Monthly Archives: September 2015

Lovecraft on the Tabletop

Call of Cthulhu

Sandy Petersen first encountered H.P. Lovecraft in the most perfect way imaginable. Poking around his father’s library as a boy in the 1960s, he came upon a battered old paperback called The Dunwich Horror and Other Weird Tales. It was an Armed Forces edition of Lovecraft, one of many hundreds of titles printed cheaply on pulp paper and distributed for free among the soldiers and sailors fighting in World War II. Petersen had no context for the book — no knowledge of the man or his times, no preconceptions whatsoever. There were just the stories. With their strange diction and their sinister air of otherworldliness, they might as well have been dropped into his father’s library from outer space. Petersen felt like one of Lovecraft’s many gentleman-scholar protagonists, encountering a musty old tome that offers a gateway to another world. It was the perfect book at the perfect age, and he was well and truly smitten. Lovecraft remains his favorite author to this day.

It wasn’t as easy to be a Lovecraft fan in those days as it is today. Most of his works were available, if at all, only in editions from the tiny independent publisher Arkham House. Petersen spent years hunting down the stories and learning about the man, treating each new piece of the puzzle as a revelation. And then there came a new obsession: Dungeons and Dragons.

During his first year at Brigham Young University in the mid-1970s, a friend introduced him to the brand new game via a copy of the rules he’d borrowed from one of his professors. Petersen was as immediately smitten with Dungeons and Dragons as he had been with Lovecraft. He soon graduated from player to Dungeon Master, the leader of his little troupe of role-players. With a friend named Steve Marsh, he designed a Dungeons and Dragons variant that Marsh named American Gothic:

By this he meant a fantasy campaign taking place in the modern era, with only a little magic, and most monsters stemming from ’50s horror movies and modern horror literature. I actually started this campaign and went to the trouble of detailing all the possible types of scenarios that could exist, and made up some special rules for combat, experience, and so forth. This campaign was short and abortive, but the things I learned from it planted the seeds for later work.

American Gothic was derailed by Petersen’s group’s love for an all-new RPG that was released in 1978 by a former board-game specialist called Chaosium. It was called RuneQuest.

At a glance, one could easily dismiss RuneQuest as just another me-too fantasy RPG chasing after Dungeons and Dragons players. Look closer, however, and it started to get a whole lot more interesting. RuneQuest games took place in a lovingly detailed world called Glorantha, which Chaosium’s president Greg Stafford had begun slowly elaborating almost a decade before Dungeons and Dragons even existed. Whereas Dungeons and Dragons took place in a vague “lazy medieval” pastiche of Tolkien and popular fantasy, Glorantha was classical in spirit, drawing heavily from Greek and Roman society and mythology. In the spirit of Homer, this was a game where even high-level characters could be killed with a single blow; hit points did not automatically increase when a character gained experience. Like the very first competitor to Dungeons and Dragons, Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest‘s rules fixed many of Dungeons and Dragons other inexplicable aspects, like the way that armor somehow made a character more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when she was hit. Most intriguingly of all, it replaced Dungeon and Dragons‘s system of inflexible character classes with a menu of skills from which the player could choose to truly create her own character her own way. And it was all executed intuitively and elegantly, in marked contrast to Dungeons and Dragons‘s mishmash of systems that could make it feel like about five different games stuck together. It was all so new and different that RuneQuest is occasionally still described as the first “second-generation” tabletop RPG. Petersen and company fell in love immediately.

Indeed, Petersen himself, who was now pursuing a graduate degree in zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, without much enthusiasm, was so smitten that he wrote to Stafford personally, asking if he could contribute to the game. A number of magazine articles and a supplement containing new monsters for the game followed. Then came the moment that, in light of Petersen’s twin passions, just had to arrive: he proposed an expansion for RuneQuest that would move the setting from Glorantha to the so-called “Dreamlands” of H.P. Lovecraft, site of a series of lightly interconnected fantasy stories heavily inspired by British fantasy progenitor Lord Dunsany. These tales were and remain far from the most popular of Lovecraft’s stories among fans and casual readers alike, but Petersen thought they’d be perfect for the RuneQuest ruleset.

Chaosium turned him down, delivering the surprising but exciting news that they already had not just a rules supplement but a whole new horror-themed RPG in the works. It would be largely an exercise in Gothic horror taking place in the late nineteenth century, but would nevertheless include the possibility of encountering the Cthulhu Mythos as well. They had already negotiated rights to the stories from Arkham House. (In later years, when it became clear that Arkham’s copyright claim to Lovecraft’s work wasn’t quite as ironclad as they might have wished it was, Chaosium would quietly drop the license whilst continuing to play in the Cthulhu Mythos.) The game was to be designed by an old hand in the RPG community, whose brother had introduced him to the hobby after playing in one of Dave Arneson’s original games of proto-Dungeons and Dragons. But despite its pedigree, Dark Worlds was delivered very late and in what Chaosium judged to be a very unsatisfactory state. With, as Lynn Willis of Chaosium would later describe it, “bad feelings and confusion” all around, the relationship fell apart — whereupon Greg Stafford recalled Sandy Petersen, who was so desperate to be involved in a ludic tribute to his literary hero that he’d offered to do absolutely anything to help, even if that meant just copy-editing or play-testing. Stafford now gave him much more than that to do, tossing the whole project into the lap of one astonished and delighted young zoology student. Zoology soon fell by the wayside entirely as he embarked on the career he continues to this day: that of game designer.

Greg Stafford (center) and Sandy Petersen (right), with Tadashi Ahara, editor of Chaosium's in-house magazine Different Worlds.

Greg Stafford (center) and Sandy Petersen (right), with Tadashi Ahara, editor of Chaosium’s in-house magazine Different Worlds.

The story of the development of this tabletop RPG of Lovecraftian horror, soon to be renamed Call of Cthulhu, is one of the more fascinating and inspiring case studies in the annals of gaming history. The end result reverberates to this day not only through the world of tabletop gaming but also through its digital parallel. Therefore I’d like to take some time today to look at just what Petersen and his friends at Chaosium did and how they did it.

The great Sid Meier has often advocated starting a game design from its fictional or historical topic rather than beginning with a set ludic genre. His early masterpiece Pirates! provides an excellent example of how productive such an approach can be. Sandy Petersen was considerably more restricted when starting to work on Call of Cthulhu — he needed to deliver something that was recognizably a tabletop RPG at least somewhat in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons — yet there’s nevertheless much the same spirit of directed innovation about his process and his end result.

If there’s a literary model for the structure of Dungeons and Dragons and its many derivative works, including even Chaosium’s innovative RuneQuest, it must be that most seminal of fantasy novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins starts off weak and vulnerable, sets off on a series of grand adventures culminating in a showdown with a dragon, and finally returns home a stronger and better little hobbit. In the book he lives happily ever after, while in games he more likely heads off again to do something even more remarkable and get even stronger. Still, the general comparison holds. This is gaming as self-improvement — or, if you like, the ultimate power fantasy. There’s of course a reason that this model held and continues to hold such sway over both tabletop and computerized RPGs: it’s damn fun. Everyone loves the feeling of accomplishment that comes with new hit dice, new spells, new magical equipment. Everyone loves trouncing a monster that just a few levels ago would have trounced you. Yet this mode of play is totally at odds with the spirit of Lovecraft’s fiction. Novice designer that he was, Petersen realized this only slowly, as a project that had first struck him as “relatively easy” for a devotee of the Cthulhu Mythos like himself turned into something that left him “appalled.”

He turned back to Lovecraft’s stories, analyzing how they were put together and how they made him feel as a reader. He then asked how he could create those same feelings in his players. Most importantly, he asked what there was about horror that made it different from high fantasy or giddy adventure, and thus what should distinguish his game of horror from all the RPGs that had come before it.

How can I make the mood of a fantasy role-playing game match the mood of a modern horror story? I needed spooky happenings to get the player chilled, I needed black horrors that would chill the minds and blast the souls of the intrepid investigators, and I needed to make sure that the game did not degenerate into a slugfest or simple matching of power against power.

Lovecraft presents no comforting narratives of self-improvement. His is a deterministic universe where intentions matter little, where even the cleverest and strongest are often doomed by the whims of a malevolent fate. Assuming they survive at all, Lovecraft’s protagonists invariably end up psychologically scarred for life if not actually insane — certainly not eager to count up their newly acquired hit points and set off to do it all again. How to recreate this feeling of near powerlessness within the framework of a game that people would actually want to play? This was Petersen’s challenge.

The core of his response was Call of Cthulhu‘s sanity — or, perhaps better said, insanity — system, a brilliant innovation that is justly still celebrated today for advancing the RPG’s potential as a story-making engine. Like so many brilliant innovations, it wasn’t entirely born of its creator’s own ideas.

Looking through an RPG magazine called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one day, he came upon an article by Glenn and Philip Rahman that offered the beginning of an attempt to adapt the Cthulhu Mythos to Tunnels and Trolls. It outlined a “willpower” statistic. If a character saw something particularly horrifying, she would have to make a willpower check to avoid running away in terror. Fail badly enough and her willpower score would be permanently reduced. The article came and went in the world of Tunnels and Trolls without making much impression. But when Petersen read it it hit him with the force of a revelation. Call of Cthulhu characters could have a “sanity” statistic that would be difficult or impossible to increase but all too easy to decrease. Knowledge of the Mythos, in many ways the very object of the game, would, almost paradoxically, have the important side effect of costing a character sanity. Once a character went insane, she would revert to the control of the “Keeper,” Call of Cthulhu‘s equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons‘s Dungeon Master, quite possibly to suddenly make life much more difficult thereafter for the rest of the players. Meanwhile the player whose character had just gone insane would have no option other than to roll up another. If nothing else, the system would ensure that the lifespan — sanity-span? — of most characters in Call of Cthulhu who persisted in their investigations would be quite short. Thus weak, inexperienced characters would remain the norm. If your Call of Cthulhu characters manage to improve more than once or twice before insanity or death get them, you’re quite probably playing it wrong. Call of Cthulhu is lethal by design.

When Petersen first tried the system on real players, he himself was shocked at how effective it proved to be in evoking the spirit of Lovecraft.

My players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere (a dimensional shambler) and decided to do so. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like “I’m covering my eyes.” “Turning my back.” “Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster.” I had never seen this kind of activity in an RPG before – trying NOT to see the monster? What a concept. You may not credit it, but I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behavior. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D.

