Posts Tagged ‘Sierra On-Line’

I edited a couple of trade magazines in the 1990s. When you edit any kind of specialty magazine, you find that boredom seeps in like water in an old rowboat. There are only so many ways you can present the same subject, to keep it readable, informative, and interesting to read.

It’s a struggle, but you won’t hear any complaints from me. There are enormous rewards that come with the editor’s blue pencil: wealth, celebrity, power, eager-to-please interns, the respect of your fellow editors, the adoration of your writers, and a bitchin’ sound system in your office.

Notice to our readers
There are several errors in our current post. “wealth” should read “health insurance.” “celebrity” probably refers to Run-DMSteve’s appearance on the front page of the Idaho Statesman in 2003. The reference to “power” is puzzling, but it might have something to do with shaking Al Gore’s hand in 1999 without being pummeled by the Secret Service.

In addition, Run-DMSteve has never been granted access to an intern, editors are too busy drinking to speak to each other, writers adore you only when you’re approving their invoices, and Run-DMSteve had to buy the sound system with his own money. We regret these errors.

My first magazine was published by Sierra On-Line, which made computer games. Sierra was chaotic and dangerous, a knife fight without any rules, but I never had trouble making those pages interesting.

My second magazine was published by Visio, which made drawing and diagramming software. The company was well-run but their products put me to sleep. I figured our readers must’ve had the same challenge. This is why I searched for unusual Visioids to profile. For example, there was a gentleman who used Visio to position the cameras for the Oscars broadcast, and a writer who visualized her complicated love life thanks to our software. I hope the latter story gave engineers around the world something different to think about.

Sadly, I never got to run our story about the Midwest cemetery administrator who used Visio software to keep track of his “residents.” That would’ve been my Halloween issue.

Not all who play chess are lost
In September 2002, the editors of Chess Life published an interview with Ray Charles and splashed his photo on the cover. Jackpot! Bingo! Touchdown! This issue must’ve been extremely popular because I can never find one on eBay. Everyone’s hiding their copy in their sock drawer. Here’s the only image I can find.

Ray Charles learned to play chess in 1965 while he was in a hospital kicking his heroin addiction. He basically traded addictions. Unlike most blind players, who play by calling out the moves in chess notation (if you’ve ever played Battleship, you’re halfway to learning chess notation), Charles played by feeling the pieces. I suppose this is similar to how he played the piano. He used a special board with raised dark squares and lowered light squares. The black pieces had sharper edges than the white pieces. Each piece had a peg in the bottom and each square had a hole.

“I’m nowhere near what you call a master. I’m just a person who plays chess,” he said in the story. “I don’t care if I lose. I try not to, but I just love to play.”

Charles was interviewed by Grandmaster Larry Evans, a former U.S. chess champion and a long-time columnist for Chess Life. Naturally, they played a game while they talked. Evans didn’t play full-out (he admitted as much later), which I’ve learned is always a mistake when playing children. They learn more when they play the real you, plus your sub-par moves sometimes return to bite you in the ass. Sure enough, Charles, who was a better player than he let on, came close to a draw.

At one point in the game, Evans warned Charles that if Charles moved a certain piece, Evans would be free to make a devastating counter-move. Charles said, “You’ve got your rights, brother.”

Charles also knew how to cut to the game’s essence. “You don’t just move pieces,” he said. “You have to have a reason. So you say to yourself, if I do this and he does that, then what will I do?” I’ve been trying to teach this simple concept for YEARS! But instead of slowing down and thinking, my chess kids invariably plunge ahead as if they were about to miss the ice cream truck.

Chess and music live on the same street
Ray Charles was not the only musician who loved chess. Here’s a partial list: Sonny Bono, David Bowie, Ludacris, Jay Z, LL Cool J, Kurt Cobain, John and Yoko, Wu-Tang Clan (the entire group), Phish (ditto), and some one-worders: Madonna, Cher, Moby, Nelly, Bono, and Sting. In fact the best thing I’ve ever read about Sting is that he has an estate somewhere with a giant chessboard built into the landscaping.

I haven’t even gotten to all the jazz and classical musicians who play or played chess. But the only country western musician that I know of who qualifies was…Ray Charles (Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, vols. 1-2, 1961).

All of this is the leadup to a sad truth: There’s little to say about Charles’ career in the 1970s, my current topic. I don’t believe he was capable of recording a bad album, but like all gods he was capable of recording unnecessary albums, and the ’70s were a long line of them.

