Friday, 16 September 2016

A Conversation with David Marsh

Interview by Joe Pranevich


As we close out our coverage of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, I am thrilled to have been able to speak to one of the masterminds behind ICOM Simulations’ success, David Marsh. In the first decades of his career, David helped bring us classics like Deja Vu, Shadowgate, and Uninvited. He was the art director for the Consulting Detective series. These days, David is the driving force behind Zojoi, the current owner of much of ICOM’s adventure gaming legacy. He and his team have recently released updated versions of the first three Consulting Detective cases plus a complete reimagining of the original Shadowgate.

In a wide-ranging conversation, David and I talk about all of those titles, games that didn’t quite make it, and even Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally. It was a lot of fun and I’m thrilled to be able to bring this interview with you.

Now you’re playing with power!

JP: First off, I want thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. You worked on several of my absolutely favorite old NES games as part of the MacVenture series, Deja Vu and Shadowgate. I think those games more than many others inspired a whole generation of console gamers that might not have had access to adventure games to think about them in a different way. I wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit about how that came about and how you contributed to those very influential games?

DM: When I started, I was doing ministry work in a large church in Chicago. I met a guy who was a programmer at a company called ICOM Simulations. I was an artist; I had done art on various machines, Apple IIs and stuff, when I met him. The Mac had just come out and he had told me that he was working on this game called Deja Vu and they had just started work on another game called The Uninvited. These were the first first-person retail [adventure] games. They obviously took advantage of the window system: really incredible jump there where they were dragging objects from window to window and using them and stuff. It was pretty neat. my friend and colleague, Karl Roelofs, and I came up with this idea for Shadowgate. I think at that time, it was called “Shadowkeep”. It had millions of names-- “Behemoth” was a name for a while, just a lot of different things. We worked on it in ‘85, ‘86, and ‘87. During that time, I also finished the artwork for The Uninvited. That was great. We ported that to every conceivable machine: the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, PC; 4 colors, 16 colors, 32 colors.

And then we were approached by Kemco-Seika and they said we want to go ahead and put some of the MacVentures out for this 8-bit console called the NES. They gave us the specs for it which, as you know, were quite limiting. We laughed. We said, sure-- go ahead and try but you can’t do it. It’s going to be too much of a pain. It’ll be a problem. It’s not going to be big enough. The screen’s not large enough, the colors, resolution, and all that. They came back with a really compelling product, especially considering all the products out on the NES to that point were pretty much side-scrollers. This was very different. They were doing all the coding and we were looking at it, testing it, translating it. They translated it from English to Japanese then we translated it back to English. That was the start of some really cool things.

Nu du spelar med kraft!

Shadowgate went out in English, Japanese, German, and Swedish-- which was interesting. It was one of the only NES titles specifically made for Sweden and I never got a reason why they decided to do that. Maybe somebody thought it would be a great Swedish game. Deja Vu followed after that, which I consider the best of all the MacVentures. Just a great, solid story. And then they did The Uninvited and it wasn’t until years later that-- when I was doing freelance work for Infinite Ventures who had purchased the rights to all that stuff-- that we put it out on the Gameboy Color. At that point, Deja Vu II was added to the mix.

JP: I have to agree: Deja Vu is an absolutely fantastic game, although I did fall in love with Shadowgate first. I had the opportunity to play the PC versions of those games as well but I came to them through the consoles and that’s where I fell in love with the brand.

DM: Shadowgate is interesting because Karl and I didn’t know what we were doing. There are a lot of puzzles in there. When we re-did Shadowgate again in 2014, we wanted to keep the feel of Shadowgate, and the “Hey! I remember this room, but wow is it rendered differently.” and then change the puzzles that we didn’t like. So the ones that were very random, we removed, and we tried to put a lot of story behind it.

Reimagined Shadowgate is beautiful.

