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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Planetfall

Steve Meretzky

Fair warning: this post spoils Planetfall thoroughly and aggressively. If you want to play it unspoiled, do so now. (Yes, it’s worth playing.) Then come back here.

A hapless lone spacefarer — that’s you — comes upon an aged but now decaying alien artifact. You must ferret outs its secrets, discover what it is and how it was meant to work, and finally repair its systems. When you succeed completely in this last the original inhabitants, who were only sleeping as they hoped and waited for someone like you to come along, are revived. You are rewarded for your efforts with fame and fortune on your home planet and beyond, along with the satisfaction of having completed another Infocom game.

Sounds like an Infocom game we’ve already looked at, doesn’t it? Stripped down to basics, it’s rather amazing how similar the plot of Infocom’s eighth release, Planetfall, is to that of their fifth, Starcross. Based upon my summary, one might ask whether Infocom was already running out of ideas. Yet few who have played both games have ever asked that question, at least in print, because when you’re actually playing them the two games could hardly feel more different. Planetfall, you see, marks the arrival of Steve Meretzky, who if (arguably) not Infocom’s best author was certainly the one with the most immediately distinctive voice and design sensibility. He would have a huge influence not only on Infocom’s subsequent works but on adventure gaming in general, an influence that persists to this day. For better (sometimes) or for worse (probably more often), we can still see his brand of madcap whimsy in new games both amateur and professional, both graphical and textual that come out every year. By now his influence is so pronounced that many designers, separated from Planetfall by two or three design generations, don’t even realize whom they’re copying.

I’ve already introduced Meretzky in a couple of articles on this blog. A self-avowed computer hater who was nevertheless chummy with the folks who created Zork at MIT and later founded Infocom, he got the adventuring religion when living as Mike Dornbrook’s roommate. He began to see the possibility of escaping the horrifying prospect of a career in construction management when he began testing Infocom’s games for money with Deadline in November of 1981. He then left construction behind forever in June of 1982, when he became the first salaried member of their new testing department. Meretzky was in Marc Blank’s words “so into it and had so many ideas” that it seemed only natural to let him try his hand at writing a game of his own. In the fall of 1982, at the same time as Stu Galley was starting on The Witness, Meretzky was therefore given carte blanche to write whatever kind of game he’d like. The project he began was a product of his two biggest cultural loves at the time: written science fiction, which he read virtually to the exclusion of anything else, and anarchic comedy on the wavelength of Monty Python, Woody Allen, and Gary Larsen.

Planetfall casts you as a lowly Ensign Seventh Class in the Stellar Patrol aboard the SPS Feinstein. The bane of your shipboard existence, the “trotting krip” on whom most of your diary (included in the package) focuses, is Ensign Cadet First Class Blather, who is afflicted with the megalomania of middle managers everywhere. The game begins on just another day aboard the Feinstein, with you wielding your “Patrol-issue self-contained multi-purpose scrub brush” on deck-cleaning duty and trying to stay out of Blather’s way. But then the Feinstein is attacked by forces unknown. You must escape in a life pod, which deposits you next to a research complex of some sort poking above the waves of an otherwise completely water-covered planet. It’s here that your adventure begins in earnest.

The comedies that inspired Meretzky to make Planetfall gain meaning and resonance by saying something about the world in which we live. Monty Python satirizes the hidebound British class system and the prudery of middle-class life; Woody Allen dissects the vagaries of love, sex, and relationships. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams, an author with whom Meretzky would soon be indeliably linked, reveals the manifold absurdities of human social mores, of religion, of how we perceive our place in the universe through his science-fiction comedy of the absurd. Indeed, it’s often been noted that the best science fiction is relevant not so much as a guidepost to the future as for the light it sheds on the way we live and think today. Taking a story out of the here and now allows an author to examine big questions with a clear eye that would be obscured by the vicissitudes of culture and prejudice and emotion if set in our own world.

Planetfall, however, doesn’t really try to follow in that tradition. Instead it appropriates some of the broad tropes from Monty Python or Douglas Adams without finding the kernel of social truth at their heart that makes them relevant. The closest it comes is some gentle satire of bureaucracy (the game is packaged in a faux-file folder stamped “Authorized For Issuance”, “Authorized For Authorization”, “Authorized For Rubber Stamping”) and the over-the-top gung-ho-ness of military-recruitment advertisements (“Today’s Stellar Patrol: Boldly Going Where Angels Fear To Tread”, “The Patrol Is Looking For A Few Good Organisms”). On the tree of satire, this is not exactly the highest-hanging of fruits.

Mostly replacing satire in Planetfall is a sort of good-natured goofiness. You can’t fault it for effort. The feelies in particular throw so many gags at you that a few of them are bound to stick. This bit is the one that always makes me laugh:

Planetfall questionnaire

In the game itself there’s one consistent source of clever humor, which we’ll get to in a moment. But other gags, like the distorted spelling of the aliens who built the complex, start to wear thin after a while. (“Xis stuneeng vuu uf xee Kalamontee Valee kuvurz oovur fortee skwaar miilz uf xat faamus tuurist spot. Xee larj bildeeng at xee bend in xee Gulmaan Rivur iz xee formur pravincul kapitul bildeeng.”) Meretzky was known in Infocom’s offices for his cutting humor, which he deployed against Ronald Reagan and his conservative revolution, against the occasional concerned parent who wrote in to accuse Infocom of preaching Satanism via Zork, against the hordes of be-suited businesspeople that Al Vezza began hiring as the Cornerstone project ramped up. It’s a shame the humor of Planetfall and his later games remained so relatively tepid in comparison.

Still, Planetfall has many other strengths to recommend it. It manages to be a beautifully crafted traditional adventure while also expanding the form in notable ways. It’s archetypical in its basic structure: a constricted opening act aboard the Feinstein and the life pod get you into the action, followed by a long middle section (at least 85% or so of the game) allowing for free, non-linear exploration and puzzle solving, which funnels at last into an absolutely cracking set-piece finale. You spend the first part of the long middle collecting information, gradually coming to learn that the aliens who used to live here are not dead but merely in suspended animation, having placed themselves there to avoid a deadly plague that was sweeping the planet and that will kill you as well eventually. It gradually becomes clear that you need to repair the planet’s malfunctioning systems and restart the central computer, which was on the verge of discovering a cure for the disease before it crashed. Repairing the systems is, once again, rather shockingly reminiscent of Starcross, requiring you to decipher simple alien machinery and status displays built around colored lights and the like. (Apparently red is the universal color for bad, green the universal color for good.)

In other respects, however, Planetfall departs radically from Starcross. For all that that game’s environment was infinitely more logical and designed than the world of Zork, it had an unreality of its own, an elegant adventure-game symmetry about it that was nothing like the real world. Each object had a purpose. You spent most of your time collecting and using a set of colored rods which each slotted into a single place. When you got to the finale, every object had been tidily utilized, every room explored and its puzzles solved.

Planetfall, by contrast, gleefully throws elegance and tidiness out the window. You begin the game with two red herrings already in your inventory, and the situation doesn’t improve from there. Planetfall has a dark area you can never explore because there is no light source in the game; an enticing helicopter for which there is no key; a pile of useless spare parts to go alongside the couple you actually need; a bunch of useless (in game terms) bathrooms. This sort of thing was unprecedented in 1983. Adventure games simply weren’t done this way, if for no other reason than designers couldn’t afford to waste the space. Predictably, it drove — and still drives — some players crazy. Now you can’t determine what might be useful for solving a given puzzle from what objects you haven’t used yet, can’t ever get a clear sense of just what still remains to be done and what is just a distraction. Yet it also goes a long way toward making Planetfall‘s world feel believable. Really, and Chekhov’s aphorism of the gun aside, why should every object in a world fall neatly into place by the end? (Perhaps the revelation at the end of Starcross that the whole experience was just an elaborate alien intelligence test, which I criticized in my review, suddenly makes more sense in this light.) Even the most often criticized aspects of the game, its rather sprawling map filled with so many empty or useless rooms and the necessity to eat and sleep, play into the new sense of verisimilitude.

This points to an interesting aspect of Planetfall: for all of the comedic trappings, the scenario and the complex that you explore are quite meticulously worked out. Most things in this world work as they should, sometimes to your detriment; try carrying the magnet at the same time as your magnetic card keys and see what happens. As you get deeper into the story and the tragedy that has happened here starts to become clear, the game deepens, the experience becomes richer. There’s almost a sense of horror that kicks in as you begin coughing and feeling weaker and weaker, and realize you are in a race against time — or, more accurately, against the plague. Here Meretzky departs sharply from Douglas Adams, who was never interested in worrying about the details of his stories beyond what was needed as a scaffold to support his humor. Planetfall rivals Deadline and The Witness as a lived fictional experience, with the added advantage that it’s not as necessary to constantly restart to see it through.

All of that would be more than enough for one game to add to the established adventure-game template. But of course there’s more. We haven’t even mentioned Floyd.

All of the Infocom games prior to Planetfall had contained non-player characters of one sort or another, but none of those characters had been particularly fleshed-out. Even the mysteries had suffered from the need to include several suspects, which, given the harsh space limitations imposed by the Z-Machine, sharply limited their depth. Planetfall, however, takes place, apart from the brief opening sequence, within a deserted environment. Meretzky realized that he could alleviate the resulting sense of sterility by giving the player a sidekick. Further, this character, being essentially the only one in the game, could have a bit more depth, allow a bit more room for empathy on the part of the player than had been the norm.

Floyd is a “multiple purpose robot” whom you find deactivated in a corner fairly early in your explorations. If you search him before switching him on, you’ll likely wonder why he’s carrying a crayon in one of his compartments. Boy, do you have no idea what you’re in for. Turn him on and he springs to life a few turns later:

Suddenly, the robot comes to life and its head starts swivelling about. It notices you and bounds over. "Hi! I'm B-19-7, but to everyperson I'm called Floyd. Are you a doctor-person or a planner-person? That's a nice lower elevator access card you are having there. Let's play Hider-and-Seeker you with me."

From now on Floyd steals the show. He gets all the best lines. Whenever Floyd is involved, Planetfall becomes as funny as it wants to be. And it becomes something more as well. You fall in love with the little guy.

>play with floyd
You play with Floyd for several centichrons until you drop to the floor, exhausted. Floyd pokes at you gleefully. "C'mon! Let's play some more!"


Floyd notices a mouse scurrying by and tries to hide behind you.


>sleep
You'll probably be asleep before you know it.
You slowly sink into a deep and restful sleep.

...Strangely, you wake to find yourself back home on Gallium. Even more strangely, you are only eight years old again. You are playing with your pet sponge-cat, Swanzo, on the edge of the pond in your backyard. Mom is hanging orange towels on the clothesline. Suddenly the school bully jumps out from behind a bush, grabs you, and pushes your head under the water. You try to scream, but cannot. You feel your life draining away...

***** SEPTEM 7, 11344 *****

You wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the challenges of this mysterious world.
Floyd bounces impatiently at the foot of the bed. "About time you woke up, you lazy bones! Let's explore around some more!"


Floyd produces a crayon from one of his compartments and scrawls his name on the wall.


>get all
multiple purpose robot: You manage to lift Floyd a few inches off the ground, but he is too heavy and you drop him suddenly. Floyd gives a surprised squeal and moves a respectable distance away.


Floyd rubs his head affectionately against your shoulder.


>s
Machine Shop
This room is probably some sort of machine shop filled with a variety of unusual machines. Doorways lead north, east, and west.

Standing against the rear wall is a large dispensing machine with a spout. The dispenser is lined with brightly-colored buttons. The first four buttons, labelled "KUULINTS 1 - 4", are colored red, blue, green, and yellow. The next three buttons, labelled "KATALISTS 1 - 3", are colored gray, brown, and black. The last two buttons are both white. One of these is square and says "BAAS". The other white button is round and says "ASID".
Floyd follows you.

>save
Ok.
Floyd's eyes light up. "Oh boy! Are we gonna try something dangerous now?"
Floyd pushes one of the dispenser buttons. Fluid pours from the spout and splashes across the floor. Floyd jumps up and down, giggling.


>type 1
The screen clears and some text appears:

"Xe Zoork triloojee, an adventshur klasik, taaks plaas in aa deeliitful but daanjuris undurgrownd seteeng."

"Foor moor deetaald infoormaashun on xis tapik, konsult xe liibrereein foor xe aproopreeit spuulz. Tiip zeeroo tuu goo tuu aa hiiyur levul."
Floyd, peering over your shoulder, says "Oh, I love that game! Solved every problem, except couldn't figure out how to get into white house."


>n
Repair Room
You are in a dimly-lit room, filled with strange machines and wide storage cabinets, all locked. To the south, a narrow stairway leads upward. On the north wall of the room is a very small doorway.
Lying face down at the bottom of the stairs is a motionless robot. It appears to be damaged beyond repair.

>n
It is a robot-sized doorway -- a bit too small for you.

>floyd, n
Floyd squeezes through the opening and is gone for quite a while. You hear thudding noises and squeals of enjoyment. After a while the noise stops, and Floyd emerges, looking downcast. "Floyd found a rubber ball inside. Lots of fun for a while, but must have been old, because it fell apart. Nothing else interesting inside. Just a shiny fromitz board."

>floyd, get board
Floyd shrugs. "If you say so." He vanishes for a few minutes, and returns holding the fromitz board. It seems to be in good shape. He tosses it toward you, and you just manage to catch it before it smashes.

Meretzky may have devoted more text and code to Floyd than had been given to any previous Infocom NPC, but that doesn’t mean it adds up to all that much. Floyd has become a case study in creating more affect with less. In printed form, all of the code and text devoted to Floyd would fill less than ten typewritten pages. There’s also very little that you the player can really do to communicate with him or affect his behavior. All told, the gears ought to show through horribly, but somehow they don’t. Floyd’s childlike personality and diction makes it seem a little less weird that he rarely seems to fully understand you when you talk to him. And the relative dearth of text devoted to Floyd can actually work in his favor. We never learn clearly what Floyd actually looks like, although we learn that he has feet (because he can kick us when we fall asleep) and, most strangely, that he can somehow smile. I have a theory that we mentally replace Floyd the robot with whatever strikes us as most appealing — a beloved pet, say, or even a child. Here the medium of text, which lets us all create our own Floyds in our imagination, is key. It also makes what eventually happens to him all the more devastating.

There comes another point, like the last one shown above, where you the player are utterly stymied. Once again Floyd comes to the rescue… only this time he pays the ultimate price for his helpfulness.

>look through window
You can see a large laboratory, dimly illuminated. A blue glow comes from a crack in the northern wall of the lab. Shadowy, ominous shapes move about within the room. On the floor, just inside the door, you can see a magnetic-striped card.
Floyd stands on his tiptoes and peers in the window. "Looks dangerous in there," says Floyd. "I don't think you should go inside." He peers in again. "We'll need card there to fix computer. Hmmm... I know! Floyd will get card. Robots are tough. Nothing can hurt robots. You open the door, then Floyd will rush in. Then you close door. When Floyd knocks, open door again. Okay? Go!" Floyd's voice trembles slightly as he waits for you to open the door.

>open door
The door opens and Floyd, pausing only for the briefest moment, plunges into the Bio Lab. Immediately, he is set upon by hideous, mutated monsters! More are heading straight toward the open door! Floyd shrieks and yells to you to close the door.

>close door
The door closes.
From within the lab you hear ferocious growlings, the sounds of a skirmish, and then a high-pitched metallic scream!

>wait
Time passes...
You hear, slightly muffled by the door, three fast knocks, followed by the distinctive sound of tearing metal.

>open door
The door opens.
Floyd stumbles out of the Bio Lab, clutching the mini-booth card. The mutations rush toward the open doorway!

>close door
The door closes.
And not a moment too soon! You hear a pounding from the door as the monsters within vent their frustration at losing their prey.

Floyd staggers to the ground, dropping the mini card. He is badly torn apart, with loose wires and broken circuits everywhere. Oil flows from his lubrication system. He obviously has only moments to live.

You drop to your knees and cradle Floyd's head in your lap. Floyd looks up at his friend with half-open eyes. "Floyd did it ... got card. Floyd a good friend, huh?" Quietly, you sing Floyd's favorite song, the Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner:

O, they ruled the solar system
Near ten thousand years before
In their single starcrossed scout ships
Mining ast'roids, spinning lore.

Then one true courageous miner
Spied a spaceship from the stars
Boarded he that alien liner
Out beyond the orb of Mars.

Yes, that ship was filled with danger
Mighty monsters barred his way
Yet he solved the alien myst'ries
Mining quite a lode that day.

O, they ruled the solar system
Near ten thousand years before
'Til one brave advent'rous spirit
Brought that mighty ship to shore.

As you finish the last verse, Floyd smiles with contentment, and then his eyes close as his head rolls to one side. You sit in silence for a moment, in memory of a brave friend who gave his life so that you might live.

Apart only from the famous white house at the beginning of Zork, this is by far the most remembered scene from any Infocom game. It’s also amongst the most crassly manipulative. Meretzky admits that Floyd’s death was very much a calculated move. Having put so many “eggs in the basket” of Floyd, he asked what the best way would be to “cash in” on that connection. Thus poor Floyd had to die. Planetfall was in final testing when Electronic Arts debuted with the famous “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” advertisement. That made the death scene feel even more appropriate: “There was a little touch of budding rivalry there, and I just wanted to head them off at the pass.”

Perhaps death scenes are like sausages; it’s best not to see how they’re made. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. Floyd’s death still gets me every time, and it seems I’m hardly alone. Significantly, while Floyd’s death is generally described as taking place very near the end of the game, this isn’t always necessarily the case. It’s possible for him to sacrifice himself while there is still quite a bit left to be done before the end-game. Such a scenario might be the most heartbreaking of all, as you’re forced to spend quite a lot of time wandering the complex alone. Without Floyd, it feels sadder and more deserted than ever.

The significance of Floyd and the impact of his death was remarked early and often. Just weeks after Planetfall debuted, Softline magazine shockingly spoiled the game by printing Floyd’s death scene on the front cover(!). Inside was a feature article (“Call Me Ishmael: Micros Get the Literary Itch”) that struggled to come to terms with What Floyd Meant for the evolution of adventure gaming.

The rising level of sophistication in the adventure game — that most sophisticated of entertainments ever to pass through a central processing unit — has fain threatened to take it out of the computer junkies’ realm of private delight and toss it into the center ring of popular culture, along with books, plays, and movies. Can it absorb the culture shock and continue to develop and transcend standards that are already high, or will it be homogenized, simplified, and forced to satisfy the lowest social denominator?

Notably, Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn make a prominent contribution to the article, and here refer for the first time to my knowledge to Infocom’s games as “interactive fiction.”

Floyd was introduced to academia by Janet Murray in 1997’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. Since then he has been a football kicked around in a thousand debates. Some, like Murray, point to him as an example of the emotional potential of ludic narrative, while lamenting that there have been so few similar moments in games since Planetfall. Others, like the ever-outspoken Chris Crawford, point out that Floyd’s death is a pre-scripted, unalterable, non-interactive event, and use it as an example of the fundamental limitations of set-piece storytelling in games. It is, of course, ultimately both.

Less discussed than Floyd’s death — and for good reason — is his return at the end of the game.

A team of robot technicians step into the anteroom. They part their ranks, and a familiar figure comes bounding toward you! "Hi!" shouts Floyd, with uncontrolled enthusiasm. "Floyd feeling better now!" Smiling from ear to ear, he says, "Look what Floyd found!" He hands you a helicopter key, a reactor elevator card, and a paddle-ball set. "Maybe we can use them in the sequel...

Floyd’s death may have been manipulative, but this is the worst sort of sentimental pandering. It retroactively devalues everything you felt when Floyd made his sacrifice, turning a tragedy into a practical joke — “Ha! Got ya!” I unabashedly hate everything about it. It was added at the behest of marketing, who were in turn responding to distressed playtesters and were concerned about releasing such a “downer” game. As indicated by the extract above, the potential for a sequel starring Floyd was also no doubt in their minds; it had already become clear during testing that players responded to the little fellow as they had to no one in any of Infocom’s previous games. Marketing at Infocom was usually remarkably willing to stay out of the way of artistic decisions. It’s too bad they made an exception here, and too bad Meretzky didn’t stick to his guns and tell them no. As it is, Planetfall goes down as one of a number of Infocom games that fail to stick the landing.

Released in August of 1983, Planetfall was another solid commercial performer for Infocom. It sold some 21,000 copies in the last months of 1983, followed by almost 44,000 the following year, numbers very close to those of The Witness. That’s just a bit surprising in light of Planetfall‘s name recognition today; it stands as one of the best remembered and best loved of the Infocom games, almost entirely due to Floyd, while The Witness goes relatively unremarked except amongst the hardcore. Nevertheless, Trip Hawkins got his answer far sooner than he ever expected to, while today Planetfall‘s legacy as the first computer game to make us cry stands secure.

(I must thank Jason Scott for sharing with me additional materials from his Get Lamp project for this article. There’s also a very good extended interview with Steve Meretzky in Game Design: Theory and Practice.)

 
 

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The Witness

Stu Galley

Stu Galley, a man who would come to unabashedly love the games Infocom created, who would author the almost naively idealistic “Implementor’s Creed” to describe the job he and his fellow Imps did, took quite a long time to discover his passion. When he first saw the Zork game that some of the other hackers in MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group had created, he thought it clever but little else. He had no interest in fantasy fiction or Dungeons and Dragons, and no particular interest in exploring beyond Zork‘s first few rooms. Some of his disinterest may have been generational. Already in his mid-thirties when Zork was begun, he was five to ten years older than the people who made it. That’s not a huge gap, but it was enough to place him at a somewhat different stage of life, one where such idle amusements might not have quite so much appeal in light of his wife and young son.

When asked to become a founder of Infocom, he signed on because he had a lot of respect for the talents of the others. He thought they just might come up with something — who knew what? — really great, and he didn’t want to be kicking himself over the lost opportunity in five years. During this early period Galley, like most of the founders, did this or that for the company as time and inclination allowed, but kept it very much ancillary to his main working life. His official role at Infocom was to serve as treasurer. He also pitched in to help with odd jobs here and there: an experienced technical writer, he wrote the original manual for the commercial Zork, and helped Mike Dornbrook to set up and administer the mailing list that would morph into The Zork Users Group. But he mostly remained on the periphery, not quite ready to commit too much energy to the venture. Then came an epiphany.

Very early in 1982 Galley agreed to another of those odd jobs: to do some testing on Marc Blank’s new mystery, Deadline. Galley was blown away by the game for much the same reason it would soon cause a sensation in the world of adventure gaming in general. He still recalls vividly today how, when exploring the Robner house for the first time, he heard a phone ring in the other room but missed the call. Restarting, he made sure to be near a phone when the time came, and heard Mrs. Robner having a clipped conversation with her lover. That “blew his mind.” Here was a realistic, dynamic world to inhabit, one which struck him as far more interesting than the vast, empty dungeon of Zork with its static, arbitrary puzzles. “I could relive this story over and over and eventually, by looking at it from different angles and connecting the dots, find out what was really going on.” Galley was hooked at last.

In light of Deadline‘s commercial success, another mystery was obviously warranted. With some input from Dave Lebling, Blank began sketching out plans for a sequel almost immediately. He already had a clever gimmick in mind: the player would be invited to his home by the victim, where she would actually witness the murder in the opening scenes of the game. Nevertheless, it still wouldn’t be clear who was actually responsible. Unfortunately, Blank was absolutely swamped with other work: putting together Zork III, helping Mike Berlyn get up to speed on ZIL and ensuring he had the tools he needed for the game that would become Suspended, doing an ever-escalating series of interviews and PR junkets, sorting out business issues with the board. The game, to be called Invitation to Murder, remained only an outline of a few typewritten pages into the fall. That’s when it occurred to Blank, who was forever looking for ways to cajole his fellow founders into taking a more active role, to offer the outline to Galley, who still had stars in his eyes over his Deadline experience. Galley quickly agreed, and in October of 1982, while still only moonlighting at Infocom, started to work.

Working from a stripped-down skeleton of the original Deadline code, Galley gradually built a playable game over the next few months. Along the way, the project had one of the effects for which Blank had hoped: Galley was so inspired by the new work that he quit MIT and came to Infocom full-time before the year was out. In late January Infocom sat down with their ever-supportive advertising agency of G/R Copy to discuss the upcoming game. Just as they had with Deadline, G/R quickly replaced the original title with something much more punchy and direct: simply The Witness. Both Mike Berlyn and G/R also suggested that the time period and the tone be changed. They suggested that, rather than the ostensible present of Deadline, Galley move the game to the golden age of mystery, the 1930s. In retrospect this was a natural change. As I noted when writing about Deadline, that game felt like a product of the golden age anyway; The Witness would merely make it official. If anything the more important suggestion was to change the style to differentiate the new game from Deadline. If Deadline was a cozy mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, The Witness could be Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, a hardboiled tale of noirish intrigue.

Galley didn’t have much experience with this branch of the mystery canon, but, as he later put it, as soon as he started to read The Big Sleep he was convinced. Instead of the stately, blue-blooded Connecticut of Deadline, The Witness would take place in 1938 Los Angeles, at the peak of pre-war Hollywood’s loose glamor and danger. Galley lost himself in period research. In addition to the classic crime fiction of the period, he drew from a Sears catalog and other advertisements from the era, a 1937 encyclopedia, and The Dictionary of American Slang (to get the characters’ language right). He went so far as to track down a radio schedule for February 18, 1938, the evening of the crime, and make sure that the radio inside the house played the correct program from minute to minute.

In the tradition of Deadline, the packaging of The Witness would be a major part of the experience. Accordingly, Infocom began working with G/R on it months before the game’s projected release. Already back when outlining the game Blank had proposed including a newspaper with articles giving background information on the victim and the suspects, another direct lift from the old Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers (a fold-out newspaper had been the showstopping centerpiece of Who Killed Robert Prentice?). With the newfound historical context, G/R now ran with the idea to create one of the most impressive feelies Infocom would ever release. They found a newspaper in the Los Angeles area, The Register of Santa Ana, who agreed to share several editions from the period on microfiche. They then had the whole thing typeset once again, with a couple of new, game-specific articles slyly inserted. As Galley later noted, some of the real stories from the newspaper (“Fear Lost Boy Victim of Cougar”; “Works Many Years with Broken Neck”; “Pajama ‘Parade’ Results as Toy Catches on Fire”) were more bizarre than anything they could have come up with on their own. Printed on perfectly yellowed cheap newsprint, the final result is a triumph.

The Witness newspaper, front The Witness newspaper, back

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
G/R contacted Western Union for help recreating a telegram from the period. Galley and G/R, who clearly had a great deal of fun with this project, scoured old magazines and catalogs for advertisements to include in the faux-detective magazine that serves as the manual. G/R was even able to get some of their other clients, such as American Optical, to loan their old adverts to the effort.

"advertisement" from The Witness  manual

For the obligatory physical prop, the equivalent to the pills included in the Deadline package, they added a matchbook with a cryptic phone number scrawled on the inside. Taken all together, The Witness outclasses even Deadline in its packaging. It’s almost enough to make the actual game it’s supporting feel just a bit underwhelming in comparison.

It’s not that there’s anything dramatically wrong with The Witness, just that after such a build-up the actual case at its heart is maybe not quite so intriguing as one might wish. The solution, when you uncover it, is thoroughly absurd, not at all unusual in this genre, but not ultimately all that interesting in spite of its absurdity. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there just aren’t enough suspects nor enough juicy secrets to be discovered about them. There are only three possible murderers, and one of those has been caught red-handed fleeing from the crime scene — which, as anyone who’s ever read a mystery novel should know, pretty much rules him out from get-go. Combined with the smallest map of any Infocom game to date — some 30 rooms, most of them empty and unnecessary to even visit — that’s likely to leave one rather nonplussed at the end, asking, “Is that really it?” It’s certainly one of the shortest games Infocom would ever release.

But that was more of a problem in 1983, when people were spending $30 or $40 to buy The Witness, than it is today, when we can enjoy it on its own terms. And in that spirit there’s a lot to recommend it. Although its case is not so intriguing, I actually found The Witness to be a better, more satisfying experience than Deadline was when my wife and I recently played it, for the simple reason that it’s fair. It’s blessedly solvable with some careful thought and attention, without needing to do anything absurd like DIG for no apparent reason. When we apprehended the killer, sans any hints at all, it was a great feeling, a testament to Infocom’s evolving design craft and the increasing involvement by this point of the in-house and out-of-house testers, who were now shaking down the designs and providing vital reality checks to the Imps. If anything, some might consider The Witness too easy, but that’s always been a more forgivable sin than the alternative of hardness-through-unfairness in my book.

Galley, who had never written a word of fiction before starting on The Witness, does a pretty good job with it here. The opening lines leave no doubt about the genre we’re in for:

Somewhere near Los Angeles. A cold Friday evening in February 1938. In this climate, cold is anywhere below about fifty degrees. Storm clouds are swimming across the sky, their bottoms glowing faintly from the city lights in the distance. A search light pans slowly under the clouds, heralding another film premiere. The air seems expectant, waiting for the rain to begin, like a cat waiting for the ineffable moment to ambush.

The constrained geography and relative paucity of interactable objects have the positive side effect of giving more space for exposition. The opening stages of the game in particular, before you witness the murder that really kicks off the case in earnest, are surprisingly florid, in a way that no previous Infocom game had been. It’s little surprise that so many tended to latch onto The Witness even more than Deadline as a harbinger of a new type of literature.

Still, The Witness‘s historical reputation has always suffered in comparison to that of Deadline, likely the inevitable result of being the follow-up to such a great, audacious leap. For another likely reason for its less than stellar ranking in the Infocom canon today we can look again to those wonderful feelies, which were both such an important part of the experience and, in the case of the newspaper, almost uniquely hard to recreate in a PDF document or the like. To the extent that these factors may blind people to The Witness‘s real merits — it’s not a masterpiece, but it is a solid piece of craftsmanship — that’s a shame.

Deadline also somewhat overshadowed The Witness on the sales charts. Release in June of 1983, The Witness sold a little over 25,000 copies before the end of the year, then some 35,000 the next, oddly failing to keep pace even when quite new with the older Deadline. Still, those numbers were more than enough to make it profitable for Infocom. And for anyone looking to get started with the Infocom mysteries today just for fun (as opposed to historical research), it’s definitely the one I’d recommend you play.

 
 

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The Top of its Game

When Mike Berlyn joined Infocom in the summer of 1982, he became one of the first trickles in a stream of new employees to join Joel Berez and Marc Blank inside the company’s spacious new offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some of those who took up residence on Wheeler Street were from the original founding core. The vast majority, however, were true newcomers whose contributions would be enormous even if their names would often never become so well known as those of the original gang from MIT. Let’s try to remedy that just a bit now for at least one of these folks; we’ll make space for others in later articles.

The bedrock technologies upon which was built virtually everything Infocom later did were of course the Z-Machine virtual machine and the ZIL adventure-specific programming language designed by the founders — with by far the biggest contribution coming from Marc Blank — as the first substantive project of the new company back in 1979 and 1980. Yet Infocom struggled in those earliest years to actually get the Z-Machine onto the smorgasbord of incompatible microcomputers that was the PC market of the early 1980s. While they had a wealth of computer-science talent on tap to design such technology in the abstract, no one among the founders had any particular love for or, truth be told, unusual skill for hacking on micros. Stu Galley’s old slogan of “We hate micros!” still largely held sway. The one member of the original Zork team who did have a fondness for the little machines was Bruce Daniels, who decided to join Apple rather than Infocom; the company had to pay him as a contractor to implement the Z-Machine on the Apple II from his new home in California. As long as they remained staffed exclusively by refugees from the world of institutional computing, Infocom would be unable to fully take advantage of the Z-Machine. Enter one Dan Horn.

