Ana Cover
The cover of Anachonox

How Kindness Saved the Cult Hit 'Anachronox' from the Wreck of Ion Storm

How Tom Hall and a team of inspired believers created an RPG masterpiece during one of the games industry's—and Hall's—most disastrous projects.

Dreams end when the dreamer wakes up. Usually. This one ends with all the dreamers getting fired.

In 1996, John Romero, the co-founder of id Software and designer of hyperfast death metal shooters Doom and Quake, leveraged his success to start a company. At Ion Storm, he and Tom Hall, a friend and fellow id alum, could make whatever games they wanted, with complete creative freedom, and the resources to match their ambition. Romero, already a games celebrity from his time at id, played the swaggering frontman to the hilt and to a fault. Ion Storm's most infamous advertisement was a one-pager that read: "John Romero's about to make you his bitch. Suck it down." The result was the notorious, humbling disaster of Daikatana. Romero has mellowed out in the years since, and this has a lot to do with why. Ion Storm is the story of Romero’s unmaking. 

Advertisement

But it’s Hall’s story, and the game he made, that are more interesting. And unusual, because while Hall shared Romero’s track record and general enthusiasm, he was never given to the showmanship and provocation, nor the career opportunism or big, splashy deals. Hall was an ebullient, goofball tinkerer, with a deeply sensitive, even shy, side. The one thing he produced at Ion Storm, Anachronox, reflected that. Weird and wonderful, sincere and silly, and full of heart, Anachronox is the flawed but singular masterpiece of Hall’s long career. Of course, months before it was released, Hall and everyone who worked on it had lost their jobs.

“That’s the worst thing about Ion Storm,” says James Poole, then a producer at Ion Storm’s publisher Eidos. “Anachronox got lost in the clusterfuck.”

This is a story, then, about what gets lost in a clusterfuck: the story of Anachronox and Tom Hall’s Ion Storm. As Romero and Hall saw their window of limitless creative opportunity slamming shut, Hall's decency held it open long enough to pull his dream forth from a corporate nightmare. At a company synonymous with hubris, lawsuits and extravagance (think: what if de Sade owned a Red Bull mini fridge and a gaming chair), this is a story about how far you can get, and what you can get, by being kind. 

Advertisement

A Career Change for Commander Keen

Doom is Tom Hall’s best-known credit, but he was miserable working on it. It’s the earlier games he made at id, the boyish Commander Keen platformers, that are the most his, the most personal. Keen starred a boy-genius in a pair of Converse and his older brother’s Green Bay Packers helmet, traversing the galaxy by rocket ship and pogo stick, bouncing on the heads of alien bloogs and zapping gargs with Vorticon HyperPistols--a caricature of Hall at age eight, and the language which he still spoke in his late twenties. At id, as a programmer, designer and co-founder, Hall ran around the office in states of hyperproductive creative mania, communicating in alien bleeps and bloops, writing wild stories, and changing the company’s voicemail message to burps. 

Keen 3.jpg

Commander Keen menu art / id Software

Keen represented a window in which the id founders were united in their desire to make a Mario-like platformer, and Hall was afforded free rein over the creative vision. Keen was important to Hall, not just reflecting his younger self, but in communication with it. “I've realized that Commander Keen was a way of healing my childhood, where I was picked on as an ‘egghead’,” Hall says. “Keen was a nerdy, intelligent kid who was a hero. It was kind of telling little Tom he was okay.”

Hall was not for everyone: David Kushner’s biography Masters of Doom portrays his artist colleague Adrian Carmack as the Frank Grimes to Hall’s Homer Simpson, grinding his teeth and yearning to turn his talents from cute green Yorps to the entrails of eviscerated Nazis. 

Advertisement

The Keen window closed when id pivoted, permanently, from Hall’s childhood fantasias to the fast, gory teenage masculinity of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Hall was having fun, but really wanted to make another Keen, and soon came out of sync with the company. His ideas for Doom were constantly thrown out, frustrating not just him but his co-founders, Romero and John Carmack, irritated that Hall kept pushing on Keen-ish story, character and worldbuilding when it was clear to them Doom did not need those at all. Ergo, Doom did not need Tom Hall. 

