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The Spellcasting Series (or, How Much Ernie Eaglebeak is Too Much Ernie Eaglebeak?)

In an earlier article, I described Steve Meretzky during his peak years at Infocom as “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.” But his talents encompassed more than just good puzzle design. As an Infocom Imp, he had the unique gift of taking potentially hackneyed or just plain dumb premises and making them subtly, subversively smart. Who would have expected Leather Goddesses of Phobos, his ribald low-brow sex romp, to prove so clever and joyous and downright life-affirming? Who would have expected Stationfall, on its face the most rote sequel Infocom ever made — “Bring back Floyd!” had shouted the masses, and Meretzky had obliged — to turn gradually and without any warning whatsoever into the creepiest, most oppressive game in their canon?

It’s because I know what he’s capable of at his best that I’ve always found Meretzky’s post-Infocom career a little disappointing. He did make good games after Infocom, but his track record from those years was far more mixed. During the 1990s, his dumb premises too often lacked the requisite touch of smarts to leaven the brew, and some of his design genius seemed to desert him. And sadly, his disappointments often smacked not of aiming too high, as he arguably had with his flawed would-be Infocom masterpiece A Mind Forever Voyaging, but rather from aiming too low, from being content to wallow in his established persona as a maker of wacky adventure games without adding that subversive spice that had elevated games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Stationfall to more interesting heights. Seen from this standpoint, his very first game after Infocom’s shuttering, Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, while a perfectly serviceable wacky adventure game in its own right, does rather portend the less inspiring phase of his career that was now beginning.

That said, when removed from the context of the games Meretzky was still to make, and particularly from that of the direct sequels to this game that were to follow, Spellcasting 101 is hardly a crime against adventure gaming. In fact, it was a wise if safe choice of a game to mark Legend Entertainment’s debut as a company and Meretzky’s as a freelance game designer. I already laid out the reasons for that in my last article: Steve Meretzky was well-known for his wacky comedy adventures; his Leather Goddesses of Phobos had been Infocom’s last big hit; Sex Sells in the abstract. Ergo Spellcasting 101. The first release of this very fragile new company was not the time to take too many artistic chances.

Spellcasting 101, then, finds Steve Meretzky sitting very comfortably in his wheelhouse, mixing unabashedly dumb humor — I might use the adjective “sophomoric,” but perhaps I should reserve that for the sequel Spellcasting 201 — with smart puzzles. You play Ernie Eaglebeak, the latest in adventure gaming’s long line of loser protagonists. He’s in love with a hot little number named Lola Tigerbelly, and dreams of going off to Sorcerer University to study magic, but, in a sex-reversed version of the Cinderella story, is prevented from doing either of these things (sorry!) by Joey Rottenwood, his evil stepfather. (With a name like that, I think old Joey should have been fronting a punk-rock band, but what do I know?) In the prologue, you in the role of Ernie defy your stepfather’s wishes in the matter of your education at least by sneaking off to Sorcerer University after your acceptance letter arrives in the mail.

The game’s a little more risque than Leather Goddesses of Phobos, not least in that it now has pictures, but it’s still the sort of thing that only the most hormone-addled teenager is likely to find genuinely titillating; the sex is still very much played for laughs, not for, shall we say, self-gratification. Bob Bates of Legend had a rule of thumb for deciding what was and wasn’t acceptable to portray in the pictures. It’s best described as the “Playboy cover test”: anything that might appear on the cover — not the inside pages — of a Playboy magazine was okay. Like Leather Goddesses and its own two sequels, Spellcasting 101 does let you play in “nice” or “naughty” mode. Indeed, some of the most amusing gags in the games come if you choose to become one of the approximately one percent of players who don’t immediately switch to “naughty” mode. Suddenly nights of passion are replaced by, say, a night spent playing gin rummy. (Any resemblance to my marriage after eight and a half blissful years is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.)

One could wish that Meretzky had been able to let the player play as a female, as he had in Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but the need to depict so much of what happens visually, along with a more complicated plot and a more fleshed-out protagonist, precluded that possibility. The enforced male gaze does open the games up to a charge of sexism that it’s pointless to even try to refute. (Just look at those box covers and screenshots!) I suppose one could try to argue that the Spellcasting series is really making fun of the males doing all the leering, in the style of the Leisure Suit Larry series, but the humor doesn’t even have as much edge as those games, making it hard to regard it as satire. In the Spellcasting games’ defense, however, it’s all so over the top that it’s also hard for me at least to take any of it seriously enough to work up much outrage. Certainly Legend got little to no backlash from offended consumers, leaving Steve Meretzky’s wish to author a truly controversial game, which had burned since his stridently anti-Reagan effort A Mind Forever Voyaging back in 1985, still unrealized.

The explicit political statement that opened Leather Goddesses of Phobos felt bracing in its time, but the constant back-patting and referencing of notable contemporary culture warriors in the Spellcasting games gets to be a bit much. We get it, Steve, you’re a real rebel against the Establishment with your wacky adventure games.

The humor in general is a little hit and miss. Where the first Spellcasting game in particular really shines, however, is the puzzle design — which, it must be said, is sometimes inseparable from the humor, and therein lies much of its brilliance. Many of the puzzles rely on wordplay, such as the unexpected use of a spell to “increase bust size.” In fact, there’s an entire extended sequence, “The Island of Lost Soles,” built around a premise that would have suited Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It perfectly. The inhabitants of the titular island have been entrapped within the various objects there. So, for example, “Blaize” is now trapped inside a campfire on the beach, and can be released only by casting a spell to “restore lost souls” on his true name. The usual problem with puzzles like this — and certainly the big problem with the should-have-been-a-classic Nord and Bert — is that they rely so much on the player’s native vocabulary and intuition. There are going to be some connections that even the most gifted player in both categories will simply never make, leaving her wandering hopelessly stuck. Spellcasting 101 solves that problem with a stroke of genius that’s disarmingly simple. Once you’ve wandered for a given amount of time without making further progress, a “hint fairy” will show up, saying something like “Have you seen Blaize around here?” With an actual name now to hand, you can search the island again, looking for the right object to which to apply it. Thereby does the game preserve the joy of making spontaneous intuitive connections without ever allowing you to get hopelessly hung up on those connections you can’t make. This, my friends, is what good design looks like.

Indeed, there’s a lot of attention paid in Spellcasting 101, as there would be in most of Legend’s later games to an even greater extent, to treating the player fairly. Even the combinatorial-explosion problem that made so frustrating Zork Zero, Meretzky’s final epic for Infocom, is addressed here by dividing the game into manageable chapters, each with its own discrete set of goals. Granted, some of the chapters are time-based, requiring you to plan your efforts around a constantly ticking clock. Solving these parts requires a fair amount of trial and error — i.e., figuring out what needs to be done over the course of several passes through a given chapter, then making a plan and bringing it all together via a final speed run. You will, in other words, be saving and restoring quite a lot despite the absence of more egregious design sins. Still, it should also be noted that Spellcasting 101‘s two sequels are much bigger sinners in this department. For long stretches of Spellcasting 101, the ticking clock disappears — something that most definitely can’t be said about the sequels.

So, this first Legend adventure game ever evinces a clear desire to be welcoming and accessible, if necessary at the expense of the sort of really intricate puzzles beloved by some of Infocom’s more hardcore disciples. Suffice to say that it’s a long, long way from the enormous, complicated, bafflingly non-linear Zork Zero. Kudos to Steve Meretzky, who was known to complain during Infocom’s latter days that their games were getting too easy, for recognizing the role his latest game needed to play in getting Legend off the ground, and for adjusting his design to suit the circumstances. Making due accommodation for the fact that this style of humor will never be to everyone’s taste, if there’s a holistic complaint to be leveled against the design it’s probably that the whole thing is just a little schizophrenic. What seems like it’s going to be a game about life at Sorcerer University suddenly transforms just as you’re settling into it into a series of vignettes, played on islands scattered all over the Fizzbuttle Ocean, that could have come from almost any adventure game. The Island of Lost Soles is a prime case in point: delightful as I find it on its own merits, it has nothing really to do with any other part of the game that houses it beyond yielding when all is said and done the requisite piece of the magical whatsit you’re trying to collect. The other island vignettes are less extended but equally isolated from one another and from the overarching plot of the game as a whole. Luckily, they’re all entertaining enough that the objection becomes more philosophical than impedimentary.

Call me overly sensitive if you must, but this scene from Spellcasting 201 is one of those that creeps me out just a bit. It also illustrates one of the inconsistencies in the series’s writing. Ernie Eaglebeak is the classic put-upon nerdy loser who couldn’t buy a date — until it’s time to score, whereupon all the sexy ladies suddenly have the hots for him.

Spellcasting 201: The Sorcerer’s Appliance, Meretzky’s 1991 sequel, does fix this problem; the entire game now takes place inside the confines of a greatly expanded Sorcerer University. (The extended map is explained as the result of “an extensive campus renovation and expansion program.”) Now in his sophomore year, Ernie will need to save the world entirely from within the confines of the university and its immediate environs this time, in between attending classes and pledging to the fraternity Hu Delta Phart — whose name, along with those of its companion fraternities Tappa Kegga Bru, I Phelta Thi, and Gramma Eta Pi, gives a pretty good idea of the sort of humor you’ll find in these games, for anyone still in doubt.

Unfortunately, the previous game’s focus on playability and accessibly falls by the wayside. In Spellcasting 201, which is divided into chapters each representing one day, you’re the constant slave of a ticking clock that runs in increments of no less than five full minutes per turn. (Ernie, it appears, may be not just slothful but a genuine sloth.) While none of the puzzle solutions are out-of-left-field howlers, they do often require lots of trial and error. And thanks to that ticking clock, trial and error in this context means save and restore, again and again and again. As your collection of save files mounts, you also have to contend with a strict inventory limit that forces you to juggle objects in just the right way as you go about each day.

Some of the puzzles seem almost consciously engineered to be as annoying as possible, as if Meretzky has forgotten the lesson, long since taken to heart by his old peers at Infocom, that annoying the player in the name of comedy is seldom a good design strategy. Perhaps the worst offender of all is a magical musical instrument called a moodhorn, whose proper operation also serves as part of the game’s copy protection. You can play moodhorn compositions that are found in a music book that accompanies the game to affect the mood of the people around you — songs like “Happiness Interlude,” “Fear,” “Drippingtreesap’s Love Theme No. 15,” and “Winter Cold.” It sounds fun enough in theory, with, in the best tradition of the Enchanter series that did so much to inspire the Spellcasting games, lots of opportunities for Easter eggs even where puzzles solutions aren’t forthcoming. In practice, however, it’s just excruciating. Each song requires entering a series of six commands for manipulating the moodhorn, typing things like “vomp plunger,” “trib high glupp key,” and “oscilloop half burm lever” one after another in sequence. Because the moodhorn seems like it ought to be useful in many situations, you’ll likely spend much of the game wandering around trying out the twelve separate compositions listed in the music book, looking for the one place where the moodhorn actually is useful. Have I mentioned how excruciating this is? Just to add the final dollop of absurdity to the exercise, the ticking clock means that every moodhorn composition requires fully thirty precious minutes to play. (Even Yes albums don’t have songs that long!)

Legend stepped up to VGA graphics with Spellcasting 301, but the girls continue to look like they were assembled from mismatched spare parts left over after making other girls.

The series wobbled to its anticlimactic close with 1992’s Spellcasting 301: Spring Break, in which Ernie and his fraternity buddies head for the beach. The ticking clock remains and is as annoying as ever, although this time you are granted the mercy of being able to leave some tasks incomplete and still finish the game, albeit at a cost to your final score. Otherwise, the pleasures and pains are largely the same as those of the second game. The one immediately obvious difference is that the pictures, including all those babes that never seem to be put together quite the way real women are, are now in 256-color VGA rather than 16-color EGA. Given how much of a piece the Spellcasting games — particularly the last two — really are, I’d like to use the remainder of this article to try to understand what went so wrong with the series as a whole rather than to dwell on the details of Spellcasting 301‘s individual failings.

