GOGathon: The Dawn of Sierra’s SCI Era

The story so far: after pioneering the graphic adventure game genre with the first three King’s Quest games (with the third one also being the first good graphic adventure game), Sierra decided it was time to branch out a little – releasing adventure games in a range of different genres, including both obvious videogame fare like science fiction to less well-trod territory like police procedural dramas and bawdy sex comedies.

All this was accomplished using the AGI system, which – as I explained at the end of the last article – was developed for the original King’s Quest I and, whilst technically advanced for 1984, clearly wasn’t passing muster by the late 1980s; 1988 would see the debut of a triptych of new games produced using their exciting new SCI engine, and for much of the next decade – until they switched to 3D engines, effectively – Sierra’s adventures would be produced using various updates of SCI, which both allowed for superior graphics and sound card support and included scripting tools useful for adventure game design processes.

But did a superior toolkit yield superior games? Let’s see…

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Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 4: The People’s Voice Howls At the Moon

In my previous looks at the work of David Icke, modern-day Gnostic heresiarch, I’ve covered his alarming transformation from a basically ordinary media figure into a New Age true believer in a melange of Theosophy and Gnosticism, his gear shift into conspiratorial thinking and flirtation with antisemitism, and his promulgation of his theory of Reptoid aliens secretly controlling the Earth, along with a deeper and more troubling embrace of antisemitism. (As well as promulgating conspiracy theories tending towards antisemitism, Icke also has total contempt for all sorts of traditional religious and cultural practices, and if you only tolerate Jewish people so long as they don’t actually practice any form of Judaism or Judaism-related cultural practices then that’s basically antisemitism.)

By 2005, Icke had come back to the mysticism he’d been espousing in 1990, with a more comprehensively Gnostic worldview. (I will refer to this as Ickean Gnosticism, to distinguish it from historical forms of Gnosticism.) He’d also had a nasty accident in the wallet region; Royal Adams, his agent in the USA, had scammed him out of a fat stack of royalties, and on top of that his marriage to his second wife, Pamela, was disintegrating on bad terms and a messy divorce battle was in the offing.

In February 2007, Icke set up the “Freedom Foundation” as a means for American supporters to channel money to him by making tax-deductible donations via the International Humanities Center. This raised eyebrows in some quarters, since such tax-deductible foundations had been fingered as being part of the New World Order conspiracy since the 1950s. Still, donations can only go so far: ultimately, Icke’s income comes from touring and books, and so new product was wanted. So began a new phase of Icke’s writing…

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GOGathon: Roberta Williams’ Royal Progress

If you’re fond of a good feud, the videogame landscape of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s were a golden era for them. Nintendo vs. Sega is the classic one, not least because Sega went out of their way to bait and belittle Nintendo in much of their advertising; the Amiga vs. Atari ST feud was perhaps overstated by the media at the time but there was undeniably a bit of smoke to that fire, not least because of the intertwined personalities involved in the development of both systems.

For fans of graphical adventure games of a certain age, of course, the Sierra vs. LucasArts question is particularly memorable. It’s an open question how much of a genuine feud it was as far as the individual personalities concerned. I’m unaware of any actual personal rancour between the two studios, though Ron Gilbert’s famous Why Adventure Games Suck manifesto which yielded the guiding principles behind classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island was certainly taking issue with a lot of issues regarded as being distinct hallmarks of Sierra games, and Gilbert even snuck parodies of the infamous Sierra “You have died” messages into The Secret of Monkey Island itself, but I’m unaware of any return fire from Sierra itself. Indeed, a lot of the negative aspects people associate with the Sierra house style – arbitrary deaths, illogical puzzles, the possibility of putting the game into an unwinnable state, and so on – were most endemic in their early games.

