I’m trying to get through a big chunk of game before I write my next major update, but I’ve got a small “feature” to report on that is mind-boggling on its own.
I mapped the original Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth on a spreadsheet, as they followed the same pattern as many RPGs of a regular grid; possibly with some teleports or other sneakiness, but a grid nonetheless.
That doesn’t hold for this game. The above picture is entirely wrong. The real map (at least for the starting area) is something like:
So you have five “inward” doors and two “outward” doors in every hall, but even though it appears you are turning 90 degrees to go around halls, you’re turning 72 degrees instead. The real map is a pentagon.
This is one of those times I am intensely irritated by a feature but simultaneously in awe of the chutzpah. The game is essentially lying to the player.
This would have been faster to spot but trying to drop items in a hall causes a janitor to appear and scoop them up. I admit for a long time I assumed I was simply being prey to some teleporter shenanigans (probably I still am — I’m guessing “behind the scenes” in the code there’s still a grid somehow — but it still all comes out functionally to a pentagon).
The only reason this is marginally fair is due to the low-res nature of the graphics; it would essentially be impossible on a modern system (although in a “node” system like Myst you might get close). I am still curious, though, if anyone has been in a pentagonal building before, and if it was possible to “feel” like the turns were at right angles even if they weren’t.
Once upon a time, two wizards decided to remake the face of computer gaming with the help of a new form of magic known as CD-ROM. They labored for years on their task, while the people waited anxiously, pouncing upon the merest hint the wizards let drop of what the final product would look like.
At long last — well after the two wizards themselves had hoped — the day of revelation came. Everyone, including both the everyday people and the enlightened scribes who kept them informed on the latest games, rushed to play this one, which they had been promised would be the best one ever. And at first, all went as the wizards had confidently expected. The scribes wrote rapturously about the game, and hordes of people bought it, making the wizards very rich.
But then one day a middle-aged woman, taking a break from reckoning household accounts by playing the wizards’ game, said to her husband, “You know, honey, this game is really kind of slow and boring.” And in time, a murmur of discontent spread through many ranks of the people, gaining strength all the while. The cry was amplified by a disheveled young man with a demon of some sort on his tee-shirt and a fevered look in his eyes: “That’s what I’ve been saying all along! The wizards’ game sucks! Play this one instead!” And he hunched back down over his computer to continue playing his very different sort of game, muttering something about “gibs” and “frags” as he did so.
The two wizards were disturbed by this growing discontent, but resolved to win the people over with a new game that would be just like their old one, except even more beautiful. They worked on it too for years to make it as amazing as possible. Yet when they offered it to the people, exponentially fewer of them bought it than had bought their first game, and their critics grew still louder and more strident. They tried yet one more new game of the same type, yet more beautiful, but by now the people had lost interest entirely; few could even be bothered to criticize it. The wizards started bickering with each other, each blaming the other for their failures.
One of the wizards, convinced he could do better by himself, went away to make still more games of the same type, but the people remained stubbornly uninterested; he finally gave up and found another occupation. From time to time, he tries again to see if the people want another game like the one they seemed to love so much on that one occasion long ago, but he is invariably disappointed.
The other wizard — perhaps the wiser of the two — said, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He joined the guild that included the violent adolescent with the demon on his shirt, and enjoyed a return to fortune if not fame.
Such is the story of Trilobyte Games in a nutshell. Today, we remember 1993 as the year that Cyan Productions and id Software came to the fore with Myst and Doom, those two radically different would-be blueprints for gaming’s future. But we tend to forget that the most hyped company and game of the year were in fact neither of those pairings: they were rather Trilobyte and their game The 7th Guest. Echoing the conventional wisdom of the time, Bill Gates called The 7th Guest “the future of multimedia,” and some even compared Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros, the two “wizards” who had founded Trilobyte together, to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Sadly for the wizards, however, The 7th Guest had none of the timeless qualities of the Beatles’ music; it was as of its own time as hula hoops, love beads, or polyester leisure suits were of theirs.
Unlike their alter egos in the Beatles, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros grew up in vastly different environments, separated not only by an ocean but by the equally enormous gulf of seventeen years.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, Devine was one of the army of teenage bedroom coders who built the British games industry from behind the keyboards of their Sinclair Spectrums. His first published work was actually a programming utility rather than a game, released as part of a more complete Speccy programmer’s toolkit by a company known as Softek in the spring of 1983. But it was followed by his shoot-em-up Firebirds just a few months later. That game’s smooth scrolling and slick presentation won him a reputation. Thus one day the following year the phone rang at his family’s home; a representative from Atari was on the line, asking if he would be free to port their standup-arcade and console hit Pole Position to the Spectrum.
Over the next several years, Devine continued to port games from American publishers to the Europe-centric Spectrum, while also making more original games of his own: Xcel (1985), Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1986), Metropolis (1987). His originals tended to be a bit half-baked once you really dove in, but their technical innovations were usually enough to sustain them, considering that most of them only cost a few quid. Metropolis, the first game Devine programmed for MS-DOS machines, provides a prime example of both his technical flair and complete lack of detail orientation. A sort of interactive murder mystery taking place in a city of robots, sharing only a certain visual sensibility with the Fritz Lang film classic of the same name, it includes almost-decipherable “voice acting” for its characters, implemented without the luxury of a sound card, being played entirely through the early IBM PC beeper. The game itself, on the other hand, is literally unfinished; it breaks halfway through its advertised ten cases. Perhaps Devine decided that, given that he included no system for saving his rather time-consuming game, no one would ever get that far anyway.
Metropolis was published through the British budget label Mastertronic, whose founder Martin Alper was a force of nature, famous as a cultivator of erratic young talent like Devine. Alper sold Mastertronic to Richard Branson’s Virgin Media empire just after Metropolis was released, and soon after that absconded to Southern California to oversee the newly formed American branch of Virgin Games. On a routine visit back to the Virgin mother ship in London in 1988, he dropped in on Devine, only to find him mired in a dark depression; it seemed his first serious girlfriend had just left him. “England obviously isn’t treating you well,” said Alper. “Why don’t you come with me to California?” Just like that, the 22-year-old Devine became the head of Virgin Games’s American research and development. It was in that role that he met Rob Landeros the following year.
Landeros’s origin story was about as different from Devine’s as could be imagined. Born in 1949 in Redlands, California, he had lived the life of an itinerant bohemian artist. After drifting through art school, he spent much of the 1970s in hippie communes, earning his keep by drawing underground comic books and engraving tourist trinkets. By the early 1980s, he had gotten married and settled down somewhat, and found himself fascinated by the burgeoning potential of the personal computer. He bought himself a Commodore 64, learned how to program it in BASIC, and even contributed a simple card game to the magazine Compute!’s Gazette in the form of a type-in listing.
But he remained a computer hobbyist only until the day in early 1986 that an artist friend of his by the name of Jim Sachs showed him his new Commodore Amiga. Immediately struck by the artistic possibilities inherent in the world’s first true multimedia personal computer, Landeros worked under Sachs to help illustrate Defender of the Crown, the first Amiga game from a new company called Cinemaware. After that project, Sachs elected not to stay on with Cinemaware, but instead recommended Landeros for the role of the company’s art director. Landeros filled that post for the next few years, illustrating more high-concept “interactive movies” which could hardly have been more different on the surface from Devine’s quick-and-dirty budget games — but which nevertheless tended to evince some of the same problems when it came to the question of their actual gameplay.
Whatever its flaws in that department, Martin Alper over at Virgin was convinced that the Cinemaware catalog was an early proof of concept for gaming’s future. As Cinemaware founder Bob Jacob and many others inside and outside his company well recognized, their efforts were hobbled by the need to rely on cramped, slow floppy disks to store all of their audiovisual assets and stream them into memory during play. But with CD-ROM on the horizon for MS-DOS computers, along with new graphics and sound cards that would make the platform even more audiovisually capable than the Amiga, that could soon be a restriction of the past. Alper asked Devine to interview Landeros for the role of Virgin’s art director.
Landeros was feeling “underappreciated and underpaid” at Cinemaware, as he puts it, so he was very receptive to such an offer. When he called Devine back after hearing the message the latter had left on his answering machine, he found the younger man in an ebullient mood. He had just gotten engaged to be married, Devine explained, to a real California girl — surely every cloistered British programmer’s wildest fantasy. Charmed by the lad’s energy and enthusiasm, Landeros let himself be talked into a job. And indeed, Devine and Landeros quickly found that they got on like a house on fire.
Tall and skinny and bespectacled, with unkempt long hair flying everywhere, Devine alternated the euphoria with which he had first greeted Landeros with bouts of depression such as the one Martin Alper had once found him mired in. Landeros was calmer, more grounded, as befit his age, but still had a subversive edge of his own. When you first met him, he had almost a patrician air — but when he turned around for the first time, you noticed a small ponytail snaking down his back. While Devine was, like so many hackers, used to coding for days or weeks on end, sometimes to the detriment of his health and psychological well-being, Landeros needed a very good reason indeed to give up his weekend motorcycle tours. Devine was hugely impressed by Landeros’s tales of his free-spirited life, as he was by the piles of self-inked comic books lying about his home; Landeros was repeatedly amazed simply at the things Devine could make computers do. The two men complemented each other — perhaps were even personally good for one another in some way that transcends job and career.
Their work at Virgin, however, wasn’t always the most exciting. The CD-ROM revolution proved late in arriving; in the meantime, the business of making games continued pretty much as usual. In between his other duties, Devine made Spot, an abstract strategy game which betrayed a large debt to the ancient Japanese board game of Go whilst also serving as an advertisement for the soft drink 7 Up; if not quite a classic, it did show more focus than his earlier efforts. Meanwhile Landeros did the art for a very Cinemaware-like cross-genre concoction called Spirit of Excalibur. In his spare time, he also helped his friend and fellow Cinemaware alumnus Peter Oliphant with a unique word-puzzle/game-show hybrid called Lexi-Cross. (Rejected by Alper because “game shows need a license in order to sell,” it was finally accepted by Interplay after that company’s head Brian Fargo brought a copy home to his wife and she couldn’t stop playing it. Nonetheless, it sold hardly at all, just as Alper had predicted.)
Devine and Landeros were itching to work with CD-ROM, but everywhere they went they were told that the market just wasn’t there yet. As they saw it, no one was buying CD-ROM drives because no one was making compelling enough software products for the new medium. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a marketplace Gordian knot which someone had to break. Accordingly, they decided to put together their own proposal for a showpiece CD-ROM game. Both were entranced by Twin Peaks, the darkly quirky murder-mystery television series by David Lynch, which had premiered in the spring of 1990 and promptly become an unlikely mass-media sensation. Sitting in the airport together one day, they overheard the people around them debating the question of the year: who killed Laura Palmer?
Imagine a game that can fascinate in the same way, mused Devine. And so they started to brainstorm. They pictured a game, perhaps a bit like the board game Clue — tellingly, the details of the gameplay were vague in their minds right from the start — that might make use of a Twin Peaks license if such a thing was possible, but would go for that sort of vibe regardless. Most importantly, it would pull out all the stops to show what CD-ROM — and only CD-ROM — could do; there would be no floppy version. Indeed, the project would be thoroughly uncompromising in all of its hardware requirements, freeing it from the draconian restrictions that came with catering to the lowest common denominator. It would require one of a new generation of so-called “Super” VGA graphics cards, which would let it push past the grainy resolution of 320 X 200, still the almost universal standard in games, to a much sharper 640 X 480.
