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Bureaucracy

 

“Writing a book is staring at a piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”

— Douglas Adams

Shortly after the release of his second Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, with the money now pouring in and showing no signs of stopping, Douglas Adams moved from his dingy little shared flat in Islington’s Highbury New Park to a sprawling place on Upper Street. Later to be described down almost to the last detail as Fenchurch’s flat in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the place had one floor that consisted of but a single huge L-shaped room that, coming complete as it did with a bar, was perfect for the grand parties he would soon be holding there.

There was just one problem: he couldn’t get his bank to acknowledge the fact that he had moved. For the rest of his life Adams swore up and down that he had done everything exactly as one was supposed to, had dutifully gone personally down to his local branch of Barclays Bank, filled out a change-of-address form, and handed it to a woman behind the counter. Barclays duly acknowledged the change — and sent said acknowledgement to his old address in Highbury New Park. Adams wrote them back, pointing out the mistake, which the bank promptly and contritely apologized for. Said apology was sent, once again, to Highbury New Park. This cycle continued, as Adams told the story anyway, for no less than two infuriating years. Toward the end of that period, having tried politeness, bluster, threats, and reason, he resorted to charm and outright bribery in a letter to one Miss Wilcox of Barclays, gifting her with a book and even holding out a tempting possibility of marriage to a hugely successful author — namely, him — if she would just change his damn address in her bank’s computers already.

My address is at the top of this letter. It is also at the top of my previous letter to you. I am not trying to hide anything from you. If you write to me at this address I will reply. If you write to me care of my accountant, he will reply, which would be better still. If you write to me at Highbury New Park, the chances are that I won’t reply because your letter will probably not reach me, because I don’t live there any more. I haven’t lived there for two years. I moved. Two years ago. I wrote to you about it, remember?

Dear Miss Wilcox, I am sure you are a very lovely person, and that if I were to meet you I would feel ashamed at having lost my temper with you in this way. I’m sure it’s not your fault personally and that if I had to do your job I would hate it. Let me take you away from all this. Come to London. Let me show you where I live, so that you can see it is indeed in Upper Street. I will even take you to Highbury New Park and introduce you to the man who has been living there for the past two years so that you can see for yourself that it isn’t me. I could take you out to dinner and slip you little change-of-address cards across the table. We could even get married and go and live in a villa in Spain, though how would we get anyone in your department to understand that we had moved? I enclose a copy of my new book which I hope will cheer you up. Happy Christmas.

History does not record whether this passionate missive was the one that finally did the trick.

Most writers collect interesting, humorous, and/or frustrating incidents as they go about their daily lives, jotting them down literally or metaphorically for future use, and Douglas Adams was certainly no exception. He tried to shoehorn this one into Life, the Universe, and Everything, his third Hitchhiker’s novel, via an extended riff about a change-of-address card that fouls up a planet’s central computer systems so badly that they initiate a nuclear Armageddon, but it just didn’t work somehow. The whole sequence ended up getting condensed down to a one-line gag in an extract from the in-book Hitchhiker’s Guide, listing “trying to get the Brantisvogan Civil Service to acknowledge a change-of-address card” as one of life’s great impossibilities. Still, he continued to believe the anecdote was worthy of more than that, worthy of more even than becoming just another of the arsenal of funny stories with which he amused journalists, fans, and party attendees alike.

It seems that it was the process of making the infuriating, subversive, brilliant Hitchhiker’s game with Infocom that first prompted Adams to think about making a game out of his travails with Barclays, along with the insane bureaucratic machinations of modern life in general. It was at any rate during Steve Meretzky’s visit to England to work on the Hitchhiker’s game with him that he first mentioned the idea. Meretzky, busy trying to get this game finished in the face of the immovable force that could be Adams’s talent for procrastination, presumably just nodded politely and tried to get his focus back to the business at hand.

Seven or eight months later, however, with the Hitchhiker’s game finished and selling like crazy, Adams stated definitively to Mike Dornbrook of Infocom that he’d really like to do a social satire of contemporary life called Bureaucracy before turning to the sequel. Asked by Electronic Games magazine at about this time whether he would “soon” be starting on the next Hitchhiker’s game, his answer was blunt: “No. I really feel the need to branch out into fresh areas and clear my head from Hitchhiker’s. I certainly have enjoyed working with Infocom and would very much like to do another adventure game, but on a different topic.”

The desire of this boundlessly original thinker to just be done with Hitchhiker’s, to do something else for God’s sake, certainly isn’t hard to understand. What had begun back in 1978 as a one-off six-episode radio serial, produced on a shoestring for the BBC, had seven years later ballooned into a second radio serial, four novels, a television show, a stage production, a pair of double albums, and now, so everyone assumed, a burgeoning series of computer games. Adams himself had a hand to a lesser or (usually) a greater extent in every single one of these productions, not to mention having spent quite some time drafting and fruitlessly hawking a Hitchhiker’s movie script to Hollywood. It had been all Hitchhiker’s all day every day for seven years.

Being the soul of comedy for millions of young science-fiction nerds had never been an entirely comfortable role for Adams. Sometimes the gulf between him and his most loyal fans could be hard to bridge, could leave him feeling downright estranged. Eugen Beers, his publicist, describes the most obsessive of his fans in terms that bring to mind a certain beloved old Saturday Night Live skit:

One of my abiding memories is how much he loathed book signings. It’s always a scary time for an author when you actually meet your fans, and Douglas had some of the ugliest and certainly some of the most boring people I’ve ever met in the whole of my life. They would come up to him to get their book signed and say, “I notice on page 45 you refer to…” and Douglas would say, “I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.”

Beers notes that Adams was “incredibly patient, in fact patient beyond anything I would have been.” Yet, and ungenerous as Beers’s description of the fans may be, the disconnect was real. Adams’s heroes growing up had been The Goon Show and later Monty Python, not Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein. He desperately wanted to prove himself as a humorist of general note, not just that wacky Hitchhiker’s guy that the nerds all like. Yes, Hitchhiker’s had made him rich, had paid for that wonderful Islington flat and all those lavish parties, but at some point enough had to be enough.

Infocom’s great misfortune was to have barely begun their own Hitchhiker’s odyssey just as Adams finally decided to bring his to an end. On the one hand, Adams’s desire to explore new territory must have sounded a sympathetic chord for many of the Imps; they had after all refused to continue the Zork series beyond three games out of a similar desire to not get stereotyped. But on the other hand they all had, and not without good reason, envisioned Hitchhiker’s as a cash cow that would last Infocom for the remainder of the decade, a new guaranteed bestseller appearing like clockwork every Christmas to buoy them over whatever financial trials the rest of the year might have brought. For Mike Dornbrook it must have felt like a nightmare repeating. First he had been deprived far too soon of the Zork series, the first of which still remained Infocom’s best-selling game; now it looked like something similar was happening even more quickly to the would-be Hitchhiker’s series, whose first game had become their second best-selling. In describing why he was “concerned” about making Bureaucracy Infocom’s Douglas Adams game for 1985 and pushing the next Hitchhiker’s game to 1986 at best, Dornbrook unconsciously echoes Adams’s own reasoning for wanting to move on: “The whole financial deal we had signed with him was based on a bestselling line of books that was very, very popular, very well-known. He hadn’t proved himself at anything else yet, for one thing. It was a little hard telling him that…”

It was a little hard to tell him, so Dornbrook and Infocom largely didn’t out of a desire to keep Adams happy. As his current contract with Infocom only covered Hitchhiker’s games, it was necessary to negotiate a new one for Bureaucracy. Dornbrook had some hopes of getting Adams at something of a discount, given that he’d be coming this time without the Hitchhiker’s name attached, but he was stymied even in this by Ed Victor, Adams’s tough negotiator of an agent. Infocom was left saddled with a game that they didn’t really want to do, which they would have to pay Adams for as if it was one that they wanted very badly indeed.

