RSS

Tag Archives: preiss

From Congo to Amazon

There are new ways of presenting information other than the traditional ways in which the reader or viewer is required to be passive. A few years ago, I realized that I didn’t know about these things, and that I’d better find out about them. The only way I could learn was to actually go and do one. So I said, “Well, I’ll just make a game and then I’ll learn.” And I certainly did.

— Michael Crichton, 1984

Anyone who had been reading Michael Crichton’s novels prior to the founding of the Telarium brand had to know of his interest in computers. The plot of 1972’s The Terminal Man, of a man who has a computer implanted in his brain, is the sort of thing that would become commonplace in science fiction only with the rise of cyberpunk more than a decade later. And of course computers are also all over 1980’s Congo; indeed, they’re the only reason the heroes are out there in the jungle in the first place. Crichton’s personal history with computers also stretches back surprisingly far. Always an inveterate gadget freak, he bought his first computer-like machine in the form of an Olivetti word processor almost as soon as his earnings from his first hit novel, The Andromeda Strain, made it possible. He wrote his books for years on the Olivetti. When the trinity of 1977 arrived, he quickly jumped aboard the PC revolution with an Apple II, first of a stable that within a few years would also include Commodores, Radio Shacks, and IBMs.

Never shy about sharing his interests in print, Crichton became a semi-regular contributor to Creative Computing magazine, who were thrilled to have a byline of his prominence under any terms. Thus they gave him free rein to opine in the abstract:

I would argue that it [computer technology] is a force of human evolution, opening new possibilities for our minds, simultaneously freeing us from drudgery while presenting us with a parody of our own rational sides. Computers actually show us both the benefits and the limits of rationality with wonderful precision. What could be more rational than that pedantic little box that keeps saying SYNTAX ERROR over and over? And what does our frustration suggest to us, in terms of other things to do and other ways to be?

But Crichton was more than the mere dabbler that poeticisms like the above might suggest. He took the time to learn how to program his toys, publishing fairly intricate program listings in BASIC for applications such as casting the I Ching (a byproduct of his seldom remarked interest in mysticism; see his nonfiction memoir Travels, which might just be the most interesting thing he ever wrote); identifying users based on their typing characteristics (inspired by his recent short story “Mousetrap”); and creating onscreen art mirroring that of abstract painter Josef Albers (Crichton’s interest in and patronship of the visual arts also tends to go unremarked). In 1983 he published the book Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers, a breezy introduction for the layman which nevertheless shared some real wisdom on topics such as the absurdity of the drive for “computer literacy” which insisted that every schoolchild in the country needed to know how to program in BASIC to have a prayer of success in later life. It also offered a spirited defense of computers as tools for entertainment and creativity as well as business and other practical matters.

Which isn’t to say that he didn’t find plenty of such practical applications for his computers. During this part of his life Crichton was immersed in planning for a movie called Runaway, which was to star Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons of Magnum P.I. and Kiss fame respectively. He hoped it would be one of the major blockbusters of 1984, although it would ultimately be overshadowed by a glut of other high-profile science-fiction films that year (The Terminator, Star Trek III, 2010). He hired a team to create a financial-modeling package which he claimed would allow a prospective filmmaker to input a bunch of parameters and have a shooting budget for any movie in “about a minute.” It was soon circulating amongst his peers in Hollywood.

Thus when the folks at Telarium started thinking about authors who might be interested in licensing their books and maybe even working with them on the resulting adaptations, Crichton was a natural. Seth Godin approached him in late 1983. He returned with extraordinary news: not only was Crichton interested, but he already had a largely completed game for them, based on his most recent novel, Congo.

Crichton had first started thinking he might like to write a game as long as two years before Godin’s inquiry. He’d grown frustrated with the limitations of the adventure games he’d played, limitations which seemed to spring not just from the technology but also from the lack of dramatic chops of their programmers.

I simply didn’t understand the mentality that informed them. It was not until I began programming myself that I realized it was a debugger’s mentality. They could make you sit outside a door until you said exactly the right words. Sometimes you had to say, “I quit,” and then it would let you through.

Well, that’s life in the programming world. It’s not life in any other world. It’s not an accepted dramatic convention in any other arena of entertainment. It’s something you learn to do when you’re trying to make the computer work.

Here’s what I found out early on: you can’t have extremely varied choices that don’t seem to matter. I can go north, south, east, or west, and who cares? You can only do that for a while, and then if you don’t start to have an expectation of what will happen, you’ll stop playing the game. You’d better get right going and you’d better start to have something happen.

If I play a game for a half-hour and it doesn’t make any sense to me, I’ll just quit and never go back. Say I’m locked in this house and I don’t know what the point of the house is and why I can’t get out and there’s no sort of hint to me about the mentality that would assist me in getting out — I don’t know. I could say “Shazam!” or I could burn the house down or — give me a break. I just stop.

Crichton started to sketch out his own adventure game based on Congo, whose simple quest plot structure made it a relatively good choice for conversion to the new format. Realizing that his programming skills weren’t up to the task of implementing his ideas, he hired programmer Stephen Warady to write the game in Apple II assembly language. The little team was eventually completed by David Durand, an artist who normally worked in film graphics. The game as it evolved was as much a mixed-media experience as text adventure, incorporating illustrations, simple action games, and other occasional graphical interludes that almost qualify as cut scenes, perfectly befitting this most cinematic of writers (and, not incidentally, making the game a perfect match with Telarium’s other games once they finally came calling). Crichton would sometimes program these sequences himself in BASIC, then turn them over to Warady to redo in much faster assembly language. Given Crichton’s other commitments, work on Congo the game proceeded in fits and starts for some eighteen months. They were just getting to the point of thinking about a publisher when Godin arrived to relieve them of that stress.

When Spinnaker started their due diligence on the deal, however, a huge problem quickly presented itself: Crichton, as was typical for him by this time, had already sold the media rights to Congo to Hollywood. (After they languished there for many years, the success of the Jurassic Park film would finally prompt Paramount Pictures to pick them up and make a Congo movie at last in 1995. Opinions are divided over whether that movie was just bad or so cosmically bad that it became good again.) Those rights unfortunately included all adaptations, including computer games, something the usually business-savvy Crichton had totally failed to realize. Spinnaker may have been a big wheel in home computers, but they didn’t have much clout in Hollywood. So, they came up with another solution: they excised the specifics of the novel from the game, leaving just the plot framework. The Congo became the Amazon; Amy the signing gorilla became Paco the talking parrot; Earth Resources Technology Services became National Satellite Resources Technology; a diamond mine became an emerald mine; African cannibals and roving, massacring army troops became South American cannibals and roving, massacring army troops. It may not have said much for Crichton and Spinnaker’s appreciation for cultural diversity, but it solved their legal problems.

Amazon was written for the Apple II in native assembly language. Spinnaker, however, took advantage of the rare luxury of time — the game was in an almost completed state when Crichton signed in late 1983, fully one year before the Telarium line’s launch — to turn it over to Byron Preiss Video Productions to make a version in SAL for the all-important Commodore 64 platform. The result wasn’t quite as nice an experience as the original, but it was acceptable. And it was certainly a wise move: Amazon became by all indications the most successful of all the Telarium games. Some reports have it selling as many as 100,000 copies, very good numbers for a member of a line whose overall commercial performance was quite disappointing. The majority of those were most likely the Commodore 64 version, if sales patterns for Amazon matched those for the industry as a whole.

I do want to talk about Amazon in more detail; it’s an historically important game thanks if nothing else to Crichton’s involvement and also a very interesting one, with some genuinely new approaches. But we’ll save that discussion for next time. In the meantime, feel free to download the Apple II version from here if you’d like to get a head start. Note that disk 3 is the boot disk.

(All of the references I listed in my first article on bookware still apply. Useful interviews with Crichton appeared in the February 1985 Creative Computing and February 1985 Compute!. Other articles and programs by Crichton appeared in Creative Computing‘s March 1983, June 1984, and November 1984 issues.)

 
8 Comments

Posted by on October 11, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , , ,

Dragonworld

Dragonworld

In 1976 Byron Preiss Visual Publications initiated a series of what we would call today graphic novels that have gone down as a landmark in comics circles. Each volume in the Fiction Illustrated line was a standalone story that replaced superheroes or anthropomorphic animals with hard-bitten detectives or space explorers “in the Star Trek tradition.” Preiss himself coauthored three of the first four books, and planned to work with another young writer named Michael Reaves on the fifth, an epic fantasy to be called Dragonworld. But the Fiction Illustrated line did indeed prove to be ahead of its time. Sales were disappointing, and his publishers weren’t interested in continuing the line. Undaunted, Preiss and Reaves turned Dragonworld into a more conventional fantasy novel, albeit one complemented by some fifty delicate pencil illustrations courtesy of Joe Zucker which Preiss and Reaves considered so integral to the project that they billed Zucker as essentially an equal partner. They all ended up living together in the same apartment for a time so as to work more efficiently on a novel that at more than 500 pages became an epic indeed.

Published in 1979, Dragonworld is the story of two lands, Fandora and Simbala, who are duped by festering resentments and disastrous misunderstandings into declaring war on one another. It’s left to a mismatched pair of adventurers — Amsel of Fandora, a retiring naturalist, and Hawkwind of Simbala, a warrior and leader — to join forces and find the truth: that the mythical colddrakes have in fact invaded both lands since the Last Dragon, normally the master who controls them, has been imprisoned. Dragonworld is in some ways an odd book in that it doesn’t quite fit comfortably into a category. The name, the look, and often the tone suggest a young-adult novel, an impression reinforced by the idealistic core message of “if we would all just take the time to talk and understand each other…” (Certainly it’s no great leap to see Fandora and Simbala as the United States and the Soviet Union.) But prior to Harry Potter kids’ books didn’t routinely stretch beyond 500 pages. And the story can also be grimmer than was the norm for a young-adult book circa 1979. In the first chapter we meet the perky young Johan and follow him on his grand first flight with a Flying Wing. We assume he’ll be our Bilbo surrogate — until Preiss and Reaves kill him violently to close the chapter.

Honestly, however, that may be the most interesting thing I can say about the book. It’s competently written and carefully plotted and the pictures are lovely, but at root it’s just another Tolkien derivative to me, not the sort of thing I can get all that chuffed about either way. So, I’ll leave it to those who are more invested in its genre to sing its praises or lament its flaws and move on.

The book was by all indications a moderate success, but hardly a genre landmark like Rendezvous with Rama or Fahrenheit 451. Still, securing the rights certainly wouldn’t be a problem, and would give Preiss the chance to write the sequel which the ending of the novel vaguely hints at. He even convinced Michael Reaves to join him again.

Dragonworld seems the most traditional of the Telarium games, what with being a quest narrative set in a fantasy world. Its story is a sequel to that of the novel in about the most unimaginative way it can be. It seems the Last Dragon had managed to get himself captured yet again, a fact he communicates to you, Amsel, via the Dragonpearl he gave you in the novel. And so you’re off again to fetch Hawkwind and journey with him down the length of Simbala to the Last Dragon’s place of captivity.

Traditional as it is, Dragonworld is also the best Telarium game I’ve yet written about. It’s not that it’s radically different, mind you. The parser still leaves much to be desired; “Try rephrasing this” is the error message you’ll come to hate this time. And the game is painfully slow to respond even when it does understand what you’re trying to say to it, especially on the Commodore 64 with its famously slow disk drive (the platform which otherwise, thanks to its graphics and sound capabilities, gives by far the best experience). The nadir comes in the form of three almost inconceivably awful action games, none of which would be likely to pass muster as a BASIC type-in magazine listing and one of which just might be the worst program I’ve ever actually seen somebody ask money for. How bad is this thing, you ask? Well, it’s so bad I was at first sure I must have a corrupted disk. It’s so bad that all of the action slows down to half speed every time you push the joystick, which is an especial problem because the whole game is already running in unbelievably slow motion. It would at least be simple to beat — if only the collision detection wasn’t often off by a whole sprite’s length or so.

 

The only saving grace is that this game and one of the others are completely irrelevant, unnecessary to play at all to complete Dragonworld. They simply appear like the worst non sequitur in history when you innocently wander into certain locations. Then, when you win or die — it makes no difference which — you’re dropped back into the text adventure, with no acknowledgment whatsoever of… whatever that was… that just happened to you. One of these horrors, however, is used to earn needed money in a casino, and can’t be avoided — theoretically. I got so annoyed with it that I used a hex editor on a save file to give myself the gold I needed, an exercise in tedious trial and error that was nevertheless far more fun than playing the gambling game would have been. As with Rendezvous with Rama, Telarium ripped all of these games out of later releases of Dragonworld, the best single decision they ever made to counteract their worst of putting them in in the first place.

It’s thus high praise indeed for me to say of the rest of the game that it managed to overcome all that and leave me with a good feeling toward it in spite of itself. There’s a charm to Dragonworld that’s missing from Rendezvous with Rama entirely and that’s undone by a fatal flaw or two in the otherwise worthy Fahrenheit 451. While the genre and plot structure may be superficially the most traditional of the Telarium games, Telarium’s promise to make games that were more about the fiction than the puzzles is not just lip service here. You pick up Hawkwind very early in your quest, and so have a companion from then on. If you try to do something for which the brawnier Hawkwind is better suited, like, say, attacking a monster, the action automatically passes to him. This is a bit weird conceptually in the same way it was in Sierra’s The Dark Crystal, but given the parser limitations it works fine really. Combine Hawkwind’s presence with the creatures and people you meet everywhere and the fact that you can even get a third companion to accompany you and Hawkwind for much of the game, and adventuring in Dragonworld is a far less lonely experience than the norm.

Dragonworld is made up of a long linear series of obstacles, until you arrive at the town of Kandesh, where you can roam freely to prepare yourself for the (once again linear) climactic scenes. The puzzles are always realistic problems grounded in the story and the environment, and can usually be solved in straightforward, realistic ways. If you’re one of those people like me who often wonders why you can’t just bash that troll in the chest instead of paying him his coin and then waiting for him to go to sleep and then casting some magic spell on him to get the coin back and ad infinitum, this is a good game for you. Indeed, Dragonworld‘s puzzles are fairly trivial to solve in the early going in particular. By the time you’re approaching the Last Dragon’s prison they’ve gotten more difficult — two or three are genuinely tricky — but overall Dragonworld is by far the easiest of the first batch of Telarium games. It takes almost a willful effort to lock yourself out of victory. Even during the climax you can backtrack almost to the starting location if you find you’ve left anything undone. This may not do much for dramatic tension (imagine Frodo at the Crack of Doom: “Sorry, Sam, it seems I’ve left something behind. Let’s just nip quickly back to the Shire, then come back and try this again.”), but it certainly makes for a less frustrating game. Likewise the primitive parser, while still prone to non sequiturs and fits of stubbornness, is used more wisely and made more generous in its interpretations this time. It’s seldom more than a momentary frustration.

Most of all, Dragonworld is just a fun world to inhabit for a while. The sound and especially the graphics actually justify their inclusion for the first time in a Telarium game. The latter were drawn by a relatively well-known artist, John Pierard. His work is bright, welcoming, and attractive even given the limits of the computers on which Dragonworld had to run. They add much to the experience, making the game feel like the grand fantasy romp it wants to be.

Dragonworld Dragonworld

Dragonworld Dragonworld

Overall, then, Dragonworld just comes together in a way that the previous two Telarium games I’ve written about do not. It’s hard to say exactly why this happened. Having the authors of the novel actually working on the game as committed, engaged writers and designers certainly couldn’t have hurt. And maybe, since it was Preiss’s company after all, his game got just that little bit extra: the best artist and composer, a little more testing, etc. Who knows? The important thing is that Telarium finally began to deliver on some of their promises here.

That said, I won’t lie to you: it’s still a much more unrefined experience than an Infocom game of similar vintage. But if you’re willing to work a little bit harder for your fun, there’s still much to be had here. Some annoyances can even be somewhat alleviated in modern times. Set your emulator to (at least) 200% speed, for example, to make the long parsing delays a bit more tolerable. As usual, you can download Dragonworld from right here.

 
 

Tags: , ,

Fahrenheit 451: The Game

Fahrenheit 451

At the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 the game you learn that the nuclear apocalypse that ended the book turned out to not be so apocalyptic after all. It seems the country just got knocked around a bit. Now you’re in New York City looking to continue your rebellion against the book burners in charge of things and hopefully in the process rescue Clarisse, whom your sources tell you is still alive and being held prisoner somewhere in the city; it seems she’s gone from Manic Pixie Dream Girl to hardened resistance fighter.

Fahrenheit 451

Going west or north from the starting location gets you instantly killed by some of the fauna that now inhabits Central Park. Obviously that pile of leaves must be the ticket. Or is it?

>move leaves
Can't understand that.

>look under leaves
This is the southeast corner of Central Park. There is a clearing, with a pond to the west and a path leading north along the shore of the pond.

>push leaves
Can't understand that.

>get leaves
Nothing happens.

After ten more minutes of this sort of thing, you might find the magic verb at last…

>kick leaves
Under the leaves you see an old, rusted grating set into a patch of broken concrete.

To call this beginning of Instadeath combined with Parser Fun inauspicious hardly begins to state the case. What a surprise, then, when the game that follows turns into a worthy design with exactly the spark of passion and innovation that is so conspicuously missing in Rendezvous with Rama. If only the parser didn’t continue to undermine it at every turn…

Byron Preiss and Ray Bradbury first worked together on a book called Dinosaur Tales, which combined a number of old and new Bradbury stories on one of his favorite subjects with Preiss’s signature approach to books as lavishly illustrated objects d’art. When the Telarium project began, Preiss was able not only to convince him to sign a contract for the adaptation of his most famous book but also to involve himself in the project a bit more than Arthur C. Clarke would in Rendezvous with Rama: he wrote a summary of the book to be printed inside the game box, and did some interviews just to promote it. Telarium claimed that he also contributed “ideas” to the project, although that phrase is vague enough to mean almost anything; he did frankly state in one interview that he “wasn’t interested in doing the work himself,” would “trust his longtime friend Preiss to render the work faithfully.”

So, Fahrenheit 451 the game fell to Byron Preiss Video Productions, the shell company he and Spinnaker had set up that also created Rendezvous with Rama and Dragonworld from scratch. Preiss installed another veteran of his Be an Interplanetary Spy book series, Len Neufeld, as designer and writer. Being built with the same technology and employing many of the same programmers, artists, and composers as Rendezvous with Rama, Fahrenheit 451 is inevitably superficially similar in flavor to that game. Certainly the two games have plenty of disadvantages in common, including a stubborn and uninformative parser (the slightly less infuriating “Can’t understand that” replacing “You reconsider your words” as Fahrenheit 451‘s error message of choice) and pictures that sometimes look like little more than a smear of discolored pixels (with an ugly brown replacing an ugly blue as Fahrenheit 451‘s hue of choice). Fahrenheit 451 at least lacks Rendezvous with Rama‘s horrid action games. More importantly, it acquits itself far better by engaging with the themes and ideas of its source material rather than just the window dressing of stage set and plot outline. As blogger Dale Dobson noted in his post on the game, it “takes itself, and its inspiration, seriously, and that is to be commended.”

By making the game a sequel to the novel rather than a recreation, Neufeld is freed to create a design that plays in Bradbury’s world with many of Bradbury’s themes but that also works as an adventure game. You have the run of about twenty blocks of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, an area the team knew well; New York City was the home of Neufeld, Preiss, and, most of Preiss’s people. By setting the game in his home town and including famous landmarks like the Plaza Hotel and Tiffany’s, Neufeld manages to make the setting of Fahrenheit 451 feel like a real place, an impression aided by just enough elements of simulation: time passes and day cycles to night, Mechanical Hounds patrol up and down the street on a regular schedule, stores open and close and people come and go from their apartments. You must also eat occasionally and manage your money (which you’ll also need to find more of to complete the game).

The writing is more than solid; it’s sometimes downright lyrical. It’s not afraid to stretch to several paragraphs when the situation calls for it and never feels written down to a computer-game audience. Exploring the world, always one of if not the core pleasure of adventure gaming, is especially pleasurable here, as is solving a collection of interesting puzzles that are always logical and fair. Your ultimate goal is to penetrate the New York Public Library. Your immediate reason for doing so is to rescue Clarisse, who is being held prisoner there, but the goal also has symbolic significance in a game all about the pleasures and importance of books. No, there’s not much of a real story to speak of beyond that goal. And yes, there are a hundred problems I could poke at if we insist on judging the game as a coherent work of fiction, like the way that just about everyone in the whole city seems to be in the Underground, or how Clarisse now seems to be an entirely different person from the one we knew in the book. But this isn’t a book. It’s an adventure game, whose pleasures are anchored in exploring a landscape both physical and mental rather than plot. And the mood of the book is always very present. At the end, you must choose between abandoning the cause and enjoying life with Clarisse or sacrificing yourself on the altar of Literature, a perfect echo of the book’s contrasting of the comfort and superficial happiness of (Bradbury’s perception of) television with the dangerous ideas of the great books.

Many of the puzzles are of the conventional object-oriented stripe — you need this to do that, but to get it you need to find a way to do this, etc. — but the central spine of the design once again finds a way to connect with the themes of the book. You need the assistance of the various members of the Underground who are scattered around the city, but talking with them usually requires a password in the form of a literary quotation. So you spend a lot of your time hunting down and deploying these quotations, which run the gamut from the Song of Solomon to Moby Dick to the inevitable four from Shakespeare. In purely mechanical terms, it’s just another system of magic words, no more complicated or interesting than Adventure‘s PLUGH and XYZZY. Thematically, however, it’s brilliant, especially because the quotes always have something to connect them to the situation or person on which they must be used — even if that something is sometimes only obvious in retrospect. Many were supposedly chosen by Bradbury himself. Indeed, whatever his actual involvement with the development of Fahrenheit 451 the game, Bradbury the author is thoroughly present in it.

Ray Bradbury with his toys

Ray Bradbury with his toys

I actually mean that literally as well as metaphorically. Amidst lots to do and discover, you can find “Ray’s” phone number and call him up. He helps with a puzzle or two directly, but also shares his thoughts on any of the literary quotes you care to ask him about, and will shoot the breeze in the form of a random anecdote if you just TALK TO him. I generally don’t have a lot of patience with the man-child persona Bradbury had by this time well established for his many interviewers. I find it affected and, well, childish, and his art, also long since established by 1984, of sounding profound without actually saying anything drives me nuts. There’s some of that here, but Neufeld and company curate him pretty well; he’s actually fun and interesting to listen to. Most of his responses are phrased as if he’s answering a question you just posed — a neat, verisimilitudinous trick that requires a mere modicum of suspension of disbelief.

We’re all terminally ill. Sickness is merely a factor, like money.

Japanese, Italian, French, Chinese, and other East Asian (Thai, Korean, Philippine, etc.), Middle Eastern — when you`re hungry, everything`s good.

Favorite films? King Kong, Fantasia, Citizen Kane.

I told you — my favorite play is St. Joan.

Moby Dick, Tarzan, and Grapes of Wrath are my favorite books. I also love the stories of Hemingway and Poe.

Many of my early stories were published in the magazine Weird Tales in the early thirties and forties.

My love affair with dinosaurs has lasted as long as my affair with Mars.

Such little extras abound. You can REMEMBER snippets of prose from the original novel; in addition to Ray, you can also call many other people from the handy phone booths, most of whom aren’t strictly needed but all of whom add a touch of atmosphere or something to think about; there are alternate solutions to puzzles and many paths to victory.

I wish I could wrap up this article right here, with the final note that, while I find Fahrenheit 451 the novel rather overrated, this game is not only great fun to play but also left me feeling a bit more kindly disposed toward its inspiration and even its inspiration’s author. Alas, I can’t do that, for reasons I first broached at the beginning of this article.

The parser, you see, ruins everything. Telarium wants and claims it to be a full-sentence jobber to rival Infocom’s, but it barely seems to parse at all, just to match arbitrary sequences of words. (Yes, I have to take back what I said in an earlier article about Telarium’s parser being “adequate.”) The fact that it will accept more than two words just compounds the problem, adding a nice dose of combinatorial explosion when you’re trying to figure out what to type at the thing. Worst of all, it’s not consistent in its whims. Sometimes you must TALK <character>; sometimes you must TALK TO <character>; sometimes you must ASK <character>. Synonyms are virtually nonexistent. There’s a character named Emile Ungar whom you can only refer to as “Ungar” — not “Emile,” not “Emile Ungar.” Similar situations are absolutely everywhere. I was having a great experience with the game until I got stuck and turned to the walkthrough, whereupon I found that I had actually solved every single puzzle I’d found so far. I just hadn’t typed the exact phrasing that the parser wanted.

I can hardly express how disheartening this is to me. At one point I was ready to call Fahrenheit 451 the best non-Infocom adventure game I’d yet played for this blog. Now I can’t even really recommend it at all. What’s doubly frustrating is that the game doesn’t absolutely need a better parser per se; none of these puzzles require complicated parser interactions. Telarium just needed to put the game before testers for a week or so, to note what they tried to type and add those phrasings to the pattern matcher. As it is, it feels like a game that only its creators, who had the magic phrases wired into their subconscious, actually played. For a clue to how that could have happened, we might turn to a Harvard Business School study that describes the frantic push at Spinnaker to get the new line out in time for Christmas 1984. In the words of their chairman Bill Bowman:

We had people working 24 hours a day for a month. We converted the board room into a dormitory, with sleeping bags and pillows. People would work until they couldn’t go on anymore, and then they would go upstairs, sleep for a few hours, come down and start working again. We had a caterer bringing in meals for a month, weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays. It was… ridiculous, that’s what it was. But, we had to have the product in a month. We did meet the deadline, but we won’t do it again. It was extremely painful, although when it was finished, the camaraderie that existed in the team was fantastic. This involved some 30% of the people in the company. I think this is going to be our biggest line next year.

It’s hard to imagine this situation allowing for much testing. This leads to an important point: Infocom is justly celebrated for their ambitious, imaginative writers and designers. Yet it’s also true that they were far from the only such talented folks working in text in the 1980s. Infocom’s triumph was, as much as anything else, a triumph of process, of a commitment to quality and doing things right even if that meant taking the slow, plodding route of releasing a game every few months rather than vomiting out half a dozen on the eve of Christmas. Infocom’s games didn’t suffer from the problems of Fahrenheit 451 because Infocom never allowed themselves to get into a situation like the one described above — a situation which, whatever its value in adrenaline and company camaraderie, doesn’t often lead to the best games.

Still, Fahrenheit 451 does do enough things right, and has enough interesting innovations, that you may want to spend some time on Fifth Street. As an expression of the joys of literature it works for me better than the book. By all means feel free to download the Commodore 64 version and give it a shot if it looks tempting.

(The same references I used for my introduction to Telarium and bookware mostly apply here. The photo of Bradbury was part of an interview to promote Fahrenheit 451 the game in the June 18, 1984, issue of InfoWorld.)

 
10 Comments

Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama

In the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke discusses the music choices of astronaut David Bowman in the latter stages of his voyage to Saturn aboard the Discovery, after the malfunctioning supercomputer HAL has killed all of his crew mates and left him as alone as any human has ever been, millions of miles from the nearest fellow member of his species. He begins with opera, but soon finds that he can’t bear to hear human voices. So he moves on to the instrumental music of the Romantic composers, but soon finds their emotionalism “oppressive.” At last he finds peace in the cool abstractions of Bach’s architectures in sound.

It’s a passage that always makes me think of Clarke’s own qualities as a writer. You won’t find rich characters in his works, nor any insight whatsoever into that elusive thing known as the Human Condition. When he tries to do that sort of thing, the results are always odd, like something written from the standpoint of an alien who doesn’t quite get the chaotic emotions of humanity. And sometimes it’s kind of creepy. Take our subject for today, Rendezvous with Rama, which postulates a society of the future in which plural marriage is the norm and the crew aboard a spaceship can engage in spirited orgies without it breeding jealousies or having any effect on their group cohesion. Like when reading Heinlein’s libertarian free-love fantasies, this stuff leaves me screaming at the pages that people just aren’t made that way — not to mention that it leaves out virtually everything that’s actually interesting to read about love and sex. Sex to Clarke is all clunky mechanical and chemical interactions. It’s little surprise that he waxes poetic on the “sexual overtones” of spaceship docking in 2010. (“The rugged, compact Russian ship did look positively male when compared with the delicate, slender American one.”)

So, no, you don’t read Clarke for his insights into the psyche. What you do read him for are his Big Ideas, and for a glimpse at the ineffable majesty of the universe in all its unfathomable immensity and improbable orderliness. Published in 1973 when Clarke was at the peak of his powers and popularity in the wake of the 2001 film and novel, Rendezvous with Rama shines despite the aforementioned embarrassing attempts at personalizing its rather abstract story. It shines so brightly, in fact, that’s it’s arguably the archetypical Clarke novel, the one to read if you want to appreciate who he was and why he is important through a single book.

Rama tells the story of an object which enters the solar system from interstellar space in the year 2131. At first observers assume the object, which they christen Rama, to be just another asteroid — albeit a large one, with a diameter of some 40 kilometers. When a probe is launched to take pictures, however, the truth is immediately obvious: Rama was made rather than formed. It’s a spaceship of some sort, humankind’s first visitor from the stars. It’s hastily determined that exactly one spacecraft, the Endeavor, can make rendezvous before Rama slingshots around the Sun and back out into the depths of interstellar space. The bulk of the novel tells of the Endeavor‘s crew’s methodical exploration of Rama’s interior. There are a few emergencies to spice things up, but mostly Clarke is content to revel in the sense of wonder of the occasion and the unknowable mystery that is Rama itself, which operates with all the austere and remorseless precision of a Bach fugue. The Endeavor is forced to leave to avoid being burned up as Rama nears perihelion with the Sun. As Rama does so it siphons energy from the Sun itself by a mysterious process. And then it’s gone, leaving behind more questions than it answered. Rama, it seems, never had any interest in Earth or its inhabitants; our solar system was merely a handy gas station on the road to who knows where.

Clarke’s refusal to do more than nick the outer layer of the onion of mysteries that is Rama is, as a thousand reviewers before me have already commented, kind of infuriating. Yet it’s also crucial to the veneer of believability that makes Rama’s wonders all the more wondrous for us the readers. Why should we expect to understand an alien culture advanced enough to build something like Rama after a few weeks of poking around inside a single artifact? The unsolved mysteries are actually key to a sense of awe that can only be diminished by reading the series of ill-advised sequels which Clarke farmed out to Gentry Lee in his latter years, which give us the answers we thought we wanted and in the process turn the story into just another mediocre space opera.

In addition to a sense of awe, Rendezvous with Rama also leaves us with with one humdinger of a setup for an adventure game. Rama‘s plot, such as it is, of exploring a conveniently deserted spaceship and trying to puzzle out how things work reads like it was written with the medium in mind. It thus served as ready inspiration for such early adventure games as Infocom’s Starcross. And thus when Byron Preiss started looking for books to adapt to interactive fiction Rendezvous with Rama was about the most obvious candidate imaginable, especially because Preiss already had an established professional and personal relationship with Clarke; Preiss had recently produced The Sentinel, a collection of nine vintage Clarke short stories, for Berkley Book’s Masterworks of Science Fiction and Fantasy series, and was currently helping him with an autobiography that would never actually emerge. The contract was quickly signed.

Like Fahrenheit 451 and Dragonworld, the other two of the initial group of Telarium games that originated with the imprint, Rendezvous with Rama was created by a new shell company Preiss and Spinnaker founded just for the purpose: Byron Preiss Video Productions. Spinnaker’s Chief Technology Officer, Dick Bratt, masterminded an ambitious and expensive cross-platform adventure-game engine called SAS, the Spinnaker Adventure System. His job was made more challenging by the fact that he needed to support not just text but also graphics, sounds, even embedded action games. Given Preiss’s history as a publisher of graphic novels and lavishly illustrated coffee-table books, this all-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to computerized storytelling was a virtual inevitability. Bill Bowman, one of Spinnaker’s founding partners, described SAS in some detail in a Harvard Business School case study:

It has been an important investment, and gives us a competitive advantage nobody else has. It cost well over $1 million, but it enables us to take a script from an author, add some art work, and a secretary can translate it into SAL (Spinnaker Adventure Language) that we created here. It is a very complex computer program and a sophisticated graphics tool. The result is that we put the new game on the machine once, and automatically get versions for each of the different microcomputers we support. This cuts the development costs dramatically, because normally you have to rewrite the program for each version for a different computer. Another important advantage is that we have all versions ready for sale at the same time, and we can profit from advertising, and not lose sales. SAL is a part of SAS (Spinnaker Adventure System). The second part of SAS is a graphics tool, that takes a normal picture on paper and prepares programs for all the different computers that display it. We have something similar for music: our musician plays some music in a special organlike machine, and in less than an hour we have the computer code that will play that music, optimized for each microcomputer. Another very important saying is that we have to “play test” the programs only once. Testing is a very important cost; it can take between 200 and 400 hours to test all the options that one of these programs offers. We would have to do it for each version of the same program if they were programmed independently, as almost everybody else in the industry does. Thanks to the system, our production costs are now about a third of what they were one year ago. It is an enormous asset for us. Two or three companies, at most, have something similar for text, but nobody has anything like it for graphics and music in the whole industry, and these features are becoming more and more important.

Having spent some time dissecting the Telarium games, I feel pretty confident in saying how SAL works. All of the basic logic for the game is compiled to native code for the target platform, of which there were only an eventual four: the Commodore 64, Apple II, IBM PC, and Atari ST. This kernel of perhaps 30 to 35 K remains in memory all the time. All of the assets it needs, including the actual text that is displayed as well as pictures and music, are stored on the games’ multiple disk sides, to be swapped into memory as needed. (If the assets needed are not on the disk currently in the drive, the kernel simply puts up a prompt to ask for the one it needs.) Action games can be swapped in in place of the usual adventure kernel, which they simply reload when done. All of this could add up to quite a lot of data by the standards of the time. Telarium games spill across four or five disk sides on the Apple II and Commodore 64, a fact Spinnaker happily trumpeted in their advertising.

Ron Martinez

Ron Martinez

Arthur C. Clarke with Byron Preiss and David M. Harris, Telarium's editor

Arthur C. Clarke with Byron Preiss and David M. Harris, Telarium’s editor

The team that worked on Rendezvous with Rama included programmer Michael P. Meyer and illustrator Robert Strong, along with writer and designer Ronald Martinez, one of Preiss’s regular stable of writers who had cut his teeth on interactivity via a couple of volumes in the Be an Interplanetary Spy series of interactive children’s books. Arthur C. Clarke’s own participation was, at best, limited. He lived, as he had already for almost thirty years, in Sri Lanka, and traveled so reluctantly that when he agreed to host a British television series on unusual science phenomena he required that the film crew come to him. The Telarium folks met him in person just twice during their work on the game, when he set aside afternoons during his occasional trips Stateside for consultations on the upcoming film version of 2010 to chat with them and — one senses most importantly — pose for some press photos with them. (Had it not been for 2010, it’s questionable whether they would have met at all.) The rest of the time they communicated with him via telephone and, most commonly, email, thanks to a satellite linkup Clarke (who famously first proposed the idea of the geosynchronous communications satellite in 1945) had installed in his home in Sri Lanka. Martinez says they would “run things by him,” but admits that it was “never really clear how much he was understanding or how much he was really digging into it.” Clarke’s biggest role was to pose for those publicity photos and to furnish a suitable quote written (or ghost-written) just for the back of the box.