To keep the development complications from spiraling completely out of control, it could take place in a haunted house that had a group of people trapped inside, being killed one by one. Sure, Agatha Christie had done it before, but this would be different. Creepier. Darker. A ghost story as well as a mystery, all served up with a strong twist of David Lynch. “Who killed Laura Palmer? Who killed Laura Palmer? We wanted to create that sort of intrigue,” remembers Landeros.
When they broached the possibility of a Twin Peaks game with Alper, he was definitive on one point: there wasn’t enough room in his budget to acquire a license to one of the hottest media properties in the country. They should therefore focus their thinking on a Twin Peaks-like game, not the real thing. Otherwise, he was noncommittal. “Give me a detailed written proposal, and we’ll see,” he said.
At this point in our story, it would behoove us to know something more of Martin Alper the man, a towering figure whose shadow loomed large over all of Virgin Games. A painter and sculptor of some talent during his free time, Alper was also an insatiable culture vulture, reading very nearly a novel per day and seeing several films per week. His prodigious consumption left no space for games. “I’ve never played any game,” he liked to boast. “What interests me is the cultural progress that games can generate. I’m looking to make a difference in society.” He liked to think of himself as a 1990s incarnation of Orson Welles, nudging his own group of Mercury Players into whole new fields of creative expression. When Devine and Landeros’s detailed proposal landed on his desk in November of 1990, full of ambition to harness the current zeitgeist in the service of a new medium, it hit him right where he lived. Even the proposed budget of $300,000 — two to three times that of the typical Virgin game — put him off not at all.
So, he invited Devine and Landeros to a lunch which has since gone down in gaming lore. After the niceties had been dispensed with, he told the two bluntly that they had “no future at Virgin Games.” He enjoyed their shock for a while — a certain flair for drama was also among his character traits — then elaborated. “Your idea is too big to be developed here. If you stayed here, you’d quickly overrun our offices. I can’t afford to let you do that. Other games have to be made here as well.”
“What do you suggest?” ventured Devine.
And so Alper laid out his grand plan. They should start their own studio, which Virgin Games would finance. They could work where they liked and hire whomever they liked, as long as the cost didn’t become too outrageous and as long as they stayed within 90 minutes of Virgin’s headquarters, so that Alper and David Bishop, the producer he planned to assign to them, could keep tabs on their progress. And they would have to plan for the eventuality of a floppy-disk release as well, if, as seemed likely, CD-ROM hadn’t yet caught on to a sufficient degree with consumers by the following Christmas, the game’s proposed release date. They were simple requirements, not to mention generous beyond Devine and Landeros’s wildest dreams. Nevertheless, they would fail to meet them rather comprehensively.
In the course of his hippie wanderings, Landeros had fallen in love with the southern part of Oregon. After the meeting with Alper, he suggested to Devine that they consider setting up shop there, where the biking and motorcycling were tremendous, the scenery was beautiful, the people were mellow, and the cost of living was low. When Devine protested that one certainly couldn’t drive there from Virgin’s offices within 90 minutes, Landeros just winked back. Alper hadn’t actually specified a mode of transportation, he noted. And one could just about fly there in an hour and a half.
On December 5, 1990, the pair came for the first time to Jacksonville, Oregon, a town of just 2000 inhabitants. It so happened that the lighting of the town Christmas tree was taking place that day. All of the people had come out for the occasion, dressed in Santa suits and Victorian costumes, caroling and roasting chestnuts. Just at sunset, snow started to fall. Devine, the British city boy far from home, looked around with shining eyes at this latest evolution of his American dream. Oregon it must be.
So, during that same visit, they signed a lease on a small office above a tavern in an 1884-vintage building — wood floors, a chandelier on the ceiling, even a fireplace. They hired Diane Moses, a waitress from the tavern below, to serve as their office manager. Then they went back south to face the music.
Alper was less than pleased at first that they had so blatantly ignored his instructions, but they played up the cheap cost of living and complete lack of distractions in the area until he grudgingly acquiesced. The men’s wives were an even tougher sell, especially when they all returned to Jacksonville together in January and found a very different scene: a bitter cold snap had caused pipes to burst all over town, flooding the streets with water that had now turned to treacherous ice, making a veritable deathtrap of the sidewalk leading up to their new office’s entrance. But the die was now cast, for better or for worse.
The studio which Devine and Landeros had chosen to name Trilobyte officially opened for business on February 1, 1991. The friends found that working above a tavern had its attractions after a long day — and sometimes even in the middle of one. “It’s fun to watch the fights spill out onto the street,” said Devine to a curious local newspaper reporter.
The first pressing order of business was to secure a script for a game that was still in reality little more than a vague aspiration. Landeros had already made contact over the GEnie online service with Matthew Costello, a horror novelist, gaming journalist, and sometime tabletop-game designer. He provided Trilobyte with a 100-page script for something he called simply Guest. Graeme Devine:
We presented the basic story to Matt, and he made it into a larger story, built the characters and the script. He created it out of what was really just a sketch. We were anxious that the [setting] be very, very closed. One that would work as a computer environment. That’s what he gave us.
The script took place within a single deserted mansion, and did all of its storytelling through ghostly visions which the player would bump into from time to time, and which could be easily conveyed through conveniently non-interactive video snippets. Like so many computer games, in other words, Guest would be more backstory than story.
Said backstory takes place in 1935, and hinges on a mysterious toy maker named Henry Stauf — the anagram of Faust is intentional — who makes and sells a series of dolls which cause all of the children who play with them to sicken and die. When the people of his town figure out the common thread that connects their dead children, they come for him with blood in their eyes. He barricades himself in his mansion to escape their wrath — but sometime shortly thereafter he lures six guests into spending a night in the mansion, with a promise of riches for those who survive. Falling victim either to Stauf’s evil influence or their own paranoia, or both, the six guests all manage to kill one another, Agatha Christie-style, over the course of the night, all without ever meeting Stauf himself in the flesh. But there is also a seventh, uninvited guest, a street kid named Tad who sneaks in and witnesses all of the horror, only to have his own soul trapped inside the mansion. It becomes clear only very slowly over the course of the game that the player is Tad’s spirit, obsessively recapitulating the events of that night of long ago, looking for an escape from his psychic prison in the long-deserted mansion.
The only thing missing from Costello’s script was any clear indication of what the player would be expected to do in the course of it all. Trilobyte planned to gate progress with “challenges to the player’s intellect and curiosity. Our list of things to avoid includes: impossible riddles, text parsers, inventories, character attribute points, sword fights, trolls, etc. All actions are accomplished via mouse only. Game rules will either be self-explanatory or simple enough to discover with minimal experimentation.” It sounded good in the abstract, but it certainly wasn’t very specific. Trilobyte wouldn’t seriously turn to the game part of their game for a long, long time to come.
The question of Guest‘s technical implementation was almost as unsettled, but much more pressing. Devine and Landeros first imagined showing digitized photographs of a real environment. Accordingly, they negotiated access to Jacksonville’s Nunan House, a palatial three-story, sixteen-room example of the Queen Anne style, built by a local mining magnate in 1892. But, while the house was fine, the technology just wouldn’t come together. Devine had his heart set on an immersive environment where you could see yourself actually moving through the house. Despite all his technical wizardry, he couldn’t figure out how to create such an effect from a collection of still photographs.
A breakthrough arrived when Devine and Landeros shared their woes with a former colleague from Virgin, an artist named Robert Stein. Stein had been playing for several months with 3D Studio, a new software package from a company known as Autodesk which let one build and render 3D scenes and animations. It was still an awkward tool in many ways, lagging behind similar packages for the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh. Nonetheless, a sufficiently talented artist could do remarkable things with it, and it had the advantage of running on the MS-DOS computers on which Trilobyte was developing Guest. Devine and Landeros were convinced when Stein whipped up a spooky living room for them, complete with a ghostly chair that flew around of its own accord. Stein soon came to join them in Jacksonville, becoming the fourth and last inhabitant of their cozy little office.
Even using 3D Studio, Guest must fall well short of the ideal of an immersive free-scrolling environment. At the time, only a few studios — most notably Looking Glass Technologies and, to a much more limited extent, id Software of eventual Doom fame — were even experimenting with such things. The reality was that making interactive free-scrolling 3D work at all on the computer hardware of the era required drastic compromises in terms of quality — compromises which Trilobyte wasn’t willing to make. Instead they settled for a different sort of compromise, in the form of a node-based approach to movement. The player is able to stand only at certain pre-defined locations, or nodes, in the mansion. When she clicks to move to another node, a pre-rendered animation plays, showing her moving through the mansion.
Just streaming these snippets off CD fast enough to play as they should taxed Devine’s considerable programming talents to the utmost. He would later muse that he learned two principal things from the whole project: “First, CD-ROM is bloody slow. Second, CD-ROM is bloody slow.” When he could stretch his compression routines no further, he found other tricks to employ. For example, he got Landeros to agree to present the environment in a “letter-boxed” widescreen format. Doing so would give it a sense of cinematic grandeur, even as the black bars at the top and bottom of the monitor dramatically reduced the number of pixels Devine’s routines had to move around. A win win.
With the interior of the mansion slowly coming into being, the time was nigh to think about the ghostly video clips which would convey the story. Trilobyte recruited local community-theater thespians to play all the parts; with only $35,000 to spend on filming, including the camera equipment, they needed actors willing to work for almost nothing. The two-day shoot took place in a rented loft in Medford, Oregon, on a “stage” covered with green butcher paper. The starring role of Stauf went to Robert Hirschboeck, a fixture of the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which was (and is) held in nearby Ashland. Diane Moses, Trilobyte’s faithful office manager, also got a part.
Trilobyte believed, with some justification, that their game’s premise would allow them to avoid some of the visual dissonance that normally resulted from overlaying filmed actors onto computer-generated backgrounds: their particular actors represented ghosts, which meant it was acceptable for them to seem not quite of the world around them. To enhance the impression, Trilobyte added flickering effects and blurry phosphorescent trails which followed the actors’ movements.
The Chroma-Key Process
While Trilobyte built their 3D mansion and filmed their actors, the project slipped further and further behind schedule. Already by May of 1991, they had to break the news to Alper that there was no possibility of a Christmas 1991 release; Christmas 1992 might be a more realistic target. Luckily, Alper believed in what they were doing. And the delay wasn’t all bad at that; it would give consumers more time to acquire the SVGA cards and CD-ROM drives they would need to run Guest — for by now it was painfully clear that a floppy-disk version of the game just wasn’t going to happen.
In January of 1992, Devine, Landeros, and Stein flew to Chicago for the Winter Consumer Electronics Show. They intended to keep a low profile; their plan was simply to check out the competition and to show their latest progress to Alper and his colleagues. But when he saw what they had, Alper broke out in goosebumps. Cinema connoisseur that he was, he compared it to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney’s first feature film, which forever changed the way people thought about cartoon animation. What Snow White had done for film, Alper said, Guest could do for games. He decided on the spot that it needed to be seen, right there and then. So, he found a computer on the show floor that was currently demonstrating a rather yawn-inducing computerized version of Scrabble and repurposed it to show off Guest. To make up for the fact that Trilobyte’s work had no music as of yet, he put on a CD of suitably portentous Danny Elfman soundtrack extracts to accompany it.
Thanks to this ad hoc demonstration, Guest turned into one of the most talked-about games of the show. Its stunning visuals were catnip to an industry craving killer apps that could nudge reluctant consumers onto the CD-ROM bandwagon. Bill Gates hung around the demo machine like a dog close to feeding time. Virgin’s competitor Origin Systems, of Wing Commander and Ultima fame, also sat up and took notice. They highlighted Guest as the game to watch in their internal newsletter:
Here’s a tip: keep an eye out for Guest, a made-for-CD-ROM title from Oregon developer Trilobyte for Virgin Games. In it, you explore a 22-room haunted mansion, complete with elaborate staircases, elegant dining rooms, a gloomy laboratory, and see-through ghosts. The version we saw is in a very primitive stage; there’s no real story line yet and many of the rooms are only rendered in black and white. But the flowing movement and brilliant detail in a few scenes which are fleshed-out are nothing less than spectacular. Ask anybody who saw it.
None of the press or public seemed to even notice that it was far from obvious what the player was supposed to do amidst all the graphical splendor, beyond the vague notion of “exploring.” The Trilobyte trio flew back to Oregon thoroughly gratified, surer than ever that all of their instincts had been right.
Still, with publicity came expectations, and also cynicism; Bill Gates’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, a group of multimedia experts at Microsoft said publicly that what Trilobyte was proposing to do was simply impossible. Some believed the entire CES demo had been a fake.
Trilobyte remained a tiny operation: there were still only Devine, Landeros, Stein, and Moses in their digs above the tavern. Other artists, as well as famed game-soundtrack composer George “The Fat Man” Sanger, worked remotely. But Devine, who had always been a lone-wolf coder, refused to delegate any of his duties now, even when they seemed about to kill him. “I’ve never seen someone work so hard on a project,” remembers one Virgin executive. The Fat Man says that “Graeme wanted to prove everyone else a liar. He knew he was going to be able to do it.” This refusal to delegate began to cause tension with Alper and others at Virgin, especially as it gradually became clear that Trilobyte was going to miss their second Christmas deadline as well. Virgin had now sunk twice the planned $300,000 into the project, and the price tag was still climbing. Incredibly, Trilobyte’s ambitions had managed to exceed the 650 MB of storage space on a single CD, a figure that had heretofore seemed inconceivably enormous to an industry accustomed to floppy disks storing barely 1 MB each; Guest was now to ship on two CDs. Devine and Landeros agreed to work without salary to appease their increasingly impatient handlers.
Only in these last months did an already exhausted Devine and Landeros turn their full attention to the puzzles that were to turn their multimedia extravaganza into a game. Trilobyte was guided here by a simple question: “What would Mom play?” They found to their disappointment that many of the set-piece puzzles and board and card games they wanted to include were still under copyright. Their cutting-edge game would have to be full of hoary puzzles plundered from Victorian-era texts.
But at least Trilobyte could now see the light at the end of the tunnel. In January of 1993, they made a triumphant return to CES, this time with far more pomp and circumstance, to unveil the game they were now calling The 7th Guest. Alper sprang for a haunted-house mock-up in the basement of the convention hall, to which only a handpicked group of VIPs were admitted for a “private screening.” Bill Gates was once again among those who attended; he emerged a committed 7th Guest evangelist, talking it up in the press every chance he got. And why not? It blew Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, the current poster child for CD-ROM gaming, right out of the water. Sherlock‘s herky-jerky video clips, playing at a resolution of just 160 X 100, paled next to The 7th Guest‘s 3D-rendered SVGA glory.
When it was finally released in April of 1993, the reaction to The 7th Guest exceeded Virgin and Trilobyte’s fondest hopes. Virgin began with a production run of 60,000, of which they would need to sell 40,000 copies to break even on a final development budget of a little over $700,000. They were all gone within days; Virgin scrambled to make more, but would struggle for months to keep up with demand. “Believe it or not, The 7th Guest really does live up to all the hype,” wrote Video Games and Computer Entertainment magazine. “It takes computer entertainment to the next level and sets new standards for graphics and sound.” What more could anyone want?
Well, in the long run anyway, a lot more. The 7th Guest would age more like raw salmon than fine wine. Already just two and a half years after its release to glowing reviews like the one just quoted, the multimedia trade magazine InterAction was offering a much more tepid assessment:
As a first-generation CD-ROM-based experience, The 7th Guest broke new ground. It also broke a lot of rules – of course, this was before anyone knew there were any rules. The music drowns out the dialog; the audio is not mixable. The video clips, once triggered, can’t be interrupted, which in a house of puzzles and constant searching leads to frustration. How many times can you watch a ghost float down a hallway before you get bored?
Everywhere The 7th Guest evinces the telltale signs of a game that no one ever bothered to play before its release — a game the playing of which was practically irrelevant to its real goals of demonstrating the audiovisual potential of the latest personal computers. Right from the moment you boot it up, when it subjects you to a cheesy several-seconds-long sound clip you can’t click past, it tries your patience. The Ouija Board used to save and restore your session seems clever for about half a minute; after that’s it’s simply excruciating. Ditto the stately animations that sweep you through the mansion like a dancing circus elephant on Quaaludes; the video clips that bring everything to a crashing halt for a minute or more at a time; the audio clips of Stauf taunting you which are constantly freezing the puzzles you’re trying to solve. The dominant impression the game leaves you with is one of slowness: the slowness of cold molasses coming out of the jar, of a glacier creeping over the land, of the universe winding down toward its heat death. I get fidgety just thinking about it.
The puzzles that are scattered through the rooms of the mansion gate your progress, but not for any reason that is discernable within the environment. When you solve certain puzzles, the game simply starts letting you go places you couldn’t go before. In practice, this means that you’re constantly toing and froing through the mansion, looking for whatever arbitrary new place the game has now decided to let you into. And, as already noted, moving around takes forever.
The puzzles themselves were already tired in 1993. Landeros has been cheeky enough to compare The 7th Guest to The Fool’s Errand, Cliff Johnson’s classic Macintosh puzzler, but the former’s puzzles haven’t a trace of the latter’s depth, grace, wit, or originality. Playing The 7th Guest exposes a pair of creators who were, despite being unquestionably talented in other ways, peculiarly out of their depth when it came to the most basic elements of good game design.
For example, one of the puzzles, inevitably, is an extended maze, which the vast majority of players solve, assuming they do so at all, only through laborious trial and error. “The solution to the maze was on a rug in one of the bedrooms,” notes Devine. “We thought people would copy that down.” A more experienced design team would have grasped that good game design requires consistency: all of the other puzzles in the game are completely self-contained, a fact which has trained the player long before she encounters the maze not to look for clues like this one in the environment. Alternately, testers could have told the designers the same thing. The 7th Guest provides yet one more illustration of my maxim that the difference between a bad and a good one is the same as that between a game that wasn’t played before its release and one that was. “Our beta testing was, well, just us,” admits Devine.
Another infamous lowlight — easily the worst puzzle in the game in purely abstract design terms — is a shelf of lettered soup cans which you must rearrange to spell out a message. The problem is that the sentence you’re looking for makes sense only under a mustily archaic Scottish diction that vanishingly few players are likely to be familiar with.
But the worst puzzle in practical terms is actually Devine’s old abstract strategy game Spot, imported wholesale, albeit with the intelligence of your computer opponent cranked up to literally superhuman levels. It’s so difficult that even the official strategy guide throws up its hands, offering only the following clarification: “It is not necessary to beat this game to advance through The 7th Guest, and you will not be missing anything if you can’t beat it. To our knowledge, nobody has a consistent strategy to beat this game, not even Graeme!” The most serious problem here, even beyond the sheer lunacy of including a mini-game that even the programmer doesn’t know how to beat, is that the player doesn’t know that the puzzle is unnecessary. Thus she’s likely to waste hours or days on an insurmountable task, thinking all the while that it must gate access to a critical part of the plot, just like all the other puzzles. (What did I say about consistency?) Its presence is unforgivably cruel, especially in a game that advertised itself as being suitable for casual players.
None of the other puzzles are quite as bad as these, but they are samey — three of the 22 are chess puzzles, doubtless all drawn from the same Victorian book — at wild variance with one another in difficulty, and just generally dull, in addition to being implemented in ways calculated to maximize their tedium. Playing the game recently to prepare for this article, I never once felt that rush that accompanies the solution of a really clever puzzle. Working through these ones does indeed feel like work, made all the more taxing by the obstinately form-over-function interface. The best thing to be said about the puzzles is that they can all be bypassed by consulting an in-game hint book in the mansion’s library, albeit at the cost of missing the video clips that accompany their successful solutions and thus missing out on that part of the plot.
Still, one might want to argue that there is, paradoxical though it might sound, more to games than gameplay. Aesthetics have a value of their own, as does story; certainly The Seventh Guest is far from the first adventure game with a story divorced from its puzzles. In all of these areas as well, however, it’s long since curdled. The graphics, no longer able to dazzle the jaded modern eye with their technical qualities, stand revealed as having nothing else to offer. There’s just nothing really striking in the game’s visual design — no compelling aesthetic vision. The script as well manages only to demonstrate that Matthew Costello is no David Lynch. It turns out that subversive surrealistic horror is harder to pull off than it looks.
As for the actors… I hesitate to heap too much scorn on them, given that they were innocent amateurs doing their best with a dodgy script in what had to feel like a thoroughly strange performing situation. Suffice to say, then, that the acting is about as good as that description would suggest. On the other hand, it does seem that they had some fun at least some of the time by hamming it up.
Indeed, the only claim to aesthetic or dramatic merit which The 7th Guest can still make is that of camp. Even Devine acknowledges today that the game is more silly than scary. He now admits that the story is “a bit goofy” and calls the game “Scooby Doo spooky” rather than drawing comparisons to The Shining and The Haunting, as he did back in the day. Which is progress, I suppose — but then, camp is such a lazy crutch, one that far too many games try to lean upon.
“The 7th Guest just kept selling and selling,” says its producer David Bishop of the months after its release. “We’d look at the sales charts and it had incredible legs. Sales were picking up, not slowing down.” By the end of 1996, the game would sell well over 2 million copies. Trilobyte was suddenly flush with cash; they earned $5 million in royalties in the first year alone. Nintendo gave them a cool $1 million upfront for the console rights; Paul Allen came along with another $5 million in investment capital. Trilobyte moved out of their little office above the tavern into a picturesque old schoolhouse, and started hiring the staff that had been so conspicuously missing while they made their first game. Then they moved out of the schoolhouse into a 29,000-square-foot monstrosity, formerly a major bank’s data center.
The story of Trilobyte after The 7th Guest becomes that of two merely smart men who started believing that they really were the infallible geniuses they were being hyped as. “Trilobyte thought they could pick up any project and it would turn to gold,” says one former Virgin staffer. “They had huge egos and wanted to grow,” says another. Even writer Matthew Costello says that he “could see the impact the attention from The 7th Guest had on [Devine and Landeros’s] perceptions of themselves.”
Despite the pair’s heaping level of confidence and ambition, or perhaps because of it, Trilobyte never came close to matching the success of The 7th Guest. The sequel, called The 11th Hour, shipped fully two and a half years later, but nonetheless proved to be just more of the same: more dull puzzles, more terrible acting, more technically impressive but aesthetically flaccid graphics. The zeitgeist instant for this sort of thing had already passed; after a brief flurry of early sales, The 11th Hour disappeared. Other projects came and went; Trilobyte spent $800,000 on Dog Eat Dog, a “workplace-politics simulator,” before cancelling it. Meanwhile Clandestiny, another expensive game in the mold of The 7th Guest, sold less than 20,000 copies to players who had now well and truly seen that the guest had no clothes.
Rob Landeros gradually revealed himself to be a frustrated filmmaker, always a dangerous thing to have around a game-development studio. Worse, he was determined to push Trilobyte into “edgy” content, rife with adult themes and nudity, which he lacked sufficient artistic nuance to bring to life in ways that didn’t feel crass and exploitative. When Devine proved understandably uncomfortable with his direction, the two fast friends began to feud.
The two founders were soon pulling in radically different directions, with Landeros still chasing the interactive-movie unicorn as if Doom had never happened, while Devine pushed for a move into real-time 3D games like the ones everyone else was making. New Media magazine memorably described Landeros’s Tender Loving Care as “a soft-porn film with a weak plot and rancid acting” after getting a sneak preview; the very name of Devine’s Extreme Warfare sounded like a caricature of bro-gamer culture. The former project was eventually taken by an embittered Landeros to a new company he founded just to publish it, whereupon it predictably flopped; the latter never got released at all. Trilobyte was officially wound up in January of 1999. “In the end, I never outran the shadow of The 7th Guest,” wrote Devine in a final email to his staff. “Mean old Stauf casts his long and bony shadow across this valley, and Trilobyte will always be remembered for those games and none other.”
In the aftermath, Devine continued his career in the games industry as an employee rather than an entrepreneur, working on popular blockbusters like Quake III, Doom 3, and Age of Empires III. (Good things, it seems, come to him in threes.) Landeros intermittently tried to get more of his quixotic interactive movies off the ground, whilst working as a graphic designer for the Web and other mediums. He’s become the keeper of the 7th Guest flame, for whatever that is still worth. In 2019, he launched a remastered 25th anniversary edition of the game, but it was greeted with lukewarm reviews and little enthusiasm from players. It seems that even nostalgia struggles to overcome the game’s manifest deficiencies.
The temptation to compare The 7th Guest to Myst, its more long-lived successor in the role of CD-ROM showcase for the masses, is all but irresistible. One might say that The 7th Guest really was all the things that Myst was so often accused of being: shallow, unfair, a tech demo masquerading as a game. Likewise, a comparison of the two games’ respective creators does Devine and Landeros no favors. The Miller brothers of Cyan Productions, the makers of Myst, took their fame and fortune with level-headed humility. Combined with their more serious attitude toward game design as a craft, this allowed them to weather the vicissitudes of fortune — albeit not without a few bumps along the way, to be sure! — and emerge with their signature franchise still intact. Devine and Landeros, alas, cannot make the same claim.
And yet I do want to be careful about using Myst as a cudgel with which to beat The 7th Guest. Unlike so many bad games, it wasn’t made for cynical reasons. On the contrary: all indications are that Devine and Landeros made it for all the right reasons, driven by a real, earnest passion to do something important, something groundbreaking. If the results largely serve today as an illustration of why static video clips strung together, whether they were created in a 3D modeler or filmed in front of live actors, are an unstable foundation on which to build a compelling game, the fact remains that we need examples of what doesn’t work as well as what does. And if the results look appallingly amateurish today on strictly aesthetic terms, they shouldn’t obscure the importance of The 7th Guest in the history of gaming. As gaming historians Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene put it, “The 7th Guest wasn’t anywhere near the league of professional film-making, but it moved games into the same sphere — a non-gamer could look at The 7th Guest and understand it, even if they were barely impressed.”
A year before Myst took the Wintel world by storm, The 7th Guest drove the first substantial wave of CD-ROM uptake, doing more than any other single product to turn 1993 into the long-awaited Year of CD-ROM. It’s been claimed that sales of CD-ROM drives jumped by 300 percent within weeks of its release. Indeed, The 7th Guest and CD-ROM in general became virtually synonymous for a time in the minds of consumers. And the game drove sales of SVGA cards to an equal degree; The 7th Guest was in fact the very first prominent game to demand more than everyday VGA graphics. Likewise, it undoubtedly prompted many a soul to take the plunge on a whole new 80486- or Pentium-based wundercomputer. And it also prompted the sale of countless CD-quality 16-bit sound cards. Thanks to The 7th Guest‘s immense success, game designers after 1993 had a far broader technological canvas on which to paint than they had before that year. And some of the things they painted there were beautiful and rich and immersive in all the ways that The 7th Guest tried to be, but couldn’t quite manage. While I heartily and unapologetically hate it as a game, I do love the new worlds of possibility it opened.
(Sources: the books La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah, Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene, and The 7th Guest: The Official Strategy Guide by Rusel DeMaria; Computer Gaming World of December 1990, May 1991, November 1992, October 1994, November 1994, June 1995, November 1998, December 1999, and July 2004; Electronic Entertainment of June 1994 and August 1995; Game Players PC Entertainment Vol. 5 No. 5; InterActivity of February 1996; Retro Gamer 85, 108, 122, and 123; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of August 1993; Zero of May 1992; Run 1986 Special Issue; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1985 and September 1986; ZX Computing of April 1986; Home Computing Weekly of July 19 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of May 26 1983; Crash of January 1985; Computer Gamer of December 1985 and February 1986; Origin Systems’s internal newslatter Point of Origin dated January 17 1992. Online sources include Geoff Keighly’s lengthy history of Trilobyte for GameSpot, John-Gabriel Adkins’s “Two Histories of Myst,” and “Jeremiah Nunan – An Irish Success Story” at the Jacksonville Review.
I’m very pleased to announce the opening of the 2020 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction, continuing an annual tradition started by IF author Adam Cadre back in 2002. This year’s festival (coincidentally) debuts exactly twenty new interactive stories from authors working across the spectrum of text games, from Twine to Inform to Ink to Texture to Ren’Py and more.
Participants chose to place their games in either the Main Festival, where they were eligible for a Best In Show ribbon and prizes, or the Back Garden, with looser entry requirements allowing for more experimental or work-in-progress entries.
Because of the chaotic nature of 2020 so far, authors who submitted an intent to enter but were unable to get their game completed by the deadline can instead submit to the Late Harvest, a special showcase of games outside the main festival which will go live later in the year. See this post for more details.
On a personal note, the Spring Thing was one of the places I first got my feet wet as an IF author, so it’s been an honor and privilege each year to help keep it alive. The festival gets less publicity and coverage than its older cousin, the annual fall IF Comp, but has been a launching point over the last two decades for a number of influential games and gamemakers. It’s well worth checking out.
Congratulations to all this year’s authors, and a big thank you to all the prize donors. (And if you’d like to donate a prize this year, it’s not too late!) Enjoy the festival!
Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!
The blight eats the world while humans war for scraps. Will you fight, run, or lead your people to the stars? Or murderously ascend the human throne?
It’s 33% off until April 9th!
The blight eats the world while humans war for scraps. Will you fight, run, or lead your people to the stars? Or murderously ascend the human throne?
Two races clash; humans and turans–human discord versus turan magic. When the turans’ ancestors left the world to walk between stars, wild magic began returning. Now humans war to fill the vacuum, blind to the magical blight that is racing to smother the whole continent. High in their plateaus, the last turans must choose: Fight, follow their ancestors into the stars, or perish. And their fate rests on the life of a human child.
The Aegis Saga is a 280,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Charles Parkes, where your choices affect the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
- Play as a male or female human, or as an ungendered turan; gay or straight.
- Race through a hostile city on the back of a feaclaw.
- Betray the trust of a powerful shaman as he teaches you to dance time.
- Find love on the shingle beside a peaceful water garden.
- Learn about glyf and how your magic can alter or destroy you!
- See your personality change with your character development, without being locked into decisions to win stats checks.
- Reread a page you missed, or skip ahead during a second read through.
Whether you try to understand the new world of the humans, or focus on the mysteries of the blight, either way, the child holds the key to everything.
Charles developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.
Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!
Terror has struck at Franklin High School! On the very day the prom court announcement, the prom queen is kidnapped! You and the rest of the prom committee members soon find yourself trapped in the school, held hostage by the scheming kidnapper. The only way to escape is to solve puzzles, search for clues, and go along with the culprit’s twisted game…but could the villain be closer than you think?
It’s 25% off until April 9th!
The Kidnapped Prom Queen is an exciting 120,000 word interactive novel by Michael Gray, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
- Play as male or female.
- Enjoy three different pathways, each with a different culprit!
- Over twenty different puzzles to solve.
- Interact with an interesting cast of high schoolers.
- Figure out the meaning of the kidnapper’s clues.
- Suspense, mystery and secrets abound as you investigate.
- Could one of your friends be working with the culprit?
Michael developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.
I don’t normally talk about my troubles in emulation; usually, it is as mild as “of the two emulators X and Y I could use for this, X doesn’t work but Y does”.
With Asylum, I’ve had issues that bleed over to the gameplay, so it’s worth a little detail this time.
Asylum’s initial release had both a 16K and a 32K version, and using both cassette and disk. (This refers to the memory capacity of the TRS-80 it loads on — 32K means double the text and code capacity over 16K.) This, combined with … magic, I guess, led to many variant files that currently exist.
My two most reliable TRS-80 emulators (Matthew Reed’s and George Phillips’s) died on almost all of them. I had blank screens, bizarre errors, and unrecognized keyboard inputs. The only exception was ASYLUM1G.CMD — based on the 32K version — which had a different “loader” at the front but also skipped asking if I wanted to restore a save game. It meant I could save but not restore a save file.
I had one other option: a cassette file of the 16K version. I was able to save and load with this version.
This led me to the scenario where I could either
a.) Play the 16K version, with saving and loading working properly.
b.) Play the 32K version, with no game saves, but with more text.
I’m currently going with the former, since the manual claims the gameplay puzzles are the same, just the text is terser. This might seem to be the more difficult game, but the 16K version has advantages. CHARGE from Deathmaze 5000 is retained in the 32K version…
…but is cut from the 16K. So I know CHARGE is a useless red herring and I shouldn’t waste time running into walls looking for secrets.
Of course, sometimes more text is clearer. Last time I mentioned a grenade where you needed to PULL PIN FROM GRENADE. Here is the grenade’s description in the 32K version…
…and the 16K version.
Notice the PULL verb is immediately suggested by the 32K version but not the 16K version. I may just swap back to the 32K version on occasion once I have a clearer idea of my route through the game. As things currently are going, I’m dying too often to go without save files.
