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Spring check-in Blog category

As you might’ve noticed, The Obscuritory continues to be in a bit of a quiet period, which I wanted to address briefly!

Like last year, I’ve been continuing to take things slowly. Now that I work professionally in video game history, I’m deliberately making more time for myself, my friends, and my other hobbies, which naturally means that posts will be less frequent here. But the other very good reason this blog has been less active is because I’ve been quietly working on a huge game history project, which I’m not ready to talk about yet! In previous “things are slow here” posts, I’ve alluded to a secret project I’ve been chipping away at; it’s going full-steam now, and that’s taking most of my energy for writing and research. I’m still a long way from being able to share anything about it, so thanks for being patient while I’m keeping busy out-of-sight. I promise it’s going to be extremely cool — once it’s ready.

In the meantime, I’m still making a commitment to post here at least once a month! I have a draft in progress that I need to finish (maybe this weekend?), plus plenty of other ideas in the queue for future posts. I’m also active on Twitter if you want to hear more about my work with the Video Game History Foundation and, recently, a lot of thoughts about Deep Space Nine. But either way, you’ll hear more from me… at some point!

Clockwiser Puzzle category

Title screen from Clockwiser, showing an angry bomb with a lit fuse sitting next to a stack of blocks from an upward angle.

Title screen from the Amiga version of Clockwiser, courtesy of Lemon Amiga.

A few months back, while I was revisiting a game I’ve written about previously on this blog, Lighthouse: The Dark Being, I had to think once again about 15 puzzles. If you’ve played an older adventure or puzzle game, you’ve probably run into a 15 puzzle. It’s a 4-by-4 grid of numbered tiles that have been mixed up and need to be slid back into their starting positions. It’s a stock puzzle type that gets repeated frequently in these types of games, and it’s almost never interesting. Solving a 15 puzzle is more of an endurance test, or a sponge meant to soak up the player’s time.

Even though it’s not an inspiring puzzle format, 15 puzzles do have a hypnotic sort of logic. If you want to slide a specific tile back into place, you need to move the pieces around on the board in a circular motion, making a long chain that you can slip another tile into, like a car merging into traffic, and gradually circling them into place. It’s surprising how quickly your brain can slip into these patterns, making and breaking loops as you try to finesse that one last tile into position.

Playing Clockwiser reminded me of 15 puzzles again, but for a positive reason! It’s a puzzle game built entirely around the idea of moving tiles in a loop, and it shows what else can be done with that basic idea. » Read more about Clockwiser

Updates to the Resources pages Blog category

Screenshot from Museum Madness, showing several tape cassette players on the table. A placard reads "Museum tour on tape, batteries included."

Screenshot from Museum Madness

The Resources section is one of my favorite parts of The Obscuritory. Researching and playing old games can be difficult if you’re not well-immersed in that world, and I love being able to share some of my favorite reference resources and tools for others to use.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the Resources pages, so this weekend, I went through and added about three dozen new links that I’ve been collecting for the last couple years! Here are a few of my favorites…

The CRPG Addict

The author of The CRPG Addict is attempting to play every computer role-playing game chronologically, starting in 1975. The blog is exceedingly thorough as he works his way through every year.

FMV World

Interactive movie-style games, old and new, are cataloged here with almost clinical accuracy. Records for each game include release information, platform, and cast and crew.

The Interactive Fiction Archive

Run by the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, the IF Archive is a long-running directory of interaction fiction games, tools, discussion and community history.

Kliktopia

Kliktopia is a project that tries to collect as many freeware games made with the suite of Clickteam game creation programs — Klik & Play, Click & Create, The Games Factory, and Multimedia Fusion — that were popular in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Lemon 64

One of the largest and longest-running Commodore 64 fansites, Lemon 64 benefits from over 20 years of user-submitted screenshots and reviews for its large collection of information on Commodore 64 games.

PSX DataCenter

PSX DataCenter is the definitive index of games for the original PlayStation console. The site includes release date information, serial numbers, and technical specifics for every edition of every PlayStation game in all publishing regions.

The Rarest Gamer

The Rarest Gamer shares videos, with no commentary, of unusual, unknown games from the 90s and early 2000s. There’s a particular focus on tiny homemade games and ephemeral games.

SuperKids

During the educational game boom in the 90s, SuperKids was a notable source for educational games reviews, as well as an index of educational games organized by subject.

I hope these are useful! I’m so happy that in the 14 years since I started The Obscuritory, there’s more and more great resources, like curated collections and tools for working with old software, that people can use to get into historical games.

Undo game history in the Undo Jam! Blog category

Logo for the Undo Jam, showing a bald man gasping, the Undo icon in Kid Pix.

One of the best things about February is Emilie Reed’s writing jam, an annual event where writers get to explore a unique angle on game criticism and history. Every year, Reed selects a new prompt — like lost game histories, making lists, or speculation about the future of games — and lets everyone go wild with it. It’s a great exercise that helps me get out of my head and write without inhibitions, expectations, or proofreading. Even if I’m not completely satisfied with the results, it gets me jazzed about writing again after a long and (always) unproductive winter.

This year’s prompt is “undo”: going back into video game history and undoing one thing, then seeing how it plays out in the future. It’s basically a chance to write about an alternate history of video games. What would happen if you could change one minor event? How would it ripple out throughout game history and video game culture?

I’m sharing this here to encourage people to participate! I’m still adjusting to my new job at the Video Game History Foundation, so The Obscuritory will be going through another slow phase. But in the meantime, there’s lots of fun to be had with game history, and this jam is a great opportunity. I’m working on a submission that might be one of my first at-length pieces about Nintendo, which is fun and different for me since I usually steer elsewhere in my writing. It’s probably going to be a mess, but that’s the point of a writing jam! Shake off the dust! Let the words flow through you!

Submissions are open through Sunday. I can’t wait to see what everyone submits!

Joining the Video Game History Foundation Blog category

Video Game History Foundation logo

Folks, it’s time for some big news…

I am overjoyed to share that I’m joining the Video Game History Foundation as their new library director!

The Video Game History Foundation is a non-profit organization in Oakland, CA dedicated to preserving video game history. Since 2017, the VGHF team has been tackling the biggest questions in game preservation, working with everyone from private collectors to major developers to help save archival materials that tell the story of video games. The VGHF has built an extensive collection of video game-related items — including magazines, press kits, development documents, and source code — that’s currently in their office in Oakland, and as library director, my job will be to transform that collection into a world-class video game history research library.

I’ve been a supporter of the Video Game History Foundation for years, because they’re helping bridge the gap between the game industry, researchers, and the community to help fix the future of video game history preservation. I am proud to bring my years of professional experience in libraries and archives to the cause. It is a privilege and a challenge, and I’m ready for it.

The Obscuritory has been instrumental in getting me to this point. Every project, every panel, every article, whether it was a massive essay about SimRefinery or a random late-night post about Aaargh! Condor, has prepared me to become a professional video game preservationist. If you’ve been to any of the events I’ve mentioned on this blog, you might’ve seen me on panels with VGHF co-directors Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin. Well, we’re in business together now! We met in person doing panels together at MAGFest, and our paths have been on a collision course ever since then.

So what does this mean for The Obscuritory? Well, not a whole lot is actually changing. I’ll still be writing about weird old games and doing history research. It’s possible that bigger history or preservation projects might now happen under (or in conjunction with) the Video Game History Foundation, but I’m still going to be exploring CD-ROMs and incessantly writing about Maxis Software on here. Realistically, the biggest change I can imagine is that working full-time on video game history might burn me out on games and push me into non-gaming hobbies for a while. I’ve been getting back into playing trombone again. Maybe I’ll join a ska band?

I feel like I always end announcement posts like this by thanking everyone for reading, but seriously, sincerely, thank you. For the 13 years I’ve been running The Obscuritory, it’s grown from a lark I ran out of my dorm room at 2am to a full-fledged career in a field that didn’t exist when I started. Your support has encouraged me to take this seriously, and now, I get to help build something that’s going to change how we tell the history of video games.

I’ve always prided myself on defining my own life’s meaning. Today, it feels like those years of taking my own path have paid off. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab Educational category

Box art for Dr. Sulfur's Night Lab, showing a collection of beakers filled with various colored liquid. Weird creatures lurk around the corner of the screen. "Enter this Virtual Chemistry Lab at Your Own Risk!"

Box art for Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab, courtesy of Stuart Feldhamer via MobyGames.

Science is a tough subject for an educational game. Looking at a sample of edutainment games from the 80s and 90s, I’m willing to say that a large portion of them are about math, maybe because math is easier to randomly generate. The math action-adventure game Troggle Trouble Math, for example, can automatically spin up an endless number of story problems by plugging numbers into a handful of templates. Language arts are a good fit for a computer game too, because it’s another reproducible subject that mostly happens on paper.

Compare that with science, a subject that benefits so much from hands-on experimentation that a computer game can’t necessarily supply. The best science lessons are the ones where students get to mix liquids together or play with magnets or set things on fire. In fourth grade, my science teacher did an experiment where we had to identify sugar, salt, and flour by taste alone, and as hokey as that was, it’s stuck with me for two decades, so he must have been onto something. It’s more challenging for an educational game to reproduce the value of an exercise like that.

Last year, I talked about MECC’s Science Inquiry Collection, which taught scientific subjects — like water quality or dental health — through an investigative process. This is, I think, the right way to do it. But compared to math games that can infinitely generate math problems, there’s only so many types of unique investigations or experiments that developers can reasonably fit into one science game.

By that measure, Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab might be the most ambitious science edutainment game I’ve ever encountered. Released by textbook publisher McGraw-Hill’s short-lived computer game division in 1996, Dr. Sulfur is a game about chemistry. And to achieve that, the designers tried to recreate the joy of playing around in science class. » Read more about Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab

Teazle Arcade categoryBoard categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from Teazle

Part of the appeal of a minigame collection, I think, is that it offers a bite-size portion of a variety of different kinds of games. They last one minute, tops, and then you move on to a racing game,

or a trivia game, or a puzzle game, or just a game where you have to mash the buttons as fast as possible. A good minigame collection — like Bishi Bashi or the best Mario Parties — is like a good round of tapas, with different flavors and textures that complement each other.

Teazle contains 50 minigames, and while there’s a ton of variety, I’m still surprised how many of them involve math. » Read more about Teazle

Pre-order The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo! Blog category

The cover of the book The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo, showing the teal, pyramid-shaped boxed for <em>Spectre</em>.

Image courtesy of Colpa Press.

Earlier this year, I published an article about the work of Hock Wah Yeo, a graphic designer who created some of the most unconventional computer game box designs of the 90s. The article got a lot of attention, including from Gizmodo and Kotaku. It was great to see so much interest in Yeo’s work.

And now, his work is becoming a book! Colpa Press is publishing The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo, an art book featuring some of Yeo’s iconic design work. The book also includes early development sketches of Yeo’s box designs, as well as an essay about his work by designer Chris Hamamoto. The book itself is a bit of an art object too; look at the exposed notebook-style binding!

Colpa Press is a small-run art book publisher, which previously handled the re-release of Osamu Sato’s The Art of Computer Designing. Only 100 copies of The Boxes of Hock Wah Yeo will be printed, so if you want a copy, pre-order it now!

One of the most rewarding parts of doing this blog is seeing games and designers coming to light again, so it’s especially exciting to see Yeo’s work back in prominence!

The Book of Watermarks Adventure categoryPlayStation category

Title screen from The Book of Watermarks

There was a commercial that aired constantly on TV in the mid-late-90s for Pure Moods, a compilation album of new-age and world music, featuring artists like Enya and Enigma. The commercials promised not just an album but an experience that transported you to a higher realm of inner peace and pure vibes. It was “the soundtrack for your way of life,” the announcer intoned in a deep, breathy voice. Also, for some reason, it had a rave remix of the X-Files theme song.

The Book of Watermarks feels like Pure Moods taking physical form and becoming an entire world. The setting of this 1999 PlayStation game — released exclusively in Japan but mostly in English with Japanese subtitles — is a sprawling Mediterranean villa with gargantuan cathedrals, libraries, and catacombs. Key music was co-composed by Moya Brennan, a musician best known as the lead vocalist of the new-age Celtic band Clannad, in which she briefly performed with her sister, Enya. Brennan’s non-lyrical vocal themes fade through a synthesized orchestra as the camera sweeps across the rocky shores of the islands. The whole production feels gauzy and dreamlike. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the game shares its name with Enya’s dreamy, breakthrough 1988 album Watermark.

What director Takashi Kobayashi and his team created isn’t exactly a living new-age album though, just like it isn’t exactly an adventure game, or an attempt at a cautionary tale about the internet, or a loose adaptation of The Tempest. Remarkably, The Book of Watermarks is all those things, to varying degrees. What they really created is an ornate puzzle box, one that’s more about a sense of place than it is about the puzzles themselves. » Read more about The Book of Watermarks

Talking game copyright on the Video Game History Hour Blog category

Video Game History Hour logo

Last month, the Copyright Office issued a new ruling that could have a big impact on how libraries, museums, and archives preserve software. But unless you’re enmeshed in the complicated world of game and software copyright policy, it’s a little confusing to unpack, assuming you even heard the news at all!

This week, I stopped by the Video Game History Hour podcast, along with Kendra Albert from the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic, to explore what U.S. copyright law means for game preservation! We cover a wide range of topics, from the recent changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to an obscure part of copyright law called Section 108 and how it applies to video games. Do you know what the Copyright Office’s current definition of a “game” is? It might surprise you!

This is my second time joining Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin on the Video Game History Hour. I love being able to talk about these issues with the gaming community. There’s so much interesting game preservation work that’s happening out-of-view in Zoom meetings and policy groups, and it’s great to shine a light on the effort that goes into these incremental changes that’ll make game and software preservation more accessible.

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