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Challenge #655 is vegetable.
- All stories must be 100 words long.
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struck me as, structurally, being very similar to Knock! Knock!
and, like Knock! Knock!
, I feel I like it less than it deserves to be liked.
and Knock! Knock!
tell neatly self-contained stories. These are well-produced and acted with scripts that are thoughtful while fitting recognisably within the mould of a Doctor Who
story. Fond as I am of the Sylvester McCoy era, it would have struggled to produce two stories of this high quality in close succession. In fact if these had appeared during a Sylvester McCoy season, I suspect I would have rated them as highly as stories like Ghost Light
and Curse of Fenric
This isn't a Sylvester McCoy season though, my expectations are different, and somehow neither managed to really grab me.
I don't really want to nit-pick at Oxygen
, but among other things I'm dubious about the economics on display. I've mentioned a couple of times when discussing this season, about how you identify that point in a fantastical show, where it's breaking its own unstated rules of consistency. The problem Oxygen
had for me specifically as someone who has hung around space scientists a bit, is that its very emphasis on the realities of surviving in a vacuum made me expect more realism from the rest of the Space Science. The reality of space is it is really, really expensive to put people up there (in weight terms, even if you're not factoring in the expense of training someone and are, apparently, discounting any value in human life) so you probably don't want them randomly suffocating even if they are not being as productive as you might like. This then, of course, made me think of the practices of Victorian factory owners and making your workers indebted to you for their use of oxygen (and thereby imposing a form of slavery) and that somehow seemed more plausible though not, obviously as likely to produce space zombies. Like the "how does agriculture work on Christmas?" problem I had with Matt Smith's final story, this distracted me far more than it should have done.
I'm not really qualified to comment on the depiction of disability. hollymath
has written eloquently about how hurtful she found it
though I've seen other commentary that was cautiously optimistic or at least "jury still out" on the subject.
I was disappointed that the blue alien had no function in the story beyond making a simplistic point about racism and then dying.
Did I like anything about the story? Yes, actually. I really liked the interactions between Bill, Nardole and the Doctor. This is the first time we've seen them operating as a team and I liked the way the dynamic of two companions (who aren't romantically linked in any way) worked, particularly the way that the two of them can jointly put different perspectives to the Doctor. In fact I really like this softer version of the twelfth Doctor and both his new companions.
I did think the story was well-paced, well-acted and I liked that it was allowed to be about something and that its resolution tied back to its themes and the set up of the problem. I'm far from convinced it is really Oxygen
's fault that I got distracted by picking holes.
- Tags:doctor who, doctor who:review, doctor who:review:tv, doctor who:review:tv:new series, doctor who:the randomizer, review, review:doctor who, review:doctor who:tv, review:tv, review:tv:doctor who, tv
When Brian Fargo made the bold decision in 1988 to turn his company Interplay into a computer-game publisher as well as developer, he was simply steering onto the course that struck him as most likely to insure Interplay’s survival. Interplay had created one of the more popular computer games of the 1980s in the form of the 400,000-plus-selling CRPG The Bard’s Tale, yet had remained a tiny company living hand-to-mouth while their publisher Electronic Arts sucked up the lion’s share of the profits. And rankling almost as much as that disparity was the fact that Electronic Arts sucked up the lion’s share of the credit as well; very few gamers even recognized the name of Interplay in 1988. If this was what it was like to be an indentured developer immediately after making the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s, what would it be like when The Bard’s Tale faded into ancient history? The odds of making it as an independent publisher may not have looked great, but from some angles at least they looked better than Interplay’s prospects if the status quo was allowed to continue.
Having taken their leave of Electronic Arts and signed on as an affiliated label with Mediagenic in order to piggyback on the latter’s distribution network, the newly independent Interplay made their public bow by releasing two games simultaneously. One of these was Neuromancer, a formally ambitious, long-in-the-works adaptation of the landmark William Gibson novel. The other was the less formally ambitious Battle Chess, an initially Commodore Amiga-based implementation of chess in which the pieces didn’t just slide into position each time a player made a move but rather walked around the board to do animated battle. Not a patch on hardcore computerized chess games like The Chessmaster 2000 in terms of artificial intelligence — its chess-playing engine actually had its origin in a simple chess implementation released in source-code form by Borland to demonstrate their Turbo Pascal programming language1 — Battle Chess sold far better than any of them. Owners of Amigas were always eager for opportunities to show off their machines’ spectacular audiovisual capabilities, and Battle Chess delivered on that in spades, becoming one of the Amiga’s iconic games; it even featured prominently in a Computer Chronicles television episode about the Amiga. Today, long after its graphics have lost their power to wow us, it may be a little hard to understand why so many people were so excited about this slow-playing, gussied-up version of chess. Battle Chess, in other words, is unusually of-its-time even by the standards of old computer games. In its time, though, it delivered exactly what Interplay most needed as they stepped out on their own: it joined The Bard’s Tale to become the second major hit of their history, allowing them to firmly establish their footing on this new frontier of software publishing.
The King takes out a Knight in Battle Chess by setting off a bomb. Terrorism being what it is, this would not, needless to say, appear in the game if it was released today.
The remarkable success of Battle Chess notwithstanding, Interplay was hardly ready to abandon CRPGs — not after the huge sales racked up by The Bard’s Tale and the somewhat fewer but still substantial sales enjoyed by The Bard’s Tale II, The Bard’s Tale III, and Wasteland. Unfortunately, leaving Electronic Arts behind had also meant leaving those franchises behind; as was typical of publisher/developer relationships of the time, those trademarks had been registered by Electronic Arts, not Interplay. Faced with this reality, Interplay embarked on the difficult challenge of interesting gamers in an entirely new name on the CRPG front. Which isn’t to say that the new game would have nothing in common with what they’d done before. On the contrary, Interplay’s next CRPG was conceived as a marriage of the fantasy setting of The Bard’s Tale, which remained far more popular with gamers than alternative settings, with the more sophisticated game play of the post-apocalyptic Wasteland, which had dared to go beyond mowing down hordes of monsters as its be-all end-all.
Following a precedent he had established with Wasteland, Fargo hired established veterans of the tabletop-RPG industry to design the new game. But in lieu of Michael Stackpole and Ken St. Andre, this time he went with Steve Peterson and Paul Ryan O’Connor. The former was best known as the designer of 1981’s Champions, one of the first superhero RPGs and by far the most popular prior to TSR entering the fray with the official Marvel Comics license in 1984. The latter was yet another of the old Flying Buffalo crowd who had done so much to create Wasteland; at Flying Buffalo, O’Connor had been best known as the originator of the much-loved and oft-hilarious Grimtooth’s Traps series of supplements. In contrast to Stackpole and St. Andre, the two men didn’t work on Interplay’s latest CRPG simultaneously but rather linearly, with Peterson handing the design off to O’Connor after creating its core mechanics but before fleshing out its plot and setting. Only quite late into O’Connor’s watch did the game, heretofore known only as “Project X,” finally pick up its rather generic-sounding name of Dragon Wars.
At a casual glance, Dragon Wars‘s cheesecake cover art looks like that of any number of CRPGs of its day. But for this game, Brian Fargo went straight to the wellspring of cheesecake fantasy art, commissioning Boris Vallejo himself to paint the cover. The end results set Interplay back $4000. You can judge for yourself whether it was money well-spent.
A list of Interplay’s goals for Dragon Wars reads as follows:
- Deemphasis of “levels” — less of a difference in ability from one level to another.
- Experience for something besides killing.
- No random treasure — limit it such as Wasteland’s.
- Ability to print maps (dump to printer).
- Do something that has an effect — it does not necessarily have to be done to win (howitzer shell in Wasteland that blows up fast-food joint).
- Characters should not begin as incompetents — thieves that disarm traps only 7 percent of the time, etc. Fantasy Hero/GURPS levels of competence at the start are more appropriate (50 percent or better success rate to start with).
- Reduce bewildering array of slightly different spells.
- If character “classes” are to be used, they should all be distinctive and different from each other and useful. None, however, should be absolutely vital.
- Less linear puzzles — there should be a number of quests that can be done at any given time.
The finished game hews to these goals fairly well, and to fairly impressive effect. The skill-based — as opposed to class-based — character system of Wasteland is retained, and there are multiple approaches available at every turn. Dragon Wars still runs on 8-bit computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64 in addition to more advanced machines, but it’s obvious throughout that Interplay has taken steps to remedy the shortcomings of their previous CRPGs as much as possible within the limitations of 8-bit technology. For instance, there’s an auto-map system included which, limited though it is, shows that they were indeed trying. As with Wasteland, an obvious priority is to bring more of the tabletop experience to the computer. Another priority, though, is new: to throttle back the pace of character development, thus steering around the “Monty Haul” approach so typical of CRPGs. Characters do gain in levels and thus in power in Dragon Wars, but only very slowly, while the game is notably stingy with the gold and magic that fill most CRPGs from wall to wall. Since leveling up and finding neat loot is such a core part of the joy of CRPGs for so many of us, these choices inevitably lead to a game that’s a bit of an acquired taste. That reality, combined with the fact that the game does no hand-holding whatsoever when it comes to building your characters or anything else — it’s so tough to create a viable party of your own out of the bewildering list of possible skills that contemporary reviewers recommended just playing with the included sample party — make it a game best suited for hardened old-school CRPG veterans. That said, it should also be said that many in that select group consider Dragon Wars a classic.
