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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Kit Williams’s Golden Hare, Part 2: The Aftermath

One day lagomania gripped Britain; the next the hare had been discovered and it was all over except the ennui. The television segments and newspaper articles ceased almost as quickly as the charter tours and the book signings. Rod Argent’s Masquerade musical, which had been all set to make the jump from the Young Vic to the West End, went from a packed house to an empty one overnight, and closed within two weeks. Kit Williams shelved his merry-leprechaun persona and went back to his painting. Tom Maschler and his publicity machine at Jonathan Cape gnashed their teeth at their uncooperative, unappealingly anonymous winner, who had spoiled their plans for making this moment a climax rather than an anticlimax, and in the process cost them the chance to turn Masquerade into an ongoing series of similar grand public treasure hunts. As it was, the public’s appetite for this sort of fare seemed permanently spoiled by the bad taste “Ken Thomas” had left in its mouth.

Instead another craze began to sweep through Britain. Just weeks after Masquerade wound up, the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro started shipping in quantity to British consumers, transforming what had been a burgeoning underground hobby into a full-blown mainstream craze for computers and especially computer games. By 1984, British per-capita computer ownership had exceeded that of the United States, marking it as the most computer-mad nation on earth. It was in connection with this latest craze for computers, barely a glint in a few dreamers’ eyes when Kit Williams had fashioned the golden hare five years before, that the treasure unexpectedly reemerged from the bank vault into which Ken Thomas had stuck it.

News of a company called Haresoft first arrived in the June 5, 1984, issue of Home Computing Weekly. (Yes, Britain was so computer-mad that it could support a weekly magazine for enthusiasts — in fact, two of them.) Thanks to an “exclusive arrangement,” the magazine offered readers a chance to buy something called Hareraiser Prelude for most major platforms directly from Haresoft before it shipped to stores. The announcement marked the beginning of a new hunt for the hare. Or, if the winner preferred, she could take £30,000 in cash in lieu of the hare — that being, according to Haresoft, its estimated value as a piece of art and a cultural touchstone after all of the Masquerade excitement. The hare wasn’t actually buried this time, “to avoid damaging the countryside and to give an equal chance to young people who cannot travel freely.” All you needed to find it in virtual space was “patience and an inquisitive mind” for a puzzle “that could be solved by adult and child alike.” But doing so wouldn’t be cheap. Would-be winners would have to purchase not only Hareraiser Prelude but also Hareraiser Finale to divine the hare’s new location, each for the princely sum of £8.95, a premium price point normally reserved for only the most desirable and ambitious games.

The division into a Prelude and a Finale did rather leave one wondering where the meaty middle had gone. Those punters foolish enough to fork over the money were given yet more cause to wonder. “I find all my feelings of eager anticipation suddenly turned to shock and desolation,” wrote one earnest treasure hunter who’d convinced herself she was about to embark on a new Masquerade. What she got instead was something much, much shabbier.

Hareraiser

Hareraiser

A remarkably threadbare product even for an era when ramshackle junk was the rule rather than the exception, the Hareraiser “games” are as ugly as they are inscrutable; at least Masquerade gave you some lovely pictures to look at while you pored hopelessly over its puzzle. A handful of kilobytes of code — the Prelude and Finale together could fit into the memory of a 16 K Sinclair Spectrum — depict a crudely drawn landscape made up of ground, trees, sky, clouds, and sun, all executed with the stick-figure flair of an ungifted three-year-old. The opening text says you can move around this space with the cursor keys, but if there is any logic to the geography at all it must be that of a giant text-adventure-style maze. Assuming you can judge your location from the number and positions of the trees (perhaps a dangerous assumption), moving north and then south doesn’t return you to your starting point. Occasionally, according to no detectable rhyme or reason, a hare runs across the screen, thus providing the sum total of the action. The only other element is an occasional cliché that pops up at the bottom: “Use your brain”; “Can you see the wood for the trees”; “Early bird catches the worm.”

All Haresoft correspondence was conducted by someone calling himself “Jeff Lubbock,” who may or may not have actually existed. Lubbock’s official line was that Ken Thomas had sold the hare to his company for £20,000, but said company’s behavior bore lots of suspicious similarities to Thomas’s own immediately after winning the hare. Haresoft hungered after notoriety, the better to sell more copies of Hareraiser, yet hid behind a cloak of anonymity at the same time, conducting all business and public relations solely via press releases and advertisements. Although Home Computing Weekly had been fooled into lending some of their credibility to Haresoft at the outset, the company would never again be accorded that sort of respect. The young men writing for the laddish gaming magazines with titles like Crash and Zzap! may not have been the most nuanced of critics, but even they had little trouble sniffing the odor of disreputability that fairly poured out of Haresoft. For one thing, the numbers just didn’t add up. “Where will it all come from?” wrote Computer and Video Games of the £30,000 prize in their review. “Suppose £1 per game is put into a kitty — that’s one helluva lot of copies to hope to sell for a puzzle that isn’t even a game!” Sinclair User was equally direct: “It is rather difficult to understand why this program was produced at all, though cynics may draw their own conclusions.”

Poor reviews turned to outright snubs between the first and second Hareraiser; virtually no one even bothered to review or even announce the availability of the Finale when it appeared a few months after the Prelude. Just as well, as it was effectively indistinguishable from the Prelude anyway. As Haresoft’s press releases and advertisements grew ever more strident in light of what must have been nearly nonexistent sales, dismissal turned to open scorn. Sinclair User jeered at Haresoft’s non sequitur of a claim that they had released Hareraiser in two parts “to make it fun and enable competitors of all ages to participate”: “Bet you thought it was just a way to make more money.” A claim that Hareraiser was being bought by schools “to involve pupils in developing computer-logic skills” prompted a little investigative reporting. “We couldn’t make an awful lot of sense of it,” said one of the few headmasters who would admit to having bought the programs. “I think most schools bought Hareraiser to try and win the £30,000 for their school. That’s certainly why we had a look at it.” So much for “developing computer-logic skills.” The most bizarre of all the Haresoft press releases claimed that Anneka Rice, host of a hugely popular game show called Treasure Hunt that also owed more than a little something to Masquerade, had revealed a clue to the puzzle when making a live appearance at Harrod’s. Since the appearance hadn’t been filmed, apparently the clue could only be useful to those who coincidentally happened to be at the event and retained a perfect memory of every word Rice had said there.

The question of whether there ever was a real solution to the alleged puzzle of Hareraiser is, like so many questions surrounding Kit Williams’s golden hare, impossible to fully answer. Disassembling the programs to look for a solution, as a commenter here recently suggested, is a nonstarter, as there is no “winning” screen, no opportunity to solve the puzzle on the computer and have the program acknowledge your achievement. You’re rather expected to solve it on pencil and paper using clues from the programs. It’s possible that a puzzle of some sort was created in good faith, but was so horrid no one ever had the ghost of a chance of figuring it out. Still, not building a winning state into the program itself did allow Haresoft to arbitrarily declare the solution to be whatever they wished it to be — and whenever they wished to do so. Indeed, if I had to guess I’d say that here we come to the real plan, such as it was. If Hareraiser took off to become another sensation like Masquerade, Haresoft would have the flexibility to bend the solution to a winner chosen at whatever juncture best maximized the publicity and the profit.

But, in an affirmation of the good sense of the British computing public, Hareraiser didn’t become another Masquerade. The whole thing was so tawdry, so obviously shady, that almost no one bought in. A desperate Haresoft was reduced to creating painfully transparent sock puppets to write in to the magazines who were savaging the programs.

I wonder who these nerds are who think this isn’t any good. I am one of a group of six who have had immense fun from seeking clues on this treasure hunt, and furthermore, it’s not meant to be a book like Masquerade. If one seeks to win the golden hare, the computer gives the clues, the rest is down to you — that is, if you’re intelligent enough.

This testimony from “Mrs. Widdowson” helped not a whit. Haresoft quietly disappeared during the early months of 1985, leaving behind no forwarding address and not a peep about the still winnerless contest.

Dennis Cross, the court-appointed liquidator of Haresoft, shows off the golden hare shortly before it was auctioned off.

Dennis Cross, the court-appointed liquidator of Haresoft, shows off the golden hare shortly before it was auctioned off.

But the wheels of bankruptcy do grind, slowly yet relentlessly. In December of 1988, a month of bombshell revelations about Masquerade, the golden hare, and Ken Thomas, Kit Williams’s treasure resurfaced for auction at Sotheby’s. The court-appointed liquidator of Haresoft, charged with recovering as much money as possible to pay off the bank that had been unwise enough to supply the operation’s seed capital, had found the defunct company’s one asset of any real value to be the hare, and had promptly seized it to auction it off. The auction turned into a media circus, at last providing the big star turn for the hare that Tom Maschler’s publicity machine had planned for the original unveiling. Caron Keating, known among children as host of the television show Blue Peter and among adults as something of a sex symbol, did the hosting honors, wearing the hare around her neck as the ultimate fashion accessory. Kit Williams himself was there to bid for the hare, but had to drop out at £6000. It was finally sold for £31,900 to an anonymous buyer, shocking everyone; everyone had assumed that the estimated worth of £30,000 was, like most things to come out of Haresoft, complete nonsense. The auction put the capstone on the hare’s first checkered and very public decade of existence. Henceforth it would lead a quieter life, winding up in a private collection in Asia. It would be more than twenty years before it would enter the public eye again.

The same month of December 1988 brought a certain vindication to everyone who had witnessed the disappointing ending of the original hunt for the hare, for in the course of this month Ken Thomas’s cherished cloak of anonymity was finally stripped away and many of the details of the cheating everyone had always suspected him of were finally laid bare. The news broke nationwide in The Times of December 11, 1988, just six days after the hare had been sold at auction. But the real legwork had been done by the editor of the local Bedfordshire newspaper, Bedfordshire on Sunday, published near the hare’s burial place in Ampthill Park.

Frank Branston, the editor in question, had first become involved with the story about a year before the hare was dug up, when a local man named John Guard told him out of the blue that he thought he knew where to find it. When Branston queried how he had come by this information, Guard replied that his girlfriend, Veronica Roberts — more commonly called “Ronnie” — had been Kit Williams’s girlfriend at the time he was creating Masquerade.

Guard wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses. A heavy drinker and heavy pot smoker, he had a reputation as a small-time con artist and general ne’er-do-well around town, prone to regular flights of fancy not too different from this claim. But Branston was able to confirm that at least part of his story was true: Ronnie Roberts had indeed been the girlfriend of Kit Williams a few years before. For months, whenever Branston would see Guard around town, he’d quietly ask him about the hare, whereupon Guard would reply only that finding it was proving more difficult than anticipated. When the treasure was finally found right there in Bedfordshire, allegedly because someone’s dog chose to pee on the Amptill Park monument, Branston immediately thought again of Guard. He tracked him down to ask him directly if he was the mysterious Ken Thomas. Guard replied in the negative, albeit in a suspiciously evasive manner. Branston soon had confirmation that Guard couldn’t be Thomas; one look at the pictures of Thomas at the unveiling of the hare was enough, even disguised as he was, to confirm that he wasn’t Guard.

And yet Branston’s suspicions remained. He launched a modest investigation into Thomas’s identity. A bit of research revealed that the solicitor Thomas was using as representation for his negotiations with Jonathan Cape was a local Bedfordshire man. That meant that Thomas was almost certainly a local as well, further raising Branston’s suspicions about a possible connection with Guard. After this, though, he drew a blank. He couldn’t shake anything else loose from Guard, the solicitor, or any of his contacts covering the story in the national media. And so for the next six years he left it at that.

Branston’s curiosity was revived in 1988 when a brief blurb came across his news wire stating that the golden hare of Masquerade was to be sold at auction as part of the liquidation of a company called Haresoft. It was easy enough to check the official records and see who was behind Haresoft. The founder and head was listed as one Dugald Thompson, living in the Bedfordshire village of Bolnhurst, close by Bedford and Ampthill. And the records showed something else: Thompson was also associated with a brief-lived wishful thought of a company called Clayprint, set up by none other than John Guard. Brantson had his connection at last. To keep the two men from concocting a story together, he went out to see Guard at the same time that one of his reporters visited Thompson. After the pair had done a fair amount of wriggling on the hook, a story emerged, largely from Guard rather than the steadfastly uncooperative Thompson, that sounded like at least the partial truth.

Ronnie Roberts had indeed first agreed to tell John Guard what she knew about the hare about a year before its eventual discovery, prompting him to crow about it to Branston and quite possibly others around town. But, being something of a hippie idealist, she would share only on the condition that the proceeds from its finding and presumed sale be donated to animals-rights organizations. Guard readily agreed to this proviso at the time; whether he ever intended to honor it is yet another of those insoluble Masquerade mysteries.

Roberts knew quite a lot, although perhaps not quite as much as she thought she did. She had gone out to Ampthill Park with Kit Williams to have a picnic there one spring equinox, in the midst of which he’d excused himself to go bury a magnet marking the future position of the hare. Yet Williams hadn’t been entirely trusting; he’d made sure she didn’t see the exact spot. Her understanding of the burial location was garbled and incomplete. She knew it had something to do with the position of the memorial’s shadow on the spring equinox, but believed the hare to be buried immediately adjacent to the memorial rather than at the full extent of the shadow. Still, she did know it was in Ampthill Park, which was far more than anyone else knew at the time.

Looking for a further leg up on the search, Guard approached a local metal-detector enthusiast named Eric Compton with Roberts’s information. There was £1000 in it for him, Guard said, if he would bring his gadget out to Ampthill Park and help him find the hare — and, just as importantly, if he would act as the front man for their little conspiracy afterward. Guard knew that his connection to Roberts, and Roberts’s connection in turn to Kit Williams, must come out as soon as he personally tried to claim the prize, and then the jig would be up.

But as it happened, the conspiracy never got that far. Many nights of tiresome late-night digging and metal-detecting close by the memorial, where Roberts believed the hare to be buried, revealed nothing. After a final assault on the actual day of the spring equinox of 1981 had also proved fruitless, Compton begged off in disgust, convinced he’d been suckered into yet another of Guard’s groundless flights of fancy.

That would seem to have marked the end of digging at Ampthill Park for many months, until the physics teachers Mike Barker and John Rousseau hit upon the solution to the puzzle and the precise location of the hare that had so eluded Guard and Compton. The “slight depression” Barker took as worrisome evidence of previous digging when he arrived at Ampthill Park on February 18, 1982, was likely the remnant of Guard and Compton’s efforts, now almost a year old. (The story that “Ken Thomas” told of digging immediately before Barker is, like most of what he said, almost certainly total nonsense.)

And so we come to the crazy final days of the treasure hunt, where we’re sadly cast back into the realm of the unknown and possibly unknowable. We know that John Guard was acquainted with Dugald Thompson, and must have told him about Ampthill Park. We know as well that it was Dugald Thompson who became Ken Thomas. What we don’t know is what sort of arrangement, if any, the two men arrived at. Was Thompson Guard’s new front man, Compton’s replacement in the role? If so, the plan to sell the hare and donate the proceeds to animal-rights charities evidently fell by the wayside in favor of using it to start a shady software company. Still, a partnership of the two men would explain the identity of the mysterious friend Thompson mentioned digging with him on the last day, when the hare was finally found. The other possibility is that Thompson snookered the would-be snookerer, taking Guard’s information and acting on it unilaterally. It’s not as if Guard would have been in any position to come forward with his grievance.

