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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Fooblitzky

Fooblitzky

Games were everywhere at Infocom. By that I mean all sorts of games, not just interactive fiction — although even the latter existed in more varieties than you might expect, such as an interactive live-action play where the audience shouted out instructions to the actors, to be filtered through and interpreted by a “parser” played by one Dave Lebling. Readers of The New Zork Times thrilled to the exploits of Infocom’s softball team in a league that also included such software stars as Lotus and Spinnaker. There were the hermit-crab races held at “Drink’em Downs” right there at CambridgePark Drive. (I had a Lance Armstrong-like moment of disillusionment in scouring Jason Scott’s Get Lamp tapes for these articles when habitual winner Mike Dornbrook revealed the sordid secret to his success: he had in fact been juicing his crabs all along by running hot water over his little cold-blooded entrants before races.) And of course every reader of The New Zork Times was also familiar with Infocom’s collective love for puzzles — word, logic, trivia, or uncategorizable — removed from any semblance of fiction interactive or otherwise. And then there was the collective passion for traditional board and card games of all stripes, often played with a downright disconcerting intensity. Innocent office Uno matches soon turned into “bloody” tournaments. One cold Boston winter a Diplomacy campaign got so serious and sparked such discord amongst the cabin-fever-addled participants that the normally equanimous Jon Palace finally stepped in and banned the game from the premises. Perhaps the most perennial of all the games was a networked multiplayer version of Boggle that much of the office played almost every day at close of business. Steve Meretzky got so good, and could type so fast, that he could enter a word and win a round before the other players had even begun to mentally process the letters before them.

Given this love for games as well as the creativity of so many at Infocom, it was inevitable that they would also start making up their own games that had nothing to do with prose or parsers. Indeed, little home-grown ludic experiments were everywhere, appropriating whatever materials were to hand; Andrew Kaluzniacki recalls Meretzky once making up a game on the fly that used only a stack of business cards lying on the desk before him. Most of these creations lived and died inside the Infocom offices, but an interesting congruence of circumstances allowed one of them to escape to the outside world as Fooblitzky, Infocom’s one game that definitely can’t be labelled an interactive fiction or adventure game and thus (along with, if you like, Cornerstone) the great anomaly in their catalog.

We’ve already seen many times that technology often dictates design. That’s even truer in the case of Fooblitzky than in most. Its origins date back to early 1984, when Mike Berlyn, fresh off of Infidel, was put in charge of one of Infocom’s several big technology initiatives for the year: a cross-platform system for writing and delivering graphical games to stand along the one already in place for text adventures and in development for business products.

It was by far the thorniest proposition of the three, one that had already been rejected in favor of pure text adventures and an iconic anti-graphics advertising campaign more than a year earlier when Infocom had walked away from a potential partnership with Penguin Software, “The Graphics People.” As I described in an earlier article, Infocom’s development methodology, built as it was around their DEC minicomputer, was just not well suited to graphics. It’s not quite accurate to say, however, that the DEC terminals necessarily could only display text. By now DEC had begun selling terminals like the VT125 with bitmap graphics capabilities, which could be programmed using a library called ReGIS. This, it seemed, might just open a window of possibility for coding graphical games on the DEC.

Still, the DEC represented only one end of the pipeline; they also needed to deliver the finished product on microcomputers. Trying to create a graphical Z-Machine would, again, be much more complicated than its text-only equivalent. To run an Infocom text adventure, a computer needed only be capable of displaying text for output and of accepting text for input. Excepting only a few ultra-low-end models, virtually any disk-drive-equipped computer available for purchase in 1984 could do the job; some might display more text onscreen, or do it more or less attractively or quickly, but all of them could do it. Yet the same computers differed enormously in their graphics capabilities. Some, like the old TRS-80, had virtually none to speak of; some, like the IBM PC and the Apple II, were fairly rudimentary in this area; some, like the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 and even the IBM PCjr, could do surprisingly impressive things in the hands a skilled programmer. All of these machines ran at different screen resolutions, with different color palettes, with different sets of fiddly restrictions on what color any given pixel could be. Infocom would be forced to choose a lowest common denominator to target, then sacrifice yet more speed and capability to the need to run any would-be game through an interpreter. Suffice to say that such a system wasn’t likely to challenge, say, Epyx when it came to slick and beautiful action games. But then maybe that was just as well: even the DEC graphical terminals hadn’t been designed with videogames in mind but rather static “business graphics” — i.e., charts and graphs and the like — and weren’t likely to reveal heretofore unknown abilities for running something like Summer Games.

But in spite of it all some thought that Infocom might be able to do certain types of games tolerably well with such a system. Andrew Kaluzniacki, a major technical contributor to the cross-platform graphics project:

It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that we couldn’t do complicated real-time graphics like you might see in an arcade game. But you could do a board game. You could lay the board out in a way that would look sufficiently similar across platforms, that would look acceptable.

Thus was the multiplayer board/computer game hybrid Foobliztky born almost as a proof of concept — or perhaps a justification for the work that had already been put into the cross-platform graphics system.

Fooblitzky and the graphics system itself, both operating as essentially a single project under Mike Berlyn, soon monopolized the time of several people amongst the minority of the staff not working on Cornerstone. Kaluzniacki, a new hire in Dan Horn’s Micro Group, wrote a graphics editor for the Apple II which was used by a pair of artists, Brian Cody and Paula Maxwell, to draw the pictures. These were then transferred to the DEC for incorporation into the game; the technology on that side was the usual joint effort by the old guard of DEC-centric Imps. The mastermind on the interpreter side was another of Horn’s stars, Poh C. Lim, almost universally known as “Magic” Lim due to his fondness for inscrutable “magic numbers” in his code marked off with a big “Don’t touch this!” Berlyn, with considerable assistance from Marc Blank, took the role of principal game designer as well as project manager.

Fooblitzky may have been born as largely “something to do with our graphics system,” but Infocom wasn’t given to doing anything halfway. Berlyn worked long and hard on the design, putting far more passion into it than he had into either of his last two interactive-fiction works. The artists also worked to make the game as pleasing and charming as it could be given the restrictions under which they labored. And finally the whole was given that most essential prerequisite to any good game of any type: seemingly endless rounds of play-testing and tweaking. Fooblitzky tournaments became a fixture of life at Infocom for a time, often pitting the divisions of the company against one another. (Business Products surprisingly proved very competitive with Consumer Products; poor Jon Palace “set the record for playing Fooblitzky more times and losing more times than anyone else in the universe.”) When the time came to create the packaging, Infocom did their usual superlative, hyper-creative job. Fooblitzky came with a set of markers and little dry-erase boards, one for each of the up to four players, for taking notes and making plans, along with not one but two manuals — the full rules and a “Bare Essentials” quick-start guide, the presence of which makes the game sound much more complicated than it actually is — and the inevitable feelie, which as in the Cornerstone package here took the form of a button.

Fooblitzky is a game of deduction, one more entry in a long and ongoing tradition in board and casual gaming. At the beginning of a game, each player secretly chooses one of a possible eighteen items. If fewer than four are playing — two to four players are possible — the computer then randomly (and secretly) picks enough items to round out the total to four. Players then take turns moving about a game board representing the town of Fooblitzky, trying to deduce what the three initially unidentified items are and gather a full set together. The first to bring all four items back to a “check point” wins.

Items start out in stores which are scattered about the board. Also present are pawn shops in which items can be sold and bought; restaurants in which you can work to earn money if you deplete your initial store; crosswalks which can randomly lead to unintended contact with traffic and an expensive stay in the hospital; phone booths for calling distant stores and checking stock; storage lockers for stashing items (you can only carry four with you, a brutal inventory limit indeed); even a subway that can whisk you around the board quickly — for, as with most things in Fooblitzky, a price. Adding a layer of chaos over the proceedings is the Chance Man, who appears randomly from time to time to do something good, like giving you a free item, or bad, like dropping a piano on your head and sending you to the hospital. By making use of all of the above and more, while also watching everything everyone else does, players try to figure out the correct items and get them collected and delivered before their rivals; thus the need for the note-taking boards.

Once you get the hang of the game, which doesn’t take long, a lot of possibilities open up for strategy and even a little devious psychology. Bluffing becomes a viable option: cast off that correct item in a pawn shop as if it’s incorrect, then watch your opponents race off down the wrong track while you do the rest of what you need to do before you buy it back, carry it to the check point, and win. If you prefer to be less passive aggressive and more, well, active aggressive, you can just run into an opponent in the street to scatter her items everywhere and try to grab what you need.

It can all be a lot of fun, although I’m not sure I can label Fooblitzky a classic. There just seems to be something missing — what, I can’t quite put my finger on — for me to go that far. One problem is that some games are much more interesting than others — granted, a complaint that could be applied to just about any game, but the variation seems much more pronounced here than it ought to. By far the best game of Fooblitzky I’ve ever played was one involving just my wife Dorte and me. By chance three of the four needed items turned out to be the same, leading to a mad, confused scramble that lasted at least twice as long as a normal game, as we each thought we’d figured out the solution several times only to get our collection rejected. (Dorte finally won in the end, as usual.) That game was really exciting. By contrast, however, the more typical game in which all four items are distinct can start to seem almost rote after just a few sessions in quick succession; even deviousness can only add so much to the equation. If Fooblitzky was a board game, I tend to think it’d be one you’d dust off once or twice a year, not a game-night perennial.

That said, Fooblitzky‘s presentation is every bit as whimsical and cute as it wants to be. Each player’s avatar is a little dog because, well, why not? My favorite bit of all is the dish-washing graphic.

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

On the way to the hospital after getting hit by a car

On the way to the hospital after getting hit by a car

Cute as it is, Fooblitzky and the cross-platform project which spawned it weren’t universally loved within Infocom. Far from it. Mike Berlyn characterizes the debate over just what to do with Fooblitzky as a “bitter battle.” Mike Dornbrook’s marketing department, already dealing with the confusion over just why Infocom was releasing something like Cornerstone, was deeply concerned about further “brand dilution” if this erstwhile interactive-fiction company now suddenly released something like Fooblitzky.

The obvious riposte to such concerns would have been to make Fooblitzky so compelling, such an obvious moneyspinner, that it simply had to be released and promoted heavily. But in truth Fooblitzky was far from that. Its very description — that of a light social game — made it an horrifically hard sell in the 1980s, as evidenced by the relative commercial failure of even better games like my beloved M.U.L.E. Like much of Electronic Arts’s early catalog, it was targeted at a certain demographic of more relaxed, casual computer gaming that never quite emerged in sufficient numbers from the home-computing boom and bust. And Fooblitzky‘s graphics, while perhaps better than what anyone had any right to expect, are still slow and limited. A few luddites at Infocom may have been wedded to the notion of the company as a maker of only pure-text games, but for many more the problem was not that Fooblitzky had graphics but rather that the graphics just weren’t good enough for the Infocom stamp of quality. They would have preferred to find a way to do cross-platform graphics right, but there was no money for such a project in the wake of Cornerstone. Fooblitzky‘s graphics had been produced on a relative shoestring, and unfortunately they kind of looked it. Some naysayers pointedly suggest that if it wasn’t possible to do a computerized Fooblitzky right they should just remove the computer from the equation entirely and make a pure board game out of it (the branding confusion that would have resulted from that would have truly given Dornbrook and company nightmares!).

