Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia: A conversation with Don Daglow
Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia:
A conversation with Don Daglow
Back when “Producer” was a new job description in the gaming industry, created by Trip Hawkins for his new company Electronic Arts, Don Daglow was one of these early producers. In his time at EA, he signed and oversaw the only entirely text-based game that the company ever published: Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia. The cooperation of an experienced science-fiction author (Disch) with an ambitious young development team (Cognetics) ultimately resulted in an unusual work of interactive fiction.
In this conversation, Gunnar Lott speaks with Don about the creation of the game; together, they explore the reasons behind its strengths and its flaws.
The interview was conducted on Thursday, July 12th 2018 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on patreon.com as bonus material for supporters of the podcast Stay Forever. Prior to the interview, Gunnar and Christian, the hosts of Stay Forever, had played through Amnesia over the course of several weeks and published weekly updates about their progress in the form of audio podcasts as part of their “Stay Forever Spielt” format. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading podcast on retro gaming, and one of Patreon’s top 40 podcasts worldwide.
The audio interview was transcribed by Anym, a member of the Stay Forever community. A huge thank you to him! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
The audio recording can be listened to on our Patreon page (free): click
Please link to this page and mention Stay Forever if you quote.
Stay Forever: Hello, I’m Gunnar, talking with Don Daglow. Hello Don!
Don Daglow: Hello Gunnar! It’s great to see you!
Stay Forever: Don is someone who’s professional work has accompanied me for most of my waking life. The strategy game Utopia, that came out in the early eighties on the Intellivision console – which my neighbor had, I couldn’t afford one! – was one of the first games I ever played. And most recently, I had a great time with the audio version of a book called The Fog Seller, an intricate mystery novel set in San Francisco, written by – who would have thought? – Don Daglow. But I really cannot do such a rich professional life justice. Don, you’re certainly more used to summing it up, from all the speeches you give a conferences, you know. Would you give our listeners a short introduction of yourself?
Don Daglow: Certainly, and thank you for those kind words. Actually, I was a university student who got really, really lucky, because one day I walked into my dormitory at the college and they had a computer terminal. It was 1971; most college students did not have access to computers at that time. They had gotten a grant to allow regular, everyday students to access the computer and learn how to program. And so I got that chance very early on in the history of computers to be one of the very first college students who got to do what we wanted to do, and of course I immediately realized that what I wanted to do was write games. So when the industry started years later, I was able to be one of the original five programmers hired by Intellivision at Mattel Toy Company in 1980 to work on the Intellivision and write games. When the industry fell apart in the early eighties, about three years after that, I went to work for a little start-up called Electronic Arts.
Stay Forever: *chuckles*
Don Daglow: That worked out pretty well. I then ran Brøderbund’s entertainment/education division and started my own studio called Stormfront Studios that I ran for twenty years. And for the last nine years, I’ve been an independent advisor, freelance game designer, a management advisor, a little bit of everything, all parts of the games industry ranging from game design on one end to helping indie teams with how you build teams, how you build games and how you publish games.
Stay Forever: At some point in time when you were working at the small start-up called Electronic Arts, you had the chance to work as a producer on a most peculiar game that’s called Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia, and that’s why we’re talking today. Because we’re being recorded for the podcast Stay Forever, and ours must be the most literate audience on Amnesia you’ve ever talked to. The audience of this podcast has listened to me and my friend Christian playing through the game and talking about it for seven hours. So, the people were treated to seven hours of talking about Amnesia, musing about it, thinking about what the author wanted to tell us, why the systems were as they were … and finally, you’re here to enlighten us and tell us everything! How this game came about, why it came out as it came out. Perhaps you could start with how the game was conceived and how the production started.
Don Daglow: Actually, it started before it ever got to Electronic Arts. The game was originally going to be published by CBS Games, I think was the name of the company. CBS is one of the big three American television networks, and in the early 1980s or mid-80s, they thought that they could get into the video game business and that because they were a big television network, they would be able to do this very well. And so one of the games they bought was Amnesia, which was a team project between a company called Cognetics – which is in Princeton, New Jersey, where Princeton University is – and Thomas M. Disch, the author. I was big Thomas M. Disch fan for many years before this ever happened. Of course, what happened was, CBS discovered that the video game business and the computer game business are much more competitive than they thought and that a television network didn’t necessarily know how to publish games. So before they ever published Amnesia, they dropped all of their projects. And so it became available again.
