Adventure Games: The Graphics Years

In early 1984, IBM released a computer called the PCjr. It was an attempt to create a low-cost entry-level version of the company’s expensive, business-oriented PC that would be cheap enough to gain IBM a place in the home computer market, then dominated by the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800 computers. It was expected to be a huge hit.

The IBM PCjr

The PCjr. It never grew up.

Only it wasn’t. It flopped. Big time.

Although it was in some ways software compatible with its big brother, which in two-and-a-half years had taken over the microcomputer market the way Hitler had taken over Poland in the late 1930s, the PCjr’s compatibility had been seriously crippled to prevent it from competing with IBM’s more expensive, grown-up models. Very few existing PC programs would run on it and almost none of the ones that people might actually want to use would. But it did have one feature that made it superior to IBM’s business models: state-of-the-art (by 1984 standards) 16-color graphics and impressive sound capabilities, with no add-on cards required. The PCjr was made for games, though unfortunately it wasn’t priced at game console rates.

And because it was made for games, IBM wanted games available for it when the product launched. They approached several companies about designing games that would take advantage of the PCjr’s flashy hardware and one of these companies was Sierra On-Line, the same company that had popularized if not quite invented the microcomputer adventure game with Mystery House on the Apple II. And since Mystery House had been the first game to combine graphics with adventure game mechanics, perhaps its designer Roberta Williams, along with the technical staff of Sierra On-Line, could create something far more ambitious that would take advantage of the Junior PC’s much superior video display.

The game they produced, King’s Quest, delivered on that promise. Unlike previous graphic adventures, King’s Quest didn’t use the bottom half of its screen for text and the top half  for a static image, like a page out of a children’s book. King’s Quest looked more like a proscenium stage on a computer screen, with colorful scenery and characters that could be guided through that scenery using the PC’s cursor keys. You still had to type commands using simple phrases a la The Colossal Cave Adventure, but you could actually see the results played out on the screen as though you were watching (and directing) a play.

King's Quest 1

King’s Quest. It may not look much now, but in 1984 this was the pinnacle of high-resolution adventure gaming.

The PCjr may have flopped — by the summer of 1985 IBM was stuck with a warehouse full of unsold models — but King’s Quest didn’t. Sierra went on to release eight games in the series for multiple computers, many of the later games modifying the interface so that the player no longer had to type in commands. So successful were the King’s Quest games that they spawned several similar Sierra game series, including Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory (an adventure game-RPG hybrid) and Leisure Suit Larry (a more sophisticated implementation of an early Sierra text game called Softporn Adventure).

Softporn Adventure

Softporn Adventure. Although she didn’t write it, that’s Roberta Williams, wife of Sierra publisher Ken Williams and designer of King’s Quest, on the right. This subsequently became…

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

…this. Yes, it was sleazy and included both bawdy humor and graphic sex. Nobody complained.

As computer power increased and audiences demanded more bang for their video game buck, Sierra complied, upping the visual resolution and number of colors as a new generation of home computers arrived on the market. The sophistication of the games increased too, with some fans regarding Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series as some of the greatest adventure games of the 90s, at least from Sierra. (Confession: I’ve only played the first half of the first Gabriel Knight game, so I have to take the word of others for its superiority.)

Gabriel Knight

Gabriel Knight: Apparently not interested in a high-stakes game of chess.

I’ll admit my bias against Sierra here. Although their adventure games were impressive by the technical standards of the time, the puzzle-solving was unimaginative, characters could be killed off suddenly and arbitrarily in ways that were far more frustrating than fun, and you could often find yourself locked in dead-end situations from which the game could not be completed, even though you were never informed of this. It was possible to spend days trying to solve a problem in a Sierra adventure only to discover that it was unsolvable because you’d neglected to pick up a screwdriver four scenes earlier in a location to which you could no longer return.

And yet Sierra had the legitimate distinction of creating a style of adventure gaming that revolutionized the field and saved it from the fate of text adventures in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, their proscenium-style adventures were widely imitated by other companies. And while many of the imitations, from companies like Accolade and Activision, were roughly comparable to Sierra’s titles, there was one company that took the concept and turned what at Sierra had been run-of-the-mill if technologically advanced games into masterworks of late 20th century computer gaming.

Yes, that’s my bias. And the rest of this post will be about it.

The Age of LucasArts

In 1987 Lucasfilm Games, later LucasArts, released a graphic adventure called Maniac Mansion. It was similar to the Sierra adventures, except that it ran on the Commodore 64, which is where I first encountered it.  It was a parody of low-budget horror films and, to be honest, I can’t even remember if I bought a copy when it first came out. I found myself drawn more to Lucasfilm Game’s second adventure, the 1988 Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, which I found surprisingly engrossing, much more so than the Sierra adventures I’d encountered up until that point. Zak McKracken had a subtlety of wit and puzzle design that made Sierra adventures look as though they’d been designed by sledgehammer. I was enthralled.

Zak McKracken cover

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders cover at by Steve Purcell. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts, now a division of Disney.

This is not to suggest that Zak McKracken was any kind of technological marvel. Perhaps to allow it to run on lower end machines than those targeted by Sierra, the graphics seemed fairly flat and crude, even by the standards of the late 1980s. (More advanced versions of this and Maniac Mansion were published a couple of years later for more powerful machines.)

Screen from Zak McKracken

Screen from Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Note the menu-driven control system that eliminated the need for typed commands. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts.

But the strength of Zak McKracken as an adventure game was its wit. The interactions between Zak and other objects/characters in the game, even the timing with which dialog appeared on the screen (there was no voice acting in the game), suggested a creative sensibility that placed less emphasis on the kind of expensive programming skills that Sierra brought to bear on its games and more on an intuitive sense of what was funny, what was challenging, and ultimately on what was compelling to the player. I found myself enthralled.

LucasArts made rapid leaps forward over the next two or three years with their games for the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga and DOS PCs, games like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (based on the film) and Loom (an innovative adventure that incorporated music into its problem solving). For me, though, the real breakthrough, the game that showed me just how much quality LucasArts was capable of shoveling into the confines of the graphic adventure format, was The Secret of Monkey Island, a game that remains available in updated versions even today. You can even buy it for your iPhone.

I knew that Monkey Island, about a young wannabe pirate named Guybrush Threepwood trying to discover the eponymous secret of the eponymous island, was going to be good when I spent a couple of hours working my way through the playable demo that LucasArts made available online. How good it was, though, wasn’t apparent until I bought the complete game and played it nonstop for two days.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island, when LucasArts adventure games went from being good to being great.

Monkey Island wasn’t just the funniest adventure game I’d played up until that time — I still laugh over the three-headed monkey joke — but had the most ingeniously designed puzzles (always fair and just challenging enough not to be frustrating), characters I actually enjoyed spending time with (including not only Guybrush but Governor Elaine Marley and the ghost pirate LeChuck) and a surprisingly effective romantic subplot. And the soundtrack, even on a PC SoundBlaster card, was possibly the best I’d heard up to that point in a computer game.

The Secret of Monkey Island was followed by a string of sequels (Monkey Island 2, The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island), but also by a raft of LucasArts games that at least equaled if not surpassed the Monkey Island games in quality. These included Sam & Max Hit the Road, The DigFull Throttle, Grim Fandango and the Maniac Mansion sequel Day of the Tentacle, any one of which has a legitimate claim not only to being the greatest LucasArts adventure but the greatest adventure game ever. (My vote is with Day of the Tentacle, which was such an insanely epic comedy adventure that it contained a complete, playable version of Maniac Mansion hidden inside it as an Easter egg, but other gamers will inevitably differ.)

Day of the Tentacle

The tentacles have their day.

The second half of the 1990s, though, saw the output of LucasArts adventures slow to a trickle. Escape from Monkey Island, published in 2000, was the last original adventure game from the company, despite promised sequels to Sam & Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle.

Other than a few new adventures imported from the European market, this was pretty much the death of the adventure game on the American scene, amateur interactive fiction notwithstanding. However, a few years later, graphic adventures would rise again from their graves, thanks in part to a team of designers who had formerly worked at LucasArts.

But more about that in the next installment of this post.

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Adventure Games: The Text Years

What’s your favorite type of computer game? If you’re a typical gamer of the 2010s you may have replied CRPGs (computer role-playing games) like Skyrim or The Witcher, or their massively multiplayer online counterparts like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you like your action faster and more furious, maybe you’re partial to first-person shooters, like Halo or Call of Duty. Or if you lean more toward thoughtful, turn-based exercises in strategy, you might have replied 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”) games a la Sid Meier’s Civilization series. And if you don’t have much time for gaming but need a quick bit of relaxation during your downtime, you might have put in a vote for casual games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush.

But if you’re a long-time gamer, one who’s been playing for 20 years, 30 years, or even more, you might just have said … adventure games.

Tales from the Borderlands

Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands: What adventure games look like in 2015.

Adventure games have gone through many permutations over the last 40 years. They’ve fallen in and out of fashion, they’ve gone through multiple visual and gameplay styles, and there have been periods when they’ve nearly disappeared altogether. But after four decades, they’re still here. And it’s possible they’re more popular than ever.

In the early to mid 1970s, when microcomputers were still barely a blip on the computer hobbyist horizon, mainframe programmer and part-time spelunker Will Crowther logged on to a DEC PDP-10 and used his FORTRAN skills to write a computer game called, simply, Adventure. It was set in a huge cave not unlike Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which Crowther had explored. He wrote the game in part so that his daughters could play it and in part to indulge his love for Dungeons & Dragons. By all reports Crowther’s version was fairly rudimentary compared to later versions, but it caught on and spread from computer system to computer system. In 1976, a Stanford University graduate student named Don Woods expanded Adventure with Crowther’s permission into what became known as The Colossal Cave Adventure. Although it was too large to be played on most microcomputers of the period, it was widely available on mainframe and minicomputer systems. Here’s what it looked like running on a DEC PDP-10:

Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave Adventure: All those words add up to a lot of game.

The Colossal Cave Adventure looks deceptively simple — you type in one- or two-word commands to move around in and interact with a world described purely through text — yet it created a remarkably large, surprisingly open world and went on to become one of the most influential computer games ever written. It spawned a long line of imitations that continues to this day, though you might not recognize most of its descendants based on the text screen reproduced above. If you’ve never played the Colossal Cave Adventure and you’re curious what it was like, here’s a simulation sponsored by the AMC-TV show Halt and Catch Fire.

The original Crowther and Woods version wouldn’t have run on microcomputers in the late 1970s because early personal computers weren’t powerful enough; they didn’t have enough internal memory and they mostly lacked disk drives. However, in 1978, a young Wisconsin programmer named Scott Adams (no relation to the creator of Dilbert) set out to prove that something very much like the Colossal Cave Adventure could be written on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, a popular home computer of the day, and that he could do it in 16-kilobytes of memory. Yes, that’s not 16 gigabytes or even 16 megabytes — that’s 16 kilobytes of memory, where a kilobyte is 1,024 memory locations, each of which can store a single number in the range 0 to 255. To give you a sense for how much memory that is, the text in this blog post takes up about one and half kilobytes, but that picture at the beginning probably uses more memory than Scott Adams’ TRS-80 had in total.

Amazingly, Adams succeeded, writing a game called Adventureland that neatly mimicked the Colossal Cave Adventure without copying it and it ran, as planned, on a 16-kilobyte TRS-80. Adventureland was successful enough in the early gaming marketplace that Adams was able to spin off his own company, Adventure International, and market an entire line of adventure games for several different models of computer. Although no longer for sale commercially, you can still download playable versions from Scott Adams’ own website or play them directly on your browser using the links he supplies at that address.

Scott Adams' Adventureland

Adventureland: Still text, but no PDP-10 required.

Like the Colossal Cave Adventure, the play mechanics of the Scott Adams adventures were simple. You typed in one or two word commands, like “look” (to get a description of what was visible from your current position in the game’s world), “west” (to go in that direction) or “get sword” (to pick up any swords that you may conveniently have stumbled upon).

Even while Scott Adams was marketing his first adventure games, a small group of programmers at MIT consisting of Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling were creating their own, far more ambitious variation on the Colossal Cave Adventure. They called it Zork.

That name may or may not ring a bell. If it does, you probably just experienced a pleasant flash of nostalgia. Zork was witty, quite huge by the standards of late 70s games and had something that neither the Colossal Cave Adventure or Adventureland had: a parser that could read English language sentences and respond to commands longer than one or two words. Admittedly, it still couldn’t understand English as it’s normally spoken between human beings, but if you knew how to construct a command properly — say, “Pick up the gold sword on the wooden desk” — Zork wouldn’t get confused. Zork was the next step in the evolution of text adventures.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire

The first Zork game. Be careful. You might get eaten by a grue!

The microcomputers of the late 70s weren’t ready for Zork, but by the early 80s they were and the Zork programmers, following in Scott Adams’ footsteps, created their own publishing house to publish Zork and the sophisticated series of text adventures that would follow. They called that publishing house Infocom.

Like the word Zork itself, the name Infocom sends shivers down the spines of old-time gamers. Infocom was one of the greatest game publishers of the 1980s, perhaps of all time, and they produced adventure game after adventure game, every one of them just as sophisticated as Zork had been and some of them even more so. I’ve written elsewhere about my love for their mystery game Deadline, which I still consider one of the most magical experiences of early 1980s computer gaming, but Infocom spent most of the 80s turning out one classic text adventure after another: more Zork games, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and others.

Yet even as text adventures were increasing in sophistication, so were the graphics capabilities of microcomputers. In 1980, a young programmer named Roberta Williams, became obsessed with the Colossal Cave Adventure when she played it at home on and Apple II computer serving as a terminal for her husband Ken Williams office mainframe.

Roberta Williams, game designer

Roberta Williams, creator of the graphic adventure Mystery House and a significant designer of early adventure games.

Williams combined the graphics capabilities of the Apple II computer with the mechanics of a text adventure to produce the game Mystery House, which her husband used as the flagship game for what would become one of the most successful game publishing companies of the 1980s and 90, Sierra On-Line. The graphics for Mystery House were crude, but they were an early sign of the direction in which adventure games were headed.

Mystery House by Roberta Williams

Mystery House: Crudely drawn, but a harbinger nonetheless.

By the mid-1980s, purely text adventures had fallen out of fashion in the commercial marketplace. The graphic capabilities of home computers had improved to the point where nobody wanted to play a game that involved reading words rather than looking at pictures. More advanced attempts than Mystery House were made to create text adventures that showed pictures at the top of the screen while text flashed by at the bottom, but this was only a stopgap measure until somebody came up with a better way of combining high-resolution images with the puzzle-solving interactivity that made adventure games so alluring.

Text adventure with graphics

A text adventure with shifting graphic images at the top of the video display. Published by Telarium.

Text adventures never died, really. Nowadays they’re called interactive fiction and people still write them, primarily as a hobby but occasionally for commercial sale. To learn more, check out the Interactive Fiction Wiki to find out where you can download new games and collect tools that you can use to create your own. (I’ll write more about the current interactive fiction field in a later installment of this post.)

Even as the original Infocom games were thriving in the early 80s, though, the seeds for a radically new type of adventure game were being planted. Those seeds would take root at Sierra On-Line and the game designer who would bring them to fruition was the same person who created Mystery House: Roberta Williams.

I’ll talk about that in more detail in the second installment of this post.

Video Games as Story, Video Games as Life: Part Three

So where were we? In the first two parts of this series on video games as virtual reality, I talked about how in 1981 I’d had a vision — not a full-blown clairvoyant vision with my eyeballs rolling backward in my head but more of a daydream about the future — of a time when computer game programmers would create games so realistic that playing them would be like entering an actual world and interacting with the objects and the people there. I talked about how various games, like the SubLOGIC/Microsoft Flight Simulator and Doom had upped the ante on realism in computer graphics to the point where, today, we have games in which the world you see on the computer screen is almost indistinguishable from an actual video. It’s as though game designers can invent an entire planet, populate it with intelligent beings, wait a few million years for those beings to build infrastructure and then let the player carry a camera to that planet and snap pictures of it. Take a look at this screen shot from developer Crystal Dynamics’ recent reboot of the Tomb Raider series:

Tomb Raider 2013

The new, photorealistic Lara Croft

If you’ve played the game (and I strongly recommend it, even if you hated the old Tomb Raider series where Lara Croft looked like a Barbie Doll on steroids) you know that the jungle village the young Lara is entering isn’t a painting or a photo but a detailed three-dimensional model that you, the player, can explore in almost breathtaking detail. The pulleys and elevators actually work (in a virtual kind of way), the wooden surfaces are detailed down to the smallest splinter, and those mountains in the background really can be climbed, at least where they aren’t too steep. And this village is only a tiny fraction of an entire tropical island filled with lovingly designed and vividly rendered sets. (Unfortunately, while this new version of Tomb Raider is better and more playable in almost every way than the old games were, it suffers from one flaw of the original: Lara still tends to fall down and die a lot. But the game itself is so good that I found I really didn’t mind that much.)

Essentially, the graphics problem facing designers of realistic virtual reality games has been cracked. The worlds in modern games can look real, at least if the game designers want them to. (Some game designers deliberately opt for nonrealistic graphics, the way painters in the 19th century began opting for impressionistic images on their canvasses rather than photorealistic ones.) But to my mind the best games are based around stories and story is a more difficult problem than photorealistic graphics, because it can’t be cracked using mathematical algorithms executed by extremely fast multiprocessing CPUs, at least not any algorithms that are on the game-design horizon at the moment. Putting a story in a game isn’t like putting a story in a novel or a movie, which writers and directors have been doing since long before any of us were born. A game story has to be interactive, capable of changing according to decisions made by the player, and that creates a paradox. A story is a series of events with a dramatic shape, building to a climax, but a story shaped by a player could easily collapse into a mass of unrelated events that are about as interesting as watching a traffic jam on the Los Angeles freeways. How can game designers reconcile story and interactivity without creating chaos?

