The Game Detective: The 'Marcus Aurelius' Version of Star Trek

In the very first year of this weblog - 2004 - I published an article with the (I thought) Calvino-like title of I Giochi Inesistenti that described the strangest of Star Trek text games: a game which, at seemingly semi-random points, would emit long, wandering quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It was such a strange, mismatched thing that I wasn’t entirely sure it existed.

I’ve looked for this game on and off since that time. I posted a bounty on Google Answers (oh, 2004, how innocent you were) with no results. Occasionally I have encountered other people - similarly wondering whether or not they imagined the whole thing. I’m not really sure why I’ve felt compelled to Google for this strange little game every few years. It was just such an odd detail for a game that it stuck in my head. You’d be flying through the galaxy, murdering Klingons with phasers and photon torpedos, when all of a sudden the game would interrupt you with something like:

To the aids which have been mentioned, let
this one still be added:  Make for thyself a
definition or description of the thing which
is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what
kind of thing it is in its substance, in its
nudity, in its complete entirety; and tell thyself
its proper name, and the names of the things of
which it has been compounded, and into which it
will be resolved.
-- Marcus Aurelius, III.11

It. Was. Strange.

There are many web sites tracking the different versions of these games. Most commentators attribute them to Dave Ahl, who popularized the game in his book BASIC Computer Games, but I’ll call them “Mayfield Trek” games, in honor of the game’s original creator, Mike Mayfield. But none of the most common sources, even the encyclopedic catalogue at Pete Turnbull’s page on the games, have the games with the Aurelius quotes in them. Their existence is mentioned in the “Game History” section of the documentation for the version by Matuszek, Paul Reynolds et al:

Dave Matuszek, Paul Reynolds et. al. at UT Austin played the Hicks version on a CDC6600, but disliked the long load time and extreme slowness of the BASIC program. (David Matuszek notes that the Hicks version he played had a habit of throwing long quotes from Marcus Aurelius at the users, a feature he found intolerable on a TTY at 110 baud. It must, therefore, have been rather longer than the one we have.)

You’d think in this age of ubiquitous search it would be something that could be found, but source code tends to not be indexed the same way as text. So I searched without luck, for years.

Finally, this year I stumbled across the source code to one variant of this game on, of all places, a QuickBASIC-focused forum that seems to be hosted only on Tapatalk. The author of the game posted the source into a thread back in 2002. A little cutting and pasting later, and now I have a disk image with the source code on it. I’ll be uploading it to soon.

Star-Trek version 13.5

The author of this version indicates that he “modularized” it - separating out the Aurelius quotes, which previously were part of the source code, into a separate .DOC file. In that file, the author describes the provenance of the game as he understood it. (The “@” signs below are part of what allows the BASIC program to look up lines for display on screen):

@3@601@720H i s t o r y
@505@602General idea stolen from Penn. U. by Hicks.
@601Vastly improved and adapted to Taurus by Korp, April 1973.
@601Adapted for the IBM-PC by Woods, April 1983.
@601Modularized by McLamore, February, 1988.
@602If you have any comments or bugs and wish to
pass the information along, please send them to
@520 ... 0/Startrek
@603Press any key to continue . . .

I’m most interested in the comment “Adapted for the IBM-PC by Woods, April 1983”. Would that refer to Don Woods, most well-known for his work on Adventure? I’ve written to him and hope to find out.

In the meantime, if you’d like to try this out for yourself, I’ve made a fair copy here, suitable for use inside the DOSBox emulator. Enjoy the trip down memory lane.

In my original post looking for the game, I indicated that I played it on the Apple ][; I still believe this. Why? First, I recall the Aurelius quotes being hard to read: they were in all upper-case. Also, they interrupted the flow of the game, because they appeared on screen very slowly. Neither of these attributes apply to this PC port. And in addition, there’s at least one other person out there who remembers seeing it.

So on the one hand, the search continues, because I’d still like to see the precise version of the game I played back in the day. On the other hand, at least now I can prove I didn’t imagine it.

So the search is over, and the search continues. If you’re reading this, and you have a line on any other Aurelius-emitting versions of this game, please drop a line to @peterb on Twitter. or on Mastodon. Thanks.