Tag Archives: berlyn

Sentient Software

In 1979 a 30-year-old aspiring science-fiction writer named Mike Berlyn bought an Apple II. He had already finished and delivered his first two novels to Bantam Paperbacks, who would release them under the titles The Crystal Phoenix and The Integrated Man the following year. Now about to start on a third, he had heard that these new PCs were going to change the way writers wrote, and was eager to find out for himself. In the long term, the prediction was of course not wrong, but Berlyn quickly found that the technology of 1979 was, as they say, not quite there yet. The Apple II didn’t even yet support lower-case letters at this point, necessitating all sorts of kludges in early word processors that took them about as far away as you can get from the ideal of what you see is what you get. He ended up writing his third novel, eventually published by Ace Paperbacks as Blight under the pen name Mark Sonders in 1981, the old-fashioned way.

Still, Berlyn was far from disappointed with his purchase. The Apple II may still have been problematic from a practical standpoint, but Berlyn, like so many before and after him, found it an endlessly fascinating toy. When not writing that third book, he spent most of his time exploring his new machine. He found text adventures particularly compelling, but was disappointed by the obvious lack of literary skill of most of the people creating them. Being an enterprising sort, Berlyn decided when the third book was finished that, rather than start right away on a fourth, he’d like to try making a text adventure or two of his own. The result of that aspiration was Sentient Software, a company founded by Berlyn and his wife Muffy with the help of some other partners also located near the Berlyns’ Colorado home. Sentient published two games in 1981, Oo-Topos and Cyborg. Both were written and programmed entirely by Berlyn with a bit of help from his wife, and both were science-fiction adventures involving a damaged spaceship.

In many ways these games are very typical of their era. Technically, they are most similar to Softporn of the games I’ve already discussed on this blog; they are built from a BASIC program with a two-word parser that fetches text and details of the storyworld as needed from data files stored on the disk. They are, in other words, about equivalent to the Scott Adams games in their parser and in the depth of their world modeling, but their use of the disk drive gives them space to be much more loquacious (certainly an important attribute for a “real” writer like Berlyn) and to have much bigger geographies. Indeed, their worlds are quite big ones, but made up mostly of empty rooms, connected via undescribed exits that necessitate painstaking mapping — and that’s outside the obligatory mazes. And of course, the parser makes many puzzles much harder than they ought to be. (Finding out what the correct verbs are, Cyborg tells us, is “half the fun.” Um, no.)

Yet in other ways these games represent something new and significant. Berlyn was the first author to come to the text adventure from the world of traditional fiction. He was interested in the form not, like the hackers who preceded him, as an interesting technical challenge, but rather as a potential new form of storytelling. The packaging of the games emphasized that they were not about “treasures” or “score,” but about “character development,” consistency, and plot. Some of those claims may have been more than a bit of a stretch, but Berlyn was trying, and that is significant in itself.

The plot of Cyborg, the more thematically audacious of the two games, casts you as, well, a cyborg, a human who has been physically and mentally merged with a robot. When play begins, you have amnesia, an adventure-game trope that would soon become a cliché but that may just see its first appearance here. Robbing your avatar of her memory allows Berlyn to place the two of you in the same mental situation. You both spend the game piecing together what brought you to this state, marooned on a stricken spaceship in orbit around a strange planet. Although you are expected to eventually repair the spaceship and lead your people — whom you eventually realize are colonists stored in suspended animation aboard the ship — to the planet below, the vast majority of the plot is not really story per se, but rather backstory, a frame to contain the game’s traditional puzzle- and mapping-oriented play. Within that frame, however, the game’s environments are indeed consistent and believable in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Like amnesia, Cyborg‘s piece-together-the-back-story approach to plotting would soon become an adventure-game cliché. Still, it became a cliché because, at least in these earlier, less jaded days, it worked. Here it allows Berlyn to present a much richer fictional experience than would normally be possible given the primitive technology on-hand to him. His use of it marks him as — and I don’t use this word lightly — a visionary, someone thinking about the medium’s potential in a very progressive way.

One of the most interesting aspects of Cyborg is its handling of the player / avatar split. You play a disembodied human intelligence who must communicate with another, synthetic entity to accomplish absolutely everything. The idea of a split or disembodied consciousness was one that Berlyn found endlessly intriguing; his first two novels both dealt with similar themes, and he would return to it yet again (and most famously) in his next game, Infocom’s Suspended. Here he gets huge mileage out of his concept, including using it to account for the limitations of his parser:


The game’s simple hint system is likewise integrated into the fiction. You can ask your computerized companion what he thinks about locations or items, and occasionally — very occasionally — will get a helpful suggestion.

This unusual concept makes Cyborg one of the few (only?) text adventures ever written in the first-person plural. And again, it’s reflective of some unusually sophisticated thinking about the medium and its possibilities. Scott Adams and others had previously described the player’s avatar as her “puppet,” and at times seemed to give it a separate consciousness, at least if we can judge from the occasional snappy comebacks it gave to nonsensical or dangerous inputs. But no one had previously devised a scenario where even parser frustrations fitted into the scenario so seamlessly. Cyborg marks the first of a long line of games — and almost as many articles in game theory — to explicitly, consciously (ha!) play with the identities of player and avatar. Berlyn even extends the conceit to the verbs permitted. For instance, you cannot LOOK but must SCAN, and an INVENTORY becomes a BODY SCAN.

Given their obviously limited resources, Berlyn and company did the best they could marketing Oo-Topos and Cyborg. For packaging they used a very minimalist cardboard folder, but did commission some nice science-fiction art for the covers.

Still, and as Chuck Benton was discovering at about the same time, it was getting harder for the bedroom hacker without connections to distributors and the like to get his software into stores. Cyborg received an absolutely glowing review in the influential Softalk magazine: “Cyborg introduces the most exciting advances in adventuring since the original Adventure began the whole wonderful thing.” Yet even that wasn’t enough to overcome Sentient’s distributional problems and make the game a success.

Berlyn designed a couple more games for Sentient in 1982, albeit less ambitious arcade-oriented fare, called Gold Rush and Congo. They similarly didn’t make much of an impact. At this point Berlyn and his partners had some sort of falling out which led him to walk away from the company. Over the next couple of years, said partners funded ports of Berlyn’s adventures to the Atari 400 and 800, the IBM PC, and the Commodore 64, before allowing Sentient to fade quietly out of existence. Berlyn, however, was just getting started in interactive fiction, as we’ll see in later posts.

