Category Archives: My Career

My Life As A Videogame Character

Of the sixty or so videogames I have developed, perhaps my favorite was the Heroes of Might & Magic series, thanks in large part to how well we development leads got along with each other.  While we worked very hard, we also took the time to have fun with each other.  For example, after I had returned from a week’s vacation with my family, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, had told me that they had added a new character to the Armageddon’s Blade expansion in my absence, and he wanted me to review and approve it.

The character the had named the character they added “Sir Mullich”, and the artwork was based on a photograph of me dressed in a Renaissance Fair costume that I had put on a few months earlier for a photograph used as reference for the town leaders in Might & Magic VI, a role-playing game set in the same fictional universe developed by our sister team at New World Computing. However, it was the character’s description that really got to me: Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster. As I read it, the rest of the team hovered about, waiting to see how I would react.

Fortunately for everyone, I laughed at their joke about my leadership skills (or lack thereof), but told them that they could keep the character (and its description) in the game.  Little did I realize how long that character would live on.  Not only did Sir Mullich appear in all of the Heroes of Might & Magic games that our team launched from 1999 to 2002, but the character lived on in the Heroes games that Ubisoft continued to develop after buying the franchise from our parent company, The 3DO Company.

“Sir Mullich” also lives on in the many Heroes sites that the series’ fans publish, and I was amazed that when I entered the name into Google for this article, it received 10,600 results. Even more unsettling, I occasionally receive fan mail from all around the world, sometimes with the fans posing with a picture of me.  I may not be famous in America, but apparently I have a large enough following in Eastern Europe for my photo to have been hung up in a gamer’s lounge in Poland or there to be Russian fan art of Sir Mullich in DeviantArt.

What most tickles me is the artwork that is produced for this character, which seems to make Sir Mullich less spasmodic and more heroic with each iteration.  Just this morning, my contact at Ubisoft, Julien Pirou sent me some fantastic artwork of Sir Mullich created for Might & Magic Era of Chaos, a mobile game released in China.  It’s a far more heroic depiction of me than anyone in real life would think, and having created a game that has a worldwide appeal two decades later actually makes me feel more humbled than heroic.

An even stranger experience for me was meeting the real-life incarnation of a video game I had worked on.  The protagonist of Dark Seed II, a horror-themed adventure game I had produced for game publisher Cyberdreams based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, was named Mike Dawson.  This character was the same as the hero of the first game in the series, whose name and likeness was based on the original game’s programmer.

When I joined Cyberdreams in 1993, Mike Dawson had already left the company, but I did get to meet him twenty years when I joined The Los Angeles Film School, where he taught Game Programming courses.   Far from being the tormented and tortured soul from the Dark Seed series, Mike is an impressively normal guy (albeit with a sly sense of humor), but one who is far more heroic than his video-game counterpart for being an absolutely outstanding teacher who just celebrated ten years at The Los Angeles Film School, where he consistently receives the highest praise from his programming students.

So, what’s it like to be someone who is far less heroic than his video game counterpart but having known someone who is actually far more than his? I’m good with that.  I originally got into game development to use computers as a storytelling tool, and so I’m thrilled to entertain people with fictional stories that they continue with their own fan art and fan fiction. But even more importantly, it’s given me many opportunities to meet people like Mike Dawson who inspire me with their real-life stories.

In Memory Of Harlan Ellison: My Literary Idol, And For An All-Too Brief Time, My Friend

One of the highlights of my game development career was working with legendary author Harlan Ellison on adapting his classic short story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” into a video game published by Cyberdreams in 1995. Last week, I was saddened to learn, along with millions of his other admiring readers, that Harlan had passed away during his sleep at the age of 84. He left behind his loving wife, Susan, as well as a body of work marking him as one of the most influential speculative fiction writers of the twentieth century.

I met with Harlan only a handful of times, but I feel like I knew him my entire life. He wrote my favorite episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”, of one of my favorite television shows, Star Trek, of which I instantly became a fan while watching its premiere when I was eight years old. It was Star Trek’s first time travel story, in which one of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s Doctor McCoy steps through a time portal and inadvertently changes history by saving a woman, Edith Keeler, from being killed in an automobile accident. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock go back in time and prevent McCoy from intervening in Keeler’s death, despite Kirk having fallen in love with her. I adored that episode for its weighty theme that would in later Star Trek stories be stated as “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and the emotional depth of Kirk’s sacrifice.

