A chance to give back to a quirky, legendary game developer


I always say I feel as if I was raised by the adventure game creators of the 1980s: Wry, cryptic guys and gals who built impossible caves, surreal worlds and kingly empires for me to play in. They feel like family I've never met. Today, let me tell you a little bit about Michael Berlyn.

The Infocom Implementors formed around Zork, one of the most famous games ever—even people who don't really play games know what Zork is. Everyone on that short list of Implementors played a massive role in establishing the lexicon of adventure gaming, and storytelling in games, as we know it. My whole world would be different, I think, if a single one of them had not been there.

That's one of the reasons I've made a hobby out of really studying the history of adventure games in my adulthood, filling in the gaps in my imperfect childhood memories—putting faces and names to the mysterious worlds I would tumble into of an afternoon, worlds that would change the way I played as a child and dreamed as an adult.

Michael Berlyn is a jazz musician, and somehow if you play his games you can tell that—there's a humor and a spontaneity to his signature, a whimsical call-and-response between you, the player, and the system of text with which you'd often be interacting. In the games I've played that he led, the often forbidding and rule-bound medium of text adventuring became warm and constantly surprising. Berlyn went beyond his era's convention of simply delighting in the player's frustration and death—he found new and almost surreal ways to continually break their expectations.

As part of my adventure game video series, Lo-Fi Let's Play, I played Tass Times in Tonetown, which Berlyn made in 1986 with his wife Muffy. There is still nothing like this bizarre and wonderful new-wave coolhunting adventure, so please watch:

Here's his Altered Destiny, a graphically-unique and similarly subversive adventure to a lawless and lovely alien land:

Interestingly, in both these games, you enter a television to find a weird world on the other side. There is a conscientious adoration of pop culture and entertainment in his work even as he simultaneously seems to be gently skewering the recklessness and absurdity of 80s consumer culture. Berlyn was an expressive game designer with a clear personal ethos before it was cool. Or perhaps I should say before it was tone.

Anyway, I just love these games, in fierce and inarticulable and indestructible way. So when I saw that Michael Berlyn currently needs financial help to fight cancer—and the often profoundly-unfair American healthcare system—it was a no-brainer for me to try to help. Maybe you also will be able to help me thank someone who played a role in making the world I play and work in a place I can love. A friend of his has set up a fundraiser for his medical care here.

You can emulate the games mentioned here and others with an emulator like DOSBox and databases like Abandonia.