The Making Of: The Count
We caught up With adventure gaming pioneer SCOTT adams in florida, once The home of his Software company adventure international, To Talk Text and pains in The neck
Scott Adams reveals the creation of his popular text adventure
Scott Adams leans across the table and eyes us over his glasses. “I have to tell you before we start talking about The Count, this was a game I made before I became a Christian and it’s not a game I would write today,” he says, rather unexpectedly.
We are a little taken aback that our favourite of Scott’s superlative text adventures now sits uncomfortably with his faith, but then the game does trap the player in a castle in a ‘kill-or-be-killed’ struggle. Is he still happy to revisit this dark episode in his game-writing past? “Oh, but I did enjoy writing it back then,” he says, with a reassuring laugh. “Of course, it featured Count Dracula, but as with all my games, I didn’t want it to be horrifying or scary. I wanted humour! That’s how I approached it. And, you know, you’re not the only person who has told me it struck a chord with them.”
Written right at the end of the Seventies, The Count was the fifth of Scott’s text-based titles, which had begun with 1978’s Adventureland. Each of those early games took around a month to develop and though they used the same two word ‘verb noun’ parser, allowing you to ‘TAKE SHEETS’ or ‘GO WINDOW’, Scott was always looking to add new features to his game engine and offer a different experience to the plucky adventurer. For this vampiric tale, it was all about time.
“I wanted to tell a story that the player was part of but I wanted it to be something that didn’t happen all at once,” he explains. “Dracula is a creature of the night, the player is a creature of the day, so I was going to need multiple days to tell the story – a day and night cycle. And the player has to be careful what he does during that cycle.”
Set over three traumatic days, the player would awake each afternoon and must explore their surroundings and gather the requisite equipment to slay their blood-thirsty host. Some puzzles simply require using the correct item in the right location but others
are spread out across several days, forcing you to plan ahead. Key events happen on different days and certain actions can only be carried out at night, which means you’re going to have to find a way to stave off sleepiness. There’s a palpable tension when the words, ‘It’s getting darker,’ and, ‘You’re getting very tired,’ appear on screen, an ominous reminder that the Count will soon rise, and you are on the menu. “I was giving them fair warning,” protests Scott. “I wasn’t trying to make the player feel tense but it was interesting how, in doing that, it brought out that emotion.”
instilling fear, wonder and intrigue through a few well-chosen words is, of course, the art of storytelling, and it impresses us immensely how, 40 years on, the scenes in The Count are still so vivid in our mind’s eye. The cramped dumbwaiter, the dark window you spy even as you plummet to your death from a fragile flagpole and the pitchfork-waving mob outside the castle grounds are all rendered in the most powerful graphics engine ever created – your imagination.
“That’s what I was counting on,” smiles Scott. “Players knew the Dracula and Frankenstein stories and could picture angry villagers. I trusted them to know what was going on and be a part of the story. Because I had so little memory [for the text], I couldn’t go into great depth, so I had to use ideas and imagery that everyone could relate to. I remember the children’s story Toby Tyler, of this kid tying his bedsheets together and climbing out of his bedroom window to run away and join the circus. I knew people could picture that. I was telling a story with them, not to them. I wanted them to feel part of it, like it was their story as much as mine.”
Scott’s genius was in creating a believable setting, a solid base for players to add their own layers of texture, and then creating puzzles which flowed naturally from their surroundings. Of course an old kitchen would have a dumbwaiter for the servants to send meals up to the master and that could become a sneaky means of transport. Of course a castle would have a dungeon with iron rings to secure unfortunate captives and they could become useful anchors when it came to exploring that dark pit. “When I’m writing a game, I try to envision the setting in my mind,” says Scott, “and populate it with items that belong there. Then I think how I can use them in a puzzle. It’s very organic. I never storyboarded a game. Sometimes I had no idea where a game was going.”
This process of allowing the puzzles to grow out of the setting was fostered through regular playtesting from a circle of friends and family. Scott would create a framework, perhaps a few rooms and a selection of items, then stand back and watch them play, not just noting down any bugs but paying careful attention to how they tried to tackle problems. “It was reiterative
playtesting,” he smiles. “It was extremely important to have multiple people play it and sometimes they’d do things and I’d think, ‘Wow, I hadn’t thought of that! So what should happen if they do that next time?’”
This approach helped instil The Count with a satisfying logic. Try climbing the sheets holding a lighted torch, for example, and you’ll soon remember cotton is flammable. Yet for all the atmospheric period detail, we can’t resist challenging Scott on one glaring inconsistency. Exactly what is a solar-powered oven doing in the 19th century? What inspired him to make this Count some kind of environmental visionary?
