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Bookware’s Sunset

(I was never happy with this article in its original form, so I’ve added coverage of The Scoop to that of Breakers and moved it to here in the blog’s chronology, where I feel it makes a better fit. Don’t worry, Nate, I’ve preserved your comments. Patreon subscribers: you of course won’t be charged for this one.)

As we push now into 1986 in this blog’s chronology, we’re moving into an era of retrenchment but also of relative stability, as the battered survivors of the home-computer boom and bust come to realize that, if they’re unlikely (at least in the short term) to revolutionize mainstream art and entertainment in the way they had expected, home computers and the games a relatively small proportion of the population enjoy playing on them are also not going to go away. A modest but profitable computer-games industry still remained following the exit of the pundits, would-be visionaries, and venture capitalists, one that would neither grow nor shrink notably for the rest of the decade. No longer fixated on changing the world, developers — even the would-be rock stars at Electronic Arts — just focused on making fun games again for a core audience that loved Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Star Trek, and ships and airplanes with lots of guns on them. While publishers would continue to take a chance on more outré titles than you might expect, much that didn’t fit with this core demographic that stuck with gaming after the hype died began now to get discarded.

Amongst the victims of this more conservative approach were bookware and the associated dreams for a new era of interactive popular fiction. Bookware had, to say the least, failed to live up to the hype; the number of commercially successful bookware titles from companies not named Infocom could be counted on one hand and likely still leave plenty of fingers free. Small wonder, as the games themselves were, if often audacious and interesting in conception, usually deeply flawed in execution, done in by a poor grasp of design fundamentals, poor parsers and game engines, rushed development, and an associated tendency to undervalue the importance of playtesting and polishing for any interactive work. One could say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Infocom was the only company of the 1980s that knew how to consistently put out playable, enjoyable, fair text adventures — meaning I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy in the years I’ve been writing this blog merely confirming this conventional wisdom, but so be it.

Thus bookware faded quietly away, done in both by gamers who were not terribly invested in games as literature and its own consistently inconsistent  quality control. Whether better works could have brought the former around, or found a new audience entirely, remains a somewhat open question. But as it was, one by one the bookware lines came to an end. Bantam’s Living Literature line stopped after just two titles; the Mindscape/Angelsoft line made it all the way to eight; other publishers like Activision, Epyx, and Electronic Arts abandoned the genre after one or two experiments failed to bear commercial fruit. And the most notable of all the bookware lines and certainly the ones we’ve spent the most time with, the Brøderbund/Synapse Electronic Novels and the Telarium games, were also not long for this world.

Breakers

Breakers, written by a friend of the Synapse boys named Rod Smith, was the fourth and last of the Electronic Novels to be released. It’s also the largest, most complex, and most difficult — albeit mostly not in a good way. Breakers places you aboard a ramshackle space station in orbit around a planet called, I kid you not, Borg, proof that there’s a limited supply of foreboding names in the universe. It’s somewhat unusual as both science fiction and interactive fiction in being told from the point of view of an alien who’s not just your typical Star Trek-style human with different skin pigmentation or unusually formed ears. The Lau, the race to which you belong, are residents of Borg whose culture is mystical rather than technological, who communicate via telepathy. They’re now being punished for their disinterest in warfare by being rounded up and sold off as exotic slaves to customers all over the galaxy by many of the unsavory characters who inhabit the station. Meanwhile a cosmic apocalypse is in the offing which only the Lau can prevent by assembling four elements and performing a ritual. By happenstance, you’ve ended up loose on the station. You must assemble the elements to save your race and avert the catastrophe; even a text adventure that fancies itself an electronic novel often winds up a treasure hunt.

That said, the Electronic Novels seldom lacked for literary ambition, and Breakers is no exception. Smith does a pretty good job of showing the crazy cast-offs, pirates, and rogues — some with the proverbial hearts of gold, most responding to overtures only with laser blasts — from the standpoint of an apparently asexual and very alien alien. If not quite up to the standard of Lynnea Glasser’s recent, lovely interactive fiction Coloratura, it is interesting to view Breakers‘s stock-science-fiction tropes from this other, exotic point of view. The opening scene in a seedy bar filled with thumping music and humans and aliens of every description is unexpectedly compelling when viewed from the perspective of this protagonist despite being thoroughly derivative of a certain 1977 blockbuster.

All sorts of issues of technology and fundamental design, however, cut against the prospect of enjoying this world. The opening section of the game, inside that seedy bar, is so baffling that a magazine like Questbusters, one of the few with enough remaining interest in the Electronic Novel line to write about Breakers at all, dispensed with any semblance of graduated hints and just printed a walkthrough of the opening sequence — one that, tellingly, appears to rely on a bug, or at least a complete plotting non sequitur, to see it through. Smith had wanted to make Breakers rely heavily upon character interaction, a noble if daunting goal. In practice and in light of the problematic Synapse parser, however, that just leads to a series of impossible dialog puzzles that require you to say the exact right sequence of things to get anywhere. While the plot is unusually intricate, it’s essentially — if as-advertised in light of the “Electronic Novel” label — a novel’s plot, a series of linear hoops that require you to just slavishly recreate a series of dramatic beats, even when doing so requires that you deliberately get yourself captured and beat up. But, unlike in most linear games, you never know what the game expects next from you, leading to an infuriating exercise not so much in saving Borg as in figuring out what Smith wants to have happen next and how you can force it to take place.

Breakers was released by Brøderbund in a much smaller, much less lavish package than its predecessor, complete with cheesy art that looked cut out of an Ed Wood production. The Synapse name, which studio Brøderbund was now is in the process of winding down as an altogether disappointing acquisition, is entirely absent from the package, as is even the old “Electronic Novel” franchise name, although it remains all over the manual from which it would presumably have been harder to excise. The game is now just a “text adventure” again, a circle closed in ironic and very telling fashion.

So, Breakers would mark the end of the line for this interesting but frustrating collection. Reports from former Synapse insiders have it that a fifth Electronic Novel, a samurai adventure called Ronin, was effectively complete by the end of 1986. But it was never released. Two more with the intriguing titles of Deadly Summer and House of Changes also had at least some work done on them before Brøderbund pulled the plug on the whole affair. My inner idealist wishes he’d had a chance to play these games; my inner cynic knows they’d likely have been undone by the same litany of flaws that make all of the released Electronic Novels after Mindwheel disappointing to one degree or another.

The only extant image I know of of The Scoop in its original planned Telarium incarnation.

The only extant image I know of The Scoop in its original Telarium incarnation.

