This is the concluding part of The First Open World in which we discuss the true nature of Mercenary, the ending and its legacy.
Because Mercenary could conceivably play for ever, there is a save gameplay facility. A winning situation should also be saved, as this will give beneficial entry into "Mercenary II".
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
Mercenary is a game cleaved into two.
The city and the underground represent its two sides that maintain an uneasy coexistence. The surface has been drained of function, whereas its underground maze game is saturated with it. It's as if a true, borderless open world cannot support anything resembling player agency.
With Woakes' predilection for challenging the player with opaque systems, perhaps it was destined that Mercenary's approach to the open world would eventually fail as a commercial model.
But that view is short-sighted and misunderstands what Mercenary is.
This is the second part of The First Open World.
Technically, Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen Software, 1985) was not the first open world. That title probably goes to Ultima (Richard Garriott, 1981) like the Wikipedia entry for “open world” currently suggests. But Mercenary stands alone as representing the open world sandboxes that are big business today. This is why it was critically acclaimed and jumped from the Atari 8-bit to practically every other home computer at the time, even the ZX Spectrum which I had believed too underpowered to support it.
But lest we get too wrapped up in golden age nostalgia, let's cut some of the crap here. Mercenary did not deliver on all the promises Novagen sold to the gaming public.
This is an appendix to the Where We Came From series.
For Mercenary, author Paul Woakes, has created what can only be described as a world simulator. The first release using this technique is sub-titled "Escape From Targ".
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
Paul Woakes’ debut title on the Atari 8-bit home computer was a tense and memorable re-imagining of Battlezone (Atari, 1980) called Encounter! (Novagen Software, 1984), using vibrant raster graphics instead of the flickering green wireframes of the Atari arcade original. It quickly became a favourite for Atari owners who liked their action games to be fast and responsive.
Shortly after, hints of Woakes’ followup title began to seep into the news sections of computer magazines. What could Atari owners expect next from a developer whose first title had conquered the action genre?
A first-person 3D open world offering intrigue and complete freedom to explore a planet.
The fourth of a five-part video series. This time I hunt down Pippin Barr. He who hath made Epic Sax Game, Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment and The Artist Is Present.
Warning, this video contains two guys talking in a relaxed manner in a park. And:
- Why did Pippin Barr start making games?
- Was the whirlwind of media attention for The Artist Is Present delightful or damaging?
- "I don't like working with other people" is a quote I will totally use out of context
- I call out Pippin's games as "absurdist masochism" - he nods
- I call Pippin's games "jokes" - he nods
- I say his games have no win condition - Pippin stops nodding
- Is making games more fun than playing them?
- Schafer vs Hofmeier deathmatch
This is the final article in the Where We Came From series.
"When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood." (Sam Ewing, 1992)
* * *
I was obsessed with video games during the first decade of my life. I remember having many dreams that ended up at a video game arcade; it was a particular place that my dream-self knew well, although it did not exist in the waking world. I never really played much there, as I usually woke up pretty quickly after I grabbed the controls of one of the machines. It was more about the signature of the arcade than its function, a perfect amalgamation of every arcade I'd ever visited.
But, in time, this place eventually slipped out of my dreams and I forgot all about it.
Years later, I dreamt of a beaten-up old building, all peeling paint and boarded-up windows, holding court on a strange disconnected island in a sea of wild grass. I explored inside with a friend and found some dilapidated, broken arcade cabinets. I realised that this was that old dream arcade.
I had been given one last chance to say goodbye.
This is the fourteenth article in the Where We Came From series.
During a trip to the coast, the Harbour Master clan spent a couple of days roaming Camber Sands beach near Rye. While we were down there, I spotted an amusement arcade perched on the edge of one of the beach car parks.
The last arcade I'd wandered through was probably on Brighton Pier about five years ago but whilst the arcade roar kindled feelings of nostalgia, the coin-ops of old had largely been replaced with gambling machines and dancing games. I still hoped to come across some arcade which retained working 80s favourites like Phoenix, Defender or Battlezone.
The beach arcade was closed but I kept an eye on it, waiting for the chance to nose around whatever machines were on offer. I have such strong arcade memories from my single digit years: blazing batteries of screens in dark, enclosed places where ten pence pieces went to die.