Doom Art 2.PNG

'Doom' screenshot / id Software

Romero and Carmack agreed to let him go. Initially, Romero was supposed to break it to Hall gently, over dinner, but he couldn’t; they were friends, Tom was so nice. Instead, Carmack invited him to resign at a shareholders’ meeting. Hall left id and took a job at Apogee (now 3D Realms) which was a more amicable environment, but no more fulfilling: he spent most of his time grappling with technical and creative issues beyond his control.

Since he got an Apple II in 1980, Hall had been pushing out games by the dozen, from adventures on deserted islands to intergalactic sagas, all experimental and some of them so ambitious they could not even compile. “A creative firehose,” his future colleague Lee Perry calls him, for whom inspiration was as easy as wanting to write a game in BASIC in 1980, for virtual reality in 1992, and the boutique Playdate handheld in 2021.

Advertisement

Hall loved games. For him, the fun of them, the play of them, was as much in taking the tools themselves and just building, experimenting. To chase some wild ambition or stray thought, and then do it all over again. Hall worked—lived, even—in a creative flow, and to be obstructed by pushback or technical limitations was worse than frustrating. It was depressing.

So in 1996, he was in exactly the right place for John Romero’s phone call. Romero, who after a few years had followed Hall out of id, and now wanted to know, hey: what about a place where we can make whatever games we want? 

“That would be a dream,” Hall said.

The Co-Founders

Video games had given John Romero fame, fans and Ferraris, but not the freedom to do whatever he wanted. Not at id Software, anyway, where the co-founding game designer was getting restless. Romero’s technically-minded counterpart, John Carmack was innovative, but iterative, and under his leadership Romero thought id was just making Doom over and over again, improving the technology but never the design. Quake was the breaking point, where Romero’s design of a fantasy world was abandoned for something safer, more Doom-like. At id, it was easier to develop a revolutionary game engine and license it to the entire industry than it was to imagine a game where the weapons were swords instead of guns. 

Romero’s dream was not of any one project dying to be made, but a company, where design was not subject to the dictates of technology—or John Carmack—but a law unto itself. He could make what he wanted, and so could his friends, like Tom Hall. 

Advertisement

The pitch was a lot of money and complete creative freedom in exchange for three games, and Romero and Hall couldn’t say what the games were because at that point even they didn’t know. It was a fast sell. “Coming off Quake, everyone was ready to sign a deal,” Romero says. In 1996, Ion Storm quickly found significant investment—$13 million—from Eidos, the British publisher of Tomb Raider.

“[We] clearly made a very major balls-up,” Eidos’ James Poole says today.

Romero would lead development of Daikatana, a time-hopping first-person shooter centered around a legendary sword. “John’s was the big game,” says Michael McHale, an Eidos producer. “The expectation was this is going to be the next major first-person shooter. It should be the biggest game of the year when it comes out.”

Hall’s project, Anachronox, was a simple idea quickly made exponentially more complicated. He’d just played Chrono Trigger, a wildly ambitious, time-travelling Japanese RPG, dense with story and characters, humor and pathos, and decided he would like to do that, too. Just as Keen had evolved out of an experiment to try and do Super Mario on a computer, the challenge of Westernizing the JRPG was enough of a goal for Hall to start. And if that was all he wanted to do, he could have got a job making PC ports of Final Fantasy, but for once he had the freedom, and the money, to dream bigger. He wanted to bring the 2D genre into a 3D world, like the ones id was making in Doom and Quake, filled with hundreds of bizarre aliens with unique and funny dialogue, different planets to explore, museums and red light districts to visit, minigames and collectibles, powers and spells to combine and customize, and characters who grew and changed. 

Advertisement

“The name Anachronox came to me, well, as my mind was spacing out in the bathroom,” Hall says. “The word [was] a combination of anachronism (something out of place in the wrong time period) and nox (which can trace back to ‘night’ or ‘poison’).” Anachronox meant “poison from the past”, Hall concluded, so he was telling a story about trauma.

