How passion killed and revived a 20-year-old indie game

The 20-year journey of an Amiga indie born of passion, destroyed by love and reborn as 1993: Space Machine.

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Shenandoah: Daughter of the Stars was supposed to be released in 1993. Developed for the Amiga by four Swedish teenagers working out of a bedroom, it had a UK distributor, a working demo and coverage in popular game magazines. It was almost finished. But overnight, it collapsed.

One of the programmers fell in love with the other. His feelings weren't reciprocated. The whole team was emotionally invested in the game; they’d poured their dreams, hopes and aspirations into its creation. But the drama put too much stress on development. They needed a break. Shenandoah was cast aside, packed away in a box. It sat there untouched for 20 years, forgotten by the world and its creators — who each went their separate ways.

Until, that is, artist and designer Krister Karlsson went into his basement last fall to sort through boxes put aside while he and his girlfriend refurbished their house. "Two of the boxes said 'Amiga stuff,'" he recalls. The computers — two Amiga 500s and one Amiga 1200 — still worked, and so did the old Shenandoah demo. He showed it to his friends. They loved it.

Then he showed it to Gunnar Johansson. "He's got connections to everyone in the Swedish [game] industry that matters," Karlsson says. Johansson offered to help build some momentum for Shenandoah, which Karlsson subsequently added to Steam Greenlight and showed to the media.

Surprised and delighted at the show of interest, Karlsson and a new pair of programmers set to work resurrecting and completing the game’s development. They are pulling data off the old disks, consolidating 20-year-old art and sound, seeing what — if anything — was left undone and figuring out how to do it without compromising the original vision. Shenandoah — now retitled 1993: Space Machine — is finally almost ready, and Karlsson hopes to get it out to the world later this year, unchanged but for a new engine. It will have been a long wait.

Cutting edge

Karlsson got his first taste of game development a few years before starting Shenandoah, thanks to the then-thriving demoscene — a primarily European computing subculture that peaked around the late '80s and early '90s. It focused on utilizing every ounce of processor power to create spectacular computer-generated graphics and music. "There were a lot of gatherings that were called copy parties," he recalls, "where two or three thousand people met. They brought their gear and they sat for three or four days playing games, competing with each other — doing graphics, music and demos in competitions where you [could] win prizes and so forth."

The demoscene was a breeding ground for talent in northern Europe. It spawned such companies as Starbreeze, developer of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and The Chronicles of Riddick, and Max Payne creator Remedy, and fed skilled coders and artists into many others. Karlsson and his friend Douglas Kalberg formed a group called Exceed. They loved participating in the demoscene, and Karlsson relished the challenge of pushing boundaries and innovating in computer art. "It was a competition of who could do the coolest and most interesting things," he says, "and for that you needed to use every bit of the hardware possible."

Both Karlsson and Kalberg gravitated toward art and animation rather than coding. "When we were smaller," Karlsson recalls, "we had been drawing quite a lot together on paper. Just pen and paper." Then they discovered Deluxe Paint for Amiga. It was the leading professional graphics suite, popular with special effects artists and creative industries.

"It was a competition of who could do the coolest and most interesting things, and for that you needed to use every bit of the hardware possible."

"We became quite good at it after [a few] years [from] just practicing and exploring the possibilities and being active in the demoscene and so forth," says Karlsson. "Then we realized that we were actually at the level where we could do something professional."

They quickly settled on the idea of making a game. It would be a side-scrolling space shoot-'em-up, inspired by the likes of Into Oblivion, R-Type and Xenon 2. They aimed to produce not just any shoot-'em-up, but the "ultimate shoot-'em-up," with all the best features from other games plus everything they felt had been missing from these classics.

They wanted the game's five worlds to take center stage. Shenandoah: Daughter of the Stars would be about exploring worlds and the stories behind them; it would provide the sense of freedom, breadth and wholeness they longed to find in their favorites — which tended to be too busy throwing things at you to shoot at to focus on storytelling and worldbuilding.

The pair had ambition and no game development experience to temper their wild ideas. Their game would also allow you to exit the ship at the end of the level. "You could run around from a top-down view and find spare parts and repair your ship," Karlsson says. There'd even be a basic economy for buying and selling goods or upgrades.

"We realized quite soon that it was going to be a completely different game, where it would rather be two games put together as one," Karlsson recalls. "It would just be too big of a project, so we scrapped that idea." They still had an ace up their sleeves, though, which would give Shenandoah an edge beyond its cutting-edge graphics and sound and breakneck speed. "My father was an engineer," Karlsson continues. "He developed an adapter for the Amiga that made it possible for us to [have] four players at once on one screen on one computer with four joysticks." Nobody had done that before.