The deadliness extends well beyond the sanity system that stands as the game’s most central innovation. Chaosium had extracted the core mechanics from RuneQuest to create their “Basic Role-Playing” engine, a house system meant to power all of their future games, including Call of Cthulhu. Thus Petersen’s new game already came equipped with an unusually gritty and lethal combat system. “Investigators are not fighting machines,” he wrote in the rules. He further made sure that all of the various Mythos gods and creatures would be suitably overpowered in comparison to the players’ characters. As he’s often noted since in interviews, the least dangerous opponent you’re likely to encounter in the game is a cultist, who’s pretty much just like you. Thus the best you can hope for is even odds, and as far as going toe to toe with the likes of Cthulhu himself… forget about it. There’s an old axiom among Call of Cthulhu players that if a scenario ever comes down to gunplay you’ve probably already lost. It’s the first RPG in history whose combat rules are used as often as not when the players are just trying to get the hell away from something, not to kill it. In making the characters so fragile, so human, Call of Cthulhu can prompt a connection between players and characters that other games can never hope to achieve. Death, injury, and insanity mean something in this game.

Petersen replaced combat as the main focus of Call of Cthulhu with investigation, even going so far as to officially name the players’ characters not “adventurers” but rather “investigators.” This shift was thanks to a quality in Lovecraft’s stories, seemingly so resistant to becoming conventionally fun games, that actually makes them unusually suitable for ludic adaptation in comparison to most works of horror. At heart, many of Lovecraft’s stories are mysteries. The story “The Call of Cthulhu,” Petersen’s game’s namesake for a very good reason, is a perfect example. Its protagonist is an academic who, after coming upon some curious documents among his recently deceased grand-uncle’s papers, slowly ferrets out layer after sinister layer of a global conspiracy of evil. The classic mystery structure is, as I’ve described in a previous article, a perfect setup for a ludic narrative. The real story in a mystery is fixed, leaving the game designer only to provide for the more manageable, almost purely logistical scenario of its uncovering, whilst leaving the player with an obvious goal: to learn more, to solve the puzzle that is the mystery. For this reason mystery stories and games were often intertwined well before the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons or computerized adventure games: R.A. Knox’s ten rules of good practice for designing a mystery; the Baffle Book of solve-em-yourself mystery stories by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay; the classic board game Cluedo; the Crime Dossiers of Dennis Wheatley and J.D. Links, proto-RPGs that captivated players four decades before Dungeons and Dragons. In a sense Call of Cthulhu would merely continue an already long tradition.

As the first full-fledged RPG to do so, however, it was also unique. With combat so lethal and as often as not pointless, other skills came to the fore. Call of Cthulhu became the first and quite possibly still the only RPG where “Library Use” is one of the most valuable skills one can have. Many other skills are equally cerebral: “Accounting,” “Archaeology,” “Law,” “Linguistics,” “Geology,” “Zoology”; the list goes on and on. Playing Call of Cthulhu is a nuanced, intellectual exercise in comparison to its antecedents, a process of ferreting out information and piecing together clues that forces a real engagement with the story and the setting that most games of Dungeons and Dragons lack. Given the nature of the Mythos, it would be quite the stretch to call Call of Cthulhu “non-violent.” Yet it was certainly a different and in its way a more realistic take on violence than had been seen in RPGs before. Violence here is horrifying, as it should be. It’s also swift and deadly and deeply damaging to characters’ psyches as well as their bodies, just as it is in reality. Call of Cthulhu feels like a game for grown-ups, a game capable of producing real drama. Petersen himself notes that “no one’s impressed when a Dungeons and Dragons party kills a werewolf, but when you face off against such a fearsome beast in Call of Cthulhu and survive, it’s a tale worth retelling.” An official Chaosium description of the game further emphasizes just how markedly it departed from all that had come before:

There are no material rewards for those who choose to risk their lives and minds discovering the eldritch horrors hidden in the darkest corners of the world. There are no caches of treasure that await discovery by fearless and intrepid explorers, nor does fame and glory come to those who should defeat some being from “outside.” Those individuals who would speak publicly of what they have learned will soon find themselves ridiculed or even worse. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos is a more or less solitary pursuit, small groups of adventurers only rarely coming into contact with others who may have some knowledge of the Mythos’s secrets. Even these individuals are usually unwilling to speak too freely of what they know and some, having lost their minds, may prove to be actual worshippers of the hideous Other Gods or Great Old Ones. Those who would choose to learn too much about the Mythos are driven mad, anyone gaining near complete knowledge losing all of his sanity permanently. The only motivation to continue the exploration of these mysteries is that of human curiosity; a desire to know the truth, regardless of the cost. This motivation is common to both the players of the game and the protagonists of the stories.

As Petersen tells the story today, Greg Stafford, Lynn Willis, and the other principals at Chaosium had “contempt” for Lovecraft as a writer, considered him a “hack.” An idealistic take on this might be to say that they were, like many others — myself included — more intrigued by the idea of the Mythos and its potential than thrilled with its actual execution under Lovecraft’s hands. But even that may be too generous a spin. Petersen claims that, eager to find a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded field of RPGs, Chaosium’s strategy at the time was simply to make games in as many viable preexisting literary worlds as possible. During the first half of the 1980s, the strategy also yielded a game called Stormbringer that took place in the world of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy hero Elric, one playing in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting, and another based on the ElfQuest line of comics. There was also a supplement that let players of many fantasy games adventure in Robert Asprin’s much-loved Thieves’ World milieu, and one that would have similarly opened up the world of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories had TSR not wrested the license away at the last minute. None of these efforts represent quite as radical a re-imagining of the RPG as Call of Cthulhu, but all did contribute in their own way to bringing more sophistication and storytelling nuance to the form.

In the case of Call of Cthulhu, the folks at Chaosium found a task that they could approach with almost as much passion as Petersen did the core rules. Lynn Willis in particular put a great deal of time and energy into “A Sourcebook for the 1920s,” an entirely separate book included along with the core rules in the box. It’s an interesting document even for those with no real interest in playing the game to which it’s attached, including along with maps of the world as it then existed treatises on crime and law enforcement, on (non-fictional) cult activities, on travel by air and rail and sea (complete with typical timetables), on money and prices, on important historical personages. Chaosium had largely originated the idea of the elaborate RPG sourcebook with RuneQuest‘s world of Glorantha, but the one included with Call of Cthulhu, built as it is from the real world, feels qualitatively different. Petersen has since been dismissive of Chaosium’s efforts to ground the game so thoroughly in Lovecraft’s own times, saying that what is important is the horror, not the setting.

The Chaosium folks wanted to enjoy playing the game I was going to design, and they wanted a “hook” to hang their fun onto. They chose the 1920s. In their games, they loved driving old cars, talking about zeppelins, flappers, the Weimar Republic and all that stuff. My own games usually didn’t reference the era at all, except peripherally. Yeah, they were in the 1920s too, but they could just as easily have been set anywhere in the 20th century. A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned.

If he’d had his druthers he’d have placed the game in the (then) present day of circa 1980. This, he says, would “let the keeper take more for granted about the world and not get caught up in details such as ‘Were there trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1920s?'” Personally, though, I think the game benefits enormously from the efforts of Willis and company. The setting is for me a huge part of the game’s murky personality — but then, I’m the sort who gets genuinely curious whether there in fact were trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1920s. (The answer, for the record, is that there weren’t, unless you were Charles Lindbergh. Late in the decade you could book passage on a zeppelin, if you had the means.)

While the gist of the rules themselves would remain very true to Petersen’s original design, Chaosium did tinker here and there in the interest of playability. Most notably, they dialed back Petersen’s brutal sanity/insanity system just slightly by making it possible in some circumstances to regain lost sanity points, and by introducing the idea that some forms of insanity might be only temporary. It was a fine line to walk, remaining true to the spirit of Lovecraftian horror while not creating a game that just felt too futile, pointless to even bother playing. Despite his fearsome reputation, Lovecraft did occasionally allow his protagonists small victories. For instance, the labyrinthian hell beneath New York in “The Horror at Red Hook” is sealed off with concrete at the end of the story, although it’s strongly implied that this represents at best a stopgap. Similarly, “The Colour Out of Space” returns whence it came in the end — even if, ominously, it also seems to leave a small part of itself behind. Chaosium’s tweaks let Call of Cthulhu capture the feel of these small victories, a feel not so much of triumph as of having briefly delayed the inevitable, having kept the cosmic evil at bay for a few more months or years. Petersen, to this day a notoriously lethal Keeper, predictably thought that Chaosium’s tweaks went too far. Once again I disagree; I think they add just enough hope to make each new battle against the Mythos feel worthwhile. Lynn Willis:

Dark endings may be effective ways to end short stories, but they do not work for fantasy role-playing — nobody enjoys seeing their characters always crushed, impaled, drained, sliced, throttled, and otherwise made corpses without relief, and neither is it much fun to have investigators staggering from catatonia to amnesia to stupefaction without much chance to do more than shrug.

That said, the game remains insanely (ha!) deadly in comparison to most of its competition, and Call of Cthulhu thus remains a tough sell for many players. Many simply loathe the bleakness of its premise. Others point to what they see as a fundamental design flaw: the fact that the insanity system directly motivates players not to want to follow through on the ostensible goal of the game, that of learning more about the Mythos so as to better combat it. It’s hard to really argue against the truth of this statement. The question must be whether the narrative texture provided by these two competing motivations is more important than Call of Cthulhu‘s merits (or lack thereof) as a piece of traditional, fair game design. Even among fans, Call of Cthulhu seems to work best in fairly small servings. Certainly long-running campaigns of the sort that are common to Dungeons and Dragons are quite rare in the world of the Mythos. In some ways almost as much an artistic experiment as an attempt to create a likable, playable game, Call of Cthulhu‘s very structure has always limited its appeal.

Released in late 1981 with relatively little fanfare, Call of Cthulhu proved to be a steady seller if never quite a spectacular one. Chaosium supported the game lavishly, particularly for the first several years after its release, which marked a very good period commercially for the company in general. Some of the scenarios and supplements they released have become almost as iconic as the game itself. Benefiting from the fortuitous release of the hugely popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark just a few months before Call of Cthulhu, much of this material leaned rather heavily on pulpy globe-trotting adventure at the expense of the horror, a development that Petersen always to a greater or lesser degree decried. Yet it’s also hard to argue with some of the results, especially given the element of campy fun that’s always been such a big part of Lovecraft’s own appeal as a writer. Perhaps most legendary of all the Call of Cthulhu supplements is something called Masks of Nyarlathotep by Larry DiTillio, a scenario so huge it needed to come in a box all its own to hold its 450 pages or so worth of detail along with all of its maps and other goodies. No one else in tabletop or digital games at the time was implementing scenarios of this scope and complexity. Sure, it felt at least as much like Indiana Jones as Lovecraftian horror, but, what with opportunities to travel around the world battling cultists in lovingly evoked 1920s versions of New York, London, Egypt, Kenya, and Shanghai, who could really complain? (Well, Petersen to some extent could…) Compare this with the typical Dungeons and Dragons adventure module of the day, which consisted of 20 to 30 pages mapping out the bare tactical challenges of a dungeon and its inhabitants, with all of a paragraph or two giving the players a reason to explore it. Many players found the grand international tapestry of adventure woven by Masks of Nyarlathotep and scenarios like it more compelling than the Cthulhu Mythos itself, resulting in a whole new sub-genre of RPGs focusing on pulpy inter-war adventures rather than horror.

