In 1985, Datasoft released an unusual CRPG for Atari 8-bit computers like the already venerable Atari 800 called Alternate Reality: The City. Designed and programmed by a one-man army by the name of Philip Price along with Gary Gilbertson who did the music, the two of them formed Paradise Programming based in Hawaii during the 80s.
In an interview with James Hague for his book Halcyon Days (available free on the web), Philip Price recounts the road he took on the way to designing The City starting at the age of seven when he’d create “board and outdoor games” with his sister as a player and then on though a multiplayer game he created in college.
Price later did a stint in the Navy as a Nuclear Reactor Operator, leaving college to pursue other opportunities that he felt were more interesting, and after he got out, headed to Hawaii. Unfortunately, in trying to apply at the University of Hawaii to complete his studies, he couldn’t get any loans or grants because they came back to say that he made “too much” which didn’t make sense. He was busy trying to make ends meet when he found a computer dealer with Atari 400 and 800 8-bit computers.
He knew how to program and without any technical manuals armed with only a cassette drive along with 32k based in a computer powered by a Jeep outside of the dealer’s shop and taking showers on the beach while living in a shack, began the ground work on taking apart the Atari’s capabilities. But he also began working on his first commercial game — The Tail of Beta Lyrae. Together, he and Gilbertson’s musical talents made a powerful team.
When he set out to build Alternate Reality: The City, Price had no experience with 3D — few CRPGs used the effect outside of games like a Wizardry or early Ultima for their dungeons, though creating the actual effect wasn’t an unknown by then. Like many programmers would go on to do with their games, he designed his own engine from the ground up “on a computer that ran at less than 2MHz and had 48k of RAM” while doing a number of other things that no other CRPG ventured into. It was an incredibly ambitious title and Price planned to have it go on through seven chapters with each one patching into each other to create one, giant game with one overarching story similar to what Might & Magic: Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen would do in 1992/1993 respectively.
Alternate Reality: The City involved a giant alien starship coming down over a city and abducting you. Depending on the computer you were running the game on, the intro could be a brief or an elaborate production. The Atari’s intro was stacked with special effects and music to give it that cinematic flair that other designers such as Chris Roberts would later use to great effect with Wing Commander five years later in 1990. On the other end of the spectrum, the Apple II’s eight color palette and limited hardware created a pretty short one.
The idea was that you were kidnapped by aliens and dumped into a game of survival in “The City” of Xebec’s Demise, a strange medieval construct located who knows where.
It was a CRPG but unlike many of its peers, approached conventional elements with an eye towards doing certain things differently. For example, players didn’t just roll starting statistics for their character in STR, CON, and whatever other bits and pieces a particular RPG may choose as a part of its system. Instead, after the lengthy intro and the opening of huge doors, they stood in front of a giant portal with numbers spinning above it like a slot machine for each of those statistics. When you stepped through, whatever numbers were above it are frozen into your persona, cutting you loose.
The game also featured day and night cycles represented by the rising and falling of the sun, weather cycles (like rain and sunshine), and a number of hidden attributes that could affect your character in other ways such as alignment determining how “good” or “bad” you were. Keeping yourself fed was also an important part of play and finding out how to get more food to keep yourself starving to death wasn’t quite as simple as it was in Ultima.
Part of the reason was that you literally start off with almost nothing other than a little food, some copper coins, and your fists. That’s it. Thanks to random encounters, you might also run into benign NPCs like couriers and clerks, or have the horrible luck in facing a gladiator out on a bully stroll. It’s absolutely possible to simply get killed in the first few minutes of the game and be forced to start over with a fresh character. Most of the time, depending on the NPC, you can simply “Ignore” them and walk away. Other times, if it’s clearly someone that’s a fighter like a thief or knight, you can only try to “Disengage” and “Leave” (run away) which may give them the opportunity to not only steal some of your money but an opening with which to stab or crush your puny pool of starting HP.
Fighting is menu driven with text commands like “Trick” or “Charm” (which use statistic rolls such as intelligence or charm, respectively) to try and quickly deal with enemies (they’re kind of like instant kill moves, though as Scorpia notes in her review of the game for CGW, even she wasn’t sure just how charming someone could kill them). “Attack” is as it sounds, and every time you hit your opponent, you get experience which was a neat feature, something that would be popularized in titles like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series where using certain skills improved them in the same way years later. After killing your opponent, you’d get a windfall of experience and whatever valuables they might have on them.
There are shops, taverns (for food and drink), inns (for safely resting), smiths, and even guilds that can help uncurse you if afflicted (for an extremely steep price). There was even a bank in the game that could earn your money interest, though a bug made keeping your money there extremely dangerous after the first year.
Alignment also played a big role in the game. Tricking “good” aligned enemies was considered an “evil” act and alters your unseen moral compass. Likewise, attacking certain creatures will do the same thing unless they are the ones attacking you first.
And most everything ran in real-time. Standing around didn’t stop the clock or the random encounters. Even if you’re staring a menu of options, the other NPC won’t wait for you to make a decision and act on their own. If it’s a mugger, for example, they’ll keep trying to slash you with their switchblade (which apparently isn’t considered loot) over and over again if you do nothing.
Visually, the game also tried a trick or two to step above the competition. Everything was still based on the popular “grid movement” design for first-person, 3D dungeons where 90 degree turns and players went from tile to tile arranged on a titanic grid. But instead of instantly moving forward or backwards, the engine made it so that it slowly moved across the tile (speed of movement was also determined at the portal above) giving the impression that it was seamless. The City even had a horizon (with aforementioned sun) with mountains in the distance and a waterfall. The sky would even go dark with rain, complete with special effects (and more monsters who also favored wandering around at night…I hope you have a safe place to sleep at).
The City wanted to add in enough realism to create new challenges on top of a familiar CRPG framework. A number of its ideas were extensions of previous concepts — like food, day and night cycles, and getting poisoned — but it would take them much further. Not only was there a day and night cycle, but each business in the game had its own schedule of when it was open and when it closed. Shopkeepers might not even care very much for you if you enter their shop, browse their stuff, and then leave without buying anything.
As far as these concepts were pushed, the game that came together around them had mixed reactions. Aside from the steep difficulty thanks to how you started out, I wasn’t a huge fan of the slot machine that set the statistics for your character (who was technically supposed to be you). And as Scorpia had also noted in her review, there’s not much of a point to The City since the actual story would only be further revealed over the next several chapters. The City was essentially a giant training area similar in some ways to SSI’s Hillsfar in 1989. Characters leveled up here were expected to be ready for the next game, Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, but there wasn’t much of a point to playing through The City because you can’t really play through it — just keep playing it, leveling up, and hoping you were ready for the next game.
Fans, however, have kept the game alive collecting a vast number of references, interviews, and “how-to’s” on getting it to run on modern PCs via emulation. For example, there’s a great post over at AtariAge by Dragonstomper detailing how you can play it yourself complete with a vast number of links taking you through its history. There’s also “The Original Alternate Reality Homepage” that’s been around since 1994 with guides, cluebooks, maps, and an extensive FAQ that also includes Philip Price’s own words on what his ultimate plan was for this seven episode epic.
The game was eventually ported from Atari 8-bit computers to a wide variety of platforms with varying degrees of quality from the C64, DOS, and the Apple II to the iPhone and the iPad today. When it originally shipped, it was as lavishly packaged as any CRPG with a fold out map of The City, a folded card with a short story about a survivor in the game, and the 5.25″ floppies or the newish 3.5″ ones. There was even a newsletter dedicated to the fans dropping hints and featuring questions from the community. Today, there’s a project or two working on remaking the game such as this effort over at CRPGDEV.COM called Alternate Reality X.
The City seemed a lot like a proof-of-concept with some great ideas. It might have leaned a little too far when it came to realism yet some of its ambitious concepts would resurface in later CRPGs such as Ultima V in 1988 with its own scheduling system. However, the lack of any real goal outside of grinding up characters for the next chapter didn’t seem like a very exciting alternative to other CRPGs at the time that may not have offered as many intriguing systems beneath the hood, instead balancing themselves arguably more towards diverse character creation tools, focused narrative structure, and questing opportunities with clearer goals…and then adapting new aspects in later chapters.
As a CRPG, The City seemed like the first piece of a promising series where everything would make sense later which Price pointed out as the long term plan. And Datasoft seemed to feel the same way, paving the path forward to the next — and unfortunately, the series’ last — chapter.