Monthly Archives: October 2015

Plundered Hearts

Plundered Hearts

Amy Briggs first discovered text adventures during the early 1980s, when she was a student at Macalester University in her home state of Minnesota. Her boyfriend there worked at the local computer store, and introduced her to the joys of adventuring via Scott Adams’s Ghost Town. But she only became well and truly smitten — with text adventures, that is — when he first booted up a Zork for her. The pair were soon neglecting their studies to stay up all night playing on the computer.

After graduating with a degree in English and breaking up with the boyfriend, Briggs found herself somewhat at loose ends, asking that question so familiar to so many recent graduates: “What now?” Deciding that six months spent back at home with her parents was more than enough, she greeted 1985 by moving to Boston, which made for a convenient location for seeking a fortune of a type still undetermined since she had a sister already living there. Only half jokingly, she told her friends and family just before she left that if all else failed she could always go to work for Infocom.

Lo and behold, she opened the Boston Globe for the first time to find two want ads from that very company, one looking for someone to test games and the other for someone to do the same for some mysterious new business product. Briggs, naturally, wanted the games gig. Straining just a bit too hard to fit in with Infocom’s well-established sense of whimsy, she wrote a cover letter she would later “blush about,” most of all for her inexplicable claim that she had “a ridiculous sense of the sublime.” Despite or because of the cover letter, she got an interview one week later — she “stumbled out something incomprehensible” when asked about the aforementioned “ridiculous sense of the sublime” — and got a job as a game tester two weeks after that. As she herself admits, she “just walked into it,” the luckiest text-adventure fan on the planet who arrived at just about the last conceivable instant that would allow her to play a creative role in Infocom’s future.

She joined at the absolute zenith of Infocom’s success and ambition, with the whole company a beehive of activity in the wake of the recent launch of Cornerstone. On her first or second day, no less august a personage than Douglas Adams came through to talk about the huge success of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game and to plan the next one. Her first assignment was to help pack up everything inside the dark warren that was Infocom’s Wheeler Street Offices and get it all shipped off to their sparkling new digs on CambridgePark Drive. Humble tester that she was, it felt like she had hit the big time, signed on with a company that was going to be the next big success story not just in games but in software in general.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Having enjoyed just a couple of months of the good times, Briggs would get to be present for most of the years of struggle that would follow. She kept her head down and kept testing games through all the chaos of 1985 and 1986 leading up to the Activision acquisition, managing to escape being laid off.

As a woman, and as a very young and not hugely assertive woman at that, Briggs was in a slightly uncomfortable spot at Infocom, one to which many of my female readers at least can probably relate. Infocom was not, I want to emphasize, an openly or even unconsciously misogynistic place. On the contrary, it was a very progressive place in most ways by the standards of the tech industry of the 1980s. But nevertheless, it was dominated by white males with big personalities, strong opinions, and impressive resumes. Very few who didn’t fit that profile would ever have much to say about the content of Infocom’s games. (Discounting outside testers, about the only significant female voice that comes to mind other than that of Briggs is Liz Cyr-Jones, who came up with the premise and title for Hollywood Hijinx and made contributions to many other games as one of Infocom’s most long-serving, valued, and listened-to in-house testers.) Briggs needed someone in her corner, “pushing me and showing me how to do everything from compiling ZIL to insisting that I be taken seriously.”

None other than Steve Meretzky stepped forward to fill that role.  He saw a special creative spark in Briggs quite early, when she helped test his labor of love A Mind Forever Voyaging and just got what he was trying to do in a way that many other testers, still stuck in the mindset of points for treasures, didn’t. He proved instrumental in what happened next for Briggs. When she told him that she’d like to become an Imp herself someday, he introduced her to ZIL. She started working on a little game of her own for two or three hours after work in the evenings and often all day on the weekends. Like the generations of hobbyist text-adventure authors who have set their first game in their apartments, Briggs elected to begin with what she knew, the story of a tester finding bugs and taking them back to the Imp in charge. But because it was after all adventure games that she wanted to write, she muddled up this everyday tale with Alice in Wonderland: the bugs in questions were literal, metamorphosed critters, and the Imp was a caterpillar smoking a hookah.

In the fall of 1986, a call that was destined to be the last of its type went through the Infocom ranks, for a new Imp to help maintain the ambitious release schedule being pushed by Activision in the wake of the acquisition. Meretzky, showing himself to be far less sanguine on Infocom’s future prospects than he let on in public interviews, told Briggs that she should do her best to get it because “after this hiring there’s not going to be another Imp hired until one of us dies.” Along with a quiet word or two from Meretzky, her testing experience and the sample game she had been tinkering with for the last year were enough to convince management to give her a shot. Before the year was out she was an Imp, given a generous nine months — thanks to her being new on the job and all — to write, polish, and release her first game. What said first game would be was, within reason, to be left up to her.

The plan she came up with was a humdinger. She wanted to write an interactive romance novel, much like the literary guilty pleasures she had been addicted to ever since she was a teenager. Marketing immediately liked the idea of having Infocom’s first game with an explicitly female protagonist be written by a woman, saw great possibilities for opening up a “whole new market” with a game that should have huge appeal to female players. Infocom had halfheartedly pursued a similar idea before, entering into talks with a mid-list romance-novel author about a possible collaboration, only to see them peter out in the wake of the chaos wrought by Cornerstone and an evolving feeling that such partnerships with non-interactive authors usually didn’t work out all that well anyway. Now, though, they were happy to revisit the idea via a game helmed by an author who, if admittedly unproven, had been steeped in interactive fiction as well as romance fiction for quite some time now.

Meretzky, for his part, was much less bullish on the idea. A romance game must revolve around character interaction in a way that he, experienced Imp that he was, knew would be incredibly hard to pull off. Indeed, in some ways it marked the most ambitious concept anyone at Infocom had mooted since his own A Mind Forever Voyaging. And being a new, unproven Imp, Briggs would not even be given the luxury of the Interactive Fiction Plus format; her game would have to fit into the standard, aged 128 K Z-Machine. Meretzky’s advice was to do something else first and then circle back to the idea, much as Brian Moriarty had agreed to write Wishbringer before tackling his dream project Trinity. Perhaps sensing already that there might not be enough time left for that, perhaps just feeling stubborn, Briggs for once rejected his advice and pressed ahead with her original plan. Her reason for doing so was about as good as they come: this would be the Infocom game that she had always wanted to play.

Amy Briggs

Amy Briggs

Steeped sufficiently in romance novels to have become something of a scholar of the genre, Briggs had long since divided the books she read into four categories: contemporary romances; Gothic romances in the tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca; historical romances, or “bodice rippers,” with “lurid sex-filled plots in historical settings”; and the more subdued Regency romances in the tradition of Jane Austen, as much comedies of manners as stories of love and lust. She decided that she wanted to make her game a cross between a Regency novel, her personal favorite category, and an historical romance, with “more action than a Regency but less sex than an historical.” Whatever else it was, her game would still be an adventure game, and thus the emphasis on action seemed necessary. As for the lack of explicit sex, Briggs wasn’t suited by temperament to writing lurid sex scenes any more than Infocom was interested in publishing them — not to mention the complications of trying to craft interactive sex in a medium that struggled to depict even the most basic conversation.

Looking for an historical milieu, Briggs settled on the age of Caribbean piracy. Like Sid Meier, who was working on a very different pirate-themed game of his own 400 miles away in Baltimore, she wasn’t so interested in the historical reality of piracy as much as she was in the rich tradition of swashbuckling fiction. Many of the references she studied were doubtless the same as those being perused at the exact same time by Meier. Her actual statements about her game’s relationship to real history also echo many of Meier’s.

I already had plenty of experience with romance novels, from my reading, and I have long been interested in fashions, so I only needed to brush up on those. Pirates, though, I had to research, and sailing ships. I watched a lot of movies — Captain Blood-type movies and romantic adventures like Romancing the Stone. Plundered Hearts is about as historically accurate as an Errol Flynn movie. I tried not to be anachronistic if I could help it, but if the heroine’s hairstyle is from the wrong century or if pirates really didn’t make people walk the plank, if stretching the truth adds a lot to the story, does it really matter?

As the extract above attests, she gave her game the pitch-perfect title of Plundered Hearts. You take the role of the young Lady Dimsford, whose ship is waylaid on the high seas by a pirate who is both less and more than he seems. Captain Jamison, the legendary pirate known as “the Falcon,” is actually there to rescue you from kidnapping by the captain of your own ship, who’s in the thrall of the evil Governor Jean Lafond; Lafond already holds your father captive. Cast in the beginning in the role of damsel in distress, to survive and thwart the sinister plot against your family you’ll soon have to take a more active part in events. Along the way, you’ll need to rescue your erstwhile rescuer Captain Jamison a few times, and of course you’ll have the chance to fall in love.

As Emily Short notes in her review of the game, at times Plundered Hearts layers on the romance-novel stylings a bit thick, and with a certain knowingness that skirts the border between homage and parody, as in the heroine’s daydream that represents the very first text we see.

Trembling, you fire the heavy arquebus. You hear its loud report over the roaring wind, yet the dark figure still approaches. The gun falls from your nerveless hands.

"You won't kill me," he says, stepping over the weapon. "Not when I am the only protection you have from Jean Lafond."

Chestnut hair, tousled by the wind, frames the tanned oval of his face. Lips curving, his eyes rake over your inadequately dressed body, the damp chemise clinging to your legs and heaving bosom, your gleaming hair. You are intensely aware of the strength of his hard seaworn body, of the deep sea blue of his eyes. And then his mouth is on yours, lips parted, demanding, and you arch into his kiss...

He presses you against him, head bent. "But who, my dear," he whispers into your hair, "will protect you from me?"

A number of Infocom’s other more unusual genre exercises similarly verge on parody, whether as a product of sheer commitment to the genre in question or the company’s default house voice of sly, slightly sarcastic drollery. One thing that redeems Plundered Hearts, as it also does, say, many a Lovecraftian pastiche, is the author’s obvious familiarity with and love for the genre in question. And another is that even its knowing slyness, to whatever extent it’s there, departs from the usual Infocom mold. There aren’t 69,105 of anything here, no “hello, sailor” jokes, no plethora of names that start with Zorkian syllables like “Frob,” no response to “xyzzy” — all of which (and so much more like it) was beginning to feel just a little tired by 1987. Like Jeff O’Neill, another recently minted Imp who brought a fresh perspective to the job, Amy Briggs just isn’t interested in plundering the lore of Zork. Unlike O’Neill, she gives us a game that’s eminently playable. Plundered Hearts is the polar opposite of the cavalcade of insider jokes and references that is The Lurking Horror. Yes, that game certainly has its charms… but still, new blood feels more than welcome here. Plundered Hearts really does feel like it wants to reach out to new players rather than just preach to the choir.

Yet at the same time that it’s so uninterested in so many typical Infocom tropes, Plundered Hearts might just be the best expression — ever — of the Infocom ideal of interactive fiction. The backs of their boxes had been telling people for years that interactive fiction was like “waking up inside a story.” Still, the majority of Infocom games stay far, far away from that ideal. Some, like Hollywood Hijinx and Nord and Bert, are little more than a big pile of puzzles built around a broad thematic premise. Others, ranging from Infidel to Spellbreaker, give you a dash of story in the beginning and a dab of story in the end, with a long, long middle filled with lots of static geography to explore and yet more puzzles to solve. Even Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary efforts, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, aren’t quite like waking up inside a story in the novelistic sense: there’s very little conventional narrative of any sort in Trinity, while for most of its length A Mind Forever Voyaging makes its hero more an observer than the star of its unfolding plot. The mysteries do offer relatively stronger narratives and more complex characters, but they’re very much cast in the classic mystery tradition of figuring out other people’s stories rather than really making one of your own.

Plundered Hearts, however, feels qualitatively different from them and almost everything else that came before. (The closest comparison in the catalog is probably Seastalker, Infocom’s only game marketed explicitly to children.) There’s a plot thrust — a narrative urgency — that’s largely missing elsewhere in the Infocom canon, coupled with many more of the sorts of things the uninitiated might actually think of when they hear the term “interactive fiction.” As you play, the plot thickens, events unfold, relationships change, characters develop and deepen, romance blossoms. In short, real, plot-related things actually happen. I don’t mean to say that this is the only way to write a compelling text adventure. Nor do I mean to say that there’s a lot of plot here by the standards of a typical novel or even novella, nor that you can do a whole lot to influence it beyond either clearing the hurdles before you and making it to the end — the game does offer a few alternate endings via a final branch — or screwing up and dying or suffering a “fate worse than death” that usually implies rape, and often a lifetime of indentured sexual servitude. What I am saying is that Amy Briggs took interactive fiction as Infocom preferred to describe it and made her best good-faith effort to live up to that ideal.  And, against all the odds, it works way better than it has any right to. I recently called the Infocom ideal of interactive fiction “something of a lost cause.” Well, I should have remembered that Plundered Hearts was waiting in the wings to prove me wrong just this once. Briggs dispenses with the things she can’t easily implement, like character interaction, via quick text dumps and concentrates the interactivity on those she can. By keeping the plot constantly in motion, she distracts us from the myriad flaws in her world’s implementation.

While Plundered Hearts has plenty of puzzles, those puzzles feel more organic than in the typical Infocom game, arising directly out of the plot rather than existing for the sake of their own cleverness. They’re also a bit easier than the norm, which suits the game’s purposes fine; you don’t want to spend hours teasing out the solution to an intricate puzzle here, you want to keep the plot moving, to find out what happens next. Most of the puzzles require only straightforward, commonsense deductions based on the materials to hand and your own goals, which are always blessedly clear. Yes, were Plundered Hearts written today, there are a few things a wise author would probably do differently. The timing of the first act, when you need to keep a powder keg in the hold of your ship from exploding, is tight enough that you might need to replay it once or twice to get it right, and it’s quite easy in one or two places to leave vital objects behind (don’t forget to grab that piece of pork when you make it to St. Sinistra!). Still, this game is far friendlier as well as far more plotty than the Infocom norm, and as a result it feels surprisingly modern even today.

As with many Infocom games, particularly in the latter half of the company’s history, much of the process of developing Plundered Hearts came down to cutting out all those pieces that wouldn’t fit into the 128 K Z-Machine. Briggs says that she finished the game inside six months, and then spent the remaining three cutting, cutting, and painfully cutting some more. Impossible as it is to make any real judgments without seeing the game she started with, Plundered Hearts doesn’t feel so much like a victim of those cuts as does Dave Lebling’s nearly contemporaneous The Lurking Horror. In some ways the cutting may have improved it, made it more playable. Briggs notes that she just didn’t have the space to allow the player to go too far astray, meaning that a screw-up more often leads to immediate death — or one of those other nasty, rapey endings — rather than a walking-dead situation. There are, she admits, “a lot of deaths” in Plundered Hearts. A lot of rapes too, more than enough to make the game feel squicky if it had been written by a man. (Yes, this is a double standard. And no, I don’t feel all that motivated to apologize for it in light of the history that gave rise to it. Your mileage may obviously vary.)

In an interview published in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, Briggs tried to head off accusations that the game offered a retrograde depiction of gender relations by noting that “feminism does not rule out romance, and romance does not necessarily have to make women weak in the cliché sense of romance novels.” She further pointed out, rightly, that the protagonist of Plundered Hearts must soon enough take responsibility for her own fate, must turn the tables to rescue her Captain Jamison (“several times!”) and certainly can’t afford to “act as an air-head.” Not having much — okay, any — experience with romance novels, I don’t know whether or how unusual that is for the form, and thus don’t know to what degree we can label Plundered Hearts a subversion of romance-novel tropes. I do think, however, that by the time near the end of the game that it’s you, the allegedly helpless female, who comes swinging down off a chandelier to effect a rescue, the game has quite thoroughly upended the gender roles of your typical Errol Flynn movie.

Plundered Hearts and Nord and Bert, released simultaneously in September of 1987, represented the two most obvious marketing experiments in a 1987 Infocom lineup that otherwise largely played to the adventure-gaming base. These were also the two titles about which marketing had been most excited at their inception, as chances to pry open whole new demographics. By that September, however, following a punishing nine months already full of commercial disappointments, such ideas seemed like the fantasies they had probably always been. Infocom’s marketing efforts on behalf of Plundered Hearts in particular were tentative to the point of confusion, playing up the romance-novel angle on the one hand while seeking on the other to reassure the traditional adventurers that Infocom could hardly afford to lose that, really now, this wasn’t all that big a departure from Zork. And so we got this testimonial from one Judith C.: “Infocom’s first romance does the genre proud. Playing Plundered Hearts was like opening a romance novel and walking inside.” But we also got this one from Ron T.: “I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t like the game at first, being male and playing it as a female, but once you got started it was NO PROBLEM! I enjoyed it!!!”

Neither marketing angle was sufficient to make Plundered Hearts a hit. The sales of it and its release partner Nord and Bert dropped off substantially from those of the pairing of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror of just a few months previous. The final numbers for Plundered Hearts reached only about 15,500. Briggs recalls no big thrill of accomplishment at seeing her name on an Infocom box for the first time, nor even a sense of creative fulfillment at having done something so different from the Infocom norm and done it so well, only a deep disappointment at what she and Infocom’s management viewed as just another failed experiment.

Briggs’s remaining time at Infocom proved equally frustrating. While certainly not the only Imp whose most recent game had failed to sell very well, she was in a precarious position as the newest and most inexperienced of the group, with no older, more successful titles to point to as proof of her artistic instincts. In contrast to Plundered Hearts, an idea which Infocom’s management had embraced from the get-go, her new ideas got rejected one after another by a company she characterizes as now “terrified,” desperate to find “the next Hitchhiker’s” that could save them all. Management wanted games with obvious “marketing tie-ins,” but her personal interests were “geekish.” At the same time, though, they gave her little real direction in what sorts of subjects might be more marketable: “Just write us a hit.” The most retrospectively promising of her ideas, one that would seem likely to have satisfied management’s own criteria if they’d given it a chance, was a game either heavily inspired by or outright licensing Anne Rice’s vampire novels. But it came perhaps just a little too early in the cultural conversation — Rice’s books hadn’t quite yet exploded into the mainstream to help ignite the still-ongoing craze for all things vampire in popular culture — and was ultimately rejected along with all her other ideas. About the time that management started pushing her to call up Garrison Keillor to try to get a game deal out of her very tangential relationship with him — she had worked as an usher on A Prairie Home Companion during her university days, and had attended occasional potlucks and the like with the rest of the cast and crew at Keillor’s house — she decided that enough was enough.

Briggs left Infocom in mid-1988 after completing her final work for them, the “Flathead Calendar” feelie that accompanied her old mentor Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero. She said that she was leaving to go write the Great American Novel. But like many an aspiring novelist, Briggs found the reality of writing less enchanting than the idea; the novel never happened. She jokes today that her fellow Imps set expectations a bit too high at her farewell party when they gifted her with a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “1989 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” She wound up taking a PhD in Experimental and Behavioral Psychology instead, and has since enjoyed a rewarding career in academia and private industry. Her one published work of interactive fiction — for that matter, her one published creative work of any stripe — remains Plundered Hearts.

It may be a thin creative legacy, but it’s one hell of an impressive one. Other Infocom games like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity may carry more thematic weight, but in terms of sheer entertainment I don’t think Infocom ever made a better game. The last game ever released for the original 128 K Z-Machine, it’s the interactive equivalent of a great beach read in all the best senses, grabbing hold quickly and just rollicking along through rapier duels, exploding powder kegs, daring waterborne escapes, secret passages, death-defying leaps, etc., all interspersed — this being an interactive romance novel, after all — with multiple costume changes, a little ballroom dancing, and a few sweaty seductive interludes sufficient to make the old bosom heave. Much as I usually shy away from the Internet’s obsession with ranking things, if I was to list my personal favorite Infocom games Plundered Hearts would have to be right there at number two, just behind Trinity. And this comes from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about romance novels.

Indeed, one of the thoroughgoing pleasures of Plundered Hearts, the gift that keeps on giving for years after you’ve played it, is watching players like me and our friend Ron T. above fall victim to its charms despite all their stoic manly skepticism. Even Questbusters‘s redoubtable William E. Carte, who in just the previous issue had declared Nord and Bert unfit for “true adventurers,” succumbed to Plundered Hearts despite being “a traditionalist and quite conservative as well.”

I must admit it bothered me a bit at first — my character being hugged and kissed by a man. After the initial scenes, however, I quickly got lost in the plot, and soon my character’s sex honestly didn’t matter. One female QB reader wrote me that she enjoyed the game and gave it to a male friend who also liked it. He particularly liked changing clothes repeatedly.

Don’t you love the sound of prejudices collapsing? I complain from time to time, doubtless more than some of you would like, about the lack of diversity in so much ludic culture. Leaving aside politics and social engineering and even concerns about simple fairness, I think that Plundered Hearts serves as a wonderful example of why diversity is something to be sought and cherished. Amy Briggs’s unique perspective resulted in an Infocom game like no other, one that gives people like me a glimpse of what people like her see in all those trashy romance novels. In a world that could use more of that sort of understanding, that can only be a good thing. But we don’t even have to go that far. In a world that can always use better and more varied games, more and more diverse game designers is the obvious best way to achieve that.

Like a number of people I’ve written about on this blog who have long since gone on to lead other lives, Amy Briggs’s own relationship to the game she wrote all those years ago is in some ways more distant than the one some of its biggest fans enjoy with it. It crops up in her life on occasions scattered enough that they always surprise, like the time that a student knocked on her door at the university where she was teaching to ask in awed tones if she was “the Amy Briggs.” He had played Plundered Hearts ten years before with his sister — young male fans, Briggs notes bemusedly, are almost always careful to make that distinction — had loved it, just wanted to say thank you. Briggs’s own memories of her brief, unlikely career as a game designer remain a mishmash of nostalgia for “the best job I’ve ever had” with the still-lingering disappointment of Plundered Hearts‘s commercial failure — a commercial failure that, at the time and even now, is all too easy for her to conflate with its real or alleged artistic shortcomings. “There are actually people who think my game is really good,” she says with more than a tinge of disbelief in her voice. Yes, Amy, there are. We think your game is very good.

(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 Infocom’s Status Line newsletters of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Questbusters of December 1987, and an XYZZY interview with Briggs.)


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Nord and Bert

Nord and Bert

Fair Warning: a handful of puzzle spoilers are sprinkled through this article.

For the most part, Infocom weathered Activision’s demand that they suddenly double their output of games almost unbelievably well. While I fancy I can see evidence of their sudden prolificacy in a parser that could have been a little bit smarter here or a puzzle that could have used just a little more thought there, I certainly can’t say that any of the games I’ve written about so far were spoiled by the new pressure. The one glaring exception to that rule, the only title that truly does seem like a tragic victim of its circumstances, is the one I’m writing about today, Jeff O’Neill’s Nord and Berd Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Its failure to become the game it might have been is only made more disheartening by the fact that it was the most boldly experimental game concept Infocom had dared since Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, the perfect antidote to the sense of been-there/done-that ennui that was beginning to afflict some of Infocom’s other designs along with the Imps themselves. What could have represented a badly needed new direction would prove, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, a detour to nowhere.

We can see the seed of Nord and Bert in another Meretzky game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos. That game’s most brilliant puzzle of all from a crowded field of contenders, still justly remembered and loved today, is a “T-removing machine” that can turn rabbits into rabbis and trays into “little Ray whatsisname from second grade.” This sort of interaction, all about the words themselves that carried all the freight in an all-text Infocom game, could never be entirely replicated in one of ICOM’s point-and-click adventures, in a Sierra animated adventure game, nor even in one of Magnetic Scrolls’s text adventures with pretty pictures. For an Infocom that was feeling increasingly embattled by all of the above and more, that had a definite appeal: “Let’s see you try to do this with your fancy graphics!”

After writing Ballyhoo and duly putting in some time as Sisyphus pushing the rock that was the Bureaucracy project up that hill, Jeff O’Neill decided to take Meretzky’s idea to the next level, to make an entire game that was all about the words out of which it was formed. He approached his game of wordplay in what he calls a “backwards” fashion, beginning with the puzzles rather than any set fictional genre or concept, spending days with his nose buried in reference books of clichés and homonym pairs and poring over a wide variety of word puzzles from the likes of Games Magazine. To keep things somewhat manageable for the player, he decided to make his new game a series of “short stories” rather than a single extended experience, a first for Infocom. This way each of the segments could focus on one type of wordplay. The fictions for each segment became whatever was most convenient for the type of puzzles O’Neill wanted to present there. Only quite late in the process did he come up with an overarching story to bind the segments together, of the “mixed-up Town of Punster” that’s beset with a confusion of wordplay. You must “cleanse the land of every wrongful, wordful deed” by completing the seven mini-games and a master game combining all of the types of puzzles from the earlier parts. This finale you can naturally only access after completing everything else.

While the master game’s existence does give a nod toward the traditional idea of the holistic, completeable adventure game, most of Nord and Bert departs radically from what people had long since come to expect of a text adventure. In addition to the unusual segmented structure, which led Infocom to dub the game “Interactive Short Stories” rather than “Interactive Fiction” on the box, many other tried-and-true attributes are missing in action. Mapping, for instance, is gone entirely. Infocom in general had been growing steadily less interested in this part of the text-adventure paradigm for years before Nord and Bert, first having excised the mazes and confusing nonreciprocal room connections that mark Zork, and of late having taken to including maps of one sort or another showing their games’ geographies right in the packages as often as not. Nord and Bert, however, takes it yet one step further, eliminating compass directions entirely in favor of a list of accessible rooms in the status line. Thanks to the segmented structure that holds each section to no more than a handful of rooms, you can simply “go to” the room of your choice. Actually, you usually don’t even have to do that much: just typing the name of a room, all by itself, is usually sufficient to send you there.

Indeed, Nord and Bert displays itself to best advantage when it barely feels like an imperative-driven text adventure at all, but rather an exercise in pure wordplay not quite like anything that had come to a computer before. Simply typing the name of an object will cause you to examine it — no “examine” or even “x” verb required — and many of the textual transformations that form the meat of its puzzles require simply typing the correct word or phrase rather than carrying out an in-world action per se. It all amounted to a very conscious bid to, as O’Neill puts it, “attract new fans as well as making the old ones happy. I tried to fulfill this goal by taking the tedium out of the game (mapping, etc.) and making the game more approachable for people.”

Like all Infocom games, Nord and Bert feels like a game for smart people, but it feels aimed toward a different sort of smart person than had been the norm heretofore, and not just because of the absence of dungeons and dragons or rockets and rayguns. A perfect world, at least by the lights of Infocom and Jeff O’Neill, would have seen it replacing the New York Times crossword puzzle on the breakfast tables of urbane sophisticates looking for something to toy with over their Sunday morning coffee. To keep it from becoming too frustrating for this more casual audience, O’Neill tried to build into the game both an extra layer of forgiveness and a tempting challenge to return to on the next Sunday by making it possible to “solve” most sections without actually figuring out all of the puzzles. Scoring is handled as a simple accounting of puzzles available and puzzles solved, and you can always jump back into a section you’ve completed to try to get those last pesky points. Likewise, you can always get out of one section to try another if you need a change of pace; the game remembers your progress in each section for you when you decide to jump back in. And if you absolutely can’t figure something out, Nord and Bert includes a built-in hint system that doles out clues bit by bit, InvisiClues-style, until finally giving the whole solution. This marks yet another first for Infocom in a game that’s fairly stuffed with them.

O’Neill’s prose feels as arch and playfully sophisticated — if sometimes just a bit too self-consciously so — as a classic New Yorker piece: “In this time when phraseology is practiced with mischief as the sole black art, when the currency is debased with the ceaseless random coinage of words, when verbicide is statistically the common household tragedy — now is the time when such a doer of good words is most welcome.” Looking for a visual counterpart to his style for the box art and the feelies, O’Neill happened upon a book of cartoons called The Day Gravity Was Turned Off in Topeka by one Kevin Pope, a journeyman commercial artist for greeting-card companies and the like who was trying to make it as a newspaper cartoonist via a syndicated panel called Inside Out. His work was perhaps just a little too redolent of Gary Larson’s The Far Side to stand out in its own right, but then The Far Side was also hugely popular among exactly the sorts of people at whom Nord and Bert was aimed — and a Kevin Pope didn’t carry the same price tag as a Gary Larson. A deal was quickly worked out, with Infocom pledging both royalties and a prominent plug for his newspaper cartoon and book in return for a dozen or so original cartoon panels to accompany the game. Each plays with words in one way or another, but otherwise they have little to do with the game they accompany. Nord and Bert is one of the few Infocom games that can be played perfectly happily without ever even glancing at the feelies, yet another nod in the direction of being a more casual sort of experience. Despite this, the best of the cartoons not only appears on the box cover but also gives the game its name — a name which, once again, has nothing to do with the contents of the disk.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons included with Nord and Bert.

Two more of the Kevin Pope cartoons that were included with Nord and Bert.

Nord and Bert must have sounded pretty great in principle, both a bold new gameplay concept for a company that was growing tired of making the same old same old and a game that seemed like it could have the potential to reach a whole new type of player if Infocom could — and this was admittedly the trickiest part — find a way to reach her. Even in practice, when we fire up the actual game, things start out fine. The first section, the “Shopping Bizarre,” is the strongest in the game, a fresh delight to play after lots of adventures revolving around keys, maps, and fiddly in-world interactions. Its puzzles are all about finding homonyms, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, like a chocolate moose and chocolate mousseNord and Bert continues to acquit itself quite well in the next few sections. The second, “Play Jacks,” is themed around words and phrases that include a “jack”: “jack of all trades,” “jackhammer,” “Jacuzzi,” etc. Next comes “Buy the Farm,” another very strong section that deals in folksy clichés. And then we have “Eat Your Words,” which is all about English idioms like its title. But after that, alas, everything starts to go wrong. Having managed despite a few wobbles to keep its balance in a death-defying highwire act worthy of O’Neill’s earlier Ballyhoo for about half its length, when Nord and Bert finally falls it falls hard.

To understand why and how that should happen, we first have to acknowledge what a dangerous tightrope Nord and Bert really is walking right from the beginning. If you characterized the entire game as little more than a series of guess the verbs, nouns, and phrases, I might be able to accuse you of being ungenerous but I really couldn’t say that you were wrong. As such, it cuts against almost everything that Infocom had been striving for years now to make their games be. The parser, which Infocom had envisioned becoming eventually so smart and flexible that it would fade into the background entirely, a seamless conduit between player and world, is the entire focus of the play here. And instead of spurning the need for outside knowledge, instead of including everything you need to know to solve it within itself and its feelies as other Infocom games strove to do, Nord and Bert‘s success as a game is completely dependent on its player’s knowledge of clichés, turns of phrase, and quirks of American English. Certainly just about anyone who didn’t grow up with English as her first language will have a horrible time here. I tried to play Nord and Bert recently with my wife, who speaks excellent English but nevertheless has it as her third language. We gave up pretty quickly. Most of it was just baffling to her; it’s not much fun to watch your playing partner grin and giggle with each new intuitive flash as you wonder what the hell he’s on about. I would venture to guess that even some native speakers not from the United States could have some trouble with the folksy Americanisms in sections like “Buy the Farm.” When Nord and Bert does finally fall off that tightrope even for a wordplay-loving native-speaking American like me, it’s almost more surprising that we made it this far together than it is shocking that the game finally went too far.

Still, the section where the big fall happens, “Act the Part,” is a mess by any standard. It seems that already by this point O’Neill was beginning to run out of workable wordplay ideas. The connection of “Act the Part” to the ostensible premise of the game as a whole is, at best, tenuous. You find yourself on the set of a banal sitcom, needing to determine the best action to advance a script that’s unknown to you. It devolves into a literal guessing game of trying to figure out what arbitrary action the game wants next, and a well-nigh impossible one at that. I’d be surprised if anyone in the history of Nord and Bert has ever actually connected a knife and “a bottle in front of me” to arrive at giving your deadbeat brother-in-law Bob a lobotomy without recourse to the hints. This is just bad, horrifically unfair design no matter how much we strain to make concessions for the sheer originality of the game as a whole. Just to add insult to injury (to use a phrase of which Nord and Bert would be proud), you have to solve every single inscrutable puzzle in this section to receive credit for completing the section as a whole.

The next section, “The Manor of Speaking” is also all but insoluble, and also bound by no identifiable connecting tissue of a consistent type of wordplay to give you some traction in divining its mysteries. A sample howler: you’re expected to spook a portrait of Karl Marx, who, the game tells you in the hints — but, naturally, nowhere else — “fears insurgencies,” by sticking a ticking alarm clock in a box and dropping it in front of him. Adventure games just don’t get any more “guess what the author is thinking” than that. The penultimate section, called “Shake a Tower,” recovers somewhat from those lowlights by at least once again building its interactions around an identifiable wordy theme, in this case Spoonerisms, word pairs with transposed sounds: for example, “gritty pearl” and “pretty girl.” But, with no contextual clues to tell you what you’re aiming to accomplish or what the game might expect, the scope of possibility remains far too wide. In short, all of these latter puzzles are just too hard, and not in a good way — a problem that persists into a master-game finale that throws everything that has come before into one unholy blender.

When playing Nord and Bert, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that at some point Infocom just gave up on it in light of all the other games on their plate, that they just did what they could with it and shoved it out the door as it was. An ironic source of temptation to do just that was likely those built-in hints, always a dangerous two-edged sword from the standpoint of good design. Players could never actually get stuck on the worst puzzles, could never have all that much to complain about, since the solutions were always waiting right there in the game itself, right? Well, no. Players still want to solve games for themselves. It’s not much fun, and kind of emasculating to boot, to play a game from its hint menu.

As if there wasn’t already enough novelty about Nord and Bert, it also represented something new for Infocom from a technical standpoint, a compromise between the venerable original 128 K Z-Machine, which ran on just about every computer under the sun but whose limitations now seemed to bite harder with every successive game, and the 256 K Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, which offered a hell of a lot more breathing room along with more screen-formatting flexibility but could only run on computers with the magic combination of 128 K of memory and an 80-column screen, two requirements that excluded it from the slowly fading but still industry-dominating Commodore 64. Internally, Infocom referred to games for the 128 K Z-Machine as “ZIPs” (for “Z-Machine Interpreter Program,” not to be confused with the compression format) and those for the 256 K as “EZIPs” (“Extended ZIPs”). Nord and Bert debuted a new category, the “LZIP” (presumably “Large ZIP”) that slotted into a sweet spot right in between. While built around the revised Interactive Fiction Plus Z-Machine, the LZIP format could adapt itself to 40-column screens and, as long as its total size was restricted to under 180 K, could be shoehorned into a Commodore 64 on a double-sided disk. That extra 50 K or so of space may not sound like much today, but it was precious for Imps used to a hard limit of 128 K, enabling features like Nord and Bert‘s built-in hints. [1]The formats are generally referred to today by the version numbering found in the story files themselves. Versions 1 and 2 were early versions of the 128 K Z-Machine used for the original releases of Zork I and II respectively. Version 3 is the finalized, stable version of the 128 K Z-Machine on which those early games were re-released, and which thereafter ran the bulk of Infocom’s games for most of the company’s existence. Version 4 is the first 256 K Z-Machine, used for the Interactive Fiction Plus (“EZIP”) games A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, and Bureaucracy, and now for the line of “LZIP” games like Nord and Bert. Yes, this is all quite confusing. No, if you’re not deeply interested in Infocom’s technology as opposed to their art, it’s not ultimately all that important. And yes, it’s going to get still more complicated before we’re done with their story. LZIP was just one of a plethora of new technological variations suddenly all in the pipeline at the same time, from The Lurking Horror‘s sound support on the Amiga to a whole new major revision of the Z-Machine for Beyond Zork. Much as Infocom and Activision judged all this feverish innovation necessary to have any hope of remaining competitive, it certainly wasn’t making their testing process any easier, especially when taken in combination with the brutal release schedule.

All of this confused activity may have had something to do not only with Nord and Bert‘s fundamental design failings but also with some fit-and-finish issues that are very unusual to see in an Infocom game. In one or two places, for instance, correct responses are met first with a “[That sentence isn’t one I recognize.],” followed immediately by some text telling you that you have in fact solved a puzzle. Yes, it’s all made slightly more understandable by the radical overhauling the standard parser had to undergo for this game, but, nevertheless, the absence of exactly these sorts of glitches and parserial non sequiturs was one of the things that usually distinguished Infocom from even worthy competitors like Magnetic Scrolls. It’s hard to imagine these sorts of problems sneaking into a released Infocom game of an earlier, less hectic year. But then again, the very fact that such a strange experiment as Nord and Bert got a release at all is likely down to the simple reality that Infocom suddenly had so many slots to fill. With Activision craving so much pasta, might as well throw some crazy-colored penne at the wall as well as the usual spaghetti to see if it stuck.

Predictably enough, it didn’t, at least not that well. It turned out that plenty of traditional text adventurers just wanted their spaghetti, had no interest in the alternative Nord and Bert offered them. After the game’s release, William Carte, a reviewer for the very traditionalist Questbusters magazine (they had already found the likes of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Alter Ego far too avant garde for their tastes), became one of many to speak for this constituency. He misses mapping, saying “half the fun” is “finding secret doors and locations.” As for the puzzles that are there:

If you have a great vocabulary (or enjoy reading Webster’s Dictionary) and like limericks and wordplay, you may enjoy Nord and Bert. (As someone else phrased it, this game is for “word nerds.”) True adventure gamers will probably be disappointed.

With people who enjoyed Nord and Bert thus duly put in their place as untrue adventure gamers in this review and others like it, the game was going to face even more of an uphill commercial climb than other Infocom games of this late era. And as for the dream of reaching a new sort of brainy yet more casual player… well, you can probably guess about how well that went. Thanks to some fairly gushing articles in places like The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe Magazine, Infocom had actually begun to make some modest inroads into the less stereotypically nerdy end of the smart-people demographic during their peak years of 1983 and 1984. Sadly, however, free exposure like that hadn’t been their lot in life for some time now. These days they lacked the resources to mount an outreach effort of the necessary scale to reach such folks — or of any scale at all, really — and Activision, having now pivoted so completely to the traditional videogame market of teenage boys, neither understood nor cared about O’Neill’s broader vision for the game. Pushed out with little fanfare in September of 1987 in tandem with Plundered Hearts — the two already represented Infocom’s fifth and sixth games of the year, with yet three more being prepped for release within the next few months —  Nord and Bert if anything did somewhat better than its esoteric style and all but nonexistent promotion might have prompted one to expect, managing to sell about 17,000 copies, slightly more than its release partner and about 5000 more than the title that still remained Infocom’s worst-selling ever, Hollywood Hijinx. Still, the folks making that New York Times crossword had little cause for concern.

Nord and Bert, Jeff O’Neill’s second game, would also prove to be his last. He left Infocom shortly after its release, part of a slow exodus that began as relations with Activision continued to worsen and the future looked more and more bleak. His career at Infocom stands as the most disappointing of all of the Imps, the story of a fine writer and boldly innovative if inexperienced designer who began two wonderfully promising games in Ballyhoo and Nord and Bert only to have them fall apart — and both largely due to pressures outside his control. Given O’Neill’s inexperience, both just needed that extra bit of tender loving care that Infocom wasn’t quite in a position to give them. It’s not surprising, then, that he remains by far the most embittered of all the former Imps, the only one who declined to be interviewed for the Get Lamp documentary and, indeed, the only one to have maintained a nearly complete silence since Infocom folded.

Understandable as his bitterness is, at least one thing ought to lessen its sting.  Both of his games, commercial disappointments though they may have been in their day, have like A Mind Forever Voyaging proved hugely influential on the art of interactive fiction in the longer term. Just as Ballyhoo pioneered a new, less frustrating form of plotting that tailors the story to the player’s progress rather than making the player conform to the game’s chronology, Nord and Bert introduced to the world the delicious possibilities for interactive wordplay, for text adventures that revel in the very textuality that sets them apart from their graphical cousins. A persistent sub-genre has been the result, one that includes gems like Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s more recent and even more delightful Counterfeit Monkey. Thanks to more time in the gestation, many more years of collective design wisdom on which to draw, and an audience of players that’s much more accepting of alternate approaches to interactive fiction than were many of Infocom’s fans, these games and a handful of other contenders like them largely avoided Nord and Bert‘s worst pratfalls to become acknowledged classics as well as some of my own all-time favorites. (Much as it may mark me as a less than true adventurer, I do love me some wordplay, so much so that it’s occasionally led me to be way too forgiving of even Nord and Bert‘s shortcomings in the past.) But then, this is much of the reason that Infocom’s catalog as a whole remains so vital and interesting after all these years. Even their failures cast a long shadow over everything that would follow them.

(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, even though those archives sadly don’t include an interview with Jeff O’Neill himself. The one place I’ve found where O’Neill does talk at all about his work on Nord and Bert is some remarks included with Ross Ceccola’s review of the game in the March 1988 Commodore Magazine. William Carte’s review appears in the November 1987 Questbusters.)


1 The formats are generally referred to today by the version numbering found in the story files themselves. Versions 1 and 2 were early versions of the 128 K Z-Machine used for the original releases of Zork I and II respectively. Version 3 is the finalized, stable version of the 128 K Z-Machine on which those early games were re-released, and which thereafter ran the bulk of Infocom’s games for most of the company’s existence. Version 4 is the first 256 K Z-Machine, used for the Interactive Fiction Plus (“EZIP”) games A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, and Bureaucracy, and now for the line of “LZIP” games like Nord and Bert. Yes, this is all quite confusing. No, if you’re not deeply interested in Infocom’s technology as opposed to their art, it’s not ultimately all that important. And yes, it’s going to get still more complicated before we’re done with their story.

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MIT and GUE (or, The Annotated Lurking Horror)


We have a fair number of games and events still to cover in the ongoing history of Infocom that’s been biting such a good-sized chunk out of this blog for so long, but the end is slowly heaving into sight. The same was also true, albeit in a less certain and more intuitive way, for those actually at Infocom at the time of The Lurking Horror‘s release. The winds of the industry were quite clearly blowing against them, and even if they could manage to eke out another hit or two it wasn’t at all clear how they could remake themselves to conform to the new order in the longer term. Meanwhile some of the Imps were beginning to wonder what the point of surviving as a developer of interactive fiction might be anyway. They knew how to make rock-solid text adventures in their traditional style, but they didn’t quite know how to advance beyond that. Given that they were unlikely to ever make a better game in that traditional style than Trinity, and that their players had proved unreceptive to their one attempt to radically upend the formula with A Mind Forever Voyaging, that was a problem. Infocom wasn’t populated by the sort of people who are comfortable just reworking the status quo year after year.

All of these feelings must have fed into David Lebling’s decision to set his game for 1987 at a lovingly recreated MIT, known as GUE Tech in the game. With commercial pressures threatening to crush an Infocom that had long since lost control of their own destiny and artistic ennui threatening to crush the Imps’ souls as well, it was nice to think back to the simpler days at MIT where it had all begun as just another hacking exercise, where that original mainframe Zork had represented for Lebling and his earliest co-Implementors something so inspiring and genuinely new under the sun. By way of honoring those feelings, I thought we could also take one last lingering look back along with Lebling today. I’d like to take you on a guided tour through The Lurking Horror‘s MIT… oops, GUE. If you haven’t played this one before, or if it’s been a while, feel free to play along with me. I won’t solve the puzzles for you — although a little nudge here and there may be in the cards — but I will tell you a bit more about what you’re seeing. For what follows I’m hugely indebted to Janice Eisen (MIT Class of 1985), a Patreon supporter who not only pays me for each of these articles but all but did my job for me when it came to this one by sharing her own experiences of life at MIT as it was then and presumably still is today. So, come along with Janice and me and let us tell you a little about the place where Infocom began.

Whether you’re playing along or not, the map found in the center of the GUE Tech brochure that accompanies The Lurking Horror is well worth referring to now and throughout this tour. It roughly corresponds to the heart of the real campus, albeit with some important differences that I’ll be explaining when we come to them. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you may also want to pull up MIT’s official campus map for comparison purposes. To orient yourself, know that the Great Dome is found on Building 10 on that map.

G.U.E. map

We start our adventurous evening one dark and snowy winter night in GUE Tech’s so-called “Computer Center,” which corresponds to MIT’s Building 13 (an ominous start, no?).

Terminal Room
This is a large room crammed with computer terminals, small computers, and printers. An exit leads south. Banners, posters, and signs festoon the walls. Most of the tables are covered with waste paper, old pizza boxes, and empty Coke cans. There are usually a lot of people here, but tonight it's almost deserted.

A really whiz-bang pc is right inside the door.

Nearby is one of those ugly molded plastic chairs.

Sitting at a terminal is a hacker whom you recognize.

Know first of all that this is not the place where so many future Infocom staffers worked throughout the 1970s, and created Zork near the end of that decade. That game was born on the second floor of a building some distance to the north of the campus core, described by Steven Levy in his seminal Hackers as “a building of mind-numbing dullness, with no protuberances and sill-less windows that looked painted onto its off-white surface.” It still looks about the same today, and houses MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies among other tenants. Building 13, meanwhile, is not and never has been earmarked as a computer center; it houses the Material Sciences and Engineering Center among others.

That said, the description of the place, unholy mess included, is very typical of the computer labs that were and are scattered all over the campus. The hacker who inhabits it alongside us is certainly worth a look.

>examine hacker
The hacker sits comfortably on an office chair facing a terminal table, or perhaps it's just a pile of old listings as tall as a terminal table. He is typing madly, using just two fingers, but achieves speeds that typists using all ten fingers only dream of. He is apparently debugging a large assembly language program, as the screen of his terminal looks like a spray of completely random characters. The hacker is dressed in blue jeans, an old work shirt, and what might once have been running shoes. Hanging from his belt is an enormous ring of keys. He is in need of a bath.

It’s instructive to compare this depiction of a prototypical hacker — i.e., practically Richard Stallman in the flesh — with Michael Bywater’s “horrible nerd” from Bureaucracy. Lebling, while certainly not blind to his character’s annoying eccentricities, also shows a knowing familiarity that borders on affection. Bywater… doesn’t. Particularly knowing on Lebling’s part is the hacker’s typing ability, or if you like the lack thereof. Hackers have always looked on proper ten-fingered typing as a sure sign that the person in question is not one of them.

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

I trust I’m not giving too much away if I mention that that “enormous ring of keys” will become a critical part of the game. Strange as it may sound, keys, the more exotic the better, are in fact a status symbol at MIT. Keys imply knowledge of and access to the labyrinthine tunnels and cubbyholes that riddle the campus. “Roof-and-tunnel hacking,” something we ourselves will be indulging in on this snowy night, has always been a popular pastime at MIT, tolerated if not officially condoned by the administration and campus police — tolerated not least thanks to the fact that, contrary to The Lurking Horror‘s GUE Tech brochure, no known deaths can be attributed to the practice. Janice told me the story of joining a “very unofficial student-run tour of the roofs and tunnels” as a freshman. After making their way down a creepy old steam tunnel, they popped out through a grating in a sidewalk right in front of a campus policeman. “You’re not supposed to be in there! Go back the way you came!” he ordered, leaving them no choice but to scurry back down the tunnel. One can imagine a self-satisfied character like our hacker here leading just such a tour, flaunting his knowledge and his enormous ring of keys before the newbies.

