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How Legendary Puzzle Game “The Fool’s Errand” Came to Be

May 22, 2009 by David Kushner

So you’ve heard of legendary videogame designers Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto and Cliff Johnson? Maybe not that last one. But Johnson, 55, is renowned in the computer gaming underworld, and it’s all because of his undying cult classic, The Fool’s Errand.

Released for the Macintosh in 1987, the game and its fan base of True Believers, which includes J.J. Abrams and Stephen Sondheim, continues to evolve. The highly anticipated sequel, The Fool and His Money, is on the way later this year. We ran a story about Johnson and his new game in the May issue of Wired magazine, but wanted to give readers a bit more background on this unique game designer who’s not well-known outside of his small coterie of die-hard fans.

In the late 1980s, Johnson scored acclaim and awards for his breakthrough game, which exemplified a playfully experimental genre: the meta-puzzle. The Fool’s Errand seems like a kind of interactive storybook, but quickly travels down an ever-widening rabbit hole. To reveal each new text chapter of the tale, players must solve tricky, trippy puzzles. You don’t just have to figure out the answers - you also have to discover the rules.

Some puzzles are cracked by dragging your cursor across backgrounds to reveal hidden letters, others are divined by toying with the menu drop-down bars. (And remember, this was 1987, when it was still something of a novelty for text adventures to have any graphics at all.)

Johnson’s original game The Fool’s Errand is available for free download, along with the packaging and the hint guides.

For all the YouTube clips and fan sites devoted to The Fool’s Errand, the eccentric Bristol, Connecticut, creator remains something of a puzzle himself. Just what kind of mind lurks behind the phenomenon? In this excerpt of his interview with Wired writer David Kushner, Johnson serves up the missing pieces about how his own game began.

Wired: You got your start making monster movies?

Cliff Johnson: I took my allowance, got a $50 Sears camera, and made so many movies that I’m surprised that I graduated high school at all. I don’t remember how I passed anything. Senior year, I made film called The Return of the Freshman. It cost $2,000 to make and I got $6,000 showing it. It had special effects - flying saucers attacking a high school.

Wired: You also made monsters for theme parks.

CJ: I ended up building monsters for five different amusement parks. built the monsters out of fiberglass and resin. My favorite was the rotting skeleton - half skeleton and the other half was a rotting human frame. I was like Huckleberry Finn, I got friends to help and used the money to make films. That led to me wanting to go to USC film school, where I became a film major and teaching assistant in the animation department. I became very interested in things you can now find on YouTube. I worried that avant-garde animation would disappear from earth . that’s important to how I go about making games.

Wired: How’d you get started in computer games?

CJ: In late 1984, I wandered into an Apple store and peeked at an Apple Mac. I had never used a computer, they scared the hell out of me. I remember that day. It was a mid-weekday afternoon. I started playing with MacPaint and MacWrite, and $3,000 later I walked home with a Macintosh. I started programming film budgets, and doing micromanagement in Microsoft Excel, something that used to take me hours to do with a paper tape calculator. It was total magic. There was something about programming a spread sheet that tickled my fancy. I played with making formulas that would color the screen in different colors. I was never a wired person, I did films and this was unlike anything I’d done. But by poking around, by the end of 1986, I had an interest in playing with each function - how to control menus on the Mac and the buttons. It was like discovering the light bulb.

Wired: So how’d this become The Fool’s Errand?

CJ: The Fool’s Errand began as a 20-page story that had a cutout map. I gave it out as a Christmas present. Then when I got around to playing with the computer, I thought, “I have to do something, enough playing around.” I was always project-oriented, whether making monster models or making movies. I’d like to have something to show for it when it’s done. It occurred to me, “Why don’t I adapt this 20-page story and 81-piece map into a computer game?”

Wired: It must have been a challenge to go from short story to game. What’d you do?

CJ: I came up with the idea that, the story will be a scroll, the map will be a map. But, you have to earn every part of the story. I was interested in paper-and-pencil puzzle magazines. I liked the look. I enjoy putting different kinds of media together. The art direction in game magazines inspired me. But I thought, wouldn’t it be more fun to take step further? The idea of creating a pattern on the computer and then putting a crossword puzzle over it. I used a technique my animation professor called found art. Then patchwork puzzles, logic puzzles, mazes et al. And then I decided if you solve a puzzle, you earn a piece of story and a piece of Sun’s Map. Programming first in Microsoft Basic and then ZBasic, I somehow managed to create the game and bring it to market. I still can’t believe I did it.

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