One eyebrow-raising coincidence about the final days of the hunt does seem to be just that: Thompson’s posting his letter to Kit Williams just one day before Mike Barker arrived at Ampthill Park for his own dig. Whether acting alone or in partnership with Guard, Thompson decided to try to win the prize for himself without actually digging up the hare first, through this vague letter that implied he knew more than he did. He had done enough research to realize that, with Ampthill Park lying almost directly on the Greenwich meridian, the memorial’s shadow would be cast directly northward on the spring equinox. He didn’t, however, reckon with the difference between magnetic north and true north, diagramming the former rather than the latter in his letter. It was Barker’s enormous misfortune to have done his digging just as Thompson, with or without Guard, was also nosing around. In combination with some ill-advised hints dropped by Kit Williams in their phone conversation, that was enough to put Thompson on the correct track.

That chain of conjecture, at any rate, seems likely to be the best we’ll ever be able to do. John Guard died some years ago, “of drink and drugs” according to Frank Branston, while Ronnie Roberts vanished without a trace. Eric Compton still lives in Bedfordshire, but has no real knowledge of what might have gone on between Thompson and Guard. Dugald Thompson himself, the shadowy man at the center of the mystery and the one person who certainly knows the entirety of what really happened, was still with us when contacted by the BBC in 2009, but remained as stubborn and patently dishonest as ever. Among other things, he claimed that he found the hare entirely on his own — the connection to Guard and Roberts being just another coincidence — but can’t tell the true story “for legal reasons” (one suspects that the latter statement may in fact be true). He also claims that the idea of the “Ken Thomas” persona was actually concocted by Tom Maschler and Jonathan Cape, a claim contradicted by absolutely everyone else.

So, that’s your dose of scandal and conspiracy for today, the sexy part of the Masquerade story. The real reason I wanted to write these articles, however, has little to do with the contest’s juicy ending, fun as it may be to speculate about. Masquerade, you see, cast an enormous shadow over the computer-game industry that exploded in the years immediately after the contest’s conclusion — a shadow that extended far beyond the tawdry story of Haresoft and Hareraiser. It was only natural for marketers looking to drum up excitement for their games to cast their eyes back to a contest that had just sold more than a million books. And look back they did. For some years British gaming especially was a riot of Masquerade-inspired contests.

Which isn’t to say that the United States was entirely bereft of digital Masquerades. On the contrary, arguably the most slavish digital clone of all, an interactive “children’s storybook” containing clues to the locations of three “solid gold, gem-encrusted” keys hidden in three separate locations in the United States, was a late 1982 American title called Prism from International Software Marketing.  I’ve been unable to find any evidence that any of the keys were ever found, unsurprisingly as it seems that very few ever bought the software; International Software Marketing disappeared within a year. After that, Masquerade‘s influence in the United States, while far from negligible, tended to be more oblique, living in the realms of aesthetics and game design rather than public contests. Most notably, Cliff Johnson’s fairy-tale puzzler The Fool’s Errand was heavily inspired by Kit Williams’s book, although Johnson wisely made his storybook much more soluble. One of the loveliest games of its era, The Fool’s Errand makes a magnificent legacy for the golden hare all by itself.

But in Britain the influence of Masquerade was far more sustained, obvious, and direct. As with the example of Prism in the United States, it tended to be the earliest of the British Masquerade heirs that tried to translate the experience of the earlier treasure hunt most literally. Just months after the hare was dug up, the merry pranksters at Automata introduced a text adventure called Pimania, containing clues to the location of the Golden Sundial of Pi, a much tackier-looking treasure than Kit Williams’s hare but one worth — according at least to Automata — £6000. It wouldn’t finally be discovered until July of 1985, an event that marked the brief-lived Automata’s last hurrah.

I don’t know of any others who actually buried a treasure, but similar trinkets were a definite order of the day as contest prizes for some time. For instance, the first person to solve Castle of Riddles, Peter Killworth’s second published text adventure, received £1500 in cash and a “£700 hallmarked silver ring-shaped trophy mounted on a presentation plinth and inscribed ‘King of the Ring.’”

But publishers soon realized that elaborate objets d’art weren’t really necessary for a rousing contest. Cold, hard cash would do just as well or better. The race toward ever larger jackpots reached its dizzying climax with a 1984 game from Domark called Eureka!, a huge production for the time consisting of five separate text adventures, five action games, and a hardcopy poor man’s Masquerade, or “Book of Riddles,” all allegedly designed by Ian Livingstone of Fighting Fantasy gamebook fame. The collection as a whole was a monument to quantity over quality, but the prize for being the first to slog through it all was nothing to sneeze at: £25,000 in cash, the largest of these sorts of prizes ever awarded (as opposed to merely promised in the case of the benighted Haresoft). The winner, who didn’t emerge until the game had been on the market for more than a year and the contest’s expiration date was looming, was a 15-year-old named Matthew Woodley.

Matthew Woodley, at right, gets his check for being the first to solve Eureka!.

Matthew Woodley, at right, gets his check for being the first (only?) to solve Eureka!.

Yet even a cash prize wasn’t an absolute requirement to evoke some of the old spirit of Masquerade. For many people, just the national recognition of becoming the first to win a game was enough, with or without the structure of a formal contest. Heaps of games shipped with cards to be mailed in with proof of victory. If you happened to be lucky enough to be the first winner, or sometimes just among the first handful, you could count on some press recognition and at least a little swag. Melbourne House, for example, rewarded the teenage Cunningham brothers of Northumberland when they became the first to send in the winning solution to Sherlock four months after the adventure’s release with a gala lunch at The Sherlock Holmes Restaurant and blurbs in several magazines. Acornsoft likewise made sure to recognize Hal Bertram, the first person to become Elite in Elite some six weeks after that game’s release.

All of these contests, whether expressed or implied, served to bind British gamers together, giving the hobby as a whole a personal, clubby feel that wasn’t enjoyed by the larger American scene. That said, they were also a classic double-edged sword. There’s an ugly truth lurking at the heart of Masquerade and all of the similar contests that followed, whether they unspooled digitally or in print. To make a puzzle that will be attempted by thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people and not have it solved within hours — a development that would be commercially disastrous — requires making that puzzle outrageously hard. And outrageously hard puzzles just aren’t much fun for most people. It’s this simple truth that makes the idea of a mass treasure hunt much more alluring than the reality. The differences between the demands of the contest and the demands of good puzzle design are almost irreconcilable. It’s not as if British text-adventure designers in particular needed more motivation to produce unfair and well-nigh insoluble games.

And, while games in other genres like Elite sometimes indulged in public contests and public recognition for firsties, it was indeed always the text adventure with which Masquerade-style contests were most closely identified — unsurprisingly as these games are by their nature big, elaborate puzzles to solve, just like Kit Williams’s book. It’s equally unsurprising, then, that the end of the era of the Masquerade-inspired computer-game contest coincides with the text adventure’s commercial sunset in Britain.

Level 9, the most prolific and respected of British text-adventure makers for most of the genre’s commercial existence, had always avoided contests of this kind, perhaps out of recognition of the damage they tended to do to game design. But in 1988, having been dumped by Rainbird, Level 9 had just signed on with a new publisher called Mandarin who were very eager to do another good old-fashioned treasure hunt; they even wanted to re-institute the idea of a physical treasure. The game in question being an Arthurian exercise called Lancelot, the treasure that Level 9 and Mandarin agreed upon was a replica of the Holy Grail, “hand-crafted from sterling silver,” “gilded inside with 22-carat gold” (bettering Kit Williams’s hare by 4 carats), “encrusted with semi-precious stones,” and worth a cool £5000 in raw materials (bettering the hare by £2000).

In this case, however, designer Pete Austin threaded the needle in a way few if any of his predecessors had managed. He was clever enough to avoid the trap of a contest predicated purely on becoming the first to solve a game, avoiding with it the unfair, insoluble adventure it invariably foisted on its players. Instead he sprinkled clues to a meta-puzzle through his game, but kept the exercise of solving that puzzle separate from that of winning the game. He also made sure that the meta-puzzle was a fair puzzle, providing its methodology openly to would-be contest participants.

Lancelot

The game itself was only required for the first round, which was used to select a pool of finalists who were sent another puzzle hinging around a set of very difficult trivia questions on Arthurian lore and legend. The winner, an adventure-game reviewer named John Sweeney, claimed to have required some thirty reference books to work out the solution and identify the resting place of the Grail in the form of a grid reference on an Ordnance Survey map. (It was all purely an intellectual exercise; the Grail was not, as Mandarin and Level 9 were constantly at pains to emphasize, actually buried there.) By all accounts difficult but fair in conception and execution, the Lancelot puzzle might have pointed a way forward for contests of this nature; it actually sounds like it was kind of fun. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Lancelot‘s sales were nowhere close to being strong enough to justify a prize of such magnificence. John Sweeney’s achievement marked the end of the old era of adventure-game contests as a whole rather than the beginning of a new era of saner, fairer contests. His human-interest story would be just about the last of its kind on the pages of British magazines.

John Sweeney with his freshly won Holy Grail and the things he had to use to win it: his computer, his Lancelot game, and lots and lots of reference books.

John Sweeney with his freshly won Holy Grail and the things he had to use to win it: his computer, his Lancelot game, and lots and lots of reference books.

I’ll return to the twilight years of the British text-adventure industry in my next article. But for now, for today, a final few words on the three biggest principals behind the original Masquerade, two of them human and one lagomorphic.

Tom Maschler’s Jonathan Cape was purchased by Random House in 1987, becoming an imprint thereof. Maschler stepped down from his role as chief editor shortly thereafter, on the advice of doctors who were warning him of the effect many years of burning the candle at both ends was having on his health. He’s led a quieter life since, emerging publicly only on occasion. In 2005, he published a memoir, called simply Publisher, that garnered mixed reviews. He rates the creation of the Booker Prize as his proudest achievement: “It certainly has had an impact, and if it means people think they should occasionally read a good novel, that is something I’m very proud of.” Amen to that.

Kit Williams tried to capture lightning in a bottle a second time in 1984 via an untitled picture book most commonly referred to as “The Bee Book.” The contest this time was merely to ferret out the book’s real name; no physical treasure was buried. The prize, an intricate art object Williams called a “marquetry box,” was won by one Steve Pearce of Leicester. No rumors of foul play dogged the process this time, but the whole exercise garnered not a shadow of the attention (or sales) of Masquerade, and Kit Williams decided that was enough of that. He returned to the life of a simple painter, becoming more reclusive than ever, creating mostly on personal commission and rarely showing his work publicly.

An older Kit Williams and his golden hare, reunited at last in 2009.

An older Kit Williams and his golden hare, reunited at last in 2009.

The whereabouts of the golden hare remained unknown except in rumor for many years. In 2009, however, the thirtieth anniversary of the treasure hunt’s beginning prompted a run of retrospectives in the British media. This attention in turn prompted the hare’s anonymous Asian owner to send it back to its homeland for a time. A BBC film crew captured Kit Williams’s emotional reunion with his most famous creation, which he’d last seen from the audience in Sotheby’s more than twenty years earlier. In 2012, the current owner allowed the Victoria and Albert Museum to publicly display the hare, exactly thirty years after having been so rudely refused permission to do so by Ken Thomas/Dugald Thompson. It had been one hell of a circuitous trip — for the hare itself and for everyone who ever fell under its spell.

(Sources: Most of the sources listed in the previous article apply to this one as well. In addition, there are the Creative Computing of May 1983; Home Computing Weekly of November 22 1983 and June 5 1984; Sinclair User of December 1984, January 1985, March 1985, and October 1987; Crash of January 1985 and October 1985; Computer and Video Games of December 1984 and June 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of August 30 1984 and November 29 1984; Your Sinclair of January 1989; Page 6 of July 1989; Amiga Computing of October 1988. Also see the entry for Hareraiser Finale on the site Games That Weren’t 64.)

 

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Kit Williams’s Golden Hare, Part 1: The Contest

Kit Williams with a hare -- not the famous golden one.

Kit Williams with a hare — but not the famous golden one.

Fair warning: there is an image below that may be Not Safe For Work!

On a gray Saturday morning in March of 1976, two nattily dressed London sophisticates left the city, driving west toward the decidedly unfashionable environs of rural Gloucestershire. One of the two was Eric Lister, owner of a quirky art gallery called the Portal. The other had a much higher profile. At age 42, Tom Maschler was already something of a living legend in the world of publishing. He had become the chief editor of the storied but musty publishing firm of Jonathan Cape back in 1960, whereupon he promptly made his name by purchasing the British rights to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for all of £250 and turning the book into a literary sensation in Britain well before it struck a nerve in Heller’s own homeland of the United States. The list of authors he proceeded to published in the next 27 years reads like a who’s who of late-twentieth-century literary fiction: Thomas Pynchon, Roald Dahl, John Fowles, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan. In the late 1960s, he played an instrumental role in establishing the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious award in modern British literature. Coincidentally or not, a disproportionate percentage of Maschler’s writers won the award in the years that followed.

But it wasn’t all high-toned literature for Tom Maschler. He first demonstrated his knack for the populist as well as the prestigious early on, when at the height of Beatlemania he procured for Jonathan Cape two books of John Lennon’s prose, poetry, and drawings. They both become bestsellers, cementing Lennon’s popular reputation as “the smart Beatle.” A pattern had been established, of Maschler as not just a curator of fine literature but a curator of books that sold. He possessed a gift for identifying just the right book to suit the popular zeitgeist of any given instant — or, alternately, for bending the zeitgeist to suit whatever he happened to have on offer.

It was more his role as a publisher of popular books than of fine literature that sent Maschler out to Gloucestershire in March of 1976. During the years immediately previous to the trip, he had sniffed out a market for lavishly illustrated children’s books — both classics and originals — which could find a home on the coffee tables of adults as well. Books like The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast had done very well for Jonathan Cape; indeed, The Butterfly Ball had been turned into a double-album rock opera by Roger Glover of Deep Purple fame. After visiting the Portal Gallery for a show by an artist named Kit Williams, Maschler had either suggested to Lister or had suggested to him — the two men’s memories would forever diverge on this question — the idea of a children’s book featuring Williams’s fantastic paintings. Thus this trip to visit the artist, who lived like the hermit he was in a moss-covered cottage in the middle of nowhere.

Kit Williams outside the Gloucestershire cottage where Masquerade was proposed, conceived, and executed.

Kit Williams outside the Gloucestershire cottage where Masquerade was proposed, conceived, and executed.

For most of its duration, the lunch-time meeting, conducted around Williams’s kitchen table whilst munching on the homespun country fare he served up, wasn’t especially productive. Williams was polite, but was fundamentally uninterested in the idea of a children’s book. He’d taken the meeting at all only as a favor to Lister. He was a painter, not a writer, he patiently explained. Fair enough, came the reply from Maschler; we can partner you with a writer. But no, no, that wasn’t how Williams worked; he worked alone on his art, doing absolutely everything himself.

Knowingly or accidentally, Maschler finally said the words that would make the book a reality just as he and Lister were walking out the door: “I still think you could do something that no one has ever done before.” The parting shot was perfectly pitched to strike its target just where it counted. Kit Williams, who could come across upon first meeting like one of the timid creatures of the forest he so delighted in painting, wasn’t quite what he seemed. His psyche harbored unexpected seams of stubbornness, pride, competitiveness, and even showmanship. Maschler’s words sounded like a challenge, and a challenge was something he found very hard to resist. Out of the blue some weeks later, long after Maschler had written off the meeting as a bust, Williams called his office to tell him he’d do the book after all. Just like that, Masquerade, soon to become the greatest mass treasure hunt of all time, was begun.

Born in Kent in 1946, Kit Williams had spent his life defying expectations. Take, for instance, the first thing any new acquaintance must remark about him, even if she’s too polite to say anything about it: the fact that his eyes point in different directions. What first seems a classic case of an untreated lazy eye is something much more unusual. Williams actually enjoys, or has cultivated, a peculiar ocular ambidexterity. When driving in traffic, admittedly not a frequent occupation for this lifelong hermit, he keeps one eye on the mirror, the other on the road in front of him. When he’s feeling tired, he might close one eye, getting it some literal shuteye while the other continues about its business, much to the alarm of his passengers if he happens to be driving. Far from being a handicap, his “lazy eye” is sort of like… well, it’s sort of like a superpower really. That’s just the way things are with Kit Williams.

Williams was a maker virtually from the moment he could walk, tinkering endlessly with machines and electronics. At age 12, he made for his family their first television set, using an orange crate for the case and a pair of knitting needles for the control knobs. He thought for a while that he wanted to be a scientist. Yet his talents never translated into success at school; his peculiar genius for making things, if genius it be, would always be intuitive, not intellectual. He counts as a defining moment the one in which he realized that he didn’t really want to be a scientist at all; he wanted to be a mad scientist, like the ones he saw on his homemade television. So he dropped out of school and ran away to join the Royal Navy.

That didn’t go any better than had his schooling. Once again, Williams realized he’d been attracted to the romantic notion of sailing, as seen on his orange-crate television, rather than the reality; he had wanted to Horatio Hornblower, not the workaday grind of being an enlisted seaman aboard a modern aircraft carrier. He spent most of his time as a sailor trying to convince the Navy they’d made a mistake in signing him to a six-year stint. After four years, they finally came to agree with him, letting him buy himself out of the rest of his enlistment for £200. Free at last, Williams settled down to the life he continues to live to this day: dwelling in rural seclusion, painting and building things when not tramping through the forest communing with nature. In 1973, Eric Lister’s Portal Gallery hosted the first public exhibition of his art.

"Penning Wedding," a typical example of Kit Williams's art: intricate, idiosyncratic, fantastic, and a little transgressive.

“Penny Wedding,” a typical example of Kit Williams’s art: intricate, idiosyncratic, fantastic, and a little transgressive.

Kit Williams’s paintings weren’t (and aren’t) the sort to win much traction with the scholars, critics, and tastemakers of contemporary fine art. Representational and literal when the abstract and the conceptual were all the rage, they seemed blissfully if not defiantly ignorant of every contemporary trend. Williams is rather part of a deeper, far older tradition in British and Irish culture. It’s a pastoral tradition, imbued with the sunlit beauty of hedges and hills, fields and streams, but also keenly aware of the darker, dangerous sides of nature and life. You can find it in Shakespeare, particularly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest; you can find it in Tolkien, particularly in the Old Forest and its inhabitant Tom Bombadil; you can find it in Watership Down; you can find it in the music of Anthony Phillips and the Canterbury scene. Like those works, much of Williams’s art is vaguely disturbing in a way that distinguishes it from the paint-by-numbers pablum that is most fantastic art. He loves to pepper his meticulously constructed pastoral imagery with jarring obscenities and frank eroticism. He particularly loves to show fully clothed older men in the company of nubile young female nudes. Whether you find the motif alluring or simply creepy, it’s not quickly forgotten.

Surprisingly, it was the reclusive artist Kit Williams rather than the master popularizer Tom Maschler who came up with the idea of turning his children’s book into an elaborate puzzle and a treasure hunt — truly a publicity stunt for the ages. The idea arose, like most brilliant masterstrokes, from a mishmash of source material. Williams hated the way most people tended to flip through picture books quickly rather than lavish on the images the sort of attention they gave to words. He therefore wanted to give people a reason to spend some time lingering over his pictures. He fondly remembered the Victorian puzzle books he had enjoyed in his childhood, which challenged the viewer to find smaller pictures hidden inside larger. He less fondly remembered the cereal boxes which had promised him a hunt for “Buried Treasure” that proved to mean only a random drawing for some useless trinket. And, while Williams would always downplay the commercial motivation, he must have been keenly aware that a literary treasure hunt held the potential to sell a lot of books and make his chosen lifestyle of rural seclusion a much more worry-free one.

The Kit Williams who phoned Tom Maschler to tell him about his idea was a very different character from the reticent one the latter had met over lunch weeks before. A tangled torrent of words about riddles and hidden treasure tumbled over themselves in their rush to get out. Maschler didn’t fully understand it, but didn’t really feel he needed to. He heard the germ of a brilliant concept more than well enough, and told Williams to by all means get on with it. He issued only one stipulation, born of his awareness of his new author’s usual artistic predilections: there could be no nudity, no profanity, and no sex. This was, after all, at least ostensibly still to be a children’s book.

Masquerade was first a puzzle, then a collection of pictures, and finally a story, which corresponds pretty well to the importance of its various elements in the mind of Williams. After working out the puzzle, he embedded its clues into 15 largely unrelated paintings that were probably not all that different from what he might have created had he been painting them for his next Portal Gallery exhibition rather than the book (minus Maschler’s family-friendly stipulations, of course). Executed by Williams with his usual fussy meticulousness, these absorbed the vast majority of the three years it took him to deliver the finished book. Finally, he bound the paintings together with some 4000 words of rambling nonsense improvised to fit the pictures, about a hare named Jack who must carry a token of the Moon’s love to the Sun. Capped off with a title that bore no relation to the story, Masquerade wasn’t exactly a children’s classic. But, judged Williams and Maschler alike, it would do. The real point of it all was the treasure hunt.

The first of the book's pictures. The "one of six to eight" around the border is one of the few clues to the real puzzle transmitted in the clear, and the one that came to be understood by just about everyone who got close to the hare's resting place.

The first of the book’s pictures. The “one of six to eight” around the border is one of the few clues to the real puzzle transmitted in the clear. It’s also unique in that it came to be understood by just about everyone who got close to the hare’s resting place.

I don’t want to spend too much time here dwelling on the structure of the puzzle. In the years since Masquerade‘s publication, it’s been spoiled many times in painstaking detail, and there’s little I can add to that body of work. Its solution hinges on following the gaze of the various characters in the pictures through the angles formed by their fingers and toes to pick out individual letters from the poetic phrases that frame the paintings. Suffice to say that, created in complete isolation by a man who lays claim to no intrinsic interest in solving or creating puzzles, it’s not a very good one. While there is a definite logic to its solution, that logic is all but impossible to divine except after the fact. To complete cluelessness as to the nature of the puzzle, its starting point, or what parts of the book are important to it — the entirety of the 4000 words of text, for example, is completely meaningless — must be added the dozens of false trails and red herrings that Williams, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, sprinkled through his pictures. Small wonder that not a single one of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who would soon be earnestly poring over Masquerade would ever solve it without outside help.

Looking back on Masquerade today, the most striking thing about its gestation is how much faith Tom Maschler and Jonathan Cape as a whole placed in their unproven puzzle-maker. Williams explained the puzzle to no one at Jonathan Cape prior to the book going to press. Maschler’s entire operation simply assumed that Williams’s puzzle would hang together, assumed Williams was operating in good faith. As a book publisher rather than a publisher of games or puzzles, they were equipped to do little else. Their editors knew how to correct Williams’s atrocious spelling and straighten out his grammar, but they had no idea how to measure the quality and solubility of his puzzle. If the end result has its problems, it could have been much, much worse. At least there was a solution, and the after-the-fact logic used to arrive at it hung together. A less fortunate Jonathan Cape might have been hauled into court on charges of fraud.

Kit Williams and Bamber Gascoigne set off to bury the hare on the evening of August 7, 1979.

Kit Williams and Bamber Gascoigne set off to bury the hare on the evening of August 7, 1979.

The first and last person to whom Kit Williams ever explained his puzzle in detail was Bamber Gascoigne, a well-liked and well-respected television presenter. Maschler recruited Gascoigne to serve as a witness and honest broker for the night of August 7, 1979, when Williams set off in his battered old plumber’s van to bury Masquerade‘s treasure. Said treasure took the form of a five-inch hare made out of gold, turquoise, ruby, and quartz, created by Williams himself in his home workshop and worth at least £3000 in raw materials alone. The burial spot was Ampthill Park, near the small Bedfordshire town of the same name in central England, a place Williams had become familiar with when he had had lived nearby before moving to Gloucestershire. A reader who solved the puzzle would be able to find the hare by digging at the tip of the shadow cast by a stone cross — a memorial to Catherine of Aragon, first wife to Henry VIII — at noon on the spring equinox. Williams had long since marked the spot by shallowly burying a magnet whose location could be detected with a compass.

The Golden Hare

The Golden Hare

Williams explained the entirety of the puzzle to Gascoigne on the drive up. The latter was immediately concerned that the puzzle was “infinitely more complex than Kit realized,” that “Kit’s judgment was distorted by the fact that he himself had thought of the riddle and its answer.” He felt himself in a very uncomfortable position, to the point of regretting having taken the assignment at all.

Kit had explained to me the basis of his puzzle, but even with that privileged information I was unable to make it work out. The cause of my growing uneasiness was the thought that if it was in fact impossibly difficult, then I was the only person in the world in a position to form that opinion. Kit considered it very possible, even perhaps dangerously easy, because he himself had invented it. The publishers considered it possible because Kit had told them it was. But if my hunch was right, and if people all over the world were beating out their brains and emptying their pockets in pursuit of the unattainable, what should I do? Insert a notice in The Times to the effect that Masquerade was insoluble? I would not have been popular in 30 Bedford Square [home of Jonathan Cape]. Yet clearly the one passenger who believes that a train is hurtling off the rails has an obligation sooner or later to pull the communication cord.

In the end, Gascoigne judged there was nothing for it but to let the show go on. For the next two and a half years, only he and Williams would know the location of the most sought-after pinprick of ground in Britain.

As publication day drew near, Maschler pulled strings in the media to ensure a splashy launch, including a full-color write-up in the Sunday Observer magazine and a segment on BBC News. The latter falsely claimed to show Williams leaving his cottage to bury the hare, then returning after having done the deed. Judging from the quality of the light, very little time seemed to have passed between his departure and his return. Many a treasure hunter would thus conclude that the hare must be buried close by in rural Gloucestershire — just one more red herring among many.

The publicity worked. Demand quickly exceeded Jonathan Cape’s initial print run of 60,000 copies, considered quite ambitious for a children’s book from an unknown author. Bestseller charts from the Christmas season of 1979, when Masquerade‘s sales reached their British peak, show it outselling Frederick Forsyth’s latest thriller as the most popular book in the land. After Williams and Maschler made it clear that anyone who simply wrote in to describe precisely where the hare was buried would be considered the winner — traveling to the spot and actually digging it up beforehand weren’t required — foreign editions pushed sales beyond 1 million copies. Sales in the United State alone may have equaled those in Britain, while readers in non-English-speaking countries struggled with the untranslated text surrounding the pictures but persevered anyway. Only Masquerade‘s Italian publisher sought and was granted permission to make a proper translation, devising their own puzzle and making their own hare, a clone of Williams’s original. Much more merciful than Williams’s puzzle, the Italian puzzle was solved and the hare found by a reader in relatively short order in comparison to the English edition.

The Italian version of the hare -- or rather, a message in a box telling the finder whom to contact to collect it -- was hidden beneath the heel of this striking statue of Neptune that is carved into a cliff near the village of Monterosso al Mare.

The Italian version of the hare — or rather, a message in a box telling the finder whom to contact to collect it — was hidden beneath the heel of this striking but little-visited statue of Neptune carved into a cliff near the village of Monterosso al Mare.

Like so many of Maschler’s earlier masterstrokes, Masquerade seemed to strike precisely the right cultural nerve at precisely the right moment. While there have been plenty of superficially similar public treasure hunts since — virtually all of them inspired by this one — none have ever enjoyed participation on anything like the same scale. For two and a half years, Britain and to some extent the United States as well had Masquerade fever. Rod Argent, former leader of 1960s hit-makers the Zombies, composed a musical based on the book that played to packed houses at London’s Young Vic theater. An enterprising charter airline called Laker Airways started running “Masquerade tours” from the United States to Britain; passengers were presented with a commemorative spade to aid their digging as they stepped off the plane.

Kit Williams became an international celebrity, courted by every newspaper, magazine, and talk show in the Western World. In later years he would come to speak of his fifteen minutes of fame in nightmarish terms, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that he wasn’t above enjoying his celebrity on occasion as well. By the time of a two-week promotional tour of the United States in September of 1980, he had taken to wearing bright green leprechaun shoes below a kaleidoscopic wardrobe and prancing about like the magical little forest sprite his hosts on the morning-show circuit so dearly wanted him to be, complete with bushy red hair, bright red beard, and that disconcerting wandering eye. As Maschler could have told him (and perhaps did), sometimes you just have to give the people what they want.

If the naivete of Jonathan Cape in not bothering to make sure that Masquerade‘s puzzle was viable is striking, equally so is their failure to plan for the thousands of mailed solutions that flooded their post box, especially after the announcement that treasure seekers could win without ever having to venture forth with spade in hand. With no one at Jonathan Cape having the first clue about the puzzle, all of the mail was packed up and shipped off to Williams’s cottage in sacks, hundreds of letters at a time. It’s here that we come to the real nightmare of the thing for Williams: forced to go through the letters one by one, making sure none contained the correct solution, he had no time left to do his art. He quickly noticed a difference between British and American treasure hunters — a difference into which you can read whatever cultural implications you will. British puzzlers tended to send in detailed, carefully worked-through solutions — albeit breathtakingly wrong ones — sometimes running to more words and pages than Masquerade itself. Americans, meanwhile, just guessed, throwing every British landmark they could think of at the wall in the hope that one would stick. When that failed, there were always abstractions like Love, Life, and Peace to be tried, which rather left one wondering whether these answerers had even understood the question.

Thanks to its name and its location in Kit Williams's known home of Gloucestershire, the protected area around Haresfield Beacon became one of the most popular spots for digging. The National Trust finally felt compelled to put up a sign warning treasure hunters away. They billed Williams £50 for their efforts.

Thanks to its name and its location in Kit Williams’s known home of Gloucestershire, the protected nature preserve around Haresfield Beacon became one of the most popular spots for digging. The National Trust finally felt compelled to put up a sign warning treasure hunters away. They billed Williams £50 for their efforts.

Children, supposedly the intended audience for the book all along, sent some of the most entertaining answers.

I am ten. Your puzzle is easy. The hare is in the Isles of Scilly. I think they are in England. It is hidden on the island of Samson. There are two hills on the island. The treasure is on the north hill. In an old grave. It is a moldy old grave. It is only a little island, so you know the one. Please send it to me. Your hare is very pretty. Thank you.

P.S. My mom said she will send this to you. I hope you will write another book and let me hide the hare. I think I could do better than you.

P.S. I am almost ten.


I hereby demand that to the solution of Masquerade the answer is that the Hare lost the precious jewel when he jumped into the fire.


I am 8 years old. But please would you tell me if Masquerade is in the Lake District or not.

P.S. My love is for a pony. But I have no money at all. I have no clue where it is. I don’t think I will ever find it.

Many of the adult treasure hunters drew elaborate, invariably false connections to British history, literature, culture, from Samuel Coleridge to Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton to Francis Drake. The one important clue referencing British history in the book, the phrase “one of six to eight” on the border of the first picture, was thunderingly obvious in comparison to the connections devised by some of his correspondents: it referred to Catherine of Aragon, first of the six wives of Henry VIII, below whose memorial in Ampthill Park the hare was buried. Hare seekers could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they’d just known Kit Williams. Again, his was an intuitive mind, not an intellectual one. He had absolutely no idea what most of his more erudite correspondents were on about.

But then, some refused to believe that Kit Williams himself was whom he said he was. One of the more persistent hunters continued to believe even after the hare was claimed and the puzzle revealed that it had all been cover for another, deeper puzzle devised by none other than Agatha Christie, the queen of British mysteries, on her death bed.

Numerological theories were very popular. One hunter spent 16 months working his way through the slim book, devising ever more complex theories by assigning values to and performing mathematical operations on groups of letters. Like the Agatha Christie fan and a distressing number of others, this hunter continued to believe in and pursue his theory even after the hare had been claimed. “I’m not bright enough to have made up the things I’ve been finding,” he said. His stubborn belief is one more aspect of Masquerade as psychological experiment, proof of the human mind’s determination to see patterns in everything. Masquerade became a new, far more compelling version of the Rorschach test; the most dedicated seekers saw exactly what they wanted to see therein.

Some hunters were convinced that Kit Williams was traveling around the country like the mischievous leprechaun he played on television, making clues — smoke signals were a popular possibility — erasing them, and/or just generally screwing with people’s heads. At least one began to suspect his drinking buddies down at his local pub, who kept trying to dissuade him from his obsession and advance their own theories to replace his, of being secret agents employed by Williams to throw him off the scent. The same gentleman caused some consternation in his village when he pulled some fifty yards of municipal cabling out of the ground, convinced that if he traced it to its end he’d find the hare.

Others decided the puzzle could be solved by replacing inspiration with perspiration. One practical-minded soul reasoned that all he had to do to find the hare was to scour every likely spot in Britain with a metal detector. He “wore a complete brand new car out, knocked out a complete brand new Audi” trying to do just that.

A woman in Wyoming hit upon the idea of sending off every single pairing of latitude and longitude in Britain, stated in degrees and minutes, one after another in letter after letter. She holds the record as the most prolific of all Williams’s correspondents, having sometimes mailed off dozens of letters in a single day. Even had she stumbled upon the right location — impossible in actuality, as Williams was looking for a much more precise answer and had little idea himself where the hare lay in terms of latitude and longitude — one has to wonder whether the hare’s value would have been enough to offset her postal bill.

But then, one could similarly question the effort-to-potential-reward ratio in the case of many of the treasure hunters. The hare was undoubtedly a pretty bauble, and undoubtedly worth a pretty penny, but there was clearly something more than the desire for material gain motivating its most dedicated seekers.

As Masquerade passed the one-year anniversary of its publication and Williams continued to report that no one had yet come within a mile of the methodology behind the puzzle, much less begun to solve it, Tom Maschler was starting to get nervous. An undercurrent of suspicious grumbling was starting to surface among both treasure hunters and the media. It seemed impossible to many that so many people could have been on the case for so long without managing to crack it. The unexciting but accurate explanation for the situation, that of a bad puzzle created in good faith, eluded those primed for outrage. The only possible explanation, they reasoned, must be skulduggery. Did Masquerade contain a real puzzle at all? Had the golden hare ever really been buried? Had someone (or many someones) solved the puzzle months ago, only to be hushed up or ignored by Kit Williams and/or Jonathan Cape, who were making lots of money selling books and wanted the contest to continue?

The thirteenth clue that appeared in The Times, and that would allow a pair of physics teachers to crack the puzzle wide open.

The thirteenth clue that appeared in The Times, and that would allow a pair of physics teachers to finally crack the puzzle wide open. If you fold the bottom three lines of the scroll up over the top three, shine a light on the paper from behind, and read it in a mirror, you reveal a (cryptic) secret message.

Perhaps becoming concerned himself about the veracity and solubility of a puzzle he still understood not at all, Maschler proposed to Williams that he use an upcoming feature interview in The Times to reveal a new clue that would hopefully push some people toward the solution before the grumbling reached a fever pitch. Williams, who was starting to wonder if he would ever again be able to paint pictures rather than spend his days opening envelopes, readily agreed. Thus in the December 21, 1980, edition of The Times, a new picture was revealed, much rougher than the ones in the book but containing, if you worked at it long enough and thought about it laterally enough, a vital piece of information about the puzzle’s central premise of following the gazes of the figures to find certain letters along the borders of the pictures. Doling out the additional clue in this way wasn’t quite fair, for The Times was widely available only to British readers. Treasure hunters in the United States and elsewhere largely never even knew of the additional clue’s existence.

One could make similar accusations against plenty of other aspect of the haphazardly run contest. Kit Williams could be far from the ideal neutral arbitrator, as is amply illustrated by the story of Peter Ormandy of Cumbria, the failed puzzle solver who came the most tantalizing close to his goal.

Ormandy had, somewhat oddly, fixated on only the “six to eight” in “one of six to eight,” deciding that it must refer to the sixth and final of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Parr, rather than the first. Legend has it that it was Catherine Parr who convinced Henry to found Trinity College, Cambridge. Therefore, Ormandy reasoned, the hare must be buried at Trinity College. (If the logic sounds strained, know that Ormandy’s reasoning is practically scientific in comparison to the theories of many other hare hunters.) When he sent his reasoning and his solution off to Williams, the latter couldn’t resist adding something to the standard form-letter rejection: “One day you’ll kick yourself.”

The insertion of Isaac Newton into the twelfth picture sent heaps of seekers scurrying in the wrong direction. The "plank" at the far left with the bell attached sent Peter Ormandy scurrying in the right direction, albeit for reasons never intended by Kit Williams.

The insertion of Isaac Newton into the twelfth picture sent heaps of seekers scurrying in the wrong direction. The “plank” at the far left with the bell attached sent Peter Ormandy scurrying in the right direction, albeit for reasons never intended by Kit Williams.

Realizing he must be getting warm, Ormandy managed to get hold of Williams’s phone number. He called him up for a chat, wheedling him for whatever further hints he might let drop. He came away with a strong impression that he had the wrong wife of Henry VIII. Another reading of “one of six to eight” gave him a pretty good idea which wife he really ought to be focusing on. He began researching all of the places in Britain connected with Catherine of Aragon.  With his list of such places in hand, he connected the book’s frequent references to morning — “A.M.” — and evening — “P.M.” — to AMPthill. Noting that “thill” means “plank” in Old English, he believed the rest of the name to be provided by a picture that included a plank. And to the plank was attached a bell, which Ormandy optimistically concluded would likely be rung at morning and evening — thus yet another reference to A.M. and P.M. By entirely erroneous reasoning, he had arrived at the correct location of Ampthill Park.

Peter Ormandy sent in with his solution this picture of the Amtphill Part Memorial and the hare's possible resting place beneath it.

Peter Ormandy sent in with his solution this picture of the Amtphill Park memorial and the hare’s possible resting place beneath it.

On September 6, 1981, he sent Williams his solution. Still unaware of exactly where the hare might be buried in the vicinity of the Ampthill Park memorial, he included a drawing showing it at the farthest rightward extent of the cross’s horizontal bar. As it happened, his guess was within twenty feet of the real burial spot. Williams, perhaps made nervous by the help he had given Ormandy, perhaps wanting to actively throw Ormandy off the scent in light of that help and the scandal it might cause, now did something that seems a little inexplicable by any other logic. He sent a form letter to his fifteen or twenty most persistent correspondents, including Ormandy.

Unfortunately, your recent solution is incorrect. Because there has been a solution submitted that was as little as twenty feet from the exact spot, I am unable to comment upon any solution that is not absolutely precise. I was unable to help that person and therefore feel it only fair that I should not help others.

Ormandy quite understandably read this missive to indicate that he was not in fact “that person” whom Williams refers to in the third person, but rather one of the “others.” He shifted his attention elsewhere, focusing next on Bournemouth, and that was that.

Even as Ormandy was coming so tantalizing close through luck, intuition, and social engineering at poor Kit’s expense, two physics teachers named Mike Barker and John Rousseau were also homing in on Ampthill Park by following a much more rigorous line of inquiry. The two came late to the game, on New Years Day 1981, when they spent an afternoon looking at the book that Rousseau had originally bought for his daughters. “We’ll be the ones to do this,” said Rousseau to his friend. “It needs a couple of physicists.” After following many false leads, the two became convinced, correctly, that the key to the puzzle lay in the phrases surrounding each picture. They noted the odd spacing of the bordering messages, as if Williams was sometimes crowding and sometimes elongating the text to make sure that certain letters wound up in exactly the right spot. They decided, again correctly, that there must be a way to use angles in the pictures to pick out individual letters from those phrases.

Right about the time that Ormandy was sending in his answer, they were decoding the additional Times clue, becoming the first and possibly only people ever to independently discover the full methodology of the puzzle — albeit, of course, only with the help of that one outside clue. By year’s end they had completely solved the puzzle, deducing that the hare must lay at the fullest extent of the shadow cast by the Ampthill Park memorial on the spring equinox. But, scientists that they were, they decided they needed to verify their discovery by actually digging up the hare before sending the conclusion of their research off to Jonathan Cape and Kit Williams. And to do that, they needed to wait for the spring equinox.

John Rousseau with (Mike's wife) Celia Barker and Mike Barker at Ampthill Park with Mike's homemade inclinometer.

John Rousseau with (Mike’s wife) Celia Barker and Mike Barker at Ampthill Park with Mike’s homemade inclinometer.

Or did they? They were, after all, physicists. After an initial investigatory trip to Ampthill Park on January 4, 1982, Mike Barker retired to his Manchester garage to construct an “inclinometer,” a device that would let him pinpoint the position where the tip of the shadow would be come the equinox. On February 18, he returned to Ampthill Park to dig at what he calculated with the aid of his new gadget to be the correct spot. He didn’t find the hare.

The question of why he didn’t find the hare is a mystery that will never be satisfactorily resolved. We know that he and Rousseau had completely and correctly unraveled the puzzle’s logic. We also can feel reasonably certain, based on events that would follow, that the inclinometer worked, that he was digging in the correct spot. We’re thus left with two possibilities. One is that Barker did in fact dig up the hare, but missed it. Williams had sealed it inside a small clay-colored pottery container, which would have been easy enough to miss amidst the mounds of earth extracted from the hole on a bleak February day. On the other hand, the idea that Barker could have been so careless at this final instant as not to thoroughly sift through the earth does contrast markedly with the dogged methodicalness he and Rousseau had demonstrated at every previous stage of the hunt. Television, newspapers, and magazines had many times shown Kit sealing the hare inside its earthen container; it’s not as if Barker could have been expecting to see the glint of gold inside the hole.

We must therefore consider another possibility, much as Kit Williams and the principals behind the contest undoubtedly wish we wouldn’t: the possibility that Williams buried the hare in the wrong spot, the wrong distance from the memorial. He was after all not a scientist himself — or at any rate only a mad one. Williams later admitted that the sun hadn’t actually been shining on that equinox of years before when he’d buried a magnet to mark the hare’s future position, that he’d dead-reckoned the right spot based on the shadow’s position shortly before and shortly after noon. Did he dead-reckon correctly? We’ll never know.

A deeply disappointed Barker and Rousseau were left to wonder if their whole chain of reasoning had been incorrect, if they’d fallen victim to another of Kit Williams’s cruel red herrings. Barker decided to return to Ampthill Park on the spring equinox, due a little over a month hence, to see if his inclinometer had somehow led him astray. If it had, he would dig again at the correct spot. If it hadn’t, he’d write to Kit Williams at last — such a letter would mark Barker and Rousseau’s first actual correspondence with the man behind Masquerade — outlining all of their discoveries and reasoning, just to see where it got them.

But by the time the equinox arrived, the point was moot; the hare had been dug up and the contest declared finished. Barker and Rousseau’s insistence on confirming their solution with their own spades proved their undoing. While they sat on their answer, constructing inclinometers and puzzling over the nonexistence of the hare where it was supposed to be, another, less scrupulous character was dashing in to snatch the prize away from them.

It’s at this late stage, then, that the villain of Masquerade appears at last. We’ll call him “Ken Thomas” for today, the name under which he first introduced himself to Kit Williams.

"Ken Thomas"'s original letter to Kit Williams, with its rough (and incorrect) depiction of the hare's position in relation to the Ampthill Park memorial. Although the letter is dated February 5, it wasn't posted until February 17 -- just one more of the unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair.

“Ken Thomas’s” original letter to Kit Williams, with its rough (and incorrect) depiction of the hare’s position in relation to the Ampthill Park memorial. Although the letter is dated February 5, it wasn’t posted until February 17 — just one more of the unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair.

On February 19, the day after Barker had gone out digging at Ampthill Park, Williams received a letter from Thomas. In the interests of security in case anyone should open the letter ahead of Williams, the park itself wasn’t named, but Thomas included a drawing that clearly showed the monument and surrounding landmarks, with the location of the hare marked in what looked to be approximately the right place. Eager as he was by this point for the contest to just be over, Williams leaped to the phone to inform Thomas that “You’ve got it!” All that remained was to go out to Ampthill Park and dig it up. To his shock, the man at the other end of the line sounded grumpy at having been disturbed, and informed him in no uncertain terms that he had a cold that day and certainly didn’t plan to go digging in this weather, thank you very much. That was Williams’s introduction to the sketchy, confounding, deeply unsatisfactory winner of the greatest public treasure hunt in history. Subsequent impressions would do nothing to improve on the first.

The story that Thomas begrudgingly told never did quite add up; he was either the luckiest man in Britain or something important was being left out. By his testimony, he had first come to Bedfordshire on the trail of the hare the previous summer. Aware that Williams had once lived there, he was looking for something, anything, that might parallel something from the book. Driving by Ampthill Park, he stopped to take his dog for a walk. He first noticed the memorial to Catherine of Aragon in the most banal way possible: his dog lifted a leg to pee on it. His thoughts, he claimed, immediately turned to the phrase “one of six to eight.”

Many months later — the delay, like so much else about Thomas’s story, went unexplained — he returned to Ampthill Park with a spade. This time he noticed a line of five neat holes that had been dug on a line running northward from the cross. Who might have dug these holes was a mystery, but Thomas decided they were worth further investigation. He visited Amphill Park on every one of the next eight nights, just days before Barker would arrive for his dig. He dug all along the line between the holes, but found nothing. At last, frustrated, he decided to send his crude sketch of the area and his best guess of where the hare might lie to Williams. Maybe it on its own would be good enough. Much to everyone but Thomas’s regret, Williams’s snap judgment declared it to be just that.

