July 18, 2008


In 1995, the "immersive sim" developer Looking Glass flew in a man named Harvey Smith to interview at its Boston studio. Smith had recently cut his teeth as a producer on the game CyberMage at Origin Systems. They had previously published the Looking Glass title System Shock, on which Smith was the QA lead.

Some key members of the Looking Glass staff, including its co-founders, who were then prepping the game Terra Nova, picked Smith up from his hotel and took him out to lunch. These programmers and MIT graduates then walked with Smith back to the Looking Glass building, through the hall, through the lobby, and towards the door to the office, which had the words "Looking Glass Technologies" imprinted upon it and was opened via a keypad.

Before anyone could open the door, a programmer named Art Min held up his hand, stopping the group in their tracks, and said, "Wait. Harvey, what's the code?"

Smith looked at the keypad while Looking Glass, all intrigued now, stood behind him. Smith scanned the numbers, paused, and then punched in the code. The door swung open, Min slapped Smith's shoulder, and, with the group inside, the door closed again.

Smith ended up not working there. Otherwise, it's a perfect story.

In Looking Glass' System Shock, the code to open the first door is 451. A novel allusion, obviously, to Fahrenheit 451. What does it mean beyond that? That Looking Glass wears their influences on their sleeve? Maybe that the ambiance of System Shock finds commonality with the paranoia and totalitarianism of Bradbury's nightmarish horrorscape? Perhaps that the A.I. SHODAN represents the homogenizing progression of technology? I think it means that at least one of the System Shock designers took a high school English class.

In 1999, players in the sequel to System Shock passed through a door with the keycode 45100. Deus Ex, 2000, opened up an armory to players who knew the code: 0451. BioShock, 2007, left the means of entry to a door written on a scrap of paper obscured by boxes and audio diaries: 0451.

Open a door through the rote entry of numbers. 4. 5. 1. It's familiar. It's tradition. It's muscle memory. And the connotations it once had are absent.

the temperature at which
book-paper catches fire and burns

In 2008, what does it mean? That Fahrenheit 451 is an overwhelmingly relevant inspiration to the creative direction of minds like Smith, Spector and Levine? Not really. Is it that, in retrospect, Looking Glass utilised a horribly transparent security system? Gamers mock those games' conceit of scattering highly sensitive passwords around in the form of immediately accessible datacubes and audio logs, but in light of this new information, Looking Glass probably did that in real life.

By the time players find 0451 waiting for them in the Medical Pavilion, it means something else than what it did in 1994. It means something else than it did when Guy Montag walked home in the moonlight alongside a sixteen year old girl named Clarisse McClellan, with skin the colour of snow, and pointed to the embroidered '451' upon his sleeve, then asked her: "Well, doesn't this mean anything to you?"

It doesn't mean what it meant to them. To us, 0451 is now like the tattoo on a marine's arm. It's been used exclusively in this video game bloodline. 0451 is not some off-hand reference that's public domain for any developer, like "giant enemy crab". There's a propriety to it. It stands for the evolution of an idea; for immortalising the fraternal origins of some very successful designers, and for signposts by which to chart the progress of a specific game design. They have subverted Bradbury's symbol of destruction into one of creation, and that in itself is something beautiful.

Like BioWare falling on its face recently, this is another of those arbitrarily-selected footnotes in gaming history. This is how I have elected to cover E3.


Duncan said...

the story in the beginning is paraphrase from Harvey Smith's interview with Warren Spector in that lecture series Spector did last year. You should really track those down if you haven't seen them before.

Steve gaynor said...

0451 has come up a number of times at work. Never heard the Smith anecdote before though.

Duncan said...

You honestly are at the next phase of this particular evolution. I'm glad to hear that this cliche has not been forgotten!

qrter said...

A torrent with all the Spector interviews can still be found here.

The 0451 code also pops up in Deus Ex, courtesy of mr. Smith.

I've never been able to get the first System Shock to run on XP, so I've never played it. In what way does the game allude to Fahrenheit 451 (which I have read, well done me!), though?

I mean, how would Smith make that connection?

Duncan said...

I haven't played the first System Shock either. However I'm so sure it was just a case of "what references to classic science fiction should we make in our work of classic science fiction." Maybe you can read into the themes but I think the allusion begins and ends with the numbers themselves.

qrter said...

That makes it pretty impressive for Smith to have guessed the code.. although, maybe his only other option would've been 1984..

CVE said...

an interesting little tidbit, a internet search for 0451 on google turns up this, followed by some army job, followed by "National Cyber-Alert System Vulnerability Summary" two hits for it as well, the DoD maybe in on this joke as well as the code for this summery (as of 2011) is CVE-2011-04 or common vulnerabilities and exposures, year 2011, code 0451. This is a little more than a running joke but a recognized code.

Mark said...

I was pleased to see the first door code you're given in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is, you guessed it: 0451. :)

Anonymous said...

0451 is also used in the game Gone Home.

Anonymous said...

didn't harvey smith worked on area 51? get it? A51, ok that was a stretch.

We'll they even stretch it more when they used a '4' for an 'e' in thief 4

Anonymous said...

"451" is the combination for a locked safe in the beginning of Dishonored, as well.