An interview with the creator of the political strategy game Hidden Agenda.
By Joachim Froholt
This interview was conducted in 2008, for an article in Norwegian. It’s mostly about Hidden Agenda, but briefly touches other subjects as well.
First of all: Please tell us about yourself. What did you do before HA, and what have you been doing after?
I seem to change what I do every few years.
Before HA, I had been part of an early videotape commune in Paris, where my specialty was editing. I moved back to New York and worked briefly for a literary agent before beginning a career as a writer. For Bantam Books I designed a «young adult» series called the Time Machine. The premise of these books was that the reader is a time traveler, and must make choices at the end of each 1-2 page chapter about where to go next. The series was successful (at least one of these books was published in Norwegian.)
While using an early personal computer to create this primitive form of interactive storytelling, I became aware of the early story games, in particular «The Colossal Cave.» It seemed clear that writing directly for the computer offered many more possibilities. A friend, Ron Martinez, started a company to produce text adventure games. We wrote proposals for games about serious themes–for example, a text adventure about interconnection of species in the Amazon rain forest.
A New York publisher dabbling in computer games liked our technology, but not our subject matter. They asked us to write a Star Trek game instead.
Since childhood I was a Star Trek fan, so I was happy to write a game called «The Promethean Prophecy.» It sold well.
How did the idea for Hidden Agenda come about? What were your motivations for making a game about that particular subject?
We were supposed to do a second Star Trek text adventure, but the market had changed. Adventure games with images had appeared! The text adventure was dying. The project was cancelled.
Suddenly I had months of uncommitted time. I went to visit my brother Bill, a journalist then living in Nicaragua. This was at at time when my government was funding «freedom fighters» against the leftist Sandinista government. I spent a couple months in the region, visiting Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in addition to Nicaragua.
Traveling with my brother in a remote region of northern Nicaragua, we came upon the burnt-out shell of a bus. As we took photographs, a local woman came up to us. She explained (my brother translating) that the Sandinista government had created a bus service between this remote valley and other parts of the region. Her sister lived in a different valley. It was a great convenience to the sisters to have regular bus service when they wanted to visit, instead of having to hitch a ride in the back of a truck.
One night, as the bus was coming into the town, armed men appeared out of the darkness and shot out the tires. The passengers were ordered to leave, and the bus was set aflame. These men were «contras,» led by military partisans of the recently overthrown dictator, Somoza. They were funded by my government, the United States.
Perhaps inspired by Sandinista rhetoric, this woman had a naive faith in democracy. The United States is a democracy, she knew, but the things its government did in the name of the American people were not always good. She and her sister needed this bus service. If the people of the United States knew that their government was destroying useful bus service in northern Nicaragua, they would act democratically! They would stop funding the armed men who destroyed the buses! Please, she asked me, when you go back north, tell everyone what you saw here. Let them know that we need bus service in northern Nicaragua!
Here was a story worth telling, with my interactive storytelling tools. I could put the player in the point of view of someone from a very different background.
What are your thoughts on the finished product? Anything you’re particularily satisfied with (or think could have been done differently)?
I am very happy with HA. There are a few UI touches I might have handled differently in retrospect, but the essence of the game is a microcosm of its time.
How was the game published? Was it a «success», commercially? And how was it received by the critics?
To my surprise, our proposal for the game attracted offers from four publishers. This was a very early time in the development of games, when anything seemed possible.
After some deliberation we chose a publisher, Springboard, because they were so eager for the game that they wanted us to commit to four more games using a similar format. During the final months of HA, I was also working on «Perestroika,» about Eastern Europe, «Allahu Ahkbar,» about the Persian Gulf, «Frontline Africa,» about sub-saharan Africa, and «Fifth Tiger,» about Southeast Asia.
The game was a great critical success, reviewed not just in the computer and gaming press but also in mainstream media such as Newsweek and National Public Radio.
Unfortunately, for reasons unrelated to our game, during the time that Springboard was supposed to be marketing our game, it was going out of business. Partly for that reason, HA was not a commercial success.
Hidden Agenda shows how games, as interactive experiences, can be used to teach people (or make them think) about serious issues in the world around them. Why do you think this happens so rarely in today’s market and how do you feel about that?
I had high hopes for the game medium in the early days. I fondly hoped that Hidden Agenda would demonstrate how useful the game medium could be to students of political economy, in communicating their ideas to a larger public. I also fondly hoped that, because Hidden Agenda was a game, it might move «gamers» to be more interested in political issues.
From the emails I have received over the years, I know that at least for some, both of my fond hopes have been realized.
From a commercial standpoint, however, it seems that we have a superset vs. subset problem. I had hoped that my game would attract the superset of «people interested in political economy» and «computer gamers.» Instead, Hidden Agenda appealed to those who both already were interested in political economy AND were interested in computer games.
A fair comparison could be made with film. There are some who choose to see films according to what extent they «teach people (or make them think) about serious issues in the world around them.»
Though such a serious-minded movie audience exists, it is not the core audience that drives the industry.
Have you seen stuff like Global Conflicts: Palestine or Peacemaker? If so, what are your thoughts on these projects?
I’m sorry, my focus is elsewhere now and I have not been able to review these efforts.
On to something different: You worked on Sim City 3000. What was your role on the project and are you happy with how it turned out?
I came into the Sim City 3000 project just after Maxis was purchased by Electronic Arts. My role was Creative Director. I am happy, looking back, with some of the choices my research in urban planning issues influenced the game.
What were your experiences with working in the Maxis-team, and people like Will Wright?
Will Wright is a friend, and the genius behind all the Sim franchises. During my time at EA, I valued occasional input from Will Wright. He always gave direct useful personal response to my design questions.
I arrived at Maxis at a difficult time. Maxis had just been purchased by Electronic Arts. The purchase had been made with the understanding that SimCity 3000 was nearly ready to ship. This was not the case. Many man-years of engineering talent had been expended on a vision of a fly-through 3D Sim City.
I am proud of the work I did on SimCity 3000. Unfortunately a corporate climate of mendacity and cronyism forced me to leave EA soon after SimCity 3000 was released.
It seems that the sim-genre has become a lot less popular with commercial developers/publishers over the years – the last original sim-game from Maxis was The Sims, for instance – why do you think that is?
I am no judge about the relative popularity of game genres. Though Will Wright’s next game, Spore, has taken longer than anticipated, from what I have seen it will be quite amazing when released. EA is being very responsible in waiting until it is fully ready.
Let’s imagine someone gave you the budget to do another game just the way you wanted – what would you make?
Oh, what a great question. It saddens me to acknowledge that, as an artist, I would want to make another simulation much along the lines of Hidden Agenda, a creative structure which circumstances forced me to abandon many years ago. Though the world has much changed in the last twenty years, there continue to be political dynamics that could be well served by a similar interactive story architecture.
Optional last question: Where do you stand with regards to the games as art-discussion?
I wrote about this elsewhere back in the day, you should be able to find those thoughts online.
Thanks again for your time.
You are welcome.
Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.