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Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur

22 Jul

Arthur

And so at last, twelve years after a group of MIT hackers had started working on a game to best Crowther and Woods’s original Adventure, it all came down to Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Infocom’s 35th and final work of interactive fiction. Somewhat ironically, this era-ending game wasn’t written by one of Infocom’s own long-serving Imps, but rather by the relatively fresh and inexperienced Bob Bates and his company Challenge, Incorporated, for whom Arthur represented only their second game. On the other hand, though, Bates and Challenge did already have some experience with era-ending games. Their previous effort, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, had been the last text-only Infocom game to be published. As Bates’s buddy Steve Meretzky delights in saying, it’s lucky that Challenge would never get the chance to make a third game. What with them having already “single-handedly killed” the all-text Infocom game with Sherlock and then Infocom as a whole with Arthur, a third Challenge game “probably would have killed the entire computer-game industry.” We kid, Bob, we kid.

The story of Arthur‘s birth is the story of one of the few things to go according to plan through the chaos of Infocom’s final couple of years. When he’d first pitched the idea of Challenge becoming Infocom’s first outside developer back in 1986, Bates had sealed the deal with his plan for his first three games: a Sherlock Holmes game, a King Arthur game, and a Robin Hood game, in that order. Each was a universally recognizable character from fiction or myth who also had the advantage of being out of copyright. The games would amount to licensed works — always music to corporate parent Mediagenic’s1 ears — which didn’t require that anyone actually, you know, negotiate or pay for a license. It seemed truly the best of both worlds. And indeed, after Bates finished the Sherlock Holmes game, to very good creative if somewhat more mixed commercial results, his original plan still seemed strong enough that he was allowed to proceed to phase two and do his King Arthur game.

He chose to make his game the superhero origin story, if you will, of the once and future king: his boyhood trials leading up to his pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it’s been embedded, thereby proving himself the rightful king of England. That last act would, naturally, constitute the climax of the game. In confining himself to the very beginning of the story of King Arthur, Bates left open the possibility for sequels should the game be successful — another move calculated to warm hearts inside Mediagenic’s offices, whose emerging business model in the wake of the Bruce Davis takeover revolved largely around sequels and licenses.

From the perspective of Challenge, Arthur was created the same way as had been Sherlock, from their offices in suburban Virginia as an all-text game, using a cloned version of Infocom’s DEC-hosted development environment that ran on their own local DEC minicomputer. But after Challenge had delivered their game to Infocom this time around, it went through a lengthy post-production period in the latter’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices, during which it was moved to Infocom’s new Macintosh-hosted development environment, then married to graphics created by a team of artists. Due at least to some extent to the nature of its development process, Arthur can be seen as a less ambitious game than any of the three works of graphical interactive fiction that preceded it. Its pictures were used only as ultimately superfluous eye candy, static illustrations of each location without even the innovative scrolling page design of Shogun. A few niceties like an onscreen map and an in-game hint menu aside, this was graphical interactive fiction as companies like Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls had been doing it for years, the graphics plainly secondary to the very traditional text adventure at the game’s core.

Created by a team of several outside contractors, Arthur's pictures are perhaps best described as workmanlike in comparison to the lusher graphics of Shogun and especially Journey.

Created by a team of several outside contractors, Arthur‘s pictures are perhaps best described as “workmanlike” in comparison to the lusher graphics of Shogun and especially Journey.

Far from faulting Arthur for its lack of ambition, many fans then as well as now saw the game’s traditionalism as something of a relief after the overambitious and/or commercially compromised games that had preceded it. Infocom knew very well how to make this sort of game, the very sort on which they’d built their reputation. Doubtless for that reason, Arthur acquits itself quite well in comparison to its immediate predecessors. It’s certainly far more playable than any of Infocom’s other muddled final efforts, lacking any of their various ruinous failings or, for that matter, any truly ruinous failings of its own.

That said, the critical verdict becomes less positive as soon as we widen the field of competition to include Infocom’s catalog as a whole. In comparison to many of the games Infocom had been making just a couple of years prior to Arthur, the latter has an awful lot of niggling failings, enough so that in the final judgment it qualifies at best only as one of their more middling efforts.

