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Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

The games of Revolution Software bore the stamp of the places in which they were conceived. Work on Beneath a Steel Sky, the company’s breakthrough graphic adventure, began in Hull, a grim postindustrial town in the north of England, and those environs were reflected in the finished product’s labyrinths of polluted streets and shuttered houses. But by the time Revolution turned to the question of a follow-up, they had upped stakes for the stately city of York. “We’re surrounded by history here,” said Revolution co-founder Tony Warriner. “York is a very historical city.” Charles Cecil, Revolution’s chief motivating force in a creative sense, felt inspired to make a very historical game.

The amorphous notion began to take a more concrete form after he broached the idea over dinner one evening to Sean Brennan, his main point of contact at Revolution’s publisher Virgin Interactive. Brennan said that he had recently struggled through Umberto Eco’s infamously difficult postmodern novel Foucault’s Pendulum, an elaborate satire of the conspiratorial view of history which is so carefully executed that its own conspiracy theories wind up becoming more convincing than most good-faith examples of the breed. Chasing a trail of literally and figuratively buried evidence across time and space… it seemed ideal for an adventure game. Why not do something like that? Perhaps the Knights Templar would make a good starting point. Thus was born Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.



Our respectable books of history tell us that the Knights Templar was a rich and powerful but relatively brief-lived chivalric order of the late Middle Ages in Europe. It was founded in 1119 and torn up root and branch by a jealous King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V in 1312. After that, it played no further role in history. Or did it?

People have been claiming for centuries that the order wasn’t really destroyed at all, that it just went underground in one sense or another. Meanwhile other conspiracy theories — sometimes separate from, sometimes conjoined with the aforementioned — have posited that the Knights left a fabulous hidden treasure behind somewhere, which perchance included even the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.

In the 1960s, the old stories were revived and adapted into a form suitable for modern pop culture by a brilliant French fabulist named Pierre Plantard, who went so far as to plant forged documents in his homeland’s Bibliothèque Nationale. Three Anglo authors ingeniously expanded upon his deceptions — whether they were truly taken in by them or merely saw them as a moneymaking opportunity is unclear — in 1982 in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It connected the Knights Templar to another, more blasphemous conspiracy theory: that Jesus Christ had not been celibate as stated in the New Testament, nor had his physical form actually died on the cross. He had rather run away with Mary Magdalene and fathered children with her, creating a secret bloodline that has persisted to the present day. The Knights Templar were formed to guard the holy bloodline, a purpose they continue to fulfill. Charles Cecil freely admits that it was The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that really got his juices flowing.

It isn’t hard to see why. It’s a rare literary beast: a supposedly nonfiction book full of patent nonsense that remains thoroughly entertaining to read even for the person who knows what a load of tosh it all is. In his review of it back in 1982, Anthony Burgess famously wrote that “it is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvelous theme for a novel.” Many others have felt likewise over the years since. If Umberto Eco’s unabashedly intellectual approach doesn’t strike your fancy, you can always turn to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s decidedly more populist take on the theme from 2003 — one of the most successful novels of the 21st century, the founder of a veritable cottage industry of sequels, knock-offs, and cinematic adaptations. (Although Brown himself insists that he didn’t use The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for a crib sheet when writing his novel, pretty much no one believes him.)

For all their convoluted complexity, conspiracy theories are the comfort food of armchair historians. They state that the sweeping tides of history are not the result of diffuse, variegated, and ofttimes unease-inducing social and political impulses, but can instead all be explained by whatever shadowy cabal they happen to be peddling. It’s a clockwork view of history, A leading to B leading to C, which conveniently absolves us and our ancestors who weren’t pulling the strings behind the scenes of any responsibility for the state of the world. I’ve often wondered if the conspiratorial impulse in modern life stems at least in part from our current obsession with granular data, our belief that all things can be understood if we can just collect enough bits and bytes and analyze it all rigorously enough. Such an attitude makes it dangerously easy to assemble the narratives we wish to be true out of coincidental correlations. The amount of data at our fingertips, it seems to me, has outrun our wisdom for making use of it.

But I digress. As Burgess, Eco, and Brown all well recognized, outlandish conspiracy theories can be outrageously entertaining, and are harmless enough if we’re wise enough not to take them seriously. Add Charles Cecil to that list as well: “I was convinced a game set in the modern day with this history that resonated from Medieval times would make a very compelling subject.”

As he began to consider how to make a commercial computer game out of the likes of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Cecil realized that he needed to stay well away from the book’s claims about Jesus Christ; the last thing Revolution Software or Virgin Interactive needed was to become the antichrist in the eyes of scandalized Christians all over the world. So, he settled on a less controversial vision of the Knights Templar, centering on their alleged lost treasure — a scavenger hunt was, after all, always a good fit for an adventure game — and a fairly nondescript conspiracy eager to get their hands on it for a spot of good old world domination for the sake of it.

Cecil and some of his more committed fans have occasionally noted some surface similarities between his game and The Da Vinci Code, which was published seven years later, and hinted that Dan Brown may have been inspired by the game as well as by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In truth, though, the similarities would appear to be quite natural for fictions based on the same source material.

Indeed, I’ve probably already spent more time on the historical backstory of Broken Sword here than it deserves, considering how lightly it skims the surface of the claims broached in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and elsewhere. Suffice to say that the little bit of it that does exist here does a pretty good job of making you feel like you’re on the trail of a mystery ancient and ominous. And that, of course, is all it really needs to do.



In addition to being yet another manifestation of pop-culture conspiracy theorizing, Broken Sword was a sign of the times for the industry that produced it. Adventure games were as big as they would ever get in 1994, the year the project was given the green light by Virgin. Beneath a Steel Sky had gotten good reviews and was performing reasonably well in the marketplace, and Virgin was willing to invest a considerable sum to help Revolution take their next game to the proverbial next level, to compete head to head with Sierra and LucasArts, the titans of American adventure gaming. Broken Sword‘s final production cost would touch £1 million, making it quite probably the most expensive game yet made in Britain.

Having such a sum of money at their disposal transformed Revolution’s way of doing business. Some 50 different people in all contributed to Broken Sword, a five-fold increase over the staff hired for Beneath a Steel Sky. Artist Dave Gibbons, whose distinctive style had done so much to make the previous game stand out from the pack, was not among them, having moved on to other endeavors. But that was perhaps for the best; Gibbons was a comic-book artist, adept at crafting striking static images. Broken Sword, on the other hand, would have lots of motion, would be more of an interactive cartoon than an interactive comic.

To capture that feel, Charles Cecil went to Dublin, Ireland, where the animator Don Bluth ran the studio behind such films as The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Thumbelina. There he met one Eoghan Cahill, who had been working with Bluth for years, and got a hasty education on what separates the amateurs from the professionals in the field. Cecil:

I have to say, I didn’t take layout all that seriously. But he asked me about layout, and I showed him some of the stuff we were working on. And he looked at me and said, “This is not good enough.” I felt rather hurt. He said, “You need to see my stuff and you need to employ me.” So I had a look at his stuff, and it was so beautiful.

I said, “I think I really do need to employ you.” And indeed, he came to work at Revolution as a layout artist.

Although Don Bluth himself had nothing to do with the game, Broken Sword is as marked by the unique sensibility he inculcated in his artists as Beneath a Steel Sky is by that of Dave Gibbons. The opening movie is a bravura sequence by any standard, a tribute not only to the advantages of Super VGA graphics and CD-ROM — Revolution’s days of catering to more limited machines like the Commodore Amiga were now behind them — but to the aesthetic sophistication which Cahill brought to the project. Broken Sword‘s “pixel art,” as the kids call it today, remains mouth-wateringly luscious to look upon, something which most certainly cannot be said of the jaggy 3D productions of the mid-1990s.

The view with which the intro movie begins is a real one from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.

It’s worth dwelling on this movie a bit, for it does much to illustrate how quickly both Revolution and the industry to which they belonged were learning and expanding their horizons. Consider the stirring score by the noted film, television, and theater composer and conductor Barrington Pheloung, which is played by a real orchestra on real instruments — a growing trend in games in general at the time, which would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier for both technical and budgetary reasons.

Then, too, consider the subtle sophistication of the storytelling techniques that are employed here, from the first foreshadowing voice-over — the only dialog in the whole sequence — to the literal bang that finishes it. Right after the movie ends, you take control amidst the chaos on the sidewalk that follows the explosion. Assuming you aren’t made of the same stuff as that Notre Dame gargoyle, you’re already thoroughly invested at this point in figuring out what the heck just happened. The power of an in medias res opening like this one to hook an audience was well known to William Shakespeare, but has tended to elude many game developers. Charles Cecil:

There are two ways to start a game. You can give lots of background about a character and what he or she is doing or you can start in a way that is [in] the player’s control, and that’s what I wanted. I thought that since the player controlled the character and associated with him, I could afford to start a game without giving away a great deal about the character. So in the first scene, I didn’t want a long exposition. George is drawn into the plot unwillingly, having been caught up in an explosion, and he wants to do the right thing in finding out what was behind it.

All told, the jump in the quality of storytelling and writing from Beneath a Steel Sky to Broken Sword is as pronounced as the audiovisual leap. Beneath a Steel Sky isn’t really a poorly written game in comparison to others of its era, but the script at times struggles to live up to Dave Gibbons’s artwork. It bears the telltale signs of a writer not quite in control of his own material, shifting tones too jarringly and lapsing occasionally into awkward self-referential humor when it ought to be playing it straight.

None of that is the case with Broken Sword. This game’s writers know exactly where they want to go and have the courage of their conviction that they can get there. This is not to say that it’s dour — far from it; one of the greatest charms of the game is that it never takes itself too seriously, never forgets that it is at bottom just an exercise in escapist entertainment.

Remarkably, the improvement in this area isn’t so much a credit to new personnel as to the usual suspects honing their craft. Revolution’s games were always the vision of Charles Cecil, but, as he admits, he’s “not the world’s greatest writer.” Therefore he had relied since the founding of Revolution on one Dave Cummins to turn his broad outlines into a finished script. For Broken Sword, Cummins was augmented by a newcomer named Jonathan Howard, but the improvement in the writing cannot be down to his presence alone. The veterans at Revolution may have become harder to spot amidst the sea of new faces, but they were working as hard as anyone to improve, studying how film and television were put together and then applying the lessons to the game — but sparingly and carefully, mind you. Cecil:

When Broken Sword came out, we were riding on the back of these interactive movies. They were a disaster. The people knocking them out were being blinded; they wanted to rub shoulders with movie stars and producers, and the gaming elements were lost. They were out of touch with games. Of course, I am interested in film script-writing and I felt then and still do that there can be parallels with games. I felt we needed to learn from the movies with Broken Sword, but not mimic them. It was my intention to make Broken Sword cinematic — with great gameplay.

Revolution may have had global ambitions for Broken Sword, but it’s a deeply British game at heart, shot through with sly British humor. To properly appreciate any of that, however, we really need to know what the game is actually about, beyond the Knights Templar and international conspiracies of evil in the abstract.



Broken Sword‘s protagonist is an American abroad with the pitch-perfect name of George Stobbart, who is winningly portrayed in the original game and all four of its official sequels to date by voice actor Rolf Saxon. George is a painfully earnest everyman — or at least every-American — who in an earlier era might have been played on the silver screen by Jimmy Stewart. He wanders through the game’s foreign settings safely ensconced in the impenetrable armor of his nationality, a sight recognizable to any observer of Americans outside their natural habitat. To my mind the funniest line in the entire script comes when he’s accosted by an overzealous French police constable brandishing a pistol. “Don’t shoot!” he yells. “I’m an American!” Whole volumes of sociology and history could be written by way of unpacking those five words…

Anyway, as we saw in the movie above, the vacationing George is sitting in a Parisian café when a killer clown bombs the place to smithereens, in what seems to have been a deliberate — and unfortunately successful — act of murder against one particular patron. Earnest fellow that he is, George takes it upon himself to solve the crime, which proves to be much more than a random act of street violence. As he slowly peels the onion of the conspiracy behind it all, he has occasion to visit Ireland, Syria, Spain, and Scotland in addition to roaming the length and breadth of Paris, the home base for his investigations. And why does Paris feature so prominently? Well, it was close enough to Britain to make it easy for Revolution to visit in the name of research, but still held a powerful romantic allure for an Englishman of Cecil’s generation. “England was very poor in the 1960s and 1970s, and London was gray and drab,” he says. “Paris was smart. People walked differently and they wore brighter clothes. You sat in restaurants and ate amazing food. The mythology of Paris [in] Broken Sword came from that imagery of my younger days.”

George’s companion — constantly in research, from time to time in adventure, and potentially in romance — is one Nico, a French reporter with a sandpaper wit whom he meets at the scene of the bombing. She was originally created by the game’s writers to serve a very practical purpose, a trick that television and movie scriptwriters have been employing forever: in acting as a diegetic sounding board for George, she becomes a handy way to keep the player oriented and up to date with the ramifications of his latest discoveries, helping the player to keep a handle on what becomes a very complex mystery. In this sense, then, her presence is another sign of how Revolution’s writers were mastering their craft. “It meant we didn’t need to have lengthy one-man dialogs or 30 minutes of cut scenes,” says Charles Cecil.

The sexual tension between the oft-bickering pair — that classic “will they or won’t they?” dilemma — was initially a secondary consideration. It’s actually fairly understated in this first game, even as Nico herself is less prominent than she would later become; she spends the bulk of the game sitting in her apartment conducting vaguely defined “inquiries,” apparently by telephone, and waiting for another visit from George. [1]It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.

So much for the characters. Now, back to the subject of humor:

There’s the time when George tells Nico that he’s just visited the costume shop whence he believes the bomber to have rented his clown suit. “Yeah, I like it. What are you supposed to be?” she asks. Da-dum-dum!

“I didn’t hire a costume,” answers our terminally earnest protagonist. “These are my clothes and you know it.”

And then there’s Nico and (a jealous) George’s discussion with a French historian about Britain’s status during the time of the Roman Empire. “To the Romans, the Mediterranean was the center of the universe,” says the historian. “Britain was a remote, unfriendly place inhabited by blue-painted savages.”

“It hasn’t changed much,” says Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum!

“Well, they’ve stopped painting themselves blue,” says our straight man George.

“Except when they go to a football match,” deadpans Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum-dum!

You get the idea. I should say that all of this is made funnier by the performances of the voice cast, who are clearly having a grand old time turning their accents up to eleven. (Like so many Anglosphere productions, Broken Sword seems to think that everyone speaks English all the time, just in funny ways and with a light salting of words like bonjour and merci.)

And yet — and this is the truly remarkable part — the campiness of it all never entirely overwhelms the plot. The game is capable of creating real dramatic tension and a palpable sense of danger from time to time. It demands to be taken seriously at such junctures; while you can’t lock yourself out of victory without knowing it, you can die. The game walks a tenuous tightrope indeed between drama and comedy, but it very seldom loses its balance.


It wasn’t easy being a writer of geopolitical thrillers in the 1990s, that period of blissful peace and prosperity in the West after the end of the Cold War and before the War on Terror, the resurgence of authoritarianism, a global pandemic, and a widespread understanding of the magnitude of the crisis of global warming. Where exactly was one to find apocalyptic conflicts in such a milieu? It’s almost chilling to watch this clip today. What seemed an example of typically absurd videogame evil in 1996 feels disturbingly relevant today — not the Knights Templar nonsense, that is, but all the real-world problems that are blamed on it. If only it was as simple as stamping out a single cabal of occultists…

It’s hard to reconcile Broken Sword‘s Syria, a place where horror exists only in the form of Knights Templar assassins, a peddler of dodgy kebobs, and — most horrifying of all — an American tourist in sandals and knee socks, with the reality of the country of today. The civil war that is now being fought there has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and shattered tens of millions more.

With Nico in her Parisian flat.

Wars and governments may come and go, but the pub life of Ireland is eternal.

A villa in Spain with a connection to the Knights Templar and a grouchy gardener whom George will need to outwit.

Amidst ruins of a Scottish castle fit for a work of Romantic art, on the cusp of foiling the conspirators’ nefarious plot.



Revolution spent an inordinate amount of time — fully two and a half years — honing their shot at the adventure-game big leagues. They were silent for so long that some in the British press consigned them to the “where are they now?” file. “Whatever happened to Revolution Software?” asked PC Zone magazine in January of 1996. “Two releases down the line, they seem to have vanished.”

Alas, by the time Broken Sword was finally ready to go in the fall of 1996, the public’s ardor for the adventure genre had begun to dissipate. Despite a slew of high-profile, ambitious releases, 1996 had yet to produce a million-selling hit like the previous year’s Phantasmagoria, or like Myst the year before that. Especially in the United States, the industry’s focus was shifting to 3D action-oriented games, which not only sold better but were cheaper and faster to make than adventure games. In what some might call a sad commentary on the times, Virgin’s American arm insisted that the name of Broken Sword be changed to Circle of Blood. “They wanted it to be much more ‘bloody’ sounding,” says Charles Cecil.

For all of its high production values, the game was widely perceived by the American gaming press as a second-tier entry in a crowded field plagued by flagging enthusiasm. Computer Gaming World‘s review reads as a more reserved endorsement than the final rating of four stars out of five might imply. “The lengthy conversations often drag on before getting to the point,” wrote the author. If you had told her that Broken Sword — or rather Circle of Blood, as she knew it — would still be seeing sequels published in the second decade after such adventure standard bearers as King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight had been consigned to the videogame history books, she would surely have been shocked to say the least.

Ah, yes, Gabriel Knight… the review refers several times to that other series of adventure games masterminded by Sierra’s Jane Jensen. Even today, Gabriel Knight still seems to be the elephant in the room whenever anyone talks about Broken Sword. And on the surface, there really are a lot of similarities between the two. Both present plots that are, for all their absurdity, extrapolations on real history; both are very interested in inculcating a sense of place in their players; both feature a male protagonist and a female sidekick who develop feelings for one another despite their constant bickering, and whose rapport their audience developed feelings for to such an extent that they encouraged the developers to make the sidekick into a full-fledged co-star. According to one line of argument in adventure-game fandom, Broken Sword is a thinly disguised knock-off of Gabriel Knight. (The first game of Sierra’s series was released back in 1993, giving Revolution plenty of time to digest it and copy it.) Many will tell you that the imitation is self-evidently shallower and sillier than its richer inspiration.

But it seems to me that this argument is unfair, or at least incomplete. To begin with, the whole comparison feels more apt if you’ve only read about the games in question than if you’ve actually played them. Leaving aside the fraught and ultimately irrelevant question of influence — for the record, Charles Cecil and others from Revolution do not cite Gabriel Knight as a significant influence — there is a difference in craft that needs to be acknowledged. The Gabriel Knight games are fascinating to me not so much for what they achieve as for what they attempt. They positively scream out for critical clichés about reaches exceeding grasps; they’re desperate to elevate the art of interactive storytelling to some sort of adult respectability, but they never quite figure out how to do that while also being playable, soluble adventure games.

Broken Sword aims lower, yes, but hits its mark dead-center. From beginning to end, it oozes attention to the details of good game design. “We had to be very careful, and so we went through lots of [puzzles], seeing which ones would be fun,” says Charles Cecil. “These drive the story on, providing rewards as the player goes along, so we had to get them right.” One seldom hears similar anecdotes from the people who worked on Sierra’s games.

This, then, is the one aspect of Broken Sword I haven’t yet discussed: it’s a superb example of classic adventure design. Its puzzles are tricky at times, but never unclued, never random, evincing a respect for its player that was too often lost amidst the high concepts of games like Gabriel Knight.