Cyborg is as fascinating conceptually as it can be frustrating to actually play, but it’s well worth a look by any student of the art of interactive fiction. I’ve therefore made the Apple II disk image available for you.

Next time: we’ll take our first tentative steps across the big pond.


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Mike Berlyn

Mike Berlyn

As earlier posts have hopefully made clear, conventions played a pivotal role for many years in the PC industry. In the early years that meant places like the West Coast Computer Faire and the AppleFests, where hackers and hobbyists would gather to talk about their machines and trade tips along with manufacturers, publishers, and developers; indeed, in this early period the groups could be all but indistinguishable. But 1982 is generally remembered by old-timers as the last year when the likes of Applefest could attract the movers and shakers. Afterward, as the moneyed interests entered en masse and the community of computer users (or even Apple users) grew too large to retain that clubby feeling, such gatherings faded in importance in comparison with the glitzier Consumer Electronics Show and its rivals, where you needed a press badge just to get in. Whatever form the shows took, they were as important for what took place behind the scenes, in back rooms, bars, and hotels, as what was shown on their floors. In gathering people from all over the industry together in one location, they provided essential opportunities for negotiations, deal making, maybe even a bit of intrigue.

Thus it was at the Boston Applefest in May of 1982 that Marc Blank of Infocom had a long talk with Mike Berlyn of Sentient Software, to whom he had been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. As it turned out, each was looking for something the other could offer him. It didn’t take long to make a deal.

Berlyn was by a wide margin the more frustrated of the pair. As you may recall, he had embraced the idea of adventure games as a new form of literary expression very early, and put it into practice as well as his resources allowed in two games he released through Sentient, Oo-Topos and Cyborg. Yet despite an absolutely rapturous review of the latter in the influential Softalk, the two games made nary a dent commercially. Berlyn, a demanding personality who throughout his career would change business relationships almost as often as he churned out games, felt muzzled by partners he felt weren’t as committed as he was and the accompanying lack of promotion and investment. Still, he also realized that in a real sense his best just wasn’t good enough. Both games were written in BASIC, with the two-word parser, simplistic world model, and all the other limitations that implied. Berlyn was a clever self-taught Apple II hacker, but lacked the experience or technical vision to create something more advanced — like, say, Infocom’s state-of-the-art ZIL system.

Blank, meanwhile, had ZIL but wasn’t sure he could take full advantage of it. Since starting to work on the landmark Deadline the previous year, he had started to see Infocom’s games in much the same light as Berlyn — as dynamic, playable stories. Blank, who was rather insecure about his own writerly chops (albeit largely unnecessarily), now viewed Deadline almost as a tech demo, a chance to get tools worked out and to demonstrate some shadow of what might be possible in the hands of a real writer. Berlyn, it must be admitted, was not exactly Norman Mailer or even Arthur C. Clarke. He had just three straight-to-the-dimestore-paperback-rack science fiction novels to his credit, none of which had sold all that well. Still, that was enough to qualify him for the title of “published author,” and was also three more novels than anyone else currently writing adventure games had published. Signing Berlyn would mark a big step toward Blank’s crystallizing vision of Infocom as publishers of interactive fiction rather than mere text adventures, even if it would still be a couple of years before the company would stumble upon that term to describe what they were really about.

The first plan had Berlyn working on a game for Infocom under contract from his home in Colorado. However, what with the complexities of the ZIL system and the state of telecommunications in 1982, that quickly proved impractical. So, within weeks of the Applefest meeting, Berlyn and his wife packed up and moved to Boston, where he became one of the first full-time employees to be hired by Infocom, as well as the first Implementor to be drawn from outside the immediate orbit of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science. What Infocom got for a first project was perhaps not quite what they had expected. Berlyn, Infocom’s supposed literary star, always combined a headstrong creativity with a certain flair for the perverse. He now started in earnest on Suspended, arguably the least literary parser-driven game Infocom would ever release, more a strategy game implemented in text than an interactive fiction.

The premise of Suspended reflects a longstanding obsession of Berlyn with disembodied consciousness; this had already been at the heart of his novel The Integrated Man and his earlier adventure Cyborg. In Suspended, you take the role of, yes, another disembodied consciousness, whose body has been placed in “cryogenic suspension” while her mind takes a 500-year shift as the emergency backup to an automated system which makes life possible on a planet of the future, controlling the weather, food production, and the transportation network. Normally your mind sleeps alongside your body, but you’re to be woken in the case of an emergency which the automated systems are not equipped to handle. As you’ve probably guessed, just such an emergency occurs as the game begins.

With no body of your own, you have six robots to whom you can issue orders and through whose senses you can experience the game’s available geography, which is restricted to a planetary control complex located far underground. Each robot is somewhat, um, specialized in its capabilities. Iris is the only one who can see. Auda can hear. Sensa can detect “vibrational activity, photon emission sources, and ionic discharges.” Poet seems to have no clear purpose, other than to spout bits of poetry that must be deciphered like a code to figure out what is really going on with him. (“All life’s a stage, so just consider me a player,” he says when asked to go somewhere; “It hops and skips and leaves a bit, and can’t decide if it should quit,” when asked to describe his surroundings inside a power station.) The most obviously practical robots are Whiz, who can interface with various computer systems, and Waldo, a general-purpose repair robot.

Over the course of the game a series of escalating crises strike the planet, to which you must respond by making use of all of your robots. There are fairly conventional object-based puzzles to solve, but even once you figure out how to do everything you still face a daunting challenge in scheduling and logistics to juggle all of your robots efficiently and minimize the casualties on the surface. If you succeed in saving the planet at all — no easy task in itself; it will likely take dozens of plays just to get that far — you next can concentrate on doing it without leaving half the population dead. (It’s rather deflating when you “win” for the first time, only to be told that the survivors want to burn you in effigy.) Winning “a home in the country and an unlimited bank account” will likely take at least a few dozen more attempts.

Played today, Suspended feels oddly like a genre of cooperative board games that have become fairly common in recent years. In games like Pandemic, Red November, and Flash Point, players struggle together to maintain a system against a series of shocks, whether they come in the form of waves of global disease, leaks and explosions aboard a very unseaworthy submarine, or a hungry house fire. Further cementing the board-game connection in my mind are the uniquely practical feelies that came with Suspended: a map of the complex in the form of a game board, with a set of counters representing each of the robots. As you get deeper into the game and begin playing to win you’ll soon have multiple robots moving simultaneously about the complex doing various things. Thus the board quickly becomes an essential tool for keeping track of the whole situation, along with some careful notes.

