Hitchhiking the Galaxy Infocom-Style

19 Nov

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Given that Hitchhiker’s is both one of the most commercially successful text adventures ever released and one that oozes with interesting things to talk about, I thought I would look at the experience in more detail than I have any Infocom game in quite some time. As we’ll see, Hitchhiker’s is not least interesting in that it manages to represent both a step forward and a step back for Infocom and the art of interactive fiction. What follows is a sort of guided tour of the game.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

As with any Infocom game, the experience of Hitchhiker’s for any original player began long before she put the disk in the drive. It began with the box and its contents. The Hitchhiker’s package is one of the most storied of all from this company that became so famous for their rich packages. It’s bursting with stuff, most of it irrelevant to the actual contents of the disk but all of it fun: an advertising brochure for the titular guidebook;1 a microscopic space fleet;2 a set of “peril-sensitive sunglasses”;3 a piece of pocket fluff; a set of destruct orders for Arthur Dent’s house and the Earth; the obligatory “Don’t Panic!” button.4

Impressive as the packaging is, not all of it was to Douglas Adams’s taste. He hated the gibbering green planet,5 which had been designed and pressed into service by Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint without any input from him when they first began to publish the books in North America. He briefly kicked up a fuss when he saw it leering at him from the Infocom box as well, but Infocom’s contacts at Simon & Schuster, whom Infocom was considering allowing to buy them at just this time and thus preferred to remain on good terms with, had asked with some urgency that it be there. By the time Adams saw the box there wasn’t really time to change it anyway. And so the planet — and I have to agree with him that it’s pretty hideous — remained.

The game proper begins just where the books and the smorgasbord of other variations of Hitchhiker’s did: with you as Arthur Dent waking up hungover in bed on what is going to be “the worst day of your life.” You immediately get a couple of clues that this is not going to be your typical Infocom game. The first command you must enter is “TURN ON LIGHT,” a typical enough action to take upon waking up in a dark bedroom, perhaps, but one that could momentarily stump a seasoned adventurer, so accustomed to living in an object-oriented world where she can only interact with what the game tells her exists around her; the game, you see, never mentions the presence of a light switch or a light. Hitchhiker’s will continue to occasionally accept or demand inputs that you, the Seasoned Adventurer, just don’t expect to work. And then when you dutifully check your starting inventory, you learn that you have “no tea” and “a splitting headache.” Such mixing of the physical and the metaphysical amongst your possessions will also remain an ongoing theme.

Especially if you’re at all familiar with any of the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations, you probably won’t have too many problems getting out of the house and lying in front of Mr. Prosser’s bulldozer to stop (for the moment) the destruction of your house to make room for a new bypass. If you do misjudge things and get yourself killed, you get an early introduction to another of the game’s throughgoing traits: the narrator, or the computerized “game master” if you will, has a voice and personality all his own. Playing Hitchhiker’s is like having a conversation — often an infuriating one — with him.

The bulldozer driver gives a quick chew of his gum and slams in the clutch. The bulldozer piles into the side of your home.

Your home collapses in a cloud of dust, and a stray flying brick hits you squarely on the back of the head. You try to think of some suitable last words, but what with the confusion of the moment and the spinning of your head, you are unable to compose anything pithy and expire in silence.

You keep out of this, you're dead. An ambulance arrives.

>don't panic
You keep out of this, you're dead and should be concentrating on developing a good firm rigor mortis. You are put in the ambulance, which drives away.

For a dead person you are talking too much. As the ambulance reaches the mortuary a fleet of Vogon Constructor ships unexpectedly arrives and demolishes the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

We are about to give you your score. Put on your peril-sensitive sunglasses now. (Hit RETURN or ENTER when ready.) >

The narrator doesn’t just tell you what’s happening. He chats with you, messes with you, has fun at your expense, occasionally lies to you. This isn’t precisely new ground for Infocom; their games going back to Zork I had occasionally broken from being the neutral voice of the simulation to offer quips and funny responses. But it’s much, much more pronounced here, an integral part of the experience instead of just the odd response to the occasional misguided or intentionally bizarre input. A similar smart-alecky narrative voice was par for the course with other versions of Hitchhiker’s and, indeed, kind of Adams’s default persona as a writer. Certainly anyone who’s ever read a Dickens novel knows that a second- or third-person voice doesn’t mean the narrator isn’t a character in the work. But seeing it here… well, that feels significant for anyone who’d like to see interactive fiction as a defensible literary form. Chalk that up as a big step forward.

So, Ford Prefect arrives just as expected to return your towel preparatory to getting off this rock before the Vogons blow it up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. If you haven’t experienced it already, here you are also introduced to another dominant trait: the game’s often arbitrary cruelty. If you simply take the towel Ford offers, he marches away, the Vogons arrive, and it’s game over. No, you have to refuse the towel to force Ford to actually notice your situation and come to the snap decision to take you with him.6

Ford convinces Prosser to take your place in front of the bulldozer, just like in the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations. You head for the pub, where you consume beer and peanuts to fortify yourselves for the matter transference beam. Then Prosser wises up and knocks down your house after all, prompting you, reenacting the role of the Arthur you remember from the book, to run screaming out of the pub. On the way you meet a hungry dog, who is key to one of the most legendarily cruel puzzles in the game. You need to feed him. As for why… well, that you won’t learn until much later. Then the Vogons show up with appropriate pomp and circumstance, and you and Ford have a bare instant to make your escape.

You wake up in darkness. The puzzle that follows can almost be read as an homage to the original Adventure, which had a maze for which close reading was similarly key. It’s early evidence of another trait of Hitchhiker’s: a tendency to evoke and occasionally subvert the adventuring heritage that preceded it. For instance, it will later hit you with a blessedly fake maze. As David Lebling recently put it, the form by 1984 was old and established enough that it could be parodied.

You can hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, see nothing, feel nothing, and are not even certain who you are.

There's nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, you do not even know who you are.

There's nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, you do not even know who you are.

You can see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, and are not entirely certain who you are.

It does smell a bit. There's something pungent being waved under your nose. Your head begins to clear. You can make out a shadow moving in the dark.

>examine shadow
The shadow is vaguely Ford Prefect-shaped.

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.
In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter
Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

Ford removes the bottle of Santraginean Mineral Water which he's been waving under your nose. He tells you that you are aboard a Vogon spaceship, and gives you some peanuts.

