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History of Interactive Fiction: Level 9

by Stephen Granade

In its heyday, Level 9 was one of the foremost British adventure game companies. It dominated the early 8-bit market, managing to squeeze large adventures into tiny amounts of memory. It was a family company which was started by Pete Austin and eventually employed Pete's two brothers, his sister, and his father.

Pete Austin began working with computers while a student at Cambridge University. After graduation he worked for a year and a half as a programming consultant, programming business packages for banks and other companies. Eventually tiring of this, he took a job with Perkin-Elmer, a manufacturer of mainframe computers. It was there that he discovered Colossal Cave. He loved it, spending his lunch hours playing it.

In 1982, while still working for Perkin-Elmer, Pete formed Level 9 with his brothers Mike and Nick. Level 9's first product wasn't an adveture game; rather, it was an extension to BASIC for a small computer known as the NASCOM.

It wasn't long before the Austins turned their hands to adventures, however. They decided to create a version of Colossal Cave for the BBC micro and Sinclair Spectrum. It took them a year to make Colossal Cave fit in 32k of memory and on a cassette tape, but they were so successful that they had enough space left over to expand the endgame, adding some seventy-odd locations to the original game. They called the result Colossal Adventure.

Along the way Michael Austin created a language known as a-code, and Pete wrote a recursive text compression engine which shrunk the game text over multiple passes. While the compression engine allowed Level 9 to fit large games into a small amount of space, it also meant that the first Level 9 games displayed text rather slowly.

Colossal Adventure was a huge success. The three brothers, soon joined by their sister Margaret who handled marketing, followed Colossal Adventure with two sequels set in Tolkein's Middle Earth: Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure. Together the three games formed the Middle Earth trilogy, later known as the Jewels of Darkness trilogy.

Between Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure, the Austins wrote Snowball, in which you played Kim Kimberly, secret agent. You had to keep "Snowball 9", a colony ship, from crashing into its destination, a planet known as Eden. Level 9 proudly boasted that Snowball had 7,000 rooms. The boast was true, even if 6,800 of those rooms formed a color-coded maze with minimal descriptions.

From there Level 9 took off. The Austins created a compression method for line drawings, letting them add pictures to their adventures. Their games became known for their size -- all had over 200 rooms -- and for their detailed worlds, as well as for the occasional spelling mistake. The Austins worked on extending their two-word parser and improving the graphics capabilities of their engine to take advantage of the newly-available 16-bit machines.

During this time adventures continued to pour out of Level 9. Sequels to Snowball were written, creating the Silicon Dreams trilogy. The final game, The Worm in Paradise, featured the new graphics engine and an ambitious plot which tackled politics and government. By 1986 all of the games in the Silicon Dreams and Jewels of Darkness trilogies were spruced up, given graphics, and re-released.

Level 9 also created games based on pre-existing movies and books. Although a planned Dr. Who adventure fell through, in 1984 Level 9 released an adventure based on Terry Jones' book Erik the Viking. They also created Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style games based on the popular children's book The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 and on the British soap opera The Archers.

After re-releasing their early games in 1986, the Austins made one last version of their adventure engine. The new engine used bitmapped graphics, had an improved parser, and allowed the creation of independent non-player characters (NPCs). It also implemented a GO TO command which would allow you to move about the game world quickly. This last enhancement required that the map for adventures using this engine be laid out on a square grid, reducing the charm of the Level 9 adventures in the eyes of many game players.

The adventures written with this engine were so large that they were broken up into three consecutive parts. The best known of these was Knight Orc, in which you played an orc who had to deal with NPCs who were trying to kill him. Many of the NPCs were parodies of various players on British Telecom's MUD2 online game.

Level 9 produced several adventures with this engine in 1987 and 1988. In 1989 Level 9 released Scapeghost, in which you played the ghost of a slain police officer and had to find out who betrayed you and your partner. It was to be Level 9's final adventure.

Level 9 made one other game after that: Champion of the Raj, which was published in 1991 to bad reviews. Shortly thereafter, the company ceased operations.

Since then, fans of Level 9 games have kept them alive. Though the game are no longer available legally, there are FTP sites available which have versions of the early games for the Spectrum and Spectrum emulators for modern computers. But you don't have to use a Spectrum emulator: Glen Summers and David Kinder have written a Level 9 interpreter which runs on everything from Amiga to Windows to Linux to Mac.

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