As Dornbrook and other staffers have occasionally noted over the years, there was nothing in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s contract that technically prevented them from just going off and doing the next Hitchhiker’s game on their own, whether in tandem with or instead of Bureaucracy. The contract simply gave Infocom the right to make up to six Hitchhiker’s games for the cost of a certain percentage of the revenue generated thereby, full stop. They’ve stated that it was their respect for Adams as a writer and as a person that prevented them from ever seriously considering making Hitchhiker’s games without him. I don’t doubt their sincerity in saying this, but it’s also worth noting that to go down that route would be to play with some dangerous fire. While Adams may have been personally sick to death of Hitchhiker’s, he had shown again and again that he considered the franchise to be his and his alone, that if anything got done with it he wanted to do it — or at least to closely oversee it — himself. Not only would a unilateral Infocom Hitchhiker’s game almost certainly spoil their relationship with him for all time, but it risked becoming a public-relations disaster if Adams, never shy of stating his opinions to the press, decided to speak out against it. And could any of the Imps, even Steve Meretzky, really hope to capture Adams’s voice? An Adams-less Hitchhiker’s game risked coming off as a cheap knock-off, as everything that Infocom’s carefully crafted public image said their games weren’t.  Thus Bureaucracy — and, for now, Bureaucracy alone — it must be.

In light of its being rather forced upon them in the first place and especially of the exhausting travail that actually making it would become, it’s difficult for most old Infocom staffers to appreciate Bureaucracy‘s intrinsic merits as a concept. Seen in the right light, however, it’s a fairly brilliant idea. Douglas Adams was of course hardly the first to want to satirize the vast, impersonal machines we create in an effort to make modern life manageable, machines that can not only run roughshod over the very individuals they’re meant to serve but that can also trample the often well-meaning people who are sentenced to work within them, even their very creators. What was the Holocaust but a triumph of institutional inertia over the fundamental humanity of the people responsible for its horrors? Years before those horrors Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, the definitive comedy about the banality of bureaucratic evil, a book as funny in its black way as anything Douglas Adams ever wrote. Just to make its black comedy complete, all three of Kafka’s sisters later perished in the Holocaust. Set against those events, Adams’s struggle with Barclays Bank to get his address changed seems like the triviality it truly was.

What, though, to make of this idea of a satire of the bureaucratic impulse as interactive fiction? I think there’s a germ of genius in there, a germ of something as brilliant and subversive as anything in the Hitchhiker’s game. Playing a text adventure — yes, even one of Infocom’s — is to often feel like you’re interacting with the world’s pettiest and most remorseless bureaucrat. We’re all only too familiar with sequences like this one, which as it happens is taken from the eventual finished version of Bureaucracy:

>put blank cartridge in computer
[This story isn't allowed to recognise the word "blank."]

[Your blood pressure just went up.]

>i
You're holding an unlabelled cartridge, an address book, a small piece of laminated card, an airline magazine, $57.50, an envelope containing a memo, a power saw, a Swiss army knife, a coupon booklet, a damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan, a flyer, a Popular Paranoia magazine, your passport, your Boysenberry computer (containing an eclipse predicting cartridge), a small case and a hacksaw. You're wearing a digital wristwatch, and you have a deposit slip and a wallet in your pocket.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You're holding too much already.

>drop painting
You drop the damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan.

You're beginning to feel normal again.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You take the eclipse predicting cartridge out of your Boysenberry computer.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
The unlabelled cartridge slips into your Boysenberry computer with a thrilling little click...

One of Adam’s initial ideas was to have a blood-pressure monitor that would increase every time you got into a tussle with the parser like the one above. This idea made it into the finished game. Yet there are signs, fleeting clues, that that should only have been a beginning, that he would have gone much further, that his idea was to create a game that would end up as, among other things, a self-referential commentary on the medium of interactive fiction itself, a further venturing down the road that the Hitchhiker’s game had already started on with its lying parser and its willingness to integrate your typos into its story. Tim Anderson of Infocom recalls a puzzle involving a pile of boxes, of which you needed to specify one that the parser would obstinately refuse to recognize. How fun such a game could have been is very much up for debate; it sounds likely to run afoul of all of the issues of playability and fairness that make Hitchhiker’s the last game in the world to be emulated by a budding designer of interactive fiction. Nevertheless, I would love to see that original vision of Bureaucracy. While some pieces of it survived into the finished game in the form of the blood-pressure monitor and the snooty, bureaucratic tone of the parser, for the most part it became a different game entirely — or, rather, several different games. Therein lies a tale — and most of the finished game’s problems.

Endeavoring as always to keep Adams happy, Infocom assigned as his partner on the new game no less august an Imp than Marc Blank, who along with Mike Berlyn had been one of the two possible collaborators Adams had specifically requested for the Hitchhiker’s game; he’d had to be convinced to accept Steve Meretzky in their stead. Alas, Blank turned out to be a terrible choice at this particular juncture. He was deeply dissatisfied with the current direction of the company and more interested in telling Al Vezza and the rest of the Board about it at every opportunity than he was in writing more interactive fiction. Bureaucracy thus immediately began to languish in neglect. This precedent would take a long, long time to break. The story at this point gets so surreal that it reads like something out of a Douglas Adams novel — or for that matter a Douglas Adams game. Infocom therefore included it in the finished version of Bureaucracy as an Easter egg entitled “The Strange and Terrible History of Bureaucracy.”

Once upon a time Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky collaborated on a game called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Everyone wanted a sequel, but Douglas thought it might be fun to do something different first. He called that something Bureaucracy, and wanted Marc Blank to work on it with him. Of course, Marc was busy, and Douglas was busy, and by the time they could both work on it, they were too busy to work on it. So, Jerry Wolper [a programmer who had collaborated with Mike Berlyn on Cutthroats] got a free trip to Las Vegas to talk to Douglas about it before it was decided to let it rest for a while instead. Jerry decided to go back to school, so Marc and Douglas spent some time on Nantucket looking at llamas, drinking Chateau d'Yquem, and arguing about puzzles. Nothing much happened for a while, except that Marc and Douglas got distracted again. Paul DiLascia [a senior member of the Cornerstone development team] decided to give it a try, but changed his mind and kept working on Cornerstone. Marc went to work for Simon and Schuster, and Paul went to work for Interleaf. Jeff O'Neill finished Ballyhoo, and, casting about for a new project, decided to take it on, about the time Jerry graduated. Jeff got a trip to London out of it. Douglas was enthusiastic, but busy with a movie. Progress was slow, and then Douglas was very busy with something named Dirk Gently. Jeff decided it was time to work on something else, and Brian Moriarty took it over. He visited England, and marvelled at Douglas's CD collection, but progress was slow. Eventually he decided it was time to work on something else. Paul made a cameo appearance, but decided to stay at Interleaf instead. So Chris Reeve and Tim Anderson took it over, and mucked around a lot. Finally, back in Las Vegas, Michael Bywater jumped (or was pushed) in and came to Boston for some serious script-doctoring, which made what was there into what is here. In addition, there were significant contributions from Liz Cyr-Jones, Suzanne Frank, Gary Brennan, Tomas Bok, Max Buxton, Jon Palace, Dave Lebling, Stu Galley, Linde Dynneson, and others too numerous to mention. Most of these people are not dead yet, and apologise for the inconvenience.

Trying to unravel in much more detail this Gordian knot that consumed more than twice as much time as any other Infocom game is fairly hopeless, not least because no one who was around it much wants to talk about it. The project, having been begun to some extent under duress, soon become a veritable albatross, a bad joke for which no one can manage to summon up much of a laugh even today. Jon Palace is typical:

There may be some fun things left in the game, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth. At some point it became, the less I can have to do with it the better. It wasn’t fun doing that game. Bureaucracy is the only game I can remember that was just downright not fun to do.

The natural question, then, is just what went so horribly awry for this game alone among all the others. Infocom’s official version of the tale neglects only to assign the blame where it rightfully belongs: solidly on the doorstep of Douglas Adams.

Adams was a member of a species that’s not as rare as one might expect: the brilliant writer who absolutely hates to write, who finds the process torturous, personally draining to a degree ironically difficult to capture in words. Even during the seven-year heyday of Hitchhiker’s, when he was to all external appearances quite industrious and prolific indeed, he was building a reputation for himself among publishers and agents as one of the most difficult personalities in their line of business, not because he was a jerk or a prima donna like many other authors but simply because he never — never — did the work he said he was going to do when he said he was going to do it. The stories of the lengths people had to go to to get work out of him remain enshrined in publishing legend to this day. Locking him into a small room with a word processor and a single taskmaster/minder and telling him he wasn’t allowed out until he was finished was about the only method that was remotely effective.

It wasn’t as if Infocom had never seen this side of Douglas Adams before. His procrastination had also threatened to scupper the Hitchhiker’s game for a while. They had, however, as they must now have been realizing more and more, gotten very lucky there. With Infocom’s star on the ascendant at that time, the publishing interests around Adams had clearly seen a Hitchhiker’s Infocom game as a winning proposition all the way around. They had thus mobilized to make it part of their 1984 full-court press on their embattled author that had also yielded So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the overdue fourth Hitchhiker’s novel. Infocom, meanwhile, had fortuitously paired Adams with Steve Meretzky, the most self-driven, efficient, and organized of all the Imps, who always got his projects done and done on time — as evidenced by his sheer prolificacy as an author of games, gamebooks, and lots and lots of fake memos. Even with Meretzky’s boundless creative energy on Infocom’s side, it had taken colluding with Adams’s handlers to isolate the two of them in a hotel in Devon to get Adams to follow his partner’s example and buckle down and work on the game.

With the industry now shifting under Infocom’s feet in ways that were hardly to their advantage, with Cornerstone threatening to sink the company even if they could find a way to keep selling lots of games, with the project in question a one-off that no one knew much about rather than another entry in the Hitchhiker’s line-up, Infocom lacked the leverage with Adams or his handlers to do anything similar for Bureaucracy. And Meretzky was staying far, far away, having apparently decided that he’d done his time in Purgatory with Douglas Adams and had earned the right to work on his own projects. Thus despite allegedly “working on” Bureaucracy personally for almost two years, despite all of the face-to-faces in Las Vegas, Nantucket, and London, Adams’s contributions at the end of that time amounted to little more than the rough idea he had brought to Infocom in the first place: the name, the blood-pressure monitor, and a few vague puzzles ideas like the boxes that sounded interesting but that no other than him quite understood and that he never deigned to properly explain. Meretzky:

Douglas’s procrastination seemed much worse than it was with Hitchhiker’s. That seems odd because he did the first game only grudgingly, since he had already done Hitchhiker’s for several different media, but Bureaucracy was what he most wanted to do. Perhaps the newness and excitement of working in interactive fiction had worn off; perhaps he had more distractions in his life at that point; perhaps it was that the succession of people who had my role in Bureaucracy didn’t stay with the project for more than a portion of its development cycle and therefore never became a well-integrated creative unit with Douglas; perhaps it was that, lacking the immovable Christmas deadline that Hitchhiker’s had, it was easier to let the game just keep slipping and slipping.

Brian Moriarty is less diplomatic: “Douglas Adams was a very funny man, very witty, a very good writer, and also very, very lazy. Anyone who knew Douglas will tell you that he really didn’t like to work very much.” Just to add insult to injury, when Adams did rouse himself to work on a game project it turned out to be for a competing developer. In January of 1986 he spent several days holed up in London with a sizable chunk of the staff of Lucasfilm Games, contributing ideas and puzzles to their Labyrinth adventure game. That may not sound like the worst betrayal in the world at first blush, but consider again: he devoted more time and energy to this ad-hoc design consultation than he ever had to what was allegedly his own game, the one Infocom had started making at his specific request.

The succession of Imps who were assigned to the project were forced to improvise with their own ideas in face of the black hole that was Adams’s contribution. Details of exactly who did what are, however, once again thin on the ground. The only Imp I’ve heard claim specific credit for any sequence that survived into the final game is Moriarty, who remembers doing a bit where you’re trying to order a simple hamburger in a fast-food joint, only to get buried under a bewildering barrage of questions about exactly how you’d like it. The inevitable punchline comes when a “standard, smells-like-a-dog’s-ear burger with nothing on it” is finally delivered, regardless of your choices.

By late 1986, as the Bureaucracy project was closing in fast on its two-year anniversary, it was not so much a single big game as a collection of individual little games connected together, if at all, by the most precarious of scaffolding, each reading not like a game by Douglas Adams but a game by whatever Imp happened to be responsible for that section. Not only had Adams’s ideas for leveraging the mechanics of program and parser in service of his theme been largely abandoned, but at some point a fairly elaborate satire of paranoid conspiracy theorists — sort of an interactive Illuminatus! trilogy — had gotten muddled up with the satire of impersonal bureaucratic institutions in general. As the recent revelations about the National Security Agency have demonstrated, the two all too often do go together. Still, those parts of Bureaucracy had wandered quite far afield from everyday frustrations like trying to get a bank to accept a change-of-address form. It had all become quite the mess, and nobody had much energy left to try to sort it out.

If you had polled Infocom’s staff at this point on whether they thought Bureaucracy would ever actually be finished, it’s unlikely that many would have shown much optimism. The project remained alive at all not due to any love anyone had for it but rather out of what was probably a forlorn hope anyway: that getting this game out and published would pave the way to the next Hitchhiker’s game, to another potential 300,000-plus seller. Having done their part in getting Bureaucracy done, with or without Adams, Infocom hoped he would do his by returning to Hitchhiker’s with them. Few who knew Adams well would have bet much on that particular quid pro quo, but hope does spring eternal.

And then, miraculously, more than a glimmer of real hope did appear from an unlikely quarter. Marc Blank was long gone from Infocom by then, but had continued to keep in touch with his old friends among the Imps. At the November 1986 COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas, he bumped into Michael Bywater, a good friend of Douglas Adams and a fellow writer — in fact, a practitioner of his own brand of arch British humor that, if you squinted just right, wasn’t too different from that of Adams himself. Knowing the fix his old friends were still in with the game he had been the first to work on so long ago, a light bulb went off in Blank’s head. He hastily brokered a deal among Infocom, Adams, and Bywater, and the last arrived in the Boston area within days to hole up in a hotel room for an intense three weeks or so of script-doctoring. Infocom’s Tim Anderson, the latest programmer assigned to the project, stayed close at hand to insert Bywater’s new text and to implement any new puzzles he happened to come up with.

Jumbling the chronology as we’re sometimes forced to around here in the interest of other forms of coherency, we’ve already met Bywater in the context of his personal and professional relationship with Anita Sinclair and Magnetic Scrolls, and the salvage job he would do on that company’s Jinxter nine months or so after performing the same service for Infocom. As arrogant and quick to anger as he can sometimes be (one need only read his comments in response to Andy Baio’s misguided and confused article on the would-be second Hitchhiker’s game to divine that), everyone at Infocom found him to be a delight, not least because here at last was a writer who was more than happy to actually write. In a few weeks he rewrote virtually every word in the game in his own style — a style that was more caustic than Adams’s, but that nevertheless checked the right “British humor” boxes. Just like that, Infocom had their game, which they needed only test and publish to finally be quit of the whole affair forever. Right?

Well, this being the Game That Just Wouldn’t Be Finished, not quite. Janice Eisen, a current reader and supporter of this blog and an outside playtester for Infocom back in the day, recalls being given a version of Bureaucracy for testing that was largely the same structurally as the released version and that seemed to sport Bywater’s text, but that nevertheless differed substantially in one respect. The ultimate villain in this version, the person responsible for all of the bureaucratic tortures you’ve been subjected to, was not, as in the final version, a bitter computer nerd seeking to exact vengeance on the world and (for some reason) on you for his inability to get a date, but rather none other than Britain’s Queen Mother. As a satirical theme it’s classic Bywater. He was and remains a self-described republican, seeing the monarchy as setting “an appalling example to the whole nation by making clear that there’s at least one thing — head of state — that you can’t achieve but can only be born to.”

Some weeks after testing this version of Bureaucracy at home as usual, Janice, who lived close to Infocom’s offices, got a call asking if she could come in to test what would turn out to be the final version on-site. She was also told she could bring a friend of hers, another Infocom fan but not a regular tester, to join in. They spent a Saturday playing through the game, with a minder on-hand to give them answers to puzzles if necessary to make sure they got all the way through the game. It’s not absolutely clear whether Bywater was involved in the further rewriting made necessary by the replacement of the Queen Mother with the nerd, but the lavishly insulting descriptions of the latter — “ghastly,” “sniveling,” “ratty,” and “ineffectual” number amongst the adjectives — sound nothing like any of the Imps’ styles and very much like Bywater’s. When she asked why Infocom had made the changes — she had enjoyed the Queen Mother much more than the nerd — Janice was told that Infocom had feared that they were going too far into the realm of politics, that they were afraid that the Queen Mother, 86 years old at the time, might die while the game was still a hot item, making them look “terrible.” (This fear would prove unfounded; she would live for another fifteen years.)

So, it was a tortured, cobbled, disjointed creation that finally reached store shelves against all odds in March of 1987, and apparently one that had been subject to the final violation of a last-minute Bowdlerization. For all that, though, it’s a lot better game than you might expect, a better game even than most of the Infocom staffers, having had it so thoroughly spoiled in their eyes by the hell of its creation, are often willing to acknowledge. I quite like it on the whole, even if I have to temper that opinion with a lot of caveats.

