Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 2: Don’t Go Back to Rockvil

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Our theme song for today is the inevitable.

During the mid-1980s American liberalism was arguably at its lowest ebb of the century. This was the era of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” when liberalism was viewed as the cause of the economic doldrums of the previous decade and the social unrest of the decade before that, when the de facto voice of the Democratic party for many people was still Jimmy Carter’s handwringing “malaise” speech. While Carter told the people that they needed to fundamentally change their ways of life, to carpool and conserve energy, Ronald Reagan told them the country’s only problem was that they weren’t being American enough. After a somewhat rocky first few years in office, by 1984 the economy was booming as it hadn’t in almost two decades, and Reagan soared to reelection that year. Oddly for an ideology so rooted in tradition and fixated on a mythical America of the past, conservatism felt fresh and vigorous and new, like the future, as the “Greed is Good!” 1980s got rolling at last in earnest. To stand in opposition to Reaganomics was to blow into the face of a hurricane; even counterculture icons like Neil Young were making noises about supporting Reagan. Yet it was at this moment, before the Iran-Contra scandal began to at least reopen a window for debate in the American body politic, that Steve Meretzky penned A Mind Forever Voyaging. Whatever else you can say about it, it was one hell of a brave piece of work.

Meretzky’s stand-in for Reagan — with a bit of Joseph McCarthy thrown in for good measure — is a charismatic senator named Richard Ryder (subtle Meretzky ain’t). It’s 2031, and the United States of North America is once again gripped by economic malaise. Ryder is promoting something called The Plan for Renewed National Purpose to fix all that. I might complain that the name is rather too fascistic-sounding, except that I’m not really sure it sounds any more ominous than The Patriot Act. I might complain that the specifics of the Plan hew a bit too closely to the Republican agenda of 1985, except that the Republican agenda of 1985 is largely still the Republican agenda of today. So why not 2031 as well?

* cut tax rates by fifty percent
* vigorous prosecution of tax evasion
* decentralization of federal responsibilities
* deregulation of all major industries
* reinstatement of the military draft
* emphasis on fundamentals and traditional values in education
* mandatory conscription for troublemakers and criminals
* a strict "USNA First" trade policy
* termination of aid to nations not pro-USNA
* cutbacks on all types of bureaucracy, e.g. registering cars, guns
* termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s criticism of these policies and the mindset that spawned them will grow increasingly strident, as befits a muckraking work meant to shake the people and get them to wake up! But the criticism builds slowly. When we first enter the future Rockvil, in 2041, it seems a pretty nice place.

As Jason Scott noted in his comment to my previous article, Rockvil itself is a major achievement not just for its sheer size but also, more so, for what a believable place it is. Rockvil is a prosperous mid-sized town perhaps about the size and character of a real-world place I once lived, Olympia, Washington. It’s laid out in a way that just feels intuitively right. There’s a tourist district in the north with a zoo, a sports stadium, parkland, concert halls and theaters; a bustling downtown at the city’s center, with residences for city-dwelling hipsters (Perry Simm among them) along its edges; a university in the west surrounded by the expected student hangouts like a bar and a cheap Chinese joint; the obligatory shopping mall and cineplex to the east. Traveling south takes one across “the proverbial railroad tracks” — every city has them — to the less photogenic parts of town: the power station, the skycar factory (“the last surviving smokestack industry in the area”), the city dump, liquor stores and laundromats and gun shops and tenements and reminders of a more industrial past in the form of shuttered factories and warehouses. Surrounding the whole, but beyond “the boundary of this simulation,” are the suburbs.