A certain cognitive dissonance is woven through every aspect of Arthur. In his detailed and thoughtful designer’s notes for the game, which are sadly hidden inside the hint menu where many conscientious players likely never realized they existed, Bates notes that “there is an inherent conflict built into writing a game about King Arthur. It is the conflict between history and legend — the way things were versus the way we wish they were.” Bates took the unusual course of “cleaving to the true Arthur,” the king of post-Roman Britain who may have reigned between 454 and 470, when the island was already sliding into the long Dark Ages. He modeled the town in which the game is set on the ancient Roman British settlement of Portchester, just northwest of Portsmouth, which by the time of the historical Arthur would likely have been a jumble of new dwellings made out of timber and thatch built in the shadow of the decaying stonework left behind by the Romans. A shabby environment fitting just this description, then, becomes the scene of the game. Bates invested considerable research into making the lovely Book of Hours included with the game as reflective of the real monastical divine office of the period as possible. And he even wrote some snippets of poetry in the Old English style, based on alliteration rather than rhyme. I must say that this approach strikes me as somewhat problematic on its face. It seems to me that very few people pick up an Arthurian adventure game dreaming of reenacting the life and times of a grubby Dark Ages warlord; they want crenelated castles and pomp and pageantry, jousts and chivalry and courtly love.

But far more problematically, having made his decision, Bates then failed to stick to it. For instance, he decided that jousting, first anachronistically imposed upon the real Arthur many centuries after his death, had to be in his own more historically conscientious version of the story “to make the game more enjoyable.” The central mechanic to much of the gameplay, that of being able to turn yourself into various animals, is lifted from a twentieth-century work, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, as is the game’s characterization of Arthur as a put-upon boy. Other anachronisms have more to do with Monty Python than written literature, like the village idiot who sings about his “schizophrenia” and the kraken who says he “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.” I should say that I don’t object to such a pastiche on principle. Writers who play in the world of King Arthur have always, as Bates himself puts it, “projected then-current styles, fashions, and culture backwards across the centuries and fastened them to Arthur.” Far from being objectionable, this is the sign of a myth that truly lives, that has relevance down through the ages; it’s exactly what great writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory, T.H. White to Mary Stewart have always done. The myth of King Arthur will always be far more compelling than the historical reality, whatever it may be. What I object to is the way that Bates gums up the works by blending his psuedo-historical approach with the grander traditions of myth and fiction. The contrast between the Arthur of history and the Arthur of imagination makes the game feel like a community-theater production that spent all its money on a few good props — for instance, for the jousts — and can’t afford a proper stage. Far from feeling faithful to history, the shabby timber-and thatch environs of his would-be Portchester just feel low-rent.

A similar cognitive dissonance afflicts the game and puzzle design. In some ways, Arthur is very progressive, as feels appropriate for the very last Infocom text adventure, presumably the culmination of everything they’d learned. For the first time here, the hint menu is context-sensitive, opening up new categories of questions only after you encounter those puzzles for the first time. (It’s also integrated into the structure of the story in a very clever way, taking the form of Merlin’s future-scrying crystal ball.) The auto-map is useful if not quite as useful as Infocom’s marketing might have liked it to be, and for the first time here the new parser, rewritten from the ground up for this final run of graphical games, does sometimes evince a practical qualitative difference from the old. In these respects and others, Arthur represents the state of the art in text adventures as of 1989.

