Monthly Archives: July 2012

Japanese Adventuring

One of the computers installed at Monthly ASCII‘s offices was a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. Amongst other programs, this machine housed many of the games popular with Western institutional hackers of the early 1980s, such as Adventure and Zork. Many staffers played these games obsessively before and after working hours — and occasionally during them — in spite of the challenges their English language presented. ASCII also owned some imported Western PCs, along with early adventure games from Scott Adams, On-Line, and Infocom. With such games still unknown on homegrown Japanese machines, some staffers naturally began thinking about remedying that by writing a text adventure of their own. By this time various Western magazines had examined the technology used to develop professional text adventures. In addition to the many type-in BASIC adventures, there were articles like the one that appeared in Practical Computing in August of 1980, describing a machine-language text-adventure engine similar to the one used by Scott Adams.

With all this information at hand, two ASCII employees, Hideki Akiyama and Suguho Takahashi, proposed that the magazine develop and publish a text adventure for the 1982 Yearly Ah-SKI! parody issue. With permission granted, Akiyama developed an adventuring engine, and Takahashi wrote the first scenario for the system: Omotesando Adventure, after the street in Tokyo where ASCII‘s offices were located. It was a difficult project, particularly as both men could only work on it during down-time from their regular jobs on the magazine’s editorial staff. Still, as the first adventure made in Japan, both were determined that it should not be “shoddily made.” Omotesando was, in the words of Takahashi, a “pretty outrageous idea” for one reason in particular: despite being published in a Japanese magazine for a Japanese audience and running on Japanese computers, it was actually written in English.

Amongst the languages of the world, English, with its simple verb-object imperative construction, is rather unusually well-suited to a parser-driven adventure game. Even a related language like German makes coding a parser more complex through its many two-part verbs and its fondness for reflexive pronouns. Japanese, meanwhile, is still vastly less amendable to traditional parsing algorithms. As my translation and research partner for this article, Oren Ronen, told me, “Japanese doesn’t lend itself easily to the verb-noun pattern without sounding completely broken.” I suppose that ASCII could have had Omotesando Adventure output text in Japanese and accept input in English, but that would have created huge problems of its own, as legions of imperfect English speakers tried to figure out how to reference this or that Japanese word in the text in English. So, pure English it was — and luckily so for those of us who don’t know a lick of Japanese, as it gives us a chance to peek inside this important artifact.

Omotesando was developed on a Japanese Oki IF-800 computer running the English operating system CP/M. This machine was chosen because it wasn’t a particularly popular one with the other staffers, and thus normally spent its time gathering dust in a corner of ASCII‘s offices. When development was complete, Akiyama needed only write some bridge code for the various other Japanese Z80-based PCs, such as the very popular PC-8001 and PC-8801. With a little help from some other staffers, he soon had Omotesando running on a substantial percentage of Japanese PCs.

ASCII introduced Omotesando excitedly as a whole new experience for Japanese computer users:

Among the various things we can use a personal computer for, games are the most constant and popular. Games are in high demand, and software houses are pushing them into the market continuously. This issue we are introducing the Adventure Game. It’s an entirely new genre, the like of which was never seen on a computer. We may even call it a “New Type” of computer games.

The premise has you an employee of an unnamed rival magazine to ASCII. You’ve been ordered to sneak into ASCII‘s offices and find some way to sabotage the operation. It’s a nice change of pace from the dragons and spaceships that still dominated American text adventures, and there’s a certain postmodern sort of cleverness to all of the self-referentiality, a precursor to the generations of amateur bedroom text-adventure implementers who would get their start by implementing, well, their own bedrooms and/or apartments.

As one might expect, Omotesando is proudly old school in its design sensibilities.

Let’s state this clearly: we don’t believe you, who are experiencing an adventure for the first time, will be able to easily achieve the game’s goals. For several dozen tries you probably won’t even manage to sneak into ASCII Publishing’s offices. You will be caught in traps and die frustrating deaths. By trying again and again dozens or hundreds of times, you’ll learn things like “if I do this here I can go through” or “before I do this I must not do that” by trial and error and will be able to proceed. Solving the riddle that is the entire game can take several months and try your endurance.

In any case, since this is a game of endurance, we added the ability to save your position to a cassette and reload the game to continue from the same point. We’re very kind.

That said, to stay in the spirit of the adventure game, you must look for the way to save the game in the course of playing it (we’re not always kind). Once you find the way, you will be able to solve the game’s puzzles much more quickly.

As the illustration above shows, the English of the game is far, far from perfect. The same quirky sense of humor that marks the Yearly Ah-SKI! editorial content is as present as the sharp limitations on text length will allow. There is also the unusual (and annoying) “feature” of having to LOOK every time you enter a new room to determine what is really there. Other than that, and of course its setting, there’s oddly little about Omotesando to separate it from its inspirations. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that it is quite technically and even artistically competent within its modest aspirations. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, I’ve prepared a little care package for you. It includes Omotesando packaged up with a Japanese PC-8001 emulator as a Windows executable, along with translations and originals of the magazine articles that accompanied it. Sorry to be so platform-specific this time. Given the trials and tribulations of Japanese, this was about the best I could do. I do believe it should also run fine under WINE.

Omotesando Adventure, then, marks the beginning of the text adventure’s brief, precarious existence in Japan. The following year’s Yearly Ah-SKI! brought another, more complex game, once again implemented in English. By that time a Japanese company called Starcraft had begun a project to translate some of the more popular American illustrated text adventures for the domestic market, including most of On-Line’s Hi-Res Adventure line (with the expected exception of the white elephant Time Zone). Still, the difficulty of parsing Japanese made these games an awkward fit for the country; some actually resorted to making the player type a Japanese verb, hit enter, and then input a noun as the least painful and grammatically ugly approach.

As an alternative to such kludges, amateurs and professionals alike soon began experimenting with menu-driven interfaces in place of parsers. Thus was born the tradition of the Japanese visual novel, which became extraordinarily popular in spite of or because of the fact that many were partly or entirely exercises in pornography. Whatever objections some might have to their subject matter, or frustrations with their limited scope for player choice, these games did at least depart definitively from text adventures’ obsessions with puzzles and low-level object interactions to focus on telling more complex stories at a less granular level than most of their peers in the West. In fact, visual novels and the related genre of dating simulations remain important to Japanese computing culture even today, decades after text adventures faded from store shelves in the West.

A much more successful Western genre in Japan in comparison to the text adventure was the CRPG. Wizardry and its sequels in particular were massively popular when translated into Japanese. Just as the Beatles and other British groups of the 1960s mirrored back to America the music that America had originally created, Japanese CRPGs eventually made their way back to the West, where their unique, heavily story-oriented sensibility made them more popular with many players than the more hardcore, stats-oriented Western games.

Indeed, I’m afraid this blog will necessarily have to view Japan mostly through the lens of the West, through the games that made it back to these shores in English translations. I don’t know any Japanese, you see, and, while Oren did amazing work to help me with this article, I can’t expect him to keep doing my research and translating huge chunks of material for me. So, take this article as primer only on what was going on inside a country that would soon become hugely important to Western gaming culture. But before I move on, I’ll leave you with one last historical curiosity from inside Japan that Oren dug up for us.

During the early 1990s, after parser-driven games were considered commercially dead not only in Japan but also in the West, four of Infocom’s classic titles were ported to Japanese computers, and translated into Japanese in the process. Let me just let Oren finish this story:

There were 4 translations: Zork 1 is the only one that’s mentioned anywhere on the western web, but that’s only because it got a strange console release on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Most references get the facts wrong by saying those were the only releases it got. In fact, there was also a PC release with a proper text-entry based parser. In addition, Enchanter, Planetfall and (of all things) Moonmist got translations. All were wrapped in a fancy, Zork Zero-like interface with a changing graphical background depending on your location, a clickable compass-rose, and menus for saving and loading the game. They were released in the early ’90s by a software company called SystemSoft that mostly did game localizations for the Japanese market. They all mention Activision in the documentation, so the deal was made after Infocom’s buyout. The translations themselves are pretty good, as far as my non-native literary appreciation skills can tell.

The most remarkable thing about them is that they are the best implementation I can find anywhere of an IF parser in Japanese. Because of the complexity of parsing Japanese text, adventure games moved to menu-based systems much faster than in the West, and the few parser-based games that were released either required input in English or did a no-frills two word Japanese parser that was completely ungrammatical. The Infocom games parse complete, grammatical Japanese sentences (which is, again, a much more difficult task than in English) and even do all the fancy Infocom tricks like “take all except the stone” and remembering context for pronouns. I’m quite amazed they went through all the effort several years after parser-based games were completely forgotten about in the country.

The translations even reproduced the feelies from the original American releases. Alas, it appears they were, unsurprisingly, not successful, and they mark the last gasp of the text adventure’s short and fitful life in Japan.

(My thanks again to Oren Ronen for all his help researching and translating for this article and the proceeding one, which included translating a short interview with the designers of Omotesando Adventure.)




There were two possibilities that kept those who built the PC industry in the United States and Britain awake at night, both all the more terrifying in that they seemed all but inevitable. One was the arrival of the sleeping giant that was IBM. The pioneers could easily imagine Big Blue bludgeoning its way into the industry with billions of dollars behind them and a whole slate of “standards” of its own, destroying everything they had built. This was, after all, exactly what IBM had done years before to the big mainframe market which it now all but owned for itself. When Big Blue finally came to the PC, however, it showed unprecedented eagerness to partner with already extant PC firms like Microsoft. IBM’s entrance in the fall of 1981 did eventually result in one, near universal computing standard, but the process of sweeping out what the pioneers had built would end up taking more than ten years to come to completion — and, most shockingly, neither the hardware nor the software standard that resulted would remain under IBM’s control. This gave companies, at least those able to see which way the winds were blowing, plenty of time to adapt to the new computing order. (Or, in the case of Apple, to stake out their own territory as the anti-IBM.) Yet even as IBM’s entrance proved nowhere near as bad as it might have been, everyone still waited for the other shoe to drop: Japan.

Many people who know much more about such things than I have analyzed Japan’s postwar economic miracle. Suffice to say that the devastated remains of the country after World War II rose again, and more quickly than the most optimistic could have predicted. Already in 1968 Japan became the world’s second largest economy, its explosive growth initially fueled largely by exports of steel and textiles and other heavy industry. It was at about this point that a new form of Japanese expansionism made the country again a source of concern rather than pride for the United States: a new wave of Japanese consumer products began reaching American shores, most notably consumer electronics and cars. Today we remember mostly the latter. The products of Nissan, Toyota, and Honda devastated the U.S. auto industry, and for good reason. They were cheaper, better built, better engineered, safer, and, very important in the wake of the oil crisis, much more fuel efficient than American cars of the era. Yet the American auto industry did survive in a damaged state, and in time even learned to compete again. Huge swathes of the domestic electronics industry had no such luck. Japan didn’t just damage American consumer-electronics companies, they effectively destroyed them. Already by 1982 it was getting hard to find a television or stereo made in America, and a decade later it would be, a few high-end boutique brands aside, impossible. And even as they took over the old, Japan also pioneered new technologies, such as the iPod of the early 1980s, the Sony Walkman.

In one of those fun paradoxes of capitalism, Americans fueled this expansion by buying Japanese products even as they also lived in increasing fear of this new economic menace. Television advertisements from the Detroit auto manufacturers were filled with slurs against Japan that veered uncomfortably close to unabashed racism, while newspapers and magazines were filled with awed exposés of Japanese workplace culture, which came across a bit like the Borg of Star Trek fame. The average Japanese, people were told, placed loyalty to his employer over loyalty to his family or his country; forewent hobbies, friends, vacations, and family life in favor of work; began each 12-hour-plus working day by singing company songs and doing calisthetics with his coworkers; demanded only the most modest of salaries; considered an employment contract a lifetime through-good-or-ill commitment akin to a marriage vow. Add to this the complete, threatening otherness of Japanese society, with its insular artistic culture and its famously difficult language. The long and painful recession of the early 1980s only increased the sense of dread and paranoia. An earlier generation of Japanese had been willing to fly their planes deliberately into enemy ships in the service of an obviously lost cause, for God’s sake. How could American employees compete with that kind of commitment? What industry would the Japanese be coming for next time — and was there even any point in trying to stop them when they did?

The burgeoning Western PC industry seemed like it should be right in Japan’s wheelhouse. After all, this was a country that was cranking out well-trained electrical engineers at the rate of 40,000 per year by 1982, and that increasingly enjoyed global domination of most other types of electronics. To the paranoid and the conspiracy-minded, the PC industry seemed ripe to follow the pattern set in those other sectors. Japan would let Americans do the hard work of development and innovation, and then, when the technology was mature enough to be practical for the average home and business, sweep in with an avalanche of cheap PCs to make the industry their own. This vision of Japan is of course a confused one, especially in insisting on seeing the entire Japanese economy as a single, united front; in reality it was built, like the American economy, from many individual companies who competed with one another at least as hard as they competed with the West. Still, that’s how it looked to some on the outside, especially after the arrival of Space Invaders, followed by a steady deluge of other standup arcade games, showed that Japan was no slouch when it came to computer technology.

A couple of people in the PC industry worried about a Japanese-driven apocalypse even more than most, for the very good reason that it had already happened to them once: Jack Tramiel of Commodore and, in Britain, Clive Sinclair. Both had seen their companies driven to the brink of bankruptcy in the previous decade, when low-priced Japanese models drove them out of previously profitable gigs as calculator manufacturers in a matter of months while they could only stand around wondering what had just hit them. Now, both were determined to make sure it didn’t happen to them again in their new roles as PC purveyors.

Commodore caused increasing chaos in the American PC industry of the early 1980s by selling first the VIC-20 and then the Commodore 64 at ever lower prices. Most attributed this to Tramiel’s maniacal determination to dominate at any cost, as summed up by his famous motto, “Business is war.” Yet an at least equally important source of his price-cutting mania was his fear of the Japanese, his fear that they would come in and undercut everyone else if he didn’t do it first. As he said in another of those little aphorisms he was so good at coining, “We will become the Japanese.” His competitors who cursed him as the ruthless SOB he was likely also had him to thank that the doomsday scenario of a Japanese takeover never came to pass. Japan would certainly play its role as a source for chips and other components, and companies like Epson and Okidata became huge in the printer market, but the core of the American computer industry would remain largely American for many years. With Commodore already dominating the home market with its low-priced but reasonably solid and usable machines, Japanese firms didn’t have the opportunities to upstage and undercut the competition that they did in other industries.

In a turnabout play that he must have greatly enjoyed, Tramiel actually opened his war with Japan on the enemy’s home front. Six months before introducing the VIC-20 to North America and Europe in the spring of 1981, Commodore debuted it in Japan as the VIC-1001. It became a big success there, although its limitations ultimately ensured it was a fairly short-lived one, just like in North America and Europe. Commodore would try to bring its later machines to Japan as well, but never got the same traction that it had with the VIC. Instead, Japan’s PC market remained peculiarly, stubbornly insular throughout the 1980s. If Japanese computers never invaded the West the way so many had feared, Western manufacturers also never had much luck in Japan. They were partly kept at a distance, as had been so many Westerners before them, by the challenges of the Japanese language itself.

Japanese is generally acknowledged to have the most complicated system of writing in the world. It’s comprised of three different traditional scripts, often interleaved in modern times with the occasional foreign phrase written using Latin characters. One script is kanji, a script borrowed from Chinese with thousands of characters, each of represents a concept rather than a phonetic sound. In addition, there are two syllabaries that can be used to write the language phonetically: hiragana and katakana. Including about 50 characters each, they are simply different scripts for the same phonetic values, similar, but not quite equivalent, to upper-case and lower-case letters in Western languages. Normal Japanese text is written using all three intermixed: kanji is used for the stems of content words; hiragana for suffixes, prepositions and function words; and katakana for a variety of other tasks, most notably to write loan-words from other languages and to add emphasis to a certain point. To complete this confused picture, and as anyone who has browsed Japanese videogame boxes can attest, many Western proper names are simply written in their original form, using Latin characters.