We spend the majority of the game wandering about Rockvil, and we come to care for the place almost as if we really had grown up there. In 2041 it’s largely a happy, welcoming place for a (presumably) successful young writer like Perry, with just a few ominous signs, if you’re inclined to view them as such, like the growing underclass on the other side of the tracks and the population of Rockvil Reformatory: “From what you’ve heard, the prison is overcrowded, because today’s stricter law enforcement and mandatory sentencing regulations are putting people into the penal system even faster than the military draft can remove them.” The city’s slow decline is horrifying, as the place becomes a nightmare version of itself like Festeron in Wishbringer but without a trace of that game’s whimsy. (It’s funny to think that Infocom released two games back to back that relied on such a similar mechanic, another of a number of odd confluences in their history.) A weird cult-like religion rises and finally takes over the government; infrastructure crumbles and publicly-funded museums close or fall into horrid neglect; the criminals and police both get ever more brutal; the films showing at the local cineplex get baser and uglier, as does the graffiti on the streets; racism becomes institutionalized and celebrated; the credit card in your wallet is replaced with a ration card. There’s much here that’s disturbing and/or heartrending, like the “monkey torturing” that becomes the zoo’s main draw or the eventual use to which the stadium is put: “Execution Matches.” The last version of Rockvil, from 2081, is an apparent post-nuclear wasteland inhabited by roving bands of possibly mutated, certainly cannibalistic savages. We don’t last long there.

There’s a message to this progression that’s as relevant now as it was in 1985: what seems expedient in the short term can be profoundly destructive in the long term. And, without putting too fine a point on it, I can’t help but note a certain extra layer of ominous prescience for those of us playing the game thirty years after it was written. Many of the government’s worst abuses are initially justified in the name of preventing terrorism. The apartment Perry shares with his wife and son is subject to unannounced raids by the “Border Security Force” — Homeland Security, anyone? — even in 2041. A sign in the airport soon reads, “All international travellers must pass through strip-search. No exceptions!”

The apartment is a special nexus of interest in each version of Rockvil. While Perry gets a lengthy backstory in the game’s manual, his wife Jill and son Mitchell are the only people we meet with whom he has a personal relationship. Not that we learn much about either in the bare handful of substantial paragraphs that relate to Perry’s home life: Mitchell is just an average little boy; Jill is a painter who is addicted to trashy romance novels and madly loved by and in love with Perry (perhaps relevantly, Meretzky himself got married just after finishing A Mind Forever Voyaging). But it’s enough to make their final appearance in 2071 the most harrowing scene in the game:

Six or eight heavily armed Church police storm into the apartment. You see a look of horror come over Jill, as she covers her mouth with the back of her hand, as though stifling some silent scream. You follow her gaze, and -- a shock of recognition -- sauntering in behind the police...

The ten years since you last saw him have left scant change on the face of your son. "Mitchell!" you yell, and take a step toward him, but a blow from one of the cops sends your frail, old body flying against the wall.

"She is the one." The voice is Mitchell's, but the tone is cold, unrecognizable, sending shivers through you. He raises a fur-clad arm, pointing at his mother without a hint of emotion. "She spake against the Church; she tried to poison the mind of a child too young to know the Truth." The thugs grab Jill, who reaches toward Mitchell, tears of terror streaming down her face. Totally unresponsive, he turns and walks calmly out of the apartment.

As Jill is dragged, screaming and crying, through the front door, you try to follow, but a cop pummels you in the stomach with his club. You fall to the floor, retching, as the apartment door slams closed, shutting you off forever from the son you cannot understand and the wife you will never see again.

Now, one could argue with some justification that this is rather emotionally manipulative, that the game hasn’t characterized anyone involved well enough to really earn our pathos. But like Floyd’s death, it’s unforgettable and affecting in spite of it all — more so, really, because it fits in so well with the tone of the game around it rather than coming out of nowhere as an aberration in the middle of a science-fiction comedy.

