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Friday, November 26, 2010

"It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

1985 was a whole different world.

AIDS hadn't hit yet; the Sexual Revolution was still going strong. President Reagan's wife Nancy told us all to "Just Say No," but most of us weren't. A lot of us hadn't figured out that the seventies were over. If you want pop culture details, I recommend "1985" by Bowling for Soup.*

But this blog is about gaming, and to some extent, computers. We had both in 1985, but they were pretty different from what we know now.

There were games, sure. Dungeons and Dragons was eleven years old by then, and the first edition of Advanced D&D was still going strong. Magic: The Gathering and the Vampire games were still to come by years.

There were computer games. Sort of. Most of the best games you'd see were in the arcades at that time, but for the few who had personal computers back then, you could find a few items.

I'd cut my teeth on ADVENTURE, for the Atari 2600, the old cartridge-based console that pretty much created home console gaming as we know it today. No hard drive, no internet connection, and all of 16 kilobytes of memory. That's KILOBYTES, son, not megabytes, not gigabytes. But what did we know? We thought it was awesome, because it was the cutting edge of technology at the time.

The box is on the right. The actual gameplay screen is on the left. YOU, the player, are represented by the little green square at upper right; the arrow thing you are holding is your magical sword. The yellow thing at lower left is the Grail, the object of your quest; get it back to your Golden Castle, and you win the game! Unfortunately, you have a red duck -- er, DRAGON, to contend with. In this screen, he is very likely charging at YOU, the player; however, since the chunky-pixeled icons could only be rendered ONE WAY, you're holding your sword backwards, and the duck-dragon is charging at you butt first.

Did I mention you can only hold one item at a time? If you charge down and butt the grail with your square little body, you will automatically drop the sword. Luckily, the dragons in this game are so dumb, he'll likely charge into it and kill himself. If he doesn't, though, he'll bump into you, ROAR loudly, and then eat you; your square yellow selfness will be visible in the little hole in his belly. And then you can hit RESET because you've just lost the game.

That was the state of the art in 1980. It had improved a tad by 1985... but not a hell of a lot. ZORK was still the big dog as far as computer fantasy gaming went. It was quite good. It was also completely text based... NO graphics whatsoever.
It was considered hot stuff because it could parse text; you could literally type in English what you wanted to do, and the game would figure it out and let you do it.

It's also worth noting that ZORK and its sequels were still in print for YEARS after the first one came out in 1980. We were still pretty far back along the tech curve; processing power was doubling every few years, sure, but this was not a rapid process when you were starting out with mere kilobytes of memory. Hell, the first computer I ever owned that had an actual hard drive wasn't until 1999.

I do remember the first home computer game I ever played that had actual graphics. It was 1985, the computer was the Tandy ColorComputer (and it should tell you something that Radio Shack was still a player in the computer manufacturing and sales biz at the time), and the game was Dungeons of Daggorath.

Snazzy, eh? Vector graphics! Actual colors! Yowza! Admittedly, the graphics didn't actually MOVE -- although there was sound. No music; this was beyond the capability of the system or the speakers.

You'd type MOVE FORWARD (or M -space - F - space - ENTER) and you'd move up, square by square.

Upon reaching a door, you'd type OPEN RIGHT, indicating you were using your right hand to open the door, and the screen would change. It was essentially creating the illusion of movement by simply drawing a new picture every time you did something. Your computer still does this, but at a framerate of 24 to 30 pictures every second. The old Tandy CoCo had a framerate of... um... about one picture every two or three seconds, if I recall correctly. It was not fast. It seemed downright glacial by today's standards. But it was magic, back in the day.

Oh, look, we're being attacked by a troll. The troll did not move. His pose never changed. You could tell he was moving towards you because his hazy silhouette would appear in the distance, and then he'd suddenly appear -- one square closer to you -- until he was in your face, as he is now, and it was time to fight.

Behind him, you can see the distant form of a snake. The snake will wait patiently until the troll is out of the way before attacking you. This wound up being one of the keys to the game: once you'd become powerful enough, weak enemies like snakes and spiders COULD NOT HIT YOU, which meant if there was a spider in the way, the Troll or Knight (lord, we were terrified of knights) would have to simply stand there behind the spider, waiting for the spider to die, before he could move up and hit you. So long as you had armor and shield and were tough enough -- and had a spider behind you -- you could explore the dungeon in relative safety. It was also handy to save empty potion bottles and discharged magic rings -- if you threw them down on the ground in front of you, the enemy HAD TO PICK THEM ALL UP BEFORE ATTACKING YOU.

This is how I killed my first Knight -- I dumped all my stuff on the floor except my sword and shield, and waited. When a knight found me, I beat the crap out of him while he was picking up all my stuff. I finally managed to kill him, just as he was picking up the last item.

The second knight was easier. And note that we had to find all this crap out by trial and error. There were no hint books, no cheats, and no Internet to go and look stuff up on.

This brings me to the real topic that made me sit down today for yammer: the story I read in 1985. It was published in Dragon magazine that year -- issue 97 -- and was pure science fiction. In it, a young girl is trying to make money so she can attend this exclusive music school in Austin. Her method of making money is rather unorthodox: she is playing a game called "Catacomb" on her computer.

Catacomb isn't just a simple computer game, though. She's connected to thousands of other players, all over the country, and many of the people she meets in-game are ACTUAL PEOPLE, avatars of players from other places! And in Catacomb, it is possible to slay monsters, take their treasure, and either buy better gear in-game... or trade it for a fraction of its value in real American money. This is how she hopes to make enough for tuition: by slaying monsters in an "online" game you play on a "web" of other computers.

I don't think today's youth can imagine how incredibly unlikely all this sounded back in 1985.
Sure, we knew about computers. We were cheerfully dropping quarters in them in our free time to play anything from Video Poker to Spy Hunter. In fact, that year, a dungeon-type arcade game, Gauntlet, was quite popular with a lot of people I knew. But playing over a web of computers? How would you connect them? Telephones? The long distance fees would beggar a king!
Shows what I knew. In the SJG game Car Wars, autoduellists could keep in touch while on the road using Elmay (short for electronic mail), a computer text that could be transmitted and recieved within seconds. Suuuure. Why use Elmay when you could just call someone up? And the idea of a game where you could actually sell your in-game treasures for real money? Ha, ha, ha!
Sure sounded like science fiction to me. But the guys at SJG were a lot more plugged into the world of computers than I was. And, apparently, so was Henry Melton.

You want to know what the world of online gaming looked like from the far distant world of 1985? The author of Catacomb, one Henry Melton, was kind enough to post the entire text of the story on his web site. Here's the link:
So go see for yourself.

*The lyrics to the song "1985" by Bowling for Soup can be found here: