Friday, April 24, 2015

2010: The Text Adventure Game

It was a long time ago Coleco was on anyone's lips, but during the lifespan of the company they managed to churn out quite a lot of product. Some of them were truly baffling.


Some of the oddest pieces of paraphernalia to emerge from the fringes of the media machine connected to the movie industry were the tie-in games. One of the strangest must be this one, namely Connecticut Leather Company's utterly forgotten 2010: The Text Adventure Game.

The opening screen by Frank Lam.

In the early days of personal home computing—an epic 30 years ago—a rather sizeable slice of the games market was commanded by the so called 'text adventure' genre. In the year 2015 that word combination means absolutely nothing, but when the movie was released—in 1984—the genre was still generating respectable revenue.

Front of game box.

Perchance the most outlandish entry in the genre has to be the 1985 Coleco creation that places the player aboard—and outside—the Discovery. The game was designed by Colecovision's lead designer Michael Price and Bunnies & Burrows designer Dennis Sustare and was to be one of the absolutely last games released for Coleco's ADAM system. The system was killed less than a month after the game was released.

The C-tape game loader; or DDP, as it was known.

The Game

Very few people might remember it now, but as was common in the days of yore, the game was distributed on C-tape cassettes. The ADAM tape data format was however different from normal audio tapes and is partly to blame for the unpopularity of the ADAM computer/console. The ColecoVision games console was after all a run-away success, and was the main reason Coleco was pushing so hard for the ADAM, but the console crash of 1983 ultimately caught up with the company and relegated the ADAM into the footnotes of history.

ADAM's Smart Key interface.
Traditionally text adventures were played by entering verbal commands via the keyboard, typified by the proverbial "get lamp" entry. Howbeit the 2010 adventure had a fairly novel interface—the game was played almost entirely with the Smart Keys of the ADAM. Not a single word needed to be typed, and you could play the entire game with one hand on the Smart Keys. Movement was handled by the cursor keys, however. To make matters worse, pressing the "forward" cursor key at times moved the player forward in the direction he or she was facing (!), often sending the player helplessly flailing into the vacuum.

The notorious Smart Keys.

The game code and implementation was developed by Coleco staff developer Thomas 'Tom' Fulton. Being hired as developer on Coleco's game design staff, Fulton also worked on the other of Coleco's 2010 tie-in games, 2010: The Graphic Action Game. The games were utterly different and had no in-game, internal references. Lost opportunities are quite obvious. The documentation, however, contains some surprises.

It might be mentioned here that game designer, RPG author, and novelist Michael A. Stackpole cites this game as the first he ever worked on in the industry.


What Did We Get, and Why?

The main portion of the game.
While the game sports scant graphics and is mostly text, graphics designer Frank Lam went to MGM/UA Studios at Culver City in Los Angeles to meet up with and consult with movie producer and director Peter Hyams regarding the opening screen and the victory screen graphics. Needless to say, at 256 x 192 pixels, the game artwork is less than stellar.

In addition to the thus officially sanctioned graphics, there were other innovations in the game as well, innovations also of graphical nature. Since the maximum resolution of the ADAM screen is 256 x 192 pixels, the development team created their own font handling routines in order to display more text than the 36 x 24 character width allowed by the operating system.

Game package envelope.

Coleco's in-house composer and sound designer Roland 'Ray' Rizzo's audio design is limited to creating a digitized PCM soundtrack of Richard Strauss' awe-inspiring Also Sprach Zarathustra, and inserting an endlessly looping breathing sound to the background. Even though the background sound is "dynamic", i.e. the breathing loop speeds up when oxygen supply is running out, many players found the breathing irritating and chose to simply turn the sound off. These days Rizzo is working for Firaxis, and the Coleco games were only a small blip on his radar, barely even registering. He does not even in his own words "know what the Coleco 2010 games are."

Ship system readout.

There are some peculiarities in the bulk text, such as the Russian pod Misha being depicted as red and bulky, the communications with Earth being direct, and so on, but these anomalies are not even noticable. The graphics are, when they are present, clear and serviceable.


