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Byron Preiss’s Games (or, The Promise and Peril of the Electronic Book)

Byron Preiss in 1982 with some of his “Fair People.”

We humans always seek to understand the new in terms of the old. This applies as much to new forms of media as it does to anything else.

Thus at the dawn of the 1980s, when the extant world of media began to cotton onto the existence of computer software that was more than strictly utilitarian but not action-oriented videogames like the ones being played in coin-op arcades and on home consoles such as the Atari VCS, it looked for a familiar taxonomic framework by which to understand it. One of the most popular of the early metaphors was that of the electronic book. For the graphics of the first personal computers were extremely crude, little more than thick lines and blotches of primary colors. Text, on the other hand, was text, whether it appeared on a monitor screen or on a page. Some of the most successful computer games of the first half of the 1980s were those of Infocom, who drove home the literary associations by building their products out of nothing but text, for which they were lauded in glowing features in respected mainstream magazines and newspapers. In the context of the times, it seemed perfectly natural to sell Infocom’s games and others like them in bookstores. (I first discovered these games that would become such an influence on my future on the shelves of my local shopping mall’s B. Dalton bookstore…)

Small wonder, then, that several of the major New York print-publishing houses decided to move into software. As is usually the case in such situations, they were driven by a mixture of hope and fear: hope that they could expand the parameters of what a book could do and be in exciting ways, and fear that, if they failed to do it, someone else would. The result was the brief-lived era of bookware.

Byron Preiss was perhaps the most important of all the individual book people who now displayed an interest in software. Although still very young by the standards of his tweedy industry — he turned 30 in 1983 — he was already a hugely influential figure in genre publishing, with a rare knack for mobilizing others to get lots and lots of truly innovative things done. In fact, long before he did anything with computers, he was already all about “interactivity,” the defining attribute of electronic books during the mid-1980s, as well as “multimedia,” the other buzzword that would be joined to the first in the early 1990s.

Preiss’s Fiction Illustrated line produced some of the world’s first identifiable graphic novels. These were comics that didn’t involve superheroes or cartoon characters, that were bound and sold as first-run paperbacks rather than flimsy periodicals. Preiss would remain a loyal supporter of comic-book storytelling in all its forms throughout his life.

Preiss rarely published a book that didn’t have pictures; in fact, he deserves a share of the credit for inventing what we’ve come to call the graphic novel, through a series known as Fiction Illustrated which he began all the way back in 1975 as a bright-eyed 22-year-old. His entire career was predicated on the belief that books should be beautiful aesthetic objects in their own right, works of visual as well as literary art that could and should take the reader’s breath away, that reading books should be an intensely immersive experience. He innovated relentlessly in pursuit of that goal. In 1981, for example, he published a collection of stories by Samuel R. Delany that featured “the first computer-enhanced illustrations developed for a science-fiction book.” His non-fiction books on astronomy and paleontology remain a feast for the eyes, as does his Science Fiction Masterworks series of illustrated novels and stories from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, Philip Jose Farmer, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov.

As part and parcel of his dedication to immersive literature, Preiss also looked for ways to make books interactive, even without the benefit of computers. In 1982, he wrote and published The Secret: A Treasure Hunt, a puzzle book and real-world scavenger hunt in the spirit of Kit Williams’s Masquerade. As beautifully illustrated as one would expect any book with which Preiss was involved to be, it told of “The Fair People,” gnomes and fairies who fled from the Old to the New World when Europeans began to cut down their forests and dam the rivers along which they lived: “They came over and they stayed, and they were happy. But then they saw that man was following the same path [in the Americas] and that what had happened in the Old World would probably happen in the New. So the ones who had already come over and the ones who followed them all decided they would have to go into hiding.” They took twelve treasures with them. “I have been entrusted by the Fair People to reveal the whereabouts of the [treasures] through paintings in the book,” Preiss claimed. “There are twelve treasures hidden throughout North America and twelve color paintings that contain clues to the whereabouts of the treasure. Then, there is a poem for each treasure. So, if you can correctly figure out the poem and the painting, you will find one of the treasures.” Each treasure carried a bounty for the discoverer of $1000. Preiss’s self-professed ultimate goal was to use the interactivity of the scavenger hunt as another tool for immersing the reader, “like in the kids’ books where you choose your own ending.”