The word “hack” itself originated at MIT, where it originally implied both campus explorations of the sort just described and the sort of clever and usually elaborate practical jokes in which MIT students, once again with the tacit acceptance of the campus police and administration, have always indulged. In time anything done in an original, clever, and/or cheeky way came to be called a “hack.” By the 1960s it was being applied to computing at MIT, to the burgeoning culture of unrepentant oddballs who spent their lives trying to make these strange new machines run better, faster, and smarter. As former MIT hackers got jobs in private business and accepted postings at other universities, the usage became universal.

But we do have an assignment to write, so let’s see what we’re up against.

>examine assignment
Laser printed on creamy bond paper, the assignment is due tomorrow. It's from your freshman course in "The Classics in the Modern Idiom," better known as "21.014." It reads, in part: "Twenty pages on modern analogues of Xenophon's 'Anabasis.'" You're not sure whether this refers to the movie "The Warriors" or "Alien," but this is the last assignment you need to complete in this course this term. You wonder, yet again, why a technical school requires you to endure this sort of stuff.

Many an MIT student over the years has doubtless wondered the same thing. Like all accredited American universities, MIT conforms to the “balanced person” ideal of education, which demands that each student take a smattering of humanities and other subjects outside her major during her first year or two at university. Derided as the requirement often is, I tend to feel we could use more balanced people in the world today. The collision between technology and the humanities at MIT in particular has yielded some fascinating results, such as Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck and Nick Montfort’s work in many areas of computational creativity.

Buildings at MIT are, with only a few exceptions, referred to only by their numbers, and the same holds true for courses; thus the “better known” in the passage above is literally accurate. The prefix of “21” does indeed correspond to the Department of Humanities at MIT.

Let’s turn to that “really whiz-bang pc” and see if we can get to work.

>examine pc
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.

It’s a bit odd that The Lurking Horror refers to this machine as a PC at all; it’s obviously a workstation-class machine, generally considered a different species entirely from the more humble PC during the 1980s. Not only is this computer far beyond what would have been available to Lebling during his time at MIT, it’s also far beyond what the average student even in 1987 could hope to have at her disposal. It appears to represent a 3M workstation, a term first coined by Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Reddy in the early 1980s. More of an aspiration than a practicality at that time, a 3M machine demanded at least 1 MB of memory, a display consisting of at least 1 million pixels, and a CPU capable of processing at least 1 million instructions per second. While a few such machines were available by 1987 and others were in the offing — after leaving Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs founded NeXT with this very specification in mind — very few were likely to be at the disposal of ordinary students looking to write Classics papers. Back in Lebling’s day, almost all of the work at the Laboratory for Computer Science was being done on text-only terminals — no mouse, no hard disk, no color, and for that matter no pixels that didn’t form textual characters — attached to a central DEC PDP-10. Indeed, this was largely the way that an increasingly anachronistic Infocom was still working in 1987. Nowadays, of course, a Raspberry Pi blows right past most of the 3M specification and just keeps on going for orders of magnitude afterward.

Let’s log in, shall we?

>turn on pc
The computer powers up, goes through a remarkably fast self-check, and greets you, requesting "LOGIN PLEASE:". The only sound you hear is a very low hum.

>login [you'll have to figure this out for yourself]
The computer responds "PASSWORD PLEASE:"

>type [this too]
The computer responds "Good evening. You're here awfully late." It displays a list of pending tasks, one of which is in blinking red letters, with large arrows pointing to it. The task reads "Classics Paper," some particularly ominous words next to it say "DUE TOMORROW!" and more reassuringly, a menu box next to that reads "Edit Classics Paper."

>click menu box
The menu box is replaced by the YAK text editor and menu boxes listing the titles of your files. The one for your paper is highlighted in a rather urgent-looking shade of red.

The “YAK” text editor is an obvious reference to Richard Stallman’s GNU project, an attempt to create a completely free and open-source operating system that he began at MIT in 1983. One of the tools Stallman brought to the GNU project at its founding was his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink text editor Emacs, a great favorite with hackers to this day. After years of uncertain progress, the utilities developed by Stallman and others for GNU were merged with Linus Torvalds’s new Unix-like kernel in the early 1990s to create the operating system known as “Linux” today — or “GNU/Linux,” as Stallman would undoubtedly correct me. The first two letters in the name of The Lurking Horror‘s YAK editor were and are very common in hacker acronyms, standing for “Yet Another.” As for yet another what in this instance… your guess is as good as mine.

Stallman was at MIT throughout the 1970s, but he worked for the other half of MIT computer research’s split personality, the AI Laboratory rather than the Laboratory for Computer Science. (The names were of little relevance, with the latter often conducting AI research and the former often wandering far afield from it.) His path doesn’t seem to have crossed those of the future Infocom crowd with any great frequency, especially given that the Laboratory for Computer Science always had the reputation of being the more pragmatic and commercially oriented of the two groups. He would have held Infocom in contempt for attempting to market their innovations. Never one to hold back his opinions, Stallman liberally bestowed epithets like “fascist” on those who defied his “free as in freedom” hacker ethics by, say, trying to install a reasonably secure password system onto the campus computer systems.

I’ll leave it to you to read the paper, which turns out to be something very different than expected, and to talk with the hacker about it; be sure to appreciate the “explosion in a teletype factory” line, one of the best Lebling ever wrote. Afterward let’s have a look in the kitchen.

This is a filthy kitchen. The exit is to the east. On the wall near a counter are a refrigerator and a microwave.

Sitting on the kitchen counter is a package of Funny Bones.

>open refrigerator
Opening the refrigerator reveals a two liter bottle of Classic Coke and a cardboard carton.

>x carton
This is a cardboard carton with an incomprehensible symbol scrawled on the top.

>open carton
Opening the cardboard carton reveals Chinese food.

A joke among MIT hackers had it that the four basic food groups were caffeine, sugar, salt, and grease. What with caffeine and sugar getting pride of place even on that list, the infamous switch to the New Coke formula in 1985 hit them particularly hard. When the Coca-Cola Company bowed to popular demand and reintroduced the old formula as “Coke Classic” just a few months later, many hackers latched onto the theory, since disproved, that it was all a big conspiracy to switch out real sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in their favorite drink.

The connection between hacking and Chinese food is just as longstanding. A Chinese menu is a system of flavor combinations that’s infinitely intriguing to a certain kind of mind, and thus MIT hackers have been haunting Boston Chinatown since the late 1950s. Many bought Chinese-English dictionaries in order to translate the Chinese menus that were normally only given to Chinese patrons; these were always much more interesting than the safe choices reserved for English speakers. Yes, sometimes the results of the hackers’ culinary experiments could be vile, but other times they could be magnificent. In a sense it didn’t really matter. It was all just so interesting, yet another fascinating system to hack.

A favorite of the future Infocom staffers, as it was of many MIT hackers, was a place called The House of Roy, presided over by the inimitable Roy himself, whose sense of humor was surprisingly in sync with that of his favorite non-Chinese patrons. I love this anecdote from a regular customer:

We asked for tea and Roy (we think this was the family name) told Suford she would be allowed to go into the kitchen and make it for us. When she returned she informed us that the kitchen was ruled over by a large tom cat. (“Did you pet him?” “No, he was on duty.”) When we queried the owner his response was that the cat kept down vermin and was safer than chemicals. We asked about the Health Inspector and were told “cat cleaner than Health Inspector.”

Roy had only recently died at the time that The Lurking Horror was written, his beloved restaurant closed. Lebling pays tribute to this lost and lamented MIT institution by including it as the only nonfictional “Favorite Hangout” in his GUE Tech brochure.

If we put the Chinese food in the microwave for far too long — don’t try this at home without saving first! — we get an interesting description when we look at it again.

>x chinese food
This is a carton of radioactive Szechuan shrimp. Lovely red peppers poke out of the sauce.

The association of microwaves with nuclear bombs, and particularly the now ubiquitous slang to “nuke” one’s food, would appear to be another MITism that has entered the larger culture. Janice remembers hearing the slang during her time there as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, yet online etymologies claim its first documented use dates from 1987, the very year of The Lurking Horror.

At this point I’ll leave you to do something for the hacker and get something from him in return. Once you’ve taken care of that, let’s head for the elevator to begin to explore the rest of the campus.

This is a battered, rather dirty elevator. The fake wood walls are scratched and marred with graffiti. The elevator doors are open. To the right of the doors is an area with floor buttons (B and 1 through 3), an open button, a close button, a stop switch, and an alarm button. Below these is an access panel which is closed.

>x graffiti
"'God is dead' --Nietzsche
'Nietzsche is dead' --God"

The elevator doors slide closed.

"Tech is hell."


The nickname of simply “Tech” in reference to MIT is like many traditions there in that it goes back one hell of a long way. Between its founding in Boston in 1861 and its move across the Charles River to Cambridge in 1916, MIT was more commonly referred to as “Boston Tech” than by its official name. In student parlance part of the nickname stuck around even after the move.

“I.H.T.F.P.” is another phrase with which all too many students are casually familiar. Sometimes described as the university’s unofficial motto, it stands for “I hate this fucking place.” Much as so many come to cherish their time at the university, the graffiti highlights a fact that can often get lost amid descriptions of all of the assorted traditions and tomfoolery (often one and the same) that go on at MIT: the fact that it is indeed, as Infocom’s GUE Tech brochure says, “a high-pressure school.” In fact, it’s the most demanding STEM university in the world. For decades there have been dark jokes among the student population about suicide, along with suspicions that the actual suicide rate is not being accurately reported. How’s that for a spot of horror?

Let’s take the elevator down a floor — be sure to check out that access panel first! — and then head out to the street.

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Smith Street
Smith Street runs east and west along the north side of the main campus area. At the moment, it is an arctic wasteland of howling wind and drifting snow. On the other side of the street, barely visible, are the lidless eyes of streetlights. The street hasn't been plowed, or if it has been, it did no good.

Massachusetts winters can be every bit as brutal as the one described here; they’re as much a fixture of life at MIT as any other tradition. As for the streets themselves: MIT’s Vassar Street is slyly replaced here by Smith Street, Smith being another of the “Seven Sisters” of prestigious, historically female liberal-arts colleges. Just down Smith Street to the east is an innocuous-looking “temporary building” with one hell of a story to tell.

You push your way into the comparative warmth of a laboratory.

It is pitch black.

>turn on flashlight
The flashlight clicks on.

Temporary Lab
This is a laboratory of some sort. It takes up most of the building on this level, all the interior walls having been knocked down. (One reason these temporary buildings are still here is their flexibility: no one cares if they get more or less destroyed.) A stairway leads down, and a door leads north.

There is a metal flask here.

>get flask

Temporary Basement
During the Second World War, some temporary buildings were built to house war-related research. Naturally, these buildings, though flimsy and ugly, are still around. This is the basement of one of them. The basement extends west, a stairway leads up, and a large passage is to the east.

This rattletrap of a structure corresponds to the real MIT’s now long-gone Building 20, one of the most storied places on the campus. It was built quickly and cheaply in 1943 to house vital wartime research into radar. The expectation was that it would be destroyed as soon as the war was over. But, with postwar attendance booming thanks to the G.I. Bill and research space at a premium, no one quite got around to it for more than fifty years. Building 20 was a famously ramshackle place, showing ample evidence of its cheap and rushed construction. Walls were made of exposed plywood; ceilings were hidden above a tangle of pipes and wiring; floors were treacherously uneven; the roof leaked; windows never really fit right, and had a disconcerting habit of falling off entirely; the whole structure creaked alarmingly in the winds that blew right through its interior. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter, and coated with a litigator’s wet dream worth of asbestos and lead-based paint. Yet the people who worked inside it loved the place, dubbing it their “plywood palace.”

Building 20

Building 20 would be of great historical importance were it only for the World War II research that went on there. Research into radar was funded almost as lavishly as the Manhattan Project, and was even more important for actually winning the war; “Radar won the war, and the atom bomb ended it,” goes the old saying. Much of that war-winning effort was centered right here.

But that was only the beginning. In later years countless other groups moved in and out of Building 20, doing important research into physics (an early atomic accelerator was built here, as was the world’s first atomic clock); linguistics (Noam Chomsky worked here for many years); neurology (Jerome Lettvin’s pioneering experiments on the relationship between the eyes and brains of frogs took place here); acoustics (Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation, worked here). Researchers loved Building 20 precisely because it was such a dump. They could feel free to drill holes in walls for cables — or knock them down entirely for that matter — and do plenty of other things that would require reams of paperwork and several safety reviews and months of bureaucratic wrangling to do anywhere else.

Most fascinating of all for our purposes, Building 20 is also Ground Zero for hacker culture. During the late 1950s it was the home of the Tech Model Railroad Club, about half of which consisted of typical train enthusiasts and half of which were there for the intrinsic interest of the plumbing, so to speak: all those wires and switches and diodes found underneath the big tables that supported the track layout. Much of the vocabulary they developed remains with us to the present day: a bad design was “losing”; a broken piece was “munged” (“mashed until no good”); unnecessary extra pieces were “cruft”; and, yes, a “hack” was a particularly clever technical feat, and “hacking” was… you get the idea. This diction and, even more importantly, the way of thinking behind it was transferred into a new field when a former TMRC member and current MIT professor invited some members to have a go at a new toy: a home-built something called the TX-0, one of the first transistorized computers and one of the first designed to be programmed and operated interactively rather than functioning as essentially a huge static calculating and collating machine. Several of the men who had helped design it went on to form Digital Equipment Corporation, donating the very first complete prototype computer they ever made, of their debut PDP-1 model, to MIT for more TMRC alumni to swarm over. Thus cemented, the links among DEC, MIT, and hacker culture persisted through the heyday of the original PDP-10 Zork and on into the 1980s. Infocom’s own aging PDP-10, on which The Lurking Horror itself was written, was just one more testament to the durability of those links.

Building 20 was demolished at last in 1999 to make room for the Stata Center, a massive slab of postmodern architecture, sort of a 21st-century Sagrada Família, that was opened in 2004. In the tradition of its predecessor, the Stata Center has been plagued by leaks, plumbing problems, and structural failures since its opening. Perhaps a ghost or two lives on?

The Lurking Horror departs from reality in giving its version of Building 20 a basement and an underground connection to the central buildings of the campus. In the game’s defense, visitors to Building 20 often remarked that the ground floor was so dank and dark that it felt like a basement. For reasons that have been lost to history, MIT chose to label that ground floor, normally Floor 1 in the university’s nomenclature, as Floor 0, as if it was indeed a basement. Just after the building was demolished in 1999, a student hack stuck an elevator in the midst of the rubble leading to a “previously hidden” subbasement stretching five stories below ground-level, presumably home of some top-secret and quite possibly nefarious government research. Aliens, anyone? These days the joke is that Building 20 is actually still standing, but hidden behind an invisibility field — perhaps a gift of those same aliens?

At some point you’ll meet an urchin skulking about down here in the basement.

>x urchin
This is an urchin. He's a youngish teenager wearing a ski hat, running shoes, and a bulky, suspiciously bumpy, threadbare parka. He's jumpy, and looks suspiciously at you.

I’m going to spoil things just to the extent of telling you that what he’s carrying beneath his parka is a pair of bolt cutters. It appears that this fellow is a bicycle thief, a consistent plague on the MIT campus since time immemorial. Kids like this one who hang about, usually for shady purposes, are indeed known as “urchins” in student parlance. When their crimes get particularly blatant, “urchin alerts” are sent out to the affected areas to warn students and faculty to keep a close eye on their valuables.

At this point you’ll likely want to do something about those old pallets off to the east and then do a bit of exploring in that direction. When you’re ready, let’s go all the way west and down the stairs to the subbasement, and then squeeze northwest through the crack.

This is a tiny, narrow, ill-fitting room. It appears to have been a left over space from the joining of two preexisting buildings. It is roughly coffin shaped. The walls are covered by decades of overlaid graffiti, but there is one which is painted in huge fluorescent letters that were apparently impossible for later artists to completely deface. On the floor is a rusty access hatch locked with a huge padlock.

>read graffiti
It reads "The Tomb of the Unknown Tool."

The Tomb of the Unknown Tool is a real place at MIT, and another semi-legendary one at that. Legend has it that long ago there was an MIT student who was trying to study — to “tool” in student parlance; similarly, the noun “tool” is a dismissive term for a good, conventionally diligent student — but couldn’t because of all the loud parties in his dorm. So he found a little cubbyhole far underground, filled with heating and air-conditioning pipes and ducts, and made it his home, eating there, sleeping there, and most of all tooling there in peace. The unknown tool himself was long gone even by the time Lebling first arrived at MIT in the late 1960s, but his legend lives on. Always an early destination of aspiring roof-and-tunnel hackers, the real Tomb is situated in roughly the same location as the one that’s found in the game. And its walls are indeed covered with graffiti left behind by the many who have visited.

Tomb of the Unknown Tool

The Lurking Horror is actually not the first game in which Lebling referred to the Tomb of the Unknown Tool. The original PDP-10 Zork includes a “Tomb of the Unknown Implementors,” with graffiti of its own that says to “Feel Free!”

In that spirit, feel free to go through the hatch here and explore even deeper. When you’re ready, let’s go southeast from the Tomb, up twice, south to the Infinite Corridor (which we’ll come back to in just a moment), and finally west into the great outdoors again.

Mass. Ave.
This is the main entrance to the campus buildings. Blinding snow obscures the stately Grecian columns and rounded dome to the east. You can barely make out the inscription on the pediment (which reads "George Vnderwood Edwards, Fovnder; P. David Lebling, Architect"). West across Massachusetts Avenue are other buildings, but you can't see them.

The Rogers Building

We’re now standing at the front door to MIT. The address of the imposing building that stands here, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, is the official address of the institution as a whole. Erected in 1939, the Rogers Building (Building 7) gets its name from that of MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers. It also bears his name on its pediment, although no “Architect” is credited.

Massachusetts Avenue is the only MIT street name that remains unaltered in the game. That it shows up in abbreviated form as the location name is not accidental; it’s universally pronounced “Mass. Ave” by students.

But it’s cold out here, no? Let’s go back inside.

Infinite Corridor
The so-called infinite corridor runs from east to west in the main campus building. This is the west end. Side corridors lead north and south, and a set of doors leads west into the howling blizzard.

There is a plastic container here.

There is a largish machine being operated down the hall to the east.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor is another source of much MIT lore. It’s the longest university corridor in the world, stretching east from the Rogers Building under the Great Dome and across the pre-World War II heart of the campus to Building 8 — a distance of 825 feet. One of the most celebrated events at MIT is the so-called “MIThenge,” when twice per year the sun shines just perfectly into the corridor to illuminate it down its entire length. If all that wasn’t enough to ensure the Infinite Corridor’s notoriety, many fondly remembered hacks have also taken place here. A popular theme for decades had been to deck out the Corridor like a highway of one sort or another, often complete with lane markings, road signs, and billboards.

>get container

>x container
It's a plain plastic container with something written on it. The plastic container is closed.

>read container
"Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping)"

The joke above isn’t quite original, and for once it’s not an MIT-specific in-joke. It harks back to a classic skit from the very first season of Saturday Night Live, in which Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase bond over Shimmer, a floor wax and dessert topping. One can imagine Lebling laughing at this around the same time he was working on Maze War at MIT, the world’s first networked multiplayer first-person shooter which he helped create almost two decades before Doom.

Moving down the Infinite Corridor to the east, we come upon a maintenance man.

A maintenance man is here, riding a floor waxer.

The maintenance man’s presence is a very subtle shade of in-joke. MIT’s housekeeping and custodial staff tended to do their work in the middle of the night, when the campus was largely deserted. Hackers like Lebling and company, however, tended to keep exactly the same sorts of odd hours, another tradition that stretched all the way back to the days of the TX-0; “legitimate” users always kept that machine booked during the day, leaving it available only during the nighttime for the likes of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Hackers were often the only students that the janitors and housekeepers ever actually encountered, and some surprising and kind of sweet friendships formed thanks to the forced proximity between these very different walks of life.

This particular maintenance man, however, definitely doesn’t want to be our friend. I recommend that you deal with him now, if you can. If you’ve been dutifully gathering up the stuff you come across, you should have everything you need. I’m going to go south from the center of the Infinite Corridor, but you don’t want to follow me to where I go next unless you save first because the door will lock behind us, and for once our master key won’t open it (a rather pointless bit of cruelty on the whole, although to his credit Lebling does warn us).

Great Court
In the spring and summer, this cheery green court is a haven from classwork. Right now, the majestic buildings of the main campus are almost invisible in the howling blizzard. A locked door bars your way to the north.

We’re standing now at the center of the original 1916 Cambridge campus, designed by architect William Welles Bosworth. This court was also known as the Great Court at the real MIT until 1974, when it was renamed Killian Court after former MIT president James Rhyne Killian. Despite the rechristening, the old name stuck around for a long time, especially among folks like Lebling who were here before the change. MIT architecture in general is noted for its complete disharmony, a riot of mismatched buildings that seems to include at least one example of every American architectural school of the last century along with plenty of bland beige buildings with no discernible style at all. This original part of the campus, however, is coolly neoclassical, the lushly manicured central court bordered by trees, the buildings on either side forming arms that seem to bid the world to enter, much like St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s here, the only really bucolic place on campus, that commencement ceremonies are held every year.

Killian Court

Back inside — and assuming you’ve dealt with the janitor — let’s go up, up, up, all the way to the very tiptop of the Great Dome. You’ll need to solve a puzzle or two to manage it, but I’m sure you’re up to it.

You scramble up the icy surface of the dome, almost slipping a few times, but finally you make it to the top.

On the Great Dome
This is the very top of the Great Dome, a favorite place for Tech fraternities to install cows, Volkswagen Beetles, giant birthday candles, and other bizarre objects. The top is flat, round, and about five feet in diameter. It's very windy, which has kept the snow from accumulating here. The only way off is down.

In the exact center of the flat area is a bronze plug.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Despite interlopers like the Stata Center, the Great Dome, referred to affectionately by students as “the center of the universe,” still stands as the most enduring architectural image of MIT. As the game has made evident, just getting up here at all is a major feat of roof-and-tunnel hacking. For the even more ambitious, it’s also the ultimate location for an MIT hack (in the practical-joking sense, that is). Over the years a police cruiser, an Apollo Lunar Module, a Doctor Who phone box, a self-propelled solar-powered subway car, and a living cow have all appeared up here. The Great Dome has been coated with tin foil and has been turned into R2-D2, Tolkien’s One Ring, a giant cupcake, and a Halloween pumpkin, while the lights that illuminate it at night seem to change color constantly to celebrate one occasion or another. One of the earliest and most legendary of the Great Dome hacks occurred in 1959, when a complete working Volkswagen was torn down, carted up to the Dome, and reassembled there in the course of one long night.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

After you’ve investigated thoroughly up here, let’s get back to ground level and go east to the end of the Infinite Corridor. Going north, we pass through the Nutrition Department.

Fruits and Nuts
This is the central corridor of the Nutrition Building. The main building is south, and a stairway leads down.

The MIT Nutrition Department is indeed referred to with a certain contempt as “Fruits and Nuts” by hackers. (Think back to those four basic food groups…)

Going down the stairs here and then southeast takes us to the basement of the Brown Building. Let’s go up to the lobby and outside again.

Brown Building
This is the lobby of the Brown Building, an eighteen-story skyscraper which houses the Meteorology Department and other outposts of the Earth Sciences. The elevator is out of order, but a long stairway leads up to the roof, and another leads down to the basement. A revolving door leads out into the night.

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Small Courtyard
This courtyard is a triumph of modern architecture. It is spare, cold, angular, overwhelming in size, and bears a striking resemblance to a wind tunnel whenever the breeze picks up. Right now this is true of the whole campus, though. A huge mass lurks nearby, and an almost featureless skyscraper is to the north.

