Jan 1, 2020
PLATO was a groundbreaking project that was started at the University of Illinois in 1960. Over its considerable lifespan it pioneer new technology for computer-aided teaching, time-sharing, and graphics just to name a few fields. On the official side of things it was an educational platform, but unofficially it was a fantastic platform for video games.
The ultimate iteration of the system, PLATO IV, would be unveiled in 1972. It's new terminals sported a marvelous new invention: the monochrome plasma display. These screens packed a resolution of 512 x 512 pixels, which was pretty respectable for the 70s. On the backend of things PLATO IV terminals all connected up to a powerful supercomputer, forming a centralized network of just over 4000 machines. The graphical and networking capabilities of PLATO made it a ready incubator for many a young hacker. Over the year a multitude of videogames, many of them with networked multiplayer modes, popped up on the system. These included some of the earliest RPGs, arena shooters, even flight simulators.
I hear you ask, can you experience these games today? Well, you are in luck! There is still a way to access a living PLATO system today. The people over at cyber1.org maintain an emulated PLATO server, and you can even request an account for the system. Coupled with pterm, a PLATO IV terminal emulator, it's relatively easy to get connected. Cyber1 offers a wide range of games and other software from the 70s and beyond.
There are too many programs, and they are far too varied, to give an overview of them all. Instead I want to focus on a game that stuck out for me: Futurewar. The game was written in 1977, and then eventually restored by the team at cyber1 for it's 40th anniversary in 2017. Futurewar is essentially an RPG, your character starts with random attributes for strength, agility, endurance, intellect and so on. As with a lot of early RPGs you spend most of your time traversing a dungeon, finding money, and fighting monsters. What makes Futurewar stand out is its gameplay and setting.
First off, Futurewar is presented in 3D from the first person perspective. It may come as a shock, but for PLATO games of this era that isn't unique. A lot of RPGs on the system presented their dungeons in 3D. This isn't something on par with later games like DOOM, but it's definitely impressive for the time it was written. Your view of the game world is rendered as a small portion of the screen, but despite that it's definitely playable. What makes Futurewar stand out from other 3D PLATO games is the fact that you wield a gun and as you travel the maze your gun remains visible at the bottom of your view. There's even a little animation of a bullet when you fire. That's right, Futurewar is a very early example of a first person shooter.
Second we have the setting of the game. Most of the other 3D RPGs on PLATO were designed as high fantasy adventures. However, Futurewar is different. It's set in the far-flung year of 2020. In the aftermath of a catastrophic war you and your team(humans, guerillas, barbarians, martians, or cyborgs) is battling for control of an underground bunker. The bunker is full of hazards, rubble piles will block your way, radioactive waste will hurt you, and monsters will attack you. Enemies suit the setting, at least somewhat. This includes mutants, giant lice, robots, and skeletons. Defeating monsters earns you money and loot, but you can also find random first aid kits scattered throughout the maze.
It's a fun game, but it's also pretty hard. I usually die on the first level. The first person view can also be disorienting, you have a limited field of view and the levels are built like a maze. There are no textures so walls look the same, making it easy to get lost. There are the occasional doors, brick walls, and some graffiti, but not enough for me to keep track of where I am without pen and paper. The controls also take some getting used to. Movement is tied to the WAXD keys, with S used to shoot. Menus for in game stats are bound to PALATO's special keys, which pterm maps for you so you don't need an archaic keyboard. Reading the help file (with alt-h) gives you everything you need to know, but it does take some getting used to.
If you are up for a challenge, or want to experience some early computer games, I'd highly suggest giving cyber1 a look. If you want to dive deeper into PLATO's history then you should pick up a copy of "The Friendly Orange Glow" by Brian Dear. It's proved invaluable to me during my research, and beyond that it's just a great book.
And if you want to hear more of my take on PLATO, then you can listen to my episode on the topic here: