Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time: A conversation with Andrew Nelson
Andrew Nelson was one of the key people at Knoxville-based computer games developer CyberFlix. In the 1990s, he was involved with several of the company’s projects, most notably Dust: Tales of the Wired West and Titanic: Adventure out of Time. For the latter he wrote the script and acted as Producer. Our conversation with Andrew focuses on the creation of Titanic: Adventure out of Time, an adventure game for PC and Mac published in 1996.
This interview was conducted by Christian Schmidt on February 5th 2021 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on www.stayforever.de’s Patreon page (public for everyone). Here’s the full audio:
The audio interview was transcribed by Stay Forever community members cpt-marve and Anym. We’re very grateful for their excellent work! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
The interview was a supplement to our playthrough of Titanic: Adventure out of Time, published as a series of podcast episodes. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading retro gaming podcast.
Stay Forever: Welcome to this epilogue to our series of podcasts on Titanic: Adventure out of Time. I am very happy to speak with one of the creators of the game, Andrew Nelson. Andrew, thank you so much for joining me today!
Andrew Nelson: You’re welcome, Christian! It’s good to be here and to share with you some of my memories about creating Titanic: Adventure out of Time.
Stay Forever: It’s my pleasure. You are a journalist by trade and education, you have a master’s degree in journalism and communication from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and in the early 90s you worked as an editor for a couple of years prior to your time at CyberFlix. You have since built a career as a journalist and a travel writer for National Geographic, among others. You’re also teaching communication and writing on a college and university level. Is that summary reasonably accurate?
Andrew Nelson: That summary is very accurate. I worked for National Geographic Traveler for a long, long time.
Stay Forever: Where were you in the early 90s and how did you get involved with CyberFlix?
Andrew Nelson: This was the early 1990s. I had been a graduate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which was an elite journalism school in the United States, one of three or four, and I was working for a company called Whittle Communications, which was trying to pioneer different methods of delivering magazines to readers. I was intrigued with the entrepreneurial spirit, so I came on board there and found myself living in the Smoky Mountains. Surprise to me, who had previously lived in New York and Los Angeles. But at that time there was a lot of experimentation both in media and of course with technology, and thanks to digitization and the internet these strands were all converging.
Cyberflix was founded by Bill Appleton and Jamie Wicks. Jamie was a computer artist. They got together to create a game called Lunicus. Bill had been working in Silicon Valley and had been working heavily with the Macintosh and designing software programming for the Mac. At that point he had created something called SuperCard, and he was sort of renowned as a genius out in Silicon Valley. But he really missed the mountains of East Tennessee and decided that he would return and then found this company.
Now, people are always very surprised that something like this could flourish in Tennessee, which has a reputation for Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and maybe hillbillies. But everybody tends to forget that there is a lot of technology. The Manhattan Project, which was the creation of the atomic bomb, began in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about 20 miles to the east of Knoxville, which is where the University of Tennessee is, and it remained a very big high-tech government-funded center, as was the University of Tennessee. So there was, and still is, a huge amount of technological expertise in that community.
Bill’s father and, I think, mother worked at Oak Ridge. So he comes from a scientific family, and he was responsible for creating these tools called the DreamFactory, which was a suite of software tools that would help create these environments. He started this company and called it, I want to say it was „CyberSoft“, but we switched the name.
Friends of mine knew Bill and that’s how I got to meet Bill. I quickly became incredibly intrigued with this idea of what he was doing, because I thought this was the New Thing. Scott Scheinbaum, who did sound, Jamie and myself and Bill became the nucleus for CyberFlix. Later, Erik Quist, Bill’s friend from Oak Ridge, signed on, and then Rand Cabus as well. So there were about six sort of founding partners. Deena Kaousias worked with Rand, she did our PR. So that was basically the nucleus for the company that became CyberFlix and then created these titles, of which Titanic was our biggest hit.
Stay Forever: Obviously, Titanic: Adventure out of Time is the game that we are going to talk about primarily today. And on that game, you are credited simply as „writer“. First of all, I’d like to get a clearer understanding of what that meant. What was your role on the project?
Andrew Nelson: Well, my role was writer, producer and I would say cheerleader, because it was my idea to do the Titanic. Actually, it was my sister-in-law’s idea. I’d been visiting her and my brother in suburban New York City; she had two young children at the time, and she said: „Well, these CD-ROM games seem very interesting.“ She had seen Myst. And she goes, „I just don’t have time with two young children to play these games for hours. It sure would be nice if you could create a game with lots of characters that would end in two hours, like a movie.“ I said, “Yes.” We had been very interested in expanding the market for adventure games and knew that women weren’t very involved in gaming at that point.
So on the way back to Knoxville, on the plane, I remember there was an article that mentioned the time it took for the Titanic to sink after hitting the iceberg, and it was about two and a half hours. And I went „Mmh … !“ What would it be like to create a game in which you would have as much gameplay as you wanted in the first part, until you gathered a certain series of items that would then trigger the strike of the iceberg, but then you only had two and a half hours – as long as it took for the actual survivors of the Titanic – to do what you had to do, wrap it up and get up and get out on a life boat? And so that’s basically how that came to the fore.
The Titanic allowed us to think in larger ways about digital worlds and environments. They needed to be contained, of course, because they could not be infinite, given the size and the capacity of hard drives at the time. So something like the Titanic proved to be very useful, because it was a universe in a world, yet it was contained, it was on one ship or in one set.
I would like to use the German word „Zeitgeist“ to talk about what was going on in 1995, because it was a very curious thing that there were so many aspects of the Titanic that were surfacing at the time in popular culture, in high culture. People were thinking and talking about Titanic. We weren’t the only ones, we just picked up on it. And I think that the reason was – and this is my own pet theory – that the Titanic seems to surface in our popular culture whenever the lesson of technological hubris seems to come to the fore, to remind us that our technology is not so great in the hands of an angry ocean, an angry god, what have you. The internet and digital technology was exploding in the early 90s. So this seemed an obvious way to create and load this game on a CD-ROM, and to share it with the world.
Stay Forever: To reiterate, you came up with the idea of the game, you wrote the game, you produced the game. What did producing entail?
Andrew Nelson: Producer really meant creating, driving and making the team understand what this was all about and how we would be the first people ever to build the Titanic in digital dry dock. So, it was an amazing effort and it was a huge effort. I think I was in that office every single day for an entire year, no vacation.
Stay Forever: Did you also design the puzzles?
Andrew Nelson: Bill designed the puzzles, but that was more of a collective group effort. Because of course no one person could do it. I have a sense for characters, settings, storyline and narrative … and so, Bill and a team of the programmers would come up with the puzzles. And everybody in the company contributed to it.
CyberFlix at that time … I think the average age was, like, 22. All of us were living and working in a two-story loft in the central Market Square of Knoxville, Tennessee. It was quite funny because the rest of the community didn’t quite know about us until there was a fire alarm. A fire had started on the roof, and all of a sudden the rest of Knoxville, all of these bankers and lawyers, saw all these guys in Doc Martens carrying out hard drives. Because that’s all we were doing, „Oh my god, the hard drives! Save them!“ I remember the secretary was grabbing hard drives, everybody was grabbing hard drives. And then they saw all these – to their eyes – kids come running out of this building, and they became very intrigued with what we were doing there.
Stay Forever: Was the company from the beginning intended to be a company that would create products for CD-ROM, and with Macintosh as the lead platform?
Andrew Nelson: Let’s put it this way: Apple was our heart and soul and PCs were the wallet. Bill was a completely devoted Apple fan. We all were. But we recognized that the majority of people played on PCs at that point. That was a business decision of course, you had to do both platforms. But we were totally Mac-centric, because of the graphics; all the guys, all digital artists had Macs as well.
Stay Forever: And CD-ROM?
Andrew Nelson: Well, CD-ROM was because it was a vehicle that could contain the most data to be able to deliver what we were trying to do. That was the way these games were created back then. You’ve got to remember that the pipes of the internet were incredibly small at the time, so the best way to get your data was to press it on a CD-ROM.
Stay Forever: Right. So our listeners may not be familiar with the first two games from CyberFlix, which would be Lunicus and Jump Raven. I’ll briefly describe them as shooter games in a 3D environment, albeit with restricted movements. So players could only turn in 90° angles and move block by block like in role playing games such as Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder. Were you already involved in the creation of these games?
Andrew Nelson: I came aboard as Lunicus was shipping. I wrote the storyline for Jump Raven. And then the game between Jump Raven and Titanic was Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.
Stay Forever: I’m familiar with it.
Andrew Nelson: Yeah, so that preceded Titanic, and in a way that became the stepping stone for what would become Titanic.
Stay Forever: For Lunicus and Jump Raven, do you happen to know whether they were successful?
Andrew Nelson: They were. Although not as successful as Titanic. I would not know the sales figures for either. I did go to Japan and accepted an award from Apple Japan for Jump Raven at the time.
Stay Forever: Okay. I primarily mentioned Lunicus and Jump Raven because they were very different games from Dust or Titanic. You already mentioned Dust: A Tale of the Wired West, which came out in 1995. That game was a stark departure from Lunicus and Jump Raven. CyberFlix entered a new genre, the adventure game. The game looked differently, now it was digitized actors as opposed to the drawn graphics that the earlier games had. Why this shift, in particular the shift to adventure games?
Andrew Nelson: Well, Myst was such a seminal game. It’s hard to recall the impact that that game had on people visually. It would literally send shivers up your spine when you realized that you could create games that weren’t just shooters, but actually had art, character, occupied time and space and could move you emotionally. And the combination of adding layers of sound and music to it created an atmospheric experience that was quite immersive for the time.
We wanted to create Myst, but perhaps less esoteric and with a more universal appeal, as for example a Western might have. Hence it was Bill’s idea to do Dust. It was all very good fun to create that. But that did serve as the step to Titanic, which was the next rung from that.
Stay Forever: CyberFlix and Dust, how was that funded?
Andrew Nelson: We were getting advances from several distributors. They would give us advances to create the games. I was one of the creatives so as far as I was concerned, I had a paycheck every week. And we had fund for parties, oh my gosh. The parties that CyberFlix put on fast became notorious in Knoxville.
Stay Forever: How so?
Andrew Nelson: Oh, well, out of nowhere you have all these young guys with a lot of development money. And of course some of that went into team-building exercises like the Winona-Ryder-with-fangs party. There are still people in Knoxville who remember the Winona-Ryder-with-fangs party. It went down as one of the great parties in East Tennessee in the 1990s, I can tell you that. I think it went all night in our loft, it was around Halloween I believe. And Winona Ryder was on the invitation – with fangs! And that’s all I remember …
Stay Forever: But she did not attend the party, did she?
Andrew Nelson: No, she did not attend the party.
Stay Forever: That would have been awesome.