The Masks of Nyarlathotep

After spending some years with Chaosium in the 1980s, working on Call of Cthulhu and other games, Sandy Petersen migrated to the digital realm, a move he frankly acknowledges to have been precipitated by the hard fact that there’s a hell of a lot more money in computer than tabletop games. We’ll likely be meeting him again in future articles in his new role as a designer of computer games. Chaosium, however, stayed the course and stuck to the tabletop, a decision that brought more downs than ups after the company peaked in influence and commercial success sometime shortly after 1984, the year of Masks of Nyarlathotep. Despite nearly going under on multiple occasions, Chaosium has straggled on right to the present day, sometimes as a “real” business with a few full-time employees, sometimes as little more than a hobby. Call of Cthulhu is the only game they’ve maintained continuously in print throughout that period, often as the only game in their catalog. Its influence and reputation have always outstripped its actual sales, but it remains a classic example of game design, eminently worthy of study by designers writing for the computer as well as the tabletop. In the latter realm, some more recent systems like Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press have attempted to create a more playable, forgiving version of a Lovecraftian RPG, while other systems, like the long-lived The Arkham Horror, have tried to do the same as board games. (Not having played any of these games, I can’t speak to their success.)

But, this site being The Digital Antiquarian rather than The Tabletop Antiquarian, I’d like to conclude this article not with an exhaustive history of the later years of Chaosium or Call of Cthulhu or its many paper-and-cardboard heirs, but rather with the real point of this side trip to the tabletop: the immense and too-often overlooked shadow that that original tabletop Call of Cthulhu casts over so much computer-gaming history that follows it. Many computer games, beginning with Infocom’s The Lurking Horror (subject of my next article), were inspired to a greater or lesser degree by Call of Cthulhu‘s example to also play with the Mythos. Some adopted a great deal of their tabletop progenitor’s structural underpinnings. The Hound of Shadow, for instance, developed by the appropriately named Eldritch Games and released in 1989 by Electronic Arts, is practically an unlicensed computerized version of Petersen’s design, complete with a set of suspiciously similar skills to choose from.

Yet almost more interesting, and probably even more important, is the role that Call of Cthulhu played as a proof of concept showing that it could be just as captivating to play someone weak and alone and afraid as an almighty world-conquering hero. Alone in the Dark, the urtext to a whole new gaming genre that became known as survival horror, put that premise to good use in 1992. Just to further underline the association, it also plays with the Mythos, being loaded with references to Lovecraft’s works and lore. Other perennial survival-horror series, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, later built on Alone in the Dark and by extension on the original Call of Cthulhu, often losing the explicit Lovecraftian references but retaining always the delicious horror of being all alone and very nearly powerless in a cold, unforgiving world. Suffice to say that this is a thread that we’ll be coming back to from time to time just as long as I continue to write these articles for you. Credit where it’s due, then, to Sandy Petersen and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Games just don’t get much more influential than this one.

(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline; Different Worlds of February 1982, July/August 1985, and January/February 1986; interviews with Sandy Petersen by Matt Barton, The Gentleman Gamer, Yog-Sothoth, and The Escapist; Petersen’s own “review” of his game on RPG Geek; Grognardia’s post on “The Prehistory of Call of Chtulhu“; Places to Go, People to Be’s history of RPGs. Plus my own memories, alas from long ago now, of battling eldritch horrors with my friends. Thanks, Sandy!)


Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Campy Cosmic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft

If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft … they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s un-putdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing”, but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works.

– China Miéville

One of Lovecraft’s worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as “horrible,” “terrible,” “frightful,” “awesome,” “eerie,” “weird,” “forbidden,” “unhallowed,” “unholy,” “blasphemous,” “hellish,” and “infernal.” Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words — especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.

— Edmund Wilson

So that was what these lekythoi contained; the monstrous fruit of unhallowed rites and deeds, presumably won or cowed to such submission as to help, when called up by some hellish incantation, in the defence of their blasphemous master or the questioning of those who were not so willing?

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”

H.P. Lovecraft is what people like to call a “problematic” writer. For many, the quote just above is all they need to know about him: a jumble of wild adjectives seemingly thrown into the air and left where they fell, married to a convoluted tangle of dependent clauses, all ending in a non-sequitural question mark. Lovecraft’s more fervent admirers sometimes say that he is a “difficult” writer, whose diction must be carefully unpacked, not unlike that of many other literary greats. His detractors reply, not without considerable justification, that his works don’t earn such readerly devotion, that they remain a graceless tangle even after you’ve sussed out their meaning. And that’s without even beginning to address the real ugliness of Lovecraft, the xenophobia and racism that lie at the core of even his best-regarded works. Lovecraft, they say, is simply a bad writer. Full stop.

Well, they’re mostly right. Lovecraft is in most respects a pretty bad writer. He is, however, an otherwise bad writer who somehow tapped into something that many people find deeply resonant of the proverbial human condition, not only in his own time but perhaps even more so in our own. Despite his clumsy prose and his racism and plenty of other sins, his stature has only continued to grow over the decades since his death in poverty and obscurity in 1937 at age 46. This man who himself believed he died a failure, who saw his work published only in lurid pulp magazines with names like Weird Tales and never had the chance to walk into a bookstore and see a book of his own on the shelf, now has a volume in the prestigious Library of America series. His literary influence, at least within the realm of fantastical fiction, has been almost incalculable. Stephen King may have sold hundreds of millions more books, but it’s Lovecraft who’s most often cited to be the most influential single practitioner of horror fiction of the twentieth century. In popular culture too he’s everywhere, from 1979’s classic science-fiction thriller Alien to 2014’s critically acclaimed first season of True Detective. The alien monstrosity Cthulhu, his most famous creation, now adorns tee-shirts, coffee mugs, and key rings; you can even take him to bed with you at night in the form of a plush toy. For a lifelong atheist, Lovecraft has enjoyed one hell of an afterlife.

Perhaps most surprising of all is Lovecraft’s stature as one of the minor deities of ludic fictions, living on a plane only just below the Holy Trinity of Tolkien, Lucas, and Roddenberry. He was an avowed classicist who found the early twentieth century far too modern for his tastes, who believed that he’d been born 200 years too late. He disliked technology as much as he did most other aspects of modernity, wrote in an archaic diction that was quite deliberately centuries out of date even in his own day, and in general spent his entire life looking backward to an idealized version of the past. Yet there’s his mark stamped implicitly or explicitly all over gaming — gaming with its cult of the new, its fetishization of technology, its unquenchable thirst for more gigabytes, more gigahertz, more pixels. It’s a strange state of affairs — but, then again, one of the Holy Trinity itself was a musty old pipe-smoking Oxford professor of philology who was equally disdainful of modern life.

At any rate, we’re just getting to the point in this little history of gaming where Lovecraft starts to become a major factor. Therefore it seems appropriate to spend some time looking back on his life and times, to try to understand who he was and what it is about him that so many continue to find so compelling.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born his parents’ first and, as it would transpire, only child into comfortable circumstances in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. His father was a traveling sales representative for a local silversmith, his maternal grandfather an entrepreneur and industrialist of considerable wealth and influence. The specter of madness, destined to hang constantly over Lovecraft’s own life as it would that of so many of his fictional protagonists, first raised its head when he was three years old: his father had a complete nervous breakdown on a sales trip to Chicago, likely caused by syphilis. He never recovered his sanity, and young Howard never saw his father again after his breakdown; he died in an asylum within five years.

Lovecraft’s mother was also of what they used to call a “nervous disposition,” alternately encouraging, coddling, smothering, domineering, and belittling him. Still, life as a whole was pretty good for much of his childhood. Mother and son lived with his grandfather and two aunts in a rambling old house with a magnificent library and a cupola outfitted as his personal clubhouse, complete with model trains, armies of lead soldiers, and all the other toys a boy could want. While he showed little interest in children his own age and they in turn showed little in him, Lovecraft would come to remember his childhood as the best period of his life. The family treated him as a prodigy, indulging his interests in chemistry and astronomy and clapping heartily when he read to them his first stories and poems — and, it must be said, not without reason; one of his poems, a gloss on The Odyssey composed when he was just seven years old, consisted of 88 lines of meticulously correct iambic heptameter.

But then, on March 24, 1904, came the event that Lovecraft would always reckon the greatest tragedy of his life. His grandfather died on that date, leaving behind a financial situation that proved, thanks to a recent string of losses by his business interests, far worse than anyone in his family had anticipated. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to move from the spacious ease of the family homestead, which had come complete with a retinue of liveried servants, into a cramped little duplex, where they’d have to fend for themselves. The young Lovecraft, already extremely class-conscious, took the decline so badly that he considered suicide. He compensated by claiming ever more stridently, on the basis of little real evidence, to be the latest of a long line of “unmixed English gentry.” Given his already burgeoning obsession with racial and familial purity, that was a wealth far more important than mere money.

Despite his prodigious childhood, Lovecraft’s academic career petered out anticlimactically. For some years he had hoped to become an astronomer, but when the time came to think about university he elected not to even attempt the entrance exam, fearing that his math skills weren’t up to the test. Avoiding the stigma of failure by not even trying would continue to be the pattern of much of his life. Arrogant yet, as arrogant people so often are, extremely insecure at heart, he preferred to adopt the attitude of the wealthy gentry of old whom he so admired, waiting in his increasingly shabby ivory tower for opportunities to come to him.

His academic career was over before it had really begun, but Lovecraft considered workaday employment to be beneath him. He lived until age 28 under the thumb of his mother, subsisting on the slowly dwindling remains of his grandfather and father’s inheritances and the largess of other family members. His principal intellectual and social outlet became what was known at the time as “amateur journalism”: a community of writers who self-published newsletters and pamphlets, forerunners to the fanzines of later years (and, by extension, to the modern world of blogging). A diligent worker who was willing to correspond with and help just about anyone who approached him — a part of his affected attitude of noblesse oblige — Lovecraft also had lots of time and energy to devote to what must remain for most practitioners a hobby. His star thus rose quickly: he became vice president of the United Amateur Press Association, the second largest organization of its kind in the country, in 1915, and its president in 1917, whilst writing prolifically for the various newsletters. His output during this period was mostly articles on science and other “hard” topics, along with a smattering of stilted poetry written in the style of his favorite era, the eighteenth century. He also began the habit of copious and voluminous letter writing, largely to fellow UAPA members, that he would continue for the rest of his life. By the time of his death he may have written as many as 100,000 letters, many running into the tens of pages — a staggering pace of eight or nine often substantial letters per day in addition to all of his other literary output.

By the time he was serving as president of the UAPA, his mother, always high-strung, was behaving more and more erratically. She would run screaming through the house at night believing herself to be chased by creatures from her nightmares, and suddenly forget where she was and what she was doing at random times during the day. She was quite possibly suffering from the same syphilis that had killed her husband. At last, on March 13, 1919, her family committed her to the same mental hospital that had housed her husband; also like her husband, she would die there two years later after a botched gall-bladder surgery. Lovecraft was appropriately bereaved, but he was also free. Within reason, anyway: unable to cook or do even the most basic housekeeping chores and unwilling to learn, and having no independent source of income anyway, he wound up living with his aunts again.

Around the same time, he began to supplant his nonfiction articles and his poetry with tales of horror, drawing heavily on the style of his greatest literary idol, Edgar Allan Poe, as well as contemporary adventure fiction, his family’s history of madness, and the recurring nightmares that had haunted him since age six. While the quality of his output seesawed radically from story to story during this period, as indeed it would throughout his career, he wrote some of his most respected tales in fairly short order, such as “The Music of Erich Zann” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

That last story in particular evokes many of the themes and ideas that would later come to be described as quintessentially Lovecraftian. An aging American industrialist chooses to retire to his family’s ancestral home in England. He builds his new family seat on the ruins of the old, a place called Exham Priory which was abandoned during “the reign of James the First” when one of the sons murdered his parents and siblings and fled to Virginia to found the current branch of the family tree. Three months after these events, as local legend would have it, a flood of rats had poured forth from the derelict building, devouring livestock and a few of the villagers. Since then the site has been one of ill repute, never occupied or rebuilt and avoided conscientiously by the locals. Dismissing it all in classic horror-story fashion, our elderly hero rebuilds the place and moves in, only to be awakened night after night by the sound of thousands of rats scurrying behind the walls, rushing always downward toward an altar in the cellar, a relic from an ancient Druidic temple that apparently once existed on the site. Working with some associates, he finds the entrance to a secret underground labyrinth beneath the altar, where his ancestors practiced barbaric rites of human sacrifice and cannibalism; it was apparently his discovery of and/or attempted initiation into the familial cult that led that one brave son to murder his family and flee to the New World. Alas, our hero proves not so strong. The story ends, as so many Lovecraft stories do, in an insane babble of adjectives, as the protagonist goes crazy, kills, and eats one of his comrades. He is telling his story, we learn at the end, from the madhouse.

Many Lovecraft stories deal similarly in hereditary evil and madness, the sins of the father being visited upon the helpless son. That seems paradoxical given that he was an avowed atheist and materialist, but nevertheless is very much in keeping with his equally strong belief in the power and importance of bloodlines. There are obvious echoes of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in “The Rats in the Walls” — so obvious that Lovecraft, admittedly not exactly the most self-aware of writers, could hardly fail to be aware of them. Yet I think a comparison of the two stories also does a great deal to point out the differences between the two writers. Poe focuses on inner, psychological horrors. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it’s his protagonist’s guilt over a senseless murder he himself committed that leads him to hear the beating of his victim’s heart under the floorboards of his house, and that finally drives him mad. Whatever else you can say about his plight, it’s a plight he created for himself. But the evil in “The Rats in the Walls” is an external evil in the face of which psychology is meaningless, guilt or innocence irrelevant, and the narrator helpless. Lovecraft brings us to shudder not for his characters, who are so thin as to be impossible to really care about, but for humanity as a whole. Nihilism on this cosmic scale was something new to horror fiction; it’s the bedrock of his claim to literary importance.

Lovecraft’s big break, such as it was, came in 1923 when one of his young protégés told him of a new paying magazine called Weird Tales that was just starting up and was thus eager for submissions. Why, they asked, didn’t he submit some of his stories?

The letter that Lovecraft attached along with his initial submission of five stories finds him still affecting the persona of an English gentleman of leisure who likes to amuse himself with a bit of scribbling now and again, who doesn’t really care all that much whether Weird Tales is interested or not.

Having a habit of writing weird, macabre and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly founded periodical … I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing … the only reader I hold in mind is myself …

The magazine did accept all five of them for the handsome fee of 1.5 cents per word, beginning a steady if far from lucrative relationship that would last for the rest of Lovecraft’s life. Weird Tales would remain always far from the top of the pulps, selling a bare fraction of what the biggest magazines like Argosy All-Story Weekly and Black Mask sold. Yet even among its stable of second-tier authors Lovecraft was not particularly prominent or valued. In over a decade of writing for Weird Tales, he wasn’t once granted top billing in the form of a cover story. Indeed, many of his submissions, including some that are regarded today as among his best work, were summarily rejected.

The February 1928 Weird Tales that included Lovecraft's most famous story. As always, it didn't make the cover.

The February 1928 issue of Weird Tales that included Lovecraft’s most famous story. As always, it didn’t make the cover.

It was shortly after his stories started appearing in Weird Tales that Lovecraft embarked on the one great adventure of his life. In March of 1924 this confirmed bachelor, who had never before expressed the slightest romantic interest in a woman, shocked family and acquaintances alike by abruptly moving to New York City to marry Sonia Greene, one of his UAPA correspondents. Just to make it all still more bizarre, she was a Jew, one of the groups of racial Others whom he hated most. But anyone who thought that his wife’s ethnicity might reflect a softening of his racism was soon proved wrong. He instructed Sonia that she should ensure that any gatherings she arranged be made up predominantly of “Aryans,” and persisted in excoriating her ethnicity, often right in front of her. The marriage soon ran into plenty of other problems. She was loving and affectionate; he, she would later claim, never once said the words “I love you” to her. She had a healthy interest in sex; he had none — indeed, found it repulsive. (He had an “Apollonian aesthetic,” she a “Dionysian,” he would later say in his pompous way.)

The couple separated within a year, Lovecraft renting a single large room for himself in Brooklyn Heights, a formerly wealthy area of New York now come down in the world, full of rooming houses catering to transients and immigrants. That last in particular always spelt trouble for Lovecraft. He poured his bile into “The Horror at Red Hook.” One of his uglier stories, it’s set in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a similar history to that of Brooklyn Heights. It reads like a bigot’s vision of Paradise Lost.

Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”. The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing.

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through.

After describing his unhappiness in New York to his aunts with increasing stridency — he said he awoke every morning “screaming in sheer desperation and pounding the walls and floor” — Lovecraft got from them a railway ticket and an invitation to come back home at last in April of 1926. His two-year adventure in adulthood having ended in failure, he resumed what even his most admiring biographers acknowledge to be essentially a perpetual adolescence.

Back in Providence, Lovecraft wrote his most anthologized, most read, most archetypal, most influential, and arguably simply best story of all: “The Call of Cthulhu.” Its opening lines are the most famous he ever wrote, and for once relatively elegant and to the point, a mission statement for cosmic horror.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” is an intellectual gentleman, apparently an anthropologist of some stripe or other, who stumbles upon a sinister cache of documents whilst serving as executor of his grand-uncle’s estate following the latter’s death under somewhat mysterious circumstances. An epistolary tale in spirit if not quite in technical form, the bulk of its length consists of our narrator explaining what he found in that initial cache as well as the further research to which it leads him. He gradually uncovers evidence of a sinister global cult, older than antiquity, which worships Cthulhu, an extraterrestrial entity of inconceivable power. Cthulhu sleeps entombed somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean, waiting until “the stars are right,” when he will rise again to awaken his even more powerful comrades — the so-called “Great Old Ones” — and rule the world. Non-converts like our benighted narrator and his grand-uncle who learn of the cult’s existence tend not to live very long; it apparently has a very long reach. Importantly, however, it’s also strongly hinted that the cult may be in for a rude surprise of its own when Cthulhu does finally awaken. He and the Great Old Ones will likely crush all humans as thoughtlessly as humans do ants on that day when the stars are right again.

In only one respect is “The Call of Cthulhu” not archetypal Lovecraft: it has a relatively subdued climax in comparison to the norm, with our narrator neither dead nor (presumably) insane but rather peeking nervously around every corner, waiting for the cult’s inevitable assassin to arrive. This is doubtless one of the things that make it so effectively chilling. Otherwise all of the classic tropes, or at least those that didn’t already show up in “The Rats in the Walls,” are here: locales spanning the globe; forbidden texts; non-Euclidean alien geometries “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” There’s the affectedly archaic diction: “legends” becomes “legendry”; “show” becomes “shew.” There’s lots of words that you’ll only find in Lovecraft, to such an extent that you know as soon as you see one of them that you’re reading either him or one of his imitators: “eldritch,” “Cyclopean,” “daemonic.” There’s the way that every single person or document talks in the exact same voice and diction. (This applies even to an extract from The Sydney Bulletin, which describes the crew of a ship as “a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes.”) And yes, this being Lovecraft, the usual racism and horror of miscegenation is also all over the place: the cult makes its outposts not with the upright Aryan races but with the “debased,” “mongrel” peoples of the earth. Almost as notable is what is conspicuously missing, here as well as elsewhere in the Lovecraft oeuvre: humor, women, romance, beauty that isn’t somehow “blasphemous” or “daemonic.” Come to think of it, about 95 percent of life’s rich pageant. Some writers like Shakespeare and Tolstoy enfold the whole world of human experience, while others focus obsessively on one tiny corner of it. Lovecraft is definitely among the latter group.

Many of Lovecraft’s later stories continued to explore what came to be known as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” sometimes in the form of novellas rather than short stories. Always generous with his friends and correspondents, he also happily allowed other writers to play with his creations. Thus the Mythos as we’ve come to know it today, as a shared universe boasting contributions from countless sources — many of them, it must be said, much better writers than Lovecraft himself — was already well into its gestation before his death. Whatever else you can say about Lovecraft, his complete willingness to let others share in his intellectual property is refreshing in our current Age of Litigation. It’s one of the principal reasons that the Mythos has proved to be so enduring.

When not writing his stories or his torrents of letters, Lovecraft spent much of the last decade of his life traveling the Eastern Seaboard: as far south as Florida, as far west as Louisiana, as far north as Quebec. Preferring by his own admission buildings to people, he would invariably seek out the oldest section of any place he visited and explore it at exhaustive length, preferably by moonlight. Broker than ever, he often stayed with members of his small army of correspondents, who also took it upon themselves to feed him. Otherwise he often simply went hungry, sometimes for days at a time. Paul Cook, one of his few local friends, was shocked at the state in which he returned to Providence from some of his rambles: “Folds of skin hanging from a skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws.”