Ana 5.png

'Anachronox' screenshots courtesy Square Enix

And who would have trauma? Hall thought of a name he’d wanted to use since college: Sylvester Boots. Sly Boots. Sly is a down-on-his-luck private investigator, who was once in love with a woman, Sera. Another, Fatima, was in love with him. Sera went missing, Fatima died, it was an accident, Sly was responsible. So he’s traumatized. Also, Sly’s best friend is a robot. And Hall would be the robot.

Also, he lives in outer space. It’s the future. He’s on a planet where all the districts move around on tectonic plates. And it’s run by a crime lord, called Ven Detta. Sly owes him money, so he takes a job from an old grump called Grumpos, looking for an artifact, an ancient one from another universe. And it has powers, but then there's more artifacts, and each one has its own power, like shooting fire, or shooting ice, but the player can mix-and-match and make whatever power they want.

Advertisement

And then Sly fights mutants and gangsters and bondage guys, And there’s something terrible about these artifacts: they’re being sent from the previous universe into this one, and so that they’ll get to live forever, and Sly’s universe will never be born--Poison from the past! And Sly and all his friends go to a fire planet, and a democracy planet, and that planet shrinks down and now Sly’s friends with that, too, but then Sera comes back, and she’s an assassin, and Sly has to overcome his trauma, but he also has to save the universe, and it’s really helpful, if you’re struggling to karmically redeem the shame of your past, to be given an opportunity to save the universe.

It was—it is—a lot. “I tried to picture where he was coming from,” says Anachronox art director Lee Perry. “[If you’re] starting a company that's funded really well, and [you’ve] got this ‘design is law’ mentality, and somebody is telling you you’re free to make your dream project, then the almost default reaction to that for a designer is going to be like, Oh, hell, yeah, [and have] this mental explosion of things [you’ve] always wanted to see in games. This is my chance.”

GettyImages-885581326.jpg

The Chase Tower in Dallas / Getty

Romero had the same mindset, and not just about the games. The Eidos deal paid for office space, and Romero’s real estate agent suggested the J.P. Morgan Chase Tower in Dallas, one of the tallest buildings in the world. The building’s glass penthouse was available, as it was too impractically expensive even for the banking and oil industries occupying more affordable space below. It was a short walk to convince Romero, who’d balked at the bare-walled asceticism John Carmack imposed on id. “[W]e’ve got a lot of money, why not make it a really bad-ass office?” Romero said in Masters of Doom.

Advertisement

Ion Storm would make camp, then, in the Dallas sky, and spend almost $2 million decking out its office with a motion capture studio, THX theater, gaming rooms, white marble. When they arrived, the developers of Ion Storm observed that, working in a glass hothouse underneath the Texan sun, they were going to die. They cloaked the ceiling and the walls in black felt until they could continue, in comfort as well as opulence, their work: game developing, literally, too close to the sun.

Learning on the Job

Ion Storm hired, almost exclusively, people new to the industry, or with amateur experience making first-person shooter maps—something that both Romero and Hall count now as a mistake. It was a tough adjustment for level designers used to Quake deathmatch levels to make spaces more appropriate to a Final Fantasy game. Even on Daikatana, a shooter, inexperience hindered production: one artist drew a single arrow texture at such unreasonably high resolution it broke the game, a mistake that the art team felt was unfairly used internally as “ammunition” for “embarrassment.” Those tensions reached a boiling point in 1998, when eight Daikatana developers quit Ion Storm in protest.

“Nobody had a ton of experience when all this was happening, and then we were surrounded by people with even less experience,” Perry says. “I mean, we had the guys who were mod guys [hired as] level designers who were a bartender before they moved into the office here, so it was just a festival of naïveté. ‘Oh, this is what making games is like, woo-hoo!’ Surrounded by these guys like Romero and Tom Hall who everybody worships. It was a very strange thing to go through at the time.” 

Advertisement

In keeping with the general Ion Storm model, the Anachronox team never consisted of more than 13 relatively inexperienced developers. 

Ana 6.png

“I'm pretty sure it was like, we'll hire you if you play Chrono Trigger,” remembers programmer Joey Liaw, who joined the Anachronox team when he was still a teenager. Squirrel Eiserloh, the lead programmer, had a background in Doom mods. Jake Hughes was in California building spaceships for Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers when he got a call to join Ion Storm as an associate producer. 

“I'm not sure… they necessarily knew what a producer in a video game company was supposed to do,” says Lee Perry, Anachronox’s art director. Perry, with a couple years in art teams, ranked amongst the most experienced of his colleagues, along with programmer Henrik Jonsson, who was 26.

Hughes didn’t know either. He was responsible for pulling together Hall’s vision in a design document. “Which in hindsight, was not a very good idea, because I didn't know what a design doc was,” he says. “[But from that, it was clear] we were not going to be able to do this game in a year and a half. I looked at it, and I'm like, this is crazy, there's no way.”

Hughes got along well with Hall, and worked closely with him to draw the story into clearer and achievable focus, and brought a writer—Richard Gaubert, a screenwriter and friend from high school—into their creative brain trust.

Advertisement

Gaubert’s job became translating a story document (“funny, and wildly creative, but also very dense and very long, and sometimes confusing”) into an entire game of text and dialogue. Anachronox had a broad spectrum of tone, reflecting Hall’s personality and taste. (“I love both the sublime and the ridiculous,” Hall says. “I love Chuck Jones’ Warner Bros cartoons, but I also am deeply moved by Van Gogh self-portraits.”) Gaubert keyed into that. The game could be incredibly silly—“Sly Boots”—but its core was tragic—Sly Boots’ regret at causing the death of his assistant, Fatima. For that emotion to land in a game with mesmerist bears and Beatles parodies, Gaubert seeded the world with a kind of ambient melancholy, infusing even moments of high absurdity. An alien boy disowns his father for stealing the work of a university colleague. A chipper robot claims that it can fling any object into a fountain for a buck, and as if you do not believe this, flings itself into the fountain and dies. 

When Joey Liaw joined Ion Storm, he worked with Hughes to develop editing and cinematics tools that, for Hughes, energized the whole project. “He made this unbelievable tool that allowed me to make cinema.” Hughes could drop into the game and personally choreograph sweeping shots with a virtual camera, borrowing the visual language of film to compensate for the communicative shortcomings of late-1990s 3D graphics. “There was a moment where we suddenly saw… Okay, this is all very, very possible,” Hughes says. “We [could] achieve Tom’s vision.”

Advertisement
Anachro1.png

The Anachronox team clicked in a way the developers of Daikatana, to their frustration, never did. “We were all, pretty universally, really young at the time,” says Perry. “It was this really formative group of people learning how to do a whole lot of stuff together… and trying to make something that was ridiculously ambitious.”

It was all new for Hall, too, who had no experience managing a dream or a team of Anachronox’s scale—even a team preposterously undersized for the task at hand. “A whole lot of people who started [the first-person shooter] genre didn’t come from other games, didn’t come from the industry… I mean, they were just making the shit up as they went,” Perry says. “Somebody like Tom being handed this directorship over this giant project, I mean, there wasn’t a precedent… we were just making shit up again. Just at a much bigger scale, and with a lot more on the line.”

Inexperienced in leadership, Hall drew on what he did know, which was modelling kindness. Being a nice guy, being himself. “I was always focused on being the kindest to employees I could be,” he says. He hoped that that would set the tone—for the project, the team, the company—and see everybody through. Clearly, it had an impact. When you talk about Ion Storm with anyone who was there, affection and respect for Tom Hall is near-unanimous.

Advertisement

HENRIK JONSSON: He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with.

JAKE HUGHES: I liked Tom so much. He was very much in love with the game, and in love with making the game and being there for us and always creating a good, fun, positive vibe. Yeah, he was the best.

JOEY LIAW: I think Tom Hall is a creative genius. 

RICHARD GAUBERT: Tom was very generous in the way he welcomed me into his universe and let me play with the toys, and I'll always appreciate that…. Remember that these characters and ideas had been living in his brain for years at that point, yet he was very open to new ideas and wasn't possessive or precious about what he had done. 