Andrew Nelson: I know! We had Laurie Anderson come! Laurie Anderson, the famous New York experimental sound artist. We really followed her motto: „Virtual reality will never be real until they can figure out how to put the dirt in it.“ I remember we really liked that saying, because we thought you have that uncanny valley of digital sets where everything is so perfect and mathematically generated and yet there’s no litter. There’s no trash. What we wanted to do is to create the unexpected.
I remember Bill spent one entire night programming chickens to appear on the streets of the Western town in Dust, randomly, and they would move on their own volition. Independently of your action, they would just appear. We thought that was just the most amazing thing. That would later come in handy with having characters show up in Titanic.
It was a very exciting time to work in that field then, because we really knew that we were pushing the boundaries of what was possible. I think we were all very conscious of that. But it was just fun to do. It still was the most fun job I’ve ever had.
Stay Forever: I asked about the funding because I’m trying to understand how much creative freedom you had with a game like Dust or Titanic. Because typically if you accept advances from a publisher, the publisher would also want to have a say in the creation of the game.
Andrew Nelson: Correct. But you have to remember, this was so new, the publishers had no idea. They just knew, „The kids love this! The kids were all over it! We could make a lot of money out of it.“ I remember once Rand and I took a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. A friend of mine’s friend, she was a woman who was involved in film production, said „Alright, let’s see what you got.“ We showed her this, and she goes, „I don’t know what it is, but I know you’re going to make a lot of money off of it.“
At that time we were getting checks to create a couple of things. We were getting checks to create or help produce branded entertainment. We got some money from Japan, where we created a series of animated figures. Bill was a very smart guy and said okay, we’re going take this and use some of that money to fund our own titles. So it was a combination, I think, of larger firms, larger entertainment corporations not knowing what was possible, but knowing that they had to fund some of this and maybe strike it rich. And then also doing some of these other production contracts for some of those Hollywood studios.
Stay Forever: So CyberFlix was doing work for hire at the side?
Andrew Nelson: That’s a good way to put it. We’re taking the money we’re making and plowing it back into creating our own titles.
Stay Forever: You mentioned that Dust was a stepping stone for Titanic. If you look at Dust, what would you say in hindsight worked well in that game and what didn’t?
Andrew Nelson: That’s a good question. I think the technology worked really, really well. I need to give a shoutout to Bill Appleton and his amazing technology DreamFactory that actually allowed us to create these characters and have them talk on the fly. Basically, you could program their mouths to move and get reactions from their faces based on the scripting, as well as creating entire worlds with programmable elements that would act independently of game action. It was really Bills technology that made this all come to life.
But I think the characters in Dust really didn’t have as much of a personality arc as that would in Titanic. Of course the Titanic is always a great place to set a story because it’s such life-or-death circumstances. But all in all, when I think about the world that was created with Dust, it’s hard to look at it without thinking that everything we were doing was a giant experiment. How would this work? How do you create an entire town?
We fast understood that there was an limitless amount of data you seemingly could put in, numerous storylines that would take hours to follow. So, how do you funnel that? I think we learned to funnel players into gameplay by the time we got to Titanic.
I had people who would tell me that they loved Dust because they just liked to sit and look at the sky and see the shooting stars that we programmed in. People would always have these strange reactions to all of these adventure games. Of course the bulk of the players were all about the gameplay. But you would get some people who would just leave Titanic on for Scott Scheinbaum’s wonderful soundtrack, because they liked it. You have to remember, nobody had seen things like this. Now we have so much CGI in our lives, it’s sort of hard to forget just how novel this seemed.
Stay Forever: Yes, people were having their first experiences with worlds like these. And if your first experience of a rendered 3D world with interactive characters was Dust, then it’s going to be a very impressive experience.
Andrew Nelson: Correct. And again, let’s not forget that the resolution on the average colored television set in 1995 was nowhere near what it was with the computer monitor. So when you looked at it, it was like looking at jewels. Especially in America, because Americans always would go to Europe in the 80s and 90s and come back and say, „Oh my god, their television sets are like Blade Runner!“ Because you guys had a higher definition ratio than Americans did. Having computer monitors with that degree of resolution, a quantum leap above TV, people just were dazzled.
Stay Forever: You must have learned some lessons from Dust that informed the design of Titanic. Superficially the games are relatively similar in look and feel and in gameplay. What would you say is the biggest difference between Dust and Titanic?
Andrew Nelson: I think Titanic had a more sophisticated relationship with the player. It was more character-driven, if that’s possible to say. I think because of the time element in the second part of the game, it created a pacing and a tension that just didn’t exist in Dust. You could take your pace, you could be leisurely. Titanic, you get into this world and you may have taken a long time, but once you assembled the key elements that triggered the ship striking the iceberg, then it was totally playing for time. We would get comment after comment like, „I love this game, but oh my god, I can’t get there, I always die in the end!“ I think that was part of it, the rhythm was distinctly different.
Stay Forever: We’re now finally approaching Titanic: Adventure out of Time. It’s a big topic. But before I go there, one more thing, because you already mentioned „Zeitgeist“, as you so nicely put it, that the Titanic was in the Zeitgeist in the mid-90s. But Myst-like CD-ROM adventure games, interactive movies were also in the Zeitgeist in the gaming industry. And you were basically at the intersection of these things. I’m trying to understand how aware you were of the fact that, for instance, the movie was in production, or the fact that other game companies out there were working on Myst-like games.