>x mass
You see nothing special about it.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Green Building

GUE’s Brown Building stands in for the real MIT’s Green Building, which is even taller, a full 21 stories and almost 300 feet. Built in 1964, it’s yet another architectural outlier in this campus full of outliers, not only the only structure of its kind at MIT but also the only one in Cambridge; no other building there comes close to its height. As such a blatant violation of MIT and Cambridge’s normal philosophy of “horizontal continuity,” its construction was greeted with considerable controversy, not to mention outrageous rumors about the methods used to circumvent Cambridge’s normal building laws. The first tenants found that its height and proximity to the rest of the campus created a sort of artificial wind tunnel, the breeze coming off the Charles River getting so amplified that on blustery days it was impossible to even open the doors. Luckily, there were also connecting tunnels (like the one we just came through) leading to other buildings, preventing a change in the weather from trapping people inside. The original doors were eventually replaced with revolving doors. These largely alleviated one problem, but, as the description from the game relates, the courtyard remains a remarkably unpleasant place, particularly in winter.

Not really one of MIT’s more beloved buildings for all of these reasons, the Green Building’s height and general prominence on campus have nevertheless made it a target for hacks to rival the popularity of the Great Dome. For almost as long as the Green Building has existed, it’s been a Halloween tradition to throw dozens or hundreds of pumpkins down from its roof. In 1974, a professor and some of his students launched a concerted effort to operate the world’s largest yo-yo from the roof of the building, but for once this ambitious hack never quite worked out. Since the advent of cheap LED lighting, the Green Building has taken on a new role as a massive billboard telling the world what MIT students are thinking about at any given time. In 2012, students made the national news by turning it into the world’s biggest game of Tetris, inviting passersby to have a go for all of Cambridge to see. (No pressure!)

The Big Sail

The undefined “huge mass” that Lebling describes is a sly dig at another polarizing structure that sits before the Green Building, Alexander Calder’s monumental slab of modernist sculpture The Big Sail. When it was erected just a year after the Green Building itself, conventional wisdom had it that its primary purpose was to alleviate the wind-tunnel effect. But campus officials insisted that, no, this… whatever it is… exists only for aesthetic purposes. Oh, well… what better spot for a Big Sail than a wind tunnel? It does look a bit like one of Lovecraft’s horrid winged creatures might, at least if you squint just right, so I suppose it makes a good fit for the game.

The Green Building really does house, among other departments, many of MIT’s Meteorology and Earth Science facilities. In that respect its controversial height has been a blessing: the roof supports much meteorological and radio equipment used in various experiments. Let’s head inside and up there now.

Top Floor
This is the top of the stairway. A door leads out to the roof here, and you can hear the wind blowing beyond. There is a sign on the door.

>read sign
It says "NO ADMITTANCE!" In smaller, hand-written letters below, it says "This means you!" and below that in different handwriting, it says "Who, me?"

>unlock door with key
The door is now unlocked.

>open door
You push the door open, revealing a windswept, snow-covered roof. Frigid wind whips snow into your face.

When Dave Lebling was at MIT, he used to make his way out to the roof of the Green Building through a fire door that was much like this one. Its sign read, “Positively No Admittance, Opening Door Sounds Alarm.” The first student to trepidatiously push it open found that it did no such thing, and thus was yet another interesting space opened for exploration.

Let’s head onward, shall we?

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Skyscraper Roof
A low parapet surrounds a small roof here. The air conditioning cooling tower and the small protrusion containing the stairs are dwarfed by a semitransparent dome which towers above you. The blowing snow obscures all detail of the city across the river to the south.

>x dome
The dome is large and semitransparent. It's made of some sort of milky-colored plastic. It dominates the roof. You can climb up to the entrance via a short ladder.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

You push your way into the welcoming warmth inside.

Inside Dome
You are inside a large domed area. The dome contains equipment that makes it clear it is a weather observation station. For some reason, it also contains a small peach tree. Wind whistles outside, and snow blasts against the semitransparent material of the dome.

Something smashes against the glass of the dome! You turn and see a dark shape clinging to the outside of the structure.

As you can see from the picture of the real Green Building, its roof supports a large dome much like this one, full of meteorological equipment, albeit one that is opaque rather than transparent. Lebling insists, however, that there was once another dome that was semi-transparent like this one. Further, he insists that there really was a tree inside said dome, although he’s not sure that it was actually a peach tree. No one he asked seemed to have any idea who put it there or what its purpose was. Mysteries like this aren’t particularly unusual at MIT. Incomprehensible equipment from one esoteric research project or another positively litters the campus, often stashed in the very out-of-the-way corners that make roof-and-tunnel hacking so enticing.

Given that, why not a burgeoning temple to an eldritch god as well? Let’s head for the last stop on our tour, The Department of Alchemy — as soon as you’ve investigated the dome thoroughly and dealt with that inconvenient monster, that is. Afterward, you want to go back down to the basement, up into Building 8, and south from the eastern end of the Infinite Corridor.

Chemistry Building
This corridor is lined with closed, dark offices. At the south end of the corridor is a door with a light shining behind it. There is something written on the door.

>read door
Painted on the door, in calligraphy indistinguishable from any other door at Tech, is the phrase "Department of Alchemy." You always used to wonder what was behind that door.

Department of Alchemy door

As was the case with the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, you may be surprised to learn that the Department of Alchemy is a real place at MIT — or, at any rate, that this Department of Alchemy door is real. Like in the game, it’s inside the Department of Chemistry, an example of a hack dating back many decades that was just too good to ever unhack. And, again like in the game, the real door conceals a laboratory. But the people inside do not attempt to summon blasphemous creations from the Beyond, at least as far as anyone knows.

Inside the door you’ll find a tricky — and very dangerous! — sequence awaiting you. You definitely want to save before this one, as you’re probably about to get sacrificed a few times before you get it all sorted. When you do (get it all sorted, that is), you’ll have a class ring at your disposal.

>x hyrax
The G.U.E. Tech class ring is a gold ring depicting a hyrax eating a twig. Such rings are familiarly known as "brass hyraxes."

MIT class ring

The actual MIT class ring shows, for some reason, an alleged beaver eating a twig. But it looks more like a rat, and is thus commonly referred to as a “brass rat.”

And at this point we’ve largely seen the sights in The Lurking Horror that relate back to MIT. But there’s still lots of puzzles to solve and a blasphemous evil to defeat, so I’ll leave you to it. Remember the four basic food groups — particularly the first — when you get tired, and remember that Hollywood Hijinx isn’t the only Infocom game that evinces a certain fascination with elevators. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour. If you have, I’m pretty sure there are a couple of virtual tip jars around here if you scroll to the top and look to the right. Good luck!

(If you’d like all of these annotations and more in a succinct form, feel free to download the gloss of the game that Janice Eisen so kindly prepared for me. This document was the basis for much of what I’ve written above.)


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The Lurking Horror

The Lurking Horror

Given the demographics of many readers of H.P. Lovecraft, not to mention players of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, it was inevitable that the Cthulhu Mythos would make it to the computer. The only real surprise is that it took all the way until 1987 for the first full-fledged digital work of Lovecraftian horror to appear. That it should have been among all the Imps of Infocom Dave Lebling who wrote said work is, on the other hand, no surprise. The most voracious and omnivorous reader of all in an office full of them, Lebling was also the only Imp with deep roots in the world of tabletop RPGs; he had to have been aware of Sandy Petersen’s game even if he had never played it.

Running neck and neck as he was with Steve Meretzky for the title of most prolific and recognizable Imp, Lebling was pretty much given carte blanche to choose his projects. Thus his rather vague proposal, for a “kind of H.P. Lovecraft game set at a kind of MIT-ish place,” was all that was needed to set the ball rolling. Not that, even discounting Lebling’s track record, there was a lot of risk in the proposition: horror, while relatively uncommon in adventure games to date, was a fictional genre with obvious appeal for the typical player, and Lovecraft was as good a point of entry as any. Indeed, the graphical adventure Uninvited, which had thrown a bit of Lovecraft into its blender along with lots of other hoary old horror tropes, was doing quite well commercially at the very instant that Lebling was making his proposal. Horror was a perfect growth market for adventure authors and players tired of fantasy, science fiction, and cozy mysteries.

The Lurking Horror‘s title inauspiciously harks back to “The Lurking Fear,” a story from Lovecraft’s Edgar Allan Poe-aping early years that’s not all that fondly regarded even by aficionados. “The tempo increases imperceptibly from sluggish to slow” over the course of the story, and “the awful crescendo of terror that we have been promised is more of an anticlimax,” writes Lovecraft biographer and critic Paul Roland. Ah, well… at least it has a great title, as well as a gloriously cheesy opening line that comes perilously close to “It was a dark and stormy night”: “There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.”

The game casts you as a freshman at “GUE Tech,” a stand-in for MIT. It’s the end of the term, and your twenty-page paper on “modern analogues of Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis'” is due tomorrow. Lebling cleverly updates the classic Lovecraftian setup of a scholar coming upon a strange and foreboding document in an archive somewhere for the computer age. As you try to work on the paper inside the computer center, alone but for one occasionally helpful but usually infuriating hacker, you find that a strange file has replaced your own, a combination of “incomprehensible gibberish, latinate pseudowords, debased Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and an occasional disquieting phrase in English.” Your directory has somehow gotten mixed up with that of the “Department of Alchemy,” says the hacker. You’ll have to go down there to see if they can help you out. If you first help him out with a little problem of his own, he’s even kind enough to provide you with a key that will open most of the doors down there. And so you set off into the bowels of the university, deserted thanks to the blizzard raging outside on this dark winter night, all the while trying not to think about all the students that have been disappearing lately. Down there in the basements and steam tunnels you’ll encounter the full monty: a zombified janitor; a blood-encrusted sacrificial altar; hordes of rats running who knows where; an insane scientist trying to summon creatures from the beyond; lots of slime and general grossness; and, at last, the tentacled beastie at the heart of it all, who seems to be worming his way into the campus’s computer network to do… well, we’re never quite sure, but chances are it’s not good.

This last is The Lurking Horror‘s one really original contribution to Mythos lore, mixing it up with a bit of William Gibson-style cyberpunk; Neuromancer, another book Lebling had to have read, was the talk of science fiction at the time. The mash-up here anticipates a whole sub-genre (sub-sub-genre?) of stories, even if The Lurking Horror doesn’t do a whole lot with the premise beyond introducing it.

But then much the same thing could be said about the game’s relationship to Lovecraft in general. While most of the surface tropes are present and accounted for, most of the subtext of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror — humanity’s aloneness in a cold and unfeeling cosmos, the utter alienness of the Mythos that places it beyond our conceptions of good and evil, the sheer hopelessness of fighting powers so much greater than ourselves — is conspicuously absent. Likewise the actual creatures and gods of the Cthulhu Mythos; the only proper name from Lovecraft to be found here is that of the author himself, appearing as the name of a file on your computer by way of credit where it’s due. At the time that Lebling was writing the game, Arkham House was still emphatically claiming copyright to Lovecraft’s works, and companies like Chaosium who made use of the Mythos were paying licensing fees. Although Arkham’s claim would eventually prove dubious enough that Chaosium and others would drop the license and continue business as usual without it, it was likely copyright concerns that prompted Lebling not to name names. Unlike many computer games that would follow, The Lurking Horror also evinces no obvious debt to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG beyond the bare fact that both are games that build on Lovecraft’s writings. It’s all enough to make me feel a little embarrassed about the two-article buildup I’ve given this game, afraid that this article might now come across like the mother of all anticlimaxes. I can only ask you to be patient, and to know that those last two articles will pay off in spades down the road, when we encounter games that dig much deeper into Mythos lore than this one does.