Those friends and correspondents of his, more numerous than ever, were an interesting lot. They now included among them quite a number of other writers of pulpy note, some of them far more popular with inter-war readers than he: Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Clark Ashton Smith (the outside writer who first and most frequently played in the Cthulhu Mythos during Lovecraft’s lifetime), Fritz Leiber (creator shortly after Lovecraft’s death of the classic fantasy team of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert Bloch (author many years later of Psycho). Those last two, as well as many or most of Lovecraft’s other regular correspondents, were notable for their youth. Many, like Bloch, were still in their teens. The picture below shows Lovecraft on a visit to the family of another of his young friends in Florida in 1935. Robert Barlow had just turned 17 at the time. It’s an endearing image in its way, but it’s also a little strange — even vaguely pathetic — when you stop to think about it. What should this 45-year-old man and this 17-year-old boy really have to share with one other?

H.P. Lovecraft, left, with the young Robert Barlow and family in Florida, 1935.

H.P. Lovecraft, left, with the young Robert Barlow and family (and cat) in Florida, 1935.

Ironically, Lovecraft died just as his career seemed to be on the upswing. In 1936 he received $600, the most he’d ever been paid at once for his writing and a small fortune by his meager standards, for two novellas (At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time) that were published by the prestigious (by pulp standards) Astounding Science Fiction. This marked a major step up from the perpetually near-bankrupt Weird Tales. Best of all, both novellas made the cover, signaling what could have been the start of a steady relationship with a magazine that valued him much more than Weird Tales ever had, that may have finally allowed him to earn a real living from writing. But it wasn’t to be. On February 27, 1937, after weeks of excruciating stomach pain, he visited a doctor for the first time in years, who determined that cancer of the small intestine and acute kidney disease were in a race to see which could kill him first. He died on March 15.

At the Mountains of Madness

The upswing in Lovecraft’s literary fortunes that began with his publication in Astounding proved oddly unaffected by his death. In 1939 August Derleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House — named after the fictional New England city, a stand-in for Providence, where Lovecraft set many of his stories — to preserve his works in book form. A long, convoluted series of copyright disputes arose almost immediately, initially between Lovecraft’s young friend Robert Barlow, whom he had named as executor of his estate, and Darleth and Wandrei, who claimed to have been bequeathed the rights to his stories by his family. This tangle has never been entirely resolved, but most people today simply act as if Lovecraft’s stories are all in the public domain, and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever been sued for it.

Edmund Wilson’s infamous 1945 hatchet job for The New Yorker, from which I quoted to begin this article, is entertaining but not terribly insightful, and must have been disheartening on one level for fans of Lovecraft, especially as it set the tone for discussion of him in high-brow literary circles for decades to come. On the other hand, though, the very fact that Wilson, the country’s foremost literary critic at the time, felt the need to write about him at all is a measure of how far he had already come in the eight years since his death. Since then Lovecraft has continued to grow still more popular almost linearly, decade by decade. He long since became one of those essential authors that anyone seriously interested in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, or horror simply has to read, and if the recent success of True Detective is anything to go by he’s not doing too badly for himself in mainstream culture either. As I write this article today I see that not only “Lovecraft” but also “Cthulhu” are included in the Firefox web browser’s spelling dictionary. What more proof can one need of the mainstreaming of the Mythos?

But just what is it about this profoundly limited writer that makes his work so enduring? Well, I can come up with three reasons, one or more of which I believe probably apply to most people who’ve read him — those, that is, who haven’t run screaming from the horrid prose.

The first and most respectable of those reasons is that when he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his one stroke of unassailable genius, Lovecraft tapped into the zeitgeist of his time and our own. We should think about the massive shift in our understanding of our place in the universe that was in process during Lovecraft’s time. In the view of the populace at large, science had heretofore been a quaint, nonthreatening realm of gentlemen scholars tinkering away in their laboratories to learn more about God’s magnificent creation. Beginning with Darwin, however, all that changed. Humans, Darwin asserted, were not created by a divine higher power but rather struggled up, gasping and clawing, from the primordial muck like one of Lovecraft’s slimy tentacled monsters. Soon after the paradigm shift of evolution came Einstein with his theories about space and time, which claimed that neither were anything like common sense would have them be, that space itself could bend and time could speed up and slow down; think of the “loathsome non-Euclidean geometry” of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. And then came our first inklings of the quantum world, the realization that even the comforting regularity of Newtonian physics was a mere facade spread over the chaos of unpredictability that lay beneath. The world seemed to be shifting beneath humanity’s feet, bringing with it a dawning realization that’s at the heart of the embodiment of existential dread that is Cthulhu: that we’re just not that important to anyone or anything; indeed, that it’s difficult to even express how insignificant we are against the vast sweep of the unfeeling cosmos. I believe that our collective psyche still struggles with the ramifications of that realization today. Some cling ever tighter to traditional religion (it’s interesting to note that fundamentalism, in all its incarnations, is a phenomenon that postdates Darwin); some spend their lives trying to forget it via hedonism, career, social media, games (hey, I resemble that remark!); some, the lucky ones, make peace with their insignificance, whether through Nietzschian self-actualization, spirituality, or something else. But even for them, I believe, persists somewhere that dread and fear of our aloneness and insignificance, born of the knowledge that a rogue asteroid — or a band of inconceivably powerful and malevolent aliens — could wipe us all out tomorrow and no god would save us. It’s this dread and fear that Lovecraft channels.

That’s the philosophical argument for Lovecraft’s importance, and I do think it’s a good one. At the same time, though, it’s hardly a full explanation of why so many of us continue to enjoy — yes, enjoy — reading Lovecraft even after he’s beaten his one great idea comprehensively into the ground over the course of dozens of tales. We also read Lovecraft, ungenerous and even voyeuristic as it may sound, because we’re fascinated by the so obviously troubled personality that created them. In short, we want to know just what the hell is up with Lovecraft, this man who fancied himself an independent, strong-minded gentleman scholar yet is actually terrified of just about every damn thing in the universe. Various people have advanced various theories as to what in fact was up with Lovecraft. Some, noting his inability to express any other emotion than terror and, most of all, disgust — which he admittedly does do very well — have said that he must have been on the autism spectrum. Others, noting his habit of surrounding himself with young male admirers and his occasional habit of describing their appearance in rather, shall we say, idealized terms, have questioned whether he was a closeted homosexual — quite possibly closeted even from himself. In the end, though, all such theories end up feeling unsatisfying and anachronistic.

What is clear is that the Lovecraft we meet in his fiction is a walking, talking bundle of neuroses and phobias, disgusted especially by the seething biological physis that is life itself. Most of all, he’s disgusted by that ultimate imperative of biology: sex. His work is so laden with Freudian imagery that it’s the veritable mother lode for any believer in displacement theory: “rigid” pillars; yawning abysses coated with slimy moisture; dilating doorways leading into dark, strong-smelling tunnels; thick round “Cyclopean” columns (did someone say something about a one-eyed trouser snake?). Read in the right spirit, passages like this one from “The Call of Cthulhu” become hilarious:

…everyone watched the queer recession of the monstrously carven portal. In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.

The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and at length the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there.

What makes all of this still more hilarious is that Lovecraft has no idea that he’s doing it. It’s almost enough all by itself to make one a believer in Freud — if one can stop laughing long enough.

And that in turn gets us to the real dirty little secret about Lovecraft, the reason so many of us continue to love this pretentious bigot like we do the racist but entertaining old uncle we see every Thanksgiving: he’s just so fun. He’s the best camp this side of Plan 9 From Outer Space. This is the real reason that people want to take Cthulhu to bed with them as a plush toy. In the countless works of Lovecraftian fiction that have been written by people other than H.P. Lovecraft, the line between parody and homage is always blurred, largely because he’s uniquely impervious to the typical mode of literary parody, that of exaggerating an author’s stylistic tics until they become ridiculous. The problem is that Lovecraft already parodies himself. Really, how could anyone write anything more ostentatiously overwrought than this?

The tramping drew nearer—heaven save me from the sound of those feet and paws and hooves and pads and talons as it commenced to acquire detail! Down limitless reaches of sunless pavement a spark of light flickered in the malodorous wind, and I drew behind the enormous circumference of a Cyclopic column that I might escape for a while the horror that was stalking million-footed toward me through gigantic hypostyles of inhuman dread and phobic antiquity. The flickers increased, and the tramping and dissonant rhythm grew sickeningly loud. In the quivering orange light there stood faintly forth a scene of such stony awe that I gasped from a sheer wonder that conquered even fear and repulsion. Bases of columns whose middles were higher than human sight . . . mere bases of things that must each dwarf the Eiffel Tower to insignificance . . . hieroglyphics carved by unthinkable hands in caverns where daylight can be only a remote legend. . . .

I would not look at the marching things. That I desperately resolved as I heard their creaking joints and nitrous wheezing above the dead music and the dead tramping. It was merciful that they did not speak . . . but God! their crazy torches began to cast shadows on the surface of those stupendous columns. Heaven take it away! Hippopotami should not have human hands and carry torches . . . men should not have the heads of crocodiles. . . .

To those last lines I can only reply… no shit, Sherlock. Long after the cosmic horror has had its moment and you’ve realized that obscure diction doesn’t a great writer make, the camp will always remain. While it may be borderline impossible to parody Lovecraft, it’s great fun for a writer to just go wild once in a while in his unhinged style, to ejaculate purple prose all over the page in an orgasm of terrible writing. (Having once written a Lovecraftian interactive fiction, I fancy I know of what I speak.) This, again, is extremely important to understand when reckoning with his tremendous ongoing popularity, and with the fact that so many excellent writers who really ought to know better — people like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, and Joyce Carol Oates — can’t resist him.

If you haven’t yet read Lovecraft, I certainly recommend that you do so. Love him or hate him, he’s a significant writer with whom everyone — especially, as we’ll begin to see in my next article, those interested in ludic culture — should be at least a little bit familiar. And getting a handle on him isn’t a terribly time-consuming task. While his other works can certainly be rewarding to cosmic-horror aficionados and lovers of camp alike, you can come to understand much or most of what he does and how he does it merely by reading “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” In my opinion the best of his later works is At the Mountains of Madness, more a work of pulpy Antarctic adventure than horror and all the better for it; his prose here is a bit less purple than his norm. (That said, it does also contains one of the best instances of high Lovecraftian camp ever, when he shows himself perhaps the only person on the planet who can find penguins “grotesque.”) After you’ve read those three all of his writerly cards are pretty much on the table. His other works more amplify his modest collection of themes and approaches than extend them.

Next time we’ll take up another weird tale: how a young game designer turned these nihilistic stories whose protagonists always end up dead or insane into a game that would actually be fun — one that you might even be able to win once in a while.