Andrew Nelson: Well, we were aware that other companies were working with Myst-like games, but when we started this, we had no idea that there was somebody working on a Broadway musical about the Titanic. That there was somebody named James Cameron that was working on a film about the Titanic. I think we first heard about that while we had started production, and we rushed out a press release because we were naturally worried that they would come out with a competing title, a computerized CD-ROM. At that point a lot of the adventure movies were coming out with these CD-ROMs with insipid gameplay. They were really pretty bad, but they didn’t really care, it was just to soak up revenue. So we were well underway before we heard about the Cameron movie.
But again, the Zeitgeist of the time, there were so many other things. There was a woman author who won the Booker Price in the UK, who came out with a novel set on the Titanic [Editor’s note: “Every Man for Himself”, a novel by Beryl Bainbridge, was nominated for the Booker Price in 1996]. All of this was happening in the mid-90s, it was really an interesting time.
Stay Forever: There’s another interesting coincidence. At the same time that you worked on Titanic, Jordan Mechner, the creator of Prince of Persia, worked on a game called The Last Express, which has a strikingly similar premise in that it tried to use the new technology of 3D-rendered graphics and CD-ROM storage to faithfully recreate, in this case, the Orient Express, and then use it as a stage for a mystery adventure game. Were you aware of that project?
Andrew Nelson: We heard about it. Jordan and I actually spoke at E3 – it was wonderful! I loved their idea and I loved their premise.
I think we were always aware that recreating periods of history was very difficult for the traditional gamer. They may have been computer nerds, but they weren’t history nerds. The idea of an adventure dealing with historical time periods was probably not going to be an easy sell.
I mean, I remember talking to the artists, and they were like, „Oh man, 1912?! Boring! It’s all black and white!“ And I remember saying, „No, this is like a space ship, don’t think of it as history, think of it as a starship. How people dress and how they talk, those are the rules. And then have fun with it any other way.”
And of course we had all the blueprints, those were extant, you could find them. So the guys would just have the blueprints, and they would figure out how to create these rooms with the exact dimensions. It was quite funny, because they became authorities on the interior decoration of Edwardian England, going „No, I don’t think that wallpaper would be that color, it would be this.“ On breaks they’d be blasting aliens, but then they’d go back and go, „Well, wait a minute, did the furniture look like this or look like that?“ They took great pride in the historical accuracy of that layout that they built, that set they built.
Stay Forever: See, and that’s endlessly fascinating for me, because I wonder why? I mean, obviously the Titanic existed. As you mentioned, there are blueprints, there are photographs … so you have to accommodate for some people having an idea of what the Titanic would have looked like. But if you approach this from the point of view of a game, the question of whether the furniture is accurate or the wallpapers are period accurate is actually pretty unimportant. So why put this focus on historic accuracy?
Andrew Nelson: I think because we were the first. I would always tell them, „You’re the first people to do anything like this, ever.“ And I think it was really important for them to have an understanding of what we were doing. I was very aware of the moment. At that point I had gone and gotten books and had read stories of the conversion from silent film to talking film in the late 1920s, early 1930s, the waves of technology that washed over Hollywood. Especially during the silent era, that was probably analogous to that time for computer games. But we were aware, we were aware of that.
Stay Forever: You did it because you could.
Andrew Nelson: Yes! Of course. I mean, I still remember, we would get international students. Tennessee had a relatively good technology-focused graduate program in business, and we would get the students coming through, these master’s students and graduate students. Invariably both the Asian and the European students would say, „How did you start this?“ And we just said, „With our credit cards.“ Because I remember we were at Bill’s house in the basement – this was the typical start-up – and we needed money, and we all got cash advances on our credit cards to do it. To those students who weren’t American that just seemed totally insane. That was the entrepreneurial spirit; it still exists, certainly other countries have caught up, but it still seems so daring to do that for a lot of people around the world.
And I just want to let your listeners know, we were not typical Americans in that we were always internationally focused and we understood we needed international markets. Bill had strong connections with the Japanese computer gaming community and we had strong connections and a lot of friends in Britain. We always knew that the European market was very important to us.
Stay Forever: I’d like to dwell a little bit on this point of historical accuracy because that’s really important to me. I spoke with Jordan Mechner about The Last Express and for him, recreating the Orient Express as realistically as possible was actually based on the realization that the Orient Express from that time period, from 1914, was lost to history. The cars had been destroyed and there was no real-life recreation of that train. So he basically decided, okay, we’re going to do that virtually. We’re going to recreate the train like it was, and be in the future that’s most likely going to be the only way to experience that particular train. So I’m wondering whether there was a similar approach or reasoning for you when you recreated the Titanic?
Andrew Nelson: Absolutely. I think what was interesting to us, because of the 3D environments and the way we built them, was that up to that time, you may have been able to create perhaps stage sets of the Titanic, but to be able to walk through the breadth and depth of the ship wasn’t possible. So, by doing what we did – now obviously we had our own limitations – it was possible for the first time to wander from A deck to B deck to C deck, realize where the life boats were …
Titanic historians actually thanked us for that, because they could visualize the problem. There was a big problem, some of these life boats went off with maybe only 12 or 20 people in them when they could’ve taken 80. And it was never understood at the time why that happened. But you play the game and you realize, if you’re at life boat A, but everybody else is over by life boat E, they can’t really see because of the size of the ship that you’re ready to go. And even more so if you are on the other side. It allowed people to visualize historical objects events for the first time in 3D. That was one of the things that I think a lot of people responded to.
So when Jordan was totally devoted to recreating the Orient Express, and he did just an amazing job. I remember being so jealous of his maps. He had such beautiful maps that he used.