And so Fooblitzky languished for months even after Mike Berlyn left the company and the cross-platform-graphics project as a whole fell victim to the InfoAusterity program. Interpreters were only created for the IBM PC, Apple II, and Atari 8-bit line, notably leaving the biggest game machine in the world, the Commodore 64, unsupported. At last in September of 1985 Infocom started selling it exclusively via mail order to members of the established family — i.e., readers of The New Zork Times. Marketing finally relented and started shipping the game to stores the following spring where, what with their virtually nonexistent efforts at promotion, it sold in predictably tiny quantities: well under 10,000 copies in total.

The whole Fooblitzky saga is the story of a confused company with muddled priorities creating something that didn’t quite fit anywhere and never really had a chance. Like Cornerstone’s complicated virtual machine, the cross-platform graphics initiative ended up being technically masterful but more damaging than useful to the finished product. Infocom could have had a much slicker game for much less money had they simply written the thing on a microcomputer and then ported it to the two or three other really popular and graphically viable platforms by hand. Infocom’s old “We hate micros!” slogan, their determination to funnel everything through the big DEC, was becoming increasingly damaging to them in a rapidly changing computing world, their biggest traditional strength threatening to become a huge liability. Even by 1984 the big DECSystem-20 was starting to look a bit antiquated to those who knew where computing was going. In just a few more years, when Infocom would junk the DEC at last, it would literally be junked: the big fleet of red refrigerators, worth a cool million dollars when it came to Infocom in 1982, was effectively worthless barely five years later, a relic of a bygone era.

Because Fooblitzky is such an oddity with none of the name recognition or lingering commercial value of the more traditional Infocom games, I’m going to break my usual pattern and offer it for download here in its Atari 8-bit configuration. It’s still good for an evening or two’s scavenging fun with friends or family. Next time we’ll get back to interactive fiction proper and dig into one of the most important games Infocom ever released.

(Just the usual suspects as sources this time around: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and my collection of New Zork Times issues.)

 
 

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Wishbringer

Brian Moriarty, 1985

Brian Moriarty, 1985

Brian Moriarty was the first of a second wave of Infocom authors from very different and more diverse backgrounds than the original Imps. Their fresh perspectives would be a welcome addition during the latter half of the company’s history. Some of the second wave all but stumbled through the doors of Infocom, but not Moriarty — not at all Moriarty. His arrival as an Imp in September of 1984 marked the fruition of a calculated “assault on Infocom” — his words, not mine — that had taken over two years to bring off.

Moriarty’s personal history is perfect for an Imp, being marked by a mix of technical and literary interests right from his grade-school years. After taking a degree in English Literature from Southeastern Massachusetts University in 1978, he found a job in a Radio Shack store, where he spent hours many days playing with the TRS-80s. He didn’t buy a computer of his own, however, until after he had become a technical writer at Bose Corporation in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was there in 1981 that a colleague brought in his new Atari 800 to show off. Moriarty succumbed to the greatest Atari marketing weapon ever devised: the classic game Star Raiders. He soon headed out to buy an Atari system of his own.

Along with the computer and Star Raiders, Moriarty also brought home a copy of Scott Adams’s Strange Odyssey. He played it and the other Scott Adams games obsessively, thinking all the while of all the ways they could be better. Then one day he spotted Infocom’s Deadline on the shelf of his local Atari dealer. From its dossier-like packaging to its remarkable parser and its comparative reams of luxurious text, it did pretty much everything he had been dreaming about. Moriarty knew in an instant what he wanted to do, and where he wanted to do it. How great to learn that Infocom was located right there in the Boston area; that, anyway, was one problem less to deal with. Still, Infocom was a tiny, insular company at this point, and weren’t exactly accepting resumes from eager Atari enthusiasts who’d never designed an actual game before.

So Moriarty put Infocom in his long-range planning folder and went for the time being somewhere almost as cool. Back at Radio Shack, he’d worked with a fellow named Lee Papas, whom he’d been surprised to rediscover behind the counter of the local Atari dealer when he’d gone to buy his 800 system. Pappas and a friend had by then already started a little newsletter, A.N.A.L.O.G. (“Atari Newsletter and Lots of Games”). By the end of 1982 it had turned into a full-fledged glossy magazine. Pappas asked Moriarty, who’d already been a regular contributor for some months, if he’d like to come work full-time for him. Moriarty said yes, leaving his safe, comfortable job at Bose behind; it was “the best career move I ever made.”

A.N.A.L.O.G. was a special place, a beloved institution within and chronicler of the Atari 8-bit community in much the same way that Softalk was of the Apple II scene. Their articles were just a little bit more thoughtful, their type-in programs a little bit better, their reviews a little bit more honest than was the norm at other magazines. Moriarty, a graceful writer as well as a superb Atari hacker, contributed to all those aspects by writing articles and reviews and programs. Life there was pretty good: “It was a small group of nerdy guys in their 20s who loved computer games, ate the same junk foods, and went to see the same science-fiction movies together.”

Still, Moriarty didn’t forget his ultimate goal. Having advanced one step by getting himself employed in the same general industry as Infocom, he set about writing his first adventure game to prove his mettle to anyone — Infocom, perhaps? — who might be paying attention. Adventure in the Fifth Dimension appeared in A.N.A.L.O.G.‘s April/May 1983 issue. A necessarily primitive effort written mostly in BASIC and running in 16 K, it nevertheless demonstrated some traits of Moriarty’s later work by mixing a real place, Washington D.C., with fantastic and surreal elements: a group of aliens have stolen the Declaration of Independence, and it’s up to you to track down an entrance to their alternate universe and get it back. A year later, Moriarty continued his campaign with another, more refined adventure written entirely in assembly language. Crash Dive! pits the player against a mutineer aboard a nuclear submarine, a scenario much more complex and plot-heavy than the typical magazine-type-in treasure hunt. It even included a set of Infocom-style feelies, albeit only via a photograph in the magazine.

Crash Dive!'s "feelies"

With two games under his belt, Moriarty applied for a position as a game designer at Infocom, but his resume came right back to him. Then a colleague showed him a posting he’d spotted on the online service CompuServe. It was from Dan Horn, manager of Infocom’s Micro Group, looking for an expert 6502 hacker to work on Z-Machine interpreters. It took Moriarty about “45 seconds” to answer. Horn liked what he saw of Moriarty, and in early 1984 the latter started working for the former in the building where the magic happened. His first project involved, as chance would have it, another submarine-themed game: he modified the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and Apple II interpreters to support the sonar display in Seastalker. Later he wrote complete new interpreters for the Radio Shack Color Computer and the ill-fated Commodore Plus/4.

He was tantalizingly close to his goal. Having broken through the outer gates, he just needed to find a way into the inner keep of the Imps themselves. He took to telling Berlyn, Blank, Lebling, and the rest about his ambition every chance he got, while also sharing with them his big idea for a game: a grand “historical fantasy” that would deal with no less weighty a subject than the history of atomic weapons and their implications for humanity. It seemed the perfect subject for the zeitgeist of 1984, when the Cold War was going through its last really dangerous phase and millions of schoolchildren were still walking around with souls seared by the previous year’s broadcast of The Day After.

Moriarty got his shot at the inner circle when a certain pop-science writer whom Infocom had hired to write a game was allegedly found curled up beneath his desk in a little ball of misery, undone by the thorny syntax of ZIL. This moment marks the end of Marc Blank’s dream of being able to hire professional writers off the street, set them down with a terminal and a stack of manuals, and wait for the games to come gushing forth. From now on the games would be written by people already immersed in Infocom’s technology; the few outside collaborations to come would be just that, collaborations, with established programmers inside Infocom doing the actual coding.

That new philosophy was great news for a fellow like Brian Moriarty, skilled coder that he was. The Imps decided to reward his persistence and passion and give him a shot. Only thing was, they weren’t so sure about the big historical fantasy, at least not for a first game. What they really had in mind was a made-to-order game to fill a glaring gap in their product matrix: a gentle, modestly sized game to introduce newcomers to interactive fiction — an “Introductory”-level work. And it should preferably be a Zorkian fantasy, because that’s what sold best and what most people still thought of when they thought of Infocom. None of the current Imps were all that excited about such a project. Would Moriarty be interested? He wasn’t about to split hairs over theme or genre or anything else after dreaming of reaching this point for so long; he answered with a resounding “Absolutely!” And so Brian Moriarty became an Imp at last — to no small consternation from Dan Horn, who’d thought Moriarty had come to Infocom to do “great work for me.”

It’s kind of surprising that it took Infocom this long to perceive the need for a game like the one that Moriarty would now be taking on as his first assignment. Their original matrix had offered only games for children — “Interactive Fiction Junior” — below the “Standard” level. Considering that even the hard-as-nails Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was labelled “Standard,” the leap from “Junior” to “Standard” could be a daunting one indeed. Clearly there was room for a work more suitable for adult novices, one that didn’t condescend in the way that Seastalker, solid as it is on its own terms, might be perceived to do. Infocom had now decided to make just such a game at last — although, oddly, the problematic conflations continued. Rather than simply add a fifth difficulty level to the matrix, they decided to dispense with the “Junior” category entirely, relabeling Seastalker an “Introductory” game. This might have made existing print materials easier to modify, but it lost track entirely of Seastalker‘s original target demographic. Infocom claimed in The New Zork Times that “adults didn’t want a kid’s game; in fact, kids didn’t want a kid’s game.” Which rather belied the claim in the same article that Seastalker had been a “success,” but there you go.

Moriarty was a thoughtful guy with a bit of a bookish demeanor, so much so that his inevitable nickname of “Professor” actually suited him really well. Now he started thinking about how he could make an introductory game that wouldn’t be too condescending or trivial to the Infocom faithful who would hopefully also buy it. He soon hit upon the idea of including a magic MacGuffin which would allow alternate, simpler solutions to many puzzles at a cost to the score — literally a Wishbringer. The hardcore could eschew its use from the start and have a pretty satisfying experience; beginners could, after the satisfaction and affirmation of solving the game the easy way, go back and play again the hard way to try to get a better score. It was brilliant, as was the choice not to make using the Wishbringer just a “solve this puzzle” button but rather an intriguing little puzzle nexus in its own right. First the player would have to find it; then she would have to apply it correctly by wishing for “rain,” “advice,” “flight,” “darkness,” “foresight,” “luck,” or “freedom” whilst having the proper material components for the spell on hand, a perfect primer for the spellcasting system in the Enchanter trilogy. The wishes would, like in any good fairy tale, be limited to one of each type. So, even this route to victory would be easier but still in its own way a challenge.

At first Moriarty thought of making Wishbringer a magic ring, but what with The Lord of the Rings and a thousand knock-offs thereof that felt too clichéd. Anyway, he wanted to include it in the box as a feelie, and, cost concerns being what they were, that meant the ring would have to be a gaudy plastic thing like those ones bubble-gum machines sometimes dispensed in lieu of a gumball. Then he hit upon the idea of making Wishbringer a stone — “The Magick Stone of Dreams.” Maybe they could make the one in the package glow in the dark to give it that proper aura and distract from its plasticness? Marketing said it was feasible, and so the die (or stone) was cast. Thus did Wishbringer become the first and only Infocom game to be literally designed around a feelie. Moriarty spent some nine months — amidst all of the Hitchhiker’s and Cornerstone excitement, the high-water mark that was Christmas 1984, an office move, and the dawning of the realization that the company was suddenly in big, big trouble — learning the vagaries of ZIL and writing Wishbringer.

Wishbringer

For all that it’s a much subtler work lacking the “Gee whiz!” quality of Seastalker, Wishbringer does feel like a classic piece of children’s literature. It casts you as a postal carrier in the quietly idyllic village of Festeron, which is apparently located in the same world as Zork and shares with that series an anachronistic mixing of modernity with fantasy. (I’m sure someone has figured out a detailed historical timeline for Wishbringer‘s relation to Zork as well as geography and all the rest, but as usual with that sort of thing I just can’t be bothered.) You dream of adventure — in fact, you’re interrupted in the middle of such a daydream as the game begins — but you’re just a mail carrier with a demanding boss. Said boss, Mr. Crisp, gives you a letter to deliver to the old woman who is proprietor of Ye Olde Magick Shoppe up in the hills north of town. On your way there you should explore the town and enjoy the lovely scenery, because once you make the delivery everything changes. The letter turns out to be a ransom note for the old woman from “The Evil One,” demanding Wishbringer itself in return for the safe return of her cat: “And now, now it claims my only companion.”

"It's getting Dark outside," the old woman remarks, and you can almost hear the capital D. "Maybe you should be getting back to town."

The old woman hobbles over to the Magick Shoppe door and opens it. A concealed bell tinkles merrily.

"Keep a sharp eye out for my cat, won't you?" She speaks the words slowly and distinctly. "Bring her to me if you find her. She's black as night from head to tail, except for one little white spot... right HERE."

The old woman touches the middle of your forehead with her finger. The light outside dims suddenly, like a cloud passing over the sun.

So, Wishbringer is ultimately just a hunt for a lost cat, a quest I can heartily get behind. But as soon as you step outside you realize that everything has changed. The scenery becomes a darker, more surreal riot reminiscent in places of Mindwheel. Mailboxes have become sentient (and sometimes carnivorous); Mr. Crisp has turned into the town’s petty dictator; a pet poodle has turned into a vicious hellhound. The game flirts with vaguely fascistic imagery, as with the giant Boot Patrols that march around the town enforcing its nightly curfew. (This does lead to one glaring continuity flaw: why is the cinema still open if the whole city is under curfew?) There’s a creepy dread and a creepy allure to exploring the changed town, a reminder that, as the Brothers Grimm taught us long ago, ostensible children’s literature doesn’t necessarily mean all sunshine and lollypops.

Like so much of Roberta Williams’s work, Wishbringer plays with fairy-tale tropes. But Moriarty is a much better, more original writer than Williams, not to mention a more controlled one. (Witness the way that the opening text of Wishbringer foreshadows the climax, a literary technique unlikely to even occur to Williams.) Rather than appropriate characters and situations whole cloth, he nails the feeling, balancing sweetness and whimsy with an undercurrent of darkness and menace that soon becomes an overcurrent when day turns to night and the big Change happens. The closest analogue I can offer for the world of Wishbringer is indeed the Brothers Grimm — but perhaps also, crazy as this is going to sound, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Wishbringer has that same mixing of playfulness with a certain gravitas. There’s even some talking platypuses, one of very few examples of direct borrowing from Moriarty’s inspirations.

The other examples almost all come from Zork, including a great cameo from the good old white house and mailbox. And of course every Zork game has to have grues somewhere. The grues’ refrigerator light is my favorite gag in the whole game; it still makes me chuckle every time I think about it.

You have stumbled into the nesting place of a family of grues. Congratulations. Few indeed are the adventurers who have entered a grue's nest and lived as long as you have.

Everything is littered with rusty swords of elvish workmanship, piles of bones and other debris. A closed refrigerator stands in one corner of the nest, and something... a small, dangerous-looking little beast... is curled up in the other corner.

The only exit is to the west. Hope you survive long enough to use it.

Snoring fitfully, the little beast turns away from the light of the small stone and faces the wall.

>open refrigerator
A light inside the refrigerator goes out as you open it.

Opening the refrigerator reveals a bottle and an earthworm.

The little beast is stirring restlessly. It looks as if it's about to wake up!

>close refrigerator
A light inside the refrigerator comes on as you close it.

Indeed, while Moriarty is generally thought of as Infocom’s “serious” author on the exclusive basis of his second game Trinity, Wishbringer is full of such funny bits.

Wishbringer is very solvable, but doing so is not trivial even if you let yourself use the stone; this is of course just as Moriarty intended it. You may not even find the stone until a good third or more of the way through the game, and it definitely won’t help you with everything thereafter. Played without using the stone, I’m not sure that Wishbringer is really all that much easier than the average mid-period Infocom game at all. The most objectionable aspects for the modern player as well as the most surprising to find in an “Introductory” game are the hard time limits; you’re almost certain to need to restart a few times to fully explore Festeron before the Change and still deliver the letter in time, and you may need a few restores to get everything you need to done after the Change. An inventory limit also sometimes complicates matters; Infocom had been slowly losing interest in this sort of purely logistical problem for years, but Wishbringer demonstrates that even in an introductory game they weren’t quite there yet. Still, those are designs sins worth forgiving in light of Wishbringer‘s charms — assuming you think them sins at all. Like the determination to make you work a bit for a solution even if you use the stone, they could be seen as a good thing. Wishbringer, we should remember, was meant to serve as an introduction to Infocom’s catalog as a whole, in which players would find plenty of other timers and inventory limits and puzzles that refuse to just disappear in a poof of magic. Wishbringer‘s refusal to trivialize its purpose is really quite admirable; there’s even a (thankfully painless) pseudo-maze.

Wishbringer was released in June of 1985, eight full months after Infocom’s previous game Suspect. That gap would turn out to be by far the longest of Infocom’s productive middle years, and had left many fans worried about the company’s future and whether Cornerstone meant the end of games. Infocom’s idea that there were people potentially interested in interactive fiction but eager for a gentler version of the form turned out to be correct. Wishbringer turned into one of Infocom’s last genuine hits; Billboard software charts from the second half of 1985 show it and Hitchhiker’s regularly ensconced together inside the Top 20 or even Top 10, marking the last time Infocom would have a significant presence there. It sold almost 75,000 copies in its first six months, with a lifetime total perhaps as high as 150,000. To the best of my reckoning it stands as about Infocom’s fourth best-selling game overall, and the first not to have Zork or Hitchhiker’s in its title.

Sales figures aside, Wishbringer‘s “Introductory” tag and its gentle, unassuming personality can make it an easy game amongst the Infocom canon to dismiss or overlook. That would be a shame to do, however; it’s one of the most likeable games Infocom ever did. While not one of Infocom’s more thematically or formally groundbreaking games and thus not one of their more discussed, it continues to be enjoyed by just about everyone who plays it. It’s the sort of game that may not come up that often when you ask people about their very favorites from Infocom, but mention it to any Infocom fan and you’ll almost always get back an “Oh, yes. I really liked that one.” Rather than bury its light charm under yet more leaden pontification, I’ll just suggest you play it if you haven’t already.

(Jason Scott’s interviews for Get Lamp informed much of this article. Interviews with Moriarty of various vintages can be found online at The IF Archive, 8bitfiles.net, Adventura CIA, Electron Dance, and Halcyon Days. Also useful was Moriarty’s “self-interview” in the January/February 1986 AmigaWorld; his picture above comes from that article. Adventure in the Fifth Dimension was published in the April/May 1983 A.N.A.L.O.G.; Crash Dive! in the May 1984 A.N.A.L.O.G., the last to which Moriarty contributed.)

 
 

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Down From the Top

Infocom's display at the 1985 Winter CES.

Infocom’s display at the 1985 Winter CES.

Infocom entered 1985 filled with ebullient optimism. They had just released their fastest-selling game ever, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; hosted two splashy Manhattan press conferences, just like the big boys, the first to announce Hitchhiker’s and the second to announce their debut business product, the Cornerstone database; signed a lease to leave the cramped environs of their offices on Wheeler Street and take over an entire floor of a modern, stylish office complex on CambridgePark Drive that had an atrium for God’s sake. That January’s Consumer Electronics Show saw Infocom put out the most lavish (and expensive) trade-show effort they would ever tackle, including a big show-floor display for the games as well as the soon-to-be-released Cornerstone and a memorable murder-mystery party with a cast of thousands to promote their latest game, Dave Lebling’s Suspect.

It was a heady time indeed. Infocom, who had been successful at everything they’d attempted thus far, were going to continue to pioneer a whole new form of interactive literature at the same time that they became the next Lotus-style sensation in business software. They were a smart bunch of people, and every decision they’d made so far had proved to be the correct one. Why should that change now?

Well, it was about to change in a hurry. By year’s end Infocom would be a shell of the company it had been less than twelve months before, in financial free fall and willing to give up all of their higher hopes of January in return for simple survival. It was, to say the least, a humbling experience, as suddenly this bunch who had never known failure seemed to experience little but. To understand that crazy year, understand how Infocom got from here to there, we have to step back again to 1984. Having already told the story of Infocom the Interactive-Fiction Pioneer in 1984, it’s time to tell the shadow history of Infocom the Would-Be Business-Software Company.

Brian Berkowitz shows off his baby at Winter CES.

Brian Berkowitz shows off his baby at Winter CES.

I’ve described already in an earlier article how Cornerstone — known until quite late in the game as the InfoBase — was first proposed by Brian Berkowitz and Richard Ilson, a pair of programmers the Imps knew well from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, when Infocom was enjoying the first rush of popular success that followed the Zork games and Deadline. I also told how the InfoBase graduated from research project to major strategic initiative during 1983. In January of 1984 Al Vezza took the title of CEO from Joel Berez, and started planning how to spend the $2 million loan he had just secured from the Bank of Boston to make the InfoBase, still just a bunch of ideas and code and prototypes, a real commercial product.

Vezza was determined to get only the best for his pet project. In March, he hired as head of Business Products John Brackett, yet another MIT alum who had already spent more than twenty years working in the computer industry. Brackett had a technical and, if you like, a philosophical background that seemed perfect for Infocom. His previous company SofTech had been, along with Apple, a licensee of the University of California San Diego’s Pascal-driven P-Machine, inspiration for Infocom’s own Z-Machine. SofTech and Bracket had done good business for several years selling and supporting the P-Machine to application developers, until the arrival of the IBM PC established MS-DOS as the standard for business computing and made cross-platform portability, at least for the time being, less of a priority there.

The InfoBase itself was being built using an expanded version of Infocom’s core Z-Machine technology. Like the game developers, InfoBase developers did their coding and initial testing on the company’s big DECSystem-20 minicomputer. Only occasionally would the code be moved to microcomputers for testing on the new interpreters that were also being developed. When it became clear that the DEC was getting overtaxed by so many users, Vezza signed a lease to bring in a complete new DECSystem-20 in May for the exclusive use of Business Products, a commitment of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile he and Brackett kept hiring; soon Business Products people outnumbered Consumer Products (i.e., games) people, and the inevitable resentments started to fester in earnest.

