Posted on May 2, 2018
Into The Vertical Blank: Growing Up Atari Season 1 Episode 1 – All The Scan Lines Have Been Written
In this, the real premiere episode, the boys pull out all the production stops to bring some much needed levity and interludes to a game playing session and discussion on modern releases for the Atari 8-bit computers. Games discussed and Played: Stunt Car Racer, Bosconian, Time Pilot, X:8, Crazy cat and more.
Posted on April 28, 2018
Steve and I took on a field trip to record part of the Into the Vertical Blank: Growing Up Atari podcast, so say goof bye to Toys R Us, and explain what role it played in being an Atari fan in the last 80’st
It was a pretty disappointing sale, but will show up on episode #2 of the podcast (along with a discussion of a ST games, some game play, and an un-boxing of a new shipment of Atari 8bit equipment).
We did find 3 cool “lego-like” items that build into replicas of Breakout, Frogger and Centipede arcade machines.
Posted on April 25, 2018
8bitrocket’s Into The Vertical Blank, Growing Up Atari Ep: 0
This is the test episode of the Into The Vertical Blank, Growing Up Atari. In it, 8bit Jeff (Jeff Fulton from 8bitrocket.com) tries out and reviews 5 Atari XL/XE Cartridges (probably won’t work on a 400 or 800) that he recently purchased from Video 61.
This is a very extended version of what was originally going to be a short user submitted addition to the Antic Atari 8bit Podcast.
Extra Show notes for 8bitrocket.com’s New Podcast section: (use above and this)
We have decided to expand the focus to all Atari computers and systems, new and old, review new games we collect, talk about all the systems, and the significance they had in our lives and the lives of others, and even talk about them in an historical context wit the backdrop the times they were released, and how they are being used now.
In the podcast #1 and beyond, Steve Fulton (8bitsteve, twin brother to Jeff, also from 8bitrocket.com) will join and start experiencing new games and old with Jeff as they discuss all things Atari.
Posted on January 5, 2018
When the marketing team at Simon and Schuster were calculating the target demographic for Jason Rekulak’s first novel, The Impossible Fortress, I’m sure they didn’t segment it directly to “romantic-at-heart mid-to-late 40’s computer nerds who are impossibly stuck in 70’s and 80’s nostalgia”, but maybe they should have. We may be a small bunch, but we are also the perfect group to enjoy this book on multiple levels and to spread its’ gospel.
So I shall try my best to do just that.
I heard nothing of this book before I saw it on trade-paperback rack near the electronics section of my local Target back in November. On whim, I picked it up, and turned to the back-cover where I read the words “A love letter to the 80’s, to the dawn of the computer age, and to a time when anything felt possible“.
I asked my wife to pick-it-up for me for Christmas this year, as I tend to enjoy having an retro-infused, palate-cleansing, escapist novel or non-fiction tome to savor between the Christmas and New Year’s day. It’s just the thing to put the year to bed and wake-up to new one around the corner.
The story opens with the narrator Billy and his friends as they attempt to obtain, by any means necessary, the overarching McGuffin of the first 2/3 of the book: a copy of a May 1987 issue of Playboy magazine featuring Vanna White. There is a bit of “Porky’s” vibe here that I was not expecting. Taat vibe continues as we are introduced to Billy’s custom programmed Commodore-64 computer game “Strip Poker With Christie Brinkley” complete with some pretty authentic ASCII art. It would be easy to dismiss the book at this point as being an exploitative and trite. While the “Vanna White” set-up is mildly engaging, I did not expect this quest to continue for a so much of the book, and I was a bit disheartened as it dragged on and on. As Billy and his friends get ever deeper into this quest, it entangles and threatens to strangle the narrative. At times I almost quit reading, disheartened that the book had a such seemingly weak frame from which to hang a story.
However, the narrative soon takes an unexpected turn, and we learn that Billy doesn’t really care much about the nudie pictures. His real passion is programming, and his real quest is to finish programming a game named “The Impossible Fortress” on the Commodore-64 to win an upcoming contest sponsored by the software company Digital Arts (an obvious stand-in for Electronic Arts) so he can become a real game programmer. Eventually, while still in guise of obtaining nude picture of Vanna White, Billy meets a fellow programmer named Mary, and together they work to finish his computer game.
This is where the real story begins. When the book focuses on the growing intellectual and physical attraction between Billy and Mary it comes alive. In fact, every page that is spent on this budding relationship the is glorious. I could have read 500 more pages of it and it would not have been enough. While the initial Playboy McGuffin quest in The Impossible Fortress was not something to which I could directly identify with, Billy’s passion for programming and his quest to finish his game was unlike anything I’d ever seen on page before. At the same time while I wasn’t too keen on the MCGuffin, the interactions with Billy and his friends rang true in these passages, as did the general sense of being on an illicit adventure, outside, right under the nose of the adult world.
This is another thing The Impossible Fortress captures in amazingly accurate detail: The attempt of 80’s kids to, at the same time, master both the outside physical world, and the birthing gasps of virtual one of computers and video games. These two combined elements hit me square in the gut. Together they formed a real world in which these characters could live and breath. I know that world existed once, because it still bounces around in my head every single day. I could have easily dismissed this book because of it’s seemingly trite opening pages, but I’m glad I stuck around, as I was rewarded greatly for seeing the story through.
Maybe it helped that I could identify with the protagonists. I’d been on similar physical and intellectual quests in the 80’s. Not for nudie photographs have you, but similar to Billy, to find a way to make my own “game programming dreams” come true. For instance, my brother and I spent the summer of 1982 trying to locate winning game pieces for the McDonald’s Atari Scratch And Win game. Like Billy we were aspiring to write our own video games, but we didn’t have a computer. The McDonald’s Atari contest was offering one as a grand prize, and we were sure we could win it. We’d hike or ride our bikes to the nearest McDonald’s and spend hours scouring tables, gutters, and trash cans looking for unused game pieces. We must have dug through two tons on McDonald’s trash searching for an elusive prize. However, aside from winning an intense distaste for McDonald’s food, we never saw even small French Fries prize, much less the Atari 800 home computer I wanted and coveted so much.
Furthermore, the book basically takes my entire teenage life and wraps it into a compelling narrative. There is poverty, computers, video games, high school outcasts, nerds, New Wave music, good friends, Catholic School girls, and John Hughes movies plus, like I alluded to earlier, the best portrayal of a a self-taught teenage bedroom coder I have ever read. My favorite detail was that, as written, Billy is not a computer genius at all. He’s not the scary hacker or a socially inept loser who can’t tie his own shoes but dreams in code. He’s much more realistic. He is self-taught enthusiast who caught the programming bug and dreams of making games for a living by turning the stories in his head to pixels on the screen.
And I also suspect, he is also part author Jason Rekulak.
There is no way the author could have such exacting insight into that kind of character without having first hand knowledge. Billy is not a caricature of an 80’s kid written by committee to hit multiple demographics and story beats. He’s a living and breathing person that comes alive on the page. He must have existed in some corporeal form, otherwise he could not exist as written. It’s that simple. Billy has a completely 80’s, “dawn of computer age” mindset that can’t be obtained through osmosis or studied in books or movies. As far as I can tell, he’s not cribbed from another source. He’s a complete and new creation in that he feels like an actual being and is quite a literary achievement.
The technicals in the book are kept to a minimum, but they are also seriously right-on. Each chapter is prologued with a little piece of code. The REM statements tell you all you need to know, but if you dig further you can see that the code looks pretty legit. I was never a user of the Commodore 64, but since it’s based on the same 6502 processor as my beloved Atari 800, it was easy for me to understand the lions’s share of the BASIC code presented. All those PEEKs and POKEs feel accurate, even if I didn’t have time to look them all up to see if they do indeed work as intended.
There were a few slight issues. The timing felt “off”, as setting the book in 1987 felt a bit late to me. I would have preferred it be year or two earlier, as “Pretty In Pink” and The Commodore Amiga would have been better details IMHO than “Some Kind Of Wonderful” the IBM PS/2, but that is totally splitting hairs. Marketing is also an issue. I realize an 80’s home computer nostalgia fueled and filled romp with a smattering of YA is probably a tough sell. However, I never saw any kind of promotion for this book in any of my usual virtual or physical spaces. And I’m no stranger to these kinds books. I’ve read nearly ever fiction and non-fiction book in the subject area over the past 30 years. I’ve attended the YALLWEST festival with my kids two years running, and this would have fit perfectly in that setting, but I didn’t notice it if it was there. If I did not chance by it on that rack at Target, I would have missed the book and life would be that much less complete.
How do we rectify this?
Where is the market for this kind of writing? I want more, and I want it now.
The Impossible Fortress was a great read. Even with it’s mild shortcomings, I still loved nearly every goddamned page.
PS: You can play a version of game from the book here.
Posted on December 24, 2017
The Christmas Train (An Atari Nerd Memoirs Story)
By Steve Fulton
Part 1: H.O. Scale Christmas
Train tracks feel like the stuff of life to me. They stretch long into an unseen distance, appear never ending, yet always travel to a known and inevitable destination.
I’ve always had a fascination with trains. When I was very young, in the middle of the night from my bedroom window, the one reliable noise were the long, loud, whistles from the Western Pacific trains rumbling through the Los Angeles suburbs, pulling their loads from the port in San Pedro to destinations unknown to me.
I loved looking down the tracks from a car window as we drove over a crossing, imagining a train was coming right for us. It reminded me of the “runaway train” portion of the tram ride at Universal Studios from the one supremely memorable time we went there as family in early 1970s.
My dad loved trains too, especially steam engines with tall smokestacks, spewing blackened clouds backwards, down the length of their cars and caboose. He took us to Travel Town (disappointing), the Lomita Railroad Museum (cool), and the Laws Railroad Museum in Bishop CA (neat), the model train museum in San Diego’s Balboa park (utterly amazing), and numerous times on the steam train at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. Whenever he got the chance, my dad tried to introduce my brother and I to his fascination with steam engines and railroad tracks.
My dad also loved Christmas.
He was not religious at all (not in those days anyway) but Christmas was his favorite holiday, bar none. From the stories he told us kids, I was under the impression that he felt abandoned by his parents when he was forced to attend Manumit for most of his youth, a co-op boarding school in upstate New York during the Great Depression. Because of this experience, he set out to make sure his own children always had a great time at Christmas, and were never sent away.
Still he MUST have had a memorable Christmas at some point, with a train and a Christmas tree involved somehow.
I was sure of it.
Since my dad never told me directly, In my mind, this is how my dad’s favorite childhood Christmas memory went.
“When he was a young boy his family placed an electric train around their Christmas tree. He recalled in deep reverie, getting on the floor and watching the train travel around under the glowing lights of the Christmas tree. He watched it for hours. He recalled the memory often. To him, it seemed like trains and childhood were inextricably tied, and there was train shaped hole in his heart he was always trying to fill.”
I figured it was one of his fondest memories. However, he never told us any stories about having a train of his own, I just figured this is how it must have occurred. What other explanation could there have been?. A train around a Christmas Tree? As far as I was concerned it was my dad’s own personal “Rosebud”
Yearly, right after Thanksgiving, my dad posted a piece of paper to the refrigerator, with everyone’s name on it. We were all encouraged to to put our Christmas wishes on the list for everyone to see. This became a family tradition that lasted 40 years, with our wives and kids’ names added to the list as they joined the family in the ensuing decades.