Dragon Wars would mark the end of the line for Interplay games on 8-bit home computers. From now on, MS-DOS and consoles would dominate, with an occasional afterthought of an Amiga version.
The game didn’t do very well at retail, but that situation probably had more to do with external than intrinsic factors. It was introduced as yet another new name into a CRPG market that was drowning in more games than even the most hardcore fan could possibly play. And for all Interplay’s determination to advance the state of the art over The Bard’s Tale games and even Wasteland, Dragon Wars was all too obviously an 8-bit CRPG at a time when the 8-bit market was collapsing.
In the wake of Dragon Wars‘s underwhelming reception, Interplay was forced to accept that the basic technical approach they had used with such success in all three Bard’s Tale games and Wasteland had to give way to something else, just as the 8-bit machines that had brought them this far had to fall by the wayside. Sometimes called The Bard’s Tale IV by fans — it would doubtless have been given that name had Interplay stayed with Electronic Arts — Dragon Wars was indeed the ultimate evolution of what Interplay had begun with the original Bard’s Tale. It was also, however, the end of that particular evolutionary branch of the CRPG.
Luckily, the ever industrious Brian Fargo had something entirely new in the works in the realm of CRPGs. And, as had become par for the course, that something would involve a veteran of the tabletop world.
Paul Jaquays2 had discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1975 in his first year of art college and never looked back. After founding The Dungeoneer, one of the young industry’s most popular early fanzines, he kicked around as a free-lance writer, designer, and illustrator, coming to know most of the other tabletop veterans we’ve already met in the context of their work with Interplay. Then he spent the first half of the 1980s working on videogames for Coleco; he was brought on there by none other than Wasteland designer Michael Stackpole. Jaquays, however, remained at Coleco much longer than Stackpole, rising to head their design department. When Coleco gave up on their ColecoVision console and laid off their design staff in 1985, Jaquays went back to freelancing in both tabletop and digital gaming. Thus it came to pass that Brian Fargo signed him up to make Interplay’s next CRPG while Dragon Wars was still in production. The game was to be called Secrets of the Magi. While it was to have run on the 8-bit Commodore 64 among other platforms, it was planned as a fast-paced, real-time affair, in marked contrast to Interplay’s other CRPGs, with free-scrolling movement replacing their grid-based movement, action-oriented combat replacing their turn-based combat. But the combination of the commercial disappointment that had been Dragon Wars and the collapse of the 8-bit market which it signified combined with an entirely new development to change most of those plans. Jaquays was told one day by one of Magi‘s programmers that “we’re not doing this anymore. We’re doing a Lord of the Rings game.”
Fargo’s eyes had been opened to the possibilities for literary adaptations by his friendship with Timothy Leary, which had led directly to Interplay’s adaptation of Neuromancer and, more indirectly but more importantly in this context, taught him something about wheeling and dealing with the established powers of Old Media. At the time, the Tolkien estate, the holders of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary copyrights, were by tacit agreement with Tolkien Enterprises, holders of the film license, the people to talk to if you wanted to create a computer game based on Tolkien. The only publisher that had yet released such a beast was Australia’s Melbourne House, who over the course of the 1980s had published four text adventures and a grand-strategy game set in Middle-earth. But theirs wasn’t an ongoing licensing arrangement; it had been negotiated anew for each successive game. And they hadn’t managed to make a Tolkien game that became a notable critical or commercial success since their very first one, a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit from way back in 1982. In light of all this, there seemed ample reason to believe that the Tolkien estate might be amenable to changing horses. So, Brian Fargo called them up and asked if he could make a pitch.
Fargo told me recently that he believes it was his “passion” for the source material that sealed the deal. Fargo:
I had obsessed over the books when I was little, had the calendar and everything. And inside the front cover of The Fellowship of the Ring was a computer program I’d written down by hand when I was in seventh grade. I brought it to them and showed them: “This was my first computer program, written inside the cover of this book.” I don’t know if that’s what got them to agree, but they did. I think they knew they were dealing with people that were passionate about the license.
One has to suspect that Fargo’s honest desire to make a Lord of the Rings game for all the right reasons was indeed the determining factor. Christopher Tolkien, always the prime mover among J.R.R. Tolkien’s heirs, has always approached the question of adaptation with an eye to respecting and preserving the original literary works above all other considerations. And certainly the Tolkien estate must have seen little reason to remain loyal to Melbourne House, whose own adaptations had grown so increasingly lackluster since the glory days of their first Hobbit text adventure.
A bemused but more than willing Paul Jacquays thus saw his Secrets of the Magi transformed into a game with the long-winded title — licensing deals produce nothing if not long-winded titles — of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Volume 1. (For some reason known only to the legal staff, the name The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t used, even though the part of Tolkien’s story covered by the game dovetails almost perfectly with the part covered by that first book in the trilogy.) While some of the ideas that were to have gone into Jaquays’s original plan for Secrets of the Magi were retained, such as the real-time play and free-scrolling movement, the game would now be made for MS-DOS rather than the Commodore 64. Combined with the Tolkien license, which elevated the game at a stroke to the status of the most high-profile ongoing project at Interplay, the switch in platforms led to a dramatic up-scaling in ambition.
Thrilled though everyone had been to acquire the license, making The Lord of the Rings, by far the biggest thing Interplay had ever done in terms of sheer amount of content, turned into a difficult grind that was deeply affected by external events, starting with a certain crisis of identity and ending with a full-blown existential threat.
Like so many American computer-game executives at the time, Brian Fargo found the Nintendo Entertainment System and its tens of millions of active players hard to resist. While one piece of his company was busy making The Lord of the Rings into a game, he therefore set another piece to work churning out Interplay’s first three Nintendo games. Having no deal with the notoriously fickle Nintendo and thus no way to enter their walled garden as a publisher in their own right, Interplay was forced to publish two of these games through Mediagenic’s Activision label, the other through Acclaim Entertainment. Unfortunately, Fargo was also like many other computer-game executives in discovering to his dismay that there was far more artistry to Nintendo hits like Super Mario Bros. than their surface simplicity might imply — and that Nintendo gamers, young though they mostly were, were far from undiscerning. None of Interplay’s Nintendo games did very well at all, which in turn did no favors to Interplay’s bottom line.
Interplay sorely needed another big hit like Battle Chess, but it was proving damnably hard to find. Even the inevitable Battle Chess II: Chinese Chess performed only moderately. The downside of a zeitgeist-in-a-bottle product like Battle Chess was that it came with a built-in sell-by date. There just wasn’t that much to be done to build on the original game’s popularity other than re-skinning it with new graphics, and the brief-lived historical instant when animated chessmen were enough to sell a game was already passing.
Then, in the midst of these other struggles, Interplay was very nearly buried by the collapse of Mediagenic in 1990. I’ve already described the reasons for that collapse and much of the effect it had on Interplay and the rest of the industry in an earlier article, so I won’t retread that ground in detail here. Instead I’ll just reiterate that the effect was devastating for Interplay. With the exception only of the single Nintendo game published through Acclaim and the trickle of royalties still coming in from Electronic Arts for their old titles, Interplay’s entire revenue stream had come through Mediagenic. Now that stream had run dry as the Sahara. In the face of almost no income whatsoever, Brian Fargo struggled to keep Interplay’s doors open, to keep his extant projects on track, and to establish his own distribution channel to replace the one he had been renting from Mediagenic. His company mired in the most serious crisis it had ever faced, Fargo went to his shareholders — Interplay still being privately held, these consisted largely of friends, family, and colleagues — to ask for the money he needed to keep it alive. He managed to raise over $500,000 in short-term notes from them, along with almost $200,000 in bank loans, enough to get Interplay through 1990 and get the Lord of the Rings game finished. The Lord of the Rings game, in other words, had been elevated by the misfortunes of 1990 from an important project to a bet-the-company project. It was to be finished in time for the Christmas of 1990, and if it became a hit then Interplay might just live to make more games. And if not… it didn’t bear thinking about.
The Lord of the Rings‘s free-scrolling movement and overhead perspective were very different from what had come before, ironically resembling Origin’s Ultima games more than Interplay’s earlier CRPGs. But the decision to have the interface get out of the way when it wasn’t needed, thus giving more space to the world, was very welcome, especially in comparison to the cluttered Ultima VI engine. Interplay’s approach may well have influenced Ultima VII.
