Tag Archives: video games

Homebrew

I remember the golden years of homebrew games. My dad was one of those code monkeys who would spend hours in the computer/sewing room, typing up text adventures and Lode Runner clones. Some of my earliest memories consist of my dad telling my mom to keep me the hell out of the computer room while he was on the Amiga. He would disappear in there for days, occasionally popping out to meet his fellow junkies at a coffee shop to exchange manila envelopes like they were in some bad spy movie. Sometimes he would be nice and sit me on his knee and show me a game. These were the times I waited for, the times I remembered best.

A few years after he died, mom wanted to clean out the spare room and asked me if I wanted any of his old computer stuff. Did I! I packed all the beat-up, waterstained boxes into my car and took them back to my place. My enthusiasm was quickly dampened when I realized that not only did I not have a system capable of playing any of it, I knew nothing of coding whatsoever. I decided to try a list of my dad’s old programming buddies that I found in one of the boxes. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them had moved. My mom couldn’t help me out there, as dad had been pretty adamant about keeping his game life separate from his family life, but she told me one of the guys from my dad’s old job could help me.

Wonder of wonders, I actually found a guy. Name was Glen. I won’t give out his last name, he’s been through enough. He barely remembered my dad, but when I mentioned the games I could hear him nerd up over the phone. He had kept a few PCs in as good a working order as he could, and had actually written the virtual console I sometimes played when nostalgia hit me. We hit it off over the phone, and then a week later when we met in a coffee shop. Glen joked about it being like the good old days, and I joked about slipping him the goods in a plain brown envelope. He kind of laughed at that one, but I think it confused him. My dad and he probably ran in different circles.

The first three days were mostly nothing, just Glen trying to get the games running on at least one of the PCs and me trying not to drag my feet. When I didn’t hear from him for a week, I worried that my dad had done something valuable and Glen had stolen it and was probably auctioning it off to some collector. He never picked up the phone when I called. I had actually written it off as a loss when I got the games back in the mail. They came with a note:

everything’s on the CD
please don’t contact me again

taped to a CD case. I got so excited I forgot about how weird Glen was acting and called my friends over for a geek-out. I had guessed that the CD was made to play with the VC already on my computer, and I was right. We all crowded around the screen and started up the first one: Cherry Drop. I was expecting some kind of puzzle game. What came onscreen made us all retch a little.

My friend Bill summed it up nicely: “dude, she’s, like, ten!”

There were others. Some were older. Most younger. A few were boys. All the good feeling drained out of the room, but I couldn’t stop clicking. I think Charlie started crying first. By the end we were all pretty messed up.

The guys left without saying goodbye. I drank a toast to the death of my childhood. I couldn’t stop going back over all the times my dad yelled at me to get out, don’t bother him while he’s busy on the computer. I stared at the brown envelopes the games had been in, the same brown envelopes he’d taken to coffee shops, the envelopes with our old house as the return address.

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Proteus

In March of 1992, the following story was posted to a Usenet discussion about processors. The poster’s identity has not been verified. The JPEG that follows is the only known attachment to the article.

 

The [redacted] County school system came into an unprecedented governmental windfall, the donation of 30 new computers. While free, they were not without their drawbacks. The brand, Proteus, was not a local business presence and the tech support number was notoriously hard to locate(etched directly on the motherboard casing.) The boxes were also lacking any kind of instructions or supplemental material. This was rendered more or less moot by the computer’s being fully loaded upon arrival. Once booted up, the computers proved to be totally incompatible with the school’s DOS-based systems. However, they came loaded with their own in-house educational programs, with titles like “Circus Math” and “Doodlebug,” that passed staff muster. 27 of the computers were set up, with three withheld in case of breakdown.

In the coming weeks the staff noticed an increase in agitation among the children. Older students would get frustrated at the “baby games” installed and demand that they be allowed to re-apply for their scores, despite staff’s continued reassurance that the computational score had no effect on their grade. Younger students were prone to anxiety, often freezing up on basic math equations well below their level. One of the computers was taken out of commission when staff found a fourth-grader taking apart the tower, ostensibly to fix it. After ensuring the child did not receive any kind of medical harm, the staff member boxed the model and rotated out one of the other three.