In my 1981 vision, I imagined that artificial intelligence would have been developed sufficiently by now that the game designer would merely have to create a world that had the potential for story and each player would find their own story in that world. For instance, the game could be set in a Central American country on the verge of revolution with a well-meaning but hot-tempered dictator whose beautiful wife is thinking about having an affair. You, the player, would be an American reporter who could choose to get to know the dictator, the leader of the revolutionaries and/or the dictator’s wife and interact with them in ways that could shift this explosive situation in an almost infinite number of different directions. If these characters were full-blown artificial intelligences, the results of the story would be genuinely unpredictable. Even the game designer would have no way of knowing how events would proceed or what the ultimate results would be for each individual player. That’s a game I’d love to play. Game developers could create that game today — maybe they already have — but it would be a cheat. The game designer would have to create certain story paths in advance that would be affected by decisions you make, each decision making you more likely to go down one path than another. And, in fact, plenty of such games have been created and it’s these predetermined story paths that create what happens in the course of game play. Still, the game designer has a certain amount of leeway in how much freedom they actually give the player and how many different predetermined paths the game can take. At one extreme, this type of game design can produce an open world with so many possibilities for story that it comes very close to being the kind of game I envisioned back in 1981. At the opposite extreme, the number of game paths is so limited that the player only has the illusion of free choice and is channeled down a single predetermined story path with only minor variations along the way. Let’s call the first kind of game an Open World game and the second kind of game a Closed Story game. A really clever game designer can create a game that combines both approaches and, in fact, many designers have. We’ll call this the Open Story game. In the rest of this post, I’m going to describe (and review) three games from the last two or three years, each of which takes one of these approaches. For the Open World game, I’m going to talk about The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim from Bethesda Design Studios. For the Closed Story game, my example will be The Walking Dead: Season One from Telltale Games. And for the Open Story game, I’ll describe Dishonored from Arkane Studios. Let’s start with the first:

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Back in the first installment of this post, I talked about how I’d seen the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, in development in 1993 at Bethesda Softworks back when I lived around the corner from their offices and had my mind genuinely, if not literally, blown by what I saw. My mind was even further blown — honestly, I don’t have much of it left — when I saw the game itself. It created an entire continent, Tamriel, and let the player travel across it to complete a lengthy quest. Along the way you could pursue hundreds, perhaps thousands, of side quests and visit hundreds of cities and dungeons, some of which would appear on the game map from the beginning, allowing you to fast travel to them (saving a lot of walking time), and some of them you just had to discover by talking to people or wandering around the countryside, at which point they would appear on your game map. I had always loved the exploration element of computer role-playing games, ever since I played Ultima III on my Commodore 64 back in the mid 1980s, and Arena had the hugest world I’d ever explored. The graphics were low-resolution by modern standards and most of the dungeons were algorithmically generated, so that after a while they started to look alike, but I was stunned by the sheer size of Arena’s world. I still am when I go back and play it using the DOSBox-emulation program. With each subsequent Elder Scrolls game the world has grown smaller — most of the later games have restricted themselves to a single province of Tamriel — but it’s also become more detailed. Skyrim restricts the action largely to the eponymous province, but dear God is it detailed! And it feels huge, as big as the whole continent of Tamriel did in Arena. It contains a multitude of environments, from forests to mountains to arctic wastes, and you can’t go far without stumbling on ancient ruins, tiny villages or someone just spoiling to lock weapons with your character. There’s no plot forced on you in Skyrim, but the opening sequence, where you nearly get your head sliced off on a chopping block, hints that there are larger conflicts involved and it isn’t long before you find out what they are. You can choose to engage in these conflicts or not, and if you choose to do so you can either pick sides or never get around to picking sides. Mostly Skyrim provides you with a world to live in and explore. (You can buy your own house in several of the game’s many cities and the game DLC — downloadable content — even supplies a feature that lets you build your own log cabin from materials you forage in the wilderness.)

Skyrim

Skyrim: Not so much a game as a world to live in

Skyrim comes about as close as any game I know to that game I envisioned more than three decades ago. It still doesn’t feature true artificial intelligence — the game’s many quests and character interactions are still pre-scripted — but the number of ways in which you can combine the game’s dozens of quests and personal choices, along with the sheer exploration element and the games smooth, unforced system of gradual character building make it feel like an RPG version of the old SubLOGIC Flight Simulator. You really do feel that your game experience in the Skyrim world is unique and that while thousands if not millions of players have probably fought the same battles that you have, the way in which you combine the events that make up your character’s life, the total experience that you have in the game, may be different from anyone else’s. There’s a story in Skyrim — actually, there are multiple stories — but after hundreds of hours of play I’ve yet to figure out what the end of it is or even if it has an end. Out of the many characters I’ve created, the one that I’ve worked up to level 45 on my Xbox has come up against a dragon encounter that has an awfully climactic feel to it, but he wasn’t capable enough to handle it, so I reset to the last saved game and sent him off to deal with some of the game’s other plot elements, like the battle for secession being fought between the Skyrim rebels and the occupying army sent by the Empire to put them down. My various characters have chosen to fight with the rebels and with the Empire. Both factions have strong arguments in their favor and notable moral flaws. Sometimes I choose not to get involved with them at all and just busy myself with a little dungeon diving, returning magical artifacts to the NPCs — non-player characters — who’ve asked me to retrieve them. Last night I looked at the number of quests I’ve completed in the Xbox version and was startled at how long the list has become and yet there are whole towns full of people I’m afraid to talk to lest they add dozens of new quests to the list of ones I’ve yet to complete. The very fact that Skyrim has this degree of complexity and no obvious goal for the player to work toward other than the goal the player selects for him or herself is one of the many things that make it feel real. It has a story, but in many ways the story is what you make it. The game designers never force you to do anything, except defend your life when attacked by a hungry wolf or marauding bandits. Rather, the story of the game is what you choose to make out of what may well be hundreds if not thousands of possible quests and decisions, and if you’re not interested in story you can simply explore the world and look at the scenery, playing it as a sandbox game. In Skyrim, you come about as close to shaping your own experience as in any game I’ve ever seen.