In other ways, however, Arthur is profoundly old-school, not to say regressive. There is, for instance, an unadulteratedly traditional maze in here, the first such seen in an Infocom game since Zork I‘s “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” There is a trick to figure out at the beginning of the one in Arthur — the old drop ‘n’ plot isn’t possible, necessitating the finding of another method for distinguishing one room from another — but after that moment of inspiration you can look forward to the tedious perspiration of plotting out ten rooms and the hundred separate connections that bind them. How odd to think that the only Infocom games to include traditional mazes were their very first and their very last. And while we’re on the subject of Zork I, I should mention that there’s a thief character of sorts in Arthur who’s every bit as annoying as his shifty progenitor. When you first wander innocently into his domain, he steals all your stuff with no warning. (Thankfully, undo is among the game’s modern conveniences.) But perhaps the best illustration of Arthur‘s weird mixing of new- and old-school is the magic bag you find in Merlin’s cave. It can hold an infinite amount of stuff, thus relieving you of the object-juggling so endemic to so many early text adventures from Infocom and others. Unfortunately, though, the bag is stuck behind the domain of the aforementioned thief, who steals it as soon as you try to walk out with it. Thus this huge convenience is kept out of your hands for what may for many players — Arthur is quite nonlinear — amount to the bulk of the game. Progression and regression, all in one would-be handy bag of holding.

In marrying its puzzles to its plot, Arthur is once again best described as confused. Instead of a single score, Arthur has four separate tallies, measuring how “wise and chivalrous,” “strong and courageous” you’ve so far become. In common with a number of late Infocom games, there’s a slight CRPG element at play here: your scores actually affect your ability to perform certain actions. The goal, naturally, is to “gain the experience you need to claim the sword,” in the course of which you “must demonstrate them [your knightly virtues] for all to see.” So, when it comes down to the final climactic duel with King Lot, the villain of the game, what do you do? You distract him and sucker-punch him, that’s what. How’s that for chivalry?

Arthur

Before wrapping up my litany of complaints, I do have to also mention a low-level bugginess that’s not awful by the standards of the industry at large but is quite surprising to find in an Infocom game. The bugs seem to largely fall into the category of glitches rather than showstoppers: if you immediately wear some armor you’ve just discovered instead of picking it up first and then wearing it, you don’t get the points you’re supposed to; another character who normally won’t follow you into a certain location will suddenly do so if you lead him in animal form, which allows you to bypass a puzzle; etc. Relatively minor as such glitches may appear on their face, Arthur‘s CRPG-like qualities make them potentially deadly nevertheless. Because your success at certain necessary actions is dependent on your score, the points you fail to earn thanks to the bugs could make victory impossible.

Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s influential adventure-game columnist, called Arthur nothing less than “Infocom’s most poorly produced game ever,” labeling the disk-swapping required by the Apple II version “simply outrageous”: “When you have to change disks because part of a paragraph is on one, and the rest on another, you know something is wrong with the design. This is also sometimes necessary within a single sentence.” These problems made the much-vaunted auto-map feature essentially unusable on the Apple II, requiring as that version did a disk swap almost every time you wanted to take a peek at the map. Granted, the Apple II was by this point the weak sister among the machines Infocom continued to support, the only remaining 8-bit in the stable — but still, it’s hard to imagine the Infocom of two or three years before allowing an experience as unpolished as this into the wild on any platform.

During Arthur‘s lengthy post-production period, Bates already turned his mind to his next project. It was here that that surprisingly durable original plan of his finally fell victim to the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Infocom in these final months. Still searching desperately for that magic bullet that would yield a hit, Infocom and Mediagenic decided they didn’t feel all that confident after all that the Robin Hood game would provide it. Bates delivered a number of alternative proposals, including a sequel to Leather Goddesses of Phobos and a game based on The Wizard of Oz — yet another licensed game that wouldn’t actually require a license thanks to an expired copyright. Most intriguingly, or at least amusingly, he proposed a mash-up of the two ideas, a Wizard of Oz with “more suggestive language, racier insinuations, and a sub-stratum of sex running throughout. We could substitute a whip for the striped socks and dress Dorothy in leather.” History doesn’t record what Mediagenic’s executives said to that transgressive idea.

In the end, Bates had his next project chosen for him. In a development they trumpeted in inter-office memoranda as a major coup, Mediagenic had secured the rights to The Abyss, the upcoming summer blockbuster from James Cameron of Terminator and Aliens fame. This time Bates drew the short straw for this latest Mediagenic-imposed project that no one at Infocom particularly wanted to do. He was provided with a top-secret signed and numbered copy of the shooting script, and dispatched to Gaffney, South Carolina, where filming for the underwater action-epic was taking place inside the reactor-containment vessel of a nuclear power plant which had been abandoned midway through its construction. After meeting briefly there with Cameron himself, he returned to Virginia to purchase an expensive set of Macintosh IIs through which to clone Infocom’s latest development system. (With Infocom’s DEC system being decommissioned and sent to the scrapyard at the end of 1988, he now didn’t have any other choice but to adapt Challenge’s own technology to the changing times.) The beginning of the Abyss game he started on his new machines, a bare stub of a thing with no graphics and little gameplay, would later escape into the wild; it’s been passed around among fans for many years.

But events which I’ll document in my next article would ensure that the interactive Abyss would never become more than a stub and that the money spent on all that new equipment would be wasted. Bob Bates’s Infocom legacy would be limited to just two games, the first a very satisfying play, the second a little less so. Lest we be tempted to judge him too harshly for Arthur‘s various infelicities, we should note again that the three most prolific Imps of all — Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank — had all delivered designs that failed far more comprehensively in the months immediately preceding the release of Bates’s effort, Infocom as a whole’s last gasp, in June of 1989. By the time of its release, Arthur was already a lame duck; the Infocom we’ve come to know through the past four and a half years worth of articles on this blog was in the final stages of official dissolution. With its anticlimactic release having been more a product of institutional inertia than any real enthusiasm for the game on Mediagenic’s part, Arthur‘s sales barely registered.

So, it remains for us only to tell how the final curtain (shroud?) came to be drawn over the short, happy, inspiring, infuriating life of Infocom. And, perhaps more importantly, we should also take one final glance back, to ask ourselves what we know, what we’ve recently learned, and what will always remain in the realm of speculation when it comes to this most beloved, influential, and unique of 1980s game-makers. We’ll endeavor to do all that next time, when we’ll visit Infocom for the last time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the September 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 

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43 Responses to Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur

  1. Andrew Plotkin

    July 22, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    I’m going to be a game-historical pedant and insist that Zork did *not* have a traditional maze. It added the surprise twist of the thief, who (statistically) foils your attempt to use the drop-and-plot approach — the “traditional” solution defined by Adventure.

    (And Adventure had already set the tone by following its original maze with the surprise-twist “all different” maze.)

    If Arthur’s maze had absolutely nothing outside the Adventure model — you imply that the thief doesn’t turn up in the maze — then yes, *that’s* “traditional*. And terribly lazy.

     
    • Duncan Stevens

      July 22, 2016 at 5:09 pm

      The solution to the maze in Arthur is slightly different from drop-and-plot, though it amounts to the same thing. But yes, the thief character in Arthur is stationary and doesn’t venture into the maze.

       
      • Duncan Stevens

        July 22, 2016 at 5:18 pm

        …actually, on reflection, there are two mazes. But one of them can’t be solved the traditional way at all, I believe.

         
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 22, 2016 at 7:25 pm

      What I was going for was that you still have to solve Zork I’s maze by mapping it. The later “mazes” that showed up in Infocom games, excepting that in Arthur, all had some trick to figure out that allowed you to avoid mapping them.

       
      • Peter Piers

        September 6, 2016 at 2:23 pm

        “Avoid mapping”? Surely, more like “mapping differently”, I’m thinking specifically of Spellbreaker. (you DID say “all”…)

         
        • Peter Piers

          September 7, 2016 at 3:13 pm

          Not Spellbreaker, Sorcerer.

           
    • Jason Dyer

      July 23, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      Adventure already had the pirate foiling object dropping in the all alike maze. On top of that, the all alike maze was too large for one’s inventory capacity.

      The thief very much feels like a pirate knockoff (albeit better done).

      The trick in the Arthur maze is actually very clever and satisfying to work out. Actually mapping the maze after was of course the usual dull.

       
  2. Rowan Lipkovits

    July 22, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    “take a peak at the map.” — unless the map is of a mountaintop, you probably meant “peek”.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 22, 2016 at 7:22 pm

      Thanks!