In one sense, Suspended feels visionary, or at least wholly unique in the Infocom canon. The standard text-adventure paradigm of play has been thrown overboard almost entirely. Gone, for example, is the need to map, along with the connection to a single in-game protagonist and any semblance of conventional storytelling. Further emphasizing the strategy-game feeling, Suspended is explicitly designed to be replayable. It has an “advanced” difficulty level you can attempt if you finally manage a good score on the standard, or you can choose the custom starting option, where you can choose the starting location of each robot and control when the various disasters are triggered. The manual suggests that you and friends could use this to “challenge each other” with new scenarios.

Unfortunately, the flexibility Suspended has can rather make us expect more from it than it can deliver. It would be nice if, like those board games I mentioned, Suspended could truly become a different experience every time it’s played by parceling out fortune and misfortune from a randomized deck of virtual cards. But alas, the same events will always occur even in custom mode; the only question is when, and even that is predetermined by the person entering the new parameters. Suspended upends the traditional Infocom approach enough that you wish it could have gone even further, dispensing with fixed puzzles and events entirely in favor of something completely dynamic and replayable. Maybe there’s a project in there somewhere for some modern author…

Visionary as it can feel, Suspended can also paradoxically feel like a bit of a throwback even in the context of its day. When we think of games in text today, we generally leap immediately to Adventure, Infocom, and all of their peers and antecedents. However, it’s important to remember that through the 1970s lots and lots of other sorts of games were implemented in text, simply because that was the only possibility. This included card games, strategy games, simulations, even action games. By the time of Suspended, the two text-only members of the trinity of 1977 (the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET) were fading away, and games other than adventures were expected to have graphics. One is almost tempted to look at Suspended as a text game that really wants to be in pictures, to imagine how cool it might be if the map board was included in the game itself as a graphical playing field. But then you realize that the very premise of having only one robot who can actually, you know, see is dependent on the proverbial magic of text, and a new appreciation for Berlyn’s creativity asserts itself. At any rate, it’s perhaps worth remembering again in light of Suspended‘s unusual mode of play that Infocom were not at this stage calling themselves makers of interactive fiction or even adventure games. They were just making games in text which were (they claimed) smarter and more sophisticated than those of anybody working in graphics.

Being such a departure from anything Infocom had done before (or, for that matter, would do later), Suspended pushed and stretched the ZIL system in unexpected new directions, turning development into quite a challenge. To make things harder, Berlyn, while he knew his way pretty well around an Apple II, had none of the grounding in programming and theory of the Infocom founders. Just getting him up to speed on ZIL took some time, and getting this extremely ambitious first project going took more. Yes, some of what was needed had been done already: Dave Lebling had first put together a system for passing orders to other characters for his own robot in Zork II, and Blank had made great strides toward a more dynamic model of adventuring in Deadline. Still, Blank had to work quite extensively with Berlyn to give him the tools he needed. A game of Suspended can have many, many balls in the air, with six robots all moving about following orders, disasters and events happening (or being averted) on the surface, and the player hopping about amidst all the chaos, taking in the scene through this robot’s senses, then issuing orders to that one. Further, the parser had to be substantially reworked to support it all; it’s now possible to issue orders to multiple robots at once, or even to tell two or more robots to work on something together, such as moving something neither one is strong enough to budge on its own. Taken just as a functioning virtual world, Suspended is damn impressive — amongst the most technically impressive worlds that Infocom would ever create.

It’s also damn difficult to penetrate. With its tersely sterile robotic diction, its ironclad adherence to the sensory limitations of each robot, and the time pressures of its cavalcade of disasters, there isn’t an ounce of compromise or compassion in the game. We can only take comfort in knowing that even in its cruelty it’s eminently fair, as uninterested in playing guess the verb or foisting illogical puzzles on us as it is in coddling us. There’s none of the sense here of a design that got away from its designer that plagues, say, the work of Scott Adams or the early work of Roberta Williams. Suspended is hard because it wants to be hard, and it’s hard in exactly the way it wants to be. Which isn’t to say that most players, myself included, are exactly disappointed that Infocom never ventured further down the trail it blazed. I suspect that Suspended is the Infocom game farthest away from the ideal of interactive fiction as it’s perceived and (in Infocom’s case) remembered today.

Suspended Suspended









Suspended was released in March of 1983 in a huge and elaborate box (better to house that big laminated game board) that featured a recessed three-dimensional face mask for a lid. Surprisingly in light of the game’s difficulty and unabashedly experimental mode of play, it was yet another solid hit, selling some 55,000 copies in 1983 alone and eventually flirting with sales of 100,000 over its commercial lifetime. It really did seem that, at least for now, people were willing to follow Infocom wherever they led them. And Suspended was only the first release of 1983, the happiest, most financially successful year in the company’s history. I’ll have much more to tell about that year and the games it produced in the next posts.

(I’m thrilled to be able to say that since my last post on Infocom Activision has rereleased many of their games, including Suspended, for iPhone and iPad. If you don’t have an iDevice, you can certainly find the story file elsewhere on the Internet, but as usual I won’t be hosting it here. Just in case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s a very rough module for the VASSAL board-gaming engine with the Suspended map and counters. Load the save to position the robots as they are at the start of the standard game. If someone more familiar with VASSAL wants to clean it up and upload it to the official module repository, by all means feel free.

I should also note here that Marc Blank’s attitude toward the eternal game vs. story question that always hangs about Infocom and interactive fiction in general seems to have changed over the years. In an interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, he states that he always viewed Infocom’s works as fundamentally games rather than fiction or literature. In contemporary interviews, however, he often expresses the belief that Infocom was creating works that were different from — or, if you like, transcended — games. I believe his current thinking may be somewhat colored by the pain and frustration of Infocom’s later years, and his inability to really move the genre forward in a way that felt right to him.)


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(This article doesn’t spoil individual puzzle solutions, but does thoroughly spoil the ending of Infidel. Read on at your own risk!)

In the spring of 1983, having released successful games in the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery genres, the Imps of Infocom sat down to ask each other a question they would repeat quite a number of times over the coming years: what remaining literary genres might make a good basis for a game? Mike Berlyn, who had just finished up Suspended, suggested, appropriately enough for an adventure game, the genre of adventure fiction, those tales of manly men braving exotic dangers in exotic locations which has its roots in the likes of H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle and reached its peak, like the mystery, in the 1930s, when pulpy stories filled the dime store shelves and the cinema screens to be consumed by a public eager for escape from economic depression and the looming threat of another world war. It sounded like a great fit to the Imps. The genre was even undergoing something of a commercial revival; Raiders of the Lost Ark had prompted a new interest by Hollywood and booksellers in classic adventure fiction. Somewhat to his chagrin, Berlyn was promptly assigned to write the first game in the new Tales of Adventure line, which the Imps agreed would have the player exploring a heretofore undiscovered Egyptian pyramid found buried under the sands of the Sahara. And so Pyramid, eventually to be renamed Infidel by the ever-helpful folks at G/R Copy, became Berlyn’s second project for Infocom.

It’s not hard to understand why Infocom chose pyramid-delving as the subject of the first Tale of Adventure. The exploration of a deserted environment filled with mechanical traps, tricks, and puzzles is a natural for an adventure game. It’s actually hard to think of a scenario more able to maximize the medium’s strengths and minimize its limitations. Thus quite a few early adventure authors discovered a latent interest in Egyptian archaeology. Greg Hassett, who at just twelve years old wrote and sold King Tut’s Tomb Adventure for the TRS-80 in 1979, was likely the first, but Scott Adams (Pyramid of Doom) and an official Radio Shack game (Pyramid 2000) weren’t far behind, as were various others. Somewhat allaying any concerns about a hackneyed premise was Infocom’s commitment to doing ancient Egypt right, with their expected polished writing and technology, and with at least a strong nod in the direction of historical accuracy. To help with this latter, Berlyn, no Egyptologist himself, trekked down to nearby Harvard University and recruited one Patricia Fogleman, a graduate student studying ancient Egypt. She helped him with his Egyptian mythology and with the design of the pyramid itself, which are of course largely one and the same thing.

Still, the game they came up with is mechanically almost shockingly unambitious, a double surprise considering it came from the designer responsible for Suspended, a game which morphed and stretched the ZIL development system more than any game Infocom released before or since. You wake up at the beginning of Infidel in your deserted desert camp. The guides and workers who came out here with you have conveniently (for Berlyn, that is) drugged you and split, leaving you all alone to find the pyramid and explore it. With the exception only of a plane which flies overhead at the beginning to drop a vital piece of equipment and some crocodiles which dwell (thankfully) inaccessibly on the other side of the Nile, Infidel is absolutely devoid of any life beyond your own, the only Infocom game about which that can be said. There is also none of the dynamism that marked Infocom’s other games of the period. After the plane flies away Infidel‘s environment is as static as it is deserted — just a set of locations to map and explore and a series of mechanical puzzles to solve. The only notable technical innovation is the inclusion of a knapsack that you can use to carry far more objects than your hands alone would allow. Similar carry-alls eventually started appearing in other adventures as a way to preserve some semblance of realism in not allowing you to carry a ridiculous number of items in your hands while bypassing the tedium of strict inventory limits. Thankfully, they were mostly more painless to use than this one is; here you have to remove the knapsack and set it down, then manually insert or remove items.

The most interesting of the puzzles is a sort of ongoing code-breaking exercise. You find throughout the pyramid hieroglyphs scratched onto the walls and other places. Each symbol — drawn using various dashes, slashes, asterisks, and exclamation points — corresponds directly to an English word in a way that must have horrified Fogleman or any student of language. The feelies provide translations of a handful of these to start you off, but after that it’s up to you to piece together the meanings by collecting the full set on notepaper and trying to determine what means what using contextual clues. Disappointingly or gratifyingly, depending on your tolerance and talent for such exercises, this meta-puzzle is largely optional. The hieroglyphs do give hints as well as additional tidbits about the meanings behind the wonders you encounter, but the game is mostly straightforward enough that the hints aren’t necessary. In the one exception to this rule the translation is quite a trivial exercise. Indeed, solving Infidel is not difficult at all. Players experienced with Infocom’s adventures are likely to march through with few problems, waiting all the while for the other shoe to drop and for this thing to get hard. It never really does.

So, were that all there was to Infidel we would have a competently crafted, solidly written game, but one that stands out as oddly, painfully slight in comparison to its stablemates in the Infocom canon, and this would be quite a short article. However, Infidel turned out to be as conceptually groundbreaking as it is mechanically traditional, leaving angry players and broiling controversy in its wake.

Infidel‘s story — its real story, that is, not the mechanics of collecting water, operating navigation boxes, and opening doors — lives mostly within its feelies. In them Berlyn sought to characterize his protagonist to a degree rivaled amongst previous adventure games only by Planetfall. But while that game had you playing a harmless schlub who spent his days swabbing decks and bitching about his superior officer, Infidel casts you as someone less harmless: a frustrated American treasure hunter with an unethical streak as wide as your thirst for money and glory. Your diary tells how you were contacted by a Miss Ellingsworth, an old woman who believes her archaeologist father located something big in the Egyptian desert back in the 1920s. You choose not to report her story to your boss, a well-known, hyper-competent treasure hunter named Craige, but rather to secretly mount an expedition of your own, deceiving Miss Ellingsworth into believing that you’re working in partnership with Craige, the person she really wanted for this quest. Once in Egypt you mismanage everything about your under-capitalized expedition horribly, breaking a vital piece of equipment needed to find the pyramid and mistreating your team of guides and workers. That’s how you come to wake up alone in your tent when the game proper finally begins.

The game proper originally did little to integrate the character described in the feelies with the one you actually control in the game. It occasionally, just occasionally, adapts a scolding or hectoring tone: the opening text describes how you “stupidly” tried to make your crew work on a holy day; examining some thickets near your camp brings the response that they are “just about as yielding as you were with your helpers.” Even less frequently do you get a glimpse of your character’s personality, as when you “sneer” at the “idiots” who didn’t believe in you when you find the pyramid at last. Yet the game that Infocom’s testers received otherwise played like a greedy treasure hunt to warm the protagonist’s heart, climaxing with your penetrating to the innermost vault of the pyramid and coming out with the fame and fortune of which you had dreamed. The testers, obviously a perceptive and sensitive lot, complained about the thematic dissonance. Berlyn took their concerns to heart, and decided to revise the ending to make a major statement.