I think Deja Vu is awesome and has great art by Mark Waterman. It’s got a great plot as well. The other thing I love about it is the balls the programmers had: there’s a part in the game where you need to purchase a gun from-- I don’t remember the name of the gun shop, [Ed Note: “Gun Palace”] -- and the code actually looked to see what the date was on your Mac and, if it was Sunday, the gun shop was locked. Which is just terrible to do to a player, but I just think is hilarious now. You’d never get away with that now. Just fun, great games.

There were other games we had done on the MacVenture series that never made it. There was a game called “Helios” that was based on a meteor coming to the earth, done by a couple guys in Hawaii. They were friends of the CEO. That was cancelled And then a game called “Gossip” where you were a gossip columnist in San Francisco. And we had finished Beyond Shadowgate; it was done but at that point the company had moved on to do side-scrollers for the Super Nintendo. And they ended up turning that into a TurboGrafx game as a side-scroller. And then a game called “The Awakening” which was a great London werewolf game that Karl and I did that we still like a lot, but that was never released.

Deja Vu leveraged the Mac’s windowing system very well.

JP: Any chance we’ll be seeing modernized versions of any of those “Lost Classics” through Zojoi?

DM: Maybe. We’ve talked about “The Awakening” because of our love for it-- we love that whole era. We as Americans have romanticised 19th century London, but it was a horrible place to live. But we really like that timeframe-- one that Suzanne Goldberg really captured in the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective books/board game. Anyway, maybe someday I’ll go back to “The Awakening” which is just a great fun design.

I’m more apt to revisit The Uninvited and Deja Vu again, with a modern 3D update. We’ve talked about putting out Deja Vu with Deja Vu II as one big game because those games hold up so well.

JP: I do remember Deja Vu and I remember not getting that I needed to throw random objects into the sewer. That was a terrible puzzle!

DM: The thing was that destroying objects was always a problem. In that particular case, you really needed to think through what are the objects that you need to show the cops and which ones would incriminate you. So, you had to keep certain things and throw certain things away. It required a good amount of thinking! Of course, that was before the Internet so it was not like you could easily find the answer.

Trickster played the DOS version of Deja Vu as our 4th game!

JP: I’m fairly certain I called the NES tip line on that one.

DM: Alright! It was a little tougher to drop those items on the NES as compared to the Mac (dragging stuff from your inventory.)

JP: Perhaps so, but it was a beautiful inversion of the adventure game trope where you have to carry everything, right?

DM: “Carry everything” and “save early and often”!

JP: Indeed! I did love Shadowgate and I know that brand has continued through Beyond Shadowgate and, I think, Shadowgate 64 which I don’t think I ever even looked at and I don’t think you were involved with.

DM: Karl and I were approached by Infinite Ventures (who owned the property at that time) about helping about doing the design work for the game on the N64. We hired a firm in Minneapolis to do the programming... No, no, no. That was Shadowgate Rising. [ Ed Note: “Shadowgate Rising” was a cancelled title which would have been released in 2000 or 2001. ]

Shadowgate 64 was all done in Japan. In the end, Kemco pretty much handled everything from the design to the implementation. We were really barely involved.

JP: That’s okay. It’s a console game and I don’t even think an adventure game, so I don’t care. [ Ed Note: Shadowgate 64 utilized a fully 3D rendered world like many N64 titles of the era but is generally considered a simplified adventure game. ]

Shadowgate 2 through 63 fell into the sewer.

JP: Speaking of which, ICOM did move ahead and and was involved with some extremely influential FMV games. Those were the Consulting Detective series then Dracula Unleashed and such. I want to hear a little bit about how those games came about because they are such a departure from the ones that had been worked on earlier.