Bureaucracy shows clear evidence of the fragmented process of its creation in being divided into four vignettes that become, generally not to the game’s benefit, steadily more surreal and less grounded in the everyday as they proceed. The first, longest, and strongest section begins after you have just gotten a new job and moved to a new neighborhood. Your new employer Happitec is about to send you jetting off to Paris for an introductory seminar. You just need to “pick up your Happitec cheque, grab a bite of lunch, a cab to the airport, and you’ll be living high on the hog at Happitec’s expense.” Naturally, it won’t be quite that easy. It’s here that the game pays due homage to the episode that first inspired it: your mail had been misdelivered thanks to “a silly bit of bother with your bank about a change-of-address card.” Subsequent sections have you trying to board your flight at the airport; dealing with the annoyances of a transcontinental flight, which include in this case something about an in-flight emergency that will force you to bail out of the airplane; and finally penetrating the dastardly nerdy mastermind’s headquarters somewhere in the jungles of Africa.

Much of Bureaucracy‘s personality is of course down to Bywater (about whom more in a moment), but I’m not sure that he comprises the whole of the story. I’d love to know who wrote my favorite bit, which is not found in the game proper but rather in one of the feelies. Your welcome letter from Happitec is such a perfect satire of Silicon Valley’s culture of empty plastic Utopianism that it belongs on the current television show of the same name. The letterhead’s resemblance to Apple’s then-current Macintosh iconography is certainly not accidental.

Bureaucracy

From the cult of personality around Happitec’s “founder and president” to the way it can’t even be bothered to address you by name to the veiled passive-aggressive threat with which it concludes, this letter is just so perfect. All it’s missing is a reference to “making the world a better place.”

Bywater, for his part, acquits himself more than well enough as the mirror-universe version of Douglas Adams, almost as witty and droll but more casually cruel. His relentless showiness makes him a writer whom I find fairly exhausting to try to read in big gulps, but he always leaves me with a perfect little bon mot or two to marvel over.

This is the living room of your new house, a pretty nice room, actually. At least, it will be when all your stuff has arrived as the removals company said they would have done yesterday and now say they will do while you're on vacation. At the moment, however, it's a bit dull. Plain white, no carpets, no curtains, no furniture. A room to go bughouse in, really. Another room is visible to the west, and a closed front door leads outside.


This deeply tacky wallet was sent to you free by the US Excess Credit Card Corporation to tell you how much a person like you needed a US Excess card, what with your busy thrusting lifestyle in today's fast-moving, computerised, jet-setting world. Needless to say, you already had a US Excess card which they were trying to take away from you for not paying your account, which, equally needless to say, you had paid weeks ago.


The stamp on the leaflet is worth 42 Zalagasan Wossnames (the Zalagasans were too idle to think of a name for their currency) and shows an extremely bad picture of an Ai-Ai. The Ai-Ai is of course a terribly, terribly rare sort of lemur which is a rare sort of monkey so altogether pretty rare, so rare that nobody has ever seen one, which is why the picture is such a blurred and rotten likeness. Actually, come to think of it, since nobody has ever seen the real thing, the picture might in fact be a really sharp, accurate likeness of a blurred and rotten animal.


The machine says: "Jones here. I'm the new tenant of your old house. There's a whole bunch of mail been arriving here for you. Urgent stuff from the Fillmore Fiduciary Trust. You know what I thought? I thought 'Do the right thing, Jones. Forward the guy's mail.' Then I found out about the termites. Then I found out about the nightly roach-dance. So I thought 'Rats.' I've returned your mail to your bank. Sort it out yourself."

So, when the scenario gives him something to work with Bywater can be pretty great. He’s much less effective when the game loses its focus on the frustrations of everyday existence, which it does with increasing frequency as it wears on and the situations get more and more surreal. He seems to feel obligated to continue to slather on heavy layers of snark, because after all he’s Michael Bywater and that’s what he does, but the point of it all begins rather to get lost. His description of your fellow passengers aboard an African airline as playing “ethnic nose flutes” is… well, let’s just say it’s not as funny as it wants to be and leave it at that. And his relentless picking away at the service workers you encounter — “The waiter squints at his pad with tiny simian eyes, breathing hard at the intellectual effort of it all.” — doesn’t really ring true for me, largely because I never seem to meet so many of these stupid and/or hateful people in my own life. Most of the people I meet seem pretty nice and reasonably competent on the whole. Even when I’m being gored on the bureaucratic horns of some institution or other, I find that the people I deal with are mostly just as conscious as I am of how ridiculous the whole thing is. As Kafka, who was himself an employee of an insurance company, was well aware, this is largely what makes bureaucracies so impersonal and vaguely, existentially horrifying. Ah, well, as someone who sees nothing cute about someone else’s baby — sorry, proud parents! — I can at least appreciate Bywater’s characterization of same as a “stupid, half-witted” thing emitting “hateful little bleats.”

The puzzles are perhaps the strangest mixture of easy and hard found anywhere in the Infocom catalog. The first two sections of the game are very manageable, with some puzzles that might almost be characterized as too easy and only a few that are a bit tricky; the best of these, and arguably the most difficult, is a delightful bit of illogical logic involving your bank and a negative check. When you actually board your flight and begin the third section, however, the difficulty takes a vertical leap. The linear run of puzzles that is the third and fourth sections of Bureaucracy is downright punishing, including at least three that I find much more difficult than anything in Spellbreaker, supposedly Infocom’s big challenge of a game for the hardcore of the hardcore. One is an intricate exercise in planning and pattern recognition taking place aboard the airplane (Bywater claims credit for having designed this one from scratch); one an intimidating exercise in code-breaking; one more a series of puzzles than a single puzzle really, an exercise in computer hacking that’s simulated in impressive detail. None of the three is unfair. (The puzzle that comes closest to that line is actually not among this group; it’s rather a game of “guess the right action or be killed” that you have to engage in whilst hanging outside the airliner in a parachute.) The clues are there, but they’re extremely subtle, requiring the closest reading and the most careful experimentation whilst being under, in the case of the first and the third of this group, time pressure that will have you restoring again and again. Bureaucracy raises the interesting question of whether a technically fair game can nevertheless simply be too hard for its own good. The gnarly puzzles that suddenly appear out of the blue don’t serve this particular game all that well in my opinion, managing only to further dilute its original focus and make it feel still more schizophrenic. I think I’d like them more in another, different game. At any rate, those looking for a challenge won’t be disappointed. If you can crack this one without hints, you’re quite the puzzler.

Although it’s Infocom’s third release in their Interactive Fiction Plus line of games that ran only on the “big” machines with at least 128 K of memory, Bureaucracy doesn’t feel epic in the way of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. A glance at the story file reveals that it doesn’t completely fill the extra space allowed by the newer Z-Machine, in contrast to the previous two games in the line that stuff the format to the gills. I would even say that quite a number of Infocom’s standard releases subjectively feel bigger. Bureaucracy became an Interactive Fiction Plus title more by accident than original intent, the extra space serving largely to give a chatty Michael Bywater more room to ramble and to allow stuff like that elaborate in-game computer simulation. And given the way the game was made, I’d be surprised if its code was particularly compact or tidy.

Despite all of the pain of its creation and the bad vibes that clung to it for reason of same, Infocom released Bureaucracy with relatively high hopes that the Douglas Adams name, still printed on the box despite his minimal involvement, would be enough to sell a substantial number of copies even absent the Hitchhiker’s name. Adams, showing at least a bit more enthusiasm for promoting Bureaucracy than he had for writing it, gave an interview about it to PBS’s Computer Chronicles television program, during which it becomes painfully apparent that he has only the vaguest notion of what actually happens in the game he supposedly authored. He also appeared on Joan Rivers’s late-night talk show; she declared it “the funniest computer game ever,” although I must admit that I find it hard to imagine that she had much basis for comparison. None of it helped all that much. As was beginning to happen a lot by 1987, Infocom was sharply disappointed by their latest hoped-for hit’s performance. Bureaucracy sold not quite 30,000 copies, a bit better than the Infocom average by this point but short of Hitchhiker’s numbers by a factor of more than ten.

The game’s a shaggy, disjointed beast for sure, but I still recommend that anyone with an appreciation of for the craft of interactive fiction give it a whirl at some point. If the hardcore puzzles at the end aren’t your bag, know that the first two sequences are by far its most coherent and focused parts. Feel free to just stop when you make it aboard the airplane; by that time you’ve seen about 75 percent of the content anyway. Whatever else it would or should have become, as Infocom’s only work of contemporary social satire Bureaucracy is a unique entry in their catalog, and in its stronger moments at least it acquits itself pretty well at the business. That alone is reason enough to treasure it. And as a lesson in the perils of staking your business on a single mercurial genius… well, let’s just say that the story behind Bureaucracy is perhaps worthwhile in its way as well.

(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. Reader Janice Eisen took the time to correspond with me about her memories of testing Bureaucracy, for which I owe her huge thanks. Other sources include the two Douglas Adams biographies, Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson and Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb; the Family Computing of September 1987; the Electronic Games of April 1985; and the audio of Steve Meretzky and Michael Bywater’s joint conversation in London back in 2005.)

 
 

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Thieves and Jinxes (or, When Michael Met Anita)

The young and brash Tony Rainbird had never made a good fit with the rigid management structure of British Telecom. Thus when in late 1986 he suddenly left the hot new label he had formed barely a year before it came perhaps as more of a surprise to outsiders than to said label’s inner circle. The question of whether he jumped or was pushed will probably never be publicly answered. Asked later about his departure, Tony’s answer could be seen to imply either: “For about 60 different reasons, really, but they added up to a lack of respect for the senior people in the British Telecom hierarchy.”

In a telling indication of just how close he had become in a very short while with his favorite signees, Tony actually moved his office into those of Magnetic Scrolls for a while after leaving British Telecom, working as a management consultant and accountant and even occasionally pitching in on game design in between taking other consultancy gigs for other companies. Meanwhile the engine he had set in motion at British Telecom would continue to chug along apparently business as usual for quite some time; Tony himself noted that he “had recruited a very good team that were well able to take over.” In time, however, the loss of Tony Rainbird’s drive and vision couldn’t help but have an effect on his namesake label. Their most successful games and developer relationships by far would prove to be those initiated during his own brief tenure. By 1988 a distinct state of diminishing returns would set in, with major consequences for Magnetic Scrolls. In the meantime, though, they found a patron of a very different stripe in Michael Bywater, whose presence looms not only over the history of Magnetic Scrolls but also the late history of Infocom.

For many Michael’s chief claim to fame was and is his longstanding friendship with Douglas Adams. This state of affairs has often irked him, and understandably so, given his own considerable accomplishments. The pair’s long, occasionally tempestuous relationship dates back to the early 1970s, when both were reading English at Cambridge and performing with the Footlights, the legendary comedy troupe whose rolls have included the likes of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle of Monty Python amongst many other prominent comedians, actors, and writers. Michael’s schtick was to perform ribald comic songs, self-penned or parodic, whilst accompanying himself on piano, while Douglas performed as a comic actor — not, it must be admitted, a very good one — and wrote skits. They bonded — or not — over a girl that they both fancied. Michael won the romantic competition, marrying (and eventually divorcing) her, but Douglas was never one to hold a grudge. When he hit it big at decade’s end on the back of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he happily supported his still-struggling old friend for a time as Michael slowly built a career of his own as a working writer for many forms of media: film, television, newspapers, magazines. Michael’s own, admittedly more modest sort of big break came when he was hired as a contributing editor at Punch, a slightly long-in-the-tooth but still respected magazine of politics, culture, and, most of all, satirical humor. In addition to that job, he wrote regular columns for The Observer newspaper and MacUser magazine.

Like Douglas, Michael had a fascination with technology, particularly computers, particularly particularly Macs. Indeed, the two old friends had much in common. Both were interested in just about everything, priding themselves on keeping one foot planted in the world of art and literature and the other in that of science and technology. Both knew intimately and drew liberally from the great British tradition of absurdist, satirical comedy that reaches back from Monty Python through P.G. Wodehouse (always Douglas’s favorite humorist) to Jonathan Swift. Both were great raconteurs who loved nothing more than to be the center of attention at a party; Michael was the hit of many a lavish Douglas Adams shindig with his piano playing and his comic songs. And both strongly held plenty of opinions that they weren’t shy about sharing with each other. Their sparring matches about every subject under the sun became famous amongst their circle of acquaintances. In the midst of one heated exchange, Douglas picked up a fish from his plate at a fine French restaurant and smacked Michael across the face with it, leaving the latter as one of the few people in the world able to make reference to a certain old British cliché from actual experience. Still, their arguments did no apparent lasting damage to their friendship.

Quite the contrary: Douglas believed deeply in Michael’s literary talent and found him personally inspiring. At the time that Magnetic Scrolls was hitting it big with The Pawn, Douglas was struggling with his fifth novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, his most earnest attempt ever to separate himself from a legacy that often felt to him like a millstone and define himself as a writer of general note, not just the guy behind that wacky Hitchhiker’s Guide stuff. The titular detective is based in whole or in part on Michael: in the words of Douglas’s biographer Nick Webb, “plump, bespectacled, addicted to cigs, delinquent about money, randy yet unfulfilled, given to gnomic utterances, exploitative, guilty, not entirely wholesome, irritatingly right, and possessed of high-powered but usually non-linear thought processes.” In between using him for inspiration and as a sounding board and editorial consultant for his own writing, Douglas sometimes found writing gigs for Michael to handle on his own, sometimes out of mere loyalty to his old mate and respect for his talents, sometimes and less magnanimously as a surrogate to take on projects he’d gotten himself into and didn’t want to follow through on.

It was largely the latter motivation that led Douglas to get Michael his first gig as an author of interactive fiction. Douglas had convinced Infocom that they would follow up the Hitchhiker’s game not with a direct sequel right away but with a different sort of collaboration, a slice-of-life comedy about the petty bureaucratic tyrannies of modern life. What with his enthusiasm for the project having begun to flag almost immediately after agreeing to do it, he eventually enlisted Michael as a sort of British-humorist surrogate to take it on. The latter thus traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late 1986 to spend a month holed up in a hotel room near Infocom’s offices with programmer Tim Anderson, writing or rewriting much of the text in Bureaucracy. The full story of Bureaucracy is a long one that we’ll get to in a future article. For now, suffice to say that Michael knew interactive fiction quite well on account of his work on that game as well as his friendship with Douglas Adams when he first met Anita Sinclair at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1987.

Michael was there to cover the latest and greatest in the world of technology for his various journalistic beats. Anita was there to promote The Pawn, still her company’s only released game, as well as to preview their next, another fantasy romp to be called Guild of Thieves. The two hit it off immediately — Michael still calls Anita “one of the most fascinating and brilliant women I’ve ever met” — and were soon a romantic item. By virtue of, as he himself puts it, his “sleeping with the boss,” Michael became a significant figure at Magnetic Scrolls for the two years or so that their relationship lasted. Leaving their romantic attraction in the realm of the personal where it belongs, the reasons for the professional attraction aren’t hard to suss. Michael was witty, urbane, erudite, and literary down to his bones, exactly the way Anita ideally envisioned Magnetic Scrolls. Anita, meanwhile, was building little virtual worlds out of text and code, something that struck Michael as delightfully futuristic and exciting. They also had something else in common: Michael’s career was destined to be discussed all too often through the prism of Douglas Adams, just as Anita’s career with Magnetic Scrolls would be through that of Infocom. By way of fair warning, I should say now that I’m going to be doing a lot more of both in this very article.

We’ll get to Michael’s creative contributions to Magnetic Scrolls momentarily. First, though, let’s talk intangibles. An association with Michael Bywater, whether personal or professional, usually brought with it an association with his good friend and occasional patron Douglas Adams. Thus Anita was soon living next door to Douglas in Islington and attending many a party at his flat. For Magnetic Scrolls, a relationship with Michael and Douglas led naturally to the furtherance of a relationship with Infocom that had already been tentatively established at the end of 1986, when Anita attended Infocom’s Christmas party and met most of the Imps for the first time. The two companies soon became quite chummy with one another indeed, visiting one another’s offices any time they had an excuse to travel across the ocean. Both have stated on many occasions that they genuinely, personally liked one another, enjoyed socializing together and talking shop about the esoterica of parsers and world models that almost no one else in the world was struggling with with the same degree of seriousness. There was occasional talk amongst the more paranoid souls at both companies of trade secrets and the theft thereof, but the two companies’ core technologies were built on such different lines that the idea was almost inapplicable. Their conversations tended to be more philosophical and general than technical and specific.

The overall market for text adventures was undeniably dwindling by the late 1980s, but if anything this only served to strengthen the relationship. Anyone buying a Magnetic Scrolls or Infocom game from 1987 onward was almost by definition a member of the hardcore who would happily buy from both companies; it wasn’t a zero-sum game like, say, two competing word-processor makers. On the contrary, each could do something for the other. Infocom, after largely ignoring the world outside of North America for years, very much wanted to establish a presence in Europe and especially Britain, not least because their North American sales were continuing to trend so relentlessly downward; they could very much use Magnetic Scrolls’s advice and public support in making this international push. And Magnetic Scrolls craved the cachet that still clung to the Infocom brand, the legitimizing effect brought to their little operation by, say, a joint press conference in London with Dave Lebling. The public relationship was always a bit asymmetrical, with Magnetic Scrolls always pretty clearly the junior partner; Magnetic Scrolls strew their games and feelies with references to Infocom and the Imps, as if to brag about the connection, while, tellingly, Infocom never bothered to reciprocate. There are also some odd instances of apparent wishful thinking from Magnetic Scrolls’s side, such as Anita Sinclair’s claim in late 1987 that she had actually brokered the deal between Infocom and Michael Bywater that finally got Bureaucracy finished, a claim that just doesn’t hold water in light of the established historical timeline. Still, Magnetic Scrolls, alone amongst the other makers of adventure games, had won for themselves a seat at the table with the best in the business.

Indeed, Magnetic Scrolls continues to benefit from the Infocom association to this day, being widely regarded — occasional naysaying fans of the admittedly longer-lived and more prolific Level 9 to the contrary — as the “British Infocom.” Given that appellation, it’s worth noting that Magnetic Scrolls’s games are far from clones of Infocom’s. There is first of all their very British Britishness, which actually played very well in North America, where there was always a substantial demographic overlap amongst fans of Monty Python, fans of Douglas Adams, and fans of text adventures. If anything, Magnetic Scrolls would play up the Britishisms even more in the games that followed The Pawn, to the point that it could start to feel painfully self-conscious on occasion. They found that doing so made their games stand out on foreign shelves; it just made good commercial sense.

But there are also less immediately obvious differences. Magnetic Scrolls, especially in their early games, didn’t embrace storytelling to anywhere near the degree that Infocom had been doing for years now. Their games remained largely text adventures rather than interactive fictions, setting your anonymous avatar loose in a big, interesting environment and just letting you get on with it, collecting stuff and using it to solve puzzles. This was reflected in their development system, which emphasized the simulation aspect of virtual worldbuilding much more than did Infocom’s games. Every object had a weight, a size, even a strength — to determine what would happen if you tried to “break” one item with another — and this data was maintained quite scrupulously in comparison to Infocom’s more relaxed approach to realism. At its best, this could lead to interesting and unanticipated emergent effects. Michael Bywater has told the story of an experimental in-house game that had a rat which could, like all items in the game, be frozen in a tub of liquid nitrogen. Afterward, and much to the surprise of everyone involved, the frozen rat’s tail could be used to slice open a sack in lieu of the knife that had been put in the game for that purpose.

More commonly, though, the emphasis on simulation just leads to you the player carrying around a lot of objects given arbitrary labels like “broken” which the game doesn’t seem quite certain how to deal with. Modern interactive-fiction author Emily Short describes the dangers of out-of-control simulationism:

The premise “the world will have everything!” is not a story concept. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s much better to go in with one specific thing you want to achieve, and execute that really well. If that happens to include building out a liquid system or weather that changes over the course of the story, that’s fine. But you need to have a reason for everything you put in, or it will just get out of hand.

The hard truth that all-encompassing simulationism is more interesting for the programmer than it is for the player would seemingly begin to dawn on Magnetic Scrolls as time went on, but never as fully as it did on Infocom. While Infocom had years to build on their own early games with their hunger, thirst, and sleep timers, harshly realistic inventory limits, and even occasional randomized combat, Magnetic Scrolls’s career of active game-making was dramatically compressed in comparison: less than half the time, about 20 percent the total completed games.

There were also marked differences in process as well as philosophy. Infocom never abandoned their conception of their games as works of one or at most two authors, like the novels they were so self-consciously styled to echo in so many ways. As time went on and the dream of Infocom as pioneers of a new genre of mainstream literature began to fade, they only clung to this vision all the tighter. Beginning with Leather Goddesses of Phobos in 1986, Infocom began putting each game’s author right there on the cover in the place once occupied by the genre tag. When circumstance and happenstance forced collaboration on them, as in the case of Bureaucracy, their internal processes, so efficient in so many other ways, just didn’t seem to be able to deal with it — a failing that has been individually raised as one of the company’s most persistent unsolved problems by quite a number of insiders. Each Magnetic Scrolls game, by contrast, was very much the product of a team process. Artists, designers, programmers, writers, literally the whole staff of the company — all joined in to contribute and complete the game.

At the same time, though, when it came to the most important collaboration of all — the testing process — Magnetic Scrolls trailed far behind Infocom. Too much of the time their games have that echo-chamber quality of works that have never been experienced by anyone other than the people who made them. As I’ve said quite a number of times before, it’s first and foremost a tribute to Infocom’s testing regime that their games managed to be so consistently good as they were. Magnetic Scrolls, with no testing regime to match, couldn’t hope to match Infocom’s level of polish. In addition to a dribble of typos and textual glitches that you just wouldn’t see in an Infocom game, every one of their games seems to be marred by at least one or two Really Bad Ideas that thorough testing would have done away with. “The testing, debugging, and refining process can take forever, but you have to draw the line at some point,” Anita once stated. “Otherwise the game would never see the light of day.” Fair enough, but one could wish at times that Magnetic Scrolls had been willing to draw their line just a bit closer to that infinity.

Guild of Thieves

That said, Magnetic Scrolls’s second game, Guild of Thieves, did manage to put a much better foot forward than The Pawn, becoming in the process their most prototypical game if arguably not their absolute best, the logical first choice for anyone who wants to get a taste of what they were all about. As he had for The Pawn, Rob Steggles during a break from university sketched out virtually the entire design on four pages of closely spaced notebook paper in a matter of a few days, then left it to the rest of Anita’s little team to realize it. The game even took place in Kerovnia, The Pawn‘s fantasy world. The final result, however, turned out much better. Rob Steggles himself admits today that Guild of Thieves “was certainly a lot more accessible and coherent than The Pawn.” For all the praise The Pawn accrued in the press, back-channel communications — quite possibly including some feedback from their new mates at Infocom — must have led Magnetic Scrolls to realize that that game wasn’t quite an ideal adventure. “One of the things people objected to about The Pawn was our weirdness,” said Anita at the time of Guild of Thieves‘s release. “We’ve taken a lot of our weirdness out of Guild of Thieves.” Conflating fairness with difficulty in a way that was depressingly common at the time, Anita declared that the new game would be much “easier,” “aiming at a much more straight-forward market. I mean, you won’t have to be an avid adventurer to enjoy this product.”

Guild of Thieves

Magnetic Scrolls’s second game Guild of Thieves may just contain artist Geoff Quilley’s best work for the company.

Well, I’m not quite sure about that last statement, and I certainly wouldn’t characterize Guild of Thieves as “easy.” I would, however, characterize it as a very, very good old-school adventure game, one of my absolute favorites of its type. You play an apprentice thief whose trial of initiation into the Guild entails looting a castle and its surroundings of valuables. Even in 1987 its plot — or almost complete lack thereof — marked it as something of a throwback, an homage to classic formative works like Adventure and Zork. You’re free to roam as you will through its sprawling world of a hundred or more rooms right from the beginning, solving puzzles and collecting treasures and watching your score slowly increment. Most of the individual puzzles are far from overwhelming in difficulty; for the most part they’re blessedly fair. The difficulty is rather more combinatorial. Guild of Thieves, you see, is a very big game. You’re quite likely to lose track of something in the course of playing it, whether it be a forgotten treasure or an unsolved puzzle. Still, it’s only when you reach the end game, which entails penetrating the Bank of Kerovnia to recover all of the treasures you’ve been “depositing” there for points, that a few of the puzzles begin to push the boundaries of fair play. (Text adventures and banks apparently just don’t agree with one another: one of Infocom’s most famously bad puzzles took place in the Bank of Zork in Zork II.)

