Planet Interactive Fiction

October 19, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

The Sierra Discovery Adventures

by Jimmy Maher at October 19, 2018 04:41 PM

Among the most rewarding hidden gems in Sierra’s voluminous catalog must be the games of the Discovery Series, the company’s brief-lived educational line of the early 1990s. Doubtless because of that dreaded educational label, these games are little-remembered today even by many hardcore Sierra fans, and, unlike most of the better-known Sierra games, have never been reissued in digital-download editions.

In my book, that’s a real shame. For reasons I’ve described at exhaustive length by now in other articles, I’m not a big fan of Sierra’s usual careless approach to adventure-game design, but the games of the Discovery Series stand out for their lack of such staple Sierra traits as dead ends, illogical puzzles, and instant deaths, despite the fact that they were designed and implemented by the very same people who were responsible for the “adult” adventure games. These design teams were, it seems, motivated to show children the mercy they couldn’t be bothered to bestow upon their adult players. While it’s true that even the Discovery games weren’t, as we’ll see, entirely free of regrettable design choices, these forgotten stepchildren ironically hold up far better today than most of their more popular siblings. For that reason, they’re well worth highlighting as part of this ongoing history.

I’ve already written about the Discovery Series’s two Dr. Brain games, creative and often deceptively challenging puzzle collections that can be enjoyed by adults as easily as children. Today, then, I’d like to complete my coverage. Although some of the other Discovery games were aimed at younger children, and are thus outside the scope of our usual software interests, three others could almost have been sold as regular Sierra adventure games. So, I’ll use this article to look at this trio more closely — the first of which in particular is a true classic, in my opinion the best Sierra adventure of any stripe released during 1992.


Gano Haine and Jane Jensen

One of the ways in which Sierra stood out in a positive way from their peers was their willingness to employ women in the roles of writer and designer. At a time when almost no one else in the computer-games industry had any women in prominent creative roles, Sierra’s gender balance approached fifty-fifty at times.

Gano Haine, one of these female designers, was also a fine example of what we might call a second-generation adventure designer — someone who had seen the genre evolve from the perspective of a player in the 1980s, and was now ready to make her own mark on it in the 1990s. She took a roundabout route into the industry. A mother and junior-high teacher of fifteen years standing, hers was a prominent voice in the Gamers Forum on CompuServe in the latter 1980s. She wrote extensively there about the good and bad of each game she played. “I don’t think it’s something you do to yourself on purpose,” she said of her adventure-game addiction. “I soon realized that I needed to find a way to make it a profession or I’d starve.” Luckily, Sierra hired her, albeit initially only as an informal consultant. Soon, though, she moved to Oakhurst, California, to become a full-time Sierra game designer. That happened in 1991, just as the Discovery Series was being born.

Everyone among the designers, whether a wizened veteran or a fresh-faced recruit, was given an opportunity to pitch an idea for the new line. The stakes were high because those whose pitches were not accepted would quite probably wind up working in subservient roles on those projects which had been given the green light. Yet Haine was motivated by more than personal ambition when she offered up her idea. One teenage memory that had never left her came to the fore.

I worked a lot in children’s summer camps. There was a beach where we took the children every Wednesday, a beautiful beach, with rocks and glittering sand. I remember once we sat on the rocks and watched a whole school of porpoises jumping in the waves.

Anyway, the next season when we went there, the whole beach was covered with litter. As I walked down to the water with the kids, I looked down, and there was human sewage running across the sand and into the ocean. To see that beautiful place trashed was tremendously painful to me.

Thus was born EcoQuest: an adventure game meant to teach its young players about our precious, fragile natural heritage. After her idea was accepted, Haine was assigned Jane Jensen, a former Hewlett Packard programmer and frustrated novelist who had been hired at almost the same time as her, to work with her as co-designer. This meant that EcoQuest would not only have a female lead designer, but would become the first computer game in history that was the product of an all-female design team.

Thinking, as Sierra always encouraged their designers to do, in terms of an all-new game’s series potential, Haine and Jensen created a young protagonist named Adam. Adam’s father is an ecologist who spends his life traveling the globe dealing with various environment catastrophes, and his lonely son tags along, finding his friends among the animals living in the places they visit.

In light of the disturbing memory that had spawned the series, the first game had always been destined to take place in the ocean. Adam gets recruited by one of his anthropomorphic animal friends, a dolphin named Delphineus, to search for Cetus, the great sperm whale whom all of the other undersea creatures look to for guidance, but who’s now gone missing. (One guess which species of bipedal mammal is responsible…) The game was therefore given the subtitle of The Search for Cetus to join the EcoQuest series badge.

Sierra was by no means immune to the allure of the trendy, and certainly there was a whiff of just that to making this game at this time. The first international Earth Day had taken place on April 22, 1990, accompanied by a well-orchestrated media campaign that turned a spotlight — arguably a brighter spotlight than at any earlier moment in history — onto the many environmental catastrophes that were facing our planet even then. This new EcoQuest series was very much of a piece with Earth Day and the many other media initiatives it spawned. Still, the environmental message of EcoQuest isn’t just a gimmick; anthropomorphic sea creatures aside, it’s very much in scientific earnest. Haine and Jensen worked with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, California, to get the science right, and Sierra even agreed to donate a portion of the profits to the same organization.

There’s a refreshing sweetness to the game that some might call naivete, an assumption that the most important single factor contributing to the pollution of our oceans is simple ignorance. For example, Adam meets a fishing boat at one point whose propeller lacks a protective cage to prevent it from injuring manatees and other ocean life. He devises a way of making such a cage and explains its importance to the fisherman, who’s horrified to learn the damage his naked propeller had been causing and more than happy to be given this solution. The only glaring exception to the rule of human ignorance rather than malice is the whaling ship that, it turns out, has harpooned poor Cetus.

The message of The Search for Cetus would thus seem to be that, while there are a few bad apples among us, most people want to keep our oceans as pristine as possible and want the enormous variety of species which live in them to be able to survive and thrive. Is this really so very naive? From my experience, at any rate, most people would react just the same as the fisherman in an isolated circumstance like his. It’s the political and financial interests that keep getting in the way, preventing large-scale change by inflaming passions that have little bearing on the practicalities at hand. Said interests are obviously outside the scope of this children’s adventure game, but the same game does serve as a reminder that many things in this world aren’t really so complicated in themselves; they’re complicated only because some among us insist on making them so, often for disingenuous purposes.

Yet The Search for Cetus is never as preachy as the paragraph I’ve just written. Jane Jensen would later go on to become one of the most famed adventure designers in history through her trilogy of supernatural mysteries starring the reluctant hero Gabriel Knight. The talent for characterization that would make those games so beloved is also present, at least in a nascent form, in The Search for Cetus. From an hysterical hermit crab to a French artiste of a blowfish, the personalities are all a lot of fun. “The characters’ voices and personalities are used to humanize their plight,” said Jensen, “giving a voice to the faceless victims of our carelessness.” Most critically, the characters all feel honestly cute or comic or both; The Search for Cetus never condescends to its audience. This is vitally important to the goal of getting the game’s environmental message across because children can smell adult condescension from a mile away, and it’s guaranteed to make them run screaming.

The techniques the game uses to educate in a natural-feeling interactive context are still worthy of study today. For example, a new verb is added to the standard Sierra control panel: “recycle.” This comes to function as a little hidden-object game-within-the-game, as you scan each screen for trash, getting a point for every piece that you recycle. Along the way, you’ll be astonished both by the sheer variety of junk that makes its way into our oceans and the damage it causes: plastic bags suffocate blowfish, organic waste causes algae to grow out of control, plastic six-pack rings entangle swordfish and dolphins, balloons get eaten by turtles, bleach poisons the water, tar and oil kills coral. In the non-linear middle section of the game, you solve a whole series of such problems for the ocean’s inhabitants, learning a great deal about them in the process. You even mark a major chemical spill for cleanup. The game refuses to throw up its hands at the scale of the damage humanity has done; it’s lesson is that, yes, the damage is immense, but we — and even you, working at the individual level — can do something about it. This may be the most important message of all to take away from The Search for Cetus.

The game isn’t hard by any means, but nor is it trivial. Jane Jensen:

Gano and I are both Sierra players, so when we started to design our first Sierra game, we designed a game that we would want to play. The puzzles in EcoQuest are traditional Sierra adventure-game puzzles, with an ecological and educational slant. You can’t die in the game, but other than that, it’s a real Sierra adventure. Because it is aimed at an older audience, the gameplay isn’t simplified like Mixed-Up Mother Goose or Fairy Tales. The puzzles are challenging, and lots of fun.

Thus the concessions to the children that were expected to become the primary audience take the form not of complete infantilization, but rather a lack of pointless deaths, a lack of of unwinnable states, and a number of optional puzzles which score points but aren’t required to finish the game. Many outside Sierra’s rather insular circle of designers, of course, would call all of these things — especially the first two — simply good design, full stop.

Released in early 1992, The Search for Cetus did well enough that Sierra funded a CD-ROM version with voice acting to supplement the original floppy-based version about a year later. And they funded a further adventure of young Adam as well, which was also released in early 1993. In Lost Secret of the Rainforest, he and his father head for the Amazon, where they confront the bureaucrats, poachers, and clear-cutters that threaten another vital ecosystem’s existence.

With this second game in the series, Sierra clearly opted for not fixing what isn’t broken: all of the educational approaches and program features we remember from the original, from the anthropomorphic animals to the recycling icon, make a return. There’s even a clever new minigame this time around, involving an “ecorder,” a handheld scanner that identifies plants and animals and other things you encounter and provides a bit of information about them. So, in addition to hunting for toxic trash, you’re encouraged to try to find everything in the ecorder’s database as you explore the jungle.

Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t all come together as well as it did the first time around. Jane Jensen didn’t work on Lost Secret, leaving the entirety of the game in the hands of Gano Haine, who lacked her talent for engaging characters and dialog. She obviously strove mightily, but the results too often come across as labored, unfunny, and/or leaden. (Haine did mention in an interview that, responding to complaints from some quarters that the text in Search for Cetus was too advanced for some children, she made a conscious attempt to simplify the writing in the sequel; this may also have contributed to the effect I’m describing.)

The puzzle design as well is unbalanced, being fairly straightforward until a scene in the middle which seems to have been beamed in from another game entirely. This scene, in which Adam has been captured by a group of poachers and needs to escape, all but requires a walkthrough to complete for players of any age, combining read-the-author’s mind puzzles with the necessity for fiddly, pinpoint-precise clicking and timing. And then, after you clear that hurdle, the game settles back down into the old routine, running on to the end in its old straightforward manner, as if it nothing out of the way had ever happened. It’s deeply strange, and all by itself makes Lost Secret difficult to recommend with anything like the same enthusiasm as its predecessor. It’s not really a bad game on the whole — especially if you go into it forewarned about its one truly bad sequence — but it’s not a great one either.

The poacher named Slaughter has a pink-river dolphin carcass hanging over his door, book stands made from exotic horns, a jaguar-skin rug on his floor, and a footstool made from an elephant’s foot. Laying it on just a bit thick, perhaps?

And on that somewhat disappointing note, the EcoQuest series ended. The science behind the two games still holds up, and the messages they impart about environmental stewardship are more vital than ever. From the modern perspective, the infelicities in the games’ depiction of environmental issues mostly come in their lack of attention to another threat that has become all too clear in the years since they were made: the impact global warming is having on both our oceans and our rain forests. This lack doesn’t, however, invalidate anything that EcoQuest does say about ecological issues. The second game in particular definitely has its flaws, but together the two stand as noble efforts to use the magic of interactivity as a means of engagement with pressing real-world issues — the sort of thing that the games industry, fixated as it always has been on escapist entertainment, hasn’t attempted as much as it perhaps ought to. “Environmental issues are very emotional,” acknowledges Gano Haine, “and you inevitably contact people who have very deep disagreements about those issues.” Yet the EcoQuest series dares to present, in a commonsense but scientifically rigorous way, the impact some of our worst practices are having on our planet, and dares to ask whether we all couldn’t just set politics aside and try to do that little bit more to make the situation better.

In that spirit, I have to note that some of the most inspiring aspects of the EcoQuest story are only tangentially related to the actual games. A proud moment for everyone involved with the series came when Sierra received a letter from a group of kids in faraway Finland, who had played The Search for Cetus and been motivated to organize a cleanup effort at a polluted lake in their neighborhood. Meanwhile the research that went into making the games caused the entire company of Sierra Online to begin taking issues of sustainability more seriously. They started printing everything from game boxes to pay stubs on recycled paper; started reusing their shipping pallets; started using recycled disks; started sorting their trash and sending it to the recycler. They also started investigating the use of water-based instead of chemical-based coatings for their boxes, soybean ink for printing, and fully biodegradable materials for packing. No, they didn’t hesitate to pat themselves on the back for all this in their newsletter (which, for the record, was also printed on recycled paper after EcoQuest) — but, what the hell, they’d earned it.

The words they wrote in their newsletter apply more than ever today: “It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Saving the planet isn’t a passing fad. It’s critical, for our own future and for the future of our children.” One can only hope that the games brought some others around to the same point of view — and may even continue to do so today, for those few who discover them moldering away in some archive or other.



Pepper’s Adventures in Time, the third and final adventure game released as part of the Discovery Series, was a very different proposition from EcoQuest. Its original proposer wasn’t one of Sierra’s regular designers, but rather Bill Davis, the veteran television and film animator who had been brought in at the end of the 1980s to systematize the company’s production processes to suit a new era of greater audiovisual fidelity and exploding budgets. His proposal was for a series called Twisty History, which would teach children about the subject by asking them to protect history as we know it from the depredations wrought by the evil inventor of a time machine. Because Davis wasn’t himself a designer, the first game in the planned series became something of a community effort, a collaboration that included Gano Haine and Jane Jensen as well as Lorelei Shannon and Josh Mandel. (That is, for those tracking gender equality in real time, three female designers and one male.)

Lockjaw has been captured by a spoiled brat of a Royalist!

The star of the series, as sketched by Bill Davis and filled in by the design team, is a girl named Pepper Pumpernickel, a spunky little thing who doesn’t take kindly to the opposite sex telling her what she can and can’t do. Her costar is Lockjaw, her pet dog. Davis:

We’d recently lost a dog to leukemia, had gone through an extended period of mourning, and had decided it was time to adopt. So my wife and son headed for our favorite adoption agency, the local animal shelter. They came home with a German shepherd/terrier mix. The terrier turned out to be Staffordshire terrier. For those in the dark, as we were, Staffordshire terrier is synonymous with “pit bull.” Anyway, she turned out to be a lovable little mutt with a bit of an attitude. Thirty pounds of attitude, to be precise. Well, as I was sitting at the drawing board designing characters for Twisty, she shoved her attitude up my behind and into the game proposal.

Lockjaw threatens at times to steal the game from Pepper — as, one senses, he was intended to. The player even gets to control him rather than Pepper from time to time, using his own unique set of doggie verbs, like a nose icon for sniffing, a paw icon for digging, and a mouth icon for eating — or biting. It’s clear that the designers really, really want you to be charmed by their fierce but lovable pooch, but for the most part he is indeed as cute as they want him to be, getting himself and Pepper into all kinds of trouble, only to save the day when the plot calls for it.

Ben Franklin’s doctrine of sober industriousness has been corrupted into hippie indolence. It’s up to Pepper to right the course of history as we know it.

Otherwise, the theme of this first — and, as it would turn out, only — game in the series is fairly predictable for a work of children’s history written in this one’s time and place. Pepper travels back to “Colonial” times, that semi-mythical pre-Revolutionary War period familiar to every American grade-school student, when Ben Franklin was flying his kite around, Thomas Paine was writing about the rights of the citizen, and the evil British were placing absurd levies on the colonists’ tea supply. (Perish the thought!)

While its cozily traditional depiction of such a well-worn era of history doesn’t feel as urgent or relevant as the environmental issues presented by EcoQuest, the game itself is a lot of fun. The script follows the time-tested cartoon strategy of mixing broad slapstick humor aimed at children with subtler jokes for any adults who might be playing along: referencing Monty Python, poking fun at the tedious professors we’ve all had to endure. Josh Mandel had worked as a standup comedian before coming to Sierra, and his instinct for the punchline combined with Jane Jensen’s talent for memorable characterization can’t help but charm.

The puzzle design too is pretty solid, with just a couple of places that could have used a bit more guidance for the player and/or a bit more practical thinking-through on the part of the designers. (Someone really should have told the designers that fresh tomatoes and ketchup aren’t remotely the same thing when it comes to making fake blood…) And, once again, the games does a good job of blending the educational elements organically into the whole. This time around, you have a “truth” icon you can use to find out what is cartoon invention and what is historically accurate; the same icon provides more background on the latter. You use what you have (hopefully) learned in this way to try to pass a quiz that’s presented at the end of each chapter, thus turning the study of history into a sort of scavenger hunt that’s more entertaining than one might expect, even for us jaded adults.

What had been planned as the beginning of the Twisty History series was re-badged as the one-off Pepper’s Adventures in Time just before its release in the spring of 1993. This development coincided with the end of the Discovery Series as a whole, only two years after it had begun. Sierra had just acquired a Seattle software house known as Bright Star Technology, who were henceforward to constitute their official educational division. Bright Star appropriated the character of Dr. Brain, but the rest of the budding collection of series and characters that constituted the Discovery lineup were quietly retired, and the designers who had made them returned to games meant strictly to entertain. And so passed into history one of the most refreshing groups of games ever released by Sierra.

(Sources: the book Jane Jensen: Gabriel Knight, Adventure Games, and Hidden Objects by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, and June 1993; Compute! of January 1993; Questbusters of March 1992; materials in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.

Feel free to download EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, EcoQuest: Lost Secret of the Rainforest, and Pepper’s Adventures in Time from this site, in a format that will make them as easy as possible to get running using your platform’s version of DOSBox.)

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2018: Birmingham IV

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 19, 2018 04:41 AM

This is a port of an I7 game written in 1988, using The Quill, on a BBC Micro. In the intervening thirty years there have been rather a lot of developments in parser IF, in terms of design as much … Continue reading

The People's Republic of IF

October meetup Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at October 19, 2018 01:41 AM

adri,zarf, lucian, and lee braved heavy rain and wind to get to the meeting.

