to my recollection, a vague sense of fatalism about the parallel tracks the two companies were taking, since it was clear early on that id’s approach, which needed much less player education and which ran on adrenaline rather than planning and immersion, was more likely to be commercially successful. But we all believed very strongly in Looking Glass’s direction, and were proud that we were taking games to a more cerebral and story-rich place.

— Dorian Hart

We hope that our toiling now to make things work when it is still very hard to do effectively will mean that when it is easier to do, we can concentrate on the parts of the game that are less ephemeral than polygons per second, and distinguish ourselves by designing detailed and immersive environments which are about more than just the technology.

— Doug Church

In late 1992, two separate studios began working on two separate games whose descriptions sound weirdly identical to one another. Each was to make you the last human survivor on a besieged space station. You would roam its corridors in real time in an embodied first-person view; both studios prided themselves on their cutting-edge 3D graphics technology. As you explored, you would have to kill or be killed by the monsters swarming the complex. Yet wresting back control of the station would demand more than raw firepower: in the end, you would have to outwit the malevolent intelligence behind it all. Both games were envisioned as unprecedentedly rich interactive experiences, as a visceral new way of living through an interactive story.

But in the months that followed, these two projects that had started out so conceptually similar diverged dramatically. The team that was working on DOOM at id Software down in Dallas, Texas, decided that all of the elaborate plotting and puzzles were just getting in the way of the simpler, purer joys of blowing away demons with a shotgun. Lead programmer John Carmack summed up id’s attitude: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” id discovered that they weren’t really interested in making an immersive virtual world; they were interested in making an exciting game, one whose “gameyness” they felt no shame in foregrounding.

Meanwhile the folks at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based studio Looking Glass Technologies stuck obstinately to their original vision. They made exactly the uncompromising experience they had first discussed, refusing to trade psychological horror in for cheaper thrills. System Shock would demand far more of its players than DOOM, but would prove in its way an even more rewarding game for those willing to follow it down the moody, disturbing path it unfolded.

It was in this moment, then, that the differences between id and Looking Glass, the yin and the yang of 1990s 3D-graphics pioneers, became abundantly clear.



Looking Glass arrived at their crossroads moment just as they were completing their second game, Ultima Underworld II. Both it and its predecessor were first-person fantasy dungeon crawls set in and around Britannia, the venerable world of the Ultima CRPG series to which their games served as spinoffs. And both were very successful, so much so that they almost overshadowed Ultima VII, the latest entry in the mainline series. Looking Glass’s publisher Origin Systems would have been happy to let them continue making games in this vein for as long as their customers kept buying them.

But Looking Glass, evincing the creative restlessness that would define them throughout their existence, was ready to move on to other challenges. In the months immediately after Ultima Underworld II was completed, the studio’s head Paul Neurath allowed his charges to start three wildly diverse projects on the back of the proceeds from the Underworld games, projects which were unified only by their heavy reliance on 3D graphics. One was a game of squad-level tactical combat called Terra Nova, another a civilian flight simulator called Flight Unlimited. And the third — actually, the first of the trio to be officially initiated — was System Shock.

Doug Church, the driving creative force behind Ultima Underworld, longed to create seamless interactive experiences, where you didn’t so much play a game as enter into its world. The Underworld games had been a big step in that direction within the constraints of the CRPG form, thanks to their first-person, free-scrolling perspective, their real-time gameplay, and, not least, the way they cast you in the role of a single embodied dungeon delver rather than that of the disembodied manager of a whole party of them. But Church believed that there was still too much that pulled you out of their worlds. Although the games were played entirely from a single screen, which itself put them far ahead of most CRPGs in terms of immediacy, you were still switching constantly from mode to mode within that screen. “I felt that Underworld was sort of [four] different games that you played in parallel,” says Church. “There was the stats-based game with the experience points, the inventory-collecting-and-managing game, the 3D-moving-around game, and there was the talking game — the conversation-branch game.” What had seemed so fresh and innovative a couple of years earlier now struck Church as clunky.

Ironically, much of what he was objecting to is inherent to the CRPG form itself. Aficionados of the genre find it endlessly enjoyable to pore over their characters’ statistics at level-up time, to min-max their equipment and skills. And this is fine: the genre is as legitimate as any other. Yet Church himself found its cool intellectual appeal, derived from its antecedents on the tabletop which had no choice but to reveal all of their numbers to their players, to be antithetical to the sort of game that he wanted to make next:

In Underworld, there was all this dice rolling going on off-screen basically, and I’ve always felt it was kind of silly. Dice were invented as a way to simulate swinging your sword to see if you hit or miss. So everyone builds computer games where you move around in 3D and swing your sword and hit or miss, and then if you hit you roll some dice to simulate swinging a sword to decide if you hit or miss. How is anyone supposed to understand unless you print the numbers? Which is why, I think, most of the games that really try to be hardcore RPGs actually print out, “You rolled a 17!” In [the tabletop game of] Warhammer when you get a five-percent increase and the next time you roll your attack you make it by three percent, you’re all excited because you know that five-percent increase is why you hit. In a computer game you have absolutely no idea. And so we really wanted to get rid of all that super opaque, “I have no idea what’s going on” stuff. We wanted to make it so you can watch and play and it’s all happening.

So, there would be no numbers in his next game — no character levels, no character statistics, not even quantifiable hit points. There would just be you, right there in the world, without any intervening layers of abstraction.

Over the course of extensive discussions involving Doug Church himself, Paul Neurath, Looking Glass designer and writer Austin Grossman, and their Origin Systems producer Warren Spector, it was decided to make a first-person science-fiction game with distinct cyberpunk overtones, pitting you against an insane computer known as SHODAN. Cyberpunk was anything but a novelty in the games of the 1990s, a time when authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson all occupied prominent places on the genre-fiction bestseller charts and the game developers who read their novels rushed to bring their visions to life on monitor screens. Still, cyberpunk would suit Looking Glass’s purposes unusually perfectly by presenting a credible explanation for the diegetic interface Church was envisioning. You would play a character with a neural implant that let you “see” a heads-up display sporting a life bar for yourself, an energy bar for your weapons and other hardware, etc. — all of it a part of the virtual world rather than external to it. When you switched between “modes,” such as when bringing up the auto-map or your inventory display, it would be the embodied you who did so in the virtual world, not that other you who sat in front of the computer telling a puppet what to do next.

System Shock‘s commitment to its diegetic presentation is complete. As you discover new software and gadgets, they’re added to the heads-up display provided by your in-world neural implant. This serves the same purpose that leveling up did in Ultima Underworld, but in a more natural, realistic way.

Dissatisfied with what he saw as the immersion-killing conversation trees of Ultima Underworld, Church decided to get rid of two-way conversation altogether. When the game began, there would be enticing signs that other humans were still alive somewhere on the space station, but you would be consistently too late to reach them; you would encounter them only as the zombies SHODAN turned them into after death. Of course, all of this too was highly derivative, and on multiple levels at that. Science-fiction fans had been watching their heroes take down out-of-control computers since the original Star Trek television series if not before; “I don’t think if you wrote the novel [of System Shock] it would fly off the shelves,” admits Church. Likewise, computer games had been contriving ways to place you in deserted worlds, or in worlds inhabited only by simple-minded creatures out for your blood, for as long as said games had existed, always in order to avoid the complications of character interaction; the stately isolation of the mega-hit adventure game Myst was only the most recent notable example of the longstanding tradition at the time System Shock was in development.

But often it’s not what you do in any form of media, it’s how well you do it. And System Shock does what it sets out to do very, very well indeed. It tells a story of considerable complexity and nuance through the artifacts you find lying about as you explore the station and the emails you receive from time to time, allowing you to piece it all together for yourself in nonlinear fashion. “We wanted to make the plot and story development of System Shock be an exploration as well,” says Church, “and that’s why it’s all in the logs and data, so then it’s very tied into movement through the spaces.”

Reading a log entry. The story is conveyed entirely through epistolary means like these, along with occasional direct addresses from SHODAN herself that come booming through the station’s public-address system.

Moving through said spaces, picking up bits and pieces of the horrible events which have unfolded there, quickly becomes highly unnerving. The sense of embodied realism that clings to every aspect of the game is key to the sense of genuine, oppressive fear it creates in its player. Tellingly, Looking Glass liked to call System Shock a “simulation,” even though it simulates nothing that has ever existed in the real world. The word is rather shorthand for its absolute commitment to the truth — fictional truth, yes, but truth nevertheless — of the world it drops you into.

Story is very important to System Shock — and yet, in marked contrast to works in the more traditionally narrative-oriented genre of the adventure game, its engine also offers heaps and heaps of emergent possibility as you move through the station discovering what has gone wrong here and, finally, how you might be able to fix it. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go do this sequence of four things,'” says Church. “It was, ‘Well, there are going to be twelve cameras here and you gotta take out eight of them. Figure it out.’ We [also] gave you the option [of saying], ‘I don’t want to fight that guy. Okay, maybe I can find another way…'”

Thus System Shock manages the neat trick of combining a compelling narrative with a completely coherent environment that never reduces you to choosing from a menu of options, one where just about any solution for any given problem that seems like it ought to work really does work. Just how did Looking Glass achieve this when so many others before and since have failed, or been so daunted by the challenges involved that they never even bothered to try? They did so by combining technical excellence with an aesthetic sophistication to which few of their peers could even imagine aspiring.

Just as the 3D engine that powers Ultima Underworld is more advanced than the pseudo-3D of id’s contemporaneous Wolfenstein 3D, the System Shock engine outdoes DOOM in a number of important respects. The enormous environments of System Shock curve over and under and around one another, complete with sloping floors everywhere; lighting is realistically simulated; you can jump and crouch and look up and down and lean around corners; you can take advantage of its surprisingly advanced level of physics simulation in countless ingenious ways. System Shock even boasts perspective-correct texture mapping, a huge advance over Ultima Underworld, and no easy thing to combine with the aforementioned slopes.

Each of the ten “levels” of System Shock is really multiple levels in the physical sense, as the corridors often curve over and under one another. Just as in Ultima Underworld, you can annotate the auto-map for yourself. But even with this aid, just finding your way around in these huge, confusing spaces can be a challenge in itself.

That said, it’s also abundantly true that a more advanced engine doesn’t automatically make for a better game. Any such comparison must always carry an implied addendum: better for whom? Certainly DOOM succeeded beautifully in realizing its makers’ ambitions, even as its more streamlined engine could run well on many more of the typical computers of the mid-1990s than System Shock‘s could. By no means do the engines’ respective advantages all run one way: in addition to being much faster than the System Shock engine, the DOOM engine allows rooms of arbitrary sizes and non-orthogonal walls, neither of which is true of its counterpart from Looking Glass.

In the end, System Shock wants to be a very different experience than DOOM, catering to a different style of play, and its own engine is designed to allow it to realize its own ambitions. It demands a more careful approach from its player, where you must constantly use light and shadow, walls and obstacles, to aid you in your desperate struggle. For you are not a superhuman outer-space marine in System Shock; you’re just, well, you, scared and alone in a space station filled with rampaging monsters.

A fine example of the lengths to which Looking Glass’s technologists were willing to go in the service of immersion is provided by the mini-games you can play. Inspired by, of all things, the similarly plot-irrelevant mini-games found in the LucasArts graphic adventure Sam and Max Hit the Road, they contribute much more to the fiction in this case than in that other one. As with everything in System Shock, the mini-games are not external to the world of the main game. It’s rather you playing them through your neural implant right there in the world; it’s you who cowers in a safe corner somewhere, trying to soothe your soul with a quick session of Breakout or Missile Command. You get the chance to collect more and better games as you infiltrate the station’s computer network using the cyberspace jacks you find scattered about — a reward of sorts for a forlorn hacker trying to survive against an all-powerful entity and her horrifying minions.

Taking the edge off with a quick game of Pong (in the window at lower left).

Sean Barret, a programmer who came to Looking Glass and to the System Shock project well into the game’s development, implemented the most elaborate by far of the mini-games, a gentle satire of Origin Systems’s Wing Commander that goes under the name of Wing 0. The story of its creation is a classic tale of Looking Glass, a demonstration both of the employees’ technical brilliance and their insane levels of commitment to the premises of their games. Newly arrived on the team and wishing to make a good impression, Barrett saw a list of mini-game ideas on a whiteboard; a “Wing Commander clone” was among them. So, he set to work, and some days later presented his creation to his colleagues. They were as shocked as they were delighted; it turned out that the Wing Commander clone had been a joke rather than a serious proposal. In the end, however, System Shock got its very own Wing Commander after all.

Still, there were many other technically excellent and crazily dedicated games studios in the 1990s, just as there are today. What truly set Looking Glass apart was their interest in combining the one sort of intelligence with another kind that has not always been in quite so great a supply in the games industry.

As Looking Glass grew, Paul Neurath brought some very atypical characters into the fold. Already in late 1991, he placed an advertisement in the Boston Globe for a writer with an English degree. He eventually hired Austin Grossman, who would do a masterful job of scattering the puzzle pieces of Doug Church’s story outline around the System Shock space station. There soon followed another writer with an English degree, this one by the name of Dorian Hart, who would construct some of the station’s more devious internal spaces using the flair for drama which he had picked up from all of the books he had read. He was, as he puts it, “a liberal-arts nobody with no coding skills or direct industry experience, thrown onto arguably the most accomplished and leading-edge videogame production team ever assembled. It’s hard to explain how unlikely that was, and how fish-out-of-water I felt.” Nevertheless, there he was — and System Shock was all the better for his presence.

