The Voyeuristic High Jinks of Virtual Springfield

Part 14 of a 25-part series looking back at every Simpsons video game ever made.

Oh, jeez, we’re up to 1997. I have to think back. Where was I? A fifteen-year-old, just starting high school, and not into the old Simpsons games at all. I was perhaps playing Resident Evil and Tomb Raider on the PlayStation, trying my best to play the mature stuff. That said, I was absolutely still watching The Simpsons on TV. That’s the year when Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein ended their time as showrunners and Mike Scully came aboard to run the ship. That’s also when I took the leap into recording episodes.

I have vivid memories of my first forays into VHS dubbing, with multiple old eighties VCRs tethered together as I transferred episodes of The Simpsons with the commercials crudely edited out. I ended up with two tapes — one for general favorite episodes, and another specifically for the Treehouse of Horror specials. These tapes even followed me to work where I kept them to watch on the small TV-VCR that we kept in the store room for new employee training videos. I’m convinced I got a few coworkers into the show by virtue of that being the only entertainment in the back room during lunch breaks. Incidentally, season 9 premiered in 1997 with “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” the first entry on my VHS tape of favorite episodes.

I have to think that if The Simpsons were still starring in video games during those years when I finally had some disposable income, I would have been all-in. But it was a silent time. Nothing new on SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, or Nintendo 64. This dearth of interactive Simpsons merch coincided with the tech world’s focus on the exciting possibilities of multimedia. The times they were a-changin’, and Fox would not get left behind.

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The limitless possibilities of multimedia CD-ROMs.

So sure, I was nerding it up with the best of them with my Simpsons tapes and PlayStation, but there was a notable hole in my life: no computer! My family took their sweet time in adding one of those seemingly benign beige boxes to our household, and in truth I wasn’t clamoring for one. The Internet was still in its nascent stages, and only the most knowledgeable or curious cared about using Prodigy or AOL to get “on-line” and discover the wonders of bulletin boards and crudely designed web content. But a few companies were catching on, including our beloved Fox. Their web presence dates back to at least 1996 when they began putting up product websites for their film, television, and yes, even video game properties. Fox also made a crucial decision in the years since the SNES and Sega Genesis ruled: they would become their own developer and publisher of video games. They formed a new division called Fox Interactive to oversee and produce all video games and interactive media that leveraged their properties. There were no more middlemen like Acclaim using subcontractors to put out subpar products. Fox would take on the responsibility — and the financial risk — to release the games themselves. According to producer Paul Provenzano, who jumped ship from Acclaim to Fox, it all came from just where one would expect: the licensing guy?

Fox Interactive was concept pitched by the licensing person who was in charge of video games. It was a guy named Scott Marcus, and he was always the guy that used to show up out of the blue and say “No” to everything… So Scott had looked around at all the games, that mostly Acclaim were doing with Fox properties, and he knew who the developers were. So he pitched to his boss, who took him directly to {Fox CEO Rupert} Murdoch, and said, “We should be doing these games.” And it worked!

And this may explain their approach with their first release since 1995’s The Itchy and Scratchy Game. With the previous publisher deals terminated, Fox had to start from scratch. That means hiring project managers, programmers, artists, animators, and other support staff that are required to make and ship games. I’m sure the time needed to build that team is part of the reason for the 2-year delay since the last game. But beyond that, Fox Interactive needed to build relationships with entities like Nintendo, Sony, and Sega, all of which were part of the deal when signing with existing publishers. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I’d guess all of these factors weighed in on the platforms Fox would target for their first game releases. While they did ship a few games on consoles before 1997 — such as The Tick and Die Hard Trilogy — they were primarily the publisher with other companies taking on development duties.

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Having a bit of a meltdown.

Fox Interactive had already dipped their toes into multimedia PC releases with a cartoon-maker application called The Simpsons Cartoon Studio from 1996, which featured a tool that allowed PC users to create and export their own small Simpsons cartoons with officially licensed art, animation, and sounds. They followed that with Virtual Springfield, released exclusively for Windows and Macintosh computers in 1997, with Fox Interactive as the publisher and companies called Vortex Media Arts and Digital Evolution taking on developer duties. The dual developer situation arose when Vortex Media Arts, as the original developer, went out of business. According to PC Gamer’s interview with Michael Viner, lead designer on the project, Digital Evolution swooped in to buy the contract and finish the work. Recalls Viner:

But Digital Evolution bought the contract for Virtual Springfield. Around that time, it was like the dot com boom and everybody was everything. They had a lot of projects. They were very legitimate; but they didn’t have a gaming division.

