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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Moving to California

The work week of May 1, 1989, started off much like any other inside the beleaguered latter-day Infocom. In the cavernous 18,000 square feet of their office space at 125 CambridgePark Drive — its sheer size was an ever-present reminder of more optimistic times, when Infocom had thought themselves poised to become the next Lotus — the shrunken staff of just 26 souls puttered through another Monday, pausing now and again to chat about the weekend just passed. The old days when CambridgePark would buzz during off-hours with parties and socializing and passionate programmers and testers burning the midnight oil were now a memory of the past. Changing life circumstances — the majority of the remaining staff were now married, many with small children — had done as much as the generalized malaise now afflicting the place to put an end to all that. CambridgePark now felt much like any other office, albeit a peculiarly empty one, and one over which hung an almost palpable sense of impending doom. Still, when the axe finally fell it came as a shock. It always does.

A memo went out early that week asking everyone to attend a meeting on Thursday, May 4, “to discuss the next generation of internal products.” More ominously, the memo said that the 3:00 P.M. meeting would “go as late as necessary.” And evidently management expected that to mean quite late, for they would be “ordering out for dinner.”

The axe fell over the course of that long afternoon and evening. Infocom would be “moving” to California, where it was to be reconstituted and re-imagined as a more closely coupled subsidiary of Mediagenic,1 under a “general manager” named Rob Sears. Just 11 of the 26 current employees were offered positions at this new version of Infocom. Exactly whose name was and wasn’t on that list of job offers is neither necessary nor appropriate to discuss here. Suffice to say that those Mediagenic decided were desirable to retain often weren’t the pivotal creative voices you might expect, and that only 5 of the 11 accepted the offer anyway. Only one long-serving employee from Infocom’s glory days would end up making the move: Duncan Blanchard, a longstanding interpreter programmer and the last leader of the old Micro Group before it was assimilated into the Systems Group in 1987. For the other old-timers, it was all over. Another six weeks or so to finish a few final projects and tidy up the place, and that would be that.

Bob Bates, working on his licensed Abyss game from suburban Maryland, had planned to fly up to Cambridge for one of his regular design meetings on Monday, May 8. But Infocom’s new Mediagenic-installed head Joe Ybarra called him early in the week of May 1, saying he really needed him to come up this same week if at all possible. When Bates arrived on Friday, May 5, to a curiously subdued CambridgePark, he was ushered immediately into Ybarra’s office. Infocom was moving to California without most of its current employees, Ybarra informed him, and his Abyss project was being cancelled. Nor would Infocom be requiring Bates’s services again; his development contract was officially terminated as of today. When a shell-shocked Bates returned home on the red eye that same rainy night, he found that his roof was leaking buckets. It had turned into that sort of week for everyone.

Steve Meretzky had been scheduled to attend the Computer Game Developers’ Conference that very weekend in Sunnyvale, California. He was still allowed to fly out on Infocom’s dime, but replaced the company’s name on his badge with “Make Me an Offer!” It was at this event that word of the fate of Infocom, which everyone knew had long been troubled but which still remained one of the most respected names in computer games, was first spread within the industry.

News of Infocom’s fate first reached the world at large via an announcement in the May 22, 1989, issue of the Boston Globe Magazine. The understated headline has become oddly iconic among fans: “Computer-Games Firm Moving to California.” A “new consumer preference for games with graphics and sound,” went the workmanlike report, was responsible for Infocom’s travails, along with Nintendo and “the aging of Infocom’s traditional audience, composed of early computer users who spent evenings and weekends hunched over a terminal drawing maps in text-only games that took 20 to 50 hours to solve.”

When word reached the trade press, Mediagenic held tightly to the story that this was simply a move, not a shutdown. Rob Sears made the counter-intuitive claim that Mediagenic was doing what they were “not so much to close Infocom down as to ensure it survives.” “The Great Underground Empire, curiously enough, has not been shut down,” insisted Joe Ybarra. “What’s happened is we’re in the process of relocating it to the West Coast.” At the same time, though, Yabarra did have to quietly admit that none of the Imps who had built the Great Underground Empire would remain a part of it. He could only offer some unconvincingly vague suggestions that some of the former Imps might “do projects” at some point as outside contractors. Certainly anyone wedded to the idea of Infocom as a maker first and foremost of text adventures was given little reason for hope.

You’ll probably see a shift in direction that’s commensurate with which way the market is headed. If you look at all the successful products, they’re graphics- and sound-intensive. Products as a whole are pushing more toward role-playing than toward our classic adventure game. I think we’ll be building more hybrids that share elements of all these different genres. In particular, one of the areas I find most exciting is getting into more interactive graphics, the idea of doing things that are object-oriented… a cross between Manhole and the HyperCard environment and our traditional object-oriented ZIL environment.

(In case Ybarra’s comments don’t make it clear, know that “object-oriented” was one of the sexiest buzzwords of the period, to be applied to anything and everything possible.)

The personnel inside CambridgePark continued to perform their duties in desultory fashion during those final weeks following the meeting that informed them of their fate. There was still plenty to do; Infocom had still not delivered finalized versions of their four most recent works of graphical interactive fiction for MS-DOS, the most important platform in the industry. Yet there was, understandably, little enthusiasm for doing it. Employees spent a lot of time picking out free games from the collection around the office, bidding on the office furniture and computers, and indulging their black humor via vehicles like a lunchtime “slideshow history of Infocom” entitled “Cornerstone through Tombstone.” And then the last day came, and the lights inside CambridgePark were extinguished forever — or at least until the next corporate tenant arrived.

By the point of that final closure, a considerable amount of back-channel sniping by the people of the former Infocom had begun toward Mediagenic. Not coincidentally, Mediagenic’s own take on recent events also became less sanguine. Sources from Infocom claimed that Mediagenic had pulled the plug just as the money spigots were about to open, just before the all-important MS-DOS versions of their graphical interactive fictions finally hit the market; as it was, these versions would all be released by Mediagenic as un-promoted afterthoughts within weeks of the closure. Mediagenic, for whom Infocom’s slow progress on their MS-DOS interpreter had been a huge frustration and a significant factor in their decision to finally wash their hands of CambridgePark altogether, replied that “the consolidation might not have become necessary if the IBM SKUs could have been released initially.” Likewise, Joe Ybarra’s characterization of the fundamental failings of Infocom’s games grew more pointed: “We cannot continue, in the marketplace, living off products that take eight hours to play well and up to 200 hours to complete.”

The view of the decision of May 4, 1989, that prevails universally today, as representative of a definitive ending rather than a move or consolidation, was already taking hold. Mediagenic stopped giving even lip service to Infocom as an ongoing operation of its own in the spring of 1990, when Rob Sears left and the remaining handful of personnel who had worked under him were either let go or absorbed into the parent company. From now on, Infocom would be a mere label under which Mediagenic would release some of their more narrative-oriented games.

In the long run, the people who had made up the old Infocom would all be just fine. After all, they were one hell of an impressive group, with credentials and talents that made them eminently employable. For those stalwarts in positions of business or creative leadership, who had been forced to bear up under the ever more crushing burden of Infocom’s troubled finances since 1985, the final, sharply definitive ending to it all felt like something of a relief as soon as the shock and pain of the initial announcement had faded.

The majority of the old Infocom staff exited the games industry at the same time that they exited Infocom, never to return. The limited or nonexistent applicability of the skills of some of Infocom’s most essential employees to the games being made by other companies — like, for instance, those of editor, producer, and all-around unsung hero Jon Palace — says much about just how unique Infocom really was. For others, though, the decision to get out of games had more to do with their fatigue with such an eternally tormented and tormenting industry than it did with job opportunities or a lack thereof inside it. Put simply, there are easier ways to make a living than by making computer games, and masterful programmers like Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, and Stu Galley reckoned they were ready for more ordinary jobs. They and many others like them went on to live happy lives, building good, enjoyable careers that needn’t consume them. But there were also some gluttons for punishment who hadn’t yet burnt out on games. Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, Mike Dornbrook, and Bob Bates would all be stubborn and passionate enough to remain in the industry. We’ll thus be meeting at least some of them again in future articles.