In previous GOGathon articles I’ve looked at the Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria series. Notably, death is still possible in both of them, and I’ve come around to the idea that “can’t possibly die” isn’t necessarily a rule which should always be applied to point-and-click adventure design; it was fine for most of LucasArts’ works, which tended to be comedic in tone anyway, but slavishly following LucasArts’ lead without understanding why they did what they did would be just as bad as doing the same for Sierra, and in a horror-genre adventure it’s arguably preferable to have death be possible (and therefore a source of tension) than have a situation where the player can just sit wander about endlessly without progressing anything and never get into any real danger, which will kill tension quickly.

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Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 3: The Reptoids of Wonderland

The story so far: after embracing an overtly New Age, Theosophical and Gnostic-tinged worldview in an extremely public manner, David Icke finds himself the subject of widespread ridicule. In the mid-1990s he doubles down on this by blending his homebrewed cosmology (cobbled together as it was from other people’s ideas) with his very own Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory of everything (which he largely stole from The Gods of Eden and Behold a Pale Horse, and then sprinkled a heap of material from other conspiracy researchers on top of that mashup to obscure the seams).

Meanwhile, Icke’s personal life continued to take twists and turns which ordinarily I wouldn’t touch, except that they have a significant impact on his work. During his early New Age-focused phase, Icke would commence a polyamorous relationship in which he was still with his wife, Linda Atherton, but was also seeing Mari Shawsun, one of the psychics who was guiding him in the process of his spiritual development. Icke’s autobiography, In the Light of Experience, ends up giving the impression that the relationship wasn’t begun with Linda’s prior consent but was simply presented to Linda as a fait accompli.

After Shawsun was expelled from Icke’s circles, Linda and Icke remained married legally speaking. What’s perhaps more significant at this stage, though, is less their romantic partnership and more their business partnership, for Linda and Icke’s children by her would, to this day, be the main movers in Icke’s UK self-publishing company. The company – originally called Bridge of Love so as to leverage its way into the New Age market, then rebranded as David Icke Books, then rebranded as Ickonic for Icke’s latest book (The Trigger) – was a necessary platform for Icke after he was disowned by his previous publishers, the New Age press Gateway.

Gateway had good reasons to drop Icke; in his first major conspiracy theory tome, The Robots’ Rebellion, he’d claimed that the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was a real blueprint for world domination, following the lead of Bill Cooper and Stephen Knight in claiming that the secret society behind the global conspiracy had done a cheeky find-and-replace job on the Protocols to incriminate Jewish people.

Whereas Stephen Knight had broadly gotten away with this and Bill Cooper, whilst not exactly getting away with it, was lucky enough to have a publisher who simply didn’t care about denunciations of Behold a Pale Horse (particularly when Behold a Pale Horse was making them significantly more money than anything else on their catalogue), Icke was unfortunate in that Gateway operated at a very specific level of editorial sloppiness. Specifically, they were editorially lax enough to let the book come out citing the Protocols in the first place, but had enough concern for the impact on their bottom line to stop putting out Icke’s stuff after the inevitable backlash.

Icke’s income would now be based on two things: his books and his lecture tours. It was in the course of a lecture tour of the Caribbean that he would encounter Pamela Leigh Richards. Icke had shortly before had been primed by cold reading scam artist Derek Acorah to expect to meet a new woman in his life, and Icke and Richards were soon an item, with Icke divorcing Linda and marrying Pamela in 2001 (apparently amicably, or at least without sufficient rancour to persuade Linda to walk away from owning and operating Bridge of Love).

Through Richards, Icke met Royal Adams, a US-based businessman. By the end of the 1990s, Icke and Adams had reached an agreement: Adams would set up Bridge of Love US and take responsibility for distributing Icke’s books in the USA, and in return Adams would get a cut of the profits. Having someone in the US dedicating their time to cracking the market would be advantageous in any publishing field, but in addition the “paranoid style” has never quite gone out of style in American politics; the States was perhaps the hungriest market in the English-speaking world for the sort of conspiracy-peddling that Icke was engaged in, and cracking that market would be the next major step in promoting Icke’s ideas.

It’s quite fortuitous, then, that the beginning of Icke’s deal with Adams would coincide with a major new dimension entering into his writing. The first book distributed under the deal, The Biggest Secret, was in many ways Icke’s big break in the US, as well as his major claim to continued infamy; if you haven’t heard about David Icke from his infamous Wogan interview and earlier controversies, odds are you know him for some of the ideas he espoused in the book. The text managed to become a big hit in the conspiracy world through a simple technique: taking a major recent event, explaining it through a conspiratorial lens, and tying this in to an eye-catchingly bold claim. The recent event was the death of Princess Diana. And the bold claim?

Lizard people, dear reader.

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The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks

Cerebus the Aardvark, or simply Cerebus for short, is without a doubt one of the most ambitious and important works in the field of comics – especially independent comics. It began as a simple, funny parody of sword & sorcery comics, made funny in part by casting as its central hero a diminutive, grumpy aardvark (“the Earth-Pig born!”, as the narration in early issues was fond of proclaiming).

With the passage of time, it increasingly took on more serious themes, with artist-author Dave Sim shifting gear from telling short stories over the course of a single issue to telling two-to-three-part stories to, eventually, producing enormous novel-length series of dozens of issues. Sim declared his intention that the series would run for 300 issues, culminating with Cerebus’ death. Following on from its debut in 1977, the series ultimately put out its 300th issue and bowed out with issue 300 in early 2004, at the end of which Cerebus did indeed die.

In the intervening 27 years, the series managed to spearhead a major shift in comics publishing; not only was this the first time anyone had attempted a work of this scope within indie comics (or, for that matter, within comics in general), but Sim kicked all this off in a time when reprints of individual comic book issues or collecting comics into trade paperbacks was not the industry norm; the rise of the trade paperback can, in fact, be linked in part to the early commercial success of the so-called “Cerebus phonebooks”, compilations of the aforementioned novel-length storylines which ended up being literally phonebook-thick.

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Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 1

Sure, Clark Ashton Smith’s stories are readily available online, it’s still nice to have hard copies of his works. When I originally read them it was in the Panther reprints of his Arkham House collections, which retain some tampering and revisions and censoring by various hands. When William Burns tipped me off on my previous article that Night Shade Books’ Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series had presented the definitive versions of his short stories, restored as closely as possible to his intended texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, I decided to retire my Panther paperbacks – which by now are a bit tatty – and pick up the new line to reintroduce myself to Smith in a whole new way.

Connors and Hilger arrange the anthologies in as close to chronological order of composition of the stories as they can attain. This is a bit of a break from previous attempts to anthologise Smith, which have tended to collect the stories from his various fictional settings like Hyperborea and Zothique into little clumps, but it does mean that we get to see Smith’s writing evolve over the span of time presented.

It’s not exactly amateurish to begin with, mind. Connors and Hilger don’t include Smith’s juvenilia in the main run of the series – what was available at the time was collected in Miscellaneous Writings, a companion volume, and other early prose fiction from Smith has been rediscovered and reprinted by Hippocampus Press. Instead, volume one – The End of the Story, picks things up in 1925, when Smith – encouraged by his pen pal H.P. “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft – decided to try his hand at it.

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Bricking It On the Go

There’s some types of videogames which struggle to make a transition to a handheld format and some where, once they make the leap, feel like it’s almost their natural home. I’d include traditional, old-school platform games like the 2D Mario games in the latter category. Their clear, cartoonish graphics translate to smaller screens nicely, the gameplay is simple enough to not require particularly complex controls whilst having enough wrinkles to stay challenging, whilst at the same time the level structure means you can pick up or put down the game at a moment’s notice.

All this makes it rather weird why it took so long to get the handheld versions of the Super Mario Maker games right. The full-fat console versions (released on the Wii U for the first game and the Switch for the second game) provided a nice system for designing homebrew Mario levels based on the gameplay and physics of several different Mario games (Super Mario Bros.Super Mario Bros. 3Super Mario WorldNew Super Mario Bros. U), publish them to the Internet, and download and play other people’s levels. Should be simple, right?

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