Results tagged “history”

XCOM: A Link to the Past

Sad to report that television pioneer Gerry Anderson passed away today. I’d like to briefly recognize an interesting and surprising connection between one of his works — perhaps one lesser-known outside of Europe — and the modern videogame landscape.

The startlingly outlandish 1970 TV series UFO, co-created by Anderson with wife Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill, described an oddly low-intensity invasion of Earth by small teams of silent extraterrestrials. Their motives were unknown, but their methods were unmistakably hostile; they had a particular penchant for kidnapping earthlings and borrowing their internal organs. Neither slavering Xenomorphs nor chatty Klaatus, the puzzle the enigmatic aliens posed in their highly objectionable but weirdly small-scale incursions provided the show’s unique hook. The show’s protagonists worked for an international defense force tasked not just with tracking and confronting the UFO-riding, laser-wielding aliens through a network of specialized satellites and aircraft, but attempting to work out the invaders’ motivations and secrets in their futuristic science lab.

Why, yes, this does sound rather a bit like the plot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game which has recently captured my attention and imagination. Julian Gollop, lead designer of UFO: Enemy Unknown, the 1994 computer game upon which XCOM is based, has said in interviews that the TV show played a key role in inspiring the design (to say nothing of the title) of his game. Even through at least two layers of abstraction and twice as many decades of intervening influence, one can still trace the unlikely lineage between this best-case blockbuster videogame and this quirky lo-fi TV show.

Isn’t cross-media pollination wonderful?

Here’s the show’s brassy and compelling opening sequence. This could almost be an alternate teaser trailer for XCOM, as-is.

Spacewar at MIT

Today I dropped by MIT to see a demo of Spacewar, the Very First Videogame -- originally written for the PDP-1 in 1962; now reconstructed by GAMBIT for the Arduino.

My photos aren't terrifically clear, but you can see the two spaceships maneuvering around a central sun (and its gravity well). They shoot at each other, and that's a videogame. The starry background, famously, is based on actual star charts.

The original source code to Spacewar has long been available (here, for example) but it is minimally-commented PDP-1 assembly code and not very accessible. The GAMBIT folks have worked for several months to reverse-engineer the code and figure out what's going on. See their blog posts on the project.

GAMBIT has promised (nudge, nudge) to post their marked-up copy of the original assembly, to document what they've discovered. I'll add a link when that happens.

If you missed Spacewar today, you should drop by the MIT Museum this Friday evening (5:30 pm); the game will be demoed again.

More photos below the dotted line.

Speaking of Breakout

A coincidence apropos to this week’s biggest technology-news story:

While researching my Pilgrim book review, I discovered that the person Atari contracted to implement the first Breakout prototype in 1975 was Steve Jobs. Yes, the very same.

Naturally, he subcontracted the nitty-gritty work to his friend Steve Wozniak, and Wikipedia relates the eyebrow-raising twist ending to that story.

Somehow I had managed to be the long-time Mac-loving videogame nerd I am without knowing any of this. Frankly, I didn’t believe it when I first read it yesterday, but it seems well cited and corroborated.

So there you have it. Steve Jobs has been both crafting medium-defining technology projects and, ahem, turning absurdly high profit margins for the whole span of my life so far. I wish him all the best, and hope he finds a way to keep at it.

David Sudnow: Pilgrim in the Microworld

Piano keysNear the beginning of David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, published in 1983, the author, a Berkeley-based sociologist and polymath, describes his discovery of the Atari VCS at a friend’s party. Missile Command in particular intrigued him so much that he immediately visited a store to buy his own console. That game was out of stock, but the salesperson recommended Breakout instead. He proceeded to play that game obsessively for three months, and then wrote a 160-page book about it. The resulting artifact was unique for its time and remains an unusual work; even as the field of games criticism grows deeper and richer, this book from the previous century has something to teach us.

42, in a Texan dialect

According to Wikipedia, Texans have long considered the dominoes game called 42 their very own statewide pastime. Texas State Rep. Erwin Cain has successfully led an effort to make this official, introducing his bill on the State House floor with an original bit of charming doggerel recapitulating the game’s traditionally accepted history:

Using double six dominoes in 1887
They created this holy game
Or rather it fell straight from heaven
Our blessed 42 with now such wide acclaim

No game of chance is this
As in cards, roulette or dice
For skill it takes in this game of bliss
Not so for those games of vice

(The full text is up at Purple Pawn.)

I get a kick out of this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I like stories about the ingenious compromises people make when they wish to adhere to strict religious traditions while also satisfying their earthly desire to play a good game with friends and family. Rep. Cain seems to subscribe to the notion of dominoes as wholesome alternatives to the cards and dice that certain stripes of Christian culture proscribe as devilish — regardless of their functional similiarity! It reminds me also of observant Jews’ use of bookmarks to keep score during the Sabbath (the day of rest that forbids activities resembling labor, including writing). This creative tiptoeing through the sacred rulebooks in order to get some good games in strikes me not at all as shallow, but rather a beautifully human way of approaching the ineffable.

On a more material level, I always enjoy learning about the folk tabletop games associated with different parts of the United States. It seems that every nameable geographic/cultural region across the country has at least one game that it calls its own. The relationship between 42 and Texas is news to me — as is 42 itself, since domino games, so prevalent in the American south, remain alien to this Yankee. The child of Downeast Mainers, the table games I grew up with all involved one of those sinful card decks, with Cribbage chief among them. My friends of a more Midwestern bent, on the other hand, tend to be veteran Euchre players.

Do any studies exist on these sorts of regionally fastened games across America? One imagines this to be a subject as trackable as spoken dialect — and at least as interesting, as far as I’m concerned.

The World was Without Form

Jason Dyer explores Will Crowther’s Adventure — the truly original proto-game, that is, before Don Woods got his hands on its source code and turned it into the work that defined computer-based gameplay for many years. I was under the impression that this ur-version was lost to time, but it looks like Dennis Jerz dug it up a few years ago.

Jason’s description of the rough-hewn game is oddly haunting, the map of a dim dream-world that doesn’t quite exist yet.

However, one gets the strong sense this was an abandoned work in progress. The bottom level (with Bedquilt and the Swiss Cheese Room) has exits that don’t work, and one that crashes the game. The area even has a sign that says: ‘CAVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION BEYOND THIS POINT. PROCEED AT OWN RISK.’ I first took this sign as an signal of danger in the in-game universe, but instead it appears to be Crowther’s marker that the code is unfinished past that point.

There’s a long featureless hall to the west leading to nothing.

You too can learn the shocking truth of what the very first GETtable LAMP might actually have been shaped like!

Jeff Grubb on Spelljammer's origins

Dungeons and Dragons design veteran Jeff Grub recalls the origins of Spelljammer, an early-1990s D&D supplement that allowed players to launch their faux-medieval fantasy campaigns into outer space.

Here is the image I pitched. A knight standing on the deck of a ship in space. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t float away. Everything that follows comes out of that one image, which is captured (with more to it as well) on the final cover Jeff Easley did. All what people have called “Grubbian Physics” with its air envelopes and its gravity planes, comes from creating a universe where that image is true.

The idea using a single image as a design cornerstone for a game (or a role-playing game’s setting) resonates with me. A single, powerful seed-image also lay at the core of The Warbler’s Nest, and was instrumental in getting me to actually complete and ship the game. I really just wanted make it real and share it as an experience; the rest of the game was almost just a delivery system for that one moment. (Which helps to explain why the whole thing’s so short…)

The techy post, part 4 of 4

So, here's the Glk and Glulx update plans for 2011.

The techy post, part 3 of 4

The current state of the Inform and Glulx universe...

The techy post, part 2 of 4

Sorry, we've experienced a bit of post bloat. This series will be four parts, not three. (Just four, though.)

The techy post, part 1 of 3

I spin a bunch of verbiage on the Kickstarter page (and in the video) about Glulx and Quixe and other silly words. Long-time IF aficionados (with your bottles of aficiolemonade, yes, I know I've made that joke before)... sorry.

Long-time IF aficionados already know what I mean by all those terms; you can tune out now. Contrariwise, if you have no interest in the software architecture of IF interpreters... you can also tune out now. But if you think APIs are cool, read on.

Weekend links: two on chess

Lewischess2-popup.jpgVia the New York Times’ “Gambit” chess blog, we learn of a new controversy surrounding… well, not so much a very old game as a set of very old game pieces, with new evidence causing some to question the national origin of the celebrated Lewis Chessmen.

But really, I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention these extraordinary game pieces on this blog. Even though they’ve been known to the modern world since the 19th century, I first learned about them only some months ago while kicking around Wikipedia. While they like look like the whimsical work of a modern sculptor — at least to my unschooled eye — they were actually carved some 800 years ago.

I showed pictures of these little guys to a friend this morning, one who actually does know something about art history. She tried to add a little perspective to my astonishment, noting how a lot of medieval artwork looks comically cartoony by modern standards. But while she spoke, all I could think was: boy, I’d love to just reach over and pick one of these pieces up. I recognize intention in their squat, chunky shapes: they were made to thunk down on the board, decisively. I bet they make a really satisfying sound when that happens.

Heading away from the past and into an uncertain future, we discover quantum chess, a computer game by Queen’s University student Alice Wismath, based on a concept by Selim Akl, a computer science proessor at Queen’s. It appears to be an academic work in progress, though one fun enough to have gained a bit of media traction. Certainly, it’s an intriguing idea, using the notion of quantum superposition to add a (perhaps rather thick) layer of tactical surprise to an otherwise pure strategy game:

A piece that should be a knight could simultaneously also be a queen, a pawn or something else. The player doesn’t know what the second state might be or which of the two states the piece will choose when it is moved.

“It was very weird,” said Ernesto Posse, a Queen’s postdoctoral researcher who took part in a recent “quantum chess” tournament at the university in Kingston, Ont. “You only know what a piece really is once you touch the piece. Basically, planning ahead is impossible.”

Like a lot of geeks, I’m enamored with the twisty little passages that represent quantum physics (or at least the closest representation a layman like me can grasp). But even moreso, any science that can plug itself into a cultural foundation of gaming to produce wacky chess variants is my kind of science.

IF News & Dungeon Report

It's been a crazy couple of weeks in IF, and we're expecting several more months of crazy on the horizon.

  • Aaron Reed's book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 has gone to the printer. You can pre-order it through Amazon. This is an I7 tutorial which concentrates on -- well, as the title says, on creating interactive stories. It's not a programming reference manual, and it assumes no knowledge of programming. I haven't seen this yet but by all reports it is fantastic.

  • Jason Scott's movie GET LAMP has gone to the printer and come back. You can order on the web site. He says that they'll start shipping out next week.

  • The Gameshelf's own Jason McIntosh posted his own IF video... oh, wait. You already saw that.

  • We invited people to get together at MIT and play Zork (the original MIT mainframe version). A whole lot of people did! It was a bunch of fun and we will be continuing the IF-playing series.

The Silver Age

3680301979_4de6bcc232.jpgI wish to make an extended footnote on last Monday's post, regarding further similarities I see between the comics and video game markets. When I was in high school I went through a profound comics-geek phase where, beyond the typical obsessive book-hoarding, I undertook to learn everything there was to learn about that medium's history (a full decade before Wikipedia came 'round, my son). I've long since sold my longboxes full of Mylar-bagged pulp, but that knowledge remains, and I can't help but get very tangential when I have reason to compare comics to any other medium. Having thus further established my nerdboy bloviation credentials:

I see Valve Software today holding the same position in the overall media landscape that Marvel Comics occupied in the early-mid 1960s. In both cases, we have two experienced studios, neither the mainstream-recognized giants of their fields, who made an unusual decision: they chose to spend the creative capital gained from prior commercial success to quietly revolutionize their respective medium's dominant genres, rather than take the safer path of grinding out more derivative sameness.

System's Twilight turns fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, I released my first full-scale original game: System's Twilight.

And when I say "released", I mean "I uploaded it to the Info-Mac FTP archive at SUMEX-AIM." I set up a web page for the game, but I didn't publicize the URL much, because what was a URL? Everyone used FTP.

(I think Info-Mac had a web server too, by that point. But HTTP was merely an alternate way to access the files. It wasn't a web site.)

For fun, here's the announcement I posted to Usenet. (Thanks to Google Groups for preserving it; no thanks for making it really hard to find.)

  From: "Andrew C. Plotkin" 
  Subject: NEW: System's Twilight 1.00
  Date: Sun,  9 Oct 1994 13:36:56 -0400

  I just sent this out to the archives yesterday; it's on the faster
  mirrors already. It's in ./game/systems-twilight-100.hqx on Info-Mac. It
  should appeal to the Cliff Johnson / Heaven&Earth fans that have been
  talking recently...


  System's Twilight: An Abstract Fairy Tale

  This game is a story and a puzzle. The story is made up of several
  parts, not all of which may be obvious. The puzzle is made up of
  many puzzles, some of which aren't obvious at all.