The Walking Dead: Season One

It’s hard to imagine something as different from Skyrim in its approach to story as the old adventure games were, though occasionally they could come close. I talked in the first installment of this post about how the early Infocom game Deadline created a surprisingly vivid, interactive world using only words and made me feel like I was actually living in that world, or at least visiting it, for the duration of the game’s 12-hour story. Honestly, though there were more technically impressive adventure games in later years, especially when graphics were added to the equation, I don’t think I ever played another adventure game that had the combination of story and personal freedom that Deadline did. That may well be because game players were put off by the sheer freedom that Deadline allowed. They didn’t know what do with it. They were used to games that pushed them down a single, linear path where the player’s next move was always obvious, leaving little room for nonlinear exploration. I remember people complaining about having to talk to suspects in Deadline because they had no idea what to ask. I’ve heard many of the same complaints about the Elder Scrolls games. People find themselves plunked down in the middle of a vast and complex world and have no idea what to do. Funny, I’ve never had any trouble figuring out what to do in these games. I do the same thing I’d do if I found myself plunked down in a strange city on a Saturday night. I walk around looking for fun and excitement.

But after Deadline, most adventure games became fairly linear, at least by comparison with Deadline or Skyrim, and the player was usually given a clear-cut goal plus a series of problems that had to be solved in order to reach that goal. This could be fun if cleverly done (my favorite later adventure games were the ones from LucasArts, the Monkey Island games in particular), but after a while it got boring. By the late 1990s adventure games were largely dead, at least in the United States. European adventure games would occasionally reach these shores and threaten to revive the genre, but none really succeeded. A few persistent adventure game designers in the U.S., like Jane Jensen, continued to design games for indie publishers, but faced an uphill struggle to get those games to a wide audience.

Then, around 2007, a company called Telltale Games, staffed in part by former employees of LucasArts, began to reignite interest in the genre. They began by taking some of the best of the old LucasArts franchises, like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, and producing new, shorter installment of them, treating them like episodes of a television show and publishing them in “seasons” consisting of five or six games apiece, often involving a continuing story line. The games were sharply produced, with excellent graphics and clever puzzles, drawing old adventure game fans like me back out of the woodwork and creating new fans largely through word of mouth. Pretty soon Telltale had become the new LucasArts and was developing games around franchises other than old adventure games, like the Back to the Future films and Jurassic Park.

Their most successful franchise to date, one that has garnered Telltale a raft of awards and apparently a substantial number of sales, is one based on the AMC-TV series The Walking Dead, probably the most popular original program currently running on basic cable. (Amy and I just finished watching the fourth season and are huge fans.) Games based on other media, especially movies, have a shaky reputation, because they tend to be, well, bad. There are any number of reasons why, including the need to produce them quickly so they’ll come out with the movie, the expense of acquiring the franchise rights (which siphons money out of the game-design budget), and the differences between movies and games. Movies and TV shows have fixed stories, while games are interactive and the player should be allowed to change the story. But how do you allow a player to change a story that the player already knows the end of, having seen it in the theater?

I don’t know what it cost Telltale to acquire the rights to The Walking Dead, but they’ve come up with a clever way of dealing with story. Instead of following the characters and plot points of the TV show, they’ve created an entirely new group of characters experiencing the same zombie apocalypse that the show’s characters are dealing with. This allows them to tell a completely different story, one where you don’t already know who will live and who will die, or where events will lead over the course of multiple “episodes.” As the player, you take the part of Lee Everett, a university professor who has been convicted of murdering his wife’s lover. For Lee, the apocalypse is both a tragedy and a blessing. As the game starts, Lee is being transported to prison by a police officer, whose squad car crashes when a “walker” — the main name the series uses for zombies — steps in front of it. In the resulting crash the officer dies and Lee escapes, only to encounter a young girl named Clementine whose parents have gone to Savannah, Georgia, and haven’t returned. The remainder of the story is about Lee’s attempt to reunite Clementine with her parents, an adventure during which the pair fall in with a group of apocalypse survivors each searching for their own salvation from the end of the world as they know it.

The Walking Dead Season One

The cartoonishly “realistic” graphics of The Walking Dead Season One

The graphics in The Walking Dead, while more or less three-dimensional, are by no means photorealistic. In fact, they look faintly cartoonish, like rotoscoped images of real human actors given a comic twist. The story gives the illusion of interactivity and your choices in conversations and certain actions have an effect on the course of the game’s plot, but the effect is minimal. For instance, in an early scene from the game, if you lie to a farmer about how you wound up injuring yourself in the police car crash, he detects the lie and eventually expels you from his farm, forcing you to join others on a trip to Macon, Georgia. But if you tell him the truth, you still eventually end up on the trip to Macon, just for other reasons. No matter what you do, you’ll end up going to Macon, because that’s where the next section of the story takes place. (Hint: Never lie to anyone in The Walking Dead game. They always pick up on it and you inevitably do better, though only a little better, if you tell the truth.)

I’ve played through the entire first season of the game, albeit without that level of experimentation in most of it, but I suspect the level of interactivity remains about the same. Assuming you don’t do anything that gets you killed (which is quite easy to do in some scenes), you have some minor control over the details of the plot, but the broad story will continue on the same path no matter what you do. The designers of the game have done a brilliant job of making you feel as though you have freedom of choice in the game, but it’s only an illusion. You’re a puppet on a string, but the story is told well enough that it’s a string that’s fun to be on.

The Walking Dead: Season One is the antithesis of that virtual reality game I visualized back in 1981. The graphics are only semi-realistic, there’s very little freedom to branch out and explore, and the story is always going to come out the same. Yet they somehow make it fun and the story they tell is both exciting and moving — much like the TV show, if not quite as well written. I recommend it as a good story decently told, but if an open world is what you’re looking for, The Walking Dead: Season One is not the place to find it.

Dishonored

Dishonored was a surprise. I’d heard that it was a good game, but never imagined how deeply I’d get caught up in it or how its imaginary world would affect me emotionally. It’s a linear game, in the sense that it’s mission-based, much like the Call of Duty games, but in the Call of Duty games you feel like you’ve got a drill sergeant at your back the entire time, telling you where to run and where to shoot. In Dishonored you don’t have any choice as to what missions you go on, but once you’re on a mission your freedom is almost total and the number of options open for you in the environments where the missions take place and in the activities you can perform within those environments is surprisingly large. Dishonored is one of the most replayable games I’ve ever encountered, maybe not quite as much so as Skyrim but more so than any other basically linear, mission-based game I’ve yet seen. Arkane Studios, a subsidiary of Bethesda Softworks and its parent company ZeniMax Media, have absolutely outdone themselves with this game in terms of both storytelling and player freedom. I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly enough.