The games people — even those who actively opposed or just weren’t much interested in the InfoBase itself — had few or no problems with the technical people who worked in Business Products. Those folks were largely in the mold of Berkowitz and Ilson, a couple of MIT hackers with much the same values and working habits as the Imps themselves; if things had gone slightly differently, people like Marc Blank and Dave Lebling must have realized, they could have been writing the database while the database people wrote the games. Both projects were, at their core, just Interesting Coding Projects, every hacker’s lifeblood. No, it was the suits who started to arrive en masse as the InfoBase got closer to release who really stirred up ire. Included in this group were the office managers and the HR directors and the financial planners and no fewer than fourteen well-scrubbed business-marketing experts. “They weren’t even on the same planet,” said Tim Anderson later. “These guys were showing up at work at nine in suits.” Steve Meretkzy became a ringleader of an ongoing subversion of Vezza and Brackett’s attempts to transform Infocom into just another buttoned-down corporation like their role models and everyone’s favorite business-software success story, Lotus. “Memo hacking” was one of his favorite strategies.

A certain HR manager, hired from DEC, arrived with a binder full of “memo templates” to be used for all intra-office communication. She loved memos so much that people were soon just calling her “Memos.” When she sent out a memo instructing everyone on the proper care of their office plants, Mereztky decided enough was enough. He and a few co-conspirators surreptitiously replaced the original memo in everyone’s in-box with another, which said that the company was now offering a service to take care of employees’ house plants; it seemed there was concern in management that, what with the long hours everyone was working, said plants were being neglected. An included multi-page questionnaire asked for the location of each plant as well as such essential information as the song it preferred to have sung to it while being watered. Some people took it seriously, mostly — and much to the Meretzky and company’s delight — the poor humorless souls in business marketing and the other more buttoned-down wings of the company. HR rushed around to put a cover sheet on each memo saying it was not to be taken seriously, whereupon Meretzky and company added a cover sheet of their own saying the cover sheet saying not to take the memo seriously should itself not be taken seriously. “Immense confusion” followed.

Not learning her lesson, Memos was soon distributing a “Flowers and Fruit Basket Request Form,” for sending out condolences to employees’ families who were experiencing a bereavement. Meretzky did her one better, creating a “Flowers and Fruit Basket Request Form Form”; the idea would later show up in Stationfall as the “Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulations Black Form Binders Request Form Form.”

Al Vezza

Al Vezza

While Memos took her lumps, Public Enemy #1 for much of Consumer Products was Al Vezza himself. The humor at Infocom was always irreverent but almost never cruel or crude. That related to Vezza, however, was often an exception; some of the more popular Vezza epithets, which we shan’t get into here, were both. One former employee, normally a model of good temper and equanimity, still says of Vezza today, “There are very few people in my life that I’ve really disliked — and Al is definitely one of them.”

I find with most who engender such negativity that, while it’s hard to argue that it’s not their fault, there’s also something a bit sad about the person in question. Vezza’s professional character was defined by a number of toxic combinations. He was a thoroughly conventional thinker, of the sort who sourced all of his wisdom from business self-help books, yet nevertheless believed himself to be a bold innovator. He was arrogant and dismissive of opinions of others, particularly of those younger than him, yet also deeply insecure. At risk of playing pop psychologist, I’ll posit that some of his attitudes may stem from his experience at the MIT AI Lab. Despite having no advanced degree himself, he had parlayed a role as essentially J.C.R. Licklider’s administrative assistant into one of considerable power and influence, even serving as an undergraduate thesis adviser. Perhaps he learned there that he had to in some sense fake surety and authority despite continuing to feel intimidated by his often brilliant charges. His insecurity manifested itself in a tendency to micromanage that drove everyone around him crazy, while the lack of faith in his people that it implied destroyed morale and created storms of negative feelings. For Vezza the business was all too personal. Infocom was “his” company, first proposed and organized by him, his way to make his mark on the world. He seemed to regard the games and the company’s current reputation, which had been built with little input from him, as a sort of hijacking of something rightfully his. Now he was determined to reclaim his original vision for Infocom.

He also seemed determined that his means to that end should be the original company he had founded in 1979, and under its original name. The Board had held serious debates already during the spring and summer of 1983 about whether it made sense to create both games and business applications under the Infocom banner. In one of his rare Board meeting appearances, even Licklider offered support for making the budding Business Products division a company unto itself. That way, “employees might feel they’re contributing to their own company rather than engaged in rivalry with the other division.” Marc Blank was still more ominously prescient: he was “afraid that [Business Products] division might sink the company unless it’s made more separate.” Vezza, however, was resistant, and the Board seemed reluctant to to directly challenge him on this as on many other subjects.

Immediately after Vezza’s ascendancy, Mike Dornbrook paid him a visit in his office to try again:

“Al, I really think it’s a mistake to have this product and the games business all under one umbrella,” I said. “I would honestly not put that out as Infocom. I think Infocom now means adventure games, and it will confuse the people who are buying adventure games as to what we’re all about. And I think it will actually be a detriment to any business product, that it’s coming from a games company.

“You can have the same shareholders. Just divide the company into two entities. We can share the building. We can share computers. But have two separate legal entities, and raise money for the business entity separately, and keep the [Business Products] books separately from the gaming business.”

His response to me was, “You don’t understand finance.” So I walked out of the room thinking, oh well, I tried.

Weeks later, with Brackett installed as head of Business Products and a whole associated bureaucracy falling into place, it would be too late to change course even had Vezza had a change of heart. The decision to do the InfoBase under the Infocom banner would prove to be perhaps the worst of many unwise choices made during Vezza’s reign. Dave Lebling describes the problems that resulted:

When they [Vezza and the Board] went out to look for capital to build [the InfoBase] into a real product or to continue to build the games into an even “realer” product or to move them forward, what they found was that investors who were interested in the business product would look at the other part of the ledger sheet and say, “Why are these games here? What is this about? Are you guys insane?” And the people who were looking at the games part would say, “Oh, wow! Cool ideas! You guys got a great business going here. But what is this stupid business thing?”

In retrospect, with that wonderful 20/20 hindsight we all have, it would have been better to have two companies.

Due to the issues Lebling describes as well as a general closing of the financial spigots in a maturing industry, Vezza and company found venture capitalists much less positively disposed to give Infocom their money than they had anticipated. In the end they would manage to secure only $500,000 in free-and-clear capital, from the state-run Massachusetts Capital Resource Company. Despite the Board’s having given lip service to maintaining at least a modicum of a financial firewall between Business Products and Consumer Products, the former ended up sucking up virtually all of the profits of the latter, leaving precious little funding for a whole range of projects that Blank and Berez felt were essential for Infocom to maintain their position as leading lights in games. Projects to expand the size and complexity of the stories they could tell; to dramatically improve their already industry-leading parser; to build a cross-platform graphics system that would let them add pictures to their games; to experiment with multi-player networked interactive fiction; to expand into entirely new genres beyond adventure gaming — all were starved for funds, forced to be dramatically scaled back or cancelled entirely. Seeing this essential work go so neglected, Berez and particularly Blank argued with the other, business-centric members of the Board with less and less civility, all but paralyzing the company as a whole at times. The newest Board member, Ray Stata, threw his hands up in despair at the June 6, 1984 meeting: “I won’t be polite anymore — company management is terrible!”

Infocom is Hiring

When there was no more money lying around for them in Consumer Products, the ever-expanding Business Products division — full-time employees at Infocom would peak at 110 by June of 1985, up from 20 two years before — began financing itself through a series of loans, putting the whole company under a cloud of increasingly dangerous financial obligations and further raising the ire of Berez and Blank.

Cornerstone

The InfoBase, now called Cornerstone, shipped at last on January 31, 1985, at a suggested retail price of $500. For all the culture clashes it had engendered, there was more than a little of the Infocom game DNA in its presentation and packaging as well as the DEC-authored, Z-Machine-derived software on the disks themselves. Infocom, with the aid of the invaluable folks at G/R Copy, was really good at putting their best foot forward in presenting their products, and Cornerstone was no exception; just the name alone was a great, classy choice. The packaging was an elaborate affair, a glossy slipcover over a solid plastic box that popped open accordion-style to reveal no fewer than three spiral-bound, 200-plus-page manuals. There was even a feelie, a “Don’t Panic!” button that varied only in color from the one found in the Hitchhiker’s package.

Having never seriously used a relational database in my life, I’m eminently unqualified to offer a through review of Cornerstone from personal experience here. However, I feel confident in saying based on my dabblings and the reviews it received in the contemporary press that it’s a somewhat peculiar mixture of the innovative and the misguided, sometimes in combination with one another. Cornerstone’s mantra, claim to fame, and primary selling point was to be “the database system for the non-programmer.” This rhetoric was quite clearly directed against the leading PC database of the era, Ashton-Tate’s dBase III, an application so quirky and fiddly that it can come off almost like a satire of user-hostile DOS-era application software. Doing virtually anything with dBase III required learning its esoteric, proprietary command language, a process as complicated as that of learning to program in any other language. While it had been in development just a bit too long to embrace the new paradigm of the full-fledged mouse-driven GUI, Cornerstone nevertheless strained to be a friendlier experience than dBase III, with features like automatic command completion, extensive in-program help, menus, even a system of what would later come to be called “Wizards” to walk users through common tasks via prompts and questions.

A certain sort of user fell in love with Cornerstone, in some cases continuing to use it for years after it went out of print. Marc Blank has told of going to his dentist well after his tenure with Infocom finished and realizing that the receptionist was using it to take down his billing information. Andrew Kaluzniacki, who worked in Infocom’s Micro Group during Cornerstone’s development, noticed four years after leaving that his aunt, a veterinarian, was running it in her office. She said “she loved it. It was easy and she was able to do the database work herself without ever really knowing she was using a database.”

Yet for other sorts of users Cornerstone had at least two huge failings. The first was a byproduct of Infocom’s decision to make it an interpreted product, running through a Z-Machine-like interpreter, rather than writing native code. It was a decision that had made a certain amount of sense back when the project had first been conceived in 1982, when the business-computing market was still comparatively wide open, a mixture of CP/M machines and the new IBM PCs and even still a fair number of Apple IIs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, and Commodore PETs. By 1985, however, that had all changed; much as Apple might have liked to see the young Macintosh as a viable challenger, the business market was owned by IBM PCs and clones running MS-DOS. Anyone serious enough about a database to be willing to spend $500 on it was virtually guaranteed to have this setup. On these machines, especially the many lower-end models still using the original 4.77 MHz 8088 CPU, Cornerstone ran noticeably slowly in comparison to the competition. Sometimes more than noticeably: a PC Magazine reviewer simply gave up trying to run their longest benchmark test when their next-to-longest took 3.5 hours to complete. John Brackett had left his previous company SofTech precisely because demand for their own portable P-Machine system had flagged due to the IBM PC’s adoption as the universal business standard. That no one at Infocom, including Brackett himself, made the obvious connection here almost beggars belief. The DECSystem-20 and virtual machines seemed to be so ingrained in Infocom’s culture that no one could imagine an alternative. In the end Cornerstone was never released for a single platform other than the IBM PC. All that money spent on the DEC, all that programming time and energy sunk into designing the virtual machine and writing its interpreters, all that speed lost in the final product — all were for naught. Cornerstone wasn’t poorly designed on a technical level; most everyone involved with Infocom agrees that it was technically rather brilliant. But much of that brilliance was unnecessary, costly brilliance.