Much as I enjoy the likes of King Solomon’s Mines and The Lost World, it’s hard today to overlook the racism and cultural imperialism in classic adventure fiction. Invariably in these tales strong Christian white men end up pitted against black, brown, yellow, or red savages, winning out in the end and carrying the spoils of victory back home to a civilization that can make proper use of them. Maybe if the savages are lucky the white men then return to organize and lead their societies for them. It’s the White Man’s Burden writ large, colonialism at its ugliest: kill them and take their stuff. More trivially, the second part of this dictum is also the guiding ethic of old-school adventure games, sometimes without the killing but not always; CRPGs were generally lumped in with adventures as a variant of the same basic thing during this era. Dave Lebling and Marc Blank had already had their fun with the amorality and the absurdities of adventure games in Enchanter by inserting the stupid magpie adventurer from Zork to let us view him from a different perspective. Now Berlyn decided to treat the subject in a much more serious way, making of Infidel a sort of morality tale. He would invert expectations in a downright postmodern way, pointing out the ugly underbelly of traditional adventure stories from within a traditional adventure story, the moral vacuum of old-school adventure games from within one of the most old-school games Infocom would create post-Zork trilogy. Derrida would have been proud. Speaking to Jason Scott, Berlyn noted that Infidel was the first adventure game that “said who you were, why you were there, then slapped you across the face for it. How many times can you walk through a dungeon and steal things and take them with you and plunder for treasure and not get slapped around for it? Well, Infidel was the end of that.” No wonder lots of people got upset.

The following text, more shocking even than the death of Floyd, is what players read in disbelief after they entered the final command and sat back to savor the finishing of another adventure game:

>open sarcophagus
You lift the cover with great care, and in an instant you see all your dreams come true. The interior of the sarcophagus is lined with gold, inset with jewels, glistening in your torchlight. The riches and their dazzling beauty overwhelm you. You take a deep breath, amazed that all of this is yours. You tremble with excitement, then realize the ground beneath your feet is trembling, too.

As a knife cuts through butter, this realization cuts through your mind, makes your hands shake and cold sweat appear on your forehead. The Burial Chamber is collapsing, the walls closing in. You will never get out of this pyramid alive. You earned this treasure. But it cost you your life.

And as you sit there, gazing into the glistening wealth of the inner sarcophagus, you can't help but feel a little empty, a little foolish. If someone were on the other side of the quickly-collapsing wall, they could have dug you out. If only you'd treated the workers better. If only you'd cut Craige in on the find. If only you'd hired a reliable guide.

Well, someday, someone will discover your bones here. And then you will get your fame.

It’s an ugly, even horrifying conclusion; lest there be any doubt, understand that you have just been buried alive. It’s also breathtaking in its audacity, roughly equivalent to releasing an Indiana Jones movie in which Indy is a smirking jerk who gets everyone killed in the end. This sort of thing is not what people expect from their Tales of Adventure. Infocom rarely did anything without a great deal of deliberation, and releasing Infidel with an ending like this one was no exception. Marketing was, understandably, very concerned, but the Imps, feeling their oats more and more in the wake of all of the attention they had been receiving from the world of letters, felt strongly that it was the right “literary” decision. The game turned out to be, predictably enough, very polarizing; Berlyn says he received more love mail and more hate mail over this game than anything else he has ever done.

The most prominent of the naysayers was Computer Gaming World‘s adventure-game specialist Scorpia, who was becoming an increasingly respected voice amongst fans through her articles in the magazine, her presence on the early online service CompuServe (where she ran a discussion group dedicated to adventuring), and a hints-by-post system she ran out of a local PO Box. Scorpia was normally an unabashed lover of Infocom, dedicating a full column in CGW to most Infocom games shortly after their release. On the theory that it’s better not to say anything if you can’t say something nice, however, she never gave Infidel so much as a mention in print. But never fear, she made her displeasure known online and to Berlyn personally, to such an extent that when he was invited to an online chat with Scorpia and her group on CompuServe he sarcastically mentioned the game as her “fave rave.” Things got somewhat chippy later on:

Scorpia: Now, I did not like Infidel. I did not like the premise of the story. I did not like the main character. I did not like the ending. I felt it was a poor choice to have a character like that in an Infocom game, since after all, regardless of the main character in the story, *I* am the one who is really playing the game, really solving the puzzles. The character is merely a shell, and after going thru the game, I resent getting killed.

Berlyn: What do you want me to do? I can’t make you like something you don’t like. I can’t make you appreciate something that you don’t think is there. I will tell you this, though, you are being very narrow-minded about what you think an Infocom game is. It doesn’t HAVE to be the way you said and you don’t have to think that in *EVERY* game you play, that YOU’re the main character. A question for you: yes or no, Scorp, have you ever read a book, seen a TV program, seen a movie where the main character wasn’t someone you liked, was someone you’d rather not be?

Scorpia: Certainly.

Berlyn: Okay. Then that’s fair. If you look at these games as shells for you to occupy and nothing more, like an RPG, then you’re missing the experience, or at least part of the potential experience. If you had read the journal and the letter beforehand I would have hoped you would have understood just what was going on in the game — who you were, why you were playing that kind
of character. Adventures are so STERILE! That’s the word. And I want very much to make them an unsterile experience. It’s what I work for and it’s my goal. Otherwise, why not just read Tom Swifts and Nancy Drews and the Hardy Boys?

Oct: May I comment on the Infidel protagonist?

Scorpia: Go ahead, Oct.

Oct: As far as I know (through about 8 games that I’ve played) Infidel is the only one that creates a role (in the sense of a personality) for the protagonist-player. A worthwhile experiment, but I somewhat agree with Scorp that it wasn’t completely successful. The problem is that a game provides a simulated world for the protagonist and just as in life the player must do intelligent things to “succeed” (in the sense of surviving, making progress). If the role includes stupidity or bullheadedness, then the player will not make progress, which in the context of the game means not being able to continue playing. Further, the excellence of the Infocom games is in their world-simulation, but simulating a personality for the *player* is not really provided for in the basic design, the fundamental interaction between game and player. I feel I’ve not articulated too well, but there’s a point in there somewhere!