  That's all I'll tell you. The rest you get to figure out yourself. Have

I haven't pasted in the whole thing, but check it out for historic amusement. Bang paths! Compatible with System 6.0.7 and System 7!

Anna Anthropy on good level design

Love this lecture from Anna Anthropy on good platformer level design, using a thin but rich slice of "Super Mario Land" (Satoru Okada, Game Boy, 1989) as an anatomical model.

Dave Arneson, 1947-2009

A year ago I wrote about the death of Gary Gygax, and what his life meant for the birth of computer games.

All the same applies, and perhaps even more so, to Dave Arneson, who passed away this week. As I understand the story, it was Arneson who took a fantasy miniatures wargame and reinvented it as a structure for collaborative role-playing. That's where we all picked up the thread; long may it continue to unroll.

Matt is speedcubing again

My friend (and several-time Gameshelf TV star) Matthew Morse is getting back into speedcubing, the ancient art of solving a thoroughly scrambled Rubik's Cube wicked fast. He started out by buying a new cube, since his old one, while a source of nostalgic affection, is too worn for competitive play.

After I got a new Cube, I promptly set out to demonstrate that I still remembered the solution I had memorized. What I found was that for two related sequences, I had forgotten which sequence did what. Which sequence to use in response to which pattern is memorized by your head, and initially I had it backwards. Once I figured it out, executing them was no problem. Performing the sequences is memorized in the hands, and they hadn't forgotten at all.

Now I'm working on developing my understanding of how the solution works. I've filled several pages of notes based on the simpler case of a 2x2x2 Cube and I expect to be able to move up to the standard 3x3x3 once I have some more details worked out.

I also bought a 4x4x4 Cube at the same time I got the new 3x3x3 Cube. It's still in the package. Truthfully, I'm a little scared of it.

Full post contains reminiscing about his original childhood time with the cube, as well as mention of Jessica Fridrich, a teenage cube prodigy who grew up to become an engineering professor at Binghamton University, and who keeps her canonical speedcubing notes prominently linked from her academic homepage.

Quick report: Ralph Baer's talk

This was the most crowded I'd ever seen a Post Mortem gathering, and the packed room was bursting with love for the speaker. When Baer showed a video of his 1967 self and a colleague demonstrating "the ping-pong game", the room went wild; here was footage of a gentleman in thick glasses holding a bulky, knob-encrusted controller showing off what would become the very first home video game console, and the person showing the video through his MacBook was the exact same guy, 40 years older but just as enthusiastic. (The audio on his laptop cut out, actually, so he just narrated the video in-person instead.) I have to say, it was something else, all right.

baer.jpgTelling the story of Odyssey's development took less time than scheduled, so he continued by opening up a Word document that contained illustrations of all his inventions over the decades, telling the tale of each. These were mainly commercial failures you've never heard of (Talking doormats! TV-interacting hand puppets!) but there were a couple of bigger names which clearly subsidized all the other experiments.

Undoubtedly, the biggest of the hits was Simon, a stand-alone electronic game that has been on sale continuously since its introduction in 1978, and whose most recent designs barely stray from the original. (Baer named the bright and many-colorful LEDs in new models, a technology unavailable 30 years ago, as one welcome change.) How many other battery-operated toys can claim that distinction?

During the brief Q&A, one fellow asked him whether the Odyssey was a digital or analog computer. Baer replied that he didn't feel it was computer at all; just a very clever arrangement of relays and switches that interfered meaningfully with the TV's normal operation. (Though I rather feel that to be a perfectly valid, deconstructionist definition of a computer system...)

His response to an enthusiastic "Sir! What advice do you have for us!" was basically: Eh, I dunno, you're all writing software, and I'm just an old TV hacker. But, he noted, there will always be a market for console peripherals.

His parting words for the evening, spoken with a grin, hinted that he was looking at the Wii schematics with some interest...

Crappy iPhone photo by me. You can learn more about Ralph Baer's life work at his page on the Smithsonian's website.

Ralph Baer speaking at Boston Post Mortem

The August 5 gathering of Boston Post Mortem, a casual, beerful get-together of professional (and otherwise) video game developers, will feature a presentation by Ralph Baer, the man often credited as the inventor of the home game console. He'll have a "brown box" prototype of the first commercial game console, the Odyssey, on hand as well.

Brown Box multigame.jpgThe presentation will be at the Post Mortem's usual venue, the Skellig pub in Waltham, MA. Consult the link for full details. I plan to be there; say hi if you spot me.

(Image swiped from this page on Baer's own website.)



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