The Secret failed to become the sales success or the pop-culture craze that Masquerade had become in Britain three years earlier. Only one of the treasures was found in the immediate wake of its publication, in Chicago in 1983. Yet it had a long shelf life: a second treasure was found in Cleveland more than twenty years later. A 2018 documentary film about the book sparked a renewal of interest, and the following year a third treasure was recovered in Boston. A small but devoted cult continues to search for the remaining ones today, sharing information and theories via websites and podcasts.

In a less enduring but more commercially successful vein, Preiss also published three different lines of gamebooks to feed the hunger ignited by the original Choose Your Own Adventure books of Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery. Unsurprisingly, his books were much more visual than the typical example of the breed, with illustrations that often doubled as puzzles for the reader to solve. A dedicated nurturer of young writing and illustrating talent, he passed the contracts to make books in these lines and others to up-and-comers who badly needed the cash and the measure of industry credibility they brought with them.

Being a man with a solid claim to the woefully overused title of “visionary,” Preiss was aware of what computers could mean for our relationship with storytelling and information from a very early date. He actually visited Xerox PARC during its 1970s heyday and marveled at the potential he saw there, told all of his friends that this was the real future of information spaces. Later he became the driving force behind the most concentrated and in many ways the most interesting of all the bookware software projects of the 1980s: the Telarium line of literary adaptations, which turned popular science-fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels into illustrated text adventures. I won’t belabor this subject here because I already wrote histories and reviews of all of the Telarium games years ago for this site. I will say, however, that the line as a whole bears all the hallmarks of a Byron Preiss project, from the decision to include colorful pictures in the games — something Infocom most definitely did not provide — to the absolutely gorgeous packaging, which arguably outdid Infocom’s own high standard for same. (The packaging managed to provide a sensory overload which transcended even the visual; one of my most indelible memories of gaming in my childhood is of the rich smell those games exuded, thanks to some irreplicable combination of cardboard, paper, ink, and paste. Call it my version of Proust’s madeleine.) The games found on the actual disks were a bit hit-or-miss, but nobody could say that Telarium didn’t put its best foot forward.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the Telarium games weren’t big sellers, and the line lasted only from 1984 to 1986. Afterward, Preiss went back to his many and varied endeavors in book publishing, while computer games switched their metaphor of choice from interactive novels to interactive movies in response to the arrival of new, more audiovisually capable gaming computers like the Commodore Amiga. Even now, though, Preiss continued to keep one eye on what was going on with computers. For example, he published novelizations of some of Infocom’s games, thus showing that he bore no ill will toward the company that had both inspired his own Telarium line and outlived it. More importantly in the long run, he saw Apple’s HyperCard, with its new way of navigating texts non-linearly through association — multimedia texts which could include pictures, sound, music, and even movie clips alongside their words. By the turn of the 1990s, Bob Stein’s Voyager Software was starting to make waves with “electronic books” on CD-ROM that took full advantage of all of these affordances. The nature of electronic books had changed since the heyday of the text adventure, but the idea lived on in the abstract.

In fact, the advances in computer technology as the 1990s wore on were so transformative as to give everyone a bad case of mixed metaphors. The traditional computer-games industry, entranced by the new ability to embed video clips of real actors in their creations, was more fixated on interactive movies than ever. At the same time, though, the combination of hypertext with multimedia continued to give life to the notion of electronic books. Huge print publishers like Simon & Schuster and Random House, who had jumped onto the last bookware bandwagon only to bail out when the sales didn’t come, now made new investments in CD-ROM-based software that were an order of magnitude bigger than their last ones, even as huge names in moving pictures, from Disney to The Discovery Channel, were doing the same. The poster child for all of the taxonomical confusion was undoubtedly the pioneering Voyager, a spinoff from the Criterion Collection of classic movies on laserdisc and VHS whose many and varied releases all seemed to live on a liminal continuum between book and movie.

One has to assume that Byron Preiss felt at least a pang of jealousy when he saw the innovative work Voyager was doing. Exactly one decade after launching Telarium, he took a second stab at bookware, with the same high hopes as last time but on a much, much more lavish scale, one that was in keeping with the burgeoning 1990s tech boom. In the spring of 1994, Electronic Entertainment magazine brought the news that the freshly incorporated Byron Preiss Multimedia Company “is planning to flood the CD-ROM market with interactive titles this year.”