Two staff members, Robert [redacted], graduate of MIT, and Pieter [redacted] took an interest in the computers, having observed them from afar. Utilizing one of the reserve computers, they resolved to first play through each program over the weekend, and then examine the coding for any unseen errors. They decided to alternate, one playing three games in a row and the other observing. Robert, the first test player, noticed a slight rise in anxiety despite the simple nature of the games. They played through the list of fifteen original games and, aside from an increased heart rate and slight adrenal fatigue, they noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

The two then decided to try the “broken” computer. The tower had been given a temporary repair and worked buggily, resulting in delayed response time and loss of coordination due to cursor lag. Robert noticed an almost immediate difference in program response, tips appearing on-screen to encourage the user to get the highest score possible, stressing the importance of performance. This continued on through all programs, even the document writer dubbed “Scribe.” Rather than indicate a misspelled word, the word “no” in all capital letters would flash on-screen, taking up 90% of the display. This happened so quickly that the first few instances went unnoticed by the teachers. The second oddity was the score displayed at the “end” of the document, counting misspelled words and forgotten punctuation.

The final shock came upon completion of the original fifteen games. A window automatically opened up on-screen, displaying a top-down game similar to Centipede already in mid-play. The soundtrack was a steadily building crescendo, found by the teachers to be unnerving. Robert, the odd teacher out, was tasked with handling the game while Pieter watched and made observations.

The actual gameplay consisted of a squat, “tank” figure chasing smaller, pink figures. At first the teachers assumed that the player controlled the pink running figures, but found the controls were for the tank. What were taken to be inspirational phrases flashed on-screen, almost totally unnoticed by the player but noted by Pieter. Peppered among such fare as “don’t give up!” and “save them!” were oddities as “where do you begin?” and “do you think anyone saw that?”

Even after 36 continuous hours of play, neither teacher was able to reach an end level. Rather, the game increased to almost sadistic difficulty.

Monday arrived and the two brought their findings to the school administration, who were understandably concerned. The hunt for the support number began, and the two continued their research. Several screenshots were taken during this time, which follow this account. In addition to the phrases, Robert noticed there were split-second “static” screens, one of which he captured with some difficulty. They then set upon the coding, which was hidden behind walls of encryption.  They extracted only one phrase, curiously repeated throughout lines of gibberish, “wheat from the chaff.”

This discovery coincided with the location of the tech support number, which provided only periodic beeping noises. The next day, a man in an unmarked uniform arrived at the school, claiming he was responding to their complaint. The staff found it odd that he produced details specific to their case, as the call had consisted of the school name and repeated inquiries to whether there was a human operator available. He quickly loaded up all computers located at the school, and agreed amiably to return the next day for the last three models. The school summoned Robert to the building. During that time, his house was burgled thoroughly, the three Proteus models taken and his other processors damaged beyond repair. Pieter took a sick day and never came back in for work.

Note: the following picture is the only surviving shot of a set that was taken by the teachers during their investigation.  It is ostensibly one of the “static” screens encountered during gameplay.

screen

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Years on the Inside

Many people are aware of Nintendo’s ill-fated stab at 3D game play, the Virtual Boy. But few have heard about  Illustr8’s attempt at a fully immersive gaming experience. Much like Nintendo, they attempted a very ambitious project with technology that was not fully developed or realized.

Illustr8 was primarily an educational game company, churning out text adventures in the mid-to-late eighties, but it was their attempt to corner the market on a new fad that would lead to their dissolution and infamy.  “Virtual reality” gaming experiences had been around for a year or so at the time, booths set up at state fairs and tech conventions. A lead developer for Illustr8(whose identity has never been confirmed) experienced a booth one year and brought a new idea back to his fellow developers. They would make the first “totally submersive” arcade experience, according to a memo that popped up in a few court cases.

The situation was often hit by setbacks and stagnation. Long after VR games had fallen out of vogue and the first home “3D” consoles had gained in popularity, Illustr8 still struggled with their magnum opus.  Finally, after years of development, a single prototype booth was ready for beta-testing.

Fellow designers Rick Oscen and Tom Ballard have both gone on record accusing the other of inducing programmer Ned Bates to be the first guinea pig, neither claim has been substantially proven. The only thing that is certain is that hours later, they managed to get the booth open again and extract Ned, who was by this time “coated in vomit”

OSCEN: you realize we never installed anything like a locking mechanism. We weren’t stupid, we allowed for cases where the faint-of-heart and those prone to epileptic fits could be extricated easily and with no fuss.

THE COURT: then why the alleged difficulty of opening doors?

OSCEN: it took us a while to figure it out, too. Turns out they were holding the doors closed. And we only really caught on when Ted Jackson nearly got his arm ripped off.

(Excerpt from court transcript)

To this day no one cohesive story has been pieced together of actual game content employed by the booth. Oscen swears that the company was attempting its first ever rail-shooter, Ballard that it was a side scrolling beat’em up. Other employees have replies ranging from serious (light-gun shooter) to probably sarcastic (“hell”)

Unable to get Bates to talk about his experiences or rouse him from his apparent stupor, no further testing was attempted while they committed Ned to the hospital. The next tester, Rhoda Jenkins, was part of the scripting team. She is currently undergoing treatment for PTSD and severe claustrophobia. She is still unwilling to talk about her experience inside “the hate box”(as it came to be known) except for one in response to an offhand comment that she was “only a few hours” inside the machine. Rhoda was heard to reply “longer than that” but refused to further elaborate.

Illustr8 was a relatively unknown company at the time with a fairly isolated headquarters, which may go some way towards explaining why the “tests” went on for as long as they did. Tom Ballard has gone on record to say that “after a while, we just started sticking people in there to see what would happen.” When asked why neither of the two lead developers ever entered the machine, both Ballard and Oscen have replied to the effect of “someone had to stay outside.”(Greenfield 30)

Testers were required to stay in the booth anywhere from three to thirty hours at a time. Symptoms of a term in the box ranged from catatonia, convulsions, violent outbursts, to total mental shutdown. Usually they were found “curled up in a corner like lab rats”(DNE6) but a few had different responses. Mark Bronwell  launched himself at the beta team once the door was forced open. An unnamed female employee(dubbed “the coffee girl” by Oscen and Ballard) was found clinging upside-down to the ceiling of the booth, staring at the demo team. She took half an hour to extricate because she was “creeping everyone out and no one wanted to touch her.”(DNE 18)

However, employee reaction was not always severe. Often, if the stay in the booth did not exceed a few hours, the employee recovered enough that they were deemed fit for work again even though they now suffered from paranoia and claustrophobia. One employee gave anonymous testimony at the trial:

EMPLOYEE: that door shut and you were alone in there. Just…cut off. From everything. You had no outside frame of reference or anything like that.

THE COURT: were any employees wearing a watch at the time of their stay in the booth?

EMPLOYEE: (laughs nervously) yeah, not that it did anything. You weren’t …they weren’t right on the inside. Time went wrong…you ended up smashing ‘em anyway, because it didn’t like them.

THE COURT: I’m sorry, what didn’t like them?

EMPLOYEE: (whispering) they told him he’d be fine, you know that? They’d already pushed him in once, then they did it again. Guess they wanted to finish the job. (begins laughing hysterically)

THE COURT: what are you talking about?

(whereupon EMPLOYEE continues laughter until a paramedic is called forward and sedates them)

(Excerpt from court transcript)

The “him” in the testimony undoubtedly refers to Anthony Prentiss, the only employee to go into the booth a second time and the reason for Illustr8’s eventual dissolution. He was, in Ballard’s words “the best of the flock” that had survived the experience with relatively little mental trauma. They packed some survival supplies into a duffel bag and gave a number of timepieces to Prentiss to have on his person at all times. At 4:30 July 25, Anthony Prentiss entered the booth for a second time. Three days later, an employee called the police.

Tom Ballard: the thing you have to understand is we didn’t really know what we were doing at that point. You do something for so long you stop wondering about the reasons behind it. I think we were all just sitting around, waiting for him to come out of that thing.  No one had even thought about calling the police, no one even suggested it. Gave me a real start when they showed up.(DNE 48)

Squad cars responding to the call found the game company’s headquarters mostly deserted, as the employees gathered in the testing room at the end of the building. According to the police report the employees were “grouped around a booth, watching it in complete silence.” A total evacuation was called in, and the jaws of life were used to open the booth. Immediately after, paramedics were summoned. The coroner’s report has yet to be released.

Both the bottles of water and the various sealed food packages were untouched, but death has been attributed to neither dehydration nor starvation. One officer at the scene commented that it Prentiss appeared “welded” to the wall of the machine, upon extrication the body promptly “fell apart.” Ballard and Oscen were escorted from the scene in handcuffs. Illustr8 was quickly dissolved; those employees still capable of functioning in the work force went on to careers in other areas than game development, the rest were committed to various mental institutions. When sought after for comments, most employees have been notoriously close-mouthed on their experiences, either out of perceived loyalty to the developers or perhaps mental trauma. One of the only direct descriptions of the experience was given by the anonymous court employee during the trial of Ballard and Oscen:

It’s like…it’s like a punishment, in there. Like you don’t know what you did wrong but you’re hurting and something’s making you hurt and you can’t fight back and you can’t hit it and eventually you get to thinking you deserve it

Both developers were found guilty of reckless endangerment and manslaughter. Oscen had his sentence shortened for good behavior and is currently out of prison, working somewhere in Dayton, Ohio. Ballard just recently made his fifth appeal, rejected as well.  After many court trials, a documentary(“The Hell Box” Pine Creek Video, MN) and countless articles, there is still much left unanswered about the Box, an independent games company’s first, and last, foray into other areas of gaming. No source has yet come forward with the current whereabouts of the booth.

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