So, Martinez and team were largely left alone to do with Rendezvous with Rama what they would. What that should be was by no means entirely clear. The notion of bookware sounded great when first broached, but as soon as one started to really think about it some problematic aspects started to surface. Trying to slavishly recreate the plot of a book as a game was a technical impossibility. Interactive-fiction systems simply couldn’t handle the complexity of even the most simplistic of novels. Even Infocom’s games, the class of the industry, could manage only the sketchiest of plots to motivate their exploration and puzzle solving; suffice to say that none of their games would have made good books. No one had a good solution for the combinatorial explosion of possibilities that would be touched off as soon as the player deviated from the plot, yet neither was there much point in just forcing the player to recreate the events of the novel. And how to make the game interesting and challenging to players, many of whom were presumably there because they had already read the book on which the game was based and thus knew everything that happened in it? Other Telarium games tried to work around these questions in a variety of ways. Rendezvous with Rama, however, didn’t really bother; it’s the only of the first batch of games to settle for just retelling the same essential story in radically simplified fashion, with the obligatory excising of all reference to the Endeavor‘s crew’s sex lives and other modest content changes apparently more motivated by the need to not offend than anything else. (The most appreciated of these involves the simps, creepy genetically modified monkeys that the crew of the Endeavor use essentially as slaves for all menial tasks in the book. In the game, the simps thankfully become androids.)

In Telarium’s defense, the novel is, as already noted, almost absurdly amenable to adaptation as an adventure game. Still, it’s difficult indeed to excuse the lukewarm nature of the whole enterprise. Rama the novel is far from intricately plotted, but there is a dynamism to its version of Rama the spacecraft, which slowly comes to life as it draws nearer to the Sun: lights come on, strange mechanisms begin to hum with energy, the atmosphere warms, and, most fabulous of all, semi-organic automatons start to scuttle about for reasons that can only be surmised. None of these surprises unfold in the game. Rama is simply another static environment to be explored, of the sort we’d already seen in a thousand adventure games before. The limitations of the SAL engine may explain such failings, but it doesn’t excuse them. Infocom had been creating virtual worlds that evolved on large scales during play for years by the time of this game’s release.

Nor does Martinez seem all that enthused to tell us about said static world. Clarke is no poet, but his descriptions of Rama’s interior are suitably awe inspiring. Here’s how Captain Norton of the Endeavor glimpses the panorama for the first time:

With all his strength, he threw the little cylinder straight upward — or outward — and started to count seconds as it dwindled along the beam. Before he had reached the quarter minute, it was out of sight; when he had got to a hundred, he shielded his eyes and aimed the camera. He had always been good at estimating time; he was only two seconds off when the world exploded with light. And this time there was no cause for disappointment. Even the millions of candle power of the flare could not light up the whole of this enormous cavity, but he could see enough to grasp its plan and appreciate its titanic scale. He was at one end of a hollow cylinder at least ten kilometers wide, and of indefinite length. From his viewpoint at the central axis, he could see such a mass of detail on the curving walls surrounding him that his mind could not absorb more than a minute fraction of it. He was looking at the landscape of an entire world by a single flash of lightning, and he tried by a deliberate effort of will to freeze the image in his mind.

All around him, the terraced slopes of crater rose up until they merged into the solid wall that rimmed the sky. No— that impression was false; he must discard the instincts both of Earth and of space, and reorientate himself to a new system of co-ordinates.

The description then continues for several more paragraphs.

When we step inside the vast cylindrical cavity of Rama for the first time in the game, Martinez gives us this:

You are at RAMA’s somewhat flattened, northern hub. The floor around the hub curves up gradually to become RAMA’s inner walls. Radiating from the hub, 120 degrees apart, are three stairway-like structures. Each appears to be several kilometers long. Due to its configuration, it seems as though you are standing upright on the hub, with the passageway from the long corridor going down in relation to your current position.

There’s no sense of the momentousness of the occasion; Martinez manages to make the most wondrous archaeological expedition in human history seem boring. Yes, technical limitations made it impossible to indulge in the sort of long passages that Clarke could employ, but Dave Lebling did a better job in Starcross in the face of similar restrictions, and Pete Austen did a still better job in Snowball. And the pictures, which are largely all done in the same palette and all but indistinguishable from one another, show no more enthusiasm for their subjects.

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama

All of this is particularly baffling in light of Telarium’s expressed plans to get beyond adventure games as static puzzle boxes. Yet that’s all that Rendezvous with Rama is. If I may speak anachronistically, it’s downright Myst-like, just a static, empty landscape with strange machines to manipulate and puzzle out. Character interaction is limited to the occasional message over your helmet speaker from one of your crewmates, and the ability to occasionally use them as a hint system by asking them to ADVISE.

Worse, it’s not a particularly good puzzle box, a huge disappointment considering that the scenario is positively teeming with puzzle possibilities (as a later Myst-like graphic game, Rama, would amply demonstrate). The vast interior of Rama is implemented as hundreds of individual, mostly empty rooms to be tediously trod through and mapped in the hopes of finding something, anything that you can actually do. When you find them, the puzzles themselves are sometimes interesting, but too often push the limits of the world model past the breaking point. That’s apparently not that hard to do; even some of the “puzzles” described in the novel that were seemingly lifted right out of an adventure game had to be simplified to make them work in this adventure game. Often you have to read Martinez’s mind along with his text to see exactly what he is seeing, as the text fails to clearly set the scene (usually a sign of a lack of testing). Take this description of the wall of a structure:

The rectangular building is about 20 meters tall and 10 wide. Its surface is like polished enamel. A single post rises from the roof, and there are small indentations in the wall you are facing.

I spent quite some fiddling with the indentations, sure they must be some mechanism for opening a door. But actually they’re handholds, for climbing. The text fails to convey that they go all the way up the wall. It’s a clever puzzle, as far as it goes. (It’s not as trivial as just climbing the wall; the handholds are too small — for you). But it’s ruined by the failure to, you know, clearly tell me what I’m actually seeing. The parser, which in general is not horrible but definitely more limited than Infocom’s, also makes puzzle solving harder by its lack of feedback. Virtually any invalid input is greeted with the blasé non sequitur “You reconsider your words.” And absolutely no attention is given to partially correct actions that could serve as hints, not to mention the Easter eggs that make Infocom games like Sorcerer such a delight. Nope, just “You reconsider your words” over and over again.

A purposelessness infects all of your wanderings. It’s clear in the abstract what your mission should be — to explore this huge spaceship — but it’s not clear what the game expects from you in that context. There is no scoring system or other way of measuring your progress. There is a timer which does represent one of the game’s few innovations. It counts down in real time, forerunner of quite a number of (mostly underwhelming) experiments with real-time elements that interactive-fiction makers would indulge in over the next several years. Still, even this innovation is undermined by the fact that you’re never told exactly how much time you have. In fact, you have so much time that it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming a real problem. Rama‘s other notable innovation, a couple of shoehorned action games, is problematic in conception and horrid in execution. Both are so bad that Telarium ripped them out of later versions of Rama out of sheer embarrassment.

It eventually emerges that you don’t have enough fuel to escape; you must find a source on Rama itself. This additional source of drama was not in the book, and is kind of absurd from a fictional standpoint, as it means that you’ve effectively been sent on a suicide mission. (Who would have imagined that fuel would conveniently be available on Rama?) But, hey, at least it’s motivation of a sort. If you jump through a truly improbable series of puzzly hoops you can eventually reach a much vaunted “new ending” to the story, in which you learn that — oh, no, not this trope again! — Rama is actually an elaborate intelligence test constructed by distant aliens to measure humanity’s worthiness for future contact. Not only does this idea rip off Starcross (where it was equally unsatisfying), but it also cuts off at the knees the central theme of Clarke’s novel that we humans just aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. For a game that was supposed to be the herald of a new era of interactive fiction of serious literary merit, Rama‘s shabby, ham-handed take on the novel that inspired it is appalling.

So, no, Rendezvous with Rama is not a very good game. Even the supremely uncritical computer press of 1984 couldn’t bear to give it more than neutral reviews; “nothing special” wrote adventure superfan Shay Addams in Commodore Power Play in a typical example. Those who had been hostile to the entire idea of Telarium from the beginning must have been nodding along happily, having had all of their prejudices and low expectations justified. Luckily for us if somewhat more disconcertingly for them, most of Telarium’s other games would have a bit more to recommend them.

