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Alternate Reality: The Video Game

In 1983 a video game was released that would change gaming forever. In 1999, a movie was released that changed movies forever. Was it a coincidence, or are they somehow related?

Nobody can be Told what Alternate Reality Is.

Alternat Reality: The CityYou're kidnapped. Sucked out of your apartment as you're getting ready to leave for the day by some sort of alien beam. You remember waiting endless hours, maybe days on a strange ship as it hurtles through space. You pass out. The next thing you remember is waking up in front of a giant archway with numbers scrolling across the top like a giant slot machine. When you walk through, those numbers freeze in place.

You wander the streets of The City for days, trying to survive. Some things are the same as back at home - you can walk into a bar and make friends, put your money in the bank, and haggle with the store owners. The sunsets are stunning, and there's a waterfall in the distance that intrigues you. But some things are different. You're aware that the colors here aren't like they are back home, and in the back of your mind you're still aware of those numbers. Magic works here! You can get flaming magical swords and even learn to cast spells.

Then you discover a secret - a smooth plastic access card that doesn't belong in this world and gives you access to the fourth level of the Dungeon via a secret elevator. Robots and Aliens wander these metallic corridors, and you find a control room with surveillance equipment.

Months later you forget about the aliens and the control room, you've gained status by fighting in the Arena, and even own land now in The City. You've even been invited to The Palace, but The Wilderness still calls you. You want to see that Waterfall.

Hidden in the depths of a cave behind the immense waterfall that can be seen even from the city is a metallic door requiring a pass card to enter. Once open it reveals corridors gleaming with technology far beyond our own. Further investigation reveals a room that has immense windows/portals and a view, a view into space.

Searching further this immense ship you discover a chamber filled with metal cocoons. Using wit and knowledge gained through other locations you decipher the controls and the display. You learn that these cocoons hold bodies, the bodies of all of those captured. The machines keep the bodies physically alive and fit, but imprisoned. The minds of those entrapped are tapped and fed with images. The ships computer can even permit the images to interact with solid/material components of the ship. You are an image. What is reality? You body lies in a cocoon. Your mind sees what the image sees. What is a soul? What is experience? You experience, you feel what this image you have been controlling since you kidnapping feels.

This isn't the plot for the next Matrix installment where you explore an earlier fantasy version of The Matrix, it's the plot for a video game that first came out in 1984. Alternate Reality was conceived, designed, and programmed by master programmer and game designer Philip Price.

The idea behind AR was a place to entertain but also to enlighten/educate oneself. I desired to have as realistic of a world possible, but still a world that was filled with the unknown. I knew I couldn't do it in one product so I plan to develop it through a series.

Your characters had free will, and by the end of the game, you had many choices you could make.

In the end you are left with many choices, continue to live in you image body, a nearly immortal life, but knowing that these aliens have done this to you and can watch, feel, experience whatever you do whenever they want. You are their entertainment. They have become jaded by luxury, power and knowledge and use lesser beings to regain some of the passions of life. You can cut off this channel, though they may also destroy the ship, or earth. You can escape in a smaller ship than the entertainment world and go back to earth (hoping to evade the future capture ships these beings send to gain more 'entertainment'. You could destroy the planet [and hope that they are not a multi planet race] You can take the entertainment world (that was orbiting the alien's planet) and bring it back to earth to let the scientist learn from it [and hope the aliens don't trace it]. You could blackmail the aliens. You could sell out humanity. You could try to bluff them. There are many choices, life isn't easy and some of the most important decision are the hardest to find a best answer in.

The Oracle (from the Dungeon manual)The Matrix similarities continue. In The Dungeon you get advice from an Oracle (though in Alternate Reality the Oracle is a flaming eye). You meet someone they call a Wizard, but who is actually someone who's hacked into the computer. Since he wasn't run from the computer, he was not traceable. (Morpheus?) The Special Agents eventually capture him, however and lock him in a prison. He gives you this access card, which has been hacked to avoid their security sensors.

You rescue another wizard named Ozob from a prison, and he teaches you how to slow time so you can  attack faster and defend yourself better. (Bullet Time?) You cross the river Stonz into the land of the undead and defeat seven warriors. Each, undefeated for hundreds of years, calls out "Are you the One?" upon being defeated. Once through, you meet an undead king, a previous lord of Alternate Reality (shades of the Merovingian?)

You are vaguely aware of being inside a computer. The numbers at the top of the screen are a constant reminder of this as you are conscious of them. If you figured out the Architect's speech at the end of Reloaded you know that everyone in The Matrix is also vaguely aware of being in it.

In The Matrix, the world of the Matrix is sickly green, and the real world a warm yellow. If you haven't caught it, the Machine World is blue. In Alternate Reality the colors are also different, and are also a reminder as to the true nature of reality. Nighttime is actually black and white, and this isn't because of the limitations of the game (if you saw the graphics, you would believe me), and is featured in the lyrics of one of songs "the nighttime comes, they take the colors of away."

If you try to copy or otherwise tamper with the game, you're confronted by FBI Agents in suits who you can't escape from and are impossibly strong. In other words, if you try to change the master program, Agents come after you and won't let you continue to exist inside the program.

The Matrix Online: How Deep Does the Rabbit Hole Go?

The Devourer Concept Art for Alternate Reality OnlineOkay, so a game from the 1980's had premise that was similar to The Matrix and a few similar characters, big deal. Well, the developer of the game claims that he had a conversation with "two brothers in Los Angeles" about this game in the mid to early 90's. By the late 90's there was a strong interest in this game, and he started working on the sequel: Alternate Reality Online.

Just as Alternate Reality took CRPG's to the next level, ARO was going to take online gaming to the next level, and it would continue the saga of people trapped in a computer world, just beginning to realize this, and what they would do about it.

He started shopping around, and a gaming company called Monolith picked up the idea and started collaborating with him on it. They even created a web site, , which is no longer up, but is still owned by Monolith (you can tell because the name servers point to Several months later, they dropped the idea, and sent him packing. He says he didn't give them all of his ideas, but they did get quite a few.

Now The Matrix Online is coming out, and guess who's developing it. That's right, Monolith. At some point, I think, even if you're skeptical, you'll have to admit this is an awful lot of coincidences.

I did talk to two guys while at a restaurant in Westwood [In LA , near UCLA, it's the core of Hollywood]. I explained to them AR and it storyline, ideas and the Hollywood movie Dark City similarities to some of it and it's differences [i.e. things I think they did wrong in that movie that made it a bomb in the box office]. They listened intently, and one of them remarked to me (as they smiled to each other) was that "ideas can't be copyrighted". Matrix came out a few years later, I very much doubt they were the two brothers who came up with Matrix, but it made me wonder after Matrix came out.

Technically the idea of being deceived into thinking one's environment is one thing, when it is actually another has been expressed in Science Fiction for decades before I used that core concept. Those books by great Science Fiction authors probably is where I got my kernel of an idea.


Digression: Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, Bound, Simulacra and Simulation

Incidentally, James McTeigue, who was the First Assistant Director for all the Matrix movies was the Second Assistant Directory for Dark City, and the rooftop scenes at the beginning of The Matrix where Trinity is running from the cops & Agents is a recycled set from Dark City. So what's Dark City about? It's a surreal movie where each night, everyone passes out and the city and their memories are re-arranged. The whole thing is very strange.

Dark City is actually based on Daniel Paul Schreber's book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. A strange nightmarish book where the doctors sort of invade his reality, and he believes he's been chosen by God to father (mother, actually, God had to change his gender) a new race. Freud treated Schreber and found his case so fascinating, he wrote a book about it called The Schreber Case.

Another movie that explores this virtual reality theme is The Thirteenth Floor, which I won't talk too much about because I don't want to ruin it for you. I highly recommend both movies, along with the Wachowski's previous work Bound to all Matrix fans. Finally, there's the book Neo uses to stash his computer programs, which he can be seen sleeping next to the first time you see him, and the book Keanu Reeves was required to read before he even read the script, Simulacra and Simulation (The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism), which talks about how our modern world alters our perception of reality - your perception becomes reality - what is The Matrix?

What Made The Game So Good

A Wand (from the Dungeon manual)All right, so you know it has a plot like The Matrix. Now add free form and non-linear play deeper than Grand Theft Auto, and constant character related challenges like The Sims (you got hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, etc.). Sprinkle in some RPG elements, innovative use of graphics and audio (truly mind blowing for the mid 80's), and you come close to Alternate Reality.

We never got to know the full plot, but parts would reveal itself during game play, a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Characters you met would allude to the truth about your situation, give you access to advanced weaponry, and teach you tricks about your environment.

Walk in to a bar in The City, and buy a round for the house. You might make a few friends and if you're ever down on your luck, head back to that tavern and someone just might buy you dinner. Each bar has it's own music, and regulars. Oh, and you might want to come in from the rain, and from the dark, that's when the unsavory elements came out and you may run in to a mugger, or a mind flayer.

The sun sets slowly, changing the sky from bright blue to deeper and deeper shades of purple, and the sun shimmers in the distance. Eventually the sun goes down and the world goes black and white. Or it might rain. As you explore The City, you may stumble on a healer's (better mark that down on the map) or a Guild, who can teach you tricks to improve your strength, intelligence, or stamina.

Then you can wander in to The Dungeon, home to a generations old war between the trolls and goblins. Will you befriend one and betray the other? Or will you betray both to get the magic ring? Or maybe you'll join a guild. There are over a half dozen, each with their affiliations and grudges. Be careful, betray someone, and they may send assassins after you.

Of course, assassins aren't the only thing that can kill you in AR. You can die of starvation, or exhaustion. What happens when you're too hungry to pick up a sword and fight or too tired to cast a spell? You can be cursed by someone you kill, or diseased by an infected animal, or by hitting the jagged edge of a wall. Healing curses and diseases are expensive... To do so may mean going without rest until you can get some more money.

You walk around first-person shooter style, though you can only turn at 90 degrees. The walls and buildings gradually got closer or farther as you walked towards or away from them. The walls weren't static images, they'd get slowly closer and clearer. From what I hear, the developers of the 2nd installment, The Dungeon (Dan Pinal and Ken Jordan) could've made a game that didn't turn at 90 degree angles, but wanted to keep the flavor of the original. I don't even know how many years this pre-dates Doom by.

Another amazing thing about this game was the sound design. When you were in town square, it was noisy, if you entered a room off the main square, the first thing you notice is silence. That's when you really notice just how noisy this game is. The game creator understood the importance of sound in a video game well before anyone else - in the same timeframe, Lucas Arts was being applauded for making a game where a knock on the door was used instead of a visual clue (Rescue on Fractalus / Behind Jaggi Lines).

In Alternate Reality, there were many non visual clues, if you got near a smith, you would hear the clink clink clink of his hammer hitting the anvil, and the occasional SHHHH of water hitting a hot sword. His hammer strokes were steady, but realistically intermittent as well. A small melody played whenever you met someone to clue you in as to their alignment. Different kinds of doors made different sounds. Again, this is in an era where a dwarf attacking a dark elf in one game sounds basically the same as car crash in another game, or a gun shot in a third game.

Alternate RealitySounds in this game have a unique quality to them because he designed a sound module that created richer voices than the simple sine, square, and saw waves that were being used by games at the time. He worked with composer Gary Gilbertson to add some truly outstanding songs. The introduction alone is a 5 or so minute music video, starting with an alien ship coming down and kidnapping people, and continuing with the ship taking off into space, and a star field (similar to the MS screensaver that was so popular a few years ago, but with spinning stars as well) and lyrics. In the bars, taverns, guilds and chapel there were also songs. I've heard of people whose musical tastes were influenced by these games. I feel silly admitting it, but after wandering around The Dungeon for days (probably both in real and game time), I wandered into the chapel, and the soft melody almost brought a tear to my eye. I guess it's no wonder I grew up to be a musician.

You also never chose your alignment, like in most fantasy RPG's of the day. Your alignment evolved over time. You became more good or evil depending on your actions and not some decision you made when you were creating your character. Am I the kind of person who gives money to the homeless, or am I the kind of person who kills them to advance myself? You would even gain a reputation that was unrelated to your alignment. You could be evil, but have a code of ethics and you would be known for it. Spend too much time with the unsavory elements in The Dungeon, and you start to have nightmares.

Similar to Grand Theft Auto, you define your own plot and work towards your own goals. Even when the game was finished, I would still play because I wanted to save up enough money to get a custom sword, and to have it enchanted. I would want to kill the great dragon, and carry off all the money I could carry. Though once I did, the economy in The Dungeon would collapse and everything would become more expensive.

You can play Alternate Reality today on Emulator. We have permission of the creator - Philip Price, who is the copyright holder. We also have permission from the folks who developed the 2nd installment, Ken Jordan and Dan Pinal to play that. You can learn more by visiting Rob's Original Alternate Reality Homepage which houses the FAQ. If you're a fan of the game and want to join an active community, check out the Alternate Reality Mailing List. My own small fan page  is designed to look like you're playing the game, and I have downloadable files to help you get going.

Indented and italicized text are quotes from Philip Price.

The Third Eye, The Terminator and The Matrix

Speculative Fiction writer Sophia Stewart submitted a manuscript to be turned in to a comic book in the early 80's. This script, called The Third Eye was about a technological future, where it was prophesied that a man would be born who would overthrow the machine world. Naturally, the machines want to prevent his birth, and fight him every step along the way.

Does this sound familiar? It should, becaues it's the basis of not only The Matrix, but The Terminator as well. Sophia Stewart successfully sued Joel Silver (the producer of both Terminator and The Matrix seris) and the Wachowski Brothers for copying her story. According to some sources, the Wachowski Brothers regularly referred to her manuscript while making the Matrix.

keywords: Alternate Reality The City, Alternate Reality The Dungeon, Atari 800XL, Atari 800, Commodore 64, Amiga, Great Wrym

page first created on Saturday, February 07, 2004

© Mark Wieczorek