Another, even more unlikely set of game developers arrived in the persons of Greg LoPiccolo and Eric and Terri Brosius, all members of a popular Boston rock band known as Tribe, who had been signed to a major label amidst the Nirvana-fueled indie-rock boom of the early 1990s, only to see the two albums they recorded fail to duplicate their local success on a national scale. They were facing a decidedly uncertain future when Doug Church and Dan Schmidt — the latter being another Looking Glass programmer, designer, and writer — showed up in the audience at a Tribe show. They loved the band’s angular, foreboding songs and arrangements, they explained afterward, and wanted to know if they’d be interested in doing the music for a science-fiction computer game that would have much the same atmosphere. Three members of the band quickly agreed, despite knowing next to nothing about computers or the games they played. “Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic,” remembers Eric Brosius. “We were willing to learn because it was just an exciting time.”

Terri Brosius became the voice of SHODAN, a role that fell to her by default: artificial intelligences in science fiction typically spoke in a female voice, and she was the only woman to be found among the Looking Glass creative staff. But however she got the part, she most definitely made it her own. She laughs that “people tend to get freaked out” when they hear her speak today in real life. And small wonder: her glitchy voice ringing through the empty corridors of the station, dripping with sarcastic malice, is one of the indelible memories that every player of System Shock takes away with her. Simply put, SHODAN creeps you the hell out. “You had a recurring, consistent, palpable enemy who mattered to you,” notes Doug Church — all thanks to Austin Grossman’s SHODAN script and Terri Brosius’s unforgettable portrayal of her.


As I think about the combination of technical excellence and aesthetic sophistication that was Looking Glass, I find one metaphor all but unavoidable: that of Looking Glass as the Infocom of the 1990s. Certainly Infocom, their predecessors of the previous decade on the Boston-area game-development scene, evinced much the same combination — the same thoroughgoing commitment to excellence and innovation in all of their forms — during their own heyday. If the 3D-graphics engines of Looking Glass seem a long way from the text and parsers of Infocom, let that merely be a sign of just how much gaming itself had changed in a short span of time. Even when we turn to more plebeian matters, there are connections to be found beyond a shared zip code. Both studios were intimately bound up with MIT, sharing in the ideas, personnel, and, perhaps most of all, the culture of the university; both had their offices on the same block of CambridgePark Drive; two of Looking Glass’s programmers, Dan Schmidt and Sean Barrett, later wrote well-received textual interactive fictions of their own. The metaphor isn’t ironclad by any means; Legend Entertainment, founded as it was by former Infocom author Bob Bates and employing the talents of Steve Meretzky, is another, more traditionalist answer to the question of the Infocom of the 1990s. Still, the metaphor does do much to highlight the nature of Looking Glass’s achievements, and their importance to the emerging art form of interactive narrative. Few if any studios were as determined to advance that art form as these two were.

But Looking Glass’s ambitions could occasionally outrun even their impressive abilities to implement them, just as could Infocom’s at times. In System Shock, this overreach comes in the form of the sequences that begin when you utilize one of those aforementioned cyberspace jacks that you find scattered about the station. System Shock‘s cyberspace is an unattractive, unwelcoming place — and not in a good way. It’s plagued by clunky controls and graphics that manage to be both too minimalist and too garish, that are in fact almost impossible to make head or tail of. The whole thing is more frustrating than fun, not a patch on the cyberspace sequences to be found in Interplay’s much earlier computer-game adaption of William Gibson’s breakthrough novel Neuromancer. So, it turns out that even the collection of brilliant talent that was assembled at Looking Glass could have one idea too many. Doug Church:

We thought [that] it fit from a conceptual standpoint. You’re a hacker; shouldn’t you hack something? We thought it would be fun to throw in a different movement mode that was more free-form, more action. In retrospect, we probably should have either cut it or spent more time on it. There is some fun stuff in it, but it’s not as polished as it should be. But even so, it was nice because it at least reinforced the idea that you were the hacker, in a totally random, arcadey, broken kind of way. But at least it suggested that you’re something other than a guy with a gun. We were looking at ourselves and saying, “Oh, of course we should have cyberspace! We’re a cyberpunk game, we gotta have cyberspace! Well, what can we do without too much time? What if we do this crazy thing?” Off we went…

By way of compounding the problem, the final confrontation with SHODAN takes place… in cyberspace. This tortuously difficult and thoroughly unfun finale has proven to be too much for many a player, leaving her to walk away on the verge of victory with a terrible last taste of the game lingering in her mouth.

Cyberspace was a nice idea, but its implementation leaves much to be desired.

Luckily, it’s possible to work around even this weakness to a large extent, thanks to another of the generous affordances which Looking Glass built into the game. You can decide for yourself how complex and thus how difficult you wish the game to be along four different axes: Combat (the part of the game that is most like DOOM); Mission (the non-combat tasks you have to accomplish to free the station from SHODAN’s grip); Puzzle (the occasional spatial puzzles that crop up when you try to jigger a lock or the like); and Cyber (the cyberspace implementation). All of these can be set to a value between zero and three, allowing you to play System Shock as anything from a straight-up shooter where all you have to do is run and gun to an unusually immersive and emergent pure adventure game populated only by “feeble” enemies who “never attack first.” The default experience sees all of these values set at two, and this is indeed the optimal choice in my opinion for those who don’t have a complete aversion to any one of the game’s aspects — with one exception: I would recommend setting Cyber to one or even zero in order to save yourself at lot of pain, especially at the very end. (The ultimate challenge for System Shock veterans, on the other hand, comes by setting the Mission value to three; this imposes a time limit on the whole game of about seven hours.)

If you really, really want to play System Shock as a DOOM clone, that’s okay with Looking Glass.

System Shock was released in late 1994, almost two full years after Ultima Underworld II, Looking Glass’s last game. It sold acceptably but not spectacularly well for a studio that was already becoming well-acquainted with the financial worries that would continue to dog them for the rest of their existence. Reviews were quite positive, yet many of the authors of same seemed barely to have noticed the game’s subtler qualities, choosing to lump it in instead with the so-called “DOOM clones” that were beginning to flood the market by this point, almost a year after the original DOOM‘s release. (One advantage of id Software’s more limited ambitions for their game was the fact that it was finished much, much quicker than System Shock; in fact, a DOOM II was already on store shelves by the time System Shock made it there.)

Although everyone at Looking Glass took the high road when asked about the DOOM connection, the press and public’s tendency to diminish their own accomplishment in 3D virtual-world-building had to rankle at some level; former employees insist to this day that DOOM had no influence whatsoever on their own creation, that System Shock would have turned out the same even had DOOM never existed. The fact is, Looking Glass’s own claim to the title of 3D-graphics pioneers is every bit as valid as that of id, and their System Shock engine actually was, as we’ve seen, more advanced than that of DOOM in a number of ways. No games studio in history has ever deserved less to be treated as imitators rather than innovators.

Alas, mainstream appreciation would be tough to come by throughout the remaining years of Looking Glass’s existence, just as it had sometimes been for Infocom before them. A market that favored the direct, visceral pleasures of id’s DOOM and, soon, Quake didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Looking Glass’s more nuanced 3D worlds. And so, yet again as with Infocom, it would not be until after Looking Glass was no more that the world of gaming would come to fully appreciate everything they had achieved. When asked pointedly about the sales charts which his games so consistently failed to top, Doug Church showed wisdom beyond his years in insisting that the important thing was just to earn enough back to make the next game.

id did a great job with [DOOM]. And more power to them. I think you want to do things that connect with the market and you want to do things that people like and you want to do things that get seen. But you also want to do things you actually believe in and you personally want to do. Hey, if you’re going to work twenty hours a day and not get paid much money, you might as well do something you like. We were building the games we were interested in; we had that luxury. We didn’t have spectacular success and a huge win, but we had enough success that we got to do some more. And at some level, at least for me, sure, I’d love to have huge, huge success. But if I get to do another game, that’s pretty hard to complain about.

Today, free of the vicissitudes of an inhospitable marketplace, System Shock more than speaks for itself. Few games, past or present, combine so many diverse ideas into such a worthy whole, and few demonstrate such uncompromising commitment to their premise and their fiction. In a catalog filled with remarkable achievements, System Shock still stands out as one of Looking Glass’s most remarkable games of all, an example of what magical things can happen when technical wizardry is placed in the service of real aesthetic sophistication. By all means, go play it now if you haven’t already. Or, perhaps better said, go live it now.

(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III and System Shock: Strategies and Secrets by Bernie Yee; Origin’s official System Shock hint book; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 3 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, and May 5 1995; Electronic Entertainment of December 1994; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Next Generation of February 1995; Game Developer of April/May 1995. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: The History of Looking Glass” and “From Looking Glass to Harmonix: The Tribe,” both by Mike Mahardy of Polygon. Most of all, huge thanks to Dorian Hart, Sean Barrett, and Dan Schmidt for talking with me about their time at Looking Glass.

System Shock is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 
 

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Wing Commander III

Movies and computer games are my two favorite things. If I weren’t doing one I’d be doing the other.

— Chris Roberts

Prior to the release of DOOM in late 1993, Wing Commander I and II and their assorted spinoffs and expansion packs constituted not just the most popular collection of outer-space shoot-em-ups since the heyday of Elite but the most popular computer-gaming franchise of the new decade in any genre.

Upon its release in September of 1990, the first Wing Commander had taken the world by storm by combining spectacular graphics with a secret weapon whose potency surprised even Origin Systems, its Austin, Texas-based developer and publisher: a thin thread of story connected its missions together, being conveyed through the adventure-game style interface that was employed for the scenes taking place on the Tiger’s Claw, the outer-space “aircraft” carrier from which you and your fellow fighter pilots flew in a life-or-death struggle against the Kilrathi, a race of genocidal space cats who regarded humans the same way that Earthbound cats do mice. Having seen what their customers wanted, Origin doubled down on the drama in Wing Commander II, which was released in August of 1991; it told a much more elaborate and ambitious story of betrayal and redemption, complete with plenty of intrigue of both the political and the romantic stripe.

After that, the spinoffs and expansion packs had to carry the franchise’s water for quite some time, while Chris Roberts, its father and mastermind, brought its trademark approach to a near-future techno-thriller called Strike Commander, which was released after considerable delay in the spring of 1993. It was only when gamers proved less receptive to the change in milieu than Roberts and Origin had hoped that the former turned his full attention at last to Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.

At the time, the game that would eventually be released under that name was already in development, but the company’s ambitions for it were much smaller than they would soon become. The project was in the hands of what Robin Todd, a programmer on the project,1 today calls a “small and inexperienced team”: “three main programmers with minimal game-dev experience, working cheap.” Their leader was one Frank Savage, an Origin-fan-turned-Origin-programmer so passionate about the Wing Commander franchise that his car bore the personalized license plate “WNGCMDR.” Had the group completed the game according to the original plan, it would likely have been released as yet another spinoff rather than the next numbered title in the series.

As it was, though, the project was about to take on a whole new dimension: Chris Roberts stepped in to become the “director” of what was now to be Wing Commander III. Having been recently acquired by Electronic Arts, Origin felt keenly the need to prove themselves to their new owners by delivering an unequivocal, out-of-the-ballpark home run, and the third major iteration of their biggest franchise seemed as close to a guaranteed commercial winner as one could hope to find in the fickle world of computer gaming.

Roberts had built his reputation on cutting-edge games that pushed the state of the art in personal-computer technology to its absolute limit; the first Wing Commander had been one of the first games to require an 80386 processor to run at all well, while Compaq had used Strike Commander as an advertisement for their latest Pentium-based computer models. Now, he decided that Wing Commander III ought to employ the latest technological development to take the industry by storm: not a new processor but rather the inclusion of live human actors on the monitor screen — as captured on videotape, digitized, overlaid onto conventional computer graphics, and delivered on the magical new storage medium of CD-ROM. From a contemporary interview with Roberts:

If you wanted to show your hot machine off back in 1990, Wing I was the game to do it. I think that right now we are in a phase where CD-ROM is becoming standard and everyone is getting a multimedia machine, but I don’t really think the software is out there yet that truly shows it off. That’s what I think Wing III is going to do.

Everyone’s been talking about interactive movies, but we hadn’t heard of anyone doing it right, so we wanted to go out and do it properly. With Wing III, we tried to apply the production values to an interactive movie that we’d applied on the computer side with the previous Wing Commanders. The goal was, if someone said, “What’s an interactive movie?” we’d just hand them the CDs from Wing Commander III and say, “Here, check this out.”

In keeping with his determination to make his interactive movie “right,” Roberts wanted to involve real film professionals in the production. Through the good offices of the California-based Electronic Arts, Hollywood screenwriters Frank DePalma and Terry Borst were hired; they were a well-established team who had demonstrated their ability to deliver competent work on time on several earlier projects, among them a low-budget feature film entitled Private War. Their assignment now was to turn Roberts’s plot outline into a proper screenplay, with the addition of occasional branch points where the player could make a choice to affect the flow of the narrative. After they did so, a Hollywood-based artist turned their script into a storyboard, the traditional next step in conventional film-making.

The thoroughgoing goal was to make Wing Commander III in just the same way that “real” movies were made. Thus a director of photography, assistant director, and art director as well were brought over from the film industry. And then came the hair and makeup people, the caterers, the Hollywood sound stage itself. Origin even spent some $15,000 trying to figure out how to digitize 35-millimeter film prints before being forced to acknowledge that humdrum videotape was vastly more practical.

The one great exception to the rule of film professionals doing what they did best was Chris Roberts himself, a 25-year-old programmer and game designer who knew precisely nothing about making movies, but who nevertheless sat in the time-honored canvas-backed director’s chair throughout the shoot with a huge how-did-I-get-here grin on his face. And why not? For a kid who had grown up on Star Wars, making his own science-fiction film was a dream come true.

That said, Wing Commander III was dramatically different from Star Wars when it came to the very important question of its budget: Origin anticipated that it would cost $2.8 million in all. This was an astronomical budget for a computer game at the time — the budgets of the most expensive, most high-profile games had begun to break the $1 million barrier only in the last year or two — but a bad joke by the standards of even the cheapest Hollywood production. Origin made up the difference by not building any sets whatsoever; their actors would perform on an empty sound stage in front of an expansive green screen, with all of the scenery to be inserted behind them after the fact by Origin’s computer artists.

Truly sought-after actors would cost far more than Origin had to spend, so they settled for a collection of hopeful up-and-comers mixed with older names whose careers were not exactly going gangbusters at the time, all spiced up with a certain amount of stunt casting designed to appeal to the typical computer-gaming demographic of slightly nerdy young men. At the head of the list, a real catch by this standard, was Mark Hamill — none other than Luke Skywalker himself. If some of his snobby Hollywood peers might have judged his appearance in a computer game as another sign of just how much his post-Star Wars career had failed to live up to popular expectations, Hamill himself, a good egg with both feet planted firmly on the ground, seemed to have long since made peace with that same failure and adopted a “just happy to have work” attitude toward his professional life. Wing Commander III wasn’t even his first computer game; he had previously voice-acted one of the roles in the adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. He was originally recruited to Wing Commander III for the supporting role of Maniac, one of the player’s fellow pilots, who lives up to his name with a rather, shall we say, rambunctious flying style; only late in negotiations did he agree to take the role of Colonel Blair, the player-controlled protagonist of the story.

Joining him were other veteran actors who had lost some of their mojo in recent years, but who likewise preferred working to sitting at home: Malcolm McDowell, best known for his starring roles in the controversial A Clockwork Orange and the even more controversial Caligula during the 1970s; John Rhys-Davies, who had played Indiana Jones’s sidekick Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (he would go on to enjoy something of a late-career renaissance when he was cast as Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings films); Jason Bernard, a perennial supporting actor on 1970s and 1980s television; Tom Wilson, who had played the cretinous bully Biff Tannen in the three Back to the Future movies. (He replaced Hamill in the role of Maniac — a role not that far removed from his most famous one, come to think of it.)

A more eyebrow-raising casting choice was Ginger Lynn Allen, a once and future porn star whose oeuvre may perhaps have been more familiar to more of Origin’s customers than might have admitted that fact to their mothers. (She played Blair’s sexy mechanic, delivering her innuendo with enthusiastic abandon: “Are we going to kick in the afterburners here?”; “There’s a lot more thrust in those jets than I imagined…”)

On the Set with Wing Commander III


Jason Bernard, who played the captain of the Victory, the spaceborne aircraft carrier where Colonel Blair is stationed, is seen here with Mark Hamill, who played Blair himself.

Chris Roberts and Malcolm McDowell. The latter played Admiral Tolwyn, a human who is almost as much of an enemy of Colonel Blair as the Kilrathi.

Chris Roberts and John Rhys-Davies. The latter played Paladin, an old comrade-at-arms of Blair — he appears in the very first Wing Commander as a fellow pilot — whom age has now forced out of the cockpit.

Tom Wilson chats with a member of the film crew. He was by all accounts the life of the party on-set, and brought some of that same exuberance to Maniac, a rambunctious fighter jock. Computer Gaming World magazine gave him an award for “Best Male Onscreen Performance in Multimedia” for 1994 (a sign of the times if ever there was one). And indeed, a few more performances like his would have made for a more entertaining movie…

The actor inside a Kilrathi costume get some much-needed fresh air, courtesy of a portable air-conditioning unit. Just about everyone present at the shoot — even those not ensconced in heavy costumes — has remarked on how hot it was on-set.

Shooting a scene with a Kilrathi. The costumes were provided by a Hollywood special-effects house. Their faces were animatronic creations, complex amalgamations of latex and machinery which could be programmed to run through a sequence of movements and expressions while the cameras rolled.

The 50-year-old John Rhys-Davies was the only cast member who showed any interest in actually playing Wing Commander III. Here he is at a press event, sitting next to the game’s media director Jenni Evans, whose herculean efforts helped to win the project an unprecedented amount of mainstream attention. Behind them stand Chris Roberts and Frank Savage; the latter managed development of the space simulator back in Austin while the former was off in Hollywood chasing his dream of directing his very own science-fiction film.



Computer Gaming World magazine would later reveal how much some of these folks were paid for their performances. As the star, Mark Hamill got $153,000 up-front and a guaranteed 1.75 percent of the game’s net earnings after the first 175,000 copies were sold; Jason Bernard got a lump sum of $60,000; Malcolm McDowell earned $50,000; Ginger Lynn Allen received just $10,000. (The same article reveals that Origin sought Charlton Heston for the game, but balked at his agent’s asking price of $100,000.)

Principal photography lasted most of the month of May 1994, although not all of the actors were present through the whole of filming. “More than 80 experienced film professionals worked up to eighteen-hour days in order to realize Chris Roberts’s vision of the final chapter of the Terran-Kilrathi struggle,” wrote Origin excitedly in their in-house newsletter to commemorate the shoot’s conclusion. “Although always intense and frequently frustrating, the shoot progressed without any major complications, thanks in part to a close monitoring of contracts, budgets, and schedules by resident ‘suits’ in both Austin and San Mateo.” (The latter city was the home of Electronic Arts.) Few to none of the actors and other Hollywood hands understood what the words “interactive movie” actually meant, but they all did their jobs like the professionals they were. In all, some 200 hours of footage was shot, to eventually be edited down to around three hours in the finished game.

The presence of so many recognizable actors on the set, combined with the broader mass-media excitement over multimedia and CD-ROM, brought a parade of mainstream press to the shoot. The Today show, VH-1, the Los Angeles Times, Premiere magazine, the Associated Press, USA TodayNewsweekForbes, and Fortune were just some of the media entities that stopped in to take some pictures, shoot some video, and conduct a few interviews. At a time when the likes of DOOM was still well off the mainstream radar, Wing Commander III was widely accepted as the prototype for gaming’s inevitable future. Even many of the industry’s insiders accepted this conventional wisdom about “Siliwood” — a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, as described by Alex Dunne that year in Game Developer magazine:

Ninety years after it first burst onto the scene, cinema is undergoing a renaissance. More than just a rebirth actually, it’s really a fusion with computer and video games that’s resulting in some cool entertainment: a new breed of interactive, “live-action” games featuring Hollywood movie stars. Such games, like Hell, Under a Killing Moon, and Wing Commander III, are coming out with more frequency, and they’re boosting the acting careers of some people in Tinseltown.

As Siliwood comes into its own, the line between games and movies will rapidly fade. Ads in game magazines already look like blockbuster movie ads, and we’ve begun to see stars’ mug shots alongside blurbs detailing the minimum system requirements. Interactive game drama is here, so forget the theater and renting movies — fire up the Intel nickelodeon.

Amidst all the hype, peculiarly little attention was paid to the other part of Wing Commander III, the ostensible heart of the experience: the actual missions you flew behind the controls of an outer-space fighter plane. This applied perhaps as much inside Origin as it did anywhere else. Chris Roberts was a talented game designer and programmer — he had, after all, been responsible for the original Wing Commander engine which had so wowed gamers back in 1990 — but his attention was now given over almost entirely to script consultations, film shoots, and virtual set design. Tellingly, Origin devoted far more resources to the technology needed to make the full-motion video go than they did to that behind the space simulator.

On the other hand, that choice may have been a perfectly reasonable one, given that they already had what they considered to be a perfectly reasonable 3D-simulation engine, a legacy of Strike Commander. Although that game had used VGA graphics only, at a resolution of 320 X 200, its engine had been designed from the start with the necessary hooks to enable Super VGA graphics, at a resolution of 640 X 480, when the time came. And that time was now. No one would be able to say that Wing Commander III‘s spaceflight sequences didn’t look very nice indeed. For its was a full-fledged 3D engine, complete with texture mapping and all the other bells and whistles. As such, it was a major upgrade over the one found in Wing Commander I and II, which had been forced by the hardware limitations of its time to substitute scaled sprites for real 3D models. With Roberts so busy scripting and filming his interactive movie, most of the responsibility for what happened in the cockpit continued to rest on the shoulders of Frank Savage, whose official title was now “game development director.”

Wing Commander III was a high-risk project for Origin. Since being acquired by Electronic Arts in September of 1992, they had yet to come up with a really big hit: Strike Commander had, as already noted, under-performed relative to expectations upon its release in the spring of 1993, while the launch of Ultima VIII a year later had been an unmitigated disaster. Under the assumption that you have to swing for the fences to hit a home run — or simply that you have to spend money to make money — Origin and their nervous corporate parent didn’t object even when Wing Commander III‘s budget crept up to $4 million, making it the most expensive computer game ever made by a factor of more than two. Their one inflexible requirement was that the game had to ship in time for the Christmas of 1994. And this it did, thanks to the absurdly long hours put in by everyone; not for nothing would Origin go down in history as the company that largely invented crunch time as the industry knows it today. Programmer Robin Todd:

In retrospect the crunch was vicious, but at the time I had nothing else to compare it to. Everything was a blur during the months before we shipped. At whatever time I was too tired to go on programming, I’d go back to my apartment to sleep. And when I woke up, I’d go back to the office. And that was it. What time of day it was didn’t matter. I remember the apartment manager knocking on my door one morning because I was so spaced from working that I’d forgotten to pay my rent for weeks. Sleeping under our desks started as something of a joke, but it quickly became true. There was one designer who wanted to take the evening off for his mom’s birthday, and was told that if he did, then he shouldn’t bother coming back.

I shared an office with two designers, and during a particularly late evening, one of the them turned to me and said, “If I’m still here when the sun comes up, I quit.” And sure enough, we were still there at dawn. He got up and turned in his resignation.

The day the project went gold I tendered my resignation.

At the last minute, it was discovered that the four CDs which were required to contain the game were packed a little too full; some CD-ROM drives were refusing to read them. A hasty round of cuts resulted in a serious plot hole. But so be it; the show went on.

This wall inside Origin’s offices tracked Wing Commander III‘s progress from genesis to completion for the benefit of employees and visitors alike.

Publicly at least, Chris Roberts himself expressed no concern whatsoever about the game’s commercial prospects. “I have a name brand,” he said, adopting something of the tone of the Hollywood executives with whom he’d recently been spending so much time. “I am not going to lose money on it.” He predicted that Wing Commander III would sell 500,000 copies easily at a suggested list price of $70, enough to bank a tidy profit for everyone — this despite the fact that it required a pricey Pentium-based computer with a fast SVGA graphics card to run optimally, a double-speed CD-ROM drive to run at all.

His confidence was not misplaced. Three major American gaming magazines put Wing Commander III on their covers to commemorate its release in November of 1994, even as features appeared across mainstream media as well to greet the event. Ginger Lynn Allen appeared on Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated radio show, while Malcolm McDowell turned up on MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show. Segments appeared on Entertainment Tonight and CNN; even Japan’s Fuji TV aired a feature story. In short, Wing Commander III married its title of most expensive game ever to that of the most widely covered, most widely hyped computer-game debut in the history of the industry. Within ten months of its release, Next Generation magazine could report that its sales had surpassed Roberts’s predicted half a million copies. Once ported to the Apple Macintosh computer and the 3DO and Sony PlayStation consoles, its total sales likely approached 1 million copies.

It doubtless would have sold even better in its original MS-DOS incarnation if not for those high system requirements and its high price. As it was, though, Origin and Electronic Arts were satisfied. The Hollywood experiment had proved a roaring success; Wing Commander IV was quickly green-lit.



One of my briefs in articles like this one is to place the game in question into its historical context; another is to examine it outside of that context, to ask how it holds up today, what other designers might learn from it, and whether some of you readers might find it worth playing. This is the point in the article where I would normally transition from the one brief to the other. In this case, though, it strikes me as unfair to do so without at least a little bit of preamble.

For, if it’s self-evident that all games are products of their time, it’s also true that some seem more like products of their time than others — and Wing Commander III most definitely belongs in this group. There is a very short window of years, stretching from about 1993 to 1996, from which this game could possibly have sprung; I mean that not so much in terms of technology as in terms of concept. This was the instant when the “Siliwood” approach, as articulated by Alex Dunne above, was considered the necessary, well-nigh inevitable future of gaming writ large. But of course that particular version of the future did not come to pass, and this has left Wing Commander III in an awkward position indeed.

Seen from the perspective of today, a project like this one seems almost surreal. At what other moment in history could a complete neophyte like Chris Roberts have found himself behind the camera directing veteran Hollywood talent who had previously worked under the likes of George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick? It was truly a strange time.

The foregoing is meant to soften the blow of what I have to say next. Because, if you ask me whether Wing Commander III is a good game in the abstract, my answer has to be no, it really is not. It’s best reserved today for those who come to it for nostalgia’s sake, or who are motivated by a deep — not to say morbid! — curiosity about the era which it so thoroughly embodies.

I can hardly emphasize enough the extent to which gaming during the 1990s was a technological arms race. Developers and publishers rushed to take advantage of all the latest affordances of personal computers that were improving with bewildering speed; every year brought faster processors and CD-ROM drives, bigger memories and hard drives, graphics and sound cards of yet higher fidelity. The games that exploited these things to raise the audiovisual bar that much higher dazzled the impressionable young journalists who were assigned to review them so utterly that these earnest scribes often described and evaluated their actual gameplay as little more than an afterthought. Computer Gaming World was the most mature and thoughtful of the major American magazines, and thus less prone to this syndrome than most of its peers. By no means, however, was it entirely immune to it, as Martin E. Cirulis’s five-stars-out-of-five review of Wing Commander III illustrates.

They say that every successful person carries within her the seeds of her own destruction. In the same spirit, many a positive review contains the makings of a negative one. After expounding at length on how “simply incredible” the game is, Cirulis has this to say:

I’m afraid I’ve come to the conclusion that the space-combat aspect of Wing Commander III is almost incidental to playing the thing. The story you are moving through is so interesting and the characters so well-detailed that you almost wish you didn’t have to strap into the fighter just to see what happens next. The story line of a Wing Commander game used to be a gimmick to make what was basically a space-combat game seem more interesting, especially to people who weren’t dedicated sim pilots; but things have come full circle now, and it’s the story that is the point and the flight sim that is the gimmick.