If we’re looking for someone to blame for the Spellcasting series’s problems — besides poor Steve Meretzky, that is — our first  candidate has to be Ernie Eaglebeak, the hapless loser you’re forced to play in all three games. Simply put, he’s a horrid little twerp, the sort of kid that you want to drag down to the beach just so you can personally kick some sand in his face. Worse, he’s such a thoroughly uninteresting horrid little twerp. Even as odious adventure-game losers go, he’s no Leisure Suit Larry. And as Ernie Eaglebeak goes, so goes the rest of the cast of bimbos, dirty old men, and fraternity bro-dudes. The most sympathetic character in the series, a dottering old professor by the name of Otto Tickingclock, gets cuckolded and then accidentally killed by Ernie, who cares not a whit. There’s precious little warmth or joy to be found herein. It’s baffling to think that these games were written by the man who gave us Floyd, the first character in a text adventure that we ever really cared about. The death knell for any piece of fiction, interactive or otherwise, comes with the opposite reaction, when the reader says, “I really don’t care what happens to these people.” It’s hard to imagine anyone invested enough in Ernie Eaglebeak to give a damn about him.

As fiction, then, the Spellcasting series has its problems. Ditto as comedy. Various Implementors who worked at Infocom, as well as many commentators over the decades since, have described the strict limitations imposed by Infocom’s original 128 K Z-Machine as a counter-intuitive benefit to their games in that it forced authors to hone their works down to polished jewels, excising all of the weaker bits, retaining only the very strongest material. I’ve always been and to some extent remain a little skeptical of this thesis; as I’ve stated in previous articles, I think that some of the latter-day Infocom games in particular were trying to do a little too much in too small a space, and could have really used a few more kilobytes at their disposal. That said, the Spellcasting series makes a very strong counterargument for the value of restraint, stringently enforced if need be. With a system to hand for the first time that supported effectively unlimited amounts of text, Meretzky felt free to write… and write… and write. Some of the gags go on forever, to little if any comedic payoff. At Infocom, all this material would have been ruthlessly pared down by Meretzky’s fellow Imps and the testers, leaving only the genuinely funny bits behind. In this new order, however, it all just lies there on the screen, limp and lifeless as the comatose girl Ernie crawls into bed with in one of the series’s squickier episodes.

Cringe-worthy meta-textual comments like this one from Spellcasting 201 were par for the course in amateur AGT text adventures of the time, but they’re a little disconcerting to see in a $40 boxed commercial game. This sort of lazy writing would never have made it out of the first round of testing at Infocom.

Having broached the subject of Infocom’s working methods versus those Meretzky would utilize as an independent designer, I’d like to continue to follow that line of thought, for I think it might just lead us to the core reason that the Spellcasting series and so much of Meretzky’s other post-Infocom work pales in comparison to his earlier classics. Even after he became Infocom’s most famous Imp, Meretzky remained just one member of a creative collective which had the willingness and ultimately the authority to restrain his more questionable design impulses. This was the well-honed Infocom process for making great adventure games in action. I think that Meretzky needed that process — or at least a process involving lots of checks and balances — in order to turn out his best work. Legend did try as much as possible to duplicate the Infocom process for making games, even going so far as getting a number of former Infocom employees to help out as testers, but, being a much smaller, decentralized operation, was never able to duplicate the spirited to-and-fro on questions of writing and design that did so much for all of the Infocom Imps’ work. For Steve Meretzky, working hundreds of miles away and accorded a certain untouchable status as Legend’s star designer, the proof of the consequences is in the Spellcasting pudding. I’d like to quote from a recent discussion I had with Bob Bates, in which I asked him his own opinion of the ticking clock and the various other retrograde elements found in the Spellcasting games.

I was never really a fan of a ticking clock. For me personally, the fun of these games comes in the exploration. It comes often not in the solution to the puzzle, but in all the things you discover while you’re trying to solve the puzzle. As a designer, I try to entertain the player during that time, and to encourage the player to try offbeat stuff. Ninety percent of what a player does in an adventure game is wrong. You have to entertain them during that ninety percent in order for them to get the joy of the ten percent that’s actual puzzle-solving. So, I’m not a fan of the time-restricted thing in the same way that I’m not a fan of limiting what the player can carry, making him have to stop and think about swapping things in and out of his inventory. It doesn’t appeal to me as a player or a designer, but other people are different. With Steve, what you’re probably seeing is a designer choice rather than a company choice.

Bob Bates confirmed that Meretzky, as Legend’s star designer, was afforded lots of freedom to make exactly “the game he wanted to make” — freedom which was not afforded to any of the in-house teams who made Legend’s other games, who were expected to hew closely to the more progressive design philosophy Bob outlines above. There’s an important lesson here — important not just in the context of Meretzky’s career, or the history of the adventure game, or even in the context of game design in general. It’s rather an important lesson for all creators, and for those who would nurture them.

I would submit that allowing Meretzky to make exactly the games he wanted to make was in the end greatly to said games’ detriment. I say this not because Steve Meretzky was an egomaniac, was unusually headstrong, or was ever anything other than a very nice, funny, personable, honest fellow who positively oozed with creativity. I say it because Steve Meretzky was human, and creative humans need other humans to push back against them from time to time. I suspect that many of you could name an author or two who used to write taut, compelling books, until they got big enough that no one felt empowered to edit them anymore. Ditto for music; how many once-great bands have tarnished their image with lazy, filler-laden latter-day albums? Game designers are no different from other creative professionals in this respect. Meretzky needed someone to tell him, “Hey, Steve, this aspect of the game is more annoying than fun,” or “Hey, Steve, this huge text dump doesn’t really say much of anything interesting or funny,” or “Hey, Steve, can’t you do something to make this Ernie twerp a bit less odious?”

If the Spellcasting games on the one hand reflect the lack of a sufficiently rigorous design process, on the other they reflect a certain failure of ambition on the part of their creator. Steve Meretzky was a very practical guy at heart, and seems to have taken a strong lesson from the commercial disappointment that had been A Mind Forever Voyaging. He continued to dream grander dreams than the likes of Ernie Eaglebeak and Sorcerer University, but he never pushed hard enough to make his dreams into actualities. The legendary lost Meretzky game, which he broached so many times that it’s become a sort of in-joke among a whole swathe of industry old-timers, was an historical epic taking place on the Titanic‘s one and only voyage. Bob Bates admits that he didn’t want Meretzky to make this game for Legend. Since, as he put it, “everyone knows how that story ends,” he believed there was little commercial appeal to the idea, an opinion which is cast in a very questionable light by the massive success of the James Cameron movie on the same subject of a few years later. What might have been had Mereztky stuck to his guns and brazened out the chance to make this grander vision? It strikes me as unlikely that anyone today would be saying, “Gee, that Titanic game was okay, but I sure would have liked some more Ernie Eaglebeak instead.”

The irony of the Spellcasting series is that these dissipated games did as much to dissipate whatever commercial momentum the newly independent Meretzky had as surely as might have a more ambitious concept. Sales of the Spellcasting games dropped off markedly after the first sold more than 50,000 copies as Legend’s very first product. The dwindling sales doubtless constitute much of the reason that a planned fourth game, Spellcasting 401: The Graduation Ball, was never made. Few regretted its absence overmuch. Between the Spellcasting games and the downright embarrassing Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, a half-assed graphic adventure he designed for the bankrupt Activision, Meretzky began his career as an independent game designer by ghettoizing himself as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” for years to come.

Ah, well… might-have-beens will always bloom eternal, won’t they? The first Spellcasting game at least can be a lot of fun, and perhaps comes off worse than is really fair here when I place it in the context of the increasingly dispiriting series as a whole. And I do want to note that I uniformly enjoy all of the other Legend text adventures much more than I do Spellcasting 201 and Spellcasting 301. I look forward to having more positive articles to write about them in the future.

The Legend games must still be played as they were originally delivered, as standalone programs running on an old MS-DOS computer or in an MS-DOS emulator, while the games of Infocom and many other earlier text-adventure publishers are much easier to get running thanks to modern interpreters for same. This relative inaccessibility has done much to keep the Legend games from being played as much as they deserve to be. While Bob Bates no longer owns the rights to the Legend games and thus cannot give official permission to host them, he has said that he doesn’t personally object if I do so. So, feel free to download Spellcasting 101Spellcasting 201, and Spellcasting 301 unless and until a scary legal person says it isn’t allowed. Included in each zip files are the associated documentation/feelies and a DOSBox configuration that should work with that particular game, along with a brief note on how to get it running on your system; whether you’re running Windows, OS X, or Linux, it’s all basically the same. I hope this will make it as painless as possible to experience these heretofore hard-to-find and hard-to-get-running pieces of interactive-fiction history.

So, by all means, have a go, starting with Spellcasting 101. Who knows, maybe you’ll find I’m just a boring old stick-in-the-mud and these games are the most hilarious and delightful things ever. Stranger things have happened.

 
 

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A Time of Beginnings: Legend Entertainment (or, Bob and Mike’s Excellent Adventure-Game Company)

As the dust settled and the shock faded in the months that followed the shuttering of Infocom, most of the people who had worked there found they were able to convince themselves that they were happy it was finally over, relieved that a clean sharp break had been made. Sure, they had greeted the initial bombshell that the jig was finally up with plenty of disbelief, anger, and sadness, but the fact remained that the eighteen months before that fateful day, during which they had watched their company lose its old swagger, its very sense of itself, had been if anything even more heartbreaking. And yes, there would be plenty of second-guessing among them in the years to come about what might have been if Cornerstone had never existed or if Bruce Davis hadn’t taken over control of Mediagenic,1 but Infocom’s story did nevertheless feel like it had run its natural course, leaving behind something that all of the Bruce Davises in the world could never take away: that stellar 35-game catalog, unmatched by any game developer of Infocom’s era or any era since in literacy, thoughtfulness, and relentless creative experimentation. With that along with all of their fine memories of life inside Infocom’s offices to buoy them, the former employees could move on to the proverbial next chapter in life feeling pretty good about themselves, regarding their time at Infocom as, as historian Graham Nelson so memorably put it, “a summer romance” that had simply been too golden to stay any longer.

Yet there was at least one figure associated with Infocom who was more inclined to rage against the dying of the light than to go gentle into that good night. Bob Bates had come to the job of making text adventures, a job he enjoyed more than anything else he had ever done, just a little bit too late to share the sense of closure felt by the rest of Infocom. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t managed to accomplish anything in the field: Bob had formed a company to challenge Infocom — a company named, appropriately enough, Challenge — that wound up joining them as the only outside developer ever allowed to copy Infocom’s in-house tools and make games for them under contract. Still, it had all happened very late in the day. When all was said and done, he had the dubious distinction of having made the last all-text Infocom game ever, followed by their very last game of all. His summer romance, in other words, had started in the last week of the season, and he’d barely gotten past first base. When he returned from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his home near Washington, D.C., on the stormy evening of May 5, 1989, having just been informed by Infocom’s head Joe Ybarra that Infocom’s Cambridge offices were being closed and Challenge’s services wouldn’t be needed anymore, his brief life in text adventures just felt so incomplete. And then, he found his roof was leaking. Of course it was.

Some of Bob’s restless dissatisfaction must have come across when, after that unhappy weekend was in the past, he called up Mike Verdu to tell him he would no longer be able to employ Mark Poesch and Duane Beck, the two programmers Mike’s company had sent out to work with Challenge. A remarkably young executive even in a field that has always favored the young, Mike was only in his mid-twenties, but already had an impressive CV.  In his second year at university, he had dropped out to form a consulting company he named Paragon Systems, which had come to employ Poesch and Beck. The two had been sent to Challenge when Bob came calling on Paragon, looking for help programming the games he had just signed a contract with Infocom to create. During the period when Challenge was making games for Infocom, Mike had sold Paragon to American Systems Corporation, a computer-integration firm that did significant business with the Department of Defense. He had stayed on thereafter with the bigger company as director of one of their departments, and Poesch and Beck had continued to work with Challenge, albeit under the auspices of ASC rather than Paragon. But now that would all be coming to an end; thus Bob’s phone call to Mike to inform him that he would have to terminate Challenge’s arrangement with ASC.