It’s worth noting that this was Digital Evolution’s one video game credit, which is not surprising when most of the company is working on car brand websites and slot machines. And it wasn’t just Fox Interactive heading up the project. This was also the first project in which Gracie Films — who produce the TV show — were heavily involved, helping the development team with dialogue, wrangling voice actors, creative direction, and all the involvement that we would have all liked to see since the beginning. And hell, it really shows. Virtual Springfield was an impressive game, heavy on the gags and jokes that any Simpson fan would have loved to see. The actual game aspect was fairly light, with no real objective beyond exploration, but it was robust enough that I have no qualms about including it here as a game worth discussing alongside the others in the series.

This was also a time when certain names kept appearing in the credits, and I’ve since come to see these people as the caretakers of the Simpsons license during that tumultuous dot-com era. People like Mike Schneider, Luke Letizia, and Harish Rao, all of whom carried on as producers and directors of every Simpsons game developed during the era. Christopher Tyng is also a notable addition to the credits list, appearing as composer for a bunch of Simpsons video games in addition to his contributions as composer for Futurama and many other television shows. Provenzano credits two individuals with really making the effort to make this an outstanding Simpsons experience:

That was through the effort of both the project producer, Gary Sheinwald — who was a devoted Simpsons fan — and the associate producer, Luke Letizia, who was meticulous to a fault. He was the guy that went through and pulled hundreds and hundreds of possible Easter eggs from the show that we could include. That was a labor of love for both of them because they just loved The Simpsons so much.

Yes, it’s officially the beginning of the Fox Interactive era, and let me tell you friends, it’s going to be a real roller coaster.

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Ah yes, another one of Springfield’s beloved regulars.

You know, it’s funny to find out that the staff at The Simpsons didn’t really have a series bible in those early days. A series bible is a collection of guides on the characters and their relationships, locations in the show, the characters’ design, and so forth. But they had no time for that. They just kind of made up characters and locations as they needed them, episode-by-episode. It sounds crazy, but in their own wacky way the teams at Gracie Films and Fox were building a world without limits, where the Nuclear Power Plant could be on the edge of Springfield in one episode and in the Simpsons’ backyard in another. This made for a more versatile development process for the TV show and a nightmare for anyone who needed to build this space for a video game. None of the previous game teams needed to worry about this because, well, it doesn’t matter where everyone and everything is located when you can just transport the player from level to level like some kinda digital magic.

But that wasn’t the kind of game that the team at Fox Interactive wanted to make. They’d seen enough weird platformers with little connection to the TV show beyond characters resembling their TV show counterparts and a few sound bites. They were going to go for the gusto: recreate all of Springfield as an interactive, fully explorable world. Provenzano remembers a very clear creative direction:

So our focus was to let people live in that world, and along the way you needed some kind of gameplay. That also meant you had to meet all these characters, and we needed people to write a lot of these characters’ lines.

For the first time, players could move about in the town of Springfield, free to check out the Mayor’s office at Town Hall, the Nuclear Power Plant (which is back on the outskirts of town), and of course, 742 Evergreen Terrace. They decided the player would be an interactive observer in the world, not unlike Lisa when she imagines a world where virtual reality would allow her to explore the world of Gengis Khan in the season 4 episode, “Marge Vs. The Monorail.” Yes, the good people at Fox Interactive wanted us to go where the Simpsons go, defile who they defile, and eat who they eat.

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Rude dude with an attitude.

That’s where the adventure begins. As the player, we are equipped with a virtual reality visor that transports us to the center of Springfield, where Troy McClure (voiced by Phil Hartman a year before his untimely death) introduces the player to the world of Springfield and to the first clear use of the interactive medium with one of several custom introductions, randomly selected when the game is loaded. After the introduction, the player is left in the town center with little direction and several menu options as part of the “Really Virtual Viewthingy” display, including an inventory for collected items and a town map of Springfield. According to the PC Gamer article and Provenzano’s interview with Talking Simpsons, it was quite the effort to map out an explorable Springfield when the show’s creators made no such attempt. As Viner recalls for PC Gamer:

They admittedly paid no attention to {continuity} when they were making The Simpsons… If they needed something for an episode, they just created it. And they didn’t think much about how it hooked into a neighbourhood. That was a big challenge for us — figuring out where things were located in juxtaposition in creating a map for Springfield.