In 1982 Horn was working for Scott Adams’s Adventure International near Orlando, Florida, but also doing testing for many other companies, among them Infocom. An outgoing personality who wasn’t shy about sharing his ideas, he developed a good working relationship with Blank, which led to a full-fledged job offer, to come to Boston and set up a new division within Infocom dedicated just to porting and maintaining the Z-Machine on as many microcomputers as could support it. This would allow the founders to wash their hands of the whole business and just concentrate on the games themselves.

Horn’s “Micro Group” soon came to occupy a substantial portion of the offices, and were responsible for Infocom’s soon-to-be legendary ability to get their games onto more platforms more quickly than anyone else. At their peak, they supported more than twenty different incompatible systems, including a few soon-to-be orphans for which Infocom’s games were virtually the only commercial software available. A loft above the offices housed at least one example of every machine available for purchase at that time, along with a selection of prototypes sent directly from manufacturers who, in light of the popularity of the Infocom games and their reputation as masters of the quick port, sent them in the hopes that Infocom could have their full line available as soon as the machines hit the market. Their hopes were generally well-founded. In order to get their games onto the Apple Macintosh in time for its release, Horn’s team dumped entirely the prototype’s buggy pre-release operating system, replacing it with a window manager of their own. On release day a dozen or so Infocom games were the only ones available. A similar scenario was later repeated on machines like the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. Other, more celebrated employees may have written the games, but Horn’s group brought them to the world. As Horn said in his interview for Get Lamp, you can’t sell a lot of games for a $100,000-plus DEC minicomputer.

Speaking of which: in December of 1982 Infocom made a landmark purchase that signaled they had truly arrived as a company: their own DECSystem-20, the latest iteration of the PDP-10 architecture that had spawned Zork and still ran ZIL. Before this point Infocom had begged, borrowed, or leased time on various systems belonging to MIT or DEC itself. Now they had a machine of their own, one that would soon take a featured spot as the mysterious heart of the Infocom magic in articles written by the microcomputer journalists who visited the offices and reported what they found in the magazines of the day. “The electric bill for just the mighty DEC 2060 computer that blinks and hums away in the basement runs to $1500 a month,” wrote one awed visitor, conjuring images of one of Star Trek‘s mysterious planet-controlling computers run amok. In reality, the machine was far from exotic. It was in fact thoroughly typical gear in businesses and universities all over the country, an established everyday workhorse chosen precisely because the core of the company had been working with machines of this design for years. It was just that it normally existed in an entirely different world of computing, one of which hobbyists hacking at home on their Apple IIs or Commodore 64s had little knowledge.

What with the arrival of the DEC system and the establishment of the Micro Group, as 1983 began Infocom was poised to enter its classic era, that short, happy time when the business model and the technology were in place and in full flower and the company was churning along merrily, kicking out another bestselling title every few months. Infocom had gone a long way toward crafting the public image for which they’re still remembered already in 1982 with the aid of a wonderful partner, their advertising firm of G/R Copy. In 1983 they cemented their image as classy purveyors of games which eschewed childish graphics for the deeper, richer, more adult pleasures of text via the two best-crafted and (not coincidentally) best-remembered advertisements they would ever release.

Infocom advertisement Infocom advertisement

Yet that sense of focus, that absolute surety about who they were and what they were doing which they projected to the outside world was not always reflective of what was going on inside the company. Infocom finally came to the brave decision to double down on text only after a lot of serious internal debate. To understand why, we have to remember that already by 1982 few pure text adventures were still being sold in North America, and of them only those of Infocom were doing at well commercially. The movement that On-Line Systems had begun with Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess now dominated the industry. Even Scott Adams felt compelled to add pictures to his minimalist back-catalog, creating the SAGA line. Were Infocom’s games destined to ultimately suffer for their lack of pictures, or were they qualitatively different enough from the competition to survive on their own terms? That was the question Infocom’s management wrestled with.

Infocom was uncertain enough of the answer that they approached Penguin Software, riding high at the time in the wake of their hit Transylvania, to discuss the idea of a partnership, in which Penguin’s Antonio Antiochia (author of Transylvania) would make illustrations for the Infocom line. Antiochia was eager, but Mark Pelczarski, head of Penguin, was somewhat ambivalent. As he told me recently, he actually admired the extant Infocom approach greatly, and shuddered at the idea of Infocom trading their games’ sophistication for the lure of pictures. On the other hand, he was very aware of what the arrangement could do for his own company, and excited by the idea of working closely with the Infocom core, for whom he had immense personal and professional respect. And so the discussions proceeded amidst conflicted feelings on both sides. Within Infocom, the technical architects and game designers, following the example of Marc Blank, tended to line up against graphics, while the company’s emerging business and marketing sides believed them necessary to stay competitive.

In the end, the former opinion won the day, and negotiations with Penguin quietly petered out as G/R Copy set to work on the famous anti-graphics advertising campaign that did so much to define Infocom as they are still remembered today. If nothing else, Blank had compelling technical arguments on his side. Not only would pictures necessarily drain precious computing resources away from Infocom’s best-in-the-industry parsers, world models, and writing, but their entire ZIL- and Z-Machine-based development system was fundamentally unsuited to making games with pictures. The DEC terminals on which the games were actually written could display only text, which would leave as the only option somehow shoehorning pictures in at the interpreter level. This would play havoc with Infocom’s ability to get their games quickly onto such a variety of machines: while all of the target machines could easily accept input from the keyboard and display text in response, their graphics capabilities ranged from impressive to nonexistent, with each machine having its own set of strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. As Infocom soon realized from the discussions with Penguin, getting pictures onto even a small subset of platforms would be an immensely time-consuming, technically ugly exercise, if it could be done at all without ripping out the heart of what made Infocom Infocom, and would play to absolutely none of the company’s technical strengths. And even though everyone liked the folks at Penguin, Infocom as a company always preferred to do things in-house rather than depend on outside partners.

With the final decision made at last to buck the conventional market wisdom, Infocom’s audacious advertising in support of the choice proved so masterful that it not only sustained their own success but also gave rhetorical cover for a modest but noteworthy resurgence of all-text games from others. During the next few years, companies as large and commercially mainstream as Brøderbund and Electronic Arts would release pure-text adventures of their own, a development that would have been exceedingly unlikely without the example of Infocom to say that, yes, games without pictures can still sell (for the time being, anyway).

For the first couple of years following the split with Personal Software, Infocom relied heavily upon G/R Copy to craft not only their advertising but most of the face they showed to the outside world, including their packaging and even the names of their games. (The list of Infocom games that found their final name only when complete and in the final stages of package design and testing is surprisingly long.) In the summer of 1983, however, Infocom began to become less dependent on G/R, thanks to the return of a prodigal son, Mike Dornbrook. As you may remember, Dornbrook had left the Boston area two years before for an MBA program at the University of Chicago, taking his Zork Users Group with him. Since then he had invented InvisiClues and, working closely with friends inside Infocom proper, turned ZUG into a formidable operation. Now Infocom took Dornbrook back on in-house as “Product Manager,” a position that amounted to head of marketing and head of public relations. He brought with him the ZUG operation kit and kaboodle, including the maps and the InvisiClues and the trinkets that they sold as well as The New Zork Times newsletter and, most precious of all, a mailing list of some 20,000 members who formed the rapidly expanding heart of the Infocom fanbase. These were the people who bought every game, who evangelized to their friends, who thought of themselves as members of the Infocom “smart persons club.”

The New Zork Times continued without a pause, now as the official quarterly publication of Infocom itself, the most essential link between company and fans. Its pages were filled with some of the puff pieces and thinly veiled advertisements you might expect from a publication of this stripe, but always executed with wit and charm thanks to Dornbrook’s careful hand. There were also quizzes, jokes, and contests. But most precious to the fans was the picture the newsletter gave of life inside the company, a microcosmic world of clever, wacky people who all genuinely liked one another having a great time every day making great games and getting paid to do it. Fans devoured stories about the latest office shenanigans instigated by Dornbrook and Steve Meretzky, the two biggest jokesters in an office that seemed full of them; about the personal histories behind the various games; about the Infocom softball team’s epic duels with their arch-rivals (both on the field and in adventure gaming) at nearby Spinnaker Software.