There’s a lot to quibble about in Rockvil. As believable as the city in general is, the writing is sometimes frustratingly perfunctory. Meretzky has a tendency to just tell us what something is in the manner of a tourist guidebook or government brochure rather than give a real physical sense of place. So, we learn that “Rockvil Municipal Stadium is a multipurpose sporting event facility, home of both baseball’s Rockvil Bobcats and soccer’s Rockvil Rockets.” Okay, but what’s it like there? Where am I standing inside? What do I see and smell and hear and feel? This mode of description gets particularly confusing as we go deeper into the future. The game always acts as if Perry knows this place intimately. Yet the whole ostensible purpose of visiting these future Rockvils is to find out what the (simulated) future holds. If I have full access already to the simulated memories of the Perry of the future, why do I need to go there to access them? But here we’re getting into the more problematic if also philosophically interesting parts of the game, which I’m going to reserve for the next article…

I also wish the implementation was less sketchy. There are lots of interesting little Easter eggs, but they’re hard to find because most of the time the game doesn’t much reward actions other than just wandering around and reading the room descriptions. And even when you do stumble upon them they sometimes leave you wanting more. When I played the game before writing these articles, I found in 2041 a delightful little book store where I bought The Wizard of Oz, a favorite from Perry’s childhood. Given the tradition of bookstores in dystopian literature as seats of resistance and beacons of freedom, I went back there in every later time: to see how it had changed, to see how the “kindly” proprietor was doing, to hopefully buy more books that would tell me more about Perry’s state of mind amidst the societal decline. But there was nothing new to see or do, until the place was closed completely and that was that. I of course understand that many of these complaints can be laid directly at the feet of technical limitations. Still, I can’t help but think about how A Mind Forever Voyaging could be even better with better writing and a deeper world to explore.

The other obvious complaint to make is thematic: that A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t exactly the fairest of political critiques. At risk of sounding too inflammatory, I will say that the game puts its finger on a certain authoritarian impulse that strikes me as a bothersome undercurrent to so much Republican political thought. But still, the game’s message that we’re all going to wind up food for roving cannibalistic mutants if we vote Republican is a bit farther than I’m willing to go. In the last act of the game we meet Richard Ryder himself at last. Consistent with Meretzky’s view of Reagan as an “asshole,” he’s content to just make Ryder a mustache-twirling villain, guilty not only of bad policy but of fundamentally bad faith. There’s literally no division in the game’s universe between a Reagan Republican and a full-blown fascist.

"Now let's get a few ground rules straight, Perelman. Nothing is stopping the Plan. Even if I didn't think your damn tapes were faked, I wouldn't give a damn. A helluva lot of people have a helluva lot at stake in this thing, and so what if a lot of creeps who can't take care of themselves get a little hurt." "I'm very frightened, Senator," says Perelman, his voice laced with sarcasm. "Shut up," Ryder shouts back. "I said that I'm doing the talking here!

"And let me tell you another thing, Perelman. Don't think that just because you've been on the news and been a big hot shot around here, you're gonna get some special consideration, because all that doesn't mean diddly-squat in the kind of power circles I'm talking about!"

Ryder is getting really worked up; his normal, fatherly demeanor is completely gone. "Perelman, you're an even bigger idiot than I imagined if you think we'd let some two-bit egghead scientist and some high-tech whiz bang computer stand in our way! Remember this -- if you were to have some unforeseen accident, you wouldn't be the first person who's gotten crushed by standing in the way of the Plan!" Perelman, with a quick glance in your direction, says, "Quite an oration, Senator. Vintage thug. I wish I could save it for posterity. Would you be willing to go on the record with that statement?" Ryder becomes even more livid. "A real jokester, huh? Lemme tell you this, Perelman -- you'd better stop joking and start listening to my advice, or you're not going to be around to care about posterity, understand?

"So, here's the bottom line, Perelman. My men are going to stay here and keep the lid shut tight on you troublemakers, until the Plan is the law of this land. Nobody leaves, no communications at all, and don't worry about visitors; we'll take care of that. And if I get any trouble out of you, I swear to God I'll personally pull the plug on that goddam wonder machine of yours. Got it?" He stomps out without waiting for a reply, leaving Perelman sputtering in anger. A few seconds later, National Guardsmen enter and escort Perelman away.

Again, and while righteous anger certainly has a power of its own, I sometimes wish A Mind Forever Voyaging had a little more nuance about it.

