My friend Jason recently tweeted that Mike Berlyn is fighting cancer and just had a stroke. He encouraged us to say thanks. I’d like to say thanks.
(One note, before I continue: I know that computer games are never the work of one person. I don’t mean to imply that any one human rolled up their sleeves and lowered the coding oil all over their floppy drive in their underground game dev bunker and emerged six months later with a fully designed, developed and tested game while hissing at the sun. I am, however, addressing this to one person whom I’ve never met, who I think is one of the most richly creative and talented game creators in the world.)
I was 12 when Tass Times in Tonetown was published. My family had a PCjr and we could legitimately get one computer game every so often. Dad might come home with a floppy disk filled with Fibonacci spiral generators or a biorhythm “game” but for the most part, my brother and I grabbed every promotional brochure we could and lusted after certain games in the catalogs. We would pool allowances and get the games when they were discounted, long after they were new but exactly when we could afford them. (I’m including my brother here although I should note that as he grew older he did things like dunk basketballs, whiled I became very good at dunking a basketball in NBA Jam, if he shows up in the comments and denies his involvement.) We got Tass Times in Tonetown long after it was new. It was a masterpiece. I read the newspaper that was included so many times I memorized most of it. I pinned the “I Smell Snarlmeat!” button to my tote bag. As a dumb kid, I was even able to solve some of the game’s puzzles — which always felt like organic obstacles I genuinely wanted to overcome than something arbitrary — and made decent progress until I got to the point where the game disk had a sector read error and wouldn’t display graphics or present the room description. I would trudge back into the parts of the world I could hang out in, because I enjoyed being in Tonetown so much. It was fun just wandering around town.
I “solved” it, using an emulator, a couple years ago. It was delightful. To me, it’s as vibrant a world as there is in the entire realm of fiction. A part of me will always be there.
There is a special place in my heart for spaceship games. The first spaceship game I can remember playing is Oo-Topos.
The first thing that will always strike me about Oo-Topos, is, of course, the name. I have bored my friend Ben with many inane, borderline OCD discussions about computer games when we were both supposed to be working. One such discussion I have had is regarding computer and video game names. I maintain that the best name, ever, is Tempest. But! But the second-best one is Oo-Topos.
I moved in with my girl a couple Januaries ago. Right before I did, I won an auction for an Oo-Topos poster. It… the years have not been kind. It looks like it was actually in the ship when everyone was shooting at each other. I don’t care, I’m going to get it framed and put it on display in the new place we’re moving to. I get that I am talking about the amazing marketing that accompanied your games, but I can’t print out the byte code for Cutthroats and frame that. But these things are the ways to connect with the amazing experiences your games offered when I was at the age where I was most receptive to 16-color experiences.
I do kind of have an idea on how to pronounce the name. Most of the time when I bring it up in conversation I am the, ahhh, first person to mention it, so the other person more or less vaguely signs on and we pronounce it the same way. It’s important to establish dominance early when discussing Oo-Topos, I feel. I try to attend the Oklahoma Video Game Expo each year with my pal Rob. I don’t live in Oklahoma, so this is something I fly out to. I don’t want to imply that I find the act of flying to be an awful experience, but during every single flight I do find myself wishing that the player character from Suspended would turn off all the airplanes halfway through to put me out of my misery like you can do in the game. We always get a table for the expo and in 2011 our theme was text adventures. We had Oo-Topos out on an Apple II. People were playing it, kids were enjoying it. I wrote about it here.
I should talk about Suspended.
The work you and your colleagues did with Infocom will be remembered for a long, long time. I think they will be enjoyed 100 years from now. Well, enjoyed by a lot of people. People will one-star the Louvre on Yelp. I can see how new generations of players will turn their nose up at Zork since they won’t understand the context. Kids these days, 12-year old kids, can watch the movie Alien and find it cheesy, while I wasn’t allowed to watch it from my parents until I turned 39. You can poke holes at almost any 1980s game, but… but then there’s Suspended.
Splitting up the senses among the different robots was a stroke of genius. From that point on, the game can only be done in text. From that point on, it can only be done in straight text. The board-game aspect of it with the tokens and the map makes it utterly immune from advances in video game technology. At least as far as people will still be playing Monopoly or Clue. I am horrified at the thought of losing my senses. I loved that Iris starts the game unable to see. Instant motivation, and that’s an awful spot to put the player in! The “contract,” up to that point, with text adventures is that we could at least get pretty reliable descriptions of what was going on. What an inspired way to twist that around. I loved it. I can’t do even do justice talking about Poet. You were the poet! Suspended is a unique entertainment experience that will hold up forever.
I do have the thing. That thing. The thing from Suspended.
I mean, it was on eBay last week. It is usually far beyond my finances, but this one was opened and beat up, but I didn’t care. The auction was going to end at 5:24PM local time. I was supposed to get a call from my realtor between 5 and 5:30. She called at 5:22, and I, er, I had to pay attention to the call, because the place we’re buying is missing things like grounded electricity and a furnace. I stalled for two minutes. I won the auction and it arrived on Saturday.
I put it in the glass cabinet, as you can see in the picture below. A word about my morning routine: I tend to wake up, get some coffee and come into this room, the room I’m typing this in, and check my e-mail. For the last three days the ghastly visage of the cryogenic nightmare dude from Suspended has greeted me with a hearty BLAM BLAM of my heart. The eyes are ALWAYS looking at me. How does it even do that? I might get used to it, when the date matches the day that Suspended begins in. That’s the day I’m hoping for. God, it’s horrifying.
You made games that have been a part of my life for over 30 years and they aren’t going anywhere. They are amazing works that were never bound by a single genre or theme. It takes this many words to describe a handful of your games because each one throws something new at the player. The craftsmanship, the originality and the care on your part and the wonderful people you worked with has never been topped. There is no typical “Mike Berlyn game” and I mean that in the most complimentary way. I hope you know this. I hope you hear it every day.
Thank you. Thank you so much.