Inherit The Earth: Quest for the Orb
Inherit the Earth: Quest for the Orb was an adventure-style computer game created by The Dreamers Guild in 1994, and published by New World Computing. I was the lead engineer and creative director on the project.
Probably the most distinctive aspect of the game is that all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, or “Morph” for short.
How the game came to be is a long and complex story, and there are many threads that lead to it’s creation.
One thing to bear in mind reading all of this is that my memory is not perfect; I remember most of what I did, but I might not be able to remember what everyone else on the project did. If in doubt, consult the game credits.
JVC & New World Computing
I first met Jon Van Caneghem at a game developer’s convention in the late 80s, a few years before the Dreamers Guild was founded. Both Jon and I were on a panel together — I was there because of Faery Tale Adventure, while Jon spoke about his own creation — the Might and Magic series of games.
I was pretty impressed by Jon (and perhaps a little intimidated), but we talked after the panel and exchanged cards. We kept in touch after that, and Jon even attended some of the parties that were held at my house. (I particularly recall Jon putting a serious intensity into a game of Frisbee in our backyard.)
Jon (who was often referred to as JVC, which was partly a joke because it was also the name of a brand of high-end home stereo equipment) was not only a game creator, but also the founder of New World Computing, which at that point was on track to become a very successful game publisher.
When my friends and I first formed The Dreamers Guild, we figured that New World would be a relationship worth cultivating, and a good prospect for funding a project — if we could come up with the right idea. Our strategy in forming DGI had always been that we would start by doing contract work and ports of other people’s games, but once we had established our reputation we would be able to do what we really wanted — original games based on our own ideas.
And so it was — once I had finished porting Deluxe Music Construction Set 2.0 to the Amiga, New World was willing to give us our shot. Our chance to do an original game!
However, we still needed a captivating, original idea. I had already done one fantasy-based RRG, so doing yet another generic fantasy game wouldn’t cut it. We talked about doing a “Sierra-style” adventure — In fact, I had recently played LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island, and I knew that technically and artistically we could do something just as good.
Robert McNally, Joe Pearce, and myself spent a lot of time brainstorming the game concept. It was at one of our early sessions, after many false starts, that Joe suggested, “What if the hero was, like, a rabbit?”
It was like a lightbulb went off in my head — I instantly remembered the novel Watership Down and how moved I had been reading it as a teenager. And I realized that, just as Richard Adams’ novel had spoken to adults as well as children, we could do the same thing in an adventure game.
After some discussion, we decided that a fox would be a better protagonist. We also came up with the idea of animals being grouped into tribal units, where each tribe represented not only a given animal species, but also a particular set of personality traits.
The beauty of this concept was that it gave us a built-in source of conflict to drive the story — the tribes disliked and mistrusted each other, and our fox hero was kind of an outsider who was disliked by all of them, so naturally one of the goals of the game would be to overcome that distrust.
At this point we knew that we had an idea that would make a compelling story.
But to establish the look of the game, we needed experts. People who had been drawing anthropomorphic animals for years.
We needed to call in our good friends, the Furries.
I had been going to science fiction conventions for quite a few years, and I knew all of the sub-genres of fandom: costumers, filkers, literary fans, media fans, and fanzine writers. Which meant that I also knew a fair number of furry fans, and had watched the development of furry fandom from the perspective of rather bemused outsider (my tastes ran more to comics like ElfQuest). I was even acquainted with some of the original founders of furry fandom, like Mark Merlino.
Furry fandom started out as a group of fans who liked “funny animal comics”, like Felix the Cat and Donald Duck. Many of these fans liked drawing and creating their own characters as well. These folks drew inspiration from the many animated films (such as Disney’s Robin Hood), which featured bipedal, talking animal characters, often in serious dramatic situations.
But it was a foregone conclusion that eventually Rule 34 would come into play, and someone, somewhere, would ask “What if we made cartoon animals sexy?”