In truth, Bob and Mike didn’t know each other all that well prior to this conversation. Mike had always loved games, and had loved having a game company as a client, but Challenge had always had to remain for him as, as he puts it today, “one of many.” The call that Bob now made to Mike therefore began more as a simple transaction between customer and service provider than as a shared commiseration over the downfall of Bob’s business. Still, something that Bob said must have sparked Mike’s interest. The call continued far longer than it ought to have, and soon multiplied into many more conversations. In fairly short order, the conversations led to a suggestion from Mike: let’s start a new company to make and publish text adventures in the Infocom tradition. He even believed he could convince ASC to put up the bulk of the funding for such a company.

Set aside the fact that text adventures were allegedly dying, and the timing was oddly perfect. In 1989 the dominoes were toppling all over Eastern Europe, the four-decade Cold War coming to an end with a suddenness no one could have dreamed of just a few years before. Among the few people in the West not thoroughly delighted with recent turns of events were those at companies like ASC, who were deeply involved with the Department of Defense and thus had reason to fear the “peace dividend” that must lead to budget cuts for their main client and cancelled contracts for them. ASC was eager to diversify to replace the income the budget cuts would cost them; they were making lots of small investments in lots of different industries. In light of the current situation, an investment in a computer-game company didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have a year or two before, when the Reagan defense buildup was still booming, or, for that matter, might have just a year or two later, when the Gulf War would be demonstrating that the American military would not be idle on the post-Cold War world stage.

Though they had a very motivated potential investor, the plan Bob and Mike were contemplating might seem on the face of it counter-intuitive if not hopeless to those of you who are regular readers of this blog. As I’ve spent much time describing in previous articles, the text adventure had been in commercial decline since 1985. That very spring of 1989 when Bob and Mike were starting to talk, what seemed like it had to be the final axe had fallen on the genre when Level 9 had announced they were getting out of the text-adventure business, Magnetic Scrolls had been dropped by their publisher Rainbird, and of course Infocom had been shuttered by their corporate parent Mediagenic. Yet Bob and Mike proposed to fly in the face of that gale-force wind by starting a brand new company to make text adventures. What the hell were they thinking?

I was curious enough about the answer to that question that I made it a point to ask it to both Bob and Mike when I talked to them recently. Their answers were interesting enough, and said enough about the abiding love each had and, indeed, still has for the genre of adventures in text that I want to give each of them a chance to speak for himself here. First, Mike Verdu:

I believed that there was a very hardcore niche market that would always love this type of experience. We made a bet that that niche was large enough to support a small company dedicated to serving it. The genre was amazing; it was the closest thing to the promise of combining literature and technology. The free-form interaction a player could have with the game was a magical thing. There’s just nothing else like it. So, it didn’t seem like a dying art form to me. It just seemed that there were these bigger companies that the market couldn’t support that were collapsing, and that there was room for a smart niche player that had no illusions about the market but could serve that market directly.

I will say that when Bob and I were looking for publishing partners, and went to some trade conferences — through Bob’s connections we were able to meet people like Ken and Roberta Williams and various other luminaries in the field at the time — everybody said, “You have no idea what you’re doing. The worst idea in the world is to start a game company. It’s the best way to take a big pile of money and turn it into a small pile of money. Stay away!” But Bob and I are both stubborn, and we didn’t listen.

Understanding your market opportunity is really key when you’re forming a company. With Legend, we were very clear-eyed about the fact that we were starting a small company to serve a small market. We didn’t think it would grow to be a thousand people or take over the world or sell a million units of entertainment software per year. We thought there was this amazing, passionate audience that we could serve with these lovingly crafted products, and that would be very fulfilling creatively. If you’re a creative person, I think you have to define how big the audience is that is going to make you feel fulfilled. Bob and I didn’t necessarily have aspirations to reach millions of people. We wanted to reach enough people that we could make our company viable, make a living, and create these products that we loved.

And Bob Bates:

We recognized the risk, but basically we just still believed in the uniqueness of the parser-driven experience — in the pleasure and the joy of the parser-driven experience. By then, there were no other major parser-driven games around, and we felt that point-and-click was a qualitatively different experience. It was fun, but it was different. It was restrictive in terms of what the player could do, and there was a sense of the game world closing in on you, that you could only do what could be shown. Brian Moriarty had a great quote that I don’t remember exactly, but it was something like “you can only implement what you can afford to show, and you can’t afford to show anything.” As a player, I loved the freedom to input whatever I wanted, and I loved the low cost of producing that [form of interaction]. If there’s an interesting input or interaction, and I can address it in a paragraph of text, that’s so much cheaper than having an artist spend a week drawing it. Text is cheap, so we felt we could create games economically. We felt that competition in that niche wasn’t there anymore, and that it was a fun experience that there was still a market for.

Reading between the lines just a bit here, we have a point of view that would paint the failure of Infocom more as the result of a growing mismatch between a company and its market than as an indication that it was genuinely impossible to still make a living selling text adventures. Until 1985, the fulcrum year of the company’s history, Infocom had been as mainstream as computer-game publishers got, often placing three, four, or even five titles in the overall industry top-ten sales lists each month. Their numbers had fallen off badly after that, but by 1987 they had stabilized to create a “20,000 Club”: most games released that year sold a little more or less than 20,000 copies. Taking into account the reality that every title would never appeal enough to every fan to prompt a purchase — especially given the pace at which Infocom was pumping out games that year — that meant there were perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 loyal Infocom fans who had never given up on the company or the genre. Even the shrunken Infocom of the company’s final eighteen months was too big to make a profit serving that market, which was in any case nothing Bruce Davis of Mediagenic, fixated on the mainstream as he was, had any real interest in trying to serve. A much smaller company, however, with far fewer people on the payroll and a willingness to lower its commercial expectations, might just survive and even modestly thrive there. And who knew, if they made their games really well, they might just collect another 30,000 or 40,000 new fans to join the Infocom old guard.

This wasn’t to say that Bob and Mike could afford to return to the pure text that had sufficed for 31 of Infocom’s 35 adventure games. To have any chance of attracting new players, and quite possibly to have any chance of retaining even the old Infocom fans, they were well aware that some concessions to the realities of the contemporary marketplace would have to be made. Their games would include an illustration for every location along with occasional additional graphics, sound effects, and music to break up their walls of text. Their games would, in other words, enhance the Infocom experience to suit the changing times rather than merely clone it.

In the same spirit of maximizing their text adventures’ contemporary commercial potential, they very early on secured the services of Steve Meretzky, Infocom’s single most well-known former Implementor, who had worked on some of the company’s most iconic and successful titles. With Meretzky’s first game for their company, Bob and Mike would try to capitalize on his reputation as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” — a reputation he enjoyed despite the fact that he had only written one naughty adventure game in his career to date. Nevertheless, Bob encouraged Meretzky to “take the gloves off,” to go much further than he had even in his previous naughty game Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Meretzky’s vision for his new game can perhaps be best described today as “Animal House meets Harry Potter” (although, it should be noted, this was many years before the latter was published). It would be the story of a loser who goes off to Sorcerer University to learn the art and science of magic, whilst trying his best to score with chicks along the way. Of course, this being an adventure game, he would eventually have to save the world as well, but the real point was the spells and the chicks. The former would let Meretzky revisit one of the most entertaining puzzle paradigms Infocom had ever devised: the Enchanter series’s spell book full of bizarre incantations that prove useful in all sorts of unexpected ways. The latter would give Bob and Mike a chance to prove one more time the timeless thesis that Sex Sells.

So, the Meretzky game seemed about as good as things could get as a commercially safe bet, given the state of text adventures in general circa 1989. Meanwhile, for those players less eager to be titillated, Bob Bates himself would make what he describes today as a “classical” adventure, a more sober-minded time-travel epic full of intricately interconnected puzzles and environments. Between the two, they would hopefully have covered most of what people had liked about the various games of Infocom. And the really hardcore Infocom fans, of course, would hopefully buy them both.

In making their pitch to ASC and other potential investors, Bob and Mike felt ethically obligated to make careful note of the seeming headwinds into which their new company would be sailing. But in the end ASC was hugely eager to diversify, and the investment that was being asked of them was relatively small in the context of ASC’s budget. Bob and Mike founded their company on about $500,000, the majority of which was provided by ASC, alongside a handful of smaller investments from friends and family. (Those with a stake in Bob’s old company Challenge also saw it rolled over into the new company.) ASC would play a huge role during this formative period, up to and including providing the office space out of which the first games would be developed.

An ASC press release dated January 8, 1990, captures the venture, called GameWorks at the time, at this embryonic stage of high hopes and high uncertainty. Bob Bates is quoted as saying that “GameWorks products combine the best of several existing technologies in an exciting new format,” while Mike Verdu, who would remain in his old role at ASC in addition to his new one as a software entrepreneur for another couple of years, says that “ASC’s interest in this venture stems from more than just making money over the short term. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining software-publishing company.” Shortly after this press release, the name of said company would be changed from GameWorks to Legend Entertainment, harking back to the pitch for an “Immortal Legends” series of games that had first won Bob a contract with Infocom.

The part of the press release that described GameWorks/Legend as a “software-publishing company” was an important stipulation. Mike Verdu:

I remember making these spreadsheets early on, trying to understand how companies made money in this business. It became very clear to me very quickly that life as an independent developer, without the publishing, was very tough. You scrambled for advances, and the royalties you got off a game would never pay for the advances unless you had a huge hit. Your destiny was so tied to the publisher, to the vagaries of the producer that might get assigned to your title, that it just was not an appealing path at all.

In a very fundamental way, Legend needed to be a publisher as well as a developer if they were to bring their vision of text adventures in the 1990s to fruition. It was highly doubtful whether any of the other publishers would be willing to bother with the niche market for text adventures at all when there were so many other genres with seemingly so much greater commercial potential. In addition, Bob and Mike knew that they needed to have complete control of their products, from the exact games they chose to make to the way those games were packaged and presented on store shelves. They recognized that another part of becoming the implicit successor to Infocom must be trying as much as possible to match the famous Infocom packaging, with the included “feelies” that added so much texture and verisimilitude to their interactive fictions. One of the most heartbreaking signs of Infocom’s slow decline, for fans and employees alike, had been the gradual degradation of their games’ physical presentation, as the cost-cutters in Mediagenic’s Silicon Valley offices took away more and more control from the folks in Cambridge. Bob and Mike couldn’t afford to have their company under a publisher’s thumb in similar fashion. At the same time, though, a tiny company like theirs was in no position to set up its own nationwide distribution from warehouse to retail.

It was for small publishers facing exactly this conundrum that Electronic Arts and Mediagenic during the mid-1980s had pioneered the concept of the “affiliated label.” An affiliated label was a small publisher that printed their own name on their boxes, but piggy-backed — for a fee, of course — on the network of a larger publisher for distribution. By the turn of the decade, the American computer-games industry as a whole had organized itself into eight or so major publishers, each with an affiliated-label program of one stripe or another of its own, with at least several dozen more minor publishers taking advantage of the programs. As we’ve seen in other articles, affiliated-label deals were massive potential minefields that many a naive small publisher blundered into and never escaped. Nevertheless, Legend had little choice but to seek one for themselves. Thanks to Mike Verdu’s research, they would at least go in with eyes open to the risk, although nothing they could do could truly immunize them from it.