Perhaps the oddest outcome of Telarium’s Rendezvous with Rama was the subsequent career of the man responsible for all that dull text, Ronald Martinez. Whatever his failings on this project, Martinez became fascinated with the idea of interactive fiction, and determined to do it better than he had in this game. He learned how to program so as to work on a new suite of interactive-fiction technology, and eventually founded Trans Fiction Systems, an interactive-fiction development studio of his own whose parser was one of the few that could legitimately rival Infocom’s. We may just be running into him and his works again on this blog. When and if we do, I should have more positive things to say about both.

The Telarium story should also get more inspiring from here. In the meantime, the masochists and historians among you may want to download the Commodore 64 version of Rendezvous with Rama for yourselves.

(The same references I used for my introduction to Telarium and bookware mostly apply here. Jason Scott’s interview with Ron Martinez for Get Lamp was particularly useful for this article. The photos were taken from an article in the December 1984 Compute!’s Gazette.)

 
20 Comments

Posted by on September 15, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , , ,

Bookware

Bookware

Suppose that in some alternate universe you are William Shakespeare. Strolling about London one day in the late sixteenth century, mulling over plans for your next novel, you come upon some workmen erecting a large wooden structure of peculiar shape. The design of the building strikes you as inappropriate for either a dwelling or a place of business.

A few questions gain you some information about a recent invention (this is an alternate universe, remember) called the “play.” Live people, sometimes costumed and in makeup, are getting up on a flat surface called a “stage” and acting out stories!

The clever people who have designed and built the first stages, as well as the inventors of acting, are right in there writing and directing the best plays they can come up with. (At least the best they can come up with in their spare time — each of these people necessarily has one or two active careers already going.)

In one of the earliest successful plays, dummies representing invading aliens (Frenchmen, perhaps, or Spaniards, from across the Channel) were lowered on ropes from concealed positions above the stage, while the actor (this play needed only one) ran back and forth, following shouted directions from the audience, trying to shoot all the dummies before they touched the floor. The audience liked this play a lot and cheered it enthusiastically.

In a somewhat more recent show, also very popular, the lead actor climbs about on a crazy scaffolding of planks and ladders, trying to accomplish some rather simple-minded tasks, while others costumed as fantastic creatures try to knock him off by throwing barrels. It’s good slapstick fun, and the audiences love it.

“Wait a minute,” you say to these eager people who have been proudly explaining how plays work. “Wait a minute. That all sounds amusing, yes. But l really think you’re on to something bigger. Let me go home and think about this for a while… How many people can you get onstage at once? How many lines can an actor memorize? Can you have it dark on one half of the stage and light on the other half?”

They look at each other. “We’re not really sure,” one replies at last. “Our stages are still pretty primitive. Our actors are all new at the job. Everybody is. Next year we’ll be able to do more. But what should we try to do?”

You don’t have any instant answers for them. A lot of vague ideas suddenly churning. Possibilities. …

“I hope you will go home and think about it, Will,” says one of the stage managers. “You’re good with words. Maybe we could have the man on the ladder say something more than ‘Ouch!’ and ‘Wow!'”

“Yes, something more,” you agree thoughtfully, turning away. The other stage people call good wishes after you. But you scarcely hear them. Your mind is involved with new ideas.

To work with — depend on — carpenters, actors, experts in stage machinery and lighting? Whatever story emerged would no longer be purely your own. But already you can see that the stage those others have created can capture the imagination and enthrall an audience, even with no more than a few clowns and ladders.

You head for home, for a place where you can sit down and think, and write. Your thoughts are on a story that you had planned to make into a book. The one to be called Hamlet…

The words above were written by science-fiction author and would-be gaming entrepreneur Fred Saberhagen in a feature article about the possibilities for interactive fiction (“Call Yourself Ishmael: Micros Get the Literary Itch”) in the September/October 1983 issue of Softline — the same article in fact that contained the first published discussion of Floyd’s death in Planetfall and what it portended. Saberhagen, whose own flirtations with interactivity would be considerable but commercially frustrating, was at the vanguard of an emerging conventional wisdom about the intersection of computers, games, and books. He and his fellow pundits that started to emerge during 1983 weren’t the first to begin to think along these lines. The editors of SoftSide magazine had first started writing about the literary potential of “compunovels” back in 1979, truly a leap of faith in light of the strangled prose and plots of the Scott Adams games and the other 16 K adventures that were pretty much the only ones available to PC owners at the time. But it took the efforts of not only Saberhagen but also, and probably more significantly, respectable folks writing for respectable mainstream publications like The New York Times Book Review, Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Scientific American to make of it a full-fledged meme. The boldest pundits declared that we were on the cusp of nothing less than a whole new form of literature that could be as rich, meaningful, and aesthetically brilliant as anything put down by Shakespeare or Melville. Suddenly what had once been dismissed as mere “adventure games” were worth taking seriously.

All of the articles just mentioned focused primarily or entirely on Infocom, the only company in the field whose games could realistically stand up to any scrutiny at all as literary works. Seeing this, and seeing Infocom growing less and less afraid to lay claim to the mantle of literary artists under such persistent stroking, lots of other companies started asking how they could steal some of Infocom’s cultural thunder and get a piece of what the pundits said would be the literature of the future. The players who now started entering the field were a surprisingly motley lot. There were the expected startups as well as old dogs in the software game looking to learn some new tricks. Epyx, Brøderbund, and Electronic Arts amongst others all discovered a latent passion for text, as did of all people console developer Imagic, whose action games for first-generation consoles like the Atari VCS had been enormously successful but who were now floundering like everyone else in that industry in the wake of the Great Videogame Crash. But technologists were not the only opportunists looking to jump on the bandwagon Infocom was driving. The huge publishing houses of Simon and Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Random House also started software arms, as did smaller publishers like science-fiction paperback specialist Baen Books. On the other end of the distributional pipeline, the two biggest American bookstore chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, both set aside areas in their stores for entertainment software, as did the ubiquitous W.H. Smith in Britain. To complete the strange mixture and hedge the bets of their own software arm, Addison Wesley signed a deal with Infocom in early 1984 to distribute their games to the bookselling trade, an important contract that got Infocom into thousands of bookstores populated with just the sort of literate customers they were trying to reach.

All of this forthright investment in the idea of interactive fiction as a serious literary force by such pillars of mainstream American business feels a bit unbelievable today. Nor is it without a certain note of tragic resonance as the great What Might Have Been for people like me who still unabashedly love the idea. We see here the culture and, at least as importantly, the culture’s business interests trying to work out just what computer games were, what they could be, and perhaps what they should be. It’s a fascinating process to watch, if also — again, for people with my sympathies — one with kind of a heartbreaking ending. Were computer games actually games in the way that, say, Monopoly was? Or were they more like books? Or movies? Or were they — and this was the most messy and complicated and also the most likely answer of all — like any or all or none of the above, depending on the particular title in question and its genre and target audience? The answer to these questions was essential to answer another, more practical one: how, where, and to whom should computer games be sold? The folks we’re concerned with today are those who decided to bet on computer games, or at least a segment of them, as the next iteration in the long history of the book. Even on the business side of the development equation their efforts mix the expected desire to shift a lot of units and make a lot of money with a genuine idealism about the artistic potential of the form in which they were working. It was, as should be more than clear by now, an odd time in media.

If computer games were or could be literature, and if they wanted to be taken seriously as such, said many people, the smartest thing to do was to get people who already knew how to write literature — or at least readable popular fiction — involved in their creation. Or, failing that, the next best thing must be to play in the rich fictional worlds they had created. Lots of people in lots of companies followed this chain of reasoning simultaneously. Thus began the era of what the British press pithily came to call “bookware,” the splicing of the new frontier of computer games with the old of books and their authors, who were sometimes (but not all that often) actively involved, sometimes disinterested but happy to be getting another royalty check, and sometimes dead and thus blissfully unaware of the whole exercise. A trend that had been presaged in 1982 by The Hobbit reached manic full flower in 1984.

The list of bookware that flooded the market in both the United States and Britain between 1984 and 1986 is long, and includes some of the biggest names in genre fiction of the era as well as some surprisingly high-brow figures. An incomplete list might include: The Robots of Dawn (Isaac Asimov); The Mist (Stephen King); Amnesia (Thomas M. Disch); Mindwheel (future American poet laureate Robert Pinsky); High Stakes and Twice Shy (Dick Francis); Wings Out of Shadow (Fred Saberhagen); The Fourth Protocol (Frederick Forsyth); The Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey); The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World (Harry Harrison); The Pen and the Dark (Colin Kapp); The Saga of Erik the Viking (Terry Jones); The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (Sue Townsend); The Width of the World (Ian Watson); The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett); and Infocom’s own The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams). Those whose tastes ran more to the classics could choose from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen); The Time Machine (H.G. Wells); Sherlock (Arthur Conan Doyle); Macbeth (William Shakespeare); The Snow Queen (Hans Christian Andersen); Dante’s Inferno; and Dracula (Bram Stoker). The list of games for which contracts were signed but which went unreleased due to the bookware bubble’s bursting includes Glory Road (Robert Heinlein); another Inferno (this one by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle); Animal Lover (Stephen R. Donaldson); 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne); Special Deliverance (Clifford D. Simak); Soldier, Ask Not (Gordon R. Dickson); and The World Thinker (Jack Vance). The publishers involved with all these efforts largely abandoned the old labels of “adventure game” and “text adventure” in favor of ones that reflected their literary aspirations. Some shamelessly appropriated “interactive fiction” from Infocom (who had themselves, of course, shamelessly appropriated it from Robert Lafore). Others made “interactive novels” or “computer novels.” Bantam Software came up with a particularly catchy label: “living literature.” Mosaic in Britain just bowed to the inevitable and stuck “bookware” on their boxes.