Berlyn: I never claimed the protagonist works in Infidel. I only claim that it had to be tried and so it was. There are a lot of personal reasons for my disgust (I hate the game, myself) over the whole Infidel project, but none of it had to do with the protagonist/ending problems the game has. Let me put it to you this way: Like anyone who produces things or provides a service — you put it out there and you take a chance. You wait for the smoke to clear and then you listen to people like yourselves talking about whether the experiment succeeded or failed and I could have told you it might have gone either way when I was writing it. There was just no way to know.

Oct: I think I can better summarize the problem with roles, now. Ok?

Berlyn: Go ahead, Oct.

Oct: If you give the player a role, as in the set-up (the journal) and he/she wants to view him/herself that way, ok. The problem is that the only way that can be effectively represented is in how the other actors in the game view/respond to the player. If you try to implement it by saying “You now do this,” you’ve violated a basic premise, namely that *I* decide what I want to do (whether in a role or otherwise). “You now do this” just isn’t part of the game!

Berlyn: I agree. Some of the problems I faced in this game are what kind of a human being would even WANT to ransack a national shrine like a pyramid? And once I asked myself that question, I was sunk and there was no turning back. It wasn’t even a game I wanted to write. I got off on it by putting in all the weirdness, the ‘glyphs, the mirages, the descriptions but I’ve learned from the experience. Marc once said to me, “This is the only business where you get to experiment and people really give you feedback.” He was right. And I appreciate it.

I find this discussion fascinating because it gets to the heart of what a narrative-oriented game is and what it can be, grappling with contradictions that still obsess us today. When you boot an adventure are you effectively still yourself, reacting as you would if transported into that world? Or is an adventure really a form of improvisatory theater, in which you put yourself into the shoes of a protagonist who is not you and try to play the role and experience that person’s story in good faith? Or consider a related question: is an adventure game a way of creating your own story or simply an unusually immersive, interactive way of experiencing a story? If you come down on the former side, you will likely see the likes of Floyd’s death in Planetfall and Infidel‘s ugly ending as little more than cheap parlor tricks intended to elicit an unearned emotional response. If you come down on the latter, you will likely reply that such “cheap parlor tricks” are exactly what literature has always done. (It’s interesting to note that these two seminal moments came in the two Infocom games released to date that were the most novel-like, with the most strongly characterized protagonists.) Yet if you’re honest you must also ask yourself whether a text adventure, with its odd, granular obsession with the details of what you are carrying and eating and wearing and where your character is standing in the world at any given moment, is a medium capable of delivering a truly theatrical — or, if you like, a literary — experience. Tellingly, all of the work of setting up the shocking ending to Infidel is done in the feelies. By the time you begin the game proper your fate is sealed; all that remains are the logistical details at which text adventures excel.

Early games had been so primitive in both their technology and their writing that there was little room for such questions, but now, with Infocom advancing the state of the art so rapidly, they loomed large, both within Infocom (where lengthy, spirited discussions on the matter went on constantly) and, as we’ve just seen, among their fans. The lesson that Berlyn claims they took from the reaction to Infidel might sound dispiriting:

People really don’t want to know who they are [in a game]. This was an interesting learning process for everyone at Infocom. We weren’t really writing interactive fiction — I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care what you market it as. It’s not fiction. They’re adventure games. You want to give the player the opportunity to put themselves in an environment as if they were really there.

Here we see again that delicate balancing act between art and commerce which always marked Infocom. When they found they had gone a step too far with their literary ambitions, as with Infidel and its antihero protagonist (it sold by far the fewest copies of any of their first ten games), they generally took a step back to more traditional models.

It’s tempting to make poor Scorpia our scapegoat in this, to use her as the personification of all the hidebound traditional players who refused to pull their heads out of the Zork mentality and make the leap to approaching Infocom’s games as the new form of interactive literature they were being advertised as in the likes of The New York Times Book Review. Before we do, however, we should remember that Scorpia and people like her were paying $30 or $40 for the privilege of playing each new Infocom game. If they expected a certain sort of experience for their money, so be it; we shouldn’t begrudge people their choice in entertainment. It’s also true that Infidel could have done a better job of selling the idea. Its premise boils down to: “Greedy, charmless, incompetent asshole gets in way over his head through clumsy deceptions and generally treating the people around him like shit, and finally gets himself killed.” One might be tempted to call Infidel an interactive tragedy, but its nameless protagonist doesn’t have the slinky charm of Richard III, much less the tortured psyche of Hamlet. We’re left with just a petty little person doing petty little things, and hoisted from his own petty little petard in consequence. Such is not the stuff of great drama, even if it’s perhaps an accurate depiction of most real-life assholes and the fates that await them. If we set aside our admiration for Berlyn’s chutzpah to look at the story outside of its historical context, it doesn’t really have much to say to us about the proverbial human condition, other than “if you must be a jerk, at least be a competent jerk.” Indeed, there’s a certain nasty edge to Infidel that doesn’t seem to stem entirely from its theme. This was, we should remember, a game that Mike Berlyn didn’t really want to write, and we can feel some of his annoyance and impatience in the game itself. There’s little of the joy of creation about it. It’s just not a very lovable game. Scorpia’s distaste and unwillingness to grant Infidel the benefit of any doubt might be disappointing, but it’s understandable. One could easily see it as a sneering “up yours!” to Infocom’s loyal customers.

Infidel‘s sales followed an unusual pattern. Released in November of 1983 as Infocom’s tenth game and fifth and final of that year, it exploded out of the gate, selling more than 16,000 copies in the final weeks of the year. After that, however, sales dropped off quickly; it sold barely 20,000 copies in all of 1984. It was the only one of the first ten games to fail to sell more than 70,000 copies in its lifetime. In fact, it never even came close to 50,000. While not a commercial disaster, its relative under-performance is interesting. One wonders to what extent angry early buyers like Scorpia dissuaded others from buying it. Of course, the mercurial Berlyn’s declaring his dissatisfaction with his own game in an online conference likely didn’t help matters either. Marketing, who suffered long and hard at the hands of the Imps, must have been apoplectic after reading that transcript.

So, Infocom ended 1983 as they had begun it, with a thorny but fascinating Mike Berlyn game. With by far the most impressive catalog in adventure gaming and sales to match, they were riding high indeed. The next year would bring five more worthy games and the highest total sales of the company’s history, but also the first serious challengers to their position as the king of literate, sophisticated adventure gaming and the beginning in earnest of the Cornerstone project that sowed the seeds of their ultimate destruction. We’ll get to those stories down the road, but first we have some other ground to cover.