Cornerstone’s other crippling flaw was, ironically given its tagline, its lack of programmability. Ease of use is a wonderful thing, but there comes a time when you need to just write a script to get something more complicated done. In Cornerstone, this was impossible. Just months after its release a company called Ansa Software debuted Paradox, a database which for $700 offered similar ease of use along with a built-in programming language for more complicated tasks and the speed benefits of native execution. If there was a final nail in Cornerstone’s coffin, this was it.

Given Cornerstone’s strengths and weaknesses, Infocom might have done much better to position it as a consumer-level application, sort of a “database for the rest of us” for lighter users like the aforementioned dentist and veterinarian, and even for home users who just wanted to keep track of a stamp or record collection. With the home market still divided among at least half a dozen commercially viable but incompatible platforms, its cross-platform portability could have been a real asset here. Infocom did make a last desperate gesture in that direction long after it became clear that Cornerstone would not be challenging dBase III, reducing the price to $100 and promoting it in The New Zork Times as a way for writers to keep track of their sources, for a church to keep track of its congregation (pull out all single members aged between 21 and 30 and invite them to a Young Singles dance!), for a softball league to keep track of its schedule and teams and players — or, yes, for a stamp collector to keep tabs on her collection. As Infocom at last admitted, “Many of the people who would most benefit from Cornerstone just couldn’t afford it [at the original price].” But by then Vezza and the rest of Business Products was gone, Infocom just trying to get something — anything — out of a failed product. To the list of Vezza’s mistakes must be added his lack of flexibility and his determination to compete only head-to-head with the big boys rather than seeking out the cracks and seams in the market.

Another one for the list: Infocom signed the lease for their new digs on CambridgePark Drive, which carried with them a rent of more than $600,000 per year, six weeks before releasing Cornerstone, and months before they’d have any clear idea of how much of a success it would be. As the Smiths once sang, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby.” They were simply assuming it would be a hit, and, what with the rent and all the debt, essentially betting the company on that assumption.

125 CambridgePark Drive today. Infocom occupied much of the fifth floor.

125 CambridgePark Drive today. Infocom occupied much of the fifth floor.

For most of the old timers, those days in March of 1985 when Infocom packed up everything inside the Wheeler Street offices and moved it all to CambridgePark Drive were sad ones indeed, in their way even sadder than the final closure of Infocom more than four years later (the latter came almost as a relief for many). Wheeler Street had been a “funky” place that felt right for a small creative company, full of interesting little nooks and crannies and a sense of “artisanship.” It even had a pool, where many office parties ended up. The adjectives the former employees use to describe CambridgePark, however, are all of a very different kind. “Soulless” comes up a lot; “buttoned-down”; “light, but not in a good way”; “colorless”; “not as fun.” Infocom lost something with the move that they would never regain.

Infocom’s expansion and contraction happened so quickly that the two actually intersect with one another. Already within weeks of the move to CambridgePark disappointing sales forced the adoption of what Consumer Products came to cheekily label the “InfoAusterity Program,” which first meant only the loss of such perks as the $400-per-week office-party budget. If those of you working in offices today aren’t exactly bubbling over with sympathy for such a loss, never fear; it would get much, much worse.

Infocom was still hiring as the InfoAusterity measures were put in place, bringing in a last few programmers to work on Cornerstone interpreters for other platforms. Mike Morton, the last person hired by Infocom — ever — started in June of 1985 as a 68000-programming expert, tasked with bringing Cornerstone to platforms like the Macintosh and the new Atari ST. The day before his first day of work, he got a phone call from HR: “We’re all taking a 15% pay deferral for the next six months. Do you still want to start tomorrow?” Morton came in anyway, to work for a bare few months before the 68000 project and all other Cornerstone-related work was cancelled amidst three waves of layoffs that wracked the company through the fall. (An Atari ST version of Cornerstone was apparently largely completed, and was sneaked out of the company by persons unknown to wind up on pirate BBSs. However, it was never officially sold and doesn’t appear to have survived to the present day.) In three months Infocom’s employee rolls went from 110 to 40. To all the other objections about CambridgePark was now added another: the place was suddenly, depressingly half empty. It would remain that way — in fact, increasingly emptier — for the rest of Infocom’s life.

Softball, summer 1985. In six months six of the eight people here would be gone.

Softball, summer 1985. In six months six of the eight people here would be gone.

As most anyone who’s been through the experience can attest, layoffs are an incredibly painful thing for a company — especially a small, closely knit company like Infocom — to go through. Yes, it was mostly Cornerstone people rather than games people who were let go, but even some of them, like the original parents of Cornerstone Berkowitz and Ilson themselves, had been around for literally years and were liked by everyone. As Marc Blank puts it, there’s “nothing worse, nothing more horrible” inside a company than a layoff. Andrew Kaluzniacki:

At the point you start talking about who isn’t going to make it, who do we really need to succeed… that takes a lot of the fun out of it. There wasn’t anybody at Infocom that I didn’t want to have around. These were all great people.

John Brackett made his exit during this period when the whole Business Products division was essentially shuttered. But the most jarring loss of all was that of Marc Blank, the man who had arguably done more than anyone else to make Infocom what it was by implementing the company’s legendary parser, co-designing Zork and the Z-Machine, writing the landmark Deadline that changed all the rules about what a text adventure could do and be, and, articulate and personable fellow that he was, serving as Infocom’s de facto spokesman and face to the world.

Blank wasn’t actually the first of the old guard to leave. Early in the year Mike Berlyn had quit. It seems he desperately wanted to work with his wife Muffy as his official co-designer, but was prevented from doing so by Infocom’s bar against employing spouses or family. When management refused to bend the rules, he and Muffy decided to start their own design studio, Brainwave Creations. In a sense it was perfect timing; Berlyn got to experience most of the happiest days at Infocom with none of the later, more painful ones. From the standpoint of Infocom’s fans, it may also have been a good move. Berlyn, who could be difficult and stubborn whilst still remaining well-liked, had approached the final two of his three interactive-fiction projects at Infocom with less than complete enthusiasm, and the results had sometimes shown it. His departure opened up opportunities for others who were more excited about the work, while giving Berlyn the chance to do interesting work in his own right with other approaches to adventure games.

Blank’s departure, however, carried with it no hidden blessings for anyone other than Blank himself. As things had gone increasingly sideways over the course of 1985, he had made himself more and more of a gadfly at the Board meetings.

I’d been very unhappy there for a while. I was on the Board of Directors. At the meetings the Business Products people would say, “Well, things are turning around, but we’re still spending a lot of money.”

I would say, “When does it hit a wall? When do we shut it down so that we don’t lose the rest of the company?” No one wanted to discuss it. We needed money for games; we couldn’t be cutting things this close. The response was always to ignore the problem. I got more and more frustrated, saying, “What’s the plan? We’re spending this much money, we’re down to this much cash…” No one really wanted to deal with it.

So I started taking more time off. I started getting into flying more; I’d had a pilot’s license for years.

[My fiancée and I] decided we’d take a trip to Europe. I hadn’t had a real vacation in a while. We went to different places: Switzerland, Germany, Italy. We happened to be in Sardinia at this very nice resort when I got a call.

The caller said that there’d been a layoff, and all these people who’d worked for me had been laid off. And someone else was now VP of Product Development [Blank's official title at Infocom].

I said, “Okay… what’s my job now?”

“Well… you don’t have a job now.”

I said, “So you’re calling me on vacation to fire me?”

He said, “Well, yeah. It’s too bad, but, you know, things are bad…”

I said, “I’ll come right back!”

He said, “No, no… enjoy your vacation!”

In my experience, when a company is having a lot of trouble and going down people act in very different ways. Some people act very badly; some people do very well; some people try to fight; some people say, “Who cares? Move on!” There was all sorts of that. There were Business Products people who wanted to quit; talks of mutinies and various things. Nobody really knows what to say or do.

But, you know, my head was already out of there. I wasn’t being listened to at the Board level, so it was really frustrating being there. The Business Products people, the managers were… just incompetent. I don’t know what else to say. The business people knew nothing about business, and the marketing guy didn’t know anything about marketing. They were academics trying to run a business.

Realistically, they did me a favor. I didn’t really want to be there. I’ve seen this happen in other places. If you’re a founder of a company, it’s hard to quit. You’re giving up. Nobody wants to walk away from their own thing. What happens in a lot of cases is that people who are ready to go kind of telegraph it. Then they’re done a favor by being fired.

I’d arranged for it to happen. It was for the best under those circumstances.

As Cornerstone-focused as this article has so far been, it’s important at this point to explain that Infocom’s financial problems did not all arise from that failure. Infocom had sold 725,000 games worth $10 million in 1984. They judged that their game sales were likely to continue to steadily increase, especially with the unprecedented new exposure Hitchhiker’s was bringing them. They therefore budgeted for a 30% increase in game sales, to $13 million. For all the talk of Cornerstone as the company’s real future, for all the alleged rumblings in some quarters about giving games up entirely if it succeeded, they budgeted for first-year sales in Business Products of a (they thought) relatively modest $5 million.

Cornerstone missed that goal by more than $3 million. Still, for all the bad decisions and enormous waste it has justifiably come to represent, Cornerstone may have been a survivable lesson learned for Infocom but for one thing: their games sales also fell off dramatically in 1985. Infocom sold about 511,000 games that year, a decline of almost 30% rather than the expected rise.

The sales breakdown for the year makes interesting reading. It actually imparts a surprising lesson: it could have been even worse but for a few big titles. Zork I, while its sales finally began to decline relative to previous years, nevertheless sold over 63,000 copies, while Hitchhiker’s all but carried the rest of the catalog on its back with sales of 166,000. If 1985 looks ugly now, just imagine what it would have looked like had Infocom not managed that high-profile deal. Throw in Wishbringer, by far the most successful of Infocom’s three new works of interactive fiction for 1985, and you’ve accounted for half of the company’s sales right there. The other games from earlier years fell off a veritable cliff, to the extent that the classic, hugely influential Deadline barely broke four digits. This was an ominous sign for a company that had always been defined by strong catalog sales, by games that just sold and sold and sold. It was a sign that the sales base was being whittled down to dabbling stragglers who bought Zork and Hitchhiker’s and (to a lesser extent) the introductory-level Wishbringer alongside a hardcore of perhaps a few tens of thousands who already had the old games and so just bought the new. Infocom, in other words, was no longer growing its loyal customer base. This was in its way as dangerous to the company’s future as the whole Cornerstone fiasco.

