Gaming has come a long way in the last few decades – it’s come a long way since the days of TV advertising and the Internet. But like most things, it’s an idea that has evolved, from the minds of individuals who had the will and creativity to create projects of their own before the large companies really took hold of things. One game that was big in my childhood was a clever title called Hugo’s House of Horrors, a sort of point-and-click type adventure, although the actual interactions were performed via text input commands, like “Pick up [X]“, or “Stick head in toilet”, resulting in progression, or a witty response. What a fantastic time that was. So, I was happy to find that David P Gray - creator of the title – would give me a bit of his time to answer some questions about his experiences in the days of early game development.
Leon: Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions, David. Hugo’s House of Horrors was one of my first childhood games, and more than likely influenced my choice of games for the years to come. As game design has changed radically in the last couple of decades, I was wondering if you could tell us more about your personal experiences.
Firstly, I was wondering if you could tell us where you picked up your knack for game design – was it related to your career, or something you picked up on your own?
David: I think it was more a love of mystery and adventure stories. As a youngster I remember being a fan of Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple books) and this came out big time in the Hugo Whodunit? episode. Generally the villain was more often than not someone who was mentioned early on and then mostly sidelined until the big denouement and I think I followed this idea. The initial spark for this episode came after finishing Hugo’s House of Horrors and then for the sequel trying to find some clever rhyme or alliteration for the name Hugo and it was a toss up between Hugo Whodunit? and Hugo’s There? I thought that pun was too awful so chose the first. The plot followed from that choice.
In terms of career, although I was working in underwater military defence at the time it’s true to say I saw computers merely as a great way to write games. Games tended to be way more challenging (and therefore more fun) to write than the scientific applications so I think my bosses tended to indulge me, up to a point. Writing a game is also a fantastic way to learn programming as you really stretch the language, the computer and your own abilities.
Leon: Were you a big fan of gaming before you started making HHH?
David: Of course! Although we’re talking 1980′s and it was a tiny fledgling industry compared to today. I was really drawn to the early Sierra graphics adventures which were an inspiration for the Hugo game.
Leon: How many people worked on the first Hugo game? Was it a solo project, or were there any other people involved?
David: Nope, just me. I recall being astounded at the seemingly endless list of credits at the end of Leisure Suit Larry and thinking I could do it all myself. Let’s see, the programming was Microsoft Quick C, the graphics were Z-Soft Paint and the music (well, series of beeps) was transcribed by hand.
I also did the second episode (Hugo Whodunit?) myself but after that I realized that I needed help with the graphics. I found Gary Sirois who lived near me in Massachusetts and asked him what he was good at drawing. He said leaves or trees or something so I decided to set the third episode in a jungle. It was supposed to be the Amazon jungle although Gary pointed out some major inconsistencies (something to do with elephants I think). Geography was never my strong point so I wasn’t too bothered.
Leon: How has HHH influenced your life? Did it earn you a living, or was it more of a side-project that earned you a little extra?
David: Utterly changed it. At its peak it was making twice my day job (coding networks) so I quit it and have been self employed ever since. I deliberately started writing games to become self employed. The reason was that in a big company you could be doing a great job and still the whole department could get canned. This lack of control over my own destiny was the driving factor.
Leon: Seeing as the Internet wasn’t a major source of advertising and distribution to the general public at that time, how did you go about getting Hugo seen and played by the masses?
David: I didn’t really do anything other than upload the game to some local bulletin boards, the equivalent of today’s web sites. Then, mail-order catalog companies found it and started selling the games on diskettes. Then other companies sprang up and started selling these games in stores, on diskette and then CD. These distributors basically found the games they wanted to sell.
Leon: I have heard that HHH was largely influenced by the Leisure Suit Larry games, picking up on it’s text based style and humorous feel – however, were there any other games that were particular influences to your game’s design?
David: Yes, Captain Comic by Michael Denio. This was the first computer game I saw with large cartoon like characters that moved fluidly and I tried to emulate it. Prior to this all the computer games seemed to have such tiny sprites. I think having larger characters on the screen helped the original game’s popularity as it appealed more to younger players. When I did the Windows point and click port, I was influenced by Beneath a Steel Sky.
Leon: For it’s time, Hugo had quite a lot of possibilities – many a time I found myself typing in strange ideas to see how Hugo would react to my suggestions – and there’s quite a lot of humorous dialogue that isn’t necessary to the game’s progression – how long did it take you to complete every possible response people could possibly find?
David: I don’t remember, I think the whole game took only three months from start to finish. I can tell you that it was the most fun to second guess what people would type in and I really enjoyed that. A big inspiration for this was remembering having played the Adventure and Dungeon games at work, where some of us used to disassemble it and look at all the phrases the designers had put in.
Leon: Out of interest, are there any areas or puzzles in the game that particularly stand out as your favourite, and worst parts?
David: I think some of the bugs stick in my mind. For example, the bat on the opening screen in front of the moon seems to flap its wings but that’s actually a bug, I have no idea why it does that. Inside in the meal room the waiter sometimes gets on top of the table and gets stuck there. That was due to the awful boundary design that tries to keep characters in certain areas. The waiter sometimes finds a way to break through his boundary. I enjoyed the “Throw chop” puzzle where the doggy eats you if you get it wrong. There was another bug there as well. I think if you repeatedly “get chop” “throw chop” you can get infinite points. I also enjoyed setting a trap with the dog whistle. I imagine a lot of people blew the whistle as soon as they got it. The number 333 on the mirror came from our PO Box address. The number was going to be 666 but my neighbor advised me not to use that number in a children’s game. I was very naive then.
Leon: I have already mentioned your personal influences to the original Hugo – but are you aware of your creations influencing any other games in particular?
David: There have been some fan inspired re-writes of both the Hugo and Nitemare games. I request that the developers do not sell them commercially as we are still selling the original games and the re-writes would create confusion. I’m not aware of any influences on mainstream games. I do get a continuous trickle of requests to write more games in both series but my stock answer is that it’s not viable today without a Hollywood budget.
Leon: Aside from your latest project, Jigsaws Galore, do you have any particular gaming interests nowadays? Are there any major titles that you play, or anything you would recommend?
David: I get addicted to games so badly so my policy now is to not allow myself to get hooked into them and use my leisure time otherwise. As a result my influences are now totally driven by my children’s! So my son is into things like Empire Total War, Age of Empires, Imperial Glory on the PC and Call of Duty, Medal of Honor on consoles. My daughter is into The Sims and all kinds of stuff and has recently started taking an interest in game design.
Leon: Thank you for your time, David. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, this was somewhat one of those “childhood hero” things for me!