My dad also loved Christmas decorations, and the annual sojourn with my brother and I to locate the perfect Christmas tree was one of my favorite trips of the year. My dad’s love of Christmas even extended to presents, where, oddly, he did not join my mom in buying presents for his kids (My parents were married and lived in the same house), but instead bought his own set of presents to put under the tree himself. As an adult, I didn’t realize this was weird until my wife gently told me otherwise.
When my brother and I were suitably old enough, the inevitable happened; my dad’s love of Christmas and his love of trains clashed to our benefit. It started when we were 6 years old in 1976, when my “Grannie” (his mom) with obvious coaching from my dad bought my brother and I an N-Scale model train for Christmas.
At the time, HO was the standard scale for model trains. N-Scale, the next size down, was petite in comparison to HO, and I instantly fell in love with it. The footprint of the track was was small enough to fit onto a card-table in our compact living room. After we set it up, my brother and I watched the tiny train travel through its’ double oval track for hours. I looked on with fascination as the mechanical and electric met on the brushed nickel railroad tracks. I loved the idea that I could design my own tracks, fitting them together with switches to alter the course and control the flow of the train cars. It was system of elegant, modular, simplicity that could be used to create infinite combinations. I did not know it yet, but model trains were my first introduction to the world of design and engineering.
In the evening time, I often found myself sitting on a chair, laying my head on the table, and watching the train whiz by with the blinking lights on the Christmas tree as a backdrop. It was in those quiet moments that I felt anything was possible, and at the same time, nothing would ever change.
In the months after Christmas that year, my dad took my brother and I around to the local model railroad shops. This was the mid-1970’s, when model railroading was still a viable business for brick and mortar, walk-in traffic. Within a 5-mile radius of our house, there were, at least a half dozen stores that sold exclusively products for model railroaders. These stores were not for kids. You might find kids inside, but for the most part, they contained graying old men who took their hobby very seriously. What we discovered in those first few months of 1977 was that, while N-Scale trains were compact, cool, and efficient, they were also expensive and hard to find.
HO Scale is 1:87 scale, which means that the cars and scenery are 87 times smaller than in real life. By comparison, a Hot Wheels car is 1:64 scale, or 64 times smaller than real life. N-Scale, smaller than HO scale, is 1:160 scale, or 160 times smaller than real life. The only thing smaller at the time was Z-Scale, which is 1:220 scale, or 220 times smaller than real-life. Smaller in this case meant more intricate, and more expensive. In the mid 1970’s, HO Scale had become the standard, and while N was still mildly popular, it took three or four times the effort and cost to build a model railroad at such small of a size.
Even so, the N-Scale train and the few pieces of scenery we could afford, were good for a couple years. My brother and I played with it, racing the engine forward and backwards around track for hours until one day, one of the wheels broke off and the fun was over. After that, the train, cars, and scenery were put into a box and put into the garage and I thought that would be the end of model trains for my brother and I. While I liked them, other things had caught my attention. Kenner had a full line of Star Wars toys by 1978, and my brother and I were full on fanatics for the franchise. With our Christmas list on the refrigerator filled of things like action figures, Millennium Falcons, Death Stars, and R5D4s, there was little room for the electric model trains my dad so wanted us so much to love
However, dad was still not ready to give-up. For Christmas in 1978, he went far-off the refrigerator list and gave my brother and I an HO Scale Tyco Model train set and an “IOU” for HO scale model train scenery. My dad was a notorious bargain shopper, and the year before, he had noticed something significant. All of the “after Christmas sales” at major retailers were filled with HO Scale model train products. Unlike our tiny, beloved, yet notoriously expensive N-Scale train, it appeared that HO Scale model trains were cheap and in abundance, especially as part of “after Christmas” Sales. This gave him an idea. His plan for the next Christmas was for my brother and I to accompany him the day after Christmas, to all the stores in the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, CA, to buy twice as many HO Scale model train accessories as he could normally afford. Since the sales were 50% off or more the year before, he figured we would get twice as much or more and build an amazing HO Scale train layout.
It was a good plan, but the world doesn’t always honor good plans.
The major problem with my dad’s plan was that the after Christmas sales the year before did not just occur because stores had overstocked on model train toys. They also occurred because kids in 1978 were just not into model trains any more. Some kids were playing Atari video games at home, some asking for LEGO, and some playing with Star Wars figures. There was little room in their toy chests for traditional toys like model trains. So for Christmas 1978, most stores stopped carrying HO scale model trains altogether. We spent the better part of the day after Christmas, in the rain, searching the back aisles of discount stores like Woolworth’s, Zody’s and The Treasury for any HO scale model train accessories we could find.
It was an agonizing trip, as it appeared that only the oddest and least wanted pieces of HO Scale Train scenery were left in the already dwindling surplus stock. By the time we were done for the day, we had discovered enough random stuff (cattle rail cars, an automatic crossing for non-existent road, 1930’s people sitting on benches, a set of scale modern 1970’s automobiles, fruit trees, and tons of track pieces) to make a reasonable, yet totally random model train layout. My brother and I built and rebuilt the Tyco train track on the living room floor over the course of Christmas vacation, while my dad watched with interest piqued, and I imagine, satisfaction, that his plan, even with it’s obvious downfalls, had worked reasonably well.
As my mom got more and more annoyed by us taking up the entire living room floor with the HO scale train over Christmas break, my dad promised that he would build us a train table where we could have a permanent layout. “Train Tables” were not an uncommon thing at the time. My friend Alex’s dad, a Danish engineer, built an amazing train table in their garage, and my friend Brian Hill’s dad was in the midst of building one too. The back of the Sears Wishbook had a page of pre-built tables, the exciting curves, tunnels and hills of which often flashed by in my dreams. However, even though my dad had the best intentions, the logistics of his idea were not fully baked. There really was no place to in our tiny house or stuffed garage to put train table large enough to hold an HO scale train layout.
In the same way my dad planned for many things that he never pulled-off, he drew-up all sorts of plans and ideas about where to put and how to create a table, for an HO-Scale train set. He was great at coming up with designs for things. He was a master at it. Execution, on the other hand, was not his strong suit. He designed folding ping-pong style tables , tables that lowered from the ceiling, and even additions to the house that included rooms for a an HO Scale train layout. The designs were all very well thought-out, and very detailed, and had one major aspect in-common: none of them were even remotely possible.
Since we had no permanent place to run the trains, when Christmas vacation was over in 1978, the HO Scale trains and all the discount random scenery we acquired were put into a box to get them out of the way. They got mixed in with the Christmas decorations and became inexorably linked to that holiday. For the next couple years the train got pulled out and used on Christmas vacation and put away soon afterward. This was supposed to be a temporary situation while we waited for that elusive “train table” my dad had promised, but had not yet found a way to deliver.
When my brother and I finally received an Atari 2600 VCS for Christmas in 1981, the dynamic of Christmas around our house was inexorably changed. Instead of running out to buy model trains with my dad the day after Christmas, as we had done a few years earlier, we ran out with our mom to buy new cartridges for our video game system. The HO scale trains stayed in their box near the Christmas ornaments all of Winter break. We played Asteroids, Breakout, Tennis and Laser Blast on the living room TV, as my dad, sat back and watched with feigned interest from across the room.
It was obvious that, not for lack of effort on his part, his plan to have his sons inherit his love of model trains did not play out the way he intended. While we liked trains alright, he loved them. At 11 years old, we had become LEGO fanatics, Star Wars fanatics, and video game fanatics. To us, model trains were a fascinating technological step onto greater things like making games and programming a computers.
So, as my dad did his entire life when things did not go his ways, he took matters into his own hands. Almost 40 years later, I can only imagine the circumstances that drove this event. It probably went like this:
As he sat and watched the blinking of the Christmas lights from the couch that year, punctuated by the primitive video games sounds emanating from the TIA chip inside the Atari VCS connected to the TV, an idea came over him. The video game sounds, and the sight of his kids mesmerized by the digital pixels flashing by on the TV screen must have been as foreign to him as his stories about World War II and boarding schools in the Great Depression were to us. That day he decided he had to take action. To bring things back into focus. To build something he could grasp and control. He was inspired to create one of the most industrious marvelous things he ever conceived.
A couple days after Christmas that year, my dad entered the garage to start work on something new. He did not tell anyone about his plans, he just went in and got to work. I still recall, with great fondness, the sound of my dad working the garage. The noises of band saw, the grinder, the drills , hammers, and the A.M. radio talk-shows. Each sound distinctive, yet in my mind’s-ear form a cacophony of reverie and remembrance that will be with me the rest of my life. It was warm comfort to hear from the living room, even as my brother and I blissfully battled asteroids and each other in simulated Combat
When my dad was in the garage working on something, all was right with the world.
Part II: H.O. Scale Dreams
Before my brother and I were born, my dad created a permanent stand for our yearly Christmas trees. It included a round base, 4 feet in diameter, attached with wood box, open at the top, that housed a plastic bucket for water. Four large bolts could be screwed in from all four sides to hold a tree in place. It was one of his few garage projects that actually worked and had all the hallmarks my dad’s craftsmanship: impressively functional, yet a total eyesore hated by my mom. Every year, after the “f*cks” and “G*oddamns” and “S*hits” were done flying out of his mouth and around the living room as he set up tree, my mom would quickly cover-it-up with a white sheet to make it look like the bottom of the tree was covered in snow. This is how every Christmas had gone as long as I could remember.
Like the ritual went, my brother and I always went with my dad, 2 weeks before Christmas to get a Christmas tree that would fit into his homemade stand. There were a lot of factors that we had to take into consideration: The height of the tree to fit into our low-ceiling house and the total diameter to fit into the requisite spot by the front windows, plus the length of the trunk, the thickness of the trunk, and the clearance between the bottom of the trunk and the first branch to fit onto the stand. We left early in the morning, and drove all around the South Bay until my dad could find the best tree at the best bargain.
“More than 20 bucks for a tree? What a total rip-off!” my dad would say in multiple ways, after leaving several different Christmas tree lots until we finally found the perfect mix of bargain and tree shape.
After my mom placed the sheet under the tree to cover-up my dad’s functionally ugly tree stand, it was time to decorate the tree and house. The cardboard box with “X-mas” scribbled on the side in red-pen was pulled from the garage. The old string of highly flammable incandescent lights (some blinked, most did not) was strung around already drying pine needles. The box of random glass bulbs and homemade ornaments were hung from the branches. Finally, our creepy proto-Elf On A shelf looking stuffed elf brother and sister were placed on the window sill next to my dad’s homemade Santa sleigh carved from a piece of stereo box styrofoam.
Christmas 1982 started in the exact same way but when we finally found a tree and took it home that year, my dad changed his routine a bit. Instead of of going right to the garage to saw off the bottom of the tree, then drill a hole in the trunk so it would fit into his Christmas tree stand, he went into the garage and shut the door garage door behind him.
