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Designer's Notebook: In Memoriam: Danielle Berry

July 17, 1998
 
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Dani's death!
Danielle Bunten Berry, too famous to live long!
We never lost a mind of so much worth.


Paraphrased from Shakespeare, Henry VI part I.


On Saturday, the 3rd of July, in a hospice in Little Rock, Arkansas, the computer game industry lost one of its greatest designers. After a long and heroic struggle, Danielle Bunten Berry died of lung cancer at the age of 49.

I did not know Dani very well, and I have played relatively few of her games, so I'm not qualified to write her eulogy. However, I want to use this forum to pay her such tribute as I can. Her colleagues at MPath have created a wonderful memorial page to her at http://www.mpath.com/dani. You can also find her personal and professional websites there. Since you're reading this column, I assume that you're interested in game design, and I strongly urge you to look at http://www.mpath.com/dani/personal/biz/memoir.htm, which is Dani's analysis of her own games.

The game for which Dani was most famous, at least among the game developers, was called M.U.L.E. It broke new ground in a number of ways.

In the early days of commercial computer game development, there were two kinds of developers - those who had started programming in BASIC or FORTRAN on mainframes, and those who had started as hobbyists, programming tiny little microprocessors in assembly language (or, more often than not, in raw machine code). The mainframe games, being text-only programs that used a teletype for I/O, tended to be rather cerebral games of strategy and management, often economic simulations. They could be ported fairly easily to the early personal computers as long as they weren't too large, but they retained their turn-based, text-only look. The hobbyist games were frequently written on machines that had a rudimentary graphics capability and hooked up to your TV. As a result, they tended to be action games - usually copies of arcade classics like Pong.

M.U.L.E. (which stood for Multi-Use Labor Element) was one of the first graphical computer games to break out of that mold. It was a business simulation with an arcade element. The object of the game was to exploit resources on a colony planet, and it was necessary to haul your MULE machine out to your tract of land as fast as possible, without letting it run away. The better your arcade skills, the more land you could exploit in the limited time available.

M.U.L.E. also introduced a very clever display for an auction, in which buyers bid by moving up from the bottom of the screen while sellers lowered their prices by moving down from the top; whenever the two met, a sale would take place. Like all good graphic designs, it was simple and immediately understandable, but it allowed for great gameplay dynamics, as up to four people would all shout and cajole each other to change their bids, while presenting various excuses why they themselves couldn't move.

And that, of course, was the real strength of M.U.L.E., and of most of Dani's games: it was designed for more than one player. Although the computer could play, M.U.L.E. was best with four people (the Atari 800 for which it was written supported up to four joysticks). Dani made her reputation and spent much of her career designing multi-player games. She realized, long before most gamers even had modems, that multi-player gaming would be the most interesting and exciting kind. At the presentation of her CGDA Lifetime Achievement Award last May, Dani was quite legitimately described as the foremost authority on multi-player gaming in the world.

My own favorite of Dani's games, however, was The Seven Cities of Gold, a single-player game that casts you in the role of conquistador, exploring (and exploiting) the New World. From the moment I started it up, I knew that I was in the hands of a master. While many games play fast and loose with the truth, Dani had taken the trouble to accurately model the geography, flora, and mineral wealth of the western hemisphere, and even the temperaments of its various inhabitants. It was the best kind of game, a game that taught without seeming to teach, and it reawakened in me a curiosity about the real exploration of the New World that I had thought long since killed by too many boring grade-school history classes. And since it could generate new continents, not just at random but using real principles of geography, it was endlessly replayable.

Seven Cities of Gold was full of details to delight the heart of my anthropologist father. You could choose to fight the natives or to give them gifts to encourage them to trade with you. You could also take on native guides, who would provide you with valuable local information, but they weren't 100% reliable. The natives became very angry if you did something culturally insensitive, like digging up a burial ground. You could amaze them with your superior technology, but the trick became progressively less effective the more they saw it. (Sounds a lot like modern-day game development!) Sometimes your men could accidentally get you into a fight that you didn't want. Fighting with one tribe would get you a bad reputation with the others, and so on and so on. I'm sure I never found them all.

And yet these are only two of the many great games in Dani's long career. I haven't played them all; I'm sure there are some that I will never play, since they were written for long-outdated platforms. But I could tell from Seven Cities of Gold alone that Danielle Bunten Berry was a designer's designer, a game developer who insisted on getting it right and refused to compromise her principles.

Dani's story was not always a happy one, and in later years I felt she had a shadowed, slightly haunted look, even when she was smiling. As only you newcomers will need to be told, Dani was transsexual. Undergoing gender reassignment - what used to be known as a "sex change" - is a long, expensive, painful process. Most people who do it have trouble with their families, lose their jobs, and develop problems with banks, landlords, credit bureaus, and the government. They also have to have a great deal of therapy, take a lot of powerful hormones, and - scariest of all - have their functional genitals surgically removed and replaced with others which are only partially functional at best. Nobody does it without a great deal of inner turmoil and personal pain. I admire Dani all the more for her courage and perseverance through it all.

There's a story about Dani that I know contains an element of slander, but it's too good to pass up: (I'll try to correct the slander afterwards)

At one point Dani was negotiating to do a new version of M.U.L.E. At the same time, she was also in the middle of her transformation, which, of course, included the surgery, and everyone who knew her well was secretly wondering about it. Soon afterwards, at some industry function or another, Russell Sipe, then publisher of Computer Gaming World, came up to her. "Well?" he asked. "Did you go through with it?" "No," Dani said. "I decided not to."

Russell was taken aback. "Really! Why not?"

"Well, they wanted to put guns and bombs in there, and I just didn't want that."

"WHAT??!!!!!" said Russell, utterly flabbergasted.

Of course it was all straightened out a moment later. Russell had been thinking about the life-changing, utterly irrevocable business of losing one's genitals.

Dani, characteristically, had been thinking about game design.

Now, it wasn't entirely fair of her to say that "they" wanted to "put guns and bombs in there" - the full story of why M.U.L.E. was never updated is much more complex, and now that she's gone I doubt if it will ever be told. Still, it's a nice illustration of Dani's priorities. In the midst of the most dire personal upheaval, she knew what she wanted for her games.

I never got to know Dani as well as I would have liked, and like a fool, I thought there would always be time enough.


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