Bits From my Personal Collection – SENTiENT Software, author Mike Berlyn going digital

In 1975 aspiring science fiction writer Michael Berlyn graduated from a six-week stay at the prestigious Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the premier proving and training ground for aspiring writers of fantasy and science fiction. Fast forward to the last leg of the ’70s and Berlyn was about to embark on his third sci-fi novel when he got somewhat sidetracked by the one thing he had just acquired to help ease the writing process.

Berlyn had completed The Crystal Phoenix and The Integrated Man, two sci-fi paperback novels published by Bantam Books. For his newest project, he had purchased an Apple II personal computer from the money received from Bantam. The Apple II computer was an apparatus Berlyn had heard could do miracles aiding in the writing process but while getting acquainted with the computer it quickly became apparent that the machine and the available software were nowhere close to being practical. Initially, the Apple II computer didn’t even have lower case letters and the software made the writing just as tedious as the reliable fountain pen and ink he had used to put his first two works down on paper with. Nonetheless, Berlyn quickly became fascinated with the small and otherwise capable computer, and in 1979 when introduced to the grandfather of interactive fiction, Colossal Cave Adventure, he realized that his newfound interest married with his passion for writing gave him a chance to not only reach traditional sci-fi fans jumping on the computer bandwagon but also seasoned adventure game players looking for more intricate and well-written pieces of interactive fiction.

Berlyn’s third sci-fi novel was done on the side while he learned the ins and outs of his Apple II. Much time was spent on early text-only adventure games but being a writer himself, the often subpar writing, typically done by computer geeks blew him off and convinced him to try his hand at designing his own adventure game. By 1981 Berlyn had, with help from his wife Muffy who also was a writer, written Oo-Topos, the story of a space pilot attacked by pirates and forced to land on the planet Oo-Topos, where he must escape imprisonment, retrieve his precious cargo and get off the planet to save humanity from extinction.
After six months of programming and testing, Oo-Topos was complete and ready for the market. Like all other adventure games of the time, Berlyn’s game employed a verb and noun parser and came with quite an excellent and fitting vocabulary. Also, the game had a save game feature that allowed to save a single save-state to the disk.

Berlyn and Muffy decided to self-publish the game and established SENTiENT Software Inc. in Aspen, Colorado, with Harry Wilker appointed as executive vice president.
Trying to reach an audience who wanted more from interactive fiction than what was otherwise available on the market, Oo-Topos was marketed as the first adventure game done by a traditional and established author. SENTiENT managed to commission some beautiful eye-catching artwork for the cover by artist Don Dixon.

Mike Berlyn’s first game, Oo-Topos, a text-only adventure was published by his own SENTiENT Software for the Apple II in 1981.
The beautiful cover art was done by renowned space and astronomy artist Don Dixon. Over the years, Dixon created illustration and cover art for books and numerous sci-fi and space publications

While Oo-Topos, for a very short period of time in the autumn of 1981, became one of the best-selling titles for the Apple II, the lifespan of titles in the early ’80s was merely a couple of months, at best.
Oo-Topos quickly faded away, until 1986 when the title was re-released by Polarware (former Penguin software) with added graphical depictions of scenes described by the game’s text.

In 1986 Oo-Topos was re-released by Polarware for multiple systems and with added graphics

Following the release of Oo-Topos, Berlyn completed Cyborg, which featured a more well-developed plot and consequently delivered a more focused gaming experience with intricate character development. Cyborg was received with a positive review from Softtalk magazine and while Berlyn’s dedication to try and lift the interactive fiction genre into a new league was remarkable, the text-only adventure only reached a dedicated but limited audience. Adventure games in general were trailing behind what the majority of players desired, namely fast-paced action and arcade-inspired games. Running a commercially successful business based upon text-only adventures was near impossible, only a small percentage of players would invest in deep and elaborate stories and that place in the market was already occupied by Infocom, the creators of Zork.
Ken and Roberta Williams of On-Line Systems had heralded the graphic adventure with remarkable commercial success and shown that there was a vastly bigger market for simple stories with added graphics than Berlyn’s intricate text-only sci-fi stories.

Michael Berlyn’s second adventure title, Cyborg, released in 1981 for the Apple II was more elaborate and focused than Oo-Topos and featured a really interesting and well-developed plot, albeit it catered to the more seasoned adventure player

Cyborg was re-released for the Apple Macintosh, with added graphics, in 1984. The game was programmed by Harry Wilker, Berlyn’s partner at SENTiENT Software. Wilker later became senior vice president for product development at Brøderbund Software

Both of SENTiENT’s adventure games were exciting and intriguing breaths of fresh air and carried with them a great connection to traditional writing yet Berlyn was still a novice in interactive fiction and the technology required and the execution at places left things to be desired.
While both Oo-Topos and Cyborg at the time often were referred to as superb titles in the genre, the text-only games were quickly disappearing, giving way for their much more attractive graphically counterparts and without strong distributors relations, SENTiENT essentially missed out on the opportunity to have two commercial success stories.

In 1982 Berlyn and Wilker took a break from the more demanding adventure game development and decided to give the popular action and arcade-inspired games a try and released two lesser ambitious titles, Gold Rush and Congo.

Michael Berlyn took a break from the demanding novel-writing and adventure game development and together with Harry Wilker created Gold Rush, an arcade-inspired title, released by SENTiENT for the Apple II in 1982

Congo, the last title to be released by SENTiENT Software, released for the Apple II in 1982

Both Gold Rush and Congo were met with interest and positive reviews in Softtalk magazine. While the graphics weren’t as fast or polished as Nasir Gebelli‘s extremely popular titles the games still contributed with fun and interesting gameplay elements.
During 1982, the company wasn’t seeing any commercial success, and tensions between the partners grew. Berlin received a job offer from competing adventure game company Infocom and he and Muffy decided to move on. SENTiENT Software continued to exist and while already produced titles continuously were sold through the rest of 1982 and 1983, no new titles were developed and released. The company funded ports of Berlyn’s intricately crafted interactive novels to other platforms and the story to Oo-Topos and Cyborg were licensed to Polarware and Brøderbund Software respectively. Harry Wilker left SENTiENT behind in 1986 to become vice president of product development at Brøderbund.

Berlyn bringing the traditional craft of the written word to the computer along with his unique approach to the game design itself was exactly what text-only adventure game behemoth and former MIT alumni company Infocom was looking for. Berlyn joined the company in 1982 and worked on a number of games including Suspended, Infidel, and Cutthroats. Infocom had a no-spouse policy which meant that Muffy wasn’t able to join the company and Berlyn left in 1985 to found Brainwave Productions where a number of games were designed including the unique and somewhat influential Tass Times in Tonetown, published by Activision in 1986.

An original promotional poster from 1981 featuring Don Dixon’s beautiful Oo-Topos cover artwork

Sources: Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Wikipedia, The Digital Antiquarian, InfoWorld, Softalk, Los Angeles Times, Infocom-IF.org

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