The Box

The game was fairly lavishly packaged for its' time, and it came packaged not only with the usual manuals and such, but also with an envelope containing a 'confidential' three-page memo—provided by a fictional Thomas Rae Charles, a mission control officer at the equally fictional "United States Military Space Agency"—outlining the game setting, providing a backstory and immersing the player. Those who had played the other official 2010 game—2010: The Graphic Action Game—might recognize the name of the officer. Indeed, the same fictional officer is mentioned in both games. This remained the only in-game reference between the games, and it was mentioned in the manual only.

The envelope also contained a note informing the player "it is not possible to store games on a blank data pack". This had some wider implications which will be mentioned later.

The player starts the game in Misha—the Russian one-man pod. From there, the player must enter the Discovery, find out what is ailing the ship, get her up to speed, and save her from the impending crash on the Jovian moon Io's surface and her obvious doom.

The in-game universe does not have a lot of similarities with the real universe, other than the names of the celestial bodies. The Jovian moon Io is at times referred to as "a planet", and moreover it is said to have a "fiery heart". Neither of those assertions are true in the real world. Sure, Io has a molten core due to gravitational pressure and the constant tugging by Jupiter, but to suggest that the Discovery would bury herself at the center of the moon upon impact is not really a plausible scenario.

Consisting of only 42 game locations in total, the size of the game canvas is rather comical by the standards of today. To provide a little bit of context, the entire game occupies the same amount of RAM memory a single Windows desktop icon does today.

The perhaps most frustrating aspect of the game was the continuous loading of game data from the DDP. Tape drives were notoriously slow even for the day, and endlessly loading the game locations quickly became a game unto itself, of course ultimately becoming a test of patience and character.

If you really, really want to play this old piece of tie-in game history, several ColecoVision ADAM emulators—as well as the needed ROMs—are available on the Internet. Various ADAM fan sites exist, and many of them either host emulators themselves or provide links to sites that host them. Read the note at the end of this article, however.

Be advised emulators are mostly created by open source communities and hobbyists, and they are by and large of wildly varying quality. Also remember the majority of all ROMs contain copyrighted material, and as such they reside in a mostly grey area of computer media. Caution is advised should you undertake such an endeavour and it is strongly recommended you do not do it.

The original game was shipped on DDP—"Digital Data Pack", or C-tape for the rest of us—solely, and was never shipped on 5 1/4" disk by Coleco. No plan existed for any other format, at least not when the game was shipped. If any such plans existed they were shelved when the design team was disbanded later in 1985. Since Coleco itself would not survive the 80's, official disk versions of the game never emerged. Unofficial disk conversion were ultimately available for archivists, most prominently by Walters Software Co, but these came much later, and the legal status of all the available conversions remains unclear.

The game was released for (of course) ColecoVision's own ADAM, as well as the Apple IIc and Commodore 64 computers. Very few ADAM tapes still exist, since the ADAM tapes—or Digital Data Packs—could not be copied with a standard C-tape duplicator. The ADAM tape stations used the entire 0.15" width of the tape and the cassettes were thus almost impossible to copy with any other device. Only a few devices exclusively developed for bulk tape copying were able to create a copy of the data tape.

Noteworthiness Noted

An "Easter Egg" (of sorts) is supplied with the game. The C-tape containing the game has one company-supplied saved game on it. If the player loads this game at startup the end victory animation is played after the player chooses to turn on Discovery's main engines. If, however, the player saves any game on the tape, this company-supplied saved game is overwritten and the Easter Egg is irretrievably destroyed.

The ending animation.

The ADAM was discontinued in January of 1985. Thus 2010: The Text Adventure Game was to be one of the very last titles to be released for the machine. Most of ColecoVision's design staff was laid off at the same time as the ADAM was discontinued.

Three years later Coleco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and went quietly into the night.

Games like this really are not created anymore.


Where Are We Now?

There are ways to play the game on modern systems, using any one of the plethora of ADAM emulators that are available. However, since the ROM images required to play these older games mostly exist in the legally dubious twilight zone of distributed media, it is recommended you try to find an original ADAM and an original DDP tape instead.

Counter-intuitively they are not that hard to find; ADAM systems are found on eBay constantly. There are pictures in circulation of an ADAM system from 1985 being hooked up to a 50 inch flat screen 30 years its junior. The ADAMs are out there, and they are not expensive. Some are sold for as little as $10. You just need to know where to look.

If you can manage to get your hands on both a console and a 2010 DDP tape, fire the system up and appreciate the game for what it is: a delightful time waster.



Images copyright ©1985 Coleco.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Helen Mirren – Tanya Kirbuk of 2010

A Londonian stage actress with Russian roots, Helen Mirren effortlessly balances between British cool and dramatic Eastern tragedy. She brings a part of that authoritarian cool into orbit around Jupiter.


Born in 1946 in Chiswick, England, to an English mother and an aristocratic Russian father, Mirren knew from very early on that she wanted to be an actress. Only six years old, she disclosed her wishes to her parents. By the age of thirteen she was playing Caliban in a school production of Shakespeare's The Tempest; five years later she had won the leading role in the National Youth Theatre's Anthony and Cleopatra at the Old Vic.

To please her parents, she trained as a teacher at the New College of Speech and Drama at Hampstead, but pursued acting during weekends and vacations. In 1967, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and made her mark over a period of eight years.

Tiring of traditional theatre, Mirren joined Peter Brook's Paris-based experimental troupe, the International Centre of Theatre Research, performing for villagers in Africa and migrant workers in California. Mirren's breakthrough role, however, came as Nina in a 1975 London revival of Chekhov's The Seagull.

While her stage career is impressive enough, it is her movie work that has established her public image as a modern Mae West. In 1967, Mirren made her first film, Herostratus. The next year she appeared as Hermia in Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream alongside Derek Godfrey, Diana Rigg, and Ian Richardson. Her reputation as a 'thinking man's sex symbol' was cemented in Penthouse Film's racy Caligula and confirmed with her portrayals of the incestuous Morgana in Excalibur. As her film career took off, Mirren also found success on television. She won leading roles in Cousin Bette, The Changeling and Coffin for the Bride. She played Stella in The Collection opposite Laurence Olivier and Malcolm McDowell, and Angela in Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills.


On the Set

In 1984, Mirren ventured to Hollywood, where she has a role in 2010 with Roy Scheider. She sat down for a while to talk about her work.

The character she plays in the movie shares some similarities with her own background: while this is the first time Mirren plays a Russian, she is of Russian descent, and was baptized Ilynea Mironova (Iлyнea Миронова).

"It soon became apparent that Peter had had no idea of my background," she says, "when he cast me."

Mirren as commander Kirbuk.
"When I met with him in LA, he wanted to hear my accent. Before leaving London I had done some preparation, taking dialogue lessons from a Russian girl who worked at the BBC World Service. I had it down pretty good, I thought. But Peter was unimpressed."

"'I dunno, Helen. It just doesn't have that "nye" that I remember from my Russian grandparents.' I went home in despair and played back the tape of my work. It sounded good to me. Then the penny dropped. Peter, with his Russian Jewish roots, was used to an American Russian accent, whereas I was doing the accent of a Russian who had learned English in England. The next day I met with Peter again and this time put a hint of American into the accent. 'Yeah, that's it!' he said. 'That's a Russian accent!'"

The character she plays has been tailored a bit from the novel. The name of  Helen Mirren's character – Tanya Kirbuk – is a thinly disguised reference to director Stanley Kubrick, who directed the first film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 16 years prior.

The other actors of the Leonov crew were Russian ex-pats. "They [are] great to work with," she says, "intense, like all Russians. Their trailer [can] explode into shouts and thumping, and when I'd knock on the door to see what's happening, a massive, screaming argument would be in progress: Who was better, Gogol or Dostoevsky? The thumps were the table being thumped."

Like all the other actors, Mirren was impressed by the massive, detailed sets production designer Albert Brenner had created.

"Just the very quality of the sets," says Mirren, "I think, for me, the minute I walk on to these sets – like we have here – I think it helps us more than we know as actors."

The sets themselves certainly set restraints on the actors' work, but they also provided a lot of leeway in the character portrayals, shaping the roles and aiding the performers. "I think we're given," Mirren says, "you know, a lot of our performances simply from being in the set."

The actors, however, did talk about things other than the sets during shooting. Among the topics they talked about was their chosen craft: acting.

Helen Mirren as commander Kirbuk.

"Bob [Balaban] gave me an incredible piece of advice about film acting," Mirren says. "I was sitting there watching all these American actors, who just seemed to be all so brilliant to me and just so natural I couldn't see how they were doing it. But Bob said, 'With film acting you have to let it go. It's like shooting with a bow and arrow: from the moment the arrow has left your bow you can't bring it back, it's going to land wherever it lands. You cannot bring it back. You can aim it as well as you can but the minute it's gone, it's gone. So just do what you do on the take in the moment and then let it go. Never go home at night and think 'Why didn't I do that? I should have done it like this.' – as one tends to do sometimes, you re-rehearse the scene and you go home and kick yourself for having not done this that and the other.' That was brilliant, brilliant advice."

Mirren has taken the advice to heart. "I do it. I aim it. The take is letting the arrow go, if you like," she explains. "The audience, you can't really control what the audience think – especially after the music and the editing and the rest of it. It’s transformed into something else. You can think, 'I hope they get the fact that I'm angry but secretly pleased' or something, but if they don't and they get something else there’s nothing I can do about that. I just have to let it go."


While Mirren has played a lot of mystical and mythical characters in the recent past, she says it does not influence her choice of roles.

"You know, I don't choose my roles really; they choose me to a certain extent. You can only do what you're asked to do in the end. Of course all great roles have to do with conflict, without a question, whether it’s internal or external conflict. And you know, I've played many, many, many different sort of roles in my career, which has been incredible fun."

"I don't particularly see a theme there, you know," she says. "I usually try to play characters who appear in the last scene. [Laughs] Especially on the last page, that's the most important thing of all. If they're not on the last page, I think, 'Hmm, I've better have a good look at this one...' So I always read scripts backwards. It's terrible."




Images copyright ©1984 M-G-M.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Re-creating a Giant

The main plot device in 2010: The Year We Make Contact is the transformation of Jupiter into a star. While most viewers accept the event as merely another plot device, some have taken it upon themselves to ascertain whether such an event would even be possible.


In the movie Jupiter is transformed by alien intervention into a ministar, the somewhat clumsily named Lucifer – a play on the mythical ’bringer of light’, as well as retaining the vowel flow of the original name.

[The name Lucifer has a long history in the Odyssey Universe, however. The very first drafts of the 2001: A Space Odyssey story called TMA-1 Lucifer. And this Lucifer was not a black slab, but a pyramid. But I digress.]

The slightly awkward name aside, the star in the movie shines just like we expect our own Sun to shine. Would this even be possible? Let us take a closer look.


Size comparison of Jupiter and a Brown Dwarf.


Before we delve into the specifics and get our hands dirty, let us establish a few facts by looking at what the stellar objects involved actually are. You might be surprised to learn there are few—if any—hard and fast borders between object classes in the Solar System, and thus by extension in the Universe.


Jupiter

Excluding the Sun, Jupiter is by far the most massive object in the Solar System. Out of the combined mass of all the planets the Jovian hunk gobbles a massive 77%, i.e. more than ¾ of the entire mass of the Solar System is contained in one single planet. Arthur C. Clarke even mentions this himself in the third installment of the Odyssey Sequence, 2061: Odyssey Three : the Solar System consists of "the Sun, Jupiter and some debris".

Jupiter's diameter is a whopping 142,796 kilometers (or 88,748 miles). That is 11 times the diameter of the Earth. The pressure at the center of the gas giant is 30,000 times the pressure at the center of the Earth. Indeed, the core of Jupiter is an Earth-sized center consisting of iron and silicates, surrounded by a shell of metallic hydrogen (hydrogen that has turned into a metal due to the immense pressure).

The chemical composition of Jupiter is incidentally quite the same as our Sun.

This is not cause for concern, it merely offers pause for thought.


Star Types

The Sun—also known by the Latin name Sol—is the central star of the Solar System, and is a typical G-type main sequence star. It alone amounts for 99.86% of the total mass of the entire solar system. There are other types of stars, as well, and for the purpose of this article we will focus on those.

The Sun is of course not the smallest possible star. There are much smaller stars—the so called red dwarves—that have roughly 7.5% the mass of the Sun's hydrogen. The problem is a red dwarf is still about 80 MJ (i.e. mass of Jupiter).

Exploding a star.

Red dwarves are the smallest stars that can maintain true fusion, characterized by fusing hydrogen into the heavier helium. There exists, however, another class of stellar object that are even smaller, the so called brown dwarves. A brown dwarf clocks in at a mere 13 MJ, and is nowhere near massive enough to give arise to hydrogen fusion. However a brown dwarf has enough mass to fuse deuterium, a variant of hydrogen.

To make matters more complex, there does not really exist any true and fixed boundary between a gas giant and a brown dwarf. Comparing a gas giant such as Jupiter to the smallest brown dwarfs reveals that they are essentially similar objects: the chemical composition is the same, the energy output is nearly the same, and remarkably the size is the same. To increase the confusion an additional class of objects has been added to the menagerie: the sub-brown dwarf, which is not really a star at all, but is considered by some a planetary body. Others state that a planet should be categorized as a sub-brown dwarf if is has been capable of fusion at some point during its lifetime. Perhaps interestingly, the smallest theoretical mass that could be classed as a sub-brown dwarf is equal to 1 MJ.

Perhaps it is not so wrong to call Jupiter a star, then.


Jupiter as a star

In the movie the moon Europa is portrayed as being in the habitable zone of the new star. This, of course, sets limits to the actual mass of the star. Europa orbits Jupiter at a distance of 0.004 AU (Astronomical Units); this unfortunately limits the mass of the new star to a maximum of 3 MJ. In order for Europa to maintain the orbit around the higher-mass body the speed of the moon would need to be increased, and higher speeds would cause unsustainable tidal forces within the satellite body. A larger mass star would need the moons/planets to orbit at such high speeds they would simply break up by tidal forces, considering their present composition. The limit of Lucifer thus seems to be rather rigidly set at 3 MJ.

Size comparison of Solar System objects.

If Jupiter could somehow be transmogrified into a star, it would not be much different from what it looks like now. A small brown dwarf does in fact not emit much more energy than Jupiter does at present. Jupiter already emits roughly 2.5 x as much energy as it receives from the Sun. The energy is "leftover" heat from when the gas giant was formed.

Jupiter as a sun would not shine as it does in the movie, either. While brown dwarfs do shine—after a fashion—the majority of the radiation that brown dwarfs emit are in the areas of the electromagnetic spectrum that have wavelengths either shorter or longer than that of visible light. Brown dwarfs do not glow for long, not even dully. When the deuterium is used up—which happens quickly—the brown dwarf transmogrifies again, and becomes a gas giant.

Do not worry, the cycle cannot repeat. There is no danger of Jupiter becoming a star every second million years.


Life on Europa?

If the moon Europa would lie in Lucifer's habitable zone after the cosmic transmogrification, in order to have a brightness similar to how bright the Sun is on Earth, Lucifer would need to be (0.004 AU/1 AU)2 = 1.6e-5 times dimmer. On Earth, Jupiter would appear to be a star ~(0.004 AU/4 AU)2 = 1e-6 times dimmer than the Sun, which would still make it the brightest object in the sky aside from the Moon. This brightness is impossible due to the mass limit set by the Jovian system itself, thus the new star would be dim indeed. Europa would be a dark, foreboding place.

Brown dwarfs emit high concentrations of ultraviolet light, however. This radiation is anathema to organic life, breaking down carbon compounds and whittling away any possible atmosphere any orbiting body may have. Ultraviolet radiation also breaks down any possible bodies of water into hydrogen and oxygen. With Europa’s mass being too small to retain hydrogen, causing it to escape into space, the radiation of Lucifer leaves Europa a dry, desolate body.

Coupled with the massive tidal forces heating the internals of the former moon, Europa would very quickly become utterly inhospitable and even more barren than it is at present.

Not a place for beach front property, clearly.


Conclusion

Even at our most charitable we must conclude that the scenario in the novel (and the movie) is not even remotely possible.

Even if we allow the monoliths to keep their magic properties, the laws of nature will put a stop to the nonsense in very short order. The scenario is poetic, and like most Clarkian fare ends on a hopeful, positive note.

We can however rest assured that it will forever remain poetry.



All images public domain.