Even if we accept Thomas’s entire story at face value — something that’s very difficult to do — he should never have won the contest. The line on which he and his unknown other digger (assuming he existed) dug was oriented to the magnetic north of the memorial, not the true north of the sun at noon on the spring equinox. Barker had seen what may have been the remnants of Thomas’s dig on his February visit, noting the trench as a worrisome “slight depression” in the ground that might indicate someone else was hot on the same trail as he and Rousseau. In the end, though, he had put the depression out of his mind because it was in the wrong place. Thomas was little closer to his quarry than Peter Ormandy had been five months previously. Like Ormandy, he had solved virtually nothing of the real puzzle beyond “one of six to eight.” Like Ormandy, all the other connections he tried to make with Ampthill were accidents never intended by Williams. If Thomas’s answer was good enough, so should have been Ormandy’s.

None of this, it seems safe to say, was entirely lost on Kit Williams. When it began to dawn on him during that first unpleasant phone conversation how little Thomas really knew, he tried to step back from his declaration of a victor. Thomas would, of course, still have to dig up the hare before the whole thing was finalized, said an increasingly guarded Williams. Not quite sure what to do next, Thomas returned to Ampthill Park on February 20, the day after talking to Williams. There he immediately noticed a fresh hole, dug in the correct place by Mike Barker two days before. He spent the next three nights digging inward from Barker’s hole, toward the memorial, without success. He then contacted Williams again, who was flummoxed himself. If the hare really isn’t there, Williams said, the press must be contacted, as someone had apparently dug it up without telling anyone. With that statement, he confirmed once and for all for Thomas that he was digging in the correct place; he clearly wouldn’t have made a good poker player. On February 24, Thomas returned to Ampthill Park one last time, this time by daylight in the company of a friend. He found the hare, snug inside its bed of pottery, among the already turned-up earth. Whether he himself had dug it up and missed it or Mike Barker had done so earlier is, like so much about these final days of the contest, impossible to ever really know.

Ken Thomas wasn’t the winner that Kit Williams or Tom Maschler wanted, but, given the sloppy naivete with which they’d handled the whole contest, he was perhaps the winner they deserved. After informing Williams that he had found the hare, Thomas suddenly disappeared for a week, throwing everyone into a tither. When he surfaced again, he told Maschler that he would, on the condition of strict anonymity — “Ken Thomas,” everyone now learned, was a pseudonym — agree to do exactly one newspaper and one television interview in addition to appearing at the public unveiling of the hare. In every other respect, he was as uncooperative as could be. When the Victoria and Albert Museum asked if they might borrow the hare to display it publicly for a while as a memento of what had become a significant episode in British cultural history, he refused absolutely. At the unveiling, he appeared clothed like a homeless man, a cap pulled down low over his eyes, his back turned whenever possible to the camera, and refused to say a word. His single television interview took place, at his demand, behind a frosted pane of glass, his voice electronically distorted, like a Mafia kingpin turned state’s evidence.

A very reticent "Ken Thomas" with Kit Williams and Tom Maschler at the hare's unveiling.

A very reticent “Ken Thomas” with Kit Williams and Tom Maschler at the hare’s unveiling.

No one was more disappointed by Thomas than Tom Maschler, whose well-oiled publicity machine had been all primed to make an instant celebrity of whoever first solved the puzzle. The blow was felt all the more keenly about a week after Thomas’s anointment as winner, when Mike Barker and John Rousseau belatedly contacted Williams with the complete and correct solution. These two personable schoolteachers, who had solved the puzzle the way Williams had intended it to be solved, would have made a vastly preferable alternative to a sullen weirdo who dressed in rags. With such a vortex of anti-charisma now at center stage, Masquerade, for so long an ongoing media obsession, petered out about as quietly and anticlimactically as imaginable. The only thing left was the grumbling, of which there was plenty, and for good reason. Everyone knew this “Ken Thomas” was a cheat. Even if one accepted every word of and put the best possible spin on his story, he had still used guile rather than smarts to claim the hare.

But, as so many suspected, his true guile ran much deeper than his own story would have one believe. He was a cheat, and the full depth of his cheating would only come to light some six and a half years later. The Masquerade contest had ended in anticlimax and dark talk of scandal, but the full story was as yet far from told.

Next time, we’ll try once again to figure out this Ken Thomas character, and while we’re at it we’ll also tackle the less juicy but ultimately more important mission of understanding just how much Masquerade came to mean for our special interest around these parts: the world of computer gaming.

(Sources: The Quest for the Golden Hare by Bamber Gascoigne; Publisher by Tom Maschler; the paperback edition of Masquerade itself, which includes a forward by Kit Williams and the complete solution to the puzzle in an appendix; “Talent Spotter” by Nicola Wroe from the March 12, 2005 issue of The Guardian; “Unmasked: The Masquerade Con” by Barrie Penrose and John Davison from the December 11, 1988 issue of The Times; the website Masquerade and the Mysteries of Kit Williams; “Hare-Brained: Kit Williams’s Masquerade” by Paul Slade; the BBC documentary Kit Williams: The Man Behind the Masquerade.)

 

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Tales of the Gnome Ranger

Nick, Pete, and Mike Austin of Level 9 pose with Ingrid the Gnome Ranger.

Nick, Pete, and Mike Austin of Level 9 pose with Ingrid the Gnome Ranger.

Of all the creators I’ve written about so far on this blog, the Austin brothers of Level 9 have frustrated me the most, purely on account of their immense unrealized potential. They could have been great, I tell you. They could have been contenders. But timing and circumstances kept it all from ever quite coming together for them.

At first glance, that may seem an odd statement. Certainly one could hardly say that Level 9’s life was cut unduly short. On the contrary, the Austin brothers got a good long kick at the can as such things go, releasing their first text adventures in 1982 and their last fully seven years later. While hardly a huge stretch of time in the grand scheme of things, that stretch does correspond exactly with the beginning and end of the period in which it was practically possible to earn a living selling text adventures in Britain. Level 9, in other words, had all the time at their disposal that, barring sweeping games-industry counterfactuals, they could possibly have been allowed. During those years, they released more text adventures than any developer this side of Infocom.

Compare this with the sharply abbreviated career of Magnetic Scrolls, their rival for the title of “the British Infocom.” Arriving on the scene in earnest only in 1986, Magnetic Scrolls had just barely enough time to cause a brief splash before getting to enjoying their chosen genre’s steady, painful decline into commercial obsolescence.

Look a little harder, however, and we can see that Magnetic Scrolls also enjoyed some advantages that rather offset the sheer brevity of their window of opportunity. Never more than a very small company though they were, in comparison to Level 9 Magnetic Scrolls was very well-capitalized, thanks to the considerable amount of familial wealth that co-founder Anita Sinclair had to put into her company. It’s doubtful whether Magnetic Scrolls even during their best years of 1986 and 1987 made more than a very modest profit, and that must have been more than wiped away by the unusually long technological run-up to those years of prominence — and of course by the painful years of decline that followed them. Like that of Infocom, the final balance sheet for Magnetic Scrolls must show a company that lost far, far more money than it earned, an abject failure by the harsh capitalistic logic of pounds and pence.

But Level 9 didn’t have the luxury of being able to lose money for years on end. Founded on a shoestring by a family of modest means, they needed to consistently earn at least as much money as they spent in order to keep the doors open. And with text adventures a relative niche market in Britain even at their commercial peak, the only way to do so was to pump out a lot of games quickly.

And so we come to the crux of Level 9’s problems, and the root of my own frustration with them. Forced to make three, four, even five games each year, the little trio of brothers couldn’t possibly test and polish each of them as they ought. The same relentless financial pressure forced them — so they believed, at any rate — to make their games available on the widest possible range of platforms, including the tape-based machines that Magnetic Scrolls (and Infocom) eschewed. Level 9’s compression techniques were truly masterful, the envy of any of their rivals, but even with them to hand there was only so much complexity and polish they could pack into 48 K of memory.

It should be noted that the judgments I make on Level 9’s games today are indeed contemporary judgments. In their day, most of them were very well-received. Used to short, primitive games created with the likes of The Quill, reviewers readily forgave dodgy puzzles, occasional parsing problems, and bugs and glitches galore to be able to wander in such comparatively huge and complicated worlds as those provided by Level 9. Some of their games contained as many as 200 locations, and their parser, while falling far short of Infocom’s standards, was certainly the best available from a British company prior to the arrival of Magnetic Scrolls. Yet, anachronistic as the judgement may be, Level 9’s games just haven’t aged very well in comparison to the games of Infocom and even Magnetic Scrolls, and we do need to acknowledge the failings that had to be there from the beginning to bring that about.

The situation is doubly infuriating in light of how good — how innovative — Level 9’s abstract design instincts were. In 1983’s Snowball, they endeavored to tell a consistent story in a coherent world, constructing a grand space opera with a premise worthy of Asimov or Niven at a time when virtually no one else in Britain was thinking of text adventures in those terms, before even Infocom had started referring to their works as “interactive fiction.” In 1985’s Red Moon, they combined a system of magic with combat and CRPG-like emergent mechanics, more than two years before Infocom’s text-adventure/CRPG hybrid Beyond Zork. In 1987’s Knight Orc, they pushed further into the realms of simulation and emergence, debuting their KAOS system of autonomous non-player characters, active inhabitants of an active world who can be not just fought but also befriended and ordered about by you, letting you become the director of your own little play.

Next to such innovations, the text adventures of Magnetic Scrolls, all very derivative of Infocom’s first handful of games, seem rather safe and, well, unadventurous. Some of Level 9’s ideas would still be regarded as innovative in a modern game. How heartbreaking, then, that all of the Level 9 games I’ve just mentioned, and so many more besides, are largely undone by some combination of bugs and playability issues. The situation is so frustrating that I often feel an urge to fix it, to go back through the Level 9 catalog and re-implement each game as it ought to have been the first time around, to bring all the good ideas to the fore where they can be appreciated at last. But that won’t be happening any time soon; maybe in my retirement years, when I’ve grown rich from blogging (a man can dream, can’t he?).

In the meantime, we must take Level 9 as we find them. How welcome, then, that not quite every game in their substantial catalog falls down before reaching the finish line. I’ve finally found my personal Holy Grail of a Level 9 game that doesn’t wind up infuriating me before it’s over. And I found it in a very unlikely candidate, in a game that’s far from being one of their more celebrated.

Gnome Ranger was created during 1987, a difficult period for Level 9. The contract they had signed with Rainbird the previous year, seen at the time as their big shot to take things to the next level (Level 10?), had instead left them playing second fiddle to Magnetic Scrolls; all of their own efforts for Rainbird wound up being overshadowed by those of their stablemate. Rainbird wasn’t thrilled with Jewels of Darkness or Silicon Dreams, Level 9’s reworkings of past glories. They were still less thrilled with Knight Orc, which the perpetually overworked Austin brothers delivered very late and riddled with bugs. With sales of all the Level 9 games lagging far behind those of Magnetic Scrolls, Rainbird saw little reason to retain a second British text-adventure house on the label. This parting was deeply disappointing for the Austin brothers, not least in that it dashed their fondest dream, that of breaking through in the United States; the three Rainbird releases had been the first Level 9 games ever to be made available to Americans.

But there was nothing for it but to soldier on alone. Gnome Ranger, the next game in the pipeline, would have been a Rainbird release if all had gone well. Instead they would just release it themselves, like they had done in the old days. They did, however, take some lessons from the split with Rainbird, making an effort to improve their quality control by instituting a real play-testing cycle of one month’s duration. One month wasn’t, needless to say, anywhere near enough to bring a Level 9 game up to the level of polish enjoyed by Infocom’s players, but it was a much-needed step in the right direction. The benefits are immediately apparent in the finished game, rough around the edges though it does indeed still feel in comparison to Infocom.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger is on the surface at least a comedy, a genre Level 9 had rarely explored in their many earlier games. And also like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger is named after the character you play, this time a little busybody of a gnome named Ingrid Bottomlow who’s irritated her entire village so badly that they’ve contrived to teleport her far, far away just to get her out of their hair. As Ingrid the clueless perpetual innocent, who assumes the whole incident was just an unfortunate mishap, you have to make your way back home on foot. Adventure, naturally, ensues.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger uses scanned pencil drawings for illustrations. They were very polarizing at the time. I like their Impressionistic quality myself, and certainly think they suit this game much better than they did Knight Orc.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger uses scanned colored-pencil drawings for illustrations. They were very polarizing at the time. I like their Impressionistic quality myself, and certainly think they suit this game much better than they did Knight Orc.

Gnome Ranger resembles Knight Orc in many other particulars, among them a fun novella to set the stage, written by regular Level 9 collaborator Peter McBride, and the KAOS system of active non-player characters and the many puzzles revolving around giving orders to and coordinating the actions of same. Yet its tone is much, much gentler. Replacing the savage humor of Knight Orc is a more whimsical spirit one might even describe as “cute” — certainly an adjective you’re very unlikely to apply to anything about the earlier game. For instance, in a move you’ll either find hilarious or unbearably twee, every single word that starts with “n” in standard English starts with “gn” in Gnome Ranger: “Gnow what?” it asks when it’s ready for your first command. I find it unaccountably funny myself, and somehow even funnier that Level 9 is so dedicated to the joke that they seldom miss a word. (No, you don’t have to enter your commands using the alternative spellings, although you can if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing.)

Once again like Knight Orc and the other late Level 9 games, Gnome Ranger is divided into three separate acts, each a small, self-contained game in its own right. This division permitted the whole to run on the modest likes of a tape-based Sinclair Spectrum, and, more to our contemporary benefit, kept the design of each section compact and manageable. The three stages of Ingrid’s journey home each have a theme: animal, vegetable, and mineral. My favorite is the second, a series of brilliant little puzzles involving the assembling and use of a series of magic potions, culminating in a recipe for the ultimate cup of tea. Yes, this is a very English game, feeling much more naturally so than the sometimes strained attempts by Magnetic Scrolls to evoke the spirits of Monty Python and Douglas Adams for the American players they were hoping to reach. In contrast to the London-based Magnetic Scrolls, Level 9’s offices remained always in quiet villages and suburbs, in the real bosom of England’s green and pleasant land. The detailed descriptions of the flora in particular evince the love of gardening that was shared by the Austins and Peter McBride, who wrote much of the in-game text as well as the accompanying novella. Like so many other writers and readers who belatedly realize that small stories are usually more compelling than epic ones, the Austins are perhaps growing up here, deliberately eschewing the nerdy bombast of something like Snowball. Like the English countryside they so dearly loved, the pleasures of Gnome Ranger are modest in scale, but no less entrancing for it when you give the game a chance.

Gnome Ranger and most of the other late Level 9 games are among the few text adventures written in the third-person past tense.

Gnome Ranger and most of the other late Level 9 games are among the few text adventures written in the third-person past tense. The tense was presumably chosen to enhance the narrative qualities. In my judgment, it really doesn’t, but it doesn’t distract unduly either.

The KAOS system is still present in Gnome Ranger, the ordering about of a whole squad of helpers still the solution to many puzzles, but it’s toned down considerably here in comparison to the exercise in unhinged chaos (KAOS?) that is Knight Orc. Having developed a new set of tools, Level 9 is now learning how to use them. With most of the weirdness excised, what remains is a compelling set of puzzle mechanics that allows lots of alternate solutions to the problems you encounter, that gives solving the puzzles less of a feeling of stumbling onto the one arbitrary correct command and more of a feeling of taking advantage of emergent circumstance, of strategizing your way to success. Soluble but not trivial, gently funny without trying too hard to be, Gnome Ranger is wonderful to experience as crossword and narrative alike. It’s by far my favorite of Level 9’s games.