The natural thing to do at this point is to ask why this was happening. Much can be explained by the general downturn with which everyone in the industry was struggling. Consumers seemed to be particularly losing interest in text-adventure games, if the performances of bookware lines like Telarium and the Synapse Electronic Novels are any guide. Infocom had seemed virtually immune to trends during previous years, but that was clearly no longer the case now. With graphics and sound getting better and better even on some platforms like the Commodore 64 that had been around quite a while, with new approaches and whole new genres appearing, the subtle pleasures of text were getting harder and harder to sell. It wasn’t as if no one at Infocom had been aware of these changes; Marc Blank in particular had battled desperately to get the Board to properly fund new initiatives that could keep the company competitive. Thus we come around again to Cornerstone, which we should recognize as being most significant not for the money it cost Infocom but for the money it prevented Infocom from using for other things (not that these two interpretations aren’t ultimately largely two sides of the same coin).

Infocom fell a good $7 million short of what they’d expected to earn in 1985 even in a worst-case scenario. By year’s end losses were projected to be in the neighborhood of $4 to $5 million, many times more than the company had made over the course of its entire lifetime. The Bank of Boston suddenly cut their line of credit, forcing some of the founders to mortgage their homes to keep the doors open. As the layoffs went on, Vezza and the Board were forced to start looking desperately for a buyer to save them.

It was a humiliating process. So full of hope and hubris just a year before, now they were forced to go hat-in-hand looking for a lifeline. Still nurturing the dream that Cornerstone could be turned around with a proper injection of capital, Vezza went to his heroes at Lotus, a company that had once been neighbors with Infocom inside the Wheeler Street office complex. They weren’t interested. He went to Simon & Schuster, whose CEO had wined and dined them in his penthouse suite just a year before and tendered an offer they’d kill to receive now. The bookware boom being dead and buried, he wasn’t interested anymore either. Infocom — what was left of it — spent the Christmas of 1985 once again thinking about what the next year would bring. Only now instead of visions of success and prosperity their heads were filled with futile-feeling scheming about how they might somehow survive to see another Christmas. Forget changing the world of literature or the world of business software; at this point, mere survival would feel like a dream come true.

As much of a downer as this article has inevitably been, I do want to conclude by noting that Infocom’s unique culture, this playground for smart, creative people, proved remarkably… well, if not impervious to all the pain and chaos, at least able to rise above it more often than not. No truer sign of that can we find than by looking at Infocom’s games of the year. While reduced — one odd board/computer game hybrid which I’ll also be covering aside — to just three games thanks to all the distractions, each of those three games is an interactive-fiction landmark in its own way. We’ll get into the much happier story of Infocom’s actual games of 1985 next time.

(My two golden geese for this article were my usual two for everything Infocom related: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and, particularly valuable this time out, Down From the Top of Its Game. Also useful, sometimes in a reading-between-the-lines sense, were contemporary issues of Infocom’s newsletter The New Zork Times.)

 

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This Tormented Business, Part 3

In the June 1985 issue of Compute! magazine, in an otherwise innocuous editorial about font sizes and page layouts and column lengths, Richard Mansfield casually dropped a bombshell: that the number of companies in the PC industry had shrunk by 80% over the past year. Now, the reality was not quite so apocalyptic as that number (not to mention lots of fevered pundits) would make it seem. Many of the people and companies included within it were doubtless dabblers, who saw a chance to jump on a hot new trend, then saw the money wasn’t going to come so easily after all and walked away again. But still… 80%. Let’s look at some more numbers to try to unpack what that figure means.

Home computer installed base, 1978-1982

The chart above shows the numbers of actively used computers in American homes between 1978 and 1982. The first big spike came in the latter year, when cheap machines like the Commodore VIC-20, the Texas Instruments 99/4A, and the Timex Sinclair came online in a big way just as the videogame console market began to go soft. Home computers, the pundits said, were the logical successors to that fad, and consumers seemed to agree by almost quintupling their numbers in the space of a single year.

Actual and projected installed base of home computers, 1982-1987

The chart above shows the actual and forecasted installed base of active home-computer users between 1982 and 1987. As you can see, things continued to go swimmingly through 1983 — the peak of the home-computer wars, Jack Tramiel and Commodore’s year of triumph. By year’s end, following the most spectacular Christmas of the 1980s for the home-computer industry, the number of computers in American homes was over 250% of what it had been at the beginning of the year. With millions upon millions of American homes still unconverted, everyone assumed that this was only the beginning of the beginning, that growth by leaps and bounds was inevitable until the end of the decade at least.

Things didn’t work out that way. Not only did 1984 fall short of projections by more than 50%, but sales to first-time buyers weren’t even sufficient to make up for those who got bored with their balky toys from the previous year or two and relegated them to closets, first step on their long, gradual journeys to the dumpster. (One research firm would later estimate that consumers threw out 1.5 million home computers in 1985 alone.) I’ve talked in earlier articles about the many perfectly good, sensible reasons that consumers grew so quickly disillusioned with their purchases, a list which includes a complete lack of killer apps — beyond games, that is — for the average household, the pain of actually using these primitive machines, and hidden costs in the form of all of the extra hardware and software needed to do much of anything with one of them. Home computers just didn’t live up to the hype; at least the old Atari VCS really was cheap and simple and fun, exactly as advertised. Most Americans found home computers to be none of these things. Their experience of 1982 and 1983 was bad enough to sour many of them on computers for a decade or more.

As bad as the chart above looks, it took a surprising amount of time for the industry to realize just how far off-track things had gone. 1984 was a paradoxical year of mixed messages in many respects, one that saw for instance the Apple II and Infocom both enjoy their biggest sales years ever. It wasn’t until 1984 became 1985, and the industry counted its dollars and woke up to the realization that the Christmas just past had been a deeply disappointing one, that the full scale of the problems set in and the dying-home-computer-industry became as big a media meme as the home-computer-as-social-revolution had been just a year or two before.

Still, some knew long before that something was very, very wrong. The bellweather of virtually any consumer-facing industry has always been — prior, at least, to the Internet age — its magazines. A healthy, growing industry means lots of readers buying at newsstands and signing up for subscriptions, as well as lots of vigorous new companies eager to advertise, to tell the public about all the new stuff they have to sell them. Conversely, when interest and sales begin to flag the newsstands start to reduce their magazine selection to make more room for other subjects, subscriptions are allowed to lapse, and advertising budgets are the quickest and least immediately painful things to cut. And as the first companies start to fold, those with whom they’ve signed advertising contracts tend to be about the last creditors to get paid. Woe betide the magazine that’s let itself go too far out on a limb — like, you know, one assuming it’s a part of an industry likely to grow almost exponentially for years to come — when that happens. The carnage in the magazines, those engines of excitement and advice and community, was appalling during the eighteen months between mid-1984 and the end of 1985.

The period was bookended by two particularly painful losses. Softalk, the de facto voice of the Apple II community, simply never appeared again after an apparently business-as-usual August 1984 issue. An even sadder loss was that of Creative Computing, which at least got to say goodbye in a last editorial (“Great While It Lasted”) in its last issue in December of 1985. The first newsstand magazine devoted to personal and, well, creative computing, it had been founded by David Ahl, a visionary if ever there was one, in October of 1974, months before the Altair. Ahl sold the magazine to the big conglomerate Ziff-Davis in 1982, but remained on as editor-in-chief right through to that last editorial. Throughout its run Creative Computing remained relentlessly idealistic about the potential for personal computing, always thinking about next year and of what the products they reviewed meant in the context of the ongoing PC revolution as a whole. Just to take one example: in response to the arrival of the first prototype laser-disc players in 1976, the magazine laid out a manifesto for what would come to be known as multimedia computing well over ten years later.

David H. Ahl

David H. Ahl

Creative Computing also published books, the best selling, most important, and most beloved of which was titled simply BASIC Computer Games, a compendium of type-in listings first published in 1978 and featuring games that in most cases had been making the rounds of The People’s Computer Company and the pages of Creative Computing itself for years. BASIC Computer Games sold a staggering one-million copies in English and in translations to French and German, years before any pre-packaged computer game would come close to such a feat. Many a young hacker pecked out its listings and then started to experiment by changing a variable here or a statement there, learning in the process the wonderful quality that separates computers from game consoles and just about every other form of electronic entertainment: that you can use the same device you play games on to also make games, or just about anything else you want. Creative computing indeed. The voice of Ahl, every bit as much a pioneer as a Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs, would be sorely missed in the years to come. Ironically, his magazine’s end came just as machines like the Macintosh and Amiga were arriving to begin to bring to fruition some of his more expansive predictions of earlier years. (One of Creative Computing‘s last issues featured a gushing review of the Amiga which called it nothing less than “a new medium of expression.”) It’s a sign of the immense respect with which Ahl and his magazine were still viewed in the industry that several competing magazines took the time to remark the loss of Creative Computing and offer a warm eulogy — an act of graciousness unusual indeed in the increasingly cutthroat world of computer publishing. As Info magazine noted, “There could be no better history of personal computing than a complete collection of Creatives.”

In 1985 the pain spread in earnest to the software industry. Many pioneering companies, including some we’ve met in earlier articles on this blog, collapsed during the year. Any company that hadn’t shed its old crufty hacker’s skin and learned to start behaving like professionals was doomed, as were many who had listened a bit too much to the professionals and pundits and over-expanded and over-borrowed in the expectation of the perpetually-exploding industry that had been promised them. Also doomed was anyone whose creations just weren’t good enough; those users who had chosen to stick with this computer thing were far savvier and more demanding than the neophytes of earlier years. Muse Software of Castle Wolfenstein fame was amongst the victims, as was our more recent acquaintance Synapse Software, who were shuttered by Brøderbund barely a year after they acquired them. The Carlstons may have been nice folks, but their company didn’t survive by throwing good money after bad, and neither of Synapse’s principal assets — their expertise with the fading Atari 8-bit line and their Electronic Novel line — were worth much of anything in the evolving industry order.

Indeed, adventure-game makers were if anything hit even harder than the rest of the industry. By mid-1985 it was becoming clear that bookware had been a blind alley; virtually nothing in the category, excepting only Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, did much of anything commercially. Companies like Spinnaker (owner of the Telarium and Windham Classics brands) and Brøderbund now began to divest themselves of their bookware assets almost as eagerly as they had acquired them. So much for the dream of a new interactive literature. Other expectations were also dramatically tempered. Trip Hawkins, for instance, was finally forced to give up on his dream of game designers as the rock stars of the 1980s and a shelf of games joining a shelf of records inside every hip living room. Electronic Arts now retrenched and refocused on becoming a big, highly respected fish in the relatively tiny pond of hardcore gaming (the only kind of gaming there was in this window between the Atari VCS’s collapse and the arrival of Nintendo). Yes, computer games were just computer games again.

Almost unremarked amidst all of the bankruptcies and retractions and cancellations was the collapse of Scott Adams’s Adventure International, one of the oldest of all the companies we’ve met on this site. Whether due to stubbornness or lack of funds or failure of vision or simple loyalty to what had brung’em, Adams had refused for years to upgrade his core technology, continuing to sell the same little 16 K, two-word-parser games he had started writing back in 1978. Their revamp into the SAGA line added crude graphics to the equation, but little else. Thus Infocom had long since stolen Adams’s crown as the king of adventure-gaming, not so much by besting him as by Adams not even trying to compete. Adams instead fed — and, for a time, quite well — on the ultra-low-end market, those machines like the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments 99/4A that weren’t a whole lot more capable than the original TRS-80 on which he’d first written Adventureland. These machines, unfortunately, were exactly the ones which found their way into closets and attics with the most frequency after the home-computer boom passed its heyday. Therein lay the root of AI’s troubles.