Of course, if you dislike traditional adventure games on principle, Broken Sword will not change your mind. As an almost defiantly traditionalist creation, it resolves none of the fundamental issues with the genre that infuriate so many. The puzzles it sets in front of you seldom have much to do with the mystery you’re supposed to be unraveling. In the midst of attempting to foil a conspiracy of world domination, you’ll expend most of your brainpower on such pressing tasks as luring an ornery goat out of an Irish farmer’s field and scouring a Syrian village for a kebob seller’s lucky toilet brush. (Don’t ask!) Needless to say, most of the solutions George comes up with are, although typical of an adventure game, ridiculous, illegal, and/or immoral in any other context. The only way to play them is for laughs.

And this, I think, is what Broken Sword understands about the genre that Gabriel Knight does not. The latter’s puzzles are equally ridiculous (and too often less soluble), but the game tries to play it straight, creating cognitive dissonances all over the place. Broken Sword, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to lean into the limitations of its chosen genre and turn them into opportunities — opportunities, that is, to just be funny. Having made that concession, if concession it be, it finds that it can still keep its overarching plot from degenerating into farce. It’s a pragmatic compromise that works.

I like to think that the wisdom of its approach has been more appreciated in recent years, as even the more hardcore among us have become somewhat less insistent on adventure games as deathless interactive art and more willing to just enjoy them for what they are. Broken Sword may have been old-school even when it was a brand-new game, but it’s no musty artifact today. It remains as charming, colorful, and entertaining as ever, an example of a game whose reach is precisely calibrated to its grasp.

(Sources: the books The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln and Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Retro Gamer 31, 63, 146, and 148; PC Zone of January 1996; Computer Gaming World of February 1997. Online sources include Charles Cecil’s interviews with Anthony Lacey of Dining with Strangers, John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun, Marty Mulrooney of Alternative Magazine Online, and Peter Rootham-Smith of Game Boomers.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars is available for digital purchase as a “director’s cut” whose additions and modifications are of dubious benefit. Luckily, the download includes the original game, which is well worth the purchase price in itself.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.
 

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Toonstruck (or, A Case Study in the Death of Adventure Games)

Some time ago, in the midst of a private email discussion about the general arc of adventure-game history, one of my readers offered up a bold claim: he said that the best single year to be a player of point-and-click graphic adventures was 1996. This rings decidedly counterintuitive, given that 1996 was also the year during which the genre first slid into a precipitous commercial decline that would not even begin to level out for a decade or more. But you know what? Looking at the lineup of games released that year, I found it difficult to argue with him. These were games of high hopes, soaring ambitions, and big budgets. The genre has never seen such a lineup since. How poignant and strange, I thought to myself. Then I thought about it some more, and I decided that it wasn’t really so strange at all.

For when we cast our glance back over entertainment history, we find that it’s not unusual for a strain of creative expression to peak in terms of sophistication and ambition some time after it has passed its zenith of raw popularity. Wings won the first ever best-picture Oscar two years after The Jazz Singer had numbered the days of soundless cinema; Duke Ellington’s big band blew up a storm at Newport two years after “Rock Around the Clock” and “That’s All Right” had heralded the end of jazz music at the top of the hit parade. The same sort of thing has happened on multiple occasions in gaming. I would argue, for example, that more great text adventures were commercially published after 1984, the year that interactive fiction plateaued and prepared for the down slide, than before that point. And then, of course, we have the graphic adventures of 1996 — the year after the release of Phantasmagoria, the last million-selling adventure game to earn such sales numbers entirely on its own intrinsic appeal, without riding the coattails of an earlier game for which it was a sequel or any other pre-existing mass-media sensation.

There are two reasons why this phenomenon occurs. One is that the people who decide what projects to green-light always have a tendency to look backward at least as much as forward; new market paradigms are always hard to get one’s head around. The other becomes increasingly prevalent as projects grow more complex, and the window of time between the day they are begun and the day they are completed grows longer as a result. A lot can happen in the world of media in the span of two years or more — not coincidentally, the type of time span that more and more game-development projects were starting to fill by the mid-1990s. Toonstruck, our subject for today, is a classic example of what can happen when the world in which a game is conceived is dramatically different from the one to which it is finally born.



Let us turn the clock back to late 1993, the moment of Toonstruck‘s genesis. At that time, the conventional wisdom inside the established games industry about gaming’s necessary future hewed almost exclusively to what we might call the Sierra vision, because it was articulated so volubly and persuasively by that major publisher’s founder and president Ken Williams. It claimed that the rich multimedia affordances of CD-ROM would inevitably lead to a merger of interactivity with cinema. Popular movie stars would soon be vying to appear in interactive movies which would boast the same production values and storytelling depth as traditional movies, but which would play out on computer instead of movie-theater or television screens, with the course of the story in the hands of the ones sitting behind the screens. This mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — often abbreviated as “Siliwood” — would require development budgets exponentially larger than those the industry had been accustomed to, but the end results would reach an exponentially wider audience.

The games publisher Virgin Interactive, a part of Richard Branson’s sprawling media and travel empire, was every bit as invested in this prophecy as Sierra was. Its Los Angeles-based American arm was the straw that stirred the drink, under the guidance of a Brit named Martin Alper, who had been working to integrate games into a broader media zeitgeist for many years; he had first made a name for himself in his homeland as the co-founder of the budget label Mastertronic, whose games embraced pop-culture icons from Michael Jackson to Clumsy Colin (the mascot of a popular brand of chips), and were sold as often from supermarkets as from software stores. Earlier in 1993, his arm of Virgin had published The 7th Guest, an interactive horror flick which struck many as a better prototype for the Sierra vision than anything Sierra themselves had yet released; it had garnered enormous sales and adoring press notices from the taste-makers of mainstream media as well as those inside the computer-gaming ghetto. Now, Alper was ready to take things to the next level.

He turned for ideas to another Brit who had recently joined him in Los Angeles: a man named David Bishop, who had already worked as a journalist, designer, manager, and producer over the course of his decade in the industry. Bishop proposed an interactive counterpart of sorts to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the hit 1988 movie which had wowed audiences with the novel feat of inserting cartoon characters into a live-action world. Bishop’s game would do the opposite: insert real actors into a cartoon world. He urged Alper to pull out all the stops in order to make something that would be every bit as gobsmacking as Roger Rabbit had been in its day.

So far, so good. But who should take on the task of turning Bishop’s idea into a reality? The 7th Guest had been created by a then-tiny developer known as Trilobyte, itself a partnership between a frustrated filmmaker and a programming whiz. Taking the press releases that labeled them the avatars of the next generation of entertainment at face value, the two had now left the Virgin fold, signing a contract with a splashy new player in the multimedia sweepstakes called Media Vision. Someone else would have to make the game called Toonstruck.

In a telling statement of just how committed they already were to their interactive cartoon, Virgin USA, who had only acted as a publisher to this point, decided to dive into the development business. In October of 1993, Martin Alper put two of his most trusted producers, Neil Young and Chris Yates, in charge of a new, wholly owned development studio called Burst, formed just to make Toonstruck. The two were given a virtually blank check to do so. Make it amazing was their only directive.

So, Young and Yates went across town to Hollywood. There they hired Nelvana, an animation house that had been making cartoons of every description for over twenty years. And they hired as well a gaggle of voice-acting talent that was worthy of a big-budget Disney feature. There were Tim Curry, star of the camp classic Rocky Horror Picture Show; Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson (“D’oh!”); David Ogden-Stiers, who had played the blue-blooded snob Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H; Dom Deluise of The Cannonball Run and All Dogs Go to Heaven fame; plus many other less recognizable names who were nevertheless among the most talented and sought-after voices in cartoon production, the sort that any latch-key kid worth her salt had listened to for countless hours by the time she became a teenager. In hiring the star of the show — the actor destined to actually appear onscreen, inserted into the cartoon world — Burst pulled off their greatest coup of all: they secured the signature of none other than Christopher Lloyd, a veteran character actor best known as the hippie burnout Jim from the beloved sitcom Taxi, the mad scientist Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films… and Judge Doom, the villain from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Playing in a game that would be the technological opposite of that film’s inserting of cartoon characters into the real world, Lloyd would become his old character’s psychological opposite, the hero rather than the villain. Sure, it was stunt casting — but how much more perfect could it get?

What happened next is impossible to explain in any detail. The fact is that Burst was and has remained something of a black box. What is clear, however, is that Toonstruck‘s designers-in-the-trenches Richard Hare and Jennifer McWilliams took their brief to pull out all the stops and to spare no expense in doing so as literally as everyone else at the studio, concocting a crazily ambitious script. “We were full of ideas, so we designed and designed and designed,” says McWilliams, “with a great deal of emphasis on what would be cool and interesting and funny, and not so much focus on what would actually be achievable within a set schedule and budget. [Virgin] for the most part stepped aside and let us do our thing.”

Their colleagues storyboarded their ever-expanding design document and turned it into hours and hours of quality cartoon animation — animation which was intended to meet or exceed the bar set by a first-string Disney feature film. As they did so, the deadlines flew by unheeded. Originally earmarked with the eternal optimism of game developers and Chicago Cubs fans for the 1994 Christmas season, the project slipped into 1995, then 1996. Virgin trotted it out at trade show after trade show, making ever more sweeping claims about its eventual amazingness at each one, until it became an in-joke among the gaming journalists who dutifully inserted a few lines about it into each successive “coming soon” preview. By 1996, the bill for Toonstruck was approaching a staggering $8 million, enough to make it the second most expensive computer game to date. And yet it was still far from completion.

It seems clear that the project was poorly managed from the start. Take, for example, all that vaunted high-quality animation. Burst’s decision to make the cartoon of Toonstruck first, then figure out how to make use of it in an interactive context later was hardly the most cost-effective way of doing things. It made little sense to aim to compete with Disney on a level playing field when the limitations of the consumer-computing hardware of the time meant that the final product would have to be squashed down to a resolution of 640 X 400, with a palette of just 256 shades, for display on a dinky 15-inch monitor screen.

There are also hints of other sorts of dysfunction inside Burst, and between Burst and its parent company. One Virgin insider who chose to remain anonymous alluded vaguely in 1998 to the way that “internal politics made the situation worse. Some of the project leaders didn’t get on with other senior staff, and some people had friendships to protect. So there was finger-pointing and back-slapping going on at the same time.”



During the three years that Toonstruck spent in development, the Sierra vision of gaming’s necessary future was challenged by a new one. In December of 1993, id Software, a tiny renegade company operating outside the traditional boundaries of the industry by selling its creations largely through the shareware model, released a little game called DOOM, which featured exclusively computer-generated 3D environments, gobs of bloody action, and, to paraphrase a famous statement by its chief programmer John Carmack, no more story than your typical porn movie. Not long after, a studio called Blizzard Entertainment debuted a fantasy strategy game called Warcraft which played like an action game, in hectic real time; not the first of its type, it was nevertheless the one that really caught gamers’ imaginations, especially after Blizzard perfected the concept with 1995’s Warcraft II. With these games and others like them selling at least as well as the hottest adventures, the industry’s One True Way Forward had become a proverbial fork in the road. Publishers could continue to plow money into interactive movies in the hope of cracking into the mainstream of mass entertainment, or they could double down on their longstanding customer demographic of young white males by offering them yet more fast-paced mayhem. Already by 1995, the fact that games of the latter stripe tended to cost far less than those of the former was enough to seal the deal in the minds of many publishers.

Virgin Interactive was given especial food for thought that year when they wound up publishing Trilobyte’s next game after all. Media Vision, the publisher Trilobyte had signed with, had imploded amidst government investigations of securities fraud and other financial crimes, and an opportunistic Virgin had swooped into the bankruptcy auction and made off with the contract for The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest. It seemed like quite a clever heist at the time — but it began to seem somewhat less so when The 11th Hour under-performed relative to expectations. Both reviewers and ordinary gamers stated clearly that they were already becoming bored of Trilobyte’s rote mixing of B-movie cinematics with hoary set-piece puzzles that mostly stemmed from well before the computer age — tired of the way that the movie and the gameplay in a Trilobyte creation had virtually nothing to do with one another.

Then, as I noted at the beginning of this article, 1996 brought with it an unprecedentedly large lineup of ambitious, earnest, and expensive games of the Siliwood stripe, with some of them at least much more thoughtfully designed than anything Trilobyte had ever come up with. Nonetheless, as the year went by an alarming fact was more and more in evidence: this year’s crop of multimedia extravaganzas was not producing any towering hits to rival the likes of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in 1992, The 7th Guest in 1993, Myst in 1994, or Phantasmagoria in 1995. Arguably the best year in history to be a player of graphic adventures, 1996 was also the year that broke the genre. Almost all of the big-budget adventure releases still to come from American publishers would owe their existence to corporate inertia, being projects that executives found easier to complete and hope for a miracle than to cancel outright and then try to explain the massive write-off to their shareholders — even if outright cancellation would have been better for their companies’ bottom lines. In short, by the beginning of 1997 only dreamers doubted that the real future of the gaming mainstream lay with the lineages of DOOM and Warcraft.

Before we rush to condemn the philistines who preferred such games to their higher-toned counterparts, we must acknowledge that their preferences had to do with more than sheer bloody-mindedness. First-person shooters and real-time-strategy games could be a heck of a lot of fun, and lent themselves very well to playing with others, whether gathered together in one room or, increasingly, over the Internet. The generally solitary pursuit of adventure gaming had no answer for this sort of boisterous bonding experience. And there was also an economic factor: an adventure was a once-and-done endeavor that might last a week or two at best, after which you had no recourse but to go out and buy another one. You could, on the other hand, spend literally years playing the likes of DOOM and Warcraft with your mates.

Then there is one final harsh reality to be faced: the fact is that the Sierra vision never came close to living up to its billing for the player. These games were never remotely like waking up in the starring role of a Hollywood film. Boosters like Ken Williams were thrilled to talk about interactive movies in the abstract, but these same people were notably vague about how their interactivity was actually supposed to work. They invested massively in Hollywood acting talent, in orchestral soundtracks, and in the best computer artists money could buy, while leaving the interactivity — the very thing that ostensibly set their creations apart — to muddle through on its own, one way or another.

Inevitably, then, the interactivity ended up taking the form of static puzzles, the bedrock of adventure games since the days when they had been presented all in text. The puzzle paradigm persisted into this brave new era simply because no one could proffer any other ideas about what the player should be doing that were both more compelling and technologically achievable. I hasten to add that some players really, genuinely love puzzles, love few things more than to work through an intricate web of them in order to make something happen; I include myself among this group. When puzzles are done right, they’re as satisfying and creatively valid as any other type of gameplay.

But here’s the rub: most people — perhaps even most gamers — really don’t like solving puzzles all that much at all. (These people are of course no better or worse than those who do — just different.) For the average Joe or Jane, playing one of these new-fangled interactive movies was like watching a conventional movie filmed on an ultra-low-budget, usually with terrible acting. And then, for the pièce de résistance, you were expected to solve a bunch of boring puzzles for the privilege of witnessing the underwhelming next scene. Who on earth wanted to do this after a hard day at the office?

All of which is to say that the stellar sales of Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, Myst, and Phantasmagora were not quite the public validations of the concept of interactive movies that the industry chose to read them as. The reasons for these titles’ success were orthogonal to their merits as games, whatever the latter might have been. People bought them as technology demonstrations, to show off the new computers they had just purchased and to test out the CD-ROM drives they had just installed. They gawked at them for a while and then, satiated, planted themselves back in front of their televisions to spend their evenings as they always had. This was not, needless to say, a sustainable model for a mainstream gaming genre. By 1996, the days when the mere presence of human actors walking and/or talking on a computer monitor could wow even the technologically unsophisticated were fast waning. That left as customers only the comparatively tiny hardcore of buyers who had always played adventure games. They were thrilled by the diverse and sumptuous smorgasbord that was suddenly set before them — but the industry’s executives, looking at the latest sales numbers, most assuredly were not. Just like that, the era of Siliwood passed into history. One can only hope that all of the hardcore adventure fans enjoyed it while it lasted.



Toonstruck was, as you may have guessed, among the most prominent of the adventures that were released to disappointing results in 1996. That event happened at the very end of the year, and only thanks to a Virgin management team who decided in the summer that enough was enough. “The powers that be in management had to step in and give us a dose of reality,” says Jennifer McWilliams. “We then needed to come up with an ending that could credibly wrap the game up halfway through, with a cliffhanger that would, ideally, introduce part two. I think we did well considering the constraints we were under, but still, it was not what we originally envisioned.” Another, anonymous team member has described what happened more bluntly: “The team was told to ‘cut it or can it’ — it either had to be shipped real soon, or not at all.”

The former option was chosen, and thus Toonstruck shipped just before Christmas, on two discs that between them bore only about one third of the total amount of animation created for the game, and that in a severely degraded form. Greeted with reviews that ran the gamut from raves to pans, it wound up selling about 150,000 copies. For a normal game with a normal budget, such numbers would be just about acceptable; if the 100,000-copy threshold was no longer the mark of an outright hit in the computer-games industry of 1996, selling that many copies and then half again that many more wasn’t too bad either. Unfortunately, all of the usual quantifiers got thrown out for a game that had cost over $8 million to make. One Virgin employee later mused wryly how Toonstruck had been intended to “blow the public away. The only thing that got blown was vast amounts of cash, and the public stayed away.”

Bleeding red ink from the failure of Toonstruck and a number of other games, Virgin’s American arm was ordered by the parent company in London to downsize their budgets and ambitions drastically. After creating a few less expensive but equally commercially disappointing games, Burst Studios was sold in 1998 to Electronic Arts, who renamed it EA Pacific and shifted its focus to 3D real-time strategy — a sign of the times if ever there was one.

Such is one tale of Toonstruck, a game which could only have appeared in its own very specific time and place. But, you might be wondering, how does this relic of a fizzled vision of gaming’s future play?



Toonstruck‘s opening movie is not a cartoon. We instead meet Christopher Lloyd for the first time in the real world, in the role of Drew Blanc (get it?), a cartoonist suffering from writer’s block. He’s called into the office of his impatient boss Sam Schmaltz, who’s played by Ben Stein, an actor of, shall we say, limited range, but one who remains readily recognizable to an entire generation for playing every kid’s nightmare of a boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Wonder Years.

We learn that Drew is unhappy with his current assignment as the illustrator of The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show, a piece of cartoon pablum with as much edge as a melting stick of butter. He rather wants to do something with his creation Flux Wildly, a hyperactive creature of uncertain taxonomy and chaotic disposition. Schmaltz, however, quickly lives up to his name; he’s having none of it. A deflated Drew resigns himself to an all-nighter in the studio to make up the time he’s wasted daydreaming about the likes of Flux. But in the course of that night, he is somehow drawn into his television — right into a cartoon.

There the bewildered Drew meets none other than Flux Wildly himself, finding him every bit as charmingly unhinged as he’d always imagined him to be. He learns that the cartoon world in which he finds himself is divided into three regions: Cutopia, where the fluffy bun bun bunnies and their ilk live; Zanydu, which anarchists like Flux call home; and Malevoland, where true evil lurks. Trouble is, Count Nefarious of Malevoland has gotten tired of the current balance of power, and has started making bombing raids on the other two regions in his Malevolator, using its ray of evil to turn them as dark and twisted as his homeland. King Hugh of Cutopia promises Drew that, if he first saves them all by collecting the parts necessary to build a Cutifier — the antidote to the Malevolator — he will send Drew back to his own world.

All of that is laid out in the opening movie, after which the plot gears are more or less shifted into neutral while you commence wandering around solving puzzles. And it’s here that the game presents its most welcome surprise: unlike so many other multimedia productions of this era that were sold primarily on the basis of their audiovisuals, this game’s puzzle design is clever, complex, and carefully crafted. I have no knowledge of precisely how this game was tested and balanced, but I have to assume these things were done, and done well. It’s not an easy game by any means — there are dozens and dozens of puzzles here, layered on top of one another in a veritable tangle of dependencies — but it’s never an unfair one. In the best tradition of LucasArts, there are no deaths or dead ends. If you are willing to observe the environment with a meticulous eye, experiment patiently, and enter into the cartoon logic of a world where holes are portable and five minutes on a weight bench can transform your physique, you might just be able to solve this one without hints.

