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Comprehend

Inside Penguin Software, circa early 1983. From left: Mary Beth Pelczarski, Mark and Trish Glenn, Cheryl and Mark Pelczarski, Ron Schmitt, and (kneeling) Larry Weber.

Inside Penguin Software, circa early 1983. From left: Mary Beth Pelczarski, Mark and Trish Glenn, Cheryl and Mark Pelczarski, Ron Schmitt, and (at right front) Larry Weber.

It’s been quite some time since we’ve checked in with Penguin Software and its founder Mark Pelczarski, so let’s be about that today. The Penguin story is not only interesting in its own right but also a good illustration of what it was like for a small publisher trying to navigate the home-computer boom and bust.

On the heels of the considerable commercial success of Transylvania in 1982, Penguin was naturally eager to continue to work the games market. An old associate from Mark’s days at SoftSide magazine, Dave Albert, essentially took over that side of the company. Over the next couple of years he shepherded to completion a mixed bag of titles from outside contributors, including a number of action games, three more “hi-res adventures” in the mold of Transylvania, and even a couple of RPGs, one crazily original and one more typical of its genre. Most earned back their investment but were not major moneyspinners; only one of the action games, Spy’s Demise, and one of the adventures, The Quest, managed anything close to the numbers that Transylvania moved.

Penguin’s core product remained The Graphics Magician. Now with ports to the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bits, IBM PC and PCjr, and eventually even the new Apple Macintosh as well as the Apple II original, it was the closest thing the games industry had to a standard graphics tool in those wild early days, to be superseded only in the second half of the decade by Electronic Arts’s Deluxe Paint line. For a considerable period of time a considerable percentage of the games on the market employed it, as did countless amateur artists and programmers. Its ubiquity could bring its author into some surprising company.

There was, for instance, a period when Penguin kept getting calls from a kid named Conan O’Brien, editor of the Harvard Lampoon. The name was so crazy that it became a regular part of Penguin’s intra-office schtick: “Conan called again!” someone would shout almost every day. Mark finally agreed to come by Harvard on a business trip. Conan showed him around the campus, and also showed him a basketball “simulation” he and his buddies had developed with the aid of The Graphics Magician. In it the Boston Celtics took on a classical ballet troupe, to hilarious effect. Electronic Arts’s One-on-One, the spiritual father of the modern EA Sports line which pits Julius Erving against Larry Bird, was one of the most popular games in the country at the time; thus Conan’s little creation, whatever else it was, also qualified as satire of a sort. Conan claimed to have gotten a contract with EA to publish the game, but the project never made it to fruition. Had it done so, we might be talking today about Conan O’Brien the game developer rather than Conan O’Brien the talk-show host. (It’s also possible, of course, that “I have a contract” in this context meant “I’ve signed an agreement to quit publishing derivative works of EA intellectual property in exchange for not getting sued.”) For his part, Mark forgot about it — until he opened Newsweek a decade later to read that Conan O’Brien was replacing David Letterman in NBC’s late-night time slot.

The fury and frenzy of the home-computer boom was soon swirling around Penguin, bringing with it dramatic changes in the way that software was sold and marketed. Mark, a sober and grounded sort, wisely steered Penguin clear of the worst excesses of many of their competitors. Penguin didn’t flood the market with cheap cartridge-based titles (“it really didn’t match what we felt we were best at”); didn’t hire a big-name celebrity spokesperson; didn’t let the venture capitalists take control; didn’t mortgage their future via dangerous bank loans. Yet, as wise as those choices would soon prove to be, it became ever harder for a small company to get noticed amidst the glut of product being pumped into stores by 1984.

That year, concerned about the changes in the industry and increasingly nervous about relying so heavily for their sustenance upon a single product, Penguin formulated a three-pronged strategy for the future. They would devote about one third of their resources to continuing to support and improve The Graphics Magician. One third would go to a new line of edutainment software of which we’ll have occasion to hear more in a future article. And one third would go for a renewed and much more focused push into games. With Dave Albert about to leave Penguin to join Origin Systems, it seemed a good time for a change in strategy in this area. (Albert, incidentally, took with him to Origin Greg Malone and his oriental RPG Moebius amongst other projects in progress).

Henceforth Penguin would concentrate on adventure games, the genre which had been most successful for them and for which they were best known. Their previous adventures had all been essentially one-offs submitted by outside authors and programmed in whatever combination of assembly language and BASIC happened to seem most handy. All had originated on the Apple II, and porting them to the other popular platforms of the day had been tedious and expensive if it happened at all. Nor did their home-grown parsers acquit themselves all that well in this the heyday of Infocom’s reign. The answer to all these problems was to be Comprehend, a cross-platform adventure-game engine that should let Penguin put out more sophisticated adventures more quickly and on more platforms, and all in a consistent house style that players could come to know and intuitively understand like that of Infocom. In a collaboration he describes today as still “one of the most interesting and fun I’ve had writing and programming,” Mark designed Comprehend from whole cloth in front of a whiteboard over the summer of 1984 with a student from the nearby Northern Illinois University, Jeffrey Jay. They paid particular attention to the parser, which they put through a series of challenges posed to them by the folks at Infocom — pronoun handling, accurate handling of compound sentences, etc. — that most rival parsers definitively failed. What they ended up with didn’t come close to matching that magnificent Infocom parser, but it was several steps above the likes of the Telarium model.

Text adventures with graphics can be divided into two categories. First there are those, like the Telarium games, for which the graphics are static and ancillary to the text, there only for atmosphere — like, say, the occasional illustrations in an original-edition Dickens novel. Then there are those — counterintuitively, this is the older category, pioneered by Sierra’s original Hi-Res Adventure line — which make the graphics an integral part of the experience, using them to convey essential information about the game world that isn’t in the (generally much sparser) text and varying them with changes in its state: drawing dropped inventory objects and other characters that happen to be present into the scene, etc. This style had rather fallen out of fashion by 1984 as publishers rushed to jump onto the bookware bandwagon that posited adventure games as essentially literary experiences. Comprehend, however, bucked the trend by hewing to the older style that Sierra themselves had abandoned with the advent of AGI and King’s Quest. This could make Comprehend seem like a bit of a throwback even in its heyday. Still, the graphics possibilities were, as one might expect from “The Graphics People,” considerable, with the system even capable of some spot animation and other flourishes. The system also ran blazingly fast in comparison to the likes of Telarium’s SAL engine. Comprehend was, in short, a perfectly serviceable old-school adventure engine if hardly a technological game-changer. Now Penguin just needed some Comprehend games.

Antonio Antiochia, the teenage author of Transylvania, had been enjoying the fruits of that game’s success in the form of the royalty checks, insanely large by a high-school kid’s standard, that he found in his mailbox each month. Mark duly suggested to his young software star that he save his money for university, but Antonio did exactly what most of us would have done in his place: went out and bought a shiny new Mazda RX-7, which may or may not have contributed to his getting his “first bona fide girlfriend” late in his senior year. With such distractions on offer, it took Antonio some time to buckle down again to adventure writing. When he did, he decided he’d like to make a sequel to Transylvania, something that Penguin, in light of the success of the first game, was hardly likely to discourage. Antonio started drafting his game using a BASIC-based framework that another of Penguin’s outside authors, The Quest and Ring Quest author Dallas Snell, had developed, once again doing not only all the writing and programming but also drawing all of the pictures himself. (This incomplete early version leaked into pirating circles through the cracking group the Corsairs, and can still be found in some Apple II software archives today.) Later, when Comprehend was ready, Antonio dutifully learned its nuances and ported his work to the new system. After completing the sequel, dubbed The Crimson Crown, he returned to the original, crafting a new version for Comprehend with more text, locations, and puzzles. Together these became the first two Comprehend releases from Penguin in the fall of 1985. The Apple II versions of both games were reworked and re-released yet again early the following year, to use the “double-hi-res” graphics mode available on certain IIe setups and all models of the IIc. This welcome hardware enhancement let Penguin mostly if not entirely eliminate the color distortions that normally plagued Apple II graphics.

The Crimson Crown is a much bigger game than the original Transylvania. In fact, it’s really two adventure games, one on each side of its disk. Stealing a trick that was quite common in the British software market where sharply limited cassette-based machines were still the norm, The Crimson Crown arranges to funnel you through a bottleneck at its mid-point in which you lose your inventory and are moved to an entirely new piece of geography. In other words, everyone who gets this far is forced into the same state before continuing the game — or, I should say, before beginning the second game that occupies that second disk side.

The Crimson Crown

Following, like just about everyone else in the industry, the lead of Infocom, Penguin upped their packaging game considerably for the Comprehend line. The Crimson Crown shipped with not only an instruction manual but a separate journal setting the stage, a sealed letter to be opened at a certain point in the game, a map of Wallachia and Moldavia, and even a poster to hang on your wall. The Transylvania connection was oddly minimized, relegated to a subheading — “Further Adventures in Transylvania” — below the much larger Crimson Crown title. Mark Pelczarski notes today that such decisions point to a certain ongoing naivete at Penguin even in an increasingly cutthroat market, a determination to emphasize “fun and art” over “the monetary aspect.”

