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Seastalker

Seastalker

When a starry-eyed youngster heads off to Hollywood to chase her dreams, one of two fates awaits her: she might become one of the small minority that makes it and becomes a star, or she might end up lumped in with the vast majority that struggle and wait tables (seemingly every waiter in Los Angeles is an aspiring actor) for years to no avail. It’s either “Hooray for Hollywood” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” writ large. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway. But there’s actually a third possibility: the life of the working character actor, who picks up work where she can find it in the form of whatever small roles are available that don’t need a star to fill them. Just as every kid who picks up a guitar dreams of playing to stadiums full of screaming fans (and don’t let any indie-rock snob tell you different), it’s probably safe to say that no actor sets out to be such an anonymous cog in the Hollywood system. Yet it’s not a bad way to earn a living in the craft you love if stardom eludes you. I’ve long been fascinated by these folks whose names usually appear in the credits only as the audience is filing out of the theater, these working professionals who earn a solid living under the radar of the Dream Factory by learning their lines, showing up on time, and doing whatever’s asked of them and doing it well. This other side of the acting life is the subject of The Dangerous Animals Club, written by one of these bit players, Stephen Tobolowsky. It makes for a great read.

Other forms of media have their own equivalents to Tobolowsky. The publishing industry, for example, has always had people like Jim Lawrence.

Jim Lawrence

Born in 1918, Lawrence began his writing career in 1941 when he was hired by the Jam Handy Organization as a scriptwriter for military training films. From then until the end of his life in 1994 he wrote for seemingly anyone who would pay him. Lawrence himself would be the last person to claim to be a great writer, but he always churned out copy that was, within the scope of the genres within which he worked, solidly crafted and eminently professional. When the project allowed, he even showed a considerable flair for imagination.

Lawrence wrote a staggering variety of stuff over his more than five decades as a working writer, but his specialty and greatest love was always fast-paced action-adventure stories for the young. In that genre, he wrote for old-time radio dramas like The Green Hornet; wrote Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries; wrote a James Bond comic strip for the newspapers; wrote a variety of Marvel comics. His oeuvre includes more than 60 novels alone, virtually none of which bore his own name anywhere in its pages. His most bizarre and disreputable assignment was a series of books about Peter Lance, an alien from the planet Tharb who has come to Earth to study this curious human phenomenon of sex — which he does enthusiastically and at considerable length, thanks to his superhuman stamina and a staggering variety of nubile young women eager to assist him in his research. But the place where Lawrence left his most obvious mark was a series of books about a young scientist/inventor/adventurer named Tom Swift, Jr.

The original Tom Swift was created by publishing pioneer Edward Stratemeyer, founder in the very early twentieth century of the so-called Stratemeyer Syndicate and its accompanying model of children’s book publication — a model that still persists to this day, and one whose echoes we can see in other media from superhero comics to Scooby Doo cartoons. His influence on publishing for adults and young adults was also profound; all those shelves full of Star Trek and Star Wars novels as well as Harelquin romances are, for better or for worse, thoroughly in the tradition of Edward Stratemeyer. His principal innovation was to deemphasize — indeed, to effectively do away with — the importance of the author in favor of the franchise. He published no standalone books, only series based around the recurring adventures of one or more juvenile heroes. All books in a series were allegedly written by the same author, whose name was carefully chosen by Stratemeyer to suit the tone of the series. In actuality, the books were written by teams of publishing B-listers like Jim Lawrence, who must at first usually work from plot outlines provided by Stratemeyer himself. Later, once they had proven themselves a bit, they were often trusted to create their own original stories, as long as they kept well within a detailed set of rules for what the books should and should not include. The best remembered series from Stratemeyer’s heyday today are The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but many others sold in huge quantities during the first half of the twentieth century.