If a certain technical approach to the CRPG — a certain look and feel, if you will — can be seen as having been born with the first Bard’s Tale and died after Dragon Wars, a certain philosophical approach can be seen just as validly as having been born with Wasteland and still being alive and well at Interplay at the time of The Lord of the Rings. The design of the latter would once again emphasize character skills rather than character class, and much of the game play would once again revolve around applying your party’s suite of skills to the situations encountered. Wasteland‘s approach to experience and leveling up had been fairly traditional; characters increased in power relatively quickly, especially during the early stages of the game, and could become veritable demigods by the end. Dragon Wars, though, had departed from tradition by slowing this process dramatically, and now The Lord of the Rings would eliminate the concept of character level entirely; skills would still increase with use, but only slowly, and only quietly behind the scenes. These mechanical changes would make the game unlike virtually any CRPG that had come before it, to such an extent that some have argued over whether it quite manages to qualify as a CRPG at all. It radically de-emphasizes the character-building aspect of the genre — you don’t get to make your own characters at all, but start out in the Shire with only Frodo and assemble a party over the course of your travels — and with it the tactical min/maxing that is normally such a big part of old-school CRPGs. As I noted in my previous article, Middle-earth isn’t terribly well-suited to traditional RPG mechanics. The choice Interplay made to focus less on mechanics and more on story and exploration feels like a logical response, an attempt to make a game that does embody Tolkien’s ethos.
In addition to the unique challenges of adapting CRPG mechanics to reflect the spirit of Middle-earth, Interplay’s Lord of the Rings game faced all the more typical challenges of adapting a novel to interactive form. To simply walk the player through the events of the book would be uninteresting and, given the amount of texture and exposition that would be lost in the transition from novel to game, would yield far too short of an experience. Interplay’s solution was tackle the novel in terms of geography rather than plot. They created seven large maps for you to progress through, covering the stages of Frodo and company’s journey in the novel: the Shire, the Old Forest, Bree, Rivendell, Moria, Lothlórien, and Dol Guldur. (The last reflects the game’s only complete deviation from the novel; for its climax, it replaces the psychological drama of Boromir’s betrayal of the Fellowship with a more ludically conventional climactic assault on the fortress of the Witch-King of Angmar — the Lord of the Nazgûl — who has abducted Frodo.) Paul Jaquays scattered episodes from the novel over the maps in what seemed the most logical places. Then, he went further, adding all sorts of new content.
Interplay understood that reenacting the plot of the novel wasn’t really what players would find most appealing about a CRPG set in Middle-earth. The real appeal was that of simply wandering about in the most beloved landscapes in all of fantasy fiction. For all that the Fellowship was supposed to be on a desperate journey to rid the world of its greatest threat in many generations, with the forces of evil hot on their trail, it wouldn’t do to overemphasize that aspect of the book. Players would want to stop and smell the roses. Jaquays therefore stuffed each of the maps with content, almost all of it optional; there’s very little that you need to do to finish the game. While a player who takes the premise a bit too literally could presumably rush through the maps in a mere handful of hours, the game clearly wants you to linger over its geography, scouring it from end to end to see what you can turn up.
In crafting the maps, and especially in crafting the new content on them, Jaquays was hugely indebted to Iron Crown Enterprises’s Middle-earth Role Playing tabletop RPG and its many source books which filled in the many corners of Middle-earth in even greater detail than Tolkien had managed in his voluminous notes. For legal reasons — Interplay had bought a Fellowship of the Ring novel license, not a Middle-earth Role Playing game license — care had to be taken not to lift anything too blatantly, but anyone familiar with Iron Crown’s game and Interplay’s game can’t help but notice the similarities. The latter’s vision of Middle-earth is almost as indebted to the former as it is to Tolkien himself. One might say that it plays like an interactive version of one of those Iron Crown source books.
Conversation takes the Ultima “guess the keyword” approach. Sigh… at least you can usually identify topics by watching for capitalized words in the text.
Interplay finished development on the game in a mad frenzy, with the company in full crisis mode, trying to get it done in time for the Christmas of 1990. But in the end, they were forced to make the painful decision to miss that deadline, allowing the release date to slip to the beginning of 1991. Then, with it shipping at last, they waited to see whether their bet-the-company game would indeed save their skins. Early results were not encouraging.
Once you got beyond the awful, unwieldy name, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Volume 1 seemingly had everything going for it: a developer with heaps of passion and heaps of experience making CRPGs, a state-of-the-art free-scrolling engine with full-screen graphics, and of course a license for the most universally known and beloved series of books in all of fantasy fiction. It ought to have been a sure thing, a guaranteed hit if ever there was one. All of which makes its reception and subsequent reputation all the more surprising. If it wasn’t quite greeted with a collective shrug, Interplay’s first Tolkien game was treated with far more skepticism than its pedigree might lead one to expect.
Some people were doubtful of the very idea of trying to adapt Tolkien, that most holy name in the field of fantasy, into a game in much the same way that some Christians might be doubtful of making Jesus Christ the star of a game. For those concerned above all else with preserving the integrity of the original novel, Interplay’s approach to the task of adaptation could only be aggravating. Paul Jaquays had many talents, but he wasn’t J.R.R. Tolkien, and the divisions between content drawn from the books and new content were never hard to spot. What right had a bunch of game developers to add on to Middle-earth? It’s a question, of course, with no good answer.
But even those who were more accepting of the idea of The Lord of the Rings in game form found a lot of reasons to complain about this particular implementation of the idea. The most immediately obvious issue was the welter of bugs. Bugs in general were becoming a more and more marked problem in the industry as a whole as developers strained to churn out ever bigger games capable of running on an ever more diverse collection of MS-DOS computing hardware. Still, even in comparison to its peers Interplay’s Lord of the Rings game is an outlier, being riddled with quests that can’t be completed, areas that can’t be accessed, dialog that doesn’t make sense. Its one saving grace is the generosity and flexibility that Jaquays baked into the design, which makes it possible to complete the game even though it can sometimes seem like at least half of it is broken in one way or another. A few more months all too obviously should have been appended to the project, even if it was already well behind schedule. Given the state of the game Interplay released in January of 1991, one shudders to think what they had seriously considered rushing to market during the holiday season.
You’ll spend a lot of time playing matchy-matchy with lists of potentially applicable skills. A mechanic directly imported from tabletop RPGs, it isn’t the best fit for a computer game, for reasons I explicated in my article on Wasteland.
Other issues aren’t quite bugs in the traditional sense, but do nevertheless feel like artifacts of the rushed development cycle. The pop-up interface which overlays the full-screen graphics was innovative in its day, but it’s also far more awkward to use than it needs to be, feeling more than a little unfinished. It’s often too difficult to translate actions into the terms of the interface, a problem that’s also present in Wasteland and Dragon Wars but is even more noticeable here. Good, logical responses to many situations — responses which are actually supported by the game — can fall by the wayside because you fail to translate them correctly into the terms of the tortured interface. Throwing some food to a band of wolves to make them go away rather than attack you early in the game, for instance, requires you divine that you need to “trade” the food to them. Few things are more frustrating than looking up the solution to a problem like this one and learning that you went awry because you “used” food on the wolves instead of “trading” it to them.
But perhaps the most annoying issue is that of simply finding your way around. Each of those seven maps is a big place, and no auto-map facility is provided; Interplay had intended to include such a feature, but dropped it in the name of saving time. The manual does provide a map of the Shire, but after that you’re on your own. With paper-and-pencil mapping made damnably difficult by the free-scrolling movement that it makes it impossible to accurately judge distances, just figuring out where you are, where you’ve been, and where you need to go often turns into the most challenging aspect of the game.
Combat can be kind of excruciating, especially when you’re stuck with nothing but a bunch of hobbits.
It all adds up to something of a noble failure — a game which, despite the best intentions of everyone involved, just isn’t as magical as it ought to have been. The game sold in moderate numbers on the strength of the license, but, its commercial prospects damaged as much by missing the Christmas buying season as by the lukewarm reviews, it never became the major hit Interplay so desperately needed. That disappointment may very well have marked the end of Interplay, if not for a stroke of good fortune from a most unexpected quarter.
Shortly after electing to turn Interplay into an independent publisher, Brian Fargo had begun looking for more games to publish beyond those his small internal team could develop. He’d found some worthwhile titles, albeit titles reflective of the small size and relative lack of clout of his company: a classical chess game designed to appeal to those uninterested in Battle Chess‘s eye-candy approach; a series of typing tutors; a clever word game created by a couple of refugees from the now-defunct Cinemaware; a series of European imports sourced through France’s Delphine Software. None had set the world on fire, but then no one had really expected them to.
That all changed when Interplay agreed to publish a game called Castles, from a group of outside developers who called themselves Quicksilver Software. Drawing from King Edward I of England’s castle-building campaign in Wales for its historical antecedent, Castles at its core was essentially a Medieval take on SimCity. Onto this template, however, Quicksilver grafted the traditional game elements some had found lacking in Will Wright’s software toy. The player’s castles would be occasionally attacked by enemy armies, forcing her to defend them in simple tactical battles, and she would also have to deal with the oft-conflicting demands of the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry in embodied exchanges that gave the game a splash of narrative interest. Not a deathless classic by any means, it was a game that just about everyone could while away a few hours with. Castles was able to attract the building crowd who loved SimCity, the grognard crowd who found its historical scenario appealing, the adventure and CRPG crowd who liked the idea of playing the role of a castle’s chief steward, while finishing the mixture off with a salting of educational appeal. With some of the most striking cover art of any game released that year to serve as the finishing touch, its combination of appeals proved surprisingly potent. In fact, no one was more surprised by the game’s success than Interplay, who, upon releasing Castles just weeks after the Lord of the Rings game, found themselves with an unexpected but well-nigh life-saving hit on their hands. Every time you thought you understood gamers, Brian Fargo was continuing to learn, they’d turn around and surprise you.
So, thanks to this most fortuitous of saviors, Interplay got to live on. Almost in spite of himself, Fargo continued to pull a hit out of his sleeve every two or three years, always just when his company most needed one. He’d done it with The Bard’s Tale, he’d done it with Battle Chess, and now he’d done it with Castles.
Castles had rather stolen The Lord of the Rings‘s thunder, but Interplay pressed on with the second game in the trilogy, which was allowed the name The Two Towers to match that of its source novel. Released in August of 1992 after many delays, it’s very similar in form and execution to its predecessor — including, alas, lots more bugs — despite the replacement of Paul Jaquays with a team of designers that this time included Ed Greenwood, one of the more prominent creative figures of the post-Gary Gygax era of TSR. Interplay did try to address some of the complaints about the previous game by improving the interface, by making the discrete maps smaller and thus more manageable, and by including the auto-mapping feature that had been planned for but left out of its predecessor. But it still wasn’t enough. Reviewers were even more unkind to the sequel despite Interplay’s efforts, and it sold even worse. By this point, Interplay had scored another big hit with Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, the first officially licensed Star Trek game to be worthy of the name, and had other projects on the horizon that felt far more in keeping with the direction the industry was going than did yet another sprawling Middle-earth CRPG. Brian Fargo’s passion for Tolkien may have been genuine, but at some point in business passion has to give way to financial logic. Interplay’s vision of The Lord of the Rings was thus quietly abandoned at the two-thirds mark.
In a final bid to eke a bit more out of it, Interplay in 1993 repackaged the first Lord of the Rings game for CD-ROM, adding an orchestral soundtrack and interspersing the action, rather jarringly, with clips from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated Lord of the Rings film, which Fargo had also managed to license. But the most welcome improvement came in the form of a slightly more advanced game engine, including an auto-map. Despite the improvements, sales of this version were so poor that Interplay never bothered to give The Two Towers the CD-ROM treatment. A dire port/re-imagining of the first game for the Super Nintendo was the final nail in the coffin, marking the last gasp of Interplay’s take on Tolkien. Just as Bakshi had left his hobbits stranded on the way to Mordor when he failed to secure the financing to make his second Lord of the Rings movie, Interplay left theirs in limbo only a little closer to the Crack of Doom. The irony of this was by no means lost on so dedicated a Tolkien fan as Brian Fargo.
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years. The company The Bard’s Tale had built could now make a lot more money in other genres. If there’s one thing the brief marriage of Interplay with Tolkien demonstrates, it’s that a sure thing is never a sure thing.
(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Brian Fargo donated to the Strong Museum of Play. Also, Questbusters of March 1989, December 1989, January 1991, June 1991, April 1992, and August 1992; Antic of July 1985; Commodore Magazine of October 1988; Creative Computing of September 1981; Computer Gaming World of December 1989 and September 1990. Online sources include a Jennell Jaquays Facebook posting and the Polygon article “There and Back Again: A History of The Lord of the Rings in Video Games.” Finally, my huge thanks to Brian Fargo for taking time from his busy schedule to discuss his memories of Interplay’s early days with me.
Neither of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have been available for purchase for a long, long time, a situation that is probably down to the fine print of the licensing deal that was made with the Tolkien estate all those years ago. I hesitate to host them here out of fear of angering either of the parties who signed that deal, but they aren’t hard to find elsewhere online with a little artful Googling.)
I have vague memories of starting to watch The Daleks once and then giving up because I felt it was too dull and slow-paced. This rather surprises me now. I'm not sure if that is age, or watching it much more episodically, or simply that I'm now more used to the pacing of 1960s Doctor Who. At any rate, I thought it went along at a pretty decent pace all told and while the plot wasn't exactly full of twists, it did keep progressing from Dalek city, to the forest, to the lake and the caves and then back to the city again.
Much has been written about the design of the Daleks and its contribution to their success. It's difficult not to be impressed. Even today most Doctor Who monsters definitely adhere to the "man in a suit" model, so seeing something from so early in the show that really doesn't look remotely like a man in a suit. The fact that the fundamental design of the Daleks has altered so little since then is probably a testament to its longevity. Even the sink plunger which ought to tip them over into the ridiculous seems to work, and to continue to work. While the design of the Daleks has been much praised, the design of their City is also pretty impressive, both in terms of the exterior shots of the whole city and the internal corridors. There isn't anything in this story that looks risible and a great deal of it looks very good indeed.
Some of the dialogue is also surprisingly nuanced for Doctor Who and a reminder that, at this point in time, its writers viewed it as an ensemble show. I'm particularly thinking of the discussion in the forest over the morality of pressurising the Thals to help them, though I'm not quite sure (even in 1963) why the dynamic of this is the Doctor and Barbara attempting to persuade Ian to persuade the Thals, as if the Doctor and Barbara can't have a go at a bit of persuading themselves. In fact, I'm not at all sure what this story's attitude is to the concept of Ian as the leader. It seems to be implicit in quite a lot that happens, but then the script also undermines him - particularly in the sequence when it becomes clear that only Susan can venture back to the Tardis to fetch the anti-radiation drugs where Ian is basically a bit of a tit about the whole situation.
On the down side, the Thals are rather bland, more so than I remembered from the novelisation - though they do avoid the 1970s mistake of looking like a bunch of actors who have never done a day's physical labour in their lives. They are almost uniformly kind, thoughtful and a little bewildered looking - the only excepion really being Antodus who's cowardly and bewildered looking. My memory from the novelisation is that they were better differentiated than this, but the novelisation is a slightly different beast. I was aware that there was supposed to be a potential romance between Ganatus and Barbara and so spotted the various hints of this, but Tame Layman was a bit taken aback at the end when it was made more explicit in their farewell. Susan is also fairly ill-served by the story although I'm beginning to feel that Susan is often ill-served. While the Randomiser re-watches have improved my opinion of many of the 60s era "screamer" companions, I think my opinion of Susan has dropped. Sadly, the most interesting thing about her is her background. Otherwise, an awful lot of the time, her role in any story just to scream hysterically and panic. Here she is given a moment to shine, when she fetches the anti-radiation drugs, but the script undermines her even then by focusing mostly on her fear and not on her bravery.
I don't know why I formed such a low opinion of this story the first time I came across it. It is mostly intelligently written, well-designed and pretty pacey to watch. As the story that first introduced the Daleks its significance in the history of Doctor Who is clear and it is a story which I think a moderately tolerant modern viewer could easily enjoy.
- Tags:doctor who, doctor who:review, doctor who:review:tv, doctor who:review:tv:classic, doctor who:the randomizer, review, review:doctor who, review:doctor who:tv, review:tv, review:tv:doctor who, tv
The return of that meme where you post random lines from any WIPs you have at the moment, because I felt like it.
(I see that I last did it in Jan 2016
, which reminds me, I never did post that AAL! snippet as it stands. I should do that.)( More bondage, vampires, and fatal disasters under here )
That's four out of eight which are still the same old WIPs (and three from the previous post which I did complete in the meantime), but, to be fair, I keep writing and finishing other things in the meantime. I mean, I have trope_bingo
to finish and then I can destroy worlds for tic_tac_woe
! (I won't say nothing in the world can stop me, because some days it seems that just about anything in the world can stop me, especially in summer.)
- Tags:adam adamant lives!, dracula, elizabeth of york, family history, historical, meme, origfic_bingo, runaway_tales, trope_bingo, unconventionalcourtship, wips, writing
At the University Open House during Liverpool Light Night
For context, John Higgins was giving a talk to go with an exhibition of his art in the Victoria Gallery and Museum, where the Open House was taking place.
Took a shop vac out to the greenhouse to suck all the cobwebs, dirt, lichen and other crud out before coating the inside with wood preservative - it has two shelves of spaced apart slats with an aisle between them, the planks have a corrugated trough underneath to catch drips and such. Going along poking the vacuum nozzle in wherever it would fit and it clogged. Pulled up the nozzle to see what was clogging it, expecting a wad of moss or something.
It was a bird skull.
Looking down through the slats I could see the flat remains of an entire bird skeleton with cobwebby, dusty feathers. How in the world did it get down in there? The wings were spread so it must have been trapped alive? It was long ago either way. The Tomb of the Greenhouse Bird.
