In 1986, Incentive Software released The Graphic Adventure Creator.It was an instant hit thanks to its simple and easy to use interface, and gamers up and down the country immediately began compiling their own adventures.Incentive themselves began a dedicated label called Medallion to publish some of these efforts (ostensibly to demonstrate that the GAC could be used to create publication-standard adventures) and organised a competition via the Home Computer Club – a division of the Book Club Associates – to judge the best of the lot, with a £500 royalty advance the prize on offer from Incentive, as well as publication.
The competition was judged by Tony Bridge (PCW’s adventure columnist as well as an author himself) and it was only possible to enter if you bought your copy of the Graphic Adventure Creator via the Home Computer Club as this was the only edition that carried the required entry form. Up until this point, the main adventure-creating utility was The Quill, and this was the program used by 17-year old Darren Shacklady to create adventures for his college friends to play.As a member of the HCC, however, Darren decided to buy the GAC and give it a shot.
Getting going with GAC
“I could hardly wait for the GAC to arrive by mail,”says Darren, “and eagerly devoured the manual and example adventure provided when it finally did.” The bundled game was King’s Ransom, a beautiful, if somewhat shallow adventure.
“Despite the rather long loading time, my first impression of King’s Ransom was, well, short!” continues Darren, “and I found out afterwards that despite only half a dozen graphic screens and a dozen or so locations, the game is a full 32k, leading me to think the Spectrum would have trouble accommodating a full graphic adventure.”Darren’s solution to this almost came accidentally, but more on that shortly.How did his initial dabblings with The GAC go?“I tried to draw the interior of an inn,” he says, acknowledging the renowned rule that all fantasy adventures started in an inn or tavern of some description, “and the end result looked, frankly, shabby.My favourite adventure ever was the Hobbit, and in comparison I knew my efforts would not attract gamers for more than five minutes, good adventure or not.”
Darren turned his thoughts to his other favourite games at this point as he pondered on what sort of screen and graphics he’d like to see upon playing an adventure.Bo Jangeborg’s amazing Fairlight had been around a few months and it was a game that had won the budding adventurer’s heart thanks to its beautiful graphics and engaging plot.“So, I thought, what if I draw my inn in the Fairlight style, IE with isometric graphics?It only took a few minutes to bash out the nine basic lines you needed to present an isometric room with the details – furniture, a painting, the bar and a shaded wall – taking a little longer.”So was Darren satisfied with the results? “Yes, very much so.I suddenly had something that looked very much like a professional game, which for someone with very little skill in drawing made me realise this was definitely the way to go.”And there was a very favourable advantage to this method as well: “After designing much of the game and drawing several screens, it dawned on me that they took up hardly any memory!”This was down to partly the simplicity of Darren’s screens (nine lines, a shaded wall and a few objects) and the GAC itself thanks to its useful “merge screen” trick that enabled one basic design to be re-used.
King’s Ransom was an attractive adventure that demanded enough resources to make the adventure non-descript; Darren Shacklady had come up with a way of combining good graphics with plenty of gaming depth.
An Adventure in Three Parts
Yet, despite this solution, Darren’s grand multi-kingdom fantasy world would still take some squeezing into 48k. He had long had the plot and many locations in mind before deciding to cut the world down to three islands with the plot surrounding the eponymous evil Queen. Despite the relief provided by the GAC’s in-built text compression system, Darren decided early on to split the game into three parts, but still had a major task in persuading the player to believe in his world.
“One idea came about when I read that Tolkien’s works were designed to give his invented languages a setting and plot.” recalls Darren, “Lacking the time and skill to create my own languages, I opted simply to suggest a coherent fantasy language by suffixes – island names ended in “arin”, towns “inan”, most male names “in” or “ir” and female names “ssia” – as proved by the game’s title.” Darren even managed to have a little joke at this technique: “One silly name I invented was a homophone: the innkeeper Barrinir (bar in ‘ere).” He also utilised a few other devices to make his game live and breathe with a plot that developed around the player as they progressed along with wholesale changes that could affect the whole experience. Another influence was the classic space trading game Elite, and Darren implemented this in Karyssia by including scope for improving the character’s combat ratings with significant melee victories as well as the acquisition of new items and weapons. This meant sub-quests were vital in order to gain the necessary skill points for overall success in the final battle.
Derek Brewster objected to the use of infamous sudden death traps in Karyssia. “In order to close off one direction, I used a trap, which in retrospect was very bad manners to spring on unsuspecting players!” says Darren apologetically. “It would have been simpler to not offer that direction but the reason for it was that I wanted to suggest at the beginning of the game that your character was too weak to fend of dangerous enemies – but perhaps a “flee” option would have been better!” Despite this criticism, Crash’s resident adventure specialist liked Karyssia and awarded it an impressive 87%, just missing out on Crash smash status. Your Sinclair also praised the game, calling it “one of the best GAC games we’ve seen yet,” and complementing the “stylish” graphics before scoring the adventure a commendable 8 out of 10.
“The very end of the Karyssia leaves scope for a sequel,” explains Darren, “but that was never going to happen given what occurred next.” Initially, Darren was naturally delighted to win the Home Computer Club competition. But after a short period where he gave the game some necessary tweaks and amendments, it was offered to plenty of distributors with the same reply from all: text adventures – even those with graphics – were not considered acceptable commercial enterprises any more. Darren’s prize was an advanced royalty of £500. As the game was only sold via the Home Computer Club following the lack of a distributor, it’s almost certain that Incentive made a loss on Karyssia, a huge shame considering its quality. Eventually the game appeared on a Crash covertape, which Darren hopes recouped at least a little of their outlay.
In a way, utilities such as the Graphic Adventure Creator had been too successful, at least certainly for anyone with any hope of actually publishing a graphical text adventure. They made the creation of a real-life breathing world and a competent adventure possible for anyone and overnight the text adventure market was rendered obsolete although of course changing fashions and improved graphical standards were also a factor. And yet those with vivid imaginations and skilled in potently describing locations could portray a much more evocative scene than any graphic, whether static or moving, ever could and Karyssia harks back to a time in the early 80’s when one man sitting in his bedroom could produce a piece of work that appealed to millions – a time that, when Karyssia was released in 1987, had already sadly passed, replaced by number-crunching, sales charts and mercurial consumer tastes.
And what of the erstwhile author? “There is nothing to rival the feeling of having written a game that someone else has enjoyed, whether you develop for a mass audience or just a few mates for no profit. I also feel honoured to have made a contribution to the history of the Spectrum – however tiny and obscure!”