The mysterious tree stump of the original makes a return appearance.

The mysterious tree stump of the original makes a return appearance.

You play the hero of the first game, rescuer of the Princess Sabrina. The vampire who abducted her has turned out to be not as dead as everyone — you most of all — thought. (Well, I suppose he is technically dead, but you get the idea…) He’s murdered the king of your land of Wallachia and stolen the Crimson Crown that gives the king supernatural powers. And so it’s back into action, accompanied this time not only by Sabrina, who has gotten sick of playing the damsel in distress and scored one for female empowerment by learning the art of sorcery, but also her brother, the king-to-be Erik, more the earnest sword-wielding type. You’ll guide this three-headed monster through the entirety of the adventure, mostly doing things yourself but occasionally needing to call upon Sabrina or Erik’s prowess by giving them instructions.

You must contend this time with a zombie, sign of a more modern horror sensibility.

You must contend this time with a zombie, sign of a more modern horror sensibility.

The sequel has most of the same qualities going for it that made the original Transylvania such an old-school favorite of mine. Some of the delicious B-horror-movie atmosphere is absent, with the game this time having a bit more of a conventional fantasy feel; in addition to the vampire, there’s a zombie, a troll, a centaur, and a dragon to contend with this time instead of the werewolf of the original, and much of the second game takes place in what amounts to a typical fantasy dungeon rather than the Gothic landscape of the original. Indeed, Antonio seems to have been playing quite some Dungeons and Dragons at this point in his life; you and your companions are repeatedly referred to as “the party.” And the sequel is in general a bit trickier to solve. But, aside from one horrible choice which we’ll get to momentarily, The Crimson Crown is quite fair and even progressive in its design sensibilities, being notably free of mazes, uselessly empty geography, sudden random deaths, and most other things modern adventurers have come to hate. It even has a handy carry-all to make the inventory limit less onerous, and a “sage” who pops up from time to time to offer little nudges for some of the puzzles and strategic guidance for the game as a whole. Like its predecessor, it smartly works within its technological limitations. The parser, for instance, while not quite state of the art, doesn’t have to be because the game never tries to push it to places it isn’t capable of going — a marked contrast with Telarium, whose games made a habit of being too big for their parser’s britches. Despite these signs of maturity, The Crimson Crown retains its predecessor’s giddy teenage enthusiasm, which remains a big part of its charm. Solving this one is both possible and very, very enjoyable.

One of the occasional graphical flourishes, complete with some delightfully purple prose.

One of the occasional graphical flourishes, complete with some delightfully purple prose.

Except, that is, for the riddles. The Crimson Crown resoundingly fails to put its best foot forward by hitting you almost at the very beginning with four riddles. We’re talking absurdly abstract stuff like this:

I am, I’m not. I visit young and old,
Some I make timid and some I make bold,
Unwise is the one who pokes fun at me.
Beware, for I am a shadow of thee.

The answer to that one is (highlight to reveal) “dream”, and if you solved it you’d best get to playing The Crimson Crown immediately because three more just like it await your powers. As for the rest of you, I actually recommend that you play as well, but don’t spare a moment of thought to the riddles. Here are the other answers: “windmill,” “fear,” and “cloud.” You can download The Crimson Crown in its double-hi-res Apple II incarnation from this very site if you like.

We’ll continue the story of Penguin and of Comprehend in later articles, but next we’re going to turn away from text adventures for a while to look at developments in other genres over this period in North America.

(My thanks to Mark Pelczarski and Antonio Antiochia, whose memories informed this article.)

 

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Transylvania

One day in 1979 Antonio Antiochia visited Eastern Michigan University with his father, who taught classes there on statistics and computers. Dad had some meetings to take, so he left Antonio in an empty computer lab, one of the few at the university equipped with real video terminals in lieu of the more common teletypes. The terminals were cool, but this was otherwise not an unusual scenario. Antonio had been hanging out at his father’s workplace for the past five years now, tinkering with the various big computers there. Now 13 years old, he could already program fairly well in FORTRAN and operate a keypunch machine. Indeed, he was all too familiar with the traditional method of mainframe programming — deliver a stack of cards to a friendly computer operator, then wait for the printed results. He had even spent many months working on a game. Called Terroron, it was an homage to the Japanese monster movies he loved; the player got to control a monster rampaging through a city. (From the great-minds-think-alike department: this is also the theme of Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!, arguably the most inspired use of the Automated Simulations DunjonQuest engine, as well as the later, more refined The Movie Monster Game.)

So, Antonio knew pretty well what he was doing as he started poking at one of the terminals to see what was what. He didn’t have an account on this system, but found that as Guest he had access to games. Not bad! Inside he found mostly the usual suspects, from Tic Tac Toe to The Oregon Trail. But wait, here was something new… something called ADVENT. He started the program, and was greeted with the text that launched a thousand careers and a million obsessions:

YOU ARE STANDING AT THE END OF A ROAD BEFORE A SMALL BRICK BUILDING. AROUND YOU IS A FOREST. A SMALL STREAM FLOWS OUT OF THE BUILDING AND DOWN A GULLY.

Antonio didn’t know quite what he was supposed to do next; for some reason this build of the game was missing the usual offer of instructions at the beginning. He flailed at it for a while and gave up. But it continued to tickle at the back of his mind, and a month or so later he tried again. This time he managed to find his way underground, and from there he was hooked. Terroron was quickly forgotten.

But when he finished Adventure at last, he had no more adventure games to play. It was the only one of its type on the university’s computers, and his family had no computer at home as yet. And he lacked the skill to make one of his own; working with text in FORTRAN was notoriously difficult. So, he used his imagination:

I came up with dozens of adventure plots in my spare time (and a few other games), drawing their outlines, their maps, etc., based on a wide variety of themes (a bit heavy on the fantasy genre) — simply out of the joy of creativity and discovery. It was cool.

Antonio had a particular reason to want to retreat into fantasy at this stage of his life. His mother, with whom he had been very close, had just died of cancer, leaving him and his father alone. The world inside his imaginary adventure games often felt much more welcoming than the real one.

One day Antonio mentioned Adventure to a friend of his from school, who in turn delivered the shocking news that there were a number of such games available on microcomputers, written by a guy named Scott Adams. The same friend told him about the Ann Arbor Community High School Computer Club, which had a collection of PCs available for use by the public for a small fee. Antonio became a regular there, playing the Scott Adams games and, eventually, starting to work on a real one of his own at last, a fantasy game called The Land of Ghaja; his adventure-gaming friend did him the final service of helping him to figure out how to parse text in BASIC. When the club was closed, he fed his addiction by visiting local computer stores and using their machines for as long as they would let him.

Antonio had of course been pestering his father for a computer of his own for months, and at last Dad could resist no longer. He brought home a new Apple II Plus, with the condition that the two would share it. Antonio quickly finished Land of Ghaja. “It was a little bit primitive,” he admits today. Still, he passed the game around his local circle of friends and fellow computer-club members, to a pretty good reception.

With time and privacy for his projects at last thanks to his father’s purchase, he started on another game that would benefit from what he had learned from the first. It would not only be more technically advanced, but would have a more unique setting. He was a big fan of Halloween and of classic movie horror of the Boris Karloff / Bela Lugosi / Lon Chaney, Jr. era. His new game would be horror — but a fun, retro, slightly campy sort of horror, more The Wolfman than the horror sensation of the moment, The Shining. Like one of his favorite movies, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Antonio threw it all in: a werewolf, a vampire, even an alien and his UFO. He eventually named the game Transylvania. Not that he had ever been there or knew much of anything about the real place. His Transylvania was the land of old horror movies and tales and, of course, imagination.

Antonio’s father helped out as editor and coach. An Italian immigrant who spoke English with a strong accent, he nevertheless had an excellent command of English grammar and style, and was a steadfast source of encouragement. Antonio honed the game over a period of several months. Satisfied at last, he passed it among his friends and made plans to start another; the thought of doing anything else with it had yet to enter his mind. His father, meanwhile, had started ordering computer supplies from Mark Pelczarski’s post-SoftSide, pre-Penguin venture Micro Co-op. One day while placing an order over the phone he mentioned that his son had written a really impressive adventure game. Mark said that he was starting a publishing company (“Co-op Software”) to go along with the mail-order business. “Send it to us. We’d like to see it.” From that chance exchange was born the eventual Penguin Software’s first adventure game.

Mark immediately liked the game, but he was also aware that it was getting harder to sell pure text adventures on the Apple II in the wake of On-Line’s Hi-Res Adventure line. And there was something a little bit off about “the leader in Apple II graphics” releasing a game with no graphics. Could Antonio add some pictures? To help him, he was willing to give him all of his latest graphics software, including programs that would eventually become a part of The Graphics Magician, but that hadn’t yet been released at this point (summer 1981). Antonio wasn’t an artist and had no experience with computer graphics, but he was a trooper. While Penguin Software established and consolidated their position as “the graphics people,” Antonio sat at home laboriously drawing picture after picture using the software Mark had provided and the standard pair of paddles that came with every Apple II. Doing so ended up taking much more time than actually writing the game had — some nine months. His patient labor yielded some of the best graphics of the “hi-res adventure” era. (I’ve added a blurring effect to the image below and all of those that follow to try to convey what they would have looked like on a contemporary monitor, where the dithering would have smeared the pixels together to create many more apparent colors than the Apple II’s standard six. Our pixel-perfect digital screens otherwise just can’t do them justice.)