I’m only made a smidge of progress, so my content update is going to be short. Last time I escaped a second cell with a silver key; I found two more doors that unlocked with the key, including one with the coat and grenade from the start of the game. I was then walled by trying to get past a guard.
I had tried TIPTOE as the game had previously mentioned the verb, but ATTACK GUARD led to me being torn apart. I finally checked hints and found out that PUNCH is considered an entirely different verb! (KILL and ATTACK are mapped together, HIT and PUNCH are considered a different set.)
A brief, general principle I’ve alluded to: if two verbs are understood differently, yet might plausibly seem to a user to be the same action, the text needs to be absolutely clear about what’s going on. It may just be the two verbs should be merged; even if there is technically a difference (punching a guard doesn’t necessarily mean you aim to kill) it isn’t worth the user-end suffering. In this specific case, I imagined ATTACK as using the player character’s fists; I’m not even sure how the game interprets it otherwise since the player doesn’t have a weapon.
I’ve only had a little time to explore past the guard. I found some more locked doors (and had to laboriously try my key on each and every one), some with inmates inside. You can hear giggling from one, see an ugly face from another (both of these are behind still-locked doors).
Two rooms I could unlock and also had inmates inside. One inmate was asking for a cigarette, and when I didn’t have one, called for guards (losing me the game). The other I immediately died via shotgun.
The last thing I did was SEARCH GUARD, yielding a BRASS KEY, a UNIFORM, and CIGARETTES, so next time I should hopefully be off and running with a bigger chunk of the game.
While I polished off the TRS-80 game of this game already, I was poking at John Olsen’s later port (that he titled Frankenstein’s Legacy) and discovered a feature in the z-code version (made by William Stott) I don’t recall ever seeing in any other adventure game.
First, just to note, all the ports generally do is re-format the game’s text to seem more like a more modern text adventure, as opposed to TRS-80 minimalism.
You are on a dirt path. There is an old, rundown mansion to the north, a swamp in the distance to the east, and to the west is an overgrown cemetery.
Honestly, I think I like the original more? The effect is akin to trying to scale up an old 8-bit game into modern graphics but leaving behind jagged edges.
See also this review from SPAG:
FRANKENSTEIN’S LEGACY’s lack of graphic description is at times comic also. If you order the game to cut open a dead body, you are told “OK.” That’s it, just “OK.”
This event is fine in the TRS-80 version — the appearance of the mutilated corpse in the object list is startling, and the main text is essentially an acknowledgment rather than any kind of atmosphere building. Without the two-window setup, all that’s left is the “OK”.
Now, the new feature.
For fun (and to see how it works), I’ve also implemented a ‘bones file’ (as outlined in ex137 of DM4) to generate the ghosts of the previous 10 player characters killed in the game. This is set ‘off’ by default. To switch on the ghosts, type GHOSTS ON (or HAUNT) near the start of the game.
DM4 is the Designer’s Manual 4 for Inform, the language used to make the port. I reckon someone else must have borrowed this idea since it’s direct from the manual, but I don’t recall ever seeing it re-used — anyone?
When you die in the game, you leave behind a ghost where you died.
Edge of a swamp
You are on the edge of a swamp. There are the distant ruins of an old mill further to the east.
You can see a faint ghost, a sign in the grass and a crowbar here.
The ghost stares at you mournfully. Someone must have died near here once, long ago.
If you die multiple times (quite reasonable to happen on the quicksand and the wolf while you’re solving them) there are multiple ghosts, one for each death. I’ve seen this in puzzle games, RPGs, and even in a multiplayer shooter, but never in adventure games.
March 31 is the next meeting of the Boston Interactive Fiction Meetup, which will be conducted online.
April 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup, now also using a virtual setup for the time being.
April 18 is the next (virtual) meeting of the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup, discussing Spring Thing games.
NarraScope was originally supposed to take place May 29-31 in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, but the event has been moved to a virtual-only model, due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. You can read the official statement here.
The Oxford and London IF Meetup does not have any events currently planned. We’re looking into the possibility of an online event, perhaps where we can play some Spring Things games, but we are still working out the details.
The 2019 sub-Q Jam has announced winners of the competition, and if you haven’t already played the game, you can check them out here:
If you happen to be sitting at home looking for something to do… Spring Thing 2020 is just around the corner with new games to check out. The deadline for entries is now past, and the competition officially begins on April 2. Winners will be announced on May 3.
The BAFTA Game Awards are slated for Thursday, April 2, and winners will be announced live online. Obviously there is a wide range of categories, and also a number of intriguing nominees for Narrative.
Although GDC was postponed this year, the Independent Games Festival reformatted itself into a virtual livestream, and recognized a number of titles for excellence in various fields. The Grand Prize went to Adam Robinson-Yu’s A Short Hike, while inkle Studios’ Heaven’s Vault picked up an award for Excellence in Narrative. I reviewed Heaven’s Vault last summer, for anyone interested in learning more about it.
Presentations, Podcasts, Articles, etc
In this talk from the March London IF Meetup, Destina Connor of Tea-Powered Games gives an overview of narrative design in Japanese Role-playing Games.
And lastly, a recent article from Fraser Brown about the evolving gameplay at Failbetter, and what may be in store for the future.
Isabel J. Kim is a law student by day and a writer-artist electric hybrid by night. She’s been published in The Penn Review and her art has been covered in Hyperallergic. Find her work at isabel.kim and her on twitter at @isabeljkim
This interview was conducted over email in February of 2020
sub-Q Magazine: What’s your favourite thing about interactive fiction?
Isabel Kim: My favorite thing about interactive fiction is that it allows for stories that are weirder than a traditional linear narrative, both structurally and in subject matter. Taking the idea of “linearity” out of a story gives the writer more opportunity to explore different types of narratives and outcomes—the conclusion to the narrative doesn’t need to be fixed, and as a reader I love exploring the ways “things could have happened.” I also love that intfic isn’t just about writing the story, but about creating an experience for the player/reader.
I also really appreciate how intfic straddles the line between literature, games, and “weird internet experiences.” I fell into intfic because I took a class on digital literature while taking a different class on digital media and artwork, where we were introduced to Twine, and I appreciate that reading and writing intfic gives me the opportunity to use my digital media creating skillset.
sub-Q Magazine: As Kingmaker’s front page boldly proclaims, it’s a story about ambition. Is this a topic you’ve explored before, one that you find yourself returning to in your work, or a one-off?
Isabel Kim: A topic that I end up returning to is “desire,” and I think in that sense, ambition as a facet of desire very much interests me. Kingmaker is the bluntest application of the idea that I’ve written, because the character the reader embodies is focused on their goals to the detriment of every other aspect of their life—arguably, Kingmaker is about a backstory for a villain.
In a lot of my earlier, unpublished-and-never-going-to-be-published work, I was really interested in exploring the dynamic between characters who are blindly wanting and characters who apathetically want nothing at all. The push and pull between desire and what a person is willing to do to get what they want is something really interesting to me, and that has bled over into a lot of my work. The dichotomy between happiness and ambition is also something I think a lot about, not just in my writing but in my personal life. “What makes someone want?” and “Is what they want good for them?” are two questions I like investigating in my narratives.
sub-Q Magazine: In Kingmaker, you play the game painfully aware that your choices will make a difference, but with no clear idea (at first) which ones will make the right difference. And, of course, sacrifices must also be made… What led you to the idea of giving the player a clearly numbered set of opportunities before the effects of their choices were revealed?
Isabel Kim: I wrote Kingmaker during my first year of law school, when I was still thinking a lot about whether I had made the right choice to apply, and how the trajectory of my life was going to be different because of that choice. I had also just finished college—with a double major in English and Fine Art—and as the semester progressed, I was struggling with what felt like giving up on some of my artistic dreams in order to pursue other goals. I felt that I was on a time limit for many of my desires.
I was thinking a lot about the sacrifices that one makes in pursuit of blind ambition, and the other paths that become closed as time advances. Most of all, sitting in my apartment studying casebooks and praying that finals would be kind, I thought about how when one sets on a path, one never knows the outcome. In a semi-sarcastic sense, Kingmaker is about my personal quarter life crisis, magnified a hundred-fold.
Kingmaker functions on a few different principles. The first, that you need to keep advancing—there is never an option to give up. The second, that to win (and to read a full narrative), you need to pick a talent and drill down on it, at which point the other two talents become liabilities that you should sacrifice. The third is that the choices you get are randomized—except for the fact that your sacrificed talents are removed from the board, and that means the chance of getting SACRIFICE is higher. And the last, that winning and losing are emotionally similar outcomes, despite the fact that there is a win/lose condition. Adding a clearly numbered set of opportunities forces the reader to engage with these principles on a time limit, and use their resources based on their knowledge that their time is limited.
sub-Q Magazine: How would you fare on coronation day?
Isabel Kim: Oh, if I were the protagonist I’d definitely be the one making deals with Lovecraftian horrorterrors, exchanging my heart for the throne. That’s sort of what school is anyway, right?
sub-Q Magazine: Tell us about something that’s new! Anything exciting you’re working on? Plans for the coming year?
Isabel Kim: If you like weird digital conceptual art, I’ve got a piece coming out soon in the ICA Philadelphia’s online publication, titled ALL SHOW — it’s a riff on my Infinite Artwork Simulator(http://isabel.kim/infiniteartwork/), this time responding specifically to the Fall 2019 ICA show. I’m working on writing a novel with a friend about gravediggers, flesh-based magic, and evil anthropologists trying to resurrect a dragon. Another friend and I are resurrecting our screenprinting and social activism pop-up studio, Studio AltF4 (http://studioaltf4.com/). Also, I’m starting my third year of law school. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’m multidimensional like that.
Sharang Biswas is an artist, writer, and award-winning game designer based in New York. In addition to essays and stories for Sub Q, Sharang has written for First Person Scholar, Unwinnable, and ZAM. He’s currently working on “Honey & Hot Wax: An Anthology of Erotic Art Games”, to be published by Pelgrane Press.
Itch IO: https://astrolingus.itch.io/
DriveThru RPG: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?author=Sharang%20Biswas
This interview was conducted over email in February of 2020.
sub-Q Magazine: You’ve written interactive fiction for us before. What challenges did you face as you approached this as the first piece of a multi-part game, rather than a self-contained whole?
Sharang Biswas: One area in which I’m less practiced in as a writer is outlining. Since I mainly do shorts, I tend to have a hazy image of the whole narrative, and let my writing lead me to where the story lies. For this piece, I’ve had to become a little more disciplined in my process, and have had to plan out more in advance!
sub-Q Magazine: I love the religion in this game, and the culture that lives at the edges of it. What drove you to religion in particular, and the specific elements of the Spectrum, as you brainstormed and wrote the game?
Sharang Biswas: The idea of a priest struggling to follow the letter of the (religious) law came to me when I was doing research for Honey & Hot Wax: An Anthology of Erotic Art Games, the collection of erotic games I’m co-editing. The game I ended up designing didn’t end up using that research, but the idea kept gnawing at me, until I finally birthed it as The Book of Chroma.
More generally, I’ve always been interested in religion as a human social factor, and fascinated by religious rules, rituals, and rites. Since games can be observed through the lens or rules and rituals, the two fit together pretty naturally? I suspect this won’t be the last time I focus on religion in a game or fiction piece!
I’ve also been doing a bit of reading around colour…and when I was trying to figure out the elements of this piece’s religion, I think my current reading just crept up on me!
sub-Q Magazine: As a follow-on to that last question, what’s your favourite unusual fact about a real or fictional religion (other than this one)?
Sharang Biswas: During my grandfather’s funeral, I remember sitting at a ritual with the pandit, who was making symbolic offerings of rice cakes to my grandfather’s spirit. I remember the pandit meticulously dropping the rice cakes by twisting his hand just so, and patiently explaining to me how dropping the cakes this way was an offering to the soul, but the other way was an offering to the Gods. I was intrigued by how particular the Gods were about their offerings…
I love the fact that in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the gods desperately hunger for human belief, and how they need people as much as (or perhaps more than) humans needs them. Small Gods is still one of my favourite books.
sub-Q Magazine: If you were a guru, what colour would your robes be? Do you think your prospects for advancement would be as, uh, complicated as the narrator’s?
Sharang Biswas: Hah, no spoilers, but I probably wouldn’t rise very far in the Mandir, due to some similarities in the narrator and my own life!
Would I like to be of the Scarlet, lording it over everyone else, transmitting light and knowledge to the rest of the world through inscrutable means? Maybe…
sub-Q Magazine: I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this game in June. What other cool things do you have planned for the year?
Sharang Biswas: I’m really proud of Honey & Hot Wax, coming out this year from Pelgrane Press! My co-editor Lucian Kahn and I worked really hard on it, and we think we have a nice slate of though-provoking games made by a diverse cadre of game designers.
I also wrote my first piece of erotic interactive fiction, coming out some time in March for 10th Muse! That was pretty challenging, but I’m proud of the outcome! It’s gonna be a delightfully weird one, just saying.
I’m also writing a bunch of short game stuff for a couple of Kickstarter projects, and *GASP*, maybe launching my own KS sometime this fall?
Stephen Granade is a physicist and writer living in Huntsville, Alabama, the city with its own Saturn V rocket. He talks about interactive fiction as @Sargent on Twitter. Stephen is the author of our April game, “Binary.”
This interview was conducted over email in January 2020.
Stephen Granade: I wondered if you could create an interesting interactive story where, for most of it, you only choose between two options. The narrative designer Jon Ingold has talked about three being the right number of choices and how two choices is boring, so of course I wanted to try just having two.
I like interactive stories where the choice structure is reflected in the story and theme, and I’ve long wrestled with our tendency to boil decisions down to two options. That led me to a story where the character you interact with, Alma, was faced with a terrible situation and only considered two options. Everything else flowed from there.
Stephen: I wanted you to consider what you’d have done in Alma’s shoes, and how you respond to Alma’s choices. Because “Binary” is interactive, you don’t engage with these questions abstractly. You have to make concrete choices.
It also let me leave more to the imagination. The story’s a dialog between you and Alma, but you never hear your own words. You have to figure them out from how Alma responds.
sub-Q Magazine: You often blend entertainment and education. Do you see interactive fiction as a good educational tool? What else can interactive fiction be a tool for?
sub-Q Magazine: Any recent works of interactive fiction you particularly enjoyed?
In 1980, Med Systems released the graphical 3D adventure games Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth. Both were relatively light with graphics — showing walls, boxes, and the occasional extra like a keyhole. William F. Denman, Jr. and Frank Corr, Jr. released Asylum in February of 1981, which ramped up the graphics with openable and closable doors, inmates and guards, beds, and … well, likely other things, but I haven’t gotten very far yet.
The parser now accepts full sentences. This is very much an object lesson in just accepting more words does not mean the parser is better. Guess-the-verb (which Deathmaze definitely had) has been replaced with guess-the-phrase. (I’ll give examples of what I mean in a moment.)
You start, without preamble, imprisoned in the titular Asylum, with the goal to escape in 8 hours. The time is “real-time” except one minute in game time is 40 seconds in real time. I have yet to assess if this is really a problem or just an extra piece of tension; there’s plenty of ways early to lose without worrying about a time limit on top of things.
You start with just a coat; inside your room is a box with a hand grenade. “EXAMINE GRENADE” indicates the grenade has a pin. In order to escape the starting room, you need to PULL PIN FROM GRENADE and then UNLOCK DOOR WITH PIN. (If you GET PIN FROM GRENADE you are told it can’t be done, GET PIN just indicates it isn’t here. A good parser would understand both the four-word and two-word versions; there’s no reason to be picky here about where the pin is coming from.)
Incidentally: Don’t forget to put the pin back in the grenade!
Leaving the cell gets you into a hall with locked doors, none of which succumb to the pin. I ended up getting caught by a guard and being chided that I didn’t TIPTOE. I restarted and tried TIPTOE — the verb gets recognized, but doesn’t seem to do anything. It’s possible the first time you are caught is forced.
I got tossed into a different cell, wearing a straightjacket, which for some reason was on fire. One ROLL later both stops the fire and discards the ruined jacket. The room this time had a newspaper, and I was able to EXAMINE KEYHOLE to find there was a key in the lock. The next part required these exact steps:
SLIDE NEWSPAPER UNDER DOOR
GET NEWSPAPER FROM DOOR
The last one was particularly frustrating, stumping me for a good 15 minutes. The game doesn’t think the newspaper is in scope otherwise, and code seems to have bespoke-hacked in the ability to retrieve the newspaper with that last phrase, and only that last phrase (not GET NEWSPAPER FROM UNDER DOOR, even).
Leaving the room again, I found an identical-looking hallway (it might be the same one?) but with a silver key that let me get into two new halls; however, trying to walk down either led to an instant game over as guards caught me in their “offices”.
This one’s going to take work, for certain. I’m still optimistic this will get fun once I get into the swing of things.
Two last notes for now:
1.) Will Moczarski has blogged through this one already at The Adventure Gamer, if you’d like to see what the whole game is like early.
2.) Med Systems followed up Asylum with Asylum II, and then, very confusingly, Asylum, which is just Asylum II with the sequel number dropped (but ported to more systems like the Commodore 64). This means some places (like the Interactive Fiction Database) you will see mention of a game called Asylum which is actually the sequel. As of this writing, Wikipedia’s text mostly refers to the correct game, except the picture is of the cover of the other game.
The sonnets generated are in monometer. That is, each line is of a single foot, and in this case, is of strictly two syllables.
Because there are three options for each line, there are 314 = 4,782,969 possible sonnets.
I have released this (as always) as free software, so that anyone may share, study, modify, or make use of it in any way they wish. To be as clear as possible, you should feel free to right-click or Command-click on this link to “Sonnet Corona,” choose “Save link as…,” and then edit the file that you download in a text editor, using this file as a starting point for your own project.
This extra-small project has as its most direct antecedent the much more extensive and elaborate Cent mille milliards de poèmes by Raymond Queneau.
My thanks go to Stephanie Strickland, Christian Bök, and Amaranth Borsuk for discussing a draft of this project with me, thoroughly and on short notice.
Up until now, we’ve prioritized the needs of people browsing the Archive and downloading games for offline play. Our policy is that web-playable games should be uploaded as archived (zipped) packages. The sole exception is the annual IFComp, whose entries are available on the site in unzipped and playable form.
We’ve come up with a scheme to resolve this situation. With this plan:
We are now seeking proposals for implementing this scheme. Our intention is to fundraise to support this position, and so engagement of a contractor will be contingent on our ability to raise sufficient funds.
By the way, you’ll recall that a few weeks ago we posted a request for proposals for replacing Philome.la. This IF Archive scheme is a separate RFP! The two plans address related needs (both host Twine games), but Philome.la and the IF Archive are rather different services with different audiences. We would like to support both of them, if we can get the resources to do so.
The proposal deadline for the IF Archive plan is April 30th. The proposal deadline for the Philome.la plan has been extended to July 15th.
Remember to click the “Play Now” button to access the game for free.
We know this is a difficult time for us all. Remember that we have a library of over 130 games in our convenient Choice of Games omnibus apps on iOS and Android, including 16 games that are now free to win, supported by ads. (That means you can play the whole game, for free, or support our authors by paying to turn off ads and delay breaks.) So in addition to today’s announcement, make sure you check out all our free Choice of Games titles:
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
— From Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In the original Frankenstein, Victor abandons his “monster” as soon as he creates it; the monster doesn’t really get into murder until he finds out the circumstances of his creation, and plans revenge.
More modern takes have varied, but we’re jumping ahead a bit in the plot–
Before I made any progress on the real story, I was fussing about with all my objects, and discovered BURN worked as a verb on things other than just matches and candles. Dutifully testing out every item in my inventory, I found a secret message:
I also knew the painting of Victor I found last time was “screwed to the wall” so I just needed to get a screwdriver over to the painting to check it out, but I was blocked (as I left off last time) by a wolf.
The wolf had previously emerged when I had unearthed a coffin and a corpse.
After trying to fight off the wolf with little success, I went back to the CORPSE and applied my SCALPEL. This got me a mutilated CORPSE, which had a HEART and LIVER.
Grisly! I took the LIVER over to the wolf and it gobbled it down and ran away. Then I went back to the painting and unscrewed it, and applied the previously mentioned combination. This got me a DIARY and a MAP.
…I guess maybe I’ll find a liver somewhere else? Or did I make a mistake?
Plowing ahead, I took the map over to the bog where I previously was falling into quicksand and did FOLLOW MAP. This led me to an old mill with a crypt beneath.
The URN incidentally has ashes but you can POUR URN to also find gold ELECTRODES (as mentioned in the diary). The crypt had a passage leading back to the graveyard, but the wolf was back, and this time there was no liver to feed him. I did, however, have a fancy cane.
Now comes the most interesting dilemma of the game. I was able to return the HEART over to the monster back in the lab, but I had no liver because the wolf ate it. Except now the wolf is dead and in the form of a man… so maybe…
…is that the same liver? (I think at a code level it is, but at a plot level it’s the man’s original liver we cut out.)
With liver in hand, some working with needle and thread, and attaching the gold electrodes from the urn, I was able to come close to bringing life. I just needed to pull the lever. I fully expected a “you win” message, but:
Ah, of course. This is the kind of monster that comes out swinging right away. It chases you around which strongly suggested the solution was geographical. Restoring my game, grabbing the map I used last time to get by the quicksand, I tried pulling the lever again, and escaped to safety.
In the end, no progress was made: while we finished Victor Frankenstein’s wish, we then undid the monster we created just as quickly.
Many games from this era use the tropes of horror, but far fewer have really been horror. That is, various “monsters” have often been interchangeable with fantasy — a mummy might as well be an orc, a ghost might as well be a goblin. Fully-fledged horror shows people in desperate in tragic circumstances doing desperate and tragic things, and I think Frankenstein Adventure qualifies with the, ah, creative use of corpses. I really did have a moment I was stunned when I realized how I could get a second liver. The gameplay finesse of having seen one that gets “used up” — bringing up the specter of softlocks, yet not being one — made the moment more effective.
Audible has recently put up some of their material for free (as in actually free, not a free trial). This includes an absolutely stellar reading of Frankenstein by the actor Dan Stevens (from Downton Abbey); it runs for 8 1/2 hours and if you’re looking for distraction I highly recommend it.