My son considered the skull. "Man, that's totally metal."
i've been turning quite a bit of cash into games and a new wardrobe for new work (skinny jeans, converse, t-shirts - it's the civil service, but not as you know it! got to blend in) recently, which means i'm now trying to turn some of the blake stuff i don't need or want into cash. that means i have to work out that i don't want it - and that means i have to read or listen to it. and then write about it on the internet ...
you can probably see where all this is leading, but first - if you haven't already seen it, big finish announced on thursday that they'd recast dayna and were doing some more audios
. on the one hand - hurrah, because they should always have re-cast dayna if josette wouldn't come back, and on the other none of the proposed writers really excite me. though i am amused (as i wrote on tumblr) that they've found another woman writer who has heard of blake's 7, which is also GREAT NEWS and her episode, at least at summary level, sounds like a classic avon's-latent-telepathy A/C fic. women, eh? i mean - go for it. it's what i'd do (by which i mean, if asked, i'd probably write BF some blake-avon where blake does a cool plan and avon saves his life while falling on him... from vila's POV).
i haven't pre-ordered yet, but i probably will.
here's some stuff i already ordered and consumed in some fashion. ( Liberator Chronicles 11 )( Mediasphere )
My son was transitioned to buying his own grub recently but thus far has been chowing down on what he started off with as if there was no worry about that. Then it finally happened:
Son: "We're out of milk."
Me: "You can buy some if you like, I don't use milk."
Son: . . . . . "I really, really want mac and cheese."
Me: "If you have some quarters you can get a box of mac and cheese for about 75 cents."
Son: . . . . . (makes a peanut butter sandwich from his remaining half jar of peanut butter for dinner)
The following morning he gathered his bag of cans to turn in, went to the store and returned excited because he'd gotten a half gallon of milk on sale. It seems like a small thing, but to me it was a tectonic shift - it's the first time he's grocery shopped for himself, entirely on his own impetus with entirely his own money. Those can refunds would have been used to purchase soda or pizza before - now he's excited that he has a singular box of mac-and-cheese. This is good!
I recently realized from the way my cat responds that while her name is Pi, she believes her name is Beautiful Kitty. It has made me suddenly self-aware of how often I greet her as "Hello, beautiful" and "Come up here, beautiful kitty!" Now that would be a nice sort of nickname to acquire, no wonder she has such confidence in our servitude to her.
Welcome to dw100
! Challenges are posted approximately once a week.
Challenge #654 is mechanic
- All stories must be 100 words long
- Please place your story behind a cut if it contains spoilers for the current season
- You don't have to use the challenge word or phrase in your story; it's just there for inspiration
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- Please use the challenge tag 654: mechanic on any story posted to this challenge
The transformation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from an off-putting literary trilogy — full of archaic diction, lengthy appendixes, and poetry, for God’s sake — into some of the most bankable blockbuster fodder on the planet must be one of the most unlikely stories in the history of pop culture. Certainly Tolkien himself must be about the most unlikely mass-media mastermind imaginable. During his life, he was known to his peers mostly as a philologist, or historian of languages. The whole Lord of the Rings epic was, he once admitted, “primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background history” for the made-up languages it contained. On another occasion, he called the trilogy “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” That doesn’t exactly sound like popcorn-movie material, does it?
So, what would this pipe-smoking, deeply religious old Oxford don have made of our modern takes on his work, of CGI spellcraft and 3D-rendered hobbits mowing down videogame enemies by the dozen? No friend of modernity in any of its aspects, Tolkien would, one has to suspect, have been nonplussed at best, outraged at worst. But perhaps — just perhaps, if he could contort himself sufficiently — he might come to see all this sound and fury as at least as much validation as betrayal of his original vision. In writing The Lord of the Rings, he had explicitly set out to create a living epic in the spirit of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Malory. For better or for worse, the living epics of our time unspool on screens rather than on the page or in the chanted words of bards, and come with niceties like copyright and trademark attached.
And where those things exist, so exist also the corporations and the lawyers. It would be those entities rather than Tolkien or even any of his descendants who would control how his greatest literary work was adapted to screens large, small, and in between. Because far more people in this modern age of ours play games and watch movies than read books of any stripe — much less daunting doorstops like The Lord of the Rings trilogy — this meant that Middle-earth as most people would come to know it wouldn’t be quite the same land of myth that Tolkien himself had created so laboriously over so many decades in his little tobacco-redolent office. Instead, it would be Big Media’s interpretations and extrapolations therefrom. In the first 48 years of its existence, The Lord of the Rings managed to sell a very impressive 100 million copies in book form. In only the first year of its existence, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy was seen by 150 million people.
To understand how The Lord of the Rings and its less daunting predecessor The Hobbit were transformed from books authored by a single man into a palimpsest of interpretations, we need to understand how J.R.R. Tolkien lost control of his creations in the first place. And to begin to do that, we need to cast our view back to the years immediately following the trilogy’s first issuance in 1954 and 1955 by George Allen and Unwin, who had already published The Hobbit with considerable success almost twenty years earlier.
During its own early years, The Lord of the Rings didn’t do anywhere near as well as The Hobbit had, but did do far better than its publisher or its author had anticipated. It sold at least 225,000 copies (this and all other sales figures given in this article refer to sales of the trilogy as a whole, not to sales of the individual volumes that made up the trilogy) in its first decade, the vast majority of them in its native Britain, despite being available only in expensive hardcover editions and despite being roundly condemned, when it was noticed at all, by the very intellectual and literary elites that made up its author’s peer group. In the face of their rejection by polite literary society, the books sold mostly to existing fans of fantasy and science fiction, creating some decided incongruities; Tolkien never quite seemed to know how to relate to this less mannered group of readers. In 1957, the trilogy won the only literary prize it would ever be awarded, becoming the last recipient of the brief-lived International Fantasy Award, which belied its hopeful name by being a largely British affair. Tolkien, looking alternately bemused and deeply uncomfortable, accepted the award, shook hands and signed autographs for his fans, smiled for the cameras, and got the hell out of there just as quickly as he could.
The books’ early success, such as it was, was centered very much in Britain; the trilogy only sold around 25,000 copies in North America during the entirety of its first decade. It enjoyed its first bloom of popularity there only in the latter half of the 1960s, ironically fueled by two developments deeply antithetical to its author. The first was a legally dubious mass-market paperback edition published in the United States by Ace Books in 1965; the second was the burgeoning hippie counterculture.
Donald Wollheim, senior editor at Ace Books, had discovered what he believed to be a legal loophole giving him the right to publish the trilogy, thanks to the failure of Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American hardcover publisher, to properly register their copyright to it in the United States. Never a man prone to hesitation, he declared that Houghton Mifflin’s negligence had effectively left The Lord of the Rings in the public domain, and proceeded to publish a paperback edition without consulting Tolkien or paying him anything at all. Condemned by the resolutely old-fashioned Tolkien for taking the “degenerate” form of the paperback as much as for the royalties he wasn’t paid, the Ace editions nevertheless sold in the hundreds of thousands in a matter of months. Elizabeth Wollheim, daughter of Donald and herself a noted science-fiction and fantasy editor, has characterized the instant of the appearance of the Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings in October of 1965 as the “Big Bang” that led to the modern cottage industry in doorstop fantasy novels. Along with Frank Herbert’s Dune, which appeared the following year, they obliterated almost at a stroke the longstanding tradition in publishing of genre novels as concise works coming in at under 250 pages.
Even as these cheap Ace editions of Tolkien became a touchstone of what would come to be known as nerd culture, they were also seized on by a very different constituency. With the Summer of Love just around the corner, the counterculture came to see in the industrialized armies of Sauron and Saruman the modern American war machine they were protesting, in the pastoral peace of the Shire the life they saw as their naive ideal. The Lord of the Rings became one of the hippie movement’s literary totems, showing up in the songs of Led Zeppelin and Argent, and, as later memorably described by Peter S. Beagle in the most famous introduction to the trilogy ever written, even scrawled on the walls of New York City’s subways (“Frodo lives!”). Beagle’s final sentiments in that piece could stand in very well for the counterculture’s as a whole: “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”
If Tolkien had been uncertain how to respond to the earnest young science-fiction fans who had started showing up at his doorstep seeking autographs in the late 1950s, he had no shared frame of reference whatsoever with these latest readers. He was a man at odds with his times if ever there was one. On the rare occasions when contemporary events make an appearance in his correspondence, it always reads as jarring. Tolkien comes across a little confused by it all, can’t even get the language quite right. For example, in a letter from 1964, he writes that “in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.” Whatever the merits of the particular musicians in question, one senses that the “noise” of the “Beatle group” music wouldn’t have suited Tolkien one bit in any scenario. And as for Beagle’s crack about “murderers carrying crosses,” it will perhaps suffice to note that his introduction was published only after Tolkien, the devout Catholic, had died. Like the libertarian conservative Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land became another of the counterculture’s totems, Tolkien suffered the supreme irony of being embraced as a pseudo-prophet by a group whose sociopolitical worldview was almost the diametrical opposite of his own. As the critic Leonard Jackson has noted, it’s decidedly odd that the hippies, who “lived in communes, were anti-racist, were in favour of Marxist revolution and free love” should choose as their favorite “a book about a largely racial war, favouring feudal politics, jam-full of father figures, and entirely devoid of sex.”