LEE PERRY: Everybody liked working with Tom. He’s a genuinely really likable dude. 

SQUIRREL EISERLOH: He is the most loving, caring person. If you were having a bad day, anyone on the team, he would set aside time to talk to you, sit down with you, figure out what can he do to help, what do you need. Just one of the most empathetic people I've ever met to this day. That really inspires loyalty. When you know someone will go to bat for you like that, and really has your back.

Hall was only a few years removed from id Software, and he was still largely the same person, but he’d become, with the success of Keen and Doom, a legend people wanted to work with, whose ideas were valued. He was so much happier. The team listened to him, they liked the project, there was an atmosphere of positivity and free-flowing creativity. Unlike at id, Hall didn’t have to worry about reconciling his vision with Romero’s; they each had their own sandbox, and were content to leave the other to it. 

Advertisement

But while Hall’s kindness engendered more kindness, it didn’t necessarily help the game get made. Progress on Anachronox was slow, and not so smooth, the team wrestling all the time with its scope. Eventually, the entire design had to be cut in half. 

“He had the respect of his team, [but] he wasn’t really interested in running a company. I think at the time, he had only partially developed his leadership skills,” says Eiserloh. “The upside of that for us was that we weren't going to get in trouble, we weren't going to get called out for things. It was important to him that we had a good atmosphere that was fun and good for everybody. But I think we didn't feel enough of the whip, maybe. In retrospect, and now myself having been a lead for companies, you have to have the stick and the carrot. You have to have people want to do something not just because we're all having fun, and we all love each other, but also because there's something on the line. We all learned that the hard way as time went on.”

Accountings

I’ll be honest, if it weren’t for the design talent here, we’d have shot Ion Storm like a redheaded stepchild,” said Eidos’ John Kavanagh in 1999. Which is not how the saying about redheaded stepchildren usually goes—that you want to shoot them—but you get the frustration.

Ion Storm may have been the studio of Romero's and Hall's dreams, but for the opportunity it afforded them to make games, not to take on business responsibility. Romero had brought on a third co-owner, Todd Porter, a designer without Romero or Hall’s track record, who noticed his colleagues’ lack of interest in the business and its strategy and volunteered to take the reins. To round-out the contract for three games that Ion Storm had signed with Eidos, Porter convinced the others to acquire a work-in-progress he’d left behind at his last studio, an RTS called Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. It would not take long to make, and the sooner Ion Storm “burned” through the three games Eidos had paid for, the publisher had the option to shell out for three more. But finishing development took far longer and cost far more to make than anticipated.

Advertisement

Dominion was always an embarrassment. I just don't know what that was,” says Eidos’ James Poole. “I got on fine with Todd as a person. But it was just pure bullshit. It was a very, very average game. And it cost so much money… ‘Oh, yeah, just needs a bit of polishing and finishing up. We'll get it out in like two or three months.’ A year later, and hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars later, we released this incredibly average RTS on the same day as Starcraft.” 

Storm over Gift 3.png

A screenshot of 'Storm Over Gift 3'

Nor does it sound like it was much fun to make. “There was a producer at Dominion,” McHale remembers, “who had a poster board that was like, if he went postal, who he’d come in and shoot first.”

An unpopular figure at the studio, too, Porter was subject to two attempted ousters from CEO and COO Mike Wilson and Bob Wright—but, with Romero’s backing, outmanoeuvred both. The Ion Storm C-suite was a mess of politicking and personal attacks. All this was picked up in a devastating Dallas Observer story reported on leaked internal emails. (“You better be fucking glad we wrote off your car and house, you fucking rat-faced bitch.”) 

“I think we all read that article,” says Anachronox’s Eiserloh. “That was a huge tick down in everyone’s morale. I think at that point, we knew the company was taking on water, and was probably not going to make it to the other side of the ocean.”

Advertisement
spector wilson romero.jpg

From left, John Romero, Warren Spector, and Mike Wilson at a trade show sometime around 2000. Personal photo courtesy of Michael McHale

Such was the article’s impact that it supposedly scuppered Eidos’ hopes of a handsome buyout, which James Poole alleges was the main reason Eidos splashed out on Ion Storm (and, in a separate deal, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton) in the first place. “It was all about making Eidos look important so the company could get sold.”

In 1998, Rob Dyer took over as Eidos president. “All the optimism was gone,” he says. “They had already signed the deal a while before, they were spending money way beyond budgets, and there was nothing that was remotely looking like these things were going to be shipping anytime soon. They were not in a state that you could even get excited about.” 

James Poole learned that to his misfortune when he was sent to a trade show to promote Daikatana and was left standing in front of three blank monitors. “There was never a point I came back from Dallas happy,” Poole says. “I would come back far more miserable than when I'd left. I always wanted to go and go, ‘Oh, it's coming together. And every time I came back, my report was, ‘Guys, this is terrible.’” 

Then there was the office.

“They wasted a lot of money to build a surround sound theater there and a mo-cap studio that I don't think they ever used,” says McHale. 

Advertisement

“Insanely expensive, completely unjustifiable with regard to what was being produced there,” says Dyer.

Ion Office.jpg

One of several photos of the Ion Storm office from on the Russ Berger Design Group's project page for their work on the office.

Poole agrees—everyone agrees. “Don’t build the big fuck-off office in Dallas. They should have been working in a warehouse somewhere. And be told, well, you’ll get a microwave when your game’s done. Not literally that, but you know, don’t give them all the trappings of wealth from day one, because then they’re just not hungry.”

It was supposed to be a palace, but it was unpleasant just to be there. “It was all glass and it’s just like, insane sun,” says McHale. “So they had to cover everything and then you had people kind of living there, it’s kind of gross, they hadn’t showered in a week. You have to send people home, like—dude, go take a shower.”

After two years, Ion Storm had exhausted Eidos’ $13 million, with only Dominion to show for it. Eidos was picking up the studio’s monthly bills, around $1.2 million. The next year, with Daikatana and Anachronox still deep in seriously delayed development—Eidos, rather than cut its losses, bought a 51% stake in the company, allowing it to install executive John Kavanagh as president, in the expectation he would right the ship.

Advertisement

“Things got better, but I think the damage had been done,” says McHale. “They [had been] given complete freedom. And once Eidos realized, whoa, that complete freedom is not working out, it was hard to put the genie back in the bottle…. Daikatana was already well, well in development and I think it was just not gonna be a good game, no matter what.”

Today, even back then, many of Ion Storm’s developers are apologetic about all this. “I remember at the time thinking that I felt as bad as someone could feel for a corporate entity such as Eidos,” says Anachronox’s Lee Perry. Years later, Perry ran into a former Eidos executive in Guanajuato, Mexico. “When I mentioned that I worked at Ion Storm he was like, ‘Oh, you guys, man. You wrecked us.’ I’m just like, ‘Yeah. Yeah, we did.’”

World of Goo

Tom Hall’s lodestar being positivity, he tried to shield his team as much as he could from all that toxicity—they were even isolated on a different floor. “Tom wanted to create a creatively fertile environment for his team—give them a safe place to play, explore, and feel free to fail, and be as silly as we wanted,” says Richard Gaubert. Hall was also just far more interested in working on a game than he was the business. The promise of Ion Storm, for Hall, was to be the nice guy working on exciting games, without worrying about the biz goo.

“‘I’ve to do some biz goo today.’ That’s how he referred, disparagingly, to anything that wasn’t related to the game itself,” remembers Squirrel Eiserloh. 

Advertisement

But Hall was still a captain of the ship, one of few people who could theoretically do something. “We would yell at him sometimes,” says Eiserloh, “like, ‘Tom, you’ve got to fix this,’ and I can’t imagine what it was like to be Tom in that situation. We were constantly on his case for stuff like that. And unhappy with the company. But I’m not sure that any of us knew what to do, either.”

Hall’s shield only lasted so long. If his team had not already suspected that the company was in absurd, comic disarray, all illusions were shattered by the Dallas Observer story. The trouble was not just embarrassing, but would lead to the loss of everyone’s jobs. Kindness alone was not enough to save his team from the fact that they worked at Ion Storm.

