Happy Puppy remembers a pioneer

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Happy Puppy remembers a pioneer

by Greg Costikyan

Dani Bunten Berry was a giant.

I don’t mean that she stood six-foot-two, although she did.

I mean that she was one of the great artists of our age, one of the creators of the form that will dominate the 21st century, as film has dominated the 20th and the novel the 19th: the art of game design.

I mean that she displayed a complete mastery of her craft, always pushing the edges of the possible, always producing highly polished work of gem-like consistency and internal integrity.

I mean that in her writings and her speeches (many available at her professional website), she demonstrated enormous thoughtfulness about her chosen field, a level of intellectual analysis matched by a mere handful of contemporaries.

Her whole vision of “the game” was as a form of social interaction. From the very first, her games were multiplayer, at a time when the internet was the ARPANET, when modems were acoustic couplers used to connect to academic computers, when the technological infrastructure to permit online gaming was simply nonexistent. She saw that, however engaging play with a machine might be made, it was ultimately void, because it created no engagement with other people.

From the very first, Bunten designed for multiple players, and indeed only two of her games (Seven Cities of Gold and Heart of Africa) were solitaire-only. Her first game, Wheeler Dealers, published in 1978 for the Apple II, came packaged with a custom input device for four people–the only way to permit simultaneous play at the time. Most of Bunten’s early work was for the Atari 800, which remains the only personal computer to ship with hardware for play by multiple players; and her games of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Modem Wars, Command HQ, and Global Conquest) were all designed around modem or network play.

In short, Bunten’s games were designed at a time when supporting multiple players was hard. And it is a particular tragedy that her career should be cut short at this unhappy juncture, now that network gaming is burgeoning–a tragedy not solely for Dani, but for all of us, for she understood the requirements and aesthetic of multiplayer gaming better than anyone else in the field.

Dani was understandably reticent about her private life. She grew up in Arkansas, where she continued to live, at some cost to her career, throughout her life. She was the eldest of six childen–five boys and one girl. She was not the girl.

She once said that one of the reasons she loved games was that the only times her family spent together that weren’t totally dysfunctional was when they were playing games.

She was married three times before her “pronoun change,” as she called it, and had three children by two wives. She remained devoted to her children even after the marriages foundered. One of the agonies of her later years was that the degree of her estrangement from her former spouses made it difficult to maintain her relationship with her children whom, by all evidence, she adored.

“Danielle” maintained that she was a nicer person than “Dan” had been; but whatever the gender, she was remarkably free of the egotism and arrogance of so many designers. She viewed her own work with an analytical, often dyspeptic eye, recognizing her flaws perhaps more often than her virtues. Though her career was badly damaged by her abandonment of the field during and after her change of gender, she never expressed remorse or bitterness about the difficulty of reestablishing herself as a designer, a process still under way at the moment of her death.

Those who knew her in the field remark upon her charm, patience, and generosity of spirit. Whatever demons she struggled with during her life, the product of the struggle was a degree of insight, humility, and sympathy which made of her not merely a fine game designer but also a fine human being.

This year, at the Computer Game Developer’s Conference, she was awarded the CGDA Lifetime Achievement Award. These things, alas, tend to be awarded to the dying. But certainly no one in the field deserved it more.

When, in some halcyon future day, the merits and artistry of computer games are recognized, when games are understood as works of art, when the history of game design receives the attention it deserves, Dani Bunten Berry’s contributions will at last be understood by more than the handful of people who knew her.

The future? At times, it seems, the future flows desultorily toward us, slowly meandering like the lethargic Mississippi; that glorious day is not here yet, and the measure of that fact is that many who read this will never before have heard of Danielle Berry, nor yet of Dan Bunten.

And at other times, the future approaches all too quickly, coming on us so fast that only a distant crash, behind us, registers the fall of a giant.

Dani died on July 3rd, 1998, at friend’s home in Little Rock of metastatic lung cancer. She was not yet 50.

Happy Puppy remembers M.U.L.E.

by Greg Costikyan

When Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts, he hit upon the notion of promoting the best game designers in the field as “stars”–and Dan Bunten was one of the designers he chose to sponsor. Hawkins wanted to purchase Cartels and Cutthroats, Dan’s preceding game, from SSI, but they refused to sell; Bunten persuaded him that he could do better. The result was M.U.L.E.

Programmed for the Atari 800, M.U.L.E. (Multiple Use Labor Element, the cute labor robots controlled by players in the game) was a humorous game of resource extraction on an alien world. It was designed for up to four players–something the Atari 800 made feasible. It was tense, entertaining, and enormous fun; it’s still in the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame and is, according to legend, the most pirated game in the field’s history. Designers still talk of it in hushed tones, and the fact that no version of the game has been developed for a modern gaming platform is an instance either of astonishing oversight or crass philistinism on the part of the major publishers. Many believe it was Dani’s single best work.

(An aside: when I offered to introduce Warren Spector, producer of many games for Origins and Looking Glass and, now, Ion Storm, to Dani, he regretfully refused; he had loved M.U.L.E. so much he was afraid he wouldn’t know what to say. He would sound like a blithering fan-boy and be embarrassed. That is the level of admiration the game arouses in the field.)