That “tall dispensing machine” marks the most famous puzzle ever to appear in an Infocom game, or in any text adventure by anyone for that matter. A whole mythology sprung up around it. Infocom did a booming business for a while in “I got the babel fish!” tee-shirts, while it’s still mentioned from time to time today — sometimes, one suspects, by folks who actually know it only as a trope — as the ultimate in cruel puzzles. Yet I’ve always been a bit nonplussed by its reputation. Oh, getting the babel fish from dispenser to auditory canal is a difficult, convoluted game of Mouse Trap which is made yet more difficult by the facts that the dispenser has only a limited number of fish and you have only a limited number of turns in which to work before you’re hauled off to the Vogon captain’s poetry reading. Still, solving this puzzle is far from an insurmountable task. You’re given good feedback upon each failure as to exactly what happened to intercept the babel fish on its journey, while your scope of possibility is somewhat limited by the fact that this is still quite early in the game, when there aren’t yet that many objects to juggle. I feel like its reputation probably stems from this fact that it’s met so early in the game. Thus even most casual players did encounter it — and, it being the first really difficult puzzle, and one of the first for which prior knowledge of the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations was of no use, many or most of those players likely never got any further. The Imps have often noted that most people never finished most of the Infocom games they bought. What with its mass appeal to people who knew nothing of Infocom or adventure games thanks to the license as well as its extreme difficulty, one would presume that Hitchhiker’s had an even more abysmal rate of completion than the norm.

Since solving the babel-fish puzzle7 is something of a rite of passage for all adventurers, I won’t totally spoil it here. I will note, however, that the very last step, arguably the most difficult of all, was originally even more difficult.

A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.

The original version didn’t have that crucial parenthesis; it was wisely added at the insistence of Mike Dornbrook, who felt the player deserved just a little nudge.

The babel fish, of course, lets you understand the Vogon language, which is in turn key to getting that atomic vector plotter that is for some reason on display under glass amidst the “smelly bits of alien underwear.” Also key to that endeavor is the Vogon poetry reading to which you’re soon subjected.8 What you’re confronted with here is a puzzle far more cruel in my eyes than the babel-fish puzzle. It’s crucial that you get the Vogon captain to extend his reading to two verses; let’s not get into why. Unfortunately, at the end of the first verse he remarks that “you didn’t seem to enjoy my poetry at all” and has you tossed out the airlock. The solution to this conundrum is a bit of lateral thinking that will likely give logical, object-focused players fits: you just have to “ENJOY POETRY.”

>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. It’s undeniably clever, and almost worth any pain for the great line “worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school.” But at heart it’s guess-the-verb, or at least guess-the-phrase, a rather shocking thing to find in an Infocom game of 1984. Now maybe my description of Hitchhiker’s as both progressive and regressive starts to become clearer, as does Dornbrook’s assertion that Adams pushed Meretzky to “break the rules.” A comparison with the babel-fish puzzle shows Hitchhiker’s two puzzling personalities at their extremes. For all its legendary difficulty, the babel-fish puzzle feels to me like a vintage Meretzky puzzle: intricate but logical, responsive to careful reading and experimentation. “ENJOY POETRY,” on the other hand, is all Adams. You either make the necessary intuitive leap or you don’t. If you do, it’s trivial; if you don’t, it’s impossible.

In the session I played before writing this article, something else happened in the midst of the poetry-as-torture-device. Suddenly this long piece of text appeared, apropos of nothing going on at the time:

It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated. For instance, at the exact moment you said "look up vogon in guide" a freak wormhole opened in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried your words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time. A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'Hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G'Gugvunt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green, sweet-smelling steam. As a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, the Vl'Hurg challenged his vile enemy to take back what it had said about his mother.

The creature stirred in its sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words "look up vogon in guide" drifted across the conference table. Unfortunately, in the Vl'hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries. Eventually the error was detected, but over two hundred and fifty thousand worlds, their peoples and cultures perished in the holocaust.

You have destroyed most of a small galaxy. Please pick your words with greater care.

It incorporates an invalid input I had tried earlier, an attempt to look something up in the in-game version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide using syntax the game didn’t much like.9 The little story is funny, especially if you haven’t recently read the novel version of Hitchhiker’s; it’s lifted verbatim from a passing riff near the end of the book, with only your invalid input replacing the novel’s version of Arthur’s comment that “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle.”10 More interesting to me, however, is what it represents conceptually. In incorporating a spurious input into the story in this way, it represents a sort of breaking of the fourth wall — a fascinating development in light of the fact that Infocom had spent a great deal of effort building said wall in the first place. By the time of Hitchhiker’s they scrupulously distinguished between what I’ll refer to as diegetic commands (things that cause things to happen in the storyworld) and non-diegetic — or, if you like, utility — commands (things like “SAVE” or “RESTORE” or, indeed, invalid inputs that don’t affect the storyworld). For instance, time passes in the story and the turn counter advances only in the case of the former. Infocom’s goal had long ago become to separate the undesirable challenge of interacting with the parser from the desirable one of interacting with the storyworld. Now along comes Adams to muddy it all up again. The difference, of course, is that early text adventures confused the layers of interface and simulation because they didn’t entirely know what they were doing. Adams and Mereztky break the formal rules the way artists do — consciously.

That’s not the end of the fellow in the jeweled battle shorts and his buddy; you’ll be meeting them again soon. But in the meantime you’re thrown out of the Vogon airlock11 and picked up at the last possible second by the Heart of Gold, thanks to the magic of Infinite Improbability Physics. You end up in Darkness again, a motif that will continue to recur. You come out of it via another of the game’s most storied bits, the first of two incidents of it flat-out lying to you:

(to darkness)
You hear the deep and distant hum of a star drive coming from far above. There is an exit to port.

You can't go that way.

You can't go that way.

(We were lying about the exit to port.) You emerge from a small doorway...

Entry Bay Number Two
This is an entry bay for the Heart of Gold. A corridor lies aft of here.
There is a sales brochure here.

"This looks like that incredible new Infinite Improbability Drive spaceship, the Heart of Gold!" says Ford, with growing excitement.

"Announcement, announcement. This is Eddie (the shipboard computer). We have just picked up two hitchhikers at an improbability factor of 2 to the 21,914 power to 1 against."

Just as you’d expect from the novel, you soon meet the masters of the Heart of Gold, two-headed party fiend Zaphod Beeblebrox and his Earthling girlfriend Trillian, née Tricia McMillan, whom you (Arthur) once tried to pick up at a party in London only to watch her leave with Zaphod.12 But from here things suddenly diverge from the novel. Your companions all bugger off to the sauna, conveniently removing themselves from the implementation equation and leaving you to explore the Heart of Gold and, eventually, a number of other realities to obtain a collection of tools,13 a collection of fluff,14 and, stereotypical Englishman that you are, a good cup of tea. Ford helpfully leaves his copy of the Guide with you; you can “CONSULT” it about an impressive number of things. Some of these entries are just meant for fun, although they are once again often just recycled bits from the book. At least a few, however, are essential reading.

The Heart of Gold also contains the second instance of the game lying to you, this one much more extended.

Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

That entrance leads to the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. It's supposed to be a terribly dangerous area of the ship. Are you sure you want to go in there?

Absolutely sure?

I can tell you don't want to really. You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.

What? You're joking, of course. Can I ask you to reconsider?

Engine Room
You're in the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.

Engine Room
I mean it! There's nothing to see here!

Engine Room
Okay, okay, there are a FEW things to see here. This is the room that houses the powerful Infinite Improbability Generator that drives the Heart of Gold. An exit lies fore of here.
Sitting in the corner is a spare, portable Improbability Generator.
There is an ionic diffusion rasp here.
There is a pair of hypersonic pliers here.

(Footnote 10)

>footnote 10
I guess it isn't all that dangerous a place after all.

Those footnotes which pop up from time to time are another of the game’s blizzard of new ideas — rather pointless really, but good fun.15

If you experiment and use the Guide wisely, you’ll eventually find a way to transport yourself into about half a dozen little vignettes, sometimes still in the person of Arthur, sometimes in that of one of your three companions currently slumming it in the sauna. I won’t belabor most of these; this article has to end at some point, after all, and if you do play for yourself you deserve to discover something for yourself. But I do want to talk just a bit about one, or rather two that are closely interrelated, because they involve a puzzle often cited as an example of Hitchhiker’s extreme, downright un-Infocom-like cruelty.

One of the vignettes features our friend of the jeweled battle shorts. It seems that he and his erstwhile enemy have worked out the source of the misunderstanding that led to all those centuries of terrible war: a creature from Earth.16 You’re transported onto the bridge of his flagship as he and his erstwhile enemy hurtle toward your planet, not yet destroyed by the Vogons in this vignette,17 with malice in their hearts.

War Chamber
Spread before you, astonishingly enough, is the War Chamber of a star battle cruiser. Through the domed canopy of the ship you can see a vast battle fleet flying in formation behind you through the black, glittering emptiness of space. Ahead is a star system towards which you are hurtling at a terrifying speed.
There is an ultra-plasmic vacuum awl here.

Standing near you are two creatures who are gazing at the star system with terrible hatred in their eyes. One is wearing black jewelled battle shorts, and the other is wreathed in a cloud of green, sweet-smelling steam. They are engaged in conversation.

The fleet continues to hurtle sunwards.

If you’re like, oh, about 95% of players, your journey will end abruptly when the battle fleet, which in a fatal oversight on the part of our militant alien friends turns out to be microscopic by the scale of the Earth, is swallowed by a small dog. To prevent this, you needed to have taken the unmotivated (at the time) step of feeding something to the aforementioned dog way back on Earth in the first act of the game, before the Vogons arrived. Horribly cruel, no? Well, yes and no. Another of the vignettes — they appear in random order, thus justifying Meretzky’s assertion that Hitchhiker’s ends up representing one of the “most ruthlessly nonlinear designs we [Infocom] ever did” — has you replaying the opening sequence of the game again, albeit from the perspective of Ford Prefect. You can also feed the dog there. If you fail at a vignette, meanwhile — and that’s very easy to do — you usually “die,” but that’s not as bad as you might expect. You’re merely returned to the Heart of Gold, and can have another go at it later. This mechanism saves Hitchhiker’s repeatedly, and not least in the case of this puzzle, from accusations of relying on extensive learning by death.

Still, there should be no mistake: Hitchhiker’s is punishingly difficult for even the most experienced of adventurers, the most challenging Infocom release since Suspended and the one with the most elements of, shall we say, questionable fairness since the days of Zork II and Deadline. While it is possible to repeat the vignettes until you solve each overarching challenge, it’s painfully easy to leave small things undone. Having “solved” the vignette in the sense of completing its overarching goal, you’re then locked out of experiencing it again, and thus locked out of victory for reasons that are obscure indeed.18 One or two puzzles give no immediate feedback after you solve them, which can lead you to think you’re on the wrong track.19 For virtually the entire game after arriving on the Heart of Gold you labor away with no clear idea what it is you’re really supposed to be accomplishing. Sometimes vital properties of things go undescribed just for the hell of it.20 And then many of these puzzles are… well, they’re just hard, and at least as often hard in the way of “ENJOY POETRY” as in the way of the babel fish. The “Standard” difficulty label on the box, which was placed there purely due to marketing needs, is the cruelest touch of all.

So, we must ask just how Hitchhiker’s became such an aberration in the general trend of Infocom games to become ever fairer and, yes, easier. Meretzky noted that trend in his interview for Get Lamp and was not, either back in the day or at the time of his interview, entirely happy about it. He felt that wrestling with a game for weeks or months until you had that “Eureka!” moment in the bathtub or the middle of a working day was a huge part of the appeal of the original Zork — an appeal that Infocom was gradually diluting. Thus Meretzky and Adams explicitly discussed his opinion that “adventure games were becoming a little too easy,” and that Hitchhiker’s could be a corrective to that. Normally puzzles that were exceptionally difficult had their edges rounded during Infocom’s extensive testing process. But that didn’t happen for Hitchhiker’s to the extent that it normally did, for a couple of reasons. First, many of these puzzles had been written not by any ordinary Imp but by Douglas Adams; for obvious reasons, Infocom was reluctant to step on his toes. Additionally, the testers didn’t have nearly as much time with Hitchhiker’s as with an ordinary Infocom game, thanks to Adams’s procrastination and the resultant delays and Infocom’s determination to get the game out in time for Christmas. The testers did a pretty good job with the purely technical side; even the first release of Hitchhiker’s is not notably buggy. But there wasn’t time for the usual revisions to the design as a whole even had there been a strong motivation to do them from Infocom’s side. Any lack of such motivation was not down to lack of complaining from the testers: Meretzky admits that they “strongly urged that the game be made easier.”

The decision to go ahead with such a cruel design has been second-guessed by folks within Infocom in the years since, especially in light of the declining commercial fortunes of the company’s post-Hitchhiker’s era. Jon Palace presented a pretty good summary of the too-difficult camp’s arguments in his own Get Lamp interview:

Some have argued that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of the biggest mistakes we made because it introduced a huge audience to a relatively difficult game. The difficulty of the game and its design flaws21 may have turned off the largest new audience we could have had. Perhaps we should have made that game a lot easier. It’s very funny, and it’s got some terrific puzzles. But my point is that if it was the first time people were experiencing an Infocom game, because of the names “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Douglas Adams,” there was only so much Douglas Adams they could get out of it without working harder than they wanted to.

Steve Meretzky, on the other hand, remains unrepetant, as do Mike Dornbrook and others. Dornbrook’s argument, which strikes me as flawed, is essentially that most people didn’t finish most Infocom games anyway — even the easier ones — so Hitchhiker’s difficulty or hypothetical lack thereof didn’t make much difference. I suppose your attitude toward these issues says much about what you want Infocom’s games to be: accessible interactive stories with a literary bent or intricate puzzle boxes. It’s Graham Nelson’s memorable description of interactive fiction as a narrative at war with a crossword writ large yet again. For my part, I think interactive fiction can be either, an opinion apparently shared by Meretzky himself, the man who went on to write both the forthrightly literary A Mind Forever Voyaging and the unabashed puzzle box that is Zork Zero. Yet I do demand that my puzzle boxes play fair, and find that Hitchhiker’s sometimes fails me here. And while I have no objection to the concept of a tougher Infocom game for the hardcore who cut their teeth on Zork,22 I’m not sure that Hitchhiker’s should have been that game, for the obvious commercial considerations Palace has just outlined for us.

