Do you remember the ’90s? Gaming certainly does!

Mystery_House_-_Apple_II_-_2

An image from Roberta Williams’ Mystery House for the Apple II

2015 has been a peak year for ‘90s revivalism. In addition to newly announced seasons for Twin Peaks, the X-Files, and — for some reason — Full House, we’ve also been given a Rolling Stone retrospective on Space Jam’s promotional website (now celebrated as a masterpiece of early Internet design), a restoration project for old Geocities nethubs, and even an oral history of Theodore Rex. However, this pales in comparison to the ‘90s moment gaming is having right now.

There has been a deluge of throwback content since 2012 — begun largely by a series of crowdfunding successes on Kickstarter that saw projects launched to bring back creators or game genres that flourished in the ‘90s. Although Tim Schaefer’s Double Fine Adventure (a.ka. Broken Age) —arguably the catalyst for gaming’s Kickstarter success — wasn’t specifically for a ‘90s callback project, Schaefer is most fondly remembered for his time at LucasArts,working on or helming such classic adventure games as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango (which got a remastered edition earlier this year).

This led Brian Fargo to launch a successful Kickstarter campaigns for Wasteland 2 and a sequel to Planescape: Torment, and then Obsidian Entertainment mounted a successful campaign for ‘90s cRPG revival game, Pillars of Eternity. Other creators like Ron Gilbert (also from LucasArts), Julian Gollop (original X-Com creator), Chris Roberts (Wing Commander), Robyn and Rand Miller (Myst, Riven), and more controversially Richard Garriott (Ultima) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Fable), all had successful campaigns to either bring them back into the fold of game creation or bring back beloved game styles.

Monkey Island joke

Kind of what Kickstarter is like these days. From Lucasarts’ “The Secret of Monkey Island.”

Game genres that had a significant flourishing in the ‘90s like cRPGs, adventure games, and 3D platformers (just see A Hat in Time and Yuka-Laylee — both, of course, with soundtracks by Grant Kirkhope) have made a significant comeback with a glut of titles in the last three years. Even FMV games have made a comeback. Yes, FMV video games — once ridiculed for their expense, poorly compressed video, hammy acting, and comically large number of CD-Roms needed to play — have been the inspiration behind Sam Barlow’s critically acclaimed video archive mystery Her Story, and the more tongue-in-cheek, Contradiction — Spot The Liar!: The All-Video Murder Mystery Adventure.

Then we begin get into the rereleases and remasters, most notably Homeworld, and the aforementioned Grim Fandango, and soon we’ll be seeing The Day of the Tentacle again. Heck, even Final Fantasy VII is getting an HD remake. There was also this absurd commercial for a callback ‘90s first-person shooter.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but demonstrates that game creators and consumers are fixated on the ‘90s. I even lamented the loss of Carmen Sandiego in a time with so much classic game revivalism. Manos: Hands of Fate—one of the worst movies of all time—has recently become the subject of tongue-in-cheek platforming game that’s a deliberate call to the awful tie-in movie games made for the NES and SNES. So, why the sudden onrush of nostalgia?

The first — and most obvious point — is that people who came of age during “the last great decade” (not my wording), are now old enough to be cultural producers themselves, or at least consumers, who want to experience again what they grew up with. Essentially, people have the creative power or the cash or both, to revive genres long thought dead. There is a huge nostalgic push, and this has led to results both good and bad. If you’re a fan of computer role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate, this revivalism has been good for you: Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin are great games in their own right. If you’re a fan of classic adventure games—then not so much.

A second reason is history. Game companies and gamers alike are apathetic toward preserving game history. As a result, previously explored tropes, genres, and ideas are redone and repackaged—sometimes without awareness of whether or not it has been done before. A good example is Sword Coast Legends, another tactical role-playing game, set in Dungeons and Dragons’ Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It advertises a “DM Mode” that will let one player be the Dungeon Master and curate the role-playing experience for their friends online, and is being touted as something that’s never been done before. The only problem is that it was done before—and quite successfully—by BioWare’s 2002 D & D role-playing game, Neverwinter Nights. This might not be so surprising since Sword Coast Legends is being made by ex-Bioware developers, but I have yet to come across a single article talking about how Legends riffs on NWN’s original, innovative feature set.

sword-coast-legends-screenshot-6-100591833-orig

Sword Coast Legends Dungeon Master feature looks great but Neverwinter Nights did it first.

The historical aspect of the shift toward nostalgic revival becomes more apparent when consider how often the genres that people love are misremembered. As mentioned before, adventure games have not fared well, mostly repeating the clumsy navigation and frustrating puzzle design that was prevalent in ‘90s adventure games. Contemporary adventure game designers miss the point, Richard Corbett argues in a piece for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, of what made adventure games great in the first place. He writes:

“The vast majority of adventures that we get aren’t even trying for that level of innovation or novelty value, and sure as hell don’t have the relative budgets to pull it off. Instead, they’re content to be the next Touche, the next Bud Tucker, the next Innocent Until Caught – following along in the wake of Lucasarts and Sierra and a couple of other big names like pilotfish. If we follow them, we’ll get to where we need to be. Right? Never mind that nobody gave a shit about those games back in the 90s. Hold the line! Keep the faith! It’ll all work out eventually, right?”

edutainment

Probably not the adventure game you were looking for. From Lucasarts’ “Sam and Max Hit The Road.”

This is the dangerous trap one can fall into with gamer nostalgia — the simple replication of what a genre offered rather than capturing its essence and moving them forward. This is unsurprising in a world when even a game designer like Roberta Williams are forgotten until—as CRPG Book project editor Felipe Pepe pointed out on his blog — it was announced there would be a reboot of the King’s Quest series. Then there were retrospectives written on the series and Williams’ importance, and she was even given an industry award (!) as something old is remade into a vital consumer product.

Amazingly, it gets even worse. Not only is the games industry apathetic to its own history; it’s actively hostile. The Electronic Software Association is trying to prevent the Electronic Frontier Foundation from preserving online multiplayer games long since abandoned by their developers, and in fact, the ESA considers all forms of game preservation “hacking” and therefore illegal — nevermind that it’s largely game pirates and hackers who have been actively preserving and curating games history.

At the heart of ‘90s revivalism then is the fight over whether games should be considered art, or merely just another consumer product. As art, games have a history and a vitality that needs to be preserved, cherished, and expanded upon—a series of interesting pathways meant to inspire rather than to be merely imitated. But considered solely as a consumer good, it must be forgotten, ignored, or actively blocked, otherwise it can’t be resold to the next generation, or even worse, someone will be inspired and create a new game and become successful outside the mainstream games industry. So remember that as you awe over someone creating a ‘90s style gaming rig or chuckle at the latest ‘90s commercial parody that there’s a fight for both the past — and future — of gaming.

90s gaming rig

Late ’90s gaming rig created by Redditor SuperBabyHix. (Source)

Advertisements

Where in the world did Carmen Sandiego go?

carmen_sandiego

If you grew up in the ’90s and watched a lot of PBS, chances are that you came across Lynne Thigpen as The Chief letting you know that Carmen Sandiego had nabbed another precious monument and that it was up to an assorted group of whiz kids to stop her, armed only with a buzzer and a sufficient grasp of world geography. Chances are that in the middle of the previous sentence you began to hum the theme song or can hear Thigpen’s voice telling you “Carmen Sandiego has struck again!” And chances are that you may or may not have played the series of fantastic educational games — first for DOS and then Windows — that starred the master thief. In the ’90s, Carmen Sandiego was everywhere and almost every kid with access to a school computer lab, a home computer, or just watching TV, knew that she and her V.I.L.E. agents were out there stealing great cultural artifacts and that only you, the prospective gumshoe, or the TV show’s agents, could possibly defeat her.