(I must once again thank Jason Scott for sharing with me additional materials from his Get Lamp project for this article.)


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Opinions amongst the former Imps vary wildly as to just how easy or difficult it was to work with ZIL, Infocom’s in-house adventure language. Stu Galley calls it “fairly easy”; Steve Meretzky calls it “quite intuitive” and “much easier to pick up” than any other programming language he had attempted before becoming an Imp; Bob Bates calls it “not that complicated,” at least for most tasks. Brian Moriarty, on the other hand, considers it “not particularly intuitive,” something that he learned only through sheer doggedness even as an accomplished assembly-language programmer (the skill which got him a job at Infocom in the first place). Some of those with less technical backgrounds found ZIL even more daunting. In early 1984 Infocom hired a prominent pop-science writer, who shall remain nameless, to become an Imp. Several other former Imps claim that, after he had struggled some six months with ZIL, they literally found him huddled beneath his desk, victim of a complete breakdown of sorts. That, needless to say, was that for him.

ZIL very nearly drove Mike Berlyn to the same state; he still considers actually becoming proficient with the language the biggest single accomplishment of his three years with Infocom. When he first came to the company, he regarded ZIL almost as a betrayal, the antithesis of what Marc Blank had promised him that working with their technology would be:

It was presented to me as, “We have this development system. Anybody can use it, and it’s just crying out for a writer. Why don’t you have a whack at it?”

That was not the case; it was not the truth. It wasn’t anywhere near reality. What they had was a high-level object-oriented language and a series of compilers, run-time interpreters, and virtual machines that were infinitely complex, and very little of it was hidden from the Implementer.

I was a self-taught programmer. I knew BASIC and some 6502 assembler. They sat me down in front of a terminal and said, “Here’s Emacs” — an editor I’d never used. I had no idea. To open a file took like fifteen keystrokes; I developed this claw from trying to press five keys at once. There was no language manual which I could sit down and go through, no tutorials or anything. And this was for any writer off the street? “Here you go, sit down at the terminal and write yourself a game!”

Even after becoming proficient at last, an endeavor he estimates to have required about six months, Berlyn continued to hate programming in the language. That loathing may be key to understanding something that must have driven his colleagues at least a little bit crazy about Mike Berlyn: hired on the basis of his novelist’s pedigree to be Infocom’s first “real writer” of interactive fiction, he always wanted to do anything but write interactive fiction. Of the three adventure games he wrote for Infocom, the only one he could be said to have tackled voluntarily and enthusiastically was the first, Suspended, a game which was arguably the least novel-like work Infocom would ever brand “interactive fiction,” being almost more a strategy game in text or a computerized board game. He had to be cajoled into doing Infidel, with his dissatisfaction showing up in the rather sour atmosphere of the final product. By 1984 he’d gotten involved with the research-and-development side of the company, working on a cross-platform graphics system and brainstorming with Marc Blank new-and-improved versions of Infocom’s core technologies of ZIL and the Z-Machine. He had also begun to design what would become the company’s first non-adventure game and first to use graphics, a multi-player computerized board game called Fooblitzky which would appear in 1985. (In light of Suspended and Fooblitzky, perhaps Berlyn was really a frustrated board-game designer slumming it as a writer?)

When a certain bestselling author by the name of Douglas Adams came to Infocom to propose a collaboration, he asked to work with Mike Berlyn by name. Berlyn turned the proposal down flat, saying he wasn’t interested in sharing power with another designer. With the highest-profile project Infocom would ever have hanging in the balance, Mike Dornbrook was left scrambling to enlist the ever-reliable Steve Meretzky for the project and to convince Adams that he could do just as good a job as the guy who wrote Adams’s favorite Suspended. I want to emphasize here that everyone liked Mike Berlyn, what with his big booming laugh and his knack for taking the piss out of everything in a good-natured way that kept everyone grounded: Suspended became Suspenders; Cornerstone became, prophetically as it would turn out, Tombstone; Choose Your Own Adventure books became What the Fuck Do I Do Now? books. But man, could it be hard to get and keep him on any given task.

Getting Berlyn to do another adventure game for 1984, even sans-Adams, was a challenge. A compromise was eventually reached: he would design the game and write the text, but would not be forced to program it. That should give him enough time to also continue with his other projects. For the actual programming, Infocom turned to one Jerry Wolper, an MIT computer-science graduate who had been doing various jobs for the company since 1982. This sort of development partnership was something that Infocom was grudgingly coming to accept as the only viable way of using writers-turned-Imps, as opposed to programmers-turned-Imps, to create interactive fiction; the science-writer fiasco would mark the last time they would just plant an outside writer in front of a terminal and hope for the best. Partnerships were in fact responsible for three of their five games of 1984, Berlyn’s among them.

The game in question is called Cutthroats. In an odd coincidence that probably wouldn’t have happened if the matrix had come into force a few months earlier, it was not only Infocom’s second “Tale of Adventure” in a row but also has a nautical theme superficially similar to that of the preceding game, Seastalker. You play a down-on-the-luck treasure diver living on Hardscrabble Island. It’s a place of indeterminate actual location — the latitude and longitude shown on a sea chart that is one of the game’s feelies would seem to place it smack in the middle of Africa — but pretty plainly modeled on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Things are kicked off via the lengthiest in-game introduction yet seen from Infocom:

Nights on Hardscrabble Island are lonely and cold when the lighthouse barely pierces the gloom. You sit on your bed, thinking of better times and far-off places. A knock on your door stirs you, and Hevlin, a shipmate you haven't seen for years, staggers in.

"I'm in trouble," he says. "I had a few too many at The Shanty. I was looking for Red, but he wasn't around, and I started talking about ... here," he says, handing you a slim volume that you recognize as a shipwreck book written years ago by the Historical Society.

You smile. Every diver on the island has looked for those wrecks, without even an old boot to show for it. You open the door, hoping the drunken fool will leave. "I know what you're thinkin'," Hevlin scowls, "but look!" He points to the familiar map, and you see new locations marked for two of the wrecks.

"Keep it for me," he says. "Just for tonight. It'll be safe here with you. Don't let -- " He stops and broods for a moment. "I've got to go find Red!" And with that, Hevlin leaves.