In seeking a distribution deal, Legend wasn’t just evaluating potential partners; said partners were also evaluating them, trying to judge whether they could sell enough games to make a profitable arrangement for both parties. This process, like so much else, was inevitably complicated by Legend’s determination to defy all of the conventional wisdom and continue making text adventures — yes, text adventures with graphics and sound, but still text adventures at bottom. And yet as Bob and Mike made the rounds of the industry’s biggest players they generally weren’t greeted with the incredulity, much less mockery, one might initially imagine. Even many of the most pragmatic of gaming executives felt keenly at some visceral level the loss of Infocom, whose respect among their peers had never really faded in tune with their sales figures — who, one might even say, had had a certain ennobling effect on their industry as a whole. So, the big players were often surprisingly sympathetic to Legend’s cause. Whether such sentiments could lead to a signature on the bottom line of a contract was, however, a different matter entirely. Most of the people who had managed to survive in this notoriously volatile industry to this point had long since learned that idealism only gets you so far.

For some time, it looked like a deal would come together with Sierra. Ken Williams, who never lacked for ambition, was trying to position his company to own the field of interactive storytelling as a whole. Text adventures looked destined to be a very small piece of that pie at best in the future, but that piece was nevertheless quite possibly one worth scarfing up. If Sierra distributed Legend’s games and they proved unexpectedly successful, an acquisition might even be in the cards. Yet somehow a deal just never seemed to get done. Mike Verdu:

There seemed to be genuine interest [at Sierra], but it was sort of like Zeno’s Paradox: we’d get halfway to something, and then close that distance by half, and then close that distance by half, and nothing ever actually happened. It was enormously frustrating — and I never could put my finger on quite why, because there seemed to be this alignment of interests, and we all liked each other. There was always a sense of a lot of momentum at the start. Then the momentum gradually died away, and you could never actually get anything done. Now that I’ve become a little more sophisticated about business, that suggests to me that Ken was probably running around trying to make a whole bunch of things happen, and somebody inside his company was being the sort of check and balance to his wanting to do lots and lots of stuff. There were probably a lot of things that died on the vine inside that company.

Instead of Sierra, Legend wound up signing a distribution contract with MicroProse, who were moving further and further from their roots in military simulations and wargames in a bid to become a major presence in many genres of entertainment software. Still, “Wild Bill” Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant chief, had little personal interest in the types of games Legend proposed to make or the niche market they proposed to serve. Mike Verdu characterizes Sierra’s interest as “strategic,” while MicroProse’s was merely “convenient,” a way to potentially boost their revenue picture a bit and offset a venture into standup-arcade games that was starting to look like a financial disaster. MicroProse hardly made for the partner of Legend’s dreams, but needs must. Wild Bill was willing to sign where Ken Williams apparently wasn’t.

In the midst of all these efforts to set up the infrastructure for a software-publishing business, there was also the need to create the actual software they would publish. Bob Bates’s time-travel game fell onto the back-burner, a victim of the limited resources to hand and the fact that so much of its designer’s time was being monopolized by practical questions of business. But not so Steve Meretzky’s game. As was his wont, Meretzky had worked quickly and efficiently from his home in Massachusetts to crank out his design. Legend’s two-man programming team, consisting still of the Challenge veterans Duane Beck and Mark Poesch, was soon hard at work alongside contracted outside artists and composers to bring Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, now planned as Legend’s sole release of 1990, to life in all its audiovisual splendor.

Setting aside for the moment all those planned audiovisual enhancements, just creating a reasonable facsimile of the core Infocom experience presented a daunting challenge. Throughout Infocom’s lifespan, from the 1980 release of Zork I through Bob Bates’s own 1989 Infocom game Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, no other company had ever quite managed to do what Legend was now attempting to do: to create a parser as good as that of Infocom. Legend did have an advantage over most of Infocom’s earlier would-be challengers in that they were planning to target their games to relatively powerful machines with fast processors and at least 512 K of memory. The days of trying to squeeze games into 64 K or less were over, as were the complications of coding to a cross-platform virtual machine; seeing where the American market was going, Legend planned to initially release their games only for MS-DOS systems, with ports to other platforms left only as a vague possibility if one of their titles should prove really successful. Both the Legend engine and the games that would be made using it were written in MS-DOS-native C code instead of a customized adventure programming language like Infocom’s ZIL, a decision that also changed the nature of authoring a Legend game in comparison to an Infocom game. Legend’s designers would program many of the simpler parts of their games’ logic themselves using their fairly rudimentary knowledge of C, but would always rely on the “real” programmers for the heavy lifting.

But of course none of these technical differences were the sort of things that end users would notice. For precisely this reason, Bob Bates was deeply worried about the legal pitfalls that might lie in attempting to duplicate the Infocom experience so closely from their perspective. The hard fact was that he, along with his two programmers, knew an awful lot about Infocom’s technology, having authored two complete games using it, while Steve Meretzky, who had authored or coauthored no less than seven games for Infocom, knew it if anything even better. Bob worried that Mediagenic might elect to sue Legend for theft of trade secrets — a worry that, given the general litigiousness of Mediagenic’s head Bruce Davis, strikes me as eminently justified. To address the danger, Legend elected to employ the legal stratagem of the black box. Bob sat down and wrote out a complete specification for Legend’s parser-to-be. (“It was a pretty arcane, pretty strange exercise to do that,” he remembers.) Legend then gave this specification for implementation to a third-party company called Key Systems who had never seen any of Infocom’s technology. “What came back,” Bob says, “became the heart of the Legend engine. Mark and Duane then built additional functionality upon that.” The unsung creators of the Legend parser did their job remarkably well. It became the first ever not to notably fall down anywhere in comparison to the Infocom parser. Mediagenic, who had serious problems of their own monopolizing their attention around this time, never did come calling, but better safe than sorry.


The Legend Interface in a Nutshell

A game can be played in one of three modes. This one, the default, is the most elaborate — not to say cluttered. Note the long menus of verbs — 120 (!) of them, with a commonly used subset thankfully listed first — and nouns to the left. (And don’t worry, this area from Spellcasting 101 is a “fake” maze, not a real one.)

A second mode, which I suspect was the most commonly used by real players in the wild, removes the command-entry menus in favor of allowing more space for the text window, but retains the compass rose and illustrations.

Finally, strict adherents to the ethos of text-and-only-text can indeed play the game as a text-only adventure. The existence of significant numbers of such purists was probably more theoretical than actual, but Legend accommodated them nevertheless.

By tapping the function keys, you can replace the illustration with the current room description or your current inventory without having to burn a turn on the task.

Or you can show a map where the picture usually lives.


 

Anxious to make their games as accessible as possible despite their equally abiding determination to become the implicit heir to Infocom, Legend designed for their new engine a menu-based system for inputting commands that could serve as an alternative to typing them in. Bob Bates, the mastermind behind the system:

One of the biggest barriers to text adventures at the time was that people didn’t know how to type. I knew how to type only because the principal of my high school forced me in my sophomore year to take a typing class instead of a third language. At the time, typing was for girls; men didn’t type. It was a barrier for players.

So, we said that we need an interface that will let somebody play using only the mouse. This was a huge problem. How do you do that without giving too much away? One day as I was pondering this, I realized that once you select a verb you don’t need another verb. So, the menu that contains verbs can go away. You’re looking at a list of verb/noun [combinations]: “get box,” “kick wall.” But if you want a sentence with a preposition, once you’ve clicked on the verb you don’t need another verb, so you can replace that first [verb] list with prepositions — and not only that, but prepositions that are only appropriate to that verb. That was an actual insight; that was a cool idea.

The menu on the left had the twenty or so most common verbs first, but underneath that, going down in alphabetical order, was a list of many, many more verbs. You could scroll down in that list, and it might actually suggest interactions you hadn’t thought of. Basically it preserved the openness of the interaction, but avoided the other big bugaboo of parser-driven games: when the parser will come back and say, “I don’t understand that.” With this system, that could never happen. And that was, I thought, huge. Everything was there in front of you if you could figure out what to do. [Parsing errors] became a thing of the past if you wanted to play in that mode.

Then of course we had full-screen text mode if you wanted to play that way, and we had a sort of hybrid half-and-half mode where there was parser-driven text across the bottom, but you still had graphics at the top. I thought it was important that players could play the game the way they wanted to, and I thought it added to the experience by taking away two of the big problems. One was people who didn’t like to type or couldn’t type or were two-finger typists. Number two was when you would type a whole command and there was an error in the first word; the parser says, “I don’t know that word,” and you have to type the whole command again. That interface took away that pain in the ass.

While Bob’s points are well taken, particularly with regard to the lack of typing skills among so much of the general public at the time, the Legend menu-based interface looks very much of its time today. Having the menu appear onscreen by default has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Legend games look rather cluttered and ugly in contrast to the Infocom classics, with their timeless text-only approach. That does a real disservice to the games hidden inside the Legend interface, which often stand up very well next to many of the works of Infocom.

Aesthetics aside, I remain skeptical of the real long-term utility of these sorts of interfaces in general, all the rage though they were during the twilight of the text adventure’s commercial era. Certainly there must come a point where picking through a list of dozens of verbs becomes as confusing as trying to divine the correct one from whole cloth. A better solution to the guess-the-verb problem is to create a better parser — and, to be fair, Legend games give no ground for complaint on that score; text-adventure veteran though I admittedly am, I can’t recall ever struggling to express what I was trying to do to a Legend game. The problem of correcting typos without having to type the entire command again, meanwhile, could have been efficiently addressed by including a command-history buffer that the player could navigate using the arrow keys. The omission of such a feature strikes me as rather inexplicable given that the British company Level 9 had begun to include it in their games as far back as 1986.

Although I don’t believe any serious surveys were ever made, it would surprise me if most Legend players stuck with the menu-based interface for very long once they settled down to play. “I played the game this way for fifteen minutes before deciding to bag it and type in all my commands,” wrote one contemporary Spellcasting 101 reviewer who strikes me as likely typical. “For me, this was quicker.” “Frankly, I find the menu to be of little use except to suggest possible commands in tough puzzle situations,” wrote another. Even Steve Meretzky, the author of Legend’s first game, wasn’t a fan:

The impetus for the interface was not a particular feeling that this was a good/useful/friendly/clever interface, but rather a feeling that text adventures were dying, that people wanted pictures on the screen at all times, and that people hated to type. I never liked the interface that much. The graphic part of the picture was pretty nice, allowing you to move around just by double-clicking on doors in the picture, or pick things up by double-clicking on them. But I didn’t care for the menus for a number of reasons. One, they were way more kludgey and time-consuming than just typing inputs. Two, they were giveaways because they gave you a list of all possible verbs and all visible objects. Three, they were a lot of extra work in implementing the game, for little extra benefit. And four, they precluded any puzzles which involved referring to non-visible objects.

Like Meretzky, I find other aspects of the Legend engine much more useful than the menu-based command interface. In the overall baroque-text-adventure-interface sweepstakes, Magnetic Scrolls’s Magnetic Windows-based system has the edge in features and refinement, but the Legend engine does show a real awareness of how real players played these types of games, and gives some very welcome options for making that experience a little less frustrating. The automap, while perhaps not always quite enough to replace pen and paper (or, today, Trizbort), is nevertheless handy, and the ability to pull up the current room description or your current inventory without wasting a turn and scrolling a bunch of other text away is a godsend, especially given that there’s no scrollback integrated into the text window.

The graphics and music in the Legend games still hold up fairly well as well, adding that little bit of extra sizzle. (The occasional digitized sound effects, on the other hand, have aged rather less well.) Right from the beginning with Spellcasting 101, Legend proved willing to push well beyond the model of earlier, more static illustrated text adventures, adding animated opening and closing sequences, interstitial graphics in the chapter breaks, etc. It’s almost enough to make you forget at times that you’re playing a text adventure at all — which was, one has to suspect, at least partially the intention. Certainly it pushes well beyond what Infocom managed to do in their last few games. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone since Legend has ever tried quite so earnestly to make a real multimedia production out of a parser-based game. It can make for an odd fit at times, but it can be a lot of fun as well.

Spellcasting 101 was released in October of 1990, thereby bringing to a fruition the almost eighteen months of effort that had followed that fateful Cinco de Mayo when Bob Bates had learned that Infocom was going away. I plan to discuss the merits and demerits owed to Spellcasting 101 as a piece of game design in my next article. For now, it should suffice to say that the game and the company that had produced it were greeted with gushing enthusiasm by the very niche they had hoped to reach. Both were hailed as the natural heirs to the Infocom legacy, carrying the torch for a type of game most had thought had disappeared from store shelves forever. Questbusters magazine called Spellcasting 101 the “Son of Infocom” in their review’s headline; the reviewer went on to write that “what struck me most about the game is that it is exactly as I would have expected Infocom games to be if the company was still together and the veteran designers were still working in the industry. I kid you not when I say to watch Legend over the years.” “It’s such a treat to play an Infocom adventure again,” wrote the adventuring fanzine SynTax. “I know it isn’t an Infocom game as such, but I can’t help thinking of it as that.”

This late in the day for the commercial text adventure, it was these small adventure-centric publications, along with the adventure-game columnists for the bigger magazines, who were bound to be the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Spellcasting 101 succeeded in proving the thesis on which Bob Bates and Mike Verdu had founded Legend Entertainment: that there were still enough of those enthusiasts out there to support a niche company. In its first six months on the market, Spellcasting 101 sold almost 35,000 units, more than doubling Bob and Mike’s cautious prediction of 16,000 units. By the same point, the Legend hint line had fielded over 35,000 calls. For now — and it would admittedly be just for a little while longer — people were buying and, as the hint-line calls so amply demonstrated, playing a text adventure again in reasonable numbers, all thanks to the efforts of two men who loved the genre and couldn’t quite let it go.

A “Presentation to Stockholders and Directors” of Legend from May of 1991 provides, like the earlier ASC press release, another fascinating real-time glimpse of a business being born. At this point Timequest, Bob Bates’s “classical” time-travel adventure, is about to be released at last, Spellcasting 201 is already nearing completion, and a first licensed game is in the offing, to be based on Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. “MicroProse has done an outstanding job of selling and distributing the product,” notes the report, but “has been less than responsive on the financial side of the house. Our financial condition is precarious. We spent most of the Spellcasting 101 revenues in development of Timequest. We are living hand to mouth. We have come a long way and we are building a viable business, but the costs were greater than expected and the going has often been rough.”

Rough going and living hand to mouth were things that Legend would largely just have to get used to. The games industry could be a brutal place, and a tiny niche publisher like Legend was all but foreordained to exist under a perpetual cloud of existential risk. Still, in return for facing the risk they were getting to make the games they loved, and giving the commercial text adventure a coda absolutely no one had seen coming on that unhappy day back in May of 1989. “We did more things right than we did wrong,” concludes the May 1991 report. “This is a workable definition of survival.” Survival may have been about the best they could hope for — but, then again, survival is survival.

(Sources: Questbusters of March 1991; SynTax Issue 11; Computer Gaming World of November 1990 and March 1991; the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Bob Bates’s interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, which Jason was kind of enough to share with me in its entirety. But the vast majority of this article is drawn my interviews with Bob Bates and Mike Verdu; the former dug up the documents mentioned in the article as well. My heartfelt thanks to both for making the time to talk with me and to answer my many nitpicky questions about events of more than 25 years ago.)


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

 
 

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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 it 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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Stationfall

Stationfall

It’s all too easy to underestimate Steve Meretzky. Viewed from on high, his career is a long series of broad science-fiction or fantasy comedies — fun enough, sure, but not exactly the most challenging fare. Meretzky, it would seem, learned what worked for him in 1983 when he wrote his first game Planetfall and then just kept on doing it. The lukewarm commercial and critical response to his one great artistic experiment, 1985’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, only hardened the template that would hold true for the remainder of his career.

Such a dismissive summary, however, is unfair in at least a couple of ways. First of all, it fails to give due credit to Meretzky’s sheer design craft. By the time he entered the second half of the 1980s with a few games under his belt, he was second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably. Secondly, and more subtly, his games weren’t always quite as safe as they first appeared. Merezky often if not always found ways within his established templates to challenge his players’ expectations and give critics like me something to talk about all these years later: the endearing Floyd and his shocking death in Planetfall; the political statement in the era of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority that sex could be fun rather than dirty — arguably more effective in its easy-going way than A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s more hectoring tone — that’s embedded within Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Nowhere are Meretzkty’s talent for pure game design and his willingness to slyly subvert his wheelhouse genre more highlighted than in Stationfall, his game of 1987.

A sequel to Planetfall had been quite a long time coming. Floyd had offhandedly promised one at the end of that game, but any plans Meretzky may have had to turn it into a franchise were overwhelmed by Infocom’s need to get the next Enchanter trilogy game done, the need for a Douglas Adams collaborator, and soon enough by new ideas from Meretzky himself. After the Activision buyout, with Infocom in general becoming much more willing to mine their own past in search of that elusive, much-needed hit, he debated for some time whether to do a Planetfall sequel at last or a new Zork game. In the end Brian Moriarty took Zork, and thus the die was cast. Meretzky’s sixth and, as it would transpire, final all-text adventure game would be a sequel to his first.

Stationfall reunites you almost immediately with Floyd, the lovable robot companion who remains for most players the most memorable aspect of Planetfall. Your exploits in the first game led to a promotion from Ensign Seventh Class to Lieutenant First Class, but your actual duties aren’t much more interesting now than they were then. Instead of pushing a mop around, you now spend your days pushing paper around. Your assignment for today is to take a space truck from your ship to a nearby space station to pick up a set of “Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Binders Request Form Forms” — something of an Infocom in-joke, an extrapolation of Meretzky’s love for real-life “memo hacking”. You pick up a robot from the pool to help you on the trip, and, lo and behold, it turns out to be good old Floyd, whom you’ve seen “only occasionally since he opted for assignment in the Stellar Patrol those five long years ago.” When you and Floyd arrive at your destination, you find it deserted. Where has everyone gone? Much like in Planetfall, you will have to figure out what happened here and how to stop it from continuing to happen if you hope to escape alive.

Floyd is in as fine a form as ever. Some parts of his schtick are recycled from the first game, others parts adorably new.

>sit in pilot seat
You are now in the pilot seat. Floyd clambers into the copilot seat, his feet dangling a few centimeters short of the floor. "Let Floyd launch the spacetruck? Please? Floyd has not crashed a truck in over two weeks!"

>floyd, launch spacetruck
"Floyd changed his mind. Controls too scary-looking."

As in the first game, part of the genius of Floyd is that you never know quite what he really looks like. You hear at various times that he has legs, eyes, can cry oily tears and can smile, but you get no explicit description. This leaves each player to construct her own idealized image, whether based on kittens or puppies or children or whatever represents the ultimate Cute for her personally.

Floyd, of course, simply has to be in any game that dares to bill itself as a sequel to Planetfall. More notable is just how thoroughly Stationfall embraces the idea of being a sequel in other ways. The deserted planetside research complex has been replaced with a deserted space station, but otherwise the environments are remarkably similar. Like in Planetfall, you’re racing against a deadly disease that will kill you if you take too long. Other aspects of Stationfall are so faithful to the original as to feel downright anachronistic in an Infocom game of this late vintage. Hunger and sleep timers make their first appearance in years, and the environment is liberally sprinkled, although not quite so maddenly so as in Planetfall, with red herrings and rooms whose only purpose is to add verisimilitude. Among the latter, for example, are the ubiquitous “SanFacs,” included here just as they were in Planetfall as an answer for every kid who ever watched Star Trek and asked just where you pooped aboard the Enterprise. The returning elements are so numerous as to feel pointless to try to exhaustively catalog: the yucky but good-tasting goo that is the staple of your diet; the tape spools you use in combination with the library’s reader to ferret out clues; the magnetic key cards that are cruelly easy to corrupt and thereby lock yourself out of victory (one of my few quibbles with a mostly superb game design); the control-room monitors that helpfully break down the status of every subsystem into a simple green, yellow, or red. It’s all so similar that the differences, like the realization that your goal this time isn’t to actually repair the station, arrive as something of a shock.

Yet if Stationfall is by conscious choice a throwback, it’s also a testament to just how far Steve Meretzky had come as a designer in the four years since Planetfall. That first game he ever wrote can feel at times like it’s rambled out of its maker’s control, leaving its various bits and pieces to dangle unconnected in the breeze. Stationfall in contrast is air-tight; even its red herrings are placed with purpose. Meretzky knows exactly what he’s doing at every juncture, is in complete control of his craft; all of its bits and pieces fit together seamlessly. Particularly noticeable is just how much better of a writer Meretzky has become, the continuation of a trend that began to reach a certain fruition in 1986’s Leather Goddesses, the game for which Infocom’s unsung hero Jon Palace made a special effort to help him to “sensualize” his text. Almost entirely gone now are the off-hand, even lazy descriptions that creep into Meretzky’s early games, when he tended to tell too much and show too little in his hurry to get to the next really exciting part. I’m tempted to give you an example at this point, but, textual sensualizing or no, he still isn’t the kind of writer that dazzles you with his poetry. Stationfall‘s text is rather impressive in the cumulative. After playing for a long while, you begin to realize that its simple, sturdy diction has quietly given you a pretty darn good sense of where you are and what you’re doing.

Lest it all start to feel too dry, the robots are a constant source of amusement. I say “robots” here because early on you find another friend to join you and Floyd, a gangly, chatty metal nerd named Plato — C-3PO to Floyd’s R2-D2 — who proves almost as lovable.

"I am quite surprised to discover you here," says the robot. "I have not seen a soul for a day now, perhaps more. But look, here I am forgetting my manners again. I am known as Plato to the humans on this station, and I am most gratified to make your acquaintance."


Plato reaches the last page of his book. "Heavens! It appears to be time for another jaunt to the library. Would you care to accompany me, my boisterous friend?"

"Oh boy yessiree!" says Floyd, bounding off after Plato. "I hope they have copies of my favorite comic, THE ADVENTURES OF LANE MASTODON!"

Floyd really ought to go into advertising as a product-placement expert…

The remainder of this article will spoil the plot and ending of Stationfall (and Planetfall as well), along with a couple of the final puzzle solutions. If you want to experience Stationfall unspoiled, by all means go do so and come back later. The experience of playing with no preconceptions is well worth having.

And then, perhaps at about the point when you’re really starting to appreciate just what a well-crafted and charming traditional adventure game you’re playing, Stationfall starts to get deeply, creepily weird.

Like so much else in Stationfall, its darker shadings don’t arise completely out of the blue. Some of the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia was lurking beneath the surface goofiness in Planetfall as well; the background to that game was after all a devastating pandemic that was slowly killing you as well as you messed about with Floyd and chowed down on colored goo. Stationfall, however, slowly becomes darker and more subversive than its predecessor ever dared. To understand the difference between the games, we might begin by noting how their plots unfold. In Planetfall you can revive virtually the entire population of the planet Resida after discovering the cure for the pandemic that has struck it, effectively turning back the clock and making everything right again — including, as it turns out, the supposedly “dead” Floyd. In Stationfall, dead is dead; the crew of the space station is gone and they’re not coming back. It feels like the work of an older, more world-weary writer. Yet even that description doesn’t quite get to the heart of the tonal shift that Stationfall undergoes over the course of your playing. It becomes a comedic text adventure filtered through the sensibility of David Lynch, unsettling and just somehow off in ways that are hard to fully describe.

