14 - Lode Runner

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A screenshot of Lode Runner for the Apple II

The story of how a terrible description of the Donkey Kong arcade game led to the creation of Lode Runner, one of the greatest games of all time and one of the earliest games with a built-in level editor.

Lode Runner Legacy is available for Windows and Nintendo Switch. An official remake of the original game is also available on Android and iOS.

(Partial) Transcript

Doug Smith was a student and part-time computer centre consultant at the University of Washington in 1982 when he came upon a game development project for the VAX-11 minicomputer called Kong. It was primarily the work of James Bratsanos, who'd created an earlier version of it — a prototype, if you will, called Suicide — for the Commodore PET the previous year at high school.

James didn't often play games. He just liked to code, to devise the methods by which magic could happen on a screen. He hadn't even played the game that inspired Kong, or Suicide. Which isn't much of a surprise, given how different these prototypes were to that game.

Suicide took its cue from an excited but vague description a friend had given James of the Donkey Kong arcade game. As such, it was reminiscent of something you might have heard about Donkey Kong fourth- or fifth-hand, like from a friend who had heard about it from a friend of theirs who had watched somebody else play for 10 minutes. Which is to say recognisable only to the barest of degrees — comparable only if you squint at it for a few seconds and walk away.

In any case, Suicide starred an '@' symbol that the player would steer around levels collecting stuff while evading a group of pursuing monsters. It had platforms and ladders, and your little @ hero could dig holes immediately to its left or right — but not directly down — to temporarily reshape the environment. To plot an escape route, perhaps, or to temporarily trap those pursuing monsters — who would take a few seconds to climb out of any holes they fell into.

This was the game's first touch of genius. Giving players the chance to also dig directly down would have been interesting, but it would have limited the possibility space. In a game with gravity, digging down beneath your character's feet means falling. It means easy escapes in a tight spot. But digging down to either side of the character presupposes strategising and planning. It forces the player to think their way out of a jam and allows the designer to craft mini-puzzles within each stage, to hide things beneath layers of platforms — like, for instance, a gold block tucked beneath a double-thick platform that's three blocks wide, in which case the player would have to dig two adjacent holes, drop into the space they just created, then dig again to create a path to the gold.

This first bit of systemic brilliance was intentional, but the second was much less so.

Each time the computer ticked through another processing cycle, the game would loop through all the objects in the level, one after another, and adjust the paths taken by the monsters — who always tried to follow the shortest route to reach the player, and so would only move somewhere if it meant closing the distance between them.

This was a simple choice, from a programming standpoint, but it fundamentally affected the game's design. James' algorithmic approach imbued the monsters with an illusion of intelligence. Where most other games of the era would set their enemies on predefined paths or move them according to behavioural patterns, here they seemed to ponder — to scheme — about how to best catch their prey. Occasionally they would stop and stand still. Sometimes, like when the player dropped down a big distance, they'd radically change their path and snap off in a different direction, their movement filled with a new sense of purpose.

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The Life & Times of Video Games

The Life & Times of Video Games: A documentary and narrative-style audio series about video games and the video game industry — as they were in the past, and how they came to be the way they are today.

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