It seems that little Ingrid Bottomlow was also a favorite of the Austin brothers, for they chose to revisit her in a sequel, titled Ingrid’s Back!, in 1988. She’s arrived back home again only to find her village in danger of being steamrolled by one Jasper Quickbuck, a greedy real-estate developer whose presence provides a dash of political commentary about the ongoing gentrification of so many British towns and villages. Suddenly there’s need in her village for a busybody like Ingrid; it’s up to her — that is to say, to you — to save it.

The other inhabitants of the village are described with delightful wit.

He was a dwarf from the gnorth, who measured for pleasure with his pole in a hole and his theodolite on the right.


He was the local fishergnome, gnow doubling as the ferrygnome since the Dribble Bridge collapsed. He gnever did much ferrying because he was always busy fishing to supply the Green Gnome, which was crowded with stranded travellers who were waiting for the ferry.


He was a travelling leprechaun, who spent his days peddling his charms to housewives everywhere. He was very small, but very jolly, and given to saying that size wasn’t everything.


He was the family rabbit-herd. He couldn’t decide if he was keeping rabbits for their meat, milk, or fur, but it didn’t matter anyway because the rabbits wouldn’t let him have any of them.

For Ingrid's Back!, Level 9 switched to more traditional computer-drawn graphics, although theirs were never quite as good as those of Magnetic Scrolls.

For Ingrid’s Back!, Level 9 switched to more traditional computer-drawn pictures, although theirs were never quite as good as those of Magnetic Scrolls.

Once again, the second act is my favorite here. It deals with an assault on the village by a demolition crew of trolls. You have to dash about dealing with them one after another through tricks and booby traps. The presence of a harsh time limit makes the experience more stressful than anything in Gnome Ranger, but it’s great fun to dispatch the trolls one by one through ever more hilarious means.

I should take a moment to note that by “dispatch” I don’t mean kill; no one ever has to die in either of the Gnome Ranger games, something else I like about them. The Austin brothers regarded violent games with a certain contempt, calling them “vomit games” after the squelching sounds of blood and guts. Pete Austin:

Most advertising seems to emphasize the violent aspect of games, and, while nobody wants things like My Little Pony prancing about, it would be better to point out that computer programs can be interesting, informative, and broaden the mind. Unfortunately, violence does succeed in selling. If you have an essentially boring concept, the best way to jazz it up is to add some blood. This is what Hollywood has been doing successfully for years, but what you really need is a good script.

But sadly, Ingrid’s Back! itself lacks a good script — or, at any rate, a good puzzle structure — in its first and third acts. There’s precious little to really do at all during the last act in particular; with only a few exceptions, you just have to wander around and collect things. It’s as if in their newfound zeal for solubility the Austins have decided to remove the puzzles entirely. It makes a sad contrast to the compelling puzzles of Gnome Ranger, one almost certainly attributable to the time pressures that were now becoming even more acute as text adventures faded in popularity and each successive game Level 9 released sold fewer copies.

Many of the same old issues of bugs and playability began to creep back into Ingrid’s Back! and Level 9’s other late games. The experience of properly testing Gnome Ranger, while certainly resulting in a better game, provided a mixed lesson on the whole. Many of the outside testers, the Austins believed, decided to share the game with their friends; Pete Austin claimed that some of the problems he saw people writing into the magazines about existed only in the beta versions. Subsequent games were thus not tested as extensively — or possibly, given the state of some of them, not tested at all. “We have to walk this tightrope,” Pete said, “and make these compromises in getting it tested enough to get the bugs out but not enough to get too much piracy.” Such a “compromise” could have only a negative effect on the end result.

Also not doing much to cement Level 9’s commitment to quality control was the fact that they received little obvious reward for it either critically or commercially. Many reviewers, apparently poorly equipped by disposition to appreciate Gnome Ranger‘s pastoral pleasures, were nonplussed by Level 9’s eschewing of the epic for the intimate. There was considerable grumbling, considerable nostalgia for the good old days of sprawling maps with 200 locations — for, ironically, the very attributes Level 9 themselves had used as their primary selling points in the early days. It was all part of a general turning away from Level 9 on the part of the British gaming press, who had always feted them as the undisputed kings of adventure gaming in earlier years but were now hopelessly enamored with Magnetic Scrolls. For the Austins, who in contrast to Anita Sinclair and her band of upstarts had been on the scene since the beginning, it must have felt like a betrayal by old friends.

The Austins were reported to have a third Gnome Ranger game, the conclusion of what had always been planned as a trilogy, designed and ready for implementation by early 1989, but wound up retiring from the text-adventure scene before getting a chance to do so. Ah, well, at least we have the first two — and especially the first. Unloved and largely unremarked even in its own day though it was, its discovery marks the fulfillment of a personal quest I’ve been on for a long time now: the quest for at least one Level 9 game I can unreservedly enjoy and tell you to play. I can, and you should.

To make that as easy as possible for you, I’ve prepared a zip file containing Gnome Ranger and its sequel in two formats. The first, which is strictly for the hardcore or the purist, is the disk images of the original Amiga versions, playable in an Amiga emulator. The other, more accessible format will work under Glen Summer’s Level 9 interpreter, which is available for many platforms. Once you’ve downloaded the correct version of the interpreter for your computer, just fire it up and open the file “gamedata1.dat” from either game’s directory to play.

Soon it will be time to put a bow on the tale of the 1980s British text adventure in general and Level 9 in particular, but before we do so I want to take you on one final detour back to earlier years. My next story is not about a computer game at all, but it is a story some of you have asked for specifically, and one we’ve already met tangentially several times. And it’s most definitely a story that’s worthy of more than mentions in passing. So, next time we’ll finally do proper justice to Kit Williams and his golden hare.

(Sources: Retro Gamer 7; Crash of February 1988; Page 6 of July/August 1988 and June/July 1989; ACE of December 1987; Amstrad Action of September 1988 and October 1988; Games Machine of December 1988; Zzap! of January 1989.)

 

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Corrupted Fish

Anita Sinclair’s original vision for her company Magnetic Scrolls cast it as Britain’s answer to Infocom, pumping out multiple finely crafted traditional text adventures each year — albeit text adventures with the commercially critical addition of attractive illustrations. As 1988 began, Magnetic Scrolls had barely begun to execute on that vision, having released just three games. But the times were changing and the text-adventure market clearly softening, and those realities were already beginning to interfere with her plans. Already by the beginning of the year, Magnetic Scrolls was underway with by far their most ambitious project to date, a radical overhauling of the traditional old parser-driven text adventure that was to gild the plain-text lily with not just pictures but clickable hot spots on said pictures, sound and music, animation, clickable iconic representations of the game’s map and the player’s inventory, a clickable compass rose, a menu of verbs, and much, much more, all tied together with an in-house-written system of windows and menus — “Magnetic Windows” — borrowing heavily from the Macintosh. Lurking almost forgotten below all the bells and whistles would be a game called Wonderland, an adaptation of Lewis Carrol.

We’ll get to Wonderland, released at last only in 1990, in due course. Today, though, I’d like to look at the twin swan songs of Anita Sinclair’s earlier vision for Magnetic Scrolls, both of which were already in the pipeline at the time the Wonderland project was begun and both of which were released in 1988.

Corruption

Corruption, the first of the pair, was the brainchild and personal pet project of Rob Steggles, designer in the broad strokes of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier The Pawn and Guild of Thieves. Having worked with Magnetic Scrolls strictly on an occasional, ad-hoc basis heretofore, Steggles finished university after the spring semester of 1987 and called Anita Sinclair to ask for a job reference. Instead, she asked if he’d like to come work for Magnetic Scrolls full-time. Once arrived, Steggles convinced her to let him pursue a project very different from anything Magnetic Scrolls had done to date: a realistic, topical thriller set in the present day and inspired by Infocom’s early trilogy of mysteries. She agreed, and Hugh Steers, another of Magnetic Scrolls’s founders, came to work with Steggles as programmer on the project. Largely the creative vision of Steggles alone, Corruption represents a departure from the norm at Magnetic Scrolls, whose games, much more so than those of Infocom, tended to be collaborative efforts rather than works easily attributable to a single author.

Whether accidentally or on purpose, Steggles captured the zeitgeist in a bottle. This being the height of Margaret Thatcher’s remade and remodeled, hyper-capitalistic Britain, he chose to set his thriller amid the sharks of high finance inside The City of London. He had enough access to that world to give his game a certain lived-in verisimilitude, thanks to friends who worked in banks and a father who went to work every day in the heart of the financial district as an executive for British Telecom. Steggles nosed around inside buildings, chatted with traders, and pored over the Insider Trading Act to get the details right.

In December of 1987, the film Wall Street, with the immortal Gordon Gecko of “greed is good!” fame, debuted in the United States. It appeared in Britain five months later, corresponding almost exactly with the release of Corruption. Magnetic Scrolls couldn’t have planned it better if they’d tried. Today, Corruption is one of the relatively few computer games to viscerally evoke the time and place of its creation — a time and place of BMWs and Porsches, lunchtime deal-brokering at the latest trendy restaurant, synth-pop on the CD player, cocaine bumps in stolen bathroom moments.

In Corruption, you play a young City up-and-comer named Derek Rogers. You’ve just been promoted to partner in your firm for — you believe — your hard work in landing an important deal. In the course of the game, however, you learn that the whole thing is an elaborate conspiracy to frame you for the illegal insider trading for which another partner and his cronies are being investigated. The ranks of the conspirators include not only the head of the firm and many of his associates but even your own wife, who happens to be having an affair with the aforementioned head. Revolving as it does around betrayal and adultery, with drugs thrown in to boot, Corruption is certainly the most “adult” game Magnetic Scrolls would ever make. Steggles says that it was written in a conscious attempt to address an “older” audience — a bit of a reach for him, given that he himself was barely into his twenties.

Corruption acquits itself pretty well in some ways, remarkably so really given its author’s youth and inexperience. The atmosphere of cutthroat high finance comes across more often than not, and the grand conspiracy arrayed against you, improbable though it may be, is no more improbable than those found in a thousand Hollywood productions, among them Wall Street. A crucial feelie is a conversation on an included cassette, professionally produced by Magnetic Scrolls’s resident music specialist John Molloy and scripted by Michael Bywater, still a regular presence around the offices. Like much in Corruption, it’s very well done.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption's pictures look a little drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls's fantasy games.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption‘s pictures look a little dark and drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls’s fantasy games — but maybe that’s the right choice for this milieu.

Unfortunately, as a piece of game design Corruption falls down badly. Unsurprisingly given that it was inspired by the Infocom mysteries, Corruption is a try-and-try-again game, the process of solving it a process of mapping out the movements of the characters around you and learning through trial and error where to be when and what to do there to avoid their traps and crack the case. But it just doesn’t work all that well even on those polarizing terms. The Infocom mysteries, for all that they rely heavily on what would be attributed to coincidence and luck in a conventional detective novel, do hang together as coherent fictions once the winning path through the story is discovered. Corruption doesn’t. Whereas the Infocom mysteries all cast you as a detective charged with investigating a crime that has already taken place, in Corruption you start as just a happy bloke who’s gotten a big promotion. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, you have to start following your associates around, stealing keys and breaking into their offices and cars, laying traps for your dearly beloved wife, all of which does rather raise the question of who’s the real sociopath here. Some of the actions required to win the game simply make no sense whatsoever, not even in the context of you being the most suspicious, paranoid, and devious person in an office full of them. At a certain point, for instance, you get hit by a car and wind up in the hospital. A later puzzle — a puzzle your character couldn’t possibly anticipate — demands that you have something you can only find by stealing it off a doctor in the hospital. So, in addition to being a suspicious and devious jerk with a death wish, old Derek Rogers needs to also be a hopeless kleptomaniac. Or is he just a paranoid schizophrenic? I don’t know; you can diagnose him for yourself.

Corruption is one of those games that I wonder how anyone ever solves without benefit of hints or walkthroughs. In addition to all the problems of timing, some of the individual puzzles are really, really bad. The hospital sequence in particular is a notorious showstopper, its purpose for being in the game as tough to divine as the right way to come out of it. Conversations are a more constant pain; you never know when you’re supposed to tell someone about something, nor, given the parser’s limitations, quite how to say it.

In an interview, Steggles made a statement I continue to find flabbergasting every time I read it. Speaking of Corruption‘s try-and-try-again mode of play, he said, “Believe it or not, it wasn’t a deliberate choice to do it that way and I think that if someone had made that comment about it during development we’d have stopped it because it wasn’t really ‘fair’ on the player.” But really, how could he not know what sort of game he was creating, given that he was inspired by the Infocom mysteries that offered exactly this approach to play? Still, let’s take his words at face value. Not initially realizing what sort of game he was creating — and how hard that game would inevitably turn out to be — speaks to an inexperienced designer whose ideas outran his critical thinking; we can forgive that as a venal sin. But for Magnetic Scrolls not to have arranged for him to have the feedback he needed to know of his game’s failings and correct them… that sin is mortal. It speaks to yet another adventure game released without anyone having ever really tried to play it.

There are signs that some at Magnetic Scrolls knew Corruption wasn’t quite up to snuff. Anita Sinclair came very close to actively discouraging Magnetic Scrolls’s fans from buying the game: “It doesn’t follow that if you enjoyed Jinxter, or even Guild [of Thieves], you will enjoy Corruption.” Corruption, she said, would likely have “limited appeal.”

She would be able to muster much more enthusiasm for Magnetic Scrolls’s second game of 1988. And for good reason: it’s a gem, my personal favorite in their catalog.

Fish!

The game in question is called Fish!, and is the product of an unlikely collaboration involving a musician, a journalist, and a civil servant: John Molloy, Phil South, and Pete Kemp respectively. One day on a long bus ride, good friends Molloy and South were riffing on some of the absurdly difficult and unfair adventure games that were so typical of those days. The discussion proceeded to encompass satirical ideas about possible new scenarios for same. “What if you started the game as a goldfish and you had to save the world?” asked one of them at some point (neither can quite remember which). Thus was born Fish!.

Molloy, who had been doing music for Magnetic Scrolls for a couple of years by then and in addition to being a working musician wasn’t a bad programmer, was attracted to the idea of seeing how the other half lived, of designing and helping to implement a complete game of his own. As Phil South succinctly describes it, “He pitched it to Magnetic Scrolls, they went nuts.” Kemp, another good mate of Molloy’s, joined after the latter gave him a pitch he also couldn’t refuse: “A bit of fun, a bit of money, and everlasting obscurity.”

South and Kemp were soon introduced to the intimidating cast of eccentrics that was Magnetic Scrolls. South:

I remember Magnetic Scrolls being in a rather grimy and unsavoury Victorian suburb of South London and having to brave the trains late at night to get there. I remember Anita being small but scary, and possessing a wisdom far beyond her years. She terrifies the crap out of men twice her size just by looking at them. I remember Ken [Gordon] being the most laid back Scotsman I’d ever met, which puts him on track for being one of the most laid-back guys worldwide. Rob Steggles has an evil sense of humour and at the time had a real passion for Games Workshop’s BLOODBOWL board game. Michael Bywater is scary smart, hugely funny, and also possibly one of THE most grumpy men I’ve ever met.