The New Zork Times‘s picture of life inside Infocom was, at least during 1983 and 1984, quite accurate. The Wheeler Street offices were a genuinely happy place, a great place to be young, technically skilled and/or creative, and gainfully employed. As Graham Nelson wrote, the people who worked there “mostly look back on the heyday as a happy, one-time thing, like a summer romance.” Everyone worked hard, and often for long hours, but there was always something amusing going on: epic tournaments of Uno or Diplomacy; parties to celebrate this or that real or contrived occasion (management provided a party budget of $400 per week); running gags and practical jokes of all stripes; an in-house newsletter (InfoDope) that served as a sort of unexpurgated companion to the official New Zork Times; softball; crab races(!). It’s an overused metaphor, but calling Infocom a family is probably not overstating the case.

Infocom’s game-making operation was broadly divided into four divisions: the Micro Division that got the Z-Machine interpreters working and got the games deployed onto all those machines; quality control, consisting of a core of in-house testers who were also responsible for a larger network of outside volunteers who ensured that, beginning in 1983, Infocom’s new games were released in a much more polished state than those of earlier years, and that the older games were patched up to meet the new standards; Dornbrook’s marketing and PR people; and at the center of it all the so-called Imps (short for “Implementors,” of course) who actually created the games on the big DEC machine. This group, despite constituting a relatively small percentage of the people employed by Infocom, were the ones who got all the attention, who got their names on the boxes and in The New Zork Times and whom everyone from the press wanted to meet. There was some resentment of their status by others in the company, but not as much as you might expect, perhaps because there proved to be just enough mobility among the groups to give hope to an ambitious tester or interpreter coder that she could reach center stage and become an Imp; people from both groups did eventually author their own games. Inter-divisional resentment was also relieved via measures like the weekly Friday parties that brought the whole company together for a few hours to chitchat and discuss business and generally see how the other halves were living.

By the end of 1983, these groups added up to some thirty people, up from all of four full-timers at the time Mike Berlyn joined just eighteen months before. Annual sales increased at a similar rate, from about 100,000 games in 1982 to 450,000 in 1983. Infocom doubled the size of their catalog in 1983, releasing five new games. Every single one was a solid hit. Infocom was a dominant player, very likely the most respected and envied in the games industry of 1983 — even despite the splashy launch of Electronic Arts — and a veritable commercial juggernaut. How veritable, you ask? Well, below you see the bestseller charts of the biggest software distributor of the time, SoftSel, for the week of December 12, 1983.

SoftSel bestseller list for December 12, 1983

As you can see, every single one of the ten games Infocom has available is nestled securely inside the top 40, including six within the top 20, three within the top 10, and Zork I at number one. The whole thing rather reminds one of those Billboard charts from 1964 which seem to consist of pretty much all Beatles songs. The top four Infocom titles on the chart all date from earlier years, demonstrating the oft-remarked unusual staying power of Infocom’s catalog titles. Indeed, the continuing success of Zork I baffled even Infocom. It had increased its sales astronomically for every year on the market, approaching 100,000 all by itself in 1983, and sales would jump by more than 50% yet again in 1984.

All of this commercial success brought with it lots and lots of press attention. A big part of this came from the usual suspects inside the computer and gaming trade press, who positively clamored for permission to visit Wheeler Street and interview the inhabitants. But more surprising and (one suspects) more gratifying was the attention from some very unusual suspects. Beginning with a piece by Edward Rothstein for the New York Times Book Review, 1983 was the year that the mainstream media discovered Infocom. The quirky company made a great story for journalists looking for an angle from which to explore the home-computer explosion and the accompanying growth in entertainment software, which seemed to be displacing the old console-based videogames. Lengthy profiles followed in Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, Discover. Marc Blank, unfailingly eloquent and charming, became Infocom’s go-to spokesman, sort of their equivalent to Electronic Arts’s Bill Budge. That almost became a full-time job in itself. “Sometimes it seems that all I do is interviews anymore,” he was soon good-naturedly sighing when asked about his role at the company. Like Budge, Blank even made it onto network television, demonstrating The Witness, Infocom’s mystery of 1983, for Diane Sawyer and Bill Kurtis on The CBS Morning News.

Marc Blank on The CBS Morning News

Most of these ambassadors from the mainstream tended to shy away from Infocom’s most popular game, Zork, in favor of the mysteries, the branch of genre literature most acceptable to an older, middlebrow audience who still generally saw fantasy and science fiction as disreputable stuff for the kids but weren’t averse to a bit of Agatha Christie. Likewise, the connection to Dungeons and Dragons, and even games in general, was deemphasized in favor of the games’ literary antecedents. For a lot of people inside and outside of Infocom, including the editors of SoftSide magazine who had started talking about the potential of “compunovels” back when Scott Adams was the only adventuring game in town, this kind of serious attention to the literary potential of the form must have represented quite a moment of triumph, even if not everyone was sold on the literary qualities of the extant games. (“By literary standards, Infocom’s stories are crude. The characters are two-dimensional, plots are forever clunking to a halt, and the writing tends to be sophomoric,” wrote Philip Elmer-De Witt in Time.) These writers also mostly avoided calling them “adventure games” in favor of “participatory novels,” “computer novels,” or, still considerably before Infocom would officially rebrand their games with the name, “interactive fiction.” It was truly press coverage to die for, which played perfectly into Infocom’s own advertising rhetoric of games for adult tastes and sensibilities. Some of these writers went much farther than Infocom ever officially would in laying claim to the games as a whole nascent new field of literature.

In the midst of all this heady success, there remained in the background the secret project that was really going to open the financial floodgates: the InfoBase, soon to be renamed Cornerstone.

As I’ve noted in earlier articles, Infocom had not been founded as a games company; Zork had merely been seen as a relatively quick first product to get them established and get some money flowing in. Even the early success of Zork I and II didn’t do a lot to change that. On January 12, 1982, Mort Rosenthal, Infocom’s brief-lived but extremely productive manager of marketing, presented to the board two possible strategic directions going forward: to continue to concentrate on games and “consumer software,” or to make a serious push into the business market while remaining a mere “presence” in the consumer market. The board, which included the chief architect of Infocom’s current success in games, Marc Blank, was hardly riven by internal conflict at this stage; they unanimously chose the latter course, tempted by a virgin microcomputer business market that had just been legitimized by the new IBM PC. Now the only question to answer was just what kind of a business product they wanted to create.

Meanwhile two old colleagues from the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, Brian Berkowitz and Richard Ilson, were experimenting with database software. The leading microcomputer database of the time, Ashton-Tate’s dBase II, was powerful but notoriously difficult to use; one had to effectively learn a new, fiddly programming language to get anything useful out of it. Berkowitz and Ilson envisioned a database for ordinary people, simple and menu-driven, that could be quickly set up and used by shopkeepers, medical receptionists, even people looking to catalog a book or stamp collection at home. They felt they had identified a real market need, and when their ideas came to the attention of Infocom’s Al Vezza, Joel Berez, and Marc Blank, all of whom had worked with the pair and had great respect for their capabilities, Infocom agreed. In return, Infocom could offer Berkowitz and Ilson access to their virtual-machine technology developed for their games, which should let them bring their database easily and cheaply onto not just the new IBM PC but a plethora of other, minor platforms where the competition would be nonexistent. It all sounded perfect. In October of 1982, Berkowitz and Ilson were officially hired as the first two employees of Infocom’s new Business Products Division, to work on the so-called “InfoBase.”

Berkowitz and Ilson were both very talented programmers, but things didn’t proceed quite as neatly as the original plan might have implied. They found that it was hardly practical to expect to just sit down and write a database in ZIL and then run it on the Z-Machine, as both had been rather ruthlessly pruned of any functionality not directly useful to writing adventure games. At best these technologies could serve as building blocks and samples on the road to rolling their own, much more complex virtual machine and its associated development tools. Still, by August of 1983 the two had enough to show that the project was deemed viable in the view of Infocom’s five-man board of directors. They decided it was time to expand it from little more than a two-man research project to a full-fledged development effort.