In 1999, Todd Porter was publicly confident Daikatana (and Anachronox) would move the 2.5 million units it needed to turn a profit. Four months after its release in May of 2000, it had sold just over 40,000. Having been in development so long, it felt and looked ancient. Reviews were scathing. 

“We knew it was going to not be received well, because we knew it wasn't a good game,” says James Poole. “There was no chance of a Daikatana 2 at that point, or even any sort of follow-up, or honestly anything with John Romero’s name on it coming out from Ion Storm. There was no recovery from that.

Advertisement
Daikatana 2.jpg

'Daikatana' screenshot courtesy of Square Enix

“Everyone realized,” he says, “this was the end of Ion Storm.”

Eidos called it. They’d finish up Anachronox, and then they’d shoot the studio, like a red-headed stepchild.

Ghost Ship

Joey Liaw remembers the dread. “I think we knew that we were racing the clock,” he says.  “I think we knew that. The studio was going to shut down before we shipped.”

The last year of Anachronox was brutal.“Fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for 1.3 years,” says Hall. Eiserloh: “I lived in the office. I would go home and do all my laundry and then come back for a few weeks. I wasn't the only one. Which in hindsight is fucked up.” All of these crushing hours worked with the certain knowledge that by the end, nobody would have jobs. Still a dream, but one where you’re not sure whether it’ll be better or worse to wake up.

“It was a mentally really tough time,” says Hall. “I lost all sense of hobbies or outside life—it took me years to uncurl from that stress and tension.”

The money ran out, and the team was exhausted, stressed, but still working. Joey Liaw, in particular, continued, unpaid, to put together a patch. “I’m one of the last people to clean up my cube… Our network is being dismantled in a few days,” he wrote in the patch notes, sounding like a radio transmission from the end of The Thing. ”It’s reeeaal quiet up here. Sort of sad to be finally packing up. All the cubes are empty…. See you guys around.”

Advertisement

Anachronox is, on Hall's original terms, an unqualified success. It is a JRPG on the computer. Luckily, it's more. If Commander Keen was a warm hug to little Tom Hall, Anachronox is a hymnal for adulthood. Inside a familiar RPG package of turn-based combat, hidden collectibles, side quests, dialogue trees and a coterie of misfits joining forces to save the world is a story about regrets and disappointments long and wide enough that you live in them. And the frisson, the gift, of realizing later in life that the most significant, and the most exciting work, is yet to come. There are friends to make, changes to make, and whole planets to see. The past is important, but so is the future, and it is worthwhile to live.

Anachronox is Hall's boundless ambition, felt in every unique NPC with unique dialogue, every extraneous minigame and crafting system, every corridor that slows down so the player can see more, do more. Anachronox is the confidence of Jake Hughes, a Starship Troopers model maker who knew what he could do with a camera if given the chance. Anachronox is the humanity, cool and tossed-off profundity of Gaubert's writing.

Ana 4.png

It is a game that was cut in half and rushed to the finish line, but it doesn't feel like it at all. It is assured and feature-rich, and when Hall gives a player too much to do it comes not from a place of insecurity but generosity. Isn't this, it says, fun? That question is sung through creaking tech and a combat system that not even the people who made it like all that much. Anachronox is overlong, janky and slow, but it has heart, and so much of it. It's a game where nothing about it matters as much than the fact it comes from a good place.

Anachronox was released in June 2001, with little-to-no marketing. It received positive reviews but was a financial failure.

Inexperienced to begin with, by the end, the Anachronox team had been through it. Crunch, certainly back then, was endemic in game development, but the last year of Anachronox sounds frankly atrocious, the prospect of it driving several people, including Perry, to leave early. If, today, the team is upset with Hall for ending up in this situation, they don’t say so. Despite this experience, or rather because of it, they all still seem to love each other. And they have Anachronox, which mattered just as much.

“It was kind of a bonding trauma,” Hall says. “With all the crazy chaos and press, we just kind of became each other’s safe haven. When we got touching moments [running in the game], we teared up. This meant something to us.”

