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Beneath a Steel Sky

I would rather see a personal vision onscreen than filmed live-action. I have an idea that with CD technology there are going to be a lot of little-known actors photographed and appearing on our screens. I think if you have a graphic artist involved, you get something even better than reality.

— Dave Gibbons

There’s no reason why hundreds of people in California should know the future any better than ten people based in Yorkshire.

— Charles Cecil

Charles Cecil

Charles Cecil was a part of the British adventure-games scene from the beginning. Born in 1962, he began studying engineering at Manchester University in 1980. There he became friends with a fellow student named Richard Turner, who had just co-founded Artic Computing, one of the very first suppliers of software for the Sinclair ZX80, Britain’s very first mass-market personal computer. Although he was not and never would become a programmer, Cecil got pulled into other aspects of the venture, such as drawing what he describes today as “the shittiest logo.”

Chris Thornton, Richard Turner’s partner in Artic, owned an imported Radio Shack TRS-80; this allowed the group of friends to keep tabs on the American microcomputing scene, which had a few years’ head start on the British. Taking note of the success that Scott Adams was having with his text adventures in the United States, Artic developed an engine for similar games on Sinclair machines. In June of 1981, Turner and Thornton’s Adventure A: Planet of Death became the first home-grown adventure game ever to be sold in Britain.

As the name of that first game would imply, Artic intended from the beginning to make a whole line of text adventures, just as Scott Adams had done. “You like telling stories,” Turner said to Cecil. “Why don’t you write one?” Thus Cecil designed Adventure B: Inca Curse, followed by several more text adventures, all primitive enough — or, if you like, minimalist enough — to fit into a computer with just 16 K of memory. A game designer had been born, alongside a cottage industry of similarly ramshackle semi-professional text adventures that would persist for the better part of two decades. (Artic’s games were particularly noted for their atrocious spelling…)

Cecil continued to design games and do various other odd jobs for Artic for several years, but by the middle of the decade the company’s homespun products were finding the going tough in what had now become a crowded and hyper-competitive British software market. In 1985, Cecil jumped from the sinking ship to found his own Paragon Programming, which specialized in porting American games to European platforms. Two years later, he parlayed that into a short-lived gig as development manager for US Gold, then a longer-lived one in the same role for Activision’s European subsidiary.

But a series of unfortunate events and poor management decisions at the American parent company — a trend which began about the time of Cecil’s arrival, with management’s decision to change the company’s name to the hopeless corporatese “Mediagenic” — ultimately spelled disaster for that international software empire. In 1990, the 27-year-old Charles Cecil, who had recently been enjoying such luxuries as a posh company car and a mobile phone, was left high and dry by Mediagenic’s collapse. What to do now?

All his time spent porting and selling American games had given him a familiarity with goings-on across the Atlantic that was unusual among his countrymen. The one area of gaming where the Americans most obviously outdid the Brits, he realized, was the genre he still loved best: the adventure game. British and, indeed, most European developers had little that could compete with the latest graphic adventures from American publishers like Sierra and Lucasfilm Games. There was a reason for this: thanks to their need for large amounts of single-use visual and audio assets, those games were among the most expensive of all to produce; European studios for the most part simply lacked the resources to make them. The one partial exception to this rule came in the form of a few French studios like Delphine, who made games that were beautiful to look at if often atrociously designed. But Britain had absolutely nothing on offer.

So, Cecil decided for the second time in his young life to found his own company, with the intention of changing that — this despite the fact that he had very little money at all to work with even by the modest standards of British game development. He started Revolution Software in March of 1990 on the back of a £10,000 loan from his mother, and took up residence in an unheated cubbyhole above a fruit market in the struggling city of Hull — “We choose Hull because it was cheap,” admits Cecil — with a few of the folks he’d met during his previous travels through the British games industry. The setting verged on the Dickensian; during the winter months, they would huddle against their computers to try to stay warm.

Still, Cecil did soon convince the British publisher Mirrorsoft to provide some minimal funding for Revolution’s first game in return for the publication rights to the eventual finished product. When Mirrorsoft collapsed in the wake of the suspicious death of its kingpin Robert Maxwell and the postmortem revelation of financial improprieties throughout his organizations, they moved on in fairly short order to Virgin Games — a better partner on the whole, as Virgin came complete with a North American branch.

The core team at Revolution in the early days: Tony Warriner, Adam Tween, David Sykes, Stephen Oades, Dave Cummins, and Charles Cecil.

Tacitly admitting that it would be difficult indeed for a shoestring operation like theirs to compete with a company like Sierra in terms of production values, Revolution settled on a concept and engine to power it which they called “Virtual Theatre.” They envisioned it as nothing less than the next great leap in adventure design. Cecil described it thusly at the time:

Within each game, time advances and people walk around with their own routes: the blacksmith will go into his forge and hammer away, then he’ll go into the pub to have a drink and he’ll talk to other people around the village. You could have fifteen people all walking around, all interacting with each other. So instead of being a game where you’re the key and everything reacts to you, we have a game where you’re just another person.

It was a noble vision in its way, one which aimed to push the frontiers of an oft-hidebound genre. And yet, for all that it reads well on paper, it would prove more than problematic in practice. The disadvantage of making a world which runs along of its own accord is that it can run merrily away without the player, leaving her stranded in some plotting cul de sac. And then, far from being a drawback, most players enjoy adventure games precisely because they let them be the star of the show. After all, If one wants a world where one is “just another person,” one generally need only look up from the computer.

When Cecil expanded yet further on his vision, he wound up in a place to which many designers have dreamed of venturing since the heyday of commercial text adventures, but which has yet to yield a single comprehensively satisfying game: “What we’re planning to do in the future is put in artificial intelligence whereby we set the basic parameters and then we let the characters decide what they’re going to do themselves. Fundamentally, anything could happen.”

Unsurprisingly, then, the first Revolution game — the one which most wholeheartedly embraced the Virtual Theatre concept — also proved to be the worst one they would ever make. Lure of the Temptress combined a clichéd fairy-tale setting with an awkward interface, sub-Sierra graphics, and well-nigh infuriating gameplay, which mostly entailed chasing all of those vaunted self-directed characters hither and yon through a plot line littered with potential dead ends. Published internationally by Virgin Games for the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS in the spring of 1992, it sold in reasonable quantities, doing best with Amiga owners in Europe. Charles Cecil didn’t hesitate to wave the flag on behalf of the continent. “I believe that European graphic artists are the best,” he said — an assertion which the graphics in Lure of the Temptress utterly failed to prove. Thankfully, better things were still to come from Revolution.

Lure of the Temptress did earn enough money to fund a move to better offices in York, with a corresponding uptick in the budget for their next game. Even so, much of the dramatic improvement evinced by said game was the result of a series of chance events that won Revolution the services of arguably the most respected comic-book illustrator of the era. And yes, he was a European. In fact, he hailed from Britain.

In May of 1989, a popular British gaming magazine known as The One published a feature about Watchmen, a two-year-old book which had done much to inculcate the idea of the graphic novel as a respectable literary form. Amidst much speculation about a potential Watchmen film and game — neither of which would appear until decades later — the article somehow managed to avoid mentioning the name of Dave Gibbons, the man who had drawn writer Alan Moore’s story. Understandably annoyed, Gibbons wrote to the magazine to point out the fact of his existence.

Dave Gibbons

By way of apology, The One sent Gibbons a Commodore Amiga and a copy of Deluxe Paint, then devoted five pages to an interview featuring his impressions of those things and many others. As the fact that he had seen the first Watchmen article in the magazine in the first place would indicate, Gibbons was already following the latest developments in computer gaming fairly closely. (In this respect and in many others, the down-to-earth Gibbons was unlike his sometime partner Alan Moore, an unrepentant eccentric and dyed-in-the wool Luddite.)

It seems that computer games are finding their own level in the same way as comics. I think that a lot of games, like a lot of comics it must be said, are pretty banal, and pretty repetitive — sort of like chewing gum. They won’t do you any harm, but on the other hand they aren’t likely to do much good.

I find puzzle games the most interesting. And the flight simulations… Falcon’s brilliant. You get to the point where you think you are there and you find yourself leaning in the chair. Rocket Ranger is very interesting stuff, that to me is like those role-playing gamebooks. It’s a different game every time you play it.

The magazine’s earlier slight was forgiven; Gibbons went on to draw the cover art for at least one issue of The One. More importantly, he met Charles Cecil through the magazine; Cecil was still with Mediagenic at the time and was also chummy with the staff at The One. The two started tentatively to feel one another out, until finally, after making some suggestions here and there for Lure of the Temptress, Gibbons agreed to become the principal illustrator and art director of Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution’s second game. Not only did he bring his unique talents to the game itself, but the presence on the team of such a high-profile individual did much to drum up interest in the press. Cecil tells of the many journalists who came to the trade shows to meet Gibbons and see the game, in that order. They “began pulling out copies of the old Watchmen comics and Dave spent a while signing the lot. It was very positive, and they were dying to see what he had created in the game.”

Charles Cecil’s games have never been notable for the originality of their subject matter, and Beneath a Steel Sky is no exception to that rule of derivation. It trades in the King’s Quest-like fantasy of Lure of the Temptress for a dystopic science-fiction setting with strong cyberpunk overtones — a mixture of Blade Runner and Neuromancer, not exactly a rare blending among games of the early 1990s. Union City, where this game takes place, is the familiar authoritarian technocracy, a place where class strata have taken on a literal dimension. One has to take originality in such a setting where one can find it: upending a science-fictional trope stretching back at least to Fritz Lang’s classic silent film Metropolis, in Union City the poor and powerless live out their squabbling lives in tenements that scrape the sky, while the rich and powerful live in luxury near ground level. Union City’s most unusual wrinkle of all is the fact that it exists in the far-flung locale of Australia instead of some faded North American or European hegemony. Yet even this fact is disarmingly easy to miss entirely, especially if you happen to be playing the voice-acted CD-ROM version with its distinctly British and American accents — not an Aussie voice to be found.

You play a young man named Robert Foster, who as the introduction begins lives with one of the nomadic tribes that inhabit a place known as The Gap, the vast wasteland separating the cities of Australia. (Said wasteland is known as the Outback today…) But then a military raid kills everyone in the tribe except Foster himself; he is spared, to be spirited away by helicopter to Union City for reasons unknown. He escapes when the helicopter crashes over the city before it can reach its final destination, whereupon the game proper begins. As Foster, you must elude your pursuers as you explore Union City’s nooks and crannies, must learn the secret that makes you of such special interest to the powers who control the city — and must bring about their downfall.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the game — the one thing you’re guaranteed to still remember even years after playing it — is Dave Gibbons’s art. Despite his earlier well-publicized experiments with Deluxe Paint, he elected to draw all of the approximately 90 background scenes for which he was responsible using the same old analog techniques that he had used to bring Watchmen and countless other comics to light. He provided pencil sketches of each scene to Revolution, where an artist named Les Pace, a veteran of such Hollywood productions as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, proceeded to color them in by hand. Only then were the illustrations scanned in on an Apple Macintosh, that being the most affordable platform at the time with good support for 24-bit color. Finally, these “master plates” could be down-sampled to come within the capabilities of Revolution’s two primary target platforms for the finished game: MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics cards (which allowed a maximum of 256 onscreen colors) and the Commodore Amiga (which allowed just 32).

Even in these degraded forms, the game’s imagery is striking. Inspired to some extent by the collapsing factories of hardscrabble Hull, Revolution Software’s original home, Union City manages to be varied but also of a piece, dingy but also coldly clinical, a warren of boldly vertiginous drops and furtively claustrophobic corners. Unlike many games during this era of exploding technological innovation, when the desire for spectacle could often overwhelm consistency and coherence, there’s a thoroughgoing visual aesthetic to Beneath a Steel Sky that stems from something more than a desire to show off the technology that powers it. Charles Cecil’s comment on the subject stood out in an era obsessed with photo-realism in games: “We’re not trying to create reality. We’re trying to create a style.”

The Process


Dave Gibbons sketched each background on paper, just as he would have a comics illustration…

…to produce something like this.

Still working on paper, Les Pace painted the sketch.

Finally, it was scanned in in 24-bit color. This master copy was then down-sampled to 256 colors (MS-DOS) or 32 colors (Amiga) for inclusion in the game. (The image above is from the Amiga version; those below are from the higher-fidelity MS-DOS version.)

The End Results




The writing in the game is a touch weaker than its visuals; scriptwriter Dave Cummins isn’t incompetent by any means, but nor is he another Alan Moore. As tends to happen constantly in the adventure genre, the overarching “dark, serious” plot gets immediately overrun in the details by a collapse into comedy, a genre which seems far better suited to the outlandish puzzles that are the driving force of most adventure games, this one included.

Still, the blow of this failure of the game to stick to its dramatic guns is eased immensely simply because a lot of the humor is really, truly funny; it never feels forced, something which is by no means the case in all or even most of this game’s competitors. This is wry British humor at its best: it’s sneakily smart, and also a bit more deviously risque than what you might find in a contemporary American game of this ilk. (One running gag, for example, has to do with a skeezy character’s collection of “pussy pictures” — which, yes, turns out just to be pictures of cats.) You begin the game with a sidekick already in your inventory: your childhood friend Joey, a synthetic personality on a circuit board who can be transplanted into various robots as you go along. His sarcastic banter is a great source of fun and oblique hints, such that when he’s not with you in some sort of embodied form you genuinely miss him. In fact, I’d like the game even more if it had more of him in it. He’s prevented from joining the absolute highest ranks of classic adventure-game sidekicks only by the fact that he’s onscreen less than half the time.

If you hate convoluted adventure-game puzzles on principle, the ones here will do nothing to convince you otherwise. If you enjoy them, on the other hand, Beneath a Steel Sky is a solid implementation of their ilk. It’s not a particularly easy game, but nor is it an unusually hard one for its time, and it is consistently logical in its silly adventure-game way. (In this sense as in several others, it stood head and shoulders above its few competitors among homegrown British graphic adventures, whose grasp on the fundamentals of good game design tended to be shaky at best.) It eschews the contemporaneous interactive-movie trend, with its chapter breaks and extended cut scenes, for a more old-school non-linear approach; for the bulk of the game, you have a fairly large area to roam and multiple problems to work on. There’s never a sense that the puzzles were hasty additions inserted just to give the player something to do; they’re part and parcel of a holistic experience.

Vestiges of Revolution’s earlier rhetoric about creating more dynamic worlds do remain here. Characters are still a bit more active than you might find in a Sierra or LucasArts game, and an unusual number of the puzzles rely on analyzing their movements and timing your own actions just right. That said, the most frustrating aspects of Lure of the Temptress have been excised. For the most part, the designers opted to return to the things that were known to work in this genre rather than continuing to blaze problematic new trails — and it must be said that the game is all the better for it for their conservatism. Likewise, its straightforward one-click interface wasn’t hugely innovative in itself even at the time — this doing-away-with the old menu of verbs was becoming the norm in graphic adventures by this point — but it is a well-executed example of such an interface. All in all, if you like traditional graphic adventures, you’ll find this game to be a sturdy, perhaps occasionally inspired example of the genre.