They weren’t kidding. Over the course of the next couple of years, Preiss published a torrent of CD-ROMs, enough to make Voyager’s prolific release schedule look downright conservative. There was stuff for the ages in high culture, such as volumes dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Einstein. There was stuff for the moment in pop culture, such as discs about Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place, not to forget The Sci-Fi Channel Trivia Game. There was stuff reflecting Preiss’s enduring love for comics (discs dedicated to R. Crumb and Jean Giraud) and animation (The Multimedia Cartoon Studio). There were electronic editions of classic novels, from John Steinbeck to Raymond Chandler to Kurt Vonnegut. There was educational software suitable for older children (The Planets, The Universe, The History of the United States), and interactive storybooks suitable for younger ones. There were even discs for toddlers, which line Preiss dubbed “BABY-ROMS.” A lot of these weren’t bad at all; Preiss’s CD-ROM library is almost as impressive as that of Voyager, another testament to the potential of a short-lived form of media that arguably deserved a longer day in the sun before it was undone by the maturation of networked hypertexts on the World Wide Web.

But then there are the games, a field Bob Stein was wise enough to recognize as outside of Voyager’s core competency and largely stay away from. Alas, Preiss was not, and did not.

The first full-fledged game from Byron Preiss Multimedia was an outgrowth of some of Preiss’s recent print endeavors. In the late 1980s, he had the idea of enlisting some of his stable of young writers to author new novels in the universes of aging icons of science fiction whose latest output had become a case of diminishing returns — names like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. Among other things, this broad concept led to a series of six books by five different authors that was called Robot City, playing with the tropes, characters, and settings of Asimov’s “Robot” stories and novels. In 1994, two years after Asimov’s death, Preiss also published a Robot City computer game. Allow me to quote the opening paragraph of Martin E. Cirulis’s review of same for Computer Gaming World magazine, since it does such a fine job of pinpointing the reasons that so many games of this sort tended to be so underwhelming.

With all the new interest in computer entertainment, it seems that a day doesn’t go by without another company throwing their hat, as well as wads of startup money, into the ring. More often than not, the first thing offered by these companies is an adventure-game title, because of the handy way the genre brings out all the bells and whistles of multimedia. I’m always a big fan of new blood, but a lot of the first offerings get points for enthusiasm, then lose ground and reinvent the wheel. Design and management teams new to the field seem so eager to show us how dumb our old games are that they fail to learn any lessons from the fifteen-odd years of successful and failed games that have gone before. Unfortunately, Robot City, Byron Preiss Multimedia’s initial game release, while impressive in some aspects, suffers from just these kinds of birthing pains.

If anything, Cirulis is being far too kind here. Robot City is a game where simply moving from place to place is infuriating, thanks to a staggeringly awful interface, city streets that are constantly changing into random new configurations, and the developers’ decision to put exterior scenes on one of its two CDs and interior scenes on the other, meaning you can look forward to swapping CDs roughly every five minutes.

Robot City. If you don’t like the look of this city street, rest assured that it will have changed completely next time you walk outside. Why? It’s not really clear… something to do with The Future.

Yet the next game from Byron Preiss Multimedia makes Robot City seem like a classic. I’d like to dwell on The Martian Chronicles just a bit today — not because it’s good, but because it’s so very, very bad, so bad in fact that I find it oddly fascinating.

Another reason for it to pique my interest is that it’s such an obvious continuation of what Preiss had begun with Telarium. One of Telarium’s very first games was an adaptation of the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. This later game, of course, adapts his breakthrough book The Martian Chronicles, a 1950 “fix-up novel” of loosely linked stories about the colonization — or, perhaps better said, invasion — of Mars by humans. And the two games are of a piece in many other ways once we make allowances for the technological changes in computing between 1984 and 1994.