Seen purely as a business proposition, Infocom had been a colossal, unadulterated failure. Whether as independent company or Mediagenic subsidiary, Infocom never enjoyed a single profitable year after 1983, and its final ledger shows it to be millions in the red over the course of its relatively brief lifetime. But very few of those who had worked there thought of Infocom as a failure in the aftermath of its death — not even those former employees whose jobs had entailed fretting about the endless cavalcade of quarterly and yearly losses.

For some former employees, including many who might have had little to no interest in the company’s actual products, Infocom remains forever in their memories just a really fun office to work in — indeed, the best they could ever imagine. Plenty of these people would be shocked to learn of the aura of awed respect and love that still surrounds the very name of Infocom in the minds of fans today; they never realized they were creating timeless games. Others, of course, including virtually everyone who played a major creative role in making the games, did realize, at least after the fact, that they had done something very special indeed. Some former employees accept the bad decisions and missed opportunities that so frustrate fans peaceably, as karma, fate, or just plain old learning experiences. Others, thankfully a minority, still curse the names of either or both Al Vezza and Bruce Davis, the two great villains of the story, and are intermittently tormented by thoughts of what might have been.

What might have been… it’s a fraught question, isn’t it? Yet it’s a question that we as humans, confronted with something as special and noble as Infocom that seems so self-evidently to have died too soon, can hardly resist asking. The historian in me knows to be very leery of setting off down that road. Still, just this once, coming as we are to the end of the most detailed story I’ve ever told on this blog, maybe we can indulge in a little bit of counter-factualizing.

It seems to me that the first and perhaps most important thing we need to do to come to grips with the might-have-beens that surround Infocom is to separate the company itself from the medium of the text adventure. Such a separation can be weirdly difficult to actually accomplish. Infocom didn’t create the text adventure, nor did the company’s end mark the medium’s end — far from it, as years of articles that are hopefully still to come right here on this site will underline — but the name of Infocom would always remain all but synonymous with the form. Jason Scott has told how, when he was making his Get Lamp documentary about the life and times of the text adventure, he was constantly asked by friends how his “Infocom movie” was coming. At a certain point, he just gave up on correcting them.

Given this close connection, it can be jarring to consider that few to none of the people working at Infocom, even among those who weren’t on Team Cornerstone, thought of their company as an exclusive maker of text adventures. The story of how Infocom first came to make text adventures almost accidentally — that of needing a product to bootstrap their operation, and pulling good old MIT Zork down off the shelf as the fastest way to make one — has of course been well-documented, here and in plenty of other places. But even after they had become identified as makers of the world’s most sophisticated text adventures, they were very reluctant to settle for that niche. A research project into cross-platform graphics was begun already in 1983, at the same time that they were running all those iconic “anti-graphics” advertisements; said advertisements were merely clever promotions, not the expression of an absolute corporate philosophy. In 1984, Mike Berlyn and Marc Blank poured considerable time and effort into another innovative research project that came to naught in the end, a multi-player MUD-like environment to be hosted by the online service CompuServe. The following year brought the multi-player computerized board game Fooblitzky, Infocom’s first graphical product and one of the oddest they ever released. In short, Infocom always had ambitions beyond the text adventure, but those ambitions were consistently crippled by the lack of money for game development that plagued the company beginning as early as 1983, when Cornerstone first began to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

The counter-factual scenario most likely to yield an Infocom that survives beyond the 1980s is, as fan wisdom has long attested, one in which they never start down the Cornerstone wormhole. Yet the same best-case scenario is also possessed of a trait that fans may be less eager to acknowledge: in it, the money not spent on Cornerstone isn’t spent on making ever more elaborate text adventures, but rather on embracing new genres, new paradigms of play. Infocom could quite likely have survived if they’d avoided Cornerstone and made smart business decisions, and the world of gaming would doubtless have been a better place for their tradition of literacy, thoughtfulness, and innovation. But unfortunately, those same smart business decisions would likely have to entail branching out from the text adventure early, and eventually moving on completely. Dave Lebling:

I think in terms of continuing to produce the kind of thing we had been producing — i.e., text adventures with lots of cool technology to make them more realistic, lots of plot value, etc. — we could have gone on forever. I’m less sure whether the market would have continued to buy those. We had big arguments about this even before the Mediagenic/Activision acquisition. If you’ve spent several thousand dollars for a computer with a color screen and a video card and you want to display lots of pretty pictures, are you going to settle for a text adventure?

In my opinion, that was sort of a minority taste, just like reading is somewhat of a minority taste. People would much rather look at pictures than read as a rule. There’s a subculture of people who love to read, who are passionate about reading, passionate about books, but it’s not the majority of the public. The same thing is true in computers. There are people who like pictures and action and so forth, and there are people who like reading. And again, they are a minority.

So, I don’t think Infocom could have continued to go on from strength to strength the way we seemed to have been doing initially; we would have plateaued out. I think we eventually would have had to branch out into other kinds of games ourselves. The advantage would have been that we would have decided what to do, rather than some other company.

For proof of Lebling’s assertions, we need only look to what happened in the broader computer-game industry of our own timeline during the mid- to late-1980s. In 1984, at the height of the bookware frenzy, at least a dozen publishers in the United States alone could lay claim to major initiatives in the realm of text adventures, a medium that, being in most people’s mind the ultimate anti-action game, seemed the perfect fit for post-Great Videogame Crash electronic entertainment. Every single one of those initiatives, excepting only the games Infocom released that year, disappointed to one degree or another. To imagine that a counter-factual Infocom — even one with the resources to improve their technology, to offer even bigger and better games than the ones we know, to include pictures and interface conveniences years before the Infocom of our own timeline — could have continued to buck the trend for very long seems a stretch. And indeed, many of Infocom’s financial travails, which began already in 1985 when a subtle but worrisome sales slowdown on the part of many of their games first became evident alongside the obvious disaster that was Cornerstone, had far more to do with the wider market for text adventures than it did with Cornerstone. Put another way: if their games business had continued to explode as it had in 1983 and 1984, Infocom could have weathered the storm of Cornerstone’s failure bruised but solvent. It was a perfect storm, a combination of their slackening games business and the fiasco that was Cornerstone, that cast them into Mediagenic’s arms in 1986.

So, to understand the reasons for Infocom’s collapse we need to ask why it was that the bookware boom, during which they were the shining example to be emulated by all those other publishers, so comprehensively failed to meet expectations. I think there are two reasons really, involving two D-words I tend to dwell on a lot around here: Demographics and Design.

Simply put, the games industry of the mid- to late-1980s wasn’t populated by enough readers to sustain a vibrant culture of commercial text adventures. The overwhelming computer-game demographic by 1985 was teenage boys, who have never been known as a terribly thoughtful group. The dominance enjoyed by text adventures during the earlier years of the decade owed much to the fact that computer gaming was a much more exclusive hobby during that period, enjoyed only by those with a restless bent of mind and the financial resources to invest thousands of dollars in an object as ultimately useless as an early microcomputer for the home. Mike Dornbrook and others involved with Infocom near the beginning have often mentioned their wonder at the sheer number of doctors and lawyers on their mailing lists. The demographics of gaming began to change with the arrival of the inexpensive Commodore 64 as a major market force in 1983. Within the next year or two, it remade the entire industry in its image — and most definitely not to the text adventure’s benefit.

