Helious Action categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from Helious

The developer of Helious claimed he didn’t actually make the game himself. He got it from aliens.

In the introduction to Helious, designer Sean M. Puckett said he was visited by a UFO at his home in Florida on a stormy night in May 1993. A column of green light opened outside, and an alien stepped out who looked exactly like him. He fainted in shock, and when he regained consciousness, the game had mysteriously appeared on his computer. The instructions for the game are written like an archaeologist’s notes trying to decipher how it’s played. Puckett said he added an intro screen and audio effects, but otherwise, he claimed the game is presented as-is, with clashing, disorienting graphics and everything written in an indecipherable runic alien language.

It’s a pretty great story, and the game uses it to make itself more interesting. Helious is bizarre, but it’s a calculated sort of bizarre.

Screenshot from Helious

Extraterrestrial level design

Looking past the jarring visuals, it’s actually a fairly normal maze game. You control a ball that glides around by releasing air like a balloon. With a limited amount of air in the ball, you have move cautiously while collecting gems and avoiding traps. Some passages are too small to pass through until you’ve released enough air, which adds some order and strategy to how you move around the maze. It sounds simple because, surprisingly, it is simple.

The difference is that Helious tries to make it as unintuitive as possible. The game purposely underexplains itself, and it avoids a conventional user interface in favor of geometric icons with vague descriptions. The ultimate goal is to learn all the glyphs in an alien password, which would’ve been easy to remember if it was a human alphabet, but it’s much harder to memorize a bunch of weird symbols.

The game really does feel alien at first, but the effect quickly wears off once you realize what type of game it is. It’s a good example of the different ways something can be “weird.” There are games like Knights of the Crystallion or Eastern Mind that disorient the player by placing them in a completely different world with its own value system to learn. On the other hand, something like Helious is more like a weird overlay on top of a familiar concept.

You can imagine what the plain, non-alien version of Helious would be like, and it’s entirely possible it started out that way too. The weirdest thing about Helious – a game made to look like it was designed by aliens – might be how normal it is!

A close look at SimRefinery Simulation category

"About SimRefinery" screen. The screen says "SimRefinery. Created for Chevron by the people at Maxis. This is a prototype game. Not all parts are complete."

Two nights ago, a reader on the tech news site Ars Technica named postbebop uploaded a copy of SimRefinery to the Internet Archive. This is incredibly exciting news, and it’s given us our first chance to take a closer look at the game. SimRefinery was not fully completed by Maxis, and we can learn a lot about the game from the state it was left in. Based on my research, I want to add some context and explain what some of the peculiarities the game might say about its development.

Additionally, science journalist Maddie Stone got in touch with another former Chevron engineer, who provided a copy of the game’s “Tour Book,” as well as a guide document by Maxis Business Simulations and an academic article from UC Davis and Chevron about the educational use of SimRefinery.

Between the game and these new documents, we have a lot more we can learn about SimRefinery! Let’s take a look. » Read more about A close look at SimRefinery

SimRefinery recovered Simulation category

Title screen from SimRefinery

Never say never! Thanks to a reader on Ars Technica and an anonymous chemical engineer, a working copy of SimRefinery has been successfully recovered.

Two weeks ago, I published my long-in-the-works article about Maxis Business Simulations, a division of SimCity developer Maxis that made simulation games for businesses. It was the culmination of four years of research, and I’m very proud to share their story.

One of the games they produced was SimRefinery, an oil refinery simulation for Chevron. Very little was widely known about the game until now, and the article kicked off a wave of interest in SimRefinery that seems to have reached beyond gaming circles. Shortly after the article was published, it was picked up by the tech news site Ars Technica, where one reader, postbebop, reported that they knew a retired chemical engineer who worked at Chevron, who confirmed that he owned a copy of the game. postbebop walked the engineer through the process of reading the data from the original floppy disk, and he was able to create a digital copy.

They’ve uploaded the game to the Internet Archive; you can download and play it here. Huge thanks to postbebop for making this happen. (Note: By request from the uploader, the original copy of SimRefinery is currently offline. It’s been re-uploaded elsewhere on the Internet Archive already, but I’ll keep the original link here in case it’s restored in the future. Please be patient with the folks involved.)

Screenshot from SimRefinery

I haven’t had a chance to play SimRefinery yet besides grabbing the screenshots for the article, but I genuinely did not expect anyone would still have a copy of this game. I’ll write a post with a close-up look at SimRefinery soon.

(UPDATE: 6/6/2020: Here’s my full breakdown of SimRefinery.)

It’s so exciting to finally be able to play SimRefinery, and it’s worth remembering that this is one piece of a larger historical picture. It’s a big piece, for sure, but it means so much more when we have the historical context around it. Gaming history is more than just a collection of games; it’s about what they meant to the people who made them and played them. To learn more about Maxis Business Simulations and the people behind the company, please check out the full article!

With that said, this is cause for celebration. I am incredibly grateful and humbled that folks enjoyed the article enough that it gained enough traction for this to happen. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and The Obscuritory over the years and made this possible.

When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery Essay categorySimulation category

Thumbnail of the title screen from SimRefinery

Thumbnail of the SimRefinery title screen.1

SimCity wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.

The game was inspired by research on real-world urban planning concepts,2,3 and although it was created as a way for players to experiment with running a city, the goal was to be fun rather than accurate. “I realized early on, because of chaos theory and a lot of other things,” said designer Will Wright, “that it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that, as predictive endeavors. But we’ve kind of caricatured our systems. SimCity was always meant to be a caricature of the way a city works, not a realistic model of the way a city works.”4

“I think if we tried to make it realistic, we would be doing something that we wouldn’t want to do,” Wright said in an interview in 1999.5 But that didn’t stop companies from believing Maxis could design realistic simulations. Will Wright didn’t believe that was even possible. “Many people come to us and say, ‘You should do the professional version,'” he continued. “That really scares me because I know how pathetic the simulations are, really, compared to reality. The last thing I want people to come away with is that we’re on the verge of being able to simulate the way that a city really develops, because we’re not.”5

Maxis didn’t want to make professional simulation games. But for two brief, strange years, they did.

From 1992 to 1994, a division called Maxis Business Simulations was responsible for making serious professional simulations that looked and played like Maxis games. After Maxis cut the division loose, the company continued to operate independently, taking the simulation game genre in their own direction. Their games found their way into corporate training rooms and even went as far as the White House.

Almost nothing they developed was ever released to the public. But their software raises questions about the role we want games to play in society.

Over the past few years, I’ve spoken with employees from Maxis and the Business Simulations team to learn more about their company. For the first time, this is their story. » Read more about When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery

Pirate’s Plunder Board category

Title screen from Pirate's Plunder

Pirate’s Plunder is a high-seas adventure for people who’d rather play Minesweeper. It fits a whole swashbuckling caper – buried treasure, ghost ships, desert islands, deadly whirlpools – into a bite-size digital board game you could play on your break at work. In fact, the developer called it a “coffee break game.”1

It belongs to a specific style of computer game development from the 90s, short-time-fillers, distributed for free as shareware, designed to be played on what were often, at the time, people’s work computers. Shareware games like these would be created by small teams, usually one or two people, and that was the case with Pirate’s Plunder as well. It was part of a collection of tiny treasure-hunting games by Dexterity Software called the Fortune Pack,2 and for Pirate’s Plunder designer Erin Pavlina, it was actually her first time designing a game. » Read more about Pirate’s Plunder

Carnivores: Cityscape Shooter category

Title screen from Carnivores: Cityscape

In Carnivores: Cityscape, you can play as a human defending against a dinosaur outbreak, or you can play as a dinosaur. Obviously I picked the dinosaur.

Getting to play as a dinosaur was new for the Carnivores series. The first three Carnivores games, developed by Ukrainian studio Action Forms, were hunting games, set on a distant planet inhabited by dinosaurs that humans have turned into a game reserve. Cityscape is vastly different, more like a sci-fi action movie where the prey and the hunters stalk each other through jungles and cities.

According to the producers of Cityscape, this drastic change in direction was based on fan feedback. In an interview with the online gaming site HomeLAN, the producers said that fans of the Carnivores series had demanded two features: playable dinosaurs (who can blame them?) and multiplayer. Cityscape adds both those things, which explains why the game is closer to Predator than a hunting simulation. That also might explain why rampaging around as a dinosaur – the ultimate power fantasy – is so weirdly unsatisfying. » Read more about Carnivores: Cityscape

Realm of Impossibility Action category

Title screen from Realm of Impossibility

The most eye-catching part of Realm of Impossibility is the impossible architecture. Several stages in the game are designed liked optical illusions – the impossible fork and the impossible cube, among others. They’re disorienting and awesome and certainly the highlight, but they’re not the only place where the game plays around with weird architecture. » Read more about Realm of Impossibility

The Multimedia Bird Book Educational category

Title screen from The Multimedia Bird Book

I love birds, but I’m a passive birder. I usually just look for birds that I see while I’m going for walks, and typically I’ll shout “BIRD!” and scare them away. Not conducive to seeing birds. I’ve created that problem for myself. But birds are wonderful, and I love them. They make cheery sounds and have pretty colors, and they share spaces with us, hopping around our backyards and sidewalks and generally brightening up the world.

The Multimedia Bird Book from 1995 by Workman/Swfte – a partnership between non-fiction publisher Workman Publishing and software developer Swift International – is a lovely introduction to the world of birds for young children. I say that not just because I already liked birds, but because it hones in on one of the most magical things about birds, the fact that they’re all around you, and if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can find them everywhere. » Read more about The Multimedia Bird Book

Beyond the Wall of Stars Adventure categoryMultimedia category

Title screen from Beyond the Wall of Stars

Beyond the Wall of Stars sends you on a voyage to the far reaches of space. You’ve joined a scientific mission aboard the CSS Starquest to the distant planet Tara, which may hold the key to saving your dying homeworld. Along the way, there’s difficult choices to make. Do you answer an urgent distress call that sends you off your original course? When the crew’s morale collapses, do you instigate a mutiny against the commander?

You could think of it like being a choose your own adventure book, in a very literal sense. For one thing, it’s written, directed, and produced by one of the authors of the original Choose Your Own Adventure series, R. A. Montgomery. For another thing, the game acts like an actual, physical book. There’s a running page number in the bottom corner and a table of contents, and instead of saving your game, you place a “bookmark.”

It’s an apt comparison that also explains the limitations that the game runs into. With Beyond the Wall of Stars, Montgomery and his team noticeably struggle to make the transition from writing a print game to a digital game. » Read more about Beyond the Wall of Stars

Streaming schedule for the near future Blog categoryStreaming category

Thanks to everyone who joined the stream last week. It was fun to have everyone unpacking Beyond the Wall of Stars together. The article is still in progress; look for that in the next few days.

The Saturday streaming time seems to work well, so for the near future during the stay-at-home period, I’m going to try to stream every Saturday at 3pm EDT! I don’t have plans for a particular game this Saturday, but please stop by at!

As always, I’ll be drinking plenty of tea.

I’ll still be writing in the meantime – this isn’t a replacement for the blog! – but the streams are a great way to have a community gathering space while we’re all still isolated from each other. This is new for me, so I’ll update this post if plans change.

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