When the movie Titanic came out, I was in San Francisco, I’d relocated to San Francisco. I got up, called in sick, I went and I watched that movie three times – that’s a long movie. But what was so great was to watch somebody else’s version and not have to worry about all of the painstaking details. But I knew exactly where they were at any given time. James Cameron had that same bug that we all did, he wanted to recreate it as accurately as he could, and I think he did a great job.
Stay Forever: In a sense any artistic recreation of a ship like the Titanic is an interpretation of that ship. And in your case, in the case of your game, you’re only showing parts of the Titanic. It’s not that the entire ship is accessible or recreated in the game, it’s parts of it.
Andrew Nelson: We only had enough time and enough of a budget to do the parts that we did. We loved the hold and the furnaces just because they were great to render and draw. The first class staterooms were interesting, the Captain’s station was interesting and the gym – we loved the gym, the gym was so much fun. So I think you just end up having to showcase what you can.
A little story: Paul Haskins was one of our 3D artists. They all came to us from the University of Tennessee. How they would get hired is: One would get hired, and then he’d say, „Hey, you know, my friend, can he just sit and help paint the backgrounds?“, and we were like, „Yeah, sure.“ And then sooner or later we’d go, „Alan’s friend Paul, why don’t we hire him?“ So that’s how these guys would get hired. They’d just show up and they’d find us. Paul’s family came from Northern Ireland, from Belfast. His grandfather worked at Harland & Wolff shipyards, the shipyards that built the Titanic. And 60 years later, in the 1990s, he was building those ships on a computer.
The Titanic has the reputation of being the most beautiful ship ever built, and I think if you talk to aficionados and experts of the transatlantic steamers, a lot of them will whisper to you, „Well, you know, the Titanic really wasn’t the nicest ship afloat, it was always the Germans who had much better ships.” I would get a few of those from Titanic historians. But Titanic has that standing because of the tragedy of course, it was its technology, and it had the most beautiful people on it, all of these things. And one of the other things that we tend to forget, it was the first real-time disaster. What I mean by that is, they had a wireless on board, one of the first ships to have a wireless. So they were able to broadcast their own demise to the rest of the world in real- time. Here, people had news of a disaster as it was happening. So it was one of the first mass media events in the world. That’s another first that people tend to forget about the Titanic.
Stay Forever: All of the things which are informed by history are fascinating to me for the interpretation of the game, because at the core Titanic: Adventure out of Time is still a game. And this quest for historical accuracy, there’s an interplay between that and gameplay. To come back to The Last Express as an example, that’s a train, and a train is a pretty confined space. So players of the game will find that orientation is difficult for them because everything is so narrow. That makes it difficult to navigate the train. It’s kind of the opposite with Titanic, everything is sprawling, and you have these large, uniform corridors. So movement in Titanic is something that takes a lot of time to get from A to B, and I guess that’s also one of the reasons why you implemented the in-game map, where you can simply teleport from point A to point B.
Andrew Nelson: Yeah. We quickly realized we were going to have to do something like that, because of the time it took to navigate the physical ship. It was one of the adaptations that we made to increase gameplay because again, as you point out, ultimately this is a game. It gets pretty boring if you’re walking from A deck to B deck to C deck and all that in between. You really needed to be able to leap-frog ahead, as it were.
Stay Forever: That particular issue is easily remedied with the in-game map. There are other things where we wondered whether the Titanic – your source material – informed gameplay or story decisions. For instance, you will remember that at one point you need to enter the fourth smokestack of the Titanic to retrieve the notebook, then there’s a confrontation and the iceberg hits. We thought this is probably in the game because the Titanic had this fourth unused smokestack which was simply decorative. That’s an interesting detail about that ship, and we speculated that it was interesting enough for you to basically use it as a stage. But if you look at the fact that Von Haderlitz is looking for a hiding place for his notebook from a rational point of view, he could hardly do worse than putting it at the top of that smokestack.
Andrew Nelson: Well, gameplay sometimes is not logical in the real world. That’s exactly why we put it there, because that was the dummy smokestack. So perhaps it wasn’t rational, but it aided in terms of gameplay and made it more adventurous and fun.
Stay Forever: Obviously time plays a big role in the game. There’s an in-game clock and there’s a time limit, as you already described. As players we were pretty confused for quite a while as to how time works in the game. Because the pocket watch is ticking, the seconds hand is moving, and thus it looks as if time passes, but in the first section of the game it actually doesn’t. Time jumps forward at key moments in the story. Then once the iceberg has hit, the game switches to sort of real-time, time is actually running. However, during conversations time skips ahead by, I think, three minutes, no matter how long the conversation actually takes. All of that felt a bit haphazard, as if it wasn’t really meant to end up this way. We speculated whether Titanic was originally conceived as a game that was running entirely in real-time.
Andrew Nelson: You know, that’s a very astute perception. We were thinking about making it completely a timed element, that you had – I forgot what had we originally said, six hours or something – to do everything. But we quickly realized that wasn’t going to be enough, that people would dawdle, people wanted multiple sessions of play. But we wanted to really create the suspense and having to get off the boat, having it be a race against time.
So what we came up with was the idea of unlimited gameplay in the first act. And by assembling the various items, you triggered the second act, which is then the countdown in real-time, two and a half hours. That was the compromise. You know, I had not remembered the solution with the dialogue, that it took three minutes; I hadn’t thought about that until today, for a long time, but yes, that was the decision.
Stay Forever: Let’s talk about story decisions. One interesting thing about the game is that it has a framing story. It doesn’t start on the ship, it starts in World War II. And then we’re travelling back to the Titanic, so it has sort of a time travel component. We wondered, why is that in the game?