And yet, and yet… it’s hard to see how some of the more problematic aspects of Hitchhiker’s could be divorced from its more brilliant parts. As a final example of that, I want to talk about — and, yes, spoil — one last puzzle, one of the last in the game in fact. By now you’ve collected all of the various bits and pieces from the vignettes and the narrative of the game has rejoined that of the book; the Heart of Gold has landed on the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. You’ve also managed to brew yourself a nice hot cup of tea. Now you need to get inside the room of Marvin the Paranoid Android to convince him to open the ship’s hatch to let you go exploring.

Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

The screening door is closed.

>open door
The door explains, in a haughty tone, that the room is occupied by a super-intelligent robot and that lesser beings (by which it means you) are not to be admitted. "Show me some tiny example of your intelligence," it says, "and maybe, just maybe, I might reconsider."

>consult guide about intelligence
The Guide checks through its Sub-Etha-Net database and eventually comes up with the following entry:

Thirty million generations of philosophers have debated the definition of intelligence. The most popular definition appears in the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation android manuals: "Intelligence is the ability to reconcile totally contradictory situations without going completely bonkers -- for example, having a stomach ache and not having a stomach ache at the same time, holding a hole without the doughnut, having good luck and bad luck simultaneously, or seeing a real estate agent waive his fee."

>get no tea
no tea: Taken.

You have:
no tea
a flowerpot
The Hitchhiker's Guide
a towel
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a babel fish (in your ear)
your gown (being worn)

>open door
The door is almost speechless with admiration. "Wow. Simultaneous tea and no tea. My apologies. You are clearly a heavy-duty philosopher." It opens respectfully.

I’m not quite sure how you make that intuitive leap precisely fair, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live without it. Maybe Hitchhiker’s is fine just the way it is. Soon after, you drink that glorious cup of tea, a feat which, in possibly the most trenchant and certainly the funniest piece of social commentary on the nature of Britishness in the entire game, scores you a full 100 of the game’s total of 400 points. Soon after that you step onto the surface of Magrathea, where “almost instantly the most incredible adventure starts which you’ll have to buy the next game to find out about.” That game, of course, would never materialize. The ludic version of Arthur Dent has remained frozen in amber just outside the Heart of Gold for almost thirty years now, giving Hitchhiker’s claim to one final dubious title: that of the only game in the Infocom canon that doesn’t have an ending.

Crazy and vaguely subversive as it is, Hitchhiker’s would have a massive influence on later works of interactive fiction. Contemporaneous Infocom games are filled with what feels to modern sensibilities like an awful lot of empty rooms that exist only to be mapped and trekked across. Hitchhiker’s, on the other hand, is implemented deeply rather than widely. There are just 31 rooms in the entire game, but virtually every one of them has interesting things to see and do within it. Further, these 31 rooms come not in a single contiguous and unchanging block, but a series of linked dramatic scenes. The Heart of Gold, which contains all of nine rooms, is by far the biggest contiguous area in the game. Hitchhiker’s can thus lay pretty good claim to being the first text adventure to completely abandon the old obsession with geography that defined the likes of Adventure and Zork. Certainly it’s the first Infocom game in which map-making is, even for the most cartographically challenged amongst us, utterly superfluous. This focus on fewer rooms with more to do in them feels rather shockingly modern for a game written in 1984. Ditto the dynamism of most of the scenes, with things always happening around you that demand a reaction. The only place where you can just explore at your leisure is the Heart of Gold.

Many a later game, including such 1990s classics as Curses, Jigsaw, and The Muldoon Legacy, have used linked vignettes like those in Hitchhiker’s to send the player hopscotching through time and space. More have followed its lead in including books and other materials to be “CONSULT”ed. Even a fair number23 have latched onto the pointless but somehow amusing inclusion of footnotes. Less positively, quite a number of games both inside the interactive-fiction genre and outside of it have tried very hard to mimic Adams’s idiosyncratic brand of humor, generally to less than stellar effect.24

Hitchhiker’s is an original, with a tone and feel unique in the annals of interactive fiction. It breaks the rules and gets away with it. I’m not sure prospective designers should try to copy it in that, but they certainly should play it, as should everyone interested in interactive fiction. It’s easily one of the dozen or so absolutely seminal works in the medium. Fortunately, it’s also the most effortless of all Infocom games to play today, as the BBC has for some years now hosted an online version of it. Yes, there’s lots of graphical gilding around the lily, but at heart it’s still the original text adventure. If you’re interested enough in interactive fiction to make it this far in this article and you still haven’t played it, by all means remedy that right away.

(In addition to the various Get Lamp interviews, Steve Meretzky’s interview in the book Game Design Theory and Practice was very valuable in writing this article.)

  1. “As seen on Tri-D!” 

  2. Easily mistaken for an plastic empty baggie. 

  3. They turn opaque when danger is at hand to avoid upsetting your delicate sensibilities. The ones in the game package are, naturally, made of black construction paper. 

  4. These were manufactured in huge quantities and given away for some time at trade shows and the like as well as being inserted into game boxes. 

  5. Or whatever it’s supposed to be. 

  6. Ford Prefect’s name, by the way, is one of the subtler jokes in Hitchhiker’s, and one that was entirely lost on American readers. The Ford Prefect, you see, was once a model of automobile in Britain. When the Betelgeusian Ford Prefect chose the name as “nicely inconspicuous,” he did so because he had, as Adams himself later clarified, “mistaken the dominant life form” on the planet. 

  7. Or not. 

  8. The original Hitchhiker’s radio serial mentions Vogon poetry as the third worst in the universe. The second is that of the Azgoths of Kria, while the first is that of Paul Neil Milne Johnstone of Earth. Rather astoundingly, Johnstone is actually a real person, a bunk mate of Adams’s back at Brentwood School who would keep him awake nights “scratching this awful poetry about swans and stuff.” Now, it was kind of horrible of Adams to call him out like that (and probably kind of horrible for me to tell this story now), but it just keeps getting better. Poor Johnstone, who was apparently an earnest poet into adult life but not endowed with much humor not of the unintentional stripe, wrote a letter to Time Out magazine that’s as funny as just about anything in Hitchhiker’s:

    “Unfortunate that Douglas Adams should choose to reopen a minor incident; that it remains of such consequence to him indicates a certain envy, if not paranoia. Manifest that Adams is being base-minded and mean-spirited, but it is surely unnecessary for Steve Grant [a journalist to whom Adams had told the story] to act as a servile conduit for this pettiness.”

    With Johnstone’s lawyers beginning to circle, Paul Neil Milne Johnstone became Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in the book and later adaptations. 

  9. It’s fairly persnickety here; you can only “CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT” things. 

  10. Indeed, it seems to go relatively unremarked just how much text in the game is lifted directly from the novel, another artifact perhaps of the sheer difficulty of getting original prose out of Adams. 

  11. Although hopefully not before collecting the essential atomic vector plotter 

  12. I’ve always found Zaphod a hilarious character because he was such a walking, talking anachronism even in the early 1980s. He’s just so obviously a creature of the 1970s, from his hippy-dippy diction to his easygoing, lackadaisically stoned take on existence. He’d fit right in in Dazed and Confused

  13. Don’t ask. 

  14. Really don’t ask. 

  15. Like (hopefully) the ones I’ve included in this article in homage. Or maybe this is my bid for literary greatness via my own version of Pale Fire

  16. This would seem to belie the Guide‘s description of Earth as “harmless,” and even the revised description of it as “mostly harmless.” 