But describe it I must — that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? — so maybe I should start by explaining what’s actually going on on this station. In yet one more homage to Planetfall, it has indeed been infected by a deadly virus. This, however, is a virus of another stripe, computerized rather than biological. It infects any machinery with which it comes into contact, causing the gadgets that make life possible in space to gradually “turn against their creators.” This, then, is the fate that’s been suffered by the people who used to crew the station. As you wander about the station and time passes, you begin to see more and more evidence of the process that’s underway. The automatic doors, for instance, no longer whisk efficiently open and shut for you, but open “barely wide enough for you to squeeze through. As you do so, the door tries to shut, almost jamming against you!” (This progression doesn’t quite make logical sense, as the station has already killed its entire crew, but it’s so effective in context that I’m happy not to nitpick unduly.)

Creepiest of all is what begins to happen to Plato and your old buddy Floyd. The messages describing their antics begin to change, subtly at first but then unmistakably.

Floyd produces a loud burp and fails to apologize.


Floyd stomps on your foot, for no apparent reason.


Floyd meanders in. "You doing anything fun?" he asks, and then answers his own question, "Nope. Same dumb boring things." You notice that Plato has also roamed into view behind Floyd, once again absorbed in his reading.

"Let us take a stroll, Floyd," says Plato, tucking his book under one arm. "Tagging along after this simpleton human is becoming tiresome." He breezes out. Floyd hesitates, then follows.

It’s Plato who tries to kill you first, whereupon Floyd comes to your rescue one last time. But his resistance to the virus won’t last much longer. When you try to hug him to thank him for his deed, “Floyd sniffs, ‘Please leave Floyd alone for a while.'” He shows up from time to time after that, growing ever more rude and petulant. And then he’s simply gone, who knows where, doing who knows what. By now any traces of goofy comedy are long gone. Many players of Planetfall have described how much they missed Floyd after his final sacrifice for their sake, how empty and lonely the complex suddenly felt. Yet that feeling of bereavement was as nothing compared to the creeping dread you’re now feeling, waiting for Floyd to show up again, quite possibly to kill you, as everything around you continues to feel ever more subtly, dangerously wrong.

And then, if you survive long enough, you make it to the climax and you do indeed meet Floyd again, in another deeply unsettling scene that juxtoposes the old, playful companion you used to know with whatever it is he’s become: “Floyd is standing between you and the pyramid, his face so contorted by hate as to be almost unrecognizable. You also wonder where he picked up that black eye patch.” You can picture the old Floyd coming across an eye patch like that and putting it on with one of his squeals of delight. Now, though… it’s all just so wrong.

To win Stationfall you have to kill Floyd. It’s the strangest, most disturbing ending to an Infocom game this side of Trinity — far more disturbing in my eyes than that of Infidel, Mike Berlyn’s stab at an interactive tragedy, in that that game held you always at an emotional remove from the doomed persona you played, who was never depicted as anything other than a selfish jerk anyway. This, though… this is Floyd, the most beloved character Infocom ever created.

>put foil on pyramid
As you approach the pyramid, Floyd levels his stun ray at you, so you quickly back off.


Floyd fires his stun ray nonchalantly in your direction, laughing, as though taunting you. You feel part of your leg go numb.

>shoot floyd with zapgun
The bolt hits Floyd squarely in the chest. He is blown backwards, against the pedestal, and slumps to the deck.


>put foil on pyramid
The foil settles over the pyramid like a blanket, reflecting the pyramid's evil emanations right back into itself. A reverberating whine, like an electronically amplified beehive, fills the room. The whine grows louder and louder, the pyramid and its pedestal begin vibrating, and the sharp smell of ozone assaults you.


The noise and the smell and the vibration overwhelm you. As your knees buckle and you drop to the deck, the pyramid explodes in a burst of intense white light. The explosion leaves you momentarily blinded, but you can hear a mechanized voice on the P.A. system, getting slower and deeper like a stereo disc that has lost its power: "Launch aborted -- launch -- abort --"

The replica pyramids fade to darkness, and a subtle change in background sound tells you that the space station's systems and machinery are returning to their normal functions.

Still dazed, you crawl over to Floyd, lying in a smoking heap near the blackened pedestal. Damaged beyond any conceivable repairs, he half-opens his eyes and looks up at you for the last time. "Floyd sorry for the way he acted. Floyd knows...you did what you...had to do." Wincing in pain, he slowly reaches over to touch your hand. "One last game of Hider-and-Seeker? You be It. Ollie ollie..." His voice is growing weaker. "...oxen..." His eyes close. "...free..." His hand slips away from yours, and he slumps backwards, lifeless. One of his compartments falls open, and Floyd's favorite paddleball set drops to the deck.

In the long silence that follows, something Plato said echoes through your mind. "...think instead about the joy-filled times when you and your friend were together." A noise makes you turn around, and you see Oliver, the little robot that stirred such brotherly feelings in Floyd. Toddling over to you on unsteady legs, he looks uncomprehendingly at Floyd's remains, but picks up the paddleball set. Oliver looks up at you, tugs on the leg of your Patrol uniform, and asks in a quavering voice, "Play game... Play game with Oliver?"

I complained at some length in my article on Planetfall about the ending to that game, how it undercut the pathos of Floyd’s noble sacrifice by bringing him back, all repaired and shined up and good as new again. The natural first question to ask here, then, is why he’s not similarly repairable this time.

Setting aside such practical questions in the name of dramatic effect, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this scene. Even more so than that of Floyd’s first death (itself a bit of one-upsmanship inspired by Electronic Arts’s early “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” advertisements), it feels a little manufactured. It’s as if Meretzky, having failed to stick to his dramatic guns the first time around, has decided to make up for it with interest by not only killing Floyd for good this time but by making you put him down yourself. On the other hand, the scene’s very tonal discordance feels part and parcel of the increasingly surreal journey the game as a whole has become. The appearance of a new “baby” robot that’s apparently supposed to make everything all better feels for me like the strangest element of all. It’s common in tragic literature going back to Shakespeare and well before to end an orgy of death and destruction with a glimmer of hope in the form of new life, a reminder that a new spring always follows every winter and that life in all its comedy and tragedy and joy and pain does go on for the world at large. Yet if that’s the intent here it’s handled rather clumsily. It just feels like Floyd is being replaced, and only adds to the Lynchian oddity of the whole experience. I suspect the weirdness of this final scene is due more to the tone finally starting to get away from Meretzky — aided no doubt by the fact that he was pushing right up against the limits of the 128 K Z-Machine, and didn’t have space to write more — than authorial intent. Nevertheless, effectively weird it is, the perfect ending to what’s evolved (devolved?) into a perfect horror.

One final oddity about Stationfall is how little discussion the strange, creepy, off-putting experience it morphs into has prompted. Janet Murray, the MIT and Georgia Tech professor who’s largely responsible for Planetfall‘s reputation in academia thanks to writing about it in her seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, appears not to even be aware of this second and final chapter to Floyd’s story. Most contemporary reviewers in the trade press likewise never hinted at the darkness that eventually envelops the game, probably because, pressed for time as always, they never got that far. Indeed, Stationfall must be the perfect test to see if reviewers have really played the game they write about. Only Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, although most interested as usual in giving puzzle hints, noted in passing that “there is one aspect of the ending that may give some people trouble.”

A subversive nightmare slipped into the garb of a middling fan-servicing sequel, Stationfall is in its way one of the most fascinating games Infocom ever published, evidence of a determination to keep challenging players’ expectations even as the curtain began to lower. In forcing you to kill Floyd, that most beloved personification of Infocom’s art, is Steve Meretzky making a statement about what the world was doing to Infocom through its increasing disinterest? That’s perhaps a stretch. Is the final effect Stationfall has on the player planned or accidental? That’s also difficult to know. All I can say is that it creeps me the hell out while still managing to be a superbly crafted traditional text adventure. I for one find it far more unnerving than Infocom’s ostensible first horror offering, The Lurking Horror, which was ironically released simultaneously with this game. Who would have guessed that Steve Meretzky could do scary this well? Who would have guessed from reading the box of Stationfall — “Floyd is back in the boffoid sequel to Planetfall.”; “The puzzles will challenge your intellect, the humor will keep you laughing, and Floyd will win your heart.” — that you’d end up creeping around the deserted station feeling like this? Many a horror movie starts under similarly innocuous circumstances, but the effect is lessened by the fact that the audience knows what they’ve signed up for, knows they just bought tickets to a scary movie. The question for them isn’t whether things will go south, but when. Playing Stationfall unspoiled for the first time is like walking into a Ghostbusters film that turns halfway through into the The Exorcist. A bait and switch? Perhaps, but a brilliantly effective one. Like, come to think of, much of Steve Meretzky’s career.

(Stationfall and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Leather Goddesses of Phobos (or, Sex Comes to the Micros — Again)

The Dirty Book

For a brief moment there circa 1981, it looked like Softporn was going to spawn a whole new genre of sexy software. Following that game’s release and its massive-by-the-standards-of-1981 commercial success, others rushed to jump on the bandwagon, and the phrase “bedroom hacker” suddenly took on a whole new meaning. The titles conveyed the programs’ contents pretty well: Bedtime Stories, Dirty Old Man, Encounter, Zesty Zodiacs. Those wanting to get right down to business could presumably buy the straightforwardly named Sex Disk, while those more into foreplay could pick up Wanna Play Footsie?. My personal favorite, which makes me laugh every time for some reason, is Pornopoly. Some ambitious entrepreneurs even formed a program-of-the-month club for adult software, The Dirty Book. Their advertisements trumpeted the microcomputer “sexplosion,” promising “bedroom programs and games geared to creative, joyful living and loving,” the “opportunity to chart your own course to greater intimacy and satisfaction in the months to come.” Virtually all of this stuff was, whatever your opinion of its subject matter, pretty low-rent in execution, managing to make Softporn, hardly a marvel of writing or programming in its own right, look downright classy. But the quality of adult software never got a chance to improve in the way of other genres because suddenly, barely a year after the sexplosion began, it was all over. It was the would-be home-computer revolution that killed it.

A near-hysteria against videogames was sweeping certain sectors of the United States at that time. This was the era when entire towns were banning videogame arcades, when the Surgeon General was claiming they “addicted children, body and soul.” Makers of home computers were eager to not only avoid being tarred with the same brush, but to capitalize on the travails of the arcades and the videogame consoles by positioning a home computer like the Commodore VIC-20 as the better, healthier family alternative to an Atari VCS. A home computer, so the ad copy claimed, was first and foremost educational, a point always backed up with glossy photos of beaming children learning math or their ABCs in front of a glowing screen. A game like Pornopoly was, to say the least, not exactly compatible with that image. Indeed, American culture as a whole was changing when it came to matters of the flesh. The Christian Right was a major force to be reckoned with in American politics following Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979 and the major role it played in getting Ronald Reagan elected President the following year. Now public attitudes toward sex were beginning to lurch back toward the wholesome 1950s, away from the revolutionary 1960s and the free-and-easy 1970s.

And so the sexplosion petered out prematurely. Even at Sierra the dying embers of California hippie decadence that had led to that famous Softporn hot-tub cover photo were fading out as the marketers and venture capitalists rushed in. Softporn itself was pulled off the market within a couple of years of its release, despite the fact that it was still selling very well, and Roberta Williams underwent a headspinning transformation from the topless swinger on the cover of Softporn to the wholesome Great Mom behind family-friendly titles like King’s Quest, Mickey’s Space Adventure, and Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Even Electronic Arts, who dearly wanted to see software as the next big trend for with-it hipsters, were careful to stay well away from any hint of sex in their games.

