The Fallout 4 Boston Tour: A Reflection

As previously mentioned, the goal of the Fallout 4 Boston HistoryPin tour is to integrate well-known, historically-significant areas of present day, real-life Boston with the post-apocalyptic version of Boston presented in the smash-hit 2015 videogame Fallout 4. Though this Fallout 4-centric project is, at the time of writing, several months or even years from being fully completed and perfected, its potential as an educational tool that can engage a younger age group is already visible to some; a friend who teaches elementary school saw my poster and asked, were I to do a version of this project set in Washington D.C., to let her know immediately because she thought it would be a great way to engage her notoriously moody and difficult age group with the history of the city. Luckily for her, two titles prior to Fallout 4 was Fallout 3, a lower-tech recreation of post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. that, while smaller and even more tightly compressed than Fallout 4’s Boston, still attempts to recreate a real-life city within a fictional future by blending the city’s historicity with the game’s dark, overarching narrative, blending a real-life historical D.C. with a stylized, fictional D.C. We shall return to this later, as this is where I see the future of this project, should I continue to develop it on my own time.

I chose Fallout 4 for three reasons:

Firstly, having played through multiple times from every point of view, I knew it backward and forward such that I had, in my own way, already studied the primary material.

Secondly, I saw Fallout 4 as not only an interesting case study in alternate history but as an opportunity to engage with an elusive, difficult, but passionate demographic sought after by many marketing agencies and advertisers—the tween and adolescent market. Not only would many tweens and adolescents already be familiar with the game, but they could take advantage of this HistoryPin tour while on the traditional middle school trip to Boston that so many northeastern schools take. This would help them relate to educational information that would otherwise bore them by integrally tying it to something which interests and engages them, reinforcing both.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Fallout 4 is by far the most accurate attempt to recreate to any exactitude a real-life major U.S. city; though previous Fallouts are all set in real-life locations, the capabilities of computing and data processing technology at the time of the previous games was simply insufficient to recreate a city to the level of accuracy found in this most recent edition. Though it depends heavily on where one is on the map, the ratio between Fallout’s Boston and our Boston is, on average, about 1:3. Of course, one of the many things I learned over the course of this project is that, should one head downtown, the ratio can become infinitesimally small as the game’s programmers would regularly take up to and sometimes in excess of a dozen blocks and condense them to a single street in-game for practical purposes. On the whole, though, Fallout 4 is to be commended for the overall success of its ambitious quest to digitally recreate Boston.

I learned a lot from this project and this class, but one fundamental theme stood out: accurately translating a real-life location into a digital form is extremely difficult and problematic, to say the least. Most real-life cities (even modestly-sized cities and towns) are still too large to recreate on a 1:1 scale with our current technology; it’s simply too much information for current consoles and PCs to process at the speeds necessary for reliable gameplay. Even if a game designer were to recreate an exact 1:1 scale city, the fans might view this more as a gameplay downgrade than upgrade; the 1:3 scale of Fallout 4 was still a sticking point for some fans, who complained of slow gameplay because of the enormous amount of walking required to travel from one settlement to the next.

The already short attention-span of many gamers can be tested by including too much to explore, or by requiring long monotonous actions and movements to travel from place to place. However, the inclusion of a “fast travel” mechanism for most game modes has eliminated this problem, as players need only select a point on the map and click to be instantly warped there, a trend that is likely to continue as videogames get larger, more expansive, and more ambitious. On top of all that, the programs that accurately map real-world locations are often difficult to obtain, expensive, and even more difficult to use and master, often requiring professional instruction and a relatively tech-forward background to operate at even the most basic level. But as technology grows and data processing continues to increase in speed, efficiency, and availability, we are likely to also see an uptick in real-life locations featured in our videogames and other digital mediums.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I see the immediate future of this project in previous and subsequent Fallout titles. With the series going strong and almost ten titles under its belt, we’re likely to see several more post-apocalyptic locales courtesy of Fallout in the foreseeable future, locales that will only continue to grow in sophistication and accuracy. After Boston, analyzing Fallout 3’s recreation of Washington, D.C. and creating a similar HistoryPin tour is the most logical next step; after that, I could delve further into Fallout’s past with settings like southern California, Las Vegas, and the Midwest—that is, at least until Fallout 5 is released! Once the Fallout series has been exhausted, or should another intriguing urban recreation present itself, there are a plethora of games set across the country that would make nice subjects for a tour such as this. If others were to pursue similar projects, hopefully one day we could live in a future where a digitally-based world of fiction is just one button away in the form of HistoryPin tours cataloging video game-related maps and locations within most major American cities, allowing anyone with knowledge of a video game to blend information which interests them with historical and educational information, simultaneously reinforcing both.

