Welcome to Late to the Party, where we hop onto a game’s bandwagon waaay too late. This premiere instalment starts Babarnicals and me off in Steve Meretzky’s 1990 risqué adventure game classic about an abused young man who’s only hope of escaping imprisonment by his evil relative is by attending wizard school. Similarities to a certain other young wannabe wizard are purely coincidental, of course.
Here is part one of our playthrough of Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls:
The Apple II was a solid gaming platform in 1982, but Paul Stevenson’s graphically astounding and highly interactive action-adventure games for the computer really pushed the envelope of what was possible. Having slashed his way through the pirate genre with Swashbuckler earlier in the year, he moved onto his magnum opus. We feature a magazine ad for it today in the Cortex: Aztec.
Long before online gaming hit the mainstream in the mid 1990’s, there was MUD. Standing for Multi-User Dungeon, it was an online version of the Adventure text game, created by Roy Trubshaw at Essex University in England in 1979. It would later be greatly expanded on by Richard Bartle, sparking an entire genre of game that still thrives today.
You can directly tie the existence of today’s MMOGs such as World of Warcraft to the original MUDs, which proved to the world that gaming online with fellow adventurers was and is incredibly compelling. For the history of the trailblazing MUD, please consult your local Dot Eaters article.
I’d be hard-pressed to do a review of the computer gaming I did in my youth and not dedicate an entire chapter to the wonderful text-adventures put out by Infocom in the 80’s.
I remember that the first disk I ever bought for my gigantic 1541 floppy drive, newly attached to my Commodore 64, was a Commodore-labelled version of Infocom’s Zork. Just a few minutes exploring the surface landscape and then delving deep into an ever-expanding Underground Empire had me hooked.
Zork, TRS-80 version
Starting as an answer to Crowther and Wood’s original Adventuretext adventure, a group of MIT students designed Zork as a program on a mainframe computer, and eventually developed a system to port it to personal computers. After an initial release by VisiCalc makers Personal Software, the Infocom team decided to publish the games themselves, and hence was a computer game giant created.
Ten Zork games were eventually produced, along with a huge library of other works spanning genres such as science fiction, history, mysteries, fantasy, and on and on. When Douglas Adams got wind of what Infocom is doing with interactive fiction, he signed on with the company to adapt his seminal comedy science fiction book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From this unholy pairing of Adams and Infocom “IMP” Steve Meretsky would come one of the most cruel, diabolical computer games of all time.
Even as graphics eventually supplanted text and the human imagination as the canvas of computer game design, the great writing and intricate design of Infocom’s worlds kept me visiting them. For our full history of Zork and Infocom, consult your local Dot Eaters article.
Currently looking for funding on Kickstarter is a documentary film project titled Heroes: The History of Sierra On-Line. The filmmakers have travelled the country securing footage and interviews with those involved, to tell the story of how Sierra On-Line helped revolutionize the PC game industry and created one of the best-loved genres in gaming history: the graphic adventure.
Now they need help in securing financing to assemble the film and polish it up in order to do justice to such a fascinating company and compelling story. You can kick in some cash at their Kickstarter page, here:
After the jump you can read an interview I conducted with co-producers of the project, Luke Yost and Patrick Clark: Continue reading →
Leaping into The 12 Video Games of Christmas today is Pitfall Harry, in a drastic iOS remake of Activision’s original 1982 Atari VCS/2600 game Pitfall!, by developer The Blast Furnace.
30 years after the fact, this new version almost seems like a retro-themed version of the hit mobile game Temple Run. Here we send Harry running pell mell through 3D-rendered native villages, cavernous er… caverns, and wild jungles. Obstacles in his way must be jumped over, slid under and, in the case of the snakes and scorpions that return from the original, whipped with an accessory borrowed from Pitfall Harry’s original influence, Indiana Jones, all the while snagging treasure that lines the paths.
Solidly falling into the Freemium category of apps, here the in-game currency are diamonds and the treasure you find, which you use to upgrade Harry with more skills, or even just to continue the game where you left off. Given the breakneck, twitchy gameplay, you’ll be dying a lot, and since diamonds are given out sparingly by levelling up, you’ll be feeling the pull to purchase a bunch, ranging from $1.99 all the way up to $29.99. It’s feasible that you could plow through the game without actually spending a cent, but only for the devilishly patient gamer. A very nice touch of nostalgia are the “Explorer Club” badges you collect in game by reaching achievements; a nice throw-back to the real badges Activision would send to players who mailed in proof of their accomplishments.
