My best find ever amongst these lost treasures was a series of games made by one Ray Dunakin. Dunakin used a program called World Builder to create his games. World Builder was a program popular in the early 90’s that allowed the user to create adventure games using (crude) images and typed commands. Typically there was a window with graphics and a box that gave you written information about the scene. You could click the scene to search or get information about objects, and you could type commands like ‘talk’ or ‘north’ and ‘south’ to move around.
Strangely, it was the simplicity of this system that made the games feel so open-ended and refreshing. In some of the best games, there was a real feeling that you were exploring a wide-open world full of possibilities.
Dunakin’s series of games begun with Ray’s Maze, followed by A Mess of Trouble, Another Fine Mess and Twisted. The first three form a loose trilogy, as each features foolhardy adventurers who travel through Ray’s Maze looking for treasure. Inside the maze, there are many strange worlds, and players get to travel between them using portals.
My favourite was A Mess Of Trouble. Though all were fiendishly difficult- I literally could not escape the first scene in most of the games- at least in AMOT I could easily travel about using portals, even if I rarely solved the puzzles in the worlds. Exploring them was usually enough for me. My favourite world featured an endless night-time swamp, filled with flaming Chihuahuas. I recall travelling across the wastes until a light beckoned on the horizon- it was the Swamp Gas Inn, a lonely bar filled with disreputable patrons. I drank too much and passed out at the bar. When I awoke, I found that all my money had ben stolen. Ah, those were the days.
I recall a world filled with floating islands attached by cables to one another peopled by beings with strangely-shaped heads who spoke furtively about rebellion against an authorative government. I remember a desert world called Doon, where the rotting hulks of vehicles from an age-old war still littered the sands, and where the paranoid inhabitants of scattered cities refused to grant admission to a weary traveller who arrived at their gates infected by a ‘soul sapper.’ And I still cringe with fear when I think of the many, many times I was destroyed by the red tape of an office drone in a world where bureaucracy became deadly. And whenever things got too hot to handle, I would hope for one of the portals that appeared just when you needed them, to be randomly transported to another time and place. Altogether, I spent many hours traversing the worlds of Ray’s Maze.
And what of the man himself? Ray Dunakin’s original page is still hanging about on the net. The last update is dated from 2001, when Ray was still working on a never-completed 3D game called Morphworld. There’s some shots of what it would have looked like- a poignant glimpse of what happens to the old masters when technology moves on: World Builder became obsolete during the making of the game. It seems there’s no longer room in the gaming world for single-creator products. His games are still downloadable, but they only function on pre OSX operating systems, and I haven’t been able to play them for some years now. Dunakin seems to have gone back to his other hobbies- rocketry, and exploring the ghost towns of rural California (both themes which turn up frequently in his games).
Happily, the games of my next favourite World Builder author, Louise Hope, have been translated for newer OS systems. Check out Palace of Sand, a delicious Arabian Nights-themed adventure. In a nebulously-defined Middle-Eastern setting, the player must venture into the titular palace to rescue his friend Jake, who’s gone looking for the Sultan’s daughter. The graphics are simple but attractive, and in colour to boot. The humour isn’t quite as good as in the Dunakin games, but Hope does have some fun with the medium. The emphasis is more on exploring than fighting, but the setting is great and the game is well worth the download.
Is there a contemporary scene going on now analogous to the golden age of Shareware? Possibly among the Flash artists of the net age- a trawl through the dregs of Newgrounds will eventually provide some very interesting material- in truth, creative amateurs today have far more power at their disposal to create professional, immersive games. But as usual, Sturgeon's Law proves true, and it’s a tough slog through the endless Super Mario spoofs and Strawberry Clock nonsense to get at something good. Writers of these things today have been far more influenced by a very developed video game industry, and you're far more likely to come across a knock-off of standard fantasy RPG games than any of the crazy openness that prevailed in Ray's Maze, back in the pioneer days of yore.