Beneath a Steel Sky was a European game made at a time when the Commodore Amiga, although slowly sliding past its peak, was still the most popular gaming platform across much of that continent, and thus one that could not be safely ignored by any European studio. Make no mistake: the challenges of making a game that could run on an Amiga at the same time that it could stand on a reasonable par with the latest adventure games on American shelves were immense. The Amiga was slower than the latest MS-DOS machines and was lacking graphically by comparison, and most European Amiga owners didn’t even have a hard drive, much less a CD-ROM drive. And yet, remarkably, Revolution largely pulled it off. Beneath a Steel Sky shipped in March of 1994 on no fewer than fifteen Amiga floppy disks. You had to swap them constantly in order to play it on a machine without a hard drive, but it wasn’t quite aggravating enough to completely destroy the fun of the game itself for an Amiga-owning adventure fan.

Charles Cecil, whose nebbishy appearance concealed a surprisingly down-and-dirty sort of marketing savvy, cast the game not only as Britain’s answer to the adventures of Sierra and LucasArts but as the savior of adventure gaming writ large on the Amiga, coming as it did just as the aforementioned companies were abandoning the platform. He wasn’t above the occasional gratuitous slam against the Americans in interviews which he knew would remain safely ensconced on his side of the ocean: “Most American graphic adventures are a little shallow because the American public doesn’t see plot as important. However, European game players seem to want to think a lot more about what they’re doing, and we’ve tried to reflect that.” Some of his statements in this mode were just bizarre: “The engine Sierra [is] using is outdated. They introduced it five years ago and really haven’t developed it.” For the record, it should be noted that the five years in question encompass Sierra’s move from parser-driven games to point-and-click ones, along with the jump from 16-color EGA graphics to 256-color VGA and the addition of voice acting, just to list a few highlights. To further confuse the situation, Cecil was seeking and winning a contract from Sierra to port King’s Quest VI to the Amiga — something the American company otherwise had no plans to do — at the very same time he was making such comments. Naturally, the European magazines ate it up, awarding his game gold stars pretty much across the board.

Just a month later, Commodore declared bankruptcy. Beneath a Steel Sky was one of the last of its breed on the Amiga.

By way of completing the picture of a work at the crossroads between the old order and the new, Revolution released a voice-acted CD-ROM version for MS-DOS computers shortly after the floppy-based releases. The actors went for the most part uncredited, but it appears that Revolution didn’t look far from home for most of them. The eccentric citizens of Union City deliver their lines with gusto in broad Northern English, a nice contrast to the prim London accents of so many games. Their accents make the humor go down even better, and give the game that much more of a distinctive personality. Meanwhile an American refugee named Adam Henderson voices straight man Robert Foster in the neutral Midwestern tones of a prime-time news anchor, while most of the villains speak Brooklynese straight out of an episode of Law & Order. Go figure…

Helped along by positive reviews and the measure of hype which accompanied the involvement of Dave Gibbons, Beneath a Steel Sky rode Amiga loyalists in Europe and MS-DOS-computer-owning adventure fans in North America to solid sales numbers. Thus Revolution got to live on and make still more games, following a template which was the ironic opposite of their name: solidly constructed adventure games cut from a sturdy traditionalist cloth.

(Sources: Amiga Format of March 1993, December 1993, March 1994; AmigaWorld of December 1993 and August 1994; Amiga Computing of Christmas 1993 and June 1994; Computer Gaming World of July 1992; Computer and Video Games of July 1987 and January 1989; CU Amiga of March 1993 and January 1994; Edge of September 1993; Games TM 9; New Computer Express of August 4 1990; PC Review of May 1992; Questbusters 114; Retro Gamer 56 and 63; The One of May 1989, August 1989, March 1990, November 1991, February 1992, March 1993, and November 1993. Online sources include interviews with Charles Cecil on Gamasutra, Dining with Strangers, and MCV/Develop.

Charles Cecil and Revolution have released Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky as free downloads.)

 

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The (7th) Guest’s New Clothes

Once upon a time, two wizards decided to remake the face of computer gaming with the help of a new form of magic known as CD-ROM. They labored for years on their task, while the people waited anxiously, pouncing upon the merest hint the wizards let drop of what the final product would look like.

At long last — well after the two wizards themselves had hoped — the day of revelation came. Everyone, including both the everyday people and the enlightened scribes who kept them informed on the latest games, rushed to play this one, which they had been promised would be the best one ever. And at first, all went as the wizards had confidently expected. The scribes wrote rapturously about the game, and hordes of people bought it, making the wizards very rich.

But then one day a middle-aged woman, taking a break from reckoning household accounts by playing the wizards’ game, said to her husband, “You know, honey, this game is really kind of slow and boring.” And in time, a murmur of discontent spread through many ranks of the people, gaining strength all the while. The cry was amplified by a disheveled young man with a demon of some sort on his tee-shirt and a fevered look in his eyes: “That’s what I’ve been saying all along! The wizards’ game sucks! Play this one instead!” And he hunched back down over his computer to continue playing his very different sort of game, muttering something about “gibs” and “frags” as he did so.

The two wizards were disturbed by this growing discontent, but resolved to win the people over with a new game that would be just like their old one, except even more beautiful. They worked on it too for years to make it as amazing as possible. Yet when they offered it to the people, exponentially fewer of them bought it than had bought their first game, and their critics grew still louder and more strident. They tried yet one more new game of the same type, yet more beautiful, but by now the people had lost interest entirely; few could even be bothered to criticize it. The wizards started bickering with each other, each blaming the other for their failures.

One of the wizards, convinced he could do better by himself, went away to make still more games of the same type, but the people remained stubbornly uninterested; he finally gave up and found another occupation. From time to time, he tries again to see if the people want another game like the one they seemed to love so much on that one occasion long ago, but he is invariably disappointed.

The other wizard — perhaps the wiser of the two — said, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He joined the guild that included the violent adolescent with the demon on his shirt, and enjoyed a return to fortune if not fame.

Such is the story of Trilobyte Games in a nutshell. Today, we remember 1993 as the year that Cyan Productions and id Software came to the fore with Myst and Doom, those two radically different would-be blueprints for gaming’s future. But we tend to forget that the most hyped company and game of the year were in fact neither of those pairings: they were rather Trilobyte and their game The 7th Guest. Echoing the conventional wisdom of the time, Bill Gates called The 7th Guest “the future of multimedia,” and some even compared Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros, the two “wizards” who had founded Trilobyte together, to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Sadly for the wizards, however, The 7th Guest had none of the timeless qualities of the Beatles’ music; it was as of its own time as hula hoops, love beads, or polyester leisure suits were of theirs.


Rob Landeros and Graeme Devine

Unlike their alter egos in the Beatles, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros grew up in vastly different environments, separated not only by an ocean but by the equally enormous gulf of seventeen years.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, Devine was one of the army of teenage bedroom coders who built the British games industry from behind the keyboards of their Sinclair Spectrums. His first published work was actually a programming utility rather than a game, released as part of a more complete Speccy programmer’s toolkit by a company known as Softek in the spring of 1983. But it was followed by his shoot-em-up Firebirds just a few months later. That game’s smooth scrolling and slick presentation won him a reputation. Thus one day the following year the phone rang at his family’s home; a representative from Atari was on the line, asking if he would be free to port their standup-arcade and console hit Pole Position to the Spectrum.

Over the next several years, Devine continued to port games from American publishers to the Europe-centric Spectrum, while also making more original games of his own: Xcel (1985), Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1986), Metropolis (1987). His originals tended to be a bit half-baked once you really dove in, but their technical innovations were usually enough to sustain them, considering that most of them only cost a few quid. Metropolis, the first game Devine programmed for MS-DOS machines, provides a prime example of both his technical flair and complete lack of detail orientation. A sort of interactive murder mystery taking place in a city of robots, sharing only a certain visual sensibility with the Fritz Lang film classic of the same name, it includes almost-decipherable “voice acting” for its characters, implemented without the luxury of a sound card, being played entirely through the early IBM PC beeper. The game itself, on the other hand, is literally unfinished; it breaks halfway through its advertised ten cases. Perhaps Devine decided that, given that he included no system for saving his rather time-consuming game, no one would ever get that far anyway.

Metropolis

Metropolis was published through the British budget label Mastertronic, whose founder Martin Alper was a force of nature, famous as a cultivator of erratic young talent like Devine. Alper sold Mastertronic to Richard Branson’s Virgin Media empire just after Metropolis was released, and soon after that absconded to Southern California to oversee the newly formed American branch of Virgin Games. On a routine visit back to the Virgin mother ship in London in 1988, he dropped in on Devine, only to find him mired in a dark depression; it seemed his first serious girlfriend had just left him. “England obviously isn’t treating you well,” said Alper. “Why don’t you come with me to California?” Just like that, the 22-year-old Devine became the head of Virgin Games’s American research and development. It was in that role that he met Rob Landeros the following year.

Landeros’s origin story was about as different from Devine’s as could be imagined. Born in 1949 in Redlands, California, he had lived the life of an itinerant bohemian artist. After drifting through art school, he spent much of the 1970s in hippie communes, earning his keep by drawing underground comic books and engraving tourist trinkets. By the early 1980s, he had gotten married and settled down somewhat, and found himself fascinated by the burgeoning potential of the personal computer. He bought himself a Commodore 64, learned how to program it in BASIC, and even contributed a simple card game to the magazine Compute!’s Gazette in the form of a type-in listing.

But he remained a computer hobbyist only until the day in early 1986 that an artist friend of his by the name of Jim Sachs showed him his new Commodore Amiga. Immediately struck by the artistic possibilities inherent in the world’s first true multimedia personal computer, Landeros worked under Sachs to help illustrate Defender of the Crown, the first Amiga game from a new company called Cinemaware. After that project, Sachs elected not to stay on with Cinemaware, but instead recommended Landeros for the role of the company’s art director. Landeros filled that post for the next few years, illustrating more high-concept “interactive movies” which could hardly have been more different on the surface from Devine’s quick-and-dirty budget games — but which nevertheless tended to evince some of the same problems when it came to the question of their actual gameplay.

Whatever its flaws in that department, Martin Alper over at Virgin was convinced that the Cinemaware catalog was an early proof of concept for gaming’s future. As Cinemaware founder Bob Jacob and many others inside and outside his company well recognized, their efforts were hobbled by the need to rely on cramped, slow floppy disks to store all of their audiovisual assets and stream them into memory during play. But with CD-ROM on the horizon for MS-DOS computers, along with new graphics and sound cards that would make the platform even more audiovisually capable than the Amiga, that could soon be a restriction of the past. Alper asked Devine to interview Landeros for the role of Virgin’s art director.

Landeros was feeling “underappreciated and underpaid” at Cinemaware, as he puts it, so he was very receptive to such an offer. When he called Devine back after hearing the message the latter had left on his answering machine, he found the younger man in an ebullient mood. He had just gotten engaged to be married, Devine explained, to a real California girl — surely every cloistered British programmer’s wildest fantasy. Charmed by the lad’s energy and enthusiasm, Landeros let himself be talked into a job. And indeed, Devine and Landeros quickly found that they got on like a house on fire.

Tall and skinny and bespectacled, with unkempt long hair flying everywhere, Devine alternated the euphoria with which he had first greeted Landeros with bouts of depression such as the one Martin Alper had once found him mired in.  Landeros was calmer, more grounded, as befit his age, but still had a subversive edge of his own. When you first met him, he had almost a patrician air — but when he turned around for the first time, you noticed a small ponytail snaking down his back. While Devine was, like so many hackers, used to coding for days or weeks on end, sometimes to the detriment of his health and psychological well-being, Landeros needed a very good reason indeed to give up his weekend motorcycle tours. Devine was hugely impressed by Landeros’s tales of his free-spirited life, as he was by the piles of self-inked comic books lying about his home; Landeros was repeatedly amazed simply at the things Devine could make computers do. The two men complemented each other — perhaps were even personally good for one another in some way that transcends job and career.

Their work at Virgin, however, wasn’t always the most exciting. The CD-ROM revolution proved late in arriving; in the meantime, the business of making games continued pretty much as usual. In between his other duties, Devine made Spot, an abstract strategy game which betrayed a large debt to the ancient Japanese board game of Go whilst also serving as an advertisement for the soft drink 7 Up; if not quite a classic, it did show more focus than his earlier efforts. Meanwhile Landeros did the art for a very Cinemaware-like cross-genre concoction called Spirit of Excalibur. In his spare time, he also helped his friend and fellow Cinemaware alumnus Peter Oliphant with a unique word-puzzle/game-show hybrid called Lexi-Cross. (Rejected by Alper because “game shows need a license in order to sell,” it was finally accepted by Interplay after that company’s head Brian Fargo brought a copy home to his wife and she couldn’t stop playing it. Nonetheless, it sold hardly at all, just as Alper had predicted.)

Devine and Landeros were itching to work with CD-ROM, but everywhere they went they were told that the market just wasn’t there yet. As they saw it, no one was buying CD-ROM drives because no one was making compelling enough software products for the new medium. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a marketplace Gordian knot which someone had to break. Accordingly, they decided to put together their own proposal for a showpiece CD-ROM game. Both were entranced by Twin Peaks, the darkly quirky murder-mystery television series by David Lynch, which had premiered in the spring of 1990 and promptly become an unlikely mass-media sensation. Sitting in the airport together one day, they overheard the people around them debating the question of the year: who killed Laura Palmer?

Imagine a game that can fascinate in the same way, mused Devine. And so they started to brainstorm. They pictured a game, perhaps a bit like the board game Clue — tellingly, the details of the gameplay were vague in their minds right from the start — that might make use of a Twin Peaks license if such a thing was possible, but would go for that sort of vibe regardless. Most importantly, it would pull out all the stops to show what CD-ROM — and only CD-ROM — could do; there would be no floppy version. Indeed, the project would be thoroughly uncompromising in all of its hardware requirements, freeing it from the draconian restrictions that came with catering to the lowest common denominator. It would require one of a new generation of so-called “Super” VGA graphics cards, which would let it push past the grainy resolution of 320 X 200, still the almost universal standard in games, to a much sharper 640 X 480.

To keep the development complications from spiraling completely out of control, it could take place in a haunted house that had a group of people trapped inside, being killed one by one. Sure, Agatha Christie had done it before, but this would be different. Creepier. Darker. A ghost story as well as a mystery, all served up with a strong twist of David Lynch. “Who killed Laura Palmer? Who killed Laura Palmer? We wanted to create that sort of intrigue,” remembers Landeros.

When they broached the possibility of a Twin Peaks game with Alper, he was definitive on one point: there wasn’t enough room in his budget to acquire a license to one of the hottest media properties in the country. They should therefore focus their thinking on a Twin Peaks-like game, not the real thing. Otherwise, he was noncommittal. “Give me a detailed written proposal, and we’ll see,” he said.

At this point in our story, it would behoove us to know something more of Martin Alper the man, a towering figure whose shadow loomed large over all of Virgin Games. A painter and sculptor of some talent during his free time, Alper was also an insatiable culture vulture, reading very nearly a novel per day and seeing several films per week. His prodigious consumption left no space for games. “I’ve never played any game,” he liked to boast. “What interests me is the cultural progress that games can generate. I’m looking to make a difference in society.” He liked to think of himself as a 1990s incarnation of Orson Welles, nudging his own group of Mercury Players into whole new fields of creative expression. When Devine and Landeros’s detailed proposal landed on his desk in November of 1990, full of ambition to harness the current zeitgeist in the service of a new medium, it hit him right where he lived. Even the proposed budget of $300,000 — two to three times that of the typical Virgin game — put him off not at all.

So, he invited Devine and Landeros to a lunch which has since gone down in gaming lore. After the niceties had been dispensed with, he told the two bluntly that they had “no future at Virgin Games.” He enjoyed their shock for a while — a certain flair for drama was also among his character traits — then elaborated. “Your idea is too big to be developed here. If you stayed here, you’d quickly overrun our offices. I can’t afford to let you do that. Other games have to be made here as well.”

“What do you suggest?” ventured Devine.

And so Alper laid out his grand plan. They should start their own studio, which Virgin Games would finance. They could work where they liked and hire whomever they liked, as long as the cost didn’t become too outrageous and as long as they stayed within 90 minutes of Virgin’s headquarters, so that Alper and David Bishop, the producer he planned to assign to them, could keep tabs on their progress. And they would have to plan for the eventuality of a floppy-disk release as well, if, as seemed likely, CD-ROM hadn’t yet caught on to a sufficient degree with consumers by the following Christmas, the game’s proposed release date. They were simple requirements, not to mention generous beyond Devine and Landeros’s wildest dreams. Nevertheless, they would fail to meet them rather comprehensively.

In the course of his hippie wanderings, Landeros had fallen in love with the southern part of Oregon. After the meeting with Alper, he suggested to Devine that they consider setting up shop there, where the biking and motorcycling were tremendous, the scenery was beautiful, the people were mellow, and the cost of living was low. When Devine protested that one certainly couldn’t drive there from Virgin’s offices within 90 minutes, Landeros just winked back. Alper hadn’t actually specified a mode of transportation, he noted. And one could just about fly there in an hour and a half.

On December 5, 1990, the pair came for the first time to Jacksonville, Oregon, a town of just 2000 inhabitants. It so happened that the lighting of the town Christmas tree was taking place that day. All of the people had come out for the occasion, dressed in Santa suits and Victorian costumes, caroling and roasting chestnuts. Just at sunset, snow started to fall. Devine, the British city boy far from home, looked around with shining eyes at this latest evolution of his American dream. Oregon it must be.

So, during that same visit, they signed a lease on a small office above a tavern in an 1884-vintage building — wood floors, a chandelier on the ceiling, even a fireplace. They hired Diane Moses, a waitress from the tavern below, to serve as their office manager. Then they went back south to face the music.

The 7th Guest was created in this 1884-vintage building in Jacksonville, Oregon, above a tavern which is now known as Boomtown Saloon.

Alper was less than pleased at first that they had so blatantly ignored his instructions, but they played up the cheap cost of living and complete lack of distractions in the area until he grudgingly acquiesced. The men’s wives were an even tougher sell, especially when they all returned to Jacksonville together in January and found a very different scene: a bitter cold snap had caused pipes to burst all over town, flooding the streets with water that had now turned to treacherous ice, making a veritable deathtrap of the sidewalk leading up to their new office’s entrance. But the die was now cast, for better or for worse.

The studio which Devine and Landeros had chosen to name Trilobyte officially opened for business on February 1, 1991. The friends found that working above a tavern had its attractions after a long day — and sometimes even in the middle of one. “It’s fun to watch the fights spill out onto the street,” said Devine to a curious local newspaper reporter.

The first pressing order of business was to secure a script for a game that was still in reality little more than a vague aspiration. Landeros had already made contact over the GEnie online service with Matthew Costello, a horror novelist, gaming journalist, and sometime tabletop-game designer. He provided Trilobyte with a 100-page script for something he called simply Guest. Graeme Devine:

We presented the basic story to Matt, and he made it into a larger story, built the characters and the script. He created it out of what was really just a sketch. We were anxious that the [setting] be very, very closed. One that would work as a computer environment. That’s what he gave us.

The script took place within a single deserted mansion, and did all of its storytelling through ghostly visions which the player would bump into from time to time, and which could be easily conveyed through conveniently non-interactive video snippets. Like so many computer games, in other words, Guest would be more backstory than story.

Said backstory takes place in 1935, and hinges on a mysterious toy maker named Henry Stauf — the anagram of Faust is intentional — who makes and sells a series of dolls which cause all of the children who play with them to sicken and die. When the people of his town figure out the common thread that connects their dead children, they come for him with blood in their eyes. He barricades himself in his mansion to escape their wrath — but sometime shortly thereafter he lures six guests into spending a night in the mansion, with a promise of riches for those who survive. Falling victim either to Stauf’s evil influence or their own paranoia, or both, the six guests all manage to kill one another, Agatha Christie-style, over the course of the night, all without ever meeting Stauf himself in the flesh. But there is also a seventh, uninvited guest, a street kid named Tad who sneaks in and witnesses all of the horror, only to have his own soul trapped inside the mansion. It becomes clear only very slowly over the course of the game that the player is Tad’s spirit, obsessively recapitulating the events of that night of long ago, looking for an escape from his psychic prison in the long-deserted mansion.

The backstory of how Stauf came to take up residence in his mansion is shown in the form of narrated storybook right after the opening credits.

The only thing missing from Costello’s script was any clear indication of what the player would be expected to do in the course of it all. Trilobyte planned to gate progress with “challenges to the player’s intellect and curiosity. Our list of things to avoid includes: impossible riddles, text parsers, inventories, character attribute points, sword fights, trolls, etc. All actions are accomplished via mouse only. Game rules will either be self-explanatory or simple enough to discover with minimal experimentation.” It sounded good in the abstract, but it certainly wasn’t very specific. Trilobyte wouldn’t seriously turn to the game part of their game for a long, long time to come.

The question of Guest‘s technical implementation was almost as unsettled, but much more pressing. Devine and Landeros first imagined showing digitized photographs of a real environment. Accordingly, they negotiated access to Jacksonville’s Nunan House, a palatial three-story, sixteen-room example of the Queen Anne style, built by a local mining magnate in 1892. But, while the house was fine, the technology just wouldn’t come together. Devine had his heart set on an immersive environment where you could see yourself actually moving through the house. Despite all his technical wizardry, he couldn’t figure out how to create such an effect from a collection of still photographs.


The Mansion

The Nunan House in Jacksonville, Oregon, whose exterior served as the model for the Stauf Mansion. The interior of the latter was, however, completely different, with the exception only of a prominent central staircase.



A breakthrough arrived when Devine and Landeros shared their woes with a former colleague from Virgin, an artist named Robert Stein. Stein had been playing for several months with 3D Studio, a new software package from a company known as Autodesk which let one build and render 3D scenes and animations. It was still an awkward tool in many ways, lagging behind similar packages for the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh. Nonetheless, a sufficiently talented artist could do remarkable things with it, and it had the advantage of running on the MS-DOS computers on which Trilobyte was developing Guest. Devine and Landeros were convinced when Stein whipped up a spooky living room for them, complete with a ghostly chair that flew around of its own accord. Stein soon came to join them in Jacksonville, becoming the fourth and last inhabitant of their cozy little office.


3D Studio

The 7th Guest was the first major game to make extensive use of Autodesk’s 3D Studio, a tool that would soon become ubiquitous in the industry. Here we see the first stage of the modeling process: the Shaper, in which an object is created as a two-dimensional geometric drawing, stored in the form of points and vectors.

In the Lofter, an object’s two dimensions are extruded into three, as the X- and Y-coordinates of its points are joined to Z-coordinates.

The Materials Editor is used to apply textured surfaces to what were previously wire-frame objects.

The 3D Editor is used to build a scene by hanging objects together in a virtual space and defining the position, color, and intensity of light sources.

The Keyframer is used to create animation. The artist arranges the world in a set of these so-called key frames, then tells the computer to extrapolate all of the frames in between. The process was an extremely time-consuming one on early-1990s computer hardware; each frame of a complex animation could easily take half an hour to render.



Even using 3D Studio, Guest must fall well short of the ideal of an immersive free-scrolling environment. At the time, only a few studios — most notably Looking Glass Technologies and, to a much more limited extent, id Software of eventual Doom fame — were even experimenting with such things. The reality was that making interactive free-scrolling 3D work at all on the computer hardware of the era required drastic compromises in terms of quality — compromises which Trilobyte wasn’t willing to make. Instead they settled for a different sort of compromise, in the form of a node-based approach to movement. The player is able to stand only at certain pre-defined locations, or nodes, in the mansion. When she clicks to move to another node, a pre-rendered animation plays, showing her moving through the mansion.

Just streaming these snippets off CD fast enough to play as they should taxed Devine’s considerable programming talents to the utmost. He would later muse that he learned two principal things from the whole project: “First, CD-ROM is bloody slow. Second, CD-ROM is bloody slow.” When he could stretch his compression routines no further, he found other tricks to employ. For example, he got Landeros to agree to present the environment in a “letter-boxed” widescreen format. Doing so would give it a sense of cinematic grandeur, even as the black bars at the top and bottom of the monitor dramatically reduced the number of pixels Devine’s routines had to move around. A win win.

With the interior of the mansion slowly coming into being, the time was nigh to think about the ghostly video clips which would convey the story. Trilobyte recruited local community-theater thespians to play all the parts; with only $35,000 to spend on filming, including the camera equipment, they needed actors willing to work for almost nothing. The two-day shoot took place in a rented loft in Medford, Oregon, on a “stage” covered with green butcher paper. The starring role of Stauf went to Robert Hirschboeck, a fixture of the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which was (and is) held in nearby Ashland. Diane Moses, Trilobyte’s faithful office manager, also got a part.

Robert Hirschboeck, the semi-professional Shakespearean actor who played the role of Stauf in The 7th Guest and its sequel. He was bemused by the brief fame the role won him: “I’ll be walking down the street and meet someone with all the CD-ROM gear, and they’ll say, ‘Ah, man, I’ve been looking at your ugly mug for 60 hours this week.'”

Trilobyte believed, with some justification, that their game’s premise would allow them to avoid some of the visual dissonance that normally resulted from overlaying filmed actors onto computer-generated backgrounds: their particular actors represented ghosts, which meant it was acceptable for them to seem not quite of the world around them. To enhance the impression, Trilobyte added flickering effects and blurry phosphorescent trails which followed the actors’ movements.


The Chroma-Key Process

A technique known as chroma-keying was used by The 7th Guest and most other games of the full-motion-video era to blend filmed actors with computer-generated backgrounds. The actor is filmed in front of a uniform green background. After digitization, all pixels of this color are rendered transparent. (This means that green clothing is right out for the actors…)

Meanwhile a background — the “stage” for the scene — has been created on the computer.

Finally, the filmed footage is overlaid onto the background.



While Trilobyte built their 3D mansion and filmed their actors, the project slipped further and further behind schedule. Already by May of 1991, they had to break the news to Alper that there was no possibility of a Christmas 1991 release; Christmas 1992 might be a more realistic target. Luckily, Alper believed in what they were doing. And the delay wasn’t all bad at that; it would give consumers more time to acquire the SVGA cards and CD-ROM drives they would need to run Guest — for by now it was painfully clear that a floppy-disk version of the game just wasn’t going to happen.

In January of 1992, Devine, Landeros, and Stein flew to Chicago for the Winter Consumer Electronics Show. They intended to keep a low profile; their plan was simply to check out the competition and to show their latest progress to Alper and his colleagues. But when he saw what they had, Alper broke out in goosebumps. Cinema connoisseur that he was, he compared it to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney’s first feature film, which forever changed the way people thought about cartoon animation. What Snow White had done for film, Alper said, Guest could do for games. He decided on the spot that it needed to be seen, right there and then. So, he found a computer on the show floor that was currently demonstrating a rather yawn-inducing computerized version of Scrabble and repurposed it to show off Guest. To make up for the fact that Trilobyte’s work had no music as of yet, he put on a CD of suitably portentous Danny Elfman soundtrack extracts to accompany it.

Thanks to this ad hoc demonstration, Guest turned into one of the most talked-about games of the show. Its stunning visuals were catnip to an industry craving killer apps that could nudge reluctant consumers onto the CD-ROM bandwagon. Bill Gates hung around the demo machine like a dog close to feeding time. Virgin’s competitor Origin Systems, of Wing Commander and Ultima fame, also sat up and took notice. They highlighted Guest as the game to watch in their internal newsletter:

Here’s a tip: keep an eye out for Guest, a made-for-CD-ROM title from Oregon developer Trilobyte for Virgin Games. In it, you explore a 22-room haunted mansion, complete with elaborate staircases, elegant dining rooms, a gloomy laboratory, and see-through ghosts. The version we saw is in a very primitive stage; there’s no real story line yet and many of the rooms are only rendered in black and white. But the flowing movement and brilliant detail in a few scenes which are fleshed-out are nothing less than spectacular. Ask anybody who saw it.

None of the press or public seemed to even notice that it was far from obvious what the player was supposed to do amidst all the graphical splendor, beyond the vague notion of “exploring.” The Trilobyte trio flew back to Oregon thoroughly gratified, surer than ever that all of their instincts had been right.

Still, with publicity came expectations, and also cynicism; Bill Gates’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, a group of multimedia experts at Microsoft said publicly that what Trilobyte was proposing to do was simply impossible. Some believed the entire CES demo had been a fake.

Trilobyte remained a tiny operation: there were still only Devine, Landeros, Stein, and Moses in their digs above the tavern. Other artists, as well as famed game-soundtrack composer George “The Fat Man” Sanger, worked remotely. But Devine, who had always been a lone-wolf coder, refused to delegate any of his duties now, even when they seemed about to kill him. “I’ve never seen someone work so hard on a project,” remembers one Virgin executive. The Fat Man says that “Graeme wanted to prove everyone else a liar. He knew he was going to be able to do it.” This refusal to delegate began to cause tension with Alper and others at Virgin, especially as it gradually became clear that Trilobyte was going to miss their second Christmas deadline as well. Virgin had now sunk twice the planned $300,000 into the project, and the price tag was still climbing. Incredibly, Trilobyte’s ambitions had managed to exceed the 650 MB of storage space on a single CD, a figure that had heretofore seemed inconceivably enormous to an industry accustomed to floppy disks storing barely 1 MB each; Guest was now to ship on two CDs. Devine and Landeros agreed to work without salary to appease their increasingly impatient handlers.

