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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.

 

 

 

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How Halloween Influenced My Career In Game Development

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. As a child I loved dressing up in costume and going trick-or-treating. It wasn’t so much the collecting candy that I enjoyed but going out at night and visiting unfamiliar houses, which were made even more foreboding with cobwebs, skeletons, and graveyards on the lawn. It felt like I was doing something dangerous, and trick-or-treating was about as dangerous a think that this straight-and-narrow kid during his middle-class, suburban childhood.

Since I couldn’t walk amongst vampires, werewolves, and mummies every day, I developed an interest in the Universal Monster horror film franchise and watched the ghoulish adventures of Frankenstein, Dracula, and my favorite, the Wolf Man.  I begged my mom to let me stay up past midnight on Saturday nights to watch a late night horror film show on a local television program, and that introduced me to zombies, demons and other supernatural creatures.  Later on, as a teenager, I’d go to the movie theater with friends to watch films coming out of the new slasher horror film genre: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare On Elmstreet.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to be a member of the audience, I had to be an active participant in the horror genre.  No, I didn’t become a serial killer, but I did buy myself a Ouija board for contacting the Other Side and tried to hold seances.  When no one from the Other Side showed up, I built haunted house attractions in my garage and charged them a quarter to pull them on a wagon through scenes of bubbling cauldrons and simulated horror.

Eventually I moved on to college and discovered how a computer could be used for a storytelling medium.  What a perfect way to tell a horror story, I thought!  A computer was able to create an environment that was both immersive and surprising, yet do it in a way that was completely safe.  What better way to lure in my unsuspecting victims?!

Unfortunately, fantasy and science fiction were the favored genres for video games, not horror.  When I joined The Walt Disney Company as a game producer, I wanted to produce a video game based on my favorite Disneyland ride, The Haunted Mansion.  However, it was a tough sell.  Instead of recreating the “frightfully funny” experience of the ride, I wanted to explore ways to make a computer game actually frightening, just as I had experimented with my earlier game The Prisoner in making players feel trapped and manipulated.  But Disney wasn’t willing to take such risks at that time — especially not with one of their more cherished attractions, and I was never able to get the project beyond the talking stage with developers.

I found a more receptive employer for my more macabre ideas when I joined Cyberdreams, a small game publisher specializing in game developed in collaboration with famous names from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.  One of my first projects was to produce a sequel to the award-winning horror game Dark Seed, based on the artwork of H.R. Giger.  I put together a Dream Team of horror writers: Raymond Benson, who had designed Stephen King’s The Mist for MicroProse; Keith Herber, who had written scenarios for the H.P. Lovecraft horror RPG Call of Cthulhu (which I played quite extensively while I was at Disney) to write dialog; and horror novelist John Shirley to critique the story, which chronicled protagonist Mike Dawson’s descent into madness as he crosses from our normal world to the Giger-inspired Dark World.  Alas, the game turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, and it received mediocre reviews.

Much more successful was another game that I produced at the same time, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, based on Harlan Ellison’s classic short story about the last five people on Earth, kept alive and psychologically tortured by a malevolent, all-power computer.  We embellish the short story by telling the backstory of each of the characters, each about such horrific topics as cannibalism, physical abuse, rape, and the Holocaust.  This game was a mishmash of science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but it all came together somehow and went on to win many awards.

I thought I would have similar luck when we signed a deal with Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and other horror films.  He provided us with a scenario about a house that came alive, but being a very busy person, allowed us to take the concept from there.  I got as far as producing a prototype of the game to show at the 1997 Game Developers Conference,  but even though it won About Games magazine’s Bronze Medal for Interactive Fiction, Craven’s agent was not impressed and she cancelled the project.

My greatest success in the horror genre came when I joined Activision, and I was assigned to produce the in-progress development of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.  The developer, Troika Games, was behind schedule since they were using Valve’s Source Engine, which was still in development.  I managed to get the game on track, but it was so overdue that we run out of funding when it still needed a couple more weeks of polishing.  Fortunately, the fans took over with mods to fix some of the problems after it was launched, and the horror game has since been recognized as one of the best computer RPG’s of all time.

Still, I haven’t felt I had a chance to fully experiment with how to best design a game to create a frightening experience, as all of the games I produced relied more on a horrifying premise for telling their story.  Perhaps some day I’ll be given a chance to develop game mechanics that create the sensation of fear.  After all, the night is still young.