“It never felt awful,” says Hughes. “Because [Anachronox] was sort of like this child of ours. We just, we just wanted it. I think we would have been seriously damaged if we never got to finish… We were so committed, and so proud and pleased with what we were making.”

Rather than scaring everyone out of the game industry, they have mostly all thrived in it. Richard Gaubert is now a story lead on Sony’s God of War reboot. Jake Hughes has worked on story and cinematics for Crystal Dynamics, Warner Brothers, AMC and Disney. Lee Perry spent ten years as a lead designer at Epic before going independent. Squirrel Eiserloh lectures in software development and has been involved with the Dallas branch of the International Game Developers Association for almost twenty years. Henrik Jonsson scouts promising new game talent for an investment firm. Those who have left the industry, like Joey Liaw, have had long careers in the tech sector. They mostly all still talk, they have reunion dinners, even collaborated on a Minecraft server that resurfaced their dynamics from the Anachronox days.

TomMike.jpg

Tom Hall, left, with Michael McHale. Personal photo courtesy of Michael McHale

“I don’t think our love for the game and for each other ever waned,” Eiserloh says. “It was like being in a foxhole together. That’s part of what forged those bonds that have us having dinner decades later…. But honestly, Tom was the difference. Tom is the reason why we loved that game, and [why] it was a game that was worth loving. He modeled for us, you know… loving and respecting each other. I am shocked in hindsight, just how self possessed and progressively visionary he was able to be for the team. So I think Tom is the real answer. Tom's brain, and the crap that came out of it.”

A Little Kindness

That Anachronox exists at all is, frankly, baffling.

On its own, it’s a weird game. But it had the misfortune to be Ion Storm’s follow-up to Daikatana—a game so reviled it put a premature end to the studio—and plagued by serious, expensive delays. Eidos never had the same hopes for Hall’s project as Daikatana. Daikatana could have been the next great shooter. Anachronox was just “interesting.” 

“A publisher today would have killed it,” says Michael McHale. 

So why wasn’t it? Why did Eidos decide to, at significant cost, prolong Ion Storm’s life to get that game out the door, rather than cut its losses? Hall was never asked to fight for it. Instead, the decision was swayed by Michael McHale, James Poole and John Kavanagh, who argued that the game could be finished, with close supervision, and while it would never be a hit, it would be good, and could at least make back the money spent keeping the studio alive to complete it. (Incorrectly, as it turned out. “A regret,” Rob Dyer says.) 

Anachronox’s delays had been exacerbated because its resources had been temporarily redirected to get Daikatana out the door, and Eidos decided it would not be fair to punish the Anachronox team for that. Businesses are not often concerned with what is fair, but what mattered, and what helped swing the needle, was that Hall was well-liked within Eidos. “Tom was a good guy to work with,” says Dyer. “Tom justified [the decision] because he was a reasonable human being.”

One can argue that virtue is its own reward, but it has more tangible payoffs, too. It mattered that Tom Hall was kind, and it particularly mattered that he was kind at Ion Storm, a storm in which any kindness was a welcome port. It earned him the respect of a team, and it earned him a game, a dream game—after the window to make it had closed. 

Business is business and money is money, and Rob Dyer says that with hindsight he would have cancelled Anachronox, but the fact that it exists is because of Tom Hall, and Tom Hall’s being a good dude in a weary world.

Once Ion Storm was over, that window never opened for Hall or Romero ever again. They’ve never come close to having that kind of freedom or power again. But they’re still making games. Sometimes Hall makes them with Romero, sometimes with other people, sometimes just on his own. Experimenting. Sometimes he makes a game with Gordon Ramsay

“There are many sadder stories than this one,” Hall says. “We got our games out.” More than that, in the window he found a place, and a team, that did not shut down his ideas but held them, and believed in them, built on them, until they were their ideas, too, and the dream was a shared one. The money ran out but the dream didn’t die, and Anachronox is proof of that.

Tom Hall’s dream ended there, but he woke up with what you’d want: a game, a good one, and a bunch of people who love each other. And really, that’s the dream.