Remembering Michael Berlyn

Michael Berlyn died recently and I thought it would be nice to say a few things about his legacy.

  • The guy could really write. At a time when writing talent was not necessarily the most defining factor in text adventure success, he brought an uncommon level of ability to our screens. And I’d argue that his efforts paid off in the form of inventive and fun gameplay better than many of the more famous and widely-published fiction authors who followed.

  • He took an active interest in the early postmodern scene and tried to make some meaningful contributions when he probably could have been doing more lucrative and/or fun things with his time and resources.

  • He created worlds like Contra (Suspended) and Tonetown which are greater than the sum of their parts and have been surprisingly neglected since their one-and-done appearance on store shelves.


I remember being very impressed with the ending of Infidel, back in the day. Lots of people hated it (notably Scorpia in Computer Gaming World) but that seemed like missing the point to me - it was the first time I’d come across a game ending that felt like it was created by a writer, rather than a game designer.


Viewed in their own contexts (always worth the effort, I think), Infidel and Suspended are the most narratively innovative games of Infocom’s early period. I would go further and call them subversive in a very refreshing way.

Because of its focus on simulation, I think that many players missed Suspended’s critique of depersonalization/dehumanization at the hands of a totalitarian state. Infidel had the audacity to question the implicit ideology of our favorite hobby in a time when interactive media wasn’t doing a whole lot (much? any?) of that.

Unfortunately, Berlyn wound up on a literal island at Infocom (how did the author of Infidel get another treasure hunting game?), and his talents were poorly used for the rest of his time there.

He was also a wickedly funny person, who presciently referred to Cornerstone as “tombstone.” Ha!

A giant if undervalued force in the evolution of narrative gaming.


Michael Berlyn will always be very tass in my book. He will be missed.

"Game designer Michael Berlyn gives the following source for the word:

Muffy and I were employed there [at Harvard], teaching creative writing. And the motto of Harvard is ‘Veritas,’ which means ‘truth.’ We took to saying ‘very tass’ to mean, ‘very true,’ or ‘too true.’ Our students picked it up and started applying it to something that was cool. So very tass turned into very hip or cool."

Source: Tass Times in Tonetown - Wikipedia


It pains me that he is remembered far more for Bubsy than for his work in interactive fiction. He really puahed fhe envelope in narrative design and gameplay design at infocom.

Suspended really changed how you played a text adventure at that time with the ability to coordinate all the robots to work almost autonomously. It even allowed you to change the variables of events and timing to make the game feel fresh each time and lets not forget the meticulous attention of detail presented by the perspectives of each robot.

And infidel!!! Very ahead of its time by creating an established protagonist that paints a far more interesting picture. It really offered a more interesting way to perceive how we narratively created text adventures at the time and it is kind of sad it wasnt as embraced by the industry at the time.

And to touch on Tass Times in Tonetown… that was the very first computer game i ever played and was the impetus for my brothers and I incessently asking our parents for an Apple IIGS (and getting one even though we never got Tass when we DID get the computer). Lets bring the word Tass back in his honor.

Michael Berlyn was tass and the games he created were tass. He left a mark in the games industry that will forever be remembered.


I haven’t played a lot by Michael Berlyn but Suspended is one of the greatest Infocom games.

A less known IF game he made, Oo-topos, is really great too and legally available here:
By Polarware. Luckily it is the “Comprehend” version with better parser. I enjoy it a lot but haven’t completed it yet. But definitely tass! A great legacy.


I agree, and think it might be a little difficult for anyone who didn’t experience the games when they were new to appreciate just how innovative they are.

I think that’s particularly true of Infidel, where I think today the revisionist elements feel a bit on the nose, and the characterization of the protagonist a bit one-note. But roughly contemporaneously with it, I was (being a TRS-80 owner) playing games like Pyramid 2000 (a dismal Colossal Cave knockoff) and Raaka-tu (a rudimentary treasure hunt that doesn’t even have a defined “win” state). Compared to this sort of thing, Infidel was positively Dostoyevskian.


Michael Berlyn was one of the greats. Nearly every one of his games exhibited innovation. For those that aren’t aware, his text adventures/interactive fiction were:

  • Cyborg (Sentient Software, 1981)
  • Oo-Topos (Sentient Software, 1981)
  • Infidel (Infocom, 1983)
  • Suspended (Infocom, 1983)
  • Cutthroats (Infocom, 1984)
  • Oo-Topos (remake with graphics) (Polarware Software, 1986)
  • Tass Times in Tonetown (Activision, 1986)
  • Dr. Dumont’s Wild P.A.R.T.I. (First Row Software Publishing, 1987)
  • Altered Destiny (Accolade, 1990)
  • Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (Infocom, 1997)
  • Dr. Dumont’s Wild P.A.R.T.I. (expanded version) (Cascade Mountain Publishing, 1999)

I first became aware of the Harvard motto (as seen on sweatshirts) at roughly the same time Tass Times In Tonetown came out, so it only seemed natural to me that they were probably related!


It seems that Dr. Dumont’s Wild PARTI text-adv was originally created with something called “IVY development system” copyrighted to both Mike and Muffy Berlyn. Just out of plain curiosity, is something known about this tool? Was it ever used in any other work than Dumont?