This proved to be very popular, and eventually furry fanzines and art shows would feature a whole gamut of eroticism from the subtly naughty to the crudely pornographic. And of course, since every other genre of science fiction fandom had it’s share of cosplayers and costume competitions, it was only natural that furries develop the techniques needed to dress up as their favorite creations.
I wasn’t interested in creating an R-rated game (even if I’d been allowed to publish it), but I was interested in tapping into the creative energy of furry fandom which encompassed much more than just sexy cartoon animals. As I said at the time, I wanted to take furry fandom and “whitebread” it — that is, present it in a form that would be acceptable to a mainstream audience. (There is, however, a subtle bit of furry fanservice late in the game.)
We reached out to my long-time friend, Mark Iennaco and his (at the time) wife Lisa, who were well-known in furry circles. Mark and Lisa were a fixture at many of the furry parties that took place at conventions in the L.A. area. We invited them into our brainstorming sessions where we were fleshing out the world and the backstory of the game. Lisa later went on to become one of the key animators for the game, doing the characters Rif and Rhene among others.
We also went to several furry conventions in Los Angeles and recruited artists to do concept sketches — we’d come up with character ideas in our story development sessions, and then pay artists $20 a sketch to do a visual treatment. We quickly learned which artists were reliable and could do a quick turn-around.
For example, one artist, Eric Blumrich, was extremely prolific and could churn out a bunch of character treatments in a day — but his character design style wasn’t quite what we wanted for the game, so often we’d have Eric do a first pass and then hand it over to another artist such as Lisa or April Lee to do the final character design.
At some point it was decided that I would be the creative lead for the project, and Allison Hershey, another Dreamers Guild founder, would be the art director.
At that time we had a tradition of assigning code names to our projects. Our C.O.O. Charles Wilson had established the means by which code names would be chosen: by randomly picking a series of random numbers representing a page, column and paragraph number in the large Merriam-Webster dictionary we kept at the DGI office (which at the time was Robert McNally’s apartment).
Using this formula, we determined that the code-name for the new game (which didn’t have an official name yet) would be “Project Sun-dried”.
We also decided that the game would be set in a technologically-regressed future world, in which the inhabitants were slowly recovering the lost knowledge of the ancients. This idea had been explored thoroughly in one of my favorite book series, The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. The idea of a ‘fantasy story wrapped in a science fiction universe’ had also been one of the core premises behind the game Alternate Reality, which was developed by DataSoft during the time I worked there.
Building on this theme, our backstory included the idea that animals had been genetically “uplifted” (to use the term coined by science fiction author David Brin) by human scientists, after which the human race had been wiped out in a mysterious calamity. We decided that humanity had been killed off by an airborne biological weapon, however we decided not to reveal this fact in the game and instead save this mystery for a possible sequel. Thus, the title “Inherit The Earth” is both a reference to the biblical sermon on the mount, and the fact that the Morph (the “meek”) had inherited the Earth from the humans.
The second part of the title, Quest for the Orb, reflects our ambition that this game would only be the first of several stories told in that world. The Orb of Storms is the MacGuffin of the plot — an ancient relic, said to have been left behind by the long-lost humans, which could predict the weather. The story begins when the Orb is mysteriously stolen, and our hero is accused of the theft and must prove his innocence.
Of course, we also wanted the game to have a rustic, quasi-medieval vibe, so we were careful to keep all of the science-fictional elements in the background of the story. For example, it is not obvious at first that the Orb is a technological construct rather than some mystical or religious artifact.
Because the human scientists had used mazes and puzzles to evaluate the intelligence of their experimental subjects, we decided that the Morph (the uplifted animals) would have, over the subsequent generations, have passed down the tradition of puzzle-solving in the form of tournaments. These would be large annual gatherings where all of the tribes would come together to compete in peace, much like the Olympic games of ancient Greece. And our hero, Rif, would be a contestant who starts out the game whining about the fact that he only won a silver medal instead of gold. This quickly establishes the kind of character that he is, clever and intelligent, but also a little cocky and self-centered. He has a lot of growing up to do!