But it was none of the companies or games already mentioned who made the biggest bet on bookware. That was in fact a rapidly growing publisher located ten minutes from Infocom in Cambridge which had heretofore specialized in educational software: Spinnaker. Spinnaker debuted not one but two new imprints for bookware in 1984: Trillium (later Telarium, for reasons we’ll get to shortly), for book adaptations aimed at adults and teenagers; and Windham Classics, aimed at a somewhat younger set. They released no fewer than seven games between the two lines in 1984 alone (two more than Infocom’s total output for the year), followed by another five in 1985 and a final straggler in 1986, the twilight of the brief bookware era.

The story of Trillium and Windham Classics begins with a remarkable young publishing mogul named Byron Preiss. Born in 1953 in New York City, Preiss was one of those characters like Steve Jobs who could seemingly talk anybody into anything, one who as a callow youth not yet out of his teens was already able to convince older and supposedly wiser businesspeople to back his many and varied schemes. Throughout his career, Preiss mixed business with an idealism that seems to have been anything but affected. He first made a mark at seventeen, when he wrote and distributed The Block, an anti-drug comic book written for a near-illiterate reading level and aimed at grade-school children growing up in inner cities. He traveled around the country relentlessly to promote it, and eventually won the official endorsement of the Children’s Television Workshop of Sesame Street fame, as well as the lifelong friendship of one of the most important figures there, Chris Cerf. That’s just the way it was with Preiss throughout his life. He seemed genuinely unaware of the barriers between him and the people of power who could realize his dreams, and in consequence they seemed to just melt away. His gifts for gab and inspiration were legendary, as recalled by Leigh Ronald Grossman, one of a stable of young writers he came to nurture:

He had to be the most passionate person I’ve ever known, able to visualize what was special and exciting about EVERYTHING. I remember going to lunch with Byron and another publisher, in which the discussion hinged on a tired project that the whole staff was sick of dealing with after years of development. By the end of the lunch I was thrilled to be working on such a visionary project… and I’m still not quite sure how he did it.

He founded his own publishing company, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, in 1974 while enrolled in the film program at Stanford University. Through it he designed and/or published a variety of interesting, often groundbreaking work: a line of paperbacks that tried to revive the pulp adventures of the 1930s more than five years before Raiders of the Lost Ark; adult comics that didn’t involve superheroes and were forerunners of what have come to be called “graphic novels” today; Dragonworld, a beautifully illustrated epic fantasy novel which he himself coauthored; The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, whose pictures were in 3D and could be viewed through a pair of 3D glasses bound into the volume; various profusely illustrated nonfiction volumes for children and adults, on subjects ranging from the Beach Boys to dinosaurs. Throughout he assiduously cultivated relationships. By the time he turned thirty, Preiss’s Christmas-card list included people like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, the aforementioned Harlan Ellison, and Ray Bradbury in addition to many of the biggest names in the business of publishing and, yes, the members of the Beach Boys as well. C. David Seuss (a man whose role in this story will become clear shortly) believes that his sheer likability was perhaps his biggest asset of all; “people just wanted to go along with his ideas because he was just so nice.”

Throughout his career Preiss pushed the boundaries of what a book could be — physically, formally, and aesthetically. It’s thus little surprise that he got involved when the idea of the interactive book began to emerge in earnest in the early 1980s. His first project was a unique series in the crowded field of Choose Your Own Adventure books and copycats that dominated the children’s sections of bookstores at the time. The Be an Interplanetary Spy series mostly replaces simple choices of the “what do you want to do next?” variety with visual and logic puzzles that have to be solved to advance the narrative. In keeping with the through-going theme of Preiss’s career, the books are also lavishly illustrated, to the point that they are more interactive comic book than conventional text; the illustrations are often more important than the words. He would later create two more traditional but also fondly remembered gamebook series, Time Machine and Explorer.

Preiss had been well aware of computers and computer games since the mid-1970s, when like so many other Stanford students he paid a visit to nearby Xerox PARC. By mid-1983, with home computers booming, he felt the time had come to get involved with them as yet another facet of what a book could be. Indeed, the Be an Interplanetary Spy books, which started to appear at just this time, show more than a hint of influence from games like those of Infocom in their many puzzles and their replacing the occasional choices of Choose Your Own Adventure with almost constant interaction. By packing three or four puzzles and narrative branches onto almost every page he was able to make the books feel less granular, more like a parser-based adventure game than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Still, Preiss wanted to go further. He started shopping around an idea for a series of computer games based on works by established authors, many of whom he just happened to have personal relationships with and whose participation — or at least willingness to sign a licensing contract — he could thus all but assure. He found himself a dance partner in the aggressive young Spinnaker Software.

Founded in April of 1982 by two friends from Harvard Business School and the Boston Consulting Group, Bill Bowman and C. David Seuss, Spinnaker was, like Electronic Arts, one of the new guard of slicker, more conventionally professional software publishers that began popping up during 1982 and 1983. Neither Bowman nor Seuss had a hackerish bone in his body. For proof, one need look no further than the ties they insisted on wearing to work every day at Spinnaker, or Bowman’s habit of getting up at 5:30 every morning to attend mass, or his seven children that were often hovering around Spinnaker’s offices after school hours (a marked contrast to life at Infocom, populated mostly by childless twenty- and thirty-somethings). They were savvy businessmen who saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an emerging market after the arrival of the IBM PC (Bowman believes he has one of the first hundred ever built) and the wave of purpose-built home computers that was set off by the Commodore VIC-20. The legendary venture capitalist Jacqueline Morby funded a nationwide jaunt to talk to retailers and look for obvious holes in the market, which revealed an exploding demand for educational software that could not be met by under-capitalized semi-amateurs like Edu-Ware. They jumped at it, with the aid of millions in venture capital arranged by Morby and her company TA Associates. (Morby would also take a place on Spinnaker’s board, along with that of Sierra On-Line and several others, making her one of the most powerful hidden shapers of the software industry of the 1980s.)

Spinnaker released their first products just in time for the Christmas of 1982. Some were done in-house, some by outside developers like educational pioneer Tom Synder Productions. Quality inevitably varied, but some, like Snyder’s In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, have become children’s classics. Still, Spinnaker was emblematic of the changes that swept the software industry with the the home-computer boom and the arrival of traditional big-business interests — and big-business money — looking to capitalize on it, yet another sign that the era Doug Carlston referred to as the software “Brotherhood” was well and truly ended. Their agenda plainly included driving older rivals like Edu-Ware out of the market entirely, a goal they soon accomplished. They placed all but unprecedented emphasis on licensing, branding, and advertising, a result of what Seuss calls his “First Law”: “Apply money at the point of resistance.” Spinnaker poured some 15% of their total earnings for 1983 back into huge advertising buys, much of it outside the trade press in places like Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, and Newsweek. They soon hit upon the scheme of releasing their software under a number of sub-brands, each of which would be as often as possible a licensed take on an already well-known consumer entity. By the end of 1983 their stable already included Fisher-Price (educational software for the very young; name licensed from the huge toy company), Nova (science education; name licensed from the long-running PBS television series), and Better Living (personal productivity software), as well as the flagship Spinnaker brand. Whatever its other merits, the approach was a clever sleight of hand for a company that aimed to do nothing less than own educational software, and in time and with luck to extend that dominance to home-computing software as a whole. Bowman:

“Shelf space is all that matters in this business. If everything is under the Spinnaker brand, the consumer feels he’s not getting much of a choice, but here he can choose any of six brands.”

Feel free to put your own scare quotes around “choose” there. Spinnaker drew analogies between themselves and General Motors, who had their Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, etc. — if nothing else an indication that Bowman and Seuss weren’t afraid to dream big. When Byron Preiss came along with his idea for a new line of bookware, it was both an opportunity to add yet more brands to the stable and to begin to make inroads into entertainment software (something that had been on their long-term agenda from the start), just as the Better Living brand represented their first explorations of the productivity market. Their internal industry studies showed adventure games to be a very good place to start. While they currently sold in less than one-third the numbers of action games, the segment was growing rapidly, while action games were doing just the opposite.

Shortly after Preiss came on the scene, one of Spinnaker’s best outside developers, Dale Disharoon, came to them with a bookware idea of his own: to make edutainment based on classic and contemporary children’s books. Disharoon’s educational titles sold in huge numbers for Spinnaker, so when he talked they tended to listen. Thus was born the Windham Classics line, brand number six for Spinnaker, as a companion to Trillium.