Note: There are many necessary Ray Charles records. Here are just two: Ray Charles At Newport (1958) and The Genius of Ray Charles (1959).

I said when I began this series about black music of the ’70s that everyone on my list owed a debt to James Brown. I’m thinking now that we all owe an even bigger debt to Ray Charles.

“I beat Willie Nelson yesterday,” Charles said in Chess Life. “He tells me that I turned the lights out on him.”

Hit the board, Jack.



The Little Record of Calm: Favorite Adagios
Various artists who were so tranquil they were almost tranquilized

In the 1990s I held a stressful job at Sierra On-Line. Sierra doesn’t exist today, but in the 1970s they were one of the pioneers in computer games. By 1995, when I joined the company, computer games were vacuuming up as much money as movies. Computer games had also attracted Hollywood-size egos and dysfunctional people who would’ve been dysfunctional in other cultures, too, even if those cultures existed on other planets.

Sierra in my experience adhered strictly to the Pirate Ship Business Model: Every day, somebody walked the plank. I never knew when I might be commended in an email or gutted with a harpoon. You could almost have predicted this next statement: Sierra is also the place where I did the best creative work of my corporate career.

In those years, I used whatever I could to maintain my emotional even keel. One refuge was music. At some point in my tenure, I was browsing at Tower Records when today’s disc spoke to me. It jumped on my shoulder and whispered seductively: “Buy me! I’ll keep your blood pressure under control!” Reader, I bought it. It helped.

After many years of not listening to The Little Record of Calm, I just played it again. I guess that job really was stressful because I barely made it through this collection of digitized chloroform. I should’ve known what was coming from the title. “Adagio” is an Italian tempo marking. The approximate English translation is “Slow down, baby, now you’re movin’ way too fast!”

The lineup looks promising on paper. Mozart, Handel, J.S. Bach, and Chopin will be familiar to all my readers, even the guy who claims that “Aqualung” is the pinnacle of musical achievement.

There’s plenty of muscle in the lower part of the batting order, too. Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni was the first Italian to arm himself with an oboe. Pietro Mascagni wrote an opera every morning before breakfast and spent the rest of the day laying track. Edward Elgar sailed to victory in the Best Moustache of the 19th Century tournament of champions. And don’t forget C.W. Gluck, great-great-grandfather of C.W. McCall, composer of “Convoy.”

The producers even included up to one (1) woman, Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska. A male/female ratio of 15:1 seems equitable.

A surplus of talent does not guarantee success. Just ask the 1969 Chicago Cubs.
The adagios on The Little Record of Calm seem too slow to be adagios. They are more like “largos,” which, as their name suggests, are made with lard. For example, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor is the music they play in the movies when the train leaves the station and the lovers are separated or when they stay together but go over the falls, all of it in excruciating slo-mo.

Mascagni’s Intermezzo is the part where the orchestra stalls for time while you run to Il Ristoro for more popcorn. The sound level goes up and down to entice you into returning – sort of like the way you get a dog to come to you by making yourself seem more interesting than you actually are.

Nothing says love like Edward Elgar. His “Salut d’Amour” (“Greetings Love”) may have inspired The Everly Fratelli’s “Arrivederci d’Amour” (“Bye Bye Love”), but it could never inspire physical contact.

C.W. Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” is strikingly similar to his descendant’s “Convoy,” not counting about a thousand screaming trucks.

Bach’s Air from Suite No. 3 is beautiful, but in this crowd Bach is the International Space Station losing the fight against Earth’s gravity.

The most interesting composer here is Ms. Bądarzewska-Baranowska. Her contribution, “A Maiden’s Prayer,” is not interesting. What makes Bądarzewska-Baranowska interesting is that in her very short life, and despite being burdened by five kids and a 22-character last name, she composed anything at all. It doesn’t matter that “A Maiden’s Prayer” is the next step up from “Chopsticks.” She wrote it and that’s what counts. But count me out on another listen.

The Little Record of Calm glides to a landing on a puffy cloud with Johann “Wedding Bells” Pachelbel. Pachelbel’s the kind of guy who knows how to bring a record like this home: by tucking us in.

I mention this record now because I’ve just finished my first week on a new job, which I like very much. In this first week I enjoyed two free lunches, traded dog pictures with my fellow writer on the staff, pulled the company out of a jam a dozen times with my epic writing skills [citation needed], and on Friday the CEO sent us home early to enjoy the long holiday weekend. The people are friendly, passionate about their cause, and many of them know how to cook.