  17. There’s a joke, or maybe an aphorism, in there somewhere. “Between a Vl’Hurg and a Vogon,” maybe? 

  18. Zaphod’s sequence is particularly prone to this, to the extent that I’ll offer a hint: look under the seat! 

  19. I’m thinking particularly of growing the plant here. 

  20. I’m speaking particularly of the brilliantly Adamsian “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is,” of which it’s vital to know — take this as another tip — that you can put things inside it, even though that’s never noted or implied by its description. 

  21. Palace was no fan of the dog-feeding puzzle in particular. 

  22. See 1985’s Spellbreaker, which unlike Hitchhiker’s was explicitly billed as exactly that and does a superb job at it. 

  23. Not to mention this post. 

  24. Tolkien is about the only other generally good author I can think of who has sparked as much bad writing as Adams. 


Posted by on November 19, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


Tags: , , ,

51 Responses to Hitchhiking the Galaxy Infocom-Style

  1. Victor Gijsbers

    November 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Another interesting article!

    “Soon after you drink that glorious cup of tea […]”

    This sentence would read easier if you add a comma between “after” and “you” (to make clear that “you drink that glorious cup of tea” is not a dependent clause for something that is yet to follow).

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm


  2. Anthony

    November 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Excellent guide to the Guide. You’ve given us the flavour of the game and left enough on the plate for us to ENJOY at our leisure. A fitting tribute to an inspiring work of IF.

    (Btw, I think the standard spelling is diEgetic.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      What would I do without you guys to copy-edit for me? Thanks!

  3. matt w

    November 19, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for the great article! I read with some trepidation about spoilers, because I really ought to give this a good try some day, but I’m pleased to see that the last and biggest spoiler is one that one of my friends already spoiled for me back in the day. Getting told about that puzzle may be my most substantial exposure to interactive fiction pre-2006.

    Anyway, a typo and a couple comments: You have “Dazed and Confusion” which should be “Dazed and Confused.” And for footnotes in literature, I recommend The Makepeace Experiment by the dissident Soviet writer Abram Tertz, where the narrator gets into an argument with the footnotes and… I’ve said too much!

    More on-topic, it seems to me that the game’s cruelty is probably somewhat necessary for its effect. The HHGtG universe is uncaring and unfair, where horrible things are constantly happening to people for no reason. So why should the player be spared? At least he can try again, maybe even having learned something from the experience. The Vl’hurg puzzle seems like a particularly brilliant example of that; it lets you know that something horrible has happened for no reason based on something you couldn’t have possibly foreseen (and if you’ve read the book you know what happens to the fleet, which perhaps makes the puzzle a bit easier to deal with when you start from the beginning).

    Also, the text lifted straight from the books may have been a feature rather than a bug; rabid Hitchhiker fans probably enjoyed seeing our old favorites in the new setting. We certainly didn’t mind repetition of it, judging by the love a, um, friend of mine had of reciting passages off by heart.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2013 at 3:13 pm


      You make more explicit here a point I kind of danced around without ever properly settling down upon in the article itself: that what makes literary sense and what is good, fair game design are not always one and the same. (The narrative and the crossword rear their warring heads again.) It is hard to shake the feeling that Hitchhiker’s would lose much of its personality if all of its crazy, arbitrary bits were thrown away or somehow made more forgiving.

    • Lisa

      November 19, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      Also, the text lifted straight from the books may have been a feature rather than a bug; rabid Hitchhiker fans probably enjoyed seeing our old favorites in the new setting.

      That was the case for me. It was both very amusing (I felt like I was in on an inside joke) and somewhat helpful to have already read the books.

  4. David Cornelson

    November 19, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    I’m not sure if you’re missing a funny bone or what, but I distinctly remember each step of the Babelfish puzzle and being incapable of breathing I was laughing so hard. The very same experience from parts of the books (getting hit in the small of the back with a house party). This puzzle was brilliant, cruel, and hilarious.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      Um… did I ever say it wasn’t funny?

      • David Cornelson

        November 19, 2013 at 5:20 pm

        My reading is that you note the puzzle’s fame, but you don’t entirely understand the fame. I’m not sure how you style your writing sometimes (factual only?) but mentioning that the puzzle is one of the funniest ever is important. My take is that you didn’t like it.

        • Jimmy Maher

          November 19, 2013 at 5:49 pm

          No, I like the puzzle fine actually. I’m not sure I’d term it “hilarious,” but it’s more than amusing enough, difficult but fundamentally fair, and very satisfying to solve.

    • Anthony

      November 19, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      I’d respectfully suggest that if you thought the babel fish puzzle was “hilarious” then you’re probably in the minority.

      Sure, it was delightful, ingenious, infuriating, creative, amusing, and possibly even comic. But if it actually made you LOL… Are you sure you don’t have one funny bone too many? ;-)

  5. iPadCary

    November 19, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    When this came out, my friend Jay said: “If you didn’t read the book, don’t get this, It’s too hard.”
    I thought that was rediculous as Infocom would never
    sell a game where you had to do something else entirely
    outside of the game before you were able to play.
    It just made no sense.
    So I got the game & go to it’s first puzzle.
    Jay was right! lol
    And I miss seeing the ads for it in OMNI magazine.
    *sigh* ….

  6. Monty Ashley

    November 19, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    I’m sure you’ve seen this, but just in case…

    You know about the files relating to the Hitchhiker’s sequel, right?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Yes. There are serious… ethical concerns with the way much of that material was made public, however, and there are still lots of raw nerves among the Imps and others as a result. But we won’t be addressing Bureaucracy and the aborted Restaurant project for a while yet, so I have some time to talk with some people and decide what’s appropriate.

  7. Lisa

    November 19, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    I like the footnotes; nice touch. I was playing Stationfall last night and was amused to see that one of the footnotes in that game is about whether the idea was ripped off from Hitchhiker’s, and that “the author” (i.e. Steve Meretzky, I assume) reserved the right to rip off his own ideas!

  8. Keith Palmer

    November 19, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    This is it: the single Infocom text adventure I played in the 1980s, the one I experienced the famous “pause to process input, disk access, glorious advancement or casual rebuff” on the Radio Shack Color Computer’s all-caps 32 by 16 screen. (Then, I figured out the transcript would print out in mixed case, and used up a lot of paper immortalizing various sequences…)

    Perhaps given in part that I was about ten when I started playing the game, I suppose that after a very brief while I wasn’t so much trying to think through its puzzles as just searching the hints and tips column of the Color Computer magazine “The Rainbow” for pointers. (By my unscientific estimation, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” had the most pointers offered there of any of the comparative handful of Infocom games offered for the Color Computer.) It never quite got around to explaining how to hold “tea” and “no tea” at once (just that you had to), though, and I was in high school in the early 1990s before I happened to hear a friend still had the hint book, and after much effort deciphering the faded remnants of the developed clues realised how I’d never made the mental leap of first recognising one bit of description was an object to be taken and then realising I could “buy” it even at that narrow stage in the game I’d thought Ford Prefect was sort of taking care of me. At long last, I got to the maximum-score ending with a wry sort of “well, that’s it” feeling.