(The definitive biography of H.P. Lovecraft is and will likely remain S.T. Joshi’s sprawling two-volume I Am Providence. A shorter and more accessible biography is Paul Roland’s The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft. Worthwhile online articles can be found at The Atlantic, SalonThe New York Review of Books, and Teeming Brain. The Arkham Archivist has put together The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, a free-to-download ebook for Kindle and EPub readers. Finally, there’s BBC Radio’s excellent Weird Tales: The Strange Life of H.P. Lovecraft.)


Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floyd produces a loud burp and fails to apologize.

Floyd stomps on your foot, for no apparent reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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…and Into the Fire

When Infocom’s loyal fans received their New Zork Times newsletter for the spring of 1986, they were surprised not only by the shocking acquisition by Activision that was announced therein but also by the issue’s letterhead. Replacing The New Zork Times was a simple “* * * *.” It seemed that a certain Gray Lady in New York City had belatedly — very belatedly, in light of the fact that she had published several articles about Infocom — gotten wind of the title of the newsletter and decided that it wasn’t kosher at all. “You are endangering vital Times Company assets,” she had written, without deigning to clarify in exactly what way. The bottom line, however, was clear enough: “I am asking our attorney to take the necessary steps.”

This obviously wasn’t a fight that Infocom was going to win. After apologizing to “the millions of people who had bought The New York Times hoping to receive ‘* * * *,'” they initiated a contest to seek out a new name, the ironic prize a subscription to The New York Times. Cliff Tuel of San Jose had the winning suggestion, The Status Line, although I must say that my personal favorites are The Gnu Yak Times (“All the gnus’ wee feet leave prints”), The Old Zork Times, and The New York Times (“Really give them something to complain about!”). Tuel declined his Times subscription, saying he lacked a bird cage that needed lining, and asked for a free Infocom game instead, thus enabling a delighted Infocom to write that “The New York Times can’t be given away!”

Amid all the turbulence that had led to the Activision acquisition, the need to retire the name that had been on Infocom’s newsletter since Mike Dornbrook had founded The Zork Users Group back in 1981 was a fairly minor problem, one to be dealt with with as much grace and good humor as possible — in the case of Infocom that always meant a considerable amount of both — and put behind them. Seen with the benefit of hindsight, though, it represents the beginning of the slow erosion of Infocom’s identity that would mark this final era of their existence, a process of bargaining with powers greater than themselves that slowly leached away more and more autonomy, more and more personality, from this proud little troupe that had always done things their own way. By the time that process came to its inevitable painful anticlimax three years later, some at Infocom would wonder if it mightn’t have been better to have just let the company go under in 1986.

Perhaps Infocom, desperate as they were to see Activision as an unmitigated savior, should indeed have been more conscious from the beginning of what the acquisition must really mean. Yet that was hard to do as a jovial Jim Levy joined in the usual Infocom insanity to take part in an impromptu “InfoWedding,” hastened to declare at every opportunity his love for their games, and always used the word “merger” — never “acquisition” — when describing the new “partnership.” It was almost enough to cause one to forget where all of the actual power resided. Brian Moriarty continues to refer to Levy even today almost dismissively, as “a fairly benign guy” (a turn of phrase that always brings to mind the old “mostly harmless” gag from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Infocom hastened to declare in their newsletter that all would remain business as usual: “We’ll still be the Infocom you know and love.”

But the reality is that few companies buy other companies in order to just leave them alone and let them continue to go about their business, regardless of what they first say to the nervous employees of said companies. Levy did have quiet plans of his own for Infocom, plans that, if fully known, might have left the latter feeling less sanguine about their future. Alex Smith, a videogame historian who recently interviewed Levy at some length, describes his plans thus: “He never planned to isolate Infocom as a separate entity doing its own thing. He knew as well as anyone that interactive fiction was the past, not the future, but he did believe the Implementors could help lead us into that future hand in hand with Activision game designers.” Entering into such a partnership as the clear junior partner must be, at best, an uncomfortable adjustment for a company that wasn’t used to answering to anyone. Whatever else happened in the Activision/Infocom relationship — and plenty would — nothing was ever going to be quite the same again for the latter.

While Jim Levy’s bigger plans remained for the long term, to be put into practice perhaps after Infocom had had some time to adjust to their new reality, Activision had an immediate impact on Infocom’s day-to-day operations in at least one very important respect. Following a 1985 in which Infocom’s output dipped to just three new works of interactive fiction, plus Cornerstone and the graphical multiplayer game Fooblitzky, many fans had begun to speculate on the company’s overall health as well as its commitment to the genre which had made it what it was. With Infocom now firmly and unambiguously a specialist in adventure games again, Activision encouraged them to make something of a statement by releasing a lot of interactive fiction before 1986 was out. Eager to cooperate and just as eager as Activision was to tell the world that they were “back,” Joel Berez and his management team crafted an ambitious release schedule. In addition to a pair of Zork and Enchanter trilogy collector’s sets and the already released Ballyhoo and Trinity, they pushed the Imps to finish four more new games. All seemed like they had real commercial potential with one demographic or another. There was Leather Goddesses of Phobos, a game for which, in deference to Steve Meretzky’s proven comedic touch and most of all to the time-honored maxim that Sex Sells, they had very high hopes; Moonmist, a second collaboration between Stu Galley and seasoned children’s author Jim Lawrence that would be, after the Tom Swift-in-all-but-name Seastalker, Nancy Drew with the serial numbers filed away; Hollywood Hijinx, a product of first-time author “Hollywood” Dave Anderson and an old-school puzzlefest of the sort that a large percentage of Infocom’s hardcore fans still adored above any other sort of game; and Bureaucracy, a satirical comedy with a uniquely long and troubled development history already behind it which would nevertheless have the huge advantage of having Douglas Adams’s name on the box.

It was all too ambitious. Eager to please as they might have been, Infocom had never before pushed out four games in six months, and really wasn’t equipped to do it now without compromising quality in ways no one was willing to do. Management only compounded the problem by remaining in denial about this reality for far too long. Jon Palace became the unfortunate point man ordered to find a way to finish, package, and polish the two games that were least far along, Hollywood Hijinx and Bureaucracy, in record time. When he told his managers that this was impractical, and asked if he could just focus on getting one or the other out in time, his request was denied; management wanted both. In the end, both projects spilled into the following year, Hollywood Hijinx appearing in January and Bureaucracy not until March. Palace:

That was a hard lesson learned. We missed the Christmas season. As Steve Meretzky likes to say, games need a certain amount of time, and just putting more resources on them doesn’t make it happen faster. You can’t use nine women to have a baby in one month.

The episode precipitated some of the first cracks in the relationship between Activision and Infocom, began to engender a slowly hardening perception of the latter on the part of the former as an undisciplined gang of artistes who just wouldn’t knuckle down to the hard-headed business of selling games, who greeted every suggestion with a long explanation of why they, special little flowers that they were, just couldn’t manage it. As for Infocom’s perception of Activision… well, much more on that momentarily.

Whatever Activision’s perception, at this stage Infocom was still striving mightily to please both their customers by making quality games and their new masters by making lots more of them. Including the two titles that had slipped from 1986, Infocom released no fewer than eight games over the course of 1987, followed by another that slipped into January of 1988. It marked by far the most prolific outpouring in the company’s history.  While the expanded release schedule allowed room for one or two unabashed experiments, Infocom’s management was every bit as aware as Activision’s that they could really use a big hit or three among that group. As Infocom looked over their plans for the year on New Years Day 1987 they must have felt like they had as close to a can’t-miss lineup as they could possibly craft. It included games like Douglas Adams’s Bureaucracy, better late than never; Stationfall, the long-awaited sequel to one of their most beloved early titles, featuring copious amounts of Floyd the lovable robot; The Lurking Horror, a leap into horror fiction that seemed especially well-timed on the heels of ICOM’s dire but very successful Uninvited. For the coup de grâce, they planned to cap the year with Beyond Zork, their first use since 1982 of their strongest brand by a mile, a brand the Imps had previously rejected ever using again. They now proved far more willing than in earlier years to compromise their artistic ideals a bit for the sake of commercial concerns. Figuring that if you can’t beat ’em you might as well join ’em, Beyond Zork would combine traditional text-adventure mechanics with the randomized combat and character leveling of a CRPG, a genre whose popularity seemed to be growing in inverse proportion to the decline of Infocom’s brand of adventure game. Infocom was truly pulling out all the stops for this one, for which they were designing yet another new version of their venerable Z-Machine that would allow for an onscreen automap, a windowing system, mouse input, more sophisticated text formatting, and a character-based graphics system that, if not quite what most people thought of when they thought of graphics in an adventure game in 1987, was certainly as close as Infocom had ever come.

The verdict on whether what would turn out to be the last great outpouring of all-text Infocom games was ultimately a good or a bad thing remains mixed to this day. Some who were at Infocom believe it was all far, far too much, especially given that their employee rolls remained stuck at about 40 people who were now being expected to produce almost twice the product of earlier years. It’s hard to imagine how this increased workload couldn’t have had an effect on the end result. And indeed, some of the games of 1987 do show signs of stress in the form of puzzles that could have used a bit more thought or ideas that aren’t quite fully formed. Further, Mike Dornbrook for one believes that by 1987 there was simply a very finite number of diehards willing to buy all-text adventure games at all, and that even many of these people were unwilling to buy eight of them in a single year. Thus, he believes, Infocom’s 1987 games to a large extent ended up cannibalizing one another’s sales. (Dornbrook actually lobbied fruitlessly at the time that Infocom should be going in the opposite direction, should be pouring all of their resources into just one or two major epics per year, a very radical idea that would have entailed the upending of the one-author one-game model of creation that had been with the company almost since the beginning.) Set against these practical concerns, however, must be the fact that the expanded release schedule allowed some welcome new voices that I for one would certainly not want to be without. Amy Briggs’s absolutely delightful Plundered Hearts alone is more than argument enough for the policy in my eyes.

Infocom’s newfound prolificacy undoubtedly contributed to the decision to retire Mike Dornbrook’s old matrix of fiction genres and difficulties that had been instituted along with the gray-box era of standardized packaging back in 1984. Beginning with Hollywood Hijinx, these categories were replaced on the box covers with a simple “Interactive Fiction” label and an author credit. It’s hard to mourn their disappearance too much. The difficulty rankings in particular were arguably worse than useless, having far too often been motivated more by how difficult Infocom’s marketing department would like for a given game to be than by the reality. (Particular lowlights included the infamously hard yet “Standard” level Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the “Advanced” yet almost trivial Infidel.) Of late the genre tags had also been looking increasingly strained as the Imps continued to explore new fictional territory. (Was the mournful Cold War tragedy Trinity really what people were looking for when they set out to buy a “Fantasy” game? Was Leather Goddesses of Phobos science fiction or was it “pure” comedy?) Looking back, the loss of the matrix seems once again most impactful in the symbolic rather than the practical sense, as one more piece of Infocom’s old identity bargained away.