As a producer at EA, I heard about this, I’m guessing this would have been around ’85 or ’86, and I had been reading Disch for years. I had also had a novelette published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that’s where his story The Brave Little Toaster had been published, which is his best-known film work. So I flew to New Jersey and met with the creators. The head of Cognetics is a brilliant guy named Charlie Kreitzberg. To give you an idea of how original and innovative this guy is, he was – in 1986 or ‘87 – talking to me about how HTML [Don most likely means hypertext; HTML was not defined until 1992 – Ed.] was going to be a big deal. In 1986 or ‘87, nobody was paying attention to HTML, but he was telling me about it.
They had built a more powerful text adventure system than what Infocom had built, which is not surprising; when you do a second big system, you can leverage the learning from the first. And their way of leveraging it was to take a great author and turn him loose on it. That’s how they hooked up with Tom Disch.
Charlie and his whole team were not big egos. So instead of saying: „Oh, we’re the game designers, we’ll channel Tom into the right thing“, they just encouraged him to do what he wanted to do. And this was Tom Disch’s vision. So when we look at Amnesia, we are seeing what this multiple award-winning author – unfortunately he’s passed away now –, we see his vision for what a text adventure could be, but we see it through all the technical limitations we lived with.
So, I went and met with them and realized they were brilliant. I already knew Tom Disch was brilliant. Turns out he was easy to work with. And so I signed them to the deal.
Stay Forever: What state was the game in when you came on board or when you signed them up? It was floating around. So, had it gone to production already or was it still in concept stage?
Don Daglow: It was well into production. Tom had written the entire script, and the entire script actually anticipated that we could have lots of floppy disks, which I think may have been CBS’s original plan. I was hopeful on this, because at the same time, Sierra On-Line had published a game on six disks. In those days, you paid – I forget how much we paid for each disk, but it wasn’t a small amount of money. Just the duplication of each disk cost quite a bit of money, and so we had never shipped more than two disks at Electronic Arts in one of our packages. I was hoping we could get more. In the end the mathematics of what you had to charge, what you had to pay wouldn’t support it, so we couldn’t get more than two disks. We ended up having to cut two thirds of what Tom had written, and frankly I think Tom wrote more than six disks’ worth. We had a fat, fat binder that I hope I still find my copy of. I got a corner storage area at our home I’ve just got to go through. I hope I find my old binder one day. But it was a fat, fat binder and it was absolutely full of double-spaced, single-sided, traditionally formatted text, but formatted for a game instead of a screenplay for a movie or instead of traditional narrative. By the time we got the deal, Tom was already working on the screenplay for The Brave Little Toaster for Disney.
Stay Forever: So essentially this was a business decision? It would have been a totally different game if only EA had been willing to put six or seven disks in the package?
Don Daglow: It would have been a much more deep and complete game, because Tom’s vision went down to all the levels of everything we’d anticipated.
In defense of the EA process that balked at six disks, the EA that we’re talking about then is not the EA we have now. All of our employees sat in a single office in San Matteo, California. I think when I joined EA, there were about 40+ people, maybe 43 people in Electronic Arts. When I signed that game, probably we had 65. We were not a big publisher that had a big bank account. Every game we published was a significant risk. And the price points we could charge were pretty well defined.
This is during the crash of video games. If you hear about how video games crashed 1983 or ‘84, ironically that’s a term I coined. I think the Wikipedia article about the crash of ‘83 is taken from a speech I did twenty years ago, I think at GDC. During that time, all the video game companies, including Mattel where I worked, had just been crushed and fallen apart. All the toy stores which had sold games had concluded that video games are a dead category, and so of course computer games now looked very suspect, because the video games industry had gone from billions of dollars a year to just plain disappearing. Atari went out of business. Activision lived off of tax credits for a few years and then died before being reborn. Mattel closed its electronics division. We had 1,200 employees at our height; about fifteen months later, when the division was sold off, basically just for inventory, five people went with it. So 1,195 out of 1,200 jobs went away. This was a time when there were very few people working in the games business, and if you worked in the games business, you felt like you were hanging onto a cliff by your fingernails. So instead of the behemoth Electronic Arts, you picture a small company without a lot of money in the bank, in a very harsh economic climate, trying to hold on and publish games and make money and last long enough to have computer games grow and come back.
I’m disappointed by the decision, I disagreed with the decision, I fought the decision, but having run companies for many years and now advising indie companies and helping managers of indie companies, I’ve got empathy for the fact that when you haven’t got much money in the bank, you can’t take a lot of risks, which sounds like a joke with EA, but at the time it was true.
Stay Forever: Was the games industry as much hit-and-miss back then or was it that every game that came out to market was unique enough and made a little bit of money back?
Don Daglow: What was very different is we had a lot fewer games coming out. We had only – and you notice the sarcasm in my voice when I say „only“ – a thousand games or 1,500 games coming out a year, which compared to hundreds of thousands of games now is not a lot. But we had far fewer players. The Commodore 64 was the only big, popular platform left. Apple II was starting to fade already and was not as big. IBM PC started to be a market – actually, it started to come into visibility while we were working on the game, if I’m remembering right. The Atari 800 market had just dissolved. You didn’t have many platforms, so you could publish a game and a good publisher could get it into the stores.
What’s like today is that it could go into the stores and you could have a big hit, you could have okay sales or it could just sit there, sell very few copies and you had a dead title. Failure games lost money. It wasn’t a matter where any game would make a little money at least or make a small profit. A game that failed, you could lose – what was in those days, for a small company – a lot of money very easily.
Stay Forever: Do you remember how well Amnesia did?
Don Daglow: Amnesia, economically at the time, did not do great.
I was a fan of text adventures. I still love those old games. Planetfall was probably my favorite. And so I thought: It isn’t that text adventures are dead just because we have the great graphics on the Commodore 64 – ha, ha. Text adventures have died because a certain style of text adventure has been satiated, the audience has had enough of those, so they don’t buy as many anymore. But if we get a unique, gifted writer like Tom Disch involved and we turn him loose, we have a chance to reach a whole new audience, and we should at least do okay with that.
And I’ve always loved the cover illustration for the album. In those days, EA published games in these cardboard albums that were made to look like music albums, because we were trying to position developers to be like rock stars. The woman inside EA who managed that process is named Nancy Fong. She is the one member of the old guard who still works at EA. She was and is just fabulous to work with and she did a great job on many of those old EA covers. She is the one who pulled together all the different processes to get a great design, so we got that and it just didn’t sell well.
I think the biggest factor in the fact that the game did not sell well is that I was wrong and the audience had become addicted to graphics. Because graphics – at the level of the Commodore 64 – were better than the prior technologies. People had become so in love with graphics, they just didn’t want to look at text, and it didn’t matter how good the writing was or anything else. Part of my learning from this was: „Don, your theory was wrong. People want graphics, they won’t just accept text.“
So I actually think that it was my error in judgment that made that miscalculation, but I will tell you here, thirty-odd years later: I love that game so much, I love the writing so much, that I’m intensely proud of working on that project, even with its flaws and even though it did not make money. I’m still intensely proud of working on that project.
Stay Forever: Before we delve more into the game and into the script writing – do you think it could have done better at another company? Perhaps it was the EA audience not being used to text adventures?
Don Daglow: If it had had the Infocom branding, I don’t think there’s any question that would have helped, because everybody recognized that Infocom was the great text adventure company and everybody else was trying to move into their space. I can imagine some Infocom customers going: „I’m not going to be disloyal to Infocom by buying someone else’s text adventure.“ So, yeah, I think that’s possible.
The parallel fact – and again I find myself getting angry about this just thinking about it – is that because the public turned away from text adventures, including those of Infocom, they were having declining sales at this time, too. It was not long after this that Activision shut down Infocom. It just bothered me, because I understand that for the great majority of games, graphics are vital. But this kind of good writing in a game should still be a viable niche. Maybe not the world’s biggest niche, but it should be a viable niche. And it got to the point where even Infocom couldn’t do it anymore. That just breaks my heart, it disappoints me and it just – I don’t know! You can hear my voice, it upsets me still, thirty years later, but it’s just the way life is.
Stay Forever: The writing in Amnesia was so much better than about every other text adventure game. And I thought perhaps the audience couldn’t see it from the outside, because this had to be experienced. Yes, the Infocom things were expertly written, but I have to think hard to find a game that’s so beautifully crafted in terms of prose, and such a pleasure to read, and I think perhaps it didn’t come across? So, even if a text adventure lover came across this, maybe he was like: „Yeah, I played those before, it’s a declining genre, I’ll go to graphics now.” And if only he had known!
Don Daglow: Yes. I personally agree with you, and if I had the magic wand and I had three wishes, this game is one of the ones I think about. I certainly agree with you about Thomas Disch, whether he wrote a book or whether he wrote a screenplay or whatever he did, he’s one of the best writers, I think, of the last half of the 20th century. If you just read his work, he’s not like other people. He envisions a scene, he brings a scene to life, he brings people to life in a way that’s unique and his attitude and his voice just come out. If I put my writer hat on, that’s what we’re taught makes art. If you represent a unique point of view that is truly your own, you write in a voice which is uniquely yours and which transports people to another place – willing suspension of disbelief –, it brings them to a place and time, makes them feel like they’re really there with people, that’s the highest level of writing. And Thomas M. Disch just flat out could do it.I always admired his skill and I always will admire it. He’s just a brilliant, skilled writer.