    The comments about the game’s difficulty do sort of tie in to my wondering now if things could have been different had I finished the game sooner, if my uncle would have sent my father more Infocom games instead of my just (eventually?) reading the catalog pamphlet and daydreaming about how great it would be to play more of them. Games in any case seemed back then to be more something that just sort of appeared without asking for them (in this case, at least, we got the box, if not the fluff or “Microscopic Space Fleet”). Still, I did eventually get to the point where on seeing “The Lost Treasures of Infocom,” right around when we finally retired our Color Computer 3 and got a Macintosh LC II, I at once sort of strongly implied that would be a very nice game package to have…

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 20, 2013 at 7:33 am

      This was also the first Infocom game I ever played. My parents bought it for me Christmas 1984 to go along with my shiny new Commodore 1541 disk drive. It was hopeless, of course. I’d never played a text adventure before, and I’m not even sure I’d read the books yet. I may not have even got to the Vogon ship before I bought the hint book with my paper-route money a week or two after Christmas, then proceeded to do exactly what the hint book said not to and reveal almost every answer. What with all the subverting and even arguably satirizing of adventure-game conventions here, playing Hitchhiker’s as your first work of interactive fiction is a bit like picking up Ulysses as the first novel you ever try to read. And being that Hitchhiker’s was such a huge hit, I’m sure my situation was hardly unique.

      But something must have stuck, because I bought more Infocom games and did a lot better with them, and, well, here we are in 2013. :)

  9. Scott

    November 20, 2013 at 12:34 am

    Wow, I never realised there were slated to be so many sequels – that explains the dreadful ending a lot better.

    I remember playing this on my C64 with a list of commands my brother had figured out, but that only got me up to the Heart of Gold – from there I was quite lost until I finished the game with a guide years later. I thought it was genuinely funny in parts, especially the narrator.

    The embarrassing part, though? I never realised the footnotes could actually be read – I think I tried consulting the guide about them rather than ever just typing “footnote 10”. Now I’ll have to have another go just to read them!

  10. Andrew Plotkin

    November 20, 2013 at 2:11 am

    H. P. Lovecraft is the generally bad author who has sparked as much good writing as Adams and Tolkien have sparked bad writing.

    (But bad writing too.)

  11. Sam Garret

    November 20, 2013 at 2:58 am

    The Final Puzzle had my young teenage self stumped for a good six months until some kind soul put me out of my misery and I was finally able to finish the game. Starcross I knocked off in a week, but this one just escaped me – a form of tunnel vision disabling sufficient lateral thinking, I suppose, and I was a tad embarrassed by the fact I needed help. Prideful little things, teenagers.

    Today, of course, the answer is a google search away. I wonder if I would still remember the puzzle so well if the answer had been so readily available.

    On a side note – does the Zaphod section really lock you out? I have a vague recollection that you can still go to some shortened version of it involving only the jetski once you’ve finished the main arc, but I haven’t actually double checked.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 20, 2013 at 7:37 am

      In the original version at least, yes. When you get back into it after “solving” it, you just immediately slam into the cliff in the boat and are thrown back to Darkness. I know because I actually made this mistake on the play I just did for this article.

      • Duncan Stevens

        November 20, 2013 at 3:02 pm

        They all lock you out, in one way or another, so if you don’t get key (apparently stray) objects when you solve them, you can’t finish the game. Most of them just “kill” you and kick you back into Darkness; the Vl’Hurg/brain section actually kills you (in memorably nasty fashion).

    • Jason Dyer

      November 21, 2013 at 7:28 pm

      My first (and only) time playing was with the gold box version with hints, so I didn’t even need Google to help. Those got abused … heavily.

  12. Andrew Schultz

    November 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    It’s good to read a breakdown of why the game could be unfair. I remember my mother buying my sister and me the invisiclues early on (we were stuck in the dark! Explaining this would be a spoiler) and my feeling was that adults must’ve known a lot of stuff I didn’t to be able to solve these puzzles without a hint book (I was sure they did) and I was looking forward to growing up and understanding all this. Especially how I’d know about the ways you can be locked out of certain puzzles and how the game is mean about that.

    The game got me reading the book before my mom bought the invisiclues, and I figured a wild crazy genius like Douglas Adams had a really good reason for doing things that way! I figured understanding all the whys was forbidden territory like jokes adults didn’t let me hear. I’d learn when I was 18, or something. Or not.

    Your essay and others have provided a different understanding, but I think the note that the game would lose personality if it lost some of its outright flaws is a great one. Objectively, parts could be cut–but it’s no fun.

  13. Nicholas Joll

    November 28, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Some great stuff in here. I had forgotten about the conjunction of tea and no tea. Thanks!

  14. Mark Ricard

    December 27, 2013 at 5:45 am

    A very well written article. Adams style does not really fit in with fair puzzle solving. It is too absurdist so it ends up being read the author’s mind. Maybe having read the book would have helped.

    When I played it for the first time about two years ago,I got stuck at the point right before the end. You need to eat the plant to guess the right tool to bring. For some reason I wasn’t able to grow the plant.

  15. Soh Kam Yung

    March 10, 2014 at 3:31 am

    The BBC has updated the game for its 30th anniversary.

    It is playable in your browser (works in Google Chrome but doesn’t seem to work for Firefox) at this BBC 4 website.

  16. Brandon Campbell

    November 13, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Andrew Schultz, I know the feeling exactly, about thinking you’ll know everything when you’re an adult! And now I’m 38 and still feel almost as clueless as I did back then…

  17. Grunion Guy

    November 17, 2014 at 1:54 am

    I “beat” the game in the sense that I made it onto Magrathea back when the game first came out. I never did figure out the fluff puzzle but through pure stubbornness, and a constantly restored saved game, I eventually left with the right tool to let me out of the ship. It was years before I ever even learned that the pieces of fluff were important.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2014 at 12:35 pm

      Interesting. I had thought it was impossible to brute-force that puzzle, as Marvin would always ask for a tool you *didn’t* have if you hadn’t used the fluff and the rest of that contraption to see into the future.

      • Grunion Guy

        November 26, 2014 at 6:01 am

        I remember trying every tool thinking that one would work. Of course, it didn’t. I thought maybe one last try. If the game randomly chose a new tool every time it was reloaded, I would just keep walking out with the awl until it worked. It eventually worked.

        • Lisa H.

          November 26, 2014 at 6:30 am

          Strange. Like Jimmy, I thought it was impossible to brute-force; I think the hints themselves describe how Marvin is supposed to ask for something you don’t have if you haven’t properly solved it. Maybe Infocom intended that but the code didn’t actually turn out to work that way?

          • Grunion Guy

            November 26, 2014 at 9:29 am

            The version I played was on the Apple IIe. I wish I’d made a transcript of the game as I was sometimes wont to do back then. Although it would have been the most boring read with dozens of pages of reloading before the somewhat less than triumphant win.