Bruce Davis

Bruce Davis

If the character of the earliest changes wrought by the Activision acquisition can be and were debated, both now and at the time, those that began to take hold after January of 1987 leave far less room for discussion. Everyone at Infocom at the time agrees that most of them were nothing less than devastating. The trouble all stemmed from the toppling of Jim Levy and the ascent of one Bruce Davis, the man destined to go down in Infocom lore as Al Vezza’s successor in the role of the great villain of the story. While some of the Imps can now find it in their hearts to forgive Vezza for the Cornerstone debacle and all of his other mistakes, none seem willing to extend the same courtesy to Davis. The wounds he inflicted still fester all these years later, and former Infocom staffers, so balanced and level-headed and even wise when discussing most topics, can sometimes begin to sound like shrill conspiracy theorists when the topic turns to Davis. Marc Blank:

My sense of Bruce Davis is that he thought that companies made money by suing people, not by making products. He didn’t like the fact that Infocom had been bought in the first place, and he arranged to make it fail and shut it down.

Mike Dornbrook:

He was a lawyer who had no games experience. I don’t know that he even had much business experience, other than as a legal consultant.

He thought like a lawyer, not an entrepreneur. He didn’t seem to care what the moral/ethical deal was, but what he could get away with in court.

As we’ll see, Davis did much to earn such vitriol. At the same time, though, these characterizations of him are hardly fair. Far from lacking any experience in business, Davis had cut his teeth in the games industry as the head of Imagic, a developer and publisher that had followed in the footsteps of Jim Levy and Activision to enjoy a couple of very successful years as a third-party purveyor of titles for the Atari VCS during that platform’s boom period. After the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 Davis had, ironically in light of the role he would later play as Infocom’s nemesis-in-chief, tried to jump onto the bookware bandwagon that had arisen largely as a reaction to Infocom’s success, creating a line of interactive fiction in partnership with Bantam Books called Living Literature. When that proved not to be a success, the remnants of Imagic wound up at Activision. (See Scott Stilphen’s comment below for more on this.) Among those remnants was Davis himself, who worked for Activision initially as a freelance consultant hired by a board that was growing more and more restive under Jim Levy’s leadership, concerned by his continual investing in quirky, high-concept titles like Alter Ego and Portal and by his complete dismissal of some of the most popular genres in gaming, such as the CRPG. (Levy had, for instance, rejected Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale as “nicheware for nerds,” leaving Electronic Arts to pick it up and turn it into a massive hit.)

In his role as consultant, Davis had pushed hard to convince Activision to purchase not Infocom but rather Sierra, whose animated graphical adventures he believed, correctly, to be the direction the industry at large must go in the years to come. Mike Dornbrook claims that Davis actually negotiated the purchase with Ken Williams, only to have Jim Levy and the board reject it “over a fairly small difference of opinion on price.” (“I suspect that he would have messed up Sierra, though,” notes Dornbrook.) Conversely, Davis adamantly opposed Levy’s purchase of Infocom, believing — again, it must be admitted, correctly — that text adventures were on their way out and that the price Activision was paying was far too high. He did have a point. Neither purchaser nor purchasee had made a single quarterly profit in years, and Infocom’s recent sales showed worrying evidence of a steady downward slide even absent the damage done by Cornerstone. Nevertheless, Jim Levy got his way one last time; he got his preferred adventure-game company. But he was on borrowed time. In mid-January 1987, following yet another underwhelming Christmas season, with the huge nest egg Activision had collected during the videogame boom now wiped out by more than three straight years of big losses, Davis orchestrated what Dornbrook calls an “underhanded coup” to oust Levy and take over his role of CEO. Life at Infocom got hugely more difficult from that moment forward.

That said, to imagine that Davis was deliberately conspiring to destroy Infocom strikes me as quite the stretch. He may very well have felt that Activision had gotten a raw deal on the purchase, but, having staked his reputation on his ability to turn Activision around, he was hardly in a position to exorcise a personal grudge that must impact their all-important bottom line. Looking at Infocom from his office on the other coast, he saw an under-performing subsidiary that needed to change the way it operated in order to become a good citizen of Activision’s corporate family. He took it upon himself to effect the necessary changes, without paying any undue heed to the complaints of this undisciplined bunch who, what with all of the absurd antics they called their “culture,” didn’t seem all that concerned about the fact that their games weren’t selling well and that they were continuing to lose money. This was a drastic misreading of Infocom — everyone cared very much indeed and desperately wanted to turn their fortunes around — but there it was.

The first indication the average Infocom fan received that the times they were a-changing came when Infocom’s third and fourth games of 1987, Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, were released simultaneously in June. Replacing the classic gray-box packaging was something that looked almost the same at first glance but was… well, there’s no kinder way to put it: it looked, and was, much cheaper. Replacing the old bound-in “browsie” was a conventional manual dropped into a depressingly conventional shrink-wrapped box. Feelies to set the stage could still be found therein, but they were dramatically reduced in quantity and quality. The era of classy Infocom packaging was over just like that, one more piece of their identity stolen away.

Unsurprisingly, the change was the result of a Bruce Davis initiative. In the name of streamlining the operations of the parent company and all of its subsidiaries and taking advantage of economies of scale, he demanded that everyone use the same size and style of box and that all products be manufactured in the same plant. For Infocom, who had always been intimately involved with every detail of the packaging of their games and who had worked with the same local assembly company for years, the resulting compromises and loss of oversight felt positively emasculating. Nor did it save them any money. Mike Dornbrook claims that they were billed twice as much for each of the new cheap, flimsy packages, and that Activision’s packager, unused to assembling boxes full of so many little goodies, kept screwing up to boot, leaving out instruction manuals or dropping in the wrong disks.

But the cheaper packaging was only one consequence of being expected to conform to Activision’s company-wide distribution model, and quite possibly one of the less damaging at that. Something else was going on behind the scenes, less immediately obvious to the casual buyer but devastating to Infocom’s business model. Mike Dornbrook:

When Bruce Davis took over Activision, he told the sales force that the strategy was to clear the shelves: this is a hits-driven business, products have a two- or three-month shelf life. Get them out there, then get them off the shelves to make room for new product.

When he announced that, I made a point of saying to him that that wasn’t at all the business model that worked for us. What we’d been doing was putting out four to five really strong games per year, with the hope that one of them would become a really strong back-catalog title that would sell for years and years to come. When he came in in 1987, Zork I and some of the other early games were still selling well at retail. About half of our total yearly sales came from the back catalog. And most of the profits came from the back catalog. We invested a ton of money in the new games in the hope that one of them would become a back-catalog [perennial].

He threw that out. He threw out half of our sales and completely changed our financial model. When we told that he’d just thrown out half our sales, his response was to do twice as many games, do eight games per year instead of four. But the whole industry was going in the direction of investing more in each title. Games were becoming more elaborate. We couldn’t halve the amount of work we put into a game and stay competitive, halve the budget. But that’s what we were ordered to do.

Infocom had previously charged retailers and distributors a stiff 15-percent restocking fee on product which was returned to them, causing them to think twice before placing large orders on new titles but also creating a strong incentive to keep catalog titles on their shelves. Under Davis, Activision adopted exactly the opposite stance, trying to create a buzz for new releases by encouraging distributors and retailers to order massive quantities, which they could return for no penalty if necessary to clear space for the next big hit. Dave Lebling:

Activision bought into the “sell huge, accept returns” theory. That did not help Infocom because it meant that there was an easy choice for a distributor or a retail store when new stuff came in and they were short on shelf space: “Here’s this Infocom stuff. It sells, but it sells slowly. And here’s this new game that might be a huge hit! Let’s send the Infocom stuff back. Activision is accepting returns now.” That essentially destroyed the Infocom back list in one stroke.

Activision was equally uninterested in another major Infocom revenue center: the InvisiClues line of hints books that, as much or more so than the games, sold steadily if unspectacularly as catalog items over periods of years. Moonmist, Infocom’s last game of 1986, also became their last to receive the full-fledged InvisiClues treatment. After that they experimented with combining somewhat stripped-down clues for two recent games in one hint booklet in the hope that, having purchased hints for the game they were having trouble with, buyers would be encouraged to buy the other game for which they already had hints to hand. It doesn’t appear to have worked out all that well, especially given that the combinations were essentially random, based strictly on what games came out at around the same times and possessing none of the thematic consistency that might make each pairing particularly appealing to players with certain interests. By the end of 1987 the InvisiClues line was being phased out entirely in favor of in-game hint systems. Thus was yet another piece of the iconic Infocom experience lost, along with one more important source of revenue.

Infocom was trapped in a strange and awkward position. Increasingly associated with where computer gaming had been rather than where it was going, they were controlled by a parent obsessed with the Now of ephemeral hit-making, a parent which seemed almost to be actively trying to erase the rich heritage that was perhaps their greatest remaining strength in the marketplace. Trying to find a way to make all that old stuff new again to accord with Activision’s business model, Infocom indulged in a flurry of repackaging: a pair of themed collections, one of “Classic Mysteries” and the other of “Classic Science Fiction”; “Solid Gold” editions of the big older hits Zork I, Hitchhiker’s, Leather Goddesses, Planetfall, and Wishbringer that included in-game hints to replace the InvisiClues that were no longer being made.

Included among the supplementary materials in Activision’s 1996 Masterpieces of Infocom collection is a document that’s fascinating in a very uncomfortable sort of way: the minutes of a meeting that took place at Infocom during this confused and confusing period. Specifically, the meeting occurred on April 29, 1987. It shows the company wrestling with what feels like a full-on identity crisis, a far cry from their confident, brash, even arrogant glory days.

There was a great deal of discussion about defining what it is we do. For example, do we just do I.F.?  Do we do anything that has an English parser in it?  Do we have to have puzzles?  Do we have to have stories? If you do a point-and-click interface (like Deja Vu) is it still “what we do”?

There was a lot of discussion of what the market is.  Do we think there is any realistic chance of doing “mass-market” stuff?  Reading and typing make us a minority taste immediately. What if you don’t have to read and/or type?  Can you do a good I.F. game with a point-and-click interface?  Deja Vu has one approach, Labyrinth another.

What makes our games enjoyable?  Lots of different things were mentioned: Puzzles, story, humor, exploration, etc.

They struggle with the trade press’s general disinterest in Infocom, which they believe to be born of that perpetual bane of the text adventure in general: the fact that a modern, sophisticated one looks pretty much the same at a glance as a creaky, simplistic one.

Some people in the market seem to believe that I.F. technology, particularly ours, hasn’t advanced in years.  They don’t notice the small improvements in the parser and substrate, probably because to a casual observer, our newest games look a lot like our first ones.

(Apparently, Personal Computing is doing a piece on new stuff, and said they weren’t including anything of ours (when asked) because it’s “old hat.”)