The final game in Spinnaker’s Telarium line, The Scoop, stands along with Shadowkeep as one of the two oddballs of that bunch. Its choice of source material alone is a rather strange one. As you can see from the box image above, Telarium did their best to portray The Scoop as a product of Agatha Christie. However, the original The Scoop isn’t actually an Agatha Christie novel. It’s rather an artifact of the Detection Club, a sort of casual social club of cozy mystery writers that still persists to this day. Six writers — Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Croft, and Clemence Dane — passed the manuscript in progress among themselves by post. It came to each twice, whereupon he or she added a chapter to the unfolding story and sent it on to another. Later each read their chapters live on BBC Radio, the organization that had commissioned the whole project in the first place. The installments also appeared in the BBC’s magazine, The Listener, before being eventually published in book form. Interesting as it is as an early experiment in collaborative narrative, the final product reads pretty much exactly like the patchwork creation it is, with a plot that zigs and zags in wildly divergent directions according to each writer’s whim. It’s remained only sporadically in print since its original publication in 1931, a curious piece of ephemera for hardcore Christie fans and aficionados of golden-age mystery.

The Scoop

The game engine of Telarium’s version of The Scoop makes it stand out from its peers as much as its unusually obscure literary inspiration. Like Shadowkeep, The Scoop was developed by an outside developer rather than in-house, and thus doesn’t use the SAL engine that powers most of the other games. Said developer was Dale Disharoon, Inc., a tiny collective founded by the eponymous former grade-school teacher in 1983 to produce more polished versions of the educational software he had started writing for his class a couple of years earlier. Disharoon enjoyed a close relationship with Spinnaker for quite some time, one that led most notably to the gentle adventures Below the Root (1984) and Alice in Wonderland (1985). Both were largely designed and programmed by Disharoon himself and published through Windham Classics, Spinnaker’s other bookware label for children’s literature adaptations targeting a slightly younger age group than the Telarium games. Thus it must have seemed a good idea to give him a crack at making The Scoop using a superficially similar engine to the one behind Below the Root and Alice, which replaced the SAL parser with a menu-driven command system. Busy with other projects, Disharoon turned The Scoop over to writer and designer Jonathan Merritt, programmer Vince Mills, and artist Bill Groetzinger. To give them extra space to play, Spinnaker agreed to leave behind the lucrative Commodore 64 platform and release The Scoop only for machines with at least 128 K.

Alas, though, the idea sounded a lot better than it would end up playing. The mid-1980s were an era marked by widespread interface experimentation in adventure-game design, as developers tried to figure out what the logical successor to the parser should be. To its credit, The Scoop doesn’t really feel, as do many of its contemporary peers, like a traditional text adventure with a menu system grafted on. It actually sports a pretty good interface, with a reasonable selection of verbs always easily accessible at the tap of a space bar. Unfortunately, the game to which it’s grafted is just kind of baffling, and not in a good way. This is one of only two Telarium games that settles for simply recreating its source material’s plot, rather than finding some way to do an end run around the problem of player advance knowledge like most of its peers. Perhaps the developers figured its source material was obscure enough that few players would be familiar with it anyway. And indeed, in the end it doesn’t much matter; I dutifully read the novel to prepare myself for the game, and I still didn’t get much of anywhere with the latter. For one thing, the rather thin plot of the novel has been greatly expanded, with lots of new characters and evidence and several new sub-plots, although the big picture at the end is the same. But that wasn’t the real source of my frustrations.

You see, an expanded plot would have been welcome if the game was actually fun, but it really isn’t. This is one of those mystery games that hinges on timing. A cast of literally dozens wanders all over an expansive map of London and nearby environs over the five days or so that the game gives you to solve it. You have to dog each and every one of them relentlessly, eavesdropping on conversations and searching every locale as soon as they leave it, to get anywhere. Once you’ve collected all the individual jigsaw pieces, you can presumably restart one last time and unspool “The Mystery of the Mindreading Detective.” I don’t mind this sort of thing in some other games, but here there’s some secret sauce missing. All of the waiting around and the fiddly searching is just tedious, the writing flat and the characters bland. And the feedback loop is badly untethered at one end. You never really know where you stand with the game, never know if it knows you know what you think you know — a problem that’s admittedly all too common in ludic mysteries. Nor is it clear what you’re supposed to do to tell the game about it once you think you’ve solved the case. With little idea of whether what I was doing and learning meant anything or not, with the constant well-justified paranoia that I was missing something important somewhere else, I spent my time in The Scoop in a discombobulated haze. Finally I just gave up.

Which as it happens is exactly what Spinnaker was doing with the Telarium line in 1986. By that year the company was in serious trouble, having bet big like so many others on a home-computer revolution that never quite arrived and lost badly. Spinnaker had had a negative bank balance for the last two years, and one of its co-founders, Bill Bowman, had already bailed, leaving C. David Seuss struggling to make payroll by exercising stock options. The company was, as Seuss puts it, “flat broke.” Then, looking around the market, Seuss spotted what he calls a “point of discontinuity”: a new generation of IBM PC clones like the Tandy 1000 that were for the first time packaged and priced to be attractive to buyers outside corporate America. With little else going for Spinnaker, Seuss elected to “bet the company” on that emerging market. Managing to pull together some capital by calling on Harvard University connections, he applied Spinnaker’s remaining staff to creating a new line of home-office and small-business productivity software. Spinnaker 2.0 would be, like Activision 2.0, a shadow of its old self for some time, but sales would eventually rebound from a low of $8 million in 1987 to $65 million in 1994, the year Seuss sold the company to The Learning Company.

The Telarium and Windham Classics lines were among the inevitable casualties of Seuss’s new strategy. They were quietly cancelled, the remaining stock sold off at fire-sale prices. The Scoop was already complete, with packaging created and promotion efforts already begun, when the fateful decision came down. It was thus never actually released… until, that is, 1989, when a somewhat rejuvenated Spinnaker decided to give it a go after all under their own imprint for the Apple II and MS-DOS (a Commodore 128 version that had been announced back in 1986 never did arrive). A less than spectacular game now three years behind the times in the graphics and interface departments, The Scoop attracted little notice and quickly fell out of print again, the last gasp of this line of often botched but frequently fascinating games. Ah, well… the anticlimax that was The Scoop‘s belated release does at least let us reassure ourselves that it wasn’t a cancelled masterpiece. We don’t know for sure, on the other hand, what would have come from other ongoing or proposed Telarium projects based on novels by Robert A. Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, and Harry Harrison — although, as with the Synapse games, it seems unrealistic to imagine that they wouldn’t have suffered from Telarium’s usual litany of problems.