All of this amounts to a nightmare for anyone trying to make a computer input and output Japanese. Computers have traditionally stored text using a neat arrangement of one byte per character, which gives the possibility of having up to 256 separate glyphs. That’s more than enough not only for every English character but also for the various accents, umlauts, ligatures, and the like found in many non-English Western European languages. For Japanese, however, it’s sadly inadequate. Then there’s the problem of designing a keyboard to input all those characters. And there’s an additional, more subtle problem: with so many characters, each Japanese glyph must be quite intricate in comparison to the simpler abstracts that are Latin letters, and the differences between glyphs are often quite small. The blocky displays of the early PC era were incapable of rendering such complexity in a readable way.

Faced with such challenges, which made localizing their existing designs for Japan all but impossible, most Western companies largely chose to leave the Japanese market to Japanese companies. Although the first PCs available for purchase in Japan came from Apple and Radio Shack, it didn’t take Japanese companies long to jump in and take over. Hitachi and NEC introduced the first pre-assembled PCs to be built in Japan in 1979. By 1982, Japanese manufacturers controlled 75 percent of the Japanese market, which was dominated by three machines: the NEC PC-8801, the Sharp X1, and the Fujitsu FM-7. None completely solved the fundamental problems of displaying Japanese. In addition to the standard English glyphs, each could display only katakana, chosen because its characters are square and easy to make out even on a low-resolution display, and perhaps a handful of kanji pictographs, for extremely common concepts like “date” and “time.” Katakana, on its own, is fine for short sentences or simple messages, but reading and writing longer passages in it alone is a difficult, wearisome task. The machines had to be commanded, meanwhile, in good old English-derived BASIC (usually sourced from Microsoft), a particular challenge in a country large and insular enough that a good knowledge of English, especially at this time, was a fairly rare trait.

In light of these tribulations, Japanese companies worked feverishly to develop hardware capable of storing and displaying proper Japanese writing. In 1982 NEC introduced the first machine that could do that reasonably painlessly in the form of the PC-9801, an advanced 16-bit computer built around the Intel 8086 processor. It soon ruled the Japanese business market despite being incompatible with the IBM PC that dominated business computing elsewhere. By the time it was finally discontinued in 1997, the PC-9801 line had sold well over 15 million units, virtually all within Japan. The need to display kanji characters and compete with NEC drove other manufacturers, with the happy byproduct that most Japanese computers soon had very advanced display capabilities in comparison to most Western machines.

The PC-9801 and its competitors clearly pointed the way forward for computing in Japan, but they were initially expensive machines targeted very much at business. Home users would remain stuck for at least another couple of years with their more primitive 8-bit machines built around the Zilog Z-80 or Motorola 6809. Just like in the United States, these early adapters built a distribution network for games written by amateurs and semi-amateurs, called “doujinsoft” in Japan. Again like in the United States, a common early means of distribution was through program listings printed in the enthusiast magazines. The first and most respected of these, sort of the Japanese Byte, began in 1977 and was called Monthly ASCII. In 1981 the magazine began to publish an annual supplement for April Fool’s Day, called Yearly Ah-SKI! It mostly consisted of fake articles and advertisements mocking the computer industry, but included one full, working program as well each year. The second Yearly Ah-SKI!, in 1982, hosted what was almost certainly the first text adventure, first adventure game, and first full-fledged digital ludic narrative to be published in Japan. We’ll look at that next time.



The Zork Users Group

In an earlier post I described how the Zork Users Group was founded when Mike Dornbrook left Infocom’s Boston home for an MBA program at the University of Chicago, taking what essentially amounted to the company’s customer-relations division with him. ZUG was not alone. An entire aftermarket of companies dedicated to lending aid and comfort to players of other companies’ games was springing up around the same time, a sign of the health of the growing entertainment-software market even in the midst of an ugly recession. ZUG was unique, however, in having such a cozy relationship with Infocom. Many other publishers saw this burgeoning aftermarket as little better than parasites. Some of these attitudes were likely down to economic considerations; who wants to watch someone else sell hints you could be selling yourself? Others seem more down to control-freak tendencies and sheer bloody-mindedness. Luckily, ZUG didn’t have to deal with any of it.

Indeed, to say that ZUG had a privileged relationship with Infocom hardly begins to tell the story. Each Infocom game came with a card that the purchaser could send in to join ZUG. And not only did ZUG sell their own merchandise, but they also became official retailers of the Infocom games themselves, which they distributed through their catalogs along with all the other stuff. But, lest we get ahead of ourselves, let’s pick up the ZUG story from near the beginning.

Dornbrook’s initial plan for ZUG was to continue business as usual, sending out maps and hints from his new apartment in Chicago. However, without his erstwhile partner Steve Meretzky and with all the pressures of graduate school, that promised to be quite a challenge. Then, between leaving Boston and beginning his program in Chicago, Dornbrook spent a week with his parents at their home in Milwaukee. His father had just recently retired, and, seeing the problem, made a proposal: he could handle order fulfillment from the basement of the family home, leaving Mike free to answer hints and work on preparing new products from Chicago. Mike happily accepted, and so ZUG was officially established as a Milwaukee business. Mike’s mother also got involved as the mailing-list maintainer, which consisted at this time of about 1000 names and addresses on paper; as was still typical of these times, nothing about ZUG was computerized.