Among them were the original Tom Swift stories, which reached 40 books and sold over 30 million copies. Swift was the aspirational product of his era, a time when people like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford were amongst the most admired in the country. Thus Swift was a teenage genius inventor who solved crimes and stymied his jealous rivals repeatedly using his various gadgets and vehicles. For all their pulpiness, the books included a surprising amount of real science and engineering. Amongst the technologies predicted in their pages were television, fax machines, and handheld movie cameras. Just as many flip-open mobile phones bear a suspicious resemblance to the old communicators from Star Trek, Tom Swift also wound up inspiring some technologies instead of just predicting them. Most famously, tasers were inspired by a Tom Swift story; the name is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”

The series petered to a close in 1941, by which time Swift had grown up and gotten married. The resulting drop-off in popularity prompted a couple of new rules for the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s other series: heroes should not age and should be kept free of romantic entanglements. The Tom Swift, Jr. stories, which began in 1954, were an attempt to right that mistake and turn back the clock by moving the focus to Tom Swift’s son, the spitting image of his father as a boy. The new series ran for 33 books between 1954 and 1971. The inventions got a bit more outlandish, reflecting the era’s obsession with rocketry and space exploration; the second series’s record of prediction is nowhere near as good as that of the first. The new series also never quite matched the first’s popularity or cultural ubiquity during its heyday. Still, it had its famous fans; Steve Wozniak in particular has mentioned the Tom Swift, Jr. books as inspiring him to become an inventor and engineer. Tom Swift Jr. was allegedly written by one Victor Appleton II, presumed son of the Victor Appleton who wrote the first series. However, most of them were actually written by Jim Lawrence.

Lawrence had long since moved on to other series when one day during his morning coffee he read the first significant article about Infocom to appear in the mainstream media: Edward Rothstein’s piece on Deadline and other “participatory novels” which appeared in the New York Times Book Review of May 8, 1983. Although he had never written for the series, he had followed the birth of the Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s fiction with more than professional curiosity. But now what Infocom was apparently doing just sounded so much better. Lawrence, whose previous career proved if nothing else that he’d try just about anything once, was intrigued by the possibilities despite knowing nothing of computers or computer games. He called Infocom’s offices and arranged to drive up to Cambridge for a visit from his home in New Jersey.

The 65-year-old Lawrence looked in Stu Galley’s words “like Santa Claus,” and had the same enthusiastic twinkle in his eye when he talked about storytelling. This wise old veteran was certainly a different sort of presence in an office filled with ambitious go-getters in their twenties and early thirties, many of whom had grown up reading the various series to which he had contributed. Infocom, who counted it as a corporate goal to get “real” writers involved with their stories (thus the presence of Mike Berlyn, already working on his second game at the time), were thrilled to sign him to a contract.

Infocom was also, of course, eager to branch out into new genres, and here Lawrence’s particular expertise again seemed perfect. They concocted the idea of a new line of “junior” adventures aimed at a new generation of the same children’s readership that had once devoured the Tom Swift books — and who were currently being introduced to the idea of ludic narrative through the Choose Your Own Adventure books and the many other titles being churned out by the booming gamebook industry. If kids thought Choose Your Own Adventure was cool, wait until they saw an Infocom game! The new line could presumably also serve as a gentle introduction to Infocom for adults, an alternative to being thrown in at the deep end via the likes of Zork. Infocom made their first attempt ever to license an existing property, approaching the Stratemeyer Syndicate about licensing Tom Swift or his son for a series of interactive books for a new generation. The Syndicate was happy to do so — for far more money than Infocom was willing or able to pay.

Thus the decision was made to make the game that would become known as Seastalker a Tom Swift adventure in everything but name. In place of Tom, it asks you the player for your first and last name at the beginning. The full name which then appears on the screen becomes (for example) Seastalker: Jimmy Maher and the Ultramarine Bioceptor, a deliberate echo of the old Tom Swift books, which were invariably named Tom Swift and His (Flying Lab, Jetmarine, Rocket Ship, etc.) — only with you inserted, Chose Your Own Adventure-style, as the hero. The game closely echos Tom Swift in many other ways beyond the bare fact of your being a genius boy inventor. Tom Swift’s hometown of Shopton, for example, becomes Frobton (one of very few overt references to Zorkian lore), and sidekick Bud is replaced with a doppelganger named Tip.