Fish! casts you as an “inter-dimensional espionage operative” who warps Quantum Leap-style among times, bodies, locations, and dimensions on the trail of criminals. At the beginning of the game, you’re enjoying a spot of rest and relaxation as a goldfish in your own private aquarium, when you’re notified that a gang of anarchists who call themselves the Seven Deadly Fins have stolen something called a focus wheel, needed to keep a planet of fish called Aquaria hydrated. First you need to assemble the pieces of the focus wheel, which the Fins have scattered across three different worlds. Then you can warp to the city of Hydropolis, capital of Aquaria, to set it into operation before the last of the water evaporates and everyone drowns.

I find Fish!'s more colorful, surrealistic graphics to be more attractive than those of Corruption.

I find Fish!‘s more colorful, surrealistic pictures to be much more attractive than those of Corruption.

As you’ve probably gathered, Fish! isn’t a very serious game. It’s rather a surrealistic riot of fishy puns and absurdist humor in the style of Douglas Adams. The prospect of neither surrealism nor Douglas Adams-style humor excites me all that much when starting a new game because those things are usually (over)done so badly, but Fish! pulls it off with aplomb. The fishy wordplay comes fast and furious, inducing groans and smiles in equal measure: “the archway is a magnificent example of craftfishship”; “any old eel could slip in here and break into every apartment on the block”; “some dolphins rush in where angelfish fear to tread”; “the police station is fished day and night by a stalwart dogfish who is ready to solve the troutiest of crimes”; “Tuna Day’s Music Ship is cluttered with amateur musicians, most of whom are playing versions of the ancient heavy-metal hit ‘Smoke Underwater'”; “glancing toward the toilet, you see a trout emerge, adjusting his flies.”

Thanks doubtless to Molloy’s background, much of Fish! is informed by music and the life of a musician. In addition to “Smoke Underwater,” he makes time to acknowledge that timeless classic “Sole Man” by Salmon Dave, and to make fun of buskers.

You notice several students loitering with intent. One of them produces a guitar and starts singing: "Come on feel my nose. The girls grab my clothes. Go why, why why any more." Oh no, he's started busking! Luckily, the other students attack and carry him off before you hear too much.

I love one early puzzle involving a Svengali music producer and his cowed assistant Rod. I know it’s anachronistic, but somehow I always picture Simon Cowell in this scene. (Spoiler Warning!)

An important-looking beetroot-faced producer enters the room behind you. "You," he shouts charmingly, "make some coffee or you're fired." He strides out.

>rod, make coffee

"Sure thing," says Rod, rushing down the corridor. You hear the kitchen door slam, then a few seconds later it slams again as Rod comes out. "That's the way to do it," he beams as he returns, holding a steaming mug of coffee.


The producer appears and grabs the mug. He looks at you and smiles a sickly smile as Rod leaves. "Well done," he says, taking a slurp, "you'll go far in this business. You've already learned the golden rule: if in doubt, delegate." Then he stomps out, looking pleased with himself.

In marked contrast to the confused and confusing Corruption, Fish! is quite fair, at least according to its own old-school lights. The three early acts, each involving the collection of one piece of the focus wheel, are all fairly easily manageable. The final act in Hydropolis, the real meat of the game, is much more challenging, another exercise in good planning and careful timing given that you have only one day to a complete a very complicated mission. So, yes, it’s another try-and-try-again scenario, and far from a trivial one; I found one puzzle in particular, another entry in the grand text-adventure tradition of mazes that aren’t quite mazes, to be so complicated that I ended up writing a program to solve it for me. But the clues you need are always there, and there’s never a need to do anything completely inexplicable like stealing vital medical equipment. Good planning and careful note-taking — and maybe a handmade Python script — will see you through. I love games like this one that challenge me for the right reasons.

Whether because Anita Sinclair was much more personally enthusiastic about this project or because it was a true collaboration from the start, the authors of Fish! got the feedback that Steggles apparently lacked in writing Corruption. Phil South:

Sometimes during play testing it came out that the puzzle was too hard or to too easy. We adjusted the hardness by leaving clues. Sometimes the puzzle was taken out altogether. We played other people’s games and saw how they solved the hardness problem.

After Corruption was finished, Steggles joined the team to do some final polishing and editing, a role he describes as “basically acting as a sub-editor to bring the writing into the house style.” Michael Bywater once again took responsibility for most of the feelies.

Released in time for Christmas 1988, Fish! fell victim to a breakdown in the relationship between Magnetic Scrolls and their publisher Rainbird; it never enjoyed the distribution or promotion of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier games, even as Anita Sinclair said that it stood alongside Guild of Thieves as her personal favorites in the catalog. (As a glance at my own Hall of Fame will attest, that’s an assessment with which I very much agree.) We’ll get into the breakdown with Rainbird and what it meant for Magnetic Scrolls in a future article. For now, though, suffice to say that the release of Fish! marked the end of Magnetic Scrolls’s era of greatest popularity and influence. Molloy, South, and Kemp all moved on with their lives and day jobs, leaving their days as text-adventure authors behind as a fond anecdote for their scrapbooks; none would ever work in the games industry again. Steggles departed in December after a “storming row” with Anita Sinclair over his salary and his general unhappiness with the direction of the company; he also moved on with life outside of games. Michael Bywater’s business relationship with Magnetic Scrolls ended in correspondence with the end of his romantic relationship with Anita.

In a fast-changing market, with so many of the old gang suddenly leaving, Magnetic Scrolls’s future depended more than ever on Wonderland. That project… but I said we’d save that for another day, didn’t I? In the meantime, go play Fish!. Really, how can you can not love a game that describes another featureless dead end as, “This is as far as the corridor goes. On the first date anyway.”

(Sources: Games Machine of August 1988, November 1988; Computer and Video Games of July 1988; Commodore User of June 1988; The One of July 1990; ST News of Summer 1989. Online sources include “Magnetic Scrolls Memories” by Rob Steggles on The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and an interview with Steggles at L’avventura è l’avventura. And huge, huge thanks to Stefan Meier of The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for digging up a dump of Peter Verdi’s apparently defunct Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles website, including original interviews with Rob Steggles, Michael Bywater, Phil South, and Pete Kemp. You’re a lifesaver, Stefan!

CorruptionFish!, and all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games are available from Stefan’s site in forms suitable for playing with the Magnetic interpreter — or you can now play them online, directly in your browser, if you like.)

 

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Zork Zero

Zork Zero

Zork Zero the idea was kicking around Infocom for quite a long time before Zork Zero the game was finally realized. Steve Meretzky first proposed making a prequel to the original Zork trilogy as far back as 1985, when he included it on a list of possible next games that he might write after finishing his personal passion project of A Mind Forever Voyaging. The Zork Zero he described at that time not only already had the name but the vast majority of the concept of the eventual finished game as well.

As the name implies, a prequel to the Zork trilogy. It would be set in the Great Underground Empire, and covering a long period of time, from the end of the reign of Dimwit Flathead in 789 through the fall of the GUE in 883, and possibly through 948 (the year of the Zork trilogy). It would almost certainly end “west of a white house.” There would be some story, probably about as much as Enchanter or Sorcerer. For the most part, though, it would be an intensely puzzle-oriented game with a huge geography.

The fact that Meretzky knew in what years Dimwit Flathead died, the Great Underground Empire fell, and Zork I began says much about his role as the unofficial keeper of Zorkian lore at Infocom. He had already filled a huge notebook with similarly nitpicky legends and lore. This endeavor was viewed by most of the other Imps, who thought of the likes of Dimwit Flathead as no more than spur-of-the-moment jokes, with bemused and gently mocking disinterest. Still, if Infocom was going to do a big, at least semi-earnest Zork game, his obsessiveness about the milieu made Meretzky the obvious candidate for the job.

But that big Zork game didn’t get made in 1985, partly because the other Imps remained very reluctant to sacrifice any real or perceived artistic credibility by trading on the old name and partly because the same list of possible next projects included a little something called Leather Goddesses of Phobos that everyone, from the Imps to the marketers to the businesspeople, absolutely loved. Brian Moriarty’s reaction was typical: “If you don’t do this, I will. But not as well as you could.”

After Meretzky completed Leather Goddesses the following year, Zork Zero turned up again on his next list of possible next projects. This time it was granted more serious consideration; Infocom’s clear and pressing need for hits by that point had done much to diminish the Imps’ artistic fickleness. At the same time, though, Brian Moriarty also was shopping a pretty good proposal for a Zork game, one that would include elements of the CRPGs that seemed to be replacing adventure games in some players’ hearts. Meanwhile Meretzky’s own list included something called Stationfall, the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved games in Infocom’s back catalog. While Moriarty seemed perfectly capable of pulling off a perfectly acceptable Zork, the universe of Planetfall, and particularly the lovable little robot Floyd, were obviously Meretzky’s babies and Meretzky’s alone. Given Infocom’s commercial plight, management’s choice between reviving two classic titles or just one was really no choice at all. Meretzky did Stationfall, and Moriarty did Beyond Zork — with, it should be noted, the invaluable assistance of Mereztky’s oft-mocked book of Zorkian lore.

And then it was 1987, Stationfall too was finished, and there was Zork Zero on yet another list of possible next projects. I’ll be honest in stating that plenty of the other project possibilities found on the 1987 list, some of which had been appearing on these lists as long as Zork Zero, sound much more interesting to this writer. There was, for instance, Superhero League of America, an idea for a comedic superhero game with “possible RPG elements” that would years later be dusted off by Meretzky to become the delightful Legend Entertainment release Superhero League of Hoboken. There was a serious historical epic taking place on the Titanic that begs to be described as Meretzky’s Trinity. And there was something with the working title of The Best of Stevo, a collection of interactive vignettes in the form if not the style of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Mind you, not all of the other projects were winners. A heavy-handed satire to be called The Interactive Bible, described by Meretzky as “part of my ongoing attempt to offend every person in the universe,” was eloquently and justifiably lacerated by Moriarty.

As you noted, this game is likely to offend many people, and not just frothing nutcakes either. A surprising number of reasonable people regard the Book with reverence. They are likely to regard your send-up as superficial and juvenile. They will wonder what qualifies you to poke fun at their (or anybody’s) faith. Why do you want to write this? Do you really think it will sell?

If Zork Zero wasn’t at the bottom of anyone’s list like The Interactive Bible, no one was exactly burning with passion to make it either. Few found the idea of going back to the well of Zork yet again all that interesting in creative terms, especially as Beyond Zork was itself still very much an ongoing project some weeks from release. The idea’s trump card, however, was the unique commercial appeal most still believed the Zork trademark to possess. Jon Palace’s faint praise was typical: “I’m sure this would sell very well. It’s certainly ‘safe.'” By 1987, the commercially safe route was increasingly being seen as the only viable route within Infocom, at least until they could manage to scare up a few hits. A final tally revealed that Zork Zero had scored an average of 7.2 among “next Meretzky project” voters on a scale of 1 to 10, edging out Superhero League of America by one tenth of a point, Titanic by two tenths, and The Best of Stevo by one full point; the last was very well-liked in the abstract, but its standing was damaged by the fact that, unusually for Meretzky, the exact form the vignettes would take wasn’t very well specified.

On August 7, 1987, it was decided provisionally to have Meretzky do Zork Zero next. In a demonstration of how tepid everyone’s enthusiasm remained for such a safe, unchallenging game, an addendum was included with the announcement: “I think it is fair to add that if Steve happens to have a flash of creativity in the next few days and thinks of some more ideas for his experimental story project (Best of Stevo), nearly everyone in this group would prefer that he do that product.” That flash apparently didn’t come; The Best of Stevo was never heard of again. Also forgotten in the rush to do Zork Zero was the idea, mooted in Beyond Zork, of Zork becoming a series of CRPG/text-adventure hybrids, with the player able to import the same character into each successive game. Zork Zero would instead be a simple standalone text adventure again.

While it’s doubtful whether many at Infocom ever warmed all that much to Zork Zero as a creative exercise, the cavalcade of commercial disappointments that was 1987 tempted many to see it as the latest and greatest of their Great White Hopes for a return to the bestseller charts. It was thus decided that it should become the first game to use Infocom’s new version 6 Z-Machine, usually called “YZIP” internally. Running on Macintosh II microcomputers rather than the faithful old DEC, the YZIP system would at last support proper bitmap illustrations and other graphics, along with support for mice, sound and music, far more flexible screen layouts, and yet bigger stories over even what the EZIP system (known publicly as Interactive Fiction Plus) had offered. With YZIP still in the early stages of development, Meretzky would first write Zork Zero the old way, on the DEC. Then, when YZIP was ready, the source code could be moved over and the new graphical bells and whistles added; the new version of ZIL was designed to be source-compatible with the old. In the meantime, Stu Galley was working on a ground-up rewrite of the parser, which was itself written in ZIL. At some magic moment, the three pieces would all come together, and just like that Infocom would be reborn with pictures and a friendlier parser and lots of other goodies, all attached to the legendary Zork name and written by Infocom’s most popular and recognizable author. That, anyway, was the theory.

Being at the confluence of so much that was new and different, Zork Zero became one of the more tortured projects in Infocom’s history, almost up there with the legendarily tortured Bureaucracy project. None of the problems, however, were down to Meretzky. Working quickly and efficiently as always, his progress on the core of the game proper far outstripped the technology enabling most of the ancillary bells and whistles. While Stu Galley’s new parser went in on November 1, 1987, it wasn’t until the following May 10 that a YZIP Zork Zero was compiled for the first time.

In sourcing graphics for Zork Zero, Infocom was on completely foreign territory. Following the lead of much of the computer-game industry, all of the graphics were to be created on Amigas, whose Deluxe Paint application was so much better than anything available on any other platform that plenty of artists simply refused to use anything else. Jon Palace found Jim Shook, the artist who would do most of the illustrations for Zork Zero, at a local Amiga users-group meeting. Reading some of the memos and meeting notes from this period, it’s hard to avoid the impression that — being painfully blunt here — nobody at Infocom entirely knew what they were doing when it came to graphics. As of February of 1988, they still hadn’t even figured out what resolution Shook should be working in. “We still don’t know whether images should be drawn in low-res, medium-res, interlace, or high-res mode on the Amiga in Deluxe Paint,” wrote Palace plaintively in one memo. “Joel claims Tim should know. Tim, do you know?”

Infocom wound up turning to Magnetic Scrolls, who had been putting pictures into their own text adventures for quite some time, for information on “graphics compression techniques,” a move that couldn’t have set very well with such a proud group of programmers. The graphics would continue to be a constant time sink and headache for many months to come. Steve Meretzky told me that he remembers the development of Zork Zero primarily as “heinous endless futzing with the graphics, mostly on an Amiga, to make them work with all the different screen resolutions, number of colors, pixel aspect ratios, etc. In my memory, it feels like I spent way more time doing that than actually designing puzzles or writing ZIL code.”

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

And yet in comparison to games like those of Magnetic Scrolls, the finished Zork Zero really wouldn’t have a lot of graphics. Instead of an illustration for each room, the graphics take the form of decorative borders, an illuminated onscreen map, some graphical puzzles (solvable using a mouse), and only a few illustrations for illustrations’ sake. Infocom would advertise that they wanted to use graphics in “a new way” for Zork Zero — read, more thoughtfully, giving them some actual purpose rather than just using them for atmosphere. All of which is fair enough, but one suspects that money was a factor as well; memos from the period show Infocom nickle-and-dimeing the whole process, fretting over artist fees of a handful of thousand dollars that a healthier developer wouldn’t have thought twice about.

