This week we are diving into a few spooky things, 1) life before the MacBook, 2) a video game about murder, and 3) understanding the tech behind this game. Developed by wife and husband duo, Roberta and Ken Williams, Mystery House is a horror-adventure game created for the Apple II in 1980. The Apple II, shown below, was released in 1977, and with it came a huge market for computer games. After experiencing another computer game for the Apple II, Roberta and Ken were inspired to create their own.
How do we solve the murder?
I am not a big gamer myself, but it is instantly clear that Mystery House is a true relic in graphics and controls compared to the hyper realistic and elaborate games of today. The link on the syllabus didn’t work for me but I found a playable version on the Internet Archive. (I hadn’t been on the Internet Archive before but it has free access to tons of resources like a variety of library, software, government, and topical collections.) The directions instruct you to use one- or two-word commands to navigate through the game. You begin at the outside of a mansion and are instructed to use commands like “GO STAIRS” or “UP” to enter the house.
After entering the house, you are met with different characters that are also in the house with you. The point of the game is to explore the house and find the murderer before they find you (or you die some other way like accidentally starting a fire)! You can also use directions like “WEST” or “W” to navigate the house.
After struggling to type in successful commands, I found a ‘walkthrough’ for the game that does just what you might think it does. This was super helpful for quickly understanding how many rooms are in the house and what items to take note of. The game boasts of a ‘high-res adventure’ but us folks from the future might raise our eyebrows about that. However, the game is entertaining and challenging! Gamer or not, this is definitely worth a try.
Why are we still talking about this game from 1980?
Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms, takes us through a different kind of ‘walkthrough.’ In Chapter 3, “An Old House with Many Rooms”: The Textual Forensics of Mystery_House.dsk” he describes his walkthrough as “forensic,” explaining the tech behind the game. I am extremely underqualified to be explaining this, but I shall do my best! Using a type of editor, a hex editor, that allows someone to look at a file “byte by byte,” Kirschenbaum dissects Mystery House’s disk image, giving us a fuller picture of how the game was created and unveils some of the disk’s own mysteries. Kirschenbaum finds traces of two other games that were previously on the disk, Dung Beetles and Blitzkrieg, and finds different notes on the disk as well . To my limited understanding, this is important because it creates a digital trail that tells the story of what tech was important when, how it evolved, and forces us to ask questions about the digital culture of the past.