October 2018 Pr-if meetup

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday, Oct 11th.  As Hurricane Michael struck the panhandle, adri, zarf, and anjchang welcomed Lucian P. Smith (author of The Edifice from IFComp 1st Place 1997) from UW and newcomer Lee Kilpatrick (@leegrandk),  Warning: what follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:

Lucian talked about how IF helped him get his job. He was in town for a Systems Biology Markup Language conference. Welcome Lucian, all the way from Washington!

Lucian P. Smith at October 2018 Pr-If Meeting.

Welcome Lucian!

Sidereal confluence
Zarf talked about his parser game development
He”ll be attending the Different Games conference. Memory blocks will be shown

Lucian showing off his Pitfall skills. Go left!

Lucian showing off his Pitfall skills. Go left!

Zarf shows off his Pitfall prowess.

Zarf shows off his Pitfall prowess.

Pitfall mastery discussion, left vs right strategy (left was always easier)
Discussion from Racing the Beam about the graphics, zarf looked it up. Top of vine is green is re-positioned ball, cool background graphics hacks, mirroring graphics and sprites where graphics cross over.

Playing Re:Dragon

Playing Re:Dragon together

IfComp games discussion. We talked about judging– ends Nov 15th. Play at least 5 games to vote. Ifcomp.org, week 2 of 6 judging
Mouse and Christmas
Re:Dragon by jack welch

We then decided to play Re:Dragon. Lolz reading the text that  George MacBraeburn alias for jmac. Lucian and zarf did an excellent job of reading. Makes people want to play the original Dragon game.
Discussed using pseudonym for entering game competition
Cragne manor in beta testing – everyone’s eager to play it!
Michael Gentry mention

More glorious pictures here.

October 18, 2018

The People's Republic of IF

November meetup

by zarf at October 18, 2018 06:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for November will be Tuesday, November 13, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

October 17, 2018

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2018: Devotionalia

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 17, 2018 07:41 PM

I started playing Devotionalia over lunch. Lunch was cheesy ramen. I had to stop within five minutes because the two experiences were not aesthetically compatible. Like a lot of weird fiction, this is a mood piece rather than a plot … Continue reading

October 16, 2018

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2018: Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 16, 2018 10:41 PM

Next up in the Comp: Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death by A.B., a choice-based game presented as a medieval illuminated text. This is a work that was very obviously inspired by Harmonia (although it’s made in Twine rather than Windrift): it’s presented … Continue reading

Emily Short

Mailbag: AI Research on Dialogue and Story Generation

by Mort Short at October 16, 2018 01:40 PM

I’m curious: do you follow much research that happens in stories and dialog these days? In the world of machine learning research, there’s much less in dialog and stories than other areas (e.g. image generation/recognition or translation), but once in a while, you come across some interesting work, e.g. Hierarchical Neural Story Generation (by some folks in Facebook AI).

For some years now I’ve followed work coming out of the UCSC Expressive Intelligence Studio; work done at Georgia Tech around crowdsourced narrative generation; game industry applications introduced or covered at the GDC AI Summit (though it is rarer to see extensive story-generation work here). I’ve also served on the program committees for ICCC and ICIDS and a few FDG workshops; and am an associate editor on IEEE Transactions on Games focused on interactive storytelling applications. Here (1, 2, 3) is my multi-part post covering the book Interactive Digital Narrative in detail.

That’s not to say I see (or could see) everything that’s happening. I tend to focus on things that look most ready to be used in games, entertainment, or chatbot applications — especially those that are designed to support a partially human-authored experience. I also divide my available “research” time between academic work and hands on experiments in areas that interest me.

So with that perspective in mind:

  • I’m not attempting a comprehensive literature review here! That would be huge. This coverage cherrypicks items
  • I will go pretty lightly on the technical detail since the typical readership of this blog may not be that interested, but I’ll try to provide summary and example information that explains why a given item is interesting in my opinion, and then link back to the original research for people who want the deeper dive
  • I’ll actually start by summarizing a bit the paper the questioner linked
  • Even with cherrypicking, there is a lot to say here and I am breaking it out over multiple posts

That Initial Paper

For other readers: the linked article in this question is about using a large dataset pulled from Reddit’s WritingPrompts board and a machine learning model that draws on multiple techniques (convolutional seq2seq, gated self-attention). After training, the system is able to take short prompts and create a paragraph or so of story that relates to the prompt. Several of the sample output sections are quite cool:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 1.41.40 PM.png

But they are generating surface text rather than plot, and the evidence suggests that they would not be able to produce a coherent long-term plot. Just within this dialogue section, we’re talking about a tablet-virus-monster object, and we’ve got a couple of random scientist characters.

Building Models of Story Domains

This approach is about using large amounts of data to come up with a model of how particular narrative domains work: what types of actions can be expected in this sort of scenario, and how might events play out?

The Entertainment Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech (Mark Riedl et al) uses crowdsourced story-telling data to model the sorts of things that might be expected to happen in a particular scenario (such as a bank robbery or a trip to the movies) and then assemble feasible new narratives matching the same requirements. This could be deployed in an interactive context as well as a static one, since the model of the story domain, once developed, can be used to suggest appropriate consequences to a player’s action.

Jeff Orkin used a related approach in his Restaurant Game research: he asked many many human players to role-play being a waiter or a customer at a restaurant, then used this material to build a domain model of appropriate conversation and interaction in that context. He now works at Giant Otter, a startup dedicated to interactive dialogue for chatbots.

Ben Cole at MashUpMachine is applying a similar approach to gathering a crowdsourced model of how plots and characters work in the context of standard teen slasher horror movies, and using that model to drive both the sequence of events and choices about music, animation and camera position when presenting those events to the player.

Other Approaches to Procedural Story Generation

There are several research groups that focus on procedural generation of stories in some form or other. Several of these have been functioning for many years, and I couldn’t reasonably summarize all of their research here, but I’ll list a few:

The Liquid Narrative Group led by R. Michael Young looks among other things at how narratives can adapt in response to player input in order to maximize the player’s experience of agency.

David Thue works on backstory generation and level of detail in narration: given particular events we might tell the player about, how much detail should we give and what aspects of the story are most appropriate to narrate given the current state of discourse.

Mexica, a system for creating story plots using standard figures from Aztec folklore, I’ve covered on this blog before, so I’ll refer you there for more depth if desired.

Pablo Gervas works both in planning stories and in their textual realization.

One might also mention Andrew Gordon and Nicolas Szilas among others here, but I’ll talk about their work more later when I get to authoring tools for procedural storytelling.

In addition to academic research, there are also quite a few people writing and speaking about procedurally generated story in indie and experimental games, using a mix of simulation techniques and grammars. Procedural Generation in Game Design covers a number of story-related approaches among other things.

Simulation-First Approaches

Another strategy in this space is to run a world simulation and then search the simulated event space to find interesting plot arcs that deserve to be narrated. Several examples of this are discussed in my post World Simulation for Story Generation.

It’s also worth looking at Tarn Adams’ work on how he designs simulation elements of Dwarf Fortress in order to make interesting microstories more likely — his talk at Progression Mechanics last year has good material about interlocking systems and what these make possible.

Creating Agents to Navigate Text Adventures

This is a different problem, and might or might not fall into the original questioner’s interest area, but TextWorld and its related research is about procedurally generating simple text adventure puzzles and then using reinforcement learning to train agents to solve them.

Next time I’ll continue this by talking about some authoring tools for dynamic/procedural storytelling, and some of the theoretical work currently being done around choice mechanics and similar topics.

October 15, 2018

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2018: Within a circle of water and sand

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 15, 2018 10:41 PM

Within a circle of water and sand is a choice-based game by Romain. This a Polynesian fantasy, a story about a people who use outrigger canoes to cross vast tropical oceans and have names with (C)V(V) phonology. The protagonist is … Continue reading

IF Comp 2018: Charming

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 15, 2018 09:41 PM

IF Comp 2018 is upon us. (It’s been upon us for a while, but I was traveling and then sick). I’ve got a blurb-reviewing post brewing, as in previous years, but it’s coming along slowly: accordingly, I’m just going to … Continue reading

Emily Short

Mid-October Link Assortment

by Emily Short at October 15, 2018 07:40 PM

IF Comp judging is currently in progress — if you’d like to judge or review games, now is your chance to check that out and submit your votes.  Voting ends November 15.

The IGDA Foundation is now accepting 2019 GDC scholarship applications for aspiring and current game designers.  The opportunity for IGDA Scholars, IGDA Velocity, and IGDA Next Gen recipients will be open until November 30.

From Now – February 24, 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum is featuring an exhibit on contemporary video games.

October 19-28 is the submission window for the fifth annual PROCJAM, seeking entries for generative software.

October 20 is the Oxford and London workshop in the Ren’Py tool for building visual novels.

There is a Seattle IF Meetup this month on October 21.   The group will be discussing IF Comp and playing through some games.

October 22 is the deadline for Saugus.net’s 21st Annual Ghost Story Contest.  They accept both traditional prose entries and IF.  Official rules can be found here.

 

Ectocomp is taking both Spanish and English-language submissions for their competition from October 26-30, but if you want to start work on your game through the site, it is open now.

October 27, the Baltimore/DC Meetup gets together.

November 3 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

November 10-11AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years. (Incidentally, they’ve published their exhibitor list and it’s pretty sweet.)

December 2 is the deadline for entering the Russian Language IF competition KRIL.

December 5-8 in Dublin is the next ICIDS, the international conference on interactive digital storytelling.

This is long in advance, but NarraScope is a recently-announced conference for IF and narrative games to be held in Cambridge, MA June 14-16 of 2019. Here’s how they describe it:

NarraScope is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.

For users of   ‧ AGS ‧ ChoiceScript ‧ Hypertext ‧ Inform ‧ Ink ‧ Quest ‧ Ren’Py ‧ Storyspace ‧ TADS ‧ Twine ‧ …add yours? ‧

“Interactive fiction” has many meanings. It describes many kinds of games and many diverse communities of practice. It’s time to bring those communities together to hang out and chat exchange ideas!

For fans of   ‧ Zork ‧ The Walking Dead ‧ The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo ‧ Syberia ‧ Sorcery! ‧ Portal ‧ Photopia ‧ Patchwork Girl ‧ Oxenfree ‧ Myst ‧ Meanwhile ‧ Loom ‧ Lifeline ‧ Howling Dogs ‧ Gone Home ‧ 80 Days ‧ Dream Daddy ‧ Device 6 ‧ Counterfeit Monkey ‧ Choice of Broadsides ‧ The Blackwell Legacy ‧ Analogue: A Hate Story ‧ Adventure ‧

We are still finalizing the details of the venue and schedule. We expect to be in Cambridge, in coordination with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department. A call for speakers and talk proposals will be posted soon.

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New Releases

rettberg_web_qual.jpgNovember 22 at Heffers in Cambridge, Scott Rettberg is celebrating the launch of his new book Electronic Literature. The event is free, but does require a reservation.  The book is also available for preorder on Wiley and Amazon.

Back in April, I profiled Michael J. Coyne’s Illuminismo Iniziato, noting its ambitious use of both visual and sound effects in its UI.  The source code has been released, and an announcement and link are both posted here.

Encrusted is a z-machine interpreter that does lots of cool automatic mapping and diagramming… but with the drawback that it only accepts z3 files. So it’ll play old Infocom games, but most Inform titles wouldn’t work, even before you get to the age of Glulx. Still, the pictures on the website are pretty.

Articles and Podcasts

As the IF Comp judging period gets underway, a number of reviewers have posted their reactions to games here.

Julia Silge writes about using deep learning to create models of Austenian prose in order to generate more of the same.

Videos

Here is Minkette talking about escape room design at NYU.

At Roguelike Celebration, Tarn Adams gives a talk on Villains in Dwarf Fortress.

And if you missed seeing Joseph Humfrey’s GDC talk about developing readable text games, and you also missed his reprise of that talk at London IF Meetup, here is a version recorded and available on Youtube.

Crowdfunding

The Colossal Fund is raising money for IF Comp prizes this year, and also to support the regular work of the IFTF — including archive support, Twine development, and accessibility improvements for interactive fiction games and tools.

Designer Mark Darin is raising funds for the independent noir-comedy adventure game Nick Bounty and the Dame with the Blue Chewed Shoe, aiming to have the project funded by October 31.

Longtime IF author Chris Huang is working on his second novel Cat’s Paw on Inkshares.  The novel is part of the Inkshares Mystery and Thriller Contest, which calls for pre-orders before November 21.  For more info on Huang, his personal website can be found here.

Publishing

Mythaxis is seeking IF to include in its upcoming February 2019 issue; however, it does not pay.

 

October 12, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

by Jimmy Maher at October 12, 2018 04:41 PM

In 1989, Trip Hawkins reluctantly decided to shift Electronic Arts’s strategic focus from home computers to videogame consoles, thereby to “reach millions of customers.” That decision was reaching fruition by 1992. For the first time that year, EA’s console games outsold those they published for personal computers. The whole image of the company was changing, leaving behind the last vestiges of the high-toned “software artists” era of old in favor of something less intellectual and more visceral — something aimed at the mass market rather than a quirky elite.

Still, corporate cultures don’t change overnight, and the EA of 1992 continued to release some computer games which were more in keeping with their image of the 1980s than that of this new decade. One of the most interesting and rewarding of these aberrations — call them the product of corporate inertia — was a game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, whose origin story doesn’t exactly lead one to expect a work of brilliance but which is in fact one of the finest, most faithful interpretations of the legendary detective in the deerstalker cap ever to make its way onto a monitor screen.

The initial impetus for Lost Files was provided by an EA producer named Christopher Erhardt. After studying film and psychology at university, Erhardt joined the games industry in 1987, when he came to Infocom to become the in-house producer for their latter-day lineup of graphical games from outside developers, such as Quarterstaff, BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, and Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. When Infocom was shuttered in 1989, he moved on to EA in the same role, helming a number of the early Sega Genesis games that did so much to establish the company’s new identity. His success on that front gave him a fair amount of pull, and so he pitched a pet idea of his: for a sort of computerized board game that would star Sherlock Holmes along with a rotating cast of suspects, crimes, and motives, similar to the old 221B Baker Street board game as well as a classic computer game from Accolade called Killed Until Dead. It turned out that EA’s management weren’t yet totally closed to the idea of computer games that were, as Erhardt would later put it, “unusual and not aimed at the mass market” — as long, that is, as they could be done fairly inexpensively.

Mythos Software. On the top row are James Ferguson, Elinor Mavor, and Scott Mavor. On the bottom row are John Dunn and David Wood.

In order to meet the latter condition, Erhardt enlisted a tiny Tempe, Arizona, company known as Mythos Software — not to be confused with the contemporaneous British strategy-games developer Mythos Games. This Mythos was being run by one James Ferguson, its fresh-out-of-university founder, from the basement of his parents’ house. He was trying to break into the wider world of software development that lay outside the bounds of the strictly local contracts he had fulfilled so far; his inexperience and eagerness ensured that Mythos would work cheap. And in addition to cut-rate pricing, Ferguson had another secret weapon to deploy: an artist named Scott Mavor who had a very special way with pixel graphics, a technique that EA’s in-house employees would later come to refer to as “the Mavor glow.” The highly motivated Mythos, working to Erhardt’s specifications, created a demo in less than two weeks that was impressive enough to win the project a tentative green light.

Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg.

Another EA employee, a technical writer named Eric Lindstrom, saw the demo and suggested turning what had been planned as a computerized board game into a more narratively ambitious point-and-click adventure game. When Erhardt proved receptive to the suggestion, Lindstrom put together the outline of a story, “The Mystery of the Serrated Scalpel.” He told Erhardt that he knew the perfect person to bring the story to life: one of his colleagues among EA’s manual writers, a passionate Sherlock Holmes aficionado — he claimed to have read Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete canon of Holmes stories “two or three times” — named R.J. Berg.

The project’s footing inside EA was constantly uncertain. Christopher Erhardt says he “felt like I was playing the Princess Bride, and the dread pirate Roberts was coming It was always, ‘Yep – we may cancel it.'” But in the end the team was allowed to complete their point-and-click mystery, despite it being so utterly out of step with EA’s current strategic focus, and it was quietly released in the fall of 1992.

I find the critical dialog that followed, both in the immediate wake of Lost Files‘s release and many years later in Internet circles, to be unusually interesting. In particular, I’d like to quote at some length from Computer Gaming World‘s original review, which was written by Charles Ardai, one of the boldest and most thoughtful — and most entertaining — game reviewers of the time; this I say even as I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions far more often than not. His review opens thus:

If there is any character who has appeared in more computer games than Nintendo’s plump little goldmine, Mario, it has to be Sherlock Holmes. There have been almost a dozen Holmes-inspired games over the years, one of the best being Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is currently available in two different CD-ROM editions from ICOM. Other valiant attempts have included Imagic’s Sherlock Holmes in Another Bow, in which Holmes took a sea voyage with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Thomas Edison, and Houdini, among others; and Infocom’s deadly serious Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels.

The difference between Holmes and Mario games, however, is that new Mario games are always coming out because the old ones sold like gangbusters, while new Sherlock Holmes games come out in spite of the fact that their predecessors sold like space heaters in the Sahara. It is noteworthy that, until ICOM, no company had ever released more than one Sherlock Holmes game, while all the Mario games come from the same source. It is also worth noting that the Holmes curse is not limited to games: the last few Holmes movies, such as Without a Clue and Young Sherlock Holmes, were not exactly box-office blockbusters.

The paradox of Sherlock Holmes can be stated so: while not that many people actually like the original Sherlock Holmes stories, everyone seems to think that everyone else adores them. Like Tarzan and Hawkeye, Holmes is a literary icon, universally known and much-beloved as a character in the abstract — not, however, as part of any single work. Finding someone who has actually read and enjoyed the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Fenimore Cooper, or Arthur Conan Doyle requires the patience of Diogenes. Most people know the character from television and the movies, at best; at worst, from reviews of television shows and movies they never bothered to see.

So, why do new Holmes adaptations surface with such regularity? Because the character is already famous and the material is in the public domain (thereby mitigating the requisite licensing fees associated with famous characters of more recent vintage. Batman or Indiana Jones, for instance.) Another answer is that Sherlock Holmes is seen as bridging the gap between entertainment and literature. Game companies presumably hope to cash in on the recognition factor and have some of the character’s ponderous respectability rub off on their product. They also figure that they can’t go wrong basing their games on a body of work that has endured for almost a century.

Unfortunately for them, they are wrong. There are only so many copies of a game that one can sell to members of the Baker Street Irregulars (the world’s largest and best-known Sherlock Holmes fan club), and a vogue for Victoriana has never really caught on among the rest of the game-buying population. The result is that, while Holmes games have been good, bad, and indifferent, their success has been uniformly mediocre.

This delightfully cynical opening gambit is so elegantly put together that one almost hesitates to puncture its cogency with facts. Sadly, though, puncture we must. While there were certainly Sherlock Holmes games released prior to Lost Files that flopped, there’s no evidence to suggest that this was the fault of the famous detective with his name on the box, and plenty of evidence to the contrary: that his name could, under the right circumstances, deliver at least a modest sales boost. In addition to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective CD-ROM productions, a counter-example to Ardai’s thesis that’s so huge even he has to acknowledge it — the first volume of that series sold over 1 million units — there’s also the Melbourne House text adventure Sherlock; that game, the hotly anticipated followup to the bestselling-text-adventure-of-all-time The Hobbit, likely sold well over 100,000 units in its own right in the much smaller market of the Europe of 1984. Even Infocom’s Riddle of the Crown Jewels, while by no means a smash hit, sold significantly better than usual for an Infocom game in the sunset of the company’s text-only era. (Nor would I describe that game as “deadly serious” — I could go with “respectful” at most — but that’s perhaps picking nits.)

Still, setting aside those inconvenient details, it’s worth considering this broader question of just why there have been so many Sherlock Holmes games over the years. Certainly the character doesn’t have the same immediate appeal with the traditional gaming demographic as heavyweight properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, Frodo Baggins and Indiana Jones — or, for that matter, the born-in-a-videogame Super Mario. The reason for Sherlock’s ubiquity in the face of his more limited appeal is, of course, crystal clear, as Ardai recognizes: he’s in the public domain, meaning anyone who wishes to can make a Sherlock Holmes game at any time without paying anyone.1

If you’re going to do Sherlock Holmes, you just have to get the fog right.

As such, Holmes occupies a nearly unique position in our culture. He’s one of the last great fictional icons, historically speaking, who’s so blessedly free of intellectual-property restrictions. Absolutely everyone, whether they’ve ever read a story or seen a film featuring him or not, knows him. The only characters with a remotely similar degree of recognizability who postdate him are Dracula, the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan — and neither of the latter two at least presents writers with quite the same temptation to tell new story after story after story.

As is noted in Lost Files‘s manual, Sherlock Holmes has become such an indelible part of our cultural memory that when we see him we experience a sort of vicarious nostalgia for a London none of us ever knew: “Gas lamps, the sound of horses’ hooves, steam locomotives, and romantic street cries. And then there is the atmosphere of that cozy room in Baker Street: Holmes in his armchair before a roaring coal fire, legs stretched out before him, listening with Dr. Watson to yet another bizarre story.” One might say that Sherlock Holmes gets the chronological balance just right, managing to feel both comfortably, nostalgically traditional and yet also relevant and relatable. In contrast to the Victorian scenery around him, his point of view as a character feels essentially modern, applicable to modern modes of storytelling. I’m not sure that any other fictional character combines this quality to quite the same extent with a freedom from copyright lawyers. These factors have fostered an entire creative subculture of Sherlockia which spans the landscape of modern media, dwarfing Arthur Conan Doyle’s canonical four novels and 56 short stories by multiple orders of magnitude.

The relative modernity of Sherlock Holmes is especially important in the context of interactive adaptations. The player of any narrative-driven game needs a frame of reference — needs to understand what’s expected of her in the role she’s expected to play. Thankfully, the divide between Sherlock Holmes and the likes of C.S.I. is a matter of technology rather than philosophy; Sherlock too solves crimes through rationality, combining physical evidence, eyewitness and suspect interviews, and logical deduction to reach a conclusion. Other legendary characters don’t share our modern mindset; it’s much more difficult for the player to step into the role of an ancient Greek hero who solves problems by sacrificing to the gods or an Arthurian knight who views every event as a crucible of personal honor. (Anyone doubtful of Sherlock Holmes’s efficacy in commercial computer games should have a look at the dire commercial history of Arthurian games.)

With so much material to make sense of, post-Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes get sorted on the basis of various criteria. One of these is revisionism versus faithfulness. While some adaptations go so far as to transport Sherlock and his cronies hook, line, and sinker into our own times, others make a virtue out of hewing steadfastly to the character and setting described by Arthur Conan Doyle. This spirit of Sherlockian fundamentalism, if you will, is just one more facet of our long cultural dialog around the detective, usually manifesting as a reactionary return to the roots when other recent interpretations are judged to have wandered too far afield.

No matter how much the Sherlockian fundamentalists kick and scream, however, the fact remains that the Sherlock Holmes of the popular imagination has long since become a pastiche of interpretations reflecting changing social mores and cultural priorities. That’s fair enough in itself — it’s much of the reason why Doyle’s timeless sleuth remains so timeless — but it does make it all too easy to lose sight of Holmes and Watson as originally conceived in the stories. Just to cite the most obvious example: Holmes’s famous deerstalker cap is never mentioned in the text of the tales, and only appeared once in the illustrations that originally accompanied them (that instance being a picture drawn by Sidney Paget for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”). The deerstalker became such an iconic part of the character only after it was sported by the actor Basil Rathbone as an item of daily wear — an odd choice for the urban Holmes, given that it was, as the name would imply, a piece of hunting apparel normally worn by sporting gentlemen in the countryside — in a long series of films, beginning with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939.

Although Lost Files doesn’t go so far as to forgo the deerstalker — there are, after all, limits to these things — it does generally try to take its cue from the original stories rather than the patchwork of interpretations that followed them. Berg:

I definitely aimed for Holmesian authenticity. I’d like to think that, if he were alive, Doyle would like the game. After all, the characters of Holmes and Watson have been manipulated quite a bit by the various media they’ve appeared in, especially the films. For example, the Watson of Lost Files is definitely Doyle’s Watson, competent and intelligent, rather than the bumbling character portrayed in many of the movies. I also wanted to retain Holmes’s peculiar personality. He’s really not that likable a character; he’s arrogant, a misogynist, and extremely smug.

This spirit of authenticity extends to the game’s portrayal of Victorian London. There are, I’ve always thought, two tiers when it comes to realistic portrayals of real places in fiction. Authors on the second tier have done a whole lot of earnest research into their subject, and they’re very eager to show it all to you, filling your head with explicit descriptions of things which a person who actually lived in that setting would never think twice about, so ingrained are they in daily existence. Authors on the top tier, by contrast, have seemingly absorbed the setting through their pores, and write stories that effortlessly evoke it without beating you over the head with all the book research they did to reach this point of imaginative mastery.

Indeed, Sherlock. Leaving the cozy environs of 221B Baker Street.

Lost Files largely meets the latter bar as it sends you around to the jewelers and tobacconists, theaters and pubs, opulent mansions and squalid tenements of fin-de-siècle London. The details are there for when you need them or decide to go looking for them; just try mousing around the interior of 221B Baker Street. (“A typical sitting-room chair. The sheen of its wine-red velveteen covering shows that it is well-used. A dark purple silk dressing gown with a rolled collar is carelessly crumpled on the seat and the antimacassar requires changing.”) More impressive, though, is the way that the game just breathes its setting in that subtle way that can only be achieved by a writer with both a lighter touch and countless hours of immersion in the period at his command. For example Berg spent time reading Charles Dickens as well as Arthur Conan Doyle in order to capture the subtle rhythms of Victorian English in his conversations. This version of Holmes’s London isn’t the frozen-in-amber museum exhibit it sometimes comes off as in other works of Sherlockia. “We wanted a dirty game,” says Eric Lindstrom. “We wanted people to feel that people were burning coal, that they could see who was walking in the streets. Just as it was in London at the time.”

There is, however, one important exception to the game’s rule of faithfulness to the original stories: Lost Files presents a mystery that the reader can actually solve. In light of the place Holmes holds in our cultural memory as the ultimate detective, one of the great ironies of Doyle’s stories is that they really aren’t very good mysteries at all by the standard of later mystery fiction — a standard which holds a good mystery to be an implicit contest between writer and reader, in which the reader is presented with all the clues and challenged to solve the case before the writer’s detective does so. Doyle’s stories cheat egregiously by this standard, hiding vital evidence from the reader, and often positing a case’s solution on a chain of conjecture that’s nowhere near as ironclad as the great detective presents it to be. Eric Lindstrom:

The [original] stories do not work the way we are used to today. They are not whodunnits; whodunnits only became popular later. Readers have virtually no way of finding out who the culprit is. Sometimes the offender does not even appear in the plot. These are adventure stories narrated from the perspective of Dr. Watson.

For obvious reasons, Lost Files can’t get away with being faithful to this aspect of the Sherlock Holmes tradition. And so the mystery it presents is straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle — except that it plays fair. Notably, you play as Holmes himself, not, as in the original stories, as Watson. Thus you know what Holmes knows, and the game can’t pull the dirty trick on you, even if it wanted to, of hiding information until the big reveal at the end. Many other works of Sherlockia — even the otherwise traditionalist ones — adapt the same approach, responding to our post-nineteenth-century perception of what a good mystery story should be.

And make no mistake: “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” is a very good mystery indeed. I hesitate to spoil your pleasure in it by saying too much, and so will only state that what begins as the apparently random murder of an actress in an alley behind the Regency Theatre — perhaps by Jack the Ripper, leaving Whitechapel and trying his hand in the posher environs of Mayfair? — keeps expanding in scope, encompassing more deaths and more and more Powerful People with Secrets to Keep. As I played, I was excited every time I made a breakthrough. Even better, I felt like a detective, to perhaps a greater extent than in any computer game I’ve ever played. Among games in general, I can only compare the feeling of solving this mystery to that of tackling some of the more satisfying cases in the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective tabletop game.

Part of the reason the mystery comes together so well is just down to good adventure-game design principles, of the sort which eluded so many other contemporary practitioners of the genre. Berg:

The idea was to produce a game that was different from existing adventures, which I frankly felt were often tedious. We wanted to eliminate the elements that tend to detract from the reality of the experience — things like having to die in order to learn some crucial information, constantly having to re-cover the same territory, and the tendency to simply pick up and use every object you encounter. We wanted to give players a deeper experience.

So, there are none of the dreaded adventure-game dead ends in Lost Files. More interestingly, the design does, as Berg alludes above, mostly eschew the typical use-unlikely-object-in-unlikely-place model of gameplay. Tellingly, the few places where it fails to do so are the weakest parts of the game.

As I’ve noted before, the classic approach to the adventure game, as a series of physical puzzles to solve, can be hugely entertaining, but it almost inevitably pushes a game toward comedy, often in spite of its designers’ best intentions. Most of us have played alleged interactive mysteries that leave you forever messing about with slider puzzles and trivial practical problems of the sort that any real detective would solve in five minutes, just by calling for backup. In Infocom’s Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels, for example, you learn that a stolen ruby is hidden in the eye of the statue of Lord Nelson on top of Nelson’s Column, and then get to spend the next little while trying to get a pigeon to fetch it for you instead of, you know, just telling Inspector Lestrade to send out a work crew. Lost Files does its level best to resist the siren call of the trivial puzzle, and, with only occasional exceptions, it succeeds. Thereby is the game freed to become one of the best interactive invocations of a classic mystery story ever. You spend your time collecting and examining physical evidence, interviewing suspects, and piecing together the crime’s logic, not solving arbitrary road-block puzzles. Lost Files is one of the few ostensibly serious adventure games of its era which manages to maintain the appropriate gravitas throughout, without any jarring breaks in tone.

This isn’t to say that it’s po-faced or entirely without humorous notes; the writing is a consistent delight, filled with incisive descriptions and flashes of dry wit, subtle in all the ways most computer-game writing is not. Consider, for example, this description of a fussy jeweler: “The proprietor is a stern-looking woman, cordial more through effort than personality. She frequently stares at the cleaning girl who tidies the floor, to make sure she is still hard at work.” Yes, this character is a type more than a personality — but how deftly is that type conveyed! In two sentences, we come to know this woman. I’d go so far as to call R.J. Berg’s prose on the whole better than that of the rather stolid Arthur Conan Doyle, who tended to bloviate on a bit too much in that all too typical Victorian style.

The fine writing lends the game a rare quality that seems doubly incongruous when one considers the time in which it was created, when multimedia was all the rage and everyone was rushing to embrace voice acting and “interactive movies.” Ditto the company which published it, who were pushing aggressively toward the forefront of the new mass-media-oriented approach to games. In spite of all that, darned if Lost Files doesn’t feel downright literary — thoughtful, measured, intelligent, a game to take in slowly over a cup of tea. Further enhancing the effect is its most unique single technical feature: everything you do in the game is meticulously recorded in an in-game journal kept by the indefatigable Dr. Watson. The journal will run into the hundreds of onscreen “pages” by the time you’re all done. It reads surprisingly well too; it’s not inconceivable to imagine printing it out — the handy option to print it or save it to a file is provided — and giving it to someone else to read with pleasure. That’s a high standard indeed, one which vanishingly few games could meet. But I think that The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes just about manages it.

Having given so much praise to Lindstrom and Berg’s design and writing, I have to give due credit as well to Mythos Software’s efforts to bring it all to life. The interface of Lost Files is thoroughly refined and pleasant to work with, a remarkable achievement considering that this was the first point-and-click graphic adventure to be made by everyone involved. An optional but extremely handy hotspot finder minimizes the burden of pixel hunting, and the interface is full of other thoughtful touches, like a default action that is attached to each object; this saves you more often than not from having to make two clicks to carry out an action.

Finally, praise must be given to Scott Mavor’s “Mavor glow” graphics as well. To minimize the jagged edges typical of pictures drawn in the fairly low resolution of 256-color VGA graphics, Mavor avoided sharp shifts in color from pixel to pixel. Instead he blended his edges together gradually, creating a lovely, painterly effect that does indeed almost seem to glow. Scott’s mother Elinor Mavor, who worked with him to finish up the art in the latter stages of the project:2

Working with just 256 colors, Scott showed me how he created graduating palettes of each one, which allowed him to do what he called “getting rid of the dots” in each scene. To further mute the pixels, he kept the colors on the darker side, which also enhanced the Victorian mood.

Weaving the illusion of continuous-tone artwork with all those little “dots” made us buggy-eyed after a long day’s work. One night, I woke up, went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and the world just pixilated in front of me. Scary imprints on my retinas had followed me away from the computer monitor, rendering my vision as a pointillistic painting à la George Seurat.

While the graphics of its contemporaries pop out at you with bright, bold colors, the palette of Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes smacks more of the “brown sauce” of the old masters — murky, mysterious, not initially jaw-dropping but totally in keeping with the mood of the script. As you, playing the diligent detective, begin to scan them carefully, the pictures reveal more and more details of the sort that are all too easy to overlook at a quick glance. It makes for an unusually mature aesthetic statement, and a look that can be mistaken for that of no other game.

Backstage at the opera.

Given all its strengths, I find it surprising that Lost Files has gotten more than its share of critical flak over the years. I have a theory as to why that should be, but before I get to that I’ll let one of the naysayers share his point of view. Even after admitting that the story is “a ripping yarn,” the graphics atmospheric, the period details correct, and the writing very good, Charles Ardai concludes his review thusly:

Don’t get me wrong: the dialogue is well-written, the choices are entertaining, and in most cases the actions the game requires the player to perform are very interesting. The story is good and the game is a pleasure to watch. Yet, that is what one does — watch.

This game wants, more than anything in the world, to be a Sherlock Holmes movie. Though it would be a very good one if it were, it is not. Therefore, it is deeply and resoundingly unsatisfying. The plot unfolds quite well, with plenty of twists, but the player has no more control over it than he would if he were reading a novel. The player is, at best, like an actor in a play. Unfortunately, said actor has not been given a copy of the script. He has to hit his marks and say his lines by figuring out the cues given by the other characters and reading his lines off the computer equivalent of cue cards.

If this is what one wants — a fine Sherlock Holmes pastiche played out on the computer screen, with the player nominally putting the lead character through his paces — fine. “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” delivers all that one could hope for in that vein. If one wants a game — an interactive experience in which one’s decisions have an effect on what happens — this piece of software is likely to disappoint.

The excellent German podcast Stay Forever criticized the game along similar — albeit milder — lines in 2012. And in his mostly glowing 2018 review of the game for The Adventure Gamer joint-blogging project, Joe Pranevich as well noted a certain distancing effect, which he said made him feel not so much like he was playing Sherlock Holmes and solving a mystery as watching Sherlock do the solving. The mystery, he further notes — correctly — can for the most part be solved by brute force by the patient but obtuse player, simply by picking every single conversation option when talking to every single character and showing each of them every single object you’ve collected.

At the extreme, criticisms like these would seem to encroach on the territory staked out by the noted adventure-game-hater Chris Crawford, who insists that the entire genre is a lie because it cannot offer the player the ability to do anything she wants whenever she wants. I generally find such complaints to be a colossal bore, premised on a misunderstanding of what people who enjoy adventure games find most enjoyable about them in the first place. But I do find it intriguing that these sorts of complaints keep turning up so often in the case of this specific game, and that they’re sometimes voiced even by critics generally friendly to the genre. My theory is that the mystery of Lost Files may be just a little bit too good: it’s just enticing enough, and just satisfying enough to slowly uncover, that it falls into an uncanny valley between playing along as Sherlock Holmes and actually being Sherlock Holmes.

But of course, playing any form of interactive fiction must be an imaginative act on the part of the player, who must be willing to embrace the story being offered and look past the jagged edges of interactivity. Certainly Lost Files is no less interactive than most adventure games, and it offers rich rewards that few can match if you’re willing to not brute-force your way through it, to think about and really engage with its mystery. It truly is a game to luxuriate in and savor like a good novel. In that spirit, I have one final theory to offer you: I think this particular graphic adventure may be especially appealing to fans of textual interactive fiction. Given its care for the written word and the slow-build craftsmanship of its plotting, it reminds me more of a classic Infocom game than most of the other, flashier graphic adventures that jostled with it for space on store shelves in the early 1990s.

Which brings me in my usual roundabout fashion to the final surprising twist in this very surprising game’s history. After its release by a highly skeptical EA, its sales were underwhelming, just as everyone had been telling Christopher Erhardt they would be all along. But then, over a period of months and years, the game just kept on selling at the same slow but steady clip. It seemed that computer-owning Sherlock Holmes aficionados weren’t the types to rush out and buy games when they were hot. Yet said aficionados apparently did exist, and they apparently found the notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure game intriguing when they finally got around to it. (Somehow this scenario fits in with every stereotype I carry around in my head about the typical Sherlock Holmes fan.) Lost Files‘s sales eventually topped the magical 100,000-unit mark that separated a hit from an also-ran in the computer-games industry of the early- and mid-1990s.