But of course sex never, ever really goes away. It just goes underground. With sexy software now too hot for “legitimate” distributors or shops to handle, the latest programs were traded about for free — often via the burgeoning network of pirate bulletin-board systems — or sold via advertisements in the backs of the sorts of less-than-discerning “alternative weeklies” of which every major city seemed to have at least one specimen. The character of the programs themselves changed as well. The first generation of sexy software had been relatively staid as such things go, more akin to one of the ubiquitous soft-core couple’s manuals found in such quantity on bookstore shelves then and now than hardcore pornography. This attitude extended to intent as well as content: most of these programs were quite clearly pitched to adults who would use them to enhance a relationship or social Sexy Times. The new generation of games and programs, however, was all too obviously created by the teenage boys who were beginning to dominate amongst computer users — teenage boys who had watched their share of porn but had little to no experience with actual sex. Their audience was likewise looking for something unabashedly designed to help them get off — solo.

Amongst the earliest and the most popular of all this lot was a little charmer of a text adventure called Farmer’s Daughter. It’s about exactly the teenage fantasy its name would imply: “She’s wearing tight denim shorts and a skimpy white halter top, her nipples just about poking right through. She looks about sixteen… and willing!!!” Originally created on a Commodore 64 by a couple of teenagers named R.W. Fisher and D.W.J. Sarhan and sold through advertisements in Playboy and National Lampoon amongst other places (Fisher claims they “sold a ton”), Farmer’s Daughter was hugely played, traded, and ported within the pirate underground, enough to make it one of the most popular text adventures of all time. This was one that every teenage hacker just had to have in his collection, and thanks to its subject matter one he was much more likely to earnestly try to play than just about any other. With a claim at least as great as that of Softporn to being the urtext of a whole genre of “adult interactive fiction” — Farmer’s Daughter is actually pornographic; Softporn, despite its name, isn’t — it’s still remembered by some with nostalgia even today. In 2001, one “Despoiler” even made a new version to run on modern interactive-fiction interpreters.

Farmer’s Daughter is actually one of the subtler specimens of its type, playing out largely like just another home-grown text adventure until you get to the big climax. A more typical example of one of these blue-balled fever dreams is Mad Party Fucker: “You have been invited to a party at a huge mansion. It is rumored that whores will be there. You come there nude and ready for action.” (You’re destined for the social faux pas of the century if those “rumors” turn out not to be true and this is just an ordinary old dinner party…) The hilarity of that tagline is unfortunately undercut by the ugliness of its other part: “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).”

By no means did the horn-dogs confine themselves to text. In addition to endless variants of strip poker — many of them inevitably featuring the era’s most popular pinup girl, Samantha Fox — there were all sorts of rhythmic action games on offer, of varying degrees of grossness. Have a look at the website Girls of ’64 sometime and marvel and shudder at the sheer quantity and variety of the offerings. Disgusting as so much of this stuff is, there’s also something quaint about it. In just another decade or so the arrival of the Internet in homes would mean that never again would teenage boys have to satisfy their lust with pixelated, sometimes almost indecipherable 8-bit graphics and text adventures, for God’s sake.

The respectable magazines of the trade press, not to mention the shop shelves, gave no hint of this hyperactive pornographic underground. Through the brief home-computer boom and bust of 1982 to 1985 commercial software was almost universally G-rated. Sexual content began to creep back into the software overground only in about 1986. By this time the home-computer revolution had, as we’ve noted in plenty of earlier articles, largely come and gone in the eyes of the mainstream media, leaving behind a core of committed hobbyists to which it no longer paid all that much attention. One of the first publishers to sidle back through the door this partially reopened was Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0: both Alter Ego and Portal deal with sex with a bracing frankness. Notably, neither is a “sex game” in the way of those that were once featured in The Dirty Book. They’re rather games with something to say about real life; they include sex simply because sex is a part of life. As such, their sexual content could, and often did, go entirely unremarked by people who didn’t actually play them.

To everyone’s surprise, the first game of the post-bust era that did happily define itself as a “sex game” came from Infocom, heretofore regarded as amongst the most literary and mature of game makers. Leather Goddesses of Phobos put its sexy content front and center in its box copy and advertisements and, most of all, in its title.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Long before Leather Goddesses of Phobos became an actual game, it was a title and a joke — or, rather, a couple of jokes. Just after their move in 1982 into their first real corporate offices on Cambridge’s Wheeler Street, Joel Berez and Marc Blank organized a little housewarming party for Infocom’s handful of staffers and board of directors as well as other intimates — among them staffers at their new G/R Copy PR agency, employees of other local software companies and distributors, even owners of nearby computer shops. Berez and Blank were, claims Steve Meretzky, “extremely hyper” about making sure it came off as the perfect coming-out event for the growing company, despite the fact that just a few dozen outsiders were actually attending. In the offices’ central room was a big chalkboard listing all of Infocom’s modest catalog of just a few adventure games and the computers for which each was available. Always the jokester, Meretzky crept over to the chalkboard just before the party started and added an entry for Leather Goddesses of Phobos — “something that would be a little embarrassing but not awful.” Berez saw it minutes later and “erased it in a panic” before any of the outsiders could see it.  (Berez and Meretzky actually had something of a history of this sort of thing. Meretzky, in the words of Mike Dornbrook, “always made fun of Joel. Mercilessly. But in a very humorous way…”)

Anticlimactic as its ending was, the story, and most of all the name, nevertheless passed into Infocom lore. Leather Goddesses of Phobos became the default name of any project that hadn’t yet been given a name of its own: “For years thereafter, when anyone needed to plug the name of a nonexistent game into a sentence, it would be Leather Goddesses of Phobos.” The name even made its way into a couple of real games: it’s a videotape the protagonist of Starcross watches, much to his disappointment when he finds out it’s actually “something about the history of the Terran Union”; and it’s the name of the only functioning machine in the video arcade in Wishbringer.

The other joke was almost as old. Whenever discussions came around to what sorts of games Infocom should do, to what genres they should cover, someone would inevitably suggest a porn game. At first the joke was just a flippant response, but as the company plunged into its disastrous 1985 and overall sales began to clearly trend downward it began to take on a decidedly more blackish tinge. At that year’s end, with A Mind Forever Voyaging behind him, Meretzky decided to actually do it: to make a real Leather Goddesses of Phobos — and to put sex in it. He wasn’t, mind you, suggesting a porn game per se, but rather a “racy” spoof of/tribute to the science-fiction serials of the 1930s. It wasn’t a hugely original idea in itself — the Barbarella comics and film of the 1960s had already worked this ground to good effect by making the sex that was implied in the old serials explicit — but it was fairly original as games went, and that was the real point. Knowing that the old dictum of Sex Sells is about as timeless as marketing wisdom gets and that Infocom could really use a hit right about now, marketing manager Mike Dornbrook as well as the other Imps agreed enthusiastically that it was a great idea. Al Vezza, still clinging by his fingernails to a fantasy of Infocom as a force in business software and always terrified of anything that might damage the company’s image in that quarter, was less enthusiastic, but allowed Meretzky to proceed. As a sop to sensibilities like his, Mereztky did agree to allow the player to select from three levels of naughtiness: “tame,” “suggestive,” and “lewd.” (I’m not certain if anyone in the history of the world has ever actually played Leather Goddesses on anything but “lewd.” That’s kind of the point of the game, isn’t it?)

Sex aside, with Leather Goddesses we’re back in Meretzky’s comfortable wheelhouse of zany science-fiction comedy, complete with all the puzzles that were so conspicuously missing from A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s thus easy enough to cast Leather Goddesses as an artistic retreat for a Meretzky who had pushed the envelope too far with his previous game. Doing so would not be entirely incorrect, but it’s not precisely the whole truth either. You see, we really can’t set the sex aside quite so easily as all that. Leather Goddesses may mark a formal retreat in many ways, but in his soul Mereztky still desperately wanted to rake some mucks, to make another political statement. And while, as a playthrough of A Mind Forever Voyaging will attest, Meretzky was genuinely passionate about and committed to his political views, he was also a young creative person who, like so many young creative persons, just wanted to cause some controversy — any controversy.

A Mind Forever Voyaging dealt with some politically sensitive topics, and I was hoping that it would stir up a lot of controversy. It didn’t. Not a single flaming froth-at-the-mouth letter. So I decided to write something with a little bit of sex in it, because nothing generates controversy like sex. I’m hoping to get the game banned from 7-Eleven stores. Finally, I get asked all the time, “When are you guys gonna do a graphic adventure?” Well, we won’t add pictures to our stories, so this was the only way to create a graphic adventure.

Leather Goddesses of Phobos begins with this:

Some material in this story may not be suitable for children, especially the parts involving sex, which no one should know anything about until reaching the age of eighteen (twenty-one in certain states). This story is also unsuitable for censors, members of the Moral Majority, and anyone else who thinks that sex is dirty rather than fun.

The attitudes expressed and language used in this story are representative only of the views of the author, and in no way represent the views of Infocom, Inc. or its employees, many of whom are children, censors, and members of the Moral Majority. (But very few of whom, based on last year's Christmas Party, think that sex is dirty.)

By now, all the folks who might be offended by LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS have whipped their disk out of their drive and, evidence in hand, are indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico. So... Hit the RETURN/ENTER key to begin!

Couched in humor as it is, this is also the most topical, baldly political statement ever to appear in an Infocom game. A Mind Forever Voyaging had at least spread a thin veneer of science-fiction worldbuilding over its political message. Not so here; Mereztky calls out the Moral Majority by name. It might perhaps be a bit hard for us today to appreciate the big stew of silliness that is Leather Goddesses of Phobos as a full-on political statement. Indeed, it can be hard not to get annoyed with the game’s intermittent tendency to pat itself on the back for an alleged edginess that strikes us today as about as transgressive as missionary sex in a private bedroom between a happily married heterosexual couple. See, for instance, this gag, obviously inspired by George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” routine.

>z
Time passes...

[A warning for any Jerry Falwell groupies who are miraculously still playing: we'll be using the word "tits" in five turns or so. Please consult the manual for the proper way to stop playing.]

>z
Time passes...

[Only a few turns until the "tits" reference! Use QUIT now if you might be offended!]

>z
Time passes...

[Last warning! The word "tits" will appear in the very next turn! This is your absolutely last chance to avoid seeing "tits" used!!!]

>z
Time passes...

A hyperdimensional traveller suddenly appears out of thin air. "My sister has tremendous breasts," says the traveller and, without further explanation, vanishes, leaving only a vague trace of interdimensional ozone.

[Oh, regarding the use of "tits," we changed our mind at the last minute. Everyone agreed it was too risque.]

We owe it to the game to take a moment to try to understand just why Leather Goddesses is so inexplicably proud of itself. In 1986, the year that Leather Goddesses was released, the culture wars of the 1980s were at their peak. The previous year had given the country Senate hearings instigated by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center and their “Filthy Fifteen” list of offending songs; the hearings would lead to a “Parental Advisory” label, the so-called “Tipper sticker,” appearing on many cassettes and CDs. Two months before Leather Goddesses‘s publication Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography published a report which claimed a direct link between violent crime and access to pornography amongst a host of other dubious assertions, and which argued for stepped-up enforcement of so-called “decency standards.” The following April the Federal Communications Commission would effectively change some of those same standards in a landmark ruling that levied stiff fines on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show; from now on it would be possible to fine radio broadcasters not just for violating a list of proscribed words but for any “language or materials that depict or describe, in terms patently offensive to community standards or the broadcast media, sexual or excretory activities or sexual organs.” Taken in the context of these events and many others, Leather Goddesses‘s self-satisfaction feels more understandable and even, in its modest way, more principled.

But what is there to say about Leather Goddesses apart from its politics? Well, Mike Dornbrook’s succinct description of the game for Infocom’s newsletter is a pretty accurate one: “Hitchhiker’s Guide with sex.” You play an ordinary citizen of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in the year 1936 who gets abducted by the Leather Goddesses of Phobos. These same Leather Goddesses are also planning to invade Earth itself, to make of it their own “private pleasure world.” You’re to be an experiment to pave the way: “your unspeakably painful death will help our effort to enslave humanity” in some way that’s never elaborated, although you are told that it will involve “lots of lubricants, some plastic tubing, and a yak.” Luckily, you escape to hopscotch around a pulp-science-fiction version of the solar system with a sidekick you pick up along the way, trying to assemble the pieces of a “Super-Duper Anti-Leather Goddesses of Phobos Attack Machine!”

1. a common household blender
2. six feet of rubber hose
3. a pair of cotton balls
4. an eighty-two degree angle
5. a headlight from any 1933 Ford
6. a white mouse
7. any size photo of Jean Harlow
8. a copy of the Cleveland phone book

It is, to say the least, a pretty nonsensical plot, one that ultimately boils down in tried-and-true adventure-game fashion to a big treasure hunt — something the game, which spends lots of time gleefully embracing and then subverting adventure-games clichés, is well aware of.

All of those teenage boys who doubtless dived into Leather Goddesses hoping it would get them off were in for a disappointment. If we accept the common definition of pornography as any work designed primary to sexually arouse or titillate, over and above any other artistic purpose, Leather Goddesses resoundingly fails to qualify. Its few sex scenes are purposely full of schlocky romance-novel cliches, all “hot, naked bodies,” “warm and wild feelings springing from your loins, spreading like a fiery potion through your veins” and “lustful orgasms” (is there any other kind?). The detailed play-by-play and anatomical precision that teenage boys crave is, needless to say, not to be found here. In a nod toward gender equality that you certainly wouldn’t see from the pornographic-software underground, it’s actually possible to play Leather Goddesses as either a male or a female; you select your gender at the beginning of the game by going into either the men’s or women’s restroom. The sexes of various people you encounter during the game are adjusted accordingly. The very fact that Meretzky was able to do this so seamlessly within the brutal textual constraints of the 128 K Z-Machine says a lot about just how soft-focus the sex scenes actually are.

While Meretzky gets points for making the effort to include the 30 percent or so of Infocom’s loyal customers who were females, my old Gender Studies indoctrination from university does prompt me to note that even if you choose to play as a female you’re still playing a game largely built for the male gaze. Notably, the Leather Goddesses themselves don’t change gender, and remain equally interested in you whether you play as male or female. There are a couple of obvious causes for this. One is of course that changing the Leather Goddesses to Leather Gods would have been really hard given the constraints of the Z-Machine, not to mention problematic given the name of the game. And the other is that 1980s males who were appalled by male homosexuality were often more than accepting of a bit of female-on-female action.

I find the most jarring moment in Leather Goddesses to be not one of the sex scenes but rather the first time Meretzky swears at me. His first “let’s cut the bullshit” just a few turns in feels so aggressive, so at odds with Infocom’s usual house style that it always hits me like a slap. Moreover, it somehow doesn’t feel genuine either; it feels like Meretzky is swearing at me out of a sense of obligation to the “lewd” mode, and that he’s not entirely comfortable in doing so. More successful are all of the sly double entendres that litter the text, right from the moment you walk into a restroom at the beginning of the game and find a “stool” there. They’re all about as stupid as that, but sometimes gloriously so. My favorite bit might just be the response to the standard SCORE command.

>score
[with Joe]
Unfortunately, Joe doesn't seem interested, and it takes two to tango.

When he’s not cursing or referencing sex in some way, Meretzky is giving you pretty much the game you’d expect from the guy who wrote Planetfall and co-wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: lots of broad, goofy humor, the jokes coming fast and furious, often falling flat but occasionally hitting home. The situations you get yourself into are as gloriously stupid as the puns and double entendres, and perfectly redolent of the game’s inspirations: you go wandering through the jungles of Venus; go sailing the canals of Mars; and, best of all, get into a swordfight in space where you can inexplicably talk to your opponent and where Newtonian mechanics most resoundingly don’t apply. I’d probably be a bit more excited about the humor in this and Meretzky’s other games if it hadn’t led to so many less clever imitators who held fast to the “stupid” but forgot the “glorious.” See, for example, this description of a spaceship in Leather Goddesses, which is far more anatomically explicit than anything in any of the sex scenes: “Hanging from the base of the long, potent-looking battleship are two pendulous, brimming fuel tanks.” Then compare it with its distressingly literal adaptation to graphics in the blatant but more explicit Leather Goddesses clone Sex Vixens from Space of a couple of years later.

Sex Vixens from Space

One thing that had changed about Meretzky’s work by the time of Leather Goddesses is pointed out by passages like the one just quoted: his writing has improved, subtly but significantly. Perhaps due to his enthusiasm and the sheer pace at which he turned out work, the Meretzky of Planetfall, Sorcerer, and even A Mind Forever Voyaging could be a bit slapdash, even a bit lazy in stringing his words together from time to time. Jon Palace, Infocom’s secret weapon in so many things, did much to keep that from happening in Leather Goddesses. Palace:

I would make an attempt to point out areas where the text could be a little richer. At one point Steve just gave me a big fat printout of all the words in the game. I went through it and tried to find opportunities for adjectives or verbs that could be a little more interesting.

Leather Goddesses‘s text is indeed more interesting, with more of a “you are there” feeling, with more showing and less telling. Mereztky was grateful enough to give Palace a special public thank you for “sensualizing” his text.

Still, I remain most impressed by Meretzky as a game and puzzle designer rather than as a writer. Leather Goddesses excels here. Take all the sex and all the humor away, and it’s still just a damn fine example of adventure-game craft, the best Meretzky had yet come up with. One of its puzzles in particular, the “t-removing machine,” has rightly gone down in text-adventure lore as just possibly Meretzky’s cleverest and most memorable ever. It’s also one that could never, ever be done successfully in any other medium, and another example of an increasing interest in abstract wordplay that marked many of Infocom’s later titles. The game’s most elaborate set-piece puzzle is yet another example of an Infocom maze that isn’t really a maze in the traditional sense. That said, it might just leave you longing for the days of “twisty little passages, all alike.” What with a quickly expiring light source and the cycling series of perfectly timed actions required to stay alive, it’s certainly the most polarizing of the puzzles, infuriating to a certain sort of player who considers it just tedious busywork and delightful to another type ready to pull out a pencil and paper and settle down for a nice logistical challenge. (Personally, I’m in the latter camp.) Virtually all of the other puzzles are very entertaining in less polarizing ways, logical despite the illogic of the setting and solvable, but not trivially so. It all makes for a hell of a lot of fun, even if you do mostly have to have your clothes — well, your loincloth — on.

Leather Goddesses‘s packaging became one of Infocom’s most memorable collections, arguably the last such before the company’s straitening economic circumstances began to really affect the contents of those beloved gray boxes. Meretzky always took an early and personal interest in this aspect of his games, and Leather Goddesses was no exception. He had barely begun working on the game when he had the idea of including a scratch-and-sniff card with various scents that the player would be asked to smell from time to time. Meretzky:

I got several dozen samples from the company that made the scents. Each was on its own card with the name of the scent. So one by one I had other Infocom employees come in, and I’d blindfold them and let them scratch each scent and try to identify it. That way, I was able to choose the seven most recognizable scents for the package. It was a lot of fun seeing what thoughts the various scents triggered in people, such as the person who was sniffing the mothballs and got a silly grin on his face and said, “My grandmother’s attic!”

Thus the game was designed to incorporate the seven “most recognizable” scents rather than the scents being chosen to fit the game, an unusual but not unique case of placing the feelie cart before the game horse (remember, for instance, the Wishbringer stone?). And, since you’re probably wondering: no, none of the scents were remotely sexual.

The package also included a 3-D comic complete with the requisite glasses for reading it, drawn by the same artist responsible for Trinity‘s comic, Richard Howell. (Howell would go on to have a long career in comic books.) The box cover art itself would prompt a squabble between Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook’s marketing department almost as heated as the great Spellbreaker/Mage controversy of the year before. Meretzky wanted to develop for the cover the concept drawing you see below, featuring a collection of elements from the game itself. (Thanks to Jason Scott for making this image available online.)

Leather Goddesses of Phobos

Dornbrook’s people, however, thought the drawing was just too busy to work on store shelves. Dornbrook:

You can’t look at a cover in isolation. You’ve got to look at a cover when it’s with a hundred other covers. Does it work on a shelf that’s crowded with covers? If it blends in, doesn’t stand out, it’s a failure, no matter how great the art is. It’s got to work as a cover!

Marketing instead opted for the cleaner, simpler design you saw earlier in this article, which also had the advantage of highlighting the marvelous name around which the whole game had been designed in the first place. A very unhappy Meretzky satirically asked to include a disclaimer in the package apologizing for the lame cover art and explaining how much better it should have been.

Leather Goddesses was released in September of 1986. Obviously feeling they might just have a sorely needed commercial winner on their hands, marketing gave the game special priority. For instance, they printed tee-shirts to pass around and sell through the Infocom newsletter, featuring the Leather Goddesses logo on the front and the slogan “A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste” on the back. About half of the considerable fan mail the game generated was indeed of the “froth at the mouth” stripe Meretzky had been missing in response to A Mind Forever Voyaging. (Most of the other half, meanwhile, seemed to consist of complaints that the game was too tame.) A woman in Orange County, California, wandered into her local software store only to see the tee-shirt on display on the wall and, even worse, on the backs of some of the staff. She pitched a fit about the game’s title with its “deviant sexual overtones and references to bondage and other unnatural acts.” Her complaints forced an official policy change for the chain’s sixty or so stores: Leather Goddesses must be placed only on the highest shelves at the very back of the store, and could not be included in sales promotions, special in-store displays, or advertisements in any form of media — and of course staffers wouldn’t be allow to wear their complimentary tee-shirts anymore. At least one of the big mail-order sellers, Protecto Enterprises of Illinois, declared that they were “founded on Christian principles and ethics and will not sell any product that goes against those principles”; Leather Goddesses by their lights did just that. Still, most of the most committed culture warriors in the country just weren’t paying enough attention to the relatively tiny entertainment-software market when there was so much more mainstream material in the form of music and television and films and books to rail against. Thus Meretzky would have to be satisfied with only the occasional outraged letter rather than the pitchfork-wielding mob of his dreams.

Any sales lost for reasons of outraged morality were more than made up for by the game’s sex appeal. Leather Goddesses proved to be by a factor of at least three Infocom’s biggest seller post-Activision acquisition, selling around 130,000 copies — Infocom’s last game to break six digits, their last to qualify as a genuine hit, and their first and last to prove that Sex Sells was as true in computer games as it was in any other media. It lands just below Wishbringer on Infocom’s all-time sales chart, their sixth best-selling game overall. At least one of the fans it attracted may have horrified Meretzky: Tom Clancy, technothriller author and noted friend of the Reagan administration. “I’d like to meet whoever wrote that,” he said in an interview. “I just don’t know what asylum to go to.”

The milestones in general start to get more melancholy now as we move into the latter stages of Infocom’s history. There’s one more we should mention in the case of Leather Goddesses, over and above “last 100,000 seller” and “last hit.” It marked also the last time that Infocom would have a significant part in, for lack of a better word, the conversation inside the computer-game industry at large. Other publishers took note of Leather Goddesses‘s success. With the industry’s sexual taboo at least partially broken thanks to Infocom and (to a lesser extent) Activision, sex on the computer would begin to cautiously poke its head back up out of the underground again. We’ll see plenty of evidence of that in future articles.

Like Hitchhiker’s, Leather Goddesses advertises a sequel in its finale that the original Infocom would never deliver: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X. (A graphic adventure by that name would be designed by Meretzky and released by Activision under the Infocom label well after the original company was dissolved.) Too bad the series barely got started, because the already planned title of a third game might have really riled up some sensitive souls: Diesel Dikes of Deimos.

(As usual, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews were invaluable to this article. Steve Meretzky is also interviewed at length in Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III. Also useful: the October 1987 and July 1988 Computer Gaming World, and the Summer 1986 edition of Infocom’s Status Line newsletter. The Dirty Book advertisement is from the September 1982 Kilobaud.)

 

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