If you’re keen on playing Frankenstein Adventure itself, there’s a version you can play online. The display of the online version is slightly glitchy but it still works.
New York City, we are continually told, is now the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Italy is the world’s “epicenter.” This term is used all the time in the news and was recently deployed by our mayor here in NYC.
I’m following up on a February 15 Language Log post by Mark Liberman about why this term is being used in this way. Rather than asking why people are using the term, I’m going to discuss how this word influences our thinking. “Epicenter” leads us to think about the current global pandemic in some unhelpful ways. Although less exciting, simply saying something like “New York City has the worst outbreak” would actually improve our conceptual understanding of this crisis.
“Epicenter” (on the center) literally means the point on the surface of the earth nearest to the focus of a (below-ground) earthquake. It can be used figuratively — Sam did not keep the apartment very tidy; Upon entering the kitchen, we found that it was the epicenter — but there’s only the one literal meaning.
One effect of the term is a sort of morphological pun: There’s a COVID-19 “epi-center” because this is an “epi-demic,” a disease which is “on the people.” But on March 11, the World Health Organization said that COVID-19 is worse than an epidemic, it’s a pandemic. Indeed, it is a global pandemic, spreading everywhere. So what might have been a useful pun back in February is now an understatement.
Beyond that, “epicenter” is metaphorical in the sense of directing us to a particular conceptual metaphor (see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, 1980, and Lakoff’s article “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” 1993). This sort of metaphor is not just a rhetorical figure or flourish, not a surface feature of language like the “epi-” pun. It is a fundamental way of understanding a target domain (the pandemic) in terms of a source domain (an earthquake).
To give this complex metaphorical mapping a name, we can call it A HEALTH DISASTER IS A SEISMOLOGICAL DISASTER or more simply A PANDEMIC IS AN EARTHQUAKE. But these are just names; we’d need to explore what is being mapped from our earthquake-schema to our pandemic-schema to really think about what’s going on there.
I will note that this metaphor usefully emphasizes some things about the pandemic: its unexpected onset, the extensive devastation, and the cost to human life. While such mappings are always incomplete, if we try to make a more extensive mapping, we can find ourselves more confused than helped.
Earthquakes are localized to a certain place (unlike a global pandemic) and they occur during a short period of time (unlike a global pandemic). So the metaphor incorrectly suggests that our current disaster is happening once, in one place, and thus we will be able to clean up from this localized, short-term event with appropriate disaster relief.
The most critical aspect of our current crisis is not part of the earthquake metaphor at all. There is no entailment or suggestion from the earthquake metaphor that we are dealing with something that can be transmitted or is communicable. Instead of rallying to an earthquake meeting point, we now need to remain apart from each other to slow the spread of disease.
I’d going to go even deeper in thinking about the “epicenter” concept. Why does a global pandemic (a disease affecting “all the people”) have any sort of center at all?
Metaphor, as it is now understood, is based on ways of thinking that are grounded in bodily experience, including those cognitive structures called image schemas. One of these, detailed by Mark Johnson in The Body in the Mind, 1987 and also discussed by George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, 1987, is the CENTER-PERIPHERY image schema. It relates to body, and our recognition of the heart, for instance, as being central and one of our toes as being more peripheral. We worry less if we’ve cut a toe than if we’ve cut our heart. Even if lose a toe, we can keep living, which we can’t do without our heart.
So, since this pandemic has one or more CENTERS, does that mean that it’s not so important to worry about the PERIPHERIES of COVID-19? Do we need to be concerned about the center but, if we are somewhere on the margins, is it okay to have parties or get into other situations that may foster transmission of the virus? Is that the way to think about a global pandemic, where outbreaks are occurring everywhere? Obviously, I feel that it’s not best.
The alternative image schemas we can use to develop alternative metaphors are CONTAINMENT and LINER SCALE. “Outbreak” is pretty clearly based on the CONTAINMENT image schema. Some places do have outbreaks that are worse and more serious than other places. Hence, LINEAR SCALE. This would mean saying that, for instance:
Italy has the “worst outbreak of the global pandemic”
NYC has the “worst US outbreak of the global pandemic”
These statements indicate that COVID-19 is a global outbreak that must be CONTAINED, and the implication is that it must be contained everywhere. It isn’t something that hits one place at one time, and doesn’t have a CENTER people can simply flee from in order to be safe. It also admits that the various outbreaks around the world are on a SCALE and can be worse in some places, as of course they are.
I shouldn’t need to explain that I have no expertise or background in public health; What I know, and the information I trust, comes from reading official public health sources (the WHO and CDC). It may seem silly to some (even if you’ve read this far) that I’ve gone off at such length about a single word that’s in the current discourse. I’ve bothered to write this because I’m a poet and have been studying metaphor (in the sense of conceptual metaphor) for many years. I believe the metaphors we live by are very important.
In George Lakoff and Mark Turner’s More Than Cool Reason, 1989, they make the case that metaphor is not what it was assumed to be in poetry discussions for many centuries. It is completely different, certainly not restricted to literature, and indeed is central to everyday thinking. However, in their view, the role of poets is extremely important: “Poets are artists of the mind.” They argue that we (poets) can help to influence our culture and open up more productive and powerful ways of thinking about matters of crucial importance, via developing and inflecting metaphors. I believe this, and hope that other poets will, too.
When the lads at DMA Design started making the original Lemmings, they envisioned that it would allow you to bestow about twenty different “skills” upon your charges. But as they continued working on the game, they threw more and more of the skills out, both to make the programming task simpler and to make the final product more playable. They finally ended up with just eight skills, the perfect number to neatly line up as buttons along the bottom of the screen. In the process of this ruthless culling, Lemmings became a classic study in doing more with less in game design: those eight skills, combined in all sorts of unexpected ways, were enough to take the player through 120 ever-more-challenging levels in the first Lemmings, then 100 more in the admittedly less satisfying pseudo-sequel/expansion pack Oh No! More Lemmings.
Yet when the time came to make the first full-fledged sequel, DMA resurrected some of their discarded skills. And then they added many, many more of them: Lemmings 2: The Tribes wound up with no less than 52 skills in all. For this reason not least, it’s often given short shrift by critics, who compare its baggy maximalism unfavorably with the first game’s elegant minimalism. To my mind, though, Lemmings 2 is almost a Platonic ideal of a sequel, building upon the genius of the original game in a way that’s truly challenging and gratifying to veterans. Granted, it isn’t the place you should start; by all means, begin with the classic original. When you’ve made it through those 120 levels, however, you’ll find 120 more here that are just as perplexing, frustrating, and delightful — and with even more variety to boot, courtesy of all those new skills.
The DMA Design that made Lemmings 2 was a changed entity in some ways. The company had grown in the wake of the first game’s enormous worldwide success, such that they had been forced to move out of their cozy digs above a baby store in the modest downtown of Dundee, Scotland, and into a more anonymous office in a business park on the outskirts of town. The core group that had created the first Lemmings — designer, programmer, and DMA founder David Jones; artists and level designers Mike Dailly and Gary Timmons; programmer and level designer Russell Kay — all remained on the job, but they were now joined by an additional troupe of talented newcomers.
Lemmings 2 also reflects changing times inside the games industry in ways that go beyond the size of its development team. Instead of 120 unrelated levels, there’s now a modicum of story holding things together. A lengthy introductory movie — which, in another telling sign of the times, fills more disk space than the game itself and required almost as many people to make — tells how the lemmings were separated into twelve tribes, all isolated from one another, at some point in the distant past. Now, the island (continent?) on which they live is facing an encroaching Darkness which will end all life there. Your task is to reunite the tribes, by guiding each of them through ten levels to reach the center of the island. Once all of the tribes have gathered there, they can reassemble a magical talisman, of which each tribe conveniently has one piece, and use it to summon a flying ark that will whisk them all to safety.
It’s not exactly an air-tight plot, but no matter; you’ll forget about it anyway as soon as the actual game begins. What’s really important are the other advantages of having twelve discrete progressions of ten levels instead of a single linear progression of 120. You can, you see, jump around among all these tribes at will. As David Jones said at the time of the game’s release, “We want to get away from ‘you complete a level or you don’t.'” When you get frustrated banging your head against a single stubborn level — and, this being a Lemmings game, you will get frustrated — you can just go work on another one for a while.
Rather than relying largely on the same set of graphics over the course of its levels, as the original does, each tribe in Lemmings 2 has its own audiovisual theme: there are beach-bum lemmings, Medieval lemmings, spooky lemmings, circus lemmings, alpine lemmings, astronaut lemmings, etc. In a tribute to the place where the game was born, there are even Scottish Highland lemmings (although Dundee is actually found in the less culturally distinctive — or culturally clichéd — Lowlands). And there’s even a “classic” tribe that reuses the original graphics; pulling it up feels a bit like coming home from an around-the-world tour.
Teaching Old Lemmings New Tricks
Other pieces of plumbing help to make Lemmings 2 feel like a real, holistic game rather than a mere series of puzzles. The first game, as you may recall, gives you an arbitrary number of lemmings which begin each level and an arbitrary subset of them which must survive it; this latter number thus marks the difference between success and failure. In the sequel, though, each tribe starts its first level with 60 lemmings, who are carried over through all of the levels that follow. Any lemmings lost on one level, in other words, don’t come back in the succeeding ones. It’s possible to limp to the final finish line with just one solitary survivor remaining — and, indeed, you quite probably will do exactly this with a few of the tribes the first time through. But it’s also possible to finish all but a few of the levels without killing any lemmings at all. At the end of each level and then again at the end of each tribe’s collection of levels, you’re awarded a bronze, silver, or gold star based on your performance. To wind up with gold at the end, you usually need to have kept every single one of the little fellows alive through all ten levels. There’s a certain thematic advantage in this: people often note how the hyper-cute original Lemmings is really one of the most violent videogames ever, requiring you to kill thousands and thousands of the cuties over its course. This objection no longer applies to Lemmings 2. But more importantly, it sets up an obsessive-compulsive-perfectionist loop. First you’ll just want to get through the levels — but then all those bronze and silver performances lurking in your past will start to grate, and pretty soon you’ll be trying to figure out how to do each level just that little bit more efficiently. The ultimate Lemmings 2 achievement, needless to say, is to collect gold stars across the board.
This tiered approach to success and failure might be seen as evidence of a kinder design sensibility, but in most other respects just the opposite is true; Lemmings 2 has the definite feel of a game for the hardcore. The first Lemmings does a remarkably good job of teaching you how to play it interactively over the course of its first twenty levels or so, introducing you one by one to each of its skills along with its potential uses and limitations. There’s nothing remotely comparable in Lemmings 2; it just throws you in at the deep end. While there is a gradual progression in difficulty within each tribe’s levels, the game as a whole is a lumpier affair, especially in the beginning. Each level gives you access to between one and eight of the 52 available skills, whilst evincing no interest whatsoever in showing you how to use any of them. There is some degree of thematic grouping when it comes to the skills: the Highland lemmings like to toss cabers; the beach lemmings are fond of swimming, kayaking, and surfing; the alpine lemmings often need to ski or skate. Nevertheless, the sheer number of new skills you’re expected to learn on the fly is intimidating even for a veteran of the first game. The closest Lemmings 2 comes to its predecessor’s training levels are a few free-form sandbox environments where you can choose your own palette of skills and have at it. But even here, your education can be a challenging one, coming down as it still does to trial and error.
