Sunday, 9 June 2019

Missed Classic 69: Borrowed Time (1985) - Introduction

Written by Joe Pranevich



If you are like me, sometimes research takes you places that you don’t expect. When I started into Batman Returns, I expected to find that it was a half-assed game produced by a no-name little software outlet who won the minimum bid to make the ninth licensed game based on the 1992 movie. And, it might still be that. I haven’t even looked at the game yet as I wait for a copy of the manual to arrive by mail. (I’ll be donating it to the Internet Archive once I wrap up my review.) Instead, I discovered the story of Subway Software and one of it founders, Bill Kunkel.

Rather than jump straight into Batman, I’d like to tell Mr. Kunkel’s story through a different game: an illustrated text adventure called Borrowed Time, Subway Software’s first release. As so many of these games were, it was a multi-party affair: developed by Interplay using their adventure game engine, based on a story and design by Kunkel’s company, and published by Activision. This was still around four months before Activision bought Infocom so it is not quite a cousin to the games that we have looked at in the Zork marathon, but it is a sign that they were interested in the interactive fiction genre. Borrowed Time has kidnapping, murder, and at least one HIPAA violation. It was also pretty fun to play to whet my appetite for Batman. Let’s get to it.

Bill Kunkel, enjoying a pizza in 2005.

Prior to doing my usual pre-game research, I had never heard of Bill Kunkel. That’s not unusual; while we have a few designers that we’ve come know very well, the majority of the staff in any given game is anonymous. I claim no special talent or access to sources, but a combination of Google and digging through old magazines and interviews usually gives us a picture. For some of these games, I enjoy the research even more than the playthrough! As I dug into Kunkel’s history, the information just kept coming: his writing projects, his impact on the history of video games, and even his battles with drug addiction. As a game journalist, he wrote hundreds of articles over four decades, not to mention fanzines on several topics, plus edited multiple magazines. He was an expert witness on several of the legal battles that shaped our industry. There’s no way for me to read and absorb all that in a couple of weeks, but he comes off to me as a fan’s fan. He loved conventions and fanzines, comic books and professional wrestling, and the gaming journalism that he would become famous for. Along the way, almost by accident, he ended up writing games. It’s a fun story-- no doubt exaggerated by his own talent for self-promotion-- but one that I am happy to share.

Bill’s writing career began in fandom, producing an independent science-fiction fan magazine called Genook when he was just seventeen years old. Genook was followed by Rats!, another fan magazine, but by this point he was establishing himself as a member of the New York fan community. It was through these fan-connections that he was introduced to Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, a husband and wife pair who would become his long-time friends and collaborators. They are themselves worthy of a series of posts, a constant presence in almost every one of Kunkel’s projects. One of their first collaborations would be another fan magazine, Four-Star Extra, where the four of them would each write an article every month on a chosen topic. They introduced Kunkel to the DC writer and editor Denny O’Neil at one of their weekly fandom parties; it was through that connection that Bill sold his first comic book script, eventually to be published in the anthology comic House of Mystery. (Kunkel’s memoirs state that he sold this story in 1971, but the earliest I found it was in House of Mystery #252 in 1977. I am uncertain whether this story was shelved for many years, published without a by-line, or if the online comic book databases are incomplete for this period.) Based on this connection, Kunkel became a freelance “fill-in” author for DC comics, writing stories that would be held back and used if the regular stories of the issue were delayed. While they were sold, it is unclear how many (if any) were used by DC. It was not glamorous, but he was working in comics!


Several of Kunkel’s later games seem inspired by these early interests. 

Without making it as more than a fill-in writer in comics, Kunkel embarked on a project in a different segment of fandom: professional wrestling. He and his near-permanent partners, Katz and Worley, wrote and distributed a magazine called Main Event featuring photography and articles about WWWF stars and matches. The WWWF was the precursor of the WWF and later the WWE. Kunkel both wrote and photographed for the magazine which was sold at WWWF events, with the support and permission of Vince McMahon, Sr. The magazine led Kunkel and Kats doing radio, a 1AM Main Event wrestling talk show on New York’s WHBI. Although Kunkel folded the magazine after a short time, he continued to love and write about wrestling for the remainder of his career.

By 1976, Kunkel was back writing comics. The second time was a charm and DC gave him higher profile work including a shot at reviving a 1940s character, “The Vigilante”, in World’s Finest. Looking back on his time at DC, Kunkel remarked that he worked on “Lois Lane, The Private Life of Clark Kent, Vigilante, romance stories, horror stories and Jor-El only knows what all else”. But Kunkel did not enjoy the corporate environs of DC and switched teams to work in the “bullpen” at Marvel. Once there, he worked on “Spiderman, Captain America, The Falcon, Wonder Man, Dr. Strange, and some fill-in stories that may still be sitting in the office files”. Even that work didn’t last long and he was shortly doing uncredited and low-paying work writing Richie Rich for Harvey Comics. He ricocheted around the industry, doing stints or freelance work for everyone that would pay him. By 1978 however, Kunkel’s life was falling apart. He was unable to make a living and considered himself a “parasite” on his wife and his marriage. By his own admission, he was already battling drug addiction. He needed a big break.


The very first “Electronic Games” in 1981. Can Asteroids
conquer Space Invaders? We still want to know.

Kunkel’s “big idea” came in 1979 when he started writing “Arcade Alley”, a regular column in Video magazine. It is dramatically oversimplifying the story to say that he was onto something, that very few others were covering the nascent home video game industry. By 1981, this idea took form as Kunkel was able to convince Reese Publishing to back his new project, Electronic Games, with him as a writer and editor. The first issue soared off the shelves and the magazine quickly became a monthly, documenting and promoting the first era of home video games. Perhaps ironically, the magazine landed just as his marriage was ending. Kunkel was a leading voice in game journalism throughout the first age of video games, but the crash in 1983 that led to so many unsold E.T. cartridges also led to a decline in fortunes at Electronic Games. By 1985, he and his partners were out and the magazine’s first life was over. For Kunkel, Katz, and Worley, it was time to embark on the next phases of their careers. Enter: Subway Software.

Operating on their own once again, the trio formed two companies: one to further their journalistic pursuits and a second to design games. They had reviewed and discussed software for so many years-- plus made many industry connections-- weren’t they uniquely qualified to write games themselves? Nevermind that none of the three of them were programmers in a field where programmer-designers were still the dominant paradigm. From that idea, “Subway Software” was formed. The name was selected for the rather mundane reason that none of them (at the time) could drive. Instead, they traveled (and no doubt planned games) on the subway between their various homes around the city. They landed their first deal with Interplay and the rest, as they say, is history.

I have had some difficulty tracking down a complete list of games that Subway Software worked on, but between Wikipedia and MobyGames I have located seventeen games. Neither site appears to have a complete list and there may be inaccuracies. For our purposes, only four of them are adventure games and those credits appear to be correct: Borrowed Time (1985), Star Trek: First Contact (1988), Omnicrom Conspiracy (1990), and Batman Returns (1992). We’ll be looking at the first and last of those on this blog, plus the Star Trek game has been on my “want to play” list for some time. Subway Software appears to have closed its doors in 1992, just in time for Kunkel to start the “new” run of Electronic Games. We’ll look at that leap more closely and finish off his story when we get to Batman Returns.

My first time using an amiga emulator. I can’t seem to fix the aspect ratio.

Having come this far, there is not that much to say about Borrowed Time itself. As Kunkel and his friends were only providing the script and the design, the heaviest lifting was done by Interplay. Their game engine, already used for Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction (both 1984), was done and supported a few different platforms. We’ve already looked at one game based on a later version of the same engine, Mike Berlyn’s Tass Times in Tonetown. Unlike Infocom who chose the least common denominator, Interplay believed in taking advantage of each platform capabilities. To that end, the graphics in each of the several ports are quite different. I’ll be playing the Amiga version as that appears to be the most mature of the several iterations.

Although I’ve focused on Kunkel, other credits on the game are no less important. We could have waxed equally about Brian Fargo, the plotter of the game, who founded Interplay Entertainment, worked on seminal games likes the Bard’s Tale series, and so many other things. He cut his teeth on The Demon's Forge (1981), another early graphical text adventure we should look at eventually. He was joined in that role by Michael Cranford, another Interplay developer who was most famous for his work on Bard’s Tale.


The manual is about as boring as it is physically possible for a manual to be.

The manual itself isn’t very good, but it summarizes the plot well enough: “As private eye Sam Harlow, you must discover who is trying to murder you, collect the appropriate evidence and bring it to the police, while avoiding constant attempts on your life.” There is also a “Living Tutorial” at the start which provides a nice overview of the text adventure genre and how to play a game like this. I do not know why it is a “living” tutorial and they do not let you practice any gameplay; my impression is that they may have wanted to make it into a minigame but ran out of time or motivation. Even without being alive, it’s not a bad introduction to newcomers to the genre.

I am uncertain how much success this game garnered in its release, except to say that it must have been both successful enough for a re-release and not successful enough that no one thought name recognition would be valuable. It hit the bargain bins in 1989 as Time to Die. I have played through a bit of that version and, other than the logo, I did not immediately see any differences. With that, there is nothing to do but play the game!


Being a detective is so relaxing.

The Chase

The game opens in my detective’s office where I am sticking my feet up on a surprisingly bright day for a noir detective story. The phone rings and the voice on the other end warns me that someone wants me dead... A shadow darkens the window, but fortunately it’s just the window washer. Whew! Although not captured by my simple screenshots, the scenes are lightly animated. In this first scene, my feet is tapping a bit. In the next scene, the water cooler bubbles. In neither case is the animation more than a handful of frames, but it is a lovely touch.

I take stock: I’m carrying a wallet with my ID and a gun permit, plus a loaded handgun with six bullets. Is that a homage to hard-boiled detectives needing guns? Or a clue that I’ll have to be selective in how many people I shoot along the way? Searching the desk, I find an overdue alimony check made out to my ex-wife, Rita Sweeny. Could she be behind this? As I explore, I get the feeling that I am being watched. The writing is terse but tense. Just to the east, my secretary has her own desk notepad. She’s off at a dentist’s appointment, but she left me a note that “Mavis” called and wants me to get back to her. I try to call “Mavis” on my phone, but all I get is a busy signal.


 
Bang. I’m dead. 

I hear a gun cocking somewhere and I head out of my office… and right into an ambush. A pair of thugs are approaching me in the alleyway. If I backtrack into my office, they catch up and kill me quickly. I try to replay the start of the game faster, but that seems to have no bearing on when they arrive. I try to shoot them, but the game criticises me for resorting to that kind of violence… right before telling me that I’m dead. I even try calling the police, but they have a busy signal as well. What kind of police force has a busy signal? I search for other ways out of my office. The window-washer’s platform comes to mind, but I can’t open or break the windows to get out. What am I missing?

After my tenth restore or so, I discover that while I cannot run back into my office, I can run into the hotel across the street. That takes me into a lobby with a single chair and a door to the north. I duck behind the chair and the thugs shoot at me unsuccessfully, From there, I can crawl to the doorway and emerge on a landing at the bottom of a stairwell. If I even stop to look at anything, the thugs catch up and kill me. If I go up the stairs, they catch up and kill me. It’s a very tense situation. It takes a few deaths (and a close look at the screen) to realize that there is a lock on the door. If I lock it first, the thugs take longer to bash their way through. That gives me time to race up the stairs into an empty attic, a dead end except for a locked window. Unlike at my office, I can break this window revealing a shard of glass and a way out. I pocket the glass just in time because the thugs are running up the stairs.


If I were in the circus, I’d be going on top of the wire.

Outside the window is a ledge, but there is a cable covered with laundry leading to the other side of an alley. I can cross it hand-over-hand to get to the window of the bar across the street. The thugs stop firing but now they follow my lead to cross the cable. This window is locked and apparently unbreakable so they have a couple of turns to catch up and throw me to my death. On my next attempt, I use my shard of glass to cut the cable and send them to the street below. With the thugs defeated, I am now allowed to enter the bar and descend to street level.

Inside the establishment, the barmaid tells me that she had seen the thugs outside and tried to warn me-- she is the person from Irene’s message. She tells me that she saw Farnham’s man, Charlie Lebock, tell my wife and Fred Mongo that I would never finish my investigation. Before she can continue, she is spooked by the sight of someone in one of the booths and runs out into the street. There is a lot to unpack here. She specifically said “my wife” which might be Rita, or maybe I got married again? I’m not sure. You’d think I’d know that sort of thing. Does that mean that Rita is working with Fred? Does Fred work for Farnham? There are too many names and I can’t stitch it all together into a plot yet.


Relaxing at the bar.

Pausing for Breath

That was exciting! Since my character has a chance to pause for a breather, I will as well. The interface is interesting, but not quite as functional as it appears. It consists of four key areas: an animated image, a list of nouns, a list of verbs, and a graphical depiction of our inventory. The noun list looks like it’s supposed to be updating for where you are, but it doesn’t; it’s still “correct” for my office and not much else. The list of verbs is also incomplete and does not cover many of the actions that I just needed to take, including “hide” and “break”. (Not to mention the lack of connecting words!) I’m not sure how sophisticated the parser is, but it seems fairly good for its era with full-sentence recognition. Maybe not as mature as Infocom, but a far cry from the two-word era of the early 1980s.

I’m going to leave us here for now, just as the game is about to begin. This is an introductory post so please feel free to leave your guesses for the rating below. We’ll be posting the final part in two days so don’t wait! As far as score advice goes, the only related game we have played so far is Tass Times, which scored 47. It was also played 170 games ago (one of the first for the blog!) so our standards may have wandered a bit since then. And yes, it really has been 170 games. Doesn’t time just fly by?



Before we go, I’d like to introduce you to a new YouTube channel that I like already, Critical Kate and her Patreon. After I had drafted this post, I was doing some final spot-checks when I happened to notice that she had just written a detailed analysis of the works of Bill Kunkel. It’s a nice case of parallel evolution that we were both researching the same guy at the same time and came up with a similar set of concerns with the material, although her detailed look at the publishing history of Video magazine and his comics puts mine to shame. I used her research to make some final adjustments on this post. I hope you will check her out. See you soon!

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it.

8 comments:

  1. I think I have played this game a long time ago, but I really don't remember much about it... Or maybe I am mistaking this for "Corruption" by Magnetic Scrolls? Anyway I will guess 43.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Joe, I always appreciate the deep dives you do. It's always great to make game history and the people involved more alive, and you do it well. As for the game, I'll guess 40.

    ReplyDelete
  3. 41. Definitely a game I never would have noticed, but let's see what becomes...

    ReplyDelete
  4. After my tenth restore or so

    Wow. And you were how many minutes into the game at this point?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not long. The opening sequence is like a timed puzzle where you have only a few turns in each location to figure out the way out. Every other choice kills you. It IS fun in small doses, but I'm not sure I liked it as the first thing out of the gate. There are a couple more of these "timed" sequences later in the game.

      Delete
  5. The writing does seem nice and tense, let's hope they can keep up with it! I am going for 50, I really like the style of the graphics but I think the standards have become more critical the more games are played.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Keeping the scores consistent across different genres of adventure games is quite difficult. I'm fairly certain that my scores are pretty good relative to each other, but I think I score about 10% lower than Ilmari or TBD on the same games. It's all in good fun and the best games do end up near the top.

      Delete
    2. Scoring will never be 100% consistent if it is done by humans, but it will never be any fun if it is done by machines.

      With critical I don't really mean harsher, I just think the reviewers are taking more aspects into consideration (for the better as well). And in the end as you say it IS all in good fun, I don't think any game has placed itself above or below its deserved spot.

      Delete