Once settled in Chicago, Dornbrook enlisted Meretzky to draw up a map for Zork II for sale alongside the existing Zork I map, and once again got his artist friend Dave Ardito to do the illustrations. In early 1982 Meretzky accepted an official job with Infocom as their first full-time play-tester. It was a perfect fit for his other gig as ZUG’s cartographer; he could know everything about the games’ geographies long before they were released. For the Deadline map, Meretzky drew upon his training as a construction manager, departing from the standard matrix of lines and rectangles to present the Robner estate as a set of architectural blueprints.

With a growing, hungry, and loyal Infocom fanbase to feed, ZUG also began branching out into unabashed novelty products. By the end of 1982 they were peddling not just games, maps, and hints, but also posters, tee-shirt iron-ons, bumper stickers, and buttons. In addition to sending out the order forms for their merchandise, they began a roughly quarterly newsletter to reach the fans and tell them about all the latest happenings in the worlds of ZUG and Infocom: The New Zork Times. I noted in an earlier post that much of what people remember as Infocom was really the work of their advertising firm, G/R Copy. Similarly, another big chunk of their public image was forged not in-house but rather by Dornbrook and friends through the auspices of ZUG.

Even as ZUG branched out in other directions, hints remained a constant thorn in Dornbrook’s side. As ZUG’s membership roles increased rapidly, he found it more and more difficult to keep delivering personalized responses to requests for hints on top of his studies and his other ZUG activities. He also found it increasingly dull, since most questions centered on the same handful of trouble spots. The obvious solution was to prepare some sort of standard hint booklet for sale, but he was loathe to do this, fearing it would be too easy for a player to spoil large swathes of the game for herself while looking for the answer to just one or two puzzles. Another, less idealistic concern was the knowledge that someone was certain to photocopy the hint booklets — or type them into their computer — and start passing them around as soon as he began to sell them. Yet it was also clear that manually dealing with hint requests would soon be not just impractical but impossible; if one thing looked obvious, it was that Infocom and ZUG were just beginning to take off. So, Dornbrook started looking for alternatives to a simple printed list of puzzle answers.

He considered using scratch-offs like are used for lottery tickets; offset-printed answers that could only be properly read through a pair of 3-D glasses; a little window that slid up and down the page, allowing the reader to only see a line or two at a time. Nothing proved practical. Then (from the extras DVD of Get Lamp):

I was at a party back in my home town with some friends of mine from high-school days. One of them had gone to pharmacy school at the University of Wisconsin. I was describing that I was trying to create these booklets, trying to come up with an answer. He said, “Why don’t you use invisible ink?”

One of the friend’s professors had used invisible ink for tests; students who didn’t know an answer right away could develop “invisible” hints by running a special marker over the appropriate part of the page, at a cost to their overall score. Dornbrook had actually worked in printing on and off over the years, but had never heard of such a thing. After calling everywhere he could think of to ask about the technology, only to have people think him “nuts,” he finally called the professor’s office directly. An assistant found the name of the company from which the professor sourced the stuff: A.B. Dick. They in turn put him in touch with a printer who had the technology, and InvisiClues were born. The first, written by Dornbrook for Zork I and illustrated as usual by Ardito, arrived in the spring of 1982.

Each InvisiClues booklet contained many questions about the game it covered. The user found the one that pertained to her, then developed the solution by running a special marker over the “invisible” answer. Each answer was itself presented as a series of graduated steps to be developed one at a time, from gentle nudge to the complete solution. Each booklet also included a fair number of dummy questions to further discourage readers from just developing and devouring random answers, as well as to obfuscate what was and was not in the game and thus prevent the reader from spoiling the experience just by reading the questions. If developed, these dummy questions chided the reader appropriately (and sarcastically).

InvisiClues was a ridiculously clever idea, although there were a couple of caveats. They were expensive to make and thus quite expensive to buy; while Adventure International was selling a “Book of Hints” for all twelve of the Scott Adams adventures for $8, an InvisiClues booklet for a single Infocom game would cost you considerably more than that. And, developed hints would begin to fade after about six months. Still, in spite of these disadvantages, InvisiClues were a tremendous hit. They were just fun in a way that the ciphers and look-up tables other companies used to disguise their own hints were not.

Infocom and ZUG’s commercial fortunes skyrocketed hand in hand. Infocom sold 100,000 games in 1982, up from 12,000 the year before. ZUG’s membership rolls, meanwhile, increased from 1000 at the start of the year to 4000 at its mid-point to over 10,000 by its end. Midway through the next year, they had 20,000 members. By this time they had finally computerized the operation (via an IBM PC with a then-exotic 10 MB hard drive), and had three other part-time employees in addition to Mike and his parents. Amusingly, other than Mike not a single one of them had ever played an Infocom game or had any interest in doing so.

There’s much more to say about Infocom’s 1982, but next we’ll travel half a world away to look at another, very different computing culture.



Playing Deadline, Part 4

We’re now closing in on the end game, tailing our two suspects, Baxter and Dunbar, as they move about the Robner estate. Succeeding at another cat-and-mouse chase lets us observe an urgent, whispered conference between the two inside the garden shed, although we can’t make out the actual words spoken. But that doesn’t matter. We have enough now to ARREST DUNBAR AND BAXTER and win the game. When we do so, Blank gives us the full story in classic Agatha Christie fashion.

