A Look Back at Darkness

Early Inspiration

While first exploring the BBSes in my local scene in the mid 90s the “door games” that almost every BBS seemed to have were a big source of curiosity. Who had what games varied widely by what the host BBS software could support and, as always, the individual tastes of each SysOp. I quickly learned that most of the more interesting looking door games were unintuitive if not extremely esoteric. I remember bouncing hard off of strategy games like Trade Wars 2002 and Barren Realms Elite while also having strangely fond memories of my repeated attempts to survive the irradiated wastelands of Operation Overkill II. It wasn’t until I stumbled into Legend of the Red Dragon (LORD) by Robinson Technologies (RTSoft) that I finally found a door game that actually hooked me.

Legend of the Red Dragon Intro Screen

Drawn in by the relatively pleasing aesthetic and approachable action RPG gameplay, your first steps in LORD would be spent figuring out the extreme basics of the game and establishing a bit of a daily routine. Quickly thereafter you’d shift fully into your routine of gaining levels and trying to survive the competition while working to discover how some of the game’s more obscure systems functioned and chuckling at Seth Robinson’s quirky sense of humor along the way. On many BBSes game content would be further supplemented by the addition of IGMs, 3rd party addon “modules” which could hook into LORD’s data files. It’s some time after that point that the repetitious nature of the gameplay lead the fun to dry up for many. The game had the potential to be a very different experience, however. These days when discussing LORD I often observe a disconnect between people who missed out on playing in an active game full of rambunctious players versus those of us who have and got to appreciate LORD’s systems in a different light.

It’s my opinion that, as with many other multiplayer games, the best content was ultimately what the game’s systems enabled the players to create themselves. Owing to its earliest origins as more of a social platform than a game, LORD includes many such systems, designed to encourage players to interact in more ways than just trading positions on the leaderboard. Players could, for instance, chat on various walls and post announcements in the daily news, send private messages back and forth, fight for the affections of various NPCs and even each other, make arch enemies to avoid and/or hunt down, and establish secret alliances and cabals, pooling resources to dominate the competition. I recall at one point that my brother and I both had multiple accounts on one particular local BBS that had more or less been running on auto-pilot for years, the antics of the door game patrons going totally unpoliced. My brother, a grizzled veteran of pen and paper RPGs by this point, got really into the aspect of “role playing” numerous characters to use the relationships he’d build to strategically manipulate other players. There were friendships, romances, betrayals – all of the hallmarks of a great drama!

I became a bit of a LORD super-fan myself. I called Seth’s BBS, The Darkside, to register my own copy of the game and started collecting every IGM, utility, and other related file I could get my hands on (there were already a fairly vast amount of them by then.) I recall going through what has become a bit of a rite of passage for SysOps and BBS modders everywhere, trying to get every single IGM you could possibly make run added to the game to create a single uber-customized version of LORD. Of course, given the bugs and balance issues that even the best IGMs could introduce to the game, this also tended to be an uber-broken version of LORD. Taking that idea a step beyond, I once even setup a board called “The Fortress” that was 100% centered around LORD, totally custom themed to look like it, with multiple games of LORD running to cater to different tastes. Looking back, it was ridiculous to think anyone would be as into the idea as I was, but it was still a lot of fun to do.

The End of an Era

RTSoft released numerous updates to LORD in 1994 and 1995, each featuring a slew of content additions along with the expected new features and bug fixes. In 1996 RTSoft released the overhauled version 2.00 of their Trade Wars 2002-ish game, Planets: The Exploration of Space (TEOS). TEOS was never exceptionally popular from what I’ve seen but I still consider it a bit of a hidden gem. In 1997, after plenty of teasing, RTSoft finally released LORD 2: New World to a bit of a lukewarm reception. Some specific callbacks to the first game and Seth Robinson’s ever-present sense of humor aside, LORD 2 was an incredibly different experience. Featuring a huge, semi-persistent graphical world to explore, viewed from a top-down rogue-like perspective, it felt closer to early text based and graphical RPGs and action-adventure games than the original Legend of the Red Dragon. Still, it was definitely RTSoft’s most technically impressive game to date. Its release was surely too late though, as dial-up BBSes were well into the process of becoming almost totally extinct by 1997. Released years earlier, LORD 2 could have been an absolute mega hit, but as such its popularity seemed to be quite isolated. Regardless, people that loved LORD 2 seemed to REALLY love LORD 2, with a number of them taking advantage of the game’s REF scripting language to create their own quests or even totally new game worlds, and I feel like it was ultimately very influential to those of us still paying attention by then.