I realize that there will be those who think that I have been blinded by chrome and taken in by pretty pictures and have failed to “critique the game.” Well, more power to them.

Another writer — perhaps even one named Martin E. Cirulis at another moment in time — might frame a review of a game whose cut scenes are its most entertaining part rather differently. Sadly, I’m afraid that I have to become that writer now.



By the standards of most productions of this nature, the game’s cinematic sequences don’t acquit themselves too horribly. If you can look past the inherent cheesiness of pixelated human actors overlaid upon computer-generated backgrounds, you can see some competent directing and acting going on. The game’s eleven-minute opening sequence in particular shows a familiarity with the language of cinema that eludes most other interactive movies. Throughout the game, there is a notable lack of the endless pregnant pauses, the painful periods where the director seems to have no idea where to point the camera, the aura of intense discomfort and vague embarrassment radiating from the actors that was such par for the course during the full-motion-video era. Likewise, the script shows an awareness of how to set up dialog and use it to convey information clearly and concisely.

I give the film-making professionals who helped Chris Roberts to “direct” his first feature film more credit for all of this than I do that young man himself. (Anyone who has seen the later, non-interactive Wing Commander movie knows that Roberts is no natural-born cinematic auteur.) Rather credit him and the rest of Origin for realizing that they needed help and going out and getting it. This unusual degree of self-awareness alone placed them well ahead of most of their peers.

At the same time, though, the production’s competence never translates into goodness. There’s a sort of fecklessness that clings to the thing, of professionals doing a professional job out of professional pride, but never really putting their hearts into it. It’s hard to blame them; the plot outline provided by Roberts was formulaic, derivative stuff, right down to climaxing with a breakneck flight down a long trench. (Star Wars much, Mr. Roberts?) And the less said the better about the inevitable love triangle, in which you must choose between a good girl and a bad girl who both have the hots for you; it’s just awful, on multiple levels.

In cinematic terms, the whole thing is hopelessly stretched in length to boot, a result of the need to give customers their $70 worth. One extended blind alley, involving a secret weapon that’s supposed to end the war with the Kilrathi at a stroke, ends up consuming more than a quarter of the script before it’s on to the next secret weapon and the next last remaining hope for humanity… no, for real this time. The screenwriters noted that their movie wound up having seventeen or eighteen acts instead of the typical three. Putting the best spin they could on things, they said said that scripting Wing Commander III was like scripting “a little miniseries.”

The acting as well is a study in competence without much heart. The actors do their jobs, but never appear to invest much of themselves into their roles; Mark Hamill seems to have had much more fun playing the slovenly Detective Moseley in Gabriel Knight that he did playing the straight-laced Colonel Blair here. Again, though, the script gives the actors so little to work with that it’s hard to blame them. The parade of walking, talking war-movie clichés which they’re forced to play are all surface on the page, so that’s how the actors portray them on the screen. Only Tom Wilson and Ginger Lynn Allen bring any real gusto to their roles. Tellingly, they do so by not taking things very seriously, chewing the (virtual) scenery with a B-movie relish. I don’t know whether more of that sort of thing from the others would have made Wing Commander III a better film under the criteria Chris Roberts was aiming for, but it certainly would have made it a more knowing, entertaining one in my eyes.

Instead, and as usual for a Chris Roberts production, the painful earnestness of the whole affair just drags it down. For all its indebtedness to Star WarsWing Commander III lacks those movies’ sense of extravagant fun. Roberts wants us to take all of this seriously, but that’s just impossible to do. The villains are giant cats, for heaven’s sake, who look even more ridiculous here than they do in the earlier games, like some overgrown conglomeration of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and the anthropomorphic chimpanzees from Planet of the Apes.

I’m sorry, but it’s just really, really hard for me to take the Kilrathi seriously.

As is the norm in games of this style, your degree of actual plot agency in all of this is considerably less than advertised. Yes, you can pick the good girl or the bad girl, or reject them both; you can pick your wingman for each mission; you can choose your character’s attitude in dialog, which sometimes has some effect on others’ attitudes toward you later on. But your agency is sharply circumscribed by the inherent limitations of pre-shot, static snippets of video and the amount of storage space said video requires; it was enough of a challenge for Origin to pack one movie onto four CDs, thank you very much. These limitations mean you can’t steer the story in genuinely new directions during the movie segments. The “interactive” script is, in other words, a string of pearls rather than a branching tree; when you make a choice, the developers’ priority is to acknowledge it more or less perfunctorily and then to get you back into the main flow of their pre-ordained plot.

The developers did design a branching mission tree into the game, but your progression down it is dictated by your performance in the cockpit rather than by any conscious choices you make outside your spacecraft. Nevertheless, there are some generous touches here, including a heroic but doomed last stand of a mission if the war goes really badly. But Origin knew well by this point that most players preferred to replay failed missions instead of taking their lumps and continuing down the story’s “losing” branch, and this knowledge understandably influenced the amount of work they were willing to put into crafting missions which most players would never see; the alleged mission tree in this game is really a linear stream with just a few branching tributaries which either end or rejoin the main flow as quickly as possible. Certainly the most obvious problem with the approach — the fact that the branching mission tree gives less skilled players harder missions so that they can fail even worse after failing the first time, while it gives more skilled players easier missions that might well bore them — is not solved by Wing Commander III.

When it comes to its nuts and bolts as a space simulator, Wing Commander III surprises mostly by how little it’s progressed in comparison to the first two games. The 3D engine looks much better than what came before, is smoother and more consistent, and boasts the welcome addition of user-selectable difficulty levels. At bottom, though, the experience in space remains the same; neither the ships you fly nor their weapons load-outs have changed all that much. The engine’s one genuinely new trick is an ability to simulate flight over a terrestrial landscape, a legacy of its origins with the twentieth-century techno-thriller Strike Commander. Yet even this new capability isn’t utilized until quite late in the game.

Wing Commander III runs at a much higher resolution than the first Wing Commander, but the general look of the game is surprisingly little changed, as this direct comparison shows. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, of course — there’s something to be said for a franchise holding onto its look and feel, as Origin learned all too well when they attempted to foist the misbegotten Ultima VIII upon the world — but the lack of any real gameplay evolution within that look and feel perhaps is.

Each of the 50 or so missions which you have to fly before you get to that bravura climax breaks down into one of just a few types — patrol these waypoints, destroy that target, or protect this vessel — that play out in very similar ways each time. There’s never much sense of a larger unfolding battle, just a shooting gallery of Kilrathi coming at you. The artificial triggers of the mission designs are seldom well-concealed: reaching this waypoint magically spawns a Kilrathi fighter squadron from out of nowhere, reaching that one spawns a corvette. Meanwhile the need to turn on the auto-pilot and slew your way between the widely separated waypoints within most missions does little for your sense of immersion. Wing Commander III isn’t a complete failure as an arcadey space shooter; some players might even prefer its gung-ho, run-and-gun personality to more nuanced approaches. But I would venture to say that even some of them might find that it gets a little samey well before the 50 missions are complete. (Personally, I maintain that the first Wing Commander, which didn’t stretch itself so thin over so many missions and which was developed first and foremost as a compelling action game rather than an interactive movie, remains the best of the series from the standpoint of excitement in the cockpit.)

Looking back on 1994 from the rarefied heights of 2021, I find that Wing Commander III‘s weaknesses as both interactive movie and space simulator are highlighted by the strengths of a contemporary competitor in both categories.

In the former category, we have Access Software’s Under a Killing Moon, which was released almost simultaneously with Wing Commander III; the two games were often mentioned in the same breath by the trade press because each packed four CDs to the bursting point, giving each an equal claim to the title of largest game ever in terms of sheer number of bytes. Under a Killing Moon was a more typical early full-motion-video production than Wing Commander III in many ways, being a home-grown project that utilized the talents of only a few hired guns from Hollywood. But, for all that the actors’ performances and the camera work often betray this, the whole combines infectious enthusiasm — “We’re making a movie, people!” — with that edge of irony and humor that Chris Roberts’s work always seems to lack. If Wing Commander III is the glossy mainstream take on interactive cinema, Under a Killing Moon is the upstart indie version. It remains as endearing as ever today, one of the relatively few games of its ilk that I can unreservedly recommend. But then, I do tend to prefer the ditch to the middle of the road…

In the realm of space simulators, we have LucasArts’s Star Wars: TIE Fighter, which shipped about six months before Wing Commander III. Ironically given its own cinematic pedigree, TIE Fighter had no interest in Hollywood actors, love triangles, or even branching mission trees, but was rather content merely to be the best pure space simulator to date. Here you can’t hope to succeed as the lone hero charging in with guns blazing; instead you have to coordinate with your comrades-in-arms to carry out missions whose goals are far more complex than hitting a set sequence of waypoints, missions where dozens of ships might be pursuing individual agendas at any given time in dynamic unfolding battles of awesome scale. It’s true that TIE Fighter and its slightly less impressive predecessor X-Wing would probably never have come to exist without the example of the Wing Commander franchise — but it’s also true that LucasArts had well and truly bettered their mentors by the time of TIE Fighter, just their second attempt at the genre.



And now, reading back over what I’ve written, I see that I’ve been as unkind to Wing Commander III as I’d feared I would. Therefore let me say clearly now that neither half of the game is irredeemably bad; I’ve enjoyed action and simulation games with much more hackneyed storytelling, just as I’ve enjoyed narrative-oriented games whose writing and aesthetics are more interesting than their mechanics. The problem with Wing Commander III is that neither side of it is strong enough to make up for the failings of the other. Seen in the cold, hard light of 2021, it’s a poorly written low-budget movie without any vim and vinegar, married to an unambitious retread of a space shooter.

But in the context of 1994, of course, it was a very different story. The nerdy kitsch that most of us see when we look at the game today in no way invalidates the contemporary experiences of those who, like Computer Gaming World‘s Martin E. Cirulis, looked at it and decided that “we are witnessing the birth of something new.” The mid-1990s were a period of tremendous ferment in the world of computing, with new possibilities seeming to open up by the month. Wing Commander III is, whatever else it may be, a reflection of that optimistic time, as it is of the spirit of its wide-eyed creator and its hundreds of thousands of players who were not all that different from him, who came to it ready and willing to be wowed by it. Its unprecedented budget alone made a powerful statement, being tangible proof that computer gaming was becoming a big business that everyone in media had to take seriously.

Created in the best of faith and with the noblest of intentions to move gaming forward, Wing Commander III seemed like a dispatch from the future for a brief window of time. In the long run, though, the possible future it came from was not the one that its medium would wind up embracing, leaving it stranded today on an island of its own making. Such is sometimes the fate of pioneers.

Some Scenes from the Film


Malcolm McDowell plays Admiral Tolwyn. With commanding officers like these, who needs Kilrathi?

Courtney Gains plays Lieutenant “Radio” Rollins; imagine Radar from M*A*S*H with an attitude problem.

Tom Wilson, the only comic actor in the troupe, plays Maniac with a weirdly endearing mixture of bravura and insecurity.

Jason Bernard plays Captain Eisen. Like many of the performances, his is neither really good nor really bad. It’s just kind of there.

Ginger Lynn Allen plays Rachel, Blair’s mechanic and potential love interest. The scriptwriters love to sprinkle her dialog with not-so-subtle innuendo, and the actress loves to deliver it.

B.J. Jefferson plays Cobra, a character who’s even more one-note than most of them. She really, really hates Kilrathi. (The Hobbes who’s being discussed is a Kilrathi defector who now flies for the human side.)


(Sources: The books Origin’s Official Guide to Wing Commander III and Wing Commander III: Authorized Combat Guide; Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, and February 1995; Game Developer of February/March 1005 and June/July 1995; CD-ROM Today of August/September 1994; Next Generation of November 1995; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 6 1994, June 3 1994, July 15 1994, September 9 1994, October 7 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, April 7 1995, and May 3 1995. Online sources include the Wing Commander Combat Information Center‘s treasure trove of information on the game. And thank you to Robin Todd for sharing with me her memories of working on Wing Commander III, crunch time included.

Wing Commander III is available today as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)


  1. Robin Todd was living as Chris Todd at the time, and is credited under that name in the game’s manual. 

 

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Ultima VIII (or, How to Destroy a Gaming Franchise in One Easy Step)

In 1994, Origin Systems’s Ultima series was the most universally lauded franchise in computer gaming. Over the course of seven mainline games and five spinoffs and side stories, the Ultima brand had consistently stood for elaborate but doggedly nonlinear plots which seriously engaged with questions of ethics; for the familiar but ever-evolving and ever-welcoming world of Britannia in which most of the games took place; for a merry group of recurring boon companions with whom the Avatar, the player-defined protagonist of the games, adventured each time; for complex rules systems and knotty central mysteries that required brainpower and lots of notepaper rather than reflexes to work through.

But then, for the eighth game in the mainline Ultima series, Origin decided to try something just a little bit different. They made a game in which you played a thoughtless jerk moving on rails through a linear series of events; in which you never went to Britannia at all, but stayed instead on a miserable hellhole of a world called Pagan; in which you spent the whole game adventuring alone (after all, who would want to adventure with a jerk like you?); in which the core mechanics were jumping between pedestals like Super Mario and pounding your enemies over the head with your big old hammer.

Tens of thousands of eager Ultima fans, some of whom had been buying every installment of the series for ten years or more, rushed home from their local software stores with Ultima VIII: Pagan in their hot little hands. An hour later, they were one and all sitting there scratching their heads and asking themselves what the hell had happened. Had they bought the wrong game entirely? No, it said “Ultima” right there on the box!

For the past quarter century, Ultima fans have continued to ask themselves that same question: what the hell happened with Ultima VIII? It stands today as one of the most bizarre would-be series continuations in gaming history, such a colossal failure to meet its players’ expectations that, alone and unaided, it killed dead at a stroke the most venerable franchise in computer gaming. No, really: Origin couldn’t have shot Ultima in the head more efficiently if they’d tried. And so we ask ourselves again: what the hell happened? What the hell was Origin thinking?