Digital Project Update: Fallout 4 Boston HistoryPin Tour!

Michael Toy
Fallout 4 Historypins Location List:
1. Concord Region
a. Vault 111
b. Sanctuary
c. Concord & Freedom Museum
d. Lexington
2. Westover Region
a. Graygarden
b. Fort Hagen
3. Natick Region
a. Crater of Atom
b. The Natick Region
4. Cambridge Region
a. Fraternal Outpost 115 (Brotherhood)
b. CIT Ruins
c. Bunker Hill
d. U.S.S. Constitution
5. Boston Region
a. Boston Public Library
b. The Old North Church
c. Vault-Tec Regional HQ
d. Swan’s Pond
6. South Boston Region
a. Diamond City
b. The Castle (Fort Independence)
c. Milton General Hospital
d. Gunner’s Plaza (Galaxy News Network HQ)
7. Quincy Region
a. Quincy Ruins
b. Spectacle Island
8. Boston Airport Region
a. Boston Airport
b. Libertalia
c. Croup Manor
9. Medford Region
a. Museum of Witchcraft (Salem Witchcraft Museum)
b. Salem

The goal of the Fallout 4 Boston HistoryPin tour is to integrate well-known areas of present day, real life Boston with the post-apocalyptic version of Boston presented in the smash-hit 2015 game Fallout 4. While the Fallout series has a history of choosing real life locations as the basis for their games (going all the way back to the original Californian setting of the original), technology and processing power have always been limiting factors in designing a map suitably large enough to accurately reproduce a real life location, and it is no surprise that this most recent iteration is the most accurate reproduction of a real location to date. That said, Fallout 4’s Commonwealth and the real-life city of Boston share far less than a 1:1 ratio; in fact, most of Fallout’s Boston exists on a 1:3 scale with its real counterpart. This ratio was the most manageable for reproducing much of Boston, though the ratio can get much smaller as one approaches the bustling urban downtown area, which in real life is many magnitudes denser than its post-apocalyptic reproduction.

Many of the locations selected for this tour are based on real-life equivalents or almost-equivalents: the CIT building, for instance, is located roughly where Boston’s MIT sits, and the CIT’s lore closely follows that of MIT until the present day. Similarly, The Castle is based on the real-life location of historic Fort Independence, and Fort Hagen sits roughly in the same area as the Westover Airforce Base in western Massachusetts. While sometimes Fallout creates its own names, frequently in-game locations are homages to their real counterparts and share similar, if not identical locations and lore. The Old North Church, for instance, exists both in-game and in real life as the location of Paul Revere’s historic midnight ride, though in Fallout 4 the Old North Church has since been acquired by the rebellious and nobly-minded Raildroad (an homage to the more figurative Underground Railroad); similarly, Bunker Hill is a famous stop along Boston’s Freedom Trail both in-game and in real life and houses many of the city’s famous shops and landmarks, though of course Fallout 4’s Bunker Hill is dominated by armed merchants who have set up an open-air bazaar on the hill. Though the majority of locations are based on or are related to real-life equivalents, some of the game’s locations are wholly the design of the Fallout programming team. One notable example of this is the curious location of the historic U.S.S. Constitution: though based on a real-life equivalent, the U.S.S. Constitution sits not in Boston Harbor but instead sits lodged in the side of a skyscraper after a failed launch by a reprogrammed tour guide robot who hoped to sail the ship out of harbor and find aid for the city. Ranging from the fortified bunker of Vault 111 to the underground CIT Institute laboratory to the raider-infested wreckage of a fictional ship, the U.S.S. Libertalia off the Boston coast, some of the most memorable sites in Fallout 4 are entirely fictional creations.