“I feel I’m using a gift God gave me,” he giggles.
“That’s my ultimate inspiration. I had an oven because it was a kitchen and then because of the day/night cycle, I thought, ‘I could play with this’. I wanted to throw people off the tracks, until they get that,
There are many such moments in the game and just as many mulling over possibilities which end up being clever red herrings. We regale Scott with our many futile attempts as a child, playing on the VIC-20 cartridge version, of trying to block the air vent and prevent a nocturnal visit from that marauding bat, much to his amusement. He also chuckles when we remind him of the awful cigarette-related pun near the climax of the game. “I smoked for ten years, then quit cold turkey when I was 24,” Scott adds. “Smoking was still very popular back then and I didn’t think it was a good thing so I just wanted to make a little anti-smoking statement… and throw in a horrible joke. Remember this was a comedy not a horror story!”
Scott laughs again and it’s clear the affection we have for The Count is shared by its author. He names it, along with Pirate Adventure and Ghost Town, as one of his
three favourites of the ‘classic’ adventures he wrote in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and we wonder if the game influenced the many titles that would follow. “Oh yes, it definitely helped me develop my game engine,” he agrees. “I was always stretching myself and I felt The Count was more logically consistent than what I’d done before. It was also something of an apology for Secret Mission, which was also time-based but was far too rapid. That’s my least favourite game because I think I did a disservice to players by making it too hard. The Count was me making up for that… and it made me think about what ‘winning’ a game meant. I mean, I was giving people a story with some unhappy endings.”
Which brings us back to where we started. Does the vampire theme really still trouble his Christian conscience? He thinks for a while before answering. “It’s bringing attention to something dark, even if it’s doing it in a lighthearted vein,” he decides. “It is still glorifying darkness. There’s enough evil and darkness in the world. I want everything I do to be positive and about helping people on their journey.”
You cannot help but be touched by the strength of Scott’s faith and his determination to be a force for good. During our time with him legions of fans and a fair number of former Adventure International employees sought him out to thank him for the pleasure his games had given them. He would greet each one with a warm handshake and grateful smile, gracious with his time and ever humble in the face of their effusive praise. Which may explain why Scott is acutely embarrassed when we remind him that when The Count was re-released with accompanying graphics as part of his SAGA (Scott Adams Grand Adventures) series in the early Eighties for such micros as the Apple II and Atari 8-bits, the title screen featured Scott himself in full Dracula garb.
“It was pure narcissism on my part,” he admits.
“I did the same with the Marvel comic series – I put myself in as the chief villain! I wasn’t a Christian then but I did have a religion and my deity was myself. Back then, I had selfish motives. I wanted to make money. I wasn’t putting other people first when I was writing my games but I’m glad they touched people in positive ways and looking back, that makes me happy.”
Scott’s wife Roxanne, who, along with his grandson Nathan, has been sitting with us at the table as we reminisce, nods in agreement. “I’ve only discovered how much his work has affected people by reading all the fan mail he’s been sent over the years,” she says. “And he still gets it! People write about the impact his games had on them growing up and that really opened my eyes. That’s when I realised I needed to champion him, in fact, kick him out of his comfort zone and start this new journey.
“She extended the right foot of fellowship,” quips Scott, who has indeed returned to games development with Roxanne with their new company Clopas LLC. “Now I feel an urgency to walk this path God has shown me… and not drag my feet.”
Visit www.msadams.com for more on Scott’s wonderful old games and www.clopas.net for news on his exciting return to adventure game writing.
“i never Storyboarded a game. Sometimes i had no idea Where The Story WAS going” Scott Adams
» [Apple II] Bookings at the castle have been affected by several negative reviews on Tripadvisor.
» [Apple II] That flagpole looks sturdy enough to hold your weight, surely.
» [Atari 8-Bit] Black Sabbath’s debut album. Wait… sorry, no, it’s the Game Over screen.
1981. Computing magazine in March» This ad appeared in Personal had posed as the pirate. He actually Scott: “My friend Tony Brentlinger is his own facial hair, too.” a gold front tooth and that
» Your correspondent with Scott in Florida.He had us at SYS 32592.
» [VIC-20] The Count is dedicated to Alvin Files, who reverse-engineered Scott’s game engine and wrote Pyramid Of Doom.
» [Apple II] Sure, pull the bell chord in the ominous castle with a vampire sleeping in it.