For all of his flair for storytelling, there was no way that the thoroughly un-technical Lawrence was going to be able to learn to program in ZIL. Infocom thus decided to assign him Stu Galley as a partner. Lawrence would craft the story and write most of the text, while Galley would program it and finds ways to make it work as an interactive experience. It seemed a perfect assignment for Galley, one of the best pure programmers in a company full of brilliant technical minds but one who tended to have a bit of trouble coming up with original story ideas. (His first game The Witness, you may remember, had been created from an outline provided him by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling.) This use of development pairs was somewhat uncharted territory for Infocom as Seastalker was begun, but a model they would find themselves using for no fewer than three of the five games they would release in 1984.

Work on Seastalker commenced with a lengthy meeting between Lawrence and Galley at Infocom’s offices, during which they hashed out the basic plot: a genetically engineered sea monster is attacking your friends at the Aquadome undersea research station. Only you and sidekick Tip can save them, using the Scimitar, the experimental two-man research submarine you’ve just designed and built. Lawrence then went back home to New Jersey, and development progressed largely through paper mail and telephone calls, with just a few more in-person meetings to mark milestones. Working this way inevitably slowed the process — at more than nine months, Seastalker would have the longest active gestation of any Infocom game to date — but Galley generally found the project to be, like his gently unflappable collaborator, a delight.

There was a time when we got to the last act of the story, where you, the brilliant young inventor, know what the threat is, know what you have to work with (your own inventions and whatever else is available), know the other characters. How do we devise a game strategy that’s interesting but not too difficult to get you to the end? Jim and I worked on this a whole day in Cambridge. I told him, “I feel like we have a big job in front of us because we’ve set up all this elaborate storyline without really knowing how it’s going to end.” Jim said, “Don’t worry, Stu, I’ve gotten heroes out of much tougher situations than this.”

Unlike many established traditional authors who tried to make the leap to interactivity, Lawrence didn’t struggle hugely with his loss of control over every aspect of plotting and timing. Galley theorizes that he may have been aided by his experience writing for comic strips and comic books, for which he had to start putting stories down on paper long before he could foresee what their endings might be or even which writers for hire might end up writing them.

As one might expect given its pedigree, Seastalker absolutely nails the tone of its inspiration. Its is a gee-whiz world full of adventure and excitement in which no problem cannot be solved with a bit of science and a dollop of all-American bravery and ingenuity. It’s never afraid of going over the top; the package includes a letter from the President congratulating you on your latest invention. As fiction, Seastalker makes for a nice, nostalgic place to return to for some of us dealing with the vagaries of adult life. Yet as a system it’s also amongst the most complex things Infocom had yet attempted. Playing Seastalker really does feel, for the first time in an Infocom game and arguably in an adventure game, like taking the leading role in an adventure novel. Events tumble down around you one after another as the plot comes thick and fast, leaving you constantly scrambling to keep up, to save these people who make it clear they’re depending on you. Seastalker is all about its plot that just keeps pushing you along like a bulldozer. There’s little here that feels like a traditional adventure-game puzzle, little time for such cerebral exercises. Even that staple of adventure gaming, mapping, goes out the window thanks to the blueprints of the Scimitar and the maps of both undersea complexes you’ll be visiting included in the package, a first for Infocom. While Deadline and The Witness have a dynamism of their own, their characters go about their business oddly oblivious to you; your job is essentially to observe their behavior, to come to an understanding of their patterns, and then to force yourself into the plot to redirect it at crucial junctures. No forcing is required in Seastalker; you truly are the hero, the cog around which everything and everybody revolves.

The Commodore 64 version of Seastalker showing the split-screen sonar view

The Commodore 64 version of Seastalker showing the split-screen sonar view

One of the most impressive parts of Seastalker is its implementation of the Scimitar. You have to guide it around Frobton Bay yourself, using your sonar display and a depth map included in the package. Later, the climax of the story is an underwater battle involving the Scimitar, the sea monster, and the jealous rival behind all the chaos that is a genuine tactical struggle rather than an exercise in set-piece puzzle solving. For these sequences Infocom devised the first significant extension to the Z-Machine since its inception more than four years before: the ability to split the screen on certain computers, which Seastalker uses to display a non-scrolling upper window that shows your sonar screen as a simple textual rendering. (The member of the Micro Group responsible for moving this enhancement into the interpreters was the newly hired Brian Moriarty, a name we’ll soon be hearing a lot more of.)

Seastalker‘s feelies are, as you might have gathered given the wealth of maps and blueprints I’ve already described, unusually many and varied even for Infocom. There’s a clever set of “InfoCards” with hints printed in a special ink that can only be seen with the aid of an included InfoCard reader — just the sort of little gadget young Tom Swifts are likely to love. But Seastalker‘s packaging is most interesting today in that it serves as a sort of test run for much of what would follow just a month or two later, when Infocom converted their entire existing line of games into a new standardized packaging format, the classic and beloved “grey box.” For the first time we see in Seastalker a sample transcript showing how to interact with the game, an invaluable bit of teaching by example that would be included in every grey box to come. And the front of the box calls the game “Junior Interactive Fiction from Infocom.”

Infocom, despite a generally finely honed promotional instinct, had struggled for years to find a good label for what their games really were, wallowing around in unsatisfying pseudo-compounds like “InterLogic” and plebeian descriptives like “prose games.” Some of the Imps had at last begun to casually refer to their games as “interactive fiction” in interviews during the latter half of 1983, notably in a feature article in the September/October 1983 Softline which dwelt at length on Floyd’s death scene from Planetfall. Seastalker, however, marks its first deployment as part of Infocom’s official rhetoric — appropriately enough, given that Seastalker is more worthy of the label than anything that came before. Infocom wasn’t the first to use the term “interactive fiction” in a computerized context; that honor belongs to Robert Lafore, who created a set of simple branching stories to which he gave that label back in 1979. Yet it was perfect for Infocom’s games, the last piece of the rhetorical puzzle they had been assembling with the able assistance of their mates at G/R Copy for a few years now. With the arrival of the grey boxes, all of Infocom’s games would officially be interactive fiction, the name the whole field of literary games in the Infocom tradition continues to go by to this day.

Released in June of 1984, Seastalker initially sold very well: more than 30,000 units in its first six months. But sales tailed off rather quickly after that; its lifetime figure is in the vicinity of 40,000. It may very well have been a victim of Infocom marketing’s conflation of a game for kids with an introductory game for adults. Certainly Seastalker is very short. Any adult at all experienced with adventure games can easily finish it in an evening, any adult totally inexperienced at least within two. One suspects that the arrival in 1985 of Wishbringer, a much better introductory game for adults, ate into Seastalker‘s sales in a big way.

But then Seastalker wasn’t really designed for adults. Children, who read more slowly and have the patience to relive something over and over (and over…) will likely get considerably more out of it, especially since there are a fair number of alternate paths to follow and even the possibility to finish without the full score; if you screw the pooch, one of your heretofore helpless friends will often stop hand-wringing long enough to jump in at the last minute and save the day for you. Still, it’s debatable how many parents would have been willing to spend $30 or $40 on the game when they could pick up a Choose Your Own Adventure book for $2.

All of which leaves Seastalker feeling like a bit of a missed opportunity in spite of its perfectly reasonable commercial performance. Stu Galley recalls that Infocom demonstrated Seastalker for a group of schoolteachers at the 1984 Summer CES show to the rapturous response that this sort of thing was “just what they needed” to get their kids reading more. One wishes that Infocom could have found some way to reduce the price and/or work aggressively with schools to get the game into more children’s hands. As it was, they dropped the idea of “Interactive Fiction Junior” and of trying to compete with the Choose Your Own Adventure juggernaut within a year, relabeling Seastalker rather incongruously as an introductory-level game for adults like the aforementioned Wishbringer. Even Lawrence and Galley’s second collaboration, Moonmist, was largely marketed as just another adult mystery game despite being at heart a Nancy Drew story in the same way that Seastalker was a Tom Swift.

If you have a child in that sweet spot of about eight to ten years in your life, you can begin to remedy that missed opportunity by giving her Seastalker and seeing what she makes of it. Like so much of Infocom’s work, it’s aged very little. For the rest of us, it’s a great piece of innocently cheesy fun that’s also quite technically and even formally impressive in its way. Infocom never made another game quite like it, which is alone more than reason enough to play it.

(As always, thanks to Jason Scott for sharing his materials from the Get Lamp project.)

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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