For example, Bradbury himself gave at least a modicum of time and energy to both game projects, which was by no means always true of the authors Preiss chose to honor with an adaptation of some sort. In the Telarium game, you can call Bradbury up on a telephone and shoot the breeze; in the multimedia one, you can view interview clips of him. In the Telarium game, a special “REMEMBER” verb displays snippets of prose from the novel; in the multimedia one, a portentous narrator recites choice extracts from Bradbury’s Mars stories from time to time as you explore the Red Planet. Then, too, neither game is formally innovative in the least: the Telarium one is a parser-driven interactive fiction, the dominant style of adventure game during its time, while the multimedia game takes all of its cues from Myst, the hottest phenomenon in adventures at the time of its release. (The box even sported a hype sticker which named it the answer to the question of “Where do you go after Myst?”) About the only thing missing from The Martian Chronicles that its predecessor can boast about is Fahrenheit 451‘s gorgeous bespoke packaging. (That ship had largely sailed for computer games by 1994; as the scenes actually shown on the monitor got prettier, the packaging got more uniform and unambitious.)

By way of compensation, The Martian Chronicles emphasizes its bookware bona fides by bearing on its box the name of the book publisher Simon & Schuster, back for a second go-round after failing to make a worthwhile income stream out of publishing games in the 1980s. But sadly, once you get past all the meta-textual elements, what you are left with in The Martian Chronicles is a Myst clone notable only for its unusually extreme level of unoriginality and its utter ineptness of execution.

I must confess that I’ve enjoyed very few of the games spawned by Myst during my life, and that’s still the case today, after I’ve made a real effort to give several of them a fair shake for these histories. It strikes me that the sub-genre is, more than just about any other breed of game I know of, defined by its limitations rather than its allowances. The first-person node-based movement, with its plethora of pre-rendered 3D views, was both the defining attribute of the lineage during the 1990s and an unsatisfying compromise in itself: what you really want to be doing is navigating through a seamless 3D space, but technical limitations have made that impossible, so here you are, lurching around, discrete step by discrete step. In many of these games, movement is not just unsatisfying but actively confusing, because clicking the rotation arrows doesn’t always turn you 90 degrees as you expect it to. I often find just getting around a room in a Myst clone to be a challenge, what with the difficulty of constructing a coherent mental map of my surroundings using the inconsistent movement controls. There inevitably seems to be that one view that I miss — the one that contains something I really, really need. This is what people in the game-making trade sometimes call “fake difficulty”: problems the game throws up in front of you where no problem would exist if you were really in this environment. In other schools of software development, it’s known by the alternative name of terrible interface design.

Yet I have to suspect that the challenges of basic navigation are partially intentional, given that there’s so little else the designer can really do with these engines. Most were built in either HyperCard or the multimedia presentation manager Macromedia Director; the latter was the choice for  The Martian Chronicles. These “middleware” tools were easy to work with but slow and limiting. Their focus was the media they put on the screen; their scripting languages were never intended to be used for the complex programming that is required to present a simulated world with any dynamism to it. Indeed, Myst clones are the opposite of dynamic, being deserted, static spaces marked only by the buttons, switches, and set-piece spatial puzzles which are the only forms of gameplay that can be practically implemented using their tool chains. While all types of games have constraints, I can’t think of any other strand of them that make their constraints the veritable core of their identity. In addition to the hope of selling millions and millions of copies like Myst did, I can’t help but feel that their prevalence during the mid-1990s was to a large extent a reflection of how easy they were to make in terms of programming. In this sense, they were a natural choice for a company like the one Byron Preiss set up, which was more replete with artists and writers from the book trade than with ace programmers from the software trade.

The Martian Chronicles is marked not just by all of the usual Myst constraints but by a shocking degree of laziness that makes it play almost like a parody of the sub-genre. The plot is most kindly described as generic, casting you as the faceless explorer of the ruins of an ancient — and, needless to say, deserted — Martian city, searching for a legendary all-powerful McGuffin. You would never connect this game with Bradbury’s book at all if it weren’t for the readings from it that inexplicably pop up from time to time. What you get instead of the earnest adaptation advertised on the box is the most soul-crushingly dull Myst clone ever: a deserted static environment around which are scattered a dozen or so puzzles which you’ve seen a dozen or more times before. Everything is harder than it ought to be, thanks to a wonky cursor whose hot spot seems to float about its surface randomly, a cursor which disappears entirely whenever an animation loop is playing. This is the sort of game that, when you go to save, requires you to delete the placeholder name of “Save1” character by character before you can enter your own. This game is death by a thousand niggling little aggravations like that one, which taken in the aggregate tell you that no actual human being ever tried to play it before it was shoved into a box and shipped. Even the visuals, the one saving grace of some Myst clones and the defining element of Byron Preiss’s entire career, are weirdly slapdash, making The Martian Chronicles useless even as a tech demo. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451 had its problems, but it’s Infocom’s Trinity compared to this thing.