By 1984 much or most of Adventure International’s revenue was coming from Britain, thus belatedly justifying the company’s name, chosen in a fit of optimism when Adams and his wife were still making packaging out of baby-bottle liners and struggling to grasp the vagaries of wholesale pricing; expansion across an ocean must have seemed far-fetched indeed at that time. With their more modest cassette-based computers, their absolute mania for adventures, and their accompanying willingness to forgive faults and limitations Americans no longer were, Britons offered Adams a more hospitable market all around. An independent quasi-subsidiary, Adventure International UK, offered not just the classic dozen original Scott Adams games and the OtherVentures titles, but also many more games written in Britain by British authors like the prolific Brian Howarth using Adams’s engine. Adams himself was a celebrity amongst British adventurers. Everyone knew him for his crazy Afro that made him easy to spot across a crowded trade-show floor, and the magazines jostled for quotes and interviews and the fans for autographs whenever he made one of his occasional trips across the pond.

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

In late 1983 or early 1984 a tremendous opportunity to improve Adventure International’s standing on both continents virtually fell into Adams’s lap. Joe Calamari, an executive vice president with Marvel Comics, called Adams out of the blue to propose that Marvel and AI collaborate on a line of games and accompanying comic books starring the Marvel superheroes. While it would take many years for Marvel to catch up to their perpetual arch-rivals DC Comics in bringing their brand to the masses via the multiplexes, Marvel at this time was making a modest but in its way innovative push into trans-media storytelling via deals like this one and the one they inked around the same with TSR of Dungeons and Dragons fame to do a Marvel tabletop RPG. Their choice of Adventure International for the computer-game license could be read as surprising; AI was hardly at the cutting edge of the game industry, and given the huge demographic overlap between gamers and comics readers the Marvel license would certainly have been appealing to other, slicker publishers. Perhaps AI’s support for the cheap low-end machines, not to mention their games’ typical price of $12 or so as opposed to $30 or more, led Marvel to consider them a better fit for their generally younger readers. (As with science fiction, the golden age for superheroes is about twelve.) As possible evidence of exactly this thought process, consider that Commodore, who may have suggested AI to Marvel and apparently did play some sort of intermediary role in the negotiations, had been doing very well with cartridge versions of the first five Scott Adams adventures on the VIC-20 throughout the peak years of the home-computer boom.

It’s hard not to compare this early, crude experiment in trans-media storytelling with the Marvel of today, whose characters feature in cinematic extravaganzas costing hundreds of millions to produce. We’ve certainly come a long way. (Whether it’s a change for the better is of course in the eye of the beholder.) It’s also yet another sign of just how huge text adventures were for a few years there that Marvel chose this format for the games at all. The cerebral pleasures of text and puzzles hardly feel like an obvious fit for the “Wham! Bam! Pow!” action of a superhero comic — not that this marks the strangest mismatch between form and content of the bookware era.

Marvel's Hulk QuestProbe issue

Adams signed a deal to make a dozen games with Marvel, one that gave him a crazy amount of creative freedom. He gave the series its truly awful name, the uncomfortably medicinal-sounding QuestProbe. (It’s choices like this that distinguish companies like AI, who couldn’t afford PR firms and image advisers or just couldn’t be bothered, from companies like Infocom who could. As for Marvel, who knows what they were thinking…) He also got a pleasure that would turn any superhero-loving kid — and more than a few superhero-loving adults — a Hulk-like green with envy: he outlined a story to accompany each game, then gave it to Marvel to be turned into a full-blown comic book to be sold as part of a “Scott Adams/Marvel Comic Limited Series.”

The Human Torch and The Thing The Human Torch and The Thing

Alas, the Marvel deal, AI’s last, best chance to live and possibly even prosper, turned into an opportunity squandered. The QuestProbe games are painfully, shamefully bad by just about every criterion. The graphics are crude and ugly, the prose strangled, the situations all but incomprehensible (especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have the accompanying comic to hand), and the puzzles a hopeless mix of the inane and the inscrutable. They are, in other words, pretty much like all the other Scott Adams games after the first half-dozen or so, and that just wasn’t good enough anymore, even for the patience of twelve-year-olds. After the first game, which featured the Hulk, was roundly panned even by the forgiving gaming press (the making of a game bad enough to achieve that was something of a feat in itself), Adams did begin to include some modest innovations: the next game, featuring Spider-Man, debuted at last a parser capable of understanding more than two words (not that it was otherwise up to much); and the third and as it turned out final game, featuring the Human Torch and the Thing, had you controlling both characters, able to switch between them at will — an interesting idea badly executed. By the time that third game trickled out in mid-1985, AI was already collapsing.

Adams today notes the immediate cause of AI’s failure, no doubt accurately, as a rash of returned product from distributors who had over-ordered in anticipation of a big Christmas rush that never materialized. AI, which had never attracted the injections of venture capital and the accompanying professional financial oversight of fellow pioneers like Sierra, found themselves unable to pay back their distributors. With no one willing to extend them credit given conditions in the industry as a whole, there was no viable recourse but bankruptcy. Yet the deeper cause was Adams’s inability or unwillingness to change his games with the times. He’s stated many times in interviews that he virtually never looked at any of the games produced by his rivals; for instance, he never played an Infocom game after Zork. His logic was that he didn’t want to have his designs “polluted” by ideas and puzzles of others. This is, at best, an odd stance to take; try to imagine a novelist who refuses to read books, or a musician who doesn’t listen to music. It perhaps does much to explain the time-warp quality of the QuestProbe games. It’s strange that the man who had the vision and the technical chops to get viable adventures working on 16 K microcomputers in the first place should prove so unable to further iterate on that first masterful leap, but there you have it. Adams went on with his professional life as a programmer outside of the game industry, and Adventure International passed quietly into history.

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

One part of the brief-lived AI empire did survive. Mike Woodroffe, head of the still-viable Adventure International UK, disentangled that organization from its erstwhile namesake and renamed it Adventure Soft. The company would go on to a long if only sporadically active life as a developer of graphic adventures, whose biggest games became the Simon the Sorcerer series, The Feeble Files, and two Elvira-themed pseudo-CRPGs. Adventure Soft continues as an at least nominally going concern today, although their website is little more than a storefront for sometimes decades-old titles.

All told, then, 1985 was a brutal year in American software and particularly games software, one that weeded out the weak sisters like Adventure International, Muse, Synapse, and countless others without remorse — not to mention the casualties in publishing and hardware and still other, ancillary areas. Old timers who had grown up as hackers with many of the year’s casualties can be forgiven for seeing it in terms as apocalyptic as did the more hyperbole-prone members of the media. David Ahl, from his final Creative Computing editorial:

The personal-computing industry is largely composed of adolescent companies and inexperienced managers being forced to grow up much too fast by market forces that they themselves created. The big guys are sailing in with battleships, and the friendly competition of a few years ago has become all-out war with no holds barred. The media smells blood and death, which makes for interesting reading (and sales). Their alarmist disaster stories have simply exacerbated the situation.

Still, if we’re seeking silver linings they aren’t that hard to come by. Just to take the obvious: another look at the chart above will show that, if the home-computer user base wasn’t growing much, it also — that one brief blip in 1984 aside — wasn’t shrinking either. There was still a very viable, even vibrant market there. It was just a market that had reached an equilibrium far, far sooner than anyone had anticipated. The pain of 1985 was the pain of adjusting expectations to match that reality — the reality that numbers of computers in homes wouldn’t increase in big jumps again until the arrival of the Internet and cheap multimedia PCs in the early 1990s gave everyone a good reason to own one. The generation of microcomputers sandwiched between those and the old 8-bits — the Apple Macintosh, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, the Tandy 1000 and a rash of other ever cheaper and more capable MS-DOS-based machines — would seldom be sold to complete neophytes. They would rather go to people looking to upgrade their old Apple IIs, Commodore 64s, Atari 800s, and TRS-80s. A tempering of expectations, especially for hardware makers, would be necessary. Not everyone would upgrade, after all, meaning home-computer sales wouldn’t come close to their 1983 peak for many years to come. As David Thornburg noted in a perceptive article for Compute! magazine, computers were and would for years remain a hobby, not an everyday home appliance.

If you go to someone’s house and see a computer sitting in the den, I’ll bet you say, “Hey, I see you’re into computers. How about that!”

Have you ever gone into someone’s house and said, “Hey! I see you’re into refrigerators. Wow! Automatic ice-cube maker too! I was going to get one of those myself — thought I’d get a 16-cube model, but then I heard that the 32-cubers were going to come out soon.”

If the home computer was an appliance, we would talk about it like one.

David Ahl offered another comparison to explain why the home computer hadn’t yet achieved appliance status and wasn’t likely to for some time to come.

People who don’t have computers are looking for user friendliness of a sort that just isn’t available today. You can rent a car virtually anywhere in the world and in a minute or two be familiar enough with the vehicle and local traffic laws to drive off with a reasonable degree of confidence. When it is that easy to use a computer, then manufacturers can legitimately speak of user friendliness. We are a long way from that point today.

When a reeling software industry proved unable to fill the space allocated for it at the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, a big chunk was instead given over to pornographic videos, an industry that was thriving on the back of booming VCR sales in exactly the way the software industry wasn’t on lukewarm home-computer sales. Game consoles and home computers may come and go, but some interests are eternal.

If you were a committed gamer in for the long haul, however, the outcome of all this chaos was arguably at least as positive as it was negative. With computer owners an ever savvier and more experienced lot unwilling to suffer bad or even mediocre games anymore, with publishers all competing frantically for a big enough slice of a fixed pie to keep them alive, games in general just kept getting better at a prodigious rate. By 1986 developers would be taking the Commodore 64 in particular to places that would have been simply unimaginable when the machine debuted back in 1982. And as for the next-generation machines… well, even more splendid work was in the offing there. Everything was improving: not just graphics and sound but also the craft of design.

But before we can revel too much in the positives we have more pain to address. Next time we’ll look at Infocom’s disastrous 1985, the year that came within a whisker of cutting off the most beloved canon in interactive fiction at the halfway mark.

(My huge thanks to C. Davis Seuss, former CEO of Spinnaker Software, who answered my questions about this era, pointed me to a useful Harvard Business School Case Study, and provided the charts shown above and other documents. The usual thanks also to Jason Scott, whose interview with Scott Adams for Get Lamp was also invaluable. Useful magazine sources this time included: Compute! of March 1985, June 1985, and January 1986; Your Computer of November 1985; Creative Computing of December 1985; Computer Gaming World of January 1985; Computer and Video Games of May 1986; Info of December 1985/January 1986. Finally, if you don’t believe me that the QuestProbe games are really, really bad, feel free to download them in their Commodore 64 incarnations and see for yourself.)

 
 

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Essex and Brimstone

The next two entrants in the Electronic Novel line trickled out of Synapse/Brøderbund some eight months after Mindwheel and with vastly less fanfare. Both are flawed efforts that together serve to take a lot of the shine off Synapse’s boldly literary take on the text adventure.

