Interview with Jarda “Edheldil” Benkovský on the 20 year anniversary of GemRB

For the third day of anniversary celebrations, we asked a few questions of Jarda “Edheldil” Benkovský, a long time project maintainer, iesh creator and the first web guru.

1. How did you find your way into GemRB?

I thought that it would be hard for me to remember, but fortunately I found our project’s old backups still rotting somewhere in backups/BACKUP/backup_2005 directory on a NAS, so after a bit of digging and bouts of nostalgia I had the answer.

Sometime in the second half of 2003 I read on Slashdot or Freshmeat about a project to reimplement the engine for Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and, crucially, Planescape Torment, my favorite AD&D setting.  I had the boxed material from TSR, I had played through the computer game and had been facinated by its storytelling, by stories of brash Annah, zen-cool Fall-from-Grace and sorrowful Deionarra, loving from behind the grave. I am a bit romantic, you see … I wanted to participate in that project so that I could play it it again (I wholy switched to Linux years earlier) and also to make it accessible to other Linux users. Sigil, the City of Doors, opened a door for me to enter.

2. Was it hard to get other people interested to contribute? How helpful were platforms like SourceForge, FLOSS communities of the time and the game fanbase?

To be honest, I am not sure how people mostly found about us. I guess it was the combination of OSS-centered news sites and people searching for mods stumbling over us by chance. I tried to get some coder friends interested, but they were unfortunately put off by the archaic dialect of C++ we were using back then.

3. For you, was reverse engineering more a thing of testing the games or looking at the disassembly? What tools and tactics did you use, especially considering there are 8 major versions of the IE engine out there?

I like poring over disassembly, but I did not get to it with Infinity Engine - other guys had already much more experience with it, so I did not see the need. I mostly just ran the original games under Wine and compared their look and behavior to GemRB. Otherwise I used IDA, Near Infinity, iesh and custom Python scripts.

4. Was there any help or obstruction from official developers at any point?

None I know of. I did not really believe that the original source code had been lost, as somebody was telling us (it hadn’t), but I did not think the original devs could legally provide it anyway, so it doesn’t count.

5. Do you remember some contributions that you’re really proud of? Or a problem that was especially infuriating to solve?

Oh, I do not know … I was very proud when I converted the adhoc Makefiles we used when I joined to automake + autoconf + libtool. Fortunately it has been since replaced with cmake. I spent a lot of time with PS:T’s GUIScripts, so perhaps that counts as well.

6. Do you remember any amusing anecdotes, discoveries or original engine quirks? What’s the worst hack or most silly design that you encountered?

I was quite surprised to find out that Baldur’s Gate 2 data directory contains quite a few Baldur’s Gate 1 files and stand-in images.

7. Which one was your favourite IE game and do you still play it? Or other old games? Or contribute to other reverse-engineering/reimplementation projects?

My favourite was definitely Planescape: Torment. The imagination of its world, all the lost souls, a certain body-disadvantaged companion… It’s some time since I have played it last, though. But reverse engineering old games is still my ocasional passtime; I use to dig into Darkseed when I want to  rack my brain with assembly.

8. Any final thoughts about IE games and GemRB 20 years later?

I am really glad that I could collaborate with some very talented and nice people. I am also proud of the work we have done on the project.  Too bad that we did not attract some indie game studio to build a new game using our engine.

Tune in tomorrow to hear about the next big thing for GemRB.