Only in these last months did an already exhausted Devine and Landeros turn their full attention to the puzzles that were to turn their multimedia extravaganza into a game. Trilobyte was guided here by a simple question: “What would Mom play?” They found to their disappointment that many of the set-piece puzzles and board and card games they wanted to include were still under copyright. Their cutting-edge game would have to be full of hoary puzzles plundered from Victorian-era texts.

But at least Trilobyte could now see the light at the end of the tunnel. In January of 1993, they made a triumphant return to CES, this time with far more pomp and circumstance, to unveil the game they were now calling The 7th Guest. Alper sprang for a haunted-house mock-up in the basement of the convention hall, to which only a handpicked group of VIPs were admitted for a “private screening.” Bill Gates was once again among those who attended; he emerged a committed 7th Guest evangelist, talking it up in the press every chance he got. And why not? It blew Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, the current poster child for CD-ROM gaming, right out of the water. Sherlock‘s herky-jerky video clips, playing at a resolution of just 160 X 100, paled next to The 7th Guest‘s 3D-rendered SVGA glory.

When it was finally released in April of 1993, the reaction to The 7th Guest exceeded Virgin and Trilobyte’s fondest hopes. Virgin began with a production run of 60,000, of which they would need to sell 40,000 copies to break even on a final development budget of a little over $700,000. They were all gone within days; Virgin scrambled to make more, but would struggle for months to keep up with demand. “Believe it or not, The 7th Guest really does live up to all the hype,” wrote Video Games and Computer Entertainment magazine. “It takes computer entertainment to the next level and sets new standards for graphics and sound.” What more could anyone want?



Well, in the long run anyway, a lot more. The 7th Guest would age more like raw salmon than fine wine. Already just two and a half years after its release to glowing reviews like the one just quoted, the multimedia trade magazine InterAction was offering a much more tepid assessment:

As a first-generation CD-ROM-based experience, The 7th Guest broke new ground. It also broke a lot of rules – of course, this was before anyone knew there were any rules. The music drowns out the dialog; the audio is not mixable. The video clips, once triggered, can’t be interrupted, which in a house of puzzles and constant searching leads to frustration. How many times can you watch a ghost float down a hallway before you get bored?

Everywhere The 7th Guest evinces the telltale signs of a game that no one ever bothered to play before its release — a game the playing of which was practically irrelevant to its real goals of demonstrating the audiovisual potential of the latest personal computers. Right from the moment you boot it up, when it subjects you to a cheesy several-seconds-long sound clip you can’t click past, it tries your patience. The Ouija Board used to save and restore your session seems clever for about half a minute; after that’s it’s simply excruciating. Ditto the stately animations that sweep you through the mansion like a dancing circus elephant on Quaaludes; the video clips that bring everything to a crashing halt for a minute or more at a time; the audio clips of Stauf taunting you which are constantly freezing the puzzles you’re trying to solve. The dominant impression the game leaves you with is one of slowness: the slowness of cold molasses coming out of the jar, of a glacier creeping over the land, of the universe winding down toward its heat death. I get fidgety just thinking about it.

One of the game’s few concessions to player convenience is this in-game map. Yet it’s made so annoying to use that you hardly want to. First, you have to click through a menu screen which forces you to watch it tediously fading in and out, like every screen in the game. And then you have to watch the game fill in the map with colors square by exasperating square to indicate where you’ve solved the puzzles and where you still have puzzles remaining. This game would make an excellent trial of patience for a Zen school, if such institutions exist.

The puzzles that are scattered through the rooms of the mansion gate your progress, but not for any reason that is discernable within the environment. When you solve certain puzzles, the game simply starts letting you go places you couldn’t go before. In practice, this means that you’re constantly toing and froing through the mansion, looking for whatever arbitrary new place the game has now decided to let you into. And, as already noted, moving around takes forever.

The puzzles themselves were already tired in 1993. Landeros has been cheeky enough to compare The 7th Guest to The Fool’s Errand, Cliff Johnson’s classic Macintosh puzzler, but the former’s puzzles haven’t a trace of the latter’s depth, grace, wit, or originality. Playing The 7th Guest exposes a pair of creators who were, despite being unquestionably talented in other ways, peculiarly out of their depth when it came to the most basic elements of good game design.

For example, one of the puzzles, inevitably, is an extended maze, which the vast majority of players solve, assuming they do so at all, only through laborious trial and error. “The solution to the maze was on a rug in one of the bedrooms,” notes Devine. “We thought people would copy that down.” A more experienced design team would have grasped that good game design requires consistency: all of the other puzzles in the game are completely self-contained, a fact which has trained the player long before she encounters the maze not to look for clues like this one in the environment. Alternately, testers could have told the designers the same thing. The 7th Guest provides yet one more illustration of my maxim that the difference between a bad and a good one is the same as that between a game that wasn’t played before its release and one that was. “Our beta testing was, well, just us,” admits Devine.

Another infamous lowlight — easily the worst puzzle in the game in purely abstract design terms — is a shelf of lettered soup cans which you must rearrange to spell out a message. The problem is that the sentence you’re looking for makes sense only under a mustily archaic Scottish diction that vanishingly few players are likely to be familiar with.

But the worst puzzle in practical terms is actually Devine’s old abstract strategy game Spot, imported wholesale, albeit with the intelligence of your computer opponent cranked up to literally superhuman levels. It’s so difficult that even the official strategy guide throws up its hands, offering only the following clarification: “It is not necessary to beat this game to advance through The 7th Guest, and you will not be missing anything if you can’t beat it. To our knowledge, nobody has a consistent strategy to beat this game, not even Graeme!” The most serious problem here, even beyond the sheer lunacy of including a mini-game that even the programmer doesn’t know how to beat, is that the player doesn’t know that the puzzle is unnecessary. Thus she’s likely to waste hours or days on an insurmountable task, thinking all the while that it must gate access to a critical part of the plot, just like all the other puzzles. (What did I say about consistency?) Its presence is unforgivably cruel, especially in a game that advertised itself as being suitable for casual players.

None of the other puzzles are quite as bad as these, but they are samey —  three of the 22 are chess puzzles, doubtless all drawn from the same Victorian book — at wild variance with one another in difficulty, and just generally dull, in addition to being implemented in ways calculated to maximize their tedium. Playing the game recently to prepare for this article, I never once felt that rush that accompanies the solution of a really clever puzzle. Working through these ones does indeed feel like work, made all the more taxing by the obstinately form-over-function interface. The best thing to be said about the puzzles is that they can all be bypassed by consulting an in-game hint book in the mansion’s library, albeit at the cost of missing the video clips that accompany their successful solutions and thus missing out on that part of the plot.

Still, one might want to argue that there is, paradoxical though it might sound, more to games than gameplay. Aesthetics have a value of their own, as does story; certainly The 7th Guest is far from the first adventure game with a story divorced from its puzzles. In all of these areas as well, however, it’s long since curdled. The graphics, no longer able to dazzle the jaded modern eye with their technical qualities, stand revealed as having nothing else to offer. There’s just nothing really striking in the game’s visual design — no compelling aesthetic vision. The script as well manages only to demonstrate that Matthew Costello is no David Lynch. It turns out that subversive surrealistic horror is harder to pull off than it looks.

As for the actors… I hesitate to heap too much scorn on them, given that they were innocent amateurs doing their best with a dodgy script in what had to feel like a thoroughly strange performing situation. Suffice to say, then, that the acting is about as good as that description would suggest. On the other hand, it does seem that they had some fun at least some of the time by hamming it up.


Indeed, the only claim to aesthetic or dramatic merit which The 7th Guest can still make is that of camp. Even Devine acknowledges today that the game is more silly than scary. He now admits that the story is “a bit goofy” and calls the game “Scooby Doo spooky” rather than drawing comparisons to The Shining and The Haunting, as he did back in the day. Which is progress, I suppose — but then, camp is such a lazy crutch, one that far too many games try to lean upon.



The 7th Guest just kept selling and selling,” says its producer David Bishop of the months after its release. “We’d look at the sales charts and it had incredible legs. Sales were picking up, not slowing down.” By the end of 1996, the game would sell well over 2 million copies.  Trilobyte was suddenly flush with cash; they earned $5 million in royalties in the first year alone. Nintendo gave them a cool $1 million upfront for the console rights; Paul Allen came along with another $5 million in investment capital. Trilobyte moved out of their little office above the tavern into a picturesque old schoolhouse, and started hiring the staff that had been so conspicuously missing while they made their first game. Then they moved out of the schoolhouse into a 29,000-square-foot monstrosity, formerly a major bank’s data center.

The story of Trilobyte after The 7th Guest becomes that of two merely smart men who started believing that they really were the infallible geniuses they were being hyped as. “Trilobyte thought they could pick up any project and it would turn to gold,” says one former Virgin staffer. “They had huge egos and wanted to grow,” says another. Even writer Matthew Costello says that he “could see the impact the attention from The 7th Guest had on [Devine and Landeros’s] perceptions of themselves.”

Despite the pair’s heaping level of confidence and ambition, or perhaps because of it, Trilobyte never came close to matching the success of The 7th Guest. The sequel, called The 11th Hour, shipped fully two and a half years later, but nonetheless proved to be just more of the same: more dull puzzles, more terrible acting, more technically impressive but aesthetically flaccid graphics. The zeitgeist instant for this sort of thing had already passed; after a brief flurry of early sales, The 11th Hour disappeared. Other projects came and went; Trilobyte spent $800,000 on Dog Eat Dog, a “workplace-politics simulator,” before cancelling it. Meanwhile Clandestiny, another expensive game in the mold of The 7th Guest, sold less than 20,000 copies to players who had now well and truly seen that the guest had no clothes.

Dog Eat Dog, Trilobyte’s never-released “workplace-politics simulator.”

Rob Landeros gradually revealed himself to be a frustrated filmmaker, always a dangerous thing to have around a game-development studio. Worse, he was determined to push Trilobyte into “edgy” content, rife with adult themes and nudity, which he lacked sufficient artistic nuance to bring to life in ways that didn’t feel crass and exploitative. When Devine proved understandably uncomfortable with his direction, the two fast friends began to feud.

The two founders were soon pulling in radically different directions, with Landeros still chasing the interactive-movie unicorn as if Doom had never happened, while Devine pushed for a move into real-time 3D games like the ones everyone else was making. New Media magazine memorably described Landeros’s Tender Loving Care as “a soft-porn film with a weak plot and rancid acting” after getting a sneak preview; the very name of Devine’s Extreme Warfare sounded like a caricature of bro-gamer culture. The former project was eventually taken by an embittered Landeros to a new company he founded just to publish it, whereupon it predictably flopped; the latter never got released at all. Trilobyte was officially wound up in January of 1999. “In the end, I never outran the shadow of The 7th Guest,” wrote Devine in a final email to his staff. “Mean old Stauf casts his long and bony shadow across this valley, and Trilobyte will always be remembered for those games and none other.”

In the aftermath, Devine continued his career in the games industry as an employee rather than an entrepreneur, working on popular blockbusters like Quake III, Doom 3, and Age of Empires III. (Good things, it seems, come to him in threes.) Landeros intermittently tried to get more of his quixotic interactive movies off the ground, whilst working as a graphic designer for the Web and other mediums. He’s become the keeper of the 7th Guest flame, for whatever that is still worth. In 2019, he launched a remastered 25th anniversary edition of the game, but it was greeted with lukewarm reviews and little enthusiasm from players. It seems that even nostalgia struggles to overcome the game’s manifest deficiencies.

The temptation to compare The 7th Guest to Myst, its more long-lived successor in the role of CD-ROM showcase for the masses, is all but irresistible. One might say that The 7th Guest really was all the things that Myst was so often accused of being: shallow, unfair, a tech demo masquerading as a game. Likewise, a comparison of the two games’ respective creators does Devine and Landeros no favors. The Miller brothers of Cyan Productions, the makers of Myst, took their fame and fortune with level-headed humility. Combined with their more serious attitude toward game design as a craft, this allowed them to weather the vicissitudes of fortune — albeit not without a few bumps along the way, to be sure! — and emerge with their signature franchise still intact. Devine and Landeros, alas, cannot make the same claim.

And yet I do want to be careful about using Myst as a cudgel with which to beat The 7th Guest. Unlike so many bad games, it wasn’t made for cynical reasons. On the contrary: all indications are that Devine and Landeros made it for all the right reasons, driven by a real, earnest passion to do something important, something groundbreaking. If the results largely serve today as an illustration of why static video clips strung together, whether they were created in a 3D modeler or filmed in front of live actors, are an unstable foundation on which to build a compelling game, the fact remains that we need examples of what doesn’t work as well as what does. And if the results look appallingly amateurish today on strictly aesthetic terms, they shouldn’t obscure the importance of The 7th Guest in the history of gaming. As gaming historians Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene put it, “The 7th Guest wasn’t anywhere near the league of professional film-making, but it moved games into the same sphere — a non-gamer could look at The 7th Guest and understand it, even if they were barely impressed.”

A year before Myst took the Wintel world by storm, The 7th Guest drove the first substantial wave of CD-ROM uptake, doing more than any other single product to turn 1993 into the long-awaited Year of CD-ROM. It’s been claimed that sales of CD-ROM drives jumped by 300 percent within weeks of its release. Indeed, The 7th Guest and CD-ROM in general became virtually synonymous for a time in the minds of consumers. And the game drove sales of SVGA cards to an equal degree; The 7th Guest was in fact the very first prominent game to demand more than everyday VGA graphics. Likewise, it undoubtedly prompted many a soul to take the plunge on a whole new 80486- or Pentium-based wundercomputer. And it also prompted the sale of countless CD-quality 16-bit sound cards. Thanks to The 7th Guest‘s immense success, game designers after 1993 had a far broader technological canvas on which to paint than they had before that year. And some of the things they painted there were beautiful and rich and immersive in all the ways that The 7th Guest tried to be, but couldn’t quite manage. While I heartily and unapologetically hate it as a game, I do love the new worlds of possibility it opened.

(Sources: the books La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah, Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene, and The 7th Guest: The Official Strategy Guide by Rusel DeMaria; Computer Gaming World of December 1990, May 1991, November 1992, October 1994, November 1994, June 1995, November 1998, December 1999, and July 2004; Electronic Entertainment of June 1994 and August 1995; Game Players PC Entertainment Vol. 5 No. 5; InterActivity of February 1996; Retro Gamer 85, 108, 122, and 123; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of August 1993; Zero of May 1992; Run 1986 Special Issue; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1985 and September 1986; ZX Computing of April 1986; Home Computing Weekly of July 19 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of May 26 1983; Crash of January 1985; Computer Gamer of December 1985 and February 1986; Origin Systems’s internal newslatter Point of Origin dated January 17 1992. Online sources include Geoff Keighly’s lengthy history of Trilobyte for GameSpot, John-Gabriel Adkins’s “Two Histories of Myst,” and “Jeremiah Nunan – An Irish Success Story” at the Jacksonville Review.

The 25th anniversary edition of The 7th Guest is available for purchase at GOG.com, as is the sequel The 11th Hour.)

 

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Controlling the Spice, Part 3: Westwood’s Dune

Brett Sperry and Louis Castle

Louis Castle first became friends with Brett Sperry in 1982, when the two were barely out of high school. Castle was selling Apple computers at the time at a little store in his native Las Vegas, and Sperry asked him to print out a file for him. “I owned a printer, so I invited him over,” remembers Castle, “and he looked at some animation and programming I was working on.”

They found they had a lot in common. They were both Apple II fanatics, both talented programmers, and both go-getters accustomed to going above and beyond what was expected of them. Through Castle’s contacts at the store — the home-computer industry was quite a small place back then — they found work as contract programmers, porters who moved software from one platform to another. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the industry, but, at a time when the PC marketplace was fragmented into close to a dozen incompatible platforms, it was certainly a vital one. Sperry and Castle eventually came to specialize in the non-trivial feat of moving slick action games such as Dragonfire and Impossible Mission from the Commodore 64 to the far less audiovisually capable Apple II without sacrificing all of their original appeal.

In March of 1985, they decided to give up working as independent contractors and form a real company, which they named Westwood Associates. The “Westwood” came from the trendy neighborhood of Los Angeles, around the UCLA campus, where they liked to hang out when they drove down from Las Vegas of a weekend. “We chose Westwood as the company name,” says Castle, “to capture some of the feeling of youthful energy and Hollywood business.” The “Associates,” meanwhile, was nicely non-specific, meaning they could easily pivot into other kinds of software development if the games work should dry up for some reason. (The company would become known as Westwood Studios in 1992, by which time it would be pretty clear that no such pivot would be necessary.)

The story of Westwood’s very first project is something of a harbinger of their future. Epyx hired them to port the hoary old classic Temple of Apshai to the sexy new Apple Macintosh, and Sperry and Castle got a bit carried away. They converted the game from a cerebral turn-based CRPG to a frenetic real-time action-adventure, only to be greeted with howls of protest from their employers. “Epyx felt,” remembers Castle with no small sense of irony, “that gamers would not want to make complicated tactical and strategic decisions under pressure.” More sensibly, Epyx noted that Westwood had delivered not so much a port as a different game entirely, one they couldn’t possibly sell as representing the same experience as the original. So, they had to begrudgingly switch it back to turn-based.

This blind alley really does have much to tell us about Westwood’s personality. Asked many years later what common thread binds together their dizzily eclectic catalog of games, Louis Castle hit upon real-time gameplay as the one reasonable answer. This love of immediacy would translate, as we’ll soon see, into the invention of a whole new genre known as real-time strategy, which would become one of the most popular of them all by the end of the 1990s.

But first, there were more games to be ported. Having cut their teeth making Commodore 64 games work within the constraints of the Apple II, they now found themselves moving them in the other direction: “up-porting” Commodore 64 hits like Super Cycle and California Games to the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. Up-porting was in its way as difficult as down-porting; owners of those more expensive 16-bit machines expected their capabilities to be used to good effect, even by games that had originated on more humble platforms, and complained loudly at straight, vanilla ports that still looked like they were running on an 8-bit computer. Westwood became one of the best in the industry at a very tricky task, not so much porting their source games in any conventional sense as remaking them, with dramatically enhanced graphics and sound. They acquired a reputation for technical excellence, particularly when it came to their compression systems, which allowed them to pack their impressive audiovisuals into very little space and stream them in quickly from disk. And they made good use of the fact that the Atari ST and Amiga were both built around the same Motorola 68000 CPU by developing a library for the Amiga which translated calls to the ST’s operating system into their Amiga equivalents on the fly; thus they could program a game for the ST and get the same code running on the Amiga with very few changes. If you wanted an 8-to-16-bit port done efficiently and well, you knew you could count on Westwood.

Although they worked with quite a number of publishers, Westwood cultivated a particularly close relationship with SSI, a publisher of hardcore wargames who badly needed whatever pizazz Sperry and Castle’s flashier aesthetic could provide. When SSI wanted to convince TSR to give them the hugely coveted Dungeons & Dragons license in 1987, they hired Westwood to create some of the graphics demos for their presentation. The pitch worked; staid little SSI shocked the industry by snatching the license right out from under the noses of heavier hitters like Electronic Arts. Westwood remained SSI’s most trusted partner thereafter. They ported the  “Gold Box” line of Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs to the Atari ST and Amiga with their usual flair, adding mouse support and improving the graphics, resulting in what many fans consider to be the best versions of all.

Unfortunately, Westwood’s technical excellence wasn’t always paired with equally good design sense when they occasionally got a chance to make an original game of their own. Early efforts like Mars Saga, Mines of Titan, Questron II, and BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception all have a lot of ideas that aren’t fully worked through and never quite gel, along with third acts that fairly reek of, “We’re out of time and money, and now we just have to get ‘er done.” Ditto the first two original games they did for SSI under the Dungeons & Dragons license: the odd California Games/Gold Box mashup Hillsfar and the even odder dragon flight simulator Dragon Strike.

Still, Brett Sperry and Louis Castle were two very ambitious young men, and neither was willing to settle for the anonymous life of a strict porting house. Nor did such a life make good business sense: with the North American market at least slowly coalescing around MS-DOS machines, it looked like porting houses might soon have no reason to exist. The big chance came when Sperry and Castle convinced SSI to let them make a full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG of their own — albeit one that would be very different from the slow-paced, turn-based Gold Box line. Westwood’s take on the concept would run in — you guessed it — real time, borrowing much from FTL’s Dungeon Master, one of the biggest sensations of the late 1980s on the Atari ST and Amiga. The result was Eye of the Beholder.

At the time of the game’s release in February of 1991, FTL had yet to publish an MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master. Eye of the Beholder was thus the first real-time dungeon crawl worth its salt to become available on North America’s computer-gaming platform of choice, and this fact, combined with the Dungeons & Dragons logo on the box, yielded sales of 130,000 copies in the United States alone — a sales figure far greater than that of any previous original Westwood game, greater even than all but the first two of SSI’s flagship Gold Box line. The era of Westwood as primarily a porting house had passed.


Over at Virgin Games, the indefatigable Martin Alper, still looking to make a splash in the American market, liked what he saw in Westwood, this hot American developer who clearly knew how to make the sorts of games Americans wanted to buy. And yet they were also long-established experts at getting the most out of the Amiga, Europe’s biggest gaming computer; Westwood would do their own port of Eye of the Beholder to the Amiga, in which form it would sell in considerable numbers in Europe as well. Such a skill set made the little Las Vegas studio immensely attractive to this executive of Virgin, a company of truly global reach and vision.

Alper knew as soon as he saw Eye of the Beholder that he wanted to make Westwood a permanent part of the Virgin empire, but, not wanting to spook his target, he approached them initially only to ask them to develop a game for him. As far as Alper or anyone else outside Virgin’s French subsidiary knew at this point, the Cryo Dune game was dead. But Alper hadn’t gone to all the trouble of securing the license not to use it. In April of 1991 — just one month before the departure of Jean-Martial Lefranc from Virgin Loisirs, combined with a routine audit, would bring the French Dune conspiracy to light — Alper signed Westwood to make a Dune game of their own. It wasn’t hard to convince them to take it on; it turned out that Dune was Brett Sperry’s favorite novel of all time.

Even better, Westwood, perhaps influenced by their association with the turn-based wargame mavens at SSI, had already been playing around with ideas for a real-time (of course!) game of military conflict. “It was an intellectual puzzle for me,” says Sperry. “How can we take this really small wargame category, bring in some fresh ideas, and make it a fun game that more gamers can play?” The theme was originally to be fantasy. But, says Louis Castle, “when Virgin offered up the Dune license, that sealed our fate and pulled us away from a fantasy theme.”

Several months later, after Martin Alper reluctantly concluded that Cryo’s Dune had already cost too much money and had too much potential of its own to cancel, he found himself with quite a situation on his hands. Westwood’s Dune hadn’t been in development anywhere near as long as Cryo’s, but he was already loving what he had seen of it, and was equally unwilling to cancel that project. In an industry where the average game frankly wasn’t very good at all, having two potentially great ones might not seem like much of a problem. For Virgin’s marketers, however, it was a nightmare. Their solution, which pleased neither Cryo nor Westwood much at all, was to bill the latter’s game as a sequel to the former’s, naming it Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

Westwood especially had good reason to feel disgruntled. They were understandably concerned that saddling their fresh, innovative new game with the label of sequel would cause it to be overlooked. The fact was, the sequel billing made no sense whatsoever, no matter how you looked at it. While both games were, in whole or in part, strategy games that ran in real time, their personalities were otherwise about as different as it was possible for two games to be. By no means could one imagine a fan of Cryo’s plot-heavy, literary take on Dune automatically embracing Westwood’s action-heavy, militaristic effort. Nor did the one game follow on from the other in the sense of plot chronology; both games depict the very same events from the novel, albeit with radically different sensibilities.

The press too was shocked to learn that a sequel to Cryo’s Dune was due to be released the very same year as its predecessor. “This has got to be a new world record for the fastest ever followup,” wrote the British gaming magazine The One a few weeks after the first Dune‘s release. “Unlike the more adventure-based original, Dune II is expected to be more of a managerial experience comparable to (if anything) the likes of SimCity, as the two warring houses of Atreides and Harkonnen attempt to mine as much spice as possible and blow each other up at the same time.”

The Westwood Studios team who made Dune II. On the front row are Ren Olsen and Dwight Okahara; on the middle row are Judith Peterson, Joe Bostic, Donna Bundy, and Aaron Powell; on the back row are Lisa Ballan and Scott Bowen. Of this group, Bostic and Powell were the game’s official designers, and thus probably deserve the most credit for inventing the genre of real-time strategy. Westwood’s co-founder Brett Sperry also played a critical — perhaps the critical — conceptual role.

It was, on the whole, about as good a description of Dune II as any that appeared in print at the time. Not only was the new game dramatically different from its predecessor, but it wasn’t quite like anything at all which anyone had ever seen before, and coming to grips with it wasn’t easy. Legend has it that Brett Sperry started describing Dune II in shorthand as “real-time strategy” very early on, thus providing a new genre with its name. If so, though, Virgin’s marketers didn’t get the memo. They would struggle mightily to describe the game, and what they ended up with took unwieldiness to new heights: a “strategy-based resource-management simulation with a heavy real-time combat element.” Whew! “Real-time strategy” does have a better ring to it, doesn’t it?

These issues of early taxonomy, if you will, are made intensely interesting by Dune II‘s acknowledged status as the real-time-strategy urtext. That is to say that gaming histories generally claim, correctly on the whole in my opinion, that it was the first real-time strategy game ever.

Yet we do need to be careful with our semantics here. There were actually hundreds of computerized strategy games prior to Dune II which happened to be played in real time, not least among them Cryo’s Dune. The neologism of “real-time strategy” (“RTS”) — like, say, those of “interactive fiction” or even “CRPG” — has a specific meaning separate from the meanings of the individual words which comprise it. It has come to denote a very specific type of game — a game that, yes, runs in real time, but also one where players start with a largely blank slate, gather resources, and use them to build a variety of structures. These structures can in turn build military units who can carry out simple orders of the “attack there” or “defend this” stripe autonomously. The whole game plays on an accelerated time scale which yields bursts if not sustained plateaus of activity as frantic as any action game. This combination of qualities is what Westwood invented, not the abstract notion of a strategy game played in real time rather than turns.

Of course, all inventions stand on the shoulders of those that came before, and RTS is no exception. It can be challenging to trace the bits and pieces which would gel together to become Dune II only because there are so darn many of them.

Utopia

The earliest strategy game to replace turns with real time may have been Utopia, an abstract two-player game of global conquest designed and programmed by Don Daglow for the Intellivision console in 1982. The same year, Dan Bunten’s1 science-fiction-themed Cytron Masters and Chris Crawford’s Roman-themed Legionnaires became the first computer-based strategy games to discard the comfortable round of turns for something more stressful and exciting. Two years later, Brøderbund’s very successful Ancient Art of War exposed the approach to more players than ever before.

In 1989, journalists started talking about a new category of “god game” in the wake of Will Wright’s SimCity and Peter Molyneux’s Populous. The name derived from the way that these games cast you as a god able to control your people only indirectly, by altering their city’s infrastructure in SimCity or manipulating the terrain around them in Populous. This control was accomplished in real time. While, as we’ve seen, this in itself was hardly a new development, the other innovations of these landmark games were as important to the eventual RTS genre as real time itself. No player can possibly micromanage an army of dozens of units in real time — at least not if the clock is set to run at anything more than a snail’s pace. For the RTS genre as we’ve come to know it to function, units must have a degree of autonomous artificial intelligence, must be able to carry out fairly abstract orders and react to events on the ground in the course of doing so. SimCity and Populous demonstrated for the first time how this could work.

By 1990, then, god games had arrived at a place that already bore many similarities to the RTS games of today. The main things still lacking were resource collecting and building. And even these things had to some extent already been done in non-god games: a 1987 British obscurity called Nether Earth demanded that you build robots in your factory before sending them out against your enemy, although there was no way of building new structures beyond your starting factory. Indeed, even the multiplayer death matches that would come to dominate so much of the RTS genre a generation later had already been pioneered before 1990, perhaps most notably in Dan Bunten’s 1988 game Modem Wars.

Herzog Zwei

But the game most often cited as an example of a true RTS in form and spirit prior to Dune II, if such a thing is claimed to exist at all, is one called Herzog Zwei, created by the Japanese developer Technosoft and first published for the Sega Genesis console in Japan in 1989. And yet Herzog Zwei‘s status as an alternative RTS urtext is, at the very least, debatable.

Players each start the game with a single main base, and an additional nine initially neutral “outposts” are scattered over the map. Players “purchase” units in the form of Transformers-like flying robots, which they then use to try to conquer outposts; controlling more of them yields more revenue, meaning one can buy more units more quickly. Units aren’t completely out of the player’s direct control, as in the case of SimCity and Populous, but are ordered about in a rather general way: stand and fight here, patrol this radius, retreat to this position or outpost. The details are then left to the unit-level artificial intelligence. For this reason alone, perhaps, Herzog Zwei subjectively feels more like an RTS than any game before it. But on the other hand, much that would come to mark the genre is still missing: resource collection is still abstracted away entirely, while there’s only one type of unit available to build, and no structures. In my opinion, Herzog Zwei is best seen as another of the RTS genre’s building blocks rather than an urtext.

The question of whether and to what extent Herzog Zwei influenced Dune II is a difficult one to answer with complete assurance. Brett Sperry and Louis Castle have claimed not to even have been aware of the Japanese game’s existence prior to making theirs. In fact, out of all of the widely acknowledged proto-RTS games I’ve just mentioned, they cite only Populous as a major influence. Their other three stated inspirations make for a rather counter-intuitive trio on the face of it: the 1984 Apple II game Rescue Raiders, a sort of Choplifter mated to a strategic wargame; the 1989 NEC TurboGrafx-16 game Military Madness, an abstract turn-based strategy game; and, later in the development process, Sid Meier’s 1991 masterpiece Civilization (in particular, the tech tree therein).

Muddying these waters, however, is an anecdote from Stephen Clarke-Willson, an executive in Virgin’s American offices during the early 1990s. He says that “everyone at the office was playing Herzog Zwei” circa April of 1991: “I was given the task of figuring out what to do with the Dune license since I’d read the book a number of times. I thought from a gaming point of view the real stress was the battle to control the spice, and that a resource-strategy game would be good.” Clarke-Willson further claims that from the outset “Westwood agreed to make a resource-strategy game based on Dune, and agreed to look at Herzog Zwei for design ideas.” Sperry and Castle, by contrast, describe a far more open-ended agreement that called for them simply to make something interesting out of the license, allowing the specifics of their eventual Dune to arise organically from the work they had already started on their fantasy-themed real-time wargame.

For what it’s worth, neither Sperry nor Castle has a reputation for dishonesty. Quite the opposite, in fact: Westwood throughout its life stood out as a bastion of responsibility and stability in an industry not much known for either. So, whatever the true facts may be, we’re better off ascribing these contradictory testimonies to the vagaries of memories than to disingenuousness. Certainly, regardless of the exact influences that went into it, Dune II has an excellent claim to the title of first RTS in the modern neologism’s sense. This really was the place where everything came together and a new genre was born.

In the novel of Dune, the spice is the key to everything. In the Westwood game, even in the absence of almost everything else that makes the novel memorable, the same thing is true. The spice was, notes Louis Castle, “very adaptable to this harvest, grow, build for war, attack gambit. That’s really how [Dune II] came about.” Thus was set up the gameplay loop that still defines the RTS genre to this day — all stemming from a novel published in 1965.

The overarching structure of Dune II is also far more typical of the games of today than those of its peers in the early 1990s. You play a “campaign” consisting of nine scenarios, linked by snippets of narrative, that grow progressively more difficult. There are three of these campaigns to choose from, depicting the war for Arrakis from the standpoint of House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos — the last being a cartel of smugglers who don’t appear in the novel at all, having been invented for a non-canonical 1984 source book known as The Dune Encyclopedia. In addition to a different narrative, each faction has a slightly different slate of structures and units at its command.

There’s the suggestion of a more high-level strategic layer joining the scenarios together: between scenarios, the game lets you choose your next target for attack by clicking on a territory on a Risk-like map of the planet. Nothing you do here can change the fixed sequence of scenario goals and opposing enemy forces the game presents, but it does change the terrain on which the subsequent scenario takes place, thus adding a bit more replayability for the true completionists.

You begin a scenario with a single construction yard, a handful of pre-built units, and a sharply limited initial store of spice, that precious resource from which everything else stems. Fog of war is implemented; in the beginning, you can see only the territory that immediately surrounds your starting encampment. You’ll thus want to send out scouts immediately, to find deposits of spice ripe for harvesting and to learn where the enemy is.

While your scouts go about their business, you’ll want to get an economy of sorts rolling back at home. The construction yard with which you begin can build any structure available in a given scenario, although it’s advisable to first build a “concrete slab” to serve as its foundation atop the shifting sands of Arrakis. The first real structure you’re likely to build is a “wind trap” to provide power to those that follow. Then you’ll want a “spice refinery,” which comes complete with a unit known as a “harvester,” able to collect spice from the surrounding territory and return it to the refinery to become the stuff of subsequent building efforts. Next you’ll probably want an “outpost,” which not only lets you see much farther into the territory around your base without having to deploy units there but is a prerequisite for building any new units at all. After your outpost is in place, building each type of unit requires its own kind of structure, from a “barracks” for light infantry (read: cannon fodder) to a “high tech factory” for the ultimate weapon of airpower. Naturally, more powerful units are more expensive, both in terms of the spice required to build the structures that produce them and that required to build the units themselves afterward.

Your real goal, of course, is to attack and overwhelm the enemy — or, in some later scenarios, enemies — before he or they have the chance to do the same to you. There’s a balancing act here that one could describe as the central dilemma of the game. Just how long do you concentrate on building up your infrastructure and military before you throw your units into battle? Wait too long and the enemy could get overwhelmingly powerful before you cut him down to size; attack too soon and you could be defeated and left exposed to counterattack, having squandered the units you now need for defense. The amount of spice on the map is another stress point. The spice deposits are finite; once they’re gone, they’re gone, and it’s up to whatever units are left to battle it out. Do you stake your claim to that juicy spice deposit just over the horizon right now? Or do you try to eliminate that nearby enemy base first?

If you’ve played any more recent RTS games at all, all of this will sound thoroughly familiar. And, more so than anything else I could write here, it’s this sense of familiarity, clinging as it does to almost every aspect of Dune II, which crystallizes the game’s influence and importance. The only substantial piece of the RTS puzzle that’s entirely missing here is the multiplayer death match; this game is single-player only, lacking the element that for many is the most appealing of all about the RTS genre. Otherwise, though, the difference between this and more modern RTS games is in the details rather than the fundamentals. This anointed first example of an RTS is a remarkably complete example of the breed. All the pieces are here, and all the pieces fit together as we’ve come to expect them to.

So much for hindsight. As for foresight…

Upon its release in the fall of 1992, Dune II was greeted, like its predecessor from Cryo, with positive reviews, but with none of the fanfare one might expect for a game destined to go down in history as such a revolutionary genre-spawner. Computer Gaming World called it merely “a gratifying experience,” while The One was at least a bit more effusive, with the reviewer pronouncing it “one of the most absorbing games I’ve come across.” Yet everyone regarded it as just another fun game at bottom; no one had an inkling that it would in time birth a veritable new gaming subculture. It sold well enough to justify its development, but — very probably thanks in part to its billing as a sequel to a game with a completely different personality, which had itself only been on the market a few months — it never threatened Eye of the Beholder for the crown of Westwood’s biggest hit to date.

Nor did it prompt an immediate flood of games in the same mold, whether from Westwood or anyone else. The next notable example of the budding genre, Blizzard’s Warcraft, wouldn’t appear until late 1994. That title would be roundly mocked by the gaming intelligentsia for its similarities to Dune IIComputer Gaming World would call it “a perfect bit of creative larceny” — but it would sell much, much better, well and truly setting the flame to the RTS torch. To many Warcraft fans, Westwood would seem like the bandwagon jumpers when they belatedly returned to the genre they had invented with 1995’s Command & Conquer.

By the time that happened, Westwood would be a very different place. Just as they were finishing up Dune II, Louis Castle got a call from Richard Branson himself. “Hello, Louis, this is Richard. I’d like to buy your company.”

“I didn’t know it was for sale,” replied Castle.

“In my experience, everything is for sale!”

And, indeed, notwithstanding their unhappiness about Dune II‘s sequel billing, Brett Sperry and Louis Castle sold out to Virgin, with the understanding that their new parent company would stay out of their hair and let them make the games they wanted to make, holding them accountable only on the basis of the sales they generated. Unlike so many merger-and-acquisition horror stories, Westwood would have a wonderful relationship with Virgin and Martin Alper, who provided the investment they needed to thrive in the emerging new era of CD-ROM-based, multimedia-heavy gaming. We’ll doubtless be meeting Sperry, Castle, and Alper again in future articles.


Looked upon from the perspective of today, the two Dune games of 1992 make for an endlessly intriguing pairing, almost like an experiment in psychology or sociology. Not only did two development teams set out to make a game based on the same subject matter, but they each wound up with a strategy game running in real time. And yet the two games could hardly be more different.

In terms of historical importance, there’s no contest between the two Dunes. While Cryo’s Dune had no discernible impact on the course of gaming writ large, Westwood’s is one of the most influential games of the 1990s. A direct line can be traced from it to games played by tens if not hundreds of millions of people all over the world today. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe,” ran the blurb on the front cover of millions of Dune paperbacks and movie posters. Replace “spice” with the resource of any given game’s choice, and the same could be stated as the guiding tenet of the gaming genre Dune birthed.

And yet I’m going to make the perhaps-surprising claim that the less-heralded first Dune is the more enjoyable of the two to play today. Its fusion of narrative and strategy still feels bracing and unique. I’ve never seen another game which plays quite like this one, and I’ve never seen another ludic adaptation that does a better job of capturing the essential themes and moods of its inspiration.

Dune II, by contrast, can hardly be judged under that criterion at all, given that it’s just not much interested in capturing any of the subtleties of Herbert’s novel; it’s content to stop at “he who controls the spice controls the universe.” Judged on its own terms, meanwhile, strictly as a game rather than an adaptation, it’s become the ironic victim of its own immense influence. I noted earlier that all of the pieces of the RTS genre, with the exception only of the multiplayer death match, came together here for the first time, that later games would be left to worry only about the details. Yet it should also be understood that those details are important. The ability to give orders to groups of units; the ability to give more complex orders to units; ways to get around the map more quickly and easily; higher-resolution screens able to show more of the map at one time; a bigger variety of unit types, with greater variance between opposing factions; more varied and interesting scenarios and terrains; user-selectable difficulty levels (Dune II often seems to be stuck on “Brutal”)… later games would do all of this, and so much more besides. Again, these things do matter. Playing Dune II today is like playing your favorite RTS game stripped down to its most basic foundation. For a historian or a student of game design, that’s kind of fascinating. For someone who just wants to play a fun game, it’s harder to justify.

Still, none of this should detract from the creativity and sheer technical chops that went into realizing Dune II in its own time. Most gaming genres require some iteration to work out the kinks and hone the experience. The RTS genre in particular has been so honed by such a plethora of titles, all working within such a sharply demarcated set of genre markers, that Dune II is bound to seem like a blunt instrument indeed when we revisit it today.

So, there you have it: two disparate Dune games, both inspired and worthy, but in dramatically different ways. Dune as evocative storytelling experience or Dune as straightforward interactive ultra-violence? Take your pick. The choice seems appropriate for a novel that’s been pulled back and forth along much the same axis ever since its first publication in 1965. Does it have a claim to the mantle of High Literature or is it “just” an example of a well-crafted genre novel? Take your pick. The same tension shows itself in the troubled history of Dune as movie, in the way it could attract both filmmakers who pursued — or at least believed themselves to be pursuing — a higher artistic calling, like Alejandro Jodorowsky, and purveyors of the massiest of mass-market entertainments, like Arthur P. Jacobs. Dune as art film or Dune as blockbuster? Take your pick — but please, choose one or the other. Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, the first people to get an actual Dune film made, tried to split the difference, making it through a mainstream Hollywood studio with a blockbuster-sized budget, but putting all those resources in the hands of a director of art films. As we’ve seen, the result of that collision of sensibilities was unsatisfying to patrons of multiplexes and art-house theaters alike.

In that light, perhaps it really was for the best that Virgin wound up accidentally releasing two Dune games. Cryo’s Dune locked down the artsier side of Dune‘s split media personality, while Westwood’s was just good fun, satisfying the timeless urge of gamers to blow stuff up in entertaining ways. Thanks to a colossal bureaucratic cock-up at Virgin, there is, one might say, a Dune game for every Dune reader. Which one really is “better” is an impossible question to answer in the end. I’ve stated my opinion, but I have no doubt that plenty of you readers could make an equally compelling case in the other direction. So, vive la différence! With all due apologies to Frank Herbert, variety is the real spice of life.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1993, August 1993, and January 1995; Game Developer of June 2001; The One of October 1992, January 1993, and July 1993; Retro Gamer 90; Westwood Studios’s customer newsletter dated Fall 1992. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast, “Retro Throwback: Dune 2 by Cole Machin on CGM, “Build, gather, brawl, repeat: The history of real-time strategy games” by Richard Moss on Ars Technica, “A New Dawn: Westwood Studios 15th Anniversary” by Geoff Keighly with Amer Ajami on GameSpot, and “The Origin of Realtime Strategy Games on the PC” by Stephen Clarke Willson on his blog Random Blts.

Feel free to download Dune II from right here, packaged so as to make it as easy as possible to get running using your chosen platform’s version of DOSBox.)


  1. Dan Bunten died in 1998 as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 
 

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Controlling the Spice, Part 2: Cryo’s Dune

Philippe Ulrich

To hear him tell the story at any rate, Philippe Ulrich had always been destined to make a computer game out of Dune. On July 21, 1980, he was a starving young musician living in an attic closet in Paris without heat or electricity, having just been dropped by his tiny record label after his first album had stiffed. Threading his way through the tourists packing the Champs-Élysées that scorching summer day, he saw an odd little gadget called a Sinclair ZX80 in the window of an electronics shop. The name of the shop? Dune. His destiny was calling.

But a busy decade still lay between Ulrich and his Dune game. For now, he fell in love at first sight with the first personal computer he had ever seen. His only goal became to scrape together enough money to buy it. Through means fair or foul, he did so, and within a year he had sold his first game, a BASIC implementation of the board game Othello, to Sinclair’s French distributor. He soon partnered up with one Emmanuel Viau, a medical student eager to drop out of university and pursue his real love of programming games. The two pumped out arcade clones and educational drills to raise cash, and officially incorporated their own little software studio, ERE Informatique, on April 28, 1983.

Rémi Herbulot

ERE moved up from the ranks of regional developers and arcade-clone-makers to score their first big international hit thanks to one Rémi Herbulot, a financial controller at the automotive supplier Valeo who had learned BASIC to save his company money on accounting software, only to get himself hopelessly hooked on the drug that was programming to personalities like his. Without ever having seen the American Bill Budge’s landmark Pinball Construction Set, Herbulot wrote a program along the same lines: one that let you build your own pinball table from a box of interchangeable parts and then play and share it with your friends. As soon as Herbolut showed his pinball game to Ulrich, he knew that it had far more potential than anything ERE had made so far, and didn’t waste any time hiring the creator and publishing his creation. Upon its release in 1985, Macadam Bumper topped sales charts in both France and Britain, selling almost 100,000 copies in all. It was even picked up by the American publisher Accolade, who released it as Pinball Wizard and saw it get as high as number 5 on the American charts despite the competition from Pinball Construction Set. Just like that, ERE Informatique had made it onto the international stage. For a second act, Rémi Herbulot soon provided the action-adventure Crafton & Xunk — released as Get Dexter! in some places — and it too became a hit across Europe.

Yet none of the free spirits who made up ERE Informatique was much of a businessman — least of all Philippe Ulrich — and the little collective lived constantly on the ragged edge of insolvency. Hoping to secure the funding needed to make more ambitious games to suit the new 16-bit computers entering the market, Ulrich and Viau sold their company to the Lyon-based Infogrames, the largest games publisher in France, in June of 1987. The plan was for ERE to continue making their games, still under their old company name, while Infogrames quietly took care of the accounting and the publishing.

For the past year already, much of ERE’s energy had been absorbed by Captain Blood, a game designed by Ulrich himself and a newer arrival named Didier Bouchon, a student of biology, interior design, film, and painting whom Ulrich liked to describe as his company’s very own “mad scientist.” And, indeed, Captain Blood was something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a game, combining a fractal-based space-flight simulator with a conversation engine that had you talking with the aliens you met in an invented symbolic language. With its Giger-inspired tangles of onscreen organics and technology and a color palette dominated by neon blues and deep purples, it was all extremely strange stuff, looking and playing more like a conceptual-art installation than a videogame. Not least strange was the plot, which cast the player as a programmer who got sucked into an alternate dimension inside his computer, then saw his identity fractured into six by a “hyperspace accident.” Now he must scour the galaxy to find and destroy his clones and reconstitute his full identity. In a major publicity coup, Ulrich managed to convince the famous composer and keyboardist Jean-Michel Jarre to license to ERE the piece of music that became the game’s main theme. Such a collaboration matched perfectly with the company’s public persona, which depicted their games not so much as commercial entertainments as an emerging artistic movement, in line with, as Ulrich liked to say, Impressionism, Dadaism, or surrealism: “Why should it not be the same with software?”

Captain Blood

Released for the Atari ST in France just in time for the Christmas of 1987, Captain Blood certainly was, whatever else you could say about it, a bold artistic gambit. The French gaming magazine SVM talked it up if anything even more than Ulrich himself, declaring it “a masterpiece,” “the most beautiful game in the world,” the herald of a new generation of games “where narrative sense and programming talent are at the service of a new art.” This sort of stilted grandiosity — sounding, at least when translated into English, a bit like some of the symbolic dialogs you had with the aliens in Captain Blood — would become one of the international hallmarks of a French gaming culture that was just beginning to break out beyond the country’s borders. Captain Blood became the first poster child for what Philippe Ulrich himself would later dub “the French Touch”: “Our games didn’t have the excellent gameplay of original English-language games, but graphically, their aesthetics were superior.”

It took some time to realize that, underneath its undeniable haunting beauty, Captain Blood wasn’t really much of a game. Playing it meant flying around to random planets, going through the same tedious flight-simulator bits again and again, and then — if you were lucky and the planet you’d arrived at wasn’t entirely empty — having baffling conversations with all too loquacious aliens, never knowing what was just gibberish for the sake of it and what was some sort of vital clue. As Ulrich’s own words above would indicate, he and some other French developers really did seem to believe that making beautiful and conceptually original games like Captain Blood should absolve them from the hard work of testing, tweaking, and balancing them. And perhaps he had a point, at least momentarily. What with owners of slick new 16-bit machines like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga eager to see them put through their audiovisual paces, gameplay really could fall by the wayside with few obvious consequences. Captain Blood sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide despite its faults. For ERE Informatique, it felt like a validation of their new direction.

So, on June 12, 1988, they announced the formation of a new sub-label for artsy games like Captain Blood in an elaborate “happening” at the storied Maison de la Radio in Paris. The master of ceremonies was none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean filmmaker who had spent $2 million in an abortive attempt to make a Dune movie back in the 1970s. The name of the sub-label, Exxos, was derived from the Greek prefix meaning “outward.” The conceit had it that Exxos was literally the god in the machines at ERE Informatique, the real mastermind of all their games. After Jodorowsky’s introduction, Ulrich stepped up to say his piece:

Ladies and gentlemen, the decision was not easy, but still, we have agreed to reveal to you the secret of our dynamism and creativity, which makes ERE Informatique a success. If there are sensitive people in the room, I ask them to be strong. They have nothing to fear if their vibrations are positive; the telluric forces will save them.

My friends, the inspiration does not fall from the sky, genius is not by chance. The inspiration and genius which designed Macadam Bumper is not the fabulous Rémi Herbulot. The inspiration and genius which led to Captain Blood is not the unquenchable Didier Bouchon nor your servant here.

It is Him! He who has lived hidden in our offices for months. He who comes from outside the Universe. He that we reveal today to the world, because the hour has come. I name Exxos. I ask you to say after me a few magic words to remind Him of His homeland: ata ata hoglo hulu, ata ata hoglo hulu…

A group chant followed, more worthy of an occult ceremony than a business presentation.

Some months later, Rémi Herbulot’s Purple Saturn Day became the first big game to premiere on the Exxos label. It was a sort of avant-garde take on the Epyx Games sports series, if you can imagine such a thing. “O Exxos, you who showed us the path to the global success of Captain Blood, you who inspired those fabulous colorful swirls of spacetime!” prayed Philippe Ulrich before a bemused crowd of ordinary trade-show attendees. “Today it is the turn of Rémi Herbulot and Purple Saturn Day. Exxos, thank you!”

The shtick got old quickly. When ERE promoted the next Exxos game, a poorly designed point-and-click adventure called Kult, by dismembering a life-sized latex alien in the name of their god and distributing the pieces to assembled journalists, you could almost see the collective shrug that followed even in the French gaming press. Neither Purple Saturn Day nor Kult (the latter of which was published under the name of Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess in North America) sold in anything like the numbers of Captain Blood.

Meanwhile Infogrames, ERE’s parent company, had gotten into serious financial trouble through over-expansion and over-investment. After a near-acquisition by the American publisher Epyx fell through at the last minute, Infogrames stopped paying the bills at ERE Informatique. Thanks no doubt to such ruthless cost-cutting, Infogrames would escape by the skin of their teeth, and in time would recover sufficient to become one of the biggest games publishers in the world. ERE, however, was finished. Philippe Ulrich and his little band of followers had been cast adrift along with their god. But never fear; their second act would prove almost as surprising as their first. For Ulrich and company were about to meet Dune.



Given the enormous popularity of the novel, one might have expected a Dune computer game long before this point. Yet, thanks to the high-profile but failed Dune film, the rights had been in limbo for the past five years.

As we saw in my previous article, the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation licensed the media rights to Dune — which included game rights — from Frank Herbert in 1982. About six months prior to the film’s release in December of 1984, they made a deal with Parker Brothers — best known as the maker of such evergreen family board games as Monopoly, Clue, and Risk — for a Dune videogame. But said game never materialized; the failure of the film, coupled with a troubled American home-computer marketplace and an all but annihilated post-Great Videogame Crash console marketplace, apparently made them think better of the idea. The Dino De Laurentiis Corporation went bankrupt in 1985, and Frank Herbert died the following year. Despite the inevitable flurry of litigation which followed these events, no one seemed to be quite sure for a long time just where the game rights now resided. The person who would at last break this logjam at decade’s end was a dapper 47-year-old Briton named Martin Alper.

Martin Alper with a display rack of cheap games. These were to be found in all sorts of unlikely places in Britain, from corner shops to booksellers, during Mastertronic’s heyday.

Alper had gotten his start in software in 1983, when, already an established businessman and entrepreneur, he had invested in a tape-duplication facility. At this time, British computer games were distributed almost exclusively on cassette tapes. “I asked the guy how much it cost to duplicate a tape,” Alper later remembered. “He said about 30p. Then I asked him how much they sold the games for. About eight or nine pounds. I couldn’t understand the massive difference.” In his confusion he detected the scent of Opportunity. The result would be Mastertronic, the most internationally successful budget label of the 1980s.

Alper and two others launched Mastertronic in April of 1984 with several games priced at £1.99, about half the lowest price point typical in Britain at the time. The figure was no accident: a survey had revealed that £2 was the average amount of weekly pocket money given to boys of twelve years old or so by British parents. Thus, while the typical kid might have to save up for several weeks to buy a game from the competition, he could buy a new one every single weekend from Mastertronic if he was sufficiently dedicated. And dedicated the kids of Britain proved to be, to the tune of 130,000 Mastertronic games shipped in the first month.

The established powers in the British games industry, however, were less enthusiastic. Claiming that selling games at such prices would set everyone on the road to ruin, distributors flatly refused to handle Mastertronic’s products. Unfazed, Alper and his partners simply went around them, setting up their own distribution pipeline with the likes of the bookstore chain W.H. Smith and even supermarkets and convenience stores, who were advised to place the freestanding pillars of Mastertronic games, with “£1.99!” emblazoned in big digits across the top, right where parents and children passed by on their way to the cash register with their groceries. “The problem with the conventional retail outlets,” said Alper, “is [that] they don’t encourage the impulse purchase. Supermarkets are much better at that.”

Mastertronic’s simple action games weren’t great, but for the most part they weren’t as horrible as the rest of the industry liked to claim either. If they lacked the staying power of many of their higher-priced rivals, that could be rationalized away in light of the fact that a kid could buy a new one every week or two. And Alper proved hugely talented at tempting his target demographic in all sorts of ways that didn’t depend directly on the quality of the games themselves. One of Mastertronic’s biggest early hits was a knock-off of Michael Jackson’s extended “Thriller” video, renamed to Chiller. (Predictably enough, they were hauled into court by Jackson’s management company and wound up having to pay a settlement, but they still came out well-ahead financially.) Another game, Clumsy Colin Action Biker, starred the mascot from a popular brand of crisps, and was advertised right on the packages of said junk food. (“They showed us how they were made. It’s revolting. You know those little plastic chips you get in packing materials? They’re exactly the same, with added flavoring.”)

It was all pretty lowbrow stuff — about as far as you could get from the high-toned pretensions of ERE Informatique across the English Channel — but Mastertronic’s games-as-commodies business model proved very successful. Within eighteen months of their launch, Mastertronic alone owned 20 percent of the British computer-games market, was expanding aggressively across the rest of Europe, and had become the first British software house to launch a successful line in the United States. In fact, Martin Alper had already moved to California, the better to steer operations there.

But Mastertronic’s glory days of huge profits off cheap games were brief-lived. Just like Infogrames in France, they tried to do too much too soon. Losing sight of their core competencies, they funded a line of coin-operated arcade games that went nowhere and acquired the prestigious but troubled British/Australian publisher Melbourne House for way too much money. At the same time, the army of lone-wolf bedroom coders who provided their games proved ill-equipped to take full advantage of the newer 16-bit machines that began to capture many gamers’ hearts and wallets as the 1980s wore on. Already by 1987, Mastertronic’s bottom line had turned from black to red.

Meanwhile Virgin Games, one of the smaller subsidiaries of Richard Branson’s globe-spanning media empire, had been quietly releasing games in Britain since 1982. Now, though, Branson was eager to get into the games market in a more concentrated way. Mastertronic, possessed of excellent worldwide distribution and proven marketing savvy despite their current financial difficulties, seemed a great way to do that. In early 1988, Virgin bought Mastertronic.

Initially, the new subsidiary took the name of Virgin Mastertronic and simply continued on with business as usual. But as Martin Alper looked upon a changing industry, he saw those more powerful 16-bit platforms continuing to take over from the simple 8-bit machines that had fueled Mastertronic’s success, and he saw older demographics with more disposable income beginning to take an interest in more sophisticated, upmarket computer games. In short, he felt that he had already hit a ceiling with his cheap little games; what had been so right for 1984 was no longer such a great fit for 1988. And so Alper, a man of enormous charisma and energy, maneuvered himself into the leading role at Virgin Games proper, overseeing its worldwide operations from California, the entertainment capital of the world. After having fallen into exactly the decline Alper had foreseen, Virgin Mastertronic would be sold off in 1991 to the Japanese console maker Sega, with whom they had a longstanding distribution agreement.

Alper loved Dune, connecting with its mythical — mystical? — qualities on a deep-seated level: “It presents a parallel with Christianity or Judaism, including the idea of the messiah who comes to save a strange planet. Dune begs questions about other civilizations that could exist: will they have the same beliefs, worship the same supernatural beings?” He had always dreamed of publishing a Dune computer game, but had known it just wasn’t practical on a Mastertronic budget. Now, though, with the more prestigious name and deeper pockets of Virgin behind him, he started pursuing the license in earnest. Beginning in 1988, he worked through a long, fraught process of first identifying the proper holder of the media rights — as far as could be determined from all of the previous litigation and bankruptcies, they seemed to have reverted to Universal Pictures, the distributor of the film — and then of prying them away for Virgin. Alper saw a Dune game as announcing Virgin’s — and his own — arrival on the scene as a major industry player in an artistic as well as commercial sense, making games far removed from the budgetware of the Mastertronic years.

Even as Alper was trying to secure the Dune rights, Philippe Ulrich and his friends were trying to free themselves from their entanglements with Infogrames and continue making games elsewhere. They found a welcome supporter in Jean-Martial Lefranc, the head of Virgin Loisirs, Virgin Games’s French arm. Manifesting a touch of Gallic pride, he wanted to set up a homegrown studio, made up of French developers creating ambitious and innovative games which would be distributed all over the world under the Virgin label. And certainly no one could accuse Ulrich and friends of lacking either ambition or a spirit of innovation. Lefranc helped to negotiate a concrete exit agreement between the former ERE Informatique and Infogrames, and thereafter signed them up to become the basis of a new Virgin Loisirs subsidiary.

Ulrich and company named their new studio Cryo Interactive, a play on cryogenic chambers and the computer-assisted dreams people would presumably have in them in the future. They announced their existence with all the grandiosity the world had come to expect from this bunch, saying that their purpose would be to “open the way to the next generation of software designers, artists, programmers, and so on,” who would “create expanding horizons for our imagination in tomorrow’s fascinating technology world.” “Infinite travel, magic, beauty, technology, adventure, and mystery” were in the offing.

In August of 1989, Rémi Herbulot flew to California to have a more prosaic conversation with Martin Alper about potential Cryo projects that might be suitable for the international market. Alper told him then that he was trying to secure the rights to make a Dune game, a project for which he saw Cryo as the perfect development team, without elaborating as to why. “But,” he said, “there’s seems to be little chance of actually getting the rights.”

Herbulot wasn’t sure what to make of the whole exchange, but when he told his colleagues about it back in Paris, Ulrich, who loved the novel unconditionally, was convinced that the project had been ordained by fate. Not only had he bought his first computer in a shop called Dune, but the hotel in Las Vegas where they had all stayed during the last Winter Consumer Electronics Show had had the same name. And then there was his friendship with Alejandro Jodorowsky, the would-be Dune film director of yore. What another might have seen as a series of tangential coincidences, Ulrich saw as the mysterious workings of destiny. It was “obvious,” he said, that Cryo would end up making Dune into a computer game — and, indeed, he was proven correct. Three weeks after Herbulot’s return from California, Ulrich got a call at home from Jean-Martial Lefranc. Martin Alper had managed to secure the Dune license after all, said Virgin Loisir’s chief executive, and he wanted Cryo to start thinking immediately about what kind of game they could make out of it. Ulrich remembers running out of his apartment building and doing several laps around the block, feeling like he was levitating.

But his ecstasy would be short lived. Virgin assigned as Dune‘s producer David Bishop, a veteran British games journalist, designer, and executive. The language barrier and the distance separating London from Paris were just the beginning of the difficulties that ensued. In the eyes of his French charges, Bishop seemed to view himself as Dune‘s appointed designer, Cryo as the mere technical team assigned to implement his vision. Given the artistic aspirations of people like Philippe Urlich and Rémi Herbulot, who so forthrightly described themselves as the vanguard of nothing less than a new artistic movement, this was bound to cause problems. Meanwhile Bishop, for his part, was convinced that Cryo was being deliberately obtuse and oh so inscrutably Gallic just to mess with him. The cross-Channel working relationship started out strained and just kept getting more so.