Your first hours with the game can be particularly intimidating; as soon as you’ve learned how one group of skills works well enough to finish one level, you’re confronted with a whole new palette of them on the next level. Even I, a huge fan of the first game, bounced off the second one quite a few times before I buckled down, started figuring out the skills, and, some time thereafter, started having fun.
Luckily, once you have put in the time to learn how the skills work, Lemmings 2 becomes very fun indeed, — every bit as rewarding as the first game, possibly even more so. Certainly its level design is every bit as good — better in fact, relying more on logic and less on dodgy edge cases in the game engine than do the infamously difficult final levels of the first Lemmings. Even the spiky difficulty curve isn’t all bad; it can be oddly soothing to start on a new tribe’s relatively straightforward early levels after being taxed to the upmost on another tribe’s last level. If the first Lemmings is mountain climbing as people imagine it to be — a single relentless, ever-steeper ascent to a dizzying peak — the second Lemmings has more in common with the reality of the sport: a set of more or less difficult stages separated by more or less comfortable base camps. While it’s at least as daunting in the end, it does offer more ebbs and flows along the way.
One might say, then, that Lemmings 2 is designed around a rather literal interpretation of the concept of a sequel. That is to say, it assumes that you’ve played its predecessor before you get to it, and are now ready for its added complexity. That’s bracing for anyone who fulfills that criterion. But in 1993, the year of Lemmings 2‘s release, its design philosophy had more negative than positive consequences for its own commercial arc and for that of the franchise to which it belonged.
The fact is that Lemmings 2‘s attitude toward its sequel status was out of joint with the way sequels had generally come to function by 1993. In a fast-changing industry that was fast attracting new players, the ideal sequel, at least in the eyes of most industry executives, was a game equally welcoming to both neophytes and veterans. Audiovisual standards were changing so rapidly that a game that was just a couple of years old could already look painfully dated. What new player with a shiny new computer wanted to play some ugly old thing just to earn a right to play the latest and greatest?
That said, Lemmings 2 actually didn’t look all that much better than its predecessor either, flashy opening movie aside. Part of this was down to DMA Design still using the 1985-vintage Commodore Amiga, which was still very popular as a gaming computer in Britain and other European countries, as their primary development platform, then porting the game to MS-DOS and various other more modern platforms. Staying loyal to the Amiga meant working within some fairly harsh restrictions, such as that of having no more than 32 colors on the screen at once, not to mention making the whole game compact enough to run entirely off floppy disk; hard drives, much less CD-ROM drives, were still not common among European Amiga owners. Shortly before the release of Lemmings 2, David Jones confessed to being “a little worried” about whether people would be willing to look beyond the unimpressive graphics and appreciate the innovations of the game itself. As it happened, he was right to be worried.
Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings sold in the millions across a bewildering range of platforms, from modern mainstream computers like the Apple Macintosh and Wintel machines to antique 8-bit computers like the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, from handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy and Atari Lynx to living-room game consoles like the Sega Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Lemmings 2, being a much more complex game under the hood as well as on the surface, wasn’t quite so amenable to being ported to just about any gadget with a CPU, even as its more off-putting initial character and its lack of new audiovisual flash did it no favors either. It was still widely ported and still became a solid success by any reasonable standard, mind you, but likely sold in the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. All indications are that the first game and its semi-expansion pack continued to sell more copies than the second even after the latter’s release.
In the aftermath of this muted reception, the bloom slowly fell off the Lemmings rose, not only for the general public but also for DMA Design themselves. The franchise’s true jump-the-shark moment ironically came as part of an attempt to re-jigger the creatures to become media superstars beyond the realm of games. The Children’s Television Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street among other properties, was interested in moving the franchise onto television screens. In the course of these negotiations, they asked DMA to give the lemmings more differentiated personalities in the next game, to turn them from anonymous marchers, each just a few pixels across, into something more akin to individualized cartoon characters. Soon the next game was being envisioned as the first of a linked series of no less than four of them, each one detailing the further adventures of three of the tribes after their escape from the island at the end of Lemmings 2, each one ripe for trans-media adaptation by the Children’s Television Workshop. But the first game of this new generation, called The Lemmings Chronicles, just didn’t work. The attempt to cartoonify the franchise was cloying and clumsy, and the gameplay fell to pieces; unlike Lemmings 2, Lemmings Chronicles eminently deserves its underwhelming critical reputation. DMA insiders like Mike Dailly have since admitted that its was developed more out of obligation than enthusiasm: “We were all ready to move on.” When it performed even worse than its predecessor, the Children’s Television Workshop dropped out; all of its compromises had been for nothing.
Released just a year after Lemmings 2, Lemmings Chronicles marked the last game in the six-game contract that DMA Design had signed with their publisher Psygnosis what seemed like an eternity ago — in late 1987 to be more specific, when David Jones had first come to Psygnosis with his rather generic outer-space shoot-em-up Menace, giving no sign that he was capable of something as ingenious as Lemmings. Now, having well and truly demonstrated their ingenuity, DMA had little interest in re-upping; they were even willing to leave behind all of their intellectual property, which the contract Jones had signed gave to Psygnosis in perpetuity. In fact, they were more than ready to leave behind the cute-and-cuddly cartoon aesthetic of Lemmings and return to more laddish forms of gaming. The eventual result of that desire would be a second, more long-lasting worldwide phenomenon, known as Grand Theft Auto.
Meanwhile Sony, who had acquired Psygnosis in 1993, continued off and on to test the waters with new iterations of the franchise, but all of those attempts evinced the same vague sense of ennui that had doomed Lemmings Chronicles; none became hits. The last Lemmings game that wasn’t a remake appeared in 2000.
It’s interesting to ask whether DMA Design and Psygnosis could have managed the franchise better, thereby turning it into a permanent rather than a momentary icon of gaming, perhaps even one on a par with the likes of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog; they certainly had the sales to compete head-to-head with those other videogame icons for a few years there in the early 1990s. The obvious objection is that Mario and Sonic were individualized characters, while DMA’s lemmings were little more than a handful of tropes moving in literal lockstep. Still, more has been done with less in the annals of media history. If everyone had approached Lemmings Chronicles with more enthusiasm and a modicum more writing and branding talent, maybe the story would have turned out differently.
Many speculate today that the franchise must inevitably see another revival at some point, what with 21st-century pop culture’s tendency to mine not just the A-list properties of the past, but increasingly its B- and C-listers as well, in the name of one generation’s nostalgia and another’s insatiable appetite for kitsch. Something tells me as well that we haven’t seen the last of Lemmings, but, as of this writing anyway, the revival still hasn’t arrived.
As matters currently stand, then, the brief-lived but frenzied craze for Lemmings has gone down in history, alongside contemporaries like Tetris and The Incredible Machine, as one more precursor of the casual revolution in gaming that was still to come, with its very different demographics and aesthetics. But in addition to that, it gave us two games that are brilliant in their own right, that remain as vexing but oh-so-rewarding as they were in their heyday. Long may they march on.
(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Compute! of January 1992; Amiga Format of May 1993 and the special 1992 annual; Retro Gamer 39; The One of November 1993; Computer Gaming World of July 1993.
For obvious reasons, we will no longer meet on MIT campus or anywhere else in the Boston area.
Instead, our upcoming meetings will be online via Zoom Video. Anyone interested in IF is welcome, so our meetings will probably be larger than usual! (No dinner afterwards, though. Unless you order takeout.)
Our next meeting is still scheduled for Tuesday, March 31st at 6:30 pm (Eastern time). We’ll post the Zoom link on the day of the meeting.
Update: see Zoom link under “Next meeting” to the right!
March 22 will be the next meeting for the Seattle/Tacoma IF Group.
April 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.
NarraScope organizers set dates of May 29-31 for the annual conference. While NarraScope was originally supposed to take place live in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, the event has been moved to a virtual-only model, due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. You can read the official statement here.
The London IF Meetup is also not doing any more in-person gatherings for the immediate future. We are looking into the possibility of an online event, perhaps where we can play some Spring Things games––we will announce more about that when we have it settled.
Sam Kabo Ashwell just posted this week about the new release of Scents & Semiosis. The game follows a perfumer with a private collection of scents, and it is up to the player to determine their meaning. The game is available here on itch.io.
Some time has obviously passed, but for anyone looking for some background on inklewriter, I shared some of my thoughts in a write-up back in 2012.
Entries for Spring Thing 2020 are due March 29. The festival officially kicks off on April 2, and winners of the competition will be announced on May 3.
Presentations, Podcasts, Articles, etc
Here are Carl Rauscher and Chris Conley giving a talk for MAGfest on Games as Story Machines.
We're hugely delighted to announce that inklewriter, our free, write-as-you-go tool for sketching interactive fiction, is BACK - stable, free to use, and now open-source!
(For existing users: this is a new version with a new database. You'll need a new account; and you'll need to import any story data from the previous version manually. Details on how to do that are below.)
After over a year in shutdown mode, inklewriter has been given a new lease of life by an amazing team of open-source developers. Inklewriter is now stable on modern browsers - and it's also open-source, and of course, still free to use.
(Note, if you're interested in ink, our scripting language for IF, please check here!)
The new version is at inklewriter.com, and this is now the main branch of inklewriter. (But we'll keep the old version around for a while, to ensure you have time to copy across your story data.)
Inklewriter is a write-as-you-play tool for creating and sharing branching stories. It aims to provide a way for anyone to start writing an interactive story, with no set-up and no barrier to getting started.
It's not as powerful as ink, our scripting language for game development - but it's fast to use, unfussy, and intuitively laid out.
It's been used by writers, game developers, schools and universities since its launch in 2012.
inklewriter began as a free web project when inkle was first founded. But with web-technology always changing, it became impossible for us to maintain it.
Enter the open-source community, who have produced a full port of inklewriter to modern web-tech.
This means inklewriter is now fully stable once more, and better yet, it's going to be maintained in the foreseeable future.
The new version is available now. If you've never tried inklewriter before, you can start now. Otherwise, read on...
The new version of inklewriter will start afresh. That means you'll need to make a new account to start writing.
Old stories will have to be imported out of the old database and into the new one, but the process should be fast and easy. You can start importing now:
We imported our Sherlock Holmes example, "The Musgrave Ritual"... and it took about ten seconds.
The project is hosted on GitHub here. You can report issues - and collaborate on future development - there.
Logins to inklewriter are email addresses; these are stored in a secure database, and are never viwed / shared / sold.
If you require a higher level of privacy, however, as inklewriter is now open-source you'll be able to host your own inklewriter service, if you wish.
That said, please do not use a high-value password for your inklewriter account. Security on the internet can never be fully guaranteed.
We're really excited for this; inklewriter was an early experiment for us in making responsive interactive fiction accessible to anyone, without the need to be confusing.
We've frequently used inklewriter ourselves for quick prototypes and sketches, and we're over the moon that it's getting a new lease of life in the open source community.
We're enormously grateful to the team behind the project:
... and you can contact them directly.