Losing Apple II writers to GamerGate

September 22nd, 2014 10:57 AM
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The video game industry has been ashamed to host a recent debacle known as GamerGate. At its heart are matters of equality and diversity in the tech industry, which hits close to home for me: I host a podcast about those very issues.

The fallout from GamerGate is that voices that were already marginalized — in this case, women's — were silenced, with several accomplished writers leaving the industry. I don't blame them: no one should have to tolerate the abuse, harassment, and threats that these professionals have.

Despite a thirty-year gap between the Apple II and GamerGate, these writers' departure is to the detriment of even our retrocomputing community. Jenn Frank, whom I support on Patreon, not that long ago wrote over a thousand words on the legacy of Mystery House. In this piece, she outlines how the game launched Sierra On-Line as a company and the genres of graphical adventure and graphical mystery-horror. Frank does this not by examining her own navel, as this blogger does, but by interviewing a cavalcade of modern and legendary game designers, including Ken Williams, Jake Elliott, Erin Robinson, Ken Levine, Jane Jensen, and Al Lowe.

Mystery House, despite not being that much fun, even opened the door for women — maybe even Frank herself — to make names for themselves in a traditionally male-dominated industry:

Best of all, Mystery House resulted in the founding of Sierra itself. While many female developers often find it difficult to break into the modern-day mainstream games industry, Jensen remembers Sierra as a boon to women: "I was lucky getting into Sierra Online," she reminds us, "because there were already a number of strong female designers there — Roberta Williams, Christy Marx, Lori Cole. So I never felt there were any stumbling blocks at all in my path."

Mystery House

How one game defined a genre (or two) without being particularly enjoyable.

Don't expect any more research and writing like this: Jenn Frank has left the industry. Trolls and thugs drove her off.

Who's next? Leigh Alexander? One of the most distinctive and prolific voices of modern gaming journalism, Alexander's gaming origin is rooted in the Apple II. She's been revisiting the computer games of her youth, narrating her gameplay experiences on YouTube. She too has applied her unique lens to Mystery House. But she's not going anywhere, despite some gamers making it clear her voice is not welcome — to which she taunts, "What, you want to leave me death threats? Go for it!"

If you want to read more about Mystery House, Jimmy Maher has written on the subject extensively. But that's not the point. Who knows what Frank's next piece would've been? We'll never know. Will Alexander continue sharing her unique experiences on YouTube? If things get worse, maybe not.

Yesterday's games are treasures for today's journalists and historians to discover. It is important to preserve not just the subject of their study, but the dedication and perseverance of those skilled professionals who will deliver it to us. By supporting those who support the Apple II, we make an investment in their future. Alexander tells us how:

When you see something unjust happen, say that you condemn it. When someone's the victim of destructive sexist behavior, defend them — not in a brownie points-seeking way, directing your comments at the victim herself or copying women into your Tweets so that they know you’re a good guy — but in your own channels. When you see friends and colleagues passing on destructive opinions, challenge them. By engaging the issue yourself, you take responsibility.

Be aware of your own power and how you can use it to help others. … Don't just send her a nice note in private about how bad it looks like things are sucking and how you "have her back." Actually have her back. Stand up in public and say that yours is not a professional infrastructure that allows women to be abused or treated unfairly. Say that so-and-so is a talented, valued asset you’re proud to work with or for.

Ernest Adams has similar words of advice. Read his "Call to Arms for Decent Men".

Whatever your generation or gender, we're all gamers. Let's stand up for one another.

The 10 most expensive Apple II games

October 21st, 2013 5:22 PM
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Brian Picchi: I'm your biggest fan. You were a great guest on Open Apple; your Apple II videos on YouTube are informative and entertaining; your Deadly Orbs game is killer; and your website runs WordPress.

But where have you been all my life — or at least, the last month? I haven't heard so much as a peep out of you, so I went digging through your YouTube channel to find the latest. Uploaded on September 14, your rundown of the most expensive Apple II games on eBay was a fun watch:

For your fans in a rush, here is a summary of your findings:

GameValue
Wings Out of Shadow$0709
Labyrinth of Crete$1000
Cranston Manor$1525
Mystery House$1691.66
Ultima I+II$1775
Time Zone$1825
Softporn Adventure$1999
Zork$2495
Starcross$2495
Akalabeth$4900

I'm not much of an eBay user, having taken 14.5 years to earn my 100-star rating this month. The only Apple II software I've bought on eBay is Microzines; I've never paid more than $20 or so for anything Apple II-related on the auction site. That anyone has so much money to spend on these games is a little baffling to me. I understand the appeal of collecting items of historical significance — no one is buying Akalabeth to play it — but that's a lot of dough to drop on something of esoteric interest. A framed Akalabeth over your mantle won't engage many house guests.