The puzzles manage the neat trick of being whimsical without ever abandoning logic entirely. Take, for example, the overarching meta-puzzle you’re attempting to solve as you wander through the lands. Assembling the Cutifier requires combining matched pairs of objects, such as sugar and spice (that’s a freebie the game gives you to introduce the concept). Other objects waiting for their partners include a dagger, some stripes, a heart, some whistles, some polish, etc. If possible combinations have started leaping to mind already, you might really enjoy this game. If they haven’t, on the other hand, you might not, or you might have fallen afoul of the exception to the rule of its general solubility: it requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of idiomatic English, of the sort that only native speakers or those who have been steeped in the language for many years are likely to possess.

While you’re working out its gnarly puzzle structure, Toonstruck is doing its level best to keep you amused in other ways. Players who are only familiar with Christopher Lloyd from his scenery-chewing portrayals in Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be surprised at his relatively low-key performance here; more often than not, he’s acting as the straight man for his wise-cracking sidekick Flux Wildly and other gleefully over-the-top cartoon personalities. In truth, Lloyd was (and is) a more multi-faceted and flexible actor than his popular image might suggest, having decades of experience in film, television, and theater productions of all types behind him. His performance here, in what must have been extremely trying circumstances — he was, after all, constantly expected to say his lines to characters who weren’t actually there — feels impressively natural.

Drew Blanc’s friendship with Flux Wildly is the emotional heart of the story. Their relationship can’t help but bring to mind the much-loved LucasArts adventuring duo Sam and Max. Once again, we have here a subdued humanoid straight man paired with a less anthropomorphic pal who comes complete with a predilection for violence. Once again the latter keeps things lively with his antics and his constant patter. And once again you the player can use him like an inventory item from time to time on the problems you encounter, sometimes with productive and often with amusing results. Flux Wildly may just be my favorite thing in the game. I just wish he was around through the whole game; more on that momentarily.

Although Flux is a lot of fun, the writing in general is a bit of a mixed bag. As, for that matter, were contemporary reviews of the writing. Computer Gaming World found Toonstruck “hilarious”: “With humor that ranges from cutesy to risqué, Toonstruck keeps the laughter coming nonstop.” Next Generation, on the other hand, wrote that “the designers have tried desperately hard to make the game zany, wacky, crazy, twisted, madcap, and side-splittingly hilarious — but it just isn’t. The dialog, slapstick humor, and relentless ‘comedy’ situations are tired. You’ve seen most of these jokes done better 40 years ago.”

In a way, both takes are correct. Toonstruck is sometimes genuinely clever and funny, but just as often feels like it’s trying way too hard. There are reports that the intended audience for the game drifted over its three years in development, that it was originally planned as a kid-friendly game and only slowly moved in a more adult direction. This may explain some of the jarring tonal shifts inside its world. At times, the writing doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, veering wildly from the light and frothy to that depressingly common species of videogame humor that mistakes transgression for wit. The most telling example is also the one scene that absolutely no one who has ever played this game, or for that matter merely watched it being played, can possibly forget, even if she wants to.

While exploring the land of Cutopia, you come upon a sweet, matronly dairy cow and her two BFFs, a cute and fuzzy sheep and a tired old horse. Some time later, Count Nefarious arrives to zap their farm with his Malevolator. Next time you visit, you find that the horse has been turned into glue. Meanwhile the cow is spread-eagled on a “Wheel-O-Luv,” her udders dangling pendulously in a way that looks downright pornographic, cackling with masochistic delight while the leather-clad sheep gives her her delicious punishment. Words fail me… this is something you have to see for yourself.


Here and in a few other places, Toonstruck is just off, weird in a way that is not just unfunny or immature but that actually leaves you feeling vaguely uncomfortable. It demonstrates that, for all Virgin Interactive’s mainstream ambitions, they were still a long way from mustering the thematic, aesthetic, and writerly unity that goes into a slick piece of mass-market entertainment.

Toonstruck is at its best when it is neither trying to trangress for the sake of it nor to please the mass market, but rather when it’s delicately skewering a certain stripe of sickly sweet, creatively bankrupt, lowest-common denominator children’s programming that was all over television during the 1980s and 1990s. Think of The Care Bears, a program that was drawn by some of the same Nelvana animators who worked on Toonstruck; they must surely have enjoyed ripping their mawkish past to shreds here. Or, even better, think of Barney the hideous purple dinosaur, dawdling through excruciating songs with ripped-off melodies and cloying lyrics that sound like they were made up on the spot. Few media creations have ever been as easy to hate as him, as the erstwhile popularity of the Usenet newsgroup alt.Barney.dinosaur.die.die.die will attest.

Being created by so many insiders to the cartoon racket, Toonstruck is well placed to capture the very adult cynicism that oozes from such productions, engineered as they were mainly to sell plush toys to co-dependent children. It does so not least through King Hugh of Cutopia himself, who turns out to be — spoiler alert! — not quite the heroic exemplar of inclusiveness he’s billed as. Meanwhile Flux Wildly and his friends from Zanydu stand for a different breed of cartoons, ones which demonstrate a measure of respect for their young audience.

There does eventually come a point in Toonstruck, more than a few hours in, when you’ve unraveled the web of puzzles and assembled all twelve matched pairs that are required for the Cutifier. By now you feel like you’ve played a pretty complete game, and are expecting the end credits to start rolling soon. Instead the game pulls its next big trick on you: everything goes to hell in a hand basket and you find yourself in Count Nefarious’s dungeon, about to begin a second act whose presence was heretofore hinted at only by the presence of a second, as-yet unused CD in the game’s (real or virtual) box.

Most players agree that this unexpected second act is, for all the generosity demonstrated by the mere fact of its existence, considerably less enjoyable than the first. Your buddy Flux Wildly is gone, the environment darker and more constrained, and your necessary path through the plot more linear. It feels austere and lonely in contrast to what has come before — and not in a good way. Although the puzzle design remains solid enough, I imagine that this is the point where many players begin to succumb to the temptations of hints and walkthroughs. And it’s hard to blame them; the second act is the very definition of an anticlimax — almost a dramatic non sequitur in the way it throws the game out of its natural rhythm.

But a real ending — or at least a form of ending — does finally arrive. Drew Blanc defeats Count Nefarious and is returned to his own world. All seems well — until Flux Wildly contacts him again in the denouement to tell him that Nefarious really isn’t done away with just yet. Incredibly, this was once intended to mark the beginning of a third act, of four in total, all in the service of a parable about the creative process that the game we have only hints at. Laboring under their managers’ ultimatum to ship or else, the developers had to fall back on the forlorn hope of a surprise, sequel-justifying hit in the face of the marketplace headwinds that were blowing against the game. Jennifer McWilliams:

Toonstruck was meant to be a funny story about defeating some really weird bad guys, as it was when released, but originally it was also about defeating one’s own creative demons. It was a tribute to creative folks of all types, and was meant to offer encouragement to any of them that had lost their way. So, the second part of the game had Drew venturing into his own psyche, facing his fears (like a psychotically overeager dentist), living out his fantasies (like meeting his hero, Vincent van Gogh), and eventually finding a way to restore his creative spark.

It does sound intriguing on one level, but it also sounds like much, much too much for a game that already feels rather overstuffed. If the full conception had been brought to fruition, Toonstruck would have been absolutely massive, in the running for the biggest graphic adventure ever made. But whether its characters and puzzle mechanics could have supported the weight of so much content is another question. It seems that all or most of the animation necessary for acts three and four was created — more fruits of that $8 million budget — and this has occasionally led fans to dream of a hugely belated sequel. Yet it is highly doubtful whether any of the animation still exists, or for that matter whether the economics of using it make any more sense now than they did in the mid-1990s. Once all but completely forgotten, Toonstruck has enjoyed a revival of interest since it was put up for sale on digital storefronts some years ago. But only a small one: it would be a stretch to label it even a cult classic.

What we’re left with instead, then, is a fascinating exemplar of a bygone age; the fact that this game could only have appeared in the mid-1990s is a big part of its charm. Then, too, there’s a refreshing can-do spirit about it. Tasked with making something amazing, its creators did their honest best to achieve just that, on multiple levels. If the end result is imperfect in some fairly obvious ways, it never fails to be playable, which is more than can be said for many of its peers. Indeed, it remains well worth playing today for anyone who shivers with anticipation at the prospect of a pile of convoluted, deviously interconnected puzzles. Ditto for anyone who just wants to know what kind of game $8 million would buy you back in 1996.

(Sources: Starlog of May 1984 and August 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1997; Electronic Entertainment of December 1995; Next Generation of January 1997, February 1997, and April 1998; PC Zone of August 1995, August 1996, and June 1998; Questbusters 117; Retro Gamer 174.

Toonstruck is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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Boffo Games

After Infocom was shut down in 1989, Mike Dornbrook, the mastermind behind the company’s InvisiClues hint books and much else that has become iconic for interactive-fiction fans of a certain generation, was determined to start a company of his own. Indeed, he was so motivated that he negotiated to take much of Infocom’s office furniture in lieu of cash as part of his severance package.

But alas, his entrepreneurial dream seemed vexed. He embarked on a mail-order catalog for maps and travel books — until he learned that Rand-McNally was starting a catalog of its own. He pivoted to offering customized traffic reports for drivers on the go — until it was decided by the authorities in the Boston area where he lived that mobile-phone users would not be allowed to call “premium-rate” numbers like the one he was setting up. So, in January of 1991, he started a regular job at a targeted-marketing and data-processing consultancy that had recently been purchased by American Express. Two years later, he was laid off, but carried his knowledge and contacts into his own data-mining startup. He was still trying to line up enough investment capital to get that company going properly when he got a call from Steve Meretzky, who before becoming a star Infocom designer had been his roommate in a little Boston apartment; in fact, it was Dornbrook who had first introduced Meretzky to the wonders of Zork, thus unleashing him on the world of adventure games.