Mr. Robner's life was his company, as was attested to by a number of the principals. George knew that Mr. Robner had lost control of the company, and a story in the Daily Herald indicated that Mr. Baxter intended to sell the company to Omnidyne, the multi-national conglomerate, presumably to advance his career. Baxter admitted to the merger plans, but indicated that Mr. Robner was in complete agreement. This is contrary to what George and Mrs. Robner said. The note pad found in the library was Robner's last, desperate attempt to save the company, in which Robner threatened to expose Baxter's involvement in the 'Focus' scandal, whose details are unclear. Baxter denied getting the note, but it was not in the trash. The papers detailing Baxter's criminality in the scandal were kept locked in a safe in a hidden closet near the library. Only George and Robner knew the whereabouts and the combination to the safe.

Baxter planned to murder Robner, playing on the fact that Robner was known to be depressed, even suicidal. He enlisted the help of his lover, Ms. Dunbar, one of whose medicines was found to interact fatally with the medicine Robner was taking. Clearly the relationship of Baxter and Dunbar was kept quiet, although Mrs. Rourke had an inkling of it. After the concert at the Hartford Philharmonic, which both Baxter and Dunbar attended, they returned to the Robner estate. Dunbar placed some LoBlo in Robner's tea, and Robner died some time later. Baxter, using the ladder from the shed, entered the library after Robner had died and exchanged the incriminating cup for a clean one (counting the cups and saucers in the kitchen reveals that a cup is missing). Coming down the ladder, Baxter presumably dropped the cup and inadvertently left one piece on the ground in the rose garden, nearby where Mr. McNabb found the ladder holes while tending to his roses.

If we fail to arrest Baxter and Dunbar immediately after their conference, he, fearing she is about to confess, goes up to her room and shoots her, then tries to make it look like a suicide (obviously something of a standard modus operandi for him). After that we can only clean up the damage as best we can; at least we can, if we’ve collected sufficient evidence, now arrest him for two murders instead of one. Indeed, and while the full solution is damnably difficult to get to, Deadline does allow for partial success (or failure, depending on how you look at it). It features quite a number of different possible endings. Blank saw this as key to the new adventure paradigm it represented, and a remedy to his biggest frustration with the Wheatley crime dossiers. From a contemporary article in Softline:

Reading the old game books [the Wheatley dossiers], he knew he was on to something, except that at the end, the solution packet was not able to say, “No, you’re wrong; try again”; it simply gave you the answer. It was not interactive.

“We wanted to come up with something where you have action/reaction,” Blanks recalls, “where you’re told the part that you’ve missed after you come up with a potential solution, and you can go back and try again.”

Of course, given the game’s legendary difficulty players would be trying again many, many times. In addition to that dodgy rose-garden puzzle, I believe we can point to three factors that make Deadline so hard to crack, perhaps sometimes unintentionally so.

One factor is the very dynamic nature of this storyworld, the same thing that made Deadline so innovative. By having things happen of their own accord, Deadline makes it all too easy to miss those things without even realizing anything ever occurred at all. What happens, for instance, if the player happens to be outside when the phone rings? In trying to craft an adventure that felt more like a real story, Blank ran somewhat afoul of something I’ll call “story logic”: many times in stories the protagonist simply happens to be in the right place at the right time. In a sense the player of Deadline must recreate this story logic, by carefully plotting out the movements of the world around her over many failed plays to deduce where the protagonist needs to miraculously be and when. Whether this is always, absolutely unfair is debatable. It obviously falls into the prohibition against needing “knowledge from past lives” in Graham Nelson’s Player’s Bill of Rights, but if we come to it understanding what kind of rules it’s guided by it can be very rewarding to plot out and crack as a system. This is the puzzle-box mode of play, of coming to understand the game as a system and then devising a plan to guide it where you will.

Another, less positive contributor to Deadline‘s difficulty is that it’s very difficult to know where your investigation really stands much of the time. For example, when two suspects contradict one another, as did Baxter and Dunbar there at the end, that often counts as evidence that will weigh into the final verdict after you make your arrest(s). Yet it’s very difficult to determine what the program considers important and what it does not. Nor is there any way to tell whether you have enough to arrest someone without just trying it and seeing what happens. It all leads to a constant feeling of uncertainty and confusion, not just about the case (which is to be expected), but about just what the program knows about the case. Similar problems often dog even modern mystery implementations, although the opacity could be remedied greatly in a modern reimplementation of Deadline by a simple status screen with progress bars showing the progress of evidence collection. But Infocom didn’t have the resources to spare for such niceties.

Lastly, and least positively, there is a constant smattering of low-level bugginess, especially in the early releases of Deadline. It’s much, much harder to debug a dynamic system like Deadline than it was earlier, more static adventures, and Infocom’s QA processes were not yet what they would be in years to come. Sometimes this just leads to amusing oddities, like the “quantity of Scotch” you can pour out of the bottle and carry around with you. Other times it makes you kind of nervous as a player, uncertain whether you can entirely trust Deadline as a system, as when triggers don’t seem to fire and characters don’t react like you expect them to. In this new mode of play which Deadline represents, which absolutely depends on the game being a consistent and logical construct, such distrust can be deadly to the experience. The inconsistencies are perhaps not even entirely down to bugs, but at least in one case seem more the result of a certain authorial laziness. In the climax, it seems that Baxter simply teleports into Dubar’s room to kill her rather than walking there, a stark violation of the game’s otherwise staunch commitment to realism. (I believe this at least was corrected in later versions.) At best, it all adds to that certain player uneasiness described in the previous paragraph. At worst, it destroys the player’s faith in the game as a solvable, consistent system.

