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Back to part one...

In 1984, it was Keith's turn to be the subject of his adventure colleagues' mercy when he released the game The Pen and the Dark. The game received mixed notices but the majority didn't seem to be overwhelmed.

From the cover blurb: "Faced with an insuperable problem under alien conditions, Fritz van Noon's band of Unorthodox Engineers have no option but to resort to unorthodox methods.
Can you, in the role of Fritz van Noon, discover the purpose of the indestructible pillar of darkness left by an alien race on an otherwise normal planet, and solve the riddle of contra-energy?"
Whoa... with a setup like that, no wonder its programmer was up to a difficult challenge.

What's the story behind The Pen and the Dark?

You don't really mean that, do you?! (I could say it's about an Unorthodox Engineer by the name of Fritz van Noon ...)

The Pen and the Dark came about when a firm called Mosaic Publishing was being set up by Vicky Carne. Mosaic was to specialise in 'Bookware' - software based on the stories in published books. Among the titles that Vicky had options on was a book of short science fiction stories called The Unorthodox Engineers by Colin Capp.

Vicky rang me and asked if I would be interesting in writing an adventure game based on one of the stories in this book. I was very busy at the time, not only because the C&VG column had grown, but I was also working at being a fairly orthodox engineer at my 'real' work. However, I agreed to look through the stories, which I enjoyed, and decided that probably The Pen and The Dark lent itself best to writing a game around.

Mosaic wanted it on a BBC B, a Spectrum, and a Dragon. I wrote it on my TRS-80 Model 3, mainly because I had a disk drive and a printer for that computer, and could therefore easily save versions and scan the hardcopy listing to debug it.. I then translated it into other BASICs from the hardcopy listing. The Spectrum version came first, then the BBC. I was not very experienced in using BBC BASIC, and remember finding difficulty with the way it handled the memory requirements of variables. So the BBC version ended up slightly abridged compared with the others. One of my teenage sons had a Dragon, whose BASIC was quite close to the Microsoft Level 2 BASIC of the TRS-80. I got him to type it in, and I debugged it until it worked. However, the Dragon computer didn't really take off in a big way, and that version was never published.

The C-64 was very much in the ascendancy at that time - and I didn't own one. Mosaic was quite keen to publish a C-64 version, but I doubted that I could acquire one and become familiar enough with the BASIC to produce it in the timescales Vicky wanted. So Vicky found a University student who translated the TRS-80 listing in his Christmas holidays. By the time he had finished I had purchased a C-64, which I needed anyway for games reviews. Vicky sent me the tape and asked me to test it out. It did not work in a big way - it was absolutely unplayable! I started off trying to debug it, but the unknown student had made such a mess, that I decided it would far easier to start again from scratch. In the end it was the best version. I remember showing it to a C-64 enthusiast, who was convinced it was written in machine code because it ran so fast. The Pen and the Dark sold over 20,000 copies, mainly because Vicky had managed to place it with the WHSmith/Doubleday Software Club, as a special joining offer.

Did you work on other games besides The Pen and the Dark that remain unreleased? Books, for that matter?

The only other game that I worked on that remained unreleased was a second story from the Unorthodox Engineers book: The Subways of Tazoo. Vicky had a tentative agreement with the software club to take a sequel as an exclusive. I wrote the storyboard for the game based on the original short story, but it went no further than that. We were moving into the era when computer games were becoming hi-tech big business, rather than the cottage industry they had been. That meant having a team of specialists - artists, graphics designers, parser experts, musicians, animators, you name it, to create a much more sophisticated (and expensive) product.

However, I am currently amusing myself by rewriting my first adventure, Fairytale. It never was a game for children (which you might think from its title) as the problems were not simple enough for young kids. The new version will definitely be an adult game (as in the 'X' certificate) but not strong enough to make Leisure Suit Larry blush! With today's vast PCs compared with the meagre 16k of yesteryear, it's possible to add plenty of humorous text. I'm using the Adrift adventure generator to create it, and haven't decided yet quite what to do with it when it's finished. By the way, I'm looking for a few play testers ...

Did you have any personal contact with any of the popular game authors of the day (Scott Adams, Level 9's Austins etc.)?

There weren't many Adventure authors I didn't meet! I met Scott on a number of occasions, when he was over here for exhibitions - PCW and trade shows. On one of his visits he was accompanied by his first wife, Alexis, and he took my wife and myself out for a meal in one of the most expensive restaurants in London - La Gavroche. I still have a development disk that he gave me (a 'real' floppy in TRS-80 format) containing his development versions of Hulk and Claymorgue Castle.

Scott Adams with the large hair side by side with The Hobbit's programmer, Philip Mitchell. The helpline team stands by in the background.

I often met up with the Austins at PCW Shows, and on one occasion visited them at their big country house at Weston-super-mare, to write a feature article about them.

I often called in at the Magnetic Scrolls offices, to preview and pick up a copy of their latest game. On one occasion, Anita Sinclair came down to Brighton to rush me a beta-test version of Guild of Thieves.

I met Infocom's Dave Lebling a couple of times, once on a visit to Magnetic Scrolls offices. He popped in with Michael Bywater (co-author of Bureaucracy) while I was chatting with Anita Sinclair about a forthcoming Scrolls adventure.

However, the big occasion was one evening after a day at PCW, when Fergus McNeill and myself rounded up as many adventure authors/programmers as we could, and we all went out for a few drinks and a meal. There was Pete and Mike Austin, Dave Lebling and his wife, John Jones-Steel of Mordon's Quest fame, Fergus and his girlfriend (who he later married), Rob Steggles and ??? from Magnetic Scrolls, the two 'ladies' from St Bride's [Marianne Scarlett and Priscilla Langridge], C&VG's own Paul Coppins, of course, plus Christian Martensen, adventure writer and later editor of Denmark's COMPuter magazine. It is ages since I've heard from Christian - say 'hello' to him for me if you see him!

After exactly 100 issues, your column was cancelled [while Julian Rignall, of Zzap! fame, was editor -ed]. If the column had been allowed to continue, how would you have seen its future, seeing how traditional text adventures were becoming increasingly scarce?

The cancelling of the column was not primarily Julian's doing (although he was an arcade enthusiast and not really interested in adventure games). The problem was that EMAP, the publishers, had acquired ACE, another multi-format games title from a rival publisher, which had a higher target age-profile than C&VG. It was decided to lower the C&VG age range target, (ie 'dumb down' in modern parlance) so the two titles didn't compete with each other. A year or so later, a reader survey showed, unsurprisingly, that the Adventure Column, had slumped in popularity.
For a year or so afterwards, I continued to write 'Into the Valley' in Commodore User, and it was increasingly apparent that the pattern had changed from three to six games a month to review, to perhaps one or two very big ones, typically for the Amiga, with versions available in ST and PC format.
There always had been arguments about graphics in adventures, but with affordable hardware using advancing technology, Sierra's animated graphic adventures integrated graphics into the adventure puzzles. I understand that the Sierra series soon moved away from text input altogether, which I thought was a shame, but it happened after my time.
I think the column would have inevitably shrunk, because you can't write as much about one big game as you can a dozen small ones. Less games, less problems, less Helpline material. Perhaps there would have been a new 'enthusiasts' section, concentrating on 'amateur' text adventures that were available through enthusiasts clubs, and covering the development of Interactive Fiction, which is now what Adventure Games are called, due to the prolific text that can be built into them.
On reflection, perhaps I got out (or was thrown out!) at about the right time, just past the 'high' but before the real fall.

We would both like to thank Keith for taking his time to talk to a couple of longtime (very, very long time!) fans. It's been a genuine pleasure!

Morten Wittrock & Jacob Gunness, september 2005