It wasn’t a very good idea, but they did it anyway. R.J. Berg on a sound stage with an actress, filming for the 3DO version of Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Pictures like this were in all the games magazines of the 1990s. Somehow such pictures — not to mention the games that resulted from them — seem far more dated than Pong these days.

Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes may not have challenged the likes of John Madden Football in the sales sweepstakes, but it did make EA money, and some inside the company did notice. In 1994, they released a version for the 3DO multimedia console. For the sake of trendiness, this version added voice acting and inserted filmed footage of actors into the conversation scenes, replacing the lovely hand-drawn portraits in the original game and doing it no new aesthetic favors in the process. In 1996, with the original still selling tolerably well, most of the old team got back together for a belated sequel — The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo — that no one would ever have dreamed they would be making a couple of years before.

But then, almost everything about the story of Lost Files is unlikely, from EA of all companies deciding to make it — or, perhaps better said, deciding to allow it to be made — to a bunch of first-time adventure developers managing to put everything together so much better than many established adventure-game specialists were doing at the time. And how incredibly lucky for everyone involved that such a Sherlock Holmes devotee as R.J. Berg should have been kicking around writing manuals for EA, just waiting for an opportunity like this one to show his chops. I’ve written about four Sherlock Holmes games now in the course of this long-running history of computer gaming — yet another measure of the character’s cultural ubiquity! — and this one nudges out Riddle of the Crown Jewels to become the best one yet. It just goes to show that, no matter how much one attempts to systematize the process, much of the art and craft of making games comes down to happy accidents.

(Sources: Compute! of April 1993 and June 1993; Computer Gaming World of February 1993; Questbusters of September 1988 and December 1992; Electronic Games of February 1993. Online sources include Elinor Mavor’s remembrances of the making Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, the comprehensive Game Nostalgia page on the game, the Stay Forever podcast episode devoted to the game, Joe Pranevich’s playthrough for The Adventure Gamer, the archived version of the old Mythos Software homepage, and Jason Scott’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents.

Feel free to download Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes from right here, in a format designed to be as easy as possible to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


  1. There have been occasional questions about the extent to which Sherlock Holmes and his supporting cast truly are outside all bounds of copyright, usually predicated on the fact that the final dozen stories were published in the 1920s, the beginning of the modern copyright era, and thus remain protected. R.J. Berg remembers giving “two copies of the game and a really trivial amount of money” to Arthur Conan Doyle’s aged granddaughter, just to head off any trouble on that front. When a sequel to Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1996, no permission whatsoever was sought or demanded. 

  2. Scott Mavor died of cancer in 2008 

October 11, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Making Interactive Fiction: The Branch and the Merge

by Bruno Dias at October 11, 2018 07:41 PM

Branching stories run naturally into the problem of combinatorial explosion. If you keep writing different variants for each choice the player could make, eventually you end up with too many branches to write or manage. Sam Kabo Ashwell calls this structure the “time cave,” and while it has been used in the past, the amount of content you have to write to achieve a story of any significant length quickly becomes unsustainable. And by the very nature of time caves, it’s hard to make any sort of statement or maintain any kind of thematic cohesion, as the story can carom off in dozens of directions.

To get around this, we resort to merging: joining together different story paths. This presents its own set of structural and stylistic challenges, though. A major tension in interactive narrative is that we want players’ choices to be reflected in the narrative, but we necessarily end up writing material that will be shared between many different story paths.

Structuring around merging

There are several historical solutions to the problem of structuring a narrative around merging points. Drawing on Ashwell’s terminology, the most common one is the branch-and-bottleneck­ structure.

In a branch-and-bottleneck story, there are certain story beats that are fixed to all (or most) versions of the story, and they act as major merging points, periodically culling the variations that are in play. Delayed branching and dynamic callbacks (more on those in a moment) are used to help keep the story responsive to the player’s choices, even though branches are relatively short-lived. This is essentially the structure Choice of Games enforces with their house style.

In shorter works, I’ve often used or encountered the episodic cluster structure. Here, the story is split into discrete and semi-independent chapters. Players can experience the chapters in a variable order; the story merges when they return to a “hub” again and again to choose their next chapter. Those chapters might be truly episodic (and thus independent from one another), or they might be separate parts of a broader process. For example, the player might be choosing their next move in an investigation – talking to suspects and witnesses, visiting the crime scene, and so on. Each of those little scenes would play out independently, but their outcomes would add up in the ending to the overall story. This is a specific variant of a more general hub and spoke construction.

Structure facilitates merging when those merging points work naturally within the context of the fiction. In a branch-and-bottleneck structure, the forward momentum of the story is always moving towards the next major story beat, and therefore the next merge. For example, if we were constructing a Friday Night Lights-like serialized story about a sports team, we might use the weekly game (and the rising tension towards the playoffs) as our major story beats and merging points; in between those moments, our story might meander according to player choice, perhaps impacting the outcome of events, but we’re always snapping back to those key moments.

Stylistic questions

Scene breaks and other discontinuities are obviously natural places for merge points, but we don’t always have that luxury; sometimes we want to tell a story from a character’s continuous point of view, or we have a more constrained scope. Ideally, we don’t want players to be able to discern the “seams” at a merge point. Finding natural breaks or discontinuities in the text, moments of rest or shift in attention, is a tool here. Of course, I’ve definitely found myself inserting brief paragraphs or lines meant to spackle over those discontinuities; learning how not to need to do that is part of the craft and takes practice. Minor adaptations of the text output can go a long way.

Delayed branching and dynamic callbacks

Holding state and responding to player choices later, as well as accumulating choices (for example, by tracking a stat that can be affected by small incremental decisions) is a key technique in making stories work past merge points. In a delayed branch, the story silently switches tracks in response to an earlier choice made by the player; we tend to call that a “callback” when it’s a brief branch meant to simply respond to or reference something, without fully abandoning the broader flow of the story.

Particularly with branch-and-bottleneck structures, the pattern is often that the story has a lot of explicit choice branching early on, and a lot of delayed responsive branching later on; setup, then payoff. The main difficulty here is maintaining a reasonable pace of choices throughout, and making those choices feel balanced and impactful; if earlier decisions “lock in” certain outcomes later in the story, it’s easy to lose the player’s interest as they get closer to the end.

The branch is the basic structural building block of most interactive narrative, but hopefully this article makes the case for the merge as a necessary counterpart for the functioning of any story past a certain degree of length and complexity.


Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere

The post Making Interactive Fiction: The Branch and the Merge appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

October 09, 2018

Emily Short

The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

by Emily Short at October 09, 2018 09:40 PM

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 9.58.46 PM.png

The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.

The Red Strings Club was recommended to me by a reader who explained that this was a game that used mixology as its conversation interface. If you want someone to talk to you, you make them a cocktail.

That does really sound like my kind of thing, I have to admit. I have written multiple prototype games, all of them sadly occupying dusty corners of my hard drive, that were based on some variation of “you have to mix evocatively-described liquids together in order to elicit information.” In one, it was a form of scrying with magical ingredients. In another, you were going to custom mix perfumes for yourself to wear to social events in order to subtly influence the conversation of the nobles around you. In a third, your choice of how to weight components in the mixture was going to drive the probabilities in generated descriptive text, so if you used a lot of one liquid you might become more perceptive about physical qualities, or a lot of another liquid would reveal memories.

None of these projects ever got finished. The perfumes one didn’t get further than an “oh I think I see how I’d do that” level of spec. But what appealed to me was a combination of challenge, physicality, and expressiveness

The challenge would have to do with the mixing rules: you might find that the ideal potion to scry out the murderer was one requiring ingredients that reacted horribly together, and you’d need to find a way to mix them safely.

The expressiveness would arise from the fact that you’re combining several elements into a single choice, and they could carry different axes of information. Imagine a perfume in which the top and heart notes express the noun and verb of action, the “what are you doing” portion of the command, while the base note expresses how you feel about it, a touch of protagonist characterization. Patchouli for the earnest, unguarded, irony-free. Sandalwood if you’re old enough to know better but not quite old enough to be genuinely subtle. Myrrh for bitterness. Vetiver for an inscrutable smirk.

It’s too rare in games that we’re allowed to say whether we take an action eagerly, or joyfully, or with reservations, or because we can think of no alternative.

Anyway. That is a very long preamble to say: that is not how The Red Strings Club works at all.

In TRSC, you use cocktail mixing as a kind of minigame to steer your cursor over the choice you wish to select. Pouring from the green bottle moves the cursor left; pouring it from the yellow bottle moves right.

redstringsdrinks.jpeg

In my choice terminology, it’s a selection mechanism that involves effort and a limited amount of embodiment, but ultimately you’re picking among two to four static options. The cocktail mixing mechanic doesn’t add expressiveness, doesn’t let you communicate any more data than you would with an A/B/C menu. And the effort/embodiment here is actually pretty anti-mimetic. In real life, I generally don’t have difficulty lifting bottles and pouring their contents accurately into glasses, but the control mechanism here made simply pouring and mixing correctly into a time-consuming, error-prone exercise. Reviews and YouTube videos suggest other people were as clumsy with it as I.

(And before we consider the obvious other explanation: this mechanic wasn’t representing the life experiences of a bartender with restricted mobility. It was just awkward. It wasn’t quite the QWOP of bartending, but it did make simple intuitive real life actions into something hard.)

What I did like was the idea that different liquors corresponded to movements in a (simple, two-dimensional) vector space, with emotional matches located at particular points in that space. More of my attention went into getting the stupid bourbon into the stupid glass than into figuring out how to reach a particular point in that vector space, but this is a model for complex, composite meaning that I rather like.

There is, I think, another point to this as well. The game is about transhumanist questions — how much it’s appropriate to modify ourselves or other people. There’s a large corporation experimenting with what it can do to people’s ambitions and emotions, but the bartender (who is leery of this corporate meddling) is himself handing out drinks that manipulate his customers without their knowledge. For both bartender and corporation, creating the device or substance that alters someone’s experience is a matter of painstaking crafting. And that does suggest something about the game universe: that it’s possible to meddle with people’s perceptions and behavior, but that you need to invest some time in creating your solution and customizing it to them.

In any case. This is not the cocktail conversation game of my dreams, yet, but it has some cool things going on. I eventually got too frustrated by the amount of time that was going into basic dexterity tests and watched the rest of the dialogue scenes on YouTube rather than playing it out, but if you have more spare time than I do and a taste for transhumanist/cyberpunk narratives, you may enjoy this one.

Post Position

Hard West Turn at Time Farm

by Nick Montfort at October 09, 2018 07:04 PM

For two weeks only (today through October 23), my limited-edition computer-generated book, Hard West Turn, is available for reading in an installation at Time Farm, underneath the MIT Press Bookstore, 301 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA.

Time Farm entrance

Hard West Turn awaiting a reader

Hard West Turn open to the title page

Hard West Turn is a computer-generated novel about gun violence in the United States. The copy exhibited is one of three artist’s proofs; only 13 copies (one for each of the original states) were made for sale. The generating program is free software, but the specific copy-edited text of this book has only been made available in print. Hard West Turn will be regenerated annually for limited-edition publication each July 4.

Consult the staff of the MIT Press Bookstore for access to Time Farm. Visitors are asked to remain for an hour without using devices such as phones or computers.

IFTF Blog

Undum returns

by Ian Millington at October 09, 2018 03:01 AM

After working with the IFTF, I’m pleased that the Undum website and documentation is now available again, at GitHub.

It has powered a number of games, occasionally pops up among IFComp entries, but has never been as widely used as other tools. If you are unfamiliar, allow me to introduce it. Undum is a choose-your-own-adventure interactive fiction tool, with a couple of very specific design goals. One aesthetic and one technical.

I have a passion for the texture of books. I wanted to create a tool where the works exude physicality and play has the feeling of reading prose. The visual design is unashamedly skeuomorphic: from before the time we learned to distrust such things. It begins with letterpress titles and marbled paper, and opens to cream textured background and off black ink. My hobby is bookbinding, this was a virtual version. When I created it in 2009, CYOA games were structured like the original books: read a paragraph, make a choice, the screen clears and new text appears. In Undum, the choices fade, disappear, and the surrounding text rearranges to form a resulting narrative. It looks somewhat old now to my eyes, but the basic idea I think is sound. Many other recent titles – inkle’s games for example – use a similar effect, at least for small sections of text.

Technically, both Undum and the games that target it, are written in JavaScript. I hoped this would make it accessible for a wider range of dabblers, requiring transferable skills rather than learning a new language. It also made it achievable to write and document over a few weekends: I didn’t have to worry about parsing, or creating a complete runtime. But the best benefit, and in some ways the one least exploited in practice, is the ability to use Undum as part of a bigger game. I imagined a strategy game with CYOA elements, or a piece of interactive fiction using natural language generation to be different each time.

Between the first and second release, I fell in love with Alexis Kennedy’s quality-based narrative structure, as used in Fallen London (at the time named Echo Bazaar). Rather than specifying explicit options, a random selection can be drawn from a database, based on criteria that represent the choices made so far: this choice is allowed if ‘fear’ is greater than three, for example, that one if the ‘met the monster’ flag is set. This approach allows a choice to easily affect things much later in the story. And crucially, it allows new sections to be written and added, without manually rewiring the flow. In Undum, explicit and implicit choices are both supported, and interchangeable from moment to moment.

I left working on Undum to develop Varytale, a short lived commercial IF endeavour that shared a lot of the same aesthetic and narrative structure. And then I retired, and it lay fallow, aside from email help requests that still drip into my inbox. If you are curious, I think it is particularly suitable for writerly programmers, especially those who want to push the boundaries: hook up web sockets for multiplayer IF, send new content from a web server, break out of the narrative to play a mini game, or add rich media and video. I hope, with the encouragement of IFTF, it continues its afterlife powering interesting and form-challenging games.

October 06, 2018

Doug's World

Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at October 06, 2018 06:11 PM

"Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation."  is an entry in the 2018 interactive fiction competition, written by Carter Sande, using an unusual gaming platform: Desmos.

The game description presents this as educational software. The title was so campy that I wasn't sure if I was preparing to play an actual educational game, or a parody. Even when I arrived at the title page, telling me to log in with a Desmos student code, I still wasn't sure.

I only became familiar with Desmos recently myself. It is becoming a popular online graphing platform for secondary school students, and also features a number of really well developed interactive activities which can be assigned by teachers. If you are a teacher, I recommend the platform. It will allow you to print out a report of the participation and competency of each student in class after an assigned activity.

Regarding this particular Desmos gamelet, "Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation" this thing is the real deal. You drive across Canada in your giant truck, buying various tradegoods or raw materials, and hoping them to sell them at a profit somewhere further down the road. The scale of this simulation is impressive. You can drive across Canada, visiting literally dozens of cities, learning about the cultural attractions in each place and buying geographically appropriate commodites. I have family in Canada (for real) and have visited almost half the provinces, so this part of the simulation was sort of fun for me.

However, as an educational tool, I'm not sure it will have much potential. I was shocked when the game allowed me to become stranded in Manitoba, my truck and cargo stolen from me in the middle of the night. Does that really happen in Canada? I was even more startled to realize that the game can be ended on the first move, simply by "going home". That will  be a game ender for many players.

The radio button interface in Desmos is a little clunky for this purpose. I doubt it will become the if comp platform of the future. On the other hand, this was the first game of the competition that drew my attention enough to write a review, and I'm glad I tried it.


October 05, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Whither the Software Artist? (or, How Trip Hawkins Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Consoles)

by Jimmy Maher at October 05, 2018 04:41 PM

One of the places we ran the “Can a computer make you cry?” [advertisement] was in Scientific American. Scientific American readers weren’t even playing videogames. Why the hell are you wasting any of this really expensive advertising? You’re competing with BMW for that ad.

— Trip Hawkins (EA Employee #1)

Consumers were looking for a brand signal for quality. They didn’t lionize the game makers as these creators to fawn over. They thought of the game makers almost as collaborators in their experience. So apostatizing didn’t make sense to the consumers.

— Bing Gordon (EA Employee #7)

In the ’80s that was an interesting experiment, that whole trying-to-make-them-into-rock-stars kind of thing. It was certainly a nice way to recruit top talent. But the reality is that computer programmers and artists and designers are not rock stars. It may have worked for the developers, but I don’t think it had any impact on consumers.

— Stewart Bonn (EA Employee #19)

One of the stories that gamers most love to tell each other is that of Electronic Arts’s fall from grace. If you’re sufficiently interested in gaming history to be reading this blog, you almost certainly know the story in the broad strokes: how Trip Hawkins founded EA in 1982 as a haven for “software artists” doing cutting-edge work; how he put said artists front and center in rock-star-like poses in a series of iconic advertisements, the most famous of which asked whether a computer could make you cry; how he wrote on the back of every stylish EA “album cover” not about EA as a company but as “a collection of electronic artists who share a common goal to fulfill the potential of personal computing”; and how all the idealism somehow dissipated to give us the EA of today, a shambling behemoth that crushes more clever competitors under its sheer weight as it churns out sequel after sequel, retread after retread. The exact point where EA became the personification of everything retrograde and corporate in gaming varies with the teller; perhaps the closest thing to a popular consensus is the rise of John Madden Football and EA Sports in the early 1990s, when the last vestiges of software artistry in the company’s advertisements were replaced by jocks shouting, “It’s in the game!” Regardless of the specifics, though, everyone agrees that It All Went Horribly Wrong at some point. The story of EA has become gamers’ version of a Biblical tragedy: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Of course, as soon as one starts pulling out Bible quotes, it profits to ask whether one has gone too far. And, indeed, the story of EA is often over-dramatized and over-simplified. Questions of authenticity and creativity are always fraught; to imagine that anyone is really in the arts just for the art strikes me as hopelessly naive. The EA of the early 1980s wasn’t founded by artists but rather by businessmen, backed by venture capitalists with goals of their own that had little to do with “fulfilling the potential of personal computing.” Thus, when the software-artists angle turned out not to work so well, it didn’t take them long to pivot. This, then, is the history of that pivot, and how it led to the EA we know today.


