Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pioneering Women: Kathy Pfeiffer's Tunnels of Fahad

In the early days of the videogame industry, there weren't a lot of women involved in game design and programming.  The gender imbalance is slowly being redressed as time goes on, but there are only a handful of well-known female designers from the classic era - Carol Shaw at Activision, who created River Raid and Happy Trails; Roberta Williams, creator of Sierra's Mystery House, King's Quest and many more; and Atari Centipede's Dona Bailey. 

So today I'd like to celebrate another early pioneer who entered the geeky, male-dominated computer entertainment field of the late 1970's and made her own contributions to the developing art of the videogame.

Tunnels of Fahad was an early TRS-80 game, written by Kathy Pfeiffer for Micro-Fantastic Programming and published in 1980 by Adventure International.  She's credited only as "K. Pfeiffer" on the title screen and in the 1981 Adventure International catalog, but a peek at the code provides the inside scoop:

The game is clearly "inspired by"Atari's 2600 maze game Dodge 'Em, where two players go head to head to collect dots and avoid head-on collisions.  The story's been moved from a race track to an Egyptian tomb, oddly laid out in the same rectangular fashion, pitting the player against a mummy to collect silver and "tanner [sic] leaves" to score points.  Each turn ends when YOU, represented by the letter X, run into (i.e. are caught by) the RAMPAGING MUMMY, represented by a rectangular block:

The gameplay hasn't aged well - Pac-Man did this kind of thing so much better - and Tunnels of Fahad is written largely in TRS-80 BASIC, so the gameplay is not as smooth as it might have been.  But Ms. Pfeiffer turns in some solid and technically innovative work here. 

She has implemented a sound routine, no mean feat in the early days of the TRS-80, and her code pumps out some pleasantly arcade-ish beeps and boops.  And the game's collision detection is solid -- even when the vagaries of the display update allow the player's X to visibly "pass through" the mummy, the logic catches the apparent near-miss and registers the hit correctly.

The AI isn't bad either, given the relatively simple constraints of the gameplay (and the fact that the player's car only travels at one speed, unlike the Atari 2600 game.)  The "mummy" the player competes against seems fairly shrewd -- it apparently knows enough to take the long or short route so it can get in the player's way, and is fond of sideswiping the player's hapless X with rapid lane changes at the intersections.  More significantly, the computer opponent's behavior has some randomness to it -- unlike Pac-Man, which was deterministic at heart, Tunnels of Fahad isn't conducive to pattern memorization.  I found it quite difficult to make more than two loops around the track without getting... dang, mummified isn't the right word; it just sounds like it should be.

Tunnels of Fahad isn't an overlooked masterpiece crying out for a remake, by any means.  But it's a decent version of a vintage game concept, and a notable early contribution from a female game programmer in an era when such creatures were rare indeed.  As far as I can determine, this was Kathy Pfeiffer's only published game, and my attempts to track her down to learn more about her experiences at the time have come to naught.  Ms. Pfeiffer, if you're out there, we'd love to hear from you!

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