Unlike Dornbrook, Meretzky had stayed in the games industry since Infocom’s shuttering, designing four adventures for Legend Entertainment and one for Activision from his Boston home. But he had grown tired of working remotely, and dearly missed the camaraderie and creative ferment of life at Infocom. Superhero League of Hoboken, his latest game for Legend (and by far the most inspired of his post-Infocom career in this critic’s opinion), had turned into a particularly frustrating experience for him; delays on the implementation side meant that it was still many months away from seeing the light of day. He had thus decided to start a games studio of his own — and he wanted his old pal Mike Dornbrook to run it for him. “I’ll help you to get it going,” agreed a somewhat reluctant Dornbrook, who after enduring the painful latter years of Infocom wasn’t at all sure he actually wanted to return to the industry.

And so Boffo Games was born. Sadly, all of Dornbrook’s forebodings would prove prescient.



At the time, the hype around multimedia computing was reaching a fever pitch. One of the biggest winners of the era was a Singaporean company called Creative Labs, whose Sound Blaster sound cards had been at the vanguard of a metamorphosis in computer audio since 1989. More recently, they had also begun selling CD-ROM drives, as well as “multimedia upgrade kits”: sound cards and CD-ROM drives in one convenient package, along with a few discs to get purchasers started on their magical journey.

Of late, however, another company had begun making waves in the same market. The Silicon Valley firm Media Vision had first captured headlines in newspaper financial sections in November of 1992, when it raised $45 million in an initial public offering in order to go head to head with Creative. Soon after, Media Vision released their Pro AudioSpectrum 16 sound card, the first to offer 16-bit — i.e., audio-CD-quality — sound playback. It took Creative months to follow suit with the Sound Blaster 16.

In the end, Media Vision would not be remembered for their honesty…

But Media Vision’s ambitions extended well beyond the sound-card and CD-ROM-drive market, which, as most financial analysts well realized, looked likely to plateau and then slowly tail off once everyone who wanted to add multimedia capabilities to an existing computer had done so and new computers were all shipping with these features built-in. To secure their long-term future, Media Vision planned to use their hardware profits to invest heavily in software. By the Christmas buying season of 1993, announced the company’s CEO Paul Jain at the beginning of that same year, they would have ten cutting-edge CD-ROM games on the market. To prove his bona fides, he had recruited to run his games division one Stan Cornyn, a legendary name among music-industry insiders.

Cornyn had been hired by Warner Bros. Records in 1958 to write liner notes, and had gone on to become instrumental in building Warner Music into the biggest record company in the world by the end of the 1980s, with superstars like Madonna and Prince in its stable of artists. During his last years at Warner, Cornyn had headed the Warner New Media spinoff, working on Philips CD-I titles and such other innovations as the CD+G format, which allowed one to place lyrics sheets and pictures on what were otherwise audio CDs. In 1992, he had left Warner. “Corporate [leadership] wanted my company to turn a profit, and I had no idea how our inventions would conquer the world,” he would write later. “That, I left to others.” Instead he decided to reinvent himself as a games-industry executive by signing on with Media Vision. His entrance said much about where the movers and shakers in media believed interactive entertainment was heading. And sure enough, he almost immediately scored a major coup, when he signed press darling Trilobyte to release their much-anticipated sequel to The 7th Guest under the Media Vision banner.

As it happened, Marc Blank, one of the original founders of Infocom, had worked at Warner New Media for a time with Cornyn; he had also remained friendly with both Mike Dornbrook and Steve Meretzky. When he read about Cornyn’s hiring by Media Vision, it all struck Dornbrook as serendipitous. “I thought, ‘Aha!'” he remembers. “‘We have a new person who needs content and has a massive budget, and we have a connection to him.'” It was now the fall of 1993. Media Vision hadn’t published the ten games that Paul Jain had promised by this point — they’d only managed two, neither of them very well-received — but that only made Cornyn that much more eager to sign development deals.

Blank proved as good a go-between as Dornbrook had hoped, and a meeting was arranged for Monday, January 17, 1994, in the Los Angeles offices of Stan Cornyn’s operation. Taking advantage of cheaper weekend airfares, Dornbrook and Meretzky took off from a Boston winter and landed amidst the storied sunshine of Southern California two days before that date. Looking at the pedestrians strolling around in their shorts and flip-flops while he sweated in his winter pullover, Dornbrook said to his friend, “You know, I can kind of see why people want to live out here.”

“You’d never catch me out here,” answered Meretzky, “because of the earthquakes.”

“It would be just our luck, wouldn’t it…” mused Dornbrook.

Fast-forward to 4:30 AM on Monday morning, in the fourth-floor hotel room they were sharing. Dornbrook:

The initial shock threw Steve out of his bed and threw me up in the air. I grabbed onto my mattress and held on for dear life. It was like riding a bucking bronco. The building was shaking and moving in ways I didn’t think a building could survive. I was convinced that at any second the ceiling beams were going to fall on me and crush me. That went on for 35 seconds — which feels like about five minutes in an earthquake. And then it stopped.

We were both fine, but it was pitch black in the room; all the lights were out. But I noticed there was a little red light on the TV. I thought, “Oh, we still have power.” So, I decided to turn the TV on. All my life, the public-broadcast system was telling me, in case of an emergency, they would tell me what to do. While I’m turning it on, Steve is yelling, “We need to get out of here!”

I said, “I want to see what they’re telling us to do.” It was a newsroom in LA, one of the main network stations. The camera was zoomed all the way back in a way you normally didn’t see. There were all these desks, all empty except one. That person was screaming and putting his hands over his head and crawling under the desk — and then the power went out.

I knew the TV station was many, many miles from us. This was not just local; this was a major quake. I’m thinking that the San Andreas Fault might have given way. We might not have water; we’re in a desert. We might be trapped here with no water! So, I crawled into the bathroom and started filling the bathtub with water. Steve is yelling, “What the hell are you doing? We’ve got to get out of here!”

I said, “We need water!”

After the bathtub was full, we got dressed in the dark and worked our way down the hall. We had no way of knowing if there was floor in front of us; it was pitch black. So, I let him go first. He felt his way down the hall, making sure there was a floor there. We got to the exit stairs, and they were pitch black also. We went down step by step, making sure there was another step in front of us, all the way to the first floor.

Then we opened the door into the parking lot, and I remember gasping at the sight. We’re in a desert, it’s dry as can be, and there’s no power for hundreds of miles. You could see stars right down to the horizon. I’ve never seen a sky so clear. It was stunning.

The 1994 Los Angeles earthquake killed 57 people, injured more than 9000, and did tens of billions of dollars of property damage. But the show must go on, as they say in Hollywood. The meeting with the Media Vision games division convened that afternoon in Stan Cornyn’s house, delayed only about six hours by the most violent earthquake in Los Angeles history.

Anyone familiar with my earlier coverage of Steve Meretzky’s career will know that he collected game ideas like some people collect stamps. True to form, he showed up at Cornyn’s house with no less than 21 of them, much to the chagrin of Dornbrook, who would have vastly preferred to pitch just one or two: “Because they don’t really have a clue what will work, and they think you do.” On this occasion, though, everyone in the room was feeling giddy from having survived the morning, not to mention the bottles of good wine Cornyn brought up from his cellar, as they listened to Meretzky work through his list. When he was finally finished, Cornyn and his team huddled together for a few minutes, then returned and announced that they’d take eleven of them, thank you very much, and they’d like the first by Christmas at the latest. As a demonstration of good faith while the lawyers wrote up the final contracts, Cornyn handed Dornbrook and Meretzky a check for $20,000. “Get started right now,” he said. “We don’t want you to lose a day.”

After they’d digested this bombshell, Dornbrook and Meretzky asked each other which idea they could possibly bring to fruition in the span of just nine months or so, given that they were literally starting from scratch: no office, no staff, no computers, no development tools, no investors. (Boffo’s founding capital had been exactly $10.) They decided on something called Hodj ‘n’ Podj.

Hodj ‘n’ Podj wasn’t a traditional adventure game, but it was a classic Steve Meretzky project, a game concept which had caught his fancy a long time ago and had remained in his notebook ever since. Its origins reached back to Fooblitzky, the most atypical Infocom game ever: a multiplayer board game that happened to be played on the computer, designed mostly by Mike Berlyn circa 1984. It was a roll-and-move game which revolved around deducing which four of eighteen possible items your character needed to collect in order to win, and then carrying them across the finish line before your competitors did the same with their collections. Played on the company’s big DEC PDP-10, Fooblitzky was a fixture of life inside mid-period Infocom. In late 1985, it became the one and only Infocom product to use their little-remembered cross-platform graphics engine, becoming in the process something of a case study in why such an engine was more problematic than their ubiquitous textual Z-MachineFooblitzky shipped only for the IBM PC, the Apple II, and the Atari 8-bit line of computers, running on the last two at the speed of treacle on a cold day and not coming close to utilizing the full graphics capabilities, modest though they may have been, of any of its hosts. A casual family game at a time when such things were virtually unheard of on computers, and a completely silent and graphically underwhelming one at that, it sold only about 7500 copies in all.

Meretzky’s idea, then, was to update Fooblitzky for an era of home computing that ought to be more friendly to it. He would retain the core mechanics — roll and move, deduce and fetch — but would polish up the interface and graphics, write a fresh framing story involving a kidnapped princess in a fairy-tale kingdom, and add one important new element: as you moved around the board, you would have to play puzzle- and/or action-based mini-games to earn the clues, items, and money you needed. The game would run under Windows — no futzing about with MS-DOS IRQ settings and memory managers! — in order to reach beyond the hardcore-gamer demographic who would probably just scoff at it anyway. It seemed a more than solid proposition, with an important practical advantage that shot it right to the top of Boffo’s project list: the mini-games, where the bulk of the programming would be required, were siloed off from one another in such a way that they could be developed by separate teams working in parallel. Thus the project should be finishable in the requested nine months or so.

