The lack of any coherent story or goals in The City was because it, and the next chapter, The Dungeon, were apparently supposed to be one game.
According to Ken Jordan, one of the programmers for Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, in an archived email, he recounts that the game was actually split in half to rush it out the door and begin bringing in money. That’s where The City came in. As for The Dungeon, that came out two years later in 1987, though by then, Datasoft and the rest of the CRPG landscape were very different places.
The Dungeon was supposed to contain the quests and the other goals that the player, with their leveled up character in The City, would be focused on doing giving more of a reason to do things in this strange world. But by now, Philip Price, the original designer of the series and the one responsible for programming The City, had left long before The Dungeon hit shelves mainly because Datasoft was paying him pennies in royalties. He left all of his concept work to the team that stayed behind at Datasoft to carry on his work though he did consulting work for the game as it underwent its own struggles to make it out.
The Dungeon had one or two features that made life a bit easier. There was the initial guild you were a member of who provided storage — yes, an actual storage area — for a few of your items like food, gems, and cash though not armor and weapons. You could also import your character from The City and into The Dungeon, but not back into The City which was a disappointment for players hoping to see a fulfillment of Price’s vision of a unified world. The reasons why that wasn’t possible were outlined by Jordan in the link above, but suffice it to say it was a technical hurdle that was a major problem at the time. As much as players would love to see Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim merge into one world, the technical differences between each game are a lot like the same kind of conundrum that faced Jordan and his fellow programmers.
Importing a character was almost a hard requirement considering that The Dungeon is already ramped up to accommodate experienced characters. As Scorpia noted in her review of the game in CGW, it’s virtually impossible to survive as a brand new character even though you could roll one up in the same way as in The City (stepping through the stat slot machine doorway but starting off with literally nothing to your name). Having one brought in from The City with some gear and decent stats is far more preferable, though as some players have noted, not everything comes over intact (like all of your gear).
The new chapter did have a number of improvements. In addition to having actual quests and storage, the game also offered ways to enchant your weapon or craft (and name) one of your own via the blacksmith for a hefty price. Buying gear from the smith is also useful since a number of your weapons can also be prone to breaking. The encounter menu has also been streamlined to be cleaner replacing letter commands with numbers instead.
The manual does a great job in outlining many of the features of the game and even goes so far as to include a grid map to fill in yourself as you explore The Dungeon. Death won’t remove your character from the disk, though “reviving” your character penalizes you a stat point in a random attribute. As Scorpia notes in her review, this was a pointless penalty since players could (and did) make copies of the character disk and simply started from wherever their progress was saved on that without risking a stat point.
One of the interesting things that Ken Jordan recalls in his missive is the use of the Devourer, a creature that ate extra items in your inventory. This was actually a garbage collection routine to keep the game from corrupting items or crashing — there was only so much you could cram into 48k or 64k of memory at the time.
As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that’s what apparently happened here. Jordan and his team wanted to get away from limiting a player’s inventory with arbitrary slots the way many CRPGs at the time did and based how much you could carry on strength and the weight of the actual items. It was a great feature, one that would find use in other games years later such as in the Fallout series in the 90s, which made sense. At the time, however, it was probably too forward thinking for the hardware to handle which is probably why many CRPG developers opted for the hard limit as a stopgap solution.
The hard limits did have one advantage — it avoided having to aggravate players the way the Devourer did. From a programmer’s standpoint, having the Devourer in the game was a dirty solution to an extremely touchy problem underneath the hood. But from the players’, it seemed like a cruel way to arbitrarily deprive them of hard earned stuff. If there’s one cardinal rule in RPGs, it’s never take anything from a player without a really good reason. Unfortunately, the technical goal of the Devourer was not something that players felt they needed to figure out — or was explained in the documentation. Their initial reaction was probably why the developers would do this to their fans. Scorpia called it “one of the most asinine devices I have come across.”.
At the end of The Dungeon was a twist ending where the player would eventually escape through a gate called “Death’s Door” and find their way “behind the scenes” inside a metallic corridor. There, and if they have a mirrored shield, they encounter an alien guard who fires a laser at the player only to have it reflected back vaporizing them instead. The game goes on to say that you have discovered one of the mysteries of Alternate Reality and to be ready for the sequels.
Prior to 1984 and according to Resisting Hostile Takeovers: The Case of Gillette by Rita Ricardo-Campbell (a former director for the company), Gillette had apparently invested $2 million into Datasoft “plus future loans and options for 20 percent equity” in an effort to diversify. That later ballooned into a 40% interest (with an option for an additional 60% over four years) by the time 1984 rolled around according to Computer Gaming World. History then gets a bit hazy as to Datasoft’s ultimate fate.
According to Ken Jordan (one of the programmers on The Dungeon), he claims that the company apparently folded by the time the Atari 8-bit version of The City came out (in 1985) when the founder, Pat Ketchum, left, which is kind of unusual given Gillette’s investment the year earlier and a tentative four-year plan to acquire more of the company…though Rita does point out that Gillette really had no idea on the intricacies of investing in tech. Ketchum’s departure might have also precipitated Gillette’s later decision to pull out entirely, dooming the company but not Alternate Reality. Apparently Gillette kept the ports alive by paying for the work on the Apple II and C64 versions (Jordan recalls his checks coming from the Jafra cosmetics company).
Although Datasoft was apparently dead in ’85, two individuals (Ted Hoffman and Sam Poole) on the business side got together and “worked out a deal to buy DataSofts remaining assets”. At first they wanted to use the name eventually settling on IntelliCreations and founded the company to help Alternate Reality see the light of day as they thought it would be a huge asset. As confusing as that sounds, according to Jordan, it was IntelliCreations that pushed out The City although the boxes have the Datasoft badge (though EA apparently helped with distribution as indicated by a golden sticker on some of the boxes I’ve seen). Over the next two years, additional ports for The City were churned out, possibly paid by Gillette, as work also began on The Dungeon.
The Dungeon was ported over to a much smaller palette of platforms this time around, hitting the Apple II, Atari 8-bit computers, and the C64. It was even ported over to the iPad and the iPhone, though as of this writing, appears to have been removed from Apple’s storefront. Today, it’s floating around on the ‘net emulated in a variety of ways and is even the focus of a fan determined to remake both The City and The Dungeon for a new generation.
The Dungeon was the last chapter in what Philip Price had planned as a seven game extravaganza as he explains in the FAQ preserved at The Original Alternate Reality Homepage. There was even a chapter called The Palace where the player could decide to retire and rule, and it all ended with Destiny as the player discovers the true purpose of the ship they are on (apparently it’s a pleasure proving ground for an incredibly advanced alien race that has stagnated, so they capture sentient beings like the player to experience what they had lost all over again). They discover other inhabitants sealed inside metal cocoons, experiencing the world through virtual avatars like yourself created and controlled by your true self sleeping somewhere in the ship.
At the end, Price planned multiple endings for the player to ultimately decide their fate. They could simply escape and go back home, find a way to strike back at the aliens that have stolen you and so many others for their own purposes, take the ship back to Earth for humanity to learn from (and hopefully not get followed back), “sell out humanity”, or simply “cut off this channel” depriving the aliens of their entertainment.
Plans for a full seven chapter run never came to fruition. Although the games apparently “made millions” for Datasoft, Price only saw a tiny share of that because of how they parceled out the royalties after taking their cut. What Datasoft shared was a pittance compared to what they were making off of his work, and it was when he had lost faith in the industry.
He would leave it behind to work on the B-2 Stealth Bomber’s data system for ten years, was on the ANSI C++ committee, and worked with Creative Labs as a consulting engineer. But every so often, as he reminisces in this interview with James Hague for his book, Halcyon Days, he still gets the itch to get back into game design. As for Gilbertson, he moved back to a normal job, did land development, and eventually got into CG animation work.
The team at Datasoft, or what remained of Datasoft, did their best to continue Price’s work with The Dungeon which still featured Gilbertson’s music (as well as holding onto the intro from The City) and kept touches like the karaoke intro and many of the forward-thinking ideas that pushed the limits of the hardware at the time. The game, however, failed to gain any real traction partly because of its flaws and also because the CRPG market was getting far more competitive.
There was Brian Fargo’s The Bard’s Tale making waves since 1985 with The Bard’s Tale II coming out in the same year that The Dungeon would. Ultima was still going strong thanks to the innovative advances made in Ultima IV in 1985. SSI’s CRPGs were also busy keeping dungeon crawlers seeking lost treasures and fighting villainous meanies. They were also getting ready to drop a bombshell in 1988 with TSR as a partner. Jon Van Caneghem’s fantasy tour de force, Might & Magic, which came out in 1986, was burning up the charts along with its peers — at least among CGW’s readers according their reader response poll in the same 1988 issue that Scorpia reviewed The Dungeon in. FTL’s groundbreaking Dungeon Master had also made its debut in 1987.
The ambitious ideas that both The City and The Dungeon brought to the table were stepping stones like the pioneering ideas that pushed the CRPG genre forward in the years before with wireframe first-person dungeons, massive tile-based open worlds, and character tools. In some ways, the series wanted to bring a few of the conventions that PnP RPGs could provide for players that sought this kind of detail, an attempt to bridge the gap between them and the PC which many designers wrestled with. Ultima V eventually adopted a scheduling system for its in-game businesses and other CRPGs would later take on the kind of inventory ideas that Jordan and his team on The Dungeon attempted now that technology had caught up. But some of the other housekeeping ideas, like hunger and thirst, seemed to find sporadic use in only a few CRPGs that chose to focus on other elements instead to challenge players.
Yet they also demonstrated how important it was to balance other aspects of the experience — accessibility, a coherent narrative with clear goals, more control over character creation, a world that made more sense, no Devourer — against a strong supporting set of tools. Ultimately, these came across as conceptual proofs in being pieces of a greater whole. But for a number of fans keeping Alternate Reality’s torches lit after so many decades, they were, in many ways, heralds of what was to come.