       
  3. Duncan Stevens

    July 22, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    As I recall, I found Arthur a mixed bag. There were some good puzzles, and some fairly bad ones–I’m thinking in particular of the hot/cold room puzzle in the cave, whose solution is sort of a random flight of whimsy, and the jousting puzzle, which isn’t really a puzzle at all.

    As for the tone, I had read enough Arthurian literature, including the Mary Stewart series, to be unbothered by the grimy Dark Ages setting, and I actually found the Book of Hours, alliterative poetry, etc. sort of interesting; I had never encountered that style of verse before. I actually found Bates’s approach to Arthuriana *less* weird than T.H. White’s–the anachronisms aren’t nearly as wacky and flagrant–and I was certainly conditioned to expect a grab-bag approach to Arthur.

     
  4. Duncan Stevens

    July 22, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Bates left open the possibility for sequels

    Hmmm. One thing I did like about the game was the reference in the demon’s cave to the rest of the Arthur story, which was completely unnecessary to the game but served to complicate a plot that otherwise isn’t very interesting. In other words, it puts a different shade on your “winning” the game.

    But maybe I should view it as a reference to planned-but-never-made sequels, though I’m hard-pressed to see how the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle could have been made into IF.

     
    • Pedro Timóteo

      July 22, 2016 at 8:18 pm

      though I’m hard-pressed to see how the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle could have been made into IF.

      Level 9 tried, as a matter of fact…

       
      • Duncan Stevens

        July 23, 2016 at 12:38 pm

        Right, I’d forgotten that. Not a particularly successful attempt, it appears.

         
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 23, 2016 at 7:51 am

      I wouldn’t say that Arthur had “planned but never made sequels.” Rather that the possibility of making them would be there if the game should prove a hit, which may seem a fine distinction but is I think an important one.

      One other interesting bit of lore: the blank gravestone behind which you hide in the beginning of the game was intended to be Lancelot’s future grave, which according to legend he was shown when young.

       
      • Duncan Stevens

        July 23, 2016 at 12:37 pm

        Fair enough. Not planned, exactly. But I still wonder (now) whether that part was included to give the game some perspective and weight, or just to hint at the possibility of sequels.

        One design sin you don’t mention: hunger puzzles. Yes, a little more creative here because you have to satisfy your hunger when turned into an animal, but still, bleah. I’m trying to give Bates the benefit of the doubt by imagining that, in an actual Dark Ages setting, hunger might really be an issue for a boy wandering around on his own, but I’m not fully convincing myself.

         
  5. Lisa H.

    July 22, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Bates invested invested considerable research

    Is there an echo in here echo in here?

    It seems to me that absolutely no one picks up an Arthurian adventure game dreaming of reenacting the life and times of a grubby Dark Ages warlord

    A minority, quite possibly, but “absolutely no one” is a bit strong. There’s a lot of history nerds out there.

    the game’s characterization of Arthur as a put-upon boy and Merlin as a befuddled, lovable old loon

    I’m puzzled that you think Merlin comes off that way. He seemed more an aloof, mysterious mentor type to me. Certainly I don’t think he’s like in the Disney Sword in the Stone (though I haven’t actually read the book; I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney amped up the silliness).

    The auto-map is useful if not quite as useful as Infocom’s marketing might have liked it to be

    How do you mean? I tend to play with the map always up on the screen precisely because of its usefulness.

    When you first wander innocently into his domain, he steals all your stuff, locking you out of victory through no fault of your own.

    Does it? Stolen objects can turn up in the village idiot’s hands, where you can trade for them. Is it possible that the crucial object (the only one I can think of that if you were permanently deprived of it, you could not get the other object you need to actually solve the problem of this thief) never gets traded like that? (I’m not sure without looking at a map if not having other objects could prevent you from getting to the tower in the first place.)

    Unfortunately, though, the bag is stuck behind the domain of the aforementioned thief, who steals it as soon as you try to walk out with it. Thus this huge convenience is kept out of your hands for what may for many players — Arthur is quite nonlinear — amount to the bulk of the game.

