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Wings out of Shadow

Entry updated 10 July 2018. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (1983). Berserker Works (BW). Designed by Fred Saberhagen. Platforms: AppleII (1983); DOS (circa 1985).

In 1983 the science fiction editor Jim Baen founded not only the sf and fantasy publishing house Baen Books but also the less well known Videogame publisher Baen Software (BS). At this time the sf author Walter Jon Williams had been writing historical novels under the name of Jon Williams, and designing associated games – including the eighteenth century tabletop naval game Tradition of Victory (1978 Erisian Games) and its revision Privateers and Gentlemen (1983 Fantasy Games Unlimited) – variously as Walter Williams and Jon Williams. (Tradition of Victory includes both a Wargame, Promotions and Prizes, and a pen and paper Role Playing Game, Heart of Oak, both of which were included in Privateers and Gentlemen with some additional material.) Baen hired Williams to work as a game designer for his new software company. Meanwhile, the science fiction author Fred Saberhagen and his wife Joan had become intrigued by the potential of the then new medium of the computer game (an interest which is clearly visible in the text of Saberhagen's novel Octagon [1981], inspired by the Play by Mail wargame Starweb [1976]), and had founded their own development studio in 1982 with assistance from Baen. This was Berserker Works, intended to create games which used stories by Saberhagen and other sf writers as the raw material for experiments in Interactive Narrative. A number of interesting works were produced by this complex of interrelated companies and individuals, including an early Computer Wargame dealing with galactic conquest – Starclash II (1984 BS, DOS) designed by Stephen Walton – and the "Regency Romance" game Pride and Prejudice (circa 1984 BW, AppleII, C64, DOS) designed by Walter Jon Williams, in which players compete to win the affections of a wealthy bachelor in a scenario inspired by the novels of Jane Austen. Saberhagen designed several products derived from his own Berserker series, notably the Computer Wargame Berserker Raids (1983 BW, AppleII, Atari8, C64, DOS) – a game of space strategy created with Lloyd Johnson – and Sign of the Wolf (1987 ebook chap), an illustrated version of the short story "Sign of the Wolf" (May 1965 If) which was sold on a disk.

The most intriguing of the various games published by Baen Software, however, is Wings out of Shadow, based on Saberhagen's short story of the same name (March/April 1974 If), in which simulated World War One fighter pilots battle Berserker ships in interstellar space. The game adapts the story, giving the player a more active role than that of the protagonist of the original piece. Interestingly, this new version of the work includes some branches in its plot, making it an early example of multilinear Interactive Narrative in a Videogame. The narrative is presented as text, with frequent detours into embedded games which represent the more action-oriented parts of the design. Thus, one of the included works is a simple real-time combat game which takes place in the player character's subconscious, while another is a turn-based tactical Computer Wargame set in deep space. Unfortunately, these disparate elements do not come together to form an especially harmonious whole. Regardless, Wings out of Shadow is almost unknown today not because of any inherent failings but as a result of the disastrous nature of the arrangements made to distribute it. This game – and all of the other products developed by Baen Software and Berserker Works – were intended to be sold into bookshops by the sales force of Simon and Schuster, a book publisher. Regrettably, the sales team, the bookshop owners and ultimately the potential customers all proved to be uninterested in this idea, and as a result very few copies of the games were ever sold. (Competing US software publishers of the time reached their buyers through computer stores and mail order, avenues which Baen Software did not explore.) The fact that most of these games were published during a downturn in the US market for personal computer software was presumably also unhelpful. In the late 1980s Berserker Works was shut down and Baen abandoned the computer games industry to concentrate on book publishing, where he had been far more successful. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate on an Alternate History in which Baen adopted a different approach to distribution, and companies staffed by professional science fiction writers had a real chance to sell their works into the nascent computer gaming market. They might, perhaps, have come to look back on Wings out of Shadow as an early experiment which led on to greater things. [NT]


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