It’s telling that many reviewers labelled the fifteen minutes of anodyne interview clips with Ray Bradbury the best part of the game.

Some Myst clones have the virtue of being lovely to look at. Not this one, with views that look like they were vandalized by a two-year-old Salvador Dali wannabee with only two colors of crayon to hand.

Computer Gaming World justifiably savaged The Martian Chronicles. It “is as devoid of affection and skill as any game I have ever seen,” noted Charlies Ardai, by far the magazine’s deftest writer, in his one-star review. Two years after its release, Computer Gaming World named it the sixteenth worst game of all time, outdone only by such higher-profile crimes against their players as Sierra’s half-finished Outpost and Cosmi’s DefCon 5, an “authentic SDI simulation” whose level of accuracy was reflected in its name. (DefCon 5 is the lowest level of nuclear threat, not the highest.) As for The Martian Chronicles, the magazine called it “tired, pointless, and insulting to Bradbury’s poetic genius.” Most of the other magazines had little better to say — those, that is, which didn’t simply ignore it. For it was becoming abundantly clear that games like these really weren’t made for the hardcore set who read the gaming magazines. The problem was, it wasn’t clear who they were made for.

Still, Byron Preiss Multimedia continued to publish games betwixt and between their other CD-ROMs for another couple of years. The best of a pretty sorry bunch was probably the one called Private Eye, which built upon the noir novels of Raymond Chandler, one of Preiss’s favorite touchstones. Tellingly, it succeeded — to whatever extent it did — by mostly eschewing puzzles and other traditional forms of game design, being driven instead by conversations and lengthy non-interactive cartoon cut scenes; a later generation might have labeled it a visual novel. Charlies Ardai rewarded it with a solidly mediocre review, acknowledging that “it don’t stink up da joint.” Faint praise perhaps, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The Spider-Man game, by contrast, attracted more well-earned vitriol from Ardai: “The graphics are jagged, the story weak, the puzzles laughable (cryptograms, anyone?), and the action sequences so dismal, so minor, so clumsy, so basic, so dull, so Atari 2600 as to defy comment.” Tired of what Ardai called Preiss’s “gold-into-straw act,” even Computer Gaming World stopped bothering with his games after this. That’s a pity in a way; I would have loved to see Ardai fillet Forbes Corporate Warrior, a simplistic DOOM clone that replaced monsters with rival corporations, to be defeated with weapons like Price Bombs, Marketing Missiles, Ad Blasters, Takeover Torpedoes, and Alliance Harpoons, with all of it somehow based on “fifteen years of empirical data from an internationally recognized business-simulation firm.” “Business is war, cash is ammo!” we were told. Again, one question springs to mind. Who on earth was this game for?

Corporate Warrior came out in 1997, near the end of the road for Byron Preiss Multimedia, which, like almost all similar multimedia startups, had succeeded only in losing buckets and buckets of money. Preiss finally cut his losses and devoted all of his attention to paper-based publishing again, a realm where his footing was much surer.

I hasten to add that, for all that he proved an abject failure at making games, his legacy in print publishing remains unimpeachable. You don’t have to talk to many who were involved with genre and children’s books in the 1980s and 1990s before you meet someone whose career was touched by him in a positive way. The expressions of grief were painfully genuine after he was killed in a car accident in 2005. He was called a “nice guy and honest person,” “an original,” “a business visionary,” “one of the good guys,” “a positive force in the industry,” “one of the most likable people in publishing,” “an honest, dear, and very smart man,” “warm and personable,” “charming, sophisticated, and the best dresser in the room.” “You knew one of his books would be something you couldn’t get anywhere else, and [that] it would be amazing,” said one of the relatively few readers who bothered to dig deep enough into the small print of the books he bought to recognize Preiss’s name on an inordinate number of them. Most readers, however, “never think about the guy who put it together. He’s invisible, although it wouldn’t happen without him.”