Back in cold but blessedly stable Boston, Dornbrook and Meretzky rented office space, hired staff, and bought computers on Media Vision’s dime. The final contract arrived, and all still seemed fine, so much so that Dornbrook agreed to wind up his data-mining venture in favor of doing games full time again. Then, one morning in early April, he opened his newspaper to read that Media Vision was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for serious accounting malfeasance.

In retrospect, the signs had been there all along, as they usually are. The move into software should have raised antennas already more than a year before. “When a company switches or expands its business line into something completely different, it generally means management fears that growth will slow in the main line,” wrote stock-market guru Kathryn F. Staley as part of the round of Monday-morning quarterbacking that now began. “When they expand into a highly competitive business that costs money for product development (like software game titles) when the base business eats money as well, you sit back and watch for the train wreck to happen.” Herb Greenberg, a financial correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been sounding the alarm about Media Vision since the summer of 1993, noting how hard it was to understand how the company’s bottom line could look as good as it did; for all the buzz around Media Vision, it was Creative Labs who still appeared to be selling the vast majority of sound cards and CD-ROM drives. But nobody wanted to listen — least of all two Boston entrepreneurs with a dream of starting a games studio that would bring back some of the old Infocom magic. Media Vision’s stock price had stood at $46 on the day of that earthquake-addled meeting in Los Angeles. Four months later, it stood at $5. Two months after that, the company no longer existed.

As the layers were peeled away, it was learned that Paul Jain and his cronies had engaged in a breathtaking range of fraudulent practices to keep the stock price climbing. They’d paid a fly-by-night firm in India to claim to have purchased $6 million worth of hardware from them that they had never actually made. They’d stashed inventory they said they had sold in secret warehouses in several states. (This house of cards started to fall when Media Vision’s facilities manager, who was not in on the scheme, asked why she kept getting bills from warehouses she hadn’t known existed.) They’d capitalized the expense of their software projects so as to spread the bills out over many years — a practice that was supposed to be used only for permanent, ultra-expensive infrastructure like factories and skyscrapers. Herb Greenberg revealed in one of his articles that they’d go so far as to capitalize their corporate Christmas party. After long rounds of government investigations and shareholder lawsuits, Paul Jain and his chief financial officer Steve Allan would be convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to prison in 2000 and 2002 respectively. “This was certainly one of the dirtiest cases I was ever involved in,” said one lawyer afterward. There is no evidence to suggest that Stan Cornyn’s group was aware of any of this, but the revelations nevertheless marked the end of it alongside the rest of Media Vision. Cornyn himself left the games industry, never to return — understandably enough, given the nature of his brief experience there.

Showing amazing fortitude, Dornbrook, Meretzky, and the team of programmers and artists they’d hired just kept their heads down and kept working on Hodj ‘n’ Podj while Media Vision imploded. When the checks stopped coming from their benefactor, the founders quit paying themselves and cut all other expenses to the bone. That October, Hodj ‘n’ Podj was finished on time and under budget, but it was left in limbo while the bankruptcy court sorted through the wreckage of Media Vision. In December, the contract was bought at the bankruptcy fire sale by Virgin Interactive, and against all odds the game reached store shelves under their imprint in March of 1995. (Virgin also wound up with The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest — an ironic and rather delicious turn of events for them, given that they had actually been the publisher of The 7th Guest back in the day, only to be abandoned by a starstruck Trilobyte when the time came to make the sequel.)

Hard sales figures for Hodj ‘n’ Podj aren’t available, but we can say with confidence that it wasn’t a big seller. In a 1998 Game Developers Conference presentation, Dornbrook blamed a shakeup at Virgin for its disappointing performance. It seems that the management team that bought it at the bankruptcy sale was excited about it, but another team that replaced the first was less so, and this latter refused to fund any real advertising.

These things were doubtless a major factor in its lack of commercial success, but it would be a bridge too far to call Hodj ‘n’ Podj a neglected classic. Although it’s bug-free and crisply presented, it wears out its welcome way more quickly than it ought to. A big part of the problem is the mini-games, which are one and all reskinned rehashes of hoary old perennials from both the analog and digital realms: Battleship, cryptograms, Solitaire, Kalah, video poker, etc. (“These tired old things are games you could play in your sleep, and a bit of freshening up on the soundtrack does little to encourage you to stay awake,” wrote Charles Ardai, harshly but by no means entirely inaccurately, in his review for Computer Gaming World.) Hodj ‘n’ Podj gives you no reason to explore the entire board, but rather makes the most efficient winning gambit that of simply hanging around the same few areas, playing the mini-games you are best at over and over; this speaks to a game that needed a lot more play-testing to devise ways to force players out of their comfort zones. But its most devastating weakness is the decision to support only two players in a game that positively begs to become a full-blown social occasion; even Fooblitzky allows up to four players. A board filled with half a dozen players, all bumping into and disrupting one another in all kinds of mischievous ways, would make up for a multitude of other sins, but this experience just isn’t possible. Hodj ‘n’ Podj isn’t a terrible game — you and a friend can have a perfectly enjoyable evening with it once or twice per year — but its concept is better than its implementation. Rather than becoming more interesting as you learn its ins and outs, as the best games do — yes, even the “casual” ones — it becomes less so.


The main game board. Whatever else you can say about it, Hodj ‘n’ Podj is beautifully presented, thoroughly belying its hurried assembling by a bunch of short-term hired hands. Its pixel art still looks great today.

Yes, there are riddles, always the last resort of a game designer out of other ideas.

Whack-a-beaver!



After Hodj ‘n’ Podj, the story of Boffo turns into a numbing parade of games that almost were. By Mike Dornbrook’s final tally, 35 of their proposals were met with a high degree of “interest” by some publisher or another; 21 led to “solid commitments”; 17 garnered verbal “promises”; 8 received letters of intent and down payments; 5 led to signed contracts; and 2 games (one of them Hodj ‘n’ Podj) actually shipped. I don’t have the heart to chronicle this cavalcade of disappointment in too much detail. Suffice to say that Boffo chose to deal — or was forced to deal — mostly with the new entities who had entered the market in the wake of CD-ROM rather than the old guard who had built the games industry over the course of the 1980s. As the venture capitalists and titans of traditional media who funded these experiments got nervous about a multimedia revolution that wasn’t materializing on the timetable they had expected, they bailed one by one, leaving Boffo out in the cold. Meanwhile the hardcore gaming market was shifting more and more toward first-person shooters and real-time strategy, at the expense of the adventure games which Steve Meretzky had always created. The most profitable Boffo project ever, notes Dornbrook wryly, was one which disappeared along with Time Warner Interactive, leaving behind only a contract which stipulated that Boffo must be paid for several months of work that they now didn’t need to do.

But Boffo did manage to complete one more game and see it released, and it’s to that project that we’ll turn now. The horrid pun that is its title aside, the thunderingly obvious inspiration for Steve Meretzky’s The Space Bar is the cantina scene from Star Wars, with its dizzying variety of cute, ugly, and just plain bizarre alien races all gathered into one seedy Tatooine bar, boozing, brawling, and grooving to the music. Meretzky wanted to capture the same atmosphere in his game, which would cast its player as a telepathic detective on the trail of a shapeshifting assassin. To solve the case, the player would not only need to interrogate the dozens of aliens hanging out at The Thirsty Tentacle, but enter the minds of some of them to relive their memories. Meretzky:

The main design goal for the project was to create an adventure game which was composed of a lot of smaller adventure games: a novel is to a short-story collection as a conventional adventure game would be to The Space Bar. In addition to just a desire to try something different, I also felt that people had increasingly scarce amounts of [free] time, and that starting an adventure game required setting aside such a huge amount of time, many tens of hours. But if, instead, you could say to yourself, “I’ll just play this ‘chapter’ now and save the rest for later,” it would be easier to justify picking up and starting the game. Secondary design goals were to create a spaceport bar as compelling as the one in the first Star Wars movie, to create a Bogart-esque noir atmosphere, to be really funny, and to prove that you could make a graphic adventure that, like the Infocom text games, could have a lot of “meat on the bones.” As with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, I felt that just a collection of independent games was too loose and required a connecting thread; thus the meta-story involving [the player character] Alien Node’s search for the shapeshifter Ni’Dopal. Empathy Telepathy was just a convenient device for connecting the “short stories” to the meta-story.

In the spring of 1995, the tireless Mike Dornbrook was on the verge of clinching a deal to make this game — and for once it was not a deal with a trend-chasing multimedia dilettante: he had no less enviable a fish than Microsoft on the hook. Then Meretzky learned of a startup called Rocket Science Games that had on its staff one Ron Cobb, a visual-design legend who had crafted the look of such films as Alien, The Terminator, Back to the Future (yes, the Delorean time machine was his…), The Abyss, and Total Recall, who had even according to Hollywood rumor been the uncredited creator of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s $792 million-grossing extra-terrestrial. But before all of that, Cobb had made his name by doing the cantina scene for Star Wars. It would be crazy to pass up the chance to have him create the aliens in The Space Bar, said Meretzky. Dornbrook thought it was far crazier to turn down a deal with Microsoft in favor of an unproven startup, but he sighed and made the calls. Soon after, Boffo signed a contract with Rocket Science.

Once again, the warning signs were all there, at least in retrospect. Rocket Science’s founder Steve Blank (no relation to Marc Blank) was a fast-talking showman fond of broad comparisons. His company was “Industrial Light & Magic and Disney combined!” he said. Or, even more inexplicably, it was Cream, the 1960s rock supergroup. Tellingly, none of his comparisons betrayed any familiarity with the current games industry. “Rocket Science feels good and looks good, even though when someone asks me to describe it, I’m somewhat at a loss,” said Blank. In most times and places, a founder unable to describe his company is cause for concern among pundits and investors. But in Silicon Valley in 1995, it was no problem as long as its products were to ship on little silver discs. Blank told his interviewers that he was so awash in investment capital that he could run his company for five years without pulling in any revenue at all.