Essex

The premise of Essex is The Love Boat meets Star Trek. You play one of an array of disparate passengers who come together for a cruise on the Essex, the sleekest and most luxurious star liner in the galaxy. Before all is said and done, you’ll have unmasked one of your fellow travelers as a spy and another as a thief, rescued a “Klangorn” warrior from unjust captivity, beamed down to a planet to collect some fresh “trilithum crystals” to power the Essex, and — the real crux of the matter — rescued from another unjust captivity on another planet the only scientist capable of closing an inter-dimensional wormhole and thus preventing an alien invasion. Whew! Whatever else you can say about it, Essex doesn’t lack for ambition.

Unlike the other Electronic Novels, for which Synapse turned to outside writers, Essex author Bill Darrah was also a programmer at Synapse. He doesn’t manage to transcend his other calling; we’re back pretty firmly in the realm of programmer writing here, which comes as a particular letdown after the likes of Mindwheel. Like many unpracticed writers straining to sound “literary,” Darrah frequently confuses elegant language with stilted language. Tortured passive-voice constructions abound: “A newspaper is picked up and pocketed,” the game tells us after we “GET NEWSPAPER” as our first command of the game. More fundamentally, Essex doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be, staking out some shaky territory somewhere between Star Trek parody and homage, with a bit of Douglas Adams at his “zaniest” and least compelling, without ever really committing to anything. So we end up with a fairly serious space-adventure premise which nevertheless has the aforementioned “Klangorn” and “trilithium crystals” along with a Chief Engineer McKinley who hangs pictures of the Highlands in his office and speaks in a bizarre faux-Scottish diction that suggests that the only Scottish accent Darrah has ever heard is James Doohan’s. Even more bizarre combinations of drama and comedy have worked in the hands of talented writers, but suffice to say that Darrah is not one of these writers.

Taken as a game — or, if you like, a systemEssex is more interesting. In fact, it’s by far the most complex piece of programming of all the Electronic Novels. If we take classic adventures as almost all formed in the Adventure mold (the vast majority), being relatively static environments that change only at the prompting of you the player, or the Deadline mold, being dynamic, living story systems in which not just what but also when becomes a factor, Essex is firmly in the dynamic camp. Life is happening around you constantly. Not only does the Essex itself suffer a series of crises, but a cast of a dozen or so others is all constantly moving about, pursuing their own agendas and (ideally) reacting to your own actions in believable ways. It’s impressive — except when it doesn’t quite work right, which is often. Making a believable world/simulation of this sort is still one of the hardest things to do in an adventure game, which does much to explain the form’s still-strong love for deserted environments and straitjacketed, linear plotting. In Essex mimesis is constantly shattered. You can beat one of your fellow passengers to a pulp in front of others while they just continue chatting about the vacation they’re having; use an energy bomb to free a dangerous prisoner from the brig while the guard just yawns and looks on. At points the various daemons controlling plot developments seem to get out of whack, so that a landing party can beam down to a planet before the ship has actually arrived there. Essex needed a lot more testing than it apparently received, serving as yet another example of how the process at Infocom just as much as the vision of their writers led to their own unrivaled catalog of games. This was something that Synapse like so many others, whatever vows they may have made about doing “everything Infocom does plus one,” couldn’t duplicate.

Another thing was Infocom’s parser. Synapse made much out of the BTZ parser, bragging about its ability to understand some 1500 words, over twice that of a typical Infocom game. But word counts alone aren’t enough; ever-present concerns about disk and memory usage aside, they are in fact the easy part of the problem. It’s the grammatical patterns used to deduce meaning from those words that are the hard part. Here Synapse took the same wrong-headed approach as Telarium and many others, doing simple pattern matching as often as real parsing and trying to guess at the meanings of commands which couldn’t be interpreted by more rigorous methods. The BTZ parser is a “lying parser,” in other words, which tries to pretend it knows more than it does. Mindwheel had of course used the same parser, but there it oddly seemed to work at least some of the time, aided by that game’s surreal atmosphere and general disinterest in grubby materialism; witness the Oedipal interaction that so delighted Robert Pinsky. In Essex, full of more traditional object-oriented puzzles, it’s much less successful. Conversations are particularly prone to to non sequiturs: asking another crewman, “WHERE IS CAPTAIN DEE?” results in, “At the same time Dee was building the Essex, the economies of three major planets collapsed.” Good to know… I guess. Infuriatingly, solving Essex requires beating your head against the conversation system; one or two other people on the ship have essential information that you can gather only by asking about random things until you stumble across it.

Indeed, Essex is a very difficult game, requiring like so many others of its dynamic stripe many restarts and restores to solve. In the end, I must admit I judged it not worth the effort. Which was a particular disappointment because the big hardcover book, while still having a surfeit of blank pages, is actually used pretty well here to introduce your fellow passengers and set everything up. Thanks to it, I was actually excited to get started. Alas, that initial excitement wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Brimstone

Even more initially promising is Brimstone: The Dream of Gawain, written by another up-and-coming poet living in the San Francisco area named James Paul, who wouldn’t go on to quite the same heights as Robert Pinsky but has continued to write poetry and prose and teach creative writing at Hunter College. In Brimstone you take the role of Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table best known as the main character of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a recurrent tale of the Arthurian mythos that is most often read today in its translation by J.R.R. Tolkien (it also likely had a little something to do with inspiring one of the more beloved set-pieces in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The game is in fact exactly what its subtitle says it is: as it begins Gawain is drifting off to sleep after a day of relaxation at Camelot. Brimstone is what he experience within the nocturnal, infernal landscape of his dream.

Paul, owner of a PhD in Medieval English literature, isn’t much interested in the King Arthur of flashing swords and chivalric derring-do. He rather connects with the murkier, more mystical aspects of the tradition which you can practically breathe in with the mists during an autumn walk around Glastonbury. Nor does he restrict himself to the Arthurian mythos. Brimstone owes much to — where have we heard this before? — Dante. Like Mindwheel, there’s little in the way of straightforward plotting or concrete theme here, but lots of evocative suggestions and a whole pile of deftly rendered references that hover on the edge of the unconscious — not only to Dante and King Arthur but also to the Book of Genesis, to The Pilgrim’s Progress, to the Greek myths (Charon makes an inevitable cameo), even to Kafka (Morgan La Fay is the star witness in an absurdist trial in which Gawain is the accused). Presiding over much of the affair as Paul’s version of Dante’s Virgil is none other than William Blake. There’s also an homage to a more modern celebrated work by another Medievalist (among many other things), Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose had reached American shores in translation just the year before Paul set to work on Brimstone. The frame story of Brimstone, as presented in the accompanying hardcover, is a dead ringer for that of The Name of the Rose: fussily pretentious academic discovers a heretofore unknown manuscript behind the Iron Curtain. It’s pretty funny — the academic in question has the perfect name of “Jeremy Diddler” — if not quite as drolly perfect as Eco’s.

Much of the imagery in Brimstone proper concerns sin and redemption; much also Greatness versus Goodness. Here’s a bit I particularly like, a forest of frozen hypocrites:

The knight found himself at the northern end of the Vale of the Titans. To the south, Gawain saw what appeared to be figures of men, standing still in the ice.

The figures were men, or their shapes, in any case. Here a multitude of statues of ice crowded a small valley to the south of the knight. Each statue was twice as large as Gawain, each was intricately carved, and each wore what seemed at first to be expressions of virtue, dignity, honesty and courage. Here the track turned, running north and west.

> s

Each figure was labeled with a name: Agamemnon, Bonaparte, Bowdler, Burr, and so on. The knight's heart sank as he walked on. Alphabetical orders always weighed heavily upon him. It was a cold place, and the hills bristled with statues.

> s

The knight felt worse and worse as he walked through this forest of hypocrites. He could look at the statues no longer, though they ran on and on, both men and women, most of whom the knight did not know. The knight came to a marshy area.

Here the ground oozed a gray substance, and wide-leafed plants burst through the mud, their leaves bearing white designs like those the knight had seen on the backs of spiders. A single firm path bore many tracks of a single creature east, and a path also ran south. What next? thought the knight, noting the sign.

> read sign

There in the rock above the well were some words, written by hand. "Expect poison from standing water," it read.

The excerpt above, of course, also shows the most immediately striking aspect of Brimstone: all of its text is rendered in the third-person past tense. Given the sheer quantity of text adventures that precede it, I wouldn’t want to claim absolutely that it’s the first to experiment with this alternative. It is, however, the first of which I’m aware; virtually all previous games had used either the first-person present (as popularized by Scott Adams) or the second-person present (as popularized by Adventure and later Infocom). In the hands of a lesser writer, it might comes off as just a gimmick, but here it suits Paul’s oft-lovely prose and the somewhat removed, dreamlike temper of the whole experience perfectly.

I wish I could leave it at that, leave Brimstone as a piece of interactive poetry almost the equal of Mindwheel. But sadly, commercial considerations do much to undo the experience. Until quite late in the day, Brimstone seems like a kind game which is not puzzleless but not all that interested in its puzzles either, using them largely to provide direction and impetus to explore its enchanted dreamscape. Some of the puzzles are actually pretty good: there’s a free-association exercise that’s almost the equal of any of Mindwheel‘s poetic puzzles. But this version of Brimstone would have been a lovely experience lasting perhaps two or three hours — unacceptable for a game that people would be spending $30 or more on. So, you’ll eventually come to the realization that, starting in the mid-game, Brimstone had begun layering on increasingly obscure puzzles, many of which you probably never recognized as puzzles at all. The ultimate goal turns out to be to collect five magic words needed to defeat Gawain’s nemesis the Green Knight. At least three of these are extremely difficult to find; you’re all but guaranteed to end the game having been locked out of victory long ago. The most absurd word-acquisition strategy of all requires you to start talking to a flower who’s given no prior sign of sentience. To make matters worse, once you collect the words you have to figure out their correct order largely by trial and error and type them really, really fast thanks to one of the more pointless innovations of the BTZ system: the games play in a sort of pseudo-real time, with turns passing as if in response to a “WAIT” command if you don’t type something quickly enough. Mostly that’s just an occasional annoyance, but here it’s enough to make you want to pull out the (virtual) disk and throw it across the room. So, having ended my last article with an elegiac to the dream of a commercial marketplace for literary interactive fiction, let me end this one by noting how wonderful it is that many later experiments with interactive literature were allowed to be their best selves without such dull metrics as dollars spent and hours of gameplay provided getting in the way.

It’s unfortunately a bit more complicated to play Essex and Brimstone today than it is to play Mindwheel. All of the Apple II disk images of both that I could find floating around the Internet have corruptions that, cruelly, don’t show up until well into the game. Your best bet for a decent — read, 80-column — experience is to go for the MS-DOS versions, which you can run through DOSBox. I’m providing a download of each of them here; each zip also contains the manual and a configuration file for DOSBox that should work for you. There’s just one tricky thing you need to know: when you enter the name of a file to save or restore, you need to hit CTRL-ENTER to conclude your input. While Essex is probably best left to the truly hardcore, I’m tempted to recommend Brimstone in spite of its issues. Just keep a walkthrough handy, and don’t be ashamed to use it.

There was one final Electronic Novel, but we’ll save that for later. Instead we’ll pull the camera back next time to take a wider view of the American software industry in 1985 — one hell of a year, as Synapse amongst many others would agree.

 
 

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