GRAC authors - the interview

Background

Edmund Clay wrote "GRAC", the "Graphic Adventure Creator" system on the Amiga, and also the games The Lost Prince, Starbase 13, Lethal Formula and Epsilon 9. These are freeware Amiga graphic adventures and can be downloaded from Edmund Clay's web site.

John Clay is Edmund's younger brother, who teamed up with school friends Ant Dzeryn and Mark to create the two games The Experiment and Entity. These are freeware Amiga graphic adventures and can be downloaded from the Green Pizza web site.

 

When did your interest in software creation start?

Edmund:

I started programming the first time I had access to a computer. Computers came with BASIC built-in then. So it seemed a natural thing to do. I started with simple programs, and tried to write some text adventures, because graphics in BASIC was very slow.

Ant:

The Experiment screenshot - Amiga
I first encountered computers at my neighbour's house. He had a 48K Spectrum, and we spent hours playing Atic Atak on it. Well, hours loading Atic Atak. He had a Kempston joystick interface, and if it moved even slightly the computer would crash and we'd have to load the game all over again.

I remember desperately wanting to get a computer of my own, and being surprised to learn that my dad already owned a Dragon 32. I was even more surprised to discover that it was possible to write my own games for the computer just by tapping in some cryptic commands at the BASIC prompt. At that point, I was hooked. Making things move around the screen was just a question of using a few FOR...NEXT loops and some PRINT statements, and that was the motivating factor - I could control the TV! The one-way output box suddenly became interactive.

From the Dragon, I moved to a Spectrum 48K+, and from there to the Amiga. It was the Amiga that really let me develop as a programmer. For the time, it was outstandingly powerful, and nothing was beyond its capabilities. I learnt to write music with OctaMED, program with AMOS and Blitz BASIC, and draw with DPaint.

John:

The first computer in our family was an Amiga 500, back in 1990, surely one of the finest home computers ever built. Before the days of the computer, my brother Edmund and I - he is 7 years my senior - used to entertain ourselves with more primitive tools. We made comics, role-playing games, board games, even a cardboard version of Transformers - anything at all that was creative and fun. Edmund once built a fully-functioning cockpit we called "Interceptor" in my bedroom out of nothing but carboard, with switches, HUD display, 3D viewscreen and a sophisticated AI system (someone stood outside pulling levers and suchlike).

So it was a natural progression to using computers. I was never much of a programmer; I didn't have the mathematical inclination. I created some very simple RPG games in Amos, and used to make animations in Dpaint, but never touched the musical stuff. In short, I was more interested in the imaginative side than actually doing the really hard work!

 

What was your background at the time of writing the games?

Edmund:

I continued programming in BASIC on the Amiga, and found AMOS, which could handle graphics quite well. After a while I wanted to try a large project, which turned out to be Starbase 13. I enjoyed combining stories with graphics, and followed that with another game, The Lost Prince. GRAC was, to begin with, an attempt to streamline the next game I wrote, by improving the game editor to the point where the game code could be completely generic. But the games were never economically viable, just written for fun, and there was a niche in the market for an adventure game creator. I therefore polished it for release, and found F1 Licenceware, who were very good at publicising the software. A few good reviews helped to boost the sales.

I don't think more than a handful of GRAC games were ever completed, though I answered hundreds of letters from game-makers. I think the amount of work involved, and the complexity of the process, resulted in most attempts being abandoned. Perhaps it got some people started though, who moved on to other systems.

Ant:

When we began writing The Experiment, we were all 15, at school, in the first year of our GCSEs. We were all videogame players, and fans of graphic adventures. John was a talented artist and could translate those abilities to the Amiga; I had some programming knowledge and was trying to improve my lacklustre musical skills; and Mark, the third member of DAS Software, had a gift for developing storylines. As we had immediate access to the author of GRAC, the only graphic adventure creation system available at the time, writing a graphic adventure seemed to be an obvious project for us.

It was the first major game any of us had attempted. John and I had written smaller games before, but nothing on the scale of a graphic adventure. Though we were using GRAC as the game's engine, it was still a massive undertaking. We'd never tried collaborating on a project before, either.

In all, from its inception to its release via F1 Licenceware, The Experiment took about 18 months to write. We finished it just as we were taking our GCSE exams. In fact, in one of the documents that shipped with the game, John says he should really be revising, not working on The Experiment, as he had a maths exam in the morning.

Entity was more troubled. We began writing it when we started our A-Levels, and it should have been easier to do than the first game. We all knew what we were doing and it was a smaller project. However, our school work got in the way, and we didn't finish it until we'd all gone our separate ways to University. During this time the Amiga finally kicked the bucket. In the end, as the only member of DAS Software with an interest in Amiga games, I put the finishing touches to Entity and uploaded it to the internet.

John:

That's pretty much the story. The Experiment originally started out as just that: an experiment in using Amos to construct an animated narrative, using Dpaint animations with music, sound effects, fading and so on. It was basically an animated version of The Experiment's intro as we know it (Mark refers to it in one of the documents). Not knowing what else to call the file, I saved it as "Xperiment". The idea progressed towards using it as an introduction to a GRAC game, and then of course we had to built the story around the title... hence the eponymous Stingon genetic experiment.

Entity would never have seen the light of day were it not for Ant. I took an Amiga 1200 to university, but abandoned it in the first year - and that was the death knell for my creative computer pursuits. The game itself was virtually complete, but for tidying up, debugging and adding music and an intro and outro. All that came courtesy of Ant.

 

What did you enjoy most about writing the games?

Edmund:

What I enjoyed most was using my imagination. But there were other rewards in solving programming problems, drawing the backgrounds, and making the music.

Ant: 
The Experiment screenshot - Amiga

One of the most enjoyable aspects was collaborating with John and Mark on such a large project. We'd meet up in school and discuss ideas for puzzles, settings, characters, graphics and music; we'd doodle designs for rooms in the back pages of our textbooks; and the next day, one of us would turn up with a complete implementation of the idea on a disk.

It was also good to work so closely with Edmund. We wrote The Experiment as a GRAC2 game whilst Edmund was still working on that version of the engine. This meant that every time we had an idea that GRAC didn't support, we'd get Edmund to add the feature into the engine. The most prominent example is the hypertext terminal on the Stingon ship. John thought it would be a nice touch to have a web-style user interface in the game, and Edmund added it into GRAC's feature set.

Finally, it was rewarding to see just how much we improved technically whilst writing the game. John's later graphics for The Experiment were so good that he had to re-draw all of the earlier rooms so that they didn't look out of place. Entity looked, felt and sounded more professional, and had we not had such an interrupted schedule when writing it, the game would have easily surpassed our first attempt in terms of technical quality.

John:

For me, the best part was simply having a finished creation, especially after 18 months of stop-start writing. I actually think that the GCSE exams helped spur on the project, since it was so much more fun than revising, yet still felt somehow like work. It was just as fantastic to see Entity finally finished, since I had for a long time forsaken any idea of its completion.

The game was also a sheer delight to construct, once we were used to the GRAC interface, since it allowed us to concentrate on the creative aspect. Not being a programmer, I wanted to tell a fun story more than anything. GRAC gives you that freedom. It was also immense fun taking on a project of this scale, pushing GRAC further even than Edmund had done in his own games - though of couse he had to programme everything from scratch!

 

What was the inspiration for the stories?

Edmund:

The inspiration was all forms of science fiction and fantasy: books, films, TV, comics and other games. There are numerous references throughout, particularly to Star Trek.

Ant:

The influences came from a wide variety of sources. If you look through The Experiment, you can see the influence of films, TV programmes, other games, books, etc. When we were writing the game, one of our favourite programmes was Babylon 5. You can see its inspiration everywhere, from the references to an ancient, powerful race to some of the background graphics. We borrowed elements from Forbidden Planet, Monkey Island, The X-Files, Star Wars, The Hitch Hiker's Guide, Aliens and Wing Commander, and there's probably more that I've forgotten about.

Entity has a similarly diverse set of influences. The most obvious is Alien; the ship has been infiltrated by some kind of alien, which has systematically killed nearly everyone on board. Entity was supposed to be the first in a long line of "Galactic Voyages" games. Each one was supposed to be set in a new location with an independent plot, yet part of a greater story arc. Each would have had its own set of influences. The series would have followed Bud Lightning on his travels across the galaxy.

John's input was more important than any of these influences, though. He and Edmund had imagined the fictional universe that formed the basis of the stories in Starbase 13, Lethal Formula and Epsilon 9, and we used that framework in both The Experiment and Entity.

Outside influences pervaded more than just the story. I believe the graphics were primarily influenced by Edmund's drawing style. Musical influences included the intro music from Syndicate, Mars from Holst's The Planets, the music from Flashback, The Fall, Cruise for a Corpse and others. Some of the music turned out quite well, but some of it was pretty bad.

John:

The world of Yeno Hou and the Stingons had existed for years already in the comics and paper-based RPGs of Edmund and myself; Edmund brought it to life in Starbase 13 and Epsilon 9, as well as in a never-released Type 8 Starship (those long orange ones) simulator, programmed in Amiga Basic and inspired largely by an old shareware USS Enterprise simulator. Hence everything in the games is consistent and, we hope, convincing - we had ship schematics for all the different types of vessels, maps of planets, profiles for major characters and alien races, and so on. For The Experiment we decided to have our own hero, a younger, untried version of Yeno Hou named Bud Lightning, since that gave us more flexibility in terms of character development.

Babylon 5 was a major influence, and Star Trek, of course. Stingons, anyone? Much of the Yeno Hou universe could be traced to Edmund's eclectic sci-fi reading, whereas I was never really one for books.

Entity is a very Star Trek/Babylon 5-style story, and was designed to have that self-contained, 'episode' feel. The space yacht in the game is a conveniently sized environment which does away with the need for artificial boundaries. The game also showed the next stage in Bud Lightning's development, where he has been transferred from a backwater research base to the bridge crew of a Type 8 starship, whence he gets sent by himself on incredibly dangerous missions in good old-fashioned heroic tradition.

 

Do you still play adventure games, and what has been your favourite one to date?

Edmund:

I haven't played any adventure games for a while. Nothing has really caught my attention. My favourites are the old Lucasarts games, and if I have to pick one, then Loom, for the quality of the writing and design.

Ant: 
The Experiment screenshot - Amiga

Yes, I still play them. I recently got an Xbox, and have been using it to play the old LucasArts games again. So far, I've got through the first two Monkey Island games and Day of the Tentacle, and I'm working on Monkey 3. As soon as I finish that, I'm going to start on the freeware releases of Flight of the Amazon Queen and Beneath a Steel Sky, neither of which I've played before.

My favourite adventure game has to be Day of the Tentacle. It succeeds on so many levels - the jokes are funny, the puzzles are logical and interesting, and the use of three time zones adds variety and a completely new dimension to the genre, one that's used to great effect and not just added as a distracting gimmick. LucasArts managed to get the voice acting spot-on despite it being such an early talkie game, the interface was the best they've ever designed, and its so well put together that I've played through it half a dozen times. Zak McKraken comes a close second - I loved playing that on the Amiga, but got hopelessly stuck late on in the game when I ran out of money at one of the airports. Unless there's a way out of the predicament that I haven't thought of, that's a fundamental design flaw. The player should never get to a point from which it's impossible to progress.

John:

It's sort of a shame that the games market is now so focused on shoot-'em-ups and driving simulators, RPGs, strategy - in short, everything except adventures! Many adventures that do appear lean towards the Tomb Raider type, with elements of platform games and Doom-style blastfests, and only simple puzzles - we can see the transition in the Indiana Jones series. The puzzle adventure genre as we know it does not translate well to an open 3D world. Most recently I've played the first two Broken Sword adventures, which are two of the most finely crafted games I've ever come across, but have yet to try the third.

With the capabilities of new machines, boundaries between the genres are blurring - hence games such as Mafia and even Half Life 2 contain certain elements of the old adventures which I loved, such as a strong, player-driven plot line, and the immersion in a coherent and believable universe.

Although I don't do much retro gaming, the Monkey Island games are still the pinnacle of the genre for me. You can put just about any other Lucasarts adventure next to them - and I agree that Day of the Tentacle is surely the cleverest of the lot. Beneath a Steel Sky was also a great game. If I had to choose a favourite, I'd have to say the old Delphine adventure Operation Stealth. It had lots of flaws - not least the curious translation from the French, and the part when the player, having almost reached the end, is doomed to be eaten alive by sharks, or drown, or something similar, if he did not happen to buy an inflatable bracelet from a man on a beach at the very beginning of the game - but it was the very first adventure I played, and I was hooked by the cinematic potential of the genre.

 

Have you used the experience of creating games in later life?

Edmund:

Now I work in the games industry as a programmer. I focus mainly on graphics. Not for adventure games yet though.

Ant:

I still write games, now mainly in Flash and Java for their cross-platform capabilities. I've also started looking into m68k assembly language so that I can work with the Mega Drive, and I've done some programming with C and C++, with a view to writing games using SDL.

As for using the experience, yes. The skills that I gathered whilst working on the games, including graphic design, composition, programming and teamwork, are all relevant to what I do now.

John:

Game creating ended for me after Entity, when the Amiga market died and the potential audience for shareware or licenceware adventure games, which was already dwindling, effectively vanished. Added to that is the sheer amount of time it would take us to create a new adventure.

The most important legacy of The Experiment for me is the knowledge that I actually completed a project I started - a rare achievement indeed! That, and the satisfaction of having done something truly creative in my teenage years. This branched into an ill-fated attempt, with Ant, Mark and others, to create a short sci-fi movie, as well as, more recently, a radio play series about another space hero called Captain Fat. I've also always enjoyed writing, and for a short time adopted a new hobby of collecting rejection slips from the sci-fi magazine Interzone.

 

What are you currently up to?

Ant:

After completing a degree in English, and a master's degree in film, I now work as a web developer. That means I design SQL databases, code in a variety of scripting languages including ASP and PHP, create user interfaces and design graphics. Which is odd, as I could never get the hang of drawing either on the computer or on paper.

I still keep tabs on the Amiga scene; I rarely use my Amiga these days, and have no interest in the new models, but I like to know what's going on. I also keep an eye on the retro games scene in general, from the original games themselves, through emulators, to remakes.

John:

My interest have skewed somewhat since a few years back. Now, instead of computers and sci-fi, I occupy myself with manuscripts and medieval history. I studied archaeology at university, worked on a few excavations in Ireland for a couple of years, and at the moment I'm studying for a PhD in York. Though I'm not active in the Amiga web community, Ant keeps me up to date on what's going on. It would be a real shame for all those classic games to be forgotten.

 

April 2005.

The interviewees can be contacted through their respective web sites.

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