Legend of the Red Dragon 2 Screenshot

Seth himself had apparently seen the writing on the wall and was already moving on, releasing a single-player graphical action-RPG called Dink Smallwood the same year and selling the rights to all of RTSoft’s BBS door games to a company called Metropolis Gameport shortly thereafter. I don’t know much about the history of Gameport but the ensuing years certainly cemented their reputation among already typically anti-corporate BBSers as cynical opportunists, buying up the rights to popular shareware games and utilities, collecting registration fees for them, and then doing fuck all to support them. RTSoft released a token (mostly bug fix) v4.00 of LORD just before selling the game, but having not had a real update since v3.55 in late 1995, cobwebs had already started to form on LORD’s legacy, and Gameport was certainly making no effort to clear them away.

Hacking Away

Meanwhile, I’d been very slowly learning to program since getting into the modding scene and by 1997 had put out a number of small, mostly terrible doors. I started out using Enigma’s “edoor” library for Turbo Pascal which was nice and lightweight and had a bit of an underground scene style to it, thus appealing to me a lot more than some of the larger, more mainstream door libraries. For those unaware, such libraries (often called “door kits”) made the entire process of writing doors much simpler as they, at the very least, took care of all of the tricky communications stuff behind the scenes. Many went a step further by including some of the common underpinnings of door programs, such as SysOp-side functionality like a local status bar and the ever-important ability to hang up on annoying users. Armed with one of these, a programmer could focus on the actual functionality of their door. As an aside, it’s safe to say that without the existence of such door kits we wouldn’t have ended up with anything close to the huge number of LORD IGMs I mentioned earlier.

Anyway, my only real frustration with edoor was that its source code wasn’t available which meant certain aspects of it couldn’t really be customized. More crucially, the routines provided by the library couldn’t be modified either which could really hamstring a larger, more complex project. I’d imagine resulting from being annoyed by the very same limitations himself, my friend Natedogg released his own take on edoor which he called the “Xtreme Doorkit” (or simply “xdoor”) with Demonic Productions in 1997. Xdoor did just about everything edoor did while yes, including the full Pascal source code. As an added bonus I had full support from the developer himself if I ever needed it. Naturally xdoor instantly became my door library of choice.

Xtreme Doorkit (XDoor) v1.02 file_id.diz

By 1998, with xdoor in my possession and a slowly growing confidence in my programming ability, I felt ready to tackle something more ambitious than the small utilities and doors I’d been working on up till then. At the very least, I hoped working alone on a larger project from the ground up would force me to expand beyond my rudimentary knowledge of Pascal. Branching out to a door game seemed like a logical choice, especially having observed the disappointing situation with LORD and the relative lack of other new door games coming out to help take its place. The idea of writing a door game quickly morphed into a scheme to rewrite LORD. I don’t mean a similar style of game like Darkness would eventually become, but a literal, fully compatible duplicate of Legend of the Red Dragon. Not only did I not have any specific ideas of my own, I felt some odd sense of duty to keep LORD alive, somehow. I dove into the project with a kind of fiery indignation – I was going to save my favorite door game!

Starting with LORD 4.00’s data structures, the only pieces of LORD’s source code that had ever been publicly released (for the purpose of allowing IGM and addon developers to access LORD’s data files), I began working on manually reverse engineering the game from there. My efforts hadn’t got very far at all before rumors started circulating that Gameport had granted a fellow named Michael Preslar the rights to continue development of the old RTSoft games for them. While this was surely positive news, regardless of his ability as a programmer, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone could adequately fill Seth Robinson’s shoes. Besides, I had already decided that my door game was happening. Rather than cancel my plans entirely, my new game would simply be a LORD style game, not unlike New York 2008, Lunatix, and Jedi Knights to name a few. Ultimately, this would surely be easier than the increasingly daunting task of trying to duplicate LORD’s seemingly limitless number of idiosyncrasies, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. Darkness was born!

Shaping the Game

So where the hell did the name “Darkness” come from? Well, I don’t actually know. I can tell you where it didn’t come from, though. I’d never heard of the comic book series The Darkness, which came out just before I started work on my game, until a team of awesome ex-demoscene dudes named Starbreeze turned it into a popular video game franchise in the late 2000s. The British rock band The Darkness? They came along after I’d already started work on my game. White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” pen and paper roleplaying game setting, which I was familiar with, likely wasn’t any sort of inspiration. If anything, perhaps Agent Orange’s debut album “Living in Darkness” might have at least been responsible for why the word was bouncing around in my head at the time. Regardless of where the word came from, it was clearly edgy and cool enough to appeal to my 17 year old sensibilities, and that’s all that really mattered.

What about cyberpunk? Well, I don’t have a very definitive explanation for that either. Living up to nerd stereotypes, I was a longtime fan of science fiction, computers, and anime, and I’d been vaguely fascinated by the crossroads where these things all met, the genre of cyberpunk, since first being introduced to it by pen and paper roleplaying games like FASA’s Shadowrun and R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020. I’d been playing Shadowrun with some high school friends here and there, and the mid to late 1990s saw several notable cyberpunk-ish movies and shows such as Johnny Mnemonic and the original Ghost in the Shell film. The genre definitely appealed to me. Still, I couldn’t really tell you why I decided on that theme for Darkness outside of the fact that I didn’t know of any other explicitly cyberpunk door games, and if my game was going to be a LORD clone, at least its setting could stand out from the array of medieval fantasy and hard sci-fi themed door games out there, right?

Exitilus 2.05 Advertisement

As for the game itself, this isn’t really evident from the betas that I eventually released, but from the early days I aspired for Darkness to be much more than a straight LORD clone. I’d start with LORD’s gameplay as a core, definitely, but I planned to build systems onto it from there. I wanted to incorporate flavor and gameplay features from some of the cooler LORD IGMs I’d played with as well as some other door games, with Tao Ge’s original versions of Exitilus being a game that had particularly intrigued me. Features such as an elaborate gang territory control and warfare system were planned from early on, for instance. I also wanted the world to be considerably more gritty and “adult” (that is, what passed as “adult” to an angsty teenager) in tone than LORD, and bringing some of the style and flare of the underground scene that I had become so entrenched in into the game’s aesthetics was a stated goal as well.

Development

Despite not having a clear idea of what I needed to do and practically no other existing door game source code to look at for examples, things actually went surprisingly quickly at first. Of course there were numerous challenges – I had a weak grasp on how to use binary data files, and I’d never coded any sort of ordered list in my life, for instance. Luckily with friends like xdoor’s author Natedogg and numerous others in my corner, it was never too hard to get to be pointed in the right direction when I found myself off in the weeds. Still, in the spirit of using the whole process for learning, I attempted to work in a vacuum as much as possible. I admit, it was also kind of a secondary goal of mine to surprise some of my friends with just how much my programming ability had grown. Indeed, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I managed to come up with some of Darkness’s more complicated features like multinode functionality and IGM support completely on my own.

It’s worth pointing out that 1998 was probably the most tumultuous year of my life – I was finishing up my senior year of high school, girls finally started noticing me (somehow) and I had my first drama filled relationship as a result, and I started my first IT job, all of which combined into a chaotic strew of stress and exhaustion. The following years would add even more demands on me free time, as in addition to starting college and having heaps of homework, I’d become heavily involved in my local punk scene and started going out to shows as much as humanly possible. It’s kind of a miracle that Darkness ever even ended up in a state resembling being finished in the first place, honestly, and towards the end I definitely rushed through a lot of the remaining work just to get it out the door. For instance, the final encounter at the end of the game, which had been a huge focal point in LORD, was totally thrown together with relatively little care. At long last, I released my first private beta in January of 2000, followed up with a public beta, v1.00 wide beta 2, in late May.

