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The self-destructing game of 1986

How one man brought the first high-stakes games to life.

In the fall of 1963, 13-year-old Tom Snyder arrived home from school to find his front lawn covered with crates from IBM. Snyder could hardly believe his eyes, and he was dying to know what the prestigious company had delivered to his door.

Snyder had spent the preceding months building a computer in his basement, cobbling it together with remnants of electromagnetic switches and electronic wiring he'd found thrown out behind several telephone company offices. Their switch to touch-tone phones was his gain, as the outdated relays provided him with enough circuits and components to build a small, functioning, digital machine. Astounded by their son's technological prowess, Snyder's parents coerced him to write what he felt was an insignificant letter to IBM's then president, detailing his electronic exploits.

Once Snyder cracked open the mysterious crates, he found thousands of dollars worth of outdated computer hardware, along with a short note expressing IBM's encouragement. "Remember us when you're older," the last line read.

With his mind racing, the young Massachusetts native set to work putting together a much more advanced computer, complete with a screen and keyboard. While Snyder delved deeper and deeper into the world of electronics, he fell in love with the concept of creating unique digital entities — things that let him add realism and risk to otherwise fantastical worlds.

Snyder's love for computers followed him into his adult life and he set about creating his own software development company: Tom Snyder Productions. The company started as a pioneer in the world of educational computer tools and games for classrooms and later on developed cult animated shows like "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," "Science Court" and "Home Movies." If you played around on a classroom computer in the '80s or laughed at a crudely animated Squigglevision cartoon in the '90s, chances are you interacted with some of the magic created by Tom Snyder Productions. Though not every project he touched turned to gold, Snyder often attempted to blaze a trail into uncharted territory.

Sub Mission Sub Mission: A Matter of Life and Death

Fight or flight

While working on educational games in the early '80s, Snyder decided his company would try its hand at designing and programming mainstream video games for the Atari 5200, Commodore 64, PC and Apple II. Snyder ran his company like a party, hiring former students from his stint as a teacher in the '70s, as well as skilled waitstaff from around his hometown, encouraging his co-workers to find ideas that were different and alluring.

Sitting in his home office in 2016, Snyder recalls the struggles of trying to fit these epic ideas into small spaces: "You had to go in and trick the processor into doing things even it didn't know it could do," he says. "The level of ingenuity was different. Making games now is nothing like the breathtaking terror of doing it on a little computer with a finite amount of space."

Snyder was well known for balancing useful and popular ideas with unconventional attempts. Completing his more profitable programs, like edutainment classics Snooper Troops and Agent USA, Snyder then turned to the radical new ideas he was dedicated to cultivating. The first of Snyder's games to grab the attention of the media and the gaming world as a whole was a title called The Other Side.

"Making games now is nothing like the breathtaking terror of doing it on a little computer with a finite amount of space."

One of the earliest modem-based games commercially available, The Other Side was all about working as a unit to literally build bridges and find natural resources with other countries around the world. The game was such a wild idea in 1984 that NBC asked Snyder to come demonstrate the title on an episode of "The Today Show" with other teams of computer programmers from around the globe showing off The Other Side's cooperative functions. Snyder knew he was onto something. People liked the variety, the thrill of something fresh and realistic.

"It was around this time that I was always trying to come up with a different angle that made the stakes of the game higher," he says. "I was looking for a way to make games more real. Less obsessive and more meaningful."

Snyder wanted players to put more thought into their in-game actions and not waste their digital lives or precious real-world time. These ideals came from personal experience. Snyder found a game that he himself couldn't put down: Microsoft Flight Simulator. The legendary simulation software was his addiction for hours on end after work, and one weekend while reading up on the game, he decided to raise the stakes, to add a bit of tangible risk to the world of virtual flying.

The following Monday, Snyder shared his new idea with his wife and employees. He was going to war. He would use his flight simulator skills to cross the German borders and take on World War II adversaries within the game, but should he be shot down three times, he would cut his physical copy of Flight Simulator to shreds. Manually destroying a computer program was a mildly expensive investment for a personal experiment that was destined to end in failure, but Snyder was dedicated to bringing something meaningful and exciting to his gaming experience.

"I wanted to feel like a true pilot ... My penalty was only throwing out $40 of software."

Crossing over into enemy lines wasn't something mandatory for players to do in Flight Simulator. In fact, Snyder had no idea how skilled the computer-operated German planes would be. He had only ever focused on the flying part of the game and had strayed away from the combat aspects almost entirely. After weeks of preparation, Snyder suited up in an old leather jacket, grabbed a thermos of coffee and alerted his wife that he would "be at war" in the office if anyone needed him.

Within eight minutes, Snyder lost his first plane.

Staying away from the German borders, Snyder decided to practice some of his maneuvers in the safety of allied skies before heading back in. On his second attempt, he lasted over an hour, managing to shoot down various enemy pilots before he took too much damage and crashed into the pixelized German countryside. Feeling more confident in his abilities, Snyder immediately flew back into the war zone but was once again shot down in mere minutes.

"I was dead," Snyder recalls in a matter-of-fact tone. "I wanted to feel like a true pilot in the Battle of Britain. Nineteen-year-old kids would go up and it was exciting, but if you 'lost' during a war you were dead. My penalty was only throwing out $40 of software." Though saddened by his short-lived war efforts, Snyder felt obligated to follow through with his promise. He made short work of the Flight Simulator disc with a pair of nearby scissors and left his office to inform his wife of his untimely demise.

Tom Snyder Tom Snyder

The nuclear option

The exhilaration and reality of Snyder's bizarre Flight Simulator stunt was enough to plant a seed in his mind. He began to synthesize some of his previous ideas about making a title that would heavily challenge players. Snyder set about dedicating a portion of his professional day to work on his new pet project. His employees, while entertained by his previous game-destroying endeavor, were horrified that he wanted to move forward with the idea as a formal title. "While I was designing it, everyone was trying to talk me out of it," he says. "Everyone. They said, 'You can't possibly sell a game like this.'"

Being the founder of a gaming company had its perks, though. Snyder says greenlighting the project wasn't so much about convincing others it was worthwhile as it was about asserting that it was happening whether they liked it or not.

"While I was designing it, everyone was trying to talk me out of it. Everyone."

Influenced by the classic Tom Clancy novel, "The Hunt for Red October," as well as the Cold War warning video "The Day After," Snyder modeled the game around nuclear sub battles. Though the game would include realistic and meaningful consequences, Snyder still wanted to create a captivating world that players would want to experience. For this reason, Snyder decided to set his game in the distant future on an uncolonized planet known for its sprawling oceans where an evil alien warlord had kidnapped two earthlings and was holding them against their will. The only hope for these two hostages, dubbed Sigourney and Peter, was to beat the antagonist at his submarine wargames. Snyder felt playing up the romance between the captives would give them more human appeal, causing the player to feel responsible for their well-being.

The hook was that if you failed to save the star-crossed captives, your game would more or less self-destruct, refusing to boot for any future gameplay. To give players a fighting chance, Snyder came up with a system that allowed them to practice their sub skills with a robot in place of the human hostages. This way, players could get a feel for the game and even fail a few times before diving head first into the briny depths. It limited the gameplay, however, giving players the same basic scenarios for victory.

"There were a lot of warnings in the game when things were going wrong," Snyder says. "Every aspect of the gameplay was built to give players plenty of time to pull back and strategize a new plan of attack." By choosing a robot over Sigourney and Peter, players didn't have to worry about their fate, but they'd trapped themselves in what was, more or less, a tutorial.

"There were a lot of warnings in the game when things were going wrong."

Once players finally decided to pick one of the humans, the game changed and the stakes became higher. Every time a human-manned sub managed to best the warlord, the on-board hostage would be able to share information about how all protagonists (including the player) could escape the deadly planet and ultimately beat the game. However, if the player chose a human and lost, that human would stay dead indefinitely. If players lost both Sigourney and Peter, the game would void its copyright protection and become nothing more than a $40 drink coaster.

Despite the naysayers, Snyder worked diligently to complete the game, even going so far as to package it with a cassette full of plot narration and instructions. He wanted people to feel immersed in this small world he had created, if only for a while.

Without much trouble, Tom Snyder Productions pitched and sold the game to the highest bidder. The publisher, Mindscape, only bought the game under the condition that it could add a few more safety nets to the title's staunch approach to in-game death. Mindscape bundled emergency instructions with the game that let players resurrect each of the human captives once before the disc was rendered unplayable. If these extra lives didn't help, players could fill out a petition to the Space Commissioner in the game's instruction booklet and send it in (along with seven dollars) for a replacement disc and a second shot.

Death and revival

Launched as Sigourney Loves Peter in early 1986 for the PC and Apple II, Snyder's game was an immediate flop. It wasn't the hardcore, high-stakes angle that made it fall short, though. According to Snyder, it was the explicit romance. Turns out, no one in the mid-'80s wanted to play a computer game with a focus on saving two captives in love.

Instead of giving up on the idea, Snyder formulated a plan to change the game's name and focus more on the "white-knuckle drama" that came with the possibility of losing your disc. The rebranded Sub Mission: A Matter of Life and Death launched the following year and while no one would consider it a mainstream hit, it managed to find a small thrill-seeking audience. The bizarre hailstorm of both praise and criticism Sub Mission received was enough for Snyder to know that he had struck an important chord with the gaming community.

Sub Mission Sub Mission: A Matter of Life and Death

Snyder, now 66 years old, has long departed from the gaming industry. Asked to look back at his achievements in the world of game design, he still revels in the delight of bringing such a radical game to the table. Despite its peculiar approach, Snyder's "high-stakes" title has faded into obscurity over the last 30 years, a forgotten relic waiting to be rediscovered. There have been plenty of games — like Steel Battalion, Upsilon Circuit and One Life — that have pushed the limits of what players could lose, but none seem as foolhardy and meaningful as Sub Mission. Babykayak

Header illustration: Alice Carroll
Photographs: Tom Snyder

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