In seeking to explain the seemingly unexplainable, Ultima fans have tended to hew to a simple, naturally appealing narrative that paints Electronic Arts — gaming’s very own Evil Empire — as the unmitigated villain. After acquiring Origin in late 1992, so the story goes, EA forced them to abandon all of the long-established principles of Ultima in order to reach the mass market of lowest-common-denominator players to which EA aspired. Richard Garriot — a.k.a. “Lord British,” the father of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — has embraced this explanation with gusto, part and parcel of a perhaps too prevalent tendency with His Lordship to lay his failures at the feet of others. From Garriott’s 2017 memoir:

The reality is that EA earns most of its revenue with terrific games like Madden Football. Every year they publish a new edition, which reflects the changes in the NFL. They don’t have to create much that’s new — they just tweak their football-game engine and update the rosters. The rules of football change slowly. At the deadline they wrap it up and release it. The audience is pre-sold.

Conversely, the games we were making could easily take two years or more to create. We released them when we were done. That was not EA’s way of doing business. “Richard,” they told me, “your release of games is incredibly unreliable.” They wanted us to change our development process to meet their deadlines. The game we were developing when we sold Origin was Ultima VIII; EA wanted it on the shelves in time for the following Christmas. This was the first time in my life that the realities of business became more important than the quality of a product. They were adamant: “Richard, you need to cut whatever needs to be cut to get this game done.” So I cut it; I cut it and I cut it and I cut it, and as a result I shipped the most incomplete, dumb, buggy game I’ve ever shipped. I still believe that if we had waited until it was complete, Ultima VIII would have been a great game. We would have been the first to market with a variety of features that eventually proved very popular in other games. But we didn’t wait, and that was my fault. I bowed to the outside pressure.

Most distressing was seeing the results of making those cuts on both the game and my team. The team saw past the warts, knew what we were up against, and loved the game for what it was; they appreciated the innovations in it rather than bemoaning what it could have been. But the press, as well as a number of players, didn’t like it at all. The reviews were terrible. All the money I’d been paid had no meaning. I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA.

And a lot of people had made serious sacrifices to meet EA’s schedule. Many of our programmers had worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week for ten months. We would bring dinner in for them because we were afraid if they left, they might not come back. The last month or so we gave them every other Sunday off so, as one of them pointed out, they could see their family or do some laundry. The creative joy we’d once shared in developing a game had been replaced by the prosaic demands of running a business. It was hard to believe how much had changed; only a few years earlier our people would happily work all night and love every minute of it, and now we had become a sweatshop.

At least partially as a consequence of that disappointment, management told me, basically, that they didn’t want me making big games like Ultima anymore.

This classic passive-aggressive apology — “I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA” doesn’t exactly ring out with contrition — isn’t even internally consistent; if the development team loved their game so much, why was Origin’s management forced to devise stratagems to keep them from going home out of the fear that they wouldn’t come back? Nevertheless, it does contain a fair amount of truth alongside its self-serving omissions; one would be foolish to deny that the EA acquisition played a major role in the Ultima VIII debacle. And yet the discussion should perhaps be framed rather differently. It might be more accurate to see Origin’s acquisition by EA and the eventual Ultima VIII as mutual symptoms rather than cause and effect, both being the result of Origin trying to negotiate trends that seemed to leave Ultima with less and less space to be what it had always been.

Let’s start by looking more closely at the timeline than Garriott deigns to do above. EA and Origin signed the acquisition contract in September of 1992, just five months after Ultima VII: The Black Gate had shipped. Ultima VIII would still have been in the early-concept phase at best at that point. When he refers to “the following Christmas” above, Garriott thus presumably means the Christmas of 1993. While this release date may have been a stated aspiration, it’s hard to believe it was a serious one; it would have marked the swiftest turnaround time between two mainline Ultima games since the first three of them in the early 1980s. As it was, Ultima VIII wouldn’t ship until March of 1994, still in a woefully unfinished state.

Yet the story of Ultima VIII is more than that of just one more game that was released before its time. Even had all of Origin’s plans for it come off perfectly, it would still have been a radical, seemingly nonsensical departure from everything Ultima had been in the past. Multiple sources confirm that it was in fact Richard Garriott himself rather than any soulless suit from EA who decided that the latest installment in Origin’s epic CRPG series ought to become a… platformer. He was inspired in this not by Super Mario Bros., as many fans would later suspect, but rather by Prince of Persia, Broderbund Software’s hugely popular, widely ported, elegantly minimalist, intensely cinematic linear action game. Prince of Persia was and is a more than worthy game in its own right, but it seems a strange choice indeed to use as inspiration for the latest Ultima. We should try to understand where the choice came from in the context of the times.

Garriott has often joked that he spent the first twelve years of his career making essentially the same game over and over — merely making said game that much bigger and better each time out. If so, then Ultima VII was the ultimate, if you will, version of that game. Today its reputation is as hallowed as that of any game of its era; it remains a perennial on lists of the best CRPGs of all time. Yet its mixed reception in 1992 rather belies its modern reputation. Many reviewers expressed a certain ennui about the series as a whole, and ordinary gamers seemed less excited by its arrival than they had been by that of Ultima IV, V, or VI. Ultima Underworld, a more action-oriented spinoff which was created by the outside studio Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin just a month before Ultima VII, collected more critical praise and, likely most frustratingly of all for the hyper-competitive Garriott, continued to outsell its supposed big brother even after the latter’s release. A survey in the March 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine is particularly telling: Ultima VII is rated as the 30th favorite game of the magazine’s readers, while Ultima Underworld is in a tie for third favorite. Meanwhile Origin’s eighteen-month-old Wing Commander II, a cinematic action game of Star Wars-style space combat, still sits at number six.

Indeed, the role of Wing Commander in all of this should not be neglected. The brainchild of an enthusiastic young Englishman named Chris Roberts, the first game in that series had upon its release in 1990 surprised everyone by handily outselling that same year’s Ultima VI. The Wing Commander franchise had kept on outselling Ultima ever since, whilst being faster and easier to make on an installment-by-installment basis.This too could hardly have sat well with Garriott. The House That Ultima Built had become The Home of Wing Commander, and Chris Roberts was now more in demand for interviews than Lord British. The harsh truth was that EA had been far more excited about Wing Commander than Ultima when they decided to acquire Origin.

Taken as a whole, all of this must have seemed intensely symbolic of a changing industry. As computers got faster and came to sport higher-fidelity audiovisual capabilities, visceral action titles were taking a bigger and bigger slice of computer-game sales, as evinced not only by the success of Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander but by other big hits like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Onscreen text was out of fashion, as was sprawl and complexity and most of the other traditional markers of an Ultima. Shorter, more focused games of the sort that one could pick up and play quickly were in. Origin had to keep up with the trends if they hoped to survive.

In fact, Origin was in an extremely perilous financial state just before the EA acquisition. EA’s deep pockets would allow them to keep pace with spiraling development costs for the time being. But in return, the games they made had to have enough mass-market appeal to recoup their larger budgets.

This, then, was the calculus that went into Ultima VIII, which begins to make the inexplicable at least somewhat more comprehensible. At this juncture in time, epic CRPGs were at literally their lowest ebb in the entire history of computer games. Therefore Ultima, the series that was virtually synonymous with the epic CRPG in the minds of most gamers, needed to become something else. It needed to become simpler and faster-paced, and if it could also jump on the trend toward grittier, more violent ludic aesthetics — I point again to the rise of id Software — so much the better. It may not have been a coincidence that, when Ultima VIII eventually shipped, it did so in a box sporting garish orange flames and a huge pentagram — the same general graphics style and even iconography as was seen in DOOM, id’s latest ultra-violent hit.

Of course, the flaws in the thought process that led to Ultima VIII aren’t hard to identify in retrospect. Games which lack the courage of their own convictions seldom make for good company, any more than do people of the same stripe. The insecure child of a nervous creator who feared the world of gaming was passing him by, Ultima VIII could likely never have aspired to be more than competent in a derivative sort of way.

The biggest blunder was the decision to slap the Ultima name on the thing at all, thereby raising expectations on the part of the franchise’s preexisting fan base which the game was never designed to meet. Ironically, the audience for an Ultima was every bit as “pre-sold,” as Garriott puts it above, as the audience for the latest Madden. And yet one game that fails to meet fan expectations can destroy just such a pre-sold audience really, really quickly, as Garriott was about to prove. (An analogy to the radical change in course of Ultima VIII might be a Madden installment that suddenly decided to become a cerebral stat-based game of football management and strategy instead of an exercise in fast-paced on-the-field action…) It would have been better to announce that Ultima was taking a break while Lord British tried something new. But it seems that Garriott identified so strongly with the only line of games he had ever seriously worked on that he couldn’t imagine not calling his latest one Ultima VIII.

So much for the conceptual flaws in the project. Alas, its execution would prove even more of a disaster.

Richard Garriott’s involvement in the day-to-day work of game development had been decreasing almost year by year, ever since he had first agreed to let other programmers help him with Ultima V back in 1986. The Ultima VIII project was set up in the same way that the last couple had been: Garriott provided a set of general design goals and approaches along with a plot outline, then dropped in occasionally on the Origin staff who were assigned to the project while they made it all happen. This time the role of project director fell to one Mike McShaffry, who had come to Origin in 1990 to work as a programmer on Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams, then held the same role on Ultima VII. Meanwhile the nuts-and-bolts designers of Ultima VIII became John Watson and Andrew Morris.

None of these people were incompetent; all would continue to pursue fruitful careers in the games industry after Ultima VIII was behind them. But on this occasion they found themselves in an untenable situation, given neither the time nor the support they needed to make a competent game even of the dubious type for which Garriott was asking. Ultima VIII would not employ the talents of Raymond Benson, the accomplished wordsmith who had made Ultima VII‘s script so exceptionally rich and subtle; he was now gone from the company, driven away like many of his peers by the insanely long hours Origin demanded of their employees. Rather than replacing him with another proper writer, Origin cobbled together a collection of programmers, artists, and designers to provide all of its comparatively scant text, most of them doing double duty with their other roles on the project. After all, it was now the age of multimedia action. How much did mere words really matter anymore?

As 1993 wore on, external events heaped more and more pressure on the team. Chris Roberts’s latest game Strike Commander appeared in the spring of 1993; it moved his patented Wing Commander approach into the milieu of a near-future techno-thriller. Everyone confidently expected it to become Roberts’s latest blockbuster hit, EA’s first great dividend on the price of the Origin acquisition. But instead it under-performed relative to expectations; gamers seemed nonplussed by the change in setting, and their computers struggled to meet its high system requirements. Origin would manage to score some successes on a more modest scale in 1993 with other, cheaper Wing Commander spinoffs and an Ultima VII Part Two, but their big cannon for the year had shot a dud. It was now up to Ultima VIII to put smiles on the faces of EA’s management.

For all that the EA acquisition certainly was a major factor in the story of Ultima VIII, it’s difficult to say for sure how much of the pressure Origin felt was brought directly to bear by their new corporate parent and how much was merely perceived. As we’ve seen, Richard Garriott hasn’t hesitated to chalk the failure of Ultima VIII up to EA’s interference, full stop. Yet the actual EA executives in question have vociferously denied micromanaging the project, insisting on the contrary that it was conceived, created, and finally shipped on terms dictated by no one outside of Origin. Even some Origin employees have admitted that EA handled their new charge with a fairly light touch for the first couple of years; it was only after such disappointments as Strike Commander and Ultima VIII had convinced them that adult supervision was sorely needed down in Austin that they took a more hands-on approach. In the end, then, we can say for sure only that the appalling state in which Ultima VIII was released was down to some gradation in between an earnest desire on Origin’s behalf to please their parent and a stern dictate from said parent to ship it now, or else!

It must be said as well that the reality of crunch time at Origin prior to Ultima VIII was somewhat different from the rosy picture which Garriott paints above. The bad-cop counterpart to Garriot the lunch-providing good cop was Dallas Snell, Origin’s hard-driving production manager. The company’s internal newsletters from the early 1990s are littered with complaints about the stresses of crunch time, sometimes accompanied by Snell’s strident but unconvincing attempts to defend the practice on the basis of passion, dedication, and esprit de corps. As a result, Raymond Benson was only one of a steady stream of talented people who came to Origin, stayed there a relatively brief period of time, and then moved on to other parts of the games industry or to other industries entirely, having made the perfectly sensible decision that no job is worth sacrificing one’s health and general well-being for.

Still, the crunch that produced Ultima VIII was extreme even by Origin’s usual standards, and the stress was undoubtedly compounded by the bad vibe of compromise and trend-chasing that had clung to the project from the start. It didn’t help that Mike McShaffry had never attempted to manage a software-development project of any sort before; he was completely unequipped to bring any semblance of order to all of the frantic effort, as he freely admits today:

To a lot of people on the development team, Ultima VIII unfortunately was a very negative development experience. Most of the team who were managing Ultima VIII — myself especially — you know, it was our first really big management task, and so…to say I really screwed it up doesn’t really come close, I don’t think, to the truth.

You can’t just put anybody at the helm of an oil tanker and say, “Take it through the strait!” and not expect something really horrible to happen. And Ultima’s a big ship to steer, and it was unfortunate that I never had the chance to figure out how to manage a team that large. It took me another ten years to really get better at it.

