Roberta was a teacher, but left that gig when her kid’s books started selling. I guess you could say that she was sort of like the M.C. Escher of children’s literature; she loved her some surreal landscapes, impossible angles, and of course, mice. Mice were in every book she wrote, peeking out here and there from the mazes, lurking in the background of every story, and just generally making you wonder if there was an exterminator in the house and whether Ms. Atkins might not want to bow to the inevitable and just get a cat. The thing is, the mice were never the stars of the books. The stories were all about children, at least until they stopped being stories and started just being surreal picture books by the end of her career, but the mice were there nevertheless.

Another thing that Roberta could do was make jewelry. She’d done it as a teacher to make the ends of her meager salary meet–all you teachers out there listening know how that is, having to get your side hustle on just so you can keep being taken for granted by little brats and yelled at by their parents for including books on the reading list that feature anything resembling real people. Ms. Atkins was a pretty dab hand at making jewelry, to the extent that she handmade the covers to all of her books–they weren’t so much drawings as photographs, you see, if you’ve never had the opportunity to read one. Go check out your local library, I guarantee they’ll have at least one of them if they have any kids’ books at all, and you’ll see what I mean.

So Roberta Atkins eventually decided that she was sick of doing books, and decided to do a computer game instead. So in the early 90s she founded a company called Musoft, which is a really delightful pun if you speak more Latin than I do. Mus, mouse, plus soft, software. She was a clever one. Anyway, Musoft published its one and only computer game in 1993, called A Golden Tail. And here’s the thing that makes it really interesting. The cover of the box was a mouse necklace made out of 25-karat gold. And calling it a necklace really does a disservice to the thing; it’s almost more of a collar. Ruth Bader Ginsberg would be happy to wear this mouse when writing a minority opinion. And the game, it’s said, contains secret clues on where to find the actual golden mouse itself!

Yeah! During the press tour to promote the book, Roberta Atkins said that she buried the original necklace–the one from the cover of the game–and if you figured out the clues in the game, you could uncover its location, dig it up, and have a prize that she claimed was work about thirty thousand dollars in 1993 dollaroos, which would be even more today after a recession and two Republican presidents. The solution to the puzzle was entirely different, it was said, from the solution needed to complete the game, and “anyone with a head for puzzles and a fondness for mice” –her back-of-the-box quote, not mine–could find it.

And here’s the thing: nobody ever did.

The game sold really poorly because it happened to come out on September 24, 1993–the same day as a little game you may have heard of called Myst, which was also a puzzle game. But A Golden Tail had far higher system requirements, more than most machines at the time could muster, and Roberta Atkins hadn’t published a children’s book in years while she was developing the game, so her brand was kind of out of gas at the time. Only about 10,000 copies were sold, Musoft closed its doors, and Roberta Atkins never published another thing in her life. She’s the one in the asylum, by the way, and I say that because it’s the last I could find of her in the news: a 1998 headline, “CHILDREN’S AUTHOR COMMITS SELF.”

As far as anybody knows, Ms. Atkins is still there. And as far as anybody knows, her golden rat is still buried somewhere, with the secret to its location known only to the author and anyone who can unravel the puzzle in an obscure and poorly-selling 1993 computer game. Now can you see why I’m so interested in this for tonight’s podcast?

It took me a while, but I found a sealed copy of A Golden Tail on eBay. We’re going to unbox it on this podcast, and then I’m going to play it live and see if I can’t find me a golden rat for my retirement years.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements