TekWar is the first in a series of cyberpunk novels credited to William Shatner. If you read sci fi books around 1990, you’ll vaguely remember the shit out of TekWar. You’ll vaguely remember it so damned hard.

According to popular legend, Shatner wrote the book during a strike on the set of Star Trek V. According to unpopular legend, it was ghostwritten by Ron Goulart. According to a bullshit lie I just made up, it was written by popular entertainer Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury while his ukelele was in the shop for repairs. Since the truth inevitably lies in the middle of conflicting claims, we can confidently say TekWar was written by Shatner, Goulart, and Tiny Tim working together and no I will not be taking further questions.

The book is about future-cop Jake Cardigan (far less cool than his brother, Jim Pullover), who gets framed for dealing “Tek”, an illicit mind-altering drug. To clear his name, he must infiltrate and crack the cartels of the “TekLords” at the behest of a shadowy PI agency. It’s a detective story. A deTektive story.

Today, “cyberpunk” indicates a fluffy visual aesthetic. In the 90s, it meant a literary movement: Ballardian/Ellisonian “new wave” sci-fi with an emphasis on the sordid side of life, such as drugs, crime, and urban blight.

Cyberpunk understood that it’s not beauty that defines an age, it’s ugliness. The true face of the Middle Ages isn’t the Chartres Cathedral but the bubonic sores on a peasant girl’s neck. The 21st century will be remembered for World War II and the Holocaust, not the Green Revolution. As Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer realized, ruin and death have a fetishistic compulsion that draws us in and commands us to stare. What will the future of decay look like? The verdigris yet to flower, the crack yet to appear? How can we depict that?

In practice, most writers aren’t very imaginative, and cyberpunk novels were usually a futuristic setting bolted to a stock 1950s crime/western story (Gibson’s whole “console cowboy” thing is a nod to this). Next to the genre’s more interesting works, such as Vurt and Snow Crash, TekWar stands out as particularly disposable. ”I wrote them as the sort of books you could read on airplanes and throw away afterwards,” Shatner once said. With that kind of sales job, I bet you’re itching to read TekWar already. But I am not here to talk about the book, or the TV show, or the other TV show, or the movie, or the comic book, or the marital aid.

I am here to discuss the PC game, by Capstone Interactive.

Tekwar was a first-person shooter that was dropped into the ocean in 1995 and sank without a splash.

Games in general have the lifespan of mayflies. They are released, played by however many people play them, and quickly disappear into the same murky abyss. Old games aren’t even irrelevant, it’s like they don’t exist. I remember countless PC games that once seemed huge and era-defining…and now they’re gone. Nobody talks about them, few even remember them, and if anyone plays them, it’s to revisit a fond childhood memory. The revisit never works. The game will feel disappointing, different somehow, as though your favorite game was sucked out of the timeline and replaced with an inferior off-brand copy. Your childhood is gone. The door to adulthood swings one way.

Games are unlike music in this regard. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is from 1968, and sounds like it was recorded this morning. The #1 song on the UK pop charts in January 1991 had Gregorian chanting. Occasionally a random song from decades ago will go viral, racking up tens of millions of listens, for no other reason than it’s good and people like it.

Music can live forever: the same is not true for videogames. The most they can hope for is that a Youtuber called “PixelNostalgia” will awkwardly fumble through it in DOSBox to the adulation of five hundred viewers. I remember this game! It was so great! I played it when I was six! Again, it’s not about the game, it’s about their lost childhood. Old games have past tense constructions (was, did, had) hanging around them like flies around carrion. Their moment is short, and they never get a second one. There is no revival scheduled for The Fortress of Dr Radiaki.

1995 was an awkward year for first-person shooters. The “pseudo-3D” technology that had railgunned 1993’s Doom into the stratosphere was beginning to age, but the 3D revolution of 1996’s Quake hadn’t arrived yet. The industry settled into a holding pattern: we got iterations on the Doom formula (Heretic/Hexen/Star Wars: Dark Forces), as well as noble experiments (Magic Carpet 2/Descent) that never really felt like finished games. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath.

Then came Ken Silverman’s Build engine.

Silverman was a child prodigy from Rhode Island with a savantlike grasp of graphics programming and assembly code. Around 1992, he saw his brother playing a new game called Wolfenstein 3D, thought “I could make that” and…uh…did. He reverse-engineered John Carmack’s cutting-edge “3D” engine from scratch, without a peek at the source code. He was sixteen years old.

Doom caused a spike of interest in shooting games. Licensed engines became a hot commodity, and so did the programmers who could work with them. In 1993-4, Scott Miller of Apogee wanted to develop a 3D shooter, but id Software wouldn’t sell him the Doom engine, so he hired Silverman to write one.

What followed was a long, messy process (Silverman had just enrolled at Brown University, and was soon failing entry-level courses because he spent all his time programming!) that culminated in Build, an quirk-filled oddball engine that powered some of the most memorable games of the 90s.

Build wasn’t a visual feast. Essentially a 2.5D engine with a lot of fancy tricks, it looked good by 1994 standards, passable by 1995 standards, and was severely manhandled by Quake. It was clunky and awkward. Everything cool it could do—such as rooms on top of rooms and mouselook—was achieved through an ugly hack. Silverman was a self-taught programmer, with all that implies, and his code was notoriously abstruse and buggy. This caused frustration for the programmers who had to work in it. I watched someone “speedrun” Duke Nukem 3D: it was actually kind of funny. He barely played the game, he simply exploited one glitch after another, clipping his way through whole levels.

So where did the Build engine shine? Dynamism. It did stuff. Unlike Doom‘s idTech 1 engine, which relied on pre-rendered BSP trees, Build generated level architecture on the fly, meaning walls and floors could move, rotate, and shift. Build took those little moments of environmental interaction in Doom (such as crushing a Spider Mastermind beneath a descending ceiling) and amplified them by a factor of ten. 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D lets the player launch nuclear missiles and destroy an entire canyon. 1997’s Blood had a level on a moving train. 1997’s Shadow Warrior had driveable vehicles years before Halo. Few engines have been so exhuberantly designer-focused as Build.

The earliest Build game to exist (for a relaxed definition of “exist”) was 1994’s Rock’n Shaolin: Legend of the Seven Paladins 3D. It was the illegal afterbirth of a failed deal between Apogee/3D Realms and a Taiwanese/HK studio called Accend. For years, it was believed that the game was never finished (although Accend did leak an unauthorized demo on the internet), until someone found and photographed a game box at a flea market. So apparently Accend actually finished the game? And then released it, in complete defiance of the law? But didn’t advertise or promote it at all? I don’t know. There’s a lot of weird rumors surrounding that game. It’s cursed, and we’ll talk no more of it.

The first legal Build engine game was 1995’s Witchaven, a graphically ugly and technologically primitive Heretic-clone that I will probably never play again. I have made peace with that fact.

Witchaven was the most drab and depressing-looking game I’ve ever seen. The enemies look like claymation trolls melted with a hair-dryer. The controls suck. Combat consists of lining yourself up with enemies and swinging a melee weapon at them—which is frustrating, because there’s a delay of about a second before damage registers, and the first-person perspective means you can’t see where your feet are. Your melee weapons break after a few swings. At times Witchaven seems hell-bent on denying the player any sort of fun. The designers exploit virtually none of the Build engine’s possibilities.

By contrast, Duke Nukem 3D was a wonderful romp; full of attitude, style, and humor. If Quake was a leap forward for 3D technology, Duke was an equally big leap forward for game design. It’s overflowing with nice cosmetic touches—you can flush toilets, and roll balls around on a billiards table—that individually seem pointless, but when you have a thousand of them the game just comes alive. When you played Duke, you felt the winds of change blow. The “boomer shooter” era of space marines shooting aliens in gray metal techbases was drawing to a close.

But between Witchaven and Duke Nukem 3D, we got TekWar.

It was also developed by Capstone. I don’t know if it was made by the same people behind Witchaven. Given the differences in art and style, I would guess it was a different team.

It uses an early version of Build that’s scarcely more advanced than the one seen in Legend of the Seven Paladins. There are no sloped surfaces or rooms-on-top-of-rooms, and certainly no voxels. It does have reflective surfaces, but as soon as you see yourself in a mirror, you’ll wish it didn’t. Your character has no animation, and slides as if on roller-skates.

Tekwar loosely adapts the book’s story. The detective elements are gone. Now you’re a wet-worker, hired by Walter Bascom (voiced by William Shatner in cutscenes) to murder Tek dealers without a trial. Essentially, it’s Rodrigo Duterte Simulator.

In fairness, the game isn’t totally bereft of ideas. It’s an early “open world” FPS game. Instead of loading episodes through a menu, you step on a train, which takes you to the lair of one of the seven “TekLords”. The train station is a central hub that locks you inside the experience, adding to the game’s sense of immersion.

Tekwar has some early sparks of the “tactical shooter” genre. The game is populated by NPCs who bumble around and get in the way. If you hurt them, police will attack you. This (in theory) forces you to be smart: rather than killing everything in sight, you have to eliminate Tek dealers while leaving civilians unharmed.

