The Story Behind 'The Shadow of the Unicorn' by Dale McLoughlin

I (Dale) worked for Mikrogen as a software engineer for around two years, in 1984-85. I wouldn't say that it was a very pleasant experience, but it did at least set me on the road to my present career, so I have to be grateful in that respect. Mikrogen had been moderately successful in producing computer games, starting with the ZX81 and progressing to the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad 464. Shelley [Dale's wife] and I had been producing adventure games, of various genre, for a while and became associated with Mikrogen before I actually started working for them full time.

Mikrogen produced a series of pretty standard 'shoot-em-ups' and 'platform' games during that period, including the 'Wally' series, which were not really my cup-of-tea. I was much more into adventure games and simulations.

The management were always looking for gimmics to help sell the games, so I came up with the idea of writing a book to go with an adventure game. It was around the time that Lords of Midnight was released, and we wanted something to better it. I'd had a go at writing before, so it seemed like a good idea. At the time, I think I was unaware that other companies were doing the same thing. I don't know about the timing of the others, so we may have been one of the first. (Incidentally, one of the games, 'Everyone's a Wally', was released with a specially written song on the 'B' side of the tape. Now there's an idea for a web site...)

Usually the games were very much a team effort, but SotU was more of an individual work. Shelley and I produced the book and game ideas between us, but I did the actual word-smithing for the book, and the programming for the game. The two probably took about the same length of time, with the book generally leading the game.

I'm sure you appreciate that the book was intended as a 'lead-in' to the game, and, for that reason, it is really only half the story. The rest of the story was supposed to be played out in the game itself. Also, the need for complex game-play meant that the book was very convoluted, with lots of locations, characters and 'objects' that would play their part in the game. I don't know if you've ever seen the game itself, but there were (I think) five main characters whose parts you could take (at will) and each had tasks to perform to bring about a successful conclusion.

Anyway, while book and game were in production, Mikrogen started to go through a bad patch financially. Although their other games were selling quite well, ideas were beginning to dry up, and the increasing costs (to cover the gimmics and so on) weren't being covered by sales. At the same time I was getting very disillusioned with the games industry in general (I'd come from a much more serious industry, and felt it was all a bit too trivial), and I was fed up with Mikrogen as an employer in particular. They were a pretty peculiar bunch, and I never got on with the MD.

The upshot of all this was that I actually resigned from Mikrogen before the game was finished (although the book had, I think, already gone to the printers). As a lot of investment had been put into it - including a special hardware adaptor to increase the available memory in the 48K spectrum - I was asked if I would stay on until it was finished. Being a helpful sort, I agreed to 3 months notice, and set about finishing the game. The greatest amount of work was in the graphics, but I managed to get things done, more or less to my satisfaction by the end of the 3 months. I think there was a trade show in the September or October of that year which was the natural deadline for the game.

When I left Mikrogen, they refused to pay me for overtime I'd worked, and we parted on very bad terms. Imagine my surprise when one of my ex-colleagues gave me a copy of the finished game and I found that many of the graphics that I'd slaved over had been messed about with by other members of the team. To me they'd completely ruined the atmosphere of the game, and most of the characters looked absolutely ridiculous. I don't know what the motivation was but, to my mind, it completely killed the game.

Not surprisingly, I think it was Mikrogen's death-knell and I heard that, soon afterwards, they were taken over by a rival and the name disappeared. I don't know what happened to the other programmers who worked there - Chris Hinsley and David Perry were the key ones - but they were a good bunch who deserved better.

As far as the book was concerned, that was, to my opinion, the only bit of the game worth having, although I have to say, looking back on it, that it seems terribly naive and badly written. A review of the game commented that the book was 'third-rate Tolkien-esque', and I suppose I would have to agree (although it might have only been second rate!) I think the printers 'corrected' some of the spelling and grammar along the way, which didn't help. God knows why.

The cover and box art was produce by a young artist whose name I forget. I was very impressed by that, but less so by the small illustrations in some of the chapters. The one in chapter 12 (page 73) was in particularly poor taste, but came about because Mikrogen's MD had an obsession with trying to use sex to sell his games! Incidentally, there was a fold-out map included with the game, on a sheet just larger than A4.

There is much more behind the characters, locations and language of the book than you might imagine. All of the names had real meanings, and the whole language was pretty well developed. Being very much impressed by Tolkien's work we had worked out the entire language for a totally different project (that has yet to see the light of day!), and adapted it for SotU. 1