By that time in my life, I had clued in to the fact that there was not always a lot of “output” from the time he spent in garage. A lot of time and energy went into his “special” projects, but they didn’t always pay off with something “physical” . His job at Hughes Aircraft was drafting fittings for housings for million-billion dollar military equipment, which meant he was good at creating analog boxes, angles, and connectors, and when those things were involved, the project usually worked. He was an artist by trade, but fancied himself a craftsman. The problem was that he did not always have the patience or resources to produce that ideas in his head (something I’ve inherited from him in spades) , so the finished product did not always live-up to his own expectations. For instance, he once repurposed an old 50’s radio speaker to plug into the TV headphone jack to increase the volume so he could hear the TV with his ever failing right ear. He was sure the sound was better when the speaker was plugged in, but none of us could hear any difference. All we knew was that we were forced to have an ugly old speaker on top if our TV while he lived in the illusion that he the sound was amplified. After a few weeks, he realized his error and the speaker disappeared forever.
After the Christmas tree was in-place that Christmas in 1982, I expected everything to be the same as always. The ugly tree stand, the white sheet, the dangerously blinking string of lights, the homemade ornaments, the scary elf siblings, and the styrofoam sleigh without reindeer. However, even before the “X-mas” labeled cardboard box was brought into the house from the garage, my dad came to the screen door, and asked for some help
My brother and I were trading turns fighting Asteroids and ICBMS on the TV screen, looking forward to getting some new games like Vanguard and River Raid for Christmas that year. We were not really prepared for what happened next.
“Hey boys, come one of you hold the screen door open for me”
It was my turn with the joystick, so my brother Jeff jumped-up to help my dad. There was no question that one of us would help him. There were no complaints about helping either. Of course we would help. It was something we did, regardless of circumstances.
As my brother held-open the screen door on the side of the house, my dad rolled-in a giant board something on it that looked like a large, round, white mountain.
Then my dad stood in the living room, holding the board, and spoke,
“Boys, I need your help to fit this under the Christmas tree”
And my brother and I saw what he was holding.
His secret project.
It was circular N-Scale model railroad track laid-on wood base, with a section cut-out in the back the length of two pieces of N-Scale railroad track. In the middle of the track was a set of paper-mache mountains, rounded, so they formed a hole in top that could hold the trunk of a Christmas tree.
A little Christmas village lined the track, with powdered snow topping each of the tiny buildings. The train base was designed to slip-over the round, wooden Christmas tree base he had built years before, until it fit snug, under the tree, but above the base. A perfect fit.
With the main portion positioned, he reached around the back and fitted a curved section of wood in-place that had two pieces of N-Scale model railroad track attached on-top. With the section secured , hidden behind the tree, the circular track was complete.
He plugged-in the N-Scale train controller, put the N-Scale engine and cars our grannie had bought us years before on the track, and started the train.
My brother and I stood there stunned.
It was glorious.
For every shitty speaker, exposed wire, terrible paint-job, and jerry-rigged repair-job he had made in our 12 years on earth, this stood above all of them. Not in bad way, but in good one. It was like every ounce of effort, every drop fortitude, creativity, and effort went into this creation.
When the lights were strung on the tree, ornaments hung, and all the weird little decorations placed in the living room, it was darkness had fallen. We kept the lights off in the living room, lit the tree, and started the train. The blinking string lights made the Christmas village come alive with wonder. It was like the tree above the village was the whole of a Christmas sky, with pure wonder and joy floating above.
It was beautiful.
The tiny train circled the tree about a half foot off the ground, passing the Christmas village every 20 seconds or so. The little light on N-Scale engine punctuated the darkness every time it came around the track to visit. Bathed in the warm glow of the light from the tree, the train and village looked perfect. My dad’s boyhood dream come true, and one that his boys could not ignore. Here, in one fell-swoop, my dad laid-to-rest the ghosts of his own Christmas’ past. He finally had his Christmas train, and he had created the “train table” he so badly wanted to make for his sons (albeit, in a much more compact form than we had imagined), but seemed so elusive for so long. It was something we could not ignore, nor could we put it in a box and forget about it ever again.
“This will last forever” I recall thinking to myself.
The tree stand and running N-Scale railroad remained part of our family Christmas celebrations for the next 25 years.
Part III: H.O. Scale Dementia
Recently, When I looked at photos from Christmas 2006 taken at my mom and dad’s house, I noticed that one thing was missing: The Christmas Train Stand. Even after my brother and I grew up and moved out, my dad kept it running for many years. On our yearly Christmas visits, my kids, and the kids of my siblings were fascinated with it. They too loved the little snow-topped buildings, the mountain, the track, and how it seemed to exude Christmas cheer just from its’ mere existence. Even after it stopped working sometime in the early 2000’s, my dad kept using it as the base for his Christmas tree. However, he replaced the train itself with an enormous, Lionel sized Christmas train set, one he bought for himself and one he bought for each of my brother and I to put under the respective trees at our own house for our wives and kids to enjoy.
While I wanted to appreciate his gift, the trains were large, lousy and loud. My wife and young girls joyously appreciated the gesture too, but it was were short-lived. The train lasted a couple good years, but it’s sheer-size and lack of quality meant their staying power was not as great as the Christmas Train he has built decades before.
I don’t recall the events that led up to the N-Scale Christmas Tree stand being removed completely from the tree. It could have been that my sister’s new cat knocked around the train, or to protect the new baby (my third child) or just from the age of the track and train. By that time the stand had fallen into disrepair and only looked like a shadow of its’ former self.
I do know that it was gone between Christmas 2005 and 2006, and that something very significant happened in my dad very soon afterward.In June 2007 he was just starting to show the signs of the dementia taking hold. At that point, none of us really knew the extent of his condition, or how far it would go, but the signs started with a curious occurrence in his bedroom. Much like the winter of 1981, he began a “secret” project that would change his life forever.
He initiated this project by removing nearly everything from his room that was not nailed-down. He left his dresser, his closet filled with Civil War books, his bed, and a filing cabinet. Everything else (desk, DVDs, chair, card table, night stand, his father’s paintings, gifts, games, ephemera and odds and ends from 79 years of living) ended-up in the garage or stowed away inside his Lance camper on the back of his Toyota pickup truck.
What was left was an 8×10 foot space in the middle of his room.
After the way was cleared, he drove to Home Depot and bought some nails, metal bolts, and bunch of wood of different sizes: long-flat boards, 2×4’s, and 4x4s. He took all of it into his room, shut the door, and began working.
No one in the family really knew what he was doing. Since I had long since moved-out, with two little girls and a tiny baby to look after, I could not spend much time reviewing his efforts or his plans. However, I was happy he had found something to occupy himself beyond listening to conservative talk radio on his bed for hours upon hours every day.
One Sunday soon after on a visit to my parents’ house, I spied an interesting stack of magazines on the coffee table in my parent’s living room. On closer inspection, they were not magazines at all, but catalogs for Bachmann Trains.
Then it hit me.
My dad was finally building his train table. The same table he had been planning in his head and on paper for 30 years. He never found room for it, so he made room be emptying his bedroom.
At first, while my dad was still fairly coherent, the train table seemed like a good idea. The grand kids got a chance to see their grandfather working on a “grand” project like he done when we were kids, and it would kept his mind and hands occupied for many hours each day. The table took up the majority of his room and it was truly the only space he had for it. The house was still as small as it ever was, plus the flood of stuff from 40 years of raising four kids and four grandchildren never receded enough to let him build anything in the garage. The only space he had left was right where he was building. In the middle of his room.
My dad spent the first 18 months or so working on the table proper, and it was a masterwork of engineering and space planning. Using all the skills he had built as a draftsman at Hughes Aircraft, he cut the wood perfectly to fit in his tiny space, creating supports, and brackets to hold everything in place, while still allowing room to get under the table and work on wiring and mechanics. Sections were hinged so they could be lifted and replaced, to get at hard-to-reach corners and spaces. He planned everything for maximum accessibility and ease of use. The design and engineering prowess he invested resembled the Christmas Tree Train stand, just on much grander scale. To be honest, it was far over-engineered for being just a mere table. He treated it like it was his magnum opus: the final culmination of everything he ever wanted to create but never had the time to finish.
When the table was complete, he did not jump right into building the train layout. Instead, he studied the Bachmann catalogs, along with a host of model railroading books and magazines he had piled in his room. He wanted all the trappings of his dream model train: a steam-engine, old west town, long tunnel, a mountain, a river, and a picturesque desert landscape.
He also wanted it done the right way and no one was rushing him. When he finally began the building process, it was slow, measured and steady. He laid the perfect track on perfect track-bed. Then he built a massive mountain and tunnel. He painted an intricate backdrop that the hung on his wall to give the layout a sense of space and grandeur.
It was an impressive sight to behold. A man finally making what appeared to be, the thing he was always meant to build.
A couple years into the project, In 2008 my dad made an attempt to drive to a DMV appointment to get his license renewed, but he never made it. He got lost and circled the streets of the South Bay for hours until he finally made his way home.
It scared the crap out of him and he never drove a car again.
After that, the signs of dementia began to arrive like a steady flood. He lost his ability to say the names of numbers or complex ideas. Instead, he would count on his fingers, and use hand motions to try to describe anything beyond simple expressions. He was a man of few words that became a man of even fewer.
Then, in-turn, the train layout took a bizarre twist. As my dad lost his ability to communicate, it seemed that he turned to trying to express himself through the train table. The table morphed and changed from its’ original design. It became literally everything to him. He carefully placed objects all around the table that signified things to him: toy cars, dolls, trophies, a model ship, pictures of his grandkids, and his family from the 20’s and 30’s . He painted a massive amount of scale figures, but instead of making the realistic, they were all just the same dull color. It was obvious: the table became an extension of his deteriorating brain function.
Here are my notes from the time:
“The mountain backdrop was designed for a an ‘old west style’ train, as was the “Monument Valley” orange Styrofoam sculpture just to the left. these were made early on in his train adventures. However, right in front of that is a pirate ship. My dad “painted” the cannon white. Why? I can only guess. He placed it on the train layout where he thought it should go. also, notice that the pirate ship does not have masts. Those are paint brushes. The other interesting things in this picture are the motocross trophy my dad won in the 70’s, and his NRA coffee mug. He obviously still attaches himself to those things, but why they made it onto the train set is a mystery that stays locked in his brain.”
In 2011, with my dad’s health in speedy decline, I got out an audio recorder and asked him questions about his childhood. I wanted to get some of his final thoughts saved before they passed from him for eternity. He talked to me in very short, stilted bursts. The dementia that was eating his brain stole his words, but not his thoughts. He painfully recounted stories to me with a mix of syllables, grunts and those aforementioned hand gestures. Because I knew the basic facts already, it was easy to pick up what he was trying to say.
At one point he recalled something he had never told me before. With a wave of a hand and pointing at the train table, he described what it felt like to to be a small boy, sent away from everything he knew, to live at Manumit boarding school.
I’d heard these stories so many times before, but this time it really hit me: Being sent away at such a young age was the defining moment of his life. He never got over the this one single event: Without telling him what was happening, his mom drove him down to the end of a road and wordlessly abandoned him at the strange place that would become his home for the next eight years.
I already knew that story, but this time the impact was different.
