You wouldn’t know it, but this is a story about ponycorns, and how something really amazing happened.
One Life, No Continues
One of the best things about being a game developer (aside from having a job that’s ALL FUN ALL THE TIME, with NO HARD WORK INVOLVED WHATSOEVER), is that all of my heroes are still alive. If you’re a mathematics fan, most of the biggest names in your movement have been pushing up daisies for centuries; if you’re into philosophy, your guys have been gone for millennia. (But what is death, really?)
We’ve lost a few folks: there’s Gary Gygax (but i was never a big D&D player), and Dan Bunten (but again, i could never figure out how to play my friend’s cracked C64 copy of M.U.L.E. without an instruction manual). Whenever i mention this, my 1337 gaming friends bring up a Japanese designer whose name escapes me … i only really follow Miyamoto, who’s still alive and kicking, with that almost unnerving Peter Pan grin.
He believes in fairies.
Da-Doo Ron Ron
One of my favourite developers is Ron Gilbert, who created Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island (as well as The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which happens to be my favourite game of all time). He went on to develop a number of kids’ games with Humongous Entertainment. That makes us both kids’ games designers, so i feel there’s a certain affinity there. He worked on the first Penny Arcade game and designed DeathSpank with Hothead Games. After leaving Hothead, he eventually fell back in with Tim Schafer, a former LucasArts intern who worked with Ron on the Monkey Island games.
Back at Game Developers’ Conference 2011 a few months ago, i shamelessly geeked out when Ron delivered his Maniac Mansion postmortem, and he agreed to pose for a picture:
i would have been satisfied just touching the hem of his garment.
What’s more, he even deigned to sign my two original Amiga 500 Monkey Island game boxes from the games i actually played as a kid in the early 90’s. They’re hanging on my office wall right now:
… opposite the gigantic plaque-mounted Monkey Island posters:
It Began, Fittingly, With Piracy
What’s the big deal about Gilbert’s games? As i explained to him, here’s how it went down:
i didn’t have my own computer growing up in the 80’s because we were cash-strapped, and at that time home computers were toys of the idle rich. In one of the few times when i saw him, my father bought me an Atari 2600 for my birthday a few years after the crash, when 2600 shovelware was filling the bins at $1/cartridge (it’s actually not far off the situation in the App Store, actually. History repeats itself.)
i got a lot of play time in at The Twins’ house … that’s where i’d go to fill in the gap between the end of the school day, and the end of my mom’s work day. The Twins had a C64 and a massive treasure trove of over 400 pirated games. i used to love flipping through those big plastic floppies, reading the cryptic names written to the disk labels in the handwriting of multitudes of mysterious people, using a variety of pens.
Me: What’s ‘Whirlinerds’?
Twin #1: (from the other room, where they were playing with G.I. Joes) Oh – it’s this game where you’re a guy with a propeller on his head. It’s really hard.
(flip flip flip flip)
Me: What’s ‘Transformers’?
Twin #2: Sucks.
(flip flip flip flip)
Me: What’s ‘GEOS’?
Twin #2: Educational.
Twin #1: Sucks.
Always heed the wisdom of The Twins.
From there, it was just a quick LOAD *.*, 8
(Did i mention how much i hate the command line … ?)
Twitch games were okay (Whirlinerds was actually pretty difficult), but the games i really took to were the text adventure games. There were a bunch of them in that disk tray. i didn’t get to play any of the best-in-class Infocom titles (The Twins had Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but we weren’t allowed to play it. Here are a few games i came back to time and again:
The Dallas Quest was based on the popular prime time soap drama Dallas. Oh yes it was.
Windham Classics was a series of text adventures based on kidlit. Even though the Wizard of Oz displayed all of the relevant parser commands in a sidebar, i still couldn’t beat it.
Some people really went gangbusters for Windhan’s Alice in Wonderland and Below the Root, but i found the graphics so low-fi that i had no idea what was going on. (That’s an umbrella? … Seriously?)
Law of the West was a game about moral choices that ah hear tell still influences game designers to this very day.
QuestProbe was a trilogy of text adventures based on the Marvel license. The games had terrible graphics and a really primitive parser, but they were awesome cuz superheroes.
In the early days of Sierra, before King’s Quest, they released a few adventures like The Wizard and the Princess, and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece. (They’d obviously never cracked a Classics text book … Ulysses/Odysseus never touched that fleece … it was Jason.)
The schtick was the same with all of these games:
> get shovel
(wait wait wait)
You pick pup the shovel.
> dig hole
(wait wait wait)
(slow-ass graphics refresh)
You dig a hole in the ground. There is treasure here.
> get treasure
(wait wait wait)
I don’t understand “treasure”.
> well, sssssuper.
Enter the Maniacs
i’ll never forget the day The Twins came home from their friend’s house, breathless and sweaty, and recounted the incredible things they’d seen on another C64.
Twin #1: It’s this GAME, and you get to pick like three people …
Twin #2: from a list of TEN …
Twin #1: Yeah, and you have to break into this mad scientist’s house and rescue your girlfriend …
Twin #2: and you get chased out of the house by this nurse with a knife …
Twin #1: … and later you have to call her on the phone and she teaches you how to make a dirty phone call …
Twin #2: … and you have to ring the doorbell and this guy comes down to the front door while you hide in the bushes, and you have to switch to another kid and break into his bedroom …
Twin #1: … and steal his hamster and put it in the microwave …
Twin #2: … and it’s totally …
Both Twins Together … AWESOME!!
It was pretty clear to me that The Twins had been enjoying some hallucinogens at their friends’ place. What they were describing wasn’t even possible in a video game.
Me: So you … so you type out your commands, and all this stuff happens in text descriptions?
Twin #2: NO! It actually happens on the screen. And it’s like …
Twin #1: It’s like animated, and stuff.
Twin #2: It’s like playing a MOVIE.
Me: (after a long, thoughtful pause) … You guys are full of CRAP.
Maniac Mansion: the fever-dream of 10-year-old boys
Legacy of the Tentacle
As it turns out, they weren’t full of crap. It was some time later that i actually got a chance to play Maniac Mansion for myself, but since that day, i’ve been enthralled with the graphic adventure genre and the possibilities it pioneered. Now, nearly a quarter century later, i run my own video games studio making games in the same style, using UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), a tool very similar to SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) that ran those wonderful old games.
We just released a game that i made with my 5-year-old daughter called Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. It’s a graphic adventure game that went viral, and eventually found its way to Ron Gilbert, who talked it up on Twitter:
Shit just got real.
Friends … dear readers, you have to understand … i’ve never cried tears of joy in my LIFE – not even on the day that Cassie herself was born – but when i saw that tweet by Ron, my living game dev hero, my face leaked. If Cassie’s ponycorns day in kindergarten was the best moment for her in all of this, Ron’s shout-out has been the absolute highlight for me.
i wasn’t the only one at Ron Gilbert’s GDC Maniac Mansion postmortem to credit him with my career in the games industry. He heard the same story numerous times that day, and whenever someone would tell him “you’re the reason i got into the video games industry!” his response was always the same: “i’m sorry.” Don’t be sorry, Ron. It’s largely because of you that i’m here to begin with, making the things i make, and striving for the things i strive for.
i touched Ron Gilbert, and he touched me.
i mean, i don’t want to kiss the guy on the mouth or anything. i just wanted to say thanks.