In addition to the outright bugs, there are a million way in which the game fails as fiction, most coming down, predictably enough, to character interaction. It’s possible to ask the same person about the same thing over and over, with the same response; to talk about one character with another while both are in the same room; to burst in on people in their bedroom or even bathroom without them seeming to notice or care. Still, given how difficult these problems still are for us even today, and given the game’s age and the technology on which it ran, it seems silly to quibble too much about this sort of thing.

No, better to talk about the strange fascination this dynamic little story-system still manages to inspire. Many who never managed to beat it nevertheless speak of it with a certain awe. Emily Short hit on some of its appeal with her review on the Interactive Fiction Database:

What captured my imagination then, and still has a certain appeal, is the recurring sense of excitement from observing without being observed: listening in on phone extensions, looking for secret rooms, following people. There was always the sense that important and significant secrets were hidden under every surface.

That sense of being thrust into an unfolding story was unheard of in adventure games prior to Deadline. Blank, from Softline again:

“In Deadline, we wanted to appeal to the nonfantasy people who would rather be part of a real story; people who always wanted to participate when they read the books. We designed the game to be open-ended and to have a large vocabulary, but at the same time, we didn’t want it too large and too open.”

Deadline demonstrates the first inklings of a deep rather than broad philosophy of design, in which the storyworld is more compact and focused, but filled with more possibilities for interaction and a deeper commitment to mimesis and realism. Few others were thinking about design on this level in 1982.

As something genuinely new under the adventuring sun, Deadline was greeted with great excitement. It became a deservedly major hit for Infocom, selling almost 25,000 copies in the last eight months of 1982 alone and helping to cement the company’s growing reputation as the most sophisticated and adult of adventure publishers. Today it stands as one of the most important of all the company’s games for its many formal innovations.

Next time I want to talk just a bit more about Infocom before we shift to something else for a while…


Tags: ,

Playing Deadline, Part 3

At the end of my last post we started analyzing the broken piece of porcelain we found below the library balcony for any trace of the various substances we found in the suspects’ bedrooms. While we’re keeping Duffy busy with that, the 12:00 will-reading rolls around, and everyone gathers in the living room along with Mr. Robner’s lawyer, Coates. It goes as expected. Because Mr. Robner had not yet delivered the promised new will to Coates before his death, the old must still be taken as in effect, dividing the estate equally between Mrs. Robner and George, who now sees even more lavish parties in his future. Coates does say, “Should a more recent will actually exist and be found within a reasonable period, the present one will be voided.” Sounds like a nudge to me.

We now can have a little fun by making almost everyone very uncomfortable using what we’ve already found out. Let’s start with Mrs. Robner.

>show letter to mrs. robner
"You have certainly stooped to a new low, haven't you, Inspector? Opening people's mail. I think there are laws against that sort of thing, but I guess you wouldn't know. I suppose you also know that Steven is my lover and that we were planning to be married. Don't look so melodramatic: I didn't kill my husband. You think my talk of divorce may have driven him to it? Why don't you leave me alone!"

>ask mrs. robner about steven
“I might as well tell you. Steven and I were lovers. We were going to be married as soon as I could divorce Marshall. I asked Marshall about it, but he became angry and refused. I didn’t know what to do. Don’t look at me that way. I had nothing to do with my husband’s death. Driving him to it with talk of divorce? Hah! You didn’t know Marshall, that’s for sure! I should have told the police earlier, I suppose, but it’s really none of your business.”

This passage highlights an interesting aspect of Deadline: despite being ostensibly set in then-current times, it doesn’t feel like 1982. The way that Mrs. Robner is so plainly subservient to her husband; the way everyone is referred to as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So instead of her first name; the rather patrician lifestyle of the family; the way that Dunbar, a supposedly professional and competent woman integral to the running of Mr. Robner’s business, was still expected to serve him his tea at 11:00 each night; even some of the language choices, such as Mr. Robner being a noted “industrialist” — all make this story feel like an artifact of Dennis Wheatley’s heyday, another sign of the huge influence the crime dossiers had on the whole project. Now we have a husband “refusing” to let his wife divorce him.

And Mrs. Robner is of course right, not only about our mail tampering (which should constitute a federal crime if I’m not mistaken) but about our behavior in general. If all detectives could behave like we do in Deadline, most Law and Order plots would be a hell of a lot simpler. A postmodern implementation of Deadline might let us identify the killer, only to throw the case out and throw us in jail because of all the laws we broke getting there.

Anyway, we’ve discovered that Mrs. Robner certainly had her secrets, but it still doesn’t quite seem to add up to murder somehow. Baxter is even less satisfying, shrugging his shoulders at the fragment of a note, claiming never to have seen it and not to know what it could be about. With George, though, we score:

>turn calendar
It is open to July 8.
There is only one notation here, under the 9AM column: "Call Coates: Will completed".

>show calendar to george
“I … uh … I don’t really know what to say. I guess that maybe Dad … but there is no other … I can’t help you … sorry.” George appears to be quite agitated.
“I’ve… got to be going now. I’ll see you later,” George says. He starts to leave.
George heads off to the east.