All of these factors led to Ultima VIII shipping in a state that almost defies critical description; seldom has a game so blatantly unfinished been allowed onto store shelves. The writing is so sparse and unrefined that it often seems like placeholder text, and yet still manages to leave threads dangling and plot holes yawning everywhere; the cloth map that is included in the box bears almost no relation to the world in the game itself, what with so much of the latter having gone missing in action; what’s left of the CRPG mechanics are so broken that it’s possible to max out your character in less than an hour of play; every place in the game looks the same, being all too clearly built from the same handful of pre-rendered graphics (giant mushrooms everywhere for the win!); every single chest in the game explodes, even if it doesn’t contain anything, as if the developers didn’t have time to address each one individually and so just set a global flag somewhere; your unresponsive lunk of a character drowns instantly if he falls into two feet of water. Tellingly, the one part of Ultima VII that is painstakingly preserved in Ultima VIII is its most annoying: an impossible inventory-management system that forces you to spend minutes at a time dragging around tiny overlapping icons just to find anything.

But none of that was quite enough to make the original version of Ultima VIII worthy of the adjective “unplayable.” What served for that was the absurdly broken jumping system. Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia had been designed for joypads and joysticks. Seeking to translate those paradigms to a moused-based computer, Origin came up with a relativistic jumping system whereby the length of your leap would be determined by the distance the cursor was from your character when you clicked the mouse, rather than opting for the more intuitive solution whereby you simply pointed at and clicked on a would-be destination to attempt to jump there. McShaffry:

I think, for us, it was such a departure from what we were used to. And honestly, a jumping mechanic like what we were trying to do… I think that we just didn’t have enough people on the team who were really hardcore platformer players. Something like Mario, where you have an intuitive feel for what works in a jumping system and what doesn’t work in a jumping system. I certainly hadn’t played a lot of those games until then, and so I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for.

Honestly, that’s a case where we should have listened a whole lot more to QA. They were platformers! They played every Nintendo console [game] out there, and they came back to us and said, “Hey, this jumping is kind of busted.”

I think sometimes in product development we’d get on the high horse and go, “It’s not busted; we know what we’re doing.” And in that case… that was a horrible mistake on our part to not listen to them. But hey, we were in our twenties; when you’re in your twenties, you think you’ve got god-like powers and you’re immortal.

In truth, jumping in Ultima VIII wasn’t “kind of busted” at all; it was completely, comprehensively busted. Figuring out where any given jump would land you was a black art, thanks to the sloppy mouse cursor and the impossibility of accurately judging depths in the game’s canted isometric view. The only way to get anywhere was to save before each jump and give it a try, then reload and adjust until you got it right. After four or five attempts, you might just manage it if you were lucky. Then you got to rinse and repeat for the next jump, out of what might be a dozen or more in all to get across a single obstacle. In order to fully appreciate the horror of all this, you have to remember that every single save or restore would have taken on the order of 30 seconds back in 1994. And now imagine trying to work through this process when some of the platforms you need to jump from and to are moving. On release day, Ultima VIII really was perilously close to being literally unplayable.

Oh, my… I’m afraid we’re going to be here a while…

In keeping with a tradition dating back to the early 1980s, Richard Garriott, Mike McShaffry, and several other members of the development team turned up on CompuServe for an online conference with fans just a couple of weeks after the game’s release. These affairs were heavily moderated, and this prevented the outrage that was already percolating through the fan community from being expressed too aggressively. Nevertheless, the developers quickly learned that this meetup was not to be the usual love fest. Instead they got an earful from the fans:

Let me say that I have been playing Ultimas since I was charmed and amazed by Ultima IV on my Commodore 64. One of the best things about Ultimas was the rich, detailed world and intricate, lengthy storylines. I could look forward to easily over 100 hours with each new Ultima, an excellent value for the money. Ultima VIII, on the other hand, is way too short…

It seems like there were a lot of bugs in Ultima VIII…

I thought the game was a little rough around the edges, especially the jumping. Since many Ultima players don’t like the heavy arcade element, are you set on keeping Ultima a CRPG/action game?…

My favorite part of Ultima VII was the large world. I was a little disappointed when I found that the world in Ultima VIII was actually smaller. Will Ultima IX have a larger world and more puzzles that require thinking, as opposed to jumping and running?…

I note with some trepidation your interest/fascination with “action” and “digital speech.” I think that too many game companies are spending too many resources on the latest graphics, sounds, etc., and nowhere near enough on character development and story and interaction. Is the swing to action/arcade a marketing-driven decision, your personal [decision], or [down to] some other reason?…

I have noticed a trend toward a single-threaded story line. Any hopes of returning to the original roots with the Ultima IX story line?…

What I and a lot of other old Ultima fans saw disappear after Ultima VII was the great ability to interact. Like baking bread, etc., and I would like to know if you plan for this to return in Ultima IX. And will you pay more attention to the plot?…

I’m concerned about the decline in the Avatar’s principles. I spent two days trying to solve Bane and Vordion without breaking my oath…

I am disappointed about the length of Ultima VIII, as others have said. There’s too much running around, and the clues to locations are far too vague…

I’m disappointed in Ultima VIII. I’ve played every single Ultima, and I feel Ultima VIII is a serious step back from previous Ultimas. I hope you realize that it takes more than glitz and sound to make a good CRPG. Lastly, I really do hope you’ll fix more bugs. I had to reformat my whole hard drive because of Ultima VIII…

Are we ever going to get various sexes and races of Avatars to choose from again?…

If they didn’t know it before, Origin must have realized by the time this conference ended that they had a big, big problem on their hands. The subsequent fan reactions to Ultima VIII were and remain far more entertaining than the game itself; few games have inspired as many unhinged, poetically profane rants as this one. Writing in the fannish newsletter Questbusters, Charles Don Hall struggled to reconcile this awful game with the Lord British cult of personality that so much of hardcore Ultima fandom had always been: “My best guess is that Lord British had nothing at all to do with it, and turned development over to soulless drones who were capable of playing the earlier Ultimas but incapable of understanding what made them such great games.”

The glossier magazines weren’t quite sure what to do about Ultima VIII. Torn between the need to serve their readerships and Origin’s advertising dollars, they equivocated like crazy, often settling on an “it’s not the game, it’s me” approach: i.e., I didn’t much enjoy Ultima VIII, but you might.

The big exception was Computer Gaming World, the most long-lived and respected of all the journals, whose status gave it a degree of insulation from the need to chase advertisers. Scorpia, the magazine’s influential adventure-gaming columnist, ripped the game to shreds in her review. I’ll share just a few highlights here:

Pagan, the purported Ultima VIII, is unlike any other Ultima you may have played. If you were expecting characterization, rich story, role-playing — you’re expecting it from the wrong game…

The game might easily have been called, as a friend of mine put it, “Mario: The Avatar.” If the name “Ultima” wasn’t on the box, you might think you’d picked up the latest Sega or Nintendo game by mistake…

Pagan could well be subtitled “School Daze,” as a good 75 percent of it is having the Avatar prove he is worthy to belong to a particular magic organization. “You want to be a Necromancer? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Theurgist? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Sorcerer? First you must be tested!”…

The story, such as it is, can be summed up as “Homeward-Bound Avatar Wrecks World…”

[The Avatar] lies to become a Necromancer; joins the Theurgists solely to steal an item (thereby negating their spell-casting abilities); betrays a Sorcerer who trusted him (thereby becoming an accessory to murder); kills (in supposed self-defense) the Master of Sorcerers to obtain another needed item; and frees the two bound Titans, so the world is wracked by continual violent storms and lava rain…

Overall, Pagan is a disaster, and an embarrassment to Origin, Lord British, and Ultima fans everywhere. It tries to go in two directions at once, and succeeds only in tearing itself apart, failing dismally on all fronts…

Instead of giving a smattering of hints and tips for Ultima VIII, as was her wont with the games she reviewed, Scorpia published an outright walkthrough, in order to “help anyone playing it to finish quickly and move on to better things.” For the following issue, she wrote a detailed retrospective of Ultima IV, her avowed favorite game of all time, pointing out all the ways in which it was the archetypal Ultima — and, by pointed implication, all of the ways in which Ultima VIII had failed to live up to its legacy.

In that very same issue, Origin offered an unprecedented mea culpa for Ultima VIII. Having clearly decided that this installment was beyond hope, they tried to save the franchise’s future by throwing it, and to at least some extent its project leader Mike McShaffry, under the bus. Richard Garriott had, he said, “heard the cry of his fans”; he admitted that “the latest game design had moved too close to action gaming and strayed too far from the strengths of the series.” Origin would, they promised, place the rock-steady Warren Spector — the man who had helmed Ultima VI, Martian Dreams, and the two Ultima Underworld games — in charge of Ultima IX. “If,” Spector pleaded, “we can get some of our followers who were disappointed in Pagan to try Ultima IX, we don’t think they’ll be disappointed.” In the meantime, an all-but-complete Ultima VIII expansion disk was axed as part of a general desire to forget that the game had ever happened.

One man, however, could not possibly forget. Mike McShaffry says today that he “felt like persona non grata at Origin because I personally felt like I was being blamed for the mistakes.” After months of ineffectual bad feelings, he finally decided to do something about it. He took all of the Ultima VIII code home with him over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1994 and, as he puts it, “fixed the jumping myself,” replacing the weird system of relative leaps with a simple click-here-to-jump-here approach. Despite their wish to flush the whole thing down the memory hole, Origin agreed to put out a patch incorporating this change and a number of other desperately needed quality-of-life improvements.

It’s this version of Ultima VIII that you’ll find hosted on digital storefronts today. It’s definitely a vast improvement over the original, even taking into account the philosophical objection that it turns the jumping — intended to be a major part of the experience — into a triviality. Much respect to Mike McShaffry for making it; if he hadn’t done so, the game’s reputation would be even worse today. Even Scorpia took note of the patch in her column, and was prompted to soften her stance toward the game ever so slightly. (“I can’t guarantee the game will be more fun, but it will certainly be less frustrating.”)

Indeed, it’s quite common to hear today that Ultima VIII really wasn’t a bad game at all — that it was merely a bad Ultima, in departing way too radically from that series’s established traditions. Some fuel for this argument is provided by Crusader: No Remorse and Crusader: No Regret, a pair of science-fiction action games that used the engine developed for Ultima VIII, but were able to do so without the baggage which the Ultima name brought with it. Both were well-received upon their release in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and are still fondly remembered in some circles today. Some have gone so far as to claim that the engine influenced Diablo, Blizzard Entertainment’s 1996 mega-hit of a streamlined, story-light action-CRPG.

Still, to say that McShaffry’s patch makes a good game out of Ultima VIII strikes me as a leap too far (pun intended). At best, it moves it from unplayable to the lower end of mediocre: the boring environments, uninteresting and/or broken mechanics, poor and sometimes nonexistent writing, and general air of unpleasantness remain unpatched. Ultima VIII is not the misunderstood classic that a few thoroughgoing contrarians would have it be.

Ultima VIII is best studied not as an exercise in game design in the abstract but as an endlessly illustrative sign of its times, showing what happened when the changes being wrought upon the culture of computer gaming by the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM — not to mention Wing Commander! — collided head-on with one of that culture’s traditional standard bearers. In this case, the standard bearer in question would never be the same again. The Ultima IX which certain factions inside Origin were so eager to make as a way of spitting out the bad taste of Ultima VIII would keep getting pushed down in the priority queue after Wing Commander III appeared in late 1994 and finally provided the big hit which Origin had been looking for ever since the EA acquisition. With that event, Wing Commander‘s takeover of Origin was complete. It would be over two and a half years before gamers would hear the name of Ultima from Origin again.

(Sources: the books Explore Create by Richard Garriott with David Fisher and Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, July 1994, August 1994, and May 1995; Electronic Entertainment of April 1994; Questbusters 111; PC Gamer of May/June 1994; PC Zone of June 1994; Dragon of August 1994; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 1993, March 1994, and May 5 1995. Online sources include Sheri Graner Ray’s memories of her time at Origin Systems, “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, and the Ultima Codex interviews with Mike McShaffry and Jason Ely. My huge thanks to Judith Pintar for digging up the online CompuServe conference that followed Ultima VIII‘s release. Note that I’ve heavily edited the excerpts that are included here for grammar, clarity, and brevity; feel free to download the full, unedited transcript.

Ultima VIII is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Origin Sells Out

One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.

Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.

But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”

And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!

What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.

For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.

The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.

Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.

But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.

It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)

Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.

Richard and Robert Garriott flank Stan McKee, Electronic Arts’s chief financial officer, as they toast the consummation of one of the more unexpected acquisitions in gaming history at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.

From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)

As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.

Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.

Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.

On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.

The calm before the storm: the enormous cafeteria at Origin’s new digs awaits the first onslaught of hungry employees. Hopefully someone will scrounge up some tables and chairs before the big moment arrives…

And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.

Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.

The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.

Brian Martin, one of the last two developers remaining on the Arthurian Legends project, made this odd little memorial to it with the help of his partner Sheri Graner Ray after being informed by management that the project was to be cancelled entirely. Ray herself tells the story: “Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King.’ …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. As the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the altar growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.”

Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

Unfashionable though such an approach was in 1993, almost all of the Serpent Isle team’s energy went into gameplay and script rather than multimedia assets; the game looks virtually identical to the first Ultima VII. An exception is the frozen northlands which you visit later in the game. Unfortunately, the change in scenery comes about the time that the design slowly begins to fall apart.

And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:

There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.

Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.

The hype around Strike Commander was inescapable for months prior to its release. At the European Computer Trade Show in London, the last big event before the release, Origin put together a mock-up of an airplane hangar. Those lucky people who managed to seize control for few minutes got to play the game from behind a nose cowl and instrument panel. What Origin didn’t tell you was that the computer hidden away underneath all the window dressing was almost certainly much, much more powerful than one you had at home.

Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.

The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.

Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focus-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”

But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.

Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.

(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.

All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Scientology and the Fellowship

 

The people who believe in the Guardian, the masses who believe in him, are completely good people who are completely duped. And so this cult religion is building, in belief of the Guardian and the Guardian’s ends. The lowest level members of the Fellowship, which is this organization that believes in the Guardian, don’t hear him. The Guardian doesn’t even speak to them.

Do you remember the Time article about Scientology where the lowest level is the self-help group? And it isn’t until you’ve gotten into Scientology for a while that you are told that in fact your body is inhabited by Thetans that have been lying dormant in your body for 75 million years, and they got there when the evil ruler Zog kicked them off their planet Nimpto. I’m serious. This is Scientology. But you don’t find this out until you’re into Scientology.

— Richard Garriot, 1992


L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell

Of all the things to come out of the golden age of pulp science fiction, the strange pseudo-religious cult of Scientology has been among the least welcome.

The man who would found the cult was a charismatic fabulist named L. Ron Hubbard. After dropping out of university at age 21 in 1932, he resolved to make his living by doing what he most enjoyed: telling tall tales. Luckily, he lived in New York City, the heart of the pulp-publishing industry.

Hubbard proved unusually prolific even by the standards of the pulps, churning out multiple stories every week. He wrote in any genre that paid, from westerns to mysteries, but he showed a particular affinity for science fiction. Although his prose was dubious, his stories had a gonzo over-the-top energy about them that soon made his name a significant draw on magazine covers. One might say that Hubbard was the pulpiest of pulp writers. While authors like Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and Ray Bradbury sometimes defied the lurid blurbs and cover art that accompanied their work to present stories of surprising thoughtfulness and texture, an L. Ron Hubbard story was exactly what it appeared to be on the surface: all flashing ray guns, whizzing spaceships, and heaving female bosoms. And that sort of thing, of course, was exactly what so many of the eager adolescent boys who bought the pulps were looking for.

The beginning of the Second World War marked the end of the first heyday of the pulps, as most of their writers were inducted into one form or another of military service. Hubbard parlayed a peacetime reserve commission into a regular officer’s posting in the Navy, but his wartime record proved a decidedly inglorious one. He was given the command of a submarine chaser in 1943, only to be relieved of that duty within a month for using a populated island off the coast of Mexico for gunnery practice. He never came close to meeting the enemy in any of his postings, which saw him mostly sitting behind desks in port-side offices.

After the war, he made his way to Hollywood, where he became involved for some time with a semi-serious cult that embraced Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s egoistic and hedonistic take on mysticism. Here he learned hypnotism; indeed, the group became something of a training ground for his future as a cult leader. He moved back to New York City after a year or so and resumed writing for the pulp market, which was now enjoying a postwar second wind. But he already had grander schemes in mind.

In the December 1949 issue of Astounding, the most prestigious science-fiction magazine in the business, the already legendary editor John W. Campbell made the first mention in print of Dianetics, Hubbard’s new “science of the mind.” “This is not a hoax,” he wrote. “Its power is almost unbelievable.” Campbell hardly had a reputation for gullibility, and his willingness to take every word that fell from Hubbard’s lips on this subject as gospel truth became a source of considerable wonder among his stable of more skeptical writers. Nevertheless, believe in Dianetics he did, turning his magazine into a soapbox for Hubbard’s vaguely Freud-like — but, as Hubbard would be the first to point out, not Freudian — theories about an “analytical mind” and a “reactive mind,” the latter being the subconscious product of often unremembered traumas that constantly undermined one’s attempts to be one’s best self. The only way to become a “Clear” — i.e., free of the reactive mind’s toxic influence — was to undergo a series of “audits” aimed at locating and rooting out the hidden traumas, or “engrams,” as Hubbard called them.

Hubbard would teach ordinary people to become auditors, and together they would become the vanguard of a new, Clear society free of most current worldly woes. Every medical problem from near-sightedness to cancer, Hubbard claimed, could be cured by purging the reactive mind that was their wellspring. Ditto societal problems. What were wars, after all, but products of the mass reactive-mind psychosis?

Published in book form in May of 1950, Dianetics was roundly condemned from the start by professional psychologists, who saw it, reasonably enough, as unmoored to any shred of real scientific evidence and potentially dangerous to the mental health of its more vulnerable practitioners. This rejection spawned in Hubbard a lifelong hatred of traditional psychology; he would pass the sentiment on to the cult he would found, among whom it remains a fundamental tenet to this day.

Nonetheless, Dianetics enjoyed a substantial degree of mainstream attention and even acceptance for a few years. For war veterans in particular, dealing with an overtaxed Veterans Administration that still had little understanding of post-traumatic-stress disorders, its promise of a quick fix for their pain was very appealing indeed. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health climbed high on the bestseller lists, and Hubbard, suddenly making more money than he had ever seen in his life, busied himself with making still more of it, by setting up a nationwide network of Dianetic Research Foundations peddling auditing sessions for neophytes and auditing courses for those who wished to make the leap from patient to therapist. In terms of sheer numbers of people actively engaging with his ideas, the early 1950s was by far the most successful period of Hubbard’s life.

But it wasn’t to last. As it became clear that Dianetics wasn’t actually allowing people to throw away their eyeglasses, much less curing cancer, the wave of earnest interest collapsed as quickly as it had built, to be replaced by scorn and ridicule. The research foundations went bankrupt one by one. Meanwhile John W. Campbell’s magazine never recovered from its editor’s tryst with pseudo-science. It gradually lost its status as science fiction’s most prestigious journal, declining into near irrelevance for the next generation of up-and-coming writers and readers.

With his Dianetics empire crumbling around him, Hubbard sent a telegram to his remaining loyalists announcing “important new material.” And with that material, at a stroke, he turned the pseudo-science of Dianetics into the pseudo-religion of Scientology. Spinning a yarn that he might once have sold to the pulps, he told of a race of immortal beings, existing outside the bounds of space and time, known as the Thetans. (The similarity of the name to Crowley’s Thelema was perhaps telling.) The Thetans had created the universe on a lark, only to get themselves trapped within it. Now, they constituted the souls of human beings, but had forgotten their true nature. But never fear: Hubbard could help a person unlock her inner Thetan, thereby attaining superpowers the likes of which immortality was only the beginning. The first official chapter of his Church of Scientology was founded on February 18, 1954.

Whereas Dianetics had aimed to clear the whole world as quickly as possible, Scientology was for a small group of chosen ones able to recognize its spiritual potency. The true believers lumped everyone else in the world — especially those who had been exposed to Scientology and had chosen to reject it — under the contemptuous category of “wog.” In other words — to put it into terms a cynic can understand — Hubbard had switched from extracting a little bit of money from each of many people to extracting a whole lot of money from each of relatively few people. Early Scientology courses were cheap or even free, but progressing down the “Bridge to Total Freedom” required paying more and more for each successive step. Soon the most dedicated members were giving virtually everything they earned to the church. And it never ended; there was always a further, even more expensive level of enlightenment to be achieved, courtesy of a founder who could always dash one off whenever it was needed. His training with the pulps, it seemed, was still paying dividends.

The full story of the Church of Scientology is as complicated as it is bizarre, encompassing pitched battles with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and many a foreign government, along with a culture of secrecy and paranoia that only got more pronounced from year to year. The church’s history intersects with that of late-20th-century history more generally in often surprising, usually sinister ways. For example, Charles Manson flirted with Scientology while in prison, and later applied some of the techniques of control and manipulation he had learned from it when he started The Family, his own murderous cult of personality.

Perhaps the strangest period of Scientology was that spanning from 1966 to 1975, during which Hubbard, still nursing unrequited dreams of naval heroism, sailed a “fleet” of dilapidated ships, crewed by enthusiastic and comely if dangerously unskilled young followers, all over the world. Much of the current church’s symbology and iconography, such as the “Sea Org” which serves as a sort of elite honor guard for its most precious people and secrets, still dates from this period, as does a policy of harsh paramilitary discipline. For Scientology, claimed Hubbard, was now at war with an outside world bent on destroying it. Journalists and psychologists were its greatest enemies of all, to be shown no mercy whatsoever.

Scientology could and did ruin the lives of its critics. The classic cautionary tale became that of the investigative journalist Paulette Cooper, who in 1971 published an extremely critical history of L. Ron Hubbard and his church under the title of The Scandal of Scientology. She was subjected to a years-long campaign of abuse, taking the form of some twenty separate lawsuits, along with constant harassing phone calls and even break-ins to her apartment. Scientologists wrote her phone number on bathroom walls (“For a good time, call…”), passed out fliers in her neighborhood peddling her alleged services as a prostitute, and sent bomb threats to their own church in her name; these they then referred to the FBI, leaving Cooper to battle criminal charges with a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison. “For months, my anxiety was so terrible I could taste it in my throat,” Cooper says. “I could barely write, and my bills, especially legal ones, kept mounting. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”

L. Ron Hubbard himself withdrew even further from public view when his declining health forced him to return to land in 1975. There was great concern within the church that he might soon be arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion — indeed, this had been one of Hubbard’s ostensible motivations for taking to the sea in the first place — but there was also a degree of embarrassment that the pot-bellied old man was anything but a poster child for the perfect physical fitness and eternal youth he had so long promised his followers. He thus spent the last few years of his life in complete isolation at secret locations. Fading both physically and mentally, he was now being controlled by the church’s senior leadership rather than vice versa.

He died — or, as the church put it, “moved forward to his next level of research” — on January 27, 1986. By that time, a mad struggle for control of the organization he had founded had been underway for years, and had largely been won already by one David Miscavige, who was still just 25 years old at the time of Hubbard’s death. He consolidated his power in the aftermath, and remains in charge to this day of an organization that is more insular and secretive than ever.

Miscavige’s most far-reaching innovation, which he began to implement even well before Hubbard’s death, was the so-called “celebrity strategy.” Eager to attract prominent people with enviable lifestyles for promotional purposes, Miscavige opened a special “Celebrity Centre” in Hollywood. It boasted, as the journalist Janet Reitman describes it, “39 hotel rooms, several theaters and performance spaces, a screening room, an upscale French restaurant, a casual bistro and coffee bar, tennis courts, and an exercise room and spa.”

The profession of actor may appear glamorous from the outside, but it can be almost unbelievably brutal from the inside, even for those who have achieved a degree of success. In this respect, the profession defies direct comparison to almost any other. An actor must face constant, detailed, explicit critiques of her appearance, her voice, her way of holding herself and moving — in short, of her very being. Thus Scientology found in Hollywood a receptive audience for the doctrines of personal empowerment and self-belief that it had always used to lure new members into the fold. The movie stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise became the most visible celebrity faces of Scientology, but it spread its tendrils throughout the entertainment industry, snaring countless other names both recognizable and obscure — for in Hollywood, today’s obscurity may be tomorrow’s marquee name, as Miscavige understood very well. Better, then, to sign them all up.

Since the publication of Paulette Cooper’s book in 1971, most journalists, well aware of the pain said book had brought upon its author, had chosen to keep their distance from the church. But finally, in its issue dated May 6, 1991, Time magazine ran the first lengthy exposé of Scientology in a generation, under the byline of one very brave reporter named Richard Behar. The hook for his piece was the tragic story of Noah Lottick, a “normal, happy” 24-year-old who had given all of his money to the church in the span of seven months, then committed suicide by jumping from a tenth-story window. “We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie,” said the young man’s grieving father. “I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths. Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and the brightest people and destroy them.”

Other affecting personal tragedies were sprinkled amidst the article’s accusations of financial malpractice, eavesdropping, and harassment, all products of what Behar labelled “a thriving cult of greed and power,” worthy of comparison to the Mafia. Like so many cults, the Scientologists showed a marked tendency to prey upon the most vulnerable:

Harriet Baker learned the hard way about Scientology’s business of selling religion. When Baker, 73, lost her husband to cancer, a Scientologist turned up at her Los Angeles home peddling a $1300 auditing package to cure her grief. Some $15,000 later, the Scientologists discovered that her house was debt free. They arranged a $45,000 mortgage, which they pressured her to tap for more auditing until Baker’s children helped their mother snap out of her daze. Last June, Baker demanded a $27,000 refund for unused services, prompting two cult members to show up at her door unannounced to interrogate her. Baker never got the money and, financially strapped, was forced to sell her house in September.

Predictably, the Church of Scientology sued Time for libel. It would take almost ten years for the magazine to win a final legal victory, on the basis that everything reported in the story was substantially accurate.



The timing of this article is highly significant for our purposes: it was read by Richard Garriott, who had recently decided that Ultima VII should have a “real bad guy” as the antagonist for the first time since Ultima III. “Richard came up with the initial idea,” remembers Raymond Benson, the game’s head writer, “but I’m pretty sure I came up with everything the Fellowship did, as well as their various tenets and beliefs.”

Of all the many and varied threads taken up by Ultima VII, that of the Fellowship is the most thoroughgoing. This isn’t surprising on the face of it, given how important the Fellowship is to the game’s overarching plot. What is surprising, however, is how subtle and even wise — not words I use often in connection with CRPGs, believe me! — the game’s depiction of the cult really is. Taken as a whole, the Fellowship’s practices demonstrate a canny understanding of how non-stupid people can be convinced to believe in really stupid things, and how they can be convinced — or coerced — to dedicate their lives to them. Indeed, although the direct inspiration for the Fellowship is Scientology, the understanding of cultish behavior which Ultima VII demonstrates applies equally to many of them. “It wasn’t just Scientology we were knocking,” says Benson, “but all kinds of religious cults.”

Separated at birth? L. Ron Hubbard…

..and Batlin.

The Guardian, the disembodied spirit of evil who’s the prime motivator behind the Fellowship, prefers to hide behind the scenes. The cult’s ostensible founder and public face is instead an unprepossessing fellow named Batlin, who carefully cultivates an everyman persona. In the Book of the Fellowship included with the game — quite possibly the only game manual ever to be written from the point of view of the eventual villain — he speaks of his “humble hope that these words may be for thee a dawning, or at least, a type of awakening.” He is a “traveller” just like you are, who has stumbled upon a form of enlightenment, and he “would very much appreciate sharing the rewards with you.”