You know what I don’t need here? The Little Record of Calm. High five.

Random Pick of the Day
Chromeo, She’s in Control (2004)
Two Canadian boyos, Dave and P-Thugg, have lots of electronic fun with material that you’d swear came straight outta the 1970s and ’80s. The most danceable number is “Woman Friend.” The vocal could’ve been by Constantine, the evil Russian who passed himself off as Kermit in Muppets: Most Wanted. The lyrics to these songs are dope – I mean, the lyrics were written by dopes – and by the 11th and final track I’d had it. She’s in Control will wear out its welcome soon enough. But this at times very funny disc is worth a listen.

Random Pan of the Day
The BoDeans, Black and White (1991)
Roots rock from the Midwestern band that gave us “Closer to Free,” the theme to Party of Five. “Closer to Free” is fun, but “Fadeaway” is a much better song.

Neither are on Black and White. This is pleasant road-trip music, but you can tell that The BoDeans would like to grow up to be something tougher and darker, like Big Head Todd & The Monsters. Instead they may be a gateway drug to Bon Jovi. Listener discretion is advised.



Our current dog, Storm Small, doesn’t care for music. He certainly doesn’t care for anything I care to play. He puts up with the music from the television only because the television sits in the same room where he prefers to sleep. I think he enjoys the piano at the beginning of Battlestar Galactica. He won’t admit it, though.

But our first dog, Emma, was an astute critic with a complicated relationship with music. It was based on geography. If I was working in the garage and she was at her post in the open door, making sure I didn’t wander away and get lost, she made no objection to anything that played on the radio. Unless it was “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction. When I heard the opening guitar I knew I had about three seconds to hit OFF before the dogs on the song started barking and Emma went to DEFCON 1.

Things were different indoors, where Emma slept for years under my desk. Everything was fine until I took my headphones off. Emma would stay put for music by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, and their Baroque contemporaries, but not for anything earlier or later. Chanting made her growl, and she had a particular dislike for the Seattle scene of the ’90s. Also for Pink Floyd. When confronted with Soundgarden or Dark Side of the Moon, she’d pack up and find someplace else for her regularly scheduled day-long nap.

What’s in a name? I’ll tell you what’s in a name
In the late ’90s, I worked for a computer game company called Sierra On-Line. Sierra On-Line has been bought and sold many times (twice while I was there); today it’s just a name they slap on a box or a download. But in those days the company was alive and well and churning out games, most of them with “Quest” in the title, such as Quest for Glory, King’s Quest, Police Quest, and Space Quest (but not Jonny Quest).

Quest for Glory was a fantasy role-playing game with a sense of humor. Puns, anyway. The fifth title in the series, Quest for Glory: Dragon Fire, featured a soundtrack by the composer Chance Thomas. You can get something done with a name like Chance. It sounds just like Race Bannon from Jonny Quest, and he was the guy who was always saving his egghead employer from yetis, spies, and aliens. One of my chess kids was named Chance. He’s in high school now, but while I had him he once shaved a dollar sign into his hair. He has a brother named Hurricane (of course he has a brother named Hurricane), who is in the fifth grade and who dunks his head in a bucket of ice water before every tournament. Oh, why was I named Steve??

I traded emails with Chance Thomas as our career paths crossed, and when QFG: Dragon Fire wrapped he generously sent me a CD of the soundtrack. Fantasy RPGs aren’t my thing, no matter how funny they are, and I figured that Chance’s soundtrack wouldn’t be either (it wasn’t), but he had taken the time to send it so I played it.

I don’t remember it now, except that it was fairly dramatic and occasionally raucous and nothing like the serenity of Handel’s Water Music. And yet, though I was not wearing my headphones, Emma didn’t abandon her den under my desk. In fact, the music made her relax. In fact, as the music progressed she reached her relaxation release point, which I detected around the 30-minute mark. I immediately deployed one of the emergency candles I kept at my desk for this purpose. When you own a dog you laugh every day, though sometimes it’s not until the next day.

My father-in-law was fond of saying that dogs have only one thing to say and only one way to say it. Emma had more tools in her critical repertoire than you’d expect from a dog, and she displayed a talent for brevity that I lack. In the time it took me to write these 700 words, Emma would’ve made her opinion known and gone outside to eat a bug. I don’t understand the opinion she was expressing with her violation of the international ban on chemical warfare, but then I don’t always understand Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, either.

If there’s a lesson here, it escapes me. I wrote this because I heard “Been Caught Stealing” and realized I only knew the first three seconds.