At the same time that this demographic shift was underway, Infocom and the various bookware bandwagon jumpers were allowing themselves to become confused about the reasons for the text adventure’s ascendancy even among the relatively cerebral home-computer constituency of the early 1980s. Companies making text adventures in those early days can be divided into two groups: those like Sierra who were working in text because nothing else was practical at the time, and those like Infocom who saw the text adventure as a worthy new ludic and/or literary form unto itself. Sierra got away from text adventures just as soon as they could, and went on to become one of the biggest and most important game publishers of the 1990s. Infocom stuck with the form, and we know what happened to them. There is I think a lesson to be found therein. Infocom craved a sort of player who didn’t exist in the numbers they believed them to even in the early years, and who came to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the gaming public has time went by. By 1987, some of Infocom’s experiments were aimed at a computer-game customer who was all but nonexistent: like a fan of New Yorker-style verbal wit in the case of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It, or a romance-novel fan in the case of Plundered Hearts.

A tantalizing question must be whether a healthier Infocom could have created a market for such games among non-gaming, possibly non-computer-owning lovers of books and puzzles. Clearly their games did have appeal to some well outside of the typical computer-game demographic. Infocom during their halcyon days had enjoyed glowing write-ups in such places as the Boston Globe, the New York Times Review of Books, Discovery magazine, and even Rolling Stone. Still, the fact remained that their games threw up tremendous barriers to entry, beginning with the sheer cost of the equipment needed to run them and ending with the learning curve for interacting with them. While it’s tempting to imagine a world of interactive fiction existing entirely outside the rest of the games industry with its bash-and-crash take on existence — a world where literary sophisticates pick up a copy of the latest Infocom release from a kiosk in a trendy bookstore — it’s hard to imagine even a healthy Infocom creating such a milieu from scratch. It’s also doubtful, for that matter, whether most of their precious remaining base of customers really wanted to see them moving in that direction. The Infocom games that are most notable for their literary ambition, like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, were never among their biggest sellers. A substantial percentage of their customer base, as various Imps have wryly noted over the years, would have been quite happy if Infocom had churned out nothing but endless iterations on the original Zork. It was at least as much the Imps’ own creative restlessness as it was the need to serve the market that led them to dabble in so many different literary genres.

But what of those customers who were perfectly content with new iterations of Zork? Where did they disappear to as the years went by? After all, Infocom continued to indulge them with plenty of traditional games right up until the end, and plenty of other companies were equally willing to serve them. I think that it may be when we come to the Zorkian traditionalists that we especially have to consider that other D-word.

If you ask gaming old-timers about text adventures today, most will recall them as creaky, virtually unplayable things riddled with guess-the-verb issues and incomprehensible puzzles. And here’s the thing: such conventional wisdom really isn’t wrong. When I first began to write the history that this blog has become, I hoped I would be able to unearth a lot of hidden text-adventure gems from publishers other than Infocom to share with you. I did find some games that fit that description, but I also found that even the good games from other publishers stand as deviations from the norm of terrible design, sometimes fostered by an unusually dedicated development team, sometimes by the stars just seeming to align in the right way. It seems impossible to imagine that the bad design that was so endemic to the medium throughout the 1980s didn’t play a major role in turning many players away permanently. Infocom’s games were vastly better than those of their competitors, a fact which played a huge role in fostering the company’s small but legendarily loyal group of hardcore fans. Yet even Infocom’s games were hardly guaranteed to be completely free of design issues. Indeed, as Infocom’s personnel pool shrunk and the pressure from Mediagenic to release more games more quickly increased, design issues that they once seemed to have put behind them began to creep back into their games to a rather disconcerting degree. With almost all of the trade-magazine reviewers uninterested in really delving into issues of design, playability, and solubility, players had no real way of knowing which games they could trust and which they couldn’t. The graphic adventures that came to supersede text featured lots of terrible design choices in their own right, but they at least had the virtue of novelty, and that of serving as showcases for the graphics and sound of the latest home computers. (In the longer run, there’s a strong argument to be made that the graphic adventure would wind up shooting itself in the head via poor design by the end of the 1990s exactly as the text adventure had ten years before.)

But rather than unspooling further counter-factual speculations on how it all could have turned out differently, maybe we should ask ourselves another important question that’s less frequently discussed: that of whether an Infocom that survived and continued making text adventures of one sort or another would really have been the best thing for the still burgeoning art of interactive fiction. It’s hard not to remark the sense of creative exhaustion that imbues Infocom’s last gasp, their final four attempts at “graphical interactive fiction.” Much of that is doubtless down to the strain of their ever-worsening relationship with Bruce Davis and Mediagenic, and the long run of commercial disappointments that had prompted that strain. But is that all that was going on? Both Dave Lebling and Marc Blank have spoken of a sense of not really knowing what to do next with interactive fiction after having innovated so relentlessly for so long. Lebling:

I think the space of what can be done in text adventures has been well-explored by a variety of very creative people (by no means all of whom worked at Infocom). It would take, I fear, a qualitative leap in the development language or environment to expand that space. We never got very good at doing conversation, for example. There’s a long way to go before realistic conversations exist in games. We were okay but not spectacular at giving people more than one way to solve a problem. You need a more advanced input method to solve that one. People are just not that interested in typing to the game to simulate physical actions. A virtual-reality suit would solve that but they’re a long way off.

No one has yet solved the primary problem of adventure games, which is, what happens when the player doesn’t do what you expected? Once progress is made on that one, it might be fun to write an adventure game again.

And Blank:

To me, the problem was where it could go, whether we had reached some kind of practical limit in terms of writing a story that way. People used to always ask whether you could have a more powerful parser. Could you have a parser that understood different kinds of sentences? Questions, statements to other characters like “I’m hungry.” Better interaction than the very stilted kind of thing we did in the mysteries, or in Suspended where you could only say things like “go to this room” — where you’re basically just adding the name of a character and a comma at the beginning of a sentence, but everything else is the same.

The problem is that the more things you want to handle the more cases you have to handle, and it becomes very open-ended. You end up much more with the guess-the-word problem. If all of a sudden you can ask any question, but there are really only three questions that are important to the story, you’re either going to spend all this time coming up with answers that don’t mean anything or you’re going to have a lot of “I don’t know that,” which is frustrating. I always suspected it was a dead end. The nice thing about the command-oriented game is that you can come up with a pretty complete vocabulary and a pretty complete set of responses. As soon as it becomes more open-ended — if I can say, “I’m hungry” or “I like blue rubber balls” — how do you respond to that? It’s like Eliza. You get an answer, but it has nothing to do with what you asked, and at some point you realize it’s a fraud, that there’s no information there. What happens is that the worlds get bigger as you open up the vocabulary, but they get sparser. There’s less real information; it’s mostly noise just there to convince you of the world. I think that’s when it gets boring.

I worried about this a lot because people would always ask about the next step, the next thing we could do. It really wasn’t clear to me. Okay, you can make the writing better, and you can make puzzles that are more interesting. But as far as pushing toward a real interactive story — in a real story, you don’t just give everyone commands, right? — that was an issue. We worked on some of those issues for quite a while before we realized that we just weren’t getting anywhere. It was hard to know where to go with it, what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, a world you can wander around in but not much happens? I always kind of hit a wall trying to move forward there.

So we said, okay, there are new [literary] genres. So then we had Amy doing Plundered Hearts, Jeff doing Nord and Bert, etc. We don’t know what the next step is technically, so instead we’re going to just kind of mess with the format. So we’ll do a satire and a pulp romance and a horror story. But there was a real issue of creative burnout. You’ve done all these things. Do you just keep doing them? Where does it go? Where does it lead? By the time Infocom closed down, I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t obvious. I got the sense that some of the games were just an excuse to try something else: “I don’t know what to do, let’s try this.”

To some extent, Lebling and especially Blank fall victim here to their need, being technologists at heart, to always measure the progress of the medium of the text adventure in technological terms. No one declares the novel to be a dead form because the technology of printed text hasn’t advanced in hundreds of years. As many of my earlier articles attest, I see immense value in many of the literary experiments of Infocom’s later years that Blank is a bit too eager to dismiss.

I see evidence in Lebling and Blank’s comments of two creatively exhausted people rather than a creatively exhausted medium. I suspect that the group of people who made up Infocom, brilliant as they were, had taken the art of interactive fiction just about as far as they were personally able to by 1989. The innovations that would follow — and, contrary to both men’s statements above, they most definitely do exist — would largely come out of a very different culture, one free of the commercial pressures that had begun more and more to hamstring Infocom by the end. A work that is to be sold for $30 or more as a boxed computer game has to meet certain requirements, certain player expectations, that often worked at cross-purposes to the medium’s artistic evolution. Must a game require many hours to play? Must a game have puzzles? Can a game feel like a personal testament? Is an interactive-fiction game necessarily a game at all? To paraphrase that famous old Electronic Arts advertisement, can a work of interactive fiction make you cry? These were questions that Infocom — especially but not exclusively an Infocom under Mediagenic, laser-focused as the latter was on delivering conventional hit games — wasn’t in any position to further explore. The medium’s creative future would have to be left to the amateurs.

If we begin to see Infocom as, rather than a beautiful thing that was strangled far too soon, a beautiful thing that simply ran its course, we might just begin to upend the narrative of tragedy that surrounds the legendary company to this day. Among many fans of text adventures today, there’s still a marked tendency to look back on the heyday of Infocom and the commercial text adventure in general as the pivotal era in the medium’s history, a lost golden age that ended far too soon. That’s understandable on one level. This brief era marks the only period in history when it was realistically conceivable to make a living authoring text adventures, a career that plenty of hardcore fans would rate as their absolute first choice in careers out of all of them. We’ve thus seen the tragic version of the medium’s history repeated again and again for far longer than the alleged golden age actually lasted. Ironically, we tend to see it especially in those summations of interactive fiction and its history that try to reach beyond the insular community of present-day enthusiasts to serve as introductions for the uninitiated. Such articles almost always begin with Infocom, proceed to dwell at length on those glory days gone by, then mention the modern community — “but wait, interactive fiction isn’t dead!” — in a way that inevitably smacks of a lingering population of diehards. It seems rather a shabby way to frame the history of a living literary form, doesn’t it? Perhaps we can learn to do better.

In his 2007 PhD thesis on interactive fiction, Jeremy Douglass proposed recasting the commercial era as “an important anomaly, a brief big-business deviation from the otherwise constant association of the IF genre with individual authors each networked into a kind of literary salon culture.” This was what interactive fiction largely was before Infocom, and what it became again after them. Seeing the medium’s history in this way doesn’t mean minimizing the accomplishments of Infocom, whose 35-game canon deserves always to be regarded as the text adventure’s version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the wellspring and constant source of inspiration for everything that followed. It does, however, mean recognizing that, in terms of great games that delight and amuse and tantalize and sometimes move their players, the text adventure was really just getting started even as Infocom died. Because this blog has long since begun to reach readers from well outside the interactive-fiction community from which it first sprang, I’m going to guess that some of you may have little experience with what came after Infocom. It’s for those readers among you especially that I plan to cover what came next with the same care I lavished on Infocom’s history. So, never fear. I plan to spend a lot more time praising the humble text adventure in the time to come, and I’m far from ready to bury it alongside Infocom.

(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. Periodical sources include Computer Gaming World of September 1989; The Boston Globe Magazine of May 22 1989; Questbusters of July 1989; The Games Machine of October 1989, December 1989, and July 1990. See also Adventure Classic Gaming’s interview with Dave Lebling and Jeremy Douglass’s PhD thesis. 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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Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur

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 Maryland 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 Maryland 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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Journey

Journey

The parser is and has always been both the text adventure’s ace in the hole and its Achilles heel. Devotees will tell you, correctly in my opinion, that it offers possibilities for interaction — even, one might say, possibilities for interactive wonder — allowed by no other interface. Detractors will tell you, also correctly, that it’s too persnickety, too difficult to use, that in its opacity and inscrutability it violates every rule of modern interface design. Devotees will reply, yet again in my opinion correctly, that if you take away the parser you take away the magic. What can compare with typing some crazy command and seeing it work? What, the detractors reply, can frustrate more than figuring out what to do, not being able to get the parser to acknowledge your efforts, turning to a walkthrough, and finding out you were simply using the wrong verb or the wrong phrasing? And so we go, round and round and round. This waltz of point and counterpoint says as much about the text adventure’s decidedly limited mass appeal as it does about why some of us love the form so darn much.

For most of the text adventure’s lifespan people have been devising various ways to try to break the cycle, to capture at least some of the magic without any of the pain. Even Infocom, whose parser was legendary in its day, had a go in their final days at doing away with the gnarly, troublesome thing altogether, via a game called Journey.

The idea that became Journey can be dated to November 6, 1987, when a proposed “new project” emerged from an internal planning meeting. By that point, attitudes about Infocom’s future prospects had broken into two schools of thought. One view, still dominant inside Infocom’s own offices but viewed with increasing skepticism in the headquarters of their corporate masters Mediagenic,1 held that the fundamental model of interaction that Infocom’s games had always utilized, that of reading text and typing commands in response, was still commercially viable in the broad strokes. What was needed was to make that model a bit more visually appealing and accessible, by adding pictures and other audiovisual pizazz to break up their walls of text and by making the parser smarter and friendlier. The other view held that Infocom needed to throw out all their old approaches — among them their parser — and tackle their new role as Mediagenic’s designated “master storytellers” with an entirely blank slate. Conservatives versus radicals, denialists versus realists — call the camps what you will, the lines were drawn.

True to the dominant internal opinion, Infocom put the majority of their resources into one last kick at the can for their parser-based games, putting three new illustrated but still parser-driven text adventures into development. They hedged their bets just a little, however, by making sure the new version 6 Z-Machine they had in development to power those games could support purely mouse-based point-and-click interaction as well the traditional keyboard-driven approach. And then they started this “new project” of theirs to see what the possibilities for non-parser-based adventuring might really be.

The meeting notes read that said new project should be “true to [the] corporate philosophy”; that it should “embody the concept of ‘interactive storytelling'”; that it should “employ a simple, intuitive user interface unlike the one used in our traditional IF games”; and that, while initially “intended for use on existing home computers,” it should be “readily adaptable to other interactive media, such as CD-I, DVI, Nintendo, etc.” Finally, the plan called for “minimal (or optional) use of text.” This last would fall by the wayside in light of Infocom’s limited resources and complete lack of experience working in anything other than text; instead they would settle for lots of pictures to accompany the text. Otherwise, though, the game Marc Blank wrote in response to this plan would hew quite closely to it.

Ironically, it was Blank who had been the mastermind behind the magnificent parser, first implemented as part of the original Zork at MIT, that had been so key to Infocom’s ascendancy during the first half of the 1980s. Now he would be working on the interface that might just become its replacement if the conservative camp should prove mistaken in their faith in the old ways. But then, Blank wasn’t much of a sentimentalist. Assuming he thought of it at all, the idea of sounding the death knell of the traditional Infocom game didn’t bother him one bit. On the contrary, this new project was a perfect fit for Blank, exactly the sort of medium-advancing technical challenge he loved. He insists today that throughout his work with Infocom game design and story were always secondary in his mind to the technology that enabled them. Thus virtually every one of the games with which he was most intimately involved, whether as the officially recognized Implementor or the self-styled “wizard behind the curtain” enabling the creativity of another, pushed Infocom’s technology forward in one way or another. That would be more true than ever of Journey, which Blank created as he had Border Zone from the West Coast, working as an independent contractor rather than an Infocom employee. Blank:

Journey was an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type. It was all about whether you could still have people feel they had the ability to do a lot of different things, but not force them to guess words or use a keyboard. A lot of people just don’t like that; they aren’t good at it. It’s a turn-off. For me, the idea was to just experiment with another style of evolving the story — a different interface, just to see where it would go.

Even more so conceptually than technically, this new interface of his was going to be a tricky business. A bunch of hard-branching links in the form of a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book was likely to appeal to no one. At the same time, though, to simply write a traditional text adventure in which the parser was a menu-based labyrinth of verbs and nouns would be both technically impractical — there wouldn’t be enough space on the screen for such a thing for one thing, and even the new version 6 Z-Machine didn’t support scrolling menus — and unplayable in its sheer complication. Blank would need to thread the needle, staking a middle ground between the extreme granularity of Zork and the huge irreversible plot swings that accompany almost every branch in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. To a rather remarkable degree really, he succeeded in doing just that.

Blank’s first brilliant stroke was to make Journey, if not quite a full-fledged CRPG, at least a CRPG-like experience. You the player identify most closely with a single character named Tag, who also serves as the author of the past-tense “chronicle” of the adventure that you’re helping him to create. You’re responsible for managing several of his companions in adventure as well, however, each with his own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Most notably, the wizard Praxix can cast spells, each of which requires a certain combination of reagents which you’ll need to collect over the course of your Journey. Many problems can be solved in multiple ways, using different spells or combinations of spells, the special abilities of one character or another, and/or your own native cleverness. While the scope of possibility in Journey is undeniably limited in comparison to a traditional Infocom game, in practice it feels broader than you might expect.

Journey

To understand a little better how that might be, let’s have a closer look at the interface, as shown in the screenshot above. You’ll notice that the menu at the bottom of the screen is divided into five columns. The first contains possibilities that apply to the entire party — usually involving movement — along with access to the “Game” menu of utility commands. The second column, which isn’t actually clickable, lists each character in the party; the party can include up to five people, who can come and go according to choices and circumstances. The third, fourth, and fifth columns contain “verbs” applying only to the individual party member whose row they inhabit; these also come and go as circumstances change. Many verbs will lead to a further menu or menus of “nouns.” For example, asking Praxix the wizard to “cast” leads first to a direct-object list of available spells, and then on to an indirect-object list of possible spell targets, as shown in the screenshot below. Clicking on the name of Bergon to the far right on that screen would complete a command equivalent to typing “cast elevation on Bergon” in a traditional Infocom game. The whole system is elegant and well thought-through. Limited though it may be in contrast to a parser, it nevertheless presents a vastly larger possibility space than a Choose Your Own Adventure story, not least because it has a world model behind it that’s not all that far removed from the one found in any other Infocom game.

Journey

Journey is, as you’ve doubtless gathered by now, a high-fantasy story, a quality that, combined with the CRPG-like flavor, delighted a beleaguered marketing department still searching desperately for a counter to the huge popularity of the Ultima, Bard’s Tale, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series. Looking for a way to distinguish it from Infocom’s more traditional “graphical interactive fiction,” marketing dubbed it a “role-play chronicle” — not exactly a phrase that trips off the tongue. Blank:

I wanted to call it ‘role-playing fiction.’ They came back with role-play chronicle, and I said, “What does that mean?” They said, “Well, it’s like a chronicle,” and I said, “Yeah, it sort of is because it’s told in the past tense.” So they just sort of invented a phrase. It’s not my favorite, but it’s passable, and I don’t think Journey will stand or fall on what category you put it in. There are a lot of games that are called this type or that, but what really matters is what people think of them.

Awkward though marketing’s name may have been, there is indeed some truth behind it. One of the more interesting aspects of the game is its commitment to the idea of being a chronicle — or, if you like, a novel — that you, through Tag, are creating as you play. If you choose to make a transcript of your adventure, you can opt to have it not include your explicit command choices if you like, just the text that appears in response. The end result can read surprisingly well — a little disjointed at times, yes, but far better than would, say, Zork in this format.

There is, granted, no denying the story’s derivative nature; this is a game that absolutely oozes Tolkien, a fact that Infocom’s marketing department, far from concealing or denying, trumpeted. Journey, runs the game’s official announcement in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, is “a classic narrative in the exciting tradition of Tolkien” that “plunges you into an uncharted world of dwarves, elves, nymphs, and wizards.” True to its inspiration, Tag, ultimately the hero of the story, is seemingly the meekest and weakest of a group of disparate companions who form a fellowship and set out on a lonely quest to save their land from an encroaching evil that threatens their civilization’s very existence. Sound familiar? Name a proper noun in The Fellowship of the Ring, and chances are it has an analogue in Journey.

Journey

For instance, in place of Tolkien’s magic rings Journey has magic stones as the key to defeating the Dread Lord, its version of Sauron. In this extract, Gandalf… I mean, the great wizard Astrix tells the party of the true nature of their quest.

"I have been following your progress with great interest," the Wizard said, stroking his stringy gray beard. "You are a very resourceful group, that is certain!"

His voice then became dark. "The question is: Have you mettle enough to make siege on the Dread Lord himself?" And then, smiling, the darkness fell from his voice, and he answered his own question, "We shall see, I suppose; we shall see."

Leading us to his hearth, he sat us in a semi-circle around the blazing fire and spoke. "There is a story I must tell, a story of Seven Stones. Created in a time lost to living memory, these Stones contained the very strength and essence of our world. Of the Seven, Four were entrusted to the races of men who could use them best: Elves, Dwarves, Nymphs, and Wizards.

"These are the Four: the Elf Stone, green as the forests of old, and the Dwarf Stone, brown as the caverns of Forn a-klamen; the Nymph Stone, blue as the deep waters of M'nera, and the Wizard Stone, red as the dark fire of Serdi.

"The four races are now sundered, and the Four have long been kept apart, but now, with the Dread Lord rearing his misshapen head in our lands, we must bring them together again. For with them, we can hope to find the Two, and then, finally, the One with whose help we can destroy all Evil.

"For it is told that having the Four, it is possible to find the Two; so, also, do the Two give witness to their master, the One that in elder days was called the Anvil!"

Yet somehow Journey is far less cringe-worthy than it ought to be. For a designer who stubbornly, almost passive-aggressively insists today that the technology “was more important than the story” to him, Blank delivered some pretty fine writing at times for Infocom. Journey is full of sturdy, unpretentious prose evoking a world that, overwhelmingly derivative though it is, really does manage to feel epic and interesting in a way too few other gaming fictions have matched in my experience. I was always interested to explore the world’s various corners, always happy and genuinely curious when the opportunity arose for Tag to learn a little more about it from one of the other characters. Coming from me, someone who generally finds the real world much more interesting than fantastical ones, that’s high praise.

Indeed, when I first began to play Journey I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the whole experience. Not expecting to think much of this oddball effort released in Infocom’s dying days, I’d put off playing it for a long, long time; Journey was the very last of the 35 canonical Infocom games that I actually played. Yet when I finally did so I found it a unique and very pleasant experience. It felt very much like what I presumed it to be attempting to be: a more easygoing, relaxed take on the adventure game, where I could feel free to just take in the scenery and enjoy the story instead of stressing too much over puzzles or worrying overmuch about logistics. The game’s own rhetoric, obviously trying to wean players of conventional interactive fiction into this new way of doing things, encourages just such a relaxed approach. “Try to play as much as possible without overusing Save,” says the manual. “There are no ‘dead ends’ in Journey; feel free to experiment and take chances. Every action you take will cause the story to move forward.” This idea of a text adventure with no dead ends encourages comparisons with the contemporary works of Lucasfilm Games in the graphic-adventure realm, who were working toward the same goal in response to the notoriously player-hostile designs of Sierra. Marc Blank’s contemporary interview comments make the comparison feel even more apt:

We’ve learned a lot about interactive storytelling, but it’s been sort of clunky and not directed. I thought it would be interesting to design a story in which you really couldn’t get stuck. The choices you have to make are more tied into the story than into the minutia of manipulating objects. That really led to the whole style of telling the story and the interface. All that came out of the desire to try something like that.

So, yes, Journey and I had a great relationship for quite a while. And then it all went off the rails.