Darkness v1.00 Beta Intro Screen

Coincidentally, the BBS landscape had started to change by then. In 2000, Mystic BBS shifted focus from its DOS and OS/2 versions to its Win32 and Linux ports, and Synchronet reentered the picture in a big way with the impressive version 3.00. Together, along with the RemoteAccess inspired EleBBS, these packages finally introduced a free and effective method for SysOps running more modern operating systems to run otherwise old school BBSes via telnet. To go along with that, all of these packages included support for a brand new drop file format specifically designed to allow Win32 and Linux native doors to communicate with them, DOOR32.SYS. Oddly, in order to help spread their new standard, both BBS authors had taken to hacking DOOR32.SYS support into some existing open source door kits, with Rob from Synchronet tackling the well-known C++ door library OpenDoors, and James from Mystic, in addition to his own Virtual Pascal library called D32, releasing a modified version of Natedogg’s xdoor which added Win32 support (via Virtual Pascal) while maintaining backwards compatibility with the older DOS versions.

Working with James, it took little effort to port the game from Borland Pascal to Virtual Pascal and upgrade to this new 3.00 release of xdoor, making Darkness one of the very first door games to support DOOR32.SYS when v1.00 wide beta 3 was released in mid 2001. This may seem like a footnote in Darkness’s story, but I believe this is probably the main reason Darkness hasn’t completely faded into obscurity in the years since. It went from mostly being only of interest to my friends in the underground scene to being on a huge percentage of SysOps’ radars practically overnight.

Final Release

Darkness v1.00 beta 3 file_id.diz

In the end, Darkness was pretty well received. People were excited for a new LORD style game, sure, but the gritty cyberpunk theme, including the over the top sex and violence, as well as the dark humor and underground aesthetic, seemed to really go over with the people it was most aimed at, which is to say angsty-ass teenagers and young adults like me and my friends. Surprisingly, a small handful of IGMs and utilities got released for it as well, and I was (and still am) grateful for the show of support.

Bug reports and suggestions also came rolling in and I did my best to address them. As with beta 2, I went on to release several interim builds that were distributed as archives of simple drop-in file replacements. This was a regrettably sloppy release strategy that has lead to a lot of SysOps who still run v1.00 beta 3 to unwittingly use older, buggier builds, though in my defense these releases were really only meant as stop-gap fixes for beta sites in between larger releases. Unfortunately, the next larger release never came and the build released at the end of November 2001 was to be the very last one. Not at all coincidentally, I entered the post-college workforce full-time in December. Quickly finding myself sapped of the energy and focus required, work on most of my scene related projects ceased, and I let Darkness fall by the wayside before ever getting it out of beta, and in hindsight, at a time when it was perfectly poised to ride the momentum of the growing telnet BBS scene.

To be continued…

Here’s is a quick list of Darkness v1.00 related files:

DRK100B2.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 2 (2000) D050300.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 2 Update #1 (2000) D061300.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 2 Update #2 (2000) D071900.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 2 Update #3 (2000) DRK100B3.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 3 (2001) D080501.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 3 Update #1 (2001) D101201.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 3 Update #2 (2001) D112001.ZIP – Darkness v1.00 Beta 3 Update #3 (2001)

DAMF105B.ZIP – Dark Alley Medical Facility IGM (2001) DENED1B5.ZIP – Darkness Enemy Data Editor (2001) DRKIGM8BALL10.ZIP – Magic 8 Ball IGM (2015) DRKIGMLEMO10.ZIP – Lemonade Stand IGM (2015) DRKIGMPSC10.ZIP – Darkness Plastic Surgery IGM (2015) FWH100B.ZIP – Females-Only Whorehouse IGM (2001) SM-WILLY.ZIP – Slick Willy IGM (2000)


1. Legend of the Red Dragon INTRO1 by David Nicholson from LORD400A.ZIP (1997)
2. Legend of the Red Dragon 2 Screenshot from LORD2 v1.01A (1997)
3. Xdoor v1.02 FILE_ID.DIZ by Jack Phlash from XDOOR102.ZIP (1997)
4. Exitilus v2.05 AD1.ANS by Tao Ge from EXS205-1.ZIP (1995)
5. Darkness INTRO1.ANS by Cyberphreak from DRK100B3.ZIP (2001)
6. Darkness v1.00 Beta 3 FILE_ID.DIZ by Jack Phlash from DRK100B3.ZIP (2001)

About Darkness

Darkness font by Cyberphreak

Darkness is a competitive multi-player action role-playing BBS “door” game based on the Legend of the Red Dragon style of game play, featuring a post apocalyptic cyberpunk setting.

