Category Archives: videogames

Bad Day on the Midway

GIF Credit: "Meet the Residents" Tumblr

GIF Credit: “Meet the Residents” Tumblr

After exploring Will Crowther’s early Interactive Fiction game from 1976, I somehow found myself thinking about The Residents’s interactive CD-Rom from 1995 Bad Day on the Midway. This was a crazy game, and it is one of the multi-media experiments from that era that has stuck with me. It’s somewhere between a game, art, and insanity. The interactive animation by the late Jim Ludtke is inspired. In fact, the game was optioned by Ron Howard for a proposed  series that would have been directed by David Lynch. It fell apart, but that’s one of those pop culture alternative history scenarios one could get lost in. The aesthetic of this game reminds me a lot of Bioshock, and I really wish someone would update this game so it could be palyed as a seaamless world—it is so beautiful.

Bad Day at the Midway She Knows All

In 2001 The Residents’ released a ten-minute video of the game as part of their Icky Flix DVD. The following video, which i think is from that DVD (am I wrong here?), gives you a sense of how compellingly expressionistic the world they created was, as well as how amazing an update could be :)

The Hardcore Gaming 101 review does a great job describing the scenario and talking  a bit about the game play:

You begin the game as Timmy, a young boy visiting a crumbling amusement park known as Midway. But Timmy doesn’t see a pathetic locale where everything is falling apart, but rather a world of wonder, with his thoughts appearing in written form at the bottom of the screen. He loves talking to the mechanical fortune teller, killing communists at the shooting gallery, and riding on the Marvels of Mayhem merry-go-round.
You are welcome to play out the game as Timmy, but where the story gets really interesting is when you begin jumping from person to person and seeing the game through their eyes. When you encounter another character, an eyeball cursor appears and allows you to switch your viewpoint. There are other video games where you possess characters, like Messiah and Geist, but in this game you aren’t simply riding the characters’ bodies; you actually become them, seeing a different set of thoughts and having very different experiences.

Jumping from character to character and playing the game as someone besides Timmy seemed pretty wild at the time. It underscored there was no particular goal to reach or treasure to acquire, but rather it was far more concerned with the experience of being there.  It focused on interaction and observation of the world around you, inhabiting other subjectivities, which was later accompanied by a certain amount of discomfort given you could “become” a serial killer or a nazi sympathizer. It was  an experience that pushed the interactive, immersive games of the mid-1990s into some trippy territory, kinda like the dark, b-side of Myst. In fact, like the Myst Reader books back in the mid to late 1990s, Bad Day at the Midway was turned into a novel only year or two ago. How bizarre is that? Updating CD-ROMS to novels is all the rage!

I’ve been using the expression “bad day on the midway” ever since I first played this game to suggest when an activity has gone terribly wrong. I’m not sure if the title is an allusion to something else, but it’s become part of my very linguistic being. Anyway, I’m gonna see if I can get my hands on this game and play around with it again. I miss little Timmy’s adventures on the Midway!

Early Computer Gaming and the Open Net

Into the Mouth of Cave Madness

Into the Mouth of Cave Madness

One bit from Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late I found particularly interesting was a section of the chapter on E-Mail titled “Adventure and Quasar: The Open Net and Free Speech.” It featured Will Crowther, who was one of my favorite characters from this history of the internet. Earlier in the book he’s described as a brilliant computer programmer who had some eccentric working habits:

Crowther was quiet, easy to work with, and when it came to writing code, he was downright inspiring. He was also [Severio] Ornstein’s good friend and rock-climbing companion. Crowther seemed to concentrate best while hanging from door frames by his fingertips, doing chin-ups. And he was known for his mathematical doodling. While others passed the time at lengthy meetings by drawing squiggles and curlicues, Crowther filled his page with a thicket of differential equations. (98)*

And once he was done “hanging” around the office focusing his ideas, he would sit down and code for intensive intervals What’s not to love about Crowther? His code was described as “the leanest anyone who had worked with him had ever seen.” He worked alongside Dave Walden programming the packet processing for ARPANET. In 150 lines of code they had figured out the kernel that would launch the internet (100). I love this stuff, so already Crowther seemed pretty awesome to me. But when you marry that to the fact that in 1975/76, while going through a divorce, he used his recent passion for Dungeons and Dragons to program an interactive fiction game called “Colossal Cave Adventure” to connect with his young kids sublimates him to another level ;)

Crowther was an ardent cave explorere, and his wife Pat had achieved renown among cavers for having been part of a small group that discovered the first known link beteen the Mommoth and Flint Ridge caves in Kentucky….Crowther was the cartographer for the Cave Research Foundation. he used his off-hours to plot intricate subterranean maps on a BBN computer. In early 1976 Will and Pat divorced. Looking for something he could do with his two small children , he hit upon an idea that united Will the Programmer with Willie the imaginary theif: a simplified, computer version of Dungeons and Dragons called Adventure. (206)

Goblin Caverns

A Cave Map from Dungeons and Dragons

This story seems like the convergence point of modern nerd culture in so many ways. Programming, Dungeons and Dragons, and spelunking. According to Crowther he wrote the game over the course of a few weekends, played it a bit with his kids and colleagues and then left it paritally finished as his spirit was increasingly tapped by the divorce. Nonetheless, others found it and distibuted it and the game started filtering through the networked community. Crowther was approached by Don Woods, a Stanford graduate student in Articial Intelligence, and asked if he could refine the game to which Crowther was more than happy agree.

When Woods had finished his contributions to Adventure, “he created a guest account on the computer at the Stanford AI Lab to let people play, and swarms of people logged in. Adventuture spread like hula hoops, as people sent the program to one another over the network” (207). What I liked about this whole story was how the authors tie the passion people had for this game, which inspired a whole generation of games like the Atari 2600 Adventure as well as the interactive fiction game Zork, to the features of an open network . The open collaboration and free distribution of Adventure captured an ethos that helped this game flourish, and it was made possible because of the open network that was the internet:

Adventure demonstrated the appeal of an open networking culture. And the emphasis on openness grew with time. There were few closed doors on the network, and a free-spirit prevailed in people’s attitudes about who could come and go through them, and for what purposes….ARPANET was official federal government property, but network mail was being used for all manner of daily conversation. (208)

It’s not surprising that E-Mail was the killer app of the early interet because it provided a sense of community in early network culture. It’s also not surprising that the passion driving some of the best demonstrations of open sharing in the early network came in the form of a computer game—an immersive experience based on a port of a popular role playing game that people were pasionate about. It’s funny how much this history paralles so much of how internet culture still operates.

For a more detailed look the cultural history of Adventure take a look at Dennis Jerz’s article in the Digital Humanities Quarterly “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ‘Adventure’ in Code and in Kentucky.” I think this topic would make an interesting investigation for a group of students in The Internet Course. I can see it now, “the cultural history  off network gaming!” I’m just full of ideas on the bava this weekend for all the work the students could do :)

* All citations are from the 1996 hardback Where Wizards Stay Up Late printed by Simon & Schuster.