    Hm, a fair amount of the game, I suppose, but if you apply yourself to solving the thief problem as soon as you can, you get more use out of the bag.

    So, when it comes down to the final climactic duel with King Lot, the villain of the game, what do you do? You distract him and sucker-punch him, that’s what. How’s that for chivalry?

    I think the idea there is to show mercy, not to kill if it’s not absolutely necessary.

    a Wizard of Oz with “more suggestive language, racier insinuations, and a sub-stratum of sex running throughout. We could substitute a whip for the striped socks and dress Dorothy in leather.”

    …wow. Just, wow.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 23, 2016 at 8:08 am

      Is there an echo in here echo in here?

      Corrected. Thanks!

      A minority, quite possibly, but “absolutely no one” is a bit strong. There’s a lot of history nerds out there.

      Maybe you’re right. Softened that one a bit (and also fixed a grammar problem).

      I’m puzzled that you think Merlin comes off that way. He seemed more an aloof, mysterious mentor type to me. Certainly I don’t think he’s like in the Disney Sword in the Stone (though I haven’t actually read the book; I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney amped up the silliness).

      I’m in the opposite position, having never seen the movie. But I think you’re right. I was projecting. Will fix that momentarily.

      How do you mean? I tend to play with the map always up on the screen precisely because of its usefulness.

      I find it really hard to get a good overview of the geography as a whole using the auto-map because it’s divided into distinct regions, and you can’t move between them. That may be a personal problem, but it’s worth noting that the instant response of a modern interpreter does make the map far less frustrating than it would have been back in the day. Even on an Amiga, there would be a delay and usually disk access to draw the map each time. As for the Apple II… we’ve covered that one in the article. ;)

      Does it? Stolen objects can turn up in the village idiot’s hands, where you can trade for them. Is it possible that the crucial object (the only one I can think of that if you were permanently deprived of it, you could not get the other object you need to actually solve the problem of this thief) never gets traded like that? (I’m not sure without looking at a map if not having other objects could prevent you from getting to the tower in the first place.)

      But you can only trade one thing for another. Lose the wrong combination of things at the wrong time, and I’m pretty sure you’re screwed. Or, even if you’re not *literally* locked out of victory, the whole process becomes so excruciating that you might as well be. But I removed that statement nevertheless.

       
      • Lisa H.

        July 24, 2016 at 2:00 am

        Re: Merlin, I suppose there is some goofiness in that the occasional joke lines at the bottom of the screen are meant to be his voice, like, in your head or something, aren’t they? I hadn’t remembered that when I wrote my comment, but I played through last night, and I noticed some doozies of silly jokes. Not out of character for Infocom itself, even in a game with overall serious tone, but if you imagine Merlin saying them… well.

        I find it really hard to get a good overview of the geography as a whole using the auto-map because it’s divided into distinct regions, and you can’t move between them.

        Ahh, yes. That annoys me as well – although at least this game’s geography is smaller than Zork Zero’s, where I found the lack of being able to get an overview to be rather a pain.

        Lose the wrong combination of things at the wrong time, and I’m pretty sure you’re screwed. Or, even if you’re not *literally* locked out of victory, the whole process becomes so excruciating that you might as well be.

        Fair enough.

         
    • Nate

      July 27, 2016 at 10:21 am

      And that was how we got the ’90s computer gaming scene.

      “Mediagenic presents an Activision production of an original Infocom game: American McGee’s Wizard of Oz: Madness Returns: Leather Goddesses of Phobos II”

       
      • Jimmy Maher

        July 27, 2016 at 10:54 am

        Ah, I’d forgotten old American McGee. Never in the field of gaming history has one name been hyped so much for so little reason.

         
  6. Carl

    July 22, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    Typo alert: When you talk about the thematic pastiche, “principal” should be “principle”.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 23, 2016 at 8:13 am

      Thanks!