Andrew Nelson: Well, we wanted to play with the concept of time, play with the idea that your fate can be decided by decisions made a long time ago, the so-called butterfly effect. Also we wanted to create a feeling of melancholy, in a sense that you are entering and you are finding out this character that you have been assigned had had a failed life. The idea that he was in arrears with his rent, that he was a failure and had only memories of another, more successful time, that was important. The idea of returning you borrowed heavily from that old Hollywood trope, „The knock on the head“, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or anybody going back in time … you went back! You had a chance to relive your life.
So, the question remains: Is this just the moments before your actual death, you wondering what could have been? Or could you really go back? I think it was important, and I think it gave you some outcomes – and I don’t want to reveal them, I don’t know how many people still play it …
Stay Forever: All of our listeners have heard all of the outcomes.
Andrew Nelson: Oh, they have? Okay. So you could prevent World War II! In a sense, you could have prevented your own death. So I think it sets up a sense of melancholy right from the beginning, a lost time for the player, and then the game becomes one of redemption.
Stay Forever: But you’re purposefully leaving it up to interpretation whether that is actually time travel, or the last thoughts of a dying person, or an alternate dimension or whatnot?
Andrew Nelson: I’d love to think it’s whatever you would like to think.
Stay Forever: That leads me to another topic, because the story occasionally brushes the supernatural. There is this one key character, Trusk, a spiritual medium, and he’s portrayed as someone who may know more than he lets on. Or he’s just a very good bluffer. And then there’s Riviera, the French card shark, who has a boat pass that turns out to be the Tarot card for „Death“, and within the game world nobody questions that. They just accept that that’s a boat pass, but we as the players obviously wonder: What does that mean? Is there a supernatural element?
Andrew Nelson: Well, there was a psychic allegedly on the Titanic, and a lot of the characters that you see are composites and based on some of the real characters that were on the Titanic themselves. The aristocratic woman, the gossipy woman [Daisy Cashmore] talks about actual real people who were on the Titanic and what they were really up to, so kind of like Rose’s mother in the movie. She’s a gossip and she wants to get to know all these fabulous people. But as you may be aware, there was a lot of talk of the occult and superstitions and astrology that was extant at the time. So Trask was that kind of character, he was fun to imagine. We were not deliberately talking anything about the occult, but we thought for mood and atmosphere, why not make that card „Life or Death“? Because that’s what it was, actually, on that ship.
Stay Forever: So there’s no deeper meaning to that?
Andrew Nelson: No, there’s no deeper meaning to that at all. I still get notes and messages from people who would play the game and remember just how scared they felt playing it late at night, wandering down those hallways. It was very much like the Stanley Kubrick movie The Shining. I think a lot of that has to do with the music that Scott wrote, which was to me so amazing in establishing that mood.
Stay Forever: The atmosphere on board of the ship is one of the strong points of the game, but one thing that we particularly loved is the cast. I think the cast of characters is definitely one of the strongest points of the game, both in their personalities and their voices and also their depictions. We loved the encounters with these characters and the interactions with them. Miss Pringle, for instance, I was kind of afraid of her, because she’s quite stern, but I also felt drawn back to her, because it was just interesting conversations. The same goes for a lot of the characters.
Andrew Nelson: I think if we had done a sequel, Penny Pringle should have been the star of the show. She was wonderful! I had a friend who was a British journalist, who worked at the BBC and got one of her friends to record the dialogue strings in London, and we just e-mailed them to us. Of course, this was considered revolutionary at the time. But she just thought it was hilarious, with these Americans writing these sorts of things. I think I told her to play it as if she was an exasperated schoolmarm, that you needed to be shaped up in that great, very severe Scottish way, that strict sort of Calvinist upbringing that they have in Scotland, like a cold shower, as it were. So yeah, you sort of felt bad if you came and you had failed.
Stay Forever: Yes, indeed.
Andrew Nelson: She was great!
Stay Forever: So tell us about how all of the characters were made. I guess you would have had to shoot footage of them and then kind of stitch it together to get the animations that we see in the game? Very interesting style, very interesting aesthetics. But how were they made?
Andrew Nelson: We had a costumer, and we cast the characters for their looks and their facial expressions. So what would happen is that we would have a digital camera that would capture them looking surprised, looking sad, smiling, happy. We had at least 50 expressions that they would do along with vowels and consonants, so that you had all of these facial expressions and reactions. And those could all be keyed in to the recorded voices. So once the animators had 60 or so versions of Penny Pringle, they could key in both reactions and lip movements to the sounds. That’s how they would animate, by the soundwaves. Again, this was Bill’s genius, to create a system that allowed for that.
Stay Forever: And the voice actors were not identical with the actors.
Andrew Nelson: They were dubbed, right. We took somebody who was an actress in the States to play Penny Pringle visually, and then we used a voice character from the UK, from London, and paired them together.
Stay Forever: So if I get you correctly, the actors were not actually actors in that sense. They were more like photo models? They were doing these still poses?
Andrew Nelson: They were all actors though, because actors are very good at creating facial expressions. There were a few non-actors among them, but we quickly realized that actors were great, because they would get it on the first take. “Look surprised!” They had the right amount of exaggeration that you needed. It was exaggerated but still natural. That was real good fun.
Stay Forever: And it is a fantastic result. I really liked the style of the game.