Dishonored

The stylized but not really cartoonish graphics of Dishonored

The setting is a steampunk version of some late 19th, early 20th century European/American society. You play the Empress’s personal bodyguard, who in the opening sequences is framed for her murder by the very people who have engineered it in an attempt at a palace coup. These blackguards have also kidnapped the Empress’s daughter, the rightful heir to the throne and (if rumor is to be believed) your own daughter as well. You are given a kangaroo trial, thrown in a maximum security prison and assigned an almost immediate execution date, but you escape with the help of a rebel underground that knows you’re innocent and wants you to rescue the young Empress so she can take the throne in place of the pretender who is overseeing the government.

That’s the set-up and each mission is engineered to bring you closer to this goal. Near the beginning you are given some cleverly conceived tools to help you in your missions by a godlike young man known only as the Other whom you encounter in a dream. You soon learn methods of acquiring more tools, the use of which is one of the most thrilling parts of the game. The most amazing tool is the heart, which is apparently the heart of a deceased young woman who doesn’t quite realize yet that she’s dead but who can whisper information to you about your surroundings when you hold her heart in your hand and activate it. This is a chillingly ingenious touch, not only useful but oddly moving. You also acquire a teleport device that allows you to jump from the street to ledges and from rooftop to rooftop, so you can move stealthily through the cities where the missions are set.

And stealth is crucial to this game. You can kill your enemies (or just the people who get in your way) using guns and bladed weapons, but the more you do so, the more chaotic the society becomes, and the more the plague that’s running through this society increases, because the dead bodies you leave behind attract rats, which spread the plague further. Simply put, the more dead bodies you leave in one mission, the more difficult the next mission becomes, until you find yourself fighting a lawless society and swarms of rats that can strip the flesh off your body in seconds if you don’t kill them first. You are much better off sneaking up on people and choking them into temporary unconsciousness than you are killing them, never mind that these “people” are just collections of pixels acting according to flowcharted scripts.

For me, the most stunning part of the game was the climax. I successfully achieved my goal, I thought, but I had played the game as though it were a shooter, killing whenever possible because it’s easier to play that way. But there are consequences to this kind of play and they caught me off guard when at the start of the final mission a character I’d considered a friend performed an act that startled the hell out of me. And what should have been a happy ending had a dark pall cast over it by the effects my action had on someone I loved. The final sequence is hallucinogenic in its intensity, as the Other takes you on an animated 3D tour of the acts you’ve performed throughout the game and you realize how insane some of your actions appear when viewed from outside time and space. Honestly, it took my breath away and I immediately started playing the game again, concentrating on killing as few people as I possibly could. There have been games in the past that have tried to enforce morality and consequences on the player, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done as subtly and effectively as here.

Yes, Dishonored is linear in the sequence of its missions and offers nothing close to the vast, nonlinear landscape of actions and missions found in Skyrim, but the freedom allowed the player within the individual missions is so vast and the use of its tools so varied and imaginative that you feel like you lived through this story to a much greater degree than you feel like you lived through the story of The Walking Dead. Like that game, the graphics are stylized rather than hyperrealistic, as they are in Skyrim, but the games Goya-esque character models and the huge steampunk machines — the giant, whale-oil-fueled mecha suits that city guards wear in some of the towns are both amazing and terrifying the first time you see them storming rebels in the city streets — make the game such a unique experience that I’d be hard put to say whether I prefer this game or the more open Skyrim, which comes closer to my long ago dream of virtual reality. The Walking Dead, though its story pulls nicely on the player’s heartstrings, comes in a distant third as a piece of interactive storytelling because it’s ultimately so lacking in true interactivity.

Have we achieved the ultimate in virtual reality storytelling? Will we someday see my game about the Central American nation on the verge of revolution? In some ways, maybe we already have. In others…I suspect game designers still have some surprises up their sleeves in terms of realism and interactive storytelling but I can no longer guess what they might be.

I can’t wait until I see them, though. And hope I live to see a lot of them..

Video Games as Story, Video Games as Life: Part One

(This is Part One of a multi-part article on computer games as pioneering attempts at virtual reality, all as seen from the viewpoint of a young and then not-so-young gaming fanatic from 1981 through the present.)

In 1981, one day before my first microcomputer was delivered to my apartment by a kindly salesperson, I bought a game for it. It was called Morloc’s Tower and, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was closely related to Temple of Apshai, one of the most successful early computer role-playing games, first published in 1979. The picture on the back of the box showed a simple silhouette of a warrior traversing a two-dimensional maze and facing down an equally simple silhouette of some sort of monster. I was disappointed to discover that this image was from the Apple ][ version, while my computer was a TRS-80 Model III, where everything on the screen was reduced to an even simpler collection of giant pixels. But it really didn’t matter. Just looking at that picture, as crude as it was even in the Apple version, had caused me to have an epiphany.

Morloc's Tower screenshot

A warrior, a monster, a maze: We were easily entertained in 1981.

I’m sure everyone who follows technology and has even a rudimentary knowledge of the principles that underlie it has experienced a moment when they’ve looked at some revolutionary new piece of consumer tech, as home computers still were in the summer of 1981, and caught a glimpse of where that technology would eventually lead. I had already spent a decade playing arcade games, from Pong to Space Invaders to that spanking new sensation Donkey Kong, but it wasn’t until I saw that screenshot of a role-playing game being played out on a microcomputer display that I realized these things we called “computer games” or “video games” could be more than just games. They could be worlds.