       
  7. Alexander Freeman

    July 23, 2016 at 1:20 am

    “Somewhat ironically, this era-ending game wasn’t written by one of Infocom’s own long-serving Imps, but rather by the relatively fresh and inexperienced Bob Bates…”
    I’m not so sure if that qualifies as ironic. Aren’t eras supposed to end with someone passing the torch to the someone less experienced?

    Anyhow, I can’t help noticing we’re in the year 1989. If you aren’t already going to do it, I think you should cover King’s Quest 4 before you do Quest for Glory because KQ4 was a major technological breakthrough, having been influenced by the cinematics and visuals of Japanese visual novels for Japanese PCs, and being the first game to use the MT-32 sound card.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 23, 2016 at 8:18 am

      I would say that eras begin that way, personally. There was no sense of a “passing of the torch” clinging to Infocom at the end. It was all just… over. We can perhaps view it that way if we choose today, but only with the benefit of our knowledge of Bates’s future career.

      Yes, I do plan to write about King Quest IV’s technological significance before getting to Quest for Glory.

       
      • Alexander Freeman

        July 26, 2016 at 3:38 am

        I’ve just thought of something. You might find this interesting:
        https://archive.org/stream/Tenth_Anniversary_1990_Sierra-On_Line#page/n17/mode/2up

        It gives some background on how Sierra was inspired to come up with its SCI engine. It was actually how I first found out about (having a physical copy of this catalog back in the day). Of course, you might already know everything mentioned in pages 34 to 37. ^_^

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          July 26, 2016 at 7:46 am

          It seems my copy was missing those pages, which might very well have caused me to miss that anecdote altogether. So thanks for that!

           
          • Alexander Freeman

            July 26, 2016 at 11:40 pm

            You’re welcome! YouTube also has lots of videos that contrast MT-32 with Sound Blaster and videos of the Japanese version of the Japanese games mentioned in those pages. You can also find videos for cinematic MSX games like Angelus and Jesus. I can see the resemblance to SCI.

             
  8. Ben B.

    July 23, 2016 at 4:32 am

    At this moment of transition, gotta say thanks for illuminating the world of early computer gaming in general, and the history of IF in particular. My own experience in this era lay firmly in the realm of Sierra’s graphic adventures, so I had precisely zero experience with this whole facet of my favorite hobby’s early history until I ran into the Zork Anthology in the late 90s.

    I’m interested in your opinion of the relative merits of the myriad of ways in which ludic narrative is presented to the modern gamer. Given your own work in the IF medium, it would make complete sense if your own preferences lay in that genre. But as someone who grew up with graphic adventures and then transitioned to FPSes and RPG hybrids like the System Shock, Bioshock, and Deus Ex franchises, I can’t wait to hear your assessment of the relative advantages/disadvantages that games like this have in comparison to the works you’ve looked at thus far. It’s been a fascinating read. Thanks again.

     
  9. Brian Bagnall

    July 23, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    In your wrap-up of Infocom, I’ll be curious to know what other directions the company considered. I never thought Infocom’s graphical adventure engine was radical or different enough to gain them much notice. One obvious direction was to follow other adventure game engines.

    At the time, I would have been very interested to see Infocom’s take on SCUMM if they evolved it a few years. Especially if they revisited a few genres they had done in the past. Something like Suspect in SCUMM would make it easier to follow the suspects around (something that was always difficult with text) and the different party costumes and mansion locations would be fun in graphics. The Detective Game for the C64 was almost like Suspect done in SCUMM. As rote as this sounds, releasing SCUMM sequels or remakes of their most popular games would have opened up those adventures to an audience that was put off by the frustrations of a text only parser.

    Zork’s style of adventuring seems suitable for engines like Dungeon Master or perhaps Alone in the Dark, though the latter is getting a bit advanced for the time. Anyway, I’m curious how far their discussions went near the end.

     
    • Nate

      July 23, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      I think one of the main problems was they were too tied to their roots to truly build a graphical adventure. I remember “the best resolution is your imagination” ads at the time and didn’t find them convincing.

      Lucasgames had no text adventure history to hold them back. I don’t think Infocom had the right team or abilities to make a break with their past and start over with the simplistic (but intuitive) model of graphical adventure.

