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The Making Of It Came From The Desert

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Cinemaware was well known for its epic, movie-like adventure games, but few were more filmic than the amazing It Came From The Desert. Join us as we speak to David Riordan about his 16-bit classic.

I was just a kid when I walked into the small mining town of Lizard Breath. I thought I owned the world. I had my life rolled up in a backpack, an Amiga 500 under my arm and a pocket full a’ rainbow coloured dreams. Damn, I was naive. But that’s how these stories always begin, right? Some guy with a big idea, and some damn fool who believes him.

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Are these rocks or something more sinister?

“Bob Jacob’s concept of Cinemaware was brilliant. What better way to make interesting games than to do interactive versions of great movies like Robin Hood, Samurai and the big bug films?” The tall drink a’ scotch in front of me was David Riordan. Some hotshot software guy out of LA who used to work in the movies. You know the kind. Takes the California sun with him, wherever he goes. Well, I’d brought my sunglasses, and I liked to listen as much as he liked to talk. I needed answers, and this was the kinda guy who loved to give ’em. I asked him where he came from and where he was headed.

“While doing a new media research project for Lucasfilm in 1980 I came across the first laserdisc “interactive” movie at MIT and was smitten by the concept of interactive narratives. A bunch of us worked for Atari on laserdisc games for about three years before Atari crashed and burned. A friend showed me Defender Of The Crown on the Amiga and I wrote Bob a fan letter. He thought it was odd that I had experience in both linear entertainment and interactive gaming. There weren’t many of us with such credentials in those days. We talked and I ended up becoming one of the early employees at Cinemaware.”

Cinemaware, huh? I’d heard of those guys. Big players in the software racket. Back in the old days I used to run with the Amiga gang, and Cinemaware owned that town. There were others, sure, but no one messed with Bob Jacob’s boys. That’s the way it was. You accepted it, or you got the hell outta’ town.

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A storyboard showing one of the giant ants.

But it didn’t add up. What was some high roller from Cinemaware doin’ in a place like Lizard Breath? This guy should be livin’ the high life in a downtown condo with a dame for every day ‘a the week, not shootin’ the gab with a journo on the skids. I poured him another bourbon to oil his chiselled jaw, even though it didn’t need oilin’.

“In my first meeting with Bob he asked me what interactive movie I wanted to make. I’d been thinking about creature films so I just said “big bugs.” It was the one story he hadn’t thought of and he hired me as a result. Growing up I’d been fascinated by the pulp sci-fi creature films that began with the classic Fifties film Them. I loved the pulp fiction, the bad special effects and the beautiful screaming girls. When I began to think about what kind of stories would lend themselves to interactive narratives, big ants attacking a small town seemed like such a natural fit. It was fun and campy at the same time. You didn’t have to explain too much about what to do. You either stopped the ants or you got eaten.”

And there it was, eyeballin’ me right in the face. The answers to what’d been goin’ on in this backwater town: the answers I could see eatin’ away at the locals who’d been avoidin’ me. You might think they was unfriendly, but that’s too simple. It was fear that kept them quiet, and I knew all about that. I was warmin’ to the guy, so I asked Riordan how he got started – how this town wound up the way it was. Besides – who ain’t unfriendly these days?

“Because of my training in linear storytelling and television production I tackled Desert like a movie first and then defined what the gaming elements would be. I needed to ‘live’ in the story a bit before I could figure out what would make it a fun action-adventure game.
I wrote an initial document that described the town, some of the characters and potential gaming situations. I had crude storyboards created to give a feel of what I was thinking about and then very early on I got screenwriter Ken Melville involved and we began fleshing out all the characters just like we were creating a story bible for a film. It was Ken who gave Lizard Breath and its inhabitants their dramatic flavour and pulp colour.”
So I was in Melville’s imagination, huh? Figures.

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This is easily one of the most iconic scenes in the game.

So who’s this new guy? What’s his connection to the ants? It was getting late, and Riordan was ready to walk. I decided to take the grand tour. I had all night, and my ulcer wasn’t goin’ nowhere. Gimme your best shot, Lizard Breath. I can take it.

“Once Ken and I had an initial story, characters and locations in mind, the lead programmer Randy Platt and I entered into new territory. Designing games for the Amiga platform was very different from laserdisc games where we used very sophisticated video frame jumping techniques in a layered branching matrix to create choices for the players. In Amiga world you could be anywhere at any point in the timeline. This presented story and gameplay opportunities and challenges.”

That’s a whole lotta fancy words, college boy. But I guess he could tell I used to ride with the Amiga mob. Did he know I was one of those kids who queued up to buy his games, or was he just tryin’ to keep me around?

I didn’t much care. I needed to know why I couldn’t get this damn town outta my mind, no matter how much bad whiskey I poured over it.

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A map of Lizard Breath, showing just how detailed Cinemaware’s game was.

“I knew I wanted to experiment with a “real time” environment where, like real life, the player couldn’t be in all places at once. It made sense to me that the “impending” doom of big bugs headed towards town was time sensitive. This added to the tension. If the player did nothing or goofed around, the town was overrun. They also needed to pay attention to the clues and outcomes of dramatic situations if they wanted to be in the right place at the right time to stop the ants. It seemed to Ken and I like a good way to make the story elements matter to the gameplay instead of just ending up as window dressing for the game sequences.”

I could tell he was a smart guy, but then again, so could he. He had my ear, and I wasn’t in any hurry to get it back. “I sat down with a map I had made of Lizard Breath on paper and literally measured 15 steps from where the ants spawned at the edge of town until they arrived at the town centre. These steps became days in our time matrix. Once the player had used up a day of time, what happened at any one of the 30 locations changed to the next day. If the player wasted time running from one side of town to the other, the ants moved that much faster towards their objective. Of course, my calculations were all very crude, but Randy made it all work in terms of programming.”

So now there’s a programmer on my heels, too? Makes sense. Cinemaware wasn’t like the small time software houses with one cat making games on his lonesome. They were organised, smart. Every one ‘a Bob’s boys had a role to play, and I knew I was gonna meet the whole gang…

You can read the rest of our Making Of It Came From The Desert in issue 30. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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