Preiss was most closely involved with the latter, and that’s also where we’ll be spending most of our time. As should be clear by now, Trillium owed its existence to a mixture of artistic idealism and commercial pragmatism — not that such strange bedfellows aren’t pretty much business as usual in any media industry. For Preiss, Trillium represented nothing less than the future — or a possible future — of fiction. For Spinnaker, it represented a bit of the same but also yet another branding opportunity, the chance to stamp the names of popular authors onto boxes and get in on the hot new trend in entertainment software. They placed a young marketing whizkid named Seth Godin in charge of Trillium’s image. (Godin has since become a darling of the business self-help industry; he currently runs “the most popular marketing blog in the world.”) Now it was time to start rounding up authors.

Here Preiss proved the value of all those connections to the world of written science fiction. He pulled out his thick phone list and started calling some of the name authors with whom he’d carefully built relationships over the last decade. He soon had Arthur C. Clarke signed for an adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama and Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451. He also reached a tentative agreement with Robert Heinlein to adapt his juvenile classic Starman Jones, and initiated talks with Roger Zelazny, Philip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison, and Alfred Bester. As with most of the products of the era of bookware, the question of how involved these authors were actually willing to be was always a delicate one. Mostly they wound up doing little more than politely sitting through presentations of the latest versions, with their creative role amounting to little more than a never- or almost never-exercised veto power. And that was about it, beyond signing their name to an appropriately glowing endorsement for the back of the box. Only Ray Bradbury was willing to get somewhat more involved, actively drawing up plot ideas for and by reports even contributing some prose to the Fahrenheit 451 game.

Thus when Spinnaker approached Michael Crichton about adapting one his books, they must have been thrilled to learn that Crichton had already been working on an original game with some associates for eighteen months, and was in fact looking for a publisher. More problematic was a game called Shadowkeep, a text-adventure/CRPG hybrid offered to Spinnaker by a small developer called Ultrasoft. A book or an author was nowhere in sight, but it was just too impressive a game to pass up, so Spinnaker simply flipped the process on its head by hiring Alan Dean Foster, the reigning king of media tie-in novels (he had made his name in the industry by ghost writing the novelization of the original Star Wars for George Lucas), to write a book based on the game. He would thus have his name displayed in huge letters on the box of a game he had had absolutely nothing to do with. For the Windham Classics line, Spinnaker took advantage of some blessedly out-of-copyright children’s classics like The Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, but did sign a license for the recent Green Sky Trilogy, whose author, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, did heavily involve herself in the design of the resulting game. That game, Below the Root, is not a text adventure at all but is a lovely, lyrical classic in its own right.

Indeed, the games of Trillium and Windham Classics take a surprising variety of approaches, mixing illustrated text adventure with action and CRPG elements, sometimes in the same game. But the fundamental goal, particularly for the Trillium games, was to outdo Infocom at their own game. Largely at Seth Godin’s behest, Spinnaker put the Trillium games inside mouth-wateringly beautiful gatefold boxes that on aesthetic grounds might just outdo — dare I say it? — Infocom. They also started a newsletter in an effort to build a community of loyal customers in the same way Infocom had, although they were a bit stumped as to what to put in it beyond plugs and order forms for the games; Spinnaker’s offices weren’t filled with the same sort of inspired madness that made The New Zork Times such a constant delight. Infocom couldn’t help but feel the target Spinnaker had plainly painted on their back, couldn’t help but feel a bit unnerved by this big company — already much larger than them — with their big-name authors and their illustrations and other additional gimmicks that was determined to wrest away from them their comfortable niche in the industry. Spinnaker even negotiated a deal to get the Trillium games into every Waldenbooks in the country to sit side by side with the Infocom games that had also just arrived there thanks to Infocom’s deal with Addison Wesley. Various Infocom folks have quietly acknowledged that Spinnaker was the only competitor who ever really made them nervous in 1984, the year they sold more games than in any other.

They thus must have been quite pleased when the Trillium line hit a major snafu within weeks of launching in the fall of that year. It seemed there already existed a tiny publisher of educational books using the name of “Trillium.” Now the original Trillium’s lawyers came calling. Seuss feels they could have fought the suit and likely prevailed (the original Trillium had never actually registered their name as a trademark), but it would have been time consuming, disruptive, and expensive. Spinnaker chose instead to start the embarrassing process of re-branding the entire line with a new name. They chose “Telarium,” a name that, for what it’s worth, I like a lot better anyway. (To avoid confusion as we crisscross the Trillium/Telarium split in this and future articles, I’m just going to refer to the brand as “Telarium” from now on.)

The whole debacle was anathema to a company that was so focused on branding. And it was almost as frustrating when negotiations with the Heinlein people to release Starman Jones, previously considered a done deal to the extent that a huge amount of work had already been done on the game, reached an impasse from which they would never emerge despite months and months of Telarium’s optimistically announcing the nearly completed Starman Jones as “coming soon.”

The arrival of Telarium was greeted with hostility and even a certain amount of contempt, not only at Infocom but amongst their other peers as well. Jon Freeman, never one to pull his punches, delivered a withering takedown via his column in Computer Gaming World:

In the first place, the economics of the situation almost guaranteed that the programmers involved, despite the hype, would not be first-class. Big Name Authors and Best-Selling Books don’t come cheap. Although the draw of author and book is clearly a marketing advantage — and should therefore be paid out of the marketing/advertising budget — the cost is normally borne by R&D. A big chunk of the royalties that would otherwise go to the developers of the game is paid, instead, to the author of the book. What top-flight game designer or programmer would take that kind of a pay cut? Regardless of their deficiencies as game designers, most good programmers are still at work on their own ideas. Those who can’t come up with original subjects for games are busy making a lucrative living converting popular games to new computers. Therefore, the majority of programmers available for these book projects are either inexperienced or inadequate or both.

The worst part is that the SF people involved don’t know how little they know about the subject. Few of the authors involved in all these projects play games: most lack the time; many lack the inclination. Technophobes like Ray Bradbury, who admits that he cannot use the computer he owns, believe the apex of computer usage is to enter the text of a book and read it on the CRT. Would he know a good computer game if he fell over one?

Yes, Freeman’s logic is questionable at best. Still, many of the people who had been in the industry for years saw Telarium as calculated and soulless, and not without cause. There was an air of contrivance, even perhaps a note of disingenuousness about the whole enterprise. Seth Godin claimed, “We wanted to go to the people who could write [the games] the best. And that’s not programmers — it’s authors.” Which would be fine if only the authors in question were actually deeply involved; witness the particular absurdity of Shadowkeep as an “Alan Dean Foster” game. Meanwhile Telarium’s addition of graphics and music and even action sequences to the Infocom template just screamed of bullet points on some marketer’s demands for more, more, more than the competition. When the line ultimately proved commercially disappointing, few felt much sympathy. In fact, they cheered the failure as an object lesson that you can’t buy your way to success with big licenses and an overstuffed marketing budget. (A lesson subsequent gaming history has not, alas, always borne out.)

Yet there was also, as I’ve already noted, that idealistic side to Telarium that hasn’t been discussed enough. Yes, it may have been articulated by the terminally slick Seth Godin, but there was a genuine vision driving Telarium, a vision for games as coherent lived fictional experiences. Byron Preiss:

“We’re trying to make a game that is based on plot and characterization, not puzzles — the way a book is. If you read Fahrenheit 451, you don’t get stuck on page 50. And if you play the game, you don’t get stuck on frame 50, because the whole idea is that you’re interested in the game because of the characters and the plot and what’s happening. You care about what’s going on.”

Or, as he put it another way: “When you’re reading a good book, say a Ludlum thriller, you’re really sweating because you believe you’re part of the story. Adventure games weren’t doing that because the puzzles kept bringing you back to reality.” People in and around Telarium expressed over and over this determination to get beyond arbitrary, often frustrating set-piece puzzle solving to something worthy of Infocom’s chosen label of interactive fiction. To what extent they succeeded is debatable; certainly the games have plenty of rough edges. Still, they’re also more than worthy of the sort of careful second look that too few of the non-Infocom works of the bookware era have heretofore received. We’ll begin the process of remedying that next time.

(Many thanks to C. David Seuss for answering questions and sharing his memories with me. A Harvard Business School case study on Spinnaker was also invaluable. Particularly good contemporary articles on Telarium and the bookware phenomenon are in: the September/October 1983 Softline; the December 1984 Compute!’s Gazette; the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play; the February 1985 Compute!; the April 1985 Electronic Games; the June 18, 1984 InfoWorld; the July 30, 1984 InfoWorld; the August 13, 1984 InfoWorld; the August 1984 Computer Gaming World; the February 1985 Micro-Adventurer; and the May 1985 Commodore Microcomputers. All were used for this article and the ones on individual Telarium games that will follow, as were Jason Scott’s Get Lamp archives which he kindly shared with me. The great illustration that begins this article was taken from the April 1985 Electronic Games.)

 
17 Comments

Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: ,