Andrew Nelson: It was funny that it worked so well. We were still experimenting. We had tried it with Dust, because Dust is similar, but I think we were able to perfect that with Titanic. The lighting was more sophisticated on the actors, the shading, and our animators got very good at creating and animating these characters and their dialogue. It was sort of crowd-sourced in the sense that the animators became the directors, they would look and listen to the dialogue and then match the expressions.
Stay Forever: Were there any cameos from the dev team?
Andrew Nelson: Well, I think at the end, when you see all the dead bodies floating by, those were some of us CyberFlixers. And the model for Buick Riviera was Rand Cabus, our marketing guy. Rand was very dashing with that kind of Van Dyke beard, and we had so much fun creating Buick Riviera in Dust that we had to bring him back. We soon realized that that was within his historical life time – he could have been on the ship! So we brought Buick Riviera back to life. He was supposed to have a very bad French accent, and of course your automobile aficionados will know what a Buick Riviera is. Did you understand that was a popular American car?
Stay Forever: No, that was lost on me.
Andrew Nelson: A Buick Riviera was one of those car with tail fins from the 1960s. Americans would have picked that up.
Stay Forever: Unfortunately, I missed that. But now I know, thank you.
Andrew Nelson: No worries. But it’s always fun to put things like that in there.
Stay Forever: Were you tempted to play a character as well?
Andrew Nelson: No, I didn’t have time. And I wrote it, so I was in there, so to speak. It was all of me, so that was okay. It’s very hard when you’ve created something, to approach it again completely neutral in your reaction to it, because of course you have so much emotion in it.
Again, it was one of those things that are so wonderful when they happen in creative work, where the people working on it, the Zeitgeist as it were, the technology, all of it seems to come together for that moment. And that to me is what Titanic was, it crystallized that moment in the mid-90s when anything was possible in computer gaming, and independent small companies could command a hit without spending millions and millions of dollars, as it costs today.
Stay Forever: Since you wrote the game, I’m sure you can clear up a mystery for us. There’s the Georgia storyline in the game. Georgia is a driving factor, and her storyline culminates in us rescuing her at the end because she’s been poisoned, and then we can also save her by getting her onto one of the lifeboats. So we have invested a lot of energy into that and we’ve even saved her in the end, but then – you already mentioned there are multiple endings, but none of them features her. And we wondered why?
Andrew Nelson: I think it’s obvious that you and Georgia might have had a relationship, but I think at that point we wanted to give precedence to historical outcomes. And it was more interesting to leave that up in the air, if it turned out to be a happy ending, did you guys ever get together?
Stay Forever: I understand that reasoning, but I have to say that from a player’s perspective it is disappointing. Because she is in a sense a love interest, there could be a positive outcome of this entire adventure where our protagonist and Georgia end up together again. But that is not a resolution that we are granted by the game.
Andrew Nelson: Yes. And perhaps, looking back on it, and even had we responded to consumer research, maybe we should have … but, you know, there could always be a sequel.
Stay Forever: Right. Well, actually, could there? Doesn’t the good ending show us living happily ever after … ? I’m not entirely sure. I think it shows us retiring.
Andrew Nelson: Right, but what’s so wonderful about the Titanic as a historic fact is that it touches on so many things that are human that human beings will always come back to it and build creative works of art around it. So there could be a completely different interpretation. I’ve often wondered what this game would look like now, given the advancement in technology, the idea of multiple players. Perhaps there would come a day when people would come aboard the Titanic and everybody gets to play a role. And then of course it’s how you interact with everybody else that determines the outcome, it’s not pre-ordained. That could be kind of interesting as well.
Stay Forever: Indeed.
My co-host Gunnar and I, we’ve played through the game thoroughly, we played through it several times until we were reasonably certain that we had seen and understood everything. And yet at the end when we reflected upon the name of the game, we were still uncertain what the „Adventure out of Time“ part actually means. Maybe you can help us understand.
Andrew Nelson: That name „Adventure out of Time“ can be translated in English in two different ways. You are familiar with the phrase „I am out of time“?
Stay Forever: Yes.
Andrew Nelson: This is an „Adventure out of Time“, meaning of course that there is a time element to it. The second meaning „Adventure out of Time“ is alluding to this idea of time travel and the idea of going back into the past.
Stay Forever: Can you describe the success of the game?
Andrew Nelson: It was a – I want to say top five –, definitely top ten seller for Macintosh. PC, it was a great seller. Now of course a lot of this had to do with not only that it was critically well received, it also came out at the same time as the Paramount movie, James Cameron’s Titanic with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Paramount had decided not to do a game since ours was already on the market or was going to be on the market before theirs. That was a happy coincidence. It was just well received, a big seller.
Stay Forever: Also over here in Germany. Actually, why did we play this game? Typically we choose games which are relatively obscure. But in this case, this was a game which was suggested to us by our listeners, and once we picked that up and did our series on Titanic: Adventure of Time, we started to realize how many people actually had played this game, many of them as kids with their parents, often also with their mothers. That is pretty unusual, in particular for the audience which listens to our podcasts.
Andrew Nelson: Yes, well, again you could maybe bring it all back to my sister-in-law, who said she wanted a game that she could play in two-and-a-half hours before she had to make her kids dinner. But I think the Titanic as a symbol appeals to adults and children for different reasons. Children are struck by how could something this big founder and sink so quickly? And I think adults are always connected to the sense of loss, „What would I have done?“ It’s compelling to all ages, the Titanic.
Stay Forever: The game was localized for Europe, if I’m not mistaken. Was CyberFlix involved with that in any way?