It’s good to see Harry back, even if he’s aping another gaming app like Temple Run. Swing on over here to continue his scorpion dodging exploits on your iOS device.
Perhaps you’re like me, and one of the very first gaming experiences you had on a computer was a text adventure.
Sometimes a person is lucky enough to have a first experience, a first taste of something, that is so amazingly, compellingly good that it forever shapes how they think about that thing. For me, that first thing was Infocom‘s Zork, and it gave me a lifelong love of computers and gaming.
The text adventure was a genre that ruled the landscape of early computer gaming, until advancing graphics technology inevitably supplanted text as the canvas for creating worlds on personal computers. GET LAMP, a documentary directed by Jason Scott, takes a close look at the genre, from its inception as Will Crowther‘s original cave-diving Adventure, to its perfection at Infocom, to its effective demise in the late 80’s and resurgence in the modern era as home-grown Interactive Fiction.
Box art for Zork I, Atari ST version
As the premiere text adventure company of the era, a particular light is shone on Infocom, producer of classics such as the aforementioned Zork games, Deadline, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… the list is exhaustive. Interviews of those involved are numerous and informative, and form a captivating narrative about the company and what it was like to work there. It’s fascinating to hear the founders and game designers talk about how they were convinced they were on the cusp of creating a new type of literature that would stand the test of time. Now we look back with 20/20 vision and it seems so obvious that the writing was on the wall for Infocom even as it began making games, that inherent in the very idea of text adventure computer games is the seed that will sow the company’s destruction. It was inevitable that game designers, inspired by Infocom games, would eventually want to move on from monochromatic text and turn the lights on to see what is actually there. As well, hobbyist IF writers and players also feature in segments that highlight the fact that text adventures have survived and thrived after the demise of Infocom. Be sure to keep an eye out for a secret item in these interview segments.
Call them text adventures, or adventure games, or the more grandiose interactive fiction, these types of games created entire worlds only with words on a screen. GET LAMP brightly illuminates the forgotten dark corners, hallways and caverns of these worlds and the people who crafted them. Good thing too, because you don’t want to end up reading these words:
While I love the game Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, I always have to sit through the lengthy cinematic at the beginning and chuckle at the horrible voice acting. It’s unfortunate too, because in all other respects it’s an exciting and visually stunning intro that I’m sure amazed a few people back in the day on their x486 PCs.
Once the sprites start opening their mouths though, whoo boy. It sounds like the programmers just recorded a rather dull high school play and just animated to that.
Here’s our gameplay video, judge for yourself whether the actors should be thrown into the Stygian Abyss:
Had famed author and raconteur Douglas Noel Adams not been so rudely taken from us in 2001, he would be turning 60 today.
Although Adams produced a wealth of material in his life, including the Dirk Gently series of books as well as scripts for the immensely popular and long-running British SF TV series Dr. Who, he will no doubt be best remembered as the author of the increasingly inaccurately named five-book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Dealing with the misadventures of the hapless Arthur Dent, who narrowly escapes the destruction of Earth in order to make way for an interstellar bypass, Hitchhiker’s began life as a BBC radio comedy series originally aired in 1978. It was the subsequently released book series that brought Adams to global prominence, and represented my first exposure to his brand of off-beat and knowing humour. It’s hard to quantify the effect that these works had on me growing up, because upon my first reading of the original Hitchhiker’s book, Adams’ attitudes towards life, the universe, and everything were instantly melded with my DNA, forever changing my outlook on the ridiculousness of what was going on around me. I’d say only the books of American humourist Kurt Vonnegut have had such a powerful impact on me, but while Vonnegut looks at the human condition as fairly hopeless and doomed, Adams’ approach was a combination of exasperation, whimsey and a kind of cross-eyed optimism.
Apropos to this site, Adams also had a profound impact on computer games. He was an early computerphile when there was a need for such a term, before computers became as ubiquitous as refrigerators in households. Starting out with text adventures, Adams progressed eventually to full-blown graphical extravaganzas, spanning the years between 1984 to 1998. Here is a look at his main contributions to the world of video games.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Infocom 1984
Cover of Hitchhiker’s game, Atari 8-bit computers version
Just as the book was a smash success, so was the computer game based upon it, Adams’ first foray into the medium. Approached many times with the idea of turning his most famous work into a game, Adams rebuffed them all, until he got a taste of the exceptionally well-written and wildly popular text adventure games coming out of Infocom in the early 80’s. In late 1983, he got in contact with the company. Jumping at the chance, Infocom signed Adams to a six-game contract, with two to be based on the published Hitchhiker’s books. It was a natural for Infocom to pair up Adams with Steve Meretzky, the latter producing some of the company’s most popular, not to mention most funny, games. In particular, it was Meretzky’s Planetfall (and later sequel, Stationfall) that made him such a perfect match, as these games were noted for having an altogether Adams-y sense of humour. Meretzky had not heard of Hitchhiker’s before writing Planetfall, but people testing the game remarked how much it reminded them of Adams’ works.