The fate of completed titles like The Scoop and Ronin, which their publishers judged not capable of recouping the additional expense of actually releasing them, tells you just about all you need to know about the commercial state of bookware by 1986. And it only takes a good look at Breakers and The Scoop to understand much about the fundamental issues of design and technology that plagued the vast majority of the bookware releases. They serve as good examples of a format that went out much like it came in, full of big notions but also a bit half-baked. In the interest of history if nothing else, feel free to download The Scoop and Breakers and give them a try. The former is in the Apple II version; the latter in the MS-DOS version, and includes a DOSBox configuration that should work very well.

(My thanks go to C. David Seuss for sharing memories and documents relating to Spinnaker’s history. Dale Desharone, né Dale Disharoon, died in 2008. He was interviewed by Hardcore Gaming 101 shortly before his passing. A much older profile can be found in the November 1983 Compute!’s Gazette.)

 
 

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Essex and Brimstone

The next two entrants in the Electronic Novel line trickled out of Synapse/Brøderbund some eight months after Mindwheel and with vastly less fanfare. Both are flawed efforts that together serve to take a lot of the shine off Synapse’s boldly literary take on the text adventure.

Essex

The premise of Essex is The Love Boat meets Star Trek. You play one of an array of disparate passengers who come together for a cruise on the Essex, the sleekest and most luxurious star liner in the galaxy. Before all is said and done, you’ll have unmasked one of your fellow travelers as a spy and another as a thief, rescued a “Klangorn” warrior from unjust captivity, beamed down to a planet to collect some fresh “trilithium crystals” to power the Essex, and — the real crux of the matter — rescued from another unjust captivity on another planet the only scientist capable of closing an inter-dimensional wormhole and thus preventing an alien invasion. Whew! Whatever else you can say about it, Essex doesn’t lack for ambition.

Unlike the other Electronic Novels, for which Synapse turned to outside writers, Essex author Bill Darrah was also a programmer at Synapse. He doesn’t manage to transcend his other calling; we’re back pretty firmly in the realm of programmer writing here, which comes as a particular letdown after the likes of Mindwheel. Like many unpracticed writers straining to sound “literary,” Darrah frequently confuses elegant language with stilted language. Tortured passive-voice constructions abound: “A newspaper is picked up and pocketed,” the game tells us after we “GET NEWSPAPER” as our first command of the game. More fundamentally, Essex doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be, staking out some shaky territory somewhere between Star Trek parody and homage, with a bit of Douglas Adams at his “zaniest” and least compelling, without ever really committing to anything. So we end up with a fairly serious space-adventure premise which nevertheless has the aforementioned “Klangorn” and “trilithium crystals” along with a Chief Engineer McKinley who hangs pictures of the Highlands in his office and speaks in a bizarre faux-Scottish diction that suggests that the only Scottish accent Darrah has ever heard is James Doohan’s. Even more bizarre combinations of drama and comedy have worked in the hands of talented writers, but suffice to say that Darrah is not one of these writers.

Taken as a game — or, if you like, a systemEssex is more interesting. In fact, it’s by far the most complex piece of programming of all the Electronic Novels. If we take classic adventures as almost all formed in the Adventure mold (the vast majority), being relatively static environments that change only at the prompting of you the player, or the Deadline mold, being dynamic, living story systems in which not just what but also when becomes a factor, Essex is firmly in the dynamic camp. Life is happening around you constantly. Not only does the Essex itself suffer a series of crises, but a cast of a dozen or so others is all constantly moving about, pursuing their own agendas and (ideally) reacting to your own actions in believable ways. It’s impressive — except when it doesn’t quite work right, which is often. Making a believable world/simulation of this sort is still one of the hardest things to do in an adventure game, which does much to explain the form’s still-strong love for deserted environments and straitjacketed, linear plotting. In Essex mimesis is constantly shattered. You can beat one of your fellow passengers to a pulp in front of others while they just continue chatting about the vacation they’re having; use an energy bomb to free a dangerous prisoner from the brig while the guard just yawns and looks on. At points the various daemons controlling plot developments seem to get out of whack, so that a landing party can beam down to a planet before the ship has actually arrived there. Essex needed a lot more testing than it apparently received, serving as yet another example of how the process at Infocom just as much as the vision of their writers led to their own unrivaled catalog of games. This was something that Synapse like so many others, whatever vows they may have made about doing “everything Infocom does plus one,” couldn’t duplicate.

Another thing was Infocom’s parser. Synapse made much out of the BTZ parser, bragging about its ability to understand some 1500 words, over twice that of a typical Infocom game. But word counts alone aren’t enough; ever-present concerns about disk and memory usage aside, they are in fact the easy part of the problem. It’s the grammatical patterns used to deduce meaning from those words that are the hard part. Here Synapse took the same wrong-headed approach as Telarium and many others, doing simple pattern matching as often as real parsing and trying to guess at the meanings of commands which couldn’t be interpreted by more rigorous methods. The BTZ parser is a “lying parser,” in other words, which tries to pretend it knows more than it does. Mindwheel had of course used the same parser, but there it oddly seemed to work at least some of the time, aided by that game’s surreal atmosphere and general disinterest in grubby materialism; witness the Oedipal interaction that so delighted Robert Pinsky. In Essex, full of more traditional object-oriented puzzles, it’s much less successful. Conversations are particularly prone to non sequiturs: asking another crewman, “WHERE IS CAPTAIN DEE?” results in, “At the same time Dee was building the Essex, the economies of three major planets collapsed.” Good to know… I guess. Infuriatingly, solving Essex requires beating your head against the conversation system; one or two other people on the ship have essential information that you can gather only by asking about random things until you stumble across it.

Indeed, Essex is a very difficult game, requiring like so many others of its dynamic stripe many restarts and restores to solve. In the end, I must admit I judged it not worth the effort. Which was a particular disappointment because the big hardcover book, while still having a surfeit of blank pages, is actually used pretty well here to introduce your fellow passengers and set everything up. Thanks to it, I was actually excited to get started. Alas, that initial excitement wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Brimstone

Even more initially promising is Brimstone: The Dream of Gawain, written by another up-and-coming poet living in the San Francisco area named James Paul, who wouldn’t go on to quite the same heights as Robert Pinsky but has continued to write poetry and prose and teach creative writing at Hunter College. In Brimstone you take the role of Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table best known as the main character of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a recurrent tale of the Arthurian mythos that is most often read today in its translation by J.R.R. Tolkien (it also likely had a little something to do with inspiring one of the more beloved set-pieces in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The game is in fact exactly what its subtitle says it is: as it begins Gawain is drifting off to sleep after a day of relaxation at Camelot. Brimstone is what he experiences within the nocturnal, infernal landscape of his dream.

