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A 14-year old whiz kid, national Space Invaders champion, co-founder of Interplay, brain behind the cult classics Tass Times, Wasteland, and Bard's Tale III. The story of a lonely boy who discovered herself in a drawer full of burgers and assembly code.
It is early evening as I sit down to chat with Rebecca Heineman, known to most of her friends, colleagues, and fans simply as "Burger." The nickname seems a bad fit for this energetic and charismatic woman, whose passion for coding and game design are as infectious as her impish grin.
The two of us are Skyping with video, and Becky is sitting on her bed at the Trylon Corporate Apartments in Montreal, using the camera on her laptop.
As she launches into her first story, her enthusiasm is so great that the laptop begins bouncing up and down like a carnival ride. I ask her to move it from her lap to the foot of the bed. The camera stops jostling, but I'm still a wide-eyed kid on a rollercoaster.
Becky's roots in the video games industry go back, well, to its roots. She first gained notoriety by winning the National Space Invaders Championship in 1980, a feat she credits more to patience than prowess.
She also spent time at the Avalon Hill, the famous wargame and board game company, which began adapting some of its lineup to the computers of the early 1980s -- when machines like the Apple II and Commodore 64 were the playground bullies.
Becky's job was to port games like London Blitz to the even humbler Atari 2600. During this time she was a 14-year old, but it was easier to lie about her age than to tell the truth. Who would believe someone so young could know so much?
Most of her fans probably know her best for her tenure at Interplay Productions, the Brian Fargo-originated publisher and developer she helped to found with Fargo and three other developers in 1983. While at Interplay, Becky designed Tass Times in Tonetown, a quirky, irreverent, and highly innovative point-and-click adventure published in 1986. She also did the heavy lifting on Interplay's famous computer role-playing game, Tales of the Unknown: Volume I, better known as The Bard's Tale.
A long-time fan of the genre, Becky would go on to write The Bard's Tale III in 1988, widely considered the best game in the series. She also designed the critically acclaimed Dragon Wars in 1989, which met with lackluster sales despite its bold innovations and meticulous design. She also earned a reputation for her many excellent conversions of popular games to the Apple IIGS, Macintosh, and many other platforms.
However, unlike most of those early coders, who hit or missed in the '80s before eventually moving on to other careers, Burger has remained a key player. She was most recently senior engine programmer at Ubisoft Toronto, and was also an essential member of Microsoft's Kinect team.
During my chat with Becky, I couldn't help but wonder if this were really the person so often described as a hermit and a loner; a brilliant hacker who kept herself barricaded in a cubicle. Of course, at that time she was named William Salvador Heineman, a classic case of a woman trapped in a man's body.
In 2003, she began the transition to womanhood, and is now a lesbian. While it is tempting to separate Becky's personal life from her many achievements as a programmer and designer, I can't help but wonder if she owes some measure of her success to her willingness to veer away from convention and take the roads less traveled by.
I had figured that my interview with Becky might lead to a few good stories about the good old days and perhaps a few nuggets for the history books. What I got instead was a fascinating tour through the life of one the industry's most intriguing and controversial figures, Ms. Becky "Burger" Heineman.
I found this on your website: "Who am I? I'm a 46 year old woman, computer programmer, game designer, writer, engineer, pastry chef, markswoman, loving mother of 5 even though my kids have grown up and moved on." Do you feel that pretty much covers everything? Markswoman, really?
Rebecca Heineman: Yes. I used to have a Ferret 50 caliber, long time ago...Not anymore, I don't have any firearms. They've long since disappeared in the divorce, etc. But I used to go out with some friends shooting, and here's a little piece of trivia: in the game Wasteland, in the packaging there's a picture of Alan Pavlish, Michael A. Stackpole, and so forth all dressed as Mad Max road warriors -- the guns they're holding are mine.
I understand that you also like to bake cakes?
RH: Yes, I do, cakes, pies, cookies... I have kids, and they always loved it when mom cooked them stuff. I had this cake recipe I did called "Death by Chocolate," and right now it's a favorite for my son Jacob and my son William -- every birthday, I have to bake them that cake. It's called "Death by Chocolate" because you start with chocolate fudge cake mix, and as I pour it in a Bundt cake pan, and then I put M&Ms or little chocolate baking bits, then another layer of cake mix, until the pan is full.
Then I bake it, take it out, and ice it with chocolate icing and then put Hershey's Kisses all over the cake or sprinkle it with M&Ms. So, essentially just one bite would make you gain five pounds. My sons can't get enough of it, and I'm like, crap. There goes my diet.
Have you ever played Portal?
RH: Yes, and it's not a lie. In fact, that's a fun story. Microsoft has a tradition in my department in the advanced technology group that every time it's your anniversary of being hired, you're supposed to bring a pound of M&Ms for every year you've been there. So my first anniversary, I made a Death by Chocolate cake with one pound of M&Ms baked into it, and then I went around the office area and made "Cake This Way" signs. Over the cake were big signs saying "Not a Lie" with big arrows pointing down to it.