This is the modern face of the cult leader, couched in a superficial aura of approachability. Hubbard too dressed casually and encouraged those around him to call him “Ron.” Yet it is indeed a facade; the leader is in fact not an everyman. The affectation of humility is an act, meant to demonstrate the leader’s superior character. He may be a fellow traveler, but the fact remains that he became enlightened while the rest of the world did not; he is, by definition, special, as any cultist who takes his affectation of humility too seriously and challenges his edicts in any way will quickly learn. The Fellowship, like Scientology, is as hierarchical an organization as ever existed.

Still, the impression of casual normality conveyed by the leader is essential to the recruitment process. No one consciously signs up for a cult; people are captured by an innocuous pitch for self-improvement that seems to offer considerable rewards for little investment of time, energy, or money. It’s only after the recruit is inside that the balance begins to subtly shift and the cult begins to demand more and more of all three.

Scientology has studied the recruitment process long and hard, adopting approaches that lean more on theories of marketing than religion. The first pitch says nothing about Thetans; it restricts itself to the relatively more grounded psuedo-science of Dianetics, described as a self-help program that helps one to live a more effective life. The corporate banality of it all smacks of nothing so much as a dodgy vacation-timeshare pitch. In her book on Scientology, Janet Reitman describes her own first encounter with the church in New York City:

At various times during the year, clusters of attractive young men and women are posted on street corners, where they offer free “stress tests” or hand out fliers. Ranging in age from the late teens to the early twenties, they are dressed as conservatively as young bank executives.

On a hot July morning several years ago, I was approached by one of these clear-eyed young men. “Hi!” he said, with a smile. “Do you have a minute?” He introduced himself as Emmett. “We’re showing a film down the street,” he said, casually pulling a glossy, postcard-sized flier from the stack he held in his hand. “It’s about Dianetics — ever heard of it?”

I was escorted to a small screening room to watch the free introductory film. After the film, a woman came into the screening room and told me that she’d like me to fill out a questionnaire. She began her pitch gently. Laurie delivered a soft sell for Scientology’s “introductory package”: a four-hour seminar and twelve hours of Dianetics auditing, a form of consuling that cost $50. “You don’t have to do it,” Laurie said. “It’s just something I get the feeling might help you.” She patted my arm.

That initial request for $50 will grow in a remarkably short time to hundreds, then thousands of dollars, all absolutely required for one to reach the coveted status of Clear and commune with one’s inner Thetan.

The Fellowship recruitment process works much the same way. Every town you visit in Britannia has a Fellowship Hall — or, as it is known in the cult’s corporatese, a “Recreational Facility and Learning Center.” (One of the prime innovations of Scientology, and apparently of the Fellowship as well, was to turn religion into a corporate franchise operation.) While the towns themselves are diverse, every Fellowship Hall looks the same, right down to the Book of the Fellowship standing in a place of honor just inside each of their doorways. (“Books by L. Ron Hubbard lined the walls,” notes Reitman of her Scientology recruitment experience, “as did black-and-white photos of the man.”)

The people hanging about the Fellowship Halls all casually bring up the “Triad of Inner Strength”: “Strive For Unity,” “Trust Thy Brother,” “Worthiness Precedes Reward.” These three principles hardly represent major advances in moral philosophy; they simply say that people should work together whenever possible, should trust in the basic goodness of their fellow humans, and should do good work for the satisfaction of the work itself, understanding that external rewards will come of themselves in due course. The Triad of Inner Strength, in other words, is something most of us learned in grade school.

And yet, banally harmless though it sounds at first blush, the Triad of Inner Strength can all too easily be twisted into something less than benign, as Richard Garriott noted in an interview with Caroline Spector from around the time of Ultima VII‘s release:

And so the Fellowship is this cult religion that is founded upon three principles. The first is Unity. To work for a better world, we all need to work together. If we work together, we’ll be better. This is your “go out and evangelize and convert them to our beliefs” syndrome.

The next thing after Unity is Worthiness. You should always strive to be worthy of that which you wish to receive. Always try to deserve that which you wish to receive. Which is another way of saying, you get what you deserve. Which means, as far as the Guardian is concerned, if you’ve been bad, he kills you. You obviously got what you deserved.

The third principle is called Trust. If you and I are going to work together in the same organization, like me and my brother Robert, we have to trust each other. If I constantly think that Robert’s going to stab me in the back, I won’t get any work done. We’d be constantly checking on each other, making sure that what we’re telling each other is the truth. So, you have to trust the other members of the Fellowship. If I tell you to carry this box from here to there, don’t ask me what’s in it. Just trust me.

Spector: Trust has a condition on it, though. The condition is that you do whatever I tell you to do without question.

Trust! Just trust me!

Spector: That’s really not trust.

I didn’t say it was really trust. I said that’s the word they use.

In practice, then, the Triad of Inner Strength leaves the members of the Fellowship ripe for all sorts of psychological manipulation. “Strive for Unity” and “Trust Thy Brother” militate against critical thinking among the membership, while “Worthiness Precedes Reward” can be used to justify all sorts of acts which the membership would otherwise view as heinous.

The recruitment pitch of both Scientology and the Fellowship culminates in a much-vaunted but borderline nonsensical personality test. The Scientology version poses questions like “Do you often sing or whistle for the fun of it?” and “Do you sometimes feel that your age is against you (too young or too old)?” The Fellowship’s questions are at least a bit more elaborate, and actually do offer some food for thought in themselves. In fact, they might remind you of some of the questions posed by a certain gypsy fortune teller at the beginning of Ultima IV.

Thou art feeling depressed right now. Is it more likely because – A: Thou hast disappointed a friend, or B: A friend has disappointed thee?

At a festive gathering thou dost tell a humorous anecdote, and thou dost tell it very well, creating much amusement. Didst thou tell this comedic story because A: thou didst enjoy the response that thou didst receive from thine audience, or B: because thou didst want to please thy friends?

Thou art in a boat with thy betrothed and thy mother. The boat capsizes. In the choppy waters thou canst only save thyself and one other person. Who dost thou save from drowning, A: thy betrothed, or B: thy mother?

(Freud would have had a field day with that last one.)

Whatever answers you give, on either cult’s test, the end result is always the same: you have much potential, but you need the counseling that only Scientology or the Fellowship can provide. (“Thou art a person of strong character, Avatar, but one who is troubled by deep personal problems that prevent thee from achieving thy true potential for greatness.”)

As you wander Britannia talking to Fellowship members — whatever else you can say about Batlin’s cult, it’s achieved a degree of market penetration of which Scientology can only dream — they all parrot the same lines when speaking of the organization. At first, you might be tempted to chalk this up to laziness on the part of the writing team. But later, as you come to see that laziness simply isn’t a part of Ultima VII‘s writerly personality, you realize that it’s been done with purposeful intent, to illustrate the subtle process of brainwashing that occurs once one begins to open oneself to a cult. And as this realization dawns, the parroting that started out as merely annoying begins to take on a sinister quality.

Indeed, the control of language constitutes an important part of a cult’s overall control of its members. Scientology has developed a veritable English dialect all its own, a strange mixture of tech speak, corporate speak, and messianic grandiosity. The word “love” is replaced by “affinity”; the verb “to audit” now means “to listen and compute.” Hubbard’s own writings — Scientology’s version of holy scripture — is the church’s “technology” or “tech.” More ominously, a “suppressive person” is someone who speaks critically of the church, thereby suppressing the truth of Hubbard’s wisdom in herself and in those around her; these people, Scientology’s version of heretics, are fair game for any sort of punishment. One former member and current suppressive person describes Scientology’s manipulation of language thusly:

It’s very, very subtle stuff, changing words and giving them a whole different meaning. It creates an artificial reality. What happens is, this new linguistic system undermines your ability to even monitor your own thoughts because nothing means what it used to mean. I couldn’t believe that I could get taken over like that. I was the most independent-minded idiot that ever walked the planet. But that’s what happened.

The Fellowship too manipulates language for its own ends, preferring convoluted purple prose to directness in such linguistic pillars as the Triad of Inner Strength. The core of the group’s philosophy is “sanguine cognition.” This is just another way of saying “cheerful knowledge,” Batlin helpfully tells us, which rather begs the question why he doesn’t instruct his followers to simply say the latter. The answer is that clear language illuminates its subject, whereas a cult’s mission is always to obscure the sheer banality of its teachings.

The languages of Scientology and the Fellowship alike are meant to highlight their status as modern belief systems suitable for the modern world. This is important, for any argument for the absolute truth of a religion or life philosophy must carry with it the implied corollary that all other current religions and life philosophies are false, or at least of lesser utility. Batlin has this to say about the system of virtues that arrived in Britannia at the time of Ultima IV, more than 200 years ago in the series’s internal chronology:

As one who has followed the Eight Virtues, I know whereof I speak when I say that it is impossible to perfectly live up to them. Even the Avatar was unable to do so continuously and consistently. Can anyone say that they have been honest every moment of their lives? Can anyone say that they are always compassionate, valorous, just, sacrificing, honorable, humble, or spiritual at all times? The philosophy of the Eight Virtues does little more than emphasize our own personal deficiencies. I have met many adherents to the ways of the Virtues who are racked with guilt over what they perceive to be their spiritual failures, for that is what the Virtues are based upon. Having been shown our weaknesses, now is the time to strengthen them. The philosophy of The Fellowship has been created to eradicate the failures from one’s life. It is a philosophy based upon success and it enhances everything that has come before it.

It’s right here that Ultima VII levels its most subtle but perhaps most important critique of Scientology and similar movements in our own world. A religion, some wag once said, is another person’s cult, and vice versa. I would push back against that notion to the extent that the great religions of the world, regardless of their claim to objective truth, engage with the full scope of the human condition, including its fundamentally tragic nature. Religion engages with failure and weakness at least as much as it does with success and strength; it engages with pain and loss, with aging and death — because, as another wag once said, none of us gets out of this life alive.

So, a true religion grasps that it cannot deny the tragic realities of life, replacing them with some shallow notion of “success,” as if the ineffable mysteries of life were just a series of bullet points on a CV. As Sophocles and Shakespeare understood, much of life is pain, and true spiritual enlightenment is the ability to laugh in spite of that pain, not to deny its existence. True enlightenment requires one to get outside of one’s self. Scientology and the Fellowship, on the other hand, are egotism masquerading as spirituality. What can I get out of this? It’s in this way, it seems to me, that they’re most depressingly modern of all.

And yet moral judgments, as the Ultima series did such a good job of teaching us over the years, are seldom absolute. Me-focused self-help programs doubtless do some people a great deal of good, as do Scientology and the Fellowship. For decades now, Scientology has run addiction-treatment programs that have changed at least some lives. The Fellowship too runs homeless shelters and treats serpent-venom addicts (serpent venom being Britannia’s version of cocaine).

Assuming we believe in the notion of people as sovereign individuals, we must give them permission to believe strange things if they wish to do so. And, assuming we believe in the right of free speech, we must give them permission as well to try to convince others of their beliefs — even to try to convince others to join their group and behave as they do. Where do the boundaries lie? Efforts to outlaw Scientology in some countries of our own world have struck many as overreaching. But, likewise, the organization’s ongoing tax-exempt status in other countries strikes many as a travesty in its own right.

Of course, there are limits to the parallels between Scientology and the Fellowship. At the end of the day, the fact remains that Ultima VII is a work of genre fiction. Our ingrained media literacy assures that, from the time when we first meet the Fellowship just minutes after starting the game, we know that they can’t possibly be up to anything good. Indeed, it’s almost a comfort to learn that the Fellowship is being directed by a spirit of manifestly bad intent. That’s the sort of thing we know how to deal with as players of CRPGs. By contrast, very few people in our real world — not even cult leaders — believe themselves to be evil. Evil here is far more subtle, and often occurs in spite of — or sometimes because of — our best intentions. Those who pull the levers of Scientology are not the Guardian — not disembodied spirits of evil cackling over their nefarious plans — but ordinary humans who, I would guess, honestly feel in their heart of hearts that they’re doing good.

Still, if it’s comfort we Scientology skeptics are looking for, we can find some in the fact that the church is by all indications a shadow today of what it was at the time of Ultima VII‘s release. It’s always been damnably difficult to collect hard numbers about the church’s membership at any point in its history, due to its consistent determination to exaggerate its size and influence. Yet, tellingly, even the exaggerations are much smaller today than they were two or three decades ago. Scientology today may have as few as 50,000 active members worldwide, down from a peak of perhaps 500,000 at the time of the Time magazine article. Even its stranglehold on Hollywood has been noticably weakened, with many of its superstar converts having quietly backed away. Much of the veil of secrecy around the organization has been pierced, and Scientology’s penchant for retaliation against its critics doesn’t have the same silencing effect it once did. Today, tell-all memoirs about “my life in Scientology,” of wildly varying degrees of veracity and luridness, have became a veritable cottage industry in publishing. Their authors have found a form of safety in numbers; when Scientology has so many critics, it’s hard for it to go after each one of them with the old gusto, especially given its current straitened membership rolls.

I suspect that Scientology will die out entirely in another generation or three. For all but the people whose lives it has ruined (or saved) and those close to said people, it will go down in history as just another kooky cult, another proof of the eternal human penchant to believe weird things and to cede control of their lives to others in the name of those beliefs. Even as Scientology slowly dies, however, other cult-like belief systems promising love, wealth, and happiness — for a small price — will continue to arise. So, there will never be a shortage of real-world analogues for the Fellowship. Sadly, Ultima VII‘s claim to thematic relevance is never likely to be in doubt.

(Sources: the books Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman, The Scandal of Scientology by Paulette Cooper, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; Time of May 6 1991. Online sources include The Ultima Codex interview with Raymond Benson, the comprehensive anti-Scientology resource Operation Clambake, and Frederick Pohl’s memories of Hubbard on The Way the Future Blogs. I owe a special thank you to Hoki-Aamrel, whose “The Fellowship and the Church of Scientology Compared” served as my spirit guide for researching this article. And my thanks go as well to Peter W., who pointed out in a comment to my previous article that The Book of the Fellowship may be the only game manual ever written from the point of view of the villain.)

 

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