Andrew Nelson: We were involved with some of our marketing department, and we had another producer help localize the French edition. There was a Japanese and the German edition. And of course with the German edition, we quickly ran into problems considering the anti-nazification laws that Germany has, which we had no idea of.
Stay Forever: Right. The game features Adolf Hitler.
Andrew Nelson: Correct. We didn’t really understand what that meant, but we did have to change some of the script because of it. I’m not quite sure what the German law says, I don’t really recall. Two of the things that you can take are watercolors by the anonymous Viennese artist who of course turns out to be Adolf Hitler, who was painting in Austria at the time. So that was conceivable, but the conceit there was that if you leave with these paintings, they become famous, Hitler becomes famous, his art becomes much in demand, so he has no reason to pursue the path to power that he did in Germany in the 1920s. One of the things we didn’t realize was that the German market had some strict policies about talking about Nazis and Adolf Hitler – is the law still on the books in Germany, is that still the case?
Stay Forever: Yes, it’s still the case, but the interpretation has changed. Back when Titanic came out, games were treated differently than other cultural media in that you couldn’t, for instance, show swastikas in games even in a historical context. It’s still unlawful to use these kind of symbols and of course to glorify the Third Reich and the regime. However, if it’s done in a historical context – also in video games –, these days it’s tolerated.
Andrew Nelson: Okay. So that was an example of the culture not catching up with the technology, because people were always looking at computer games or video games back then as if they weren’t really an art form. And it’s great to see that a game like the Titanic and all of the other great games, like Jordan’s and Myst, are seen – I think correctly – as the precursor to a lot of things that would come after them.
Stay Forever: Titanic made a lot of people happy. And I also think that for a lot of people games like Titanic opened the doors to the medium, to computer games in general.
Andrew Nelson: And that was something we were aware of. We wanted to make games that appeal to everybody. We were very conscious of that. Because we knew that we were creating what could possibly be considered a new art form, but one that needed to have an appeal beyond just young males, as it were, that everybody could enjoy it. And something that was a universal theme, like Titanic, had that sort of appeal.
Stay Forever: There are actually two things on the CD-ROM: There’s the game itself, but then there’s also this section called „Tour“ where you can go through the Titanic and then have the cast from the game as tour guides who are explaining historic details. And it seems as if originally some of these guides were downloadable content or extra purchases. Can you tell us a bit more about the rationale behind that part of the program and how it worked out?
Andrew Nelson: We’d always had an educational component in mind for the Titanic. This was done after gameplay, and it originally existed online. You have to remember this is one of the first times anybody had ever done this. The idea was that we’d be providing something extra for educators and for people who were actually interested in the historic aspects of the ship that they’d want to go and spend some time on, but not necessarily take away from gameplay. We didn’t want to put them in the game because we felt that anybody who was there to play the game didn’t really want to sit around and be talked to about the historical aspects of the Titanic when they could do it outside of that. That’s how that was done, and in retrospect, I think we could have done that even more.
But again, time and money – was that going to be an ultimate payoff for gamers? Probably not. I think in the back of our minds we all hoped that teachers would assign their kids to go buy the game to learn about the Titanic. I don’t think that was anything that actually happened. I did hear from people who really enjoyed that aspect of it, surprisingly enough a lot of people did. Once you inhabit a space, you do become curious about it, you want to know more of the details.
During the research I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet with Walter Lord who wrote a very famous book about the Titanic called “A Night to Remember”. It was very interesting talking to him, because his apartment – he has had a huge apartment in one of the tonier addresses in New York – was filled with Titanic memorabilia, including actual items from the survivors. And I think that aspect of it is one of those things that just intrigued people, and it intrigued me.
After the game had come out, Discovery Channel did an expedition to the site where the Titanic sank, and I was lucky enough to go along. So for two weeks I was there with the French team as they were bringing up items from the wreckage fields. To actually hold a silver plate that had been in First Class that had just been brought to the surface was pretty thrilling for me.
Stay Forever: Amazing!
Andrew Nelson: Yeah. And then they brought up a valise, a leather suitcase, that was perfectly preserved, the tannins had been preserved. They opened it on the deck and everybody just took one step back, because inside of it were clothes perfectly folded and packed that never made it to New York. But the person who had owned this suitcase had packed these clothes and of course had probably died; they were men’s clothes, so … as a matter of fact, they found there were initials on the suitcase, and they traced it to somebody who did not survive. But the human tragedy at that moment really comes to the fore where you realize these are living, breathing human beings like ourselves that were put in a terrible situation, and most of them lost their lives, most of them drowned. That was quite moving.
I think once the Titanic gets a hold of you, it’s hard to let go. I’ve moved on, life has moved on. And to this day I still meet people who will tell me, „I so enjoyed playing that game as a kid“ or „I love that game“. That makes me very happy to hear, that’s very rewarding. And again, it wasn’t just me or Bill or Scott, but there were so many people who worked so hard on that and were so talented.
Stay Forever: And I think you all can be proud of what you accomplished.
Andrew Nelson: Well, thank you. I think we are, I think for everybody who worked on that it was something that we all took such great pride in. I remember that time fondly.
Stay Forever: So that concludes my questions. Maybe to tie this with a bow, I think with the next CyberFlix game, Redjack, you were no longer involved. Is that correct?
Andrew Nelson: I was not. I had left the company and gone to San Francisco and ended up working for britannica.com, which was the Encyclopedia Britannica’s educational online arm.
Stay Forever: Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time. This was very insightful. I learned a lot of new things and I’m very sure our listeners will appreciate it.