First released in publicly in 2000 with a wide beta release of v1.00, development on Darkness stalled out in 2001. Now, 20 years later (in 2020) Darkness 2.0 has been fully rewritten and redesigned from the ground up to fix many of the bugs and other issues that plagued it as well as to tweak the gameplay, the setting, and so much more.

Features:

  • Easy to setup and run!
  • Available in both a modern 32 bit Windows version and a 16 bit DOS compatible version which can be used on retro systems, Linux and other alternative OSes, and DOS emulators such as DOSBox.
  • Complete FOSSIL driver support for communications compatibility with most classic dial-up BBS software and full DOOR32 support for socket sharing on 32/64 bit Windows telnet systems.
  • Supports the two most popular classic drop files formats: DOOR.SYS and DORINFOx.DEF, along with the widely adopted DOOR32.SYS format supported on modern 32 bit systems.
  • A complete, full-featured door game, including a powerful configuration and player editors, automatic game maintenance including the deletion of inactive and unused characters, inactivity timeouts to automatically boot AFK players, and local SysOp side features such as online chat and forcing disconnections.
  • SysOps can easily add additional random events by adding downloaded DRS scripts using the built-in event editor included in the configuration editor. Likewise, developers can create their own custom random events using Darkness’s incredibly easy to use DRS scripting language.
  • Players can communicate in various ways, such as a “one liner” message boards/walls, daily news announcements and comments, and email messages.
  • Full multi-node support including node notifications, node messaging, and real-time player vs. player fights.
  • Characters can explore the high tech but devastated world of Darkness across 7 unique areas, including a central hub area featuring various activities.
  • A large variety of enemies to defeat and weapons and other gear to help defeat them with!
  • A unique game world with subtle (and not so subtle) references to related sci-fi, cyberpunk, and post apocalyptic works.
  • Free! Darkness is uncrippled emailware.

Darkness 2 is in active development, with fixes, new features, and tons of new content still on the horizon. Check back here for more news and information!

Download the latest release!

Other notable articles related to Darkness:


1. Original Darkness Font by Cyberphreak, Unreleased. (1998)

NULL Interview! (Part 3)

In the final part of my ridiculously long interview for NULL emag, we chat a bit about my BBS, Distortion, and my efforts to collect and archive scene history, and a bit more about the BBS scene, past, present, and future.

Continued from part 2…

Distortion is a cool BBS with some nice art. What is it that makes a BBS cool?

Thanks! There’s a variety of things that can make a system worth checking out in my opinion. A customized setup with nice art and/or some insane, custom modifications is certainly high on my list, but you need content too. That can be anything from really nice, curated file areas, to a great local message area. I’d throw an active door game community onto that list too. Something that I really used to like back in the day were systems that had really unique content, whether that be a distro site for some unusual zine or group or something, or maybe the HQ of some sort of prominent scene figure. I’ve called some amazing boards back in the day, and we’re really fortunate that we have some great telnet systems still around these days.

One of the things I really like on Distortion is the section with all the history/information about you, Distortion, Mystic BBS, Gutter, etc. I don’t think there are too many BBSes that do that and the history of the scene is disappearing to oblivion. Should we do something about it? Find a way to record things down? Right now, for someone new to learn about the scene, they pretty much have to watch the “BBS Documentary”, read many of all these textfiles.com files, and read many emags (hopefully) from 16colo.rs. Should a group make an effort and record the history in a more productive way?

Thanks for noticing! For the record, that’s another good example of the kind of unique content I like to come across. That’s part of why I did that on Distortion. The other reason being as you’re implying, the preservation of this kind of history. I’ve always been kind of concerned with documenting the scene. There’s a few reasons for that. On a basic level, that’s how I tend to learn. I try to really understand things – I break them down, form associations, etc. which leads to what sometimes feels like a more academic view of certain things others might take for granted. The other reason may have something to do with coming to the scene so late, feeling like an outsider that very much needed to learn about the culture, and then having it dissolve right in front of my eyes. It was like “hey wait, there’s all of this culture here? and now it’s disappearing!”