The financial squeeze also spelled the end of Infocom’s hopes for a full soundtrack, to have been composed by Russell Lieblich at Mediagenic, who had earlier done the sound effects for The Lurking Horror and Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels. But the music never happened; when Zork Zero finally shipped, it would be entirely silent apart from a warning beep here or an acknowledging bloop there.

Hemorrhaging personnel as they were by this point, Infocom found themselves in a mad scramble to get all the pieces that did wind up making it into Zork Zero together in time for Christmas 1988, months after they had originally hoped to ship the game. Bruce Davis grew ever more frustrated and irate at the delays; a contemporary memo calls him a “looming personality” and notes how he is forever “threatening a tantrum.” A desperate-sounding “Proclamation” went out to the rank-and-file around the same time: “The one who can fix the bugs of Zork Zero, and save the schedule from destruction, shall be rewarded with half the wealth of the Empire.” Signed: “Wurb Flathead, King of Quendor.”

Like a number of Zork Zero's illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game.

Like a number of Zork Zero‘s illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game rather than being only for show.

Time constraints, the fact that the beta builds ran only on the Macintosh, and Infocom’s determination to test Zork Zero primarily using new testers unfamiliar with interactive fiction meant that it didn’t receive anywhere near the quantity or quality of outside feedback that had long been customary for their games. Many of the new testers seemed bemused if not confused by the experience, and few came anywhere close to finishing the game. I fancy that one can feel the relative lack of external feedback in the end result, as one can the loss of key voices from within Infocom like longtime producer Jon Palace and senior tester Liz Cyr-Jones.

Despite the corner-cutting, Infocom largely missed even the revised target of Christmas 1988. Only the Macintosh version shipped in time for the holiday buying season, the huge job of porting the complicated new YZIP interpreter to other platforms having barely begun by that time. Zork Zero was quite well-received by the Macintosh magazines, but that platform was far from the commercial sweet spot in gaming.

The decorative borders change as you enter difference regions -- a nice touch.

A nice touch: the decorative borders change as you enter different regions.

A sort of cognitive dissonance was a thoroughgoing theme of the Zork Zero project from beginning to end. It’s right there in marketing’s core pitch: “Zork Zero is the beginning of something old (the Zork trilogy) and something new (new format with graphics).” Unable to decide whether commercial success lay in looking forward or looking back, Infocom tried to have it both ways. Zork Zero‘s “target audience,” declared marketing, would be “primarily those who are not Infocom fans; either they have never tried interactive fiction or they have lost interest in Infocom.” The game would appeal to them thanks to “a mouse interface (enabling the player to move via compass rose), onscreen hints, a new parser (to help novices), and pretty pictures that will knock your socks off!”

Yet all the gilding around the edges couldn’t obscure the fact that Zork Zero was at heart the most old-school game Infocom had made since… well, since Zork I really. That, anyway, was the last game they had made that was so blatantly a treasure hunt and nothing more. Zork Zero‘s dynamic dozen-turn introduction lays out the reasons behind the static treasure hunt that will absorb the next several thousand turns. To thwart a 94-year-old curse that threatens to bring ruin to the Great Underground Empire, you must assemble 24 heirlooms that once belonged to 12 members of the Flathead dynasty and drop them in a cauldron. Zork Zero is, it must be emphasized, a big game, far bigger than any other that Infocom ever released, its sprawling geography of more than 200 rooms — more than 2200 if you count a certain building of 400 (nearly) identical floors —  housing scores of individual puzzles. The obvious point of comparison is not so much Infocom’s Zork trilogy as the original original Zork, the one put together by a bunch of hackers at MIT in response to the original Adventure back in the late 1970s, long before Infocom was so much as a gleam in anyone’s eye.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero's tired old chestnuts.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero‘s hoary old chestnuts.

The question — the answer to which must always to some extent be idiosyncratic to each player — is whether Zork Zero works for you on those terms. In my case, it doesn’t. The PDP-10 Zork is confusing and obscure and often deeply unfair, but it carries with it a certain joyous sense of possibility, of the discovery of a whole new creative medium, that we can enjoy vicariously with its creators. Zork Zero perhaps also echos the emotional circumstances of its creation: it just feels tired, and often cranky and mean-spirited to boot. Having agreed to make a huge game full of lots of puzzles, Meretzky dutifully provides, but the old magic is conspicuously absent.

Infocom always kept a library of puzzly resources around the office to inspire the Imps: books of paradoxes and mathematical conundrums, back issues of Games magazine, physical toys and puzzles of all descriptions. But for the first time with Zork Zero, Meretzky seems not so much inspired by these resources as simply cribbing from them. Lots of the puzzles in Zork Zero are slavish re-creations of the classics: riddles, a Tower of Hanoi puzzle, a peg game. Even the old chestnut about the river, the fox, the chicken, and the sack of grain makes an appearance. And even some of the better bits, like a pair of objects that let you teleport from the location of one to that of another, are derivative of older, better Infocom games like Starcross and Spellbreaker. One other, more hidden influence on Zork Zero‘s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to puzzle design — particularly on the occasional graphical puzzles — is likely Cliff Johnson’s puzzling classic The Fool’s Errand, which Meretzky was playing with some dedication at the very time he was designing his own latest game. The Fool’s Errand‘s puzzles, however, are both more compelling and more original than Zork Zero‘s. Meretzky’s later Hodj ‘n’ Podj would prove a far more worthy tribute.

Zork Zero is a difficult game, and too often difficult in ways that really aren’t that much fun. I’m a fan of big, complicated puzzlefests in the abstract, but Zork Zero‘s approach to the form doesn’t thrill me. After the brief introductory sequence, the game exposes almost the whole of its immense geography to you almost immediately; there’s nothing for it but to start wandering and trying to solve puzzles. The combinatorial explosion is enormous. And even when you begin to solve some of the puzzles, the process can be made weirdly unsatisfying by the treasure-hunt structure. Too much of the time, making what at first feels like a significant step forward only yields another object to throw into the cauldron for some more points. You know intellectually that you’re making progress, but it doesn’t really feel like it.

I much prefer the approach of later huge puzzlefests like Curses! and The Mulldoon Legacy, which start you in a constrained space and gradually expand in scope as you solve puzzles. By limiting their initial scope, these games ease you into their worlds and limit the sense of hopeless aimlessness that Zork Zero inspires, while a new set of rooms to explore provides a far more tangible and satisfying reward for solving a puzzle sequence than does another object chunked in the cauldron and another few points. The later games feel holistically designed, Zork Zero like something that was just added to until the author ran out of space. Even The Fool’s Errand restricts you to a handful of puzzles at the beginning, unfolding its mysteries and its grand interconnections only gradually as you burrow ever deeper. That Infocom of all people — Steve Meretzky of all people, whose Leather Goddess of Phobos and Stationfall are some of the most airtight designs in Infocom’s catalog — is suddenly embracing the design aesthetic of the 1970s is downright weird for a game that was supposed to herald a bright new future of more playable and player-friendly interactive fiction.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice if somewhat underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint system.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice but rather underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided more nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint menu, the use of which feels like giving up or even cheating.

The puzzles rely on the feelies more extensively than any other Infocom game, often requiring you to make connections with seemingly tossed-off anecdotes buried deep within “The Flathead Calendar.” I generally don’t mind this sort of thing overmuch, but, like so much else in Zork Zero, it feels overdone here. These puzzles feel like they have far more to do with copy protection than the player’s enjoyment — but then much of the time Zork Zero seems very little concerned with the player’s enjoyment.

I love the headline of the single review of Zork Zero that’s to be found as of this writing on The Interactive Fiction Database: “Enough is enough!” That’s my own feeling when trying to get through this exhausting slog of a game. As if the sheer scope and aimlessness of the thing don’t frustrate enough, Meretzky actively goes out of his way to annoy you. There is, for instance, a magic wand with barely enough charges in it; waste a few charges in experimentation, and, boom, you’re locked out of victory. There’s that aforementioned building of 400 floors, all but one of them empty, which the diligent player will nevertheless feel the need to explore floor by floor, just in case there’s something else there; this is, after all, just the type of game to hide something essential on,say, floor 383. And then there’s the most annoying character in an Infocom game this side of Zork I‘s thief, a jester who teleports in every few dozen turns to do some random thing to you, like stick a clown nose over your own (you have to take it off within a certain number of turns or you’ll suffocate) or turn you into an alligator (you have to waste a few turns getting yourself turned back, then deal with picking up all of your possessions off the ground, putting those things you were wearing back on, etc.). Some of these gags are amusing the first time they happen, but they wear out their welcome quickly when they just keep wasting your time over a game that will already require thousands of moves to finish. The jester’s worst trick of all is to teleport you somewhere else in the game’s sprawling geography; you can be hopelessly trapped, locked out of victory through absolutely no fault of your own, if you’re unlucky and don’t have the right transportation handy. Hilariously, Infocom’s marketing people, looking always for an angle, hit upon selling the jester as Meretzky’s latest lovable sidekick, “every bit as enjoyable and memorable as Floyd of Planetfall fame.” Meretzky himself walked them back from that idea.

Some of the puzzles, probably even most of them, are fine enough in themselves, but there is a sprinkling of questionable ones, and all are made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that trying out a burst of inspiration can absorb 50 moves simply transiting from one side of the world to the other. Throw in a sharply limited inventory, which means you might need to make three or four round trips just to try out all the possible solutions you can think of, and things get even more fun. Graham Nelson among others has made much of the idea that the 128 K limitation of the original Z-Machine was actually a hidden benefit, forcing authors to hone their creations down to only what needed to be there and nothing that didn’t. I’ve generally been a little skeptical of that position; there are any number of good Infocom games that feel like they might have been still a little better with just a little more room to breathe. Zork Zero, however, makes as compelling a case as one can imagine for the idea that less is often more in interactive fiction, that constraints can lead to better designs.

The in-game mapping is handy from time to time, but, split into many different regions and viewable only by typing “MAP” from the main screen as it is, is not really ideal. A serious player is likely to be back to pencil and paper (or, these days, Trizbort) pretty quickly.

Which is actually not to say that Meretzky was operating totally unfettered by space constraints. While the YZIP format theoretically allowed a story size of up to 512 K not including graphics, the limitations of Infocom’s least-common-denominator platform, the Apple II, meant that the practical limit was around 340 K, a fairly modest expansion on the old 256 K EZIP and XZIP formats used for the Interactive Fiction Plus line. But still more restrictive was the limitation on the size of what Infocom called the “pre-load,” that part of the story data that could change as the player played, and that thus needed to always be in the host machine’s memory. The pre-load had to be held under about 55 K. Undoubtedly due in part to these restrictions, Zork Zero clearly sacrifices depth for breadth in comparison to many Infocom games that preceded it. The “examine” command suffers badly, some of the responses coming off like oxymorons: “totally ordinary looking writhing mass of snakes”; “totally ordinary looking herd of unicorns.” The sketchy implementation only adds to the throwback feel of the game as a whole.

The hints are certainly nice to have given the complexity and scope of the game, but they unfortunately aren’t context-sensitive. It’s all too easy to accidentally read the wrong one when trying to sort through this jumble.

Another subtle hidden enemy of Zork Zero as a design is the online hint system. Installed with the best of intentions in this as well as a few earlier Infocom games, it could easily lead to creeping laziness on the part of a game’s Implementor. “If the player really gets stuck, she can always turn to the hints,” ran the logic — thus no need to fret to quite the same extent over issues of solubility. The problem with that logic is that no one likes to turn to hints, whether found in the game itself, in a separate InvisiClues booklet, or in an online walkthrough. People play games like Zork Zero to solve them themselves, and the presence of a single bad puzzle remains ruinous to their experience as a whole even if they can look up the answer in the game itself. Infocom’s claim that “the onscreen hints help you through the rough spots without spoiling the story” doesn’t hold much water when one considers that Zork Zero doesn’t really have any story to speak of.

More puzzling is the impact — or rather lack thereof — of Stu Galley’s much-vaunted new parser. Despite being a ground-up rewrite using “an ATN algorithm with an LALR grammar and one-token look-ahead,” whatever that means, it doesn’t feel qualitatively different from those found in earlier Infocom games. The only obvious addition is the alleged ability to notice when you’re having trouble getting your commands across, and to start offering sample commands and other suggestions. A nice idea in theory, but the parser mostly seems to decide to become helpful and start pestering you with questions when you’re typing random possible answers to one of the game’s inane riddles. Like your racist uncle who decides to help you clean up after regaling you with his anecdotes over the Thanksgiving dinner table, even when Zork Zero tries to be helpful it’s annoying. Nowhere is the cognitive dissonance of Zork Zero more plainly highlighted than in the juxtaposition of this overly helpful, newbie-friendly parser with the old-school player hostility of the actual game design. “Zork hates its player,” wrote Robb Sherwin once of the game that made Infocom. After spending years evolving interactive fiction into something more positive and interesting than that old-school player hostility, Infocom incomprehensibly decided to circle back to how it all began with Zork Zero.

The most rewarding moment comes right at the end — and no, not because you’re finally done with the thing, although that’s certainly a factor too. In the end, you wind up right where it all began for Zork and for Infocom, before the famous white house, about to assume the role of the Dungeon Master, the antagonist of the original trilogy. There’s a melancholy resonance to the ending given the history not just of the Great Underground Empire but of Infocom in our own world. Released on July 14, 1989, the MS-DOS version of Zork Zero — the version that most of its few buyers would opt for — was one of the last two Infocom games to ship. So, the very end for Infocom circles back to the very beginning in many ways. Whether getting there is worth the trouble is of course another question.

As the belated date of the MS-DOS release will attest, versions of Zork Zero for the more important game-playing platforms were very slow in coming. The Amiga version didn’t ship until March of 1989, the Apple II version in June, followed finally by that MS-DOS version — the most important of all, oddly left for last. By that time Bruce Davis had lost patience, and Infocom had ceased to exist as anything other than a Mediagenic brand. The story of Zork Zero‘s failure to save Infocom thus isn’t so much the story of its commercial failure — although, make no mistake, it was a commercial failure — as the story of Infocom’s failure to just get the thing finished in time to even give it a chance of making a difference. Already an orphaned afterthought by the time it appeared on the platform that mattered most, Zork Zero likely never managed to sell even 10,000 copies in total. So much for Infocom’s “new look, new challenge, new beginning.”

We have a few more such afterthoughts to discuss before we pull the curtain at last on the story of Infocom, that most detailed and extended of all the stories I’ve told so far on this blog. Now, however, it’s time to check in with Infocom’s counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, with the other two of the three remaining companies in the English-speaking world still trying to make a living out of text adventures in 1988. As you have probably guessed, things weren’t working out all that much better for either of them than they were for Infocom. Yet amidst the same old commercial problems, there are still some interesting and worthy games to discuss. So, we’ll start to do just that next time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Much of is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Magazine sources include Questbusters of March 1989, The Games Machine of October 1989, and the Spring 1989 issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter. Huge thanks also to Tim Anderson and Steve Meretzky for corresponding with me about some of the details of this period.

If you still want to play Zork Zero after the thrashing I’ve just given it — sorry, Steve and all Zork Zero fans! — you can purchase it from GOG.com as part of The Zork Anthology.)

 
 

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