The first sneaking suspicion that something is rotten at the core of Journey may come when it hits you with some puzzles mid-way in that suddenly demand you type in phrases at a command line. Not only a betrayal of the “no-typing” premise that Infocom had hoped would make Journey amenable to game consoles and standalone CD-ROM players, these puzzles aren’t even particularly worthy in their own right, requiring intuitive leaps that feel borderline unfair, especially in contrast to the consummate ease with which the rest of the game is played. But, alas, they’re far from the worst of Journey‘s sins.

For there inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse — far worse — more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.

The worst offenders to all notions of fairness and fun cluster around the magic system and its reagents. Remember those puzzles I mentioned that can be solved in multiple ways? Well, that’s true enough in the short term, but in the long term failing to solve each one in the arbitrary right way — i.e., solving it by using a spell instead of your wits, or simply by using the wrong spell — leaves you high and dry later on, without the necessary reagents you need to get further. Playing Journey becomes an exercise in stepping again and again through the story you already know, clicking your way hurriedly through the same text you’ve already read ten times or more, making slight adjustments each time through so as to get past whatever dead end stymied you last time. This process is exactly as much fun as it sounds. In contrast to this exercise in aggravation, Shogun‘s summary halting with a “this scene is no longer winnable” message when you fail to do what the novel’s version of Blackthorne did suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.

How incredible to think that Journey and Shogun stemmed from Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, designers of the original Zork and Infocom’s two most veteran Implementors of all. These two of all people ought to have known better. Both games’ failings feel part and parcel of the general malaise infecting everything Infocom did or tried to do after 1987. Absolutely nothing that anyone did seemed to come out right anymore.

Like those of Shogun, Journey's 100-plus pictures are the work of artist Donald Langosy.

Like those of Shogun, Journey‘s 100-plus pictures are the work of artist Donald Langosy.

As bizarre as it is to see such frankly awful game design from a company like Infocom and an Implementor like Marc Blank, the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of Journey is still stranger. “Unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends,” the manual promises. “Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings.” I suppose there’s a germ of truthfulness here if you count a dead end only as being stranded in a walking-dead situation; the nature of Journey‘s interface means that you will always get a clear message that the jig is up once you’ve run out of options to move forward, sometimes even accompanied by a helpful hint about where you might have messed up way back when. Still, the assertion seems disingenuous at best. When people talk about multiple endings and multiple paths through an interactive story, this isn’t quite what they mean. Ditto Blank’s contemporary claim that there are “dozens” of “alternative endings,” and “very few places where you get killed.” Really, what’s the practical difference between a losing ending that involves death and one that leaves Tag and his friends defeated in their quest? The Dread Lord wins either way.

Today, none of the people left at Infocom during this final unpleasant period of the company’s existence are particularly eager to talk about those painful end times or the final batch of underwhelming games they produced. Thus I’ve never seen anyone even begin to address the fraught question of just what the hell they were thinking in trying to sell this sow’s ear of a game as a silk purse. Part of the disconnect may have stemmed from the physical distance between Marc Blank and the people at Infocom who wrote the manual and did the marketing; this distance prevented Blank from being as intimately involved in every aspect of his game’s presentation as had long been the norm for the in-house team of Imps. And part of the problem may be that the rhetoric around the game was never modified after the original vision for Journey became the cut-down reality necessitated by time pressure and the space limitations of even the latest version 6 Z-Machine. (While Journey‘s text feels quite expansive in comparison to the typical parser-based Infocom game, Blank was still limited to around 70,000 words in total; the perception of loquacity is doubtless aided by the fact that, Journey‘s scope of player possibility being so much more limited, a much larger percentage of that text can be deployed in service of the main channel of the narrative rather than tributaries that many or most players will never see.) Regardless of the reasons, Journey stands as the most blatant and shameless instance of false advertising in Infocom’s history. It’s really, really hard to square marketing’s claim of “no dead ends” with a game that not only includes dead ends but will end up being defined by them in any player’s memory. Infocom was usually better than this — but then, that’s a statement one finds oneself making too often when looking at their final, troubled run of games.

True to the Tolkien model to the last, Infocom planned to make Journey the first of a trilogy of games, the latter entries of which would likely have been written by other authors. Blank proposed starting on an untitled sort of narrative war game as his own next project, “a variant of traditional FRP [fantasy-role-playing] games in which the predominant activity is combat on the battlefield level, as opposed to the hand-to-hand level.” It would use the menu-driven Journey interface to “make a complex game simple to use and learn” and to “provide a narrative force to the unfolding of the war.” But events that followed shortly after the concurrent release and complete commercial failure of Journey and Shogun in March of 1989 put the kibosh on any further use of Journey‘s interface in any context.

And that’s a shame because its interface had huge potential to bridge the gap between the micromanagement entailed by a parser and the sweeping, unsatisfyingly arbitrary plot-branching of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s only in the past decade or so that modern authors have returned to the middle ground first explored by Blank in Journey, constructing choice-based works that include a substantial degree of world modeling behind their text and a more sophisticated approach to interaction than a tangle of irrevocable hard branches. In the years since they began to do so, the quantity of choice-based works submitted to the annual Interactive Fiction Competition has come to rival or exceed those of more traditional parser-based games, and commercial developers like Inkle Studios have enjoyed some financial success with the model. While they provide a very different experience than a parser-based game, my own early engagement with Journey demonstrates how compelling games of this stripe can be on their own terms. And they’re certainly much more viable than traditional text adventures as popular propositions, being so much more accessible to the parser-loathing majority of players.

Unsatisfactory though it is as a game, Journey marks Infocom’s final mad flash of innovation — a flash of innovation so forward-thinking that it would take other developers working in the field of interactive narrative a good fifteen years to catch up to it. Perhaps, then, it’s not such a terrible final legacy after all for Marc Blank in his role as Infocom’s innovator-in-chief — a role he continued to play, as Journey so amply proves, right to the end.

(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 May 1989 issue of Questbusters, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)


  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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Manhole, Anyone?

As part of my research for an upcoming article, I would really like to beg, borrow, or buy a copy of the 1989 CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the black-and-white Macintosh. Note that this means neither the 1988 floppy-disk release nor the 1994 Masterpiece edition or any other re-release. If you happen to have a line on this rarity, I’d hugely appreciate it if you could contact me and let me know. I’d be equally happy with a digital or physical copy, and am willing to pay for the latter.

Thanks a million, and see you in a few days with my next proper article!

Update: Reader Casey Muratori knows the folks at Cyan, and put me in touch with them. They’re going to send me a copy, so problem solved. My huge thanks go to Cyan and to Casey, who has just provided yet more proof that I have the best readers in the world.

 

Shogun

Shogun

One of the generation of male writers forged in the crucible of World War II, James Clavell had a much harder war of it than such peers as Norman Mailer, James Jones, Herman Wouk, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger, and James Michener. As a young man of barely twenty years, he found himself facing the Japanese onslaught on the Malay Peninsula at the onset of hostilities in the Pacific Theater. Following the most humiliating British defeat of the entire war, he spent the next three and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps, watching as more than nine out of every ten of his fellow soldiers succumbed to malnutrition, disease, and random acts of violence. Somehow he survived it all and made it home.

In 1953, he emigrated from his native England to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a film director, despite knowing only as much about how movies were made as his actress wife had deigned to tell him. He never actually became a director, but he did gradually establish himself by dint of pluck and sheer stubbornness as a screenwriter. Clavell claimed he learned how to write stories with mass appeal in Hollywood, developing a style that would preclude more than the merest flirtations with the sort of literary respectability enjoyed by the list of names that opened this article. To hear him tell it, that was just fine with him: “The first time you write a novel you go into ecstasy with the purple prose — how the clouds look, what the sunset is like. All bullshit. What happens? Who does what to whom? That’s all you need.”

If one James Clavell novel was going to please serious students of the literary arts, it would have to be his first, a very personal book in comparison to the epic doorstops for which he would later become known. Holding true to the old adage that everyone’s first novel is autobiographical, King Rat was a novelized account of Clavell’s grim experience as a prisoner-of-war. Published in 1962, its success, combined with his difficulty finding sufficient screenwriting gigs, led him to gradually shift his focus from screenplays to novels. The next book he published, Tai-Pan (1966), was a much longer, more impersonal, wider-angle historical novel of the early years of Hong Kong. Four similar doorstops would follow at widely spaced intervals over the next thirty years or so, all chronicling the experiences of Westerners in the Asia of various historical epochs.

James Clavell’s fiction was in many ways no more thoughtful than the majority of the books clogging up the airport bestseller racks then and now. His were novels of adventure, excitement, and titillation, not introspection. Yet there is one aspect of his work that still stands out as surprising, even a little noble. Despite the three and a half years of torture and privation he had endured at the hands of his Japanese captors, he was genuinely fascinated by Asian and especially Japanese culture and history; one might even say he came to love it. And nowhere was that love more evident than in Clavell’s third novel, his most popular of all and the one that most of his fans agree stands as his best: 1975’s Shogun.

The star of Shogun is a typical Clavell hero, a Capable Man whose inner life doesn’t seem to run much deeper than loving queen and country and hating Papists. John Blackthorne is the English pilot — i.e., navigator — of the Erasmus, the first Dutch vessel to discover Japan, circa 1600. Unfortunately, the Spanish and Portuguese are already there when the Erasmus arrives, a situation from which will spring much of the drama of this very lengthy tale of 1100-plus pages. Blackthorne becomes Clavell’s reader surrogate, our window into the strangeness, wonder, mystery, and beauty of feudal Japan.

While Blackthorne’s adventures in Japan are (very) roughly based on those of an actual English adventurer named William Adams, Clavell plays up the violence and the sex for all its worth. Many a youthful reader went to bed at night dreaming fever dreams of inscrutable and lovely geishas and the boxes of toys they kept to hand: “The beads are carefully placed in the back passage and then, at the moment of the Clouds and the Rain, the beads are pulled out slowly, one by one.” (Did finding that sort of thing enticing mean you were — my God! — gay?) Read by adults, such passages… er, extracts are still riotously entertaining in the way that only truly committed Bad Writing can be. My wife Dorte and I used Shogun as our bedtime reading recently. While it didn’t do much to encourage conjugal sexy times, it certainly did make us laugh; Dorte still thinks “pillowing,” Shogun‘s favorite Japanese euphemism for sex, is unaccountably hilarious, and is forever going on about pillowing this and pillowing that. (She also loves the notion of a “poop deck,” but I suppose I can’t blame Clavell for that.)

Unsubtle prose and dodgy euphemisms aside, the first 25 to 30 percent of Shogun is by far the most compelling. Long enough to form a novel of reasonable length in their own right, the early chapters detail the arrival of Blackthorne and his Dutch cohorts in Japan, upon whose shores they literally wash up, starving and demoralized after their long voyage across the Pacific. I’ve occasionally heard the beginning of Shogun described as one of the finest stories of first contact between two alien cultures ever written, worthy of careful study by any science-fiction author who proposes to tell of a meeting between even more far-flung cultures than those of Europe and Japan. To that suggestion I can only heartily concur. As Blackthorne and his cohorts pass from honored guests to condemned prisoners and back again, struggling all the while to figure out what these people want from them, what they want from each other, and how to communicate at all, the story is compulsively readable, the tension at times nearly unbearable. (One suspects that some of the most horrific scenes, like the ones after Blackthorne and the crew are cast into a tiny hole and left to languish there in sweltering heat and their own bodily filth, once again draw from Clavell’s own prisoner-of-war experiences.) While I admit to being far from intimately familiar with the whole of the James Clavell oeuvre, I’d be very surprised if he ever wrote anything better than this.

After Blackthorne, stalwart Capable Man that he is, manages to negotiate a reprieve for the crew and a place for himself as a trusted advisor to a powerful daimyo named Toranaga, the book takes on a different, to my mind less satisfying character. It ceases to focus so much on Blackthorne’s personal plight as a stranger in a strange land in favor of a struggle for control of the entire country, once again based loosely on actual history, that looms between Toranaga, very broadly speaking the good guy (or at least the one with whom our hero Blackthorne allies himself), and another daimyo named Ishido. At the same time, the Portuguese Jesuits are trying to stake out a place in the middle that will preserve their influence regardless of who wins, whilst also working righteously to find some way to do away with Blackthorne and the Dutch sailors, who if allowed to return to Europe with information on exactly where Japan lies represent an existential threat to everything they’ve built there. Plot piles on counter-plot on conspiracy on counter-conspiracy, interspersed with regular action-movie set-pieces, as all of the various factions maneuver toward the inevitable civil war that will decide the fate of all Japan for decades or centuries to come.

In the meantime, Blackthorne, apparently deciding his life isn’t already dangerous enough, is carrying on an illicit romance with the beautiful Mariko, wife of one of Toranaga’s most highly placed samurai. Their relationship was much discussed in Shogun‘s first bloom of popularity as being the key to the book’s considerable attraction for female readers; very unusually for such a two-fisted tale of war, adventure, and history, Shogun supposedly enjoyed more female readers than male. True to Clavell’s roots, however, Blackthorne and Mariko’s is a depressingly conventional Hollywood romance. We’re expected to believe that these two characters are wildly, passionately in love with one another simply because Clavell tells us they are, according to the Hollywood logic that two attractive people of the opposite sex thrown into proximity with one another must automatically fall in love — and of course lots of sex must follow.

The plot continues to grow ever more byzantine as the remaining page-count continues to dwindle, and one goes from wondering how Clavell is possibly going to wrap all this up to checking Amazon to be sure there isn’t a direct sequel. And then it all just… stops, leaving more loose threads dangling than my most raggedy tee-shirt. I’ve read many books with unsatisfying endings, but I’ve never read an ending quite as half-assed as this one. It’s all finally come down to the war that’s been looming throughout the previous 1100-plus pages. We’re all ready for the bloody climax. Instead Clavell gives us a three-page summary of what might have happened next if he’d actually bothered to write it. It’s for all the world like Clavell, who admitted that he wrote his novels with no plan whatsoever, simply got tired of this one, decided 1100 pages was more than enough and just stopped in medias res. Shogun manages the feat, perhaps unique in the annals of anticlimax, of feeling massively bloated and half-finished at the same time. This is a Lord of the Rings that ends just as Frodo and Sam arrive in Mordor; a Tale of Two Cities that ends just as Carton is about to make his final sacrifice. I’ve never felt so duped by a book as this one.

But I must admit that I seem to be the exception here. Whether because of the masterfully taut beginning of the story, the torrid love affair, or the lurid portrayal of Japanese culture that pokes always through the tangled edifice of plot, few readers then or now seem to share my reservations. Shogun became an instant bestseller. In 1980, a television miniseries of the book was aired in five parts, filling more than nine hours sans commercials. It became the most-watched show ever aired on NBC and the second most popular in the history of American television, its numbers exceeded only by those of Roots, another miniseries event which had aired on ABC in 1977. When many people think of Blackthorne today, they still picture Richard Chamberlain, the dashing actor who played him on television. Together the book and the miniseries ignited a craze for Japanese culture in the West that, however distorted or exaggerated Shogun‘s portrayal of same may have been, did serve as a useful counterbalance to lingering resentments over World War II and, increasingly, fears that Japan’s exploding technological and industrial base was about to usurp the United States’s place at the head of the world’s economy.

At this point, at last, Shogun‘s huge popularity on page and screen brings us in our roundabout way to Infocom — or, more accurately, to their corporate masters Mediagenic.1 (If the preface to the real point of this article seemed crazily extended, I can only plead that, with Shogun the game having little identity of its own apart from the novel on which it’s based, it’s hard to discuss it through any other framework.)