The tale he tried to tell me this time was a new one, or at least new wrinkle on an old one. This story involved a train. What he told me, with his few words, and many hand movements, with me asking many clarifying questions that resulted in his nodding of approval was this:
There was steam train that ran down the road from Manumit School. He loved going outside and watching the train go by, with the long trail of smoke dragging behind it. He wanted to jump on the train, and take it to wherever it was going.
To get out and get home.
To never return to Manumit.
But in reality he never went home again.
At that moment, it all became clear. My dad was never reminiscing about the “toy train he never got” as a child. Toy Trains were not his “rosebud”. And this imagined scenario about my dad I had created in my head 30 years before …
“When He was a young boy, and the family placed an electric train around their Christmas tree. He recalled in deep reverie, getting on the floor and watching to train travel around under the glowing lights of the Christmas tree. He watched it for hours. He recalled the memory often, and It was one of his fondest memories. To him trains and childhood were inextricably tied, and there was train shaped hole in his heart he was always trying to fill.”
…was and complete and total bullshit.
Instead, the entire idea of a “train” simply meant “escape” to him. Escape to place he knew once, never returned to as child. As his dementia grew, he went back to that place. He set up a train, and then he went about building the perfect place that that train would go. It contained everything he loved: pictures of his family, artifacts, toys, western regalia, Civil Wars forage caps, cowboys and indians, and even little, scale Christmas trees.
And he circled himself with it. It encased him, surrounding him in his bedroom.
And there he created his place to escape to.
Locked in his own head, his brain deteriorating from dementia, he reverted back to the one thing that made him feel free and alive his entire life: Trains.
By creating his own bedroom train layout fueled by H.O. scale dementia, my dad had prepared, what amounted to anyway, his own version of heaven. A place only he could fathom, built with own hands, built by a mind that could only ever understand what he had made.
A few weeks after my recording session, my dad completely succumbed to his dementia. No longer able to move or speak nearly any words, he laid in his hospital bed in the living room of his house, away from his train table, waiting for what was next.
The last time I visited, I sat on the bed and talking to him as he listened and responded in the meekest way imaginable. A few whispers, a few hand motions, but little else. In the middle of our conversation, he sat up suddenly, pointed out the living room window towards the trees in his front yard and said in clearest words he had spoken in months “Those people there, those people going by, they want me to come along.” Then he laid back down and never said another word.
Two days later he was gone.
I have no way of knowing exactly what he saw outside the window, but I choose to imagine that it was the Christmas Train, steaming by, the passengers waving him on the join them on their never ending trip around the base of the Christmas Tree.
Like I said at the beginning, train tracks feel like the stuff of life to me. Be they outside a bedroom window, just down the road from a co-op boarding school, on card table, on the living room floor, on bedroom sized train table, or circling magically under the blinking lights of a family Christmas Tree. They stretch long into an unseen distance, appear never ending, yet they always travel to a known and inevitable destination.
Posted on August 24, 2017
“I never got into Atari”
I’ve heard this phrase so many times from the owners of used and retro video game stores, and fellow retrogamers, that I’ve come to expect it. When I enter a game store, or make a friendly connection at work, I now expect to hear those words. They usually come after a shop-owner sees that I’m examining their modest selection of “golden age” games, or when a co-worker spies my Atari posters and memorabilia in my office.
However, what is interesting to me is that those words are hardly ever delivered with malice. Instead, they usually come with a tag that describes their own “lost cause” video game obsessions.
“My favorite system was the TurboGrafX-16”
“I really really loved The Dreamcast”
Personally, I love these conversations, because it shows that retro video games fans are really of a single breed. We fell-in-love with something, we never thought it got its’ due, and now it’s time has passed.
And it makes sense that many retro game fans are not from “The Atari Age”, just look at the numbers:
Generation X vs. Millennials
According to CNN, there are roughly 68.1 million people in Generation X (1965-1979) compared to roughly 92.3 million Millennials(1981-1997) . However, those sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story. EVERY ONE of those roughly 92.3 million Millennials were born into an existing video game age, with possible older brothers, sisters and parents already engaged in playing video games. By comparison, video games came of age in 1977, which is on the far side of Generation X, which means not only were almost half of 68.1 millions Gen-Xer’s too young to enjoy golden age video games, but also puts their gaming “coming of age” squarely in the Nintendo Generation as well.
What about Baby Boomer’s you ask? Most Baby Boomers (1943-1964) were well-into their 20’s and 30’s by the time golden age video games became “hot” in 1978, and the social norms of the day were much different than they are today. Video games of my youth (I was 7 in 1977) were enjoyed a major majority of the time by kids 7-17. There were some college kids, and a few adults (i.e. the editors of Electronic Games magazine were from the Baby Boom generation), but for the most part playing video was just not an adult activity at all.
As I like to call it, the “infantilization” of America was still in its’ infancy.
According to Wikipedia, these are the numbers of AtariAge systems sold vs. Nintendo Age systems sold:
AtariAge: Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, ColecoVision combined: ~36 Million
NintendoAge: NES, SMS, Genesis, TG-16, SNES: ~150 Million
With nearly 5 times more systems sold, just in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it ‘s easy to see why AtariAge gamers are so outnumbered.
Even out of those 68.1 million Gen-Xers playing those 36 million consoles, not everyone played video games. Even in the heyday of Atari, 1981-1984, at my Jr. High School, only about a dozen or so of us actually identified as “gamers” (but we did not use that term as it was not invented yet). We clung together as rag-tag group of nerds who played video games, D&D, and listened to punk rock and heavy metal…but that was not our outward identity. Almost all of us tried to “fit-in”…but we just didn’t. We stood together, usually in a safe spot, gathered by a far-flung planter or under a hidden tree, far away from the rest of the crowd, and attempted to relate to one another because we had no one else to which we could relate. We might look over an issue of Electronic Games, or marvel at the instructions for Atari 2600 Pac-Man, but almost always out of the piercing eyes of our peers.
In high school, it got worse for “gamers”. From 1984 until 1988 when I graduated, there was no “video game culture” to speak of. Honestly even talking about video games was cause to get your ass-kicked, much less wearing a t-shirt of reading gaming magazine (if those even existed, which for most of the time they did not). If games were discussed at-all, it was even more hidden and more secreted-away than in Jr. High. Maybe on the BBS systems we called with our computers and 300 baud modems, chatting with the sysop, or as we traded pirated games on 5.25 inch floppy discs in the back-rooms and dens of our parent’s houses.
And that is why many of us never really got into Nintendo. Maybe we had actually achieved some kind of social status in high-school. Maybe. At least enough to actually date other humans and not get our clocks-cleaned on a regular basis. To keep up appearances however, if we still loved games, we had to play them when no one was around, and that was usually on the 8-bit computers that replaced out video game consoles. A computer was Okay. If someone saw it was on the desk in your room, you could claim it was for school. That would work fine as long as they didn’t leaf-through your box of floppy disks to see all the games you had hidden among the word processors and graphing applications you hardly ever booted-up. Nintendo? I didn’t even consider it. That would have given the game away.
My point is, even for the few kids that were into Atari in the early 80s’, at least in my neighborhood, video games literally and figuratively “beat” out of them by the late 80’s. So if a person managed to hold onto their Atari love through the 80’s and into adulthood, that means they were obsessed or resilient or a combination of both. It’s the combination of obsession and resilience that I think retro gamers, of all stripes and ages, see in each other, and have in common. Long past the “console wars”, we were all infected by the same disease, and that’s the common denominator. Compared to NintendoAge fans, AtariAge fans are few and proud, but in reality, I can see how we are all cut from the same cloth.
And that’s why, whenever I hear “I never got into Atari…but…” I translate that into “I’m a fellow retro gamer, and here is my obsession…”.
It’s like someone is letting me in, opening their door just a crack so I can see into their world. They’ve invited me over to their safe-spot, like the planter or the tree we had in Junior High. It’s the place they feel they can truly be themselves.
It’s empathy damn it! And in a world and a time that is feels so devoid of empathy, I truly appreciate it.
“That store is AWESOME…don’t tell anyone okay?”
One more thing. I have learned over the past few months as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into “retro game” collecting: collectors can be very protective of their sources. Below are games that I have recently purchased at local game stores. However, apparently I’m not supposed to tell you which stores, so I won’t. This is what I have been told. We are supposed to keep our sources “secret”. I’m not sure why, but Okay, I’ll play along for now.
I do want to “fit-in”, don’t I?
X = No copy of any kind
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era
Posted on July 25, 2017
Posted on June 24, 2017
Not too long ago I had a sudden realization.
I don’t just need the games I had with my Atari VCS from 1981-1984.
I need the console too.
I’ve written about my brother and my quest for VCS before (1981 Atari VCS Christmas). The story is long and involved, and covers the (totally true) machinations my brother and I concocted to get our Luddite parents to buy us a video game console. However (spoiler-alert), in the end, while our “plan” nearly ruins Christmas, it also ends-up with us getting VCS anyway.
Here is an excerpt:
“So when the wrapped box the size of an Atari VCS was taken from its’ hiding place behind the tree and was handed to Jeff and I to rip open, it came as an utter and complete surprise. As the wrapping came flying off, there it was in our hands, a real ‘Atari Video Computer System’ complete with Combat! cartridge, two joysticks, two paddles, TV switch-box and AC adapter.
Jeff and I were completely stunned.
Before we could even fathom how it had actually happened, Mari (my suiter) handed us the present she had bought for us. We opened it up to reveal the Breakout cartridge for the VCS. Mari was in on the plan all along. She had done a bit of convincing on her own to get my dad to buy the Atari VCS for us, and was instrumental in the process of getting it for us on Christmas morning 1981. My dad did his part by working some extra overtime at Hughes so he could afford the purchase. It was a rare moment when our family actually seemed to “work” the way I thought family should work. The fact that I was lucky enough to end up with an Atari VCS as the result is something I will never forget.
By the way, as it turned out, our Mom had not only ‘got’ our hints, but was concerned that we would not be sufficiently surprised on Christmas morning if they did indeed get us a VCS. She turned to Mari and had her try to throw us off the track. In the end, all of our twin scheming almost worked too well, and could have back-fired completely if my mom had decided that there would be no surprise.
For sake of this story I’d like to pretend that we had an idyllic Christmas day playing the Atari VCS, and enjoying family time over Combat! And Breakout, but I can’t. In reality the VCS didn’t work out of the box (the TV connection was broken), so we had to take it back to Gemco (of course) the next day to get a replacement. Since we were already out of the house, we spent our Christmas money on Asteroids, Activision Tennis and Activision Laser Blast, cartridges then took the haul home and played the Atari VCS all-day and into the night on December 26th and all the way through Sunday January 3rd, the day before went back to School It probably seemed like a complete waste of time to anyone from the outside, but to Jeff and I, it was pure bliss. “
Now, I don’t necessarily think this story is special or different than the stories from other kids who wanted Atari VCS systems at the time. In fact, I think it’s indicative of Gen X kids dealing with their Greatest Generation parents: the constant consumerism of our youth, clashed with the Depression-Era frugality if theirs.
But the fact is evident: if I’m going to complete a quest to replicate the Atari VCS of my youth, I have to include the console. The problem is, it’s not clear which console we received on Christmas morning in 1981. There were several version of Atari VCS consoles released in it’s life, and not all of them are created equal.
For vintage Atari collectors, the “holy grail” is what is known as the “Heavy Sixer”. It was the original VCS console released in 1977. Collector’s are keen on this version because it’s akin to a “first edition”. It has six front-panel switches, and a manufacturing tag on the bottom that says it was made in Sunnyvale, CA. This unit is heavier than the ones that came after, I believe, because it had extra shielding to help pass initial FCC RF testing. Finding a CIB (complete in box) Heavy Sixer is very difficult, and can be very costly.
Along with the “Heavy Sixer” there are Atari VCS game cartridges known as “gatefolds”. They are similar to the “gatefold” sleeves you find in the record collecting hobby. The original nine Atari VCS games come in gatefold versions. (Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat!, Indy 500, Starship, Street Racer, Surround and Video Olympics). CIB gatefold game cartridge is many times more expensive than non-gatefolds, for the same reason the “heavy sixer” is more expensive than the other Atari VCS console: people want them more because they came first and are pretty rare.
The next console, released in 1978 is known as the “Light Sixer”. It has six front-panel switches, just like the “Heavy Sixer”, but is lighter, and was made on Hong Kong. From what I gather, this unit is like the “fool’s gold” of Atari collecting. People who are not aware, think they have a “Heavy” version, when it’s really a “Light”. Sometimes “Light Sixers” are priced like “Heavy Sixers” on eBay, and it behooves buyers to ask a lot of questions and see photos before they purchase on thinking it’s the original console.
For me, discovering the difference between “Heavy Sixers” and “Light Sixer” and “gatefolds” and non “gatefold” cartridges brought back a lot of memories. The first story I wrote for this site about my love for the Atari VCS, back in 2007, was named First Communion. It was about my brother and I discovering Atari in 1978 while attending CCD classes with a girl who lived up the street. Lori had a “heavy sixer” and all of her games were in “gatefolds”. Here is an excerpt from that story:
“Lori had ‘2XL’, an early talking robot learning toy that used 8-track tapes to simulate choices made by the user. She had all manner of handheld electronic games from Tiger and Mattel, plus her own TV set and radio. However the thing that made us never want to leave her house was the wood-paneled, ‘heavy sixer’ Atari 2600 VCS her mom bought it for Christmas 1977, the first year it was available. Along with the 2600, her mom bought her every game at the store: ‘Combat’, ‘Air Sea Battle’, ‘Basic Math’, ‘Blackjack’, ‘Indy 500’, ‘Surround’, ‘Video Olympics’ and even ‘Star Ship’. “
But while I have an interest in the “sixer” consoles, I never owned one. I played the sh*t out of Lori’s, and also the one at the local Fedmart, but it’s not the console I want to have if I am to complete my quest. That console, it turns out is from 1980. I discovered this on, of all places, Facebook.
Several weeks ago I asked a question on the AtariAge Facebook page, about what console would have been mass produced in 1981. After a friendly, long, and in-depth, conversation (that you can read to the left) , I discovered the console I “need” is the CX2600A, first manufactured in 1980. There were later consoles, like the all-black Atari 2600, which is nicknamed the “Darth Vader”, and the Tramiel Era “Atari 2600 Jr.”, but the less said about that the better. I now know I need to get the exact console that I first hooked-up to my parent’s TV in 1981, on December 26th. I’d consider anything less, a failure.
What I own now is not a CX2600A. I own a a 1988 vintage Atari 7800 with a reproduction CX-40 Joystick. There is no expansion slot (the first Atari 7800 consoles sold in late 1984 had an expansion slot on the left side), so I know it’s from the late 80’s “Tramiel” era of Atari. This also means that there might be some compatibility problems with the console, including not working with the Arcadia Supercharger. If I’m going to be serious about this Atari Quest, it’s obvious that I will need the proper, 1980 CX2600A version, or I will not be doing this right.
The console has now been added to my quest. I’m not sure I can even afford a CIB CX2600A, but, at any rate, it will be stretch goal for me.
I have not gone shopping for Atari carts in several weeks now, as I have been concentrating most of my time on the “Never Let The First Die” Alarm Podcast, but I will pick it all up again very soon. Along with my love for 80’s new wave, The “Atari fire” still burns in me too…
Color Coding Key:Current Quest Status (As Of 6/24/2017)
X = No copy of any kind
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era
Posted on June 17, 2017
The full story in written form is below:
A Moment Near Aspen Grove
We were on our way to Aspen Grove, a small campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a high elevation desert landscape in Northern California. The campground was near Mono Lake, where Clint Eastwood filmed my dad’s favorite movie, High Plains Drifter. It was also close to Bodie, one of the the largest still-standing ghost towns in the Gold Country, where the California Gold Rush began in the 1840’s. My dad loved these types of things the most: history, cowboys, treasure maps, and beauty of the desert wildlife.
“I’m called to these places” he told us over and over.
When the call came, his boys, my brother and I, dutifully joined him on his adventures.
As we drove the last 100 miles or so to our destination, my dad stuck a cassette in the car tape player: Luciano Pavarotti. My dad listened only three cassettes: Pavarotti, Julio Iglesias, and Laura Branigan. On these long trips to the Gold Country, my brother Jeff and I swapped seats half way through the 8 hour drive. The good half was spent in solitude, in the back, in the camper, reading computer magazines and listening to The Alarm, The Smithereens, or Soul Asylum on a Walkman. The front seat was for sitting up, helping navigate and listening to my dad’s three tapes.
My brother and I took these trips with my dad once a year. Dad would would spend months planning the route, the location, the camp sites, and where we would search for treasure or artifacts. His hunger for an adventure was fed by his boredom from his day job working on government contracts at Hughes Aircraft. He talked often about boredom, and encouraged my brother and I to find a way to fight it when we grew older. However, my dad’s need for adventure was matched only by my desire to forget about school and work and disappear for a few days in the wilderness. The destinations were interesting, but the car trips there and back were unbearably long and, ironically given my dad’s quest to alleviate it, boring as all hell.
While in the front seat on a long drive, conversations with my father were pained and strained, and filled with uncomfortable silence. He could not hear well in his right ear, and that happened to be the ear that pointed towards the passenger seat I sat in. At home, I could enter his room, sit at the foot of his bed, and capture his attention long enough to strike-up a conversation about one of his passions. This was the best way to talk to my dad : on his turf, discussing his stuff. Our conversations ranged from JFK Assassination theories, to Civil War battle lore, from Kevin Costner movies, to the mysterious reasons I had not yet graduated from college.
So for me, it was four hours in the front seat, virtually alone, looking at miles and miles of empty desert, listening to the three tapes my dad allowed in his truck. Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with Pavarotti, or Iglesias, or really, even Laura Branigan. It’s just that I had no connection to them other than the fact that my dad liked them. I liked my own music, and my own stuff, and I wanted to listen to it as we drove to our destination.
A little past the midway point on interstate 395, we stopped in the town of Lone Pine, on our way up towards to Mono Lake. Lone Pine was unique in that a local geographical feature named The Alabama Hills was used as the filming location for 100’s of movies and TV shows. My dad’s favorite movie from his childhood, Gunga Din, was filmed there. We did not need gas or food at that point in the trip, but my dad usually made some kind of excuse to stop in Lone Pine. I theorized that it was to feel the “vibes” of the area, an expression he used often to describe when he was making a soulful connection to the world around him. I was as suspect of the concept then, as I am curious of it now.
Stuck in my own world, I took the stop as my chance to switch tapes on my dad. When he was out pumping a few gallons of unnecessary gas, I slipped something into the tape player I thought he might like. I’d never tried to play him The Alarm for him before that time. He must have heard them being played in my bedroom 1000’s of times, but he never mentioned it, and neither did I. They were an 80’s band inspired by punk and and Woodie Guthrie. They played mostly acoustic guitars and harmonicas at a lightning pace and sang about hope and social justice. However, if you did not listen closely, they sounded a bit like cowboys belting out vaguely patriotic rock, which I thought my dad might appreciate, at least on the surface.
As our Toyota pickup with the Lance camper on the back rolled out of the Lone Pine Exxon station, the first strums of Absolute Reality (acoustic version) came out of the stereo. I chose this song because:
1: It was up-tempo, but acoustic,
2: I liked it,
3: It was the first song on the tape.
At Lone Pine became a small spot in the rear-view mirror, I nervously listened to the song play, trying not to look at my dad’s reaction. At first, he said nothing. I took this as a good sign. Then after a couple minutes he started in.
“I do not like his voice” he said.
My dad was referring to Mike Peters, the lead vocalist for The Alarm. While no one could confuse Mike Peters with Luciano Pavarotti, I liked his vocals abilities very much. He had a warm, hard tinge to his voice, almost raspy, but not quite a growl. He did not scream like a punk singer, nor did he have a fey falsetto like many of his new wave contemporaries. His voice was right in the middle. and he sang his songs like he meant them, and he wanted you, the listener to understand that he meant them. It was a genuine sort of earnestness that I could then and still now, completely identify with.
However, my dad saying “I do not like his voice” translated to “turn it off”, and so I did.
The truth was, my dad’s interests and opinions dominated much of my life. While my mom kept very quiet about her beliefs (besides carting us to Catholic church as often as we would allow), my dad was very outspoken about what he thought about the world around us, and it had a huge affect on my life. Long before I formed my own alternative opinions, his right-wing politics became my own. He only ate organic food and avoided wheat, dairy and sugar, so the diet in our house was formed along those lines. The movies he liked were the movies I watched. He liked model trains and stamp collecting, so I did too . He liked the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Dallas Cowboys and rooting for the “underdog”, and I was inclined to go along with him. He liked backroads, ghost towns, and looking for things that helped him connect with the past, and he taught me to like those things as well. This was not necessarily bad thing mind you, but it also left little “space” for differing opinions or ideas in our family dynamic.
This lack of “space” had a physical manifestation as well. We were a family of six sharing a tiny house with one bathroom. My brother and I shared a 10 x 10 room for 24 years together, piled on top of each other as we grew from 20” long, 3.5lb twins, into 6’ tall, 165lb college students. My dad talked often about adding onto the house so we would have more room, but it never happened. As he got older, his own hobbies sucked away most of the disposable income in our household, and that became his priority. By the time I was a teenager, I was still sleeping on the same “bed” he made for me when I was three years old” : a piece of old styrofoam laid over a wood board, and our bathroom had a huge hole rotting hole in the floor. However, his bedroom drawers were filled with the priceless Civil War artifacts he collected, hidden away for eternity.