Paul, owner of a PhD in Medieval English literature, isn’t much interested in the King Arthur of flashing swords and chivalric derring-do. He rather connects with the murkier, more mystical aspects of the tradition which you can practically breathe in with the mists during an autumn walk around Glastonbury. Nor does he restrict himself to the Arthurian mythos. Brimstone owes much to — where have we heard this before? — Dante. Like Mindwheel, there’s little in the way of straightforward plotting or concrete theme here, but lots of evocative suggestions and a whole pile of deftly rendered references that hover on the edge of the unconscious — not only to Dante and King Arthur but also to the Book of Genesis, to The Pilgrim’s Progress, to the Greek myths (Charon makes an inevitable cameo), even to Kafka (Morgan Le Fay is the star witness in an absurdist trial in which Gawain is the accused). Presiding over much of the affair as Paul’s version of Dante’s Virgil is none other than William Blake. There’s also an homage to a more modern celebrated work by another Medievalist (among many other things), Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose had reached American shores in translation just the year before Paul set to work on Brimstone. The frame story of Brimstone, as presented in the accompanying hardcover, is a dead ringer for that of The Name of the Rose: fussily pretentious academic discovers a heretofore unknown manuscript behind the Iron Curtain. It’s pretty funny — the academic in question has the perfect name of “Jeremy Diddler” — if not quite as drolly perfect as Eco’s.

Much of the imagery in Brimstone proper concerns sin and redemption; much also Greatness versus Goodness. Here’s a bit I particularly like, a forest of frozen hypocrites:

The knight found himself at the northern end of the Vale of the Titans. To the south, Gawain saw what appeared to be figures of men, standing still in the ice.

The figures were men, or their shapes, in any case. Here a multitude of statues of ice crowded a small valley to the south of the knight. Each statue was twice as large as Gawain, each was intricately carved, and each wore what seemed at first to be expressions of virtue, dignity, honesty and courage. Here the track turned, running north and west.

> s

Each figure was labeled with a name: Agamemnon, Bonaparte, Bowdler, Burr, and so on. The knight's heart sank as he walked on. Alphabetical orders always weighed heavily upon him. It was a cold place, and the hills bristled with statues.

> s

The knight felt worse and worse as he walked through this forest of hypocrites. He could look at the statues no longer, though they ran on and on, both men and women, most of whom the knight did not know. The knight came to a marshy area.

Here the ground oozed a gray substance, and wide-leafed plants burst through the mud, their leaves bearing white designs like those the knight had seen on the backs of spiders. A single firm path bore many tracks of a single creature east, and a path also ran south. What next? thought the knight, noting the sign.

> read sign

There in the rock above the well were some words, written by hand. "Expect poison from standing water," it read.

The excerpt above, of course, also shows the most immediately striking aspect of Brimstone: all of its text is rendered in the third-person past tense. Given the sheer quantity of text adventures that precede it, I wouldn’t want to claim absolutely that it’s the first to experiment with this alternative. It is, however, the first of which I’m aware; virtually all previous games had used either the first-person present (as popularized by Scott Adams) or the second-person present (as popularized by Adventure and later Infocom). In the hands of a lesser writer, it might come off as just a gimmick, but here it suits Paul’s oft-lovely prose and the somewhat removed, dreamlike temper of the whole experience perfectly.

I wish I could leave it at that, leave Brimstone as a piece of interactive poetry almost the equal of Mindwheel. But sadly, commercial considerations do much to undo the experience. Until quite late in the day, Brimstone seems like a kind game which is not puzzleless but not all that interested in its puzzles either, using them largely to provide direction and impetus to explore its enchanted dreamscape. Some of the puzzles are actually pretty good: there’s a free-association exercise that’s almost the equal of any of Mindwheel‘s poetic puzzles. But this version of Brimstone would have been a lovely experience lasting perhaps two or three hours — unacceptable for a game that people would be spending $30 or more on. So, you’ll eventually come to the realization that, starting in the mid-game, Brimstone had begun layering on increasingly obscure puzzles, many of which you probably never recognized as puzzles at all. The ultimate goal turns out to be to collect five magic words needed to defeat Gawain’s nemesis the Green Knight. At least three of these are extremely difficult to find; you’re all but guaranteed to end the game having been locked out of victory long ago. The most absurd word-acquisition strategy of all requires you to start talking to a flower who’s given no prior sign of sentience. To make matters worse, once you collect the words you have to figure out their correct order largely by trial and error and type them really, really fast thanks to one of the more pointless innovations of the BTZ system: the games play in a sort of pseudo-real time, with turns passing as if in response to a “WAIT” command if you don’t type something quickly enough. Mostly that’s just an occasional annoyance, but here it’s enough to make you want to pull out the (virtual) disk and throw it across the room. So, having ended my last article with an elegiac to the dream of a commercial marketplace for literary interactive fiction, let me end this one by noting how wonderful it is that many later experiments with interactive literature were allowed to be their best selves without such dull metrics as dollars spent and hours of gameplay provided getting in the way.

It’s unfortunately a bit more complicated to play Essex and Brimstone today than it is to play Mindwheel. All of the Apple II disk images of both that I could find floating around the Internet have corruptions that, cruelly, don’t show up until well into the game. Your best bet for a decent — read, 80-column — experience is to go for the MS-DOS versions, which you can run through DOSBox. I’m providing a download of each of them here; each zip also contains the manual and a configuration file for DOSBox that should work for you. There’s just one tricky thing you need to know: when you enter the name of a file to save or restore, you need to hit CTRL-ENTER to conclude your input. While Essex is probably best left to the truly hardcore, I’m tempted to recommend Brimstone in spite of its issues. Just keep a walkthrough handy, and don’t be ashamed to use it.

There was one final Electronic Novel, but we’ll save that for later. Instead we’ll pull the camera back next time to take a wider view of the American software industry in 1985 — one hell of a year, as Synapse amongst many others would agree.

(Update: Peter Ferrie has just put together a working version of Brimstone for the Apple II. If you’d prefer to play that version, feel free to download it. Note that you will still need the manual from the original zip file above.

Second Update: And now he’s done the same for Essex. Thanks, Peter!)

