Poll a random group of 30-somethings who play (or used to play) computer games, and ask them to name a computer game author. Odds are at least one person will respond "Dan Gorlin."
It might not have the marquee appeal of a Shigeru Miyamoto or a Will Wright, but it's not a bad legacy for a teacher of African music who accidentally stumbled into video game development and hasn't shipped a widely-recognized title since 1982. But the unlikely popularity of Choplifter, combined with his name appearing on the packaging and title screen of its numerous incarnations, made Gorlin something approaching a household name -- at least within computer-owning circles.
Perhaps it was because Gorlin wasn't himself a gamer that Choplifter became such a hit. Though the game -- an arcade-style, reflex-based title where players control a helicopter rescuing prisoners -- allowed users to zap and blow up enemy targets, the game didn’t bother keeping score of these things because as Gorlin himself tells it, that's the boring part.
The goal of the game was instead to help others, which really made it stand out from the crowd in an era where space shooters with a rolling score plastered at the top of the screen was the norm.
Or perhaps it was the game's timing (coincidental, according to Gorlin) right after the Iran hostage crisis of the early 1980s, which was still fresh on everyone’s minds. Now everyone who was frustrated by the news could escape into fantasy and be empowered to rescue the hostages themselves.
Regardless, Choplifter is an undeniable classic, and a game worth revisiting and studying. This week, InXile Entertainment released a brand new reimagining of the game, Choplifter HD, for which Gorlin served in an advisory role: his first brush with the video game industry in some years. In this exclusive interview, Gorlin discusses the history of the original Choplifter, what he's been up to all this time, and how the changing mobile landscape is tempting him to return to game development.
I was really happy to see your name in a game again, but I get the impression this is less of a comeback and more of a side project for you.
Dan Gorlin: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I'm not really in the games industry, although I'm sort of working on Android projects on my own time. If there's a comeback coming, it's going to be on Android phones, and it's going to be sometime in the next six months or so.
But on this one, I was involved early on the design of this game, and I was involved in helping them get it to market, and PR, and stuff. And meeting the team, and working on it. But I haven't been a regular member of the team. I've sort of been like the honorary grand old man, hanging around going, "Wow, this is cool, you guys!"
I talked to a couple of the guys and they seem to have nothing but respect and admiration for the original.
DG: I know the team, especially Brian Fargo who, I think he's heading it up creatively, and he's also the CEO of inXile. It's just one of his favorite memories of games, and he's just excited to be part of the comeback.
It's something for the old timers, but the kids that are really young now -- maybe 25 or so -- I don't know how many of them ever played the original Choplifter. There've been so many versions since that. But it's just fun to be a part of history -- kind of like you're remaking history.
What was the genesis of the original Choplifter?
DG: Well, the original Choplifter... let's see. What was I doing at the time? I was a music student, I was studying piano at the California Institute of the Arts, and then I stopped doing that to work at Rand Corporation for three years, doing artificial intelligence computer research. So I was in the middle of this sort of back-and-forth -- like, "I don't know what's going on with life" kind of thing.
And I went to start selling my house. The Rand job ended, and I was just sitting at home with nothing to do, waiting, waiting for somebody to buy my house in Los Angeles. So I just started playing with the Apple II, which was brand new. My grandfather had one, and he loaned it to me, so that I could play with it. And six months later, there was Choplifter.
At first what inspired it, I think -- like I always do -- I just started playing with things that seemed like fun. Helicopters were always just something that I would stop and look at, the way people would stop and look at a waterfall, or a pretty bird. Helicopters just fascinated me. So right away I started building a helicopter, and the Choplifter code.
It was all in the in the summer, at the time, and as people love to point out, there was this neighborhood guy that was working on my car, and he was a Defender fan, at the time. And Defender had little men in it, and he used to tell me about the little men, and how much fun they were. And so that sort of put an idea in my head to add men, and things just really added up.
At some point, I had a fun little helicopter flying around, and I sent it off to Brøderbund, which was one of the big game companies at the time, and they loved it, and they flew me out there, and they started supporting the development of it, and pretty soon we had Choplifter.