Funny though, if you give a kid a little space he will still run with it. My brother and I filled our tiny slice of personal area with things that were totally our own that we bought with our own money from jobs at: the public library (me), a record store (my brother). Posters of bands, records tapes and CDs, books and magazines about music, a guitar and amp, a tv, a stereo system, all manner of videogame and computer consoles, disks, cartridges and games, plus a rotating stash of candy my dad never knew existed, but we feared he would one-day uncover. These were all things that I could call my own, and the one thing that stood above them all was the rock band that caught my attention when I was 13, and had been my saving grace for my childhood: The Alarm
The Alarm was one of the few things in the world I had discovered myself. My older sisters had not introduced me to them, my mom had not sent me to a class to learn about them, and my dad had not played them for me. I was the one who saw their video on Video 1 with Richard Blade in 1983, I was the one who spent my Confirmation money on their first album Declaration in 1984, and I was the one who listened to it every single night in 8th grade on an old tape recorder and giant headphones. They were my band, and I kept on following them even after my fickle school friends grew-up and moved on to other things. I collected the all records, and when there was nothing else to buy,I collected the live tapes, and then the press releases, and posters and t-shirts, and anything else I could find that would solidify The Alarm as my band, something I discovered myself.
But in the cab of the truck, on our way to Aspen Grove, things were different. My dad’s presence was overwhelming. This was his space, and I was just visiting, I admired him very much for not being a fence-sitter. He had strong beliefs, and even if I had grown out and away from most of them, I did not necessarily want him to change himself. He had come to his conclusions by living his own life in his way. He was also not debatable. If he did not like the song, it was time for something else.
I put his Laura Brannigan tape in, and we listened for a while. All the way past the site of the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp, and through the town of Independence, Brannigan sang her sweet, energetic pop songs. I let the tape run out, and then inserted another cassette with The Alarm on it. We were just outside of Big Pine when The Alarm E.P. made it past the leader and first few notes of The Stand started to play out of the speakers in the cab of the Toyota.
The Alarm E.P. might be my favorite record ever recorded. It was five slices of what made The Alarm great, and what made them stand-out among their contemporaries. On that record, they sounded like no other band that came before or after. The sound was at once punk and pop and folk played with carefully crafted, wild abandon. It combined harmonicas, barnstorm stomping, electrified acoustic strumming, military style snare drumming, and hoops and hollers into a mix that defied description. If I had to find one, it might have been the Battle Of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, if it was thrown into a blender and set to music. To me, the sound was imperfect, organic and life affirming. The minute I first heard it back in 1983, I knew I had found a missing part of my soul, raggedly shoved into place, and for the first time in my life, I felt like whole person.
However, that was my own reaction. My dad’s was something else entirely. As we continued on our journey, and the spirited glory of The Alarm’s music spilled out of the tape player, I waited for a clue to his inner thoughts. As The Stand led into Across The Border he spoke.
“I do not understand this music you and and your sisters like. It’s too fast. It has no melody. “
My dad’s thoughts were now on record.
I stopped the cassette and took it out. Nervous and frustrated, I fumbled a bit putting it back into its’ case. I opened Julio Iglesias and put it on instead
At least there was a tenuous connection to The Alarm with Julio. The image of Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp wearing a Julio Iglesias t-shirt in the Strength tour program from 1986 was burnt into my brain. I’d spent countless hours in the 80’s laying on my bed, leafing through it, listening to various Alarm albums and and wishing a tour would come through our town.
To me, the “image” and images of The Alarm were almost as important as their music: western outfits, red exploding poppies, religious symbols, massive guitar arm swings, and mile-high electric-shock hair, just to name a few. When I was 14 years old in 1984. starving for meaning and belonging, I ate that stuff up. The Alarm’s identity became my identity. Always an outsider looking in, I wanted to live in world where The Alarm was the biggest, most important thing going, and the messages from their music (interpreted, perceived or otherwise) were understood and enjoyed by everyone equally. By aligning with The Alarm I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. This was my secret frame of reference. It was perspective I wore like shield to help me through high school and beyond.
Julio Eglesias serenaded all the women he loved before in the front of the pick-up as we approached Bishop, CA, on the i395. As we drove, the amazing scenery shot-by at 75 MPH. To the East was the parched dry lake of the Owens River Valley, its’ river-fed life-blood diverted to water the suburban lawns of Los Angeles 100’s of miles to the south. To the west were the high rocky peaks of the Sierras, once an impassable obstacle to Manifest Destiny, now a virtual playground dotted with ski resorts and hiking trails. This part of Northern California, with its’ ties to history and wide-open spaces, had become a place of refuge for suburbanites. People like my dad, who worked tough modern jobs with little reward, building important, government contracted, secret machines all year-long just so they could come here and spend a few days pretending that the industrial progress of their employ had never occurred in the first place.
Whether he or I liked it or not, my dad’s job in the defense industry gave me a relatively comfortable life. Weird and tumultuous at times, sometimes dangling just a few notches above the poverty line, but still safe. On the other hand my dad’s upbringing was anything but. He did not talk about it much, but it was trips like the one to Aspen Grove when he would let his guard down, and tell my brother and I the secrets of his past. They came in snatches of anecdotes, instead of long-winded stories. Among shaggy dog jokes and penny poker games lit by a camp fire, we heard tales of his own father’s violent anger, of being sent away from his parents to live on co-op farm when he was four years old, about trying to make ends meet in the great depression, about fighting in World War II, working in coal mines, getting robbed in San Francisco, and trying to make-it as a TV actor in the 50’s. There was nothing romantic or reverent about the way he told these stories. They all had a twinge of pain, guilt and lessons learned. I hung on these stories throughout my childhood, trying to piece them together to understand who my father really was as a person.
If the moments I had to understand my father were few, the moments I had to earn my his respect and approval were even fewer. In many ways, I always felt like I let him down. For every soccer goal I scored for him as a coach, there was a flubbed tackled of missed pass that he seemed to remember more fondly. My dad loved to ride motorcycles, but I was never very good at it. My dad loved to shoot guns, but I never had any proclivity for it. I did share a love of the outdoors and hiking and camping with him, however, that was just THE START for my dad. A vacation trip like the one to Aspen Grove was not for idle camping and hiking. We were there for business. We were there to look for treasure, discover artifacts, feel “vibes”, and prospect for gold. Vacations with my dad were work. The “real” work he wanted to be doing instead of his drafting table prison sentence 400 miles to the south. Like I said, he planned this trips for an entire year. He was desperate to break the monotony of his life with some kind of adventure. He wanted us to get up early, dig some dirt, pan for gold, dig more dirt, get wet, get dirty, and then dig some more. I have to admit, it was fun, at least for a little while. A couple days maybe, but not for a week or two. My brother and I worked so hard at school and our part time jobs, we just wanted to rest on vacation, read some books and magazines. That’s all I really wanted to discover: some peace and rest. My dad though, had other ideas. Deep into the second ½ of his life, I figured he was searching for meaning the only way he could manage: on vacation from work, two weeks a year.
We would be at our destination within an hour and I still I really wanted my dad to like The Alarm. I wanted him to like something that I liked. I wanted him to understand who I was. I had tried to understand him by watching Clint Eastwood westerns with him, by reading his conspiracy theories, sampling his politics, and by attempting to enjoy his past times. Now I just wanted to find one thing of my own that he would accept as legitimate.
I may have still considered The Alarm mine, but by time were were on that road to Aspen Grove in 90’s, they had long since broken-up. The Alarm music that most inspired me came from their “rough around the edges” period in the early 80’s. Back then, they were a punk inspired new-wave band with a lot of interesting things to say, and a lot of interesting ways to say it. They helped tear down the walls of album oriented rock in an era before the term “alternative” was ever coined. However, as they progressed through the years and became better musicians, with a more refined sound, the edge to their music, the part I most identified with, disappeared. When punk broke again with Nirvana in 1991, they found themselves as part of the establishment being torn down, on the other side of the “alternative”. They broke-up soon after, and left a huge rift in my own personal musical landscape that I have never quite filled since.
So, at that moment, I decided to pull out all the stops. I found my absolute favorite song by The Alarm from their Strength album, The song I knew would be my last, best, chance to get my dad to understand why I liked them so much. I had held it back, because I wanted to have some ammo to fight future front-seat battles, but with time running out, it was now or never.
I cued it up, and it started to play.
The mournful harmonica opening of Spirit Of ‘76 came out of the tinny Toyota speakers. My dad said nothing, but I saw one of his eyes open wide. He used to play his harmonica for us when we were little kids. He was quite good at it, and I knew he loved the sound of the instrument.
Then the vocals came in, some of the best sung vocals The Alarm ever produced.
Well I find myself in reverie
bout what we might have had
And what might have been
We had something going once
That was such a long, long time ago
I could see in his cold, blue steel, eyes, the lyrics were taking him back to someplace only he knew in his head. I watched and waited. As each note passed, I realized I might have found the right song. I might have just imagined it, but at the moment think I saw a smile start to crawl across his face. His head nodded. I’m pretty sure he nodded anyway.
He liked it. I liked it too. No words were exchanged between us, but something had happened.
It was way back in 76
Our friendship formed of pure innocence
We first met in mathew street
Where we heard something that would set us free
A sign stands over a door, it says
“four lads who shook the world”
In the depths of those heady nights
We would dream of those bright lights
Oh my friend, oh my friend, oh my friend
And then the song changed. The slow part broke into crashing guitars and a rock beat. My dad fell back to his every day poker face as quickly as it had lit-up when Spirit Of ‘76 started. He did not say anything, but he did not have to. This part of the song was not his part. This was the music of my sisters, the music I liked, the music he did not understand. I self-consciously listened to the rest of the song. I did not want it to be over. I was hoping to see his face light-up again, and I waited for it. When he did light up once more, it was during the bridge when the song slows down for a few contemplative seconds.
Mersey lights shine in the distance
Same as they did for us then
Mersey lights shine bright in the distance
Where are you now my friend?
With those few lines, I could see relevance to the lyrics and music in my dad’s eyes. I could have imagined it, but to this day, I believe it was there. It seemed that I had finally found one moment in a song that was worth the effort of trying to play music for my dad. At that instant, I wanted the song last forever, so I could stay in this place I had discovered, a place where I believed my dad and I truly shared something in common. A place where I had found something of my own, something I discovered on my own, that my dad then discovered he liked just as much as I did.
When the song finally ended, I took the cassette tape out and turned off the radio. We were just passing the turn-off to the 120 at Lee Vining. We were near Aspen Grove. We would be at our camp site in minutes. We sat quietly the rest of the way.
We drove into the Aspen Grove campground, and found a nice site by the river. We all loved camping next to a river. The sound of rushing water was the most soothing thing I could imagine. We made camp, and made a fire. We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows, and listened to the “music of the rushing water” (the way my dad so perfectly described it ) as we played poker for pennies in the dying light of day. Later in the trip we did all the things my dad loved: fished for trout we threw back into the river, used metal detectors to (never) find buried treasure, explored old dirt roads looking for ghost town sites, and shot cans and bottles with hollow point bullets from a 45 automatic.
When we drove back home a week later, I had my four hours in the front seat to kill, but I never directly tried to play my dad The Alarm again. Not on that trip, or any other. Instead, I lived in reverie, recall a single moment, real or imagined, when I chose to believe that we both enjoyed the same music at the same time for the same reasons.
And what I would give today, to have just one more trip to the gold country, with my dad, sitting in the cab of his truck, navigating the i395, while negotiating our relationship. But at least I have that moment.