Guild of Thieves

Guild of Thieves is old-school in conception, but it’s not without Magnetic Scrolls’s trademark technological inventiveness. The ability to simply “go to” any location in the game in lieu of compass directions and the associated ability to “find” any item is more than just an impressive gimmick; it’s a huge convenience for the player, one might even say a godsend given the sheer sprawl of the game. Magnetic Scrolls’s much-vaunted “data-driven” model of adventuring also bears some useful fruit in the ability to reference objects by kinds. If you are, for instance, carrying a bunch of billiard balls, you can drop them all — and nothing else — by simply typing, “drop balls.” If the parser in Guild of Thieves still isn’t quite as flexible and responsive as Infocom’s — it guesses at your meaning occasionally to sometimes unfortunate effect, and its error messages are nowhere near as comprehensive and useful — it’s very, very close, the closest anyone would ever manage during the era of the commercial text adventure. Certainly it’s the first and only to make one sit up and say from time to time, “Gee, I wish I could do this with the Infocom parser.” That Magnetic Scrolls did this while also shoehorning lovely graphics and a much larger world than was typical of Infocom into the humble little Commodore 64 gives considerable credence to the British press’s oft-repeated assertion that their technology was actually much better than that of Infocom.

Guild of Thieves

The prose in Guild of Thieves is mostly fairly matter of fact, with just the occasional flash of whimsical humor. A fellow thief who’s also casing the place for treasure provides the most frequent and amusing source of comic relief. But otherwise much of the game’s personality and the bulk of its humor are off-loaded to What Burglar, a sort of Guild newsletter largely authored by none other than Michael Bywater. Michael:

It was the time of the breakdown of trades unionism in Britain and there were all these terrible dinosaurs representing The Working Man and in reality just buggering up The Working Man’s life with rules and restrictions and terrible tortured constipated bureaucratic language and all the rest of it… and I thought it would be fun to apply that mindset — of truculent respectability — to something which wasn’t in the slightest bit respectable. And it just went from there.

The humor’s somewhat hit and miss, with more than a little of that “I’m trying ridiculously hard to be very, very British” quality that occasionally dogged Magnetic Scrolls in general, but when it hits it hits very squarely indeed. I particularly like the Guild’s reaction, so typical of any hidebound bureaucracy when its comfortable status quo is threatened, to members who decide to jump ship: “Beaker said he was ‘sick as a macaw’ with young apprentices training at the Guild’s expense and then ‘going off the straight and narrow — becoming doctors and shopkeepers and such.'”

Guild of Thieves

While creating Guild of Thieves was a relatively smooth process for the close-knit little group of friends who had already created The Pawn together, the process of creating Magnetic Scroll’s third game was so torturous that it found expression in the very name of said game. Originally titled Green Magic, it was to be a contemporary urban fantasy written and designed by Anita’s sister Georgina, author of the novella that accompanied the Rainbird release of The Pawn. If Guild of Thieves was Magnetic Scrolls’s Zork, Green Magic was to be their Enchanter, its puzzles revolving around collecting spells and using them to solve more puzzles to collect more spells and… you get the picture. As Anita later put it, though, “Everything seemed to go wrong that possibly could.” Whether despite or because of the familial connection, Georgina just never got on with the team who would be responsible for implementing her ideas, leading to lots of tense conversations and lots of fruitless wheel-spinning on the part of just about everyone involved. Meanwhile the design seemed to wander off-course almost of its own accord; what was supposed to have been a game about spell-casting ended up with just five under-used spells in it as other puzzle ideas kept taking precedence. As the changes came and went and the cost mounted it started to look more and more like a bad penny that just wasn’t worth saving. “I think if you’d taken a poll at Magnetic Scrolls a few months ago about whether we would continue with it or not despite the work we’d already put into it,” said Anita just before its eventual (miraculous?) completion, “just about everyone would have voted to drop it completely.” At last Georgina delivered a final draft and pronounced herself done with it. In Anita’s opinion the writing still just wasn’t very good: “When the first ‘finished’ version came in, I felt like picking it up and giving it a good shake. It was rather twee.”

Christmas 1987 was looming, and Rainbird was expecting a second game from Magnetic Scrolls for the year. Anita therefore once again enlisted her beau Michael Bywater. Initially she asked him to simply polish up some of the worst parts of the text, but Michael, an established professional writer, was understandably not excited about becoming Georgina’s editor. Working in a similar creative frenzy to the one that had yielded the finished Bureaucracy, fueled by coffee and cigarettes and Anita’s encouragements, he rewrote every bit of text in the game in a matter of a few weeks. Michael:

The process was quite interesting because the game logic had already been coded and only the descriptors were changeable. For example we might have had, at the logical level, X cuts Y and A opens & B comes out. Well, you could start with “The fairy sword cuts the cobweb mantle and the magic room opens and Euphorbia the tinkling gnome dances out.” You might think, no, we’ll change all that and have “The enraged ogre’s penknife cuts the imbecile mountaineer’s safety-rope and his anorak tears open and his lunch falls out,” which is obviously a completely different narrative passage, but the underlying structure is the same. And that’s basically all I did. I got the structure and changed the way that structure was enacted.

As for the game’s new title, it was a natural outgrowth of the black humor that had now been surrounding it for some time amongst its would-be creators: Jinxter.

Jinxter

Sometimes Jinxter echoes just a bit too closely the work of Michael’s friend and patron Douglas Adams. See for instance this part that pays homage to Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s game on perhaps one or two too many levels:

>get keyring
As you bend to pick up the keyring, a sudden tremendous roaring fills your ears, like the roar of the sea. It is not, however, the roar of the sea, but the roar of an inhumanly, abominably, unfairly colossal bus. Your response to this hideous threat to your existence is to stand immobile with your mouth hanging open.

>examine bus
You are about to die. Your job is to come to terms with the situation. It's pointless to try to examine anything.

>run
No time for that now. There is a squeal of brakes, followed by a sickening dull cliche as a small dog (which was innocently munching on a passing microscopic space fleet) is propelled into the Land Where Doggies Are Eternally Blessed by a large bus. You, on the other hand, are propelled to the kerbside by a firm grip on your collar, and, when you recover your so-called "senses," you see a large, pot-bellied figure in a herringbone overcoat hovering a couple of feet above the pavement munching on a cheese sandwich.

Yes, I’m afraid it now once again becomes hard to talk about Michael Bywater without using Douglas Adams as the chief point of comparison. Dave Lebling once described Michael as “writing like a somewhat more acerbic Douglas.” Certainly Michael’s humor lacks the humanity of Douglas Adams at his best. If Douglas is laughing at the absurdities of the universe and the people that inhabit it, Michael is laughing at you, out there wasting your time with this silly adventure game. Douglas liked his haplessly average hero Arthur Dent so much that he just kept getting him out of scrapes for book after book. When he finally killed him at the end of Mostly Harmless, he regretted it almost from the moment the book went to press; this senseless murder, which he attributed largely to depression and existential angst following the death of his father, pained him for the rest of his life. Jinxter‘s equivalent to Arthur Dent is your avatar, rescued from the death by large bus described above by forces beyond her ken to save the world. When she gets done doing that, Michael sends her back to be flattened after all; this marks the “winning” ending of the game (Scorpia was once again not amused). Needless to say, Michael has never expressed one instant of regret.

For whatever reason, the art in Jinxter is a bit more pixellated and a bit less dazzling. Ah, well, Bywater's prose perhaps dazzles enough.

The art in Jinxter is more pixellated and less dazzling, likely a result of the time crunch under which it was finalized. Ah, well, Michael Bywater’s prose perhaps dazzles enough.

Michael Bywater’s writing is sometimes ostentatious and sometimes cuttingly cruel but almost always wickedly clever. In fact, the prose in this badly flawed game is almost enough to gambol away entirely with my critical judgment. There’s some Carrollesque wordplay:

>examine roll

The plum roll has the plum role in the entire game, but otherwise is just a red herring.

There’s some adroitly adept alliteration:

>examine fire engine

The furiously flashing fire engine sports a splendid ladder and a fanfare for forcing foot-travelers to flee from its feverish fire-dousing fury (all fundamentally fictitious flapdoodle, of course; for, though finely-forged, this fire engine is a fake, fixed firmly in the fairground).

There’s some unlikely metaphors that would make Dickens proud:

>examine stationmaster

This old buffer has, after years of contact with trains, become at least 50% train himself, as is obvious from the way he steams and puffs and whistles his way around his domain.