Advertising is all about image making — about making others see you in the light in which you wish to be seen. Without realizing that they were doing anything of the sort, EA’s earliest marketers cemented an image into the historical imagination at the same time that they failed in their more practical task of crafting a message that resonated with the hoped-for customers of their own time. The very same early EA advertising campaign which speaks so eloquently to so many today actually missed the mark entirely in its own day, utterly failing to set the public imagination afire with this idea of programmers and game designers as rock stars. When Trip Hawkins sent Bill Budge — the programmer of his who most naturally resembled a rock star — on an autograph-signing tour of software stores and shopping malls, it didn’t lead to any outbreak of Budgomania. “Nobody would ever show up,” remembers Budge today, still wincing at the embarrassment of sitting behind a deserted autograph booth.

Nor were customers flocking into stores to buy the games EA’s rock stars had created. Sales remained far below initial projections during the eighteen months following EA’s official launch in June of 1983, and the company skated on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy on multiple occasions. While their first year yielded the substantial hits Pinball Construction Set, Archon, and One-on-One, 1984 could boast only one comparable success story, Seven Cities of Gold. Granted, four hits in two years was more than plenty of other publishers managed, but EA had been capitalized under the expectation that their games would open up whole new demographics for entertainment software. “The idea was to make games for 28-year-olds when everybody else was making games for 13-year-olds,” says Bing Gordon, Trip Hawkins’s old university roommate and right-hand man at EA. When those 28-year-olds failed to materialize, EA was left in the lurch.

For better or for worse, One-on-One is the spiritual forefather of the unstoppable EA Sports lineup of today.

The most important architect of EA’s post-launch retrenchment was arguably neither Trip Hawkins nor Bing Gordon, but rather Larry Probst, who left the free-falling Activision to join EA as vice president for sales in 1984. Probst, who had worked at the dry-goods giants Johnson & Johnson and Clorox before joining Activision, had no particular attachment to the idea of software artists. He rather looked at the business of selling games much as he had that of selling toilet paper and bleach. He asked himself how EA could best make money in the market that existed rather than some fanciful new one they hoped to create. Steve Peterson, a product manager at EA, remembers that others “would still talk about how we were trying to create new forms of entertainment and break new boundaries.” But Probst, and increasingly Trip Hawkins as well, had the less high-minded goal of “going public and being a billion-dollar company.”

Probst had the key insight that distribution, more so than software artists or perhaps even product quality in the abstract, was the key to success in an industry that, following a major downturn in home computing in general in 1984, was only continuing to get more competitive. EA therefore spurned the existing distribution channels, which were nearly monopolized by SoftSel, the great behind-the-scenes power in the software industry to which everyone else was kowtowing; SoftSel’s head, Robert Leff, was the most important person in software that no one outside the industry had ever heard of. Instead of using SoftSel, EA set up their own distribution network piece by painful piece, beginning by cold-calling the individual stores and offering cut-rate deals in order to tempt them into risking the wrath of Leff and ordering from another source.

Then, once a reasonable distribution network was in place, EA leveraged the hell out of it by setting up a program of so-called “Affiliated Labels” — other publishers who would pay EA instead of a conventional distributor like SoftSel to get their products onto store shelves. It was a well-nigh revolutionary idea in game publishing, attractive to smaller publishers because EA was ready and able to help out with a whole range of the logistical difficulties they were always facing, from packaging and disk duplication to advertising campaigns. For EA, meanwhile, the Affiliated Labels yielded huge financial rewards and placed them in the driver’s seat of much of the industry, with the power of life and death over many of their smaller ostensible competitors.

Unsurprisingly, Activision, the only other publisher with comparable distributional clout, soon copied the idea, setting up a similar program of their own. But even as they did so, EA, seemingly always one step ahead, was becoming the first American publisher to send games — both their own and those of others — directly to Europe without going through a European intermediary like Britain’s U.S. Gold label.

There was always something a bit contrived, in that indelible Silicon Valley way, about how EA chose to present themselves to the world. Here we have Bing Gordon, head of technology Greg Riker, and producer Joe Ybarra indulging in some of the creative play which, an accompanying article is at pains to tell us, was constantly going on around the office.

Larry Probst’s strategy of distribution über alles worked a treat, yielding explosive growth that more than made up for the company’s early struggles. In 1986, EA became the biggest computer-game publisher in the United States and the world, with annual revenues of $30 million. Their own games were doing well, but were assuming a very different character from the “simple, hot, and deep” ideal of the launch — a phrase Trip Hawkins had once loved to apply to games that were less stereotypically nerdy than the norm, that he imagined would be suitable for busy young adults with a finger on the pulse of hip pop culture. Now, having failed to attract that new demographic, EA adjusted their product line to appeal to those who were already buying computer games. A case in point was The Bard’s Tale, EA’s biggest hit of 1985, a hardcore CRPG that might take a hundred hours or more to complete — fodder for 13-year-olds with long summer vacations to fill rather than 28-year-olds with jobs and busy social calendars.

If “simple, hot, and deep” and programmers as rock stars had been two of the three pillars of EA’s launch philosophy, the last was the one written into Hawkins’s original mission statement as “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only.” Said statement had been written, we should remember, just as the first great videogame fad, fueled by the Atari VCS, was passing its peak and beginning the long plunge into what would go down in history as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. At the time, it certainly wasn’t only the new EA who believed that the toy-like videogame consoles were the past, and that more sophisticated personal computers, running more sophisticated games, were the future. “I think that computer games are fundamentally different from videogames,” said Hawkins on the Computer Chronicles television show. “It becomes a question of program size, when you want to know how good a program can I have, how much can I do with it, and how long will it take before I’m bored with it.” This third pillar of EA’s strategy would take a bit longer to fall than the others, but fall it would.

The origins of EA’s loss of faith in the home computer in general as the ultimate winner of the interactive-entertainment platform wars can ironically be traced to their decision to wholeheartedly endorse one computer in particular. In October of 1984, Greg Riker, EA’s director of technology, got the chance to evaluate a prototype of Commodore’s upcoming Amiga. His verdict upon witnessing this first truly multimedia personal computer, with its superlative graphics and sound, was that this was the machine that could change everything, and that EA simply had to get involved with it as quickly as possible. He convinced Trip Hawkins of his point of view, and Hawkins managed to secure Amiga Prototype Number 12 for the company within weeks. In the months that followed, EA worked to advance the Amiga with if anything even more enthusiasm than Commodore themselves: developing libraries and programming frameworks which they shared with their outside developers; writing tools internally, including what would become the Amiga’s killer app, Deluxe Paint; documenting the Interchange File Format, a set of standard specifications for sharing pictures, sounds, animations, and music across applications. All of these things and more would remain a part of the Amiga platform’s basic software ecosystem throughout its existence.

When the Amiga finally started shipping late in 1985, EA actually made a far better public case for the machine than Commodore, taking out a splashy editorial-style advertisement just inside the cover of the premiere issue of the new AmigaWorld magazine. It showed the eight Amiga games EA would soon release and explained “why Electronic Arts is committed to the Amiga,” the latter headline appearing above a photograph of Trip Hawkins with his arm proprietorially draped over the Amiga on his desk.

Trip Hawkins with an Amiga

But it all turned into an immense disappointment. Initially, Commodore priced the Amiga wrong and marketed it worse, and even after they corrected some of their worst mistakes it perpetually under-performed in the American marketplace. For Hawkins and EA, the whole episode planted the first seeds of doubt as to whether home computers — which at the end of the day still were computers, requiring a degree of knowledge to operate and associated in the minds of most people more with work than pleasure — could really be the future of interactive entertainment as a mass-media enterprise. If a computer as magnificent as the Amiga couldn’t conquer the world, what would it take?

Perhaps it would take a piece of true consumer electronics, made by a company used to selling televisions and stereos to customers who expected to be able to just turn the things on and enjoy them — a company like, say, Philips, who were working on a new multimedia set-top box for the living room that they called CD-I. The name arose from the fact that it used the magical new technology of CD-ROM for storage, something EA had been begging Commodore to bring to the Amiga to no avail. EA embraced CD-I with the same enthusiasm they had recently shown for the Amiga, placing Greg Riker in personal charge of creating tools and techniques for programming it, working more as partners in CD-I’s development with Philips than as a mere third-party publisher.

Once again, however, it all came to nought. CD-I turned into one of the most notorious slow-motion fiascos in the history of the games industry, missing its originally planned release date in the fall of 1987 and then remaining vaporware for years on end. In early 1989, EA finally ran out of patience, mothballing all work on the platform unless and until it became a viable product; Greg Riker left the company to go work for Microsoft on their own CD-ROM research.

CD-I had cost EA a lot of money to no tangible result whatsoever, but it does reveal that the idea of gaming on something other than a conventional computer was no longer anathema to them. In fact, the year in which EA gave up on CD-I would prove the most pivotal of their entire history. We should therefore pause here to examine their position in 1989 in a bit more detail.

Despite the frustrating failure of the Amiga and CD-I to open a new golden age of interactive entertainment, EA wasn’t doing badly at all. Following years of steady growth, annual revenue had now reached $63 million, up 27 percent from 1988. EA was actively distributing about 100 titles under their own imprint, and 250 more under the imprint of the various Affiliated Labels, who had become absolutely key to their business model, accounting for some 45 percent of their total revenues. About 80 percent of their revenues still came from the United States, with 15 percent coming from Europe — where EA had set up a semi-independent subsidiary, the Langley, England-based EA Europe, in 1987 — and the remainder from the rest of the world. The company was extremely diversified. They were producing software for ten different computing platforms worldwide, had released 40 separate titles that had earned them at least $1 million each, and had no single title that accounted for more than 6 percent of their total revenues.

What we have here, then, is a very healthy business indeed, with multiple revenue streams and cash in the bank. The games they released were sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes mediocre; EA’s quality standards weren’t notably better or worse than the rest of their industry. “We tried to create a brand that fell somewhere between Honda and Mercedes,” admits Bing Gordon, “but a lot of the time we shipped Chevy.” Truth be told, even in the earliest days the rhetoric surrounding EA’s software artists had been a little overblown; many of the games their rock stars came up with were far less innovative than the advertising that accompanied them. The genius of Larry Probst had been to explicitly recognize that success or failure as a games publisher had as much to do with other factors as it did with the actual games you released.

For all their success, though, no one at EA was feeling particularly satisfied with their position. On the contrary: 1989 would go down in EA’s history as the year of “crisis.” As successful as they had become selling home-computer software, they remained big fish in a rather small pond, a situation out of keeping with the sense of overweening ambition that been a part of the company’s DNA since its founding. In 1989, about 4 million computers were being used to play games on a regular or semi-regular basis in American homes, enough to fuel a computer-game industry worth an estimated $230 million per year. EA alone owned more than 25 percent of that market, more than any competitor. But there was another, related market in which they had no presence at all: that of the videogame consoles, which had returned from the dead to haunt them even as they were consolidating their position as the biggest force in computer games. The country was in the grip of Nintendo mania. About 22 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems were already in American homes — a figure accounting for 24 percent of all American households — and cartridge-based videogames were selling to the tune of $1.6 billion per year.

Unlike many of their peers, EA hadn’t yet suffered all that badly under the Nintendo onslaught, largely because they had already diversified away from the Commodore 64, the low-end 8-bit computer which had been the largest gaming platform in the world just a couple of years before, and which the NES was now in the process of annihilating. But still, the future of the computer-games industry in general felt suddenly in doubt in a way that it hadn’t since at least the great home-computer downturn of 1984. A sizable coalition inside EA, including Larry Probst and most of the board of directors, pushed Trip Hawkins hard to get EA’s games onto the consoles. Fearing a coup, he finally came around. “We had to go into the [console-based] videogame business, and that meant the world of mass-market,” Hawkins remembers. “There were millions of customers we were going to reach.”

But through which door should they make their entrance? Accustomed to running roughshod over his Affiliated Labels, Hawkins wasn’t excited about the prospect of entering Nintendo’s walled garden, where the shoe would be on the other foot, thanks to that company’s infamously draconian rules for its licensees. Nintendo’s standard contract demanded that they receive the first $12 from every game a licensee sold, required every game to go through an exhaustive review process before publication, and placed strict limits on how many games a licensee was allowed to publish per year and how many units they were allowed to manufacture of each one. For EA, accustomed to being the baddest hombre in the Wild West that was the computer-game marketplace, this was well-nigh intolerable. Bing Gordon insists even today that, thanks to all of the fees and restrictions, no one other than Nintendo was doing much more than breaking even on the NES during this, the period that would go down in history as the platform’s golden age.

So, EA decided instead to back a dark horse: the much more modern Sega Genesis, which hadn’t even been released yet in North America. It was built around the same 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU found in computers like the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh, with audiovisual capabilities not all that far removed from the likes of the Amiga. The Genesis would give designers and programmers who were used to the affordances of full-fledged computers a far less limiting platform than the NES to work with, and it offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a brand-new market, as opposed to the saturated NES platform. The only problem was that Sega’s licensing fees were comparable to those of Nintendo, even though they could only offer their licensees access to a much more uncertain pool of customers.

Determined to play hardball, Hawkins had a team of engineers reverse-engineer the Genesis, sufficient to let them write games for it with or without Sega’s official development kit. Then he met with Sega again, telling them that, if they refused to adjust their licensing terms, he would release games on the console without their blessing, forcing them to initiate an ugly court battle of the sort that was currently raging between Nintendo and Atari if they wished to bring him to heel. That, he was gambling, was expense and publicity of a sort which Sega simply couldn’t afford. And Sega evidently agreed with his assessment; they accepted a royalty rate half that being demanded by Nintendo. By this roundabout method, EA became the first major American publisher to support the new console, and from that point forward the two companies became, as Hawkins puts it, “good partners.”

EA initially invested $2.5 million in ten games for the Genesis, some of them original to the console, some ports of their more popular computer games. They started shipping the first of them in June of 1990, ten months after the Genesis itself had first gone on sale in the United States. This first slate of EA Genesis titles arrived in a marketplace that was still starving for quality games, just as Hawkins had envisioned it would be. Among them was the game destined to become the face of the new, mass-market-oriented EA: John Madden Football, a more action-oriented re-imagining of a 1988 computer game of the same name.

John Madden Football debuted as a rather cerebral, tactics-heavy computer game in 1988, just another in an EA tradition of famous-athlete-endorsed sports games stretching back to 1983’s (Dr. J and Larry Bird Go) One-on-One. No one in 1988 could have imagined what it would come to mean in the years to come for either its publisher or its spokesman/mascot, both of whom would ride it to iconic heights in American pop culture.

The Sega Genesis marked the third time EA had taken a leap of faith on a new platform. It was the first time, however, that their faith paid off. About 25 percent of the games EA sold in 1990 were for the Genesis. And when the console really started to take off in 1991, fueled not least by their own games, EA was there to reap the rewards. In that year, four of the ten best-selling Genesis games were published by EA. At the peak of their dominance, EA alone was publishing about 35 percent of all the games sold for the Genesis. Absent the boost their games gave it early on, it’s highly questionable whether the Genesis would have succeeded at all in the United States.

In the beginning, few of EA’s outside developers had been terribly excited about writing for the consoles. One of them remembers Hawkins “reading us the riot act” just to get them onboard. Indeed, Hawkins claims today that about 15 percent of EA’s internal employees were so unhappy with the new direction that they quit. Certainly his latest rhetoric could hardly have been more different from that of 1983:

I knew we had to let go of our attachment to machines that the public did not want to buy, and support the hardware that the public would embrace. I made this argument on the grounds of delivering customer satisfaction, and how quality is in the eye of the beholder. If the customer buys a Genesis, we want to give him the best we can for the machine he bought and not resent the consumer for not buying a $1000 computer.

By this point, Hawkins had finally bit the bullet and done a deal with Nintendo, who, in the face of multiple government investigations and lawsuits over their business practices, were becoming somewhat more generous with both their competitors and licensees. When games like Skate or Die, a port of a Commodore 64 hit that just happened to be perfect for the Nintendo and Sega demographics as well, started to sell in serious numbers on the consoles, Hawkins’s developers’ aversion started to fade in the face of all that filthy lucre. Soon the developers of Skate or Die were happily plunging into a sequel which would be a console exclusive.

Even the much-dreaded oversight role played by Nintendo, in which they reviewed every game before allowing it to be published, proved less onerous than expected. When Will Harvey, the designer of an action-adventure called The Immortal, finally steeled himself to look at Nintendo’s critique thereof, he was happily surprised to find the list of “suggestions” to be very helpful on the whole, demonstrating real sensitivity to the effect he was trying to achieve. Even Bing Gordon, who had been highly skeptical of getting into bed with Nintendo, had to admit in the end that “the rating system is fair. On a scale from zero to a hundred, where zero meant the system was totally manipulated for Nintendo’s self-interest and a hundred meant that it was absolutely democratic, they’d probably get a ninety. I’ve seen a little bit of self-interest, but this is America, the land of self-interest.”

Although EA cut their Nintendo teeth on the NES, it was on the long-awaited follow-up console, 1991’s Super Nintendo, that they really began to thrive. That machine boasted capabilities similar to those of the Sega Genesis, meaning EA already had games ready to port over, along with developers with considerable expertise in writing for a more advanced species of console. Just in time for the Christmas of 1991, EA released a new version of John Madden FootballJohn Madden Football ’92 — simultaneously on the Super Nintendo and the Genesis. The sequel had been created, according to the recollections of several EA executives, against the advice of market researchers and retailers: “All you’re going to do is obsolete our old game.” But Trip Hawkins remembered how much, as a kid, he had loved the Strat-O-Matic Football board game, for which a new set of player and team cards was issued every year just before the beginning of football season, ensuring that you could always recreate in the board game the very same season you were watching every Sunday on television. So, he ignored the objections of the researchers and the retailers, and John Madden Football ’92 became an enormous hit, by far the biggest EA had yet enjoyed on any platform — thus inaugurating, for better or for worse, the tradition of annual versions of gaming’s most evergreen franchise. Like clockwork, we’ve gotten a new Madden every single year since, a span of time that numbers a quarter-century and change as of this writing.