That is one moment I still hold dear to this day. A moment when I so badly needed to make a connection with man who I knew as my father, at that point, for 23 years but never really knew as person. A moment in the cab of 1-ton Toyota pickup truck hauling a Lance camper with my brother inside, speeding down a highway towards a middle-class refuge. A moment that occurred only once in my life, near a small campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a high elevation desert landscape in Northern California.
A moment near Aspen Grove.
Posted on June 16, 2017
Chris Crawford recently highlighted a “cleaned-up” version of his famous, game industry-defining “Dragon Speech” from GDC 1992. In this speech, Chris Crawford explained his dream of of true “interactivity” and how the game industry and he had parted-ways. While he was almost universally rejected at the time, in an era of machine learning, A.I. chatbots, art-games, indie-games, and serious games, Crawford’s ideas about the true purpose and goal of computer could not have been more prophetic. Crawford is my true hero, and I’m so happy to get to see this speech for the first time.
Also, below is an interview I conducted with Crawford about his time with Atari from 2007, published in 2008.
-Steve Fulton (Fultonbot)
(The following interview was published Dec. 22, 2008)
Chris Crawford was hired by Atari in 1979 as a VCS programmer. He soon moved to the 8-bit computer line where he programmed one of the influential games of the 8-bit computer era, Eastern Front. For the past 25 years he has worked as a game designer, software evangelist, and has been a pioneer in the area of interactive fiction.
Steve: Can You Describe VCS Development in 1979?
Chris Crawford: It was a very difficult machine to program. You had 128 bytes of RAM, and 2K of ROM space and the video display was driven by the CPU, the 6502 and so basically, most of your code consisted of the drawing code. You drew it one scan-line at a time. Basically you’d frantically load-up the display registers with the display data for one scan line, and then you had to load up the registers with the display data for the next scan-line and you had exactly 76 machine cycles in which to do this..or on average about 35 assembly language commands. That’s pretty tight restrictions.
Steve: You did Wizard right, and that never came out?
Steve: How did you get into the 400 and 800?
Chris Crawford: It’s funny, at that time everybody wanted to work on the 400 and 800 because it was so much sexier and powerful.
Steve: It was the 6502, but was the VCS some lesser version of the 6502?
Chris Crawford: No, exact same processor.
Steve: So just less support, memory, chips, etc?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. The 6502 in the 800 was faster. They clocked it at 1.8 MHz, whereas Stella’s was 1 MHz. But it had much better video. there was a graphics processor named Antic and Antic handled all of the graphics work ,whereas with Stella the CPU spent most of its time drawing the screen. with Colleen you simply set-up a page display and let that run. There was another processor called Antic and Antic did all the work that the 6502 did in Stella.
Steve: So with Stella you have 1/2 the Mhz and no co-processor?
Chris Crawford: Right, you did not have anywhere near as many CPU cycles to play with. The other thing of course was that Colleen had a lot of memory. the smallest was 8K (as opposed to 128 bytes) and it had a big ROM with all sorts of operating system stuff in it, interfaces for nonvolatile memory and so-forth.
Steve: Did you ever talk to Nolan Bushnell while you were there?
Chris Crawford: No, I never did. The first time I met Nolan Bushnell was, God, years later, I ran into him at a little conference of techies…I forget which one it was.
Steve: When I talked to him he was very much of the opinion that the Atari that he had started was very much based on game design and making games and dealing in that realm and when the Warner guys took over they really had no idea about that business and ran it into the ground. Did you see anything like that when you were there?
Chris Crawford: I think that is partly true. Now, I’m only replaying the scuttlebutt that I heard while I was at Atari, but the story that ran around the programmers (who were fairly disinterested observers I think) was that the VCS initially did very badly and after a time Nolan felt it was time to give-up on the VCS and build something new. He was especially enamored of the home computer. It was such better technology and so his attitude was ‘dump this VCS loser and let’s put all of our money on the home computer’ and the Warner people disagreed. It was Manny Gerard at Warner, the main guy, said ‘no, we just need to develop the market some more, we need more games, we need to build-up a bigger software library, we need to give this product time’ and so the Warner people refused to abandon the VCS. That was, according to the scuttlebutt, the reason for Nolan to leave.
Steve:From your opinion, from being there, what do you think? The VCS was successful for a couple years, but then its limitations were really what made it die. Do you think Nolan was right, or the guys are Warner were right?
Chris Crawford: The guys at Warner were proved to right because the VCS did not peak until 1982, and Nolan left in ’79, so the growth curve continued up steeply in ’79. ’80, ’81 and in fact, what brought Atari down was the E.T. cartridge in Christmas of ’82. so even ’82 was a magnificent year for Atari and most of Atari’s profits came from the VCS, not the home computers and not the coin-op machines.
Steve: When you worked in the Home Computer Division, do you remember a time that it was ever profitable?
Chris Crawford: I wouldn’t know the answer but my impression was that they were always spending more money than they were taking in. The home computer did grow and it did enjoy good sales, it was doing well, but they kept adding to the home computer division, investing in it the same way they had done with the VCS, but then the Commodore 64 pulled the rug out from underneath the home computer.
Steve: The pricing rug? They pretty much cut the price in half to being with.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, there was a price-war. At that time when the the Commodore 64 came out there were a number of color computers. There was the Apple, the Atari, Texas Instruments had a machine, Radio Shack had a machine, and there were a couple of other real minor ones. The Commodore 64 came out and it was priced below everybody else, and that forced Atari to drop its price. Basically, Jack Tramiel was moving all of his production overseas, and he was able to lower his prices. There was a steady price-war, and over the period a of months the prices kept going down and down and down. What really killed Atari was they decided to move all the production to Hong Kong. The christmas production was supposed to (christmas was big selling time for these machines),the Hong Kong unit was supposed to come up in August ’83.F
Steve: For the XL line?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. They shut-down production in the States expecting the Hong Kong production come on-stream, and the Hong Kong line had problems and didn’t come online until November. When Christmas came there were no Atari computers on the shelves.
Steve: I can attest to that. Christmas ’83 I asked my dad to but me one and I ended up with an Atari 800 instead, which I loved because it was superior. I certainly remember that Christmas.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it was an absolute disaster, a catastrophe for Atari and that is what sealed atari’s fate. Now there a bunch of other things that greatly contributed to it, but I feel that was the knock-out blow.
Steve: When you were there you designed some of the early games. Didn’t you say you worked in a research lab?
Chris Crawford: Yeah. I think had 4 different jobs at Atari. My first job was as a Stella programmer and that lasted 3 months and I wrote one program for Stella named Wizard. After that I was transferred to the Home computer Applications group where I was programming the home computer, and that lasted about 10 months.
Steve: Is that where you made Energy Czar?
Chris Crawford: Energy Czar and SCRAM were made during that time. Then I was promoted to supervisor of the software support group. Our job was to provide technical support to outside programmers. We had a whole package of goodies we provided for free. By the way, the main thing we did was this tour where I would travel around to cities all over the country. We would rent a hotel meeting room, and people could come-in to these seminars where we taught them all about how to program the Atari and I did almost all the work here. I had a real barnstorming style. My job was to wean people away from the Apple to the Atari. I was pushing that line really hard. Somebody in one of the magazines that had come to it said ‘Crawford does a show like an old-time evangelist. You half-way expect him to start quoting the bible’. and that is where the term ‘software evangelist” arose.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, I was the first.
Steve: So you moved on an did Eastern Front which was a huge success?
Chris Crawford: Yes, yes. Although, an interesting point I’ll make, Eastern Front was the classic example of technological opportunism. The way many games are designed nowadays…and I’m very critical of technological opportunism. I did it back then. The Atari 800 had this wonderful scrolling capability. I developed a little scrolling map thing just to show off to people this wonderful capability. I remember telling Joel Billings at SSI and number of other people ‘boy think of the war game you could make with this’….and they said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’
Steve: You had a history of building war games, right?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, but I hadn’t done any on the Atari.
Steve: You did some for Avalon Hill for the Apple?
Chris Crawford: Actually, I did them on the Atari and people ported them over. I did Eastern Front on the 800 initially as a demo, and when I tried to interest war game people into using it, they kind of blew me off. So on the side, on my own, nights and weekends I said ‘well, let’s see if we can add some units here and move them around. Basically one thing led to another and I ended-up with a war game. I will tell you an important point to make for the readers is that game was TOTAL CRAP before it shipped. The game play was atrocious. It was really dull and boring and I had the good sense to realize ‘ship it when it is ready’ so I just went back to the drawing board and reconsidered how it was working and made some major changes in its operation. It worked!
Steve: They allowed you to do that at the time?
Chris Crawford: I was doing it on my own, that was the whole deal. If I had been doing this as an official project it probably would have shipped before it was ready.
Steve: Eastern Front went out via APX instead of through the Atari software channel?
Chris Crawford: I showed it to the Atari people, the marketing people, and they said ‘oh geez, this will never sell. it’s a war game’ they said ‘you can put it in the Atari Program Exchange”. I put it there and it was a huge hit. The next year they came and said ‘why don’t you do a new version for us that we will release as an official Atari product?” So you know, they were just completely wrong.
Steve: How successful of a product was it for APX?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it was really the product that made APX. That along with Caverns Of Mars. Those two products together made APX a huge success. By the way, there is a side-story on APX. The guy who cooked up the idea, Dale Yaokum, was trying to explain to the management that there are a lot people out there that like to write programs and if we can publish these programs for them, it’s a win-win. The management was not very interested in it. He put together a business plan for it and said ‘look, we only need a little bit of money and this thing can be self sufficient and it might make some money.’ They very grudgingly agreed to let him do it. And so he did it and very quickly made it into a monster success. It was a major profit center for Atari. They rewarded dale for his initiative by bringing in another guy to be Dale’s boss and the other guy didn’t know anything about software! The other guy was really hard to work for, so Dale in disgust, quit about a year later. Classic story of executive blunders.
Steve: What did Dale go on to do?
Chris Crawford: He quit APEX and went over to corporate research. He ran a unit that was going to design a “shoot for the moon” new computer. The worked on something with a 286, the absolute newest processor coming out and they were getting pre-samples from Intel. They were were designing that when Atari collapsed. He then got a job at Xerox PARC, then founded his own company. About 10 years ago he sold his company for millions of $$, retired, bought himself an airplane, learned how to fly…he always wanted to be a pilot, and he’s now very happily retired.
Steve: In the beginning, did Atari management want to own all the software for the computers?
Chris Crawford: Yes. The attitude of the executives was ‘we want to make all the money on the software. We don’t want any competitors. They were having competitors with the VCS and the programmers were trying to explain that ‘no that’s not how it works, you need a big library of software, you need to encourage them’ and I was one of the people doing that. Initially they had never quite defined what it was that had to be kept secret. I was the programmer at Atari who had come-in from the outside world and had more contacts with outsiders. I’d be working on Atari software and the phone would ring and it was somebody in Indiana saying ‘can I get any of the technical documents?’ and I would go over to the main area and get a few of the technical documents, photo-copy them and mail them off. I was sending out…there were enough loopholes that I was able to send out some documents and not get fired.
Steve: But for the most-part, they wanted to keep a lid on all that documentation?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, they wanted it all kept secret. I was sending out some minor stuff and then one day it was sort of like ‘the dam broke’ and they had an officially policy, 180 degree reversal ‘we want to tell everybody about this’. I immediately got on the phone and started calling a bunch of my contacts saying ‘hey would you like complete technical documentation on the Atari?’ and we shipped a lot of those.
Steve: What did you think of M.U.L.E.?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, and I think this opinion is shared by most of the designers who were active at that time. My belief is that M.U.L.E. was the finest computer game design ever done in terms of the going “with the grain’ of the machine. Using the machine to fullest, really understanding what the machine could do. It was just a beautiful design because it was so perfect for the Atari.
Steve: The use of joystick ports, the sound?
Chris Crawford: Not just technical brilliance, design brilliance too. He didn’t use a lot of techie tricks, he actually used them in a very creative way and himself made a game that was brilliant.
Steve: It’s been 15 years since you’ve released a game and you are now finishing up Storytron interactive fiction engine which was created out of the relationships in Excalibur in 1983, What is the breakthrough that got Storytron ready to go in 2007?
Chris Crawford: There were many breakthroughs of major developments that I’ve had to make, and that is one reason why it has taken 15 years. If it was just one technology I had to build then it would have been done years ago. moreover, there is a strong synergistic relationship between these components and so I could not see them all at once. I started work on the basic engine and it in itself was a breakthrough in how it handles drama and so-forth, and it was only one and by itself it was insufficient. I didn’t realize that it’s biggest problem was that it was very difficult to program then engine, to give the engine the data it needed to tell good stories. That was the engine I did between ’91 and about ’94 and ’95. The next big breakthrough was building the editor that allowed a user to program the engine…to develop the data set required for the engine. It’s a very complex data set and it took me a year to that because I had to build a scripting language and the fundamental requirement was…if I was just writing a scripting language for programmers it would have been trivial, I could have knocked it off in a few months, because everybody has done that, but my requirement was that this had to be something accessible to non-technical people.
Steve: So someone like novelist could sit down and use this?
Chris Crawford: Right, but it was still programming and so it’s still la huge restriction on the novelist, we are still demanding an enormous amount from him. We wanted to eliminate all unnecessary techiness and that was a huge task. I did a first round on it in period of ’94-’98 and it was no where near good enough. It was functional, you could do things with it, but it was still very difficult for people to do things with it. this was the “erazmatron” period. For Storytron I tore it apart and completely re-built the entire thing from scratch and came-up with an even better scripting system. It’s still difficult to use. This is like Macromedia Flash. This is non-trivial., but it is also a hell of a lot easier to use than a real programming language.
The 3rd killer problem was the user interface. In erazamatron the user interface, basic internal structure, the basic atom was a ‘sentence’ and you interacted with people one sentence at a time. That was pretty limiting and it really did constrain the designer rather badly. I’d say the biggest of the breakthroughs was the linguistic system I have in Storytron. Basically it allows the user to speak to the computer in this toy language. It’s a very powerful language system. The Story Builder creates words and defines them, and that is process of creating a work in Storytron. You define all the words…of course, defining them is a big job. That’s the concept.
Steve: I’ve read that your plan with Storytron, and this might have been someone’s idea of what your plan was, was to create a kind of a myspace like web site where people could come and create their interactive stories and share them with other people. Was that your idea, or someone else’s?
Chris Crawford: That’s not quite what we are doing. what we have is web site where, when it is fully operational (we are planning for January 1 (2008) and we are on-track) basically anybody who wants to can download the authoring tool and use the authoring tool to create a story world. When they have the story world the way they like it, then they can upload it to us to put into our library. Then any consumer can come along and play story worlds in the library. Our revenue model is that we make money from the consumers playing the story worlds. Revenue is hared with the authors, and wearer aiming for a 50/50 cut.
Steve: Do people subscribe or do they pay per story world?
Chris Crawford: Initially it looks as if we will do pay to play, or fixed fee where you get to play one story world per month or two months or something. Once we have big library we will open it up on subscription basis, however I will say we have not ruled out an ad-based revenue model. We simply had to choose one or the other for our business plan and we felt the subscription based had some advantages and we went with that, but we may end-up ad based. We don’t know.
Steve: What’s encouraging is that you are actually ready to launch this.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, this thing is definitely coming together.
Steve: So, have you heard in the past anyone describe you as a Don Quixote like character?
Chris Crawford: Oh yeah, I have!
Steve: What do you have to say about that now, now that you are almost finished?
Chris Crawford: You know, they’ll see. In fact, I’d like to address the criticism you mentioned ‘Crawford hadn’t designed a game in 15 years’. The fact is, I have not made any effort what-so-ever to talk to people about games in 15 years. Every single public press…i mean the books i’ve published, I’ve published 3 books, one was on Interactivity, one was on Interactive Storytelling, and one was about games, and the publisher approached me, and said ‘geez, we’d really like you to write this book’.
Steve: And that book ‘On Game Design’ pretty much covers all the games you wrote. Period.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, I make no attempt to teach about the current generation of games. All of my public presentations have been at the request of the host. I’ve never gone out and looked for it, they just call me up and they want me to talk. In a couple cases I’ve told them, ‘I haven’t done a game in 15 years’, an they say ‘well,we still want you’
Steve:You are going to be done soon, do you have anything else to say before we sign off?
Chris Crawford: Well, the Storyton stuff is definitely going to change things. The games industry has gotten stuck in a rut doing the same things over and over again, making fundamental errors a long time ago that are now holding them back. some critical mistakes. I think the first mistake was around 1990 with Wing Commander. Wing commander was very bad for the industry because they bought market-share. They threw an awful lot of money at that game and produced a game that was very expensive. The game never made money, the add-on packets brought them into the black. They did the same thing with each of the subsequent Wing Commander games. The basic game itself ended-up losing money because they spent so much money on the graphics as a result the games industry is now very capital intensive. They send millions of dollars making a game and there is no easy way to build a good game that can get a fair shot in the marketplace. That means they have cut-out one of their best sources of creative input which is all the crazy people out there. the model I like to use for this is, Hollywood has it nailed down and the games industry really should learn from Hollywood here, although it night be too late. Basically there are 8 million people (surveys show) 8 million people in this country will tell pollsters ‘yes, I have an idea for a novel I want to write”. Out of those 8 million a few hundred thousand apparently, each year actually write something. Out of those few hundred thousand, I think it is something like 10,000 actually produce a manuscript that they ship to a publisher. Out of those 10,000 only a few hundred are published. Out of those few hundred, only a handful actually hit the big time. Maybe a dozen make a goodly amount of money. Out of those dozen, 1 or 2 will be cherry picked to make a movie. Think of it as a pyramid creative base is 8,000,000 ideas and at each level there is a selection that takes place that knocks out 98% of everything. It’s a sorting system that takes the very best for the full treatment.
Steve: And you are saying the games industry really does not have that because no small person cam sit-down and write a full-fledged game without $10,000,000 or more?
Chris Crawford: Right now anyone in this country with a word processor can sit-down and write novel and it might be a huge hit.
Steve: Do you think stuff like Storytron (and other technologies) are sort of changing that for small part of games industry?
Chris Crawford: Well ,that is certainly what we are doing with Storytron. We are using the Hollywood model, not the games industry model. My point here I suppose is that this is one of the greatest weaknesses of the games industry. they just can’t tap-in to this huge base of creativity. Yes, there are lots of tools that allow you to build interactive fiction or platform games or first person shooters or so-forth, but the problem is, they are starting off with the assumption that you are doing a genre.
Steve: You can’t create an interesting game, because the game has already been created for you. you are just editing the game.
Chris Crawford: Yeah. Where did J.K. Rowling come from? She just came out of the woodwork. Same thing with Tom clancy. Classic example of an absolute nobody who had the right combination of talents, he slapped together books and kaboom! The system really worked for him. It picked this guy out of obscurity and generated millions and millions of dollars of wealth. the games industry can’t do that.
Steve: So that is really the story of Storytron then? A model that is separate from the games industry to open something up?
Chris Crawford. Yes we have no desire to compete with the games industry on anything. We are a completely separate market.
Steve: Do you think the games industry has a narrow view of what can be called a ‘game’?
Chris Crawford: Yeah, in the 80’s when I was working in it my feeling was ‘let’s expand this definition to include all sorts of crazy things, let’s make this a medium of expression’ and they narrowed it down to ‘a hobby’ which is not a medium of expression it is a hobby greatly by a small collection of people.
Steve: Do you follow the Nintendo Wii and what’s been happening with that?
Chris Crawford: I’m aware of the Wii and the fact it has generated so much excitement and the fact that it really is a radical new concept for the games industry.
Steve: Well it is a radical new concept and I love it myself for those exact reasons, but what I find most interesting about it is the reaction from the “hobbyists” that you described. Almost a fearful reaction that somehow their hobby will be destroyed by something new, some new expanded market, and it might be exactly what you are describing.
Chris Crawford: I was unaware that the old timers were uncomfortable with the Wii.
Steve: Yes, the hardcore gamers are uncomfortable that the Wii is taking market share away from PS3, the Xbox360 and the PC, and the games are more oriented toward multi-player and family oriented stuff. their worry is that it is going to destroy their hobby, which I find quite funny myself.
Chris Crawford: Well there is actually in one sense I suspect the Wii is a continuation of an old evolutionary process that has been going on in all forms of software. The basic sequence here is that you get a piece of software, or a game or whatever. It’s successful and there are a bunch of people who really love it, so you come out with version 2. The thing is, that sells primarily to the aficionados who loved version 1. the want something better than version 1, meaning something more complicated than version 1. Version 2 always had more features than version 1. This process continues with version 3,4,5,6 etc. The problem is, by the time you get to version 5, you have built something so hairy that the average beginner can’t use it. At that point, somebody else comes in with the new easy to use version, a a clean simple one, and that attracts a new generation of people who are intimidated by the monster version the aficionados like, and this process just keeps going on over and over. The Wii in a sense is something like this. My impression from the software available for it is that it tends to be beginner-level software.
Steve: The games on other systems look so complicated or you need to play online you need to be yelling at people through your microphone. A lot of people don’t want to do that.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it’s a regular cycle that software goes through and I fear…I don’t know how to stop the cycle. Our work is going to get more and more complicated and at some point will we ebnd up being replaced by someone who is cleaner and easier? It looks like…if you are the guy who owns version 5, you are not going to throw it away, you are stuck with it. It’s a tough problem.
Steve: Do you think the web is your next direction for software delivery?
Chris Crawford: There is no question that the web is the future. That’s sort of obvious I feel. The web is steadily taking over everything. I’ll mention one advantage of the web. Our software is…we don’t have to worry about piracy at all. The basic engine that runs everything never runs our web site.
Steve:Right, it can’t because it’s tied to the back-end
Chris Crawford: Yep.
Steve: You give the Story building engine away for free. Piracy is nothing to you.
Chris Crawford: Yeah, it’s a really nice model. I just can’t understand why there are people who haven’t just abandoned everything else.
Note: This interview with Chris Crawford was conducted in September on 2007 as source for my Atari History articles I was (still am?) writting for Gamasutra.com. Since this interview was conducted, Chris Crawford’s Storytron site has launched, and both the development tools and the player are now available for download.