Play Stuff Blog

Game Development Is a Harsh Mistress  

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress screenshot, 1987. Making a video game can take months or even years to create from start to finish. It isn’t always a straightforward process either: character designs change, stories get rewritten, and entire gameplay mechanics are removed or added throughout the development process. But sometimes all the hard work, sweat, and tears that go into making a game doesn’t end with a product on the shelf. Sometimes, a game’s release is cancelled.

In 2016, Interplay Entertainment founder Brian Fargo donated a collection of games and company records to The Strong. Among material for hit titles like Bard’s Tale and Wasteland were documents and disks for an unreleased game called The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The two disks, with one labelled as source code and the other as a demo, gave some hints as to their contents. Searching the Internet, you will primarily find references to the book of the same name written by Robert A. Heinlein, with very few details surviving about the video game.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress design specification document, 1987.

Designed by Bruce Balfour in 1987, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was to be an adaptation of the book. The story takes place in the year 2075 on Earth’s moon Luna, where a prison colony was created. With conditions for prisoners deteriorating, a revolution begins. The game would split the narrative into three major sections: planning for the revolution, the trip to Earth, and preparations for the final battle, each with distinct goals and sub-goals that could influence how the endgame would play out, with the ultimate goal being a successful revolution and freedom for Luna. 

After migrating the data from floppy disks, it was time to boot the game. It is always an exciting experience to see a game for the first time since its creation, especially when it is older than the player in this instance! With no menus, the player is thrown directly into the game. The gameplay screen is split into sections. The bottom of the screen describes the current area of the game and allows the input of text to explore the environment. Another section gives some of the commands that the player may want to type, such as talk or look. A compass tracks the direction the player is facing. A large section of the screen is dedicated to environmental graphics, which unfortunately are missing, possibly having not been created at this point of development.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress game goal from design document, 1987.

The demo allows the player to explore some of the earlier areas in the game. Progression was limited though, as the source code indicates that compiling the full game wasn’t possible at the time because it was too large. The game would track nearly everything you did or didn’t do. For example, if you failed to exercise on Luna, you wouldn’t be able to stand when you arrived on Earth. The game seemed to be coming together for its projected launch in late 1987.

So what happened? On Twitter, Brian Fargo noted that the game was cancelled due to a lack of publisher interest. After months of work, the game was shelved as the developers moved on to other projects, including Neuromancer and Wasteland, both released in 1988.

Peek into the collections at the museum with Game Saves from The Strong, the bi-weekly stream that showcases electronic game artifacts from the museum.(Also available on youtube.)