The entire game takes place from a first-person perspective and instantly reminds one of Myst and its many clones and imitators that proliferated in the wake of that game’s success in the early nineties. Virtual Springfield is essentially a point-and-click adventure game with elaborate animated transitions from one scene to the next. The player can use the mouse and interactive arrows to move around along prescribed routes, and every once in a while they’ll run into a location they can explore. The gameplay may stretch thin over time, but to a fresh player in 1997 it must have been a wonder to have some measure of freedom in exploring the town.

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They said hang a left at the star.

For instance, walking along Evergreen Terrace can lead to Ned Flanders’s house, and clicking on the house leads to the rumpus room in the basement where Ned and his family pop up for random quips and gags. Players can also dig into their personal belongings and poke objects to get a close-up view of things like an Emergency Baptism Kit or The Big Book of Religious Answers, which answers questions like, “Does the devil read Cosmo?”. Further investigation of the rumpus room leads to another of the game’s interactive showcases: mini-games.

Oh boy, if you like mini-games, Virtual Springfield has got you covered. The mini-game in Ned’s rumpus room requires shaking and squirting a bottle of seltzer at a variety of objects lined up on the shelves above Ned’s bar. The mini-game is the equivalent of a shooting gallery, and the prize is a series of gags that take place as water is squirted onto each object. There’s a neat Doom parody at the Kwik-E-Mart called Apoom in which players fight off bullies with a broom and they, um, explode. Other mini-games are contextual, such as the Larry the Looter arcade game at Noiseland Arcade. And this is what the game as a whole is like: walk along the street, enter a locale, and mess around with the stuff inside to find gags and scenes with the characters. This backfires a bit when players are traversing the town on the streets. While characters regularly pop up at intersections with a short scene or bit of dialogue, it can still feel like a ghost town. Later video game renditions of Springfield would ensure that there were plenty of townspeople wandering about uttering their signature quips, but it was difficult to pull off with the technical limitations of 1997.

There are two meatier aspects of the game’s progression. For one, some gags and items are hidden behind puzzles that require players to find keys or other objects to unlock rooms for exploration. One of the more complex puzzle chains involves finding a note about gerbil food in Lisa’s drawer at the Simpson house, then using that to find gerbil food in Miss Hoover’s drawer at Springfield Elementary, and finally using that to open a cabinet beneath the gerbil cage in the classroom. A simpler example is taking a Krusty key from the Mayor’s office and using it to get into Krustylu Studios.

There are also the community cards hidden around the town’s seventeen locations. They continue to randomly appear in the same limited set of locations and finding all 74 leads to a secret 75th card that shares a secret website link to more game-related secrets on the Internet. The website is longer active, of course, and seems to have contained extra bits of information about the game. You know Fox was serious about the Internet when they were sticking website addresses into their games.

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Hiring for Danish pastry temp, payment in exposure.

The game plays slowly from our modern point of view, but the production value still shines. Fox Interactive did not skimp on ensuring that Virtual Springfield looked amazing, from the hand-drawn animations to the streets and environments that were clearly rendered in 3D but painted over so that the art style matched the traditional animation. All of the easter eggs and gags are lovingly rendered, showing that the developers wanted to display the same level of detail as the writers and designers of the TV show. They matched this technical and artistic dedication with special attention to the writing and dialogue.

I’ve harped on the fact that previous games based on The Simpsons had little in the way of, you know, jokes. And while not every line in Virtual Springfield is a gem on par with writing from the show, they do well with the jokes they implemented and have plenty of fun little character moments. Even the actors took the opportunity to really go above and beyond. Provenzano recalls, “But then we went into the studio with the scripts and you get a couple of the actors, they were having fun with it! They just kept saying stuff, and they just kept adding more.” They even built an entire house as part of the promotions for this game. Above all, it makes it feel like the player is in Springfield, with all its visual and comedic appeal and the dollars to back it up.

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Grampa joined his local DSA chapter.

That’s really the finest point I can put on this: Virtual Springfield was the first video game to capture the charm of the The Simpsons in a video game. It’s not an action-packed adventure, but developers had tried to make The Simpsons into an action game series for years with little success at achieving what the show did every week. This game introduced players to the possibility that if their Simpsons games couldn’t reach the same heights as the television show, they could at least aim for something greater than run-of-the-mill gameplay with Simpsons characters slapped onto it. Recent ventures such as The Simpsons Ride and the Planet of the Couches VR couch gag on Google Cardboard demonstrate that there’s still an appetite for The Simpsons in non-traditional types of interactive games.

Longtime denizen of the Internet, and video games, and the overlap between the two. More at

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