      It would have been fascinating if they did, though.

       
      • Alexander Freeman

        July 24, 2016 at 1:35 am

        Perhaps, but then again maybe some of them wanted something more cerebral than typical graphical adventure game. I haven’t played much in the way of LucasArts games (liked Maniac Mansion, though), so maybe I’m being unfair, but they seem to suffer the same problem point-and-click adventure games in general suffer from: The interface limits the possibilities too much, thereby reducing the challenge too much.

        Having said that, it seems that Infocom’s mystery games relied on a fairly small set of verbs all throughout, making them more amenable to something similar to the typical point-and-click interface. Unusual actions such as *SPOILER ALERT* svccjoh uif qfodjm po qbe pg qbqfs *END SPOILER* (change each letter to the previous letter in the alphabet to decrypt) could be done by some action that lets you manipulate items by rotating them so as to enable you to insert them into, rub them against, etc. something else. However, I’ve only played Deadline and The Witness. I don’t know if that’s true of Suspect.

        It is finally worth pointing out that Brian Moriarty would eventually go on to work for LucasArts, however.

         
        • Michael Davis

          July 24, 2016 at 6:08 pm

          Just in case anyone would like a tool to assist them in decoding that spoiler: http://rumkin.com/tools/cipher/caesar.php

           
        • iPadCary

          July 25, 2016 at 6:43 pm

          The masterpiece, in SO many ways, that is “Loom”
          could have and SHOULD have been an Infocom game.

           
          • Alexander Freeman

            July 25, 2016 at 10:56 pm

            Well, that IS one of the games Brian Moriarty wrote for LucasArts actually. Haven’t played it, though.

             
    • Peter Piers

      September 6, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      I know Legend Entertainment is not Infocom, but it may be the best insight we have. The path from Eric The Unready to Mission Critical and Callahan’s Crosstime Salloon and The Blackstone Chronicles tells quite the story!

       
    • Steve

      July 20, 2017 at 10:54 pm

      It is interesting to wonder how things would have turned out without the Cornerstone debacle…

      Would they have been successful enough to avoid having to sell the company to Activision, which in turn would allow them to produce games at their own rate instead of flooding the market with games, which in turn would have perhaps allowed each game to do better on its own merits instead of cannibalizing profits from the others?

      I like to think their text adventures would have still continued (albeit to a smaller but dedicated audience, as it is now), but their forays into graphics would have become more like the LucasArts games…at first menu-based, then ultimately context-based.

      Or perhaps they would have developed an entirely new system for adventure gaming that we never ended up getting… *wipes away tear*

       
  10. ZUrlocker

    July 23, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    I know this is a minor point in the story but “callow executives” seems like a rather un-supported characterization. The Oz story pitch seems like a terrible idea at any rate.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 24, 2016 at 9:55 am

      I’d call it more a complete non sequitur than an unsupported characterization. But yeah, see your point. ;)

       
  11. David J

    July 24, 2016 at 2:17 am

    Quick correction: Cameron didn’t direct Rambo.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 24, 2016 at 6:48 am

      Okay, it seems he just helped write the screenplay. Thanks!

       
  12. iPadCary

    July 24, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    It’s this & “The Dion Crisis” that I’ve been waiting for
    ever since I first started coming here. Well done, Jimmy!

     
  13. Matt Reichert

    July 25, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    That’s odd. I played the Apple II version back in the day and didn’t think there was excessive disk swapping. At least not any more than in Zork Zero, Journey, and Shogun. Then again I never used the auto map much so that may have been the main sticking point. I also had more patience for such things back in the day since I didn’t really know better.

    One thing I’ll say for Arthur is that I felt the difficulty was extremely fair. I beat it as a 12 year old kid and only had to resort to hints twice, both in spots you mentioned (the maze and how to set up the ‘sucker punch’ at the end). Zork Zero and Journey were tougher but manageable, but I literally played Shogun from the built in hints because I never read the novel (still enjoyed it though).

     

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