Note the pointed reference to these first Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings as the “authorized” editions.
To what extent Tolkien was even truly aware of his works’ status with the counterculture is something of an open question, although he certainly must have noticed the effect it had on his royalty checks after the Ace editions were forced off the market, to be replaced by duly authorized Ballantine paperbacks. In the first two years after issuing the paperbacks, Ballantine sold almost 1 million copies of the series in North America alone.
In October of 1969, smack dab in the midst of all this success, Tolkien, now 77 years old and facing the worry of a substantial tax bill in his declining years, made one of the most retrospectively infamous deals in the history of pop culture. He sold the film rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the Hollywood studio United Artists for £104,602 and a fixed cut of 7.5 percent of any profits that might result from cinematic adaptations. And along with film rights went “merchandising rights.” Specifically, United Artists was given rights to the “manufacture, sale, and distribution of any and all articles of tangible personal property other than novels, paperbacks, and other printed published matter.” All of these rights were granted “in perpetuity.”
What must have seemed fairly straightforward in 1969 would in decades to come turn into a Gordian Knot involving hundreds of lawyers, all trying to resolve once and for all just what part of Tolkien’s legacy he had retained and what part he had sold. In the media landscape of 1969, the merchandising rights to “tangible personal property” which Tolkien and United Artists had envisioned must have been limited to toys, trinkets, and souvenirs, probably associated with any films United Artists should choose to make based on Tolkien’s books. Should the law therefore limit the contract to its signers’ original intent, or should it be read literally? If the law chose the latter course, Tolkien had unknowingly sold off the videogame rights to his work before videogames even existed in anything but the most nascent form. Or did he really? Should videogames, being at their heart intangible code, really be lumped even by the literalists into the rights sold to United Artists? After all, the contract explicitly reserves “the right to utilize and/or dispose of all rights and/or interests not herein specifically granted” to Tolkien. This question of course only gets more fraught in our modern age of digital distribution, when games are often sold with no tangible component at all. And then what of tabletop games? They’re quite clearly neither novels nor paperbacks, but they might be, at least in part, “other printed published matter.” What precisely did that phrase mean? The contract doesn’t stipulate. In the absence of any clear pathways through this legal thicket, the history of Tolkien licensing would become that of a series of uneasy truces occasionally erupting into open legal warfare. About the only things that were clear were that Tolkien — soon, his heirs — owned the rights to the original books and that United Artists — soon, the person who bought the contract from them — owned the rights to make movies out of them. Everything else was up for debate. And debated it would be, at mind-numbing length.
It would, however, be some time before the full ramifications of the document Tolkien had signed started to become clear. In the meantime, United Artists began moving forward with a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that was to have been placed in the hands of the director and screenwriter John Boorman. Boorman worked on the script for years, during which Tolkien died and his literary estate passed into the hands of his heirs, most notably his third son and self-appointed steward of his legacy Christopher Tolkien. The final draft of Boorman’s script compressed the entire trilogy into a single 150-minute film, and radically changed it in terms of theme, character, and plot to suit a Hollywood sensibility. For instance, Boorman added the element of sex that was so conspicuously absent from the books, having Frodo and Galadriel engage in a torrid affair after the Fellowship comes to Lothlórien. (Given the disparity in their sizes, one does have to wonder about the logistics, as it were, of such a thing.) But in the end, United Artists opted, probably for the best, not to let Boorman turn his script into a movie. (Many elements from the script would turn up later in Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.)
Of course, it’s unlikely that literary purity was foremost on United Artists’s minds when they made their decision. As the 1960s had turned into the 1970s and the Woodstock generation had gotten jobs and started families, Tolkien’s works had lost some of their trendy appeal, retaining their iconic status only among fantasy fandom. Still, the books continued to sell well; they would never lose the status they had acquired almost from the moment the Ace editions had been published of being the bedrock of modern fantasy fiction, something everyone with even a casual interest in the genre had to at least attempt to read. Not being terribly easy books, they defeated plenty of these would-be readers, who went off in search of the more accessible, more contemporary-feeling epic-fantasy fare so many publishers were by now happily providing. Yet even among the readers it rebuffed The Lord of the Rings retained the status of an aspirational ideal.
In 1975, a maverick animator named Ralph Bakshi, who had heretofore been best known for Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to earn an X rating, came to United Artists with a proposal to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a trio of animated features that would be relatively inexpensive in comparison to Boorman’s plans for a live-action epic. United Artists didn’t bite, but did signify that they might be amenable to selling the rights they had purchased from Tolkien if Bakshi could put together a few million dollars to make it happen. In December of 1976, following a string of proposals and deals too complicated and imperfectly understood to describe here, a hard-driving music and movie mogul named Saul Zaentz wound up owning the whole package of Tolkien rights that had previously belonged to United Artists. He intended to use his purchase first to let Bakshi make his films and thereafter for whatever other opportunities might happen to come down the road.
Saul Zaentz, seated at far left, with Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Saul Zaentz had first come to prominence back in 1967, when he’d put together a group of investors to buy a struggling little jazz label called Fantasy Records. His first signing as the new president of Fantasy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a rock group he had already been managing. Whether due to Zaentz’s skill as a talent spotter or sheer dumb luck, it was the sort of signing that makes a music mogul rich for life. Creedence promptly unleashed eleven top-ten singles and five top-ten albums over the course of the next three and a half years, the most concentrated run of hits of any 1960s band this side of the Beatles. And Zaentz got his fair share of all that filthy lucre — more than his fair share, his charges eventually came to believe. When the band fell apart in 1972, much of the cause was infighting over matters of business. The other members came to blame Creedence’s lead singer and principal songwriter John Fogerty for convincing them to sign a terrible contract with Zaentz that gave away rights to their songs to him for… well, in perpetuity, actually. And as for Fogerty, he of course blamed Zaentz for all the trouble. Decades of legal back and forth followed the breakup. At one point, Zaentz sued Fogerty on the novel legal theory of “self-plagarization”: the songs Fogerty was now writing as a solo artist, went the brief, were too similar to the ones he used to write for Creedence, all of whose copyrights Zaentz owned. While his lawyers pleaded his case in court, Fogerty vented his rage via songs like “Zanz Kant Danz,” the story of a pig who, indeed, can’t dance, but will happily “steal your money.”
I trust that this story gives a sufficient impression of just what a ruthless, litigious man now owned adaptation rights to the work of our recently deceased old Oxford don. But whatever else you could say about Saul Zaentz, he did know how to get things done. He secured financing for the first installment of Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, albeit on the condition that he cut the planned three-film series down to two. Relying heavily on rotoscoping to give his cartoon figures an uncannily naturalistic look, Bakshi finished the film for release in November of 1978. Regarded as something of a cult classic among certain sectors of Tolkien fandom today, in its own day the film was greeted with mixed to poor reviews. The financial picture is equally muddled. While it’s been claimed, including by Bakshi himself, that the movie was a solid success, earning some $30 million on a budget of a little over $4 million, the fact remains that Zaentz was unable to secure funding for the sequel, leaving poor Frodo, Sam, and Gollum forever in limbo en route to Mount Doom. It is, needless to say, difficult to reconcile a successful first film with this refusal to back a second. But regardless of the financial particulars, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t make it back to the big screen for more than twenty years, until the enormous post-millennial Peter Jackson productions that well and truly, once and for all, broke Middle-earth into the mainstream.
Yet, although the Bakshi adaptation was the only Tolkien film to play in theaters during this period, it wasn’t actually the only Tolkien film on offer. In November of 1977, a year before the Bakshi Lord of the Rings made its bow, a decidedly less ambitious animated version of The Hobbit had played on American television. The force behind it was Rankin/Bass Productions, who had previously been known in television broadcasting for holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Their take on Tolkien was authorized not by Saul Zaentz but by the Tolkien estate. Being shot on video rather than film and then broadcast rather than shown in theaters, the Rankin/Bass Hobbit was not, legally speaking, a “movie” under the terms of the 1969 contract. Nor was it a “tangible” product, thus making it fair game for the Tolkien estate to authorize without involving Zaentz. That, anyway, was the legal theory under which the estate was operating. They even authorized a sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit in 1980, which rather oddly took the form of an adaptation of The Return of the King, the last book of The Lord of the Rings. A precedent of dueling licenses, authorizing different versions of what to casual eyes at least often seemed to be the very same things, was thus established.
But these flirtations with mainstream visibility came to an end along with the end of the 1970s. After the Ralph Baski and Rankin/Bass productions had all had their moments in the sun, The Lord of the Rings was cast back into its nerdy ghetto, where it remained more iconic than ever. Yet the times were changing in some very important ways. From the moment he had clear ownership of the rights Tolkien had once sold to United Artists, Saul Zaentz had taken to interpreting their compass in the broadest possible way, and had begun sending his lawyers after any real or alleged infringers who grew large enough to come to his attention. This marked a dramatic change from the earliest days of Tolkien fandom, when no one had taken any apparent notice of fannish appropriations of Middle-earth, to such an extent that fans had come to think of all use of Tolkien’s works as fair use. In that spirit, in 1975 a tiny game publisher called TSR, incubator of an inchoate revolution called Dungeons & Dragons, had started selling a non-Dungeons & Dragons strategy game called Battle of the Five Armies that was based on the climax of The Hobbit. In late 1977, Zaentz sent them a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the game be immediately taken off the market. And, far more significantly in the long run, he also demanded that all Tolkien references be excised from Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t really clear that Zanetz ought to have standing to sue, given that Battle of the Five Armies and especially Dungeons & Dragons consisted of so much of the “printed published matter” that was supposedly reserved to the Tolkien estate. But, hard charger that he was, Zaentz wasn’t about to let such niceties stop him. He was establishing legal precedent, and thereby cementing his position for the future.
The question of just how much influence Tolkien had on Dungeons & Dragons has been long obscured by this specter of legal action, which gave everyone on the TSR side ample reason to be less than entirely forthcoming. That said, certain elements of Dungeons & Dragons — most obviously the “hobbit” character class found in the original game — undeniably walked straight off the pages of Tolkien and into those of Gary Gygax’s rule books. At the same time, though, the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons had, as Gygax always strenuously asserted, much more to do with the pulpier fantasy stories of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard than they did with Tolkien. Ditto the game’s default personality, which hewed more to the “a group of adventurers meet in a bar and head out to bash monsters and collect treasure” modus operandi of the pulps than they did to Tolkien’s deeply serious, deeply moralistic, deeply tragic universe. You could play a more “serious” game of Dungeons & Dragons even in the early days, and some presumably did, but you had to bend the mechanics to make them fit. The more light-hearted tone of The Hobbit might seem better suited, but wound up being a bit too light-hearted, almost as much fairy tale as red-blooded adventure fiction. Some of the book’s episodes, like Bilbo and the dwarves’ antics with the trolls near the beginning of the story, verge on cartoon slapstick, with none of the swashbuckling swagger of Dungeons & Dragons. I love it dearly — far more, truth be told, than I love The Lord of the Rings — but not for nothing was The Hobbit conceived and marketed as a children’s novel.
Gygax’s most detailed description of the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons appeared in the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine. There he explicated the dirty little secret of adapting Tolkien to gaming: that the former just wasn’t all that well-suited for the latter without lots of sweeping changes.
Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games. The Professor drops Tom Bombadil, my personal favorite, like the proverbial hot potato; had he been allowed to enter the action of the books, no fuzzy-footed manling would have needed to undergo the trials and tribulations of the quest to destroy the Ring. Unfortunately, no character of Bombadil’s power can enter the games either — for the selfsame reasons! The wicked Sauron is poorly developed, virtually depersonalized, and at the end blows away in a cloud of evil smoke… poof! Nothing usable there. The mighty Ring is nothing more than a standard ring of invisibility, found in the myths and legends of most cultures (albeit with a nasty curse upon it). No influence here, either…
What Gygax gestures toward here but doesn’t quite touch is that The Lord of the Rings is at bottom a spiritual if not overtly religious tale, Middle-earth a land of ineffable unknowables. It’s impossible to translate that ineffability into the mechanistic system of causes and effects required by a game like Dungeons & Dragons. For all that Gygax is so obviously missing the point of Tolkien’s work in the extract above — rather hilariously so, actually — it’s also true that no Dungeon Master could attempt something like, say, Gandalf’s transformation from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White without facing a justifiable mutiny from the players. Games — at least this kind of game — demand knowable universes.
Gygax claimed that Tolkien was ultimately far more important to the game’s commercial trajectory than he was to its rules. He noted, accurately, that the trilogy’s popularity from 1965 on had created an appetite for more fantasy, in the form of both books and things that weren’t quite books. It was largely out of a desire to ride this bandwagon, Gygax claimed, that Chainmail, the proto-Dungeons & Dragons which TSR released in 1971, promised players right there on the cover that they could use it to “refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers.” Gygax said that “the seeming parallels and inspirations are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current ‘craze’ for Tolkien’s literature.” Questionable though it is how “studied” his efforts really were in this respect, it does seem fairly clear that the biggest leg-up Tolkien gave to Gygax and his early design partner Dave Arneson was in giving so many potential players a taste for epic fantasy in the first place.
At any rate, we can say for certain that, beyond prompting a grudge in Gary Gygax against all things Tolkien — which, like most Gygaxian grudges, would last the rest of its holder’s life — Zaentz’s legal threat had a relatively modest effect on the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Hobbits were hastily renamed “halflings,” a handful of other references were scrubbed away or obfuscated, and life went on.
More importantly for Zaentz, the case against TSR and a few other even smaller tabletop-game publishers had now established the precedent that this field was within his licensing purview. In 1982, Tolkien Enterprises, the umbrella corporation Zaentz had created to manage his portfolio, authorized a three-employee publisher called Iron Crown Enterprises, heretofore known for the would-be Dungeons & Dragons competitor Rolemaster, to adapt their system to Middle-earth. Having won the license by simple virtue of being the first publisher to work up the guts to ask for it, Iron Crown went on to create Middle-earth Role Playing. The system rather ran afoul of the problem we’ve just been discussing: that, inspiring though so many found the setting in the broad strokes, the mechanics — or perhaps lack thereof — of Middle-earth just didn’t lend themselves all that well to a game. Unsurprisingly in light of this, Middle-earth Role Playing acquired a reputation as a “game” that was more fun to read, in the form of its many lengthy and lovingly detailed supplements exploring the various corners of Middle-earth, than it was to actually play; some wags took to referring to the line as a whole as Encyclopedia Middle-earthia. Nevertheless, it lasted more than fifteen years, was translated into twelve languages, and sold over 250,000 copies in English alone, thereby becoming one of the most successful tabletop RPGs ever not named Dungeons & Dragons.
But by no means was it all smooth sailing for Iron Crown. During the game’s early years, which were also its most popular, they were very nearly undone by an episode that serves to illustrate just how dangerously confusing the world of Tolkien licensing could become. In 1985, Iron Crown decided to jump on the gamebook bandwagon with a line of paperbacks they initially called Tolkien Quest, but quickly renamed to Middle-earth Quest to tie it more closely to their extant tabletop RPG. Their take on the gamebook was very baroque in comparison to the likes of Choose Your Own Adventure or even Fighting Fantasy; the rules for “reading” their books took up thirty pages on their own, and some of the books included hex maps for plotting your movements around the world, thus rather blurring the line between gamebook and, well, game. Demian Katz, who operates the definitive Internet site devoted to gamebooks, calls the Middle-earth Quest line “among the most complex gamebooks ever published,” and he of all people certainly ought to know. Whether despite their complexity or because of it, the first three volumes in the line were fairly successful for Iron Crown — and then the legal troubles started.
The Tolkien estate decided that Iron Crown had crossed a line with their gamebooks, encroaching on the literary rights to Tolkien which belonged to them. Whether the gamebooks truly were more book or game is an interesting philosophical question to ponder — particularly so given that they were such unusually crunchy iterations on the gamebook concept. Questions of philosophical taxonomy aside, though, they certainly were “printed published matter” that looked for all the world like everyday books. Tolkien Enterprises wasn’t willing to involve themselves in a protracted legal showdown over something as low-stakes as a line of gamebooks. Iron Crown would be on their own in this battle, should they choose to wage it. Deciding the potential rewards weren’t worth the risks of trying to convince a judge who probably wouldn’t know Dungeons & Dragons from Maze & Monsters that these things which looked like conventional paperback books were actually something quite different, Iron Crown pulled the line off the market and destroyed all copies as part of a settlement agreement. The episode may have cost them as much as $2.5 million. A few years later, the ever dogged Iron Crown would attempt to resuscitate the line after negotiating a proper license with the Tolkien estate — no mean feat in itself; Christopher Tolkien in particular is famously protective of that portion of his father’s legacy which is his to protect — but by then the commercial moment of the gamebook in general had passed. The whole debacle would continue to haunt Iron Crown for a long, long time. In 2000, when they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they would state that the debt they had been carrying for almost fifteen years from the original gamebook settlement was a big part of the reason.
By that point, of course, the commercial heyday of the tabletop RPG was also long past. Indeed, already by the time that Iron Crown and Tolkien Enterprises had inked their first licensing deal back in 1982 computer-based fantasies, in the form of games like Zork, Ultima and Wizardry, were threatening to eclipse the tabletop varieties that had done so much to inspire them. Here, perhaps more so even than in tabletop RPGs, the influence of Tolkien was pervasive. Designers of early computer games often appropriated Middle-earth wholesale, writing what amounted to interactive Tolkien fan fiction. The British text-adventure house Level 9, for example, first made their name with Colossal Adventure, a re-implementation of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s original Adventure with a Middle-earth coda tacked onto the end, thus managing the neat trick of extensively plagiarizing two different works in a single game. There followed two more Level 9 games set in Middle-earth, completing what they were soon proudly advertising, in either ignorance or defiance of the concept of copyright, as their Middle-earth Trilogy.