There’s even a bit of sly innuendo to remind you that Jinxter came from the company that made the protagonist of their first game a pothead.

>examine harmonica
This is the Larry Adler Special Chromatina, as featured in the movie "Blow Mah Organ, Big Boy." If you put it in your mouth and blow, it makes a happy sound. Same old story, huh?

But we really do need to talk about the flaws now. They’re strangely well-hidden, easy to overlook at first in light of the oft-crackling prose. Then in the final stage you penetrate the castle of the villain, only to get yourself thrown into the dungeon. There comes a puzzle at this point that neatly illustrates everything that went wrong far too often for Magnetic Scrolls. Here’s the setup:

Dungeon
This room has been carefully decorated in traditional dungeon style, and thus is disgusting. Damp drips from the crumbling walls, to which a set of heavy manacles are immovably pinioned. Nearby hangs a rope which appears to be attached to a wooden hatch.

>lift hatch
Try as you might, the hatch won't budge.

>examine rope
This old, rotted rope is attached to the wooden hatch. Looks like you pull on the rope to get the food in the hatch. If there were any food in the hatch, that is. Anyway, you get the picture.

>pull rope
Interesting... as you pull on the rope, the shutter rises to reveal one of those little "dumb waiters." That is to say, a little space with another shutter on the far side. It looks as though the outer shutter closed by means of some interlocking mechanism as the inner shutter opened, probably so that the unfortunate prisoner could get at his food without ever being able to glimpse the outside world.

After a few moments, the weight of the shutter becomes too much for you; you let go of the rope, and the hatch crashes shut.

>tie rope to manacles
You raise the shutter with the rope, which is now long enough to reach the manacles. Once tied, the taut ropes keeps the hatch shutter open.

>enter hatch
Dumb Waiter
You are compressed like toothpaste in a tube into this pigswill-stinking compartment between two hatches, one leading to the dungeon, the other to the kitchen. In the good old days, at this point, a prisoner would have flung open the hatch and eaten you.

>open outer hatch
Try as you might, the outer hatch won't budge.

>close inner hatch
Try as you might, the inner hatch won't budge.

The obvious problem here is how to get the outer hatch open — or the inner hatch closed, which amounts to the same thing given the mechanism that links them. You have quite a collection of items in your inventory, but for purposes of this puzzle the relevant ones are a top hat, a candle, and a book of matches. Feel free to give it some thought before proceeding if you like, although I’m not sure it will do you much good.

So, the solution is to put the top hat below the rope that’s tied to the manacles, put the candle in the top hat so it doesn’t fall over, light it with a match, dive into the hatch, and wait for the candle to burn the rope enough that it breaks. Now, this makes no sense on multiple levels. It’s not a bad puzzle because it’s contrived; most adventure-game puzzles, including just about all of the classics (hello, babel fish!), are contrived, and if you can’t accept that you’re unlikely to be able to accept playing adventure games. It’s a bad puzzle because it just doesn’t make any sense given the consensus physical reality the player expects to share with the game. How on earth can a top hat as wide as my head hold up a narrow little candle? And if it’s some weird, fat candle — the game never describes it as anything other than “a stick of wax with a wick up it” — it should be more than stable enough to stand on its own, sans hat. And can even an “old rotted rope” that must be at least a foot or so above the candle, given that it’s tied to manacles mounted on the wall, really be burned by it enough to break? And then why can’t I just eliminate the middle man, as it were, and light the rope itself on fire? Well, actually, I can, but I just get the message that “The rope burns away” before I can do anything else, an emergent effect of the generic simulationism of which Magnetic Scrolls was so proud. As the cherry on top of this delightful shit sundae of a puzzle, the whole thing is subtly but persistently and thoroughgoingly bug-ridden if you head off on anything but the game’s arbitrary right track. Burning the rope itself directly, for instance, leaves the game in hopeless confusion about whether it’s actually there or not anymore, while tying the rope to other stuff gives a wonderful lesson on all of the ways that ropes in adventure games are notoriously difficult to implement, to such an extent that the advice of many long-time interactive-fiction authors to beginners on the use of them can be summed up in one word: “Don’t.”

As bad as that puzzle is, there’s one that follows that may be even worse, a sliding-blocks puzzle implemented in text — a questionable premise to begin with — that has you moving a bunch of numbers around with no clue whatsoever of what configuration you’re intended to bring them into. This compulsion so many text-adventure designers had to make the final sections of their games really, really hard — i.e., unfair — is frustrating to say the least. As Graham Nelson amongst other interactive-fiction critics has often noted, endgames should if anything ratchet down in difficulty as the player gets closer to victory. By the time she gets to the final puzzle or two, she’s so close she can taste it; she just wants to win. The game should do her that kindness by not throwing impossible barriers in her path.

But you still haven’t yet heard the worst of it with Jinxter. I thought there was no capriciously cruel thing that an adventure game could still do to leave me shocked, but when I played Jinxter recently for the first time it proved me wrong. Unless you’ve been playing straight from a walkthrough or have been otherwise forewarned, your first time through the game is almost guaranteed to end like this:

Hallway
The spiral staircase leads downwards from this hallway, which, from its atmosphere of nervous anticipation, would seem to be some sort of waiting room. There are two Gothic doors set into the far wall. You begin to realize that the architect of this place had something of a one-track mind. You can hear a fearful fracas taking place behind the doors.

>open left door
The left door is now open.

>enter left door
Wrong, wrong, wrong. That was a BAD move. Bet you're wishing you'd gone through the other door, aren't you? Well, it wouldn't have helped. Not one bit. The fact is, you just weren't lucky enough to get out of this scrape. Not this time. Not here. Not now. Had you been a little further up on the luck scale, so to speak, perhaps things would have been different. As it is, they're not, but you are, different that is. You're out of luck. Totally. Completely. It's all gone, and so have you. Goodbye.

It seems that the game has been keeping track of your depletable store of luck all along. Many things that seemed like close calls just added to the game for atmosphere — like the piece of barbed wire that almost hit you in the face when you cut through a fence way back at the beginning — have been depleting this store. Use luck one time to get out of a scrape, and you’re toast when it comes to the endgame. Now you get to play it all over from the beginning, trying to identify and head off these situations; you’ll find out how successful you were only when you get back to the scene above. I’ve played a lot of adventure games, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite as heartless as this one — and that, my friends, is saying a lot. Certainly I’ve never seen a game revel in its cruelty as much as Jinxter does in the paragraph above.

The question I’m left with is Why? Cruel tricks were usually included to pad a game’s length, but Jinxter, like its predecessors, is a big game already, with lots of puzzles and plenty to see and do. One wonders why no one told Magnetic Scrolls that torturing the player like this was a really, really bad idea, not exactly the sort of thing that sends her whistling happily off to the shop to buy the next one. The most logical conclusion, especially given the rush to complete Jinxter, is that no one told them because no else ever even played it before it shipped. In one or two interviews Anita mentioned Jinxter‘s luck mechanic in passing, bizarrely spinning it as sort of progressive design choice, a way to let beginning players see more of the game without getting stumped by the hardest puzzles. One could reply to that simply by pointing her to Wishbringer, a game that use a similar mechanic in a way that leaves the player who’s taken the easy way out once or twice with a satisfying winning screen that encourages her to play again for a better score rather than cutting her off at the knees for failing to solve puzzles she didn’t even know existed. About the only thing Jinxter encourages a beginning player to do is not to play any more text adventures.

Speaking of which: Guild of Thieves sold well, but somewhat less well than The Pawn, while Jinxter registered another substantial drop-off from its predecessor. This steady downward sales trend would continue for Magnetic Scrolls, who would never manage another game with anything like the commercial impact of The Pawn. But their games themselves would remain consistently interesting if also consistently inconsistent, and we’ll continue to follow them in future articles. As for Michael Bywater, he wouldn’t have a hand in any of the Magnetic Scrolls games to come, but he’s definitely a character we’ll be meeting again around here for other reasons.

(Sources this time are largely the same as those from my last article. Also: a fascinating if confused and ill-advised article by Andy Baio and the comments therein and Michael Bywater and Steve Meretzky’s joint appearance at an event organized by Yoz Grahame circa 2005. And two biographies of Douglas Adams: Nick Webb’s Wish You Were Here and M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker. You can download the Amiga versions of Guild of Thieves and Jinxter from here if you like, or download the games and an interpreter to run them on many modern platforms from The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial.)

 

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