I became kind of obsessed about this pretty early on with files in particular. It didn’t take me long to start noticing how I could find some files on some systems that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Whether this meant particular versions of particular software, or unique files associated with certain groups, zines, mags, software, etc. I started “collecting” the files that were interesting to me, particularly those around underground BBS software, doors, modifications, and source code. At some point, this turned into actively calling long distance and leaching file areas. When my participation in the scene shifted to mostly being on the Internet, this grew to include arranging leach sessions with other SysOps and searching for obscure web and FTP sites. Eventually I had put together a collection that was filled with a lot of fairly rare, esoteric files and, using the resources I had with demonic.net, I ended up putting them all on a public FTP site to “pass it on” as it were. These days I can easily trace a lot of files on places like archives.thebbs.org back to coming from my collection. I don’t think a lot of people outside of Demonic ever knew about my involvement in this, though Radman gave me kudos for my efforts in the readme on his Dark Domain ACiD artpack archive DVD release, which felt like more than enough recognition for my efforts.

From attempting to obtain the source code from a BBS author who ended up discovering that he had lost it due to failed tape backups, trying to track down specific files I was after, like finishing off a collection of missing zine back issues, to my own numerous instances of bad luck with hard disk failures and other incidents over the years, I noticed how utterly fragile this digital-only content was when not distributed or, maybe worse, horded. My efforts turned more from a focus of putting together a great collection of files for my own greedy purposes to actually saving files from total extinction. I created a local message base on Distortion called “scene archaeology” to discuss this and continue to try to obtain copies of people’s setups, file bases, unique files, etc. While my efforts have mostly dried up over the years, I’ve got quite a lot of stuff these days, though I honestly haven’t gone through and sorted it as well as I used to do. It’s mostly just huge unsorted dumps of files. I owe a lot of that to others who have attempted to archive files in a similar way as I used to. People like Jas Hud and his huge BBS warez torrent that was floating around for a while, to Jason Scott’s archives in places like software.bbsdocumentary.com, textfiles.com, and archive.org.

In summary, I feel like it’s important that we try to preserve this stuff, less risk it being gone forever. I urge anyone reading this who might have an old backup tape, zip disk, old stack of floppies, whatever it may be, that has some old BBS file systems, BBS backups, or even your own personal archive of source code or WIP files if you don’t mind sharing them, to put them somewhere so they’re not totally lost. Hell, I’ll take them and add them to my own collection for that matter – you can email me at jp(at)demonic.net. 🙂

Finally, this is another reason why I like emags and ezines. Similarly to Distortion’s numerous bulletins about the history of the system and some of its associated groups, these things really help to snapshot a moment in time and (hopefully) save it for future readers.

How were relations between sceners back in the 90s?

Since we were almost all late pre-teen to early adult males, it was… ever read Lord of the Flies? 😉

Actually, I think the fact that so many of us had the brash attitudes that come not having fully developed out of a childish narcissistic worldview meant that while sure, there was plenty of conflict, often over petty bullshit, and dumb stuff like the tribalism that came with scene “groups” and other grouping that came from things like allegiances to our favorite PCs, OSes, and BBS software, it also meant that most of us dealt with each other head-on rather than there being a ton of passive aggressiveness.

It’s also tricky to really explain the nuanced layers and levels of respect and notoriety that came with gaining reputation in the scene. People were typically fairly respectful of those who they saw as having more scene cache, be that a higher profile or maybe just raw talent, than them. It wasn’t as simple as “if you’re not in the scene you’re a lamer. If you are, you’re my equal.” The obvious bad part of this whole thing was that it could be tricky for newbies to get involved without constantly unintentionally disrespecting people by breaking some unwritten rule or custom and getting a much worse reputation than being unknown, maybe even getting ostracized in one way or another. There could also be a lot of “hazing” type shit that came with people learning the ropes, particularly when it came to underground boards in the dial-up days. It could be a bit of a process. On the flip side, once you started to get known and make connections people were generally pretty cool with you.

Can you describe how things were back then with the underground scene? I mean, today everyone expects to be freely added to a network, freely download tons of files, etc. Things were different back then. Can you give us a glimpse of the past?

Story time!

There was this 2 node elite warez board in my local scene that I found on several local BBS lists, but was almost always listed as private, or with a note saying there was a system password or new user password, or some other obstacle I had to get around. So, the first hoop I had to jump through was actually finding the correct numbers and cobbling together a list of potential access passwords from all of these old ass BBS lists.

So, I finally call it up and end up having to use a “call back verifier.” A call back verifier was a third party door or modification (I can’t think of any systems off of the top of my head that had this as a built-in function, actually) that would attempt to verify that the user entered their real phone number in by then calling the user back. They worked in a variety of ways, but often you had to answer the call with your terminal and then enter some sort of information to authenticate the session, flagging your number as validated. This wasn’t anything new to me, as call back verifiers were semi-popular with PD boards as well. Probably more so, even. The main point was to be able to uniquely identify you as a user, especially since few SysOps had caller ID at the time, and some of them took duplicate accounts very seriously.

So, I go through that process and then I’m greeted with something I’d yet to encounter in my short BBSing career: new user voting. Most NUV systems work by forcing new users to fill out what was usually an extra questionnaire form. Not knowing what the form was even for, I just half-assed it, and actually, in the case of this BBS, the questions were more like a quiz than an application, meant to test your knowledge on the underground scene. Shit like what “DOD” or “FSW” stood for. I was utterly clueless about warez and cracking groups at this point, so I did a shit job of completing the form on top of rushing through it. What happens in NUV after this is that subsequent callers are shown your completed form and then asked to vote on whether or not to accept you. That’s how validation was done. This could sometimes last a couple of days depending on how active the board was and how many votes were required. How this went really depended on the culture of the specific bulletin board system – some would happily thumbs down anyone they didn’t know or didn’t like for whatever arbitrary reason, while others would pretty much vote to accept anyone who applied that didn’t put anything too boneheaded on their form. In this case, I was down voted and then locked out of the system. Ugh.

Now, I was a hard headed kid, and now that I’d had a glimpse into this strange new system that was seemingly safeguarding something cool, I really wanted in. Getting denied only served to make me want in that much more. I impatiently waited a few weeks and then called back and applied with a different handle. This time I took my time and paid attention to how I filled out the form and did a reasonably okay job of completing it, despite still not knowing the answers to a lot of the questions. A more meticulous SysOp, or maybe just a better designed call back verifier, might have caught me as a duplicate user since I had to use the same number, but in this case I got in, and somehow got voted in. I honestly didn’t think I stood a chance, but there I was. I immediately located the file system and found it to be a treasure trove of multi-disk pirate group releases. Holy shit… games!

Except, that’s not the end of the story. Not unlike some private torrent trackers, you had to maintain a certain upload/download ratio (in this case, I believe it was handled with a “credits” system in which you were awarded a certain amount of credits as a new user, and per day, and more importantly, by uploading validated files.) So then I had to raid my meager file collection to try to get enough credits to snatch the good shit. I think I ended up resorting to nabbing files off of some of the other, less elite underground systems in my area just so I could turn around and upload them for credits there.

Finally, one day after trying to download a bunch of shit and probably being all out of credits, or perhaps time (your daily time limit was a much bigger deal in the dial-up days) I hung up and then immediately received a phone call. Since the SysOp had my real phone number due to his call back verifier, he took it upon himself to call me for a quick chat. I’m sure I was fucking shaking in my shoes, but he ended up being a very cool dude and hooked me up with some credits. He eventually went on to become quite a good friend and as an added bonus, from there on out, upgraded me to a “leech account” giving me unlimited credits. My days of putting effort into being a faux-productive member of the local warez trade were over, at least on that board.

Do you think those kind of “user evaluation” features should be enabled again? Should BBSes and networks be more “closed societies” with strict invitation requirements, etc. like it was back in the 80s-90s?

I think that’s highly debatable. There are pros and cons to that kind of thing, and I think most of us, being more measured adults, probably see more value in the pros of keeping it open, especially with the relatively minuscule user base of the scene as a whole. Having any society at all is probably more important than it being a closed society. 🙂 Distortion was actually a closed system with an NUP for a very long time, and even today I don’t auto-validate my new users, though I more or less accept anyone.

What do you miss today in the scene?

Oh, so much!

I really miss having insane amounts of free time to really deep dive into to the innumerable projects and interests I have. For instance, I’d love to have the time to really invest into getting better at ANSI – I strongly feel that, these days, if I kept cranking out work to the degree that I might have been able to as a teenager (if not for being distracted by numerous other interests) I could actually end up being a passably decent artist.

More existentially, the sense of wide-open, endless possibilities; mysteries to solve, systems to learn, and an infinite amount of adventure that had always been a part of my infatuation with computing (online and otherwise) is largely missing from my life today. I supposed that comes with devoting so much of my life to it for the past ~25 years. That sense of wonder, of adventure, was so much a part of the magic of computing and especially BBSing to me back then. Plugging a phone line into my modem for the first time was like the captain of a spacecraft pointing his vessel at some random patch of space and punching the accelerator – I never knew what I might find. Sure, probably a lot of nothing, or at least nothing very interesting, but that possibility was absolutely intoxicating.

For the record, I maintain that there’s even more to explore, to learn, and to invest in on the Internet these days, but just as my journey has lead to that whole feeling being mostly subdued, most people who are now growing up with the Internet being a normal part of their lives likely won’t feel that way either. Rather, they take it for granted. It’s still all there for those who seek it out, however.

Do you think that the scene is dead, is going to die, or has transformed into something different?

Let me re-frame that a bit. I think the scene as it existed in the 80s is certainly dead. As it existed in the early to mid 90s? Yeah, dead. Even as it existed in the mid to late 90s and early 2000, it’s dead. It’s really something else now, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not still very much a thing. In fact, in its current state it’s hard for me to imagine that it won’t endure to some degree in the same way as it has in the last 10-15 years. I probably wouldn’t have said that 10-15 years ago!

Do you think that today’s BBS scene and BBS software has some opportunities to grow and evolve or has it taken the path of no return? 🙂

Yes! The scene has definitely already slowly evolved over time. For instance, the greater integration with modern social media platforms (the ANSI scene largely revolves around Facebook right now, for instance.) This has resulted in more of us seeking out real-life meetups and a renewed interest in attending competitions and parties and really, just turning the whole thing into a more mainstream hobby.

On the software side, thanks to the work of some of the current active BBS developers, we’ve finally started moving from telnet to SSH which is something many of us have wanted for years and years now. It’d be hard to predict exactly how things will continue to evolve, but I feel like we’re all still waiting for a true “next gen” take on the traditional BBS software that both actually comes out (most of the semi-recent efforts on this front that I’m aware of have never been fully completed) and people actually adopt. Until then, we’ll remain making these kinds of tiny, incremental steps to modernization like those taken by software like Synchronet, Mystic, and x84, for example.

There is Mystic, Synchronet, Enigma, Magicka, Titan, Iniquity and more BBS software being actively developed. There has also been some small “movement” between/in networks like Arak/FSX/Fido… does this all mean that the BBS scene is going through a revival?

Nope! I’m afraid it just means that our little “retro computing” niche continues to be a fun, active hobby for those of us involved in it, which is great. The word “revive” is a little odd for me – I mean, as I said before, it certainly isn’t or hasn’t been totally “dead”, just changed. When I think of what a true “revival” would look like, it would be BBSing becoming a (if not THE) prominent way we interact online, and I’m sorry if I come off a little pessimistic here, but I can’t see the greater populace of the Internet suddenly trading in their Twitter and Facebook accounts for telnet or SSH clients. 🙂

After all these years, what is it that makes you continue to be involved with BBSing, ANSI art etc. Is it nostalgia, or the “magic” of textmode? 🙂

Definitely the nostalgia. It certainly goes deeper than that, probably on some kind of a psychological level – maybe that lingering infatuation I talked about earlier never really left me? I really think that for most of us that are still active, there’s something about our time in the scene that deeply affected us, one way or another. I mean, most of us were involved in some of our most formative years after all. It would be interesting to know whether most of today’s sceners would have considered themselves as especially prone to nostalgia before their time in the scene, or if their inability to let go of it led them to become more nostalgic in general. Maybe many of us don’t even consider ourselves to be all that nostalgic to begin with?

That said, I came across this great quote recently, and I wish I could remember it verbatim or even where it came from, but it affected me insofar as my recent involvement in the scene goes. While it was surely much more poignantly phased, it was something to the effect of “you shouldn’t deny yourself the things that made you who you are”. I immediately thought about this “hobby” of ours and how I should more fully embrace spending time on it without any apprehension, making more of an effort to invest my time and energy into it. That goes for all of my friends in the scene too, and anyone else who might be reading this. If you still love this stuff, and it means something to you, keep doing it!