    • Kyle Miller

      September 3, 2017 at 8:35 am

      I was just looking through a disassembly of the game (release 31), and it turns out the code which chooses the tool you don’t have only fires when you gain foreknowledge, and it is implemented like this: (1) choose one of the ten tools at random, (2) if you don’t have it go to step 5, (3) if we’ve done step 1 more than 50 times go to step 5, (4) go back to step 1, (5) the chosen tool is the one Marvin will ask for.

      If you try to give a tool to Marvin without having used the fruit, he’ll just say “That’s not it” rather than “That’s not a thermo-fusion chisel” or whatever the tool is. It is impossible to brute-force the puzzle because whatever object you are giving Marvin is compared to the non-existent object number 0.

      If you don’t have all ten tools by the time you gain foreknowledge, then there’s still a chance Marvin will ask for one you do have. Nine out of ten tools leaves an improbability of 200 to 1 against, and eight out of ten is 70000 to 1.

  18. Grunion Guy

    November 26, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Checking on Wikipedia, it mentions that if you failed to collect all ten tools, Marvin would ask for the one you failed to find. But having found all ten, perhaps then he just asked for a random tool? That does seem odd to give the player a one in ten shot to brute force it. Or would that be one in one hundred? That would make sense seeing as how I remember trying longer than I should have to force it, even when I just kept picking the awl.

    • Lisa H.

      December 6, 2014 at 3:06 am

      Because I am an incredibly pedantic Virgo nerd, I decided to go looking in the hints for the version of HHG I have (Release 31 / Serial number 871119). MAJOR PUZZLE SPOILER AHEAD, for innocent readers…

      How can I open the hatch?
      25 hints left -> Have you tried OPEN THE HATCH?
      24 hints left -> If sirens and lights went off when you tried to open the hatch, then the ship is still in space. Wait until the ship has landed.
      23 hints left -> Do you remember an announcement when the Heart of Gold landed on Magrathea?
      22 hints left -> Eddie (the shipboard computer) jammed the hatch to prevent anyone from leaving the ship until he’s checked to make sure the environment is safe.
      21 hints left -> If you wait the 14.9 years such a check will take, you’ll probably die of boredom.
      20 hints left -> You’ll have to figure out how to override Eddie’s wishes by fixing the hatchway mechanism in the Access Space.
      19 hints left -> You don’t have the necessary intelligence for the task.
      18 hints left -> Someone else does.
      17 hints left -> Marvin. See the question about Marvin to figure out how to get him to open the hatch.
      16 hints left -> Once Marvin has agreed to open the hatch, he tells you to meet him in the Access Space in twelve turns. Make sure you’re on hand for that meeting. (Hell hath no depression like a paranoid android scorned.)
      15 hints left -> Marvin will ask you for the tool he needs to fix the mechanism.
      14 hints left -> You must give him the proper tool or you’ve blown your one chance to get the hatchway open.
      13 hints left -> There are a total of ten tools scattered throughout the game. For a complete list of them, see the quesion about the tools in the General Questions section.
      12 hints left -> Even if you’ve collected all ten tools, you can only carry one at a time into the Access Space…
      11 hints left -> …and you don’t have time to go out and get a different one before Marvin gives up and leaves…
      10 hints left -> …and Marvin will NEVER ask for the tool you happen to be holding.
      9 hints left -> There’s a way to figure out in advance what tool Marvin will ask you for.
      8 hints left -> See the question about the fluff.
      7 hints left -> Don’t go on until you’ve seen the fruit.
      6 hints left -> Eat the fruit.
      5 hints left -> The glimpse of the future provided by the fruit tells you what tool to bring into the Access Space.
      4 hints left -> If you meet Marvin there and give him that tool when he asks for it, he will fix the mechanism and open the hatch.
      3 hints left -> You’re now awesomely close to the end of the game.
      2 hints left -> Go down through the hatch.
      1 hint left -> Start waiting for the next exciting Hitchhiker’s game.
      [That’s all.]

      Soo… it sounds to me like they intended it to not be brute-force/luck-able: “Marvin will never ask for the tool you’re holding” – but of course he does literally do just that if you solved the puzzle and got the foresight. So that says to me that the game checks for whether you’ve eaten the fruit, and if you haven’t, always picks a different tool. As I said in another comment, though, maybe it was intended to work that way but actually doesn’t for some reason?

  19. Cliffy73

    May 23, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    One quibble about the difficulty of the “enjoy poetry” problem — “enjoy” is in the list of recognized verbs in the game manual. Taking a look at this list of verbs and noticing the unique ones is one of the first things I do when I’m stumped on an Infocom game. This is a lesson I learned after spending countless hours and a hundred moves stuck in the first “Dark” before I happened to glance at the list by chance and the scales fell from my eyes. Or nose, as the case may be.

    The really embarrassing part is that after a long enough time flailing around in the Dark, the game starts giving you prompts. The one I still remember is “Four out of five sensitive people get this one right away.” At the time I thought the game was just making fun of me — which of course it was — but that’s not all it was doing.

  20. Gerhardus Grobbelaar

    August 8, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    This was the ONLY text game the wife was willing to go all the way with me as she loves the books, the tv series (which we only saw later) and of course the movie, which IMHO only got Marvin to the T, but rest I can listen to without getting bored, but won’t watch! (Of the topic, never read Mostly Harmless due to Marvin’s ‘state’ at the end of the previous book!) Marvin IS HHGTtG! Any case, we did ‘play’ the game, but with a walktrough that had everything ‘mapped’ out, thus lots of the fun stuff like the narrator speaking to you after you died, consulting the guide for various things, etc., got passed me, but I did later read some transcripts someone made of all the guides entries, footnotes, ‘have you tried this for fun’, stuff, and those! Will be playing it in the near future when I can get that android app to work on my tablet! It does give Paranoid Android a new twist when speaking in terms of tablets!
    Thanx yet again for a thoroughly enjoyable article!

    • Peter Piers

      October 16, 2015 at 6:54 pm

      It might interest you to know that Marvin makes a comeback in MH, IIRC. :)

  21. DZ-Jay

    February 23, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    Fantastic! As I was reading your comment on how difficult it could be to divorce the brilliant parts from the unfair puzzles, I started wondering where you were going with it.

    Then, as I read the transcript, right after the Guide’s notes on intelligence, and I saw “take no tea”… an instant flash of understanding hit upon me with such force I just laughed out loud!

    It was precisely at that point when I thought: what a brilliant solution! How could someone even consider editing or ameliorating the pain of such an awfully hard puzzle, when its payoff is infinitely worth the pain may times over? — which is of course your point.

    Well done, bravo!

    Oh, and by the way, here’s another typo that escaped you: in the penultimate paragraph you have “if you’re interest enough,” which I think should be “interested enough.” (Sorry…)

    Thanks for another excellent article. :)

  22. Joe Dredd

    December 9, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Being a huge HHG fan I had to beg my mother to help me scrape together the $60 (AUD) price tag to buy the game. Then I had to save up to get a 1541 disk drive as we only had a tape drive for our C64. I used to sneak the disk back into the computer shop and play it on a lovely SX-64 on display.

