Saturday, October 11, 2014

"How to Turn On Your Computer", Bantam Software, 1986.

Here I am in Portland, and my standard resident "so, here we are in Portland, and it's October, so which IF comp games do you recommend?" conversor is permanently unavailable. Well, rats. But I do have you, the anonymous Internet, so you may have to do. It's true, the 20th annual Interactive Fiction competition is in full swing -- has been for a week or so now -- presenting a vast slate of amateur text adventures, parser and otherwise, for players to enjoy and rate. I believe that this is the first year that comp games with CYOA interfaces have outnumbered those with text parsers, a trend that will likely continue (and something I would explore in greater depth on my other blog if I had the time.) I was going to dip into the archives and pull out an Infocom ad for the occasion, but wouldn't you know, I used them all up this time last year (I have an exciting lead on some more, but they're not quite ready for prime time yet), so I had to take a tip from The Digital Antiquarian and find an ad from Infocom's contemporary genre boom in "Bookware".
How to turn your computer on. (The following is an actual conversation between Bantam Software and an unusually talkative personal computer). BANTAM SOFTWARE: We always ask what turns people on. Now we want to know what turns you on . PERSONAL COMPUTER: It's about time someone asked the real expert. What turns me off is boring software. Boring, uninvolving, predictable software. And cold rooms. Why is it always so cold in here? B: Games and Ahoy magazines called Sherlock Holmes in "Another Bow" one of the year's best. PC: Let me decide. Okay? (Disk inserted.) Well, this is anything but elementary. You're Holmes. Watson's at your side. And you determine your own fate in case after case. And look, you run into the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Henry Ford, Louis Armstrong. And such graphics! These derive from eariy 20th century photographs. I don't have a clue how you did it, but you have a winner. Next case. B: The Fourth Protocol, from Frederick Forsyth's gigantic best-selling book. Games called it "nerve-tingling." Here you go. (Slides disk in.) PC: You mean circuit-tingling. If 1 knew I had to save the world, I would have gotten more sleep. All kidding aside, this involves nuclear weapons. A British traitor. The KGB. And the subversion of NATO. This is a challenge. Will it help if I read the book? (Loud explosion on screen.) Oh no! Does that mean I lost? B: No, but losing's the whole point of the next one. The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. You know the bestseller. PC: Why, do I look heavy? Never mind, let's have a taste. (Disk is inserted.) This is some menu. It helps you assess your goals. Monitor your progress. Mix 'n match meals from all five Scarsdale diets. Even prepares your shopping list. It'll tell you how much exercise you need to work off certain foods. Let's see about kiwi tart... B: We've got one other program. PC: No more. I'm exhausted. B: No... this is a rebate program. Just fill out the coupon and mail it with proof of purchase and you get $5.00 back. PC: Thank you. That's a nice offer. B: So, did we turn you on? PC: Yup. Now, please turn me off so I can rest. I've got to do some running later on to work off that kiwi tart.
I kind of get the feeling that getting "turned on" in 1986 meant something a few rungs below what it means how. I remember trying to arouse a computer using our smooth talking as pre-teens and all it got us was a Dr. SBAITSO parity error. That photo-graphic of the computer with the bouquet is somewhat tragicomic. Share your favorite "insert floppy in drive" joke here!

This was actually pretty late for the first wave of chatbots -- we had Racter in 1983, and his conversations were much more interesting than this one. (And his volume of poetry, The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed, is great -- primarily because it is fudged.) What's the "why is it always so cold?" bit about? I figure it's "server room" humour, though that seems a bit out of place for a personal computer. Is your target market really people who don't know the difference between a mainframe and a microcomputer? Well, I suppose Bantam is a book company, not a tech company, so they may have been so genuinely clueless.

I've never heard of Ahoy magazine, but looks like they were credible enough to invoke as expert testimony here. The blurb describes, well, things you would expect in a (presumably unlicensed, public domain) Sherlock Holmes game: Watson, historical characters, player agency. Graphics? Fine enough, but is establishing their early 20th century provenance really a selling point, or maybe a disclaimer that they may not be as sharp as modern-day photos? They look just like typical Apple II graphics -- no worse than the Oregon Trail standard, nor exceeding it.

Then The Fourth Protocol: the book was gigantic and best-selling. We establish its themes of nuclear espionage and ... those are considered sufficient to sell the game. (Does it really have sound effects? Mobygames ratings suggest: yes! It seems to have more of a Portal-style interactive novel GUI presentation than the typical bookware IF text parser, but they're just different routes toward a similar end, right?)

And then, because it's impossible to sell on its own, the automated diet book / database. The Scarsdale diet was an early ketosis diet, shades of Atkins, whose doctor author had been dead for six years at this point, murdered by his lover. The blurb doesn't involve any of these compelling details, merely trading on the novelty of a computer diet program. Woefully mundane goods to be depending on novelty! Bantam apparently also sold a conversion of the Choose Your Own Adventure book The Cave Of Time, which would have been a much better fit here, but it looks like they were targeting an older, more world-weary audience.

And the rebate! That's an unfunny turn on ambiguous use of the word "program". All in all, I give the ad the thumbs-down. Bantam probably had no business in the software industry, and from the looks of things, this was both the announcement of its big splash debut and its swan song. Them's the breaks! (Meanwhile, did I mention that the Interactive Fiction competition has been running for 20 years now?)