All of this had a transformative effect on EA’s bottom line, bringing on their biggest growth spurt yet. Revenues increased from $78 million in 1990 to $113 million in 1991; then they jumped to $175 million in 1992, accompanied by a two-for-one stock split that was necessary to keep the share price, which had been at $10 just a few years before, from exceeding $50. In that year, six of the fifteen most popular console games, across all platforms, were published by EA. Their Sega Genesis games alone generated $77 million, 18 percent more than the entirety of the company’s product portfolio had managed in 1989. This was also the first year that EA’s console games in the aggregate outsold their offerings for computers. They were leaving no doubt now as to where their primary loyalty lay: “The 16-bit consoles are far better for games than PCs. The Genesis is a very sophisticated machine…” The disparity between the two sides of the company’s business would only continue to get more pronounced, as EA’s sales jumped by an extraordinary 70 percent — to $298 million — in 1993, a spurt fueled entirely by console-game sales.

But, despite all their success on the consoles, EA — and especially their founder, Trip Hawkins — continued to chafe under the restrictions of the walled-garden model of software distribution. Accordingly, Hawkins put together a group inside EA to research the potential for a CD-ROM-based multimedia set-top box of their own, one that would be used for more than just playing games — sort of a CD-I done right. “The Japanese videogame companies,” he said, “are too shortsighted to see where this is going.” In contrast to their walled gardens, his box would be as open as possible. Rather than a single new hardware product, it would be a set of hardware specifications and an operating system which manufacturers could license, which would hopefully result in a situation similar to the MS-DOS marketplace, where lots of companies competed and innovated within the bounds of an established standard. The marketplace for games and applications as well on the new machine would be far less restricted than the console norm, with a more laissez-faire attitude to content and a royalty fee of just $3 per unit sold.

In 1991, EA spun off the venture under the name of 3DO. Hawkins turned most of his day-to-day responsibilities at EA over to Larry Probst in order to take personal charge of his new baby, which took tangible form for the first time with the release of the Panasonic “Real 3DO Player” in late 1993. It and other implementations of the 3DO technology managed to sell 500,000 units worldwide — 200,000 of them in North America — by January of 1995. Yet those numbers were still a pittance next to those of the dedicated game consoles, and the story of 3DO became one of constant flirtations with success that never quite led to that elusive breakthrough moment. As 3DO struggled, Hawkins’s relations with his old company worsened. He believed they had gone back on promises to support his new venture wholeheartedly; “I didn’t feel like I was leaving EA, but it turned out that way,” he says today with lingering bitterness. The long, frustrating saga of 3DO wouldn’t finally straggle to a bankruptcy until 2003.

EA, meanwhile, was flying ever higher absent their founder. Under Larry Probst — always the most hard-nosed and sober-minded of the executive staff, the person most laser-focused on the actual business of selling videogames — EA cemented their reputation as the conservative, risk-averse giant of their industry. This new EA was seemingly the polar opposite of the company that had once asked with almost painful earnestness if a computer could make you cry. And yet, paradoxically, it was a place still inhabited by a surprising number of the people who had come up with that message. Most prominent among them was Bing Gordon, who notes cryptically today only that “people’s ideals get tested in the face of love or money.” Part of the problem — assuming one judges EA’s current less-than-boldly-innovative lineup of franchises to be a problem — may be a simple buildup of creative cruft that has resulted from being in business for so long. Every franchise that debuts in inspiration and innovation, then goes on to join John Madden Football on the list of EA perennials, sucks some of the bandwidth away that might otherwise have been devoted to the next big innovator.

In the summer of 1987, when EA was still straddling the line between their old personality and their new, Trip Hawkins wrote the following lines in their official newsletter — lines which evince the keenly felt tension between art and commerce that has become the defining aspect of EA’s corporate history for so many in the years since:

Unfortunately, simply being creative doesn’t always mean you’ll be wildly successful. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Lots of people would still rather go see Porky’s Revenge IV, ignoring well-produced movies like Amadeus or Chariots of Fire. As a result, film producers take fewer risks, and we get less variety, and pretty soon the Porky’s and Rambo clones are all you can find on a Friday night. Software developers have the same problem. (To this day, all of us M.U.L.E. fans wonder why the entire world hasn’t fallen in love with our favorite game.)

The only way to solve the problem is to do it together. On our end, we’ll keep innovating, researching, experimenting with new ways to use this new medium; on your end, you can support our efforts by taking an occasional risk, by buying something new and different… maybe Robot Rascals, or Make Your Own Murder Party.

You may be very pleasantly surprised — and you’ll help our software artists live to innovate another day.

Did EA go the direction they did because of gamers’ collective failure to support their most innovative, experimental work? Does it even matter if so? The more pragmatic among us might note that the EA of today is delivering games that millions upon millions of people clearly want to play, and where’s the harm in that?

Still, as we look upon this industry that has so steadfastly refused to grow up in so many ways, there remain always those pictures of EA’s first generation of software artists — pictures that, yes, are a little pretentious and a lot contrived, but that nevertheless beckon us to pursue higher ideals. They’ve taken on an identity of their own now, quite apart from the history of the company that once splashed them across the pages of glossy lifestyle magazines. Long may they continue to inspire.

(Sources: the book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Harvard Business School’s case study “Electronic Arts in 1995”; ACE of April 1990; Amazing Computing of July 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1988, October 1988, and June 1989; MicroTimes of April 1986; The One of November 1988; Electronic Arts’s newsletter Farther from Summer 1987; AmigaWorld premiere issue; materials relating to the Software Publishers Association included in the Brøderbund archive at the Strong Museum of Play; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Computer Games.” Online sources include “We See Farther — A History of Electronic Arts” at Gamasutra, “How Electronic Arts Lost Its Soul” at Polygon, and Funding Universe‘s history of Electronic Arts.)

Choice of Games

The Martian Job — Rob a casino? No problem. How about on Mars?

by Rachel E. Towers at October 05, 2018 03:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Martian Job, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 40% off until October 12th!

Rob the first Martian casino and find out who really rules the planet! Crack a safe, break some hearts, start a revolution, or get rich beyond the stars!

The Martian Job is a 155,000-word interactive novel by M. Darusha Wehm. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Welcome to Mars, where one last safecracking job could nab you enough platinum to last a lifetime. But how will you pull off your heist? Do you hack into the vault, blast your way in, or finesse the locks? Can you trust your misfit team of grifters and con artists? Can they trust you?

Succeed in your mission and win power, love, and money—or fail and spend the rest of your life tending bar on another planet. Pay enough attention, and you’ll learn about the corrupt Martian government as you go—along with the rebels who oppose it and the corporation trying to take it over. Will you choose to save the planet’s troubled colonists, or use the information for your own gain? You’ll also encounter opportunities to avenge an old comrade, thwart the machinations of a power-hungry tycoon, or start a revolution. Decide where your loyalty lies: with your team, with Mars, or only with yourself.

Can you shape the destiny of humanity’s first interplanetary colony—and walk away with a trunk full of platinum?

• Play as non-binary, female, or male, as ace/aro or as monogamous or poly, and find romance with people of all genders.
• Raid the first casino on Mars.
• Master real casino games like blackjack and roulette.
• Lead a crack team of expert thieves, or sell out anyone for a shard of platinum.
• Infiltrate the center of Martian power to control, destroy, or join forces with the planet’s rulers.
• Start a revolution to topple the government, or defeat the rebels from within.
• Dominate the corporate world with an elite interplanetary industrialist, force him out of business, or execute a hostile takeover.
• Control the future of humanity on another planet!

We hope you enjoy playing The Martian Job. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

October 02, 2018

The Gaming Philosopher

The IF Comp is happening (and I'm in it)

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at October 02, 2018 09:50 PM

The 2018 interactive fiction competition is happening! I participated only once as an author -- back in 2011 with Kerkerkruip -- but this year I decided to do so again. My game is called Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303, and you can find it in the company of no fewer than 76 other new IF games of all sorts. Play and judge, my friends. Play and judge. (Since I'm an author, I'll be doing

sub-Q Magazine

Table of Contents – October, 2018

by Stewart C Baker at October 02, 2018 08:41 PM

Up here in the northern hemisphere, October heralds the onset of fall—shorter days, longer nights, a crisp coldness to the air that speaks of the coming of winter.

One of the reasons I like fall so much is the reaction that gathering dark pulls out of people. There’s a tendency to gather, to light fires, to celebrate life as a way of pushing back against the gloom. A tendency to push toward some kind of action that lets the world know you’re still here, still fighting.

That’s a message I think is very useful in times like ours, and this month’s game—”Queers in Love at the End of the World,” by Anna Anthropy—explores similar themes in a very tight space. The end of the world is 10 seconds away: how will you spend those last precious moments of time?

So here’s this month’s table of contents:

October 9th: Bruno Dias brings us his Making Interactive Fiction column, this time with a focus on bottle-necks and branching.

October 16th: Our game of the month, “Queers in Love at the End of the World” by Anna Anthropy.

October 23rd: Our monthly author interview, featuring Anna Anthropy and editor Natalia Theodoridou.

 

(P.S. We also hope to have a special announcement ready to go some time this month, so stay tuned for that!)

The post Table of Contents – October, 2018 appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

The People's Republic of IF

Boston FIG 2018!

by zarf at October 02, 2018 08:41 PM

(This photo was taken before the room opened, before anybody was there.)

There we were for another year of IF outreach. We had Hollywood Hijinx (original 1980s hardware!) and The Wizard Sniffer out. People played both of them.

Thanks to Naomi Hinchen for helping at the table, and Nick Montfort for lending the Apple //c.

Emily Short

Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

by Emily Short at October 02, 2018 07:40 PM

51v0a2EYVGL.jpgI’ve written already about some of the world building books I’ve worked with in the past. Stant Litore‘s Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget is relatively new — published late 2017. It’s not a game writing book specifically, but is meant for anyone in the speculative fiction space. It’s also quite compact, about a hundred and fifty pages, and meant to be used, with a sequence of exercises for the reader. More than that, even though it’s a book about world-building, it’s focused on the plot and character implications of what you’re doing:

This book treats worldbuilding as a process for conflict and exerting pressures on your characters. Unforgettable characters live unforgettable stories that are made necessary and possible by unforgettable worlds they are trying to survive and thrive in.

So though this is a book for writers and not for interactivity, it’s bringing in some of the same worldbuilding motives as a tabletop game like Downfall.

In addition, Litore immediately identifies two approaches to worldbuilding: the Tolkien approach, where you start at the ground level in some particular area. And he correctly points out that this is even more difficult than most people give credit for:

It is theoretically possible for you to create an unforgettable imaginary world in the same way that JRR Tolkien did if you have an advanced education or deep training in one particular field relevant to worldbuilding, plus an inquisitive mind that is always asking questions about how your area of expertise informs and is informed by others. For example, if you are a gifted economist, you might begin building a world from the ground up if you start by designing a unique and detailed, though fictional economy…  This kind of deep dive is rare because it requires more than just a “research phase” to inform a novel or screenplay. It relies on committed, dedicated expertise and conversation with other experts in that area of knowledge.

I found that pretty interesting because of my own interest in the idea of research art — but also a strong argument for why not all worldbuilding on all projects needs to go the Tolkien route. And certainly most of mine doesn’t.

Instead, Litore recommends the approach of inserting an importantly different detail in each of three areas: the physical conditions of a world and the requirements of surviving there; the biology and the creatures who live there; and the culture that persists there. He then devotes several chapters to unpacking each of these techniques.

While this isn’t particularly written with games in mind, it’s not a bad terrible set of directions even so. I think, for game purposes, I would probably put a bit less emphasis on the biology of the game world (unless one really wants a creature-based gameplay) and instead focus in on the action space available. Litore is thinking primarily of written speculative fiction here. There are exceptions, but most of his examples are from science fiction or fantasy novels, ranging from classic Asimov and Tolkien pieces on up through LeGuin and Cherryh to Max Gladstone et al.

Litore includes some samples of his own works to illustrate what he’s talking about, and I occasionally found the examples of his fictional prose style a bit too obvious or too cliched for my own tastes (yours may vary). But this is more about how he renders his ideas than how he comes up with them in the first place, and much of his conceptual advice feels solid.

For the rest, like a lot of worldbuilding books, this becomes more than anything a series of questions to ask about the place you’re imagining. Litore’s questions address some familiar territory — religion, rites of passage, technology — but also topics such as accessibility and privilege, encouraging the would-be writer to think about who in their imagined society occupies a marginal position, what accommodations are made (or not made) for individuals with different abilities, and so on.

I very much liked — and agreed with — his focus on developing worlds that would provide interesting pressures for the characters to cope with. That in turn often requires thinking about resource availability, power, safety and access — things I tend to think about in my own worldbuilding strategies. And sometimes, when he’s suggesting taking a storyline and thinking about how to add obstacles to your characters’ lives, I was reminded of 90s writing on IF puzzle design.

A final chapter addresses how to communicate your designed world to the reader, and calls out situations and types of viewpoint character that might help usher the reader (or player, in this case) into your new story.

Overall, a compact read that focuses the worldbuilding process on the types of thinking likely to yield the fastest results, and covers a few topics that don’t appear in the previously-reviewed books.

Stant Litore has also written a book on characterization, Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. Before I’d finished reading this book, I’d ordered that one for review as well.

October 01, 2018

Choice of Games

Author Interview: M. Darusha Wehm, “The Martian Job”

by Mary Duffy at October 01, 2018 09:41 PM

Welcome to Mars, where one last safecracking job could nab you enough platinum to last a lifetime. But how will you pull off your heist? Do you hack into the vault, blast your way in, or finesse the locks? Can you trust your misfit team of grifters and con artists? Can they trust you? The Martian Job is a 160,000 word interactive novel by M. Darusha Wehm. We sat down to talk about the Red Planet and its literary influence. The Martian Job releases this Thursday, October 4th. 

Tell me a little bit about the kind of Mars colony this game is set in.

I took a lot of inspiration from the company towns of mining operations—where the corporation runs everything from the tavern to the bookstore. I wanted it to be a little friendlier than historical company towns really are, though. I tried to create a colony that was clearly in the early days, but not a horrible place to live and work.

The Martian Job is an incredibly fun heist game, but I can’t read anything about Mars without thinking of its literary history: the Barsoom series, War of the Worlds, The Martian Chronicles. How does it feel to enter into a particular literary canon, and what literary influences were you working from in this, if any?

There is something about Mars as the quintessential next planet for humans to make our home that is so compelling for science fiction. Mars shows up in so many stories, because I think it’s really captured the imagination of anyone who wants to think about the possibilities of humans being a multi-planet species.

The game is full of little Easter Eggs referring to other stories about Mars—from Burroughs to the Golden Age up through to contemporary work. Some are obvious but others are a bit more challenging to spot. It was super fun figuring out how to work them all in!

Choice of Games actually hasn’t released as much “hard sci-fi” as one might expect, though I felt The Martian Job also straddled action and urban in terms of genre. And you write quite a bit of speculative fiction as well. Talk a little about genre.

Genre can mean so many different things—is it setting, or plot, or tone? Is it all of those in varying degrees? Most stories have aspects of multiple genres—even realist fiction can have romance, adventure, and mystery elements all in the same family drama. I really wanted to bring that fusion of both tone and plot to The Martian Job. There are political sci fi plot paths to follow as well as the classic heist/adventure story. There are redemption arcs, descents into embracing moral ambiguity, power plays, and finding community.

What were the challenges you found in plotting for interactive fiction?

I really enjoyed following the different possible paths the protagonist could take. For me, the hardest part was not being able to have a single personality to work with, and make sure that the plots made sense and were believable whichever kind of character the player chooses to create.

How does The Martian Job measure up to your plain prose fiction and poetry?

I think fans of my other books will find a lot of familiarity here, although some of the choices you can make are not what most of my typical protagonists would do. The Martian Job is definitely at the fun, easy-read end of my spectrum.

What are you working on next?

I have a new science fiction novel coming out in December. It’s called The Voyage of the White Cloud, and it’s a novel-in-stories set aboard a generation starship that tells the tales of everyday people living in the middle years of a thousand year journey.

IFComp News

Welcome to the 2018 IFComp!

October 01, 2018 04:42 PM

That’s right. Welcome to the 24th annual Interactive Fiction Competition.

I’m pleased to say that last year was not an anomaly — the competition once again has nearly 80 entries. To you completists out there (and you know who you are), better get crackin’! 

In all seriousness, we know that having so many games was actually a tad overwhelming for some folks last year. To make it less overwhelming this year, we’ve included some more meta-data: in addition to estimated playtime and content-warnings, we’ve asked authors to define their entry’s genre and what type of game they’ve created (choice, parser, or ‘other’). The hope is that this will help you focus your efforts on games that fit your available schedule and mood when you sit down to play.

A reminder: You really are only required to play five games! 

Like, seriously — just five. More than five is excellent, but if everyone who knew about the comp played five games (focusing on the types of games they generally enjoy), voted, and provided a bit of feedback, we’re pretty sure that all authors would receive scores and feedback in sufficient quantity.

So this year, a new request: There’s one more way that we can all collectively ensure that every game gets some attention and feedback, even if not all of us play all of the games — encourage others to be judges! Stress that they only have to play five games, and that they get to pick which kind of games they play. Please encourage all the game-lovers in your life to consider judging this year, even if they aren’t “into IF”. 

You can participate in other ways, too! As of this post, we’re at $8300 of our $9K goal for this year’s Colossal Fund. With 77 entries, that equates to $364 for first prize. But we could still nudge that up a bit to meet our goal. Check out this post for more information and, if you’re in a position to do so, please consider contributing. The authors thank you. 

On a final note: We’d like to dedicate this year’s competition to the memory of Stu Galley, who passed away in August. Along with a few of his colleagues from the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, Galley was part of starting up a software company called Infocom. As recently noted by Gamasutra, Galley was the driving force behind Moonmist, Seastalker, and The Witness. Thank you, Stu, for your work.

Thanks also to everyone who has made (and who will make) this year’s competition great!

Jacqueline Ashwell,
October 2018

"Dhakajack"

IFcomp 2018

by Jack at October 01, 2018 03:42 PM

ifcomp 2018 logoA quick post about IFcomp 2018, which launches today. Last year, I reviewed all the submissions on this blog, but will not be doing so this year as I have two games in the comp. It’s been a few years since the rules change that removed the gag on authors, but I’m still not comfortable commenting in public on other games, when I’m a participant.

I’ll certainly play through as many of the other games as I can and will be posting some comments privately on the closed forum for authors.

I’m looking forward to reading reviews of all the games in the comp — I’m sure all the authors are in the same boat, sitting on the edge of their seats this morning waiting for the first feedback to drift in.

The post IFcomp 2018 appeared first on Dhakajack.