Stay Forever: So he wrote the script before production, or as part of production. If you look at games today, they’re built in slices. But this game was fully written out, and then some poor guy was given the task: „Bring this to life”, is that about right? I’ve read the script, and the script is much like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book – perhaps the game would have worked even better as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, because the script is so tailored to that. Was there literally somebody typing Disch’s text from the page into a framework?
Don Daglow: There’s actually two layers to it. You’ve heard how much I admire Tom Disch’s writing. I also think the team at Cognetics, Kevin [Bentley, the programmer for the game – Ed.] and Charlie, they turned Tom loose, but they would also bring him back, kind of: „Hey Tom, here are realities we have to face.“ They taught him how to think in these ways, to think like a text adventure.
And they then – you’re right –, they literally typed. I don’t remember if they had an import function of any kind or not, but this script was a traditional screenplay type script, and so they typed in the information, they structured it within the engine they had built for games. And then I gave him feedback, since they were working with him for quite a while before I joined. And then they simply kept implementing the game within the engine.
This was the first game in the engine, so they were debugging the engine, finding features they had to add to the engine, all the things you get the first time you build an engine. I think they had done some smaller sample things with it before. But I come back to the fact: They were trying to empower Disch instead of trying to control him. If you look at lots of creative collaborations in the history of game design – I’ll leave out names, because I’m not trying to damn anybody –, people worked with celebrities or with some kind of skilled person, but then they tried to make it their own instead of trying to channel that person. Charlie Kreitzberg and his team simply had that philosophy that they were trying to empower Tom. So we’re trying to help him understand the medium, but they weren’t trying to change him and design the game for him.
And I think it’s amazing that he was able to do the things you’re describing. This is a writer. He’d never designed games before. He had us coaching him, but we always tried to defer to him. There were some cases where there’d be issues, where something just wasn’t going to work, and we could tell him that and it was obvious. If we were going to have a side story that was going to lead off into the weeds and not come back to the main story, that kind of thing would be the first thing we’d say we needed to cut, because it didn’t support the main story.
So yeah, it’s a case of having the original text implemented, but I’ve seen things savaged so many times when other people’s work was put into a game. And instead of being savaged, it was like gardeners getting the plants into the garden and then planting them lovingly and trying to find the right shade and the right sun and the right everything for every plant that Tom Disch saw as part of the garden and the landscape design.
Stay Forever: But if you look at the script and the game that came out of it and at the framework – this was meant to be a text adventure. And in large stretches of the game, it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t follow the Infocom mold, because there’s little choice in the beginning, it’s a very guided experience, then it has this world exploration role-playing part in the middle, and then it comes together for a few text adventure moments at certain choke points in the story. If you read the script, it’s like a hypertext novel in its own right.
Don Daglow: Which goes back to Charlie Kreitzberg, who built the system, being an advocate of HTML before everybody else was. One of the things when you talk about classic games, even something like this that had its flaws and is not widely appreciated, as much as I love it – people love to take credit for everything. Charlie Kreitzberg is the guy who had the vision for what it could have been. For a variety of reasons we didn’t get there, but Charlie was way ahead of his time, as I mentioned on HTML, but also this idea. Tom immediately went to a three-act structure. And Charlie and later I, instead of saying to him: „No, we’ve got to do this to be a traditional text adventure“, you’ll notice act one is a traditional text adventure, act three is more of a traditional text adventure, act two is what we now would call a sandbox game, and this is years before GTA. Trying to bring that to life and giving Tom permission to do that is just part of how the Cognetics team was trying to enable him instead of fight him.
Stay Forever: Was that part of the original Thomas M. Disch vision? Did this come out of him?
Don Daglow: It was, but I think Charlie Kreitzberg encouraged him on the sandbox side. I wasn’t there at the moment when they were doing this, but having become friends with both of them through this – and god bless, I miss Tom Disch, he was such a pleasure to work with –, I can picture the two of them sitting and talking and just knocking ideas around and Charlie encouraging Tom to do this.
And Tom loved Manhattan! That whole idea of bringing Manhattan to life, I think it’s something Charlie suggested to Tom, but Tom talked about it and his eyes would light up, he would be so excited he’d almost be bubbling, because he loved the city so much. He was a denizen of Manhattan. And so he took great joy from this. I think Tom got double joy: number one, he enjoyed writing the story because he loved writing, but I think this process of bringing Manhattan to life is something he also especially enjoyed. So this was not a case of the game design being imposed or added on top of what the writer did. The writer is the one who embraced this vision which such gusto, and of course, when the game had to be cut back, so much of that sandbox is what got cut.
Stay Forever: Text adventures have a very economical way of moving the player around. You can move from one part of the map to another in just a few moves, NORTH, NORTH, EAST and everything.