 
 

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Mindwheel (or, The Poet and the Hackers)

Mindwheel

Excepting only Adventure and a handful of works by Infocom, Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel has received far more academic attention than any other work of interactive fiction’s commercial era. If you’re of a practical — not to say cynical — turn, you can posit a pretty good theory as to why that should be without ever looking to the game itself. Pinsky, you see, is by far the most respectable and respected literary figure ever to turn his hand to the humble text adventure. His resume is impressive to say the least: United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000; author of nineteen books, nine of them full of poems; translator of Dante; professor of literature at Berkeley and Boston University amongst other places; editor of literary magazines and anthologies; scholar of the Biblical David and Shakespeare. For any graduate student looking to justify a thesis or article about interactive fiction, Pinsky is a riposte to die for when colleagues and advisers ask whether text adventures are really all that significant as literary works. If they were good enough for Pinsky, they should be good enough for anyone.

Mindwheel is the product of a strange historical moment; it’s hard to imagine it appearing more than a year before or after its February 1985 release date. This was the era of bookware, when interactive fiction was seen as the future of the book and the future of computerized entertainment all rolled into one; when action games were seen as relics of the recently passed age of the Atari VCS; when a company called Synapse Software, known already as the makers of some of the slickest and most graphically impressive action games on the Atari 8-bit line, could decide to stake much of their future on textual interactive fiction not out of some suicidal artistic impulse but because doing so seemed a perfectly reasonable commercial calculation. Strange, strange times.

Ihor Wolosenko

Ihor Wolosenko

The story of Synapse Software is largely the story of Ihor Wolosenko, whose family had immigrated to the United States from Ukraine when he was still a toddler and who had filled the nearly forty years that elapsed in his life before Synapse with a bewildering array of activities and avocations. He had studied drama at the City University of New York; been a professional photographer; worked as a physical therapist; counseled and conducted personal workshops using a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and the controversial branch of psychology known as neuro-linguistic programming; delved deeply into linguistics and hypnosis. By 1980, the year he bought an Atari 800, he had ended up like so many other drifting dreamers in Berkeley, California. He chose the Atari because it could play Star Raiders and the Apple II couldn’t.

Wolosenko soon made a more technical friend, a vice president in charge of data processing at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank named Ken Grant who had been toying with an Atari 800 database application in his spare time. The two worked on it together for nearly a year, then founded Synapse out of Wolosenko’s apartment to release it in August of 1981. It wasn’t an auspicious start; the first hundred or so copies of FileManager 800 that they shipped were so buggy that they had to recall the whole production run. But by the end of the year Synapse was truly up and running at last, with not just FileManager but a game or two as well.

Wolosenko was already putting together the team of crack programmers whose games would make Synapse’s reputation. Games like Shamus, Blue Max, The Pharaoh’s Curse, and their most beloved title of all Alley Cat mixed superb graphics with addictive playability and a welcome sense of whimsy. Little extra touches distinguished Synapse’s games from the competition. In Alley Cat, for instance, if you don’t do anything for a few seconds your avatar will start to move around on his own and meow impatiently to you, decades before such “juicy” touches would become a widely accepted requirement for casual games.

It wouldn’t be out of line to compare Synapse’s mystique in North America with that of Ultimate Play the Game in Britain. Both developed all of their games in-house, insuring that they all shared a similar look and design sensibility. Both were absolute masters of their chosen platforms (the Spectrum for Ultimate, the Atari 8-bits for Synapse) and consistently delivered games that were far slicker than virtually anything the competition had to offer. Synapse, like Ultimate, did write for other platforms, but their core competency and core loyalty remained with the Atari machines. Atari users in turn loved them. Because Synapse’s games were born on Ataris, they could take full advantage of the best graphics and sound in the industry, capabilities matched only (and if you listen to Atari loyalists only arguably) by those of the Commodore 64.

While Wolosenko usually refused formal credit on his programmers’ designs, much of the character of Synapse’s games was down to him. His company may have been making relatively simple action games, but he nevertheless thought seriously about the nature of the medium, the relationship between player and avatar, the standard approach of graduated difficulty levels (bad) and the alternative of adaptive gameplay (good). He shepherded every game and every programmer through the process of development, giving a little nudge here, a little tweak there to make the end result that much better. Synapse programmer Steve Hales called Wolosenko the Steve Jobs of games: “Every product that Synapse produced had Ihor’s touch. I believe that because of Ihor our quality was better, the designs were more unique, and I was pushed beyond what I thought was possible.”

According to Hales, it was he and another of Wolosenko’s favorite programmers, William Mataga, who planted the idea of doing adventure games in Wolosenko’s head in late 1983. (William Mataga now lives as Cathryn Mataga. I refer to her by her previous name and gender in this article only to avoid historical anachronisms.) Hales and Mataga believed that Infocom had “old technology,” and Synapse could do better. Wolosenko didn’t take much convincing. Showing his usual enthusiasm, he laid out an ambitious if not entirely cogent manifesto for Synapse’s engine, which would be the work largely of Mataga.

The problem with these adventure games thus far, even the more interactive ones, is that you have the feeling of being in a corral. You go this way and someone says, “You can’t go that way.” If I say, “Toss something,” and it says, “I don’t understand that word,” when it just used that word in a description it drives me up the wall. It totally stops the experience for me. We’re going to have to work with some of those obstructions until we can solve some of the problems: not processing time, just putting the computer’s power to better use.

The most intricate puzzle is not a Rubik’s Cube, it’s a person. And it’s a character that changes. When you read bad fiction, the character comes in, he interacts with a lot of people, and he goes out exactly the way he came in. When you read a Tolstoy novel, the character is totally different at the end of the novel than when he came in at the beginning. And that’s what we’re trying to do. There is no reason why you have to be the same person during a game either. You could have a changeling-type game, where you’re a person at one point, you’re a dog at another, a bat at another.

Mataga dubbed his system BTZ — “Better than Zork” — to keep the end goal inescapable for everyone. Crucially, the vision was for pure text from the outset. Whereas rivals like Telarium sought to one-up Infocom by adding graphics and sound and even occasional action games to the mix to hopefully distract from their less than Infocom-quality parsers, prose, and world models, Synapse would go against them head to head, strength against strength. The games themselves Wolosenko first wanted to call “Microworlds” in light of the freedom and sense of realism they would offer. That soon changed, however, when he had his next brain storm: to hire the best outside writers he could find — real writers — to craft the worlds and write the text. His Microworlds thus became Electronic Novels.

There is some evidence that the poet Robert Pinsky was far from Wolosenko’s first choice to craft the first Electronic Novel. In an interview published in the February 1984 issue of Ahoy! magazine, he claimed that, while the contracts were not yet all signed, Synapse hoped to be employing the services of “top, top novelists [emphasis mine].” But Telarium and many others, some with pockets and connections much deeper than Synapse’s, were already trolling these waters. Wolosenko apparently soon decided that, if he couldn’t sign “top” writers in terms of sales and commercial appeal, he could hire the most prestigious, thereby underscoring the literary credibility of Synapse’s line. Somehow he jumped to the inspired choice of targeting not novelists but poets; perhaps he figured that, what with the term “popular poet” having been largely an oxymoron for decades already, they’d be more likely to jump at the chance for any sort of recognition. Surveying the possibilities, he came across the name of Robert Pinsky, who was teaching at UC Berkeley and thus an easy mark logistically. The resume of Pinsky, then about the same age as Wolosenko, was nowhere near as impressive as it is today, but he nevertheless had a burgeoning literary reputation, with two well-received books of poetry already published and a third in the galley stage. (Wolosenko would soon also tap another respected young poet, Jim Paul, for another game in the line.)

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

One day as Pinsky was sitting in his office in Berkeley’s English department having spent the last several hours dealing with some of the more tedious administrative details that come with being a professor, his phone rang. It was Ihor Wolosenko on the line.

He said, “Are you familiar with computer text adventures?”

I said, “No.”

He asked whether I owned a computer.

I said, “No.”

Had I ever heard of Zork?

“No.”

Would I be interested in writing the text for an interactive computer work?

I said, “Yes, I might be.”

Pinsky drove out to visit Synapse’s offices. Wolosenko introduced him to some of his programmers and also to the concept of text adventures.

I liked it. My romantic idea was that it was like those first guys figuring out what movies were going to be on Long Island — playing with movie cameras. I didn’t see any reason that you couldn’t make a work of art. Art is alternate realities — realities that are in some ways like the reality we experience and in some ways quite unlike it. This was that. And it was clear to me from my small experience of adventures — the description of Zork, the stuff I saw on those monochrome monitors — that this was largely about the quest plot, one of the basic plots of great works. The Gilgamesh epic is a quest for the nature of immortality — or the nature of death, the nature of mortality. “KILL DWARF,” “GET SWORD,” etc., was completely in that line. Indeed, the imagery was very traditional.

It was agreed that Pinsky would come up with five or six ideas for possible games. Then Synapse would decide which one might be the most intriguing and realizable. The one that Pinsky himself considered the “silliest” sent the player on a journey through four minds: an assassinated rock star with a messiah complex, clearly modeled on John Lennon; a bloody dictator inspired by Hitler and Stalin and the rest of the twentieth century’s sad litany; a brilliant scientist reminiscent of Marie Curie; and a poet, a nod to the game’s creator himself. Much to Pinsky’s surprise, this treatment was the one that Wolosenko and company opted for.

One of the loveliest aspects of the Mindwheel project is the genuinely warm, respectful relationship that developed between Pinsky and the young hackers at Synapse, these men who normally inhabited what might as well have been separate planets. Pinsky worked most closely with Steve Hales, who did the actual coding for the game in Mataga’s BTZ language. Hales, who had never voluntarily read a line of verse in his life, slowly discovered through the soft-spoken, thoughtful Pinsky a new respect for the written word and the power of literature: “He changed the way I read and write words forever.” For his part, Pinsky found the youthful can-do spirit at Synapse a relief from the “oppressive” corridors of academia; he was soon “making up excuses” to visit Synapse and “hang out.” Hales endeared himself to Pinsky from his first words: “I’d like to talk to you about your world,” a turn of phrase Pinsky found almost inexpressibly fresh and exciting. He took to using — and often charmingly misusing — the fascinating jargon, a delight to his poet’s soul, that was always flying through the air at Synapse. He accepted what he wryly refers to as his “assignments” from Hales and company with cheerful equanimity: write a “dialog table” for a given character for queries involving a given set of topics; write responses in which each of these fifty verbs is used successfully and unsuccessfully. The terms attached to even the framework of the game took a poetic turn under Pinsky’s influence, with “drivel” coming to mean amusing incidental messages that were essentially random, not germane to the plot or puzzles, and “weather” those that were.

While the experience of actually developing Mindwheel was by everyone’s account an almost entirely positive one, its story is also one of crossed purposes between Pinsky and Wolosenko. Wolosenko clearly wanted to create a work of art that transcended the notion of a mere computer game. Thus the involvement of Pinsky in the first place, as well as the term “Computer Novel” and his plan to package each title in the line inside a hardcover book of at least a hundred pages. (This latter was also, of course, a challenge to Infocom’s superb packaging, yet another reflection of a determination to do “everything that Infocom does, plus one.”) Pinsky, meanwhile, took the project as a chance to let his hair down and maybe reach the sort of popular readership that had inevitably eluded him thus far despite his stellar reputation inside the ivory tower. He was teaching a class about Shakespeare at the time, and thinking a lot about how the Bard had become the greatest writer in the history of the English language not by appealing to the highbrows but by writing popular entertainments for the masses. (Pinsky still remains admirably free of literary snobbery today, listing for example South Park as one of the “tremendous works of our time,” its creators amongst our “leading moralizers.”)

The idea of making the package for Mindwheel into a hardcover book was very much Ihor Wolosenko’s idea. I didn’t like it; I resisted it. I happened to refer to what we were doing as “the game.” To me, that was fresh and exciting. The guys at Synapse who were promoting it wanted to call it an “Electronic Novel,” because from their viewpoint that was fresh and interesting.

I was disappointed that the package would be a book. They wanted me to write the stuff for the book. I declined. It was produced by committee; I wound up sort of editing it. The book was the least interesting part for me. I’ve written books; I’ve published lots of books; I wasn’t particularly excited by the romance of having a book. Ihor’s marketing idea was that this would be somehow “highbrow.” I liked the idea that it was an entertainment, that it was a game. I wanted to get away from the “literary” genre. I wanted to write a really exciting, artistic game.

Pinsky noted in a contemporary interview that he didn’t particularly care if Mindwheel got a writeup in The Partisan Review because his name had already appeared there many times. Wolosenko, of course, would have killed for such a marker of literary status.

The book, which is credited to BTZ project manager Richard Stanford, is a rather labored piece; it’s quite clear that Synapse struggled to come up with material to fill its pages, resorting to leaving dozens of pages entirely blank in the name of an “Adventurer’s Diary” for note taking. Those pages which are filled strain to set up a believable science-fictional reason for the mind-delving you do in the game proper. It seems that the social order on Earth is about to collapse thanks to humankind’s ongoing irresponsibility and the sheer inertia of thousands of years of petty human history. The only hope for salvation rests, for reasons poorly defined at best, in the science of “neuro-electronic matrix research” (the terminological similarity to Wolosenko’s personal interest of neuro-linguistic programming is interesting), which will allow a traveler to visit “four minds of unusual power” whose echoes still persist in the very atmosphere — shades of Carl Jung’s ideas about a collective unconscious. The four minds will eventually lead you to the “Cave Master,” “the mysterious prehistoric, apelike being who apparently invented the lever, the flint blade, cave paintings, and the rhythmical group chant” and who holds the “Wheel of Wisdom” that can save humankind. The winning passage of Mindwheel, after the Wheel has been retrieved, indicates about how seriously Pinsky took this earnest frame.

"This formula," says Virgil through happy tears, "can disable every weapon of mass destruction on the planet! And that is only the first benefit. Your courage and brains have given us a glorious new chance!

"Already, the planet's magnetic field is changed, so that any politician who lies on television will be afflicted with instant, debilitating diarrhea, and immediate, spectacular skin blemishes!"

He beams and detaches your electrodes.

Exalted but a little drained, you wish only to rest a while, and then unwind, maybe by playing some harmless game.

No, Mindwheel is more electronic poem than electronic novel. The world of the four minds is a surrealistic, impressionistic riot of emotional imagery. The premise and that very description raise immediate warning flags to a jaded old IFer like me; the history of amateur interactive fiction is strewn with surrealistic explorations of the inner consciousness, generally from younger writers with a wide streak of overwrought self-indulgence. They’re almost uniformly awful. But — to state the obvious — the authors of these works are (presumably) not future Poet Laureates. Pinsky’s prose is bracing, his imagery consistently surprising and consistently as right as it is bizarre. To play Mindwheel is an overwhelming sensory experience — even as all of its sensations are evoked through pure text.

The Concert

The first mind you enter is that of Bobby Clemons, the rock star.

You stand on an immense stage. In front of you, a crowd roars like thunder. Someone has thrown a rose and a Baby Ruth candy bar onto the stage. High overhead, a huge video screen displays, over and over, the film of Bobby Clemons' assassination. In tight, sequined costumes, a chorus of singers writhes, imitating the gestures of the fatally wounded figure on the screen.

A ramp juts south into the crowd that pleads for you to come forward. A keyboard is on the east part of the stage, while to the west, some thugs seem about to overpower your bodyguard. They have clubs, and you hold only your harmonica; your pockets are empty. While the crowd screams for more, one of the singers beckons you to come offstage by the door northward behind you.

The scene is vaguely hilarious and vaguely disturbing. As you stalk the stage panties are flying, dancers are grinding, bodyguards and thugs are brawling, and the crowd is baying for your love or your blood, or more likely both. It’s rock and roll in all its Dionysian danger and splendor. The other minds are only slightly less crowded and just as evocative: the poet’s full of more wistful imagery of sex and love and life and death; the dictator’s, a barren, ugly place of stunted growth and pathetic posturing; the scientist’s, an immense chess board of cool, classical beauty.

The obvious literary antecedent of the whole endeavor is Dante’s The Divine Comedy, particularly its first part The Inferno. Pinsky makes his homage about as explicit as homages can be by naming the scientist who sends you on your journey into the minds Doctor Virgil, a reference to the Roman poet who served as Dante’s guide to humanity in all its facets. Other more subtle references are sprinkled throughout Mindwheel. More importantly, the feel of the environment is similar. Dante has been a long-term fixation of Pinsky, resulting most notably in the popular translation of The Inferno which he published a decade after Mindwheel, and which has led Nick Montfort to cheekily note Mindwheel as “the first work of interactive fiction to have influenced The Inferno.”

Like The Divine Comedy, Mindwheel manages to be personal as well as epic. Amidst all the other imagery you’ll find within it a brief homage to Pinsky’s early mentor, the iconoclastic poet Yvor Winters, as well as a more extended one to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, those “boys of summer” who are the subject of the best book ever written about baseball. Indeed, the final puzzle of the game is a technically unfair one which requires you to do a bit of outside research into the only Brooklyn team to win the World Series. But go ahead and do the research; it’s good for you, and it’s trivial in the age of the Internet. Pinsky, who grew up in neighboring New Jersey, obviously followed the Brooklyn Bums and loved them dearly, obviously was as heartbroken as the rest of their fans when the team upped and moved to Los Angeles.

But the most personal of all parts of Mindwheel is, as you might expect, your excursion into the mind of the poet. Pinsky has since noted that one of the few sources of occasional tension between him and Hales stemmed from the former’s desire to just keep piling on more crazy world to explore while the latter insisted that there needed to be puzzles, pacing, the structure that would result in a real game with a score of sorts — presented as a summarized list of your achievements rather than a numerical value — and the possibility for victory. (Yes, this would seem to suddenly put Pinsky and Synapse on the opposite sides of the positions they had already staked in the novel/game dialectic. What can I say, other than that few philosophical positions survive contact with practicality.) Still, and for all that they were apparently a somewhat grudging addition on Pinsky’s part, Mindwheel‘s puzzles are mostly pretty good, managing to serve the themes with an emphasis on poetics, dialog, and symbolism rather than a bunch of mechanistic operations. Occasionally they’re more than pretty good, as in the case of the most intricate, rewarding, and personal puzzle of all: the completion of a sonnet using words gathered from the environment around you. The sonnet in question originated with the Renaissance poet Fulke Greville. The lines were, however, too long to fit on the 40-column screens used by many of Synapse’s customers, so Pinsky converted the poem from pentameter to tetrameter. The puzzle is brilliant because it so perfectly connects with the daily labors of the mind you’re exploring. You’re counting beats, looking at the rhyme scheme, seeking that word that fits mechanically and also just, well, fits. Pinsky, who labored always to find ways to make poetry relevant in people’s lives, was delighted when he saw a group of playtesting high-school kids “just trying to figure them [the sonnet and some other poetry-related puzzles] out because they’re having fun and want to do it.”

The Wheel

The central image of the Mindwheel itself is one that also appears in “The Figured Wheel,” a poem Pinsky published almost contemporaneously with the game. It’s another element that has continued to recur in Pinsky’s later work.