Doom is “you against the world”. TekWar is “you against team 1, while trying to pacify team 2 by not hurting team 3”. This idea, if it had been done well, would have added a tactical, cerebral edge to Tekwar unlike any FPS game on the market.

It’s not done well. The AI is Daikatana-level terrible. Cops ignore Tek dealers who are firing guns at you, but the moment you unholster a gun to defend yourself, they start blasting away at you too.

Everyone in this game is absurdly sensitive to sound, making it pointless to be cautious. You can unholster a gun in an empty room, and hear cops reacting to it in the street outside. Often it’s quicker to just massacre everyone you see, cops and civvies and Tekgoons alike, and deal with William Shatner’s bitching.

Even if you have the best of intentions, it’s terrible easy to shoot civilians. They look like enemies, particularly at a distance. The enemies, too, all look very similar to each other, as do the TekLords. I accidentally killed one and didn’t even realize he was a TekLord until Shatner started congratulating me. I assumed he was just a regular enemy who was soaking up a lot of my shots for some reason.

Tekwar has severe Teknical difficulties. Bugs I’ve seen or heard of include:

  • You sometimes lose all your weapons when starting a new level
  • If you get pinched between two sliding doors, it kicks you back to DOS with an “INVALID SECTOR FOR PLAYER” message
  • Like Doom, enemies can be “gibbed” by explosions. However, enemies don’t drop keys when gibbed, and levels become impassable if this happens.
  • Binding movement keys to your mouse allows for super fast movement for some reason

Some of the game’s bugs are honestly adorable. In the Carlyle Rossi section of a game, there’s a ceiling-mounted turret that…isn’t a turret. It moves around the ceiling, chasing you like a lost dog. (An explanation for this I found on a forum: the turrets are considered regular enemies in the game code, just with their movement speed set to “zero”. But this parameter had to be set by hand, and the developers evidently forgot in the case of this one turret.)

The game has FMV videos, depicting your boss, Walter Bascom (played by William Shatner) talking to you. He’ll say stuff like “Quick! I’m uptown, and I just saw Marty Dollar! Get down here and help me bring him in!”, giving the impression that the game’s some co-op thing where you work side-by-side with Captain Kirk. In fact, Shatner never once appears in the game.

I should mention that 1995 was also the peak of the “interactive movie” fad, when people thought the future of gaming would be clicking buttons and then watching 320×240 Smacker video files of actors reacting to what you just did. If you eliminate a TekLord without harming civilians, Shatner praises you. If you fail in either of these tasks, he yells at you (although I’ve found that he sometimes compliments you on a bloodless victory when you did, in fact, kill a civilian).

I like Shatner as an actor, but I don’t need to: nobody likes him as much as he likes himself. His every line is delivered with consummate smugness. “I’m not gonna waste your time…or, more importantly, my time.” And then he pauses for an uncomfortable amount of time so you can chuckle.

Also, the videos look like this. I hope you don’t like pixels. We were overdrawn at the pixel bank today.

The game is more colorful than Witchaven, but in a bad way. Everything looks garish and kitsch. The in-game sprites are rotoscoped from actors posing (probably from the TV show), which sounds great in theory, but creates a persistant sense of unreality. They clearly do not belong in the world of the game.

Do you see what I mean? The actress is lit by a harsh primary light source on her right (camera’s left). But that doesn’t match the in-game lighting. There’s nothing to her right that could be casting that light, and she’s also not leaving a shadow on the ground. It sends a white-hot signal to your stupid reptile brain that something’s not right. It’s an illusion. Every character model has the same problem: they are illuminated and highlighted in all the wrong places, and it breaks the illusion.

Other Build engine games averted the problem by rendering sprites in very soft light (Blood), or by being so cartoony that nobody noticed (the rest of them, basically). Tekwar, with its Promethean striving for realism, ironically looks the fakest of the bunch. It doesn’t help that the sprites often have really shitty roto, with bits of the backdrop visible on their models.

Everywhere you look, the reality of the game world is broken by sloppy and bizarre touches. The textures don’t match up. There’s water, but you can’t swim: you just instantly fall to the bottom and then walk (amidst reeds that don’t seem to connect with the floor). Climbing ladders is absurdly slow. This is the only game I’ve played where it takes longer to climb a ladder than it would have taken me in real life.

Then there’s the infamous “matrix” levels, which are totally confusing, ripped off from System Shock, and just look like complete ass. Nothing makes visual sense. If anything, it looks like one of those “filler” games from Action 52, where it’s just a jumble of random sprites they had lying around. And that’s basically the climactic ending point of the game.

So, some ambitious ideas, along with execution so botched that not even the combined powers Capstone, Will Shatner, and Ken Silverman could save it. I wish I liked it more, but Tekwar badly needed more tekwork.

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