One idea I wanted to play around with was the idea of stereotypes and racism, or in this case, ‘species-ism’. I had read an interview of Reed Waller, the co-creator of the graphic novel Omaha, The Cat Dancer, in which he pointed out that we humans often use animals as a kind of “shorthand” for personality traits — cats are sensual, foxes are crafty, and so on.
But I wanted to take the idea farther, by giving each of the different stereotypes a little ‘twist’. For example:
- Foxes are crafty, but they are also sort of rustic, kind of like gypsies. They get their reputation for untrustworthiness because they have a different concept of what ‘property’ means than other tribes do.
- Elks are stately and majestic, but they are also decadent.
- Boars are aggressive and fearsome, but they are also jolly and know how to party — kind of like Vikings, Klingons, or Scottish soccer hooligans.
- Rats are secretive and sneaky, wearing hooded cloaks to hide their ‘rat-ness’ from other races — but they are also monk-like collectors of knowledge with vast underground libraries. This was partly inspired by the rats from the animated film, The Secret of NIMH.
As I began to immerse myself in the project, I became “sensitized” to the presence of animal characters in our society, and started to notice cartoon animals with human characteristics everywhere — on billboards and storefronts as well as on TV and newspaper comics.
In fact, I remember one episode where I was driving home late at night and thought I saw an elk-morph waiting at a bus stop — only to realize that it was the silhouette of a man with a small tree behind him — the branches of the tree looked like antlers.
The hardest part of the pre-production was fleshing out the plot line. We hired a number of different writers, including my friend and science fiction writer William Rotsler. Bill also brought in one of his buddies, Len Wein (creator of the characters Swamp Thing and Wolverine) to work on the script. Unfortunately, we didn’t use very much of this material — Bill had previously done a number of “choose your own adventure” books, but at the time neither he nor Len had any experience working on computer games, which required a different set of skills.
We had more success with folks who weren’t writers but who had worked on games before. Carolly Hauksdottir had worked on a number of Sierra-style games and helped us with “noodling up” (her term) the puzzles and making the flow of the interactive story more complex.
Working with these folks really helped establish the chemistry between the three main characters — Rif the fox, Eeah the elk and Okk the Boar. We imagined Eeah and Okk as a kind of Legolas and Gimli “odd couple” — distrusting each other at first, but eventually growing to respect and even like one another.
For the actual game dialog, I worked with screenwriter Robert Leh. Collaborating closely with a skilled, professional writer who was willing to take direction from a game designer was a fun and illuminating experience for me. As an example of how we worked together, when I got the initial draft of the opening scene, the very first line read:
Scorry: And that, my friend, is game and match.
I said to Robert, “I was thinking of Scorry as more of a nerd.” A day later, he comes back with:
Scorry: I win, I win! I knew I could defeat you!
It was perfect.
One of the first things we did was create the tools that the artists would use — this included iso, the isometric tile and map editor, and sprited, the animated character sprite editor.
A lot of the backgrounds were done in the MS-DOS version of Deluxe Paint. One technique we used was hand-painted depth buffers — that is, the artists would create two images for each background, one image representing the colors of the scene, and another image where the pixel values were used to indicate the depth of the scene. This was used to mask the characters when they went ‘behind’ parts of the scenery. A lot of these drawings were done by Ed Lacabanne, who was another Dreamers Guild founder.
Allison Hershey had been experimenting for several years with a ‘paleo-futuristic’ themes in her own artwork, incorporating elements of cave paintings and native petroglyphs mixed with metallic and science-fictional elements. This inspired us to use cave paintings in the opening sequence to tell the story of the origins of the Morph, implying that this was a folk tale passed down from earlier generations.
One of the biggest mistakes we made in Inherit The Earth was making the opening scene too long and non-interactive — almost ten minutes before you can actually start clicking and playing!
For the game cover, I had long admired the work of artist Alicia Austin, whose distinctive style had been a feature of many science fiction art shows. And since she only lived a few miles away, we visited her and commissioned her to do the cover art. Here’s a photo of the cover, without the logo and other text:
Scripting and Programming
To drive the game logic, I created a simple scripting language called SAGA (Scripts for Animated Graphic Adventures). I later created an improved version, SAGA 2, which was used in Faery Tale Adventure 2.
