Johnny Castaway is not a game. It’s a roguelike-like-like(unlike) screensaver with procedurally generated events during a day and night cycle.
Indeed, Johnny is a screensaver, developed by Dynamix and distributed by Sierra in 1992, probably one of the best examples of a software designed like a game. Screensavers used to be pretty useful back in the eighties, when CRT first and plasma monitors then had burn-in issues: a static image shown for too long would “burn in” the screen like a ghost image haunting you from beyond the grave. Thus, screensavers were created in order to keep a moving image or pattern on the screen, should the pc not be used for a set number of minutes. They usually had other simple security features too but “saving the screen” was their primary objective. Most screensavers were rather simple affairs back then, like a field of white points on a black background, but Johnny came and changed the rules…
In 1992 Windows 3.1 revolutionized the way the user interfaced with the personal computer with all of its colours and animations, thus, it’s only natural that also screensavers got a little more fun. Johnny Castaway was the best example of little bits of fun in a serious program; part of the “Screen antics!” series by Dynamix which, as far as I know, began and ended there. Johnny is a castaway, as his surname might have already clued you in, stranded on a minuscule desert island in the middle of the ocean. Thus begin his antics: most of the time he would just stare at you through the screen or do mundane things like plucking a coconut to eat, sleep or read a book. Other times random crazy things would start happening like a mermaid coming over for dinner or an army of Lilliput-like minusule men who would conquer the island with a swarm of fighter planes, like a scene out of King Kong.
It was all pretty silly, but entertaining and I remember actually launching the screensaver and staring at it for minutes on end, waiting for something to happen. This is a Zen-like experience that many people back then experienced: launching King’s Quest or waiting for the screensaver to run? Terry Pratchett in Feet of Clay, described police inspector Sam Vimes as someone who thought that “life was so full of things happening erratically in all directions that the chances of any of them making some kind of relevant sense were remote in the extreme“. Johnny Castaway is always full of things happening, some of them rarely make sense, but that’s the beauty of it, a program that also managed to inject a lot of fun in your daily routine. I think that is the one valuable lesson for all modern software, not just videogames. Its main design idea was years ahead of its time, randomly generating the comical events that would befall Johnny each time. All the while in the background the “plot” progressed in real time, as shown by the raft that our hero kept building during the different vignettes.
The graphics were simple but effective, with a comic book style reminescent of Sunday strip comics like B.C. There was no music to speak of, it’s the sound effects I remember fondly, even more than the graphics. Those were limited to a few sighs, screams and singing from Johnny, but they surely did the job. I distinctly remember a few times when my family was having lunch and in the background the screensaver was running, sometimes the sound was so loud everyone would be startled. Also, the sound effects acted as an alert that something not seen before was happening, so I’d actually come running to see what was going on, like you would if you heard the Willy Prince of Bel Air theme song.
The program would also check the Windows calendar and recognize specific dates like Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and conjure up a related item on the island with Johnny. There was an overarching plot, which, most of the time would not exactly coincide with the first launch of the program but happen randomly, as with all things in Johnny. So you’d basically have to pierce the story together, like if you’d be watching Downton Abbey on shuffle. Ok maybe not that complicated… The plot would also loop: our shipwrecked friend is saved by a woman who has received his messages in a bottle (cue Sting) and goes back to his boring office job. Naturally, soon the routine wears his spirits down and he starts dreaming of the peaceful days on the island, thus, in the end, he goes back and everything starts all over again.
Even though JC’s events system is obviously not that complex, the idea of randomly cycling through different scenes while keeping a coherent plot happening in the background, was avantgarde for 1992. Randomly generated roguelike games were already a thing in the late 80s, so porting the same idea to a screensaver was the best design choice Dynamix could have made to render Johnny Castaway “that one screensaver you always want on your computer”. Nowadays it can still be run on a modern Windows 10 PC, that should give you an idea on how much the program is beloved by fans. I find it’s even better to run in the background one of the various “let’s play” Youtube videos, some more than 7 hours long, while you go about your day. In some weird way, that makes sense when I think about it, since JC was our little personal Youtube back in the early nineties: a small world that would make you smile and laugh, getting you away from life’s eternal worries at least for a bit.