Steve Meretzky (L) and Douglas Adams attend press conference for Hitchhiker’s game, 1985
During the game’s six-month development time, Adams would write passages in England, and send them via computer to Infocom in Boston, where Meretsky would add additional material and then program everything into the game using Infocom’s game development system. The two writers would exchange emails daily, a rarity at the time, and phone calls weekly. In mid 1984, with the testing schedule looming in a few weeks and a release window established to take advantage of the Christmas season, Infocom sent Meretzky to England to prod the famous procrastinator Adams to finish his work on the game. At the time, the author was ensconced in the Huntsham Court country inn by his book publisher, hoping to help him focus on the fourth Hitchhiker’s book, titled So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. Hence the two of them hammered out the remaining material for the game in four days. Returning to the U.S., Meretzky must have missed the bucolic scenery and relaxed atmosphere of the English countryside as he delved into an intense three week crunch session to finish the programming of the game. After a brief testing phase, Adams did some rewrites of the material per testing results.
Released in October 1984, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure became an immediate success, selling over a quarter of a million copies. It rode the top of the game charts for months, and was Infocom’s second-best seller, topped only by the company’s first game, the legendary Zork.
Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, circa 1984
While faithful to the tone of the books, the game revels in breaking as many of the cardinal rules then established in interactive fiction, including outright lying to the player about available directions to travel in, and even what the player is able to see. In fact, Hitchhiker’s is cruelly obtuse, often requiring players to initiate actions outside of any offered information in the game, and at many times only those with knowledge of events in the books would know what to do. It also appears to be a favourite torture of Adams to let you miss some critical piece of equipment during a scene that would cause the game to dead-end later, with no recourse but to reload a save or replay the game. The goals of the game are unclear, except perhaps to retain your sanity as you play it. At times it seems that the game was purposefully created as a ploy to sell more Infocom Invisiclue hint books.
Lying games and the lying liars who make them
These brutalities aside, the game is an interesting extension of the Hitchhiker’s cannon, extending the book metaphor by featuring the literary device of footnotes that offer asides to the action. The actual Hitchhiker’s Guide is an inventory item in the game, and features plenty of articles for the player to consult about. The game also takes a philosophical bent, with “no tea” being an inventory item that the player at one point drops after getting some real tea, and is eventually able to carry both tea and no tea at the same time after some synaptic calisthenics. Random events also serve to keep subsequent playthroughs interesting.
The game is also strangely obsessed with fluff of all kinds. It is no fluff-piece, however, but a fitting entry to the Guide. Soul-crushingly frustrating, but fitting none-the-less. As an example, I’ll leave you with video of the infamous and excruciating “Babel Fish Puzzle”:
Bureaucracy, Infocom 1987
Cover for Atari ST version of Bureaucracy
With the resounding success of the Hitchhiker’s game, it was no wonder that Infocom was anxious for a sequel. The problem was that Adams was tiring of producing sequels of his Hitchhiker’s material, and suggested instead Bureaucracy, an original game based on his real-life frustrations at trying to get his bank and utility companies to acknowledge a change-of-address after moving households. Infocom, having signed Adams on the idea that he would be bringing his popular Hitchhiker’s material with him, balked at the idea, but eventually came to terms with producing an original work with Adams.
Outside of this initial concept, however, Adams began to let the project be bumped by other commitments, and he tapped long-time friend Michael Bywater to eventually finish the project. In line with the initial concept by Adams, the game has the protagonist jumping through hoops to accomplish the most simple tasks, such as withdrawing money from a bank, purchasing an airline ticket or even ordering food at a restaurant. The ultimate goal, of course, is to get the bank to recognize a change-of-address card.
Filling out forms in Douglas Adams’ Bureaucracy
The game starts, in true bureaucratic form, by having the player fill out a “software licence application” form for the game, providing humorous comments as you fill in lines such as your last name, name of boy/girl friend, and whether the player is male or female. The game will then reference you using the opposite of the information provided, such as calling you Mr. if you put your sex down as female. Throughout the game, the blood pressure of the player is shown on the top right of the screen, rising as annoyances occur or when the player enters an invalid command. It is possible to die of an aneurysm if the player lets this rise too high without taking a cooling off period. Following a lead from Hitchhiker’s, the game throws many random events at the player.
Unfortunately, the prose in Bureaucracy is a bit twee, and the humour often comes off as forced. It moves from ridiculous to just plain stupid for convenience sake, offering up the idea of having to give a long, drawn-out food order in a restaurant to the waitstaff multiple times as the height of hilarity. It is less the Kafka-esque, paranoid nightmare it wants to be than an annoying, tortuous exercise in tedium. That might be the ultimate point of Bureaucracy, but does that make it an enjoyable game to play? The public didn’t think so, as the game sold well under the numbers that Hitchhiker’s did. Filed below is a video of the iconic sequence that takes place in the game’s Fillmore Fiduciary Trust Bank.
Starship Titanic, Simon & Schuster Interactive 1998
All aboard… for doom!
Over ten years later, Adams returned to interactive media with Starship Titanic, a graphical adventure along the lines of the blockbuster Myst. The titular ship had first surfaced in Adams’ second Hitchhiker’s book, Life, the Universe and Everything. It was described as “a majestic and luxurious cruise-liner launched from the great shipbuilding asteroid complexes of Artri-factovol”, and which on its maiden voyage “did not even manage to complete its very first radio message – an SOS – before undergoing a sudden and gratuitous total existence failure.”. The game changes this slightly, by having the big ship crash into a house on earth, who’s owner, the player, enters the crippled ship, converses with a crew of robots and other characters, and attempts to find the parts needed to repair the ship. It was developed by a digital media company founded by Adams, Richard Creasey and Robbie Stamp in 1996 called The Digital Village. The three man writing team of Adams, Neil Richards and Michael Bywater were backed by a 20-30 person production team, all working over two years to make the game.
May I be of…. assistance?
The idea was to combine the lush graphics of Myst with the textual engagement found in the games of Infocom. To facilitate this conversation between player and computer, the game employed an advanced communication system dubbed SpookiTalk. It featured a database of over 10,000 phrased responses, in order to allow the player to naturally converse with the ship’s characters, including members of the Monty Python comedy troupe Terry Jones as a deranged parrot, and John Cleese as a distracted bomb. Adams himself makes several cameos in the game. 16 hours of dialog was recorded for responses given back to the player.
While the graphics are certainly luscious, and the characters humorous, Starship Titanic struck ice-comets with its inconsistent handling of player interactions and confusing-to-the-point-of-dementia puzzles, problems that would sink any adventure game. The game was met with middling sales in contrast to the feverish hype that had preceded it, in a market that had moved on from static Myst-y adventures to the visceral action of FPS games like Doom. To many, its fate seemed as sealed as the original doomed vessel it takes its inspiration from. Here is the debut trailer for the game:
Little did the world know that Adams himself would succumb to a “total existence failure” a few years later, leaving, as Adams biographer Neil Gaiman would note, “a Douglas Adams-sized hole in the universe.”. But while the man is gone, his work lives on, inspiring users and game creators alike to search for what the question actually is.
In the tradition of Sierra’s Police Quest series or the Tex Murphy FMV games from Access comes the latest from the-studio-that-can-do-no-wrong, Rockstar. Acting as distributors, they have obviously given developer Team Bondi the proper lessons in how to make a completely compelling video game product.
L.A. Noire is a startlingly polished game experience, ostensibly considered an open-world TPS along the lines of Red Dead Redemption or the perennial GTA series, only this time set in 1940’s Los Angeles. But players aren’t really free to run roughshod over a meticulously re-created LA, mowing down pedestrians and shooting shopkeepers in the face. Instead, there is just enough range for the player to avoid feeling like they’re on a Tunnel-Of-Love ride, but reigned in enough so that they can’t break the storyline that Rockstar has created.
And what a storyline. As Cole Phelps, a newly-minted beat cop who works his way up through the LAPD to detective, gamers delve into a fascinating story with many facets, twists and turns, all the while hewing to police procedure and proper investigative and interrogation tactics.
The whole thing comes off wonderfully well, including the vaunted MotionScan technology, which captures a complete likeness of the various actors’ faces as they read their lines. Put into practice in the game, the results are startling, and more than just eye candy; it allows players to read the faces of interviewees for tell-tale signs of fibbing.
Really, if you have any kind of interest in video games, you should sashay over to your nearest game store and pick this up. Rockstar and Team Bondi just raised the bar for video game excellence.