After we prevent Ryder from pulling PRISM’s plug and thwart his Plan, a sequence which contains the only significant puzzles in the game, we come to the lengthy and justifiably oft-remarked epilogue in a Rockvil of the 2091 of a different timeline, a veritable liberal utopia.

The headline story is about a newly released study which indicates that the average life expectancy for both sexes has now passed one hundred years, and success in the development of regeneratives should send that figure even higher. Despite the dropping mortality rate, global population remains stable at just under two billion, with offworlding now running at a staggering seven million people annually.

To celebrate next month's special twentieth anniversary Disarmament Day, the World Council has passed a bill authorizing fireworks displays in each of the former capital cities of the twenty-two former nuclear powers. The fireworks displays, by Aerialist designer Jean M'gomo, will feature disarmament themes, and will be the largest display of pyrotechnic art in this century.

A story on an inside page catches your eye: "Perry Simm, Noted Author, To Join Crew of Silver Dove," reads the headline. "Perry Simm, author and poet, recipient of the 2089 Mexicana Prize, has been selected from nearly a thousand applicants to be the resident author aboard the Silver Dove, the space colony that is currently being equipped for mankind's first interstellar journey, a trip expected to last a dozen generations."

The epilogue, of which the above newspaper is only a modest part, goes on to show Perry reunited with a healthy and happy Jill and with a clean, prosperous, and peaceful Rockvil in which everyone has excellent health care, access to higher education, support when they need it, and freedom to do and be whatever they wish. And you know what? Having lived for almost five years now in two of the three happiest countries in the world, I have to say that that’s just a better way to run a country. Oh, sure, the epilogue is over the top, so much so that it’s almost hard to take entirely at face value. Yet Meretzky clearly, profoundly cares. In this era of irony and antiheroes and cool detachment, the gawky sentimentality of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s epilogue comes across as brave and inspiring and kind of beautiful. Really, what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Infocom saw A Mind Forever Voyaging as likely to prompt discussion and controversy, just as a similarly strident book-borne critique of Reaganomics would. Far from running from it, they positively courted such a response, a remarkable fact indeed when one considers that they were still desperately trying to sell Cornerstone to a corporate America who thought Reagan was pretty great. The back of the package announced A Mind Forever Voyaging as a “major departure for Infocom,” and the game was announced at a press conference held at the New York Public Library to emphasize its literary qualities. In light of all this, the game’s reception was perhaps the most dismaying possible: nobody seemed to have much of anything substantive to say about it. Astonishingly given how unsubtle it is, many or most reviewers didn’t realize the political critique existed at all — or, if they did, knew better (or their editors did) than to touch on it even in passing. A Mind Forever Voyaging attracted none of the buzz of Chris Crawford’s contemporaneous Balance of Power. The mainstream press was moving on from bookware and with it moving on from Infocom, and everyone inside the industry took it as just another adventure game, albeit one with a weird shortage of puzzles. Sales amounted to no more than 30,000 or so, making A Mind Forever Voyaging Infocom’s least successful game to date (excepting the oddball Fooblitzky). Infocom took this as a rejection of the whole idea of puzzleless interactive fiction, even though their final game of 1985, the much more traditional Spellbreaker, wouldn’t sell much better despite being available on many more platforms. Neither Meretzky nor Infocom would ever attempt anything quite like A Mind Forever Voyaging again.

We, however, aren’t yet done with the game. There’s a whole additional set of ideas here which are if anything even more interesting than the more straightforward political allegory. We’ll get to them next time.


Tags: , ,

A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 1: Steve Meretzky’s Interiors

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Steve Meretzky earned the right to write A Mind Forever Voyaging. That, anyway, is one way to look at it, and one with which I believe many staffers at Infocom tacitly agreed. After his first game, Planetfall, his next two games had been works created to specifications with cheerful equanimity and breathtaking efficiency and not a trace of artistic angst. First there had been Sorcerer, the necessary second installment in the Enchanter trilogy that freed up Marc Blank to work on technology and Dave Lebling to write Suspect. And then of course there was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which fell into Meretzky’s lap because he was the only available Imp willing to play the subordinate role in a creative partnership with Douglas Adams. That game’s huge sales were almost certainly the only thing that allowed Infocom to survive (after a fashion) their disastrous 1985, thus making Meretzky in some sense the savior of everyone still employed there. Throw in the four contract-fulfilling Zork gamebooks he cranked out betwixt and between the computer games, plus all the help he gave to others with their designs, plus the way he just kept everyone insanely sane during all of the trials of the Cornerstone era with his parties and games and antics… yeah, Meretzky deserved carte blanche to make his next game exactly what he wanted it to be.