Z-Machine Matter

Gumshoe Rules Available for Order

by Zack Urlocker at October 01, 2018 02:38 AM

GR modern silouette zz2

My novel, Gumshoe Rules, is now is now available for order at Inkshares. They are running a Mystery & Thriller contest and if I can get enough people to order then it becomes a legit published book. It has long been my dream to write and publish and this seems like a fun way to do it. 

It's a noir detective story, set at the height of the Cold War. A disgraced WWII veteran-turned-private detective investigates the death of a German scientist, only to discover their paths crossed during the liberation of a sinister Nazi labor camp in 1945. The novel is written in a hardboiled style influenced by Raymond Chandler, with elements of Agatha Christie as well as more modern influences like Anthony Horowitz and Philip Kerr.

Inkshares has an interesting model where they let readers decide what books should be published. I know two authors, Tal Klein (The Punch Escrow) and Christopher Huang (A Gentleman's Murder) who have successfully published through Inkshares. 

Interactive Fiction fans may recognize Huang as the author of several excellent games including my personal favorite An Act of Murder, as well as games related to his book. I was inspired by his game to begin working on an IntroComp game called The Z-Machine Matter some years ago and that became the basis for my novel. 

September 30, 2018

The Gaming Philosopher

Review of "Plowing right through"

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at September 30, 2018 08:59 PM

From a formal perspective, the parser based interactive fiction game Plowing right through reminded me of nothing so much as of Adam Cadre's Varicella. In that game, the player character is about to carry out a brilliant if nefarious plot that he has thought through perfectly, but the details of which are completely unknown to the player. Inevitably, the player will fail many times before

Emily Short

End of September Link Assortment

by Emily Short at September 30, 2018 07:40 PM

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IF Comp is here!  As of October 1, games are public and will be available for play and review.  Voting ends November 15.

From Now – February 24, 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum is featuring an exhibit on contemporary video games.

On October 3, Tellables CEO Amy Stapleton is speaking on conversational storytelling at Digital Book World in Nashville, TN.  Stapleton also writes the Voice First Fiction blog.  The conference runs October 2-4.

October 6 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

October 6 is the Oxford and London gathering to play games from IF comp.

Also October 6-7, Roguelike Celebration is coming up in San Francisco — this is obviously a bit different from IF material, but there’s some interesting procedural storytelling work that comes up in this space. This year their speakers include Tarn Adams, Pippin Barr, and Max Kreminski, all people who have turned up on this blog/in IF circles before.

October 11 is the next Boston IF Meetup.

October 12-14, Worcester Polytechnic Institute is hosting the Different Games Collective, focusing on diversity and inclusivity in games.

October 19-28 is the submission window for the fifth annual PROCJAM, seeking entries for generative software.

October 20 is the Oxford and London workshop in the Ren’Py tool for building visual novels.

October 22 is the deadline for Saugus.net’s 21st Annual Ghost Story Contest.  They accept both traditional prose entries and IF.  Official rules can be found here.

Ectocomp is taking both Spanish and English-language submissions for their competition from October 26-30, but if you want to start work on your game through the site, it is open now.

November 10-11AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years. (Incidentally, they’ve published their exhibitor list and it’s pretty sweet.)

December 2 is the deadline for entering the Russian Language IF competition KRIL.

December 5-8 in Dublin is the next ICIDS, the international conference on interactive digital storytelling.

This is long in advance, but NarraScope is a recently-announced conference for IF and narrative games to be held in Cambridge, MA June 14-16 of 2019. Here’s how they describe it:

NarraScope is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.

For users of   ‧ AGS ‧ ChoiceScript ‧ Hypertext ‧ Inform ‧ Ink ‧ Quest ‧ Ren’Py ‧ Storyspace ‧ TADS ‧ Twine ‧ …add yours? ‧

“Interactive fiction” has many meanings. It describes many kinds of games and many diverse communities of practice. It’s time to bring those communities together to hang out and chat exchange ideas!

For fans of   ‧ Zork ‧ The Walking Dead ‧ The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo ‧ Syberia ‧ Sorcery! ‧ Portal ‧ Photopia ‧ Patchwork Girl ‧ Oxenfree ‧ Myst ‧ Meanwhile ‧ Loom ‧ Lifeline ‧ Howling Dogs ‧ Gone Home ‧ 80 Days ‧ Dream Daddy ‧ Device 6 ‧ Counterfeit Monkey ‧ Choice of Broadsides ‧ The Blackwell Legacy ‧ Analogue: A Hate Story ‧ Adventure ‧

We are still finalizing the details of the venue and schedule. We expect to be in Cambridge, in coordination with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department. A call for speakers and talk proposals will be posted soon.

*

New Releases

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Mad science raised you from the dead!  William Brown’s 200,000-word interactive Gothic horror novel Mysteries of Baroque is the latest title on Choice of Games.

Charles A.F. King has released the underwater adventure Soviet Seafloor Station Ustritsa, a Choose Your Own Fate gamebook set in the Cold War-era Atlantic.

Lamplight City is a point-and-click detective adventure with a steampunk flavor, just recently out.

Google also has made an easter egg text adventure which you can find if you follow the instructions outlined here.

Articles and Podcasts

Bruno Dias talks about writing scenes in IF.

 

Crowdfunding

The Colossal Fund is raising money for IF Comp prizes this year, and also to support the regular work of the IFTF — including archive support, Twine development, and accessibility improvements for interactive fiction games and tools.

You may also like the look of Nighthawks, the Vampire RPG, featuring the writing of Richard Cobbett (Fallen London, Sunless Sea, et al) and created by Wadjet Eye (numerous point-and-click adventures).

Publishing

Mythaxis is seeking IF to include in its upcoming February 2019 issue; however, it does not pay.

IFTF Blog

NarraScope: a conference celebrating narrative games

by Andrew Plotkin at September 30, 2018 05:47 PM

Six months ago, we waved around the idea of hosting an interactive fiction conference in Boston. Then — six months of silence.

Surprise! We still exist!

…Apologies for the delay. Nailing down a venue turned out to be a more protracted and painful process than we expected. It’s still not entirely nailed down, I’m sorry to say. But it’s solid enough for us to announce:

NarraScope 2019
Celebrating Narrative Games
June 14-16, 2019 — Boston, MA

The focus of the conference is not just “interactive fiction”. IF is a broad-ranging term these days, but not everyone uses it or thinks of themselves as “interactive fiction authors”. NarraScope will aim to cover the spectrum of narrative-focused games and interactive design: adventure games, Twine, hypertext, choice-based and parser-based IF, visual novels, procedurally generated narrative… Each of these forms has evolved into a community of practice. We want to create a space for these communities to come together, talk, exchange ideas, and discover ways to collaborate.

We are still finalizing the details of the venue and schedule. We expect to be in Cambridge, in coordination with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department.

A call for speakers and talk proposals will be posted soon! Watch for news on our mailing list (join!) and on our web site.

Who are we? The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which supports the tools, services, and community resources of interactive fiction and narrative games. NarraScope is IFTF’s first major public event. Here’s our conference committee.

Inclusivity statement: NarraScope celebrates the diverse voices of game design. We aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accountable space for all participants.

September 28, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (or, Of Movies and Games and Whether the Twain Shall Meet)

by Jimmy Maher at September 28, 2018 04:41 PM

You ask why there are movements in movie history. Why all of a sudden there are great Japanese films, or great Italian films, or great Australian films, or whatever. And it’s usually because there are a number of people that cross-pollinated each other.

— Francis Ford Coppola

Over the course of the late 1970s and early 1980s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg remade the very business of film-making for better or for worse, shifting its focus from message movies and character dramas to the special-effects-heavy, escapist blockbusters that still drive Hollywood’s profits to this day. These events, which we might call the rise of the culture of the blockbuster, have long since been enshrined into the canonical history of film, filed under the names of these two leading lights.

Yet no two personalities could possibly have brought about such a dramatic shift on their own. Orbiting around Lucas and Spielberg was an entire galaxy of less prominent talents whose professional lives were profoundly affected by their association with these two new faces of modern Hollywood. They were the fellow travelers who helped Lucas and Spielberg to change the movie industry, all without ever quite being aware that they were part of any particular movement at all. Among the group were names like John Milius, Walter Murch, Willard Huyck, Randall Kleiser, Matthew Robbins, and Hal Barwood. “I can’t speak for the others,” says Robbins, “but it was my impression that nobody had the foggiest idea that there was any ‘next wave’ coming. Nobody had set their sights — except perhaps for George [Lucas].”

Out of this group of slightly lesser but undeniably accomplished lights, Hal Barwood is our special person of interest for today. He first met George Lucas in the mid-1960s, when the two were students together in the University of Southern California’s film program. Lucas, who had only recently abandoned his original dream of driving race cars in favor of this new one of making movies, was shy almost to the point of complete inarticulateness, and was far more comfortable futzing over a Moviola editing machine than he was trying to cajole live actors into doing his bidding. Nevertheless, there was a drive to this awkward young man that gradually revealed itself over the course of a longer acquaintance, and Barwood — on the surface, a far more assertive, impressive personality — soon joined Lucas’s loose clique in the role of follower rather than leader. Flying in the face of a Hollywood culture which valued realistic character dramas above all else, Lucas, Barwood, and their pals loved science fiction and fantasy, didn’t consider escapism to be a dirty word, and found the visual aesthetics of film to be every bit as interesting as their actors’ performances.

The bond thus forged would remain strong for many years. When Lucas, through the intermediation of his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, got the chance to direct an actual feature film, Barwood added the first professional film credit to his own CV by helping out with the special effects on what became THX-1138, a foreboding, low-budget work of dystopic science fiction that was released to little attention in 1971. When Lucas hit it big two years later with his very different second film, the warmly nostalgic coming-of-age story American Graffiti, he bought a big old ramshackle mansion in San Anselmo, California, with the first of the proceeds, and Barwood became one of several fellow travelers who joined him and his wife in this first headquarters of a nascent corporate entity called Lucasfilm.

George Lucas, standing at far right, discusses Star Wars with his sounding board in the mid-1970s. Steve Spielberg is wearing the orange cap, and Hal Barwood sits on the fence behind him.

Working together with his good friend Matthew Robbins, Barwood wrote a science-fiction script called Star Dancing during the same period. The two commissioned a former Boeing technical illustrator and CBS animator named Ralph McQuarrie to paint some concept art, thereby to help them pitch the project to the studios. In the end, though, Star Dancing never went anywhere — until Lucas, who was toying with ideas for a second, more crowd-pleasing science-fiction movie of his own, saw McQuarrie’s paintings and was greatly inspired by them, hiring him to develop the vision further for what would become Star Wars. McQuarrie’s concept art had much to do with the eventual green-lighting of Star Wars by 20th Century Fox, and he would continue to shape the look of that film and its two sequels over the long course of their production.

Barwood and Robbins, for their part, became two of the eight people entrusted to read the first draft of the film’s script. He and the others in that San Anselmo house then proceeded to slowly shape the Star Wars script we know today over the course of draft after draft.

Even as they helped Lucas with Star Wars, Barwood and Robbins were still trying to make it as screenwriters in their own right. They sold their first script, a chase caper called The Sugarland Express, to George Lucas’s up-and-coming pal Steven Spielberg, a more recently arrived member of the San Anselmo collective; he turned it into his feature-film directorial debut in 1974. More screenwriting followed, including an uncredited rewrite of the 1977 Spielberg blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first film to benefit in a big way commercially from the new interest in science fiction ignited by Star Wars, which had been released about six months prior to it.

Yet the pair found screenwriting to be an inherently frustrating profession in an industry which regarded the director as a movie’s ultimate creative voice. “In writing, you’re always watching directors ruin your stuff,” says Barwood. “As a writer, you have a certain flavor, style, and emphasis in mind when you write the script, and you’re always shocked when the director comes back with something else. There’s a tendency to want to get your hands on the controls and do it yourself.” Accordingly, Matthew Robbins personally directed the duo’s 1978 comedy Corvette Summer, starring Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — in his first big post-Star Wars role. The film was a commercial success, even if the reviews weren’t great; it turned out that there was only so much you could do with Hamill, the very archetype of an actor who’s good in one role and one role only.

The duo’s next big project that was their most ambitious, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking yet. Dragonslayer was a fantasy epic based loosely on the legend of St. George and the dragon, and was once again directed by Robbins. The special effects were provided by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. In fact, Dragonslayer became the very first outside, non-Star Wars project the famous effects house took on. Being at least as challenging as anything in any of the Star Wars films, the Dragonslayer effects took them some eighteen months to complete.

Dragonslayer‘s pedigree was such that it was widely heralded in the Hollywood trade press as a “surefire success” prior to its release. But it had the misfortune to arrive in theaters on June 26, 1981, two weeks after Lucas and Spielberg’s new blockbuster collaboration, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter film shared with Dragonslayer the distributor Paramount Pictures. “Paramount was quite satisfied to go through the summer with the money they were going to get from Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Barwood, “and paid no attention to our movie. They just dropped it. They just forgot about it.” Dragonslayer flopped utterly, badly damaging the duo’s reputation inside Hollywood as purveyors of marketable cinema.

Barwood got his one and only chance to direct a feature film in 1985, when he took the reins of Warning Sign, yet another screenplay by himself and Robbins. In a telling sign of the damage Dragonslayer‘s failure had done to their careers, this latest film, a fairly predictable thriller about a genetic-engineering project run amok, had a budget of about one-quarter what the duo had had to work with on their fantasy epic. It garnered mediocre reviews and box-office receipts, and no one seemed eager to entrust its first-time director with more movies. Barwood and Robbins, both frustrated by the directions their careers had taken since Corvette Summer, decided their long creative partnership had run its course.

George Lucas (far left) and some of his old compatriots at Skywalker Ranch in the mid-1980s. Matthew Robbins is third from left, Hal Barwood fourth from left.

So, Hal Barwood found himself at something of a loose end as the 1980s drew to a close. He was still friendly with George Lucas, if perhaps not quite the bosom buddy he once had been, and he still knew many of the most powerful people in the movie industry, starting with Steven Spielberg — who had gradually shown himself to be, even more so than Lucas, the personification of the new, blockbuster-oriented Hollywood, his prolific career cruising along with hit after hit. But, as Spielberg basked in his success, Barwood had parted ways with his partner and seen his directorial debut become a bust. He hadn’t had a hand in a real hit since 1978, and he hadn’t sold a script at all in quite some time. Just to rub salt into the wounds, his old compatriot Matthew Robbins managed to score another modest hit of his own at last just after the breakup, with the distinctly Spielbergian science-fiction comedy Batteries Not Included, which he directed and whose screenplay he had written with others.

Perhaps it was time for Hal Barwood to try something completely different. He had actually been mulling over his future in this cutthroat industry for some time already. During the promotional tour for Warning Sign, he had made a rather odd comment to Starlog magazine, accompanied by what his interviewer described as a “nervous laugh”: “If movies don’t pan out for me, I have a second career lurking around the corner in entertainment software, working on animated computer games, which I’m doing right now. They’re very sophisticated, animated adventure games.”

Barwood had in fact been fascinated by computers for a long time, ever since he had first encountered the hulking number-crunching monstrosities of the 1960s at university. In 1980, while hanging around the set of Dragonslayer, he had programmed his first game on a state-of-the-art HP-41C calculator as a way of passing the time between takes. Soon after, he joined the PC Revolution, buying an Apple II and starting to tinker. He worked for years on a CRPG for that machine in his spare time — worked for so long that it was still in progress when the Apple II games market began to collapse. Undaunted, he moved on to a Macintosh, where he programmed a storyboarding system for movie makers like himself in HyperCard, selling it as shareware under the name of StoryCard.

With all this experience behind him, it was natural for Barwood now to consider a future in games instead of movies — a future in an industry where the budgets were smaller, the competitors were fewer, and it was much easier to come up with an idea and actually see it through from beginning to end in something like its original form. All of this made quite a contrast to the industry where he had cut his teeth. “The movie business is very difficult for most of us,” he says. “We don’t usually get a majority of our projects to completion. Most of our dreams turn into screenplays, but they stall out at that stage.”

Given his long association with George Lucas, Barwood decided to talk to Lucasfilm Games. They were more than happy to have him, and could certainly relate to the reasons that brought him to their doorstep — for, like Barwood, they had had a somewhat complicated life of it to date in the long shadow cast by Lucas.


Before there was Lucasfilm Games, there was the Lucasfilm Computer Division, founded in 1979 to experiment with computer animation and digital effects, technologies with obvious applications for the making of special-effects-heavy films. Lucasfilm Games had been almost literally an afterthought, an outgrowth of the Computer Division that was formed in 1982, a time when George Lucas and Lucasfilm were flying high and throwing money about willy-nilly.

In those days, a hit computer game, one into which Lucasfilm Games had poured their hearts and souls, might be worth about as much to the parent company’s bottom line as a single Jawa action figure — such was the difference in scale between the computer-games industry of the early 1980s and the other markets where Lucasfilm was a player. George Lucas personally had absolutely no interest in or understanding of games, which didn’t do much for the games division’s profile inside his company. And, most frustrating of all for the young developers who came to work for The House That Star Wars Built, they weren’t allowed to make Star Wars games — nor, for that matter, even Indiana Jones games — thanks to Lucas having signed away those rights to others at the height of the Atari VCS fad. Noah Falstein, one of those young developers, would later characterize this situation as “the best thing that could have happened” to them, as it forced them to develop original fictions instead — leading, he believes, to better, more original games. At the time, however, it couldn’t help but frustrate that the only Lucasfilm properties the games division had access to were middling fare like Labyrinth.

Still, somebody inside Lucasfilm apparently believed in the low-profile division’s potential, for it survived the great bloodletting of the mid-1980s. In response to George Lucas’s expensive divorce settlement and the realization that, with the Star Wars trilogy now completed, there would be no more enormous guaranteed paydays in the future, the company’s executives, with Lucas’s tacit blessing, took an axe to many of their more uncertain or idealistic ventures at that time. Among the divisions that were sold off was the rest of the Computer Division that had indirectly spawned Lucasfilm Games; it would go on to worldwide fame and fortune under the name of Pixar. As for the games people: in 1986, they got to move into some of the vacant space all the downsizing had opened up at Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm’s sprawling summer camp cum corporate campus in Marin County, California.

