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Interviews: Fool Me Twice: The Fool and His Money

Cliff Johnson’s long-awaited sequel to The Fool’s Errand, at last, is here — again.

Published on Oct 16, 2012 by Greg Collins

“My goal was to create a worthy successor to The Fool’s Errand, and apparently, I have succeeded.” - Cliff Johnson

“The puzzles, as always, are challenging in just the right way. Moreover, the graphics are gorgeous, the sound effects charming, and the whole enterprise worth waiting for.” - Stephen Sondheim

Ten years ago, Cliff Johnson, the creator of such early computer puzzle games as 3 in Three and At the Carnival, got the urge to make a sequel to his most groundbreaking meta-puzzle game, The Fool’s Errand. He offers his earlier games for free download on his new website and the positive response — and the promise of digital marketing and distribution — led him to believe there was an audience for such a project. He thought back then it would take him a year to complete.

Five years later, in 2007, he was convinced he’d finally stamped out all the programming bugs and other unforeseen obstacles. So convinced that we did a long interview for JA on the at-long-last imminent release of his sequel, The Fool and His Money. Well, that deadline drifted past and another five long years later, finally, Cliff has his sequel ready to release, on October 25th.

The game’s production was so long that the CD-ROM nearly disappeared in the interim. One big change since 2007 is the game’s exclusive availability by digital download.

This time I know it’s coming out, at least sometime soon, because I am in the midst of playing the Omega test version of the complete game. Cliff did release a tantalizing teaser containing a handful of puzzles a few years back, and that too is still available on his Fool and His Money website. But this is the full enchilada, all 77 puzzles, plus a new meta-puzzle like the original.

When I finish the game, God willing, I intend to write a proper review; but Cliff was good enough to answer a few follow-up questions to our 2007 interview about what’s transpired since. If you want to get the full story of how he created The Fool and His Money, you should read the 2007 interview.

I will, however, give a brief “preview” for those who want just the facts.

Much of the modus operandi of the original is back. This is a big puzzle game with an adventure story and feel. The main character, the Fool, is still wandering around the land of the Tarot card encountering all sorts of bewitched locals who present him with perplexing puzzles. The majority are word puzzles but there are Tarot card games, jigsaw puzzles, numbers puzzles, and some other clever graphics and logic puzzles tossed into the mix. There is, as in the original game, a perplexing map that slowly fills in as you complete the various puzzles. The Fool and His Money is no static crossword, however. There are numerous, ingenious flash animations and sounds to liven up the proceedings. There’s even an occasional “action” challenge, as well as a novella-length story that’s slowly “written” as you move through the game world. I have been playing for two weeks and am still only about halfway done.

All true puzzle fans should be thrilled that Cliff Johnson has finally wrestled his programming demons to the mat and is releasing The Fool and His Money. When the original came out, the computer gaming world offered a fair number of full-length puzzle fests, such as Sierra’s Dr. Brain series. Nowadays, all we get is match three and hidden object casual flash games. As the Fool once again wanders around the Kingdoms of the Tarot looking for his lost treasures, we should treasure this insanely long gestational effort by one of our great puzzle masters. Even more so because, unlike five years ago when he seemed enthusiastic about writing more Fool and even 3 in Three sequels, now he sounds uncertain. Or, perhaps, tired. Is this the last meta-puzzle game from Cliff Johnson? Let’s hope not. But right now, your guess is as good as mine.

Wow, ten years, end nearly in sight. How do you feel?

A decade older and a day wiser.

What was the biggest, baddest holdup?

To quote The West Wing, “The total tonnage of what I [now] know... could stun a team of oxen in its tracks.”

Have the gameplay, puzzles, or story changed at all?

In 2003, I envisioned The Fool and his Money as a “rags to riches” tale. The game had five transformations: from Vagabond to Street Peddler to Shopkeeper to Shipping Merchant to Land Baron to Emperor.

(I still use the Emperor pose in the first puzzle of the Game.)

In the end, that version had uneven game play, half puzzles and half simulation, and more important, the new story had little relation to the original story.

The next version contained many of the elements of the final game with one exception: I decided to divide the play into four Kingdoms. You had to finish one Kingdom completely before you could enter the next Kingdom. Tied to this were the four floors of The Seventh House. You had to solve both the corresponding floor and Kingdom to arrive at the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Gateways and then move on.

My earliest testers, the Alpha Team, gently suggested that this was an error of catastrophic proportions.

You’d think removing the boundaries would be an easy fix, but I’ve come to believe “nothing is easy” when it comes to computers. In fact, the easier it looks, the more complicated it becomes.

The final version begins with all the Kingdom of Swords puzzles available. After solving a few, new puzzles appear in the Kingdom of the Wands, then the Cups, and then the Pentacles. The Seventh House has become a Kingdom of its own where the antagonists lurk and scheme. The game is now wide open. No gateways.

The Fool’s Errand and 3 in Three were wide open. It was Merlin’s Apprentice and Labyrinth of Crete that introduced gateways.

Did that extra time allow you to make any other general improvements to the version that nearly made it out the door back then? Or has it basically been a bug hunt?

It’s not that the extra time allowed for changes. It’s that the changes required extra time.

The official bug hunt began in November 2011.

Ever feel your TFaHM production schedule was mirroring the confusion and obstacles your hero experiences wandering around both the original game and its sequel?

In years 3–7, my task felt like Sisyphus, perpetually rolling a boulder up a hill.

In years 8–10, my task felt more like the twelve labors of Hercules. Incredibly difficult, but not impossible.

I think it’s fair to say any commercial game publisher in your predicament would have thrown in the towel years ago. What kept you going?

Commercial publishers have different goals than I do. Making a profit, for starters.

My goal was to create a sequel to The Fool’s Errand and that’s what I’ve done. What keeps me going is always the same. I have a passion for creating things. I need to see that final result.

Has Adobe Flash given you a new appreciation for ye olde old pen and paper puzzle?

To be precise, I employed Director and Flash to (miraculously) create standalone applications for both MAC and WIN.

I truly congratulate Macromedia and Adobe for their persistence in perfecting their products.

I never asked you, but what made you decide on puzzles when you first started writing games for the Macintosh in 1985? Had you long been a puzzle fanatic?

The first half of my professional life was in the film industry and I remain a filmmaker at heart, that is, a storyteller. I think of my computer games as “stories told by treasure hunts.”

Back in high school, my best friend subscribed to GAMES Magazine and he would give me his magazines after he had solved them. Then I could flip through the pages, see the challenges, and then nod my head at the solutions.

Myself, I do not play puzzles, per se, but I do appreciate their craft and their clever use of art direction.

After seeing the 1972 movie The Last of Sheila, a murder mystery emerging from a party game, penned by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, I was inspired to make my own Mystery Party Games.

At that time, I chose to deliver the clues in paper-and-pencil puzzle format and then I used photographs, tape recordings, and movies to advance the story... once the clues were solved.

I learned to program specifically to bring this idea to a computer. That became The Fool’s Errand.

There were a fair number of full-length puzzle games when the PC was young. Now you’re one of the last Mohegans. Of course, since 2007, the online “casual” puzzle game has exploded. Have any of these impressed you?

I might be the wrong person to ask. I haven’t played any computer games since the Atari 2600.

Are there advantages to the long-form puzzle game over the more casual puzzle game?

I’d rather watch one 3 hour film than spend 3 hours viewing ten-minute short films. But that’s just me.

Compared to your earlier games, TFaHM has a lot more “help” built in.

To me, HELP on a computer has always meant INSTRUCTIONS.

As games evolved, apparently HELP changed its meaning to HINT.

I do clarify in the opening HELP screen (ironically) that HELP to be essential information to play the puzzle.

Yes, READ would have been a better word.

I know your website is further offering hints and solutions.

I think of it as “one-stop shopping.” Why go somewhere else?

Could I ask you to “punditize” a little on the “challenging puzzle with help” versus the “easy puzzle that makes people feel clever” controversy?

I don’t believe puzzles are a “one size fits all” medium.

As to hints/answers, if a person is inclined to go online for quick solutions, they will do so. It’s their nickel.

I feel it’s worthwhile to offer hints/answers myself and then maintain some quality control over how that particular hint or answer is presented.

Still hoping to make Fool’s Paradise, and 3’s a Crowd and 3’s the Charm?

Since I am a one-man band, I can see no reason why another product would not also take me 10 years to complete.

This is not a casual decision.

The time between your two Fool games has bridged the gap between Apple’s dominance in the graphic computer game world. In the 80’s the b&w GUI Mac was a miracle. And now the iPad is ruling the gaming 4G LTE waves. Any future plans to knock on the door of the App Store with TFaHM

Seeing that I don’t own a smart phone or a tablet, it’s unlikely I’ll pursue any projects on equipment I don’t own.

I like my computers heavy and my monitors huge. Why? Because when I am done with the computers, I can turn them off and walk away from them and do other things.

For years you’ve been generously offering your earlier games, The Fool’s Errand, At the Carnival, and 3 in Three, for free download on your Fool’s Gold website. But a Classic Mac or a facility with emulators is required. All three seem ideal for the iPhone/iPad. Is converting them feasible? Weren’t they all built on and for the original Macintosh?

Yes, The Fool’s Errand was made on a Mac 512K and At the Carnival and 3 in Three on the first color Mac.

Converting them would require a total make-over.

I’d rather get a hundred thousand paper cuts on my face.

Hey, I just realized the Amiga version of The Fool’s Errand is in color! When did that happen? You know, I actually own an original Amiga. No hard drive, 256k RAM. But I’d need an Amiga emulator for Windows to get this version to run nowadays.

The IBM, Atari, and Amiga conversions were all in 16-color, and have over a hundred errors and bugs, never fixed.

Only the Mac original was & white — and it is my favorite.

Isn’t the iPad the second chance all these early PC and Mac games have been waiting for?

Perhaps. But I prefer to work on new projects rather than rehash the old ones.

Dare I ask the same about Merlin’s Apprentice and Labyrinth of Crete? Two more excellent puzzle games you made for the Philips early CD-I game system. Convertible? Or nigh on impossible?

The computer assets, owned by Philips, are lost and gone forever. So it goes.

So, where do you go, creatively, from here?

A decade is a long time, and yet, being at the end of that decade, it seems like yesterday (as I say in The Prologue).

I am delighted with The Fool and His Money. It has surpassed all my expectations.

However, if I sound unsure of the future, it’s because I feel like I just went 15 rounds with Mike Tyson and somehow I survived. So this is not the ideal time to ask me whether I want to step into the ring again.

But never say never.

And where are you going for your well-earned vacation?

I plan on a splendid New England Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.