As funny a guy as he was, Meretzky was interested in being more than just Infocom’s go-to wacky comedy writer. Indeed, and even setting aside Floyd, anyone really looking at Planetfall can’t help but see an attention to science-fictional realism, even a certain amount of earnest worldbuilding, that its oft-cited similarity to Douglas Adams’s just-in-it-for-the-jokes settings and characters belies. Had he had his druthers, Meretzky’s follow-up to Planetfall may very well have been a carefully researched and very sober historical piece taking place aboard the Titanic. “Meretzky’s Titanic game” hung about Infocom so long and was proposed by him so many times that it became a running joke in itself. The rest of the company never warmed to the idea, feeling it lacked commercial potential — an extraordinary judgment call indeed in light of a certain movie from the following decade. Then again, Meretzky didn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio.

But in the immediate aftermath of Hitchhiker’s in late 1984, with complete carte blanche for the first and only time during his tenure with Infocom, Meretzky decided to go in another direction entirely. Even as he was basking in the glow of Hitchhiker’s huge initial sales and publicity, Ronald Reagan was defeating Walter Mondale in one of the biggest routs in American electoral history; Mondale carried exactly 1 state to Reagan’s 49.

The impetus to start working on it was Reagan’s reelection. I was appalled that he was not only reelected but reelected in a landslide. Everyone was talking about what an absorbing medium computer games in general and particularly interactive fiction was because even when you weren’t playing you were spending all your time thinking about it. You were always working on puzzles. When you were playing you were absorbed in it 100 percent, and when you weren’t playing part of your brain was still working on it, thinking about it.

I thought about how other media were constantly trying to get messages across, change people’s thinking. It seemed to me that interactive fiction could be an even more powerful medium for doing that. So that was my mission. I wanted to show people what a war-mongering, Christian-Right-pandering, environment-trashing, rights-trampling asshole Reagan was.

And of course the game was so successful that we’ve never had another President like that!

The question of just how to convey that message within the context of an interesting, playable work of interactive fiction was rather more fraught than the above description might imply. Could interactive fiction change hearts and minds the way that Art does it, not by offering reasoned arguments but by making the player really see and feel? Whatever else you could say about them, adventure games — even Infocom’s interactive fiction — hadn’t been doing a lot of that sort of thing. They’d been more than content to work within safe, established, inoffensive genre boundaries, a defensible enough choice at a time when just offering, say, a reasonably good interactive facsimile of a forgettable mystery novel could be rightly greeted as an amazing achievement. There had been glimpses of potential to do and be more, like Floyd’s death in Planetfall or Infidel‘s shocking ending. But could something like that be maintained over the course of an entire work? Sure, Meretzky could craft a broad satire in which Reagan would stand in for Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, but he wanted to do something more thoughtful, more expressive.

Interactive fiction is an almost perversely limited medium from the perspective of a writer of static fiction. There are many, many things that it just can’t do well, and any sort of direct facsimile of literary fiction, even literary science fiction, is one of them. Such works invariably end up being either fundamentally un-interactive, the proverbial railroaded novel separated by the occasional command prompt, or impossible to implement; the grand bargains and life choices that are the stuff of literature represent a combinatorial explosion with which interactive fiction is utterly unequipped to deal. This doesn’t mean that interactive fiction can’t move and change us. It does, however, mean that its authors must approach their goals in different, more oblique ways than conventional authors.

Steve Meretzky, about to craft the first largely puzzleless work of interactive fiction ever to be released by a publisher, intuitively grasped this reality that has eluded many would-be “literary” interactive-fiction authors since. The central premise of the game that would become A Mind Forever Voyaging came to him one day at his breakfast table. It was an idea that played perfectly to his medium’s strengths. Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer? He would make the player’s avatar a “self-aware computer” observing the effects of Republican policies over a span of decades inside a simulation. There would still be room for player agency, secrets to be found and hidden corners to be investigated. But the larger-scale machinery of the simulation could grind on largely unaffected by this. A cop out? Perhaps, but also a brilliant one. The rest of the story — about the computer, named PRISM, and how he came to be — now began to flow.

Cop out or not, Meretzky’s idea was still hugely ambitious. He wanted to do nothing less than create a whole city in software not once but five times — the same place over a span of five decades. And woven around this central simulation would have to be a lot more material relating to PRISM’s operation and his exploratory mission. The scale of the whole was out of line with anything Infocom had attempted since the original PDP-10 Zork — you know, the one they’d had to chop into pieces to get onto microcomputers. Thankfully, Meretzky had a trump card in the form of a new technology that had been born at Infocom during 1984.

The system would be known to the world as Interactive Fiction Plus, and internally as either the version 4 Z-Machine or just EZIP. (“Extended Z-Machine Interpreter”; ordinary interpreters were customarily called “ZIPs,” a name which has nothing to do with the compression format of the same name.) The Imps had been growing increasingly frustrated with the Z-Machine, with its sharp limitations of 128 K of total code and data (allowing at best a short novella’s worth of text), its maximum of 256 objects (a much more restrictive number than it might appear at first glance when you consider that objects included not only items in the game but also rooms, your avatar and other people and animals, and even various abstractions like compass directions), its support for nothing more elaborate in the way of onscreen formatting than a fixed status line and a scrolling stream of text. They were aching to push their worlds and their parsers further than the cramped Z-Machine could allow.

Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn, who made a surprising but enduring pair of running buddies, worked toward a next-generation technology for interactive fiction even as Berlyn was also heading the cross-platform graphics initiative and designing Fooblitzky and also writing Cutthroats. They dreamed of a parser capable of understanding “kinds and qualities,” capable of facilitating real conversations with other characters. Blank:

We worked on it for quite a while before we realized it just wasn’t getting anywhere. It was too open-ended; it was hard to know where to go with it and what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, where you build a big world you can wander around in but not much happens? We kind of hit a wall.

It of course didn’t help that Cornerstone was continuing to suck more and more oxygen away from such blue-sky initiatives, nor that Blank himself was getting more and more distracted and embroiled in his disputes with Al Vezza and the rest of the Board. Berlyn and Blank’s grander plans never saw the light of day. However, the more plebeian technological foundation Blank had laid to support them did as Interactive Fiction Plus.

EZIP extended the basic Z-Machine in a fairly elegant, straightforward way. Maximum story size doubled to 256 K. The maximum number of objects expanded to a number big enough that nobody would ever, ever — even in the modern era — need to think about it again. A modest new set of opcodes building on work that had been begun to facilitate Seastalker‘s sonar display gave some new options for text layout and screen formatting. And that was about it really. Still, it should be just enough to let Meretzky build his city.

The luxuries of EZIP didn’t come without a steep price tag. Getting EZIP onto many of the target machines stretched the considerable talents of Dan Horn’s Micro Group to the limit. Andrew Kaluzniacki, for instance, had to invent a new filesystem for the Apple II to increase the capacity of a disk side. Even with such wizardry the new system was simply too much for a huge swathe of the many machines Infocom supported with the standard Z-Machine, like the Commodore 64, the Atari 8-bit line, and the many extant Apple IIs with less than 128 K of memory. The lowest common denominator for EZIP would have to be a machine with 128 K and an 80-column text display.

That looked like a dangerous move, especially in 1984 before the arrival of many of the more powerful consumer-focused machines of the latter 1980s like the Commodore 128 and Amiga and the Atari ST. But even then it wasn’t completely unprecedented. Sierra had elected to make 128 K a requirement for King’s Quest and its sequels, and had done quite well commercially by it. In fact, that game seemed to have discovered an audience of players with higher-speced machines who bought it because it required 128 K and thus was presumably more advanced than others on the market. Perhaps a similar touch of snobbery would rub off on Interactive Fiction Plus.

It was just one more way in which Meretzky’s project was an iffy proposition. Yet he got remarkably little pushback from marketing or anyone else about his game. He had gotten it off the ground at the perfect time, just before the disasters of 1985 would make such a risky project look crazy indeed to the embattled company. By the time the full horror of their financial situation started to become clear around mid-year, the game was far too far along to stop even had anyone seriously wanted to. But it’s far from clear that anyone did. Even Dave Lebling, the most conservative of the Imps and thus the most likely to find Meretzky’s game objectionable, declared that he was fine with the game, that it was a point of view which Meretzky had every right to express.

It was “Hollywood” Dave Anderson, a key tester who would later become an Implementor in his own right, who gave the project its enduring label inside Infocom: “Steve Meretzky’s Interiors.” Interiors, for those of you who aren’t Woody Allen fans, was Allen’s 1978 follow-up to the Best Picture-winning Annie Hall. All of Allen’s previous films had been comedies, if funny in increasingly nuanced ways. Interiors, however, was a complete departure, a somber Bergman-esque character study that begins with a separation and ends with a suicide, with nary a laugh in between. Allen later incorporated the reaction of many of his fans into Stardust Memories, whose filmmaker protagonist is constantly being asked when he’s going to get back to making “funny” movies again. Anderson’s epithet knowingly or unknowingly foreshadowed the similar reaction many of Infocom’s fans would soon have to Meretzky’s great artistic experiment.

Meretzky found a particularly great supporter and booster in Jon Palace, who still names the game today as by far his favorite. Palace, who when hired at the beginning of 1984 had not even known what interactive fiction was, had become one of the foremost proponents within Infocom of the medium’s potential to be meaningful and relevant and beautiful — to be Art. Many of the more experimental games of Infocom’s second half, beginning with A Mind Forever Voyaging, owe Palace an enormous debt for his dedication to the proposition of Infocom interactive fiction as something more than endless Zork rehashes even as times got leaner and commercial pressures mounted. Palace:

I really tried to emphasize the storytelling aspect rather than the puzzle aspect just because that’s what I liked. AMFV started as a story without puzzles, and even though puzzles went back in AMFV was about the story. It wasn’t about the puzzles. I was very, very pleased with that one.

At the same time, its reception was definitely mixed. A lot of the rabid puzzle-loving fans did not like it. They might have liked the politics — or maybe they didn’t like the politics — but some people did not like the lack of puzzles. But for me it was, like, “Great! Look, we can really elicit an emotional response!” — an emotional response which isn’t trite. That for me was the best.

Meretzky hugely valued Palace’s unstinting “advice and support” as he ventured into these uncharted waters, thanking him lastly and most prominently in the acknowledgements of the finished game.

Called simply PRISM through most of its development, A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s final name is lifted from a passage in William Wordsworth’s lifetime endeavor, the epic narrative poem The Prelude. There it’s applied to Isaac Newton, a statue of whom stood near the “nook obscure” where the young Wordsworth slept at Cambridge:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

The original Apple Computer logo

The original Apple Computer logo

It’s a passage that already had a place in hacker lore long before Meretzky stumbled upon it in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The first logo deployed by the nascent Apple Computer, created by the company’s forgotten third founder Ronald Gerald Wayne using pen and ink, consisted of a picture of Newton leaning against a tree, with the end of the passage quoted above running along the border. The very un-Apple-like logo didn’t last long; neither did Wayne, who sold his share back to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for $800 less than two weeks later.

While the strong political message remained, A Mind Forever Voyaging gradually evolved into a scenario much more complicated than Meretzky’s initial determination simply to out Reagan as an “asshole” might imply. Drawing upon the knowledge of artificial-intelligence theory which the collection of refugees from MIT’s Lab for Computer Science surrounding him possessed in spades, he created a detailed backstory for Perry Simm — i.e., PRISM — as an entity who has unknowingly lived his first two decades inside a computer simulation before suddenly being jerked out of his simulated reality and into the real world, to be assigned the mission of investigating the likely effects of one Senator Richard Ryder’s Plan for Renewed National Purpose on his home town, the fictional Rockvil, South Dakota, ten years in the future. The “present” in the game’s world is 2031, with simulated futures eventually reaching as far as 2081, making A Mind Forever Voyaging one more entry in science fiction’s huge catalog of works that are ostensibly about the future but really about the here and now. The implications and philosophical questions that surround Perry’s simulated version of existence, many of which the game doesn’t directly address and sometimes seems oddly oblivious of, end up being at least as intriguing as its more straightforward political message.

A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t the unblemished masterpiece many fans accuse it of being. The writing is compelling in many places, cursory in other places, gawky and awkward in yet others — sometimes endearingly so and sometimes just, well, awkwardly so. The sprawling city of Rockvil itself, impressive as it is as by far the largest contiguous space ever to appear in an Infocom game, is also often only sketchily implemented and described. (Much of this is certainly down to the space limitations of even the version 4 Z-Machine; the final game file reportedly has about ten bytes to spare, not enough for even a single extra sentence.) The dystopia that gradually emerges as you progress further into the simulation is, to say the least, rather derivative of Nineteen Eighty-Four; even some of the vocabulary, like “lustfilm” and “hatefilm,” seems lifted straight from a Newspeak dictionary. And as political commentary it’s at best simplistic and heavy-handed.

Yet A Mind Forever Voyaging manages the neat trick of being interesting because of its flaws rather than despite them. It’s a big, messy piece of work that tries to do a lot of things with mixed success even as it sort of accidentally does other things that I’m not entirely sure its maker was even aware of. Its nooks and crannies offer a downright bewildering number of things to talk about, seemingly endless philosophical tangents to wander down. While I can’t promise we’ll get to all of them, we are going to take our time here, not only because it’s one of the most significant games in interactive-fiction history but also because — and more so, really — the ideas it contains are just so interesting to think about. Thus the “Part 1” in this article’s title. With its history and technical logistics behind us, we’ll be ready next time to delve into the game itself.

(This and the following articles are drawn from, in addition to the game itself, my usual Infocom source of Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. Also useful was the Steve Meretzky interview in Richard Rouse III’s Game Design: Theory and Practice.)


Tags: , ,



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tags: , ,


Brian Moriarty, 1985

Brian Moriarty, 1985

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash Dive!'s "feelies"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Opening the refrigerator reveals a bottle and an earthworm.

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

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

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

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

Wishbringer was released in June of 1985, six full months after Infocom’s previous game Suspect. That gap would turn out to be the longest of Infocom’s productive middle years, and had left many fans worried about the company’s future and whether Cornerstone meant the end of games. Infocom’s idea that there were people potentially interested in interactive fiction but eager for a gentler version of the form turned out to be correct. Wishbringer turned into one of Infocom’s last genuine hits; Billboard software charts from the second half of 1985 show it and Hitchhiker’s regularly ensconced together inside the Top 20 or even Top 10, marking the last time Infocom would have a significant presence there. It sold almost 75,000 copies in its first six months, with a lifetime total perhaps as high as 150,000. To the best of my reckoning it stands as about Infocom’s fifth best-selling game overall.

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

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


Tags: , , ,

Down From the Top

Infocom's display at the 1985 Winter CES.

Infocom’s display at the 1985 Winter CES.

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

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

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

Brian Berkowitz shows off his baby at Winter CES.

Brian Berkowitz shows off his baby at Winter CES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Vezza

Al Vezza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infocom is Hiring

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “Okay… what’s my job now?”

“Well… you don’t have a job now.”

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

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

I said, “I’ll come right back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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