The wall separating Lucasfilm Games from the parent company’s most desirable intellectual properties finally began to fall at the end of the 1980s, when the games people were given access to… no, not yet to Star Wars, but to the next best thing: Indiana Jones, George Lucas’s other great cinematic success story. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first breakneck tale of the adventurous 1930s archaeologist, as conceived by Lucas and passed on to Steven Spielberg to direct, had become the highest-grossing film of 1981 by nearly a factor of two over its nearest competitor; as we’ve seen, it had trampled less fortunate rivals like poor Hal Barwood’s Dragonslayer into the dust during that year’s summer-blockbuster season. A 1984 sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had done nearly as well. Now a third and presumably final film, to be called Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, was in the offing. With the earlier licensing deals they had made for the property now expired, the parent company wanted their games division to make an adventure game out of it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure1 was designed by Noah Falstein, David Fox, and Ron Gilbert, all of whom had worked on previous Lucasfilm adventure games, and written using the division’s established SCUMM adventuring engine. This committee approach to the game’s design is typical of the workaday nature of the project as a whole. The designers were given a copy of the movie’s shooting script, and were expected not to deviate too much from it. Ron Gilbert, a comedy writer by disposition and talent, found the need to play it relatively straight particularly frustrating, but it seems safe to say that all of the designers’ creative instincts were somewhat hemmed in by the project’s fixed rules. The end result, while competently executed, hasn’t the same vim and vinegar as Maniac Mansion, the first SCUMM adventure, nor even Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, the rather less satisfying second SCUMM game.

The boxing scene which opens the game of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a part of the film’s original script which was cut in the editing room. Scenes like these make the game almost of more interest to film historians than game historians, serving as a window into the movie as it was conceived by its screenwriter Jeffrey Boam.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game arises from the fact that its designers were adapting from the shooting script rather than the finished movie, which they got to see in the Skywalker Ranch theater only when their own project was in the final stages of bug-swatting and polishing. They actually implemented parts of Jeffrey Boam’s script for the movie far more faithfully than Steven Spielberg wound up doing, including numerous scenes — like the boxing sequence at the very beginning of the game — that wound up being cut from the movie. Nevertheless, the game suffers from the fundamental problem of all such overly faithful adaptations from other media: if you’ve seen the movie — and it seemed safe to assume that just about everybody who played the game had seen the movie — what’s the point in walking through the same story again in game form? The designers went to considerable lengths to accommodate curious (or cantankerous) players who make different choices from those of Indiana Jones in the movie, turning their choices into viable alternative pathways rather than mere game overs. But there was only so much they could do in even that respect, given the constraints under which they labored.

Of course, licensed games exist first and foremost because licenses sell games, not because they lead to better ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade became the cinematic blockbuster of the year upon its release in May of 1989, and the game also did extremely well when it hit stores a few weeks later. Having taken this first step into the territory of Lucasfilm’s biggest franchises and been so amply rewarded for it, the people at the games division naturally wanted to keep the good times going. There were likely to be no more Indiana Jones movies; Harrison Ford, the series’s famously prickly star, was publicly declaring himself to be through with playing the character. But did that necessarily mean that there couldn’t be more Indiana Jones games? With the license now free and clear for their use, no one at Lucasfilm Games saw any reason to assume so.


It was at this juncture that Hal Barwood entered the picture, interested in trying a new career in games on for size. Just about any developer in the industry would have jumped at the chance to bring someone like him aboard. Talk of a merger of games with cinema to create a whole new genre of mass-media entertainment — the interactive movie, preferably published on CD-ROM complete with voice acting and perhaps even real-world video footage — dominated games-industry conferences and magazine editorials alike as the 1990s began. But for all their grandiose talk, the game developers clustered in Northern California were all too aware that they lacked the artistic respectability necessary to tempt most of those working with traditional film and video in the southern part of the state into working with them on interactive projects. Hal Barwood might have been no more than a mid-tier Hollywood player at best, but suffice to say that there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of other Hollywood veterans of any stripe who were willing to work on games.

In an online CompuServe conference involving many prominent adventure-game designers that was held on August 24, 1990, not long after Barwood’s arrival at Lucasfilm Games, Noah Falstein could hardly keep himself from openly taunting his competitors about what he had and they didn’t:

One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.

Falstein was in a position to learn so much from Barwood because he had been assigned to work with him as his design partner on his first project — the idea being that Barwood would take care of all the “basic” cinematic techniques Falstein enthuses about above, while Falstein would keep the project on track and make sure it worked as a playable adventure game, with soluble puzzles and all the rest.

Ironically given what Raiders of the Lost Ark had done to Dragonslayer, Hal Barwood’s one big chance to become a truly major Hollywood player, the game in question was to be another Indiana Jones game — albeit one with an original story, not bound to any movie. The initial plan had been to sift through the pile of rejected scripts for the third Indiana Jones film and select a likely candidate from them for adaptation into a game. But it turned out that the scripts were all pretty bad, or at least not terribly suitable for interactive adaptation.

The Azores is one of the many exotic locations Indy visits in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, all of which are brought to life with aplomb by Lucasfilm Games’s accomplished art team.

So, Barwood and Falstein decided to invent their own story, and thus went looking for legends of lost civilizations that might be worthy of an intrepid archeologist who had already found the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. “George [Lucas] has established a criterion for Indiana Jones adventures,” said Barwood, “and it’s basically that he should only find things that actually existed — or at least could have existed.” The fabled sunken island of Atlantis seemed the right mixture of myth and history. Barwood:

Our eyes fell upon Atlantis because not only is it an ancient myth known by almost everyone, but it also has wonderful credentials, in that it was first mentioned by Plato a couple thousand years ago. In addition to that, in the early part of this century, the idea was taken over by spiritualists and mystics, who attributed to the Atlanteans this fantastic technology, with airships flying 100 milers per hour, powered by vrill and firestone. When we found this out, we thought to ourselves, “Does this sound as interesting as the Holy Grail? Yes, it does.” Even though it’s a myth, the myth is grounded in a wonderful collection of lore.

The legend’s wide-ranging wellsprings would allow them to send Indy traipsing between exotic locations scattered over much of the world: New York City, Iceland, Guatemala, the Azores, Algiers, Monte Carlo, Crete, Santorini, finally ending up under the ocean at the site of Atlantis itself.

The game known as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis hits all the notes familiar to anyone who has seen an Indiana Jones film. It seems that the mythical Atlanteans were quite a clever lot, having harnessed energies inconceivable to modern scientists. The Nazis have gotten wind of this, and are fast piecing together the clues that will let them find the undersea site of Atlantis, enter it, and take the technology for themselves, thereby to conquer the world. It’s a fine premise for a globetrotting story of thrills and spills — silly but no more silly than any of those that got made into movies. There’s even a female sparring partner/love interest for Indy, just like in the films. This time her name is Sophia, and she’s a former archaeologist who’s become a professional psychic, much to the scientific-minded Indy’s dismay. Let the battle of barbs begin!

Barwood’s first interactive script really is a good one, with deftly drawn plot beats and characters that, if not exactly deep, nobly fulfill their genre-story purposes as engines of action, tension, or comic relief. Other game writers of the early 1990s weren’t always or even usually all that adept at such basic techniques of fiction as “pacing, tension, and character.” To see how painful a game can be that wants to be like the Indiana Jones movies but lacks the writers to pull it off, one need look no further than Dynamix’s Heart of China, with its humor that lands with the most leaden of thuds, its hero who wants to be a charming rogue but misplaced his charm, and its dull supporting characters who are little more than crude ethnic stereotypes. When you play Fate of Atlantis, by contrast, you feel yourself to be in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The game is full of callbacks to the movies’ most famous catchphrases.

That said, the degree to which Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is truly cinematic can be and too often is overstated. Games are not movies — an obvious point that game developers of the early 1990s frequently lost sight of in their rush to make their interactive movies. Hal Barwood, the Hollywood veteran brought into Lucasfilm Games to apply his cinematic expertise, was ironically far more aware of this fact than were many other game designers who lacked his experience in the medium they were all so eager to ape. Speaking to the science-fiction writer and frequent games-industry commentator Orson Scott Card in 1990, Barwood made some telling observations:

“The companies making animated games keep talking as if games resembled movies,” he [Barwood] said. “But they don’t resemble movies all that much.”

He granted some resemblances, of course, especially with animated film. The dependence on artists; the trickle rate of production, where you’re producing the game or film at the rate of only minutes, or even seconds, of usable footage a day; and the dominant role of the editing process.

Still, though, when it comes to the art of composing a game, inventing it, he said, “What it really resembles is theater. Plays.”

Why? Because as with a play, you have only a few settings you can work with, and they can usually be viewed from only a single angle and at the same distance. You can’t do any meaningful work with closeups (to design and program genuine realistic facial expressions just isn’t worth the huge investment in time and disk space). It’s so hard to make actions clear that you must either rely on dialogue, like most plays, or show only the simplest, most obvious actions.

In movies, it’s just the opposite. You control the pace and rhythm of film by cutting and shifting the action from place to place. The camera never gazes at any one thing for long.

The computer games of this era which most clearly did understand the kinetic language of cinema — the language of a roving camera and a keen-eyed editor — weren’t any of the avowed interactive movies that were being presented in the form of plot- and dialog-heavy adventure games, but rather the comparatively minimalist action games Prince of Persia and Another World, both essentially one-man productions that employed few to no words. Both of these games were aesthetically masterful, but somewhat more problematic in terms of providing their players with interesting forms of interactivity, thus inadvertently illustrating some of the drawbacks of fetishizing movies as the ideal aesthetic model for games.

All the other people who thought they were making interactive movies were “filming” their productions the way only the very earliest movie directors had filmed, before a proper language of film had been created: through a single static “camera.” The end results were anything but cinematic in the way a fellow like Hal Barwood, steeped throughout his life in the language of film, understood that term. His long experience in film-making allowed him to see the essential fact that games were not movies. They might borrow the occasional technique from cinema, but games were a medium — or, perhaps better stated, a matrix of mediums, only one of which was the point-and-click adventure game — with their own unique sets of aesthetic affordances. Countless game developers seemed to be using the term “interactive movie” to designate any game that had a lot of story, but the qualities of being cinematic and being narrative-oriented were really orthogonal to one another.

As in the first Indiana Jones movie, a Nazi submarine features prominently in Fate of Atlantis.

In later years, Hal Barwood would describe a narrative-driven game as more akin to a vintage Russian novel than a movie, a “continuous experience in a fictional world”: something the player lives with over a period of days or weeks, working through it at her own pace, mulling it over even when she isn’t actively sitting in front of the computer. The control or lack thereof of pacing is a critical distinction: a game which leaves any reasonable scope of agency to its player must necessarily cede much or all of the control of pacing to her. And yet pacing is absolutely key to the final effect of any movie, so much so that the director may very well spend months in the editing room after all the shooting is done, trying to get the pacing just right. The game designer doesn’t have anything like the same measure of direct control over the player’s experience, and so must deliver a very different sort of fiction.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis works because it understands these differences in media. It plays with the settings, characters, and themes of the Indiana Jones movies to fine effect, but never forgets that it’s an adventure game. The driving mechanic of an adventure game — the solving of intellectual puzzles — is quite distinct from that which drives the movies, and the plot points must be adapted to match. Can you imagine the cinematic Indy sticking wads of chewing gum to the soles of his shoes so as to climb up a coal chute? Or using a bathroom plunger as a handy replacement for a missing control lever inside a Nazi submarine? Puzzles of this nature inevitably make Indy himself into a rather different sort of personality — one a little less cool and collected, a little more prone to be the butt of the joke rather than the source of it. It’s clear from the very opening scenes of Fate of Atlantis, an innovative interactive credits sequence in which poor Indy must endure pratfall after pratfall, that this isn’t quite the same character we thrilled to in the movies. Harrison Ford would have walked out if asked to play a series of scenes like these.

This phenomenon, which we might called the Guybrush Threepwoodization of the hero, is very common in adventure games adapted from other media, given that the point-and-click adventure game as a medium wants always to collapse back into comedy as its default setting. (See, for example, the Neuromancer game, which similarly turns the cool cat Case from its source novel into a put-upon loser, and winds up becoming a pretty great game in the process.) Barwood and Falstein as well decided that Indiana Jones must adapt to the adventure-game genre rather than the adventure-game genre adapting to Indiana Jones. This was most definitely the right approach to take, and is the overarching reason why this game succeeds when so many other interactive adaptations fail.

The one place where the otherwise traditionalist Fate of Atlantis clearly does try to do something new has nothing directly to do with its source material. It rather takes the form of three possible narrative through lines, depending on the player’s individual predilections. After playing through the introductory stages of the game, you’re given a choice between a “Team” path, where Indy and Sophia travel together and cooperate to solve problems; a “Wits” path, where Indy travels largely alone and solves problems using his noggin; and a “Fists” path, where Indy travels alone and solves some though by no means all of his problems using more, shall we say, active measures, which translate into little action-oriented minigames for the player. The last is seemingly the closest to the spirit of the films, but is, tellingly, almost universally agreed to be the least interesting way to play the game.

The Team path, like all of them, has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to have Sophia around to help out with things — until she falls down a pit and needs your help getting out.

Although the message would get a little muddled once the game reached stores — “three games in one!” was a tagline few marketers could resist — Barwood and Falstein’s primary motivation in making these separate paths wasn’t to create a more replayable game, but rather a more accessible one. Lucasfilm Games always placed great emphasis on giving their players a positive, non-frustrating experience. Different players would prefer to play in different ways, Barwood and Falstein reasoned, and their game should adapt to that. “Socially-oriented” players — possibly including the female players they were always hoping to reach — would enjoy the Team path with its constant banter and pronounced romantic tension between Indy and Sophia; the stereotypically hardcore, cerebral adventure gamers would enjoy the Wits path; those who just wanted to get through the story and check out all the exotic destinations could go for the Fists path.

Falstein liked to call Fate of Atlantis a “self-tuning game.” In this spirit, until very late in development the branching pathways were presented not as an explicit choice but rather as a more subtle in-game personality test. Early on, Indy needs to get into a theater even though he doesn’t have a ticket. There are three ways to accomplish this: talking his way past the guard at the door; puzzling his way through a maze of boxes to find a hidden fire-escape ladder; or simply sucker-punching the guard. Thus would the player’s predilections be determined. In the interest of transparency and as a sop to replayability, however, the personality test wound up being replaced by a simple menu for choosing your pathway.

The first substantial interactive scene in the game, taking place outside and inside a theater in New York City where Indy’s adventuring partner-to-be Sophia is giving a lecture, was intended to function as a personality test of sorts, determining whether the player was sent down the Team, Wits, or Fists path. In the end, though, its finding were softened to a mere recommendation preceding an explicit choice of paths which is offered to the player at its conclusion.

The idea of multiple pathways turned out not to be as compelling in practice as in theory. Most players did take it more as an invitation to play the game three times than an opportunity to play it once their way, and were disappointed to discover that the branching pathways encompass only about 60 percent of the game as a whole; the first 10 percent or so, as well as the lengthy climax, are the same no matter which pathway you choose. Nor are the Team and Wits pathways different enough from one another to give the game all that much of a different flavor; they both ultimately come down to solving a series of logic puzzles. The designers’ time would probably have been better spent making one pathway through the game that combined elements of the Team and Wits pathways. Lucasfilm Games never tried anything similar again. The branching pathways were an experiment, and in that sense at least they served their purpose.

A substantial but by no means enormous game, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis nevertheless spent some two years in development, a lengthy span of time indeed by the standards of the early 1990s, being at least three times as long as it had taken to make the Last Crusade game. The protracted development cycle wasn’t a symptom of acrimony, lack of focus, or disorganization, as such things so often tend to be. It was rather a byproduct of the three pathways and, most of all, of Lucasfilm Games’s steadfast commitment to getting everything right, prioritizing quality and polish over release dates in that way that always set them apart from the majority of their peers.

Shortly before the belated release of Fate of Atlantis in the summer of 1992, Lucasfilm Games became LucasArts. The slicker, less subservient appellation was a sign of their rising status within the hierarchy of their parent company, as their games sold in bigger quantities and became a substantial revenue stream in their own right, less and less dwarfed by the money that could be made in movies. Those changing circumstances would prove a not-unmixed blessing for them, forcing them to move out of the rustic environs of Skywalker Ranch and shed much of the personality of a quirky artists’ collective for that of a more hard-nosed media enterprise. On the other hand, at least they’d finally get to make Star Wars games…

But that’s an article for another day. I should conclude this one by noting that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis2 was greeted with superlative reviews and equally strong sales; even Steven Spielberg, who unlike his friend George Lucas was a big fan of games, played through it and reportedly enjoyed it very much. A year after the original floppy-disk-based release, LucasArts made a “talkie” version for CD-ROM. Getting Harrison Ford to play Indiana Jones was, as you might imagine, out of the question, but they found a credible soundalike, and handled the voice acting as a whole with their usual commitment to quality, recruiting professional voice talent in Hollywood and recording them in the state-of-the-art facilities of Skywalker Sound.

While hard sales numbers for LucasArts’s adventure games have never surfaced to my knowledge, Noah Falstein claims that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis sold the most of all of them — a claim I can easily imagine to be correct, given its rapturous critical reception and the intrinsic appeal of its license. Today, it tends to be placed just half a step down from the most-loved of the LucasArts adventures, lacking perhaps some of the manic inspiration of the studio’s completely original creations. Nonetheless, it’s a fine, fine game, well worth playing through twice or thrice — at least its middle section, where the pathways diverge — to experience all it has to offer. This game adapted from a movie franchise, which succeeds by not trying to be a movie, marked a fine start for Hal Barwood’s new career.

(Sources: the books The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski and Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; LucasArts’s Adventurer magazine of Fall 1991, Spring 1992, and Spring 1993; Starlog of July 1981, September 1981, August 1982, May 1985, September 1985, November 1985, December 1985, and February 1988; Amiga Format of February 1992; Compute! of February 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1992; CU Amiga of June 1992; Electronic Games of October 1992; MacWorld of June 1989; Next Generation of October 1998; PC Review of September 1992; PC Zone of January 2000; Questbusters of September 1992; Zero of August 1991 and March 1992. Online sources include Arcade Attack‘s interviews with Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood; Noah Falstein’s Reddit AMA; MCV‘s articles on “The Early Days of LucasArts”; Noah Falstein’s presentation on LucasArts at Øredev 2017.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is available for purchase on GOG.com.)


  1. An Action Game was also published under the auspices of Lucasfilm Games, but its development was outsourced to a British house. 

  2. Once again, there was also a Fate of Atlantis action game, made in Britain with a particular eye to the 8-bit machines in Europe which couldn’t run the adventure game. And once again, it garnered little attention in comparison to its big brother.