But regrettably, Preiss was a textbook dilettante when it came to digital games, more intrigued by the idea of them than he was prepared to engage with the practical reality of what goes into a playable game. It must be said that he was far from alone in this. As I already noted, many other veterans of other forms of media tried to set up similar multimedia-focused alternatives to conventional gaming, and failed just as abjectly. And yet, dodgy though these games almost invariably were in execution, there was something noble about them in concept: they really were trying to move the proverbial goalposts, trying to appeal to new demographics. What the multimedia mavens behind them failed to understand was that fresh themes and surface aesthetics do not great games make all by themselves; you have to devote attention to design as well. Their failure to do so doomed their games to becoming a footnote in history.

For in the end, games are neither books nor movies; they are their own things, which may occasionally borrow approaches from one or the other but should never delude themselves into believing that they can just stick the adjective “interactive” in front of their preferred inspiration and call it a day. Long before The Martian Chronicles stank up the joint, the very best game designers had come to understand that.

Postscript: On a more positive note…

Because I don’t like to be a complete sourpuss, let me note that the efforts of the multimedia dilettantes of the 1990s weren’t always misbegotten. I know of at least one production in this style that’s well worth your time: The Dark Eye, an exploration of the nightmare consciousness of Edgar Allan Poe that was developed by Inscape and released in 1995. On the surface, it’s alarmingly similar to The Martian Chronicles: a Myst-like presentation created in Macromedia Director, featuring occasional readings from the master’s works. But it hangs together much, much better, thanks to a sharp aesthetic sense and a willingness to eschew conventional puzzles completely in favor of atmosphere — all the atmosphere, I daresay, that you’ll be able to take, given the creepy subject matter. I encourage you to read my earlier review of it and perhaps to check it out for yourself. If nothing else, it can serve as proof that no approach to game-making is entirely irredeemable.

Another game that attempts to do much the same thing as The Martian Chronicles but does it much, much better is Rama, which was developed by Dynamix and released by Sierra in 1996. Here as well, the link to the first bookware era is catnip for your humble author; not only was Arthur C. Clarke adapted by a Telarium game before this one, but the novel chosen for that adaptation was Rendezvous with Rama, the same one that is being celebrated here. As in The Martian Chronicles, the lines between game and homage are blurred in Rama, what with the selection of interview clips in which Clarke himself talks about his storied career and one of the most lauded books it produced. And once again the actual game, when you get around to playing it, is very much in the spirit of Myst.

But Dynamix came from the old school of game development, and were in fact hugely respected in the industry for their programming chops; they wouldn’t have been caught dead using lazy middleware like Macromedia Director. Rama rather runs in a much more sophisticated engine, and was designed by people who had made games before and knew what led to playable ones. It’s built around bone-hard puzzles that often require a mathematical mind comfortable with solving complex equations and translating between different base systems. I must admit that I find it all a bit dry — but then, as I’ve said, games in this style are not usually to my taste; I’ve just about decided that the games in the “real” Myst series are all the Myst I need. Nevertheless, Rama is a vastly better answer to the question of “Where do you go after Myst?” than most of the alternatives. If you like its sort of thing, by all means, check it out. Call it another incarnation of Telarium 2.0, done right this time.

(Sources: Starlog of November 1981, December 1981, November 1982, January 1984, June 1984, April 1986, March 1987, November 1992, December 1992, January 1997, April 1997, February 1999, June 2003, May 2005, and October 2005; Compute!’s Gazette of December 1984; STart of November 1990; InCider of May 1993; Electronic Entertainment of June 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and December 1995; MacUser of October 1995; Computer Games Strategy Plus of November 1995; Computer Gaming World of December 1995, January 1996, October 1996, November 1996, and February 1997; Next Generation of October 1996; Chicago Tribune of November 16 1982. Online sources include the announcement of Byron Preiss’s death and the outpouring of memories and sentiment that followed on

A search on will reveal a version of The Martian Chronicles that has been modified to run on Windows 10. The Collection Chamber has a version of Rama that’s ready to install and run on Windows 10. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)


Posted by on September 2, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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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.)


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


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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.


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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 objets 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 Avenue. 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.)


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


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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 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 Austin 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.)


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


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