Our graphics library used “X-mode”, which was the only way (at the time) to get MS-DOS to display the colors and resolution we needed. This required us to develop our own high-performance graphics library in assembly language.
One thing I recall was that ITE didn’t start to “come together” until very late in the project cycle — New World was getting impatient with our lack of visible progress, but we had invested the time developing the game’s infrastructure and technical foundation and were feeling confident. I think we were about two-thirds of the way through the project before we were able to demonstrate actual gameplay, but within a couple of weeks after that large parts of the game were playable.
The game engine which we created for ITE was later used in Cyberdreams’ I have no mouth and I must scream, an award-winning game inspired by the fiction of Harlan Ellison. Cyberdreams designed that game, but the artwork and programming was done as a Dreamers Guild project.
Music and Sound
The music was all done by musician Matt Nathan, who I had worked with on Music-X and other MicroIllusions projects. We used Miles Sound System (MSS) as the music and sound playback library.
New World supplied the resources needed for recording the actor’s voices. At New World’s recording studio I worked with voice director Sy Prescott who also was the beautifully rich voice of the shaman / narrator in the opening scene. I have to say that working with and directing the voice actors was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire life — seeing how someone could take an idea that I gave them and instantly transform it into a lively performance.
Late Project Challenges
We had a lot of difficulties during the last phase of the project.
One problem was that the game design wasn’t as rich and complex as we had hoped. We had problems coming up with enough puzzles and interesting quests to fill out the game world — near the end of the project we were adding really low-quality game elements like mazes and filler dialog just to make the game longer.
Another problem is that our publisher, New World, had never really bought into our game concept. They liked the idea of a game about animals, but they (and more importantly, their distributor Broderbund) wanted something targeted towards a younger audience, without all of the subtle adult undertones we were putting in. So we were getting some pressure to simplify the game and the story.
Also, the conclusion of the story was unsatisfying to some players.
You see, I had wanted a kind of “Wizard of Oz” ending, where Dorothy realized that she had what she needed to get back home all along. Similarly, Rif is unable to return with the stolen Orb of Storms, but he realizes that if the Morph work together, they already have the knowledge and skills they need to survive without the Orb. I wanted to convey one of my deeply-held beliefs, which is that we shouldn’t be dependent on some voice of authority to tell us what is true and what isn’t, we should use our reason and our senses to find out for ourselves. But this “success within failure” seemed anticlimactic to some.
Inherit The Earth: Quest for Orb was not a commercial success; I think that it sold fewer than 20,000 copies in it’s initial run, which was pretty small compared to other games of that time. Reception were mixed — some reviewers were intrigued by its unique world and original story, but panned it as a game. It also didn’t help that New World was now distributing their products through Electronic Arts, who really didn’t want to have anything to do with this game.
A few years later, the game was translated into German and ported to the Amiga, where (surprisingly) it did somewhat better:
I was interviewed for a German game magazine (a copy of which I have around here somewhere).
Joe Pearce eventually started his own company, Wyrmkeep Entertainment Co., which continues to distribute Inherit The Earth and several other original Dreamers Guild games. He has ported the game to a number of modern platforms, and is currently working on a sequel. He has also published a multi-volume graphic novel which takes place in the world of the Morph.
Inherit The Earth was my first project in which I directed a large team of creative people. I had done games before, such as Discovery and The Faery Tale Adventure, but I worked alone for the most part, doing all of the programming, music and artwork myself. Being able to spark the imaginations of other artists, actors and storytellers was in many ways a dream come true, and was one of the peak experiences of my life.
At the same time, I was very disappointed in the final product when it was published. It wasn’t the game that I had wanted or envisioned, and all that I could see was the flaws.
It is only with the passing of the years that I have been able to look upon the game more fondly, and experience it as a source of pride.
The Wyrmkeep Entertainment Co.
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In 2000 the former Dreamers Guild co-founder Joe Pearce started a new company Wyrmkeep Entertainment. In 2002 Pearce…