You put the book in your dresser and think about following Hevlin. Then you hear a scuffle outside. You look through your window and see two men struggling. One falls to the ground in a heap. The other man bends down beside him, then turns as if startled and runs away. Another man then approaches the wounded figure. He kneels beside him for a long moment, then takes off after the other man.

It isn't long before the police arrive to tell you that Hevlin's been murdered. You don't mention the book, and hours later, as you lie awake in your bed, you wonder if the book could really be what it seems.

You soon fall in with a group of three other treasure hunters. You must assemble supplies and otherwise prepare an expedition to a heretofore undiscovered shipwreck, whilst dodging and thwarting the other ruthless treasure seekers who have already done in your old buddy Hevlin. At last you put out to sea for the actual dive, which, if a certain betrayer amongst your crew doesn’t kill you, could make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.

Cutthroats is perhaps of greatest interest as Infocom’s first experiment with formal structure outside of the radical departure that was Suspended. There are two possible wrecks which might be the target of your treasure hunt: the São Vera, a Portuguese cargo ship loaded with gold that sunk in 1698, or the Leviathan, a sort of fictional hybrid of the Titanic and Lusitania which was sunk by a U-boat in 1916. The game randomly chooses at the appropriate point which one you get.

Like some later Infocom formal experiments, the results here are mixed at best. You can exercise control over which shipwreck you receive only by saving the game shortly before the point where the game announces its decision, then restoring until you get the one you want. Luckily, the dice are thrown, so to speak, only just before the announcement instead of the very beginning of the game, making this process — what with there being only two possibilities — clumsy but not horribly annoying. More problematic is that there is still a whole lot of game to play between the point where you learn which shipwreck you’ve gotten and the beginning of the actual dive. This section plays almost exactly the same for both shipwrecks, making it a somewhat tedious exercise the second time around. It’s hard to determine what purpose Berlyn thought he was serving with this branching structure, other than to experiment just for the sake of it. There are signs that the original plan may have called for four possible shipwrecks; the feelies chart describes four shipwrecks, and the manual says you will “try to salvage a sunken treasure from one of four shipwrecks.” It’s even possible to visit the other two shipwrecks in the game, although you can’t get inside them. The number may very well have been cut in half due to space and/or time restrictions. In some ways four shipwrecks would of course have been even more problematic — you’d now need to replay a big chunk of the game not once but three times to see it all — but would perhaps have been more justifiable as an experiment in branching narrative.

Like Seastalker, Cutthroats evidences Infocom’s new emphasis on creating interactive fictions as opposed to traditional text adventures. There’s a constant forward plot momentum right from the beginning of the game, when a character knocks on your door to invite you to a meeting of would-be treasure hunters, to the climax, the dive on the shipwreck itself. Characters move about the island and, later, the boat on their own schedules, and you must keep to a timetable and be where you’re expected to be to keep the plot moving forward. It gives a feel very different from the static environs of Zork or even the deserted complex of Planetfall.

Less defensibly, especially to modern sensibilities, Cutthroats is not so forgiving in its dynamism as Seastalker. In fact, it’s similar to the mysteries that preceded it in that solving the game requires a certain amount of learning by death, of plotting out the workings of the story through replays, figuring out what you need to do to avert each new disaster only after you’ve seen it once or twice. That said, it’s a much more forgiving exercise than even The Witness on the whole; you usually only need to go back a handful of turns at the most. There’s only one really tricky element that’s likely to send you back almost to square one, a crucial piece of evidence you need to collect on Hardscrabble Island to prevent disaster once you get out to sea. Even with that, Cutthroats is a very playable, solvable game.

Still, I’m not sure I can call it all that satisfying of a game. The other characters remain the crudest sort of archetypes, as you might guess from reading the names of your fellow treasure hunters: Johnny Red, the Weasel, Pete the Rat. (Guess which one sold you out to your rivals…) A winning ending does indeed make you rich, but does nothing to bring the killer of Hevlin to justice:

Johnny slaps you on the back. "Good job, matey!" As you return to the island over the calm, dazzling blue sea, you contemplate your wealth with a touch of sadness. You think of Hevlin and hope his soul is resting a little easier now.

One would presume that Hevlin would really “rest easier” not if you became rich but if you, you know, made some effort to catch the guy that knifed him. Berlyn has apparently learned his lesson from the furor provoked by the comeuppance he delivered to the greedy treasure hunter in Infidel. Rather than challenge our expectations again, he’s back to the adventure-game norm of Greed Is Good. Your character comes across much like the protagonist of Infidel — he’s all about the gold, baby — albeit without that game’s element of subversion and self-awareness.

The best adjective I can think of to describe Cutthroats is “workmanlike.” It’s a thoroughly professional effort — Infocom wasn’t likely to produce anything else by this stage in their evolution — but it’s missing a certain spark, a certain passion. That’s a shame not least because the setting has such potential. You should be able to smell the salt air blowing through this faded community of which not much is left but the old-timers who spend their days drinking at The Shanty, but the text never gets much more evocative than the magnificent name “Hardscrabble Island” itself. Similarly, the shipwrecks are described precisely and grammatically, but little effort is made to convey the atmosphere, which I can only imagine must be mystical and kind of terrifying, of penetrating these watery graves. Much as I appreciate the audacity of Suspended and the Infidel ending, I’m left feeling rather happy that Mike Berlyn would soon step out of the way and let other, more passionate Imps have a crack at things.

As I’ve researched and written these articles I’ve been constantly surprised by how out of line the sales of many Infocom games were with the reputations they hold today. That’s especially true of Cutthroats. Widely regarded as a middling, rather forgettable game today, Cutthroats was quite a big seller in its day: over 50,000 copies in the last few months of 1984 alone, enough to make it the second most successful of Infocom’s five games of that year, behind only the juggernaut The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s hard to know to just what to attribute the success, unless it be an alternative choice for customers who’d have preferred to get their hands on Hitchhiker’s, the hottest game in the industry that Christmas. The attention-grabbing cover art, one of the few photographs standing out in a sea of painted dragons and spaceships on store shelves, also may have played its part. (The packaging in general, with some great feelies that are integrated into the game even more than usual and a True Tales of Adventure magazine full of in-jokes for players of Infidel, is a superb first born-in-a-gray-box effort from Infocom and G/R Copy.) Lifetimes sales approached 80,000, placing it amongst the more successful of Infocom’s corpus as a whole. Mediocrity, it seems, does have its rewards.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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