Imagine a wheel — a colossal, rotating wheel into which is drawn all of the images of a culture: every experience, every event, every object, every person’s mind and body. This wheel is a vortex which you must try to manipulate and understand.

It involves the idea of striving for control and mastery, and the world being so complicated that every time you strive you’re creating another system that becomes part of this big whirling thing which is everything everybody’s ever known or thought or dreamed up to amuse themselves. Jokes and technologies and mythologies and religions and roads and… just everything.

Such heady concepts aside, the question of what Mindwheel ultimately all means is a fraught one. There’s a telling moment near the end of the game where in order to progress you have to cold-bloodedly sacrifice a certain frog who’s been your loyal companion through most of the game. Trinity, Brian Moriarty’s masterpiece which we’ll be getting to in a future article, has a similar moment which is among its most moving and important, serving as a critique of the whole atomic doctrine of mutually assured destruction and the idea of sacrificing the few for the needs of the many which led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Before you rush to comment, do know that the decision to drop those bombs is one with which I must unhappily agree.) But then Trinity is a work with some very clear messages to impart. In Mindwheel the sacrifice is played almost for laughs; the frog returns in the finale as a happy zombie.

Does this make Mindwheel a lesser work than Trinity? Well, it certainly takes itself less seriously, but we need not condemn it for that. There was a time when poets would compete to do their patrons proud by taking a well-known vignette out of the Bible or mythology and embellishing it over hundreds or thousands of lines of verse, adding layer after layer of pathos and sensuality and imaginative gilding, like a literary version of a guitar-shredding contest; see Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” for spectacular examples of the genre. There’s some of that same spirit to Mindwheel. Pinsky is having fun here. Poetry should be, whatever else it is, fun.

Pinsky was never more delighted by Mindwheel than when it managed to surprise him, which it did more often than you might expect thanks to the rather loosy-goosy and free-association-inclined BTZ parser.

I was playing the game with my fifteen-year-old son, and we got up a tree. There was a lizard at the base of the tree that would repeatedly kill us. I knew that it was random, but we were on a bad run. We also had our friend the frog with us in the tree. So we gave the disk to the frog and said, “Frog, go down and kill the lizard.” By God, he did it. And the message appeared that the lizard died spewing blood and pus. The creators of the game didn’t know what was going to happen.

One of his favorite anecdotes is that of the beautiful lady to which a friend typed, “You look like my mother.” “I will look the way you want me to” was her alleged reply. (Unfortunately, the published version of the game yields the far less satisfying “Okay, I’ll look.” The problem with a parser like Synapse’s is that it might deliver something unexpected and brilliant from time to time in response to some unusual input, but nine times out of ten it just delivers gibberish or takes your command as meaning something that you really, really didn’t want to do.)

The period of Mindwheel‘s development was a happy and fulfilling one for Pinsky, but a difficult one for Synapse. In addition to the Electronic Novel line, the company had just launched another bold new initiative: to develop a line of business applications — SynFile, SynCalc, and SynTrend — to be marketed and distributed by Atari themselves. In July of 1984, however, Jack Tramiel bought Atari (a story we’ll be getting to in detail in a future article), and promptly told Synapse that he didn’t want their applications and didn’t intend to pay for them. Synapse, who had invested heavily in the work, became just the latest of a long line of Tramiel suppliers to be double-crossed and financially destroyed by the old business warrior. Meanwhile the rest of the Atari 8-bit market, still Synapse’s bread and butter, was in increasingly dire straits, being pummeled by the Commodore 64. Flying high barely six months before, Synapse suddenly faced bankruptcy before they could release a single one of the Electronic Novels that they hoped would stake out for them a new place in the industry. A savior appeared in the form of Brøderbund, who agreed to buy Synapse and take them under their wing in October. The Carlstons knew and liked Wolosenko and the rest of the Synapse folks, and wanted their expertise in action-game programming as well as the promising Electronic Novel line; it was still the era of bookware, after all, with Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the talk of the industry.

Mindwheel

The release date for Mindwheel slipped a bit amidst all the chaos, from the planned late 1984 to February of 1985. It generated the last big wave of the already dying bookware storm, with some images that can seem as surreal today as anything in the game proper: Pinsky blinking amidst the strobe lights at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show; Pinsky waxing philosophical in those noted literary magazines Compute!’s Gazette and A.N.A.L.O.G. (“The #1 Magazine for Atari Computer Owners!”). It’s questionable, though, to what degree the press buzz translated into sales, although Mindwheel undoubtedly became by far the best selling of the Electronic Novel line as a whole — not, alas, a high bar to clear.

I’ve long since made my peace with the fact that traditional parser-driven interactive fiction is, due to various irresistible forces, just an intriguing blip in the histories of literature and/or gaming (take your pick) that will quite likely die entirely with my generation. In general, I think that’s fine; Shakespeare is still as beautiful and relevant as ever despite the fact that modern theater has as little in common with the Elizabethan stage as does textual interactive fiction with a modern graphical game. Certainly elaborate counter-factuals, whether in life or in history, are seldom all that productive. Yet it’s hard not to feel just a little bit wistful reading those old interviews with Pinsky where he throws out ideas of what he’d like to try in his next game whenever someone “asks me to do another of these”; wistful for that world, widely accepted as inevitable for a brief instant in the mid-1980s, when major writers — good writers — would be routinely asked whether their next work would be interactive or non-interactive.

Ah, well, at least we have Mindwheel. The Apple II version I’m providing for download here is probably your best bet, being very playable and also quite easy to get up and running in any number of slick Apple II emulators like AppleWin; be sure to answer “yes” to 80 columns and to turn on faster disk-drive emulation. It’s worth the effort. (Edit: Steve Hales has now made a web page that hosts Mindwheel for play online in a browser. You unfortunately can’t save, but this is by far the easiest way to get a taste of the experience.) Whatever the reasons for Mindwheel‘s academic reputation today, it’s definitely not undeserved.

(This article draws heavily from Jason Scott’s interview with the ever thoughtful and articulate Robert Pinsky for Get Lamp. Magazine sources this time were: A.N.T.I.C. of April 1983, November 1984, and July 1985; Ahoy! of February 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of June 1985; Analog of December 1985; QuestBusters of March 1985. There’s an interesting discussion of Mindwheel in Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages and also in an article Pinsky himself wrote for the Autumn 1987 New England Review. Finally, Steve Hales’s brief recollections of working with Pinsky can be found in two places online.)

 
 

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