Owing to a limited timeframe and an audience with a short attention-span, this tour is designed to have 27 unique locations that spread across the map of Boston and includes many historic locations with real-life equivalents in-game. Aimed at children aged 9-15, the Fallout 4 Boston HistoryPin tour aims to endow the historic city of Boston with something that speaks to the kids’ true interests by relating the historic aspects of the city to something with which they’re relatively familiar and relatively interested. As many schools in the northeastern U.S. at one point or another take their middle schoolers on a school trip to historic Boston, the Fallout 4 Boston tour would help make such a fieldtrip as exciting, educational, and simultaneously relatable to the visiting children as possible. While touring the many historic sites to be found in Boston, children would be able to follow along in real time with the tour to see the approximate locations of in-game sites, towns, and artifact with which they are familiar, simultaneously reinforcing both the historical difference and the historical similarities between Fallout 4’s fictional Boston and that of the real city.

Major League Gaming: Race and Gender in Video Games and Gamer Culture

This week we turn our attention to videogames, an industry that has exploded in size, popularity, and complexity over the last few decades and now commands surprising amounts of both capital and influence, particularly with younger and, as the Nakamura article both asserts and seemingly refutes, male-skewing demographics. In addition to Flanagan’s Critical Play, we have three written pieces, the first of which is Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization. Co-authored by Rebecca Mir and our very own Professor Owens, this article tackles issues of race and ideology in the digital world with an in-depth analysis of Sid Meier’s Colonization, an expansion pack to the massively popular Civilization history simulator. Second, we have Gender and Race Online, an article by Lisa Nakamura exploring the negative racialized and gendered discourse both within online videogames themselves and in the surrounding culture. Finally, we have Mission America Online Games about American History, a grant proposal by WNET to secure funding for their educational digital online role-playing game, Mission America.

Let us begin with a personal favorite that makes several appearances in these readings: Civilization, a series of popular games for PC that began in the 90s and maintains its popularity today, and its controversial add-on expansion pack, Colonization. To best understand its significance, one must know some basic information about the game itself: Civilization is a relatively complex history simulator that places the player in the shoes of one of dozens of historically significant world leaders and charges them with leading their civilization to victory over competing civilizations. “Victory,” however, is a far more expansive term in Civilization than in the average videogame. Most games require eliminating one’s opponent to win, and that is the most straightforward manner of achieving victory in Civilization: simply conquer or obliterate all neighboring civilizations with your military might. This is not, however, the only path to victory, nor is it always a smart tactic; just as in the real world, being overly aggressive and combative can quickly escalate into violence with dire consequences. While Civilization offers a “military victory” option, there are several other means by which one can secure victory; in fact, it is entirely possible to play the pacifist and, by outpacing rival civilizations economically, scientifically, or culturally, walk away victorious. Pacifism, of course, breeds its own challenges, and ultimately it is up to the player to decide how best to balance the olive branch and the sword. From discovering fire and inventing the wheel to cold fusion and mastering spaceflight, Civilization spans the entirety of recorded history and offers both open worlds that can be shaped into any conceivable configuration and period-specific, generally historically-accurate scenarios pulled from the annals of history. Whether it follows a plausible history with which we are familiar or plows headlong into fictional alternative history, Civilization challenges the player strategically, philosophically, and ethically as civilizations begin to interact, challenge one another, and develop socially, politically, economically, technologically, and militarily.

Civilization: Colonization is an expansion pack to the main Civilization game, adding a specific scenario simply entitled “Colonization” in which the player is placed at the helm of one of several European colonial powers following the discovery of the New World and tasked with colonizing the Americas and, in doing so, establishing your civilization’s dominance over others. In the 2008 version featured in the Mir-Owens article, Colonization offered just a few playable civilizations: the English, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Despite being heavily featured as valuable potential allies or dangerous potential enemies, Native American civilizations were tellingly excluded from the list of playable civilizations. As Mir and Owens make clear through their intense analysis of Colonization, this is at least in part a fundamentally racialized and gendered issue found in nearly all videogames that makes plain the more subtle and unconscious side of racism and sexism. In trying to create an historically-accurate scenario, Civilization recreates a world in which white European monarchies were socially, politically, technologically, and militarily superior to their Native American counterparts and in which the former unashamedly exploited and commodified both their own people and the Native Americans for profit. This racialized and gendered “otherizing” of non-white civilizations manifests itself through the lack of dynamism or variation of in-game Native American civilizations and extends all the way to the level of the code upon which the game is founded: “Native peoples are defined within the game’s procedural rhetoric, at the functional level of the code, to be the ‘Other.’” (96)

However, it is important to note that since 2008 Civilization has been updated and, evidently, Firaxis Games has been listening to its players, as many of the issues the article cites as problematic have since been addressed. In the current version of the game, Native American civilizations are a fundamental part of the Colonization experience: several civilizations (including the Cherokee, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incans), are available to play and each can potentially hold its own against their European counterparts. In fact, some of their civilizational “traits” (bonuses unique and exclusive to each civilization) outclass those of Europeans, such as the inherent ability to treat forest tiles as roads for trading and military purposes. Though the game continues to give European players a distinct military, technological, and economic edge specifically in the Colonization scenario, it is no longer a solely Eurocentric scenario in which Native Americans are exclusively commodified and marketed as potential allies, potential enemies, or potentially lucrative targets. While the player is still encouraged by the game’s rules to think in these terms while playing as a European civilization (as many of these real-life practices were incentivized by being obscenely lucrative), Native American civilizations are no longer valuable but faceless mannequins to be objectified—they are fully-shaped and unique playable nations that barely resemble the helpless strawmen found in the Mir-Owens article.

If Mir and Owens used Colonization as a case-study of sorts, Lisa Nakamura’s article, “Gender and Race Online,” instead approaches the social and ideological issues shaping not just the games we play but gamer culture in general on a much larger scale. While Mir and Owen show how racial and gendered issues can be found in a game’s content, Nakamura analyzes the all-too-often malicious nature of the culture surrounding these videogames and how prevalent—even fundamental—casual sexism and racism are to this culture in an increasingly-PC world. Though the anecdotes and statistics featured in Nakamura’s article are as appalling as they are shocking, many of her assertions are as obvious as grass is green to anyone that is even remotely familiar with online gaming. As a straight, white male, Nakamura (by way of John Scalzi) would characterize my experience as “the Lowest Difficulty Setting” (82), a characterization with which I would concur given the inexcusable and vile behavior with which so many non-white, non-male gamers are confronted every day. As “professional black female gamer BurnYourBra” personally attests, “People get salty when they lose. […] but there is a difference between trash talking and calling other players disrespectful names. For me, I’ve been called a dyke, a butch, a slut, a bitch […]. I was even called a black bitch to my face along with being called a lesbian, a gorilla, and a monkey” (86). As someone who has logged his fair share of hours playing online games, though I cannot speak to or for the personal experiences of anyone else, I can say that the language BurnYourBra encountered is sadly commonplace, a sentiment shared by the gaming blog Kotaku: “The casual racism, snarling sexism and random belligerence one encounters in online play, particularly in a first-person shooter over Xbox Live, is not at all a new phenomenon. It’s sadly accepted as par for the course” (88).

As Nakamura notes, while there have been significant movements against the tide of racist and misogynistic ideology that finds refuge in the dark corners of online games, “gamer culture” is quite insular and largely continues to self-identify and self-label as masculine, despite the major influx of female videogame players over the last two decades thanks to less inherently competitive games like The Sims. The issue is doubly amplified by the fact that accusations of being a racist, regardless of how accurate, have become so commonplace that the word “racist” itself has become a weighted and charged term: “The discursive act of calling someone a racist is viewed as almost equally transgressive as actually using racist language: it is deemed so devastating that presumably no thing or body can survive it” (92). While crowd-sourced anti-bullying campaigns and other anti-bullying countermeasures are gaining traction and momentum, the problem is so widespread, decentralized, and socially ingrained that society will almost certainly continue to grapple with this issue long after I and anyone else reading this will have passed away.

Finally, we have Mission America Online Games about American History, WNET’s grant proposal for Mission America, an original educational historic roleplaying game that provides an excellent example of how enterprising organizations (academic and otherwise) are seizing upon the immense popularity of video games and using the medium to push content and reach new and younger audiences. In an era when barely 1 in 6 eighth graders measure up to the already low bar of standard knowledge of U.S. History, educators have been turning to the digital in a desperate attempt to reach out and connect with the current generation of digitally-fluent children and adolescents. As studies have shown upwards of 97% of children 12-17 (male and female) engage in some sort of digital gameplay, it is only natural that organizations like WNET explore educational gaming content as a potential vehicle for instilling the information that schools today are unable or unwilling to: “as young people become absorbed by this technology, educational leaders, including the NEH, are increasingly interested in turning it to educational use” (2). Mission America attempts to do this for children 9-13 by immersing the player in a digital recreation of five moments of U.S. history from the point of view of five unique characters: “a young apprentice in pre-Revolutionary Boston, a runaway slave, an assistant in the race to complete the transcontinental railroad, a muckraking journalist in turn-of-the-century New York, and a young Oklahoman whose family migrates to California in the Great Depression” (4).

As the grant makes clear, the role-playing aspect of Mission America is crucial to its mission, which is to “put students inside crucial moments in U.S. history, and help to challenge assumptions about historical inevitability. As participants in the story, players experience multiple perspectives of characters in our nation’s past” (3). The logic, while simple, has a ring of truth to it: if the student can place himself or herself into the narrative of each self-contained story, he or she is far more likely to pay attention to that story. The genius of this method isn’t immediately obvious, but it has profound implications: “[…] our very success in having students identify with the characters could keep them from realizing how different the characters’ world was from their own. […] A solution is to add more historical dissonance – moments when characters defy modern expectations” (18). Regardless whether one classifies it relatability or narcissism, WNET seems to have executed the development of Mission America successfully; despite knowing it was an educational tool meant to instill information (not unlike homework), “students regularly asked for more missions to play, not just at school but at home. They saw Mission America as a ‘school game’ in that it had educational aims, but also recognized it as a fully developed game with its own interest and momentum” (11). Ultimately, what makes Mission America so compelling is perhaps best explained by the grant’s author:

By designing a game that has simultaneously accessible and diverse views— such as loyalist and patriotic—we encourage critiques and revisions of master narratives of the past, encouraging participants to consider new ones. For example, participants each receive a different permutation of scenes from the Boston Massacre, showing snippets of historically grounded interpretations of what might have happened during the event. Thus, no two game experiences are the same, further enabling differing views on how the Boston Massacre unfolded and encouraging deliberation and a more nuanced and holistic perspective of history. (24)


Discussion questions:

  1. At what point does “historical accuracy” in a history simulator become “too accurate”? For instance, the Mir-Owens article brings up the lack of a “slave” unit and the complete omission of disease from the game as points of contention where historical accuracy lost out to modern day sensibilities. As one forum-goer puts it: “Why is it so hard to include Slave unit? Why is it so hard to include a Plague mechanics [sic] which would wipe up entire (and very useful) villages of Natives? If the mod would call itself—Beautiful Colonization—I would agree. But Authentic? Make things ugly, please … or change the name.” Should game designers “make things ugly?” in recreating historical event, and if so, how ugly is too ugly?
  2. Lisa Nakamura’s article brings to light the very real ugliness of sexism and racism that is alive and well online in an allegedly “post-racial” or “post-label” era. How can society realistically combat such a decentralized and widespread problem, and can a lasting or permanent resolution be reached that doesn’t ultimately encroach on freedom of speech?
  3. What are the qualities that make WNET’s grant proposal for Mission America so convincing? And what practical measures could the proposal’s authors take to improve either the game or their pitch?

Horror in the House! Demystifying the Mystery House, Digital Preservation, and Democratization of Media

By Michael Toy

NOTE: Apologies to my classmates for not having this posted sooner. I hope you all get a chance to take a look at this before class Wednesday–it’s a very cool website and a landmark game in the history of video games.

In a week dedicated to exploring and dissecting the many varieties of digital content and how the digital intersects with the physical, it is fitting that we turn our attention to Mystery House Taken Over (MHTO, for the sake of brevity), a website built in homage to the smash-hit and groundbreaking 1980 adventure computer game Mystery House. The game was so popular and influential that even today, nearly three decades later, amateur programmers and game designers continue to create new mods and versions of it. In fact, as recently as 2016 a Mystery House app debuted on the smartphone; now a copy of the original can downloaded in seconds from the app store and played right on one’s phone. MHTO, however, was born during a lull in Mystery House’s popularity and played a decisive role in ensuring that its data and the many works derived from it remain safe in a digital vault.

MHTO is run and maintained by a small cadre of seven or so volunteer bloggers, academics, writers, and programmers that are relatively well known within this niche of the digital world, as many are themselves veteran authors and/or programmers of critically-lauded works within the “interactive fiction” genre—some in the text-based, exploratory vein of Mystery House, others completely and wholly unique unto themselves. The site offers a public and (commendably) free download of the original Mystery House game, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Though simple and unadorned, MHTO’s website also hosts and offers hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of “modded” (professionally- or user-modified) variants of the original, as well as the tools and information necessary for one to create their own mods for Mystery House, or even (in theory at least) their own unique game.
MHTO is essentially a free, one-stop mod shop for both amateur and professional game designers looking to build something new out of the discrete base components that together comprise Mystery House.

However, to best understand MHTO, one must first understand at least the fundamental aspects of its foundation. So, before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the site itself, let’s take a moment to briefly look at the birth and legacy of the historic videogame that started it all: Mystery House.

Mystery House’s official cover art.

The plot of Mystery House, like its graphics and structure is relatively rudimentary, even cliché, by today’s standards. The game opens with the protagonist standing outside of an ominous Victorian mansion (pictured below), the game’s setting, and upon entering finds himself locked inside with seven other characters: Tom the plumber, Sam the mechanic, Sally the seamstress, Dr. Green the surgeon, Joe the gravedigger, Bill the butcher, and Daisy the cook. It is soon discovered that a cache of jewels and riches is hidden somewhere in the house (with a “finders keepers” policy no less), initiating a frenzied search to find it before it’s claimed by another.

The mansion in which Mystery House takes place and as well as the story’s opening graphics.

With a locked door at his back and no choice but to move forward, the player joins the others, who split up to cover more ground. As the player makes his way through the mansion he stumbles across the bodies of the other house guests one by one, at which point the real plot is revealed. Whether it’s one of the other seven guests or some unseen inhabitant of the house, someone used the ruse of jewelry to lure the others and has been slowly but surely eliminating them one by one. Simply put, our protagonist is locked in the mansion with a murderer with only one goal: using clues, caution, rationality, and logic, unmask the murderer before he makes you his next victim and escape with your life.

Left: the mysterious message luring the group inside. Right: the entire cast of characters assembled in the foyer. Admittedly it’s difficult to identify who’s who, considering the five males are exact clones of one another, as are the two females. Though groundbreaking in its field, the artwork is… shall we say, rudimentary.

Though crude by today’s standards, Mystery House’s mechanics worked in much the same way that later graphical adventure and puzzle games would, like the hit 1993 adventure game Myst. Because of technological limitations of the time, the player controls Mystery House’s protagonist by way of a binary input decision tree, which in practice works much like a very long series of “yes-no” questions: “do you want to go upstairs or stay on the main floor? Upstairs: do you want to investigate the master bedroom or go back downstairs? Bedroom: a note on the dresser offers a clue to the treasure’s secret location, do you share this with the others or keep it to yourself?” This allows the player at least a modicum of freedom and choice at a time when most computers simply lacked the complexity, processing power, or memory to engineer or host what’re known today as “sand-box” style games à la Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, or Fallout—the type of game that offers an entire (albeit bounded) world to explore at one’s leisure.

Another groundbreaking aspect of Mystery House, and that which it’s best known for, is that it was the first game of its kind to integrate a text-driven adventure narrative with accompanying digital illustrations of the characters and surrounding environment. Though some argue that it is the first game to integrate text-driven narrative with graphics, period, several “dungeon-crawl” RPGs preceding Mystery House had featured basic graphics linked with text. Mystery House was, however, the first interactive-fiction adventure game to integrate text with graphics on a large scale, and did so well enough that it sold tens of thousands of copies (possibly as high as 80,000 units) by the mid- to late-80s, earned the attention of influential members of the video game industry, and has repeatedly been honored by leading tech and gaming magazines like GamePro and Computer Gaming World as a recurring member of “best” and “most innovative” videogames lists.

Mystery House was conceived of, written, and illustrated by a woman named Roberta Williams and programmed by her husband Ken in the late 1970s. The Williams were inspired after playing a game called Colossal Cave Adventure and, discovering that few if any similar games existed at the time, decided they would simply make their own. Roberta drew influence from a wealth of literature in creating the game’s plot, none more so perhaps than Agatha Christie’s murder mystery And Then There Were None Alive. Since then (somewhat ironically) many games have drawn inspiration from Williams’ work and include small nods, winks, and Easter eggs relating to Mystery House. The couple worked well as a team; Roberta was the creative force, designing the plot, writing the dialogue and textual descriptions, and creating over 70 illustrations for use in-game. Ken, well-versed in programming and eager to make use of the new Apple II computer’s processing power, handled the digitalization of Roberta’s work, translating his wife’s narrative into a digital format meant to fit on a single floppy disk.

Originally marketed for sale by mail order at $24.95, the Williams were shocked to discover that demand was rapidly outweighing supply and quickly sold over 10,000 copies between 1980 and 1982. By 1982 the couple had founded a company called On-Line Systems, which quickly changed to Sierra On-Line, SierraVenture, and ultimately Sierra Entertainment, which only recently dissolved in 2007 following its acquisition by Activision. Under the SierraVenture name the Williams couple re-released an updated copy of Mystery House in 1982, boosting sales higher than ever. By 1987, when the Williams released Mystery House to the public domain, they had sold over 80,000 copies, and later a Japanese company would pick up the title for re-release in Japan, generating similarly impressive and surprising sales overseas.

Since the Mystery House code and software were now free to use by the public, amateur programmers and gamers quickly took advantage of this access to the game’s internal coding and dissect that code almost line by line. This allowed developers and programmers wishing to follow in the Williams’ footsteps to use the underlying structural framework of Mystery House as a foundation upon which to build one’s own graphical adventure games. While the near-simultaneous birth and rise of the Internet in public life certainly facilitated and fanned the flames of this phenomenon, this early gift from the Williams’ to early game development cannot be overlooked. By the new millennium, though the game and the growing number of related mods could still be found online, enthusiasm for this now ancient tech had dwindled precipitously in the face of powerful dedicated gaming consoles like the Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and Xbox.

However, many still remembered Mystery House with a fond nostalgia, and by the early 21st century the videogame community’s desire to preserve this relic of early gaming reached the attention of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc (or NRPA), an organization dedicated to archiving and preserving new and experimental artforms like radio art, sound art, and net art. In 2004, with funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, NRPA commissioned the creation of an official online archive to house the original Mystery House and its countless derivatives: The Mystery House Taken Over project, which can still be reached here Regardless of whether NRPA commissioned to honor its mission of preservation or simply to boost traffic to its official online archives at, the MHTO project has since flourished and has remained online and available to the public for nearly 15 years since its commission in 2004.

Returning to the current Mystery House website, MHTO’s primary purpose is two-fold. First, MHTO serves as a relatively simple and publicly-accessible archive for the countless sequels, spin-offs, remakes, parodies, re-imaginings, original works and other Mystery House mods that have emerged since the original’s 1980 debut. Some of these mods were created by Mystery House’s original designers while others are individual user contributions or collaborative works; unsurprisingly, this means that quality varies wildly from mod to mod, but if one is willing to sift through the duds there are true gems of digital artwork to be found—works that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but technically sound and narratively compelling.

MHTO’s archives are impressive enough in and of themselves, but it’s the website’s other main service that sets it apart and makes it such an interesting specimen to study: that is, providing the tools and the means for both amateur and professional game designers and enthusiasts alike to download the base components of the original Mystery House (or any of its modded derivatives) and use them to create their own original digital project. The process can be somewhat overwhelming for those not familiar with the process, requiring the downloading of several third party programs—to name just a few: 7-Zip (readily available free file decompression software, pictured below), a “Glulx interpreter” like Gargoyle (essentially a player for .blb, or Blorb format files), and most importantly, MHTO’s proprietary creation tool, the MHTO “Occupation Kit,” which contains every single known file, folder, picture, and line of coding of the original game. Using the 7-Zip program to extract and decompress these files, compiled in the “MHTO_kit,” one can easily obtain a full inventory copy of the game’s core commands and individual graphics (pictured below); unfortunately, making effective use of these discrete parts and reassembling them into a working game format is the challenging part.

The compressed files from the MHTO Kit

However, once one has familiarized oneself with the necessary tools, the MHTO Occupation Kit allows those with the time, interest, and skill to create whatever sort of interactive digital art or videogame the author/artist can imagine—within reasonable technological bounds of course. Even the two Williams’ quickly discovered that much of what they had wanted to include in the game was simply too much data to store on the floppy disks available in that era). However, given the level of raw processing power available in even today’s mid-range computers, the speed with which that power is increasing over time, and the democratization of digital archives, assets, and information the boundaries defining the possible and impossible in the world of the digital continue to expand, blur, and even fade away as time marches relentlessly forward.

Mapping the Apocalypse: Michael Toy’s Digital Project Proposal

My digital project proposal, like my paper project proposal, centers around the smash-hit 2015 video game Fallout 4. However, unlike the paper proposal, this project would engage with the game directly; rather than its philosophical influences, historical roots, or political narrative, this project would focus on bringing the Fallout world to the real world. By using a website or program like HistoryPins, I propose what would essentially be a reverse-engineering of the Fallout world back into real space—mapping the big-name, recognizable sites and locations featured in the world of Fallout 4 and mapping them virtually onto the map of Boston, the game’s setting.

In Fallout 4 one follows the adventures of the protagonist, “the Sole Survivor,” who emerges from cryostasis from a secured “vault” in the former suburbs of Boston in the year 2287, a decade after the previous title (Fallout 3) takes place and 210 years after the “Great War,” a nuclear apocalypse brought about by a military exchange between the U.S. and China, ignited by a long durée war over resources that has vague political roots but palpable consequences for the world’s denizens. During their journey to avenge a murdered spouse and recover a long-lost son, the Sole Survivor encounters a number of fictional and real-world sites scattered across the ruins of Boston, now known as “the Commonwealth.” Interestingly, the “virtual sandbox” in which Fallout 4 takes place is modeled after the real city of Boston and, due to the use of the next-gen “Creation Engine” (as first featured previously in the hit game Skyrim), is the most faithful recreation of a real-life location to date in the Fallout series, and possibly the most realistic virtual recreation of a real-life city in the history of video games (though that is sure to change as the virtual limitations of memory storage and computational power are overcome with state-of-the-art technology).

My proposal is to, in essence, take the most important locations featured in Fallout 4 and map them onto the real map of Boston so that those familiar with present-day Boston and the Fallout world’s post-apocalyptic Boston can compare the two in real time and see exactly how the game’s programmers decided to miniaturize an entire city in virtual reality. As the world of Fallout includes hundreds upon hundreds of unique locations, this project would be limited to a small number of the most important and influential locations, such as: the location of Vault 111, the protagonist’s home; the headquarters of “the Institute,” a laboratory carved out of the ruins of MIT that creates synthetic humans and stars as the title’s primary antagonist; “the Railroad,” an underground organization dedicated to saving synthetic humans from the Institute; and the headquarters of “the Brotherhood of Steel,” a militant group of technologically-advanced soldiers opposed to both the Institute and the Railroad. The game also features more than 34 “settlements,” residential areas scattered across Boston and populated by the Wasteland’s denizens that form the newest hubs of civilization in the brutal new world, that could serve as helpful landmarks in mapping the virtual Boston onto real-world locations.
While obviously not an exact or to-scale model of Boston, Fallout 4’s programmers were able to recreate a sufficiently accurate representation of the historic city such that many gamers living in Boston were and are able to locate (at least roughly) the location of their real-world homes in the world of Fallout. The project that I propose would basically reverse this process; rather than finding one’s real-world location in-game, the major locations of Fallout 4 could be cataloged and pinned onto the map of Boston by means of an app or program like HistoryPins, giving users the ability to observe both the accuracy of the programmers’ recreation and the locations featured in-game in relation to landmarks in the real world.