That was the version of Rocket Science which Boffo signed on with, the one which was capturing the cover of Wired magazine. The following year, “I found out that our games are terrible, no one is buying them, our best engineers [have] started leaving, and with 120 people and a huge burn rate, we’re running out of money and about to crash,” Blank later remembered in a mea culpa published in Forbes. The games in question consisted mostly of simplistic arcade-style exercises, not terribly well designed or implemented, threaded between filmed video snippets, not terribly well written or acted. Gamers took one look at them and then returned to their regularly scheduled sessions of DOOM and Warcraft.

Just as they had with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, Boffo kept their heads down and kept working on The Space Bar while Rocket Science was “cratering,” to use Steve Blank’s favorite vernacular. Meretzky did get to work with Ron Cobb on the visual design, which was quite a thrill for him. A seasoned animation team under Bill Davis, Sierra On-Line’s former head of game visuals, created the graphics using a mixture of pixel art and 3D models, with impressive results. Everyone kept the faith, determined to believe that a game as awesome as this one was shaping up to be couldn’t possibly fail — never mind the weakness of Rocket Science, much less the decline of the adventure-game market. As the months went by and the reality of the latter became undeniable, Meretzky and his colleagues started to talk about The Space Bar as the game that would bring adventures back to the forefront of the industry. “We concentrated on making The Space Bar such a winner that everyone would want to work with us going forward,” says Dornbrook.

In the meantime, Rocket Science continued its cratering. The embattled Steve Blank was replaced by Bill Davis in the CEO’s chair in 1996, and this bought the company a bit more money and time from their investors. In the long run, though, this promotion of an animation specialist only emphasized Rocket Science’s core problem: a surfeit of audiovisual genius, combined with a stark lack of people who knew what made a playable game. In April of 1997, the investors pulled the plug. “It’s tragic when a collection of talent like Rocket Science assembled is disbanded,” said Davis. “It’s a great loss to the industry.” Yet said industry failed to mourn. In fact, it barely noticed.

The Space Bar was in its final stages of development when the news came. Boffo’s contract was passed to SegaSoft, the software division of videogame-console maker Sega, who had invested heavily in Rocket Science games for the underwhelming Sega Saturn. Dornbrook and Meretzky couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Just as had happened with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, The Space Bar was crawling out from under the wreckage of one publisher into the arms of another who didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it. In the weeks before the game’s release, SegaSoft ran a series of weirdly tone-deaf advertisements for it; for reasons that no one could divine, they were take-offs on the tabloid journalism of The National Enquirer. They were so divorced from the game they claimed to be promoting that the one silver lining, says Dornbrook, was that “at least no one would associate them with our game.”

Unlike Hodj ‘n’ Podj, The Space Bar didn’t prove a commercial disappointment: it turned into an outright bomb. Meretzky still calls its disastrous failure the bitterest single disappointment of his career. Soon after, he and Dornbrook finally gave up and shuttered Boffo. Four years of failure and frustration were enough for anyone.

Dornbrook’s 1998 GDC presentation on the rise and fall of Boffo focused almost exclusively on the little studio’s poor treatment by its larger partners, on the many broken promises and breaches of faith they were forced to endure, until they could endure no more. But at the end of it, he did acknowledge that he might appear to be “blaming all of this on others. Weren’t we also at fault here? Did we have problems on our end?” He concluded that, an unfortunate decision here or there aside — the decision to sign with Rocket Science instead of Microsoft certainly springs to mind — they largely did not. He noted that they never failed to emphasize their biggest strength: “Steve’s a fantastic game designer.”

Does The Space Bar support this contention?

On the surface, the game has much going for it: its rogues’ gallery of misfit aliens is as ingenious and entertaining as you would expect from a meeting of the minds of Steve Meretzky and Ron Cobb; it’s as big and meaty as advertised, packed wall to wall with puzzles; its graphics and voice acting are mostly pretty great; it fills three CDs, and feels like it ought to fill even more. It’s the product of a team that was obviously thinking hard about the limitations of current adventure games and how to move past them — how to make the genre more welcoming to newcomers, as well as tempting once again for those who had gotten tired of the adventure-game status quo and moved on to other things. Among its innovative interface constructs are an auto-map that works wonderfully and a comprehensive logbook that keeps track of suspects, clues, and open puzzles. Dornbrook has called it “a labor of love,” and we have no reason to doubt him.

Nevertheless, it is — and it gives me no pleasure to write this — a flabbergastingly awful game. It plays as if all those intense design discussions Meretzky took part in at Infocom never happened, as if he was not just designing his first adventure game, but was the first person ever to design an adventure game. All the things that Ron Gilbert told the world made adventure games suck almost a decade earlier are here in spades: cul-de-sacs everywhere that can only be escaped by pressing the “restore” button, a need to do things in a certain order when you have no way of knowing what that order is, a need to run though the same boring processes over and over again, a stringent time limit that’s impossible to meet without hyper-optimized play, player deaths that come out of nowhere, puzzles that make sense only in the designer’s head. It’s not just sadistically but incompetently put together as a game. And as a marketplace proposition, it’s utterly incoherent, not to say schizophrenic; how can we possibly square this design with Meretzky’s stated goal of making a more approachable adventure game, one that would be digestible in snack-sized chunks? The Space Bar would seem to be aimed at two completely separate audiences, each the polar opposite of the other; I don’t believe there’s any hidden demographic of casual masochists out there. And there’s no difficulty slider or anything else that serves to bridge the chasm.


One of the oddities of the Boffo story is the sanguine belief on the part of the otherwise savvy Mike Dornbrook that he could use Steve Meretzky’s supposed “star power” to sell games, as demonstrated by his prominent billing here on the cover of the Space Bar box. Meretzky wasn’t any Sid Meier or John Romero; he was a cult figure rather than a household name even among hardcore gamers, adored by a small group of them for his work with Infocom but largely unknown to the rest of them. His last game to sell over 100,000 copies had been Leather Goddesses of Phobos in 1986, his last to manage 50,000 Spellcasting 101 in 1990.

It wouldn’t be a Steve Meretzky game without a bit of this sort of thing…

These aliens are among the funniest. They’re an incredibly advanced and powerful race, but they look like Tiki drinks, and everyone is forever picking them up and trying to sip from them.

The very well-done auto-map.



If The Space Bar sold ten copies, that was ten too many; I hope those ten buyers returned it for a refund. I don’t blame Mike Dornbrook for not being aware of just how terrible a game The Space Bar was; he was way too close to it to be expected to have an objective view under any circumstances, even as he was, as he forthrightly acknowledges, never really much of a gamer after his torrid early romance with Zork had faded into a comfortable conviviality. Still, to analyze the failure of Boffo only in terms of market pressures, bad luck, and perhaps just a few bad business choices is to fail at the task. In addition to all of these other factors, there remains the reality that neither of their two games were actually all that good. Nothing about The Space Bar would lead one to believe that Steve Meretzky is “a fantastic game designer.”

Yet Meretzky could in fact be a fantastic game designer. Back in 2015, writing about his 1987 Infocom game Stationfall, I called him “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.” I continue to stand by that statement in the context of his games of that era. So, how did we get from Stationfall to The Space Bar?

I belabor this question not because I want to pick on Steve Meretzky, whose half-dozen or so stone-cold classic games are half a dozen more than I can lay claim to, but because I think there’s an important lesson here about the need for collaboration in game design. I tend to see Meretzky’s rather disappointing output during the 1990s — including not only his Boffo games but those he did for Legend and Activision — as another ironic testament to Infocom’s genius for process. Infocom surrounded the designer of each of their games with skeptical, questioning peers, and expected him to work actively with a team of in-house testers who were empowered to do more than just point out bugs and typos, who were allowed to dig into what was fun and unfun, fair and unfair. Meretzky never worked in such an environment again after Infocom — never worked with people who were willing and able to tell him, “Maybe this joke goes on a bit too long, Steve,” or, “Maybe you don’t need to ask the player to go through this dozen-step process multiple times. ” The end results perhaps speak for themselves. Sometimes you need colleagues who do more than tell you how fantastic you are.

Steve Meretzky never designed another full-fledged adventure game after The Space Bar. Following a few dissatisfying intermediate steps, he found his way into the burgeoning world of casual social games, distributed digitally rather than as boxed products, where he’s done very well for himself since the turn of the millennium. Meanwhile Mike Dornbrook signed on with a little company called Harmonix that reminded him somewhat of Infocom, being staffed as they were with youthful bright sparks from MIT. After years of refining their techniques for making music interactive for non-musicians, they released something called Guitar Hero in 2005. Both of the principals behind Boffo have enjoyed second acts in the games industry that dwarf their first in terms of number of players reached and number of dollars earned. So, it all worked out okay for them in the end.

(Sources: the books Games Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III Exploding: The Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group by Stan Cornyn, Capital Instincts: Life as an Entrepreneur, Financier, and Athlete by Richard L. Brandt, Thomas Weisel, and Lance Armstrong, and The Art of Short Selling by Kathryn F. Staley; Computer Gaming World of May 1995, August 1995, May 1997, and December 1997; Questbusters 116; Computer Games Strategy Plus of August 1996; Wired of November 1994 and July 1997; San Francisco Chronicle of August 29 2000; the June 1993 issue of Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction. Online source include a CD Mag interview with Steve Meretzky, an Adventure Classic Gaming interview with Steve Meretzky, a Happy Puppy interview with Steve Meretzky, “Failure and Redemption” by Steve Blank at Forbes, and Mike Dornbrook’s presentation “Look Before You Leap” at the 1998 Game Developers Conference. But my most valuable source of all was Karl Kuras’s more than four-hour (!) interview with Mike Dornbrook for his Video Game Newsroom Time Machine podcast, a truly valuable oral history of the games industry from a unique perspective. Thanks, Karl and Mike!)

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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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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