To celebrate the submission of my dissertation to my committee, I am posting an excerpt from the first chapter. I hope those of you who have followed my progress on social media or IRL enjoy this teaser for the project. I look forward to sharing more of it in the future. -Laine
Chapter One: Emergences
“In some adventures you are limited by the number of objects you can carry at one time. When it comes to a decision as to whether you should keep carrying an object that you already used, or drop it so you can get a new one, I would be inclined to drop it in order to be able to carry a new one.”
“Winning Strategies for Adventures”
The On-Line Letter, June 1981
Late in the summer of 2013, I traveled to Coarsegold and Oakhurst, California, a pair of towns separated by a seven-mile band of asphalt marked State Route 41, tucked away in the foothills of Madera County along the southern border of Yosemite National Park. On the last day of my trip, I drove out to Oakhurst's Fresno Flats Historic Park, a community heritage site established in 1975 in homage to the area's nineteenth-century Gold Rush roots. In a landscape rife with salt-of-the-earth history, these sorts of regional memorials dot and fleck every one-stoplight town along the highway. Most of them were founded in the 1970s and '80s, the boom years of civic pride in Madera County, when the middle-aged grandchildren of gold panners and loggers began gathering oral histories and commemorating landmarks.
Yet, by 2013, these locales were mostly forgotten, the stuff of grade-school field trips and the occasional wedding reception. Those who had long served as the guardians of small-town memory, the founders of these dusty parks and ramshackle museums, were all thirty or forty years older now, their bodies too broken down to continue necessary repairs, their hands shaking and shivering as they leafed through archival documents, their memories shot through with forgetting. The Fresno Flats Historic Park's docents and guided tours had long since dried up; only a “caretaker” resided on premises during daylight hours, an old-timer sitting in an air-conditioned cabin who could hand you a pamphlet or give you directions. Mostly, I just saw people stop by to use the park's unlocked bathrooms.
But if there was no docent to play warder to this park, to ensure I wasn't trying to jimmy my way across every locked door and sagging chain-link fence (which I certainly was), I did have to confront a very different kind of gatekeeper. A centennial plaque held empty court on the central axis of the park's sunburnt grassy entrance—what I suspected was faux marble mounted on faux wood. Dedicated by E Clampus Vitus, a regional fraternal order once founded to care for miners' widows, the plaque iterated Oakhurst, California's most defining testaments to national significance over the past hundred years.
Most prominently, the town held a key location on the supply trails that once siphoned tools, liquor, and mules up to the northern gold mines and lumber sites leading in and out of Yosemite; second, Oakhurst was the founding location of Pizza Factory, a restaurant franchise boasting over one hundred establishments in five Western states; and lastly, the plaque dubbed Oakhurst “the birthplace of computer gaming.” Through the 1980s and '90s, Oakhurst and the smaller town Coarsegold had been home to Sierra On-Line, one of the most iconic and successful home computer entertainment software producers in the world. Co-founded by a curious husband-and-wife pair, Ken and Roberta Williams, Sierra found its fortune mostly in designing and distributing graphical adventure game software for the home computer market.
Sierra would become one of the town's largest employers, alongside the Sierra-Tel telephone company and the county government. Up until the early 1990s, every box, every disk, every package was printed, formatted, and shrink-wrapped right in Oakhurst by the hands of self-declared “mountain folk.” Sierra On-Line was the reason I had traveled three thousand miles from New York City to get sunburnt and dehydrated twenty-two hundred feet above sea level. I'd come to this countryside to ask a question: what is video game history?
Answers shift. In Coarsegold and Oakhurst, it seemed something best forgotten. There had been a soft promise, nearly thirty-five years ago, that a company like Sierra On-Line could turn the economic sinkhole of Madera County into a “Little Silicon Valley.”
When Sierra moved most of its corporate operations to Bellevue, Washington in 1993, it left behind disgruntled memory and boundless rumor: Sierra had left because corporate taxes were too high, because they couldn't get a T1 line strung into Oakhurst, because relations were amiss at the top of the company chain. Double damage came in the late 1990s when the company was shuttered for good, closing up its remaining Oakhurst offices. After that, Sierra On-Line was just someone’s last paycheck.
Yet, to the now-adult fans who teethed on Sierra's software in the 1980s and '90s, the company's material remnants—folded and boxed and sleeved by local labor but shipped to an audience worldwide—are objects to save, collect, cherish. These childhood memories are for sharing and endless reiteration. And there are other bodies, spaces, things. To the women of today's indie game scene, there's the hope of finding a history in Roberta Williams that reflects the history they lived but no one seems aware of—that, yes, women have always played games, and made them too. In the archives of the Strong Museum of Play, video game history is the mundane artefacts that clutter acid-free boxes: nameplates and buttons and broken awards. To the designers and employees I interview, it's a curiosity about why I care. It's a question of how long a floppy disk can hold its data before bit rot eradicates magnetic trace, and about how long Yosemite’s Half Dome will stand, a reminder of the thick temporality of stone. While the realm of armchair historians and amateur preservationists may swear to a video game history circumscribed by a heroic chronology of hacker heroes and coding wizards, “seminal games” and groundbreaking companies, tracking and tracing Sierra 'cross fields archival and literal has only confirmed to me the articulate queerness of our historical desires, of what we want history to do for us.
The question of “what game history is” finds its answer in the doing, as this project is one that will take shape in the cluttered valley between history and historiography. The writing of video game history, despite its many participants, has been a fairly narrow field of action landmarked by a handful of monuments: Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey, Mario and Pac-Man, the alien death romps of Doom, the mesmerizing landscapes of Myst. Goldeneye, Grand Theft Auto, Wii Tennis. The ruins are real, and their importance inestimable—but they also cast shadows. In marking the map, they make it, they become what game history has been organized to show us. No book of video game history ever told me that Oakhurst, California was the “birthplace of computer gaming.” It probably is not. But what does that physical memorial make available to me, which I otherwise might not notice?
I believe: Sierra On-Line is the case that makes a mess of video game history. It makes good on Foucault's promise that “what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.” My work herein is a media archaeological pressuring of several historiographic devices governing the structure and arc of what is taken as video game history. Articulating sites of disparity is a critically overdue maneuver in the unfolding historiography of the video game, a gesture countering the obviously problematic teleologics of much writing in the field.
And it is a move that scales nicely beyond itself, to all the reasons video games are not just one component of a digital media landscape, but a condensation of digital media's most significant cultural and theoretical properties, from labor to materiality to transnationalist flows, global economics and mobile ubiquity to representation and virtual identity, down to design, distribution, the evils of e-waste. These are all part of a use-cycle of the global video game industry, a multiplicity which has no monolithic center, no representative feature, especially not once we formulate on planet-wide scales. Gaming is the first form of computational technology most of us ever handled—the first time, in many cases, a computer was ever “in our hands.” The level of convergence games enact with other media is a phenomena unto itself: games are constrained by no essential medium of transmission or reception, and can operate across digital and analog substrates. Games are neither experimental novelties nor thin amusements: they are definitive modes of mediation in the twenty-first century. The value of studying video game history should not be that it leads us back to games, but that it leads us somewhere else.
This post will be adding some more details and some of my own aesthetic analysis to my last post, Illustration in Video Game History. I've been extraordinary lucky to have caught the attention of Roberta Williams' brother-in-law, John Williams (Ken Williams' brother). John managed most of Sierra On-Line's marketing, especially in the very early days when the whole enterprise was basically under his charge. He watched my Provost Talk, felt that my analysis resonated with him, and has been kindly letting me pick his brain about Sierra, particularly their marketing.
Following up on some questions illustration dealer and historian Robert Reed has asked in the comments section of the last blog, about how much Sierra paid for these illustrations: According to John, the very earliest stuff was (roughly guessing 1980-1982) was done for around $100 a pop (about 40 bucks today), and mostly composed by local high schoolers and rouge Coarsegold hippies (see examples of some early 1981 On-Line ads below).
The Stinson piece, however (see my last post) which is from 1984 and part of the black box releases of the Hi-Res Adventure series, was commissioned at about $800-1000, according to John Williams. Inflation calculators tell me this about about the equivalent of $2000 - $2400 then, or $300 – $380 now--which sounds about right, although low, for the quality of the work, but perhaps Roger Reed will correct me on this? These prices were inclusive of full license to reproduce the work on boxes, ads, promotion, etc. John Williams has also informed me that Stinson also did the artwork for the computer arcade-style game Marauder (1982), and possibly Ultima I and II (1983 and 1982, respectively, see explanation below), as well as some of On-Line's competitors.
My assessment of these covers is formally speculative, I'm not an expert at these matters, but do have a BFA in graphic design that helps inform my readings. So, it's a fact that Ultima I and II had the same artist—the castle from the Ultima I box is actually just from the back of the Ultima II box (see back and front of Ultima II box here). Sierra's Ultima I came a year AFTER the Ultima II release, because it was simply an Atari 8-bit port of the game, which had been originally published in 1981 for the Apple II by California Pacific Computer Co.
I struggle to decide whether Stinson was also the artist on the Ultima games. Marauder's main figure has a similar ¾ posture to the figure in Ultima II, and the helmets and guns strongly share stylistic qualities. However, the Marauder figure's pose is much more awkward (as are those of The Wizard and the Princess). Very stiff, physiologically improbable, and the detail in the clothing is overworked. By contrast, the foreshortening of the left thigh in Ultima II shows a good degree of competence with drawing human anatomy--whereas Marauder and W&P seem to purposefully avoid the more natural poses that would require foreshortening of the legs. Yet again, the foreshortening of the gun arm in Marauder is much stronger than the over-cocked arm in Ultima II. I'm not sure how to read that a-genital winged troll/orc thing—part of what might be tripping me up is a difference in materials used, as I realize now that I can't tell if these covers are brush painted or airbrushed.
The castle on the back of the Ultima II cover seems telling to me. While very structurally similar to that of The Wizard and the Princess--with its tropey fantasy illustration standards of turrets, flagpoles, jagged stone walkway and the balancing presence of a spherical object in the sky (the wizard's blast in W&P, a moon in Ultima II)--the Ultima II castle is much more convincingly rendered, the atmospherics more smooth, and the outline of the castle against the sky less jarring. Given that The Wizard and the Princess cover was painted in 1984, and the Ultima II cover designed in 1982, I'd actually argue that what Stinson did was a riff on the work of whoever did the Ultima II cover (or maybe he was just paid a ton more; Ultima II was a HUGE deal, and Richard Garriot demanded invested, professional packaging and marketing--which I guess shows you what the standard was in the early 1980s). Was Stinson just cheaply copying his previous Ultima work for The Wizard and the Princess?
Would love feedback from what others think who are versed in these matters—I'm always in the mood to refine my aesthetic detective skills! I'd also be interested to know, from players, if these settings actually represented real locales in any of these games (was there a castle far away on a stone walkway? a swamp?) With all my writing, I've not yet gotten around to playing The Wizard and the Princess--although I know, at least, to LOOK at rocks and watch out for scorpions :)
I've been working up an article on Sierra On-Line for journal submission, which has had me combing through all manner of archival documents from my summer trip to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. The Strong holds the Ken and Roberta Williams Collection, which was just donated last fall (talk about good timing!). The collection includes alot of what you would expect--dozens of game boxes, packaging and promotional materials, a full run of Sierra's company magazine InterAction, newspaper clippings--and lots of great novelties that I admittedly found very personally touching--the name plaque from Ken's office door, Roberta's handwritten game design notes, Steve Wozniak's early 80s fan letter to Ken, a treasure trove of annual reports, and even some original art. The Collection included the original painting that became the cover of On-Line's second adventure game, the late 1980 release The Wizard and the Princess. I remember that I snapped a couple quick photos of it, including one of the signature, and promptly forgot about it until a few days ago. (I really, really wanted to put up the picture I snapped of the signature, but the Strong's reproduction waiver prohibits me from distributing it in such a way. Sorry, folks, you'll just have to take my word for it.)
The Wizard and the Princess was first released in 1980, but the art is from the black box repackaging that was done for all the games in the series of Hi-Res Adventures (which must have happened in 1982, which is the date marked next to the signature).
Not being particularly handy at reading artist signatures, I emailed the photo to my good friend and colleague Jaleen Grove, a boss illustration historian in the Art History Department at Stony Brook, and asked for a little help. Jaleen, being a real whiz with this sort of thing, got back to me right away, with a name and a website: Paul E. Stinson.
Going through his galleries, it seems that his most recent work maintains some fantasy motifs (along with alot of sci-fi, intrigue and lite bodice-rippers), mostly executed through photomontage and what looks like some use of 3D rendering software. Scouring the internet, I came across some other images; it seems Stinson did a good number of book covers, including the cover of Jerry Weissman's The Zodiac Killer (for some reason this has the most image hits if you Google image search Stinson's name).
Stinson's more interesting work includes alot of sci-fi book and magazine covers, and his inclusion in the rather badass 1979 "Heroic Fantasy" calendar. You can also find a few Ebay auctions featuring his work.
Comparing this other work to the Sierra cover, the sci-fi covers have a much richer attention to tone and volume, and a rather fascinating dislocation of space; The Wizard and the Princess cover feels a bit underworked by contrast.
It's worth noting that no where in the documentation for The Wizard and the Princess is Stinson's name mentioned. It's also hard to say if he illustrated the other black box Hi-Res releases--there's plausible stylistic similarity in the covers to Mystery House, Cranston Manor, Mission Asteroid, and Time Zone (Ulysses was clearly not done by Stinson), but I'm not versed enough in illustration analysis to say with any certainty. Some of the full-color multi-page Sierra ads I've found in 1982 issues of Softalk also utilize the artwork from these black box covers. As Raiford Guins notes in his forthcoming book Game After, most illustrators of game box art and arcade cabinetry toiled in total obscurity, despite the profound mark their work has left on our memories. This little digression through the realm of illustration history also re-affirms how much work there is to do in game history on things "beyond the game" as I like to say.
Unfortunately, the email address listed on Stinson's website is defunct. If anyone knows anything more about Stinson, or anyone who work on illustration and cover art at Sierra On-Line, please drop me a note!