Some ideas for changing this opinion:

  • Graphic title screens.
  • “Illuminated” text adventures (as XZIP will permit).
  • Sound.
  • Friendlier parser (knows about common “first-time” mistakes).
  • Better demos (a demo mode, or a demo with speech recognition and speech synthesis for output).

There was a fair amount of discussion about whether it is worth doing any kind of graphics unless it is “the best.”  Is it worthwhile merely equalling the level of graphics in The Pawn?  I think the consensus was that doing good graphics (such as an “illuminated” adventure with Pawn-quality graphics) was better than doing nothing.

A friendlier parser that might make it possible to learn how to play without reading the manual was proposed.  It was pointed out that we do this already (to some extent) in games such as Seastalker and Wishbringer.  Might be nice to do even better, though.

The consensus was that these things should not all be introduced at once (waiting until they’ve all been designed and implemented), but rather one thing at a time, whenever we have a game that wants to use them. Of course, given our manpower shortage, we can hardly do it any other way.

That last paragraph says much about how things would play out over the balance of 1987: it became, among other things, the Year of the Technological Gimmick at Infocom. The Z-Machine had remained clean, simple, and remarkably stable for years, changed only in very straightforward, commonsense ways to support the new Interactive Fiction Plus line of 256 K story files. Now, however, it was about to be extended — some might say “tortured” — in about a dozen different ways at once, making, as Graham Nelson puts it, “a mess of the system of opcodes (designed by committee).” Some of the torturing was necessary simply to bring Infocom’s games to parity with the latest innovations from Britain’s Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9, the other two companies in the English-speaking world still actively trying to push forward the art and technology of the text adventure. Thus Infocom added an undo command, command-line recall and editing, and programmable function keys among other unflashy but welcome conveniences to their games. Perhaps the most welcome of all of these was the simplest: beginning with Bureaucracy, “x” finally became a synonym for the verb “examine,” which was getting used ever more frequently as the games’ worlds and text grew ever richer. These final additions put the bow on the Infocom model for interactive fiction destined to be adopted as standard best practice by the hobbyist community that would arise after their demise.

Other innovations from this period proved less long-lived. There’s a whiff of desperation clinging to the cheesy sound effects that were shoehorned into The Lurking Horror and Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels — “We may still not know how to do graphics, but we can do sound!” — and the less said about the pointless real-time element that was added to Border Zone the better. And then there were the tangle of additions — colors, new typefaces, character graphics, windows, mouse support — that made Beyond Zork into what Infocom liked to call an “illuminated” text adventure. At some point, one senses, Infocom just started throwing everything at the wall in the hope that some of it would stick, would make the world forget that the one thing it kept actually asking Infocom for — beautiful bit-mapped illustrations like those found in the Magnetic Scrolls games — wasn’t being delivered. Graphics of that stripe remained impossible as long as Infocom remained tied to that big character-oriented DECSystem-20 that had been at the heart of their development process since the very beginning.

The gimmicks didn’t help very much. Infocom’s ambitious slate of games for 1987, conceived with such high hopes, turned into a cavalcade of disappointments as the year wore on; 1987 also became the Year of the 20,000-Seller. Some, like Bureaucracy, did a bit better than 20,000 while still falling short of expectations. Some, like Border Zone, Infocom’s single worst-selling all-text adventure ever, did considerably worse. But most hovered right there around 20,000 copies, a fraction of what even the least commercially imposing Infocom games had been selling during 1983 and 1984. Beyond Zork, their ace in the hole, their all but guaranteed blockbuster, proved in its way the biggest heartbreaker of all. Its sales topped 40,000 copies, a darn sight better than any other game of the year but still far below expectations; the big games of previous years had topped 100,000 in sales as a matter of course. Underwhelming as it was in relative terms, Beyond Zork was successful enough to nudge the slimmed-down Infocom into profitability one last time in the fourth quarter of 1987, the first time the company had managed such a feat since the same quarter of 1983. Yet what might have looked like a hopeful sign was really a mirage. Beyond Zork‘s sales clearly weren’t going to buoy them for long, and they had nothing in the immediate pipeline that looked remotely as promising. Clearly something had to give. Infocom was simply not justifiable for Activision as an ongoing concern selling games in numbers like these, and Bruce Davis was fast running out of patience.

Given Davis’s unwillingness to listen to Infocom, his determination to, as Stu Galley puts it, “be rigorous” with what he saw as a “bad investment,” it was tempting to lay all of these problems at his feet and be done with it. Indeed, that’s a temptation from which many former Infocom staffers are far from immune even today. In their more thoughtful moments, however, they have to acknowledge that Infocom’s problems extended far beyond Davis. Dave Lebling:

Activision had managed to mess things up so badly from our point of view that the fact that the industry as a whole was having problems was something we didn’t begin to actually get until later. But we got it later. Sales were off, some of which we thought, I still think rightly, was due to Activision’s lousy policies. But some of it was just that there were a lot of games out there on a lot of subjects, and the influx of better and better graphics were having an impact.

Any argument that Bruce Davis was simply incompetent must reckon with the fact that, problem child Infocom’s travails notwithstanding, he accomplished everything he had promised for Activision as a whole and then some during 1987. In the fiscal year which ended on March 31, 1987, Activision had lost no less than $14.6 million (a sizable chunk of which was due to the Infocom acquisition). In the year ending March 31, 1988, they made $3.6 million, marking the company’s first profitable fiscal year since 1982-83. Davis accomplished this remarkable turnaround via a series of shrewd moves that showed him to be anything but incompetent. He leveraged Activision’s far-reaching and efficient distribution network, a legacy of their glory days when games like Pitfall! sold huge numbers through the mass merchandisers, to build a large network of smaller “affiliated publishers” who paid for access to it. These rolls included the likes of Lucasfilm Games, New World Computing, Access Software, Firebird and Rainbird, and in some markets Sierra. Within a year of Davis’s taking over, Computer Gaming World was fretting that Activision and Electronic Arts were effectively dividing the entire industry into two camps via their extensive, dueling networks of affiliates. Under Davis, Activision had gone from also-ran to a potential engulfer and devourer in an amazingly short time.

For their own games, Activision homed in on categories that were proven commercial winners and largely discarded the rest. The new focus paid off. The first year of Davis’s stewardship yielded several substantial hits, colorful fast-paced titles slow-pitched right down the center of the mainstream to hit the prototypical gamer of the era, the teenage boy, right in his sweet spot. Teenage boys loved karate; thus the slick action-adventure The Last Ninja and a beat-em-up called Chop ‘N Drop (known as International Karate + in Europe) did very well. They also loved Arnold; thus the success of Predator. And of late they were returning to the standup arcades; thus a port of the arcade hit Rampage became a “mega-hit” for Activision in turn on home computers. The new management team preferred to see themselves as realistic, hardheaded businesspeople replacing Jim Levy’s artsy-fartsy dreamers, whose era they often referenced obliquely in interviews. “Now we’ve focused in on the products that have been most successful for us,” said product manager Mark Beaumont in one. “We’re channeling in on those areas that work best and not taking too many forays into the never-never land of ‘who knows what this product is.'” Director of corporate communications Loretta Stagnitto elaborated further in another:

Games like Web Dimension, Alter Ego, and Portal were truly innovative, but the consumer was more interested in action-oriented, strategy games, and/or fantasy/role-playing titles. In other words, the programs weren’t geared to the needs of the average user. Then the company spent a lot of money trying to convince everybody they wanted those types of programs, instead of publishing what the people really wanted. It was a very confusing time in Activision’s history.

Davis himself indulged in what verged on open gloating at his predecessor’s expense: “We’ve been making money and we plan to continue it forever, and if we don’t, you can talk to the next guy.” The idea was to get product out there quickly to capitalize on the latest trends in television, movies, the arcades.

It was only Infocom that stubbornly resisted the new approach. Jon Palace:

We had a summit at some rather dreary hotel in Cambridge. We were sitting around a big U-shaped table, and one of the heads of Activision said, “Our motto is, if you can’t be best be first.” All of the Activision people nodded their heads. And all of the Infocom people were looking at each other thinking, “That doesn’t sound good for us.”

Smug character that he may have been, cold fish with little passion for games as anything other than commodities that he may also have been, the inconvenient truth lurking at the root of the story of Infocom’s final years is that Bruce Davis was also largely right about the direction of the industry. It was becoming more and more driven by hits; licenses were getting ever more important; shelf lives were shrinking; the types of games being produced were becoming more homogenized; a handful of players were playing a bigger and bigger role, increasingly dictating the terms under which the industry as a whole operated. Whether Bruce Davis was more symptom or cause of these realities was almost irrelevant. These truths weren’t and never would be universal; there still was and would remain room for people doing interesting, bold, creative work. (Thankfully, or I wouldn’t have much more to talk about on this blog.) But the question at hand was whether Infocom, having sold their souls to a company now so determined to play in the mainstream, could find a sustainable niche whilst remaining recognizably themselves. If they could, the next question must be whether the commercially ambitious Davis would be content to let them remain there. And the answers weren’t looking very good.

Still, real life is messy and eras are never all one thing, and to paint too gloomy a picture of life at the latter-day Infocom would be a mistake. Amid all the stress and angst there remained plenty of space for all of the usual crazy antics, plus a few new ones to boot. For instance, the hermit-crab races, one of the all-time legendary Infocom absurdities, started up only at this late date. Likewise some of the best and most entertaining promotional ideas, like the “Marathon of the Minds” that brought together teams of high-school or university students to assault the latest game until one of them solved the thing or everyone dropped from sheer exhaustion. The Status Line that reported on it all was a New Zork Times by another name that still smelled as sweet to the loyal fans still buying the games; it actually expanded in size and production values during 1987. If the picture it painted of life inside CambridgePark Drive — a life of nonstop fun and creativity unbound — wasn’t exactly the whole story, it wasn’t exactly a lie or a PR snow job either. Infocom, whatever the era, was a pretty great place to be. One suspects that the dawning realization that the end may be near only made everyone that much more determined to enjoy it.

Most of all, there remained — and remain — that last run of games to attend to, tarnished a bit here and there by the rushed schedule and the other drawbacks of life under Bruce Davis, but still oozing design craft and consistently failing in interesting ways even when they do fail. Like players at the time of their release, we should be sure to enjoy them while they last. So, settle in. The end may be approaching, but we’ve still got a lot to talk about.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include: personal correspondence with Mike Dornbrook, for which I also offer my heartfelt thanks; The New Zork Times/Status Line of Spring 1986 and Summer 1986; Computer Gaming World of March 1988 and April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and August 1988; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; InfoWorld of June 25 1984 and October 3 1988; Down From the Top of Its Game, an academic paper on Infocom’s history; and the supplementary materials included with Activision’s 1996 Masterpieces of Infocom collection.)


Posted by on September 5, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction