The Making of... Alter Ego
I first encountered Alter Ego via
a review in Zzap! and it sounded incredible. As a standard, UK non-disc
drive owning C64 user there was no danger I'd ever get to play it
before the advent of emulation, but I immediately clicked with the
I Interviewed Dr Favaro ("Call me
Peter...") in New York over a Skype connection, back in the days when
that was quite novel. This really allowed us to have a rambling
conversation that covered a fair bit more ground than I squeezed into
these 1500 words.
Sadly Alter Ego 2 didn't (and
hasn't) emerged, but there are now more spiritual successors to the
life simulator, particularly in the Visual Novel genre. I found the
thing that sounded most similar, Positech's Kudos,
to be rather on the dry side for me but other Indie projects such as
Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life
have shown the power of walking a few miles in other people's shoes.
was one of the subjects I studied at university, and it was incredibly
eye-opening and had a major influence on how I think about the nature of reality and perception. One of the key design principles I love from Alter Ego is the use of the 'less is more' projective hypothesis. By leaving gaps the player fills in their own detail, giving a suprisingly rich experience from very little.
What if you had chosen differently in life? Edge looks at a game that
was the exact opposite of escapism.
begins with birth. Actually, slightly before. Should you come out
peacefully, or kicking and screaming? YOU decide. Described in the
manual as a ‘fantasy role-playing game’, Alter Ego had little to do
with trolls and elves. The role you played was you, or at least a
twisted version of you, and the goal was simply to experience life,
make your choices and see what happened. Tread a conventional path, or
take off in a wild direction and along the way you might even learn
something useful about yourself. Your real self, that is.
Nowadays more likely to be found in a New York courthouse
advising on complex custody cases, running a seminar on anger
mangement, or as the house psychologist for the Montel Williams chat
show, in the early 1980s Dr Peter Favaro was still a graduate student
working his way through college.
“I was just a street kid from Brooklyn who happened to like
Which is not to say he wasn’t above making school more
likeable. Demonstrating an enviable degree of initiative and chutzpah
his choice of studies would stand him in good stead, and deliver an
impeccable gaming pedigree.
“I loved pinball, and I loved computer games, so I contacted
Atari and told them I was considering studying the Psychology of Play
in my graduate studies, and I thought that they might be able to use me
as a person who would be able to contribute some scientific knowledge
to their company.”
Atari were convinced, and Favaro began consulting for them.
His offer may have been to teach Atari, but the education went both
“I went back and forth frequently to Atari. I was very active in their
corporate think-tank. I had been doing some video game play research at
the time and I would meet with their public relations department.
Eventually I started sitting in on tech and game design meetings.”
“I learned a lot about game design.”
Certainly enough that when Atari was sold to Warner, and for in
Favaro’s words “wasn't as much fun”, he could put together a proposal
for an entirely new and innovative game based around simulating the key
moments of a person’s entire life.
“The game originally was called Chaos, and the idea was that when I was
young and very philosophical and not so cynical as I am now I believed
that life was a series of chaotic events that wound up somehow creating
some sort of order as you got older.”
"It got bites from Activision and Electronic Arts. EA really
wanted it at the time, but I went with Activision because I was more
familiar with them. I was more of a person who was tuned into game
cartridges than home computer software. They were very, very excited
about it because it was a whole new type of game”
Activision had been formed by ex-Atari programmers tired at not getting
the recognition and rewards for the games they produced. The recently
established company was riding high on its success, and in scenes
unimaginable today treated its designers like rock stars.
“They flew us in private jets, sent limousines”, recalls Favaro.
Promotional trips to Las Vegas, or Europe were not uncommon.
The allure of being a videogame designer in those days was enough to
make psychology seem a very tame alternative.
Technologically, the game now named ‘Alter Ego’ was simple, yet years
ahead of its contemporaries. The interface was based around clicking on
icons with a pointer, which in these early days had to be joystick
controlled. Once an icon was clicked a window would appear presenting
the user with a description of the chaotic event they would have to
The core of the game was in these vignettes, each a series of linked
pages coded using marked-up text similar to modern web-scripting. Links
led from page to page depending on the player’s choices and attributes.
Instead of the traditional role-playing stalwarts of strength,
dexterity and charisma Alter Ego players needed to cultivate
gentleness, thoughtfulness and trustworthiness. These values shifted
based on the player’s responses to the situation. Lie to your parents
as a child, and you might suffer a drop in your trustworthiness and
familial scores, but perhaps experience an increase in confidence that
would help you later in life. By examining the results of your choices
it was hoped that you could gain insight into your own character.
Constructing a large number of plausible situations was
critical, and so Favaro undertook a mammoth research effort that
involved him interviewing literally hundreds of people. Each was asked
to describe key events from their life, so that he could find the
defining moments of people’s lives.
“I’d interview anybody who’d talk to me. I asked old people
what it was like to be young, and young people what they thought it was
like to be old.”
He carried a tape recorder around with him everywhere for
nearly a year. Although exhausting work, it wasn’t always such a
burden. He was still finding ways to make what could have been a chore
“I’d use it as an excuse to go to bars. It was a great way to
pick up undergraduate students”.
“That was not exactly scientific”, he admits.
Scientific or not, it was certainly comprehensive. Once the interviews
were completed and written up they had to be structured. This took the
form of an immense matrix of events, indexed by age and category;
Whether the event was emotional, familial, physical and so on. These
would eventually form the ‘life stages’ and choices for the final game,
which allowed the player to choose an aspect of life they were
interested in without revealing too many details in advance.
Not all experiences were chosen for inclusion in the game. “I
was looking for both the very common, and the very odd”, remembers
Favaro. The inclusion of the unusual events, gave an important extra
level of plausibility. We’ve all had bizarre things happen to us, and a
life simulated without them would have seemed flat and
unrealistic. Favaro took the experiences that had been
related to him and then reworked the situation as a dilemma. Some would
be simply talking through problems with friends, some moral questions
with the occasional more exotic encounter. With his knowledge of
developmental psychology, together with a little artistic licence, a
pre-birth and infancy section was added for completeness, and Favaro
had his game, a simulation of life from before birth to death,
hopefully in happy old age.
Player interaction took the form of a suitable combination of mood and
action from a restricted list to respond to the situation. As in life,
not all situations could be ‘won’, and how you coped with failure was
as illuminating as how you coped with success. The game’s simplicity
meant that there were no worries with controls, no learning curve, no
moving from one location to another, just a series of slices from life
with your response to events determining your character, and thus
future options. If a game is a series of interesting choices, then
Alter Ego is the pure form.
Each scene was written up in the same accessible, humorous text that
Favaro uses in his textbooks, but the game was far from trivial. It
could be extremely serious when the situation required it. A true to
life simulation could hardly flinch from the unpleasant aspects of
“You could choose whether or not to participate in a gang rape.”
“In those days it was pretty much shocking that anyone would even try
to include that in a videogame. The most violence that was in
videogames in those days was a couple of little cartoon characters
shooting little pixels at one another.”
Unsurprisingly Activision were somewhat wary.
“It was the first videogame to ever come with a maturity warning on it,
because of the sex and violence.”
“They asked me to take some of that out of there, and I wouldn’t. I
actually stood my ground on all their nervousness on what the game
The release of the game proved him right. There was absolutely no
trouble over the explicit content, which for those looking for a
lighter experience, could be skipped. The game was clearly aimed at the
mature user, and treated potentially delicate areas with the
appropriate gravity. As a critical and commercial success, it
comfortably allowed Favaro to complete his studies and establish a
The longer-term legacy of Alter Ego is difficult to determine. Given
the mouse, icon and hyperlinked structure an Internet adaptation was
inevitable and a faithful conversion written by Dan Fabulich with
Favaro’s blessing and cooperation, can be found at
http://theblackforge.net/. Nobody, however, has taken then
next step and Alter Ego remains an odd blip of history, a moment where
entertainment and insight combined to show what computer games could
achieve, given a chance. Games have stuck with those tried and trusted
cartoon characters shooting pixels at each other, and despite hopes
that this may be “the next big thing” in the field, psychology does not
seem to have been revolutionised quite yet.
“I’m most proud of that game. It’s the thing I’m gladest I
did”, concludes Favaro. It’s an odd admission from someone who spends
their time helping real people with real problems, but he clearly still
believes in games’ potential.
And he’s still working to coax it out. He’s working on a sequel. Can
the psychological game make a lasting mark in the twenty first century,
where it failed in the twentieth? Hopefully by the end of next year
we’ll have found out.
Boxout - Mind MirrorElectronic
Arts could also see the potential in psychological games, and even if
they couldn’t have Alter Ego, they weren’t to be outdone. In perhaps
the most unusual example of celebrity endorsement they commissioned
controversial psychadelic psychologist Dr Timothy Leary to produce a
game. The result was ‘Mind Mirror’ which allowed the user to explore
their personality or that of others along with guidance by Dr Leary.
was famously unorthodox, and this apparently extended to his design
techniques for the game. “He loved Alter Ego”, recalls Favaro “He would
just call me up and ask me how I did things”, which may go some way to
explaining the similarity of approach in certain sections of the two
Boxout – ProjectionIn keeping with his brief
at Atari, Favaro used his psychological knowledge to shape the way the
text of these vignettes was written. He deliberately kept the
descriptions short and low on detail explicitly relying on the reader’s
imagination to fill in the missing details and, crucially, add
This use of the ‘Projective Hypothesis’,
the same technique used by Rorshach ink blot tests to examine the
viewer’s mental state, combines with Favaro’s extremely readable style
and dry, sarcastic humour give the vignettes an oddly personal
relevance. Only the occasional specifically American cultural reference
jars the non-native reader. The universal themes of life, death, trust
and friendship mean that twenty years haven’t dated the scenes at all.
The game was also uniquely split into male and female versions, and it
is interesting to see the same situation appear in both versions but
approached from different perspectives.