Don Daglow: Twisty, turny passages…
Stay Forever: *laughs* … all alike. So it’s relatively easy to build a big sandbox or at least a big map in a text adventure. I totally get behind the vision of having this come alive and having iconic points in Manhattan, and that would have fit well in whatever size in a text adventure game. We have seen this done in other games, not in the same fashion but somewhat similar, in Fahrenheit for example. But this whole economy of hunger and money and sleep, which is always so tight and so unforgiving; if you view that from a meta perspective, it feels like a different game. Systems which don’t have much connection with the other systems in the game. But from within the game it feels strangely fitting, because it gives you such a feeling of being lost – you can’t remember anything and you’re poor and you’re hungry. So was this by design? Or was this whole economy turned up a notch too much so it got too harsh and created this feeling by accident?
Don Daglow: It’s funny because to me, that’s one of the best parts of the game. But if you magically said: „Don, you know what, times have changed. Amnesia could succeed now. We wouldn’t have to cut it down. You can go republish Amnesia in its full form. Here’s the budget, here’s the schedule, get the gang back together” – with 20/20 hindsight, for modern audiences, we would have to tune it much less harshly. Because in those days, we had a much smaller audience, we had a much more specialized audience, and we had an audience that craved a challenge, whereas today we have much larger, more diverse audiences, some of whom crave challenge and some of whom want to have more of a guided tour in which they know they can’t fall off the edge of a cliff. I think especially for modern audiences and potentially even for audiences at the time, we may have tuned it too much to the difficult level in places.
You know, I’m never going to get the chance to go republish that game and do what I would want to do so Tom Disch gets the credit I think he deserves, and frankly so Charlie Kreitzberg and the team get the credit they deserve. But I think one of the things we could have done better then and that I would definitely have to do now if we republished it: The difficulty level has peaks and valleys. There’s places where it just flows too easily and you weren’t challenged and there are places where I think even for audiences at the time we probably had it too difficult
Stay Forever: I don’t know if I agree fully. I’ve played lots of hard games in my life, games from the eighties as well, solved the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide puzzles and so on. But this game felt unfair in some parts. It was relatively easy in acts one and three, in the text adventure parts, and totally unforgiving to the point of arbitrariness in the world exploration part, because the limits were so harsh. So the systems were gripping you very hard, and whenever you felt like you had made progress, the game – I cannot describe this any other way – devilishly pulled the dangling carrot away from us, like: „Ahaha no, that’s not the way it’s done! Ahaha, you may have thought this, but no!” You know, the game would send you in one instance to the north of the map, which takes hours of game time and is very risky and uses up all your money, only to show you the finger and say: „Ah, there is nothing here! Why come?” So the game design was the designer against the player. Was that just the zeitgeist?
Don Daglow: No, actually it was none of that. What it really was, was we could have used three more months just to tune the thing, but we had to ship it. This is just at the point where I left and went to Brøderbund. Those are all things that three more months of tuning would have fixed. That was not deliberate on the part of either Tom or the designers. It was actually an artifact of having to decide what to cut and not having enough time to really rebalance the game after the cuts were made and to tune it again after the cuts were made.
Stay Forever: Could you tell us more about the things which were cut? We noticed that the back of the box says you can buy clothes, and that is something I would have loved to do in the game. And is says you can use a credit card, which you can’t really do except for the first scene. And there would be stores opening and closing. The whole simulation aspect of the game seems like it was meant to be more extensive.
Don Daglow: Yes, that was all there. There is that quote from Hamlet: „Had he been put on, he would have been most proud“ or “he would have served most proud“ [Act 5, Scene 2: For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royally – Ed.] So, if Hamlet had gotten to be king, he would have been a great king of Denmark. We all recognize Hamlet would have had to learn a few things about being a king, because obviously there were some flaws in Hamlet, as we learned in the play. I think that if the whole thing had been implemented, if we’d had the disks to implement it all, we would now look back at it in many ways as a landmark, because Tom had written those things and the Cognetics system could do those things.
When we had implemented the whole thing, I think there were going to be gaps. I think there would have been things that were wrong and because we had to cut out everything, we never got to tune the full system. We were cut off on how much time we had to even tune the cut-down system, but all the things you’re describing, stores opening and closing, way more inventory you could buy, way more opportunities, lots of little things that helped move the story along, you know, depth in everything, plus all the descriptions of those Manhattan street corners. Now what survived were the famous places or the places that for some reason played a role in the game. That was all written by Tom Disch, he did the work and Charlie and the guys were completely capable of putting it into the system. We just had to cut.