Infocom was doing wonderfully financially, but to fund a major business-software effort like this one would nevertheless require much more money than they were bringing in. They would need loans and/or venture capital. Until now, Al Vezza, the man who had had the original idea of founding Infocom, had remained in his job at MIT, leaving the day-to-day running of the company to Joel Berez. Now it was decided that Vezza would come on full-time beginning that January, as soon as he could wrap up his duties at MIT. Further, under the belief that the older Vezza possessed a gravitas that would sway potential investors, he would replace Berez as CEO on that date.

It was here that the first signs of the internal stresses that would eventually splinter the company began to show. In the beginning it had more to do with personalities than strategic concerns. Many at Infocom, among them Mike Berlyn, Steve Meretzky, Mike Dornbrook, and Dan Horn, disliked the stodgy, academic, rather humorless Vezza intensely. They were not thrilled by the idea of him replacing the popular, easygoing Berez, who had put his future on the line and guided the company to its current success while Vezza hedged his bets and remained at MIT. Vezza, meanwhile, seemed to regard Infocom’s games and (some suspected) its game programmers as distasteful necessities to be dispensed with as soon as he could get a real software business started. Caught somewhere in the middle were Berez himself and Marc Blank, who maybe weren’t quite so excited as they had been eighteen months before about business software in light of Infocom’s current success in games but weren’t quite willing to directly challenge the older, imposing Vezza over the issue. After all, why couldn’t Infocom do both, and keep everyone happy? With Vezza so disinterested in games, Berez would effectively remain in day-to-day control of that part of the company anyway, just like it had always been.

And make no mistake, the business market looked tempting indeed. Shortly after Infocom themselves had moved into the building on Wheeler Street, a tiny startup called Lotus Software that was run by Mitch Kapor, an old acquaintance who had negotiated Infocom’s first contract to sell Zork through Personal Software, moved into another space inside the same building. On January 26, 1983, they released Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet program designed to go head to head with the application that had largely built the business-software industry, VisiCalc. 1-2-3 outclassed VisiCalc so thoroughly that it all but destroyed it in the marketplace within months. Lotus made an incredible $53 million in 1983, and would triple those earnings the following year. Compared to success like that, the $6 million Infocom earned in 1983 seemed downright paltry. With an example of what a major business-software success story could be literally right next door, it’s little surprise that few at Infocom were willing to outright say no to Vezza’s schemes.

With dreams of Infocom as the next Lotus in his eyes, that December Vezza secured a $2 million loan from the Bank of Boston on very favorable terms, in return for stock options and a position on the board for Ray Stata, founder of Analog Devices. Should anyone have been counting, the board was now tilted four to two in favor of business over games, with Vezza, Stata, Chris Reeve, and the rather disinterested J.C.R. Licklider (who rarely bothered to show up at board meetings but gave his proxy to Reeve) on one side, and only Berez and Blank on the other, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of the company was still busy making games. With this first big injection of business-software capital and Vezza about to take the reins full-time, that would change in the new year.

If there were already grumbles about Vezza and the business-software initiative by the end of 1983, it should be understood that they were mild at this point. Infocom was staffed by a lot of young, talented people who had succeeded wildly at everything they had attempted thus far. Their little thirty-person business had a handsome bottom line, and they were being feted not just as commercial successes but as pioneers of a whole new form of interactive literature. Sure, they had worked hard, but it had also all come kind of easily to them. Having succeeded at everything else, why shouldn’t they succeed at business software? In spite of the money they spent on the database project during the year, they still finished 1983 with more than half-a-million in clear profits. All they could imagine ahead was more success, in an ever-expanding consumer market and, soon, a lucrative business market as well. They would have been shocked if you had told them that 1983 would be the last year Infocom would actually turn a profit, or that it would go down as the single happiest, most unblemished year in the company’s history. But for now let’s leave them to enjoy themselves at that pinnacle as we turn to the rest of the games of 1983 that helped to put them there.

(In addition to the links scattered through the article above, be sure to have a look at Down From the Top of its Game for more on the Infocom story from a business perspective.)

 
 

Suspended

Mike Berlyn

Mike Berlyn

As earlier posts have hopefully made clear, conventions played a pivotal role for many years in the PC industry. In the early years that conventions meant places like the West Coast Computer Faire and the AppleFests, where hackers and hobbyists would gather to talk about their machines and trade tips along with manufacturers, publishers, and developers; indeed, in this early period the groups could be all but indistinguishable. But 1982 is generally remembered by old-timers as the last year when the likes of Applefest could attract the movers and shakers. Afterward, as the moneyed interests entered en masse and the community of computer users (or even Apple users) grew too large to retain that clubby feeling, such gatherings faded in importance in comparison with the glitzier Consumer Electronics Show and its rivals, where you needed a press badge just to get in. Whatever form the shows took, they were as important for what took place behind the scenes, in back rooms, bars, and hotels, as what was shown on their floors. In gathering people from all over the industry together in one location, they provided essential opportunities for negotiations, deal making, maybe even a bit of intrigue.

Thus it was at the Boston Applefest in May of 1982 that Marc Blank of Infocom had a long talk with Mike Berlyn of Sentient Software, to whom he had been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. As it turned out, each was looking for something the other could offer him. It didn’t take long to make a deal.

Berlyn was by a wide margin the more frustrated of the pair. As you may recall, he had embraced the idea of adventure games as a new form of literary expression very early, and put it into practice as well as his resources allowed in two games he released through Sentient, Oo-Topos and Cyborg. Yet despite an absolutely rapturous review of the latter in the influential Softalk, the two games made nary a dent commercially. Berlyn, a demanding personality who throughout his career would change business relationships almost as often as he churned out games, felt muzzled by partners he felt weren’t as committed as he was and the accompanying lack of promotion and investment. Still, he also realized that in a real sense his best just wasn’t good enough. Both games were written in BASIC, with the two-word parser, simplistic world model, and all the other limitations that implied. Berlyn was a clever self-taught Apple II hacker, but lacked the experience or technical vision to create something more advanced — like, say, Infocom’s state-of-the-art ZIL system.

Blank, meanwhile, had ZIL but wasn’t sure he could take full advantage of it. Since starting to work on the landmark Deadline the previous year, he had started to see Infocom’s games in much the same light as Berlyn — as dynamic, playable stories. Blank, who was rather insecure about his own writerly chops (albeit largely unnecessarily), now viewed Deadline almost as a tech demo, a chance to get tools worked out and to demonstrate some shadow of what might be possible in the hands of a real writer. Berlyn, it must be admitted, was not exactly Norman Mailer or even Arthur C. Clarke. He had just three straight-to-the-dimestore-paperback-rack science fiction novels to his credit, none of which had sold all that well. Still, that was enough to qualify him for the title of “published author,” and was also three more novels than anyone else currently writing adventure games had published. Signing Berlyn would mark a big step toward Blank’s crystallizing vision of Infocom as publishers of interactive fiction rather than mere text adventures, even if it would still be a couple of years before the company would stumble upon that term to describe what they were really about.

The first plan had Berlyn working on a game for Infocom under contract from his home in Colorado. However, what with the complexities of the ZIL system and the state of telecommunications in 1982, that quickly proved impractical. So, within weeks of the Applefest meeting, Berlyn and his wife packed up and moved to Boston, where he became one of the first full-time employees to be hired by Infocom, as well as the first Implementor to be drawn from outside the immediate orbit of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science. What Infocom got for a first project was perhaps not quite what they had expected. Berlyn, Infocom’s supposed literary star, always combined a headstrong creativity with a certain flair for the perverse. He now started in earnest on Suspended, arguably the least literary parser-driven game Infocom would ever release, more a strategy game implemented in text than an interactive fiction.

The premise of Suspended reflects a longstanding obsession of Berlyn with disembodied consciousness; this had already been at the heart of his novel The Integrated Man and his earlier adventure Cyborg. In Suspended, you take the role of, yes, another disembodied consciousness, whose body has been placed in “cryogenic suspension” while her mind takes a 500-year shift as the emergency backup to an automated system which makes life possible on a planet of the future, controlling the weather, food production, and the transportation network. Normally your mind sleeps alongside your body, but you’re to be woken in the case of an emergency which the automated systems are not equipped to handle. As you’ve probably guessed, just such an emergency occurs as the game begins.

With no body of your own, you have six robots to whom you can issue orders and through whose senses you can experience the game’s available geography, which is restricted to a planetary control complex located far underground. Each robot is somewhat, um, specialized in its capabilities. Iris is the only one who can see. Auda can hear. Sensa can detect “vibrational activity, photon emission sources, and ionic discharges.” Poet seems to have no clear purpose, other than to spout bits of poetry that must be deciphered like a code to figure out what is really going on with him. (“All life’s a stage, so just consider me a player,” he says when asked to go somewhere; “It hops and skips and leaves a bit, and can’t decide if it should quit,” when asked to describe his surroundings inside a power station.) The most obviously practical robots are Whiz, who can interface with various computer systems, and Waldo, a general-purpose repair robot.

Over the course of the game a series of escalating crises strike the planet, to which you must respond by making use of all of your robots. There are fairly conventional object-based puzzles to solve, but even once you figure out how to do everything you still face a daunting challenge in scheduling and logistics to juggle all of your robots efficiently and minimize the causalities on the surface. If you succeed in saving the planet at all — no easy task in itself; it will likely take dozens of plays just to get that far — you next can concentrate on doing it without leaving half the population dead. (It’s rather deflating when you “win” for the first time, only to be told that the survivors want to burn you in effigy.) Winning “a home in the country and an unlimited bank account” will likely take at least a few dozen more attempts.

Played today, Suspended feels oddly like a genre of cooperative board games that have become fairly common in recent years. In games like Pandemic, Red November, and Flash Point, players struggle together to maintain a system against a series of shocks, whether they come in the form of waves of global disease, leaks and explosions aboard a very unseaworthy submarine, or a hungry house fire. Further cementing the board-game connection in my mind are the uniquely practical feelies that came with Suspended: a map of the complex in the form of a game board, with a set of counters representing each of the robots. As you get deeper into the game and begin playing to win you’ll soon have multiple robots moving simultaneously about the complex doing various things. Thus the board quickly becomes an essential tool for keeping track of the whole situation, along with some careful notes.

In one sense, Suspended feels visionary, or at least wholly unique in the Infocom canon. The standard text-adventure paradigm of play has been thrown overboard almost entirely. Gone, for example, is the need to map, along with the connection to a single in-game protagonist and any semblance of conventional storytelling. Further emphasizing the strategy-game feeling, Suspended is explicitly designed to be replayable. It has an “advanced” difficulty level you can attempt if you finally manage a good score on the standard, or you can choose the custom starting option, where you can choose the starting location of each robot and control when the various disasters are triggered. The manual suggests that you and friends could use this to “challenge each other” with new scenarios.

Unfortunately, the flexibility Suspended has can rather make us expect more from it than it can deliver. It would be nice if, like those board games I mentioned, Suspended could truly become a different experience every time it’s played by parceling out fortune and misfortune from a randomized deck of virtual cards. But alas, the same events will always occur even in custom mode; the only question is when, and even that is predetermined by the person entering the new parameters. Suspended upends the traditional Infocom approach enough that you wish it could have gone even further, dispensing with fixed puzzles and events entirely in favor of something completely dynamic and replayable. Maybe there’s a project in there somewhere for some modern author…

Visionary as it can feel, Suspended can also paradoxically feel like a bit of a throwback even in the context of its day. When we think of games in text today, we generally leap immediately to Adventure, Infocom, and all of their peers and antecedents. However, it’s important to remember that through the 1970s lots and lots of other sorts of games were implemented in text, simply because that was the only possibility. This included card games, strategy games, simulations, even action games. By the time of Suspended, the two text-only members of the trinity of 1977 (the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET) were fading away, and games other than adventures were expected to have graphics. One is almost tempted to look at Suspended as a text game that really wants to be in pictures, to imagine how cool it might be if the map board was included in the game itself as a graphical playing field. But then you realize that the very premise of having only one robot who can actually, you know, see is dependent on the proverbial magic of text, and a new appreciation for Berlyn’s creativity asserts itself. At any rate, it’s perhaps worth remembering again in light of Suspended‘s unusual mode of play that Infocom were not at this stage calling themselves makers of interactive fiction or even adventure games. They were just making games in text which were (they claimed) smarter and more sophisticated than those of anybody working in graphics.

Being such a departure from anything Infocom had done before (or, for that matter, would do later), Suspended pushed and stretched the ZIL system in unexpected new directions, turning development into quite a challenge. To make things harder, Berlyn, while he knew his way pretty well around an Apple II, had none of the grounding in programming and theory of the Infocom founders. Just getting him up to speed on ZIL took some time, and getting this extremely ambitious first project going took more. Yes, some of what was needed had been done already: Dave Lebling had first put together a system for passing orders to other characters for his own robot in Zork II, and Blank had made great strides toward a more dynamic model of adventuring in Deadline. Still, Blank had to work quite extensively with Berlyn to give him the tools he needed. A game of Suspended can have many, many balls in the air, with six robots all moving about following orders, disasters and events happening (or being averted) on the surface, and the player hopping about amidst all the chaos, taking in the scene through this robot’s senses, then issuing orders to that one. Further, the parser had to be substantially reworked to support it all; it’s now possible to issue orders to multiple robots at once, or even to tell two or more robots to work on something together, such as moving something neither one is strong enough to budge on its own. Taken just as a functioning virtual world, Suspended is damn impressive — amongst the most technically impressive worlds that Infocom would ever create.

It’s also damn difficult to penetrate. With its tersely sterile robotic diction, its ironclad adherence to the sensory limitations of each robot, and the time pressures of its cavalcade of disasters, there isn’t an ounce of compromise or compassion in the game. We can only take comfort in knowing that even in its cruelty it’s eminently fair, as uninterested in playing guess the verb or foisting illogical puzzles on us as it is in coddling us. There’s none of the sense here of a design that got away from its designer that plagues, say, the work of Scott Adams or the early work of Roberta Williams. Suspended is hard because it wants to be hard, and it’s hard in exactly the way it wants to be. Which isn’t to say that most players, myself included, are exactly disappointed that Infocom never ventured further down the trail it blazed. I suspect that Suspended is the Infocom game farthest away from the ideal of interactive fiction as it’s perceived and (in Infocom’s case) remembered today.

Suspended Suspended

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suspended was released in March of 1983 in a huge and elaborate box (better to house that big laminated game board) that featured a recessed three-dimensional face mask for a lid. Surprisingly in light of the game’s difficulty and unabashedly experimental mode of play, it was yet another solid hit, selling some 55,000 copies in 1983 alone and eventually flirting with sales of 100,000 over its commercial lifetime. It really did seem that, at least for now, people were willing to follow Infocom wherever they led them. And Suspended was the only first release of 1983, the happiest, most financially successful year in the company’s history. I’ll have much more to tell about that year and the games it produced in the next posts.

(I’m thrilled to be able to say that since my last post on Infocom Activision has rereleased many of their games, including Suspended, for iPhone and iPad. If you don’t have an iDevice, you can certainly find the story file elsewhere on the Internet, but as usual I won’t be hosting it here. Just in case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s a very rough module for the VASSAL board-gaming engine with the Suspended map and counters. Load the save to position the robots as they are at the start of the standard game. If someone more familiar with VASSAL wants to clean it up and upload it to the official module repository, by all means feel free.

I should also note here that Marc Blank’s attitude toward the eternal game vs. story question that always hangs about Infocom and interactive fiction in general seems to have changed over the years. In an interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, he states that he always viewed Infocom’s works as fundamentally games rather than fiction or literature. In contemporary interviews, however, he often expresses the belief that Infocom was creating works that were different from — or, if you like, transcended — games. I believe his current thinking may be somewhat colored by the pain and frustration of Infocom’s later years, and his inability to really move the genre forward in a way that felt right to him.)

 

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