Bill Williams remembered

Giant List archive, May 13, 1999

Bill Williams was the Stanley Kubrick of game design. His games are completely original and stunning, and possibly excepting the tail end of his career when he did some implementation grunt work for others' designs, every one of his games is either highly noteworthy or a complete masterpiece.

His first game, Salmon Run for the Atari 800, is a novelty, but how many other games have been designed about a Salmon swimming upstream to spawn? 1983's Necromancer is a masterwork—arguably the best game ever designed for the Atari 8-bit computers. If you've never seen it, you need to. It's as original in 1999 as it was sixteen years ago.

Alley Cat might not be as solid as Necromancer, but it's a fantastic experiment in surreal game design, and it has possibly the finest sound ever heard from an Atari machine. Like Tron, it's a collection of sub-games. But while Tron has fairly cliched segments (shoot spiders, shoot tanks in a maze), in Alley Cat you make cat tracks to distract an attacking broom while trying to jump into a fishbowl. Once inside the bowl, you swim about eating goldfish and dodging electric eels. In another segment you try to knock plants off of a bookcase. In another you sip milk from the bowls of sleeping dogs. Have any of these themes been used in other games since then?

(Interestingly, Alley Cat didn't start out as a Bill Williams project. Several people at Synapse worked on the game before Bill took over, most notably John Harris.)

When the Atari market dwindled, Bill moved to the Amiga where he created the amazing Mind Walker. When it was released in 1986, Mind Walker represented the hopes and ambitions of the fledgling Amiga. Like his previous two games, it was impossibly original. Still it did what almost no other games managed to do: it featured stunning sound and graphics while still multitasking and generally co-existing nicely with other Amiga applications. His other Amiga games drew equal raves: Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon, Pioneer Plague, and Knights of the Crystallion, but unfortunately I never played any of them.

In the early 1990s he did some console development work for Sculptured Software in Salt Lake City, Utah (though Bill worked out of his home and never moved to Salt Lake City). He wrote Monopoly for the NES and Bart's Nightmare for the SNES. His name was found on some SNES sound drivers used in other games as well. But it was his solo work, the games that he did design and sound and graphics and coding for entirely by himself, that Bill Williams will be remembered.

The Bill Williams entry on the Giant List has been completely filled-out, thanks to information from Peter Olafson.

Followup (May 24, 1999)

May 13th's news item on Bill Williams brought in more mail than usual, so I thought it would be interesting to delve into his later career a bit. Here's some information from Peter Olafson:

Bill was so disenchanted by his experience with Bart's Nightmare (which he called "Bill's Nightmare") that he handed the game over to another designer—it was 92 percent complete—and went to Lutheran seminary in Chicago to study to become a pastor.

The polluted city air proved too much for his lungs—you may already know that Bill was born with cystic fibrosis—and he left two years later, in 1994, with a master's degree in theology. He and his wife sold their dome home in Michigan and moved to Rockport on the "Texas Riviera." His health went into a serious decline in early 1997, and you know the rest.

He never really went back into game design—though he did do some prelim design work [in 1996] on an unpublished Sculptured game with a working title of Mustache Red.

Bill had two books published posthumously: Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple (which Peter calls "an autobiography in the guise of theological fiction"), and a related work published in March of 1999. They may be in a completely different field than his video games, but they've gotten the same glowing reviews.