Then I saw the sign.
This is the thirteenth article in the Where We Came From series.
Two weeks ago, Electron Dance looked at the birth of Lucasfilm Games and their first title, Rescue on Fractalus! designed by David Fox. Fox is most likely remembered for his graphic adventure Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988) although he also contributed to Maniac Mansion (1987) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989).
Electron Dance recently caught up with David to chat about his Lucasfilm days. Last week, we discussed the growth of the Games Group and the development of Rescue. This week, we talk about Lucasfilm Games moving into graphic adventures, why David left LucasArts and what he has really been trying to accomplish for the last thirty years.
HM: So after the first few titles, Lucasfilm Games began concentrating on graphic adventures and military sims. I think this was around 1985. Ron Gilbert, who had started out with the group converting Koronis Rift to the Commodore 64, hit his stride re-inventing the graphic adventure format. His work had a major impact on the genre, didn't it?
Yes, I'd say! I think it let them become much more mainstream and potentially removed at least one area of frustration while playing an adventure game – guess the parser. You at least knew what the objects were on the screen, and what verbs you could use to build sentences. What was left, hopefully, was using logic to figure out what combinations to use.
But on the other side of the coin it meant you could often slog your way through a graphic adventure by trying every possible combination of verbs and objects until something worked... that's not fun.
If trial and error is the only way to solve a puzzle in one of these games, then I think the designers probably failed in designing the game properly. I've definitely been guilty of this. You want to lead the player just enough so they have the sudden cognition about how to solve the puzzle and move forward. Not force them to numbly try all possibilities.
The Ah Hah moment is the grand prize.
This is the twelfth article in the Where We Came From series.
Last week, Electron Dance looked at the origin of Lucasfilm Games and their first title, Rescue on Fractalus! designed by David Fox. David is most likely remembered for his graphic adventure Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988) although he also contributed to Maniac Mansion (1987) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989).
Electron Dance recently caught up with David to chat about his Lucasfilm days and the resulting conversation is presented in two parts. This week, we discuss the growth of the Games Group and the development of Rescue. Next week, we talk about Lucasfilm Games moving into graphic adventures, why David left LucasArts and what he has really been trying to accomplish for the last thirty years.
Let the words begin.
HM: Okay, David, let me ask a little about what the “Lucasfilm Computer Division Games Group” was like in the beginning. The Computer Division was tasked with researching computer graphics and Games was just a small part of that. How many people did you have at the start?
The first person hired was Peter Langston to be the manager of the group. Then Rob Poor transferred from a position he held in the Computer Division to help us with tools. Then I was hired, end of summer 1982 and Dave Levine a month later. I think by the end of the first year, we had about eight members. By the time we moved to Skywalker Ranch in 1984-85, about fifteen. When we left the ranch in 1990, we had 60-70 and were growing fast.
It was pretty exciting to be a part of it at the beginning. We all felt under a lot of pressure due to expectations created by the buzz of our group starting up. Magazines were basically expecting us to deliver the "Star Wars" of the video game world. Internally, though, that was softened by the R&D nature of what we were doing.
We weren't expecting to hit a home run on our first time out there. In fact, the first two games we worked on were considered "throwaway games" - if they sucked, we just would drop them and chalk it up to experience. When they actually turned out to be really promising, we shifted into production mode.
It took a while for us to all realize that this shift was happening and I think that caused some problems, and a bit of schizophrenia, when we were partway through the transition.
This is the eleventh article in the Where We Came From series.
At first there is nothing except the hot, orange glow of the toxic Fractalus atmosphere. A second later, ragged mountains and valleys fill the cockpit window and the player gasps.
Tomorrow, it appears, is already possible.
It Starts With George Lucas
While producing the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas felt physical model-based special effects were limiting and established the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979 to explore the application of computers to special effects work. State of the art hardware was not good enough for the challenges of the big screen so the division’s goal was to prepare for when technology had caught up with the ambition.
Then in 1982, Atari suggested Lucasfilm should diversify its business into video games. A partnership was forged in which Atari paid Lucasfilm $1M to fund the Computer Division's Games Group. In return, Lucasfilm would develop games for Atari’s platforms.