However, a few years later, I read in Stephen Whitfield’s book The Making of Star Trek that although Harlan received sole credit for writing the script, it was actually extensively rewritten by series producer Gene Coon and script supervisor D.C. Fontana, for Harlan’s teleplay being prohibitive expensive to shoot and the characters not behaving as per the writer’s guide. It was this revised version that was filmed and went on to win the Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation,” while Harlan’s original teleplay won Writers Guild of America award for “Best Episodic Drama on Television.” Harlan accepted both awards, but complained bitterly over the next several decades about having been rewritten.

It had been an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. In 1975, I saw an episode of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow talk show in which Harlan appeared with actors DeForest Kelly, James Doohan and Walter Koenig to discuss Star Trek, and Harlan dominated the hour by blasting the series. I later asked Doohan at a Star Trek convention about what he thought of what Harlan said, and Doohan replied, “I wanted to punch him in the nose.”

Many people felt that way about Harlan, for he had a reputation for being argumentative, abrasive, and cantankerous. I first saw him in person on a writers panel at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention, where he verbally eviscerated people with whom he had worked in the past and skewered the sacred cows of those present as he discussed atheism, Scientology, violence and sexuality. As latecomers entered the room, he enthusiastically welcomed them with “Welcome to the Butt Fuck Hour!” While his personality was 180 degrees from my own, I had to admit that I admired him for being such a gleefully outspoken iconoclast.

Yet Harlan was able to channel his inner demons into a prolific career writing some of the most disturbing and riveting words ever put to paper, comprised of 1,700 short stories, more than 100 books, and dozens of scripts, as well as a wide range of criticism and essays covering literature, film, television, and print media. His work won numerous literary awards, including multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgars.

Arguably his greatest work was his 1967 Hugo Award winning story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.” First published in an issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. It is a dystopian tale of an insane supercomputer named AM that destroys the Earth’s entire population in a nuclear holocaust, save for five individuals who it has mercilessly kept alive for mercilessly humiliate and torture for the next 100 years. I first read this unforgettably horrific tale in the anthology, “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time,” and it instantly became my own favorite story, for I was an innocent and wholesome lad who nevertheless had a wide-eyed fascination of the grotesque and dangerous, dipping my toes every once in a while into their murky waters. That and other chilling stories inspired me to later create video games that occasionally explored the dark side of humanity.

And so when I next saw Harlan in person at the 1994 Game Developers Conference with game designer David Sears announcing that they were adapting “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” into a video game for Cyberdreams, I thought, “That should be me up there with Harlan.” My envy turned into prophesy when, a few months later, Cyberdreams president Pat Ketchum offered me a job as a producer at his company, and I was put in charge of “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”’s development, with David Sears having left the project to accept a position elsewhere.

My first meeting with Harlan was more of a social occasion – a Cyberdreams party to celebrate the company’s next wave of games. In addition to Harlan, other partygoers included two other Cyberdreams collaborators, Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax and Blade Runner’s hover car designer Syd Mead, as well as a local television news team. Harlan was already a bit giddy when I introduced myself to him as the game’s new producer, David Mullich. “Bullocks?”, he impishly replied. “Like the department store?” He then moved on to film a piece for the television crew.

A couple of weeks later, giving myself time to fully get acquainted with the design work that had been done on the game so far – a half-completed game design document, a set of storyboards, and some prototype gameplay – I went to have my first subsequent conversation with Harlan at his home. It was a rather unremarkable house in the upper-middle-class hilly neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, save for the stone gargoyles that stood watch around the roof’s perimeter and were protected from thieves and vandals by a coil of razor wire.

Harlan didn’t remember me from the party when I opened the door. When I reintroduced myself as the game’s new producer, he muttered with irritation about the rotating staff at Cyberdreams and directed me to plug in my computer at booth in the kitchen. As I spent a few minutes trying to locate the power outlet (it was built into the booth, facing up, with a potted plant sitting on top of it), he hurled some barbs at me about being “another member of the Cyberdreams brain trust.” Fortunately, I expected him to be difficult to work with, and so I ignored his insults.

I understood from his past history was that what Harlan wanted most was not to have others make him look bad – or rather, not distort his work, especially in a medium with which he was unfamiliar. So, as I was showing him the work in progress, I explained to him that I was not just a fan of his work, but that I’ve had success in creating other games with dark psychological themes, particularly my adaptation of the surreal spy television series, The Prisoner. Eventually, his sneers turned into nods, and I saw that I was gaining his trust.

I needed that trust, because it was up to me to finish writing David Sear’s design document, because Harlan had a thousand projects going on at once and no time to do more than meet with me every few weeks. The first time I showed him a dialog scene I had written, he looked at it and said, “Who wrote this shit?” When told him that I did, he immediately reddened and apologized. I replied, “That’s okay. Compared to you, my writing is shit. So, go and make it better.” He then retreated into his office for a half hour while I sat in the kitchen, watching a Spider-man toy figure appearing to climb up the kitchen cabinets. When Harlan returned, he handed me back a much better written scene.

Eventually my confidence grew to the point where I could criticize his work. He would occasionally have me a rewrite that I wasn’t happy with, and when I told him, “Harlan, you can do better than this,” he would agree and go back to his office to do another draft. Occasionally, I would indulge my fan boy curiosity by asking him questions about his life. One time when I stayed late enough for us to get some Thai food delivered to us for dinner, I talked about my time working as The Walt Disney’s Company’s first video game producer. Harlan then told me that he too had worked for Disney, but was fired on the first day when he stood up in the Studio commissary and described how he wanted to make an animated pornographic film with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Harlan’s charming wife, Susan, had joined us for dinner, and she told us the story of how they had met in pub in Great Britain.  I don’t remember whether she said that he had thrown a bottle at her, or she at him, but knowing Ellison’s lascivious reputationit was probably the latter.

While his behavior was often profane, he could be compassionate. At the end of the year I sent him a copy of our family Christmas letter, in which we described our infant son’s battle with cancer. (Our son eventually won that battle and grew up to be a fine man, but it was a difficult period for my wife and me, and I channeled that horrific experience into the dialog I wrote into the game.) After Harlan received the let, he called me to ask me why I would send a Christmas let to someone who was Jewish, but then asked me with sincerity and concern about my son and how he was doing.

One of my favorite memories of Harlan was when it was time to cast voices for the game. One of my friends knew John DeLancie, who had played the mischievous, omnipotent being Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I thought he would be perfect for the voice of the insane supercomputer AM. When I told Harlan that I had spoken to DeLancie on the phone and he was interested in the part, Harlan immediately said, “No! No one from Star Trek.” Knowing the story behind his experience on Star Trek, I was not surprised. “Why don’t you perform the role?” I suggested. “You as an evil supercomputer is perfect typecasting!” Harlan agreed.

On the day we recorded AM’s dialog, I sent a limousine to drive Harlan to the recording studio from his home. As he got out of the car, I could see that he was upset. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He told me that he had barked at Susan that morning, and he was feeling guilty about it. “Susan’s a lovely person, and you should feel bad about yelling at her,” I said. “But she’s loved you all these years, and she’ll still love you when you get home, so let’s get to work now.” He seemed to brighten up at that.

I discovered that underneath his curmudgeonly, abrasive exterior, Harlan was actually quite a caring but insecure person. If you earned his trust, I found he was quite charitable.   The night that “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” won the Game Developers Conference Award for “Best Game Adapted From Linear Media,” I called Harlan from the ceremony and told hem, “You won!” He immediately shot back, “WE won? That’s great!”

He put his warm sentiments to paper too. When Computer Gaming World awarded the game with their “Best Adventure Game of the Year Award”, Harlan wrote a letter to the editors thanking them for the honor, but informing them that they failed to mention my name in addition to him and David Sears:

“David Sears and I worked very hard on I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. And we both get our accolades in your presentation. But someone else who had as much, or more, to do with bringing this project to fruition… is David Mullich. He was the project manager and designer after David Sears moved on. He worked endlessly, and with what Balzac called ‘clean hands and composure’ to produce a property that would not shame either of us. It simply would not have won your award had not David Mullich mounted the barricades.”

I’m thankful to have that thoughtful gesture with which to cherish his memory. But sadly, it was one of the last times we communicated, and I regret not having continued our friendship after the game was completed. It is said that one should never meet one’s heroes, for they will always disappoint you, but Harlan was someone who never disappointed.