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Column: Playing Catch Up: The Fool’s Errand’s Cliff Johnson

Article by Alistair Wallis - April 1, 2006

Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to the developer of 1987 Macintosh meta-puzzle game The Fool’s Errand — amongst many other titles — Cliff Johnson.

After beginning with Super 8 films in 1966 at the age of 13, Johnson released a feature length Super 8 film, a comedy called The Return of the Freshman, in his last year of high school. A year later, he was building plaster tape monsters for the Laff-in-the-Dark ride at Lake Compounce, Connecticut, as well as parks in Massachusetts, Colorado, and California before spending three years as a teaching assistant in film animation for USC Cinema School.

Johnson notes that he believes the time working with film has influenced his work in gaming, though not in the sense of seeing them as entirely similar medium. “My whimsical storytelling and stylistic visuals evolved from my film animation days, certainly,” he comments. “But I think of my games more as ‘puzzle storyboards’ than as movies. The drama is in the ‘aha!’ of solving the puzzles and following a trail of clues to a grand meta-puzzle. In other words, as fun as the audiovisuals may be, the gameplay’s the thing. Creating film animation has also prepared me for the meticulous attention to detail and prolonged production process that is synonymous with creating computer games.”

From 1979 onwards, Johnson spent 5 years producing and directing corporate and educational films (something he notes is “less interesting than it sounds”) before working on the “The Critic” animations for Nickelodeon’s Out of Control in 1984 — the same year he bought his first computer.

“The first generation of personal computers with their midnight screens, iridescent green fonts, and blinking e-prompts provoked a severe ‘fight or flight’ reaction in me,” he says. “Mostly the latter.”

“I became one of ‘the rest of us’ that bought a Mac in 1984. I intended to use it to do word processing and spreadsheets for scripts and film budgets. Then someone bought me Microsoft Basic for Christmas. Once I figured out how to program FOR X = 1 TO 100 : PRINT X and the screen gushed with numbers, something snapped inside me. I was a kid discovering chemistry sets all over again, able to perfect a gunpowder recipe for maximum flame and flash without the need to involve the fire department.”

After being bitten by what be describes as “the programming bug,” Johnson began work on using an unpublished book he had written as the basis for a computer game. “This unpublished book,” he says, “was The Fool’s Errand.”

Johnson had been inspired to try his hand in puzzle writing in 1979, after being influenced by Kit Williams’ Masquerade, which used clues to conceal the location of a jeweled golden hare statue somewhere in the British Isles. “I wanted to create a different kind of puzzle book that could be solved in a few sittings,” comments Johnson.

“I gave The Fool’s Errand out as Christmas presents that year. It established the story based on the Tarot and employed the Sun’s Map as a meta-puzzle device. That is, the pieces of the map could be assembled in the correct sequence based on clues in the story, and then, the completed map contained puzzles that lead to the ultimate solution,” says, adding that the book “seemed the perfect project to expand onto the computer. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, but I sure had a lot of fun doing it.”

“I confess I never had much of an interest in puzzles until the movies Sleuth (1972) and The Last of Sheila (1973),” he notes. “They sparked the idea that puzzles could be used as stepping stones to tell a story.

Subsequently, I staged a dozen or so Murder Game parties that used hands-on paper-and-pencil puzzles to provide the clues of a mystery.

I appreciate puzzles for their variety; they comprise their own mythology. My key influences have been a twenty-year subscription to [US puzzle magazine] GAMES Magazine and a bookcase full of hardcover puzzle books.”

Johnson began work on The Fool’s Errand in 1985, financing the effort himself using credit cards. “I had charged up $50,000 in credit card debt creating the game,” he says, adding that he expected a “nervous breakdown” during the development period. “Then the game languished a full eight months on the shelf before the magazines discovered it and reviewed it,” he notes. “Then Electronic Arts took over the distribution and all was well.”

The support of EA helped the game to go onto best selling status, and The Fool’s Errand was voted Best Puzzle Game of the Year by GAMES Magazine in 1987, and went on to be entered into the MacWorld Game Hall of Fame in 1988.

“What was unexpected, however, is how long the game has endured in people’s hearts and minds,” Johnson muses. “It’s been 19 years and I still get letters proclaiming ‘I hate you!’ as folks, young and old, discover it for the first time or the nth time.”

The game is hailed as the first meta-puzzle computer game; it features four parts, each divided into separate chapters, which are gradually unlocked with the player’s progress through the game. “The Sun’s Map”, contained in the first chapter, is a jigsaw puzzle, with a piece representing each chapter in the game — once this is solved, the game’s final puzzle, “The Book Of Thoth”, can be attempted.

“This goes back to designing Murder Game parties,” Johnson says of his inspiration behind the decision to use a meta-puzzle. “Each team of players visits a different room every fifteen minutes. In each room is a puzzle to be solved which yields a clue. At the end of the night, the seemingly unrelated clues now fit together into a whole solution.”

“To me, this is ‘stress-free’ puzzling,” he adds. “You can enjoy solving each piece without having to worry about the whole until you are good and ready to do so.”

“A meta-puzzle is a pyramid, and to build one, I start by identifying the top piece and then I build my way downward, expanding in twists and turns.” Johnson explains. “As to planning, the early games were unusual. I maintained one piece of paper, mounted on cardboard; it was a grid on which I scribbled all the names of the puzzle scenes and tiny arcane notes in varied colors of pen. The rest I juggled in my head.”

Johnson released his second title, At The Carnival in 1988 — a meta-puzzle set inside an amusement park named “Hazard Park”, and inspired, to some degree, by his own experience with amusement parks in the 70s. The game was intended to be the first in a series named The Puzzle Gallery, but the title’s publisher, Miles Computing, went bankrupt before any other titles were developed.

Johnson’s next title, 3 in Three was released by Cinemaware in 1990. A meta-puzzle telling the story of a number 3 lost within a computer who must try to find her way back to her spreadsheet home. The title as once again entered in the MacWorld’s Game Hall of Fame in 1990, and won MacUser’s Game of the Year and GAMES Magazine’s Best Puzzle Game in 1991. 3 in Three, as well as his other early titles, is now available for download for free from Johnson’s website.

Later in 1990, Johnson also released Disney’s Cartoon Arcade through the same publisher for the View-Master InteractiveVision System. The game was designed as a 30 minute gameshow, with player’s watching classic Disney clips, and then playing short arcade games based on the clips.

When Cinemaware went bankrupt in 1991, 3 in Three was picked up by Inline Design, and on the back of his technical, if not financial, success with Disney’s Cartoon Arcade Johnson was approached to work as a Senior Producer for Philips on their CD-I system, leading to the creation of his production group, *FunHouse*.

“It was a remarkable four years of my life,” says Johnson of the time with Philips. “With a student filmmaker’s scarcity mentality, I searched high and low for talented beginners and built a formidable animation team. Our products reflected every penny we spent in production value. Our group was called *FunHouse* and each year we sent out MAD magazine caricatures of the entire team as Christmas cards. We produced Philips’ top seller, Hanna Barbara’s Cartoon Carnival, and also two meta-puzzles, Merlin’s Apprentice and Labyrinth of Crete.”

Johnson’s one-sheet planning methods did change during his time with the company, he comments. “For Philips, we produced design documents that filled several notebooks,” he says. “Though I’m not certain anyone truly understood these documents. That’s why each production was storyboarded and mock-programmed in HyperCard. Being able to point-and-click through the presentation was invaluable to all concerned.”

By 1994, sales of the CD-i had begun to slow, and two years later, Johnson left the company after they shut down the CD-i division. “It was excruciating, for when the CD-i platform collapsed, our products were immediately extinct,” he says. “Sure, I suppose the handwriting was on the wall, but when you devote such a tremendous commitment of time and energy to the creative process, you simply cannot afford to be distracted by the rumor mill.”

Johnson began work as a “puzzle designer and overseer of the production process” for Disney in 1996, and later worked in similar roles for Warner Bros., Mattel, and Interplay. “I researched the possibility of various Internet contests, especially the treasure hunts,” he says. “The most successful of these was Disney’s/Pixar’s The Hunt for the Lost Toy which was a 22-day contest that overloaded their file servers by the 5th day. It was a daily contest which featured episodes where Woody and Buzz from Toy Story discovered that one of the toys was missing and it was up to you to print out a puzzle page and fill in the correct answers from the story.”

2002 saw Johnson embarking on a project with magician David Blaine, with Johnson creating the $100,000 Challenge to Blaine’s semi-autobiographical book, Mysterious Stranger. “David Blaine flew me up to Las Vegas; we met in the Mike Tyson suite — no pressure there.” Johnson notes. “He flipped through my portfolio book and paused on The Fool’s Errand packaging; the Tarot card theme cinched the deal. I am proud of the design: a conundrum of reducing 41 key sentences into 21 key words.”

The puzzle was comprised of visual clues that pointed to 41 clues, that eventually revealed a 21 word riddle that pointed to the location of a golden orb somewhere in the Hollywood Hills. The person who found the orb would be rewarded by Blaine with $100,000. “By far, the greatest challenge was designing a treasure hunt without knowing the exact location of the treasure — David simply couldn’t make up mind! — and so, in the meantime, I had to design a puzzle premise that was flexible enough to allow literally any answer to be substituted,” says Johnson.

“Our goal was for it to be a year or so,” he notes. “But David’s business partner, Bill Kalush, was convinced that MIT students would solve it in within the first week. So we made a decision, for better or worse, to encode the 41 sentences into visual picture codes that were scattered throughout the book. This made the challenge far more difficult. Sixteen months after its publication, a retired school teacher, Sherri Skanes, solved the challenge. I was exhausted. My worst fear had been that the contest would go unsolved.” Johnson later published the solution on his site.

In January of 2003, Johnson announced his latest project; a sequel to The Fool’s Errand for Mac and PC named The Fool and his Money, which sees him working on his own once again. “I find that working by myself allows me to experiment and discover new ideas without having to rationalize what I am doing,” he says. “I am often an author by intuition and serendipity.”

The Fool and His Money was expected to see release on Halloween of 2003. Following that, it was announced for April 1, 2004, and then Halloween of that year, then July 5, 2005, followed by “Late 2005”, April 1, 2006, August 7, and, finally, December 4 this year. [The Game released October 25, 2012.]

“It is the downside of being an author who works by intuition and serendipity,” admits Johnson on the subject of the delays. “Perhaps starting the game all over again from scratch three times in a row had something to do with it as well.”

“Everyone has been good-natured,” Johnson says of the people who have pre-ordered the game from his site in that time. “I’ve received hundreds of e-mails, ranging from ‘Take your time, but please hurry up’ to ‘Good things come to those who wait and I’m sure this one is worth the wait’. The pre-order is for True Believers who have waited nearly two decades to play a sequel to The Fool’s Errand. Without them, this game would not have been possible. Therefore, each name is immortalized in the Compendium of True Believers inside the game itself.”

With the release under 2 months away, Johnson’s eagerness to talk about the game in detail is probably a good sign that this date might actually be the one. “Bushwhacked by buccaneers and robbed of the fourteen treasures, the Fool discovers that a new bewitchment now plagues the Land of Tarot,” he enthuses. “Traditional wealth has been abandoned, and in its stead, words and letters have become the new currency. Continuing from the narrative of the first, the story is a complete adventure in itself, illustrated in storybook silhouettes and described in text. As the Sun provided a map to help the Fool on his Errand, this time, it is the Moon who guides the Fool with a silvery map to guide him on his road from rags to riches.”

“There are familiar challenges of words and wit with new twists and turns,” he continues. “And other enchantments, unfamiliar, that tease and tantalize with hands-on visual mischief. For every challenge solved, a piece of the Moon’s map is transformed. Solving the secrets of the map promises to deliver to the Fool the gift of prophecy. All told, the game provides about 40 hours of puzzlement for you and yours to unravel through discovery, wit, and aplomb.”

As for the future, Johnson suggests that further treasure hunts could be seen from him. “I’m very interested in staging sponsored treasure hunts on the Internet,” he says. “It seems like such a natural that I’m surprised so little has been done in that regard.”

He also notes that he intends to finish the Fool’s story with The Fool’s Paradise, and has intentions to continue the story of the number 3, with 3’s a Crowd, and 3’s the Charm. “Growing up with The Lord of the Rings books gave me trilogy on the brain,” he adds wryly.

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