With the graphics done at last, Mark and the others at Penguin stepped in to do the final polishing. They cleaned up the original BASIC code, adding in some assembly-language routines to handle the graphics. And they put the game through considerable playtesting, adding responses to various actions that Antonio hadn’t anticipated. They also had some fun. “Werewolves of London,” the one hit single of the great Warren Zevon, was in heavy rotation at the Penguin offices as they worked on the game. Soon more and more of the song was finding its way into the game. Zevon’s caustic wit would have made an interesting contrast with Antonio’s more innocent monster-movie fixations, but in the end most of the former was edited out again. Messages like “He ripped your lungs out, Jim” just prompted too much confusion (“Who the heck is Jim?”) from people who didn’t know the song. Only one fragment remains in the released version.

The game that finally emerged from Penguin that summer of 1982 is one of the most charming of its genre and era. Yes, its parser and world model are extremely primitive in comparison to the contemporary games of Infocom. Yet it plays within its formal limitations beautifully. In fact, it’s an almost uniquely playable example of its type, thanks both to a lots of addition by subtraction — no maze, no guess-the-verb puzzles — and, well, lots of addition by addition: a collection of simple object-based puzzles that are commonsensical and play smartly within the strict limits set by the game’s technical underpinnings. The design as a whole is unusually open, crafted in a way that usually gives you lots of puzzles to work on in whatever order you choose. As Mark Pelczarski wrote in an email to me:

With Transylvania you could wander from puzzle to puzzle and see much of the Transylvania universe without getting stuck. At most points in the game there were maybe 3-5 or more open puzzles to solve. Each lead you further into the game, but seldom was one single puzzle a sticking point or roadblock (until you solved all the others).

Given this level of non-linearity and the limited amount of text in the game, Transylvania is inevitably more of a pastiche of fragments taken from other fictions than a coherent narrative experience of its own. Early on we find a note which tells us in all of four words everything we need to know about the plot: that a Princess Sabrina is going to be killed at dawn (Ach! A time limit!) and that it’s up to us to rescue her.

A pastiche it may be, but Transylvania absolutely nails the half Gothic, half campy atmosphere of a classic Universal monster movie. And anyway, by the time they got to the 1940s and the likes of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman or Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Universal films were themselves little more than mix-and-match pastiches.

Like those movies, Transylvania has its chills, especially in the wandering werewolf and vampire who can creep up on you at any time, but there’s something almost comfortingly innocent about it all. This is safe horror that never trangresses certain well-understood boundaries.

Still, and just to remind us that it was after all written some 30 years after its inspirations went out of fashion, Antonio also threw in a UFO right out of Steven Spielberg.

Antonio told me recently that he had quite a twist on the classic monster movie in mind: that the vampire had actually come on the UFO, was actually an alien. He was “quite proud of myself and thought this was original” in this era before vampires were absolutely everywhere in pop culture, although it’s not something that can really be gleaned from the finished game. He describes the game today as “unsophisticated” but with a “simple playfulness” that makes it “likable.” I couldn’t agree more. Transylvania charmed me in a way akin to Ultima, the issue of another bright, precocious kid who wanted to pack as much cool stuff into his game as possible in the hope that you would like it all as much as he did.

Some time after Transylvania‘s release, and as Antonio was going through the surreal experience of coming home from school to find royalty checks for thousands of dollars in his mailbox, Penguin received a rather unusual package that came from an entire grade-school class in Australia. Its ostensible purpose was to ask for a hint book, but each kid in the class also contributed a crayon drawing inspired by the game. Antonio has kept and cherished the package to this day: “When I go through sad or frustrating times, I will sometimes read through those old letters to cheer myself up.” Indeed, making a class of schoolchildren happy is about as worthy an achievement as there is in life. I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the progress of the art of ludic narrative and all that, but adventure games are most of all supposed to be fun, and are supposed to make people happy. And Transylvania delivers.

If you want to have some fun of your own, here’s an Apple II disk image of Transylvania. Or those of you with iOS devices can buy a port.

(My sincere thanks to Antonio Antiochia and, once again, to Mark Pelczarski for lending their memories and perspectives to this article.)

 
 

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