Legacy Code

Occupying my attention today in the time hoover of the interwebs, a discussion about the unreleased game based on Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

A man called Andy Baio somehow obtains a hard-drive containing the entire network server, games in development and in-house emails of a well-known game company called Infocom, dating from 1989. He compiles a fascinating document of “digital archaeology”, outlining the collapse 20 years ago of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a sequel to the successful game based on Douglas Adams’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I am fascinated by such roads less-travelled in the history of the creative industry. Last month, I wrote in Neo magazine about the manga anthology Comic Yell, not in its first bloom of success, but mired in the decline of its final issue. Similarly, it was fascinating to read through the cries of anguish and recrimination among Infocom company employees about a game that was not forging ahead with managerial nudges of encouragement, but turning into a horrible, unpolishable turd.

I have a strange relationship with reviews and critics. Reviews of my fiction slide right past me. It’s nice to hear that people like something, but I never take it personally when people don’t. Reviews of fact, however, often annoy me, because of the number of times that someone ignores the facts I present to them. One idiot reviewer recently complained that my Brief History of the Vikings made the Vikings sound like a bunch of thugs. Well, newsflash…!

Possibly, that’s why I particularly noted the sniping and frustration at Infocom at the writer of the “team”, a poor man called Michael Bywater who was hired to do a massive rescue job, and then left in a windowless room with a computer while his liaison ran off to the woods to build a log cabin. I felt deeply sorry for the Bywater of 20 years past, hauled in on what, reading between the lines, was yet another thankless rescue job, by people who seem to have hoped he would turn up in a pointy hat with a magic wand, or otherwise be a handy scapegoat.

The comments that follow the article are, by the standards of the internet, remarkably cogent and interesting, some by trolls, others by the actual participants in the original emails, still more by some smart members of the public. A debate unfolds about the nature of the information, particularly since Baio did not seek permission before uploading people’s private correspondence, some of it defamatory.

I am not surprised in the least that Bywater himself should show up in the comments section himself to chastise Baio for blithely presenting a one-sided story. Nor, sadly, am I surprised by the number of internet idiots who turn on the aggrieved Bywater with all the rhetorical force of five-year-olds trying to make each other blink. But as the thread wears on with almost novelistic density, there is much revealed about the game, the production process, and also the thoughts of the managers themselves more than 20 years on.

I like to think I am at peace with the way that writers are treated on licensed projects. I’ve worked on my fair share of computer games, TV shows, radio, and even the “narrative” that backed a line of toys. But also on productions that “failed”: several games that were cancelled in production, two TV series that never happened, and a movie killed off in development. I know writers are the first to go and the last to know. I know we are often resented for getting to keep weird hours and sit around making stuff up. I have come to understand that there is nothing personal in being hired and fired midway, and that such acts are often valuable preservations of both managerial and authorial sanity. Last year, I taught a workshop on “Storylining in a Corporate Environment” at Swansea Metropolitan University, where I subjected the students to exactly the kind of pressures and decisions that are commonplace in the professional field.

In the process, their bright, original ideas were sanitised, twisted and ruined by a series of rationally argued issues (in censorship, in legality, in packaging, in communications), until they ended up with something that was Just Like Everything Else. Whereupon, the students pronounced the glimpse I afforded them as being both “instructive” and “terrifying.” It wasn’t an exercise designed to stamp out their creativity. Far from it; instead, it was an exercise designed to insulate that creativity, to keep it alive amid the demanding whirlwind of writing for a living. Most of them took away something entirely unconnected – a sense of just why so many films, games and books end up the way they do thanks to authorship by committee.

It can be very instructive to get a look inside the workings of such committees, so that one can see the kind of pressures that influence the way that the accountants, managers and marketers behave towards the writers. Which is why Baio’s “digital archaeology” is such a valuable peep at a long-forgotten production.


1 thought on “Legacy Code

  1. MUST READ! Sitting from inside the structure right now, faced with pressures from all sides, I understand some of what you are talking about. Having never been a writer per se, I have never been the engine at the heart of the machine – but right now, in a different but related set of processes, I relate.

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