The Artistic Worlds of CD-ROM

Paul Monopoli looks back at the CD-ROM boom of the 1990s

The multimedia boom of the 1990s saw an influx of computer programs released on compact discs.

With the extra storage allowed by the format, games could begin to provide gamers with a far richer experience than was previously allowed by those released on tape or floppy discs. Near photographic images were able be produced and real musical instruments were used on soundtracks. A PC with higher specs was even able to display full motion video!

A lot of games released on CD were rehashes of their existing floppy disc releases, with few offering any advantagesother than having the game on a single piece of media. However, there were many that took full advantage of the the new format and, to this day, remain impressive pieces of software.

While Microsoft were developing the Encarta Encyclopaedia for adopters of CD-ROM drives, Rand and Robyn Miller were looking to use the format to entertain. The end result, Myst, was both a game and an experience for the player. Originally conceived as an interactive children’s book, this piece of graphical splendour would be remade and enhanced once Myst had made its mark on the public.

The brothers already had the distinction of releasing the first ever PC CD-ROM game, The Manhole in 1989. The Manhole impressed the magazines at the time and the brothers continued to improve their world building skills with each game that followed. In 1993 Myst was released and everything changed.

The brothers had decided to develop a game that adults would enjoy and created a world filled with puzzles. Clearly an influence to later ‘sandbox games’, Myst takes place on an island that the player has to explore. There is little instruction given to the player who is given more freedom than had been seen in a game at that time.

The lush graphics and realistic sounds were periodically interrupted by video from the evil brothers who vie for the player’s assistance. In an interview with Retro Gamer Magazine, Robyn Miller explained that neither of them took the videography seriously. The result was a mess of shaky footage which would be disguised by visual effects.

While being heralded as a remarkable piece of gaming, Myst was still confined to the limitations of early 90s technology. As a result the game does not move in the same way a typical first person shooter would. Instead the position you click is presented to you without any motion. It is reminiscent of earlier golf titles, such as the Leaderboard series.

Myst was a tour de force that started a franchise.

The sequel, Riven, was released in 1997 with several more additions being added to the series over time. Even the original game has been rereleased with updated graphics and even with a fully 3D engine. With multiple endings, the game has plenty of staying power for those who enjoy open worlds and plenty of puzzles.

If you were going to release a multimedia space adventure and you really want to show off your sci-fi credentials, then you could do worse than casting Mark Hamill as your title character. Mark plays Blair, a very different character to Luke Skywalker, and a man who must make many difficult decisions regarding space battles and his love interests.

Creator Chris Roberts always felt like the original Wing Commander games were close to being the interactive movie he so desperately wanted to make, and when Wing Commander 3 was released he publicly declared that “this is a movie”. Featuring an all star cast, including the aforementioned Hamill, John Rhys-Davis, Malcolm McDowell and Back to the Future’s Tom Wilson, it would be difficult to argue with the man.

While the theatrical elements of Wing Commander 3 are regarded as brilliant, the in-game graphics are often ignored. Using polygons, for the first time in the series, to create the ships allowed movement to feel much more realistic.

Chris Roberts also introduced Super VGA graphics, allowing high res graphics to take the stage for the gameplay portions of the game. The in-play graphics and design of the ship interior are all designed to mirror the aesthetics of the interactive video scenes, providing a singular experience.

The interactive elements of the game will affect how the flight scenes play out. At the start of each mission you get to choose your wing man, though how they feel about you, as controlled through the interactive movie part of the game, will affect how they react towards you. If you come down on your wing mates and their morale is low then they can make mistakes during missions.

Though this game is considered the finale to the Kilrathi war, a sequel was commissioned featuring most of the cast from the third game, including Mark Hamill. This new story takes place after the war, and reviews at the time noted that more emphasis was placed on the interactive movie parts of the game, destroying the balance that had been such a part of Wing Commander 3.

Though the Wing Commander series continued, the impact it had on the gaming community was somewhat lessened after the disastrous movie based on the series. The film, starring Freddie Prinze Jr continued the trend of poor video game – movie adaptations. It is difficult to understand how this happened, as Roberts was a keen wannabe film maker who was developing games. Sadly Wing Commander the movie was a financial disappointment which now sits alongside other poor adaptations such as Super Mario Bros.

Another title that took advantage of star power was Return to Zork. Originally conceived as a series of text based adventures, the Zork games have been ported to almost every system known to man. Developed at MIT, Zork contained one of the most advanced text parsers that had been seen in a text adventure up until that point. However, by 1993 typing commands to your character was becoming a thing of the past.

Return to Zork took the idea of an interactive storybook and attempted to evolve into an interactive movie. Starring 80s Flash Gordon, Sam J Jones, and Jason Hervey from the Wonder Years (another Back to the Future alum), this twelfth entry in the series was the first to feature a fully graphical interface and a heavy dose of video cutscenes.

Along with cutting edge video technology, the in game graphics were astounding for the time. Though grainy by today’s standards, they would have been considered ‘near photo quality’ in the early 90s. Gorgeous blue skies, solid wood grain and looming shadows all play a big role in immersing the user in the world of Zork. Like Myst, the player moves through static screens which form this wacky world of fantasy.

The audio adds to the feeling of being part of a fantasy world, and by closing your eyes you can imagine yourself surrounded by treacherous mountains and mystical mazes. The only downside is the speech, which sounds rather tinny.

One of the more charming elements of early text adventures was the paper and pen note taking required of the player. The games were very text heavy with a plethora of locations, so remembering everything was not an easy task. Return to Zork did away with this and took the notes for you. The entire experience was now visual, something that divided the fan base at the time.

The gaming press were very positive, with magazines like PC Format giving praise to the new features. Reviewers noted that the graphical interface allowed the game to be more accessible to players who may not have encountered the Zork series before. Many fans of the original games, however, felt that it was a slap in the face, and arguments for and against this drastic change to the series can still be found on the internet today.

The early 90s introduced the mainstream consumer to the 32 bit era, spelling the death knell for the 8 bit micro. With the new hardware came newer expectations. One could argue that text adventures were simply no longer in vogue, and the only way the Zork series would survive beyond the die hard fans was to go graphical. It worked for other companies such as Sierra Online.

These three titles really showed what the new age of multimedia was all about. Spectacular, true to life graphics with immersive audio tracks give you the feeling of being in a fictional setting. The accompanying video cut scenes make the experience really feel like the interactive movie that games should always have been. But although the games look and sound great, one cannot dismiss the greater focus on storytelling.

Whereas a few years earlier the premise of a game could be explained away on the back of the box, this new era of gaming merged multimedia technology with a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Continued evolution in technology has only seen this grow, and with virtual reality now becoming affordable to the masses I think it is safe to say that we are already at the next big boom in the gaming industry.

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