By the time my computer arrived the next afternoon, I had already worked out a full-blown vision of what I thought computers would be capable of in 20 years, a period of time that turned out to be fairly close in some ways and completely off in others. We would have wraparound computer screens as tall as we were (wrong, but it turned out not to matter) that would offer us a window into a virtual universe, though I probably didn’t think of it quite in those words, because the term “virtual reality” hadn’t been popularized yet. This universe would be rendered graphically based on a mathematical model stored in the computer and it would be populated by artificial intelligences with whom — I was already thinking of them as beings, not things — we could interact through speech and body movements. The graphics would be so realistic that the AIs would look like real people and the landscape so intricately depicted that you would be able to see individual blades of grass waving in the wind. So realistic would this computer-generated world be that you wouldn’t even feel like you were playing a game, per se. You would be having a full-blown experience, spending a few hours vacationing in a world that just didn’t happen to be your own. The components of the world would be so fully realized and the characters so artificially intelligent that the game designer wouldn’t even need to provide a story. You would create one yourself through the ways in which you interacted with the elements of this virtual world.

Dungeon Master screenshot

Dungeon Master: The most realistic computer role-playing game of the 1980s.

I was so taken with this vision of an electronic universe constructed inside a computer that I started collecting advanced texts on 3D graphics and artificial intelligence. The ones on graphics were intimidating and made me wish I hadn’t slept through high school trigonometry. The ones on AI were less intimidating, but also made the basic problems sound a great deal more difficult.

I obviously wasn’t the only person thinking along these lines, because I quickly began to discover that Morloc’s Tower and its cousin Temple of Apshai weren’t the only games that were attempting to realize some version of that vision. Somewhere in the 80s the term “virtual reality” became common and it was clear to me that it was the goal that a lot of programmers were working toward in the guise of computer games. Over the next decade, games like the Ultima series, the Infocom adventures, the Microsoft, AKA subLOGIC, Flight Simulator, and the undeservedly obscure but extremely influential Dungeon Master were all, in one way or another, doing exactly what I hoped computer games would do: creating worlds. By late in that decade Origin Systems, the company that published the Ultima games, even adopted “We Create Worlds” as its motto. And these worlds that they were creating were ones that I, the person sitting in front of the computer, could in one way or another move around through and interact with, worlds with genuine inhabitants, never mind that those inhabitants were quite simple-minded compared to actual human beings. The fact that these worlds were depicted on a 14″ computer monitor and that their inhabitants couldn’t pass a Turing Test if they had a cheat sheet scribbled on the backs of their virtual hands didn’t matter. A perfect simulation of reality turned out to be far less important than I had thought.

In fact, even perfectly rendered graphics — or graphics at all — turned out not to be essential. The first game where I really felt that I’d fallen through the computer display and into the world of the game like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland was Infocom’s 1982 adventure game Deadline, where the player took the part of a detective with 12 hours to investigate a locked-room murder and to interrogate the occupants of the mansion where it had taken place. Your interface into that world was purely through text. You typed commands using the computer’s keyboard; the game described your environment by printing text back at you on the computer’s screen. The sheer sense of verisimilitude I felt while playing Deadline was a revelation. That mansion was alive! People moved through it on their own schedules and could be observed by the player either openly or, if a suitable hiding place was available, covertly, and sometimes they would behave differently depending on whether they were aware of your presence. You could collect clues, explore hallways, unlocked rooms and the grounds inside the mansion’s fence. You could stop characters in their tracks, talk to them, and ask them questions, which had to be phrased properly before the character would understand them but would often yield interesting (if frequently and deliberately misleading) answers. By the end of the 12 hours, you either had to accuse someone of the crime or get thrown out of the house. Fail to find the correct culprit and you could either revert to a saved game position or start the game over, trying new tactics.

Deadline from Infocom

Deadline: Virtual reality with no graphics in sight.

Deadline fascinated me and I still think it’s the best game Infocom ever published, even better than the more famous Zork series, but some players found talking to the characters boring and later detective adventures from Infocom were far less ambitious. I enjoyed the company’s science fiction and fantasy games too, but none had the phenomenal sense of reality that Deadline exuded. In fact, Deadline might have been a peak moment in the use of artificial intelligence in games. Even today, the only interactions you’re likely to have with computer-controlled characters either involve fighting them or selecting conversational gambits from onscreen menus.

It was, however, text adventures such as this (and simpler ones being produced by a programmer named Scott Adams, no relation to the creator of Dilbert) that inspired me to learn to program. In late 1981 I ordered a book of adventure games written in the BASIC program language, all of which had been published commercially in the late 1970s but were now sufficiently dated that the authors had released the source code to be used for educational purposes. I typed one into my computer and, once I’d finished combing out all the typos, was astonished at how vivid a world it created, all based on typed instructions and fairly simple data structures. I was so excited by this that I stayed up almost 48 hours straight, dissecting the program so that I knew exactly how it worked and then writing a similar program of my own. It turned out to be remarkably easy to create something out of variables and computer data structures like arrays that felt very much like a real world, one with which the player could interact freely.

Still, the reality quotient of games continued to increase and 3D graphics, which were a tougher nut for me to crack intellectually, became rapidly more important. The subLOGIC Flight Simulator, the second edition of which was published the same year as Deadline, was another early milestone in virtual verisimilitude, a stealth attempt to create virtual reality in the guise of a computer game. Even though it ran at about one frame per second on my Commodore 64, I was startled by the sheer volume of the world it depicted. You viewed that world entirely from the cockpit of a small plane and it largely consisted of lines representing roads and rivers, with the occasional wireframe building or bridge and the even more occasional texture-mapped surface. But the fact that I had hyper-realistic control of the way that Piper Cherokee Archer moved through the skies of the game’s four areas (Seattle, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, if I’m remembering correctly) made it easy to believe to believe that there was a world inside my computer. And in a sense there was, except that instead of being made of atoms and molecules, it was made of patterns of electrons stored in a matrix of silicon.

Screenshot from the subLOGIC Flight Simulator

The subLOGIC Flight Simulator: A world made of electrons and silicon.

But what really made the subLOGIC Flight Simulator so astonishing was the sense that every experience you or anyone else had in it was unique, just as every experience you have in the real world is unique. Almost every game of Donkey Kong was identical to every other and there were no doubt other players who typed and were told the same things in Deadline as I was. But the subLOGIC Flight Simulator offered a nearly infinite variety of possible game sequences and it was very likely that the one you were experiencing was different, in at least small ways, from the ones experienced by other players. Although I’m pretty sure the terms hadn’t been coined yet, the subLOGIC Flight Simulator was probably the first example of what later came to be called either an “open world” or a “sandbox” game.  You could go anywhere within the game’s database of maps and you could choose to do just about anything your plane was capable of, including crash into the ground like a bug hitting the windshield of a race car. There was no real goal to the game except the ones you made up for yourself. You were like a child playing in a very big sandbox for the sheer joy of it.

