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

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Paul Drury

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,

‘Aha!’ mo­ment.”

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.

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