The Lurking Horror

Even the language of The Lurking Horror doesn’t quite ever go all-in for Lovecraft in all his unhinged glory. While Lebling gets some credit for using “debased” in an extract I’ve already quoted, there’s not a single “blasphemous” or “eldritch” to be found. Part of the ironic problem here, if problem it be, is that Lebling is just too careful a writer — too good a writer? — to let his id run wild in a babble of feverish adjective in that indelible H.P. Lovecraft way. Consider for example this scene, which finds you peering down through a manhole into a pit of horror.

>look in plate
You peer through the hole, shining your light into the stygian darkness below. The commotion below is growing louder, and suddenly you catch a glimpse of things moving in the pit. Without consciously realizing you have done it, you slam the panel shut, reeling away from the source of such images. Now you know what has been done with the missing students...

Lovecraft would doubtless describe this scene as “indescribable,” and then go nuts describing it. Lebling throws in a Lovecraftian “stygian,” but otherwise much more elegantly describes it as indescribable without having to resort to the actual word, and then… doesn’t describe it. His final line is more subtly chilling than anything Lovecraft ever wrote, a fine illustration of the value of a little restraint. Lebling, it seems, subscribes to the school of horror writing promoted by Edmund Wilson in his famous takedown of Lovecraft, which claims the very avoidance of the overwrought adjectives that Lovecraft loved so much to be key to any effective tale.

Perhaps of more concern than Lebling’s failings as a 1980s reincarnation of Lovecraft is the fact that The Lurking Horror, despite some effectively creepy scenes like the one above, ultimately isn’t all that scary. As I noted in my review of the simultaneously released Stationfall, I find that game, ostensibly another of Steve Meretzky’s easygoing science-fiction comedies, far more unnerving in its latter half than this game ever becomes. The default house voice of Infocom is a sly tone of gentle humor, an unwillingness to take it all too seriously. Just that tone creeps into a number of their more straight-laced works, this one among them, and rather cuts against the grain of the fiction. And in this game in particular one senses a conflict in Lebling that’s far from unique among writers following in Lovecraft’s wake: he wants to pay due homage to the man, but he’s also never quite able to take him seriously. At times The Lurking Horror reads more like a Lovecraft parody than homage, a line that is admittedly thin with a writer as ridiculous in so many ways as Lovecraft. Even more broadly, it sometimes feels like a parody of horror in general. The disembodied hand whom you can befriend, for instance, not only doesn’t feel remotely Lovecraftian but is actually a well-worn trope from about a million schlocky B-movies, played here as it often is there essentially for laughs. After striking an appropriately ominous note at the very end of the game, when an egg of the creature you’ve finally destroyed apparently spawns and flies off to begin causing more havoc, Lebling just can’t leave it at that. Instead he closes The Lurking Horror with a bit of macabre slapstick that’s more Tales From the Crypt than Call of Cthulhu.

>get stone
You pick up the stone. It has a long jagged crack that almost breaks it in half. As you pick it up, you feel it bump to one side. Then, as you are holding it in your hand, something pushes its way out through the crack, breaking the stone into two pieces. Something small, pale, and damp blinks its watery eyes at you. It hisses, gaining strength, and spreads membranous wings. It takes to the air, at first clumsily, then with increased assurance, and disappears into the gloom. One eerie cry drifts back to where you stand.

Something rises out of the mud, slowly straightening. The hacker, mud-covered and weak, staggers to his feet. "Can I have my key back?" he asks.

But the most important reason that The Lurking Horror doesn’t stick to its Lovecraftian guns is down to the other, perhaps even more interesting thing it also wants to be: a tribute to MIT, the university where Infocom was born and where Dave Lebling himself spent more than a decade hacking code, eating Chinese food, and exploring roofs and tunnels.

In choosing to look back with more than a hint of nostalgia rather than to gaze resolutely forward, The Lurking Horror was part of a general trend at Infocom during these latter years of the company’s history, part and parcel of the same phenomenon that saw Steve Meretzky bringing back Floyd at last for Stationfall and, after five years without a Zork, the Imps suddenly pulling out that old name that had made them who they were twice in the space of less than a year. By 1987, with sales far from what they once were and their new corporate overlords at Activision understandably concerned about that reality, a sneaking suspicion that they may be nearing the end game must have been percolating through the ranks. Thus the desire to look back, to appreciate — and not without a little wistfulness — just where they’d been. Lebling himself, meanwhile, was fast closing in on forty, a time that brings a certain reflective state of mind if not a full-fledged crisis to many of us. Whatever else it is, The Lurking Horror is also a very personal game for Dave Lebling, by far the most personal he would ever write.

Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found myself growing more and more skeptical of parser-based interactive fiction’s ability to handle elaborate plotting worthy of a novel or even a novella. The Infocom ideal that was printed on their boxes for all those years, of “waking up inside a story,” was, I’ve come to believe, always something of a lost cause. In compensation, however, I’ve come to be ever more impressed by how good the form is at evoking a sense of place. Despite the name we all chose to apply to our erstwhile text adventures long ago, which I’m certainly not going to try to change now, architecture or landscaping may provide better metaphors for what interactive “fiction” does best. (It’s for this reason, for the record, that I’ve long since backed away from trying to painstakingly define “ludic narrative,” and moved away from an exclusive focus on digital storytelling for this blog as a whole.)

Given all that, I’m particularly fascinated by games like this one that embrace that great — greatest? — strength of the medium by letting us explore a real place. For all of the interactive fiction that’s been made during Infocom’s heyday and after, that’s been done surprisingly little. Only three Infocom games, of which this is the second, attempt to recreate real or historical places. I find The Lurking Horror particularly interesting because the landscape of MIT that it chooses to show us is so personally meaningful to Lebling, turning it into a sort of architecture of memory as well as physical space. I really want to do this aspect of the game justice, and so I have something special planned for you for next week’s article: an in-game guided tour of GUE/MIT.

For now, though, I’ll just note that The Lurking Horror is a worthwhile game if also a somewhat schizophrenic one. The comedy cuts against the horror; the Lovecraft homage cuts against the MIT homage. There’s a lot that Lebling wants to do here, and the 128 K Z-Machine just isn’t quite enough to hold it all. It’s one of the few standard-sized Infocom games that I find myself wishing had been made for the roomier Interactive Fiction Plus format. Still, nothing that is here is really objectionable. The puzzles are uniformly well-done, even if, oddly given that this game came out so close on the heels of Hollywood Hijinx, some of them once again revolve around an elevator. (I suspect a bit of groupthink, not surprising given the collaborative nature of Hollywood Anderson’s game.) And the writing is fine, even if it does feel slightly strangled at times by the space limitations. The Lurking Horror feels a little like a missed opportunity, but it wouldn’t feel that way if what’s here — especially its recreation of MIT student life — wasn’t compelling already.

Infocom had high hopes for both Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, these two simultaneously released games of seemingly high commercial appeal written by their two most prolific and recognizable authors. The pair inspired the last really audacious promotional event in Infocom’s history — indeed, their most expensive and ambitious since the grand Suspect murder-mystery party of two-and-a-half years before. For the 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago — yes, that era-capping CES again — they rented the Field Museum of Natural History for hundreds of guests, as they had each of the two previous years, and sprung for a local rock band to liven the place up. This time, however, they also hired the famed Second City comedy troupe, incubator of talents like Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, to come in and perform improvisational comedy (“InfoProvisation”) based largely on Infocom games. From The Status Line‘s article on the event, complete with great 1980s pop-culture references:

Through a hilarious sequence of skits using very few props (a couple of chairs and a piano), the audience saw a computerized dating simulator, roared at a romance between a next-generation computer and a piece of has-been software, met Stationfall’s Floyd, visited GUE Tech, and even had the opportunity to affect the course of a scene or two.

In a tribute to the best-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos, three vignettes, set in a singles bar and interspersed throughout the program, showed real-life versions of the three playing modes. Tame would have made Mother Teresa proud, but by the time they went from suggestive to lewd, it was enough to make Donna Rice blush.

Steve Meretzky (second from left) and Dave Lebling (second from right) ham it up with Second City.

Steve Meretzky (second from left) and Dave Lebling (second from right) ham it up with Second City.

Steve Meretzky and Dave Lebling even got to join the troupe onstage for a few of the skits. (This must have been a special thrill for Meretzky, who, judging by his love for Woody Allen and for performing in Infocom’s in-office productions, had a little of the frustrated comedian/actor in him, like his erstwhile writing partner Douglas Adams.)

But if the Second City gala harked back to the glory days of Infocom in some ways, the present was all too present in others. The new, cheap packaging was hard for fans to overlook, as was the fact that the principal feelie in The Lurking Horror, a packet of “rattlesnake eggs,” had nothing to do with the game. It looked like something that someone in marketing had just plucked off the discount rack at the local novelty shop — which was in fact largely what it was, as was proved when the final package came out with an equally inexplicable rubber centipede in place of the eggs; apparently it could be sourced even cheaper. The Second City event did get a write-up in newspapers all over the country thanks to being picked up by the Associated Press, but, alas, seems to have done little for actual sales of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, neither of which reached 25,000 copies. For the regular CES attendees who, whether fans of Infocom’s games or not, had grown to love their parties, this final blowout and its underwhelming aftermath was just one more way that that Summer 1987 edition of the trade show marked the end of an era.

Infocom, however, still wasn’t quite done with The Lurking Horror. A few months after all of the Chicago hoopla, a new version of the game, released only for the Commodore Amiga, reached stores. This one sported digitized sound effects to accompany some of its most exciting moments, a first for Infocom and the first sign of an interest in technical experimentation — not to say gimmickry — that would increasingly mark their last couple of years as a going concern. In this case the innovation came directly from an Activision that was very motivated to find ways to spruce up Infocom’s product line. But, unlike so many of Activision’s suggestions, Infocom actually greeted this one with a fair amount of enthusiasm.

It all began with a creative and innovative programmer named Russell Lieblich, who had come to Activision after spending some time at Peter Langston’s idealistic original incarnation of Lucasfilm Games. During the Jim Levy era Lieblich had been allowed to indulge his artistic muse at Activision, resulting in the interesting if not terribly playable commercial flops Web Dimension and Master of the Lamps. That sort of thing wasn’t going to fly in the new Bruce Davis era, so Lieblich, a talented musician as well as programmer, retrenched to concentrate on the technical aspects of computer audio, a field where he would spend much of his long career in games still to come. Of most relevance to Infocom was the system he developed for playing back digitized sounds recorded from the real world. Infocom had a playtester play through The Lurking Horror again, making a list of everywhere where he could imagine a sound effect. Lebling and others then pruned the list to those places where they felt sound would be most effective, and sent the whole thing off to Lieblich to hack into the Amiga version of the Z-Machine interpreter. At least a few other machines were theoretically capable of playing short digitized sounds of reasonable fidelity as well — the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Atari ST would have made excellent candidates — but sound was only added to the Amiga version, an indication of just what an afterthought the whole project really was.

As afterthoughts go, it’s not bad, although the fidelity of the sounds isn’t particularly high even by the standards of other Amiga games of the day. I doubt you’d be able to recognize “the squeal of a rat,” “the creak of an opening hatch,” or “the distinctive ‘thunk’ of an axe biting into flesh” — that’s how The Status Line describes some of the sounds — for what they’re supposed to be if you didn’t have the game in front of you telling you what’s happening. Still, they are creepy in an abstract sort of way, and certainly startling when they play out of the blue. While hardly essential, they do add a little something if you’re willing to jump through a few hoops to get them working on a modern interpreter. Whether the addition of a handful of sound effects was enough to make Amiga owners, madly in love with their computers’ state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities, consider buying an all-text game was of course another matter entirely.

Next week we’ll put Lovecraft to bed for a while (doubtless dreaming one of his terrible dreams of “night-gaunts”), but will take a deeper dive into the other part of The Lurking Horror‘s split personality, its nostalgic tribute to MIT and student life therein. If you haven’t played The Lurking Horror yet, or if you have but it’s been a while, you may want to wait until then to join me on a guided tour that I think you’ll enjoy.

(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: the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The Status Line of Summer 1987, Fall 1987, Winter 1987, and Winter/Spring 1988.)


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