DM: I know that the producer on Sherlock Holmes was Ken Tarolla and I was the art director. I don’t remember how it came about-- there was some connection between Ken and the Goldbergs/Suzanne-- and [he] got ahold of the board games. [Ed Note: Suzanne Goldberg was one of the writers of the original Consulting Detective pen & paper game.] Of course, at that time it was the renaissance of board games going on there, the 80s and early 90s. Of course, these days board games are really doing well again which is exciting. They worked out what it would take to film it and create the scripts and program it. So a couple writers-- I don’t remember who they were-- were hired to take the base games of three mysteries-- that point it was the “Mummy’s Curse”, “Mystified Murderess”, and “Tin Soldier”-- and create all of the scenes required for the game..

I hired a fantastic artist, Kathy Tootelian, and she did all the illustrations. We couldn’t afford to film flashbacks so Kathy did them all as sepia-toned illustrations which I thought worked really great. Everything was shot on soundstages in Minneapolis and Peter and Warren were hired for Holmes and Watson respectively.I personally I thought they were a great Holmes and Watson. Those two gentlemen held themselves up very well. Anyway, all of this was shot at the same time we were developing the video technology. CD-ROM was a new thing and Tod Zipnick, our CEO, really wanted to take advantage of that by utilizing video. The real hurdle was not even so much the framerate-- but of course that ties into it-- but the size of the video.

I agree: great casting for Holmes and Watson.

The original video was shot on Betacam SP and the detail wasn’t… you know… the best at the small resolution. Even so, It was pretty exciting because it started off on the FM Towns and it ended up going to a number of other platforms. I remember years later while I was working at Infinite Ventures we put the games out on DVD. Did you see that version?

JP: Yeah. I don’t even know how they did it.

DM: It was a really difficult thing when we put that together, just being about to move back and forth between the scenes on the disk. It was very hard and a shame that didn’t really take off.

Anyway, back to the original platforms. Sherlock Volume One came out and it did well enough to do volumes two and three. Peter and Warren were still available and we continued to go back to Minnesota and shoot them. The video got a little larger as technology got better. Working on those Sherlock games was great. Again, my involvement at that time-- not talking about what I did with Zojoi-- but my involvement at that time was pretty much art direction. Although I was a dead body in “Mummy’s Curse”. I had a knife in my back…

JP: That’s the Arab guy slumped over the desk? [ Ed Note: Akram Fahmi, one of the Arab gentlemen in the smuggled artifact subplot. ]

DM: Yes, yes! That’s me with my long mullet at that point.

David Marsh in his acting debut.

JP: You’re going to be on IMDB tomorrow, my friend. Well… we’ll see about that. In terms of your contribution, is there-- other than playing the dead body-- is there something about those games that you are particularly proud of?
DM: I think it was the art direction of it. I give all kudos to Kathy Tootelian who came up with a great style. Here’s someone who I found at a local college and I just thought was perfect. She’s really a fantastic artist and a wonderful lady!

With Dracula Unleashed, I was the producer and art director. I was there for the whole shoot.That was much more of a campy kind of thing compared to Sherlock.

JP: That’s awesome. I regret that I haven’t played Dracula Unleashed yet, but it’s on my to-do list. I’ve already volunteered to review it in a couple of years.

DM: It’s interesting. You look at it and think Dark Shadows [Ed Note: A campy gothic US soap opera from 1966-1971] and that kind of stuff. It’s got that bit of camp to it and it was fun. We took it to the next level because it takes place over the course of three or four days. We shot scenes multiple ways depending on what objects you had “in hand”. If you had a cross in hand, it would change what would happen if you go to the cemetery or if you don’t. It was fun, but the whole FMV-thing kind of dried up after that. But it was good. If you want, I think I have an extra strategy guide if you want it.

This is the game I didn’t know that I needed to play.

JP: I like to play them straight but thank you so much for offering.

DM: The second half of the strategy guide has Stoker’s original novel in it, so it was pretty cool.

JP: That sounds absolutely amazing. Obviously, at that point you say that the FMV market was declining and that’s too bad. You worked on a “Beavis and Butt-head” adventure game, right?

DM: I didn’t work on that one, but I did work on a number of smaller titles when Viacom bought us. I went from working on adventures to working on FMV to working on Super Nintendo games. Those were great. I worked on Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck. And then when Viacom decided to get into the industry and bought us, they said, “We need you to make games for Paramount, MTV, and Nickelodeon.” It wasn’t quite on the same level of fun. [laughs] Those were some interesting years.

[Ed Note: I was thinking of Beavis and Butt-head in Virtual Stupidity, an adventure game from 1994. Viacom New Media team members worked on that but not David. He worked on other Beavis games for Viacom but no adventures. Oops.]

And actually, we took whatever we learned on Dracula Unleashed and applied it to a game we called Club Dead, which was a crazy MTV video title that no one has ever heard of.

JP: I have heard of it and it’s on my list but not for a few years.

DM: The bottom of your list maybe, you know.

Beep-beep!

JP: I get there eventually. By the way, I did want to say that the Road Runner game, you just mentioned it, [Ed Note: Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally for the SNES] was a big favorite of mine as a kid. It was the only way that I could play a Sonic-like game without having to own a Sega.

DM: That was obviously the idea. The animation was all done by a fantastic artist named Jeff Troutman And the backgrounds were done by another awesome artist Brian Babendererde. We looked at every video under the sun and these guys really nailed the look and feel of those cartoons. The only thing that I believe we messed up on there was that cactuses could stop you from running. We should never have done that. Other than that, I was really happy with that game and it was just a team of four people and we produced it pretty quickly.

Funny story out of that game is that there’s a thing in one of the scenes… you know, Wile E. Coyote is always buying things from ACME. One of the things he buys is an outfit called the “bat-man” outfit. [Ed Note: First introduced in a Chuck Jones short in 1956.] It was “bat”… dash… “man”. He’s basically in green leotards with wings under his arms. We would send a design document to Warner Brothers via fax. That was the only way to do that. And part of it was saying that he’s in a bat-man outfit. They would come back and say, “Although we, Warner Brothers, owned the DC rights, Batman cannot appear in this game.” I’d fax back, it’s not “Batman”, it’s-- just look at the cartoon-- it’s called bat-man but it’s basically green leotards and they would just write back the same thing again. Finally, I learned my lesson and said that Wile E. Coyote is flying around in green leotards and that was approved! That was pretty nutty.

Wile E. Coyote in his green leotard. (1956)

JP: That’s fantastic!

DM: It’s a great, fun game. I think I still have a poster somewhere or a bubblegum card. It’s is still one of the titles I’m most happy with.

JP: I wanted to move on a little bit to your current adventures. Zojoi has been up and running for a couple of years now. You’ve released three of the Sherlock Holmes cases. You’ve released Shadowgate.

DM: And the original MacVentures on the original Mac and Apple IIGS as well.

JP: How did Zojoi come about? How did you get the idea to re-release some of these classics through your new venture?

DM: Basically, I watched what Double Fine had done on Kickstarter. Their adventure game kickstarter raised three million dollars. [ Ed Note: Double Fine was founded by Tim Shafer, designer or co-designer on many LucasArts titles including the Monkey Island games.]

Double Fine raised $3.45 million dollars for the development of “Broken Age”.

At that point, I was working at a startup-- I had left my previous job-- and I saw that and thought… why not?I called my friend Eugene Evans up and said, “What are you doing with the old game properties like Shadowgate and Sherlock?” And he said, “Nothing.” So I worked out a deal to get those again and I wondered what’s the thing that I could produce-- that I SHOULD produce-- first? It’s kind of like that Jurassic Park thing: just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. I didn’t want to start off with Shadowgate because that was the key property, so I looked at Sherlock and went through Eugene’s basement and found all the source, all the Beta SP tapes. I then had all those re-digitized at the same time I did a kickstarter.

Of course, I had no idea what I was doing and so it failed spectacularly. But it taught me that there were enough people that still wanted the game so we decided to finish them. So Karl Roelofs, a great programmer named Brandon Booker, and I spent the next year working on them. The key was that people had never had a chance to see the video in any sort of glory. So other than re-digitized the mysteries and I found all of Kathy’s original drawings and I re-scanned those in and painstakingly re-edited all that stuff back into it. It was a neat project to work on.

I still have the other six mysteries sitting, waiting to go. Not programmed, but the video source is ready if I want to finish them.

The video is definitely improved, and now we have optional subtitles!

JP: You have my vote and my money if you ever sell the other six!

DM: I’ll let you know and I’ll put you to work in video editing.

JP: I’m afraid that while I have several skills, that is not one of them.

DM: I’ll teach you! Anyway, that’s how Sherlock started. So I incorporated Zojoi (basically a randomly generated name) and decided to do another kickstarter.

Karl and I spent probably four months or more getting the Shadowgate kickstarter ready. We made sure we showed backers what it was going to play and what the art style was going to be. I found a great artist in Russia named Chris Cold who did all the art. I love speed painting, it has a very sketchy feel to it, but it is very alive and he’s amazing. We knew it was going to be 2D and it would be programmed in Unity and we were going to add elements to make it feel 3D. We spent a lot of time planning the campaign - we had updates for every other day, we had stretch goals, and we put it out there. I think it was the NES players that really put us over the top and we reached our goal with maybe a week to spare.

Shadowgate ended up raising $137,232. Nice work, NES players!

And at the same time of our kickstarter, there was another kickstarter going for a game called Hero U. Do you know that game?

JP: I know it very well. The Coles come by our site and we are pleased that they chat with us often.

DM: They were very kind. We basically said, “Hey! Let’s help each other out.” They were looking for a lot more money, I think $400K and we were looking for $130K. “We’ll send some people over to you and obviously you are very well known for your past games and maybe you could send people over to us.” Once we got momentum going, once we hit 70% of our goal, people really started pledging. A lot of people just said, “I don’t know anything about this but it looks cool and I want to see it succeed.” We were a bit late but we finished the game and I learned a lot about shipping that I did not want to know before. And we did some really cool boxes, with a map-- a cloth map-- and all this stuff. It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work.

JP: I’m glad to hear it. I have to admit that by the nature of my “hobby” that I live in the past, so I haven’t played the new version yet. I look forward to playing it some weekend when I don’t have anything else to play.

DM: I’ll send you a key! Put it on your list!

JP: I own it! I bought your game right away.

DM: The neat thing about it, Joe, is that I contacted Kemco. And I said that obviously I had the rights to Shadowgate, but look people love the “chiptunes”. They love the original music that was created for the NES games. I would love to put them in there so people could play either the new, recreated, glorious version by Rich Douglas or they could play the game with the old NES chiptunes. They said fine, go ahead. Really, they were awesome to let me do that for the fans. . So we did that and old NES screen transitions and also created a “pixel mode” for fun. Oh and we included the old UI if they wanted to experience the 90’s again.

Shadowgate 2014 - in retro mode!

JP: It’s an amazing product and I’m glad you were able to succeed with it. What’s coming next for Zojoi? Do you have some new games on the horizon?

DM: I’ll let you know more in the next couple of months, I promise. We finished Shadowgate with the goal of going right into a sequel, but the tablet versions took us a long time. By the time we had finished the ports, the team had been working on Shadowgate for three or more years in one way or the other, and needed a break.

So some of the team moved on to developing our new adventure game engine. We are still working in Unity but the new titles are now in beautiful 3D and features a simpler UI and awesome storylines.. We’re working on two new games that are in various states of completion. But in the meantime, Shadowgate 2014 should be coming out on Xbox and Playstation. That should be happening soon, which is very cool.

JP: Well, that is awesome and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes. You have my vote for some new Sherlock, but new titles are good too!

DM: Haha. I hear you! Most of what I’m doing now are based on things I haven’t been done before, some genres that have never fully been exploited. Things from-- let’s see, I’m 51 now-- things from my childhood that I loved. I guess that’s all I can say right now. But things that I love that I thought would make a great, fun adventure game.

JP: I’m sure it will be a lot of fun! So the final question for the Bonus Round is: other than a game that you yourself worked on, name an adventure game that you particularly enjoyed and why?

DM: Hmm. I would say probably Manhole, remember that? I think about that game a lot when I’m designing stuff. I know it’s old. There are obviously other things that I’m playing. There’s something about when Manhole came out… that’s the Cyan guys, right? 

The Manhole - another 80s game that's been recently revisited

JP: Yep. They subsequently did the Myst games but that was their first. And it was done in HyperCard! [Ed Note: HyperCard was a beginners programming environment developed by Apple in 1987.]

DM: Oh yeah! Which is amazing! What I loved about Manhole was that there really wasn’t an interface to speak of - very minimalistic. It was also very absurd. It’s kind of like [if] the Beatles’s Yellow Submarine were to pick you up and put you on an adventure.. It was an exploratory game and yes there were puzzles and stuff, but it was unlike anything I had seen. I remember at that time [1988], the MacVentures were so heavily user-interface. Of course that’s because you could use a torch on anything, right? You could use a torch on the wall or on yourself. That was the whole idea, to give you as many options as we could. Manhole didn’t allow you to do that. It was pretty black and white-- literally. There was something about it that was great. I’ve actually thought a lot about it over the last year, as we were developing these new 3D adventure games and trying to keep things a bit more simple.

JP: Wow, that’s an awesome answer and thank you. I played that game as the target demographic on a Mac IIcx when I was like 8. [ Ed Note: I was at least 10-11. ] Bringing back memories! I just want to say thank you for spending as much time with me as you have this afternoon.


Talking to David was a treat and I hope you enjoyed our interview. You can check out Zojoi’s website at www.zojoi.com. Please check out their games on Steam or wherever awesome games are sold. The new Shadowgate and the first three chapters of Consulting Detective are available now, plus four emulated MacVentures: Deja Vu, Deja Vu II, Shadowgate, and Uninvited

Up next for us will be the final chapter in our playthrough of Consulting Detective, with potentially a brief detour to look at the alternate versions of these cases before we get to the final rating. I’m very curious (and excited) about how this game will do in our rating system!

11 comments:

  1. Thanks you for the remastered Sherlock Holmes games! Despite some trial-and-error design frustrations I quite enjoyed them! I hope to see the rest updated someday too.

    >Nu du spelar med kraft!

    I'm pretty sure the word order should be "Nu spelar du med kraft" - the predicative verb should be second in a main clause in Swedish grammar.

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    1. Unfortunately, I just used Google Translate and don't know Swedish... I can correct it if you are sure. :)

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    2. Äkta mångspråkiga människor använder inte Google översättning!

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    3. I never realised they made Shadowgate in Swedish, probably why it was one of the more asked about games in the Nintendo Magazine.

      And Laukku is correct, the sentence should be structured like he suggests. Although I wonder if "kraft" is the ideal translation of power or maybe "makt" suits better. Or maybe some other word that would work better, for example they translated He-Mans "I have the power" with "Jag har styrkan" meaning "I have the strength"... or maybe we should do like we do most things around now, just stay with the english since everyone and their mother knows english and the translations gets really stilted. :)

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  2. Replies
    1. Tell all your friends!

      Seriously, I'm very proud of this one.

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  3. My love of all things horror makes me hope for a future remaster of Dracula Unleashed and for The Awakening to become a reality

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  4. Thanks for the interview, very insightful. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is the reason I got behind the Shadowgate Kickstarter heavily even though I never played the original. I loved the paper version of the Holmes game, and Zojoi obviously had a close relationship with its creators. Its interesting how these threads tie together over time. :-)

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