I came to know Carmen Sandiego watching PBS on weekday afternoons. My parents would have to peel me away from the TV for dinner because I needed to know which one of the newly christened ACME agents would be the hero, answering enough skill-testing questions about geography to halt Carmen Sandiego’s latest diabolical scheme. My next encounter with Carmen Sandiego came when I was at bargain bin at a local Loblaws and picked up a World Almanac that had been separated from the 1996 reboot of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? I wish I still had it because I would spend hours reading it, uncovering all the facts I could such as when the Eiffel Tower was first built and the actual size of the great pyramids of Giza. I would spend hours at the computer lab of my elementary school trying to beat the game and stop her agents with names like Sarah Nade, Sarah Bellum, and M.T. Pockets. My Carmen Sandiego fandom reached its peak when I was given a copy of the 1997 version of Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (also known as Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time), I played this game religiously on my parents’ ’98 Compaq Presario, spending significant amounts of time with Hatsheput, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis & Clerk, Thomas Edison, and even Yuri Gagarin. I also preferred the theme song for the less successful Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? game show on PBS than the more famous a cappella theme used for Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? even though it’s terrible.

You know when The Chief (Lynne Thigpen) appeared things were getting serious

You know when The Chief (Lynne Thigpen) appeared things were getting serious

And then silence. Carmen seemed to disappear forever both from the TV and the computer screen. Did she pull off a final successful caper that let her be set for life? No. It’s only recently I learned the reason for the decline of children’s educational games.

In this excellent overview of the success and significance of children’s “edutainment” games of the 90s, the author reveals that it was Softkey, a CD-ROM distribution company, merging with The Learning Company and then Brøderbund (the makers of Carmen Sandiego) that spelled the beginning of the end for quality children’s educational games, including Carmen Sandiego. A surprising twist to all of this is that it was Kevin O’Leary, the founder of Softkey, and awful former host of both CBC’s Dragon’s Den and the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, that was responsible for this decline. Talking to Ken Goldstein, Broderbund’s former vice president of education and entertainment,  the Gamasutra article reveals why the merger with Softkey/The Learning Company was so disastrous:

“The new pricing model, driven by both Softkey and every other developer in the business selling CD-ROMs at such low prices, destroyed the economic viability of the edutainment production cycle. Goldstein was obviously frustrated with the merger, but 17 years later, he says it’s water under the bridge. To him, the Broderbund model was built on the philosophy of “people–products–profit,” where talented people created good product that drove profit, but once the merger kicked in, that philosophy seemed to flow in reverse, and Broderbund, now part of The Learning Company, was sold to Mattel.”

Carmen Sandiego was a victim of neoliberalism! As this Globe & Mail article reveals, Softkey’s rebranding as The Learning Company, and eventual sale to Mattel, went so badly that O’Leary was forced out. The various divisions of The Learning Company were then broken up and sold, thus ending an era of great children’s games. Kevin O’Leary — a man almost singularly responsible for the disappearance of Carmen Sandiego and Reading Rabbit, and for Chris Hedges never being interviewed by the CBC again.

Carmen Sandiego

It’s difficult to express fully just how significant Carmen Sandiego was as a video game antagonist, and how the digital play spaces offered to children through her games were. Carmen Sandiego wasn’t good because you could pick up some trivia about the Declaration of Independence or the population of Iowa, it was good because it offered you, the player, a wondrous and imaginative place filled with improbable technology, world and time travel, and one of gaming’s best villains. Carmen was clever, mysterious, and always one step ahead of you. These games were a great balance of adventure game mechanics and playful, exquisitely textured narratives. You wanted to live inside these worlds and get to know its eccentric characters that inhabited them a little more. The world almanacs and exquisitely detailed manuals that came bundled with each game added another level of detail, giving you a whole other level of experience and knowledge outside of the game. I always felt bad catching Carmen Sandiego because I wanted her to accomplish her goals, to actually alter the course of world history; that’s just how powerful she was. How could she not get away it?

Unfortunately experiencing Carmen Sandiego’s past glories are difficult. Although you have the original Where In The World? and Where In Time?  available on the Internet Archive’s virtual DOS player, the later CD-ROM reboots made for Windows (my personal favourites) have never been restored for modern computers even though websites like GOG.com and studios like Night Dive have shown restoring classic PC games is both an in-demand and profitable enterprise. It’s sad that children aren’t getting to experience Carmen Sandiego (or someone like her) in 2015. If there’s one thing from the ’90s that I want to come back, it’s Carmen Sandiego and the devious plots that only a child’s imagination could foil.

Now here’s the terrible (but wonderful) Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? game show theme.