Following what was, for better or for worse, becoming an accepted industry practice, Virgin told Cryo that they had to storyboard the game on paper and get that approved before they could even begin to implement anything on a computer. Cryo worked this way for months on end, abandoning their computers for pencil and paper.

Adapting a story as complex as that of Dune to another medium must be, as David Lynch among others had already learned, a daunting endeavor under any circumstances. “We reread the book several times, got hold of everything we could find on the subject, and watched the movie over and over again,” says Philippe Ulrich. “Whenever we came across somebody who had read the book, we asked them what had impressed them most and what their strongest memories were.” The centerpiece of the book and the movie, the struggle for control of Arrakis between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, must obviously be the centerpiece of the game as well. Yet Cryo didn’t want to lose all of the other textures of the story. How could they best capture the spirit of Dune? To boil it all down to yet another game of military strategy in an industry already flooded with such things didn’t seem right, but neither did a point-and-click adventure game. After much struggle, they decided to do both — to combine a strategic view of the battle for Arrakis with the embodied, first-person role of Paul Atreides.

David Bishop hated it. All of it. “The interface is too complex,” he said. “A mix of adventure and strategy is not desirable.” Others in Virgin’s British and American offices also piled on. Cryo’s design lacked “unity,” they said; it would require “fifty disks” to hold it; it had “too many cinematic sequences, at the risk of boring the player”; the time required to develop it would “exceed the average lifespan of a programmer.” One particular question was raised endlessly, if understandably in light of Cryo’s history: would this be a game that mainstream American gamers would want to play, or would it be all, well, French? And yes, it was a valid enough concern on the face of it. But equally valid was the counterpoint raised by Ulrich: if you didn’t want a French Dune, why did you hire arguably the most French of all French studios to make it? Or did Bishop feel that that decision had been a mistake? Certainly Cryo had long since begun to suspect that his real goal was to kill the project by any means necessary.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1990. In what may very well still stand as an industry record, Dune had now been officially “in production” for almost a year without a single line of code getting written. Virgin invited the whole of Cryo to join them at their offices in London to try to hash the whole thing out. The meeting was marked by bursts of bickering over trivialities, interspersed with long, sullen silences. At last, Philippe Ulrich stood up to make a final impassioned speech. He said that Cryo was trying their level best to make a game that evoked all of the major themes of a book they loved (never mind for the moment that the license Virgin had acquired could more accurately be described as a license to the movie). The transformation of boy to messiah was in there; the all-importance of the spice was in there; even the ecological themes were in there. David Bishop just snorted in response; Virgin wanted a commercial computer game that was fun to play, he groused, not a work of fine literary art. Nothing got resolved.

Or perhaps in a way it did. On September 19, 1990, Cryo got a fax from London: “We do not believe that the Dune proposal is strong enough to publish under the Virgin Games label. Consequently, we do not wish that more work be undertaken on this title.”

And then, at this fraught juncture, a rather extraordinary thing happened. Ulrich went directly to Jean-Martial Lefranc of Virgin Loisirs to plead his case one final time, whereupon Lefranc told him to just go ahead and make his Dune his way — to forget about storyboards and David Bishop and all the rest of it. Virgin Loisirs was doing pretty well at the moment; he’d find some money in some hidden corner of his budget to keep the lights on at Cryo. If they made the Dune game a great one, he was sure he could smooth it all over with his superiors after the fact, when he had a fait accompli in the form of an amazing game that just had to be published already in his hands. And so Ulrich took a second lap or two around the block and then buckled down to work.

For some six months, Cryo beavered away at their Dune in secrecy. Then, suddenly, the jig was up. Lefranc — who, as his actions in relation to Dune would indicate, didn’t have an overly high opinion of Virgin Games’s international management — left to join the movie-making arm of the Virgin empire. His replacement, Christian Brécheteau, was a complete unknown quantity for Cryo. At about the same time, a routine global audit of the empire’s books sent word back to London about a significant sum being paid to Cryo every month for reasons that were obscure at best. Brécheteau called Ulrich: “Take the first plane to London and make your own case. I can’t do anything for you.”

As it happened, Martin Alper was in London at that time. If Ulrich hoped for a sympathetic reception from that quarter, however, he was disappointed. After pointedly leaving him to cool his heels in a barren waiting room most of the day, Alper and other executives, including Cryo’s arch-nemesis David Bishop, invited Ulrich in. The mood was decidedly chilly as he set up his presentation. “This is not a game!” scoffed Alper almost immediately, as soon as he saw the first, heavily scripted scenes. Yet as Ulrich demonstrated further he could sense the mood — even the mood of Bishop — slowly changing to one of grudging interest. Alper even pronounced some of what he saw “remarkable.”

Ulrich was ushered out of the room while the jury considered his fate. When he was called back in, Alper pronounced their judgment: “You have five weeks to send me something more polished. If that doesn’t please me, I never want to hear about it again, and you can consider yourself fired.” A more formal statement of his position was faxed to Paris the next day:

Our opinion of the game has not changed. The graphics and aesthetic  presentation are impressive, but the overall design is still too confusing, especially if one takes into account the tastes of the American public. We are willing to support your work until July 15 [1991], by which date we expect to receive a playable version of the game in England and the United States. If the earlier concerns expressed by David Bishop prove unfounded, we will be happy to support your efforts to realize the finished game. However, we wish to point out that it will not under any circumstances be possible to transfer the Dune license to another publisher, and that no game of Frank Herbert’s novel will be published without our consent.1

Cryo bit their tongues and made the changes Virgin requested — changes designed to make the game more streamlined, more understandable, and more playable. On July 15, they packaged up what they had and sent it off. Three days later, they got a call from a junior executive in Virgin’s California office. His tone was completely different from that of the fax of five and a half weeks earlier: “What you have done is fantastic. Productivity has collapsed around here because people are all playing your game!”

Cryo originally planned to use this picture of Sting in their Dune game, but the rock star refused permission to use his likeness.

So, Feyd-Rautha, Sting’s character in the movie, had to get some plastic surgery for the game.

Work continued on the game for another nine months or so. Relations between Cryo and Virgin remained strained at times over that period, but cancellation was never again on the cards. At Virgin’s insistence, Cryo spent considerable time making the game look more like the movie, rather than their possibly idiosyncratic image of the book. Most of the characters, with the exception of only a few whose actors refused permission to have their likenesses reproduced — Sting and Patrick Stewart were among them — were redrawn to match the film. The media-savvy Martin Alper was well aware that Kyle MacLachlan, the star of the film, was currently starring in David Lynch’s much-talked-about television series Twin Peaks. He made sure that MacLachlan graced the front of the box as Paul Atriedes.

The game of Dune‘s cover art was a still from the movie.

Cryo’s Dune finally shipped worldwide in May of 1992, to positive reviews and healthy sales; one report claims that it sold 20,000 copies in its first week in the United States alone, a very impressive performance for the time. It did if anything even better in Europe; Cryo had been smart enough to develop and release it simultaneously for MS-DOS, the overwhelmingly dominant computer-game platform in North America, and for the Commodore Amiga, the almost-as-popular computer-gaming platform of choice in much of Europe. The game was successful enough that Virgin funded expanded MS-DOS and Sega Genesis CD-based versions, which appeared in 1993, complete with voice acting and additional animation sequences.



And what can we say about Cryo’s Dune today? I will admit that I didn’t have high hopes coming in. As must be all too clear by now, I’m not generally a fan of this so-called French Touch in games. While I love beauty as much as the next person and love to be moved by games, I do insist that a game work first and foremost as a game. This isn’t a standard that Philippe Ulrich’s teams tended to meet very often, before or after they made Dune. The combination of Ulrich’s love of weirdness with the famously weird filmmaker David Lynch would seem a toxic brew indeed, one that could only result in a profoundly awful game. Inscrutability can work at times in the non-interactive medium of movies; in games, where the player needs to have some idea what’s expected from her, not so much.

But, rather amazingly, Cryo’s Dune defies any knee-jerk prejudices that might be engendered by knowledge of Philippe Ulrich’s earlier or later output. While it’s every bit as unique a design concept as you might expect given its place of origin, in this case the concept works. For all that they spent the better part of three years at one another’s throats more often than not, Dune nevertheless wound up being a true meeting in the middle between the passionate digital artistes of Cryo and the more practical craftsmen in Virgin’s Anglosphere offices. For once, an exemplar of the French Touch has a depth worthy of its striking surface. Dune plays like a dispatch from an alternate reality in which Cryo cared as much about making good games in a design sense as they did about making beautiful and meaningful ones in an aesthetic and thematic sense — thus proving, should anyone have doubted it, that these things need not be mutually exclusive.

The game leads you by the nose a bit at the beginning, but it later opens up. The early stages function very well as a tutorial for the strategy game. Thanks to this fact and the simple, intuitive interface, the Dune player has little need for the manual.

You play the game of Dune as Paul Atreides, just arrived on Arrakis with his father and mother and the rest of House Atreides. From his embodied perspective, you fly around the planet in your ornithopter, recruiting the various Fremen clans to your cause, then directing them to mine the precious spice, to train in military maneuvers, to spy on House Harkonnen, and eventually to go to war against them. As you’re doing so, another form of plot engine is also ticking along, unfolding the experiences which transform the boy Paul Atriedes physically and spiritually into his new planet’s messiah. This “adventurey” side of the game is extremely assertive at first, to the point of leading you by the nose through the strategy side: go here and do this; now go there and do that. In time, however, it eases up and your goals become more abstract, giving much more scope for you to manage the war your way.

The fusion isn’t always perfect; it is possible to break the adventure side of the game if you obstinately pursue your own agenda in the strategy side. But it’s certainly one of the most interesting and successful hybrid designs I’ve ever seen. As the character you play is transformed by his experiences, so is the strategy game you’re playing; as Paul’s psychic powers grow, you no longer have to hop around the planet as much in your physical form, but can communicate with your followers over long distances using extra-sensory perception. Eventually your powers will expand enough to let you ride the fearsome sandworms into the final series of battles against the Harkonnen.

Dune is a strategy game inside an embodied adventure game.

Cryo’s Dune provides other ludic adaptations from non-interactive media with a worthy benchmark to strive for; it doesn’t always fuss overly much about the details of its source material, but it really does do a superb job of capturing its spirit. As an impassioned Philippe Ulrich noted at that pivotal meeting in London, there’s no theme in the book that isn’t echoed, however faintly, in the game. Even the ecological element of the book that made it such a favorite of the environmental movement is remembered, as you reclaim mined-out desert lands to begin a “greening” of Arrakis later in the game. Ditto that wind of utter alienness that blows through the book and, now, the game. This game looks and feels and, perhaps most of all, sounds like no other; its synthesized soundtrack has passed into gaming legend as one of the very best of its breed, so good that Cryo actually released it as a standalone audio CD.

An in-game encyclopedia is available for newcomers, but in truth it’s hardly needed. The game conveys everything you really need to know almost subliminally as you play.

The game manages to be so evocative of its source material while remaining as enjoyable for those who haven’t read the novel or seen the film as those who have. It does a great job of getting newcomers up to speed, even as its dynamic, emergent strategy element ensures that it never becomes a dull exercise in walking through a plot those who have read the book already know. Its interface is an intuitive breeze, and the difficulty as well is perfectly pitched for what the game wants to be, being difficult enough to keep you on your toes but reasonable enough that you have a good chance of winning on your first try; after all, who wants to play through a story-oriented game like this twice? I love to see innovative approaches to gameplay that defy the strict boundaries of genre, and love it even more when said approaches work as well as they do here. This game still has plenty to teach the designers of today.

The big picture…

Sadly, though, Cryo’s Dune, despite its considerable commercial success, has gone down in history as something of a curiosity rather than a harbinger of design trends to come, a one-off that had little influence on the games that came later — not even the later games that came out of Cryo, which quite uniformly failed to approach the design standard set here. Cryo would survive for the balance of the 1990s, churning out what veteran games journalist John Walker calls, in his succinct and hilarous summing up of their legacy, “always awful but ever so sincere productions.” They would become known for, as Walker puts it, “deadpan adventure games set in wholly ludicrous reinterpretations of out-of-copyright works of literature, in which nothing made sense, and all puzzles were unfathomable guesswork.” The biggest mystery surrounding them is just how the hell they managed to stay in business for a full decade. Just who was buying all these terrible games that all of the magazines ripped to shreds and no one you talked to would ever admit to even playing, much less enjoying?

Nor did anyone else emerge to take up the torch of games that were designed to match the themes, plots, and settings of their fictions rather than to slot into some arbitrary box of ludic genre. Instead, the lines of genre would only continue to harden as time went on. Interesting hybrids like Cryo’s Dune became a more and more difficult sell to publishers, for dismaying if understandable reasons: said publishers were continuing to look on as their customers segregated themselves into discrete pools, each of whom only played a certain kind of game to the exclusive of all others. And so Cryo’s Dune passed into history, just one more briefly popular, now obscure gem ripe for rediscovery…

But wait, you might be saying: I claimed at the end of the first article in this series that Dune left a “profound mark” on gaming. Well, as it happens, that is true of Dune in general — but not true of this particular Dune game. Those months during which Cryo and Virgin Loisirs took their Dune underground — months during which the rest of Virgin Games had no idea what their French arm was doing — had yet more ramifications than those I’ve already described. For, during the time when he believed the Cryo Dune to be dead, Martin Alper launched a new project to make another, very different sort of Dune game, using developers much closer to his home base in California. This other Dune would be far less inspiring than Cryo’s as an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel or even of David Lynch’s film, but its influence on the world of gaming in general would be far more pronounced.

(Sources: the book La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah; Home Computer of June 1984; CU Amiga of July 1991 and June 1992; Amiga Format of March 1990; Computer and Video Games of August 1985, November 1985, and April 1986; New Computer Express of February 3 1990; Amstrad Action of March 1986 and April 1986; Retro Gamer 90; The One of May 1991 and June 1992; Game Players PC Entertainment Vol. 5 No. 5; PC Review of June 1992; Aktueller Software Markt of August 1994; Home Computing Weekly of May 8 1984, July 17 1984, and September 18 1984; Popular Computing Weekly of July 19 1984; Sinclair User of January 1986; The Games Machine of October 1987; Your Computer of January 1986. Online sources include “I Kind of Miss Dreadful Adventure Developer Cryo” by John Walker on Rock Paper Shotgun and “How ‘French Touch’ Gave Early Videogames Art, Brains” by Chris Baker on Wired. Note that some of the direct quotations in this article are translated into English from the French.

Feel free to download Cryo Interactive’s Dune from right here, packaged so as to make it as easy as possible to get running using your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


  1. Virgin’s concern here was likely related to the fact that they had technically purchased the rights to the Dune movie. The question of whether separate rights to the novel existed and could be licensed had never really been resolved. They wanted to head off the nightmare scenario of Cryo/Virgin Loisirs truly going rogue by acquiring the novel rights and releasing the game under that license through another publisher. 

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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