But hey, I know you're not just trolling eBay to pick up some games, Brian Picchi; you're one of those hawkers of rare goods, with a copy of Akalabeth all your own. I'm sure your wife will be happy when you cash in those chips.

So keep up the good work, Brian Picchi — just don't go a whole month between videos, if you can help it.

The King's Quest continues

April 14th, 2011 2:50 PM
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As mentioned on this week's episode of Open Apple, remakes of Sierra's first three King's Quest point-and-click adventures are now available as free downloads from developer AGD Interactive. The only game in that series I'd previously encountered was the fifth, courtesy its Nintendo adaptation. I wouldn't think earlier incarnations of such a crude game would age well, but I've briefly played AGD's version of King's Quest III, released just this year, and found it a superb and enjoyable title that is competitive with today's games.

If you've never played King's Quest and are wondering what all the hubbub is, Clint puts the original game in context, recollecting how groundbreaking the interface was compared to predecessors such as Mystery House:

To our modern gaming world, King's Quest is hopelessly antiquated in both look and play, but it still stands as one of our most important relics of computer gaming. And back in the day, I was as mesmerized as anyone by the amazing magic it represented. King's Quest … was nothing less than revolutionary, and I don't think it's too much to say every graphical adventure game that followed owes it (and, I guess, IBM's money) at least a nod of respect.

As Clint alludes to, King's Quest did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did it prove to be an anomaly. The entire lifespan of the genre that Sierra redefined is reviewed in Ars Technica's in-depth look at the 25-year rise and fall of a beloved genre. The piece encompasses all variety of graphic adventures, from the Macintosh classic Shadowgate to LucasArts' many SCUMM titles to Telltale Games' recent episodic ventures, such as Sam & Max.

It's a lengthy piece of journalism — nearly 7,000 words. In about as much time as it'll take you to read, you could play through the entire King's Quest game, as demonstrated in this speed run:

If you ask me, such experiences are meant to be savored, indicative as they are of a more thoughtful era in computer gaming. My thanks to AGD Interactive for bringing the past into the present, and for Sarien for suggesting that touch interfaces such as the iPad offers are ripe for a resurgence in the genre's popularity.

(Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

UPDATE: Want to see the full King's Quest played in real-time? Spend 98 minutes watching this video!

The return of interactive fiction

November 18th, 2010 10:09 AM
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Text adventures, or interactive fiction, are currently en vogue, as evidenced by more than the release of the medium's own documentary. Beyond GET LAMP and its niche market, IF has been making appearances in even mainstream media, leading the way for new and exciting developments in this classic gaming genre.

My cousin, bless her heart, emailed me this clip from the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory, asking, "Do you remember these games, or are they before your time?"

I suspect most of BBT's geeky audience will recognize and appreciate this nod to gaming's textual origins, as even modern gaming has taken to acknowledging its roots. Earlier this month, Activision released the highly anticipated first-person shooter, Call of Duty: Black Ops (or CoD:BlOps for short). The game includes an Easter Egg: hidden within but accessible from a virtual computer terminal in the game's militaristic setting is none other than Zork itself. This treat is made possible by Activision's purchase of Infocom in 1986, seven years after the company was founded and three before it was shut down.

Although this bonus feature is an amazing opportunity to introduce the current generation of gamers to interactive fiction, Jason Scott points out an inherent flaw in the context in which Activision has chosen to do so. Players of CoD:BlOps are expecting an intense, fast-paced, and violent experience, filled with twitch reactions and realistic graphics. To ask them to slow down, sit at a virtual keyboard, and be challenged by the puzzles of Zork only brings into contrast how far gaming has come, and the obstacles IF now faces.

Nonetheless, those obstacles are being tackled — and overcome — by the likes of Andrew Plotkin. This IF designer, interviewed in GET LAMP, recently set out to use Kickstarter to raise enough money to quit his day job and dedicate himself to creating text adventures for Mac, PC, and iPhone. He hoped to raise $8,000 in 30 days; in the first twelve hours, he raised $12,000.

Many of Plotkin's current works can be played on his homepage, where we should expect to find the fruits of his labors continue to be published once his sabbatical begins.

In the meantime, if you want to try a point-and-click interface that explores abstract concepts in an interactive fiction-like experience, try A House in California, loosely based on the Apple II classic Mystery House. It's one example of how far IF actually has come in the past three decades — even if it is no Call of Duty.

(Hat tips to Andy Molloy and Jason Scott)