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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.

How The Lord Of The Rings Influenced My Career

My most recent blog posts were about the impact Star Trek and James Bond had on my childhood and how both influenced my career in game development.  The third, but certainly not the least, pop culture in influence on me was The Lord of the Rings, both the books by J.R.R. Tolkien and the films by Peter Jackson.  From my childhood up through today, the One Ring continues to work its influence on me.

Until I was twelve years old, I was much more of a reader of science fiction — especially Silver Age writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein — than of fantasy.  But that all changed when my closest friend in elementary school, Craig Ames, told me about a book he had just read, a book about a magic ring that everyone wanted to get a hold of.  Well, that didn’t sound too exciting to me, but my best friend recommended it, so I had to give it a read.

And read it, I did — all three books in the trilogy, over a three-day weekend.  I was so captivated by the story, it was as if the Balrog of Moria had fallen through the chasm and landed right on top of me.  The sheer depth of imagination Tolkien displayed in creating an entire fictional world astounded me.  The detailing taught me a lot about immersion, which I tried to emulate to a tiny degree in some of the video games I would later create.  But most of all, it was the characters who appealed to me — the wise Gandalf, the steadfast Aragorn, the loyal Sam, and most of all, the martyr Frodo, who saved Middle-earth for everyone except himself.

I then read all of Tolkien’s other works — The Hobbit, of course, the children’s book that Tolkien wrote 1937, thirteen years before its sequel, The Lord of the Rings; his medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham; and his charming short story Leaf by Niggle.  I collected all sorts of reference material others authors wrote describing and analyzing Tolkien’s works, including The Guide To Middle-earth by Robert Foster and The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad.  And of course, there were those wonderful Tolkien calendars illustrated by the Brothers Hildebrandt, which inspired me to draw my own illustrations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and briefly consider an eventual career as an artist.

I was crushed when my mother told me in 1973 that she just read I of Professor Tolkien’s death.  It news affected me more than even the tragic assassinations of the 1960’s, and I shut myself up in my room for a couple of days to mourn the loss of someone who opened a whole new (fantasy) world to me.  However, I was relieved when Tolkien’s son Christopher proved to be so prolific in completing so many other works of his father, such as Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin, and especially, The Silmarillion, a narrative describing the creation and history of Middle-earth.

I lost contact with my friend Craig when we went to separate high schools, so I had no one to share my love of Tolkien’s work with until I went to college.  There I met Lee Garig, who headed up the local chapter of The Tolkien Fellowships, a network of Tolkien fans founded by Bernie Zuber in the 1970s.  Lee introduced me to her chapter, consisting mostly of fellow students at Cal State Northridge.  Everyone adopted the name of a Tolkien character.  Lee was our Frodo, and we also had a Sam (Therese Burr), Merry (Sue Corner), Pippin (Ellen Weinstein), Treebeard (Doug Farjardo), Aragorn (Mark Schlosberg), Boromir (Todd Hansen), Gimli (Albert Monroe), Galadriel (Susie Rose), Celebrian (Kathi Sea), and Fëanor (the late Earl St. Clair).  I adopted the role of Legolas, despite my dark hair, mainly because I thought archery was cool (long before it became cool in current movies).

Not only did our group meet monthly to discuss Tolkien’s works, we hung out and did everything together: attending science fiction conventions, watching movies (including Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Lord of the Rings), going to Renaissance Fairs and Society of Creative Anachronism medieval tournaments, and marching in Pasadena’s annual Doo-Dah Parade (a parody of the Tournament of Roses parade).  Our Fëanor also ran game sessions of his own version of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that taught me many fundamental principles of game design, including systems, randomness and theme.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to develop a game based on Tolkien’s works.  The closest I came was when I was hired as development director of The 3DO Company’s Heroes of Might & Magic franchise, an extremely popular fantasy turn-based-strategy game.  The armies that the player accumulates consist of all sorts of fantasy creatures, including Tolkien-inspired ones such as elves, dwarves, and halflings (the word “hobbit” is trademarked by Middle-earth Enterprises, and so we couldn’t use it).  I even got to become a character in the game when I returned from a short vacation and found that my development team had adding in a “Sir Mullich” character with this description: “Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster.”  Okay, it wasn’t as cool as Legolas, but I allowed them to keep it in the game.

One day while taking a break from my Heroes work, I was looking at a list of upcoming film productions the movie website Ain’t It Cool News and was shocked to see that Lord of the Rings was going to be made into a live action film.  Now, I had seen Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of half the story (his film only covered events up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but he wasn’t able to secure funding to do a second film chronicling the rest of the story).  I couldn’t see how Tolkien’s characters and world could be done in live-action, and I started reading everything I could online about the film’s production.

A lot of other Tolkien fans were interested in the films as well, many of who were skeptical of the project being undertaken by a director known previously only for low-budget horror films and fearful of what liberties he might take with the story.  The director, Peter Jackson, became an instant celebrity in his home country of New Zealand, where he was filming the picture, and so the local press produced a news story about the production at least once a day.  Much of what they reported did sound alarming to Tolkien purists — Saruman dying by falling on a spiked wheel and Legolas riding a surf shield in battle — but there were also a lot of false rumors being reported by fans, such as Arwen becoming a member of the Fellowship.

To separate fact from rumor, I began compiling a list of all the documented changes Jackson was making to the storyline for his adaptation, as well as the rumors that I could prove to be false.  I eventually published this list, which I called Ancalagon’s Complete List of Film Changes, on every Tolkien message board I could find.  Soon I became more famous for being the author of this list than I was for my work in game development, and I was being interviewed as a “Tolkien expert” in everything from the local newspaper to an article Wired magazine published on Tolkien fandom.

The most popular Tolkien message board on the internet, Tolkien Online (aka, run by Jonathan Watson and Ted Tschopp, offered a permanent home for Ancalagon’s list, as well as an opportunity to be a news reporter and message board moderator.  As moderator, my main task was to stop flame wars between Tolkien purists and “revisionists” (those who accepted story changes as necessary in a film adaptation).  However, the real fun for me was being a news reporter, which provided me with an outlet for my obsessions with the films: one day I published a total of 27 Tolkien-related news articles.

My biggest scoop came when a fan contacted me with a link to a file stored on New Line Cinema’s server that proclaimed that Donald Sutherland would be playing Denethor.  What made this exciting news was that actor John Noble was supposed to be portraying the role.  So, like any investigative reporter, I managed to track Noble down and ask him via email whether he was still in the movie.  Unfortunately, he declined to answer my questions and instead directed me to New Line’s Online Marketing representative, Wendy Rutherford, who always had been very nice to us Tolkien news sites, sending us all sorts of promotional materials, but quite properly admonished me to trying to speak to the actors directly.  I never did find out what the Donald Sutherland connection was all about.

One Lord of the Rings actor I was able to meet in person was Sean Astin, who played Frodo’s loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee.  About a month before The Fellowship of the Ring premiered, Sean appeared at a Beverly Hills bookstore-signing event for a movie art book.  I covered the event for Tolkien Online and brought my oldest son, Ben, who was 8-years-old at the time, and we got to have a picture taken with our favorite Hobbit, who many readers (including myself) consider to be the real hero of the story.

Ben was an accomplished reader for his age, and when our local Barnes & Noble bookstore in Santa Clarita started hosting a weekly Lord of the Rings reading group, it was an easy sell to convince him to go with me every Tuesday night.  One evening, a new member showed up at our group — Chris Pirotta, who I knew by the nickname Calisuri, the webmaster of the most popular Tolkien news site on the internet, TheOnerRing.Net.  What made this an even more amazing coincidence was that Chris had just moved to Santa Clarita from Pennsylvania because his fiancé was attending college there.

Now, there had been a history of animosity between our two sites because Tolkien Online had managed to snag the domain name just minutes before TheOneRing.Net did, and so they wound up with the less popular .net prefix.  However, Calisuri and I became friends, and we worked to end the feud between our two sites.  In fact, Calisuri invited Jonathan, Ted and myself to the lavish Oscar parties they hosted from 2002 through 2004, when The Lord of the Rings films were nominated for awards.  After the Oscar ceremonies, the film cast and crew would show up at the TheOneRing.Net’s party first, to thank the fans for their support of the films.  The 2004 Party was particularly memorable because The Return of the King had swept the Oscars that night, and afterwards Peter Jackson himself, along with Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, screenwriter Philippa Boyens, and composer Howard Shore, among others, came to our party.

Once the three films were released, my obsession with them started to ebb.  I did interview for two jobs as on Lord of the Rings online.  The first was as a development director at developer Turbine Studios, but although everyone agreed I was a perfect fit, I couldn’t agree to relocate to the East Coast.  A couple of years later, I interviewed for a producer position at publisher Warner Brothers Interactive in Burbank, but although I thought I was a perfect fit, I wasn’t offered the position.   As for my son Ben, his interest in The Lord of the Rings waned, but he took up a new interest: Harry Potter.  He was such an articulate fan of the books and the films, that for nine years, he became the official Harry Potter expert of Los Angeles’ most popular morning radio program, The Bill Handel Show, where he gave a review of each new Potter book and film as it came out.

Tolkien became an active presence in my life again when Peter Jackson produced his trilogy of films based on The Hobbit.  Although the films themselves were not of the quality of Jackson’s Rings films, the did provide an opportunity for TheOneRing.Net to hold a new trilogy of Oscar Parties, the final one being at The American Legion Hall in Hollywood.  Once again, Calisuri was kind enough to invite my wife, Charlotte, and me to this fun event, where we had an opportunity to cavort with other Tolkien fans.

The excitement surrounding The Hobbit films also turned my youngest son Timothy into a Tolkien fan — maybe an even bigger one than I am.  He watches the Lord of the Rings films incessantly and his room is decorated with all sorts of Tolkien memorabilia that he has collected at film events and been given as Christmas presents.  Even the Legolas costume he wore one Halloween was far better than the one I used to wear in my college days (and his hair is appropriately blonde too!).

Timothy also had an opportunity to meet Sean Astin, just as his brother Ben did 14-years-ago.  Sean is hosting a new documentary show about the game industry, and a couple of months ago, he and a film crew visited The Los Angeles Film School to do a segment about our Game Production program.  As the coordinator for the event, I made arrangements to have Sean meet Timothy, who later told me, “That was the coolest thing ever!”

I couldn’t have put it better myself1  Forty-five years after I first read The Lord of the Rings, it continues to be the coolest thing ever!  J.R.R. Tolkien created a world so immense and immersive, that it continues to overlap into my own.