What follows is a delicate cat-and-mouse chase, in which we need to trail George through the house without spooking him so much that he doesn’t do what he wants to do next. Here the emergent possibilities that I mentioned in my first post really come to the fore; we can duck into closets and the like (or not), and George will react accordingly. Like so much in this game, it takes a number of restores and some careful time management to get right. When we do so, however, he leads us to a secret room — naturally, behind the bookshelves in the library. And, if we time our bursting in on him just right, we catch him next to an open safe, Mr. Robner’s new will in hand. Sure enough, it disowns George, leaving the entire estate to his mother. Presumably George meant to destroy it before it was discovered by someone else.

Still, we haven’t really proven much more than that. George apparently didn’t know the new will had actually been completed until we brought it to his attention in the living room. Then, knowing it must be in his father’s secret safe, he acted impulsively and desperately to get rid of it. We’re far from proving murder. George doesn’t seem smart enough to have come up with the subtly diabolical plot the murder increasingly looks to have been. And, barring a co-conspirator, it’s hard to see how he could have pulled it off, given Rourke’s testimony that he didn’t come down from his room after 11:00.

Given all that, of more ultimate importance than the new will are the other papers we find in the safe.

>examine safe
A stack of papers bound together is in the safe.

>examine stack
In leafing through these papers, it becomes obvious that they are documents that incriminate Mr. Baxter in wrongdoings regarding the Focus scandal. They document funds which were embezzled by Mr. Baxter and give a general idea of how the scandal was hushed up. This evidence should be sufficient to convict Mr. Baxter in the Focus case.

There’s a solid motive here. But let’s not jump to conclusions too fast. By this time Duffy’s lab runs have turned up another key piece of information. The fragment of porcelain found in the rose garden contains traces of the blood-pressure medication Dunbar is taking.

>read report
Dear Inspector,

In response to your request for analysis of the cup fragment, we have found a considerable quantity of a drug called Methsparin, which is occasionally sold in this country under the name "LoBlo". It is a blood pressure lowering agent used in Europe, but infrequently used here, which explains the oversight in our blood analysis of the deceased. A review of that blood reveals a high blood level of Methsparin. While the amount of Methsparin in the blood is not dangerous in itself, a strong interaction between it and various other drugs has been well documented. As you may have gathered, one of those drugs is Amitraxin (Ebullion). The effect of Methsparin is to displace drugs from protein binding sites, leaving more free in the blood and simulating an overdose.

Your new evidence leads me to conclude that the cause of death of the deceased is Amitraxin toxicity secondary to ingestion of Methsparin and Amitraxin in combination.


Arthur Chatworth, Pathologist

Marc Blank’s other life — as you may remember, he graduated from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, only to drop out of his internship to come to Infocom — comes through for him here. I asked my doctor wife, who normally gets as frustrated with depictions of medicine in fictions as I do with depictions of computers and hacking, whether the above made sense. She said it made perfect sense in theory, although she doesn’t know of any drugs with that effect which actually exist.

With two new favorite suspects, we set what we’ve learned before them to see what we can turn up.

>show stack to baxter
He reads slowly and leafs through the pages. "I'm afraid I have not been altogether candid with you. There was some trouble a few years ago with Focus Corp. because of some, let us say, irresponsible dealings on my part. Marshall agreed to cover up my involvement to save the company from bad publicity."

"I can't understand why he would be insisting that I do this or that, though, as it seems to say on that note you showed me. He must have changed his mind, however, since I never received the note."

>ask baxter about merger
“Ah! I didn’t realize you had an interest in finance. Before Marshall died, we agreed that the only reasonable way to protect our interests was to be bought out by a larger company which would be able to provide us with more capital for expansion. I had been talking to people at Omnidyne and we agreed in principle on the terms for such an agreement last week. I am hopeful that we can accomplish the deal quickly.”

Mrs. Robner, however, already told us that her husband was not in favor of the deal. As for Dunbar, her denial and attempt to cast the blame on everyone’s favorite scapegoat are quite feeble:

>show report to dunbar
She seems stunned but recovers quickly. "He didn't commit suicide, then?" she says. "But LoBlo, that's a pill that I take for my blood pressure." She pauses. "I can tell what you're thinking, but I didn't, couldn't have done it. Why should I? Someone must have taken them, maybe George. He knew I used them."

Flustered, she soon leaves the room. If we follow, we see her conveniently drop a ticket stub — to the same symphony that Baxter claimed to have attended alone on the night of the murder. When we ask each about it separately, we find they’ve failed to get their stories entirely straight.

>show stub to baxter
"Ah, that must be Ms. Dunbar's ticket stub. I should have told you earlier. Ms. Dunbar was with me at the concert on the night that Marshall killed himself. She became ill at intermission time and hired a car to take her back home. You see, Inspector, I know how much Ms. Dunbar appreciates classical music, and I occasionally ask her along with me to my subscription series. I really should have told the other detective, but I didn't think it mattered."

>show stub to dunbar
“Oh, I … well, I guess I should tell you. You see, Mr. Baxter and I, we go together to concerts, only occasionally, you understand. We went that night, the night Marshall died. And then he took me home and that’s it. I should have said something before, I know. I just didn’t think it was important, and, well, I didn’t think that the others should know that we were seeing each other socially. Our … nobody knows about it, you know. Please don’t say anything!”

What are they hiding? If Dunbar’s version is the truth, Baxter was in fact at the house that night. And in either case, it seems their relationship was much closer than anyone associated with them had previously believed.

At this point the ultimate answer to the puzzle of Mr. Robner’s murder is becoming pretty clear. We’ll lock the case down with one more piece of evidence next time, and also make room for some final thoughts on the whole experience.


Tags: ,