The funny thing about that sandbox and that map of Manhattan is, a year after we published that game, I am now at Brøderbund, and I’m at an event in Greenwich Village in New York. So I walked out of the event, I’m trying to find a cab, the normal problem in New York. And I think: „Oh, wait a second!“ At that point I had not spent a lot of time in Manhattan, but I knew virtual Manhattan from Amnesia. And I said: „I know exactly where I’m at, I’m at Greenwich Village, if I walk three blocks in this direction, I know what neighborhood I’m walking through“, because in 1980s’ New York you wanted to know what neighborhood you were walking through, much more than even now. I know what neighborhood I’m walking through and know there’ll be taxis. I walked the three blocks, I see exactly what I expect to see, I get a taxi within literally 45 seconds, and I looked up and said: „Tom Disch, thank you!“ This game taught me how to find a cab in New York.
So the irony is, it was cut up so much and we lost so much of the game, and yet even that skeleton taught me something I used in real life. Every time I’m in Manhattan walking around, I think of Tom Disch, and then I miss him and I appreciate him.
Stay Forever: You say he has written the script and then went on to write The Little Toaster while you were in production already. Was there still some back-and-forth? Like you showing him the game and him commenting on it?
Don Daglow: Stuff went back and forth constantly. Of course this is before e-mail, so he was actually getting stuff mailed to him from Cognetics and from me, Cognetics being in New Jersey. To go from seeing Tom to seeing them was about an hour-and-a-half train ride, roughly, maybe an hour. So a lot of stuff was mailed around, and because Tom was on deadline for Disney, he was busy and under a lot of pressure. He really tried to respond to stuff, but he now had this deadline he was working under that was difficult. But there was a lot of back-and-forth.
Tom, I think he knew just how good a writer he was, and obviously he had won all these awards. He also had a unique personality. He recognized his writing was so unique, he would not have a big hit, because he wasn’t vanilla ice cream. He was a mixture of flavors. Vanilla produces big hits. Most of it never sells at all, but most big hits are more vanilla, and he knew he was never a guy who was going to write vanilla. He wrote romance novels under pen names as a way to make enough money to write the books he really wanted to write. So when he worked with Charlie and the team and when he interacted with me, he didn’t come across as: „I’m the brilliant artiste and how are you messing with my vision?“ He was: „I’m an artist. I want to work in this new medium. This is exciting, this is fun. I don’t know it. You guys know this medium, you get it. I can tell you’re trying to empower me, I can tell you’re trying to bring my vision forward. I don’t have a rivalry with you. You and I are a team together. I want to be a good team player with you. Instead of making it difficult for you, I want to try and make it work.“ That’s why he was such a pleasure to work with.
I would talk to him about issues in the game, the normal stuff that can come up with gameplay and game flow, and he was very responsive. None of the ego, none of the resentment you can see in some quarters. I would like to think that still shines through. That the writer and the tech team and the producer, that all of us had this shared vision and everybody got along so well. We could argue very productively. There would be some great arguments we all had about things. But it was the kind of argument you have on a team to arrive at the best decision. You then make the decision, nobody remembers that it’s an argument, and everything goes on.
So there was a lot of back-and-forth, and you can tell, I’m remembering all of it very fondly as I talk about it, because it was that productive process of being able to argue about stuff from a shared vision and argue productively with good results.
Stay Forever: Games as opposed to writing – writing books – is very much a restrictive art. How do you think his fascination with the medium came about?
Don Daglow: Tom Disch was a fountain of curiosity and interest in things, and so I think when Charlie approached him to do it – because Charlie pitched him, as I remember it, on the original idea – I think he was fascinated with what Charlie said the system could do, and he thought that was great.
The idea of the restrictions of game design, those of us who have made our living from game design just take that naturally, we just live within that world. I’ve seen outsiders to games frankly reject or become angry or frustrated with that. And my memories of him are him trying to make it work. It itself was a puzzle. How do you get this system to produce this story I want to produce? Tom saw that as a puzzle for him to solve instead of us providing obstacles to what he was trying to do, which probably explains why he was collaborative instead of being a pain. And I wish I could tell you that everybody I’ve worked with over the years from outside the games business was collaborative, but not everybody is.
Stay Forever: When I read the script, it felt like a script done by an editor and not by a writer, if you get my drift. Editors are much more economical about things, and writers sometimes pour everything into it and don’t compromise. And he felt like somebody who could very well accept the compromises necessary.
Don Daglow: As I remember it, and you’re getting memories that are now thirty years old, I believe that most of the cuts that happened were wholesale cuts and higher things were cut.
My original college degree is in playwriting, that’s what I was originally trained to do. I learned programming by accident, as I mentioned, in college. So I taught programming courses back in the seventies at my school, but I never took a programming course, and then of course ended up being a programmer. But the natural thing for writers is, whatever you write first, expect to cut 20% or more if you want your finished work to be good. I think a lot of that editing Tom did. I think there were probably places where any of us might have suggested: „This section’s kind of long, for flow it’s probably better if we tighten it up some“, and Tom might tighten it up, but I don’t remember a lot of that. As I said, most of the cuts were with a machete and they took off entire limbs.
I think you’re right that he understood that we had to be concise with what we did, because text adventures by nature were concise. He got that. But I think you’re seeing Disch’s attempt to do it his way, rather than an editor going through the text and going: „Oh, he did this in sixty-four words, I can do it in forty-eight.“ I don’t remember any of that going on. Tom was doing that himself where he could.
Stay Forever: Let’s go back to the game for a minute. There are two things which we haven’t touched yet. One is the claim that the game has the biggest parser ever used in an adventure game. And you told us that it was a new take on the Infocom parser. To us it felt like if this really was such a powerful parser, then the game didn’t make much use of it.
Don Daglow: I think what was claimed was accurate in the system that the guys built. By the time the cuts were made and it just had to be shipped, and it was shipped sooner than I would have wanted it to be shipped. But not long after that, I was at Brøderbund, so I obviously no longer had a say in the matter. I think that what is on the disks that you played may very well not be more advanced than what had come before. What was there in development I’m absolutely confident was, but I think there’s a very real possibility that it was lost. And I’m damned if I know how you do the analysis these days. I know it wasn’t too long after that that Anita Sinclair and her team in the UK produced what to my eyes at that time was by far the most complex parser that had been in any game. I can’t remember the name of the company …
Stay Forever: Magnetic Scrolls was the name.
Don Daglow: Yes, Magnetic Scrolls.
Stay Forever: They made The Pawn and The Guild of Thieves.
Don Daglow: Yes, there we go. I think their system was the most sophisticated when they eventually came out. Whether we’ve surpassed Infocom in fact as opposed to in potential, I don’t know. I think we had the potential to, but after the cuts, I don’t know if we did or not.
Stay Forever: One thing that you had was a very strange scoring system that we couldn’t make heads or tails of. We spent a significant portion of our time experimenting with that, trying to figure out how it works. Do you remember what the meaning behind this was? Because scoring systems are obviously best if they are not intransparent. I don’t even know which part of my behavior was being judged with this system.
Don Daglow: You know, I have to say, my memories of that are clouded by thirty years. I know that in any scoring system, part of what you do is trying to give people a sense of the progress they made. And I think this was an idea that came from the heart of the original vision for the game, and I liked it. We were trying to layer some other considerations on top of that to give it more depth in a Dischian way, but I think that may be another thing that ended up being untuned and incomplete in the final game. I hate to keep saying that. It sounds like I’m constantly criticizing a game I love, but of course I love the game and I know what it could have been and not just the subset that people saw. So I have no argument with your conclusion, but there was some good intention in there and I think it just got cut off before it had a chance to reach where it was trying to go.
Stay Forever: Do you remember anything about the scoring system? It was judging detective work and some kind of personal progress.
Don Daglow: I know we were trying to give players an authentic sense of how much of the game they had discovered. I think Infocom often did that very well, and that was something that we were trying to do. And I know that we were trying to do twists for purposes of character on top of that. But after thirty years I don’t remember. If I could find that box with the script in it and other things, then all sorts of things would start coming back to me.
Stay Forever: The game judged you as a detective, as a character and as a survivor. We couldn’t really fathom where the points came from. Some points in „detective” must be solved puzzles, something like that, progress in the narrative perhaps. But as a survivor it seems to count time.
Don Daglow: I had forgotten about the three-way split, because I’ve not had the chance to play the game in forever. And that three-way split was part of what I was talking about, trying to give people more depth to the idea while still giving encouragement. As I say, your experience certainly shows the system had not matured by the time we had to ship it.
Stay Forever: It was kind of fascinating. It was just that we didn’t know what we were doing.
Don Daglow: It is a reflection though of the desire to not stop with the obvious. My mentor was a guy who had worked at Royal Shakespeare Festival, a fabulous, fabulous writer, teacher, actor and director. And one thing he taught me, which I know wasn’t just him, I’ve read about it other places: If you’re a writer, you have ideas about how something will work in your story or your book or your play or your film. Take the first five choices you think of and write down the explanation of why it is a certain way. Then take that piece of paper, crumple it and throw it in the trash. What you’ve now done is you’ve thought of all the obvious things and you have said: „Okay, great, those are the obvious things. Now the creativity can start, because I’ve discarded the obvious.“ The sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth things I think, now I’m going to start be creative, because I’ve used up the obvious and I’ve gone past that. That was Tom Disch in a nutshell. And everybody working on that game embraced that philosophy of wanting to work that way.
Stay Forever: One thing I didn’t clearly understand: You said the cuts were necessary for disk space reasons. But if you had had the space, could you have pulled the game off? Because the game in itself would have been much bigger and would have required more testing and polishing etc. Did you really only cut for space to get the game to a certain file size, or was it also like: „Oh, we can’t pull this off with this system in place and that system in place“?
Don Daglow: No, it was purely the count of disks that got it. Let’s just say that we were given six disks and the full Tom Disch experience could be delivered. It would not have taken that much longer, because cutting that much content out of a game and then trying to tune it and debug it,doesn’t take that much less time than taking the content that already exists and is already built into the game and tuning it.
Back in those days, we probably had two testers in EA at this point, plus occasionally have somebody come in. That was the EA test department. So the producers did a lot of the tests. This is before assistant producers. The first producers in video games were at EA. Trip Hawkins, the founder of EA, came up with the idea of producers for games, and so the first assistant producers came along about two and a half or three years later.
When we got a build, I would go through every corner of Manhattan in the game to make sure that that corner still worked and didn’t crash. I would spend hours going through just the map. I think there was a cheat button where I didn’t need to eat and I didn’t need to sleep for testing.
Stay Forever: Ah, that must have been helpful!
Don Daglow: I had to go North, South, East and West, to every single corner south of 110th Street, just to make sure that the build had not broken anything. And this is several hours of mindlessly hitting your arrow keys and going North, South, East, you know, doing the whole thing to cover all of Manhattan.
In those days, producers would do a lot of this testing, you wouldn’t just dump that on the testers. You didn’t have enough testers to dump it on. And so when we did that, the fact that it was empty – it still had to be tested. As support for my theory that it wouldn’t have taken that much longer to finish the whole game, as producer during testing, I was going to every corner anyway, because it was in the game, it had to be tested that it wasn’t busted.
Stay Forever: Would you say there was content for every point of the map, or was there a ratio, like twenty percent or fifteen?
Don Daglow: From memory of the script from thirty years later, I’d say there were parts of town where three quarters of the corners you came to had something unique about them.
Stay Forever: Oh, wow!
Don Daglow: There were other parts of town where maybe twenty percent would. And most of them were little short bursts of text, two or three lines. But in some neighborhoods, it was rich. And if you got into the boonies, in areas that were less historic or had less going on, there would be a little note here and there. You know, there’d be some place Tom remembered going and he would flag it and do it.
I didn’t know what the overall percentage was, but if you figure, between half and three quarters in some neighborhoods and twenty percent in others, there probably were places it was ten percent, but because of the cuts I got so used to going through emptiness that I just don’t remember anymore. But there were a lot, and it was Tom Dischian and it was Tom’s take on the scene, seeing the city through Tom’s eyes. And now you see it through a pinhole in a blindfold, you get to see Tom Disch’s version of New York. It was the full vision in the original work.
Stay Forever: So it was more like a vast narrative than a puzzle-based game.
Don Daglow: Yes, if I think of it now – and again I’m remembering the spirit of it rather than the words –, if you came around the corner and you saw Radio City Music Hall, where they still have the Rockettes shows and stuff like that, that’s the kind of thing we would have left in. But if I try to think Dischian again for a moment, “Radio City Music Hall is here where the dancers’ leg kicks are still not as high as the prices”. It would be some Dischian observation, but then he would add something, he might have somebody collapsed in a heap underneath the poster showing dazzling stars, or something like this. It would come down to two or three sentences, but it wouldn’t just be: „OK, here’s Radio City Music Hall, it’s an old brownstone that’s actually a theatre with a false front. The headline on the marquee says this.” You wouldn’t get just a narrative with Tom, you would get something else, you would get contradictions, you would get something to smell, something to see, something to feel, the way the wind blew down the street, things like that, you would always get more than just a description.
Stay Forever: I enjoyed the game very much when I played it, flawed and incomplete in parts as it was. It was a great experience, for our listeners as well who for the most part didn’t play it. They just listened to us talk about it, you know, we were doing the hard work and they were just listening. They overwhelmingly came back to us and told us how much they enjoyed it and what an interesting game it was. I would like to thank you for this insight into the game’s creation.
Don Daglow: Understood, and I had fun talking with you! I have one deep wish: I hope to hell that Tom Disch in Heaven can hear you talking about that, because he loved the story, he loved what we were doing, you could see he loved working with the team as part of the team, and I absolutely treasure working on this game. And for all the things that went wrong with the practical side, I’m still intensely proud of this game, I will always be intensely proud of it and I’m just proud to have worked with a guy as brilliant as Tom Disch and frankly as brilliant as Charlie Kreitzberg, who could focus on enabling an artist instead of hobbling an artist. So for all those reasons, I’m intensely proud to be a part of this team.
Stay Forever: Don, thank you very much!