THE DARK CRYSTAL: A lonesome journey

This week marks the fourth episode in my ongoing Lo-Fi Let’s Play series! This time, we examine Apple IIe game The Dark Crystal, a surprisingly-rich tie-in to the classic 1980s fantasy film of the same name.

Before we get into the world of passing Mystics and sunset-tinged Gelfling journeys, though, I’ve got something exciting to share from last week: Our journey into Dallas Quest caught the attention of John Butrovitch, who was working at Datasoft at the time it developed and published the game. I begged him for permission to republish his email, so here it is for you below!

Hi Leigh,

Just finished watching your play through (as much as you did) of Dallas Quest.  Having been a software development manager at the time at Dataosft (the developer-publisher of the game), it brought back memories!  Unfortunately, not enough memories to answer all your questions.

You wanted to know if the game was tied to a particular plot in the TV show.  Not as I remember it.  The puzzle was contrived to use what characters personalities we could.  But the puzzle was internally generated and approved by the license holder.  (This was just after the time of the E.T-The Game debacle.  So, it wasn’t simply rubber stamped out the door.) I remember pitching my idea of pipes-like game and not winning the prize.  James Garon, who programmed the game on the Atari 800, had done some adventures before this one won the pitch competition.  He had done a number of adventures before (though primarily on TRS-80 systems.)  So, he had an upper hand on the tech-assessment side of the equation.  Sadly, James passed away a dozen or so years ago.  So, I can’t get more information for you from the source.

I did have dinner with Jim Ratcliff last week.  He did the Apple port of the game.  He was our Apple II programmer at the company.  I first met him when he was doing Zaxxon.  I could ask him if he has any recollection of the game innards if you are that interested.  But, being it’s been 30 years and many games under our belts, it may be an effort to sweep the cobwebs away.

Your questions though add fuel to the fire of us old-timers’ fireside recollections.  We have been talking about writing a book to memorialize the game making of 80’s (least as we remember it.)  If you have any general questions, ask us.  It may become a topic in our tome.

Best regards,

John Butrovich

I often liken my childhood in Apple II games to having been raised by some quirky, thoughtful, creative old uncles. It nearly drops the floor out from under me to hear from the people who built that universe in those days. I really hope they do that book.

Anyway, you can find the newest Lo-Fi Let’s Play here — although I know this game fairly well, this episode seems to find me lost in The Dark Crystal’s saddest and emptiest places — and please subscribe to my YouTube channel. While young men scream obscenities over new video games, we adult women will speak softly over old ones.


DALLAS QUEST: Lethal front door, sunglasses animals

This week, I play Dallas Quest. I had two other “quest” games in my childhood library, The Quest and Ring Quest, and both were made by Dallas Snell (later co-founder of Origin Systems); it makes sense, then, that when I was very small I assumed that Dallas Quest was also made by him, and that it would be some kind of plodding autobiography of the man’s own life. Boring, thought little me.

Dallas, of course, was actually a TV soap about … oil barons and cattle ranches, I think, that began in 1978 and ran until 1991, full of cliffhangers, intrigue and family drama. I don’t know, because I have never seen it. Dallas Quest is purportedly a licensed tie-in to the show, but is executed with odd brutality. While I found Death in the Caribbean quite spooky to revisit, and The Quake full of fascinating intent and texture, Dallas Quest, made in 1984, is both frustrating and funny. If you’re not convinced, check out this … artwork? Jonah Gregory made of my Let’s Play.

Sorry about the bugle; you’ll know what I mean when you get to it. I like the lo-fi handmade feel of these videos, but I will def make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen again. I’ll also be turning off ads in future videos — my thinking was I can’t afford to reject any monetization channel right now, but the potential audience for something like this even in the best case scenario is going to be too small to make a difference, and I risk annoying the like 100 people who actually care.

Also, I did a quick blog at Gamasutra about this new video series, if you’re interested in knowing more about them, or if you want to actually post comments about the Let’s Plays. My real hope is that over time this collection of videos can be another avenue for personal expression about games and become an interesting arm of my work to you. We’ll see!

Travelogue Excerpt: CHASM

So, the thing I first envisioned solely as a “GDC Travelogue” has expanded a little in scope (write a book with game developers in, start having the same problems as they do?!) — it explores the experience of GDC and the people I visit with there, but it’s also got broader thoughts on games writing, travel, and on being someone who does both those things for a living. I’m really excited to be able to publish it for you.

So, release date slightly delayed, but only so I can make it WAY BETTER. We have all heard this one before.


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New video: ‘Narrative immersion’ in 1982

Thanks to everyone who tuned in and watched my very first vintage Apple adventure game let’s-play last week. There’s a new one this week for you, but first order of business is the cryptoquote from Death in the Caribbean last week.


The first to solve it was Greg Sabo, who translated: “PYRAMID MARKER GUARDS BURIED CHEST. EXCAVATE WITH GREAT CARE.” He writes, “even revealed mysteries are entrenched in dread in this world.” Indeed!

I really was scared by Death in the Caribbean as a kid. This week’s game, The Quake, actually wasn’t one I played in its time, but I had to spend some time with it when I saw how serious its ambitions were for 1982, when it was made. It aimed to be a game about the experience of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, with all the gravitas you’d imagine — it would be dynamic, it would shake and surprise you, the graphics would be breathtaking, the storytelling intense.

I was fascinated by comparing the creators’ goals, as you can see stated right at the beginning of the video, with the result (and I even had a little fun getting all Serious Game Critic on its themes toward the end). Hope you enjoy coming along with me on this one!

In other news, I talked to Ryan Payton about Republique, the App Store’s… Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? and I also dared to have a critical opinion about Sonic the Hedgehog in The Guardian. I wanted to write about the surreal fan reclamation of a mascot who no longer has a serious franchise — it’s very Liquid Television, very much in the spirit of the 90s ‘attitude’ that birthed Sonic to begin with. The time since has been a bit of a trip for internet stress, although if people hadn’t come out in force with incredibly puzzling, emotional, personal reactions to my criticizing the old games, I would have worried about whether I’d proved my point.

Thanks to everyone who’s asked after my Game of Thrones recaps, but I won’t be doing them this season at Boing Boing, sadly. The site has a designated recaps person now. And a couple of you have noticed my column is missing from your latest Edge magazine — I won’t be doing that one anymore, either. Time for me to keep fracking the new content economy, as I put it during my bit of the soapbox session at GDC recently.

Speaking of GDC, you can now see video of this year’s #1ReasontoBe panel that I co-chaired with the incomparable Brenda Romero. All of the speakers - Anna Kipnis, Colleen Macklin, Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai, Laralyn McWilliams and Lauren Scott — give incredible and different talks and I really recommend listening to them! There is a rousing little intro from me as well that felt great to give.

I’ll be talking at Different Games this weekend rather than going to PAX (duh), so if you want to go to a cool games conference, come check it out!

Entering the VR World

Hi everyone! My GDC travelogue is still underway and should be ready for you to buy in just a couple more weeks — featuring the cover art work of someone I like a lot. It’s become a bigger, but hopefully a more interesting and broadly-relevant project than I first envisioned, aiming to show you the experience, people and stories that make traveling to events as a games writer some of the most beautiful and meaningful times in my life.

As for everything else I’ve been up to — and my first “let’s play”-type thing — !!

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Travelogue, Day 4: ARMOR

[Each day I'm publishing little excerpts of an ongoing travelogue I'm writing about GDC,  games and my work here. The full piece will be for sale when it's finished, but the daily excerpts will be available to all. If you've missed previous installments, just check prior entries on this website.]

If I’m being honest, even though I go GDC every year and I love it, it makes me a little scared. Suddenly the internet is real, and it’s all around me. My double life — where I do a thing on the internet all day that very few people in my real-life physical space know about or care about — suddenly resolves. The world is full of game developers. The people I’ve never met who read my drunk tweets are here.

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Travelogue, Day 2: LUXURY

[This is an ongoing travelogue of my life and work in games journalism as I travel from London through New York to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Regular excerpts will be available at this website for free, and a full version will be available to buy for $3 in digital formats when it's finished. Hope you enjoy coming along with me!]

I lived in New York City for ten years, and I come and go a lot these days. But it never really goes away, that thing where I’m riding the last escalator out of Penn Station, with its unmistakable collision of food smells and noise, and the corner of 34th street appears, in all its un-splendor, suddenly. It’s ratty and smoky and lousy with fake Irish pubs and “stage door” bars blocks away from any actual stage, but it feels like I’m home.

“Hello, Baby,” I mouth softly to no-one.

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Travelogue, Day 1: Level Grinding

[As I travel to the Game Developers Conference in the week ahead, I'll be keeping a daily travelogue of sorts about my life as a games journalist, the experience of the industry event, and the colleagues, developers and friends I meet there. I'll gather, edit and digitally self-publish the full diary for $3 when it's all finished, but for now, select portions will be available for free from this website. Please come with me as I experiment with new (to me) types of writing and new ways of monetizing my work! I hope you enjoy it!]

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Let’s go

I stand on the precipice of a very busy period of time, friends. In just two days I leave the UK to return to the states, stopping by friends in New York City for a couple days before I head West to San Francisco for GDC.

Some things I’ve written lately:

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