Shogun the game at least looks pretty good.

Shogun the game at least looks pretty good.

Mediagenic’s absolute mania for licensed games following the accession of Bruce Davis to the CEO’s chair has been well-established in other articles by now. Infocom was able to find some excuse to head off most of the ideas in that vein that Mediagenic proposed, but Shogun was an exception. When Mediagenic came to Infocom with a signed deal already in place in late 1987 to base a game on this literary property — from Bruce Davis’s perspective, the idea was right in Infocom’s wheelhouse — their problem child of a subsidiary just wasn’t in any position to say no. Dave Lebling, having recently finished The Lurking Horror and being without an active project, drew the short straw.

Shogun the game was a misbegotten, unloved project from the start, a project for which absolutely no one in the Infocom, Mediagenic, or Clavell camps had the slightest creative passion. The deal had been done entirely by Clavell’s agent; the author seemed barely aware of the project’s existence, and seemed to care about it still less. It was a weird choice even in the terms of dollars and cents upon which Bruce Davis was always so fixated. Yes, Shogun had been massively popular on page and screen years earlier, and still generated strong catalog sales every year. It was hard to imagine, however, that there was a huge crowd of computer gamers dying to relive the adventures of John Blackthorne interactively. Why this of all licenses? Why now?

Shogun

Dave Lebling was duly dispatched to visit Clavell for a few days at his chalet in the Swiss Alps to discuss ideas for the adaptation; he got barely more than a few words of greeting out of the man. His written requests for guidance were answered with the blunt reply that Clavell had written the book more than a decade ago and didn’t remember that much about it; the subtext was that he couldn’t be bothered with any of it, that to him Lebling’s game represented just another check arranged by his agent. Lebling was left entirely on his own to adapt another author’s work, with no idea of where the boundaries to his own creative empowerment might lie. In the past, Infocom had always taken care to avoid just this sort of collaboration-in-name-only. Now they’d had it imposed upon them.

Lebling chose to structure his version of Shogun as a series of Reader’s Digest “scenes from” the novel, cutting and pasting unwieldy chunks of Clavell’s prose into the game and demanding that the player respond by doing exactly what Blackthorne did in the novel in order to advance to the next canned scene. The player who has read the novel will find little interest or challenge in pantomiming her way through a re-creation of same, while the player who hasn’t will have no idea whatsoever what’s expected of her at any given juncture. It’s peculiar to see such a threadbare design from a company as serious about the craft of interactive fiction as Infocom had always been. Everyone there, not least Lebling himself, understood all too well the problems inherent in this approach to adaptation; these very same problems were the main reason Infocom had so steadfastly avoided literary licenses that didn’t come with their authors attached in earlier years. One can only presume that Lebling, unsure of how far his creative license extended and bored to death with the whole project anyway, either couldn’t come up with anything better or just couldn’t be bothered to try.

Shogun includes one graphical puzzle reminescent of those in Zork Zero, a maze representing the tangled allies of Osaka.

Shogun includes one graphical puzzle reminiscent of those in Zork Zero, a maze representing the tangled alleys of Osaka.

Consider the game’s handling of an early scene from the novel: the first time Blackthorne meets Yabu and Omi, respectively the daimyo and his samurai henchman who have dominion over Anjiro, the small fishing village where the Erasmus has washed up. Also present as translator is a Portuguese priest, Blackthorne’s sworn enemy, who would like nothing better than to see him condemned and executed on the spot. In the book, Blackthorne’s observations of the priest’s interactions with the two samurai convince him that there is no love lost between him and them, that Yabu and Omi hate and mistrust the priest almost as much as Blackthorne does. Blackthorne wants to communicate that he shares their sentiment, but of course all of his words are being translated into Japanese by the priest himself — obviously a highly unreliable means of communication in this situation. Desperate to show his captors that he’s different from this other foreigner, he lunges at the priest, grabs his crucifix, and breaks it in two, a deadly sin for a Catholic but a good day’s work for a Protestant like him. Yabu and especially Omi are left curious and more than a little impressed; Blackthorne’s action quite possibly staves off his imminent execution.

In the book, this all hangs together well enough, based on what we know and what we soon learn of the personalities, histories, and cultures involved. But for the game to expect the player to come up with such a seemingly random action as lunging for the crucifix and breaking it is asking an awful lot of anyone unfamiliar with the novel. It’s not impossible to imagine the uninitiated player eventually coming up with it on her own, especially as Lebling is good enough to drop some subtle hints about the crucifix “on its long chain waving mockingly before your face,” but she’ll likely do so only by dying and restoring many times.

Shogun is the only Infocom game outside of Leather Goddesses of Phobos in which you have to "make love to" someone -- or use another euphemism -- in order to score points.

Shogun is the only Infocom game outside of Leather Goddesses of Phobos in which you have to “make love to” someone — or type another euphemism, if you like — in order to score points. (Unfortunately, you can’t use “pillow” as a verb. This Dorte finds deeply disappointing.) It’s also, needless to say, the only one with nudity. Too bad Blackthorne is covering up his legendary manly member, whose size is a constant point of discussion in the book.

And this is far from the worst of Lebling’s “read James Clavell’s mind” moments. In their announcement of the game in their newsletter, Infocom noted that “the key to success in the interactive Shogun is the ability to act as the British pilot-major Blackthorne would.” For the player who hasn’t read the book and thus doesn’t know Blackthorne, this is quite a confusing proposition. For the player who has, the game falls into a rote pattern. Remember (or look up) what Blackthorne did in the book, figure out how and when to phrase it to the parser, and you get some points and get to live a little longer. Do anything else, and you die or get a message saying “this scene is no longer winnable” and get to try again. In between, you do a lot of waiting and examining, and lots of reading of textual cut scenes — called “interludes” by the game — that grow steadily lengthier as the story progresses and Blackthorne’s part in it becomes more and more ancillary.

In a telling indication of how the times had changed for Infocom, by far the most impressive aspect of Shogun is its visual presentation. Promoted, like the earlier Zork Zero, as “graphical interactive fiction,” it and the simultaneously released Journey are the first Infocom games to unabashedly indulge in pictures for their own sake, abandoning Steve Mereztky’s insistence that his game’s graphics always serve a practical gameplay function. Shogun‘s pictures, drawn in the style of classical Japanese woodcuts by Donald Langosy, are lovely to look at and perfectly suit the atmosphere of the novel. The game’s one truly innovative aspect is the same pictures’ presentation onscreen. Rather than being displayed in a static window, they’re scattered around and within the scrolling text in various positions, giving the game the look of an unfurling illustrated scroll. Infocom had had their share of trouble figuring out the graphics thing, but Shogun demonstrates that, clever bunch that they were, they were learning quickly. Already Infocom’s visual palette was far more sophisticated than that of competitors like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 who had been doing text adventures with pictures for years. Pity they wouldn’t have much more time to experiment.

"The socks stay on, Mariko!"

“The socks stay on, Mariko!”2

But of course, as Infocom’s vintage advertisements loved to tell us, visuals alone do not a great game make. Shogun stands today as the most unloved and unlovable of all Infocom’s games, a soulless exercise in pure commerce that didn’t make a whole lot of sense even on that basis. Released in March of 1989, its sales were, like those of all of this final run of graphical games, minuscule. In my opinion and, I would venture, that of a substantial number of others, it represents the absolute nadir of Infocom’s 35-game catalog. It is, needless to say, the merest footnote to the bestselling catalog of James Clavell, who died in 1994. And, indeed, it’s little more worthy of discussion in the context of Infocom’s history; the words I’ve devoted to it already are far more than it deserves. I have two more Infocom games to discuss in future articles, each with problems of their own, but we can take consolation in one thing: it will never, ever get as bad as this again. This, my friends, is what the bottom of the barrel looks like.

(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. And the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)


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

  2. Al and Peg 

 

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