In the 1990s the development of realistic computer-generated worlds really began to take off (no flight-simulator pun intended). For me, the turning point came when the game development firm Blue Sky Productions (later renamed Looking Glass Studios) joined forces with game publisher Origin Systems to create Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, published in 1992. Earlier Ultima games had given the player a top-down view of the imaginary land of Britannia, with pre-drawn animated characters traveling from city to city fighting pre-drawn animated monsters. But Ultima Underworld (which was only loosely related to the mainline Ultima games) gave you a first-person three-dimensional look at its underground universe, a 10-level dungeon illuminated by flickering torchlight and populated by three-dimensional humanoids who were sometimes your friends and sometimes your enemies, but who were rendered in real-time with surprising realism given that the game came out in an era when computer CPUs rarely ran faster than 33-mhz. The wonderful game Dungeon Master, which had debuted on the 8-mhz Atari ST in 1987, had tried something similar and succeeded extraordinarily well by the standards of its time, but Ultima Underworld was the first time I really felt like I was entering that graphically vivid universe I had envisioned when I bought Morloc’s Tower back in 1981. Blue Sky Productions couldn’t make their characters look quite like real people or show individual blades of grass waving in the breeze (not that there were any breezes to be found in its underground environment), but the game was such a stunning leap toward the type of world-building I had longed for that just the playable demo of the first level of the dungeon made my head spin.

Ultima Underworld screenshot

Welcome to the Stygian Abyss!

As revolutionary as it was, Ultima Underworld was not the most influential worldbuilding game of 1992. That role fell to an unexpected candidate, Wolfenstein 3D from Id Software, an attempt to remake a popular Apple ][ game from the 1980s called Escape from Castle Wolfenstein into a high-speed three-dimensional experience. At the time I was working as a moderator on the old Compuserve Information Service, the sort of proprietary online service we hung out on back in the days before the Internet invaded the homes of ordinary people. I found the game in the file upload area of a forum dedicated to PCs (when we were still in the transitional phase between MS-DOS and Windows as the operating system of choice). It ran under DOS and, despite having less realistic (and technically less sophisticated) graphics than Ultima Underworld, the programmers at Id had come up with a way of making Wolfenstein 3D rocket along at high speeds while by comparison Ultima Underworld merely crawled. Programming purists complained that it wasn’t using true 3D graphics, which was true — you could not, for instance, look up and down or climb up to a higher level that looked down on a lower one — but the level design was so clever that you barely noticed. Wolfenstein 3D was addictive in a way that few games had ever been and it spawned a brand-new game genre: the first-person shooter.

Wolfenstein 3D screenshot

Wolfenstein 3D: The first first-person shooter.

When Wolfenstein 3D came out in July 1992, I had, ironically, just finished writing a book called Flights of Fantasy that used my newfound knowledge of computer programming and 3D graphics to explain how to program three-dimensional animation of the type found in flight simulators. (It was published in 1993 by Waite Group Press and came with a working flight simulator on disk that I co-wrote with my friend Mark Betz. I was in charge of writing the graphics animation code and Mark wrote the flight-simulation mechanics. The book spent several weeks on computer book bestseller lists and I’d like to think it taught a generation of young programmers how to write both 2D and 3D games.) The moment I saw Wolf 3D, as it was affectionately known, I proposed to Waite Group Press that my follow-up book, Gardens of Imagination, be about Wolfenstein 3D-style graphics. The contract was in the mail almost immediately.

Flights of Fantasy cover

The book that (I hope) launched a thousand careers.

The programmers at Id Software, meanwhile, weren’t resting on their laurels. Although dozens of Wolf 3D clones began to appear, Id was already at work on the next generation of the Wolfenstein graphics engine, one that came even closer to true 3D graphics. They used it to create the revolutionary game Doom, which appeared in December of 1993. Doom made Wolf 3D look like ancient technology and it deservedly became one of the most popular computer games ever published.

Doom screenshot

Doom: The game that revolutionized 3D gameplay.

While I’ve probably played Doom more than any other game I’ve ever owned — hell, I still play it, albeit in versions with revamped graphics engines that keep it from looking atrociously dated on widescreen monitors — it was really Ultima Underworld that came closest to my 1981 vision of computer games as worlds inside the computer. And while Doom and its follow-up Quake were the games that were really shaking up the gaming industry in the mid-1990s, another company, Bethesda Softworks, was quietly reinventing the Ultima Underworld model and creating the game series that would eventually go on to become probably the most influential in gaming history: the Elder Scrolls. I was lucky enough to live about two miles from Bethesda’s offices while they were developing the first game in the series, Arena, and either because I wrote Flights of Fantasy or because I was a moderator on one of Compuserve’s gaming-related forums — I never was quite sure — I wangled an invitation to see the game while it was still in development. I was stunned by what I saw. Although the graphics look crude now, largely because they were designed for much smaller monitors than we have today and only used 256 different colors, it was the greatest leap yet in the direction of my 1981 vision. The designers at Bethesda were creating a genuine virtual world, one that was vast, detailed and alive.

Arena screenshot

A glimpse of the immense virtual world of The Elder Scrolls: Arena.

Those of you who follow the computer gaming world know that Bethesda is still creating such games today and each one — the latest is The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim — comes closer to that vision of a perfect virtual world that I had 33 years ago. Skyrim may be the most successful game that Bethesda has yet published, though their Fallout games, which create their own virtual post-apocalyptic United States, are probably close in terms of sales.

In 1997 and 1998, a revolution in computer graphics occurred, one that raised the realism component of computer games to new heights and made virtual reality of the kind I had envisioned in 1981 genuinely attainable. But this post is getting too long and I’ll be back to talk about it later.

In Part Two (and possibly Part Three) of this article, I’ll talk about the revolution in gaming brought about in the late 1990s by graphics accelerator boards and how 3D virtual reality games have essentially split into three types — those that tell stories, those that create worlds and those that do both. Stay tuned.