But the most famous constant devotee and occasional plagiarist of Tolkien among the early computer-game designers was undoubtedly Richard Garriott, who had discovered The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, the two influences destined more than any other to shape the course of his life, within six months of one another during his teenage years. Garriott called his first published game Akalabeth, after Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the name of a chapter in The Silmarillion, a posthumously published book of Middle-earth legends. The word means “downfall” in one of Tolkien’s invented languages, but Garriott chose it simply because he thought it sounded cool; his game otherwise had little to no explicit connection to Middle-earth. Regardless, the computer-game industry wouldn’t remain small enough that folks could get away with this sort of thing for very long. Akalabeth soon fell out of print, superseded by Garriott’s more complex series of Ultima games that followed it, while Level 9 was compelled to scrub the erstwhile Middle-earth Trilogy free of Tolkien and re-release it as the Jewels of Darkness Trilogy.
In the long-run, the influence of Tolkien on digital games would prove subtler but also even more pervasive than these earliest forays into blatant plagiarism would imply. Richard Garriott may have dropped the Tolkien nomenclature from his subsequent games, but he remained thoroughly inspired by the example of Tolkien, that ultimate fantasy world-builder, when he built the world of Britannia for his Ultima series. Of course, there were obvious qualitative differences between Middle-earth and Britannia. How could there not be? One was the creation of an erudite Oxford don, steeped in a lifetime worth of study of classical and Medieval literature; the other was the creation of a self-described non-reader barely out of high school. Nowhere is the difference starker than in the area of language, Tolkien’s first love. Tolkien invented entire languages from scratch, complete with grammars and pronunciation charts; Garriott substituted a rune for each letter in the English alphabet and seemed to believe he had done something equivalent. Garriott’s clumsy mishandling of Elizabethan English, meanwhile, all “thees” and “thous” in places where the formal “you” should be used, is enough to make any philologist roll over in his grave. But his heart was in the right place, and despite its creator’s limitations Britannia did take on a life of its own over the course of many Ultima iterations. If there is a parallel in computer gaming to what The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth came to mean to fantasy literature, it must be Ultima and its world of Britannia.
In addition to the unlicensed knock-offs that were gradually driven off the market during the early 1980s and the more abstracted homages that replaced them, there was also a third category of Tolkien-derived computer games: that of licensed products. The first and only such licensee during the 1980s was Melbourne House, a book publisher turned game maker located in far-off Melbourne, Australia. Whether out of calculation or happenstance, Melbourne House approached the Tolkien estate rather than Tolkien Enterprises in 1982 to ask for a license. They were duly granted the right to make a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit, under certain conditions, very much in character for Christopher Tolkien, intended to ensure respect for The Hobbit‘s status as a literary work; most notably, they would be required to include a paperback copy of the novel with the game. In a decision he would later come to regret, Saul Zaentz elected to cede this ground to the Tolkien estate without a fight, apparently deeming a computer game intangible enough to be dangerous to quibble over. Another uneasy, tacit, yet surprisingly enduring precedent was thus set: Tolkien Enterprises would have control of Tolkien tabletop games, while the Tolkien estate would have control of Tolkien videogames. Zaentz’s cause for regret would come as he watched the digital-gaming market explode into tens and then hundreds of times the size of the tabletop market.
In fact, that first adaptation of The Hobbit played a role in that very process. The game became a sensation in Europe — playing it became a rite of passage for a generation of gamers there — and a substantial hit in the United States as well. It went on to become almost certainly the best-selling single text adventure ever made, with worldwide sales that may have exceeded half a million units. I’ve written at length about the Hobbit text adventure earlier, so I’ll refer you back to that article rather than describe its bold innovations and weird charm here. Otherwise, suffice to say that The Hobbit‘s success proved, if anyone was doubting, that licenses in computer games worked in commercial terms, no matter how much some might carp about the lack of originality they represented.
Still, Melbourne House appears to have had some trepidation about tackling the greater challenge of adapting The Lord of the Rings to the computer. The reasons are understandable: the simple quest narrative that was The Hobbit — the book is actually subtitled There and Back Again — read like a veritable blueprint for a text adventure, while the epic tale of spiritual, military, and political struggle that was The Lord of the Rings represented, to say the least, a more substantial challenge for its would-be adapters. Melbourne House’s first anointed successor to The Hobbit‘s thus became Sherlock, a text adventure based on another literary property entirely. They didn’t finally return to Middle-earth until 1986, four years after The Hobbit, when they made The Fellowship of the Ring into a text adventure. Superficially, the new game played much like The Hobbit, but much of the charm was gone, with quirks that had seemed delightful in the earlier game now just seeming annoying. Even had The Fellowship of the Ring been a better game, by 1986 it was getting late in the day for text adventures — even text adventures like this one with illustrations. Reviews were lukewarm at best. Nevertheless, Melbourne House kept doggedly at the task of completing the story of Frodo and the One Ring, releasing The Shadow of Mordor in 1987 and The Crack of Doom in 1989. All of these games went largely unloved in their day, and remain so in our own.
In a belated attempt to address the formal mismatch between the epic narrative of The Lord of the Rings and the granular approach of the text adventure, Melbourne House released War in Middle-earth in 1988. Partially designed by Mike Singleton, and drawing obvious inspiration from his older classic The Lords of Midnight, it was a strategy game which let the player refight the entirety of the War of the Ring, on the level of both armies and individual heroes. The Lords of Midnight had been largely inspired by Singleton’s desire to capture the sweep and grandeur of The Lord of the Rings in a game, so in a sense this new project had him coming full circle. But, just as Melbourne House’s Lord of the Rings text adventures had lacked the weird fascination of The Hobbit, War in Middle-earth failed to rise to the heights of The Lords of Midnight, despite enjoying the official license the latter had lacked.
As the 1980s came to a close, then, the Tolkien license was beginning to rival the similarly demographically perfect Star Trek license for the title of the most misused and/or underused — take your pick — in computer gaming. Tolkien Enterprises, normally the more commercially savvy and aggressive of the two Tolkien licensers, had ceded that market to the Tolkien estate, who seemed content to let Melbourne House doddle along with an underwhelming and little-noticed game every year or two. At this point, though, another computer-game developer would pick up the mantle from Melbourne House and see if they could manage to do something less underwhelming with it. We’ll continue with that story next time.
Before we get to that, though, we might take a moment to think about how different things might have been had the copyrights to Tolkien’s works been allowed to expire with their creator. There is some evidence that Tolkien himself held to this as the fairest course. In the late 1950s, in a letter to one of the first people to approach him about making a movie out of The Lord of the Rings, he expressed his wish that any movie made during his lifetime not deviate too far from the books, citing as an example of what he didn’t want to see the 1950 movie of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian adventure novel King’s Solomon’s Mines and the many liberties it took with its source material. “I am not Rider Haggard,” he wrote. “I am not comparing myself with that master of Romance, except in this: I am not dead yet. When the film of King’s Solomon’s Mines was made, it had already passed, one might say, into the public property of the imagination. The Lord of Rings is still the vivid concern of a living person, and is nobody’s toy to play with.” Can we read into this an implicit assumption that The Lord of the Rings would become part of “the public property of the imagination” after its own creator’s death? If so, things turned out a little differently than he thought they would. A “property of the imagination” Middle-earth has most certainly become. It’s the “public” part that remains problematic.
(Sources: the books Designers & Dragons Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Shannon Appelcline, Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson, Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by John M. Gibson, Playing at the World by Jon Peterson, and Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Dragon Magazine of March 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of December 30 1982; The Times of December 15 2002. Online sources include Janet Brennan Croft’s essay “Three Rings for Hollywood” and The Hollywood Reporter‘s archive of a 2012 court case involving Tolkien’s intellectual property.)
Thanks all who responded to my previous post. I didn't get anyone saying 'don't run; waste of time', and I did get people who do want another Unconventional Courtship, so I can now exclusively reveal that...
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Reading: Still labouring my way through Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. I've had this problem with single author anthologies before that, no matter how good the individual stories, their similarity gradually makes each one seem more of a chore to get through. I gave up half way through a Jeeves and Wooster anthology for this reason. I am, at least, through the novellas now and back into a run of shorter stories.
Listening: Just finished listening to The Writers' Room podcast on Chris Boucher. I am not at all sure Boucher is pronounced the way they are pronouncing it (Bow as in "he took a bow") but I'm not entirely sure it's pronounced the way I've always pronounced it (Boo). Other than that, I've agreed with most of what they've said ("Robots of Death" is the strongest of his three stories and "Image of the Fendahl" the weakest - there are some plot oddities, particularly in Fendahl and Robots isn't really a Whodunnit much as it apes the form. It is odd that Boucher goes from an interest in AI and Robots in his first two stories to something much more traditionally in the gothic horror model in his last).
Watching: This week it has been most new Doctor Who (Oxygen) and old Doctor Who (Planet of the Daleks).