  23. Sung J Woo

    April 10, 2019 at 10:22 am

    I can’t believe eleven years have already passed since I wrote this:

    Until I read your Hitchhiker’s piece, I hadn’t actually realized just how much of an influence the game had on me. So much of it is here in this silly little vignette.

    Thank you for delving so deeply into the gameplay of this important moment of interactive fiction history. This wasn’t my first Infocom, but it was the most memorable. As dumb as this sounds, what I loved most was just walking around the Heart of Gold. I was on the ship! It was a total dream come true. Also, I was utterly taken with the sections where I could play as Zaphod (driving that boat), Trillian (dealing with Arthur at the party), and Ford (seeing the Vogon attack from his POV). Talk about rule-breaking — did any Infocom title do that before Hitchhiker’s? If so, I can’t recall.

    The other bits I still remember 30+ years later: when the babelfish run out and you press the button and it just says “Click.” God, did my heart sink. And the most annoying part of all, the “tiny Arthur Dent” materializing in your brain to kill you in a few moves. That was the cruelest of all.

  24. DerKastellan

    June 8, 2020 at 10:58 am

    I had a dig at the 30th Anniversary edition and must say – this is game is not good. One can talk about how influential it was, if it broke new ground, but is it a good game? Is it enjoyable? Fun? Fair?

    (The 30th anniversary edition of course has some vital clues. It shows you “no tea” as an inventory object, so it isn’t such a leap to hold “tea” and “no tea” at the same time.)

    As it is, even with the author’s own input, largely a derivative work, it ends up not adding much to the Hitchhiker series even in terms of gags to remember. It mostly added the “fame” that the series had a notoriously hard game associated with it.

    I just happened to chat with somebody who played the original game back in the day and gave up on the babel fish. I bet many in the 80s double-struggled in Germany with trying to figure out stuff in English and according to the author’s sensibilities, and all of that in text. Consider the asking price – plus how much money that was back in the day!

    If lots of players gave up on the babel fish and its half-arbitrary solution already, then the game’s lack of helpful item descriptions, its enormous gaps in the Guide even when it comes to things appearing in the game can’t have helped, either. Empty rooms may have been boring, but an open-ended middle sequence without direction isn’t a great accomplishment, either. It creates a combinatorial nightmare without the advantages of point-and-click.

    Also, the mode that Steve Meretzky suggests for playing the game – closing it, letting inspiration hit, come back later and see if you make progress with your idea – that might be a good way to let your mind churn on problems on its own, befitting a maths or CS student, or any serious problem-solver, but is it a great way to play a game? Many games have managed to glue the player to the screen. This one surely doesn’t then. It suggests the game is so obtuse, an illogical puzzle box, that you rely on flashes of inspirations away from the game to solve it. (Or, I suspect, in most cases, a clue book or hint system.)

    Is it that what players opted in when buying it? I really don’t think so.

    (Also, it’s easy for Meretzky to say this. He didn’t have to solve it. I think the testers had a point. It sounds a lot like the mindset the Wizardry creators were caught in when defending Wizardry’s difficulty. Difficulty is to early games what semi-random quantity and spinning fields were to games that followed soon after. It stretched the time you spent with the content, giving the illusion of more content.)

    I didn’t enjoy endless repeat sojourns through the Dark. At some point, the game could have cut that short.

    Also, if the game really insists that an action taken early in the game is so important, it could require a restart, then it could have added this scene as something you can revisit during the mid-game. That would be fair. Any other mechanic than “restart and try differently” would have done better.

    I mean, you don’t need to map this one. But if you had to return to the beginning to play over for this, you had to map your gameplay to do all of this all over again. How is that different from a map? It’s not that you effed up a scene or even an arc, you effectively redo the game. Thankfully it doesn’t have a map to navigate as well. It takes away the whole satisfaction of “having come that far” by arbitrarily deciding to drop you back before any progress was made – because you might not have done this one thing.

    That is the game equivalent of Groundhog Day. Repeat until you do it right, no matter how long it takes. This makes also the save game feature a bit of a sham. If you manage to screw up the beginning, all saves after are fake progress you need to redo. (Of course a save game is always welcome, but the idea of “saving progress you don’t have to redo” is definitely violated here.)

    Text adventures weren’t the greatest of media, that seems to be the consensus as early as 1985 when Infocom not only hit dire straights but also this one came out and while selling well, probably also tarnished its reputation. Maybe Infocom as a company would have done a lot better – and the medium it was working on – if it had not insisted on doing this to players. Who would shell out another pile of bucks for an Infocom game after this? I think quite a lot of people got burned on this one, no doubt.

    With basically the same hardware that Infocom filled up with to the brim with text Lucas Arts made “Maniac Mansion” two years later, a fun romp that managed to do the same with graphics. The only advantage I see with Infocom (or Sierra graphic adventures) is that they occasionally managed to require the player to enter some ingenious input and respond properly to it, be it rudeness in “Leisure Suit Larry” or be it a few lines in Infocom games. There was an occasional payoff for this medium, but all in all, it isn’t worth it to me.

    Some people enjoy the arbitrary difficulty as cleverness, but I think the game mostly telegraphs its problems barely or badly, has a middle stretch of “I have these things, that must be the solution”, and then falls short of a proper finale. Its redeeming qualities were the abolition of mazes (except the Dark, in a sense) and empty rooms, and the idea of presenting vignettes that make you feel part of the unfolding story. (Though frankly, they were arbitrary and not great, either.)

    • Lisa H.

      June 8, 2020 at 6:46 pm

      The original game also has a “no tea” object, which Arthur has in inventory at the beginning of the game (along with “a splitting headache”). There’s a question about it in the general questions of the Invisiclues: Is there any significance to “no tea”?

      Also, if the game really insists that an action taken early in the game is so important, it could require a restart, then it could have added this scene as something you can revisit during the mid-game.

      If you’re referring to feeding the cheese sandwich to the dog, you do get a second chance mid-game. You can also do this when you return to Earth as Ford and play the other side of the bulldozer scene.

      • Doug Orleans

        June 9, 2020 at 12:12 am

        I got pretty far into it before realizing that I needed the pocket fluff that I had dropped back at the beginning of the game. I quit and never bothered to restart.

        • Lisa H.

          June 9, 2020 at 12:44 am

          Hm, yeah. That’s a pretty nasty dead Earthman walking. I suppose if you drop it outside the house it’s not still magically there when you revisit as Ford?

          • Doug Orleans

            June 9, 2020 at 4:10 am

            I think I might have dropped it on the Vogon ship, for an inventory-limit puzzle.

            Yeah, it’s a bad game.

    • Ross

      June 9, 2020 at 4:47 am

      One thing about the Babelfish puzzle is that it basically holds your hand through it one step at a time. But the infuriating unfairness and difficulty comes from the fact that said handholding takes longer than you have, and requires objects you may have missed and have no way to get now.


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