1993 Amiga
Krister Karlsson's workspace from 1993
Krister Karlsson ion 1993Krister Karlsson in 1993

Combine that with the creative talents they had honed over three years in the demoscene and Exceed had a significant edge over much of the competition. But neither Karlsson nor Kalberg knew how to code. If Shenandoah were to ever make it to market, they needed help.

They put up a flyer on their school bulletin board, hoping to attract others among the 3,000 students to help develop a more standard shooter. One guy answered, and he in turn knew another guy who'd be interested. Both were programmers. "We met up and I think we just basically took a fika [the Swedish version of a coffee break]," Karlsson says, "which is some coffee or lemonade or tea and some sandwiches or biscuits, and then you talk about stuff that you like. In this case it was our game project."

The four hit it off immediately. They had good chemistry and similar interests, and they were all around the same age. Development on the game kicked off right away, with little thought given to planning beyond an agreed-upon concept. They had a natural affinity, and communication was simple since everybody worked in Karlsson's bedroom. It felt right.

They had a natural affinity, and communication was simple since everybody worked in Karlsson's bedroom.

The team worked solidly for over a year, with the pair of artists designing every level and drawing all the graphics while the coders built the engine and made it run. They put a demo together and started taking it with them to the demoscene copy parties. "It was not uncommon that game publishers were present, looking for talent," says Karlsson.

A UK-based publisher called Black Legend saw the demo at one such party and approached them. "I think that they liked the quality," Karlsson recalls, "and I'm guessing, but I think maybe it had something to do with the four-player mode. They hadn't seen that before, so they thought 'Oh, this is interesting. Maybe we should see what they have to offer.'" Exceed and Black Legend formed a partnership, and the publisher got Shenandoah featured in popular British magazines CU Amiga and Amiga Format in mid-1993 — with the former providing a glowing half-page write-up.

"That was a huge deal for us to be seen in those big professional magazines with our project that we had been sweating [over] and working so hard on," Karlsson says. "Especially when you're so young and you've been reading these magazines for years, and suddenly you're in them." He had a sense that they were on their way.

Things fall apart

"We had been working for a year and a half, maybe," Karlsson recalls. The team had grown close, sharing more than just game development. "We were going to the lake, taking a swim, having a barbecue or going down to catch a movie at the cinema and so forth. We were friends.

"One night I remember my dad said that Peter [one of the programmers] had been asking for me," he continues. [We've used a fictional name to protect the individual.] "I looked at his face and I could tell that it was something that was different from previous evenings, and he said it was something serious that he wanted to talk about.

"So I went over to Peter, and he told me quite straight off what was on his mind. He said that he was actually in love with the other developer. I was kind of stunned. I didn't know what to say, and was taken totally by surprise."

Karlsson imagines that Peter had been grappling with his sexuality for years, not knowing how to tell people about it. "I know his family had a hard time coming to terms with it," he says. "He needed to have a break, basically. And his focus in life just changed completely."

The other programmer soon left for Seattle, intending to come back after a few months. "I think he actually got married in Seattle, and as far as I know he still lives there," Karlsson says. Meanwhile, Kalberg and Karlsson were left wondering how their dream game project could unravel so suddenly. "That was obviously very, very disappointing," Karlsson says. He and Kalberg believed no one would want to tie up the project with them since they’d have no creative input.

Meanwhile, Kalberg and Karlsson were left wondering how their dream game project could unravel so suddenly.

"So we didn't even bother to find people," he explains. "After that, it was dead."

Kalberg went on to work as an artist in the game industry, contributing to big AAA titles like Driver, LittleBigPlanet Vita and the Burnout series, while Karlsson poured his energy into a solo project that no one could skip out on. "I knew I could finish it," he says. "I knew I would have total control of it." He spent a year learning and mastering the tools to make a five-minute animated film, and it ended up getting him a job at Stockholm-based effects studio Fido Film in 1998, where he worked on animation and 3D modeling for Swedish television commercials.

He's since hopped between a few jobs in creative design, looking for opportunities to work in small teams where he could have a larger impact on the whole company. These days he manages his own firm, Modesty. The company started off focusing on graphic design, illustration and animation, but soon branched out into games, and last year released The Spookening — a mobile game about stealing souls from the living. "I kind of like doing things a bit quirky and different," he says.

It all makes returning to Shenandoah both a strange choice and the natural next step. The game adheres fairly closely to genre standards (especially in the context of its original development, which preceded the proliferation of the suitably named "bullet hell" subgenre) and has a straightforward concept: shoot things and don't die. But the fact that it's a 20-year-old unfinished game being resurrected with an unchanged design and the original graphics and sound makes Karlsson's latest project inherently quirky. "It's not the kind of game that I would probably do today otherwise," Karlsson admits, "if it weren't for this old relationship." 1993, as it's now known, is both a big thematic departure for the Swede and a return to his roots.

Krister Karlsson Present Day
Krister Karlsson in the present day

The Space Machine

The odds were stacked against the old Shenandoah disks working at all, given the short lifespan and propensity for bit rot (media decay that leads to data loss or corruption) that floppies suffer even under ideal conditions. But for Karlsson that's not the surprising part. "One thing that really strikes me is [that] I think [the game] is still good," he says. "I think it still shows quality. I still have passion for it. I have done so many things since that I'm not as proud of as I am this stuff. So it's been aging really well, whereas some of the other stuff I've been doing in the meantime has not."

In a world where remakes and retro-styled entertainment are in vogue, 1993 is both oddly pertinent and refreshingly sincere. It's not a cash-in on an old hit or a modern game made to look old to court nostalgia. It is old. It was designed for the limitations of computers 20 years ago in an age when most developers had few if any tools to simplify their workflow.

"I remember when we went and talked to developers back in the day," Karlsson says, "and they were saying 'Oh, we have to write the disk drive routines and the memory routines' and I was, 'What!? We're making a game! Why do you need all that stuff?' They needed to write everything. Communication with joysticks. Just showing an image. [There were] no shortcuts then."

And it wasn't just the coders who played by different rules than today's generation of indies. "We had 32 colors to work from, of a total palette of 4,096 colors," Karlsson explains. "We could use 32 [at a time], and one of those had to be transparency." Object dimensions, meanwhile, needed to be divisible by eight or 16, or there'd be a costly hit to performance when they were read from memory. "The programmers were telling us all the time, 'You can't do that. You need to stay within these boundaries,'" he continues. "We were like, 'It's just two pixels! Come on.'"

Karlsson and his team now have the benefits of local and online networking to share and backup their work, too. But in the days of Shenandoah, they had a more primitive solution. "There was no Dropbox or anything like that," he says. "It was physical boxes [filled with floppy disks]."

"The programmers were telling us all the time, 'You can't do that. You need to stay within these boundaries.'"

The limitations of technology did little to hold them back, though. "I think we were quite free thinkers," Karlsson says. "We basically wanted to do a game that we had dreamed of playing ourselves, and we were trying features and ideas that hadn't been risked in the games we were playing." That's why his team flirted with more tangible, fleshed-out worlds and stories than are typical of shoot-'em-ups, and that — coupled with the shared memories and tight-knit friendship they built around 1993 — is what made it so personal for them.

Karlsson wants to stay as true to this original vision as he can, to finally fulfill the dreams he and his friends had as teenagers 20 years ago. He is leaving the level designs untouched, barring any necessary balancing that they hadn’t yet finished. Likewise, the story focuses on a mission into space pirate Colonel Nestor's domain in search of a powerful device that terraforms barren planets. The graphics have to be resized, lest players be stuck with a window the size of a postage stamp, but Karlsson stresses that there'll be no filtering or redrawing. "I do it in an indexed mode so that each pixel is instead four pixels," he explains. And there'll still be just 32 colors for every screen, with only as many objects visible at a time as an Amiga would have been able to handle without dropping frames.

It won't quite feel the same, however, because Amiga computers used screens more akin to CRT TVs than the LCDs of today. "The Amiga screen was much more forgiving," Karlsson says. "It kind of blended stuff together so it looked smooth, nice." He likens the appearance of 1993 on a large LCD monitor to a Lego scene.

But that's the trade-off he has to make in staying true to the original game, and Karlsson hopes that it'll go down well with both a gaming community blessed with two decades of growth and evolution in the medium and his former collaborators. (Kalberg gave the project his blessing, but Karlsson’s lost touch with the original programmers.) Once cutting-edge, now quaint, 1993 could well be a symbol of how far games have — or haven't — come in 20 years.

Most of all, though, it'll bring closure to a pivotal moment in the lives of the four people who created it during the throes of teenage passion, determination and infatuation — who drew energy and inspiration from their dreams, the upbeat tone of the magazines they read and the demoscene they participated in, as well as from each other. Somebody told Karlsson that 1993: Space Machine is like a time capsule. It represents the exuberance of a game industry and of four young men that had the world at their beckoning and a tingling sense that anything was possible. Babykayak

Photos: Krister Karlsson