Friday, January 08, 2016

The time I made a hit video game

In 1996, I was finishing high school. As was typical of high school seniors at the time, my schedule had a lot of room for elective courses. One of the electives I took was Computer Math, a semester of learning basic programming principles. For the most part it wasn't thrilling (I had already taught myself the fundamentals of BASIC on the family Texas Instruments 99/4A as a younger boy, and this class didn't get into anything more advanced than subroutines and "if-then" statements), but the class's final project was the most engaging final project I would ever complete in my student life: a HyperCard dungeon.

HyperCard was a Mac-based programming tool that could best be described as an intranet of "cards," which could be hyperlinked and made interactive using buttons. A collection of cards that worked together for a purpose were called a "stack." Using a uniquely accessible and English-like scripting protocol called HyperTalk, users could create databases, presentation visuals and point-and-click adventures.

"Dungeons," my teacher called those.

This assignment had a checklist of things that needed to be present in a student's dungeon in order to earn points toward a grade for the project. Game elements like locked doors with keys, pitfalls, sound effects, animation and Easter eggs were all assigned point values and made part of the grading criteria. If memory serves, 50 of these points constituted a passing grade.

I went all out, creating the very best dungeon I could with the resources at my disposal. As a result, my dungeon scored 150 points, the maximum score my teacher was willing to award. It also became popular among students in other classes who found my dungeon on the Macs in the computer lab and started playing it when they were supposed to be typing essays about Lord of the Flies.

Today I used an OS9 emulator to open my old HyperCard dungeon (titled, The House of Death, Darkness, Decay and Doom) for the first time in close to twenty years. Unfortunately, the animations and sounds don't work well on a modern computer, and the text fields are all kinds of broken. It's also full of stuff that, even twenty years ago, was only funny to me and the stoner kid who sat next to me in Computer Math class. Stuff like a .WAV file of David Letterman saying "bubble wrap":

In the basement, there's a laundry room with a port in the wall that looks like a laundry chute...

...but when you inspect the laundry chute, it turns out to be a window to Team Behm Auto Mall (an eastern-Wisconsin used car dealership). After hearing my voice doing an unflattering impersonation of Mark Behm's nasal TV ad salutation ("Hi folks, Mark Behm, Team Behm!"), poor Mark and his dog are crushed by a dump truck that falls from the sky.

Whether or not you witness the death of Mark Behm has no bearing on your ability to reach the end of the dungeon. It's just something to do.

As you'd expect, it's rather cruel for a point-and-click adventure. Lots of doors and clickable objects lead to instant death, regardless of the logic involved:

The game's "climax" comes when the player uses a computer terminal to "decrease the power" of the dungeon's evil proprietor.

Better than Metal Gear, anyway.
For all its limitations, HyperCard was one of my favorite things about the Mac OS Classic environment. I continued using it, mostly to make random text generators for my own amusement, all the way up until the advent of OS X. This one created fictional pro-wrestling match summaries:

And this one was called Insult Me:

But don't just take my word for it. Check out this video of the Fashionable Eyewear Brothers showing off HyperCard's raw computing power. Personally I think the whole thing would feel a little more authentic with a musical underpinning of Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now."

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