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Bureaucracy

 

“Writing a book is staring at a piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”

— Douglas Adams

Shortly after the release of his second Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, with the money now pouring in and showing no signs of stopping, Douglas Adams moved from his dingy little shared flat in Islington’s Highbury New Park to a sprawling place on Upper Street. Later to be described down almost to the last detail as Fenchurch’s flat in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the place had one floor that consisted of but a single huge L-shaped room that, coming complete as it did with a bar, was perfect for the grand parties he would soon be holding there.

There was just one problem: he couldn’t get his bank to acknowledge the fact that he had moved. For the rest of his life Adams swore up and down that he had done everything exactly as one was supposed to, had dutifully gone personally down to his local branch of Barclays Bank, filled out a change-of-address form, and handed it to a woman behind the counter. Barclays duly acknowledged the change — and sent said acknowledgement to his old address in Highbury New Park. Adams wrote them back, pointing out the mistake, which the bank promptly and contritely apologized for. Said apology was sent, once again, to Highbury New Park. This cycle continued, as Adams told the story anyway, for no less than two infuriating years. Toward the end of that period, having tried politeness, bluster, threats, and reason, he resorted to charm and outright bribery in a letter to one Miss Wilcox of Barclays, gifting her with a book and even holding out a tempting possibility of marriage to a hugely successful author — namely, him — if she would just change his damn address in her bank’s computers already.

My address is at the top of this letter. It is also at the top of my previous letter to you. I am not trying to hide anything from you. If you write to me at this address I will reply. If you write to me care of my accountant, he will reply, which would be better still. If you write to me at Highbury New Park, the chances are that I won’t reply because your letter will probably not reach me, because I don’t live there any more. I haven’t lived there for two years. I moved. Two years ago. I wrote to you about it, remember?

Dear Miss Wilcox, I am sure you are a very lovely person, and that if I were to meet you I would feel ashamed at having lost my temper with you in this way. I’m sure it’s not your fault personally and that if I had to do your job I would hate it. Let me take you away from all this. Come to London. Let me show you where I live, so that you can see it is indeed in Upper Street. I will even take you to Highbury New Park and introduce you to the man who has been living there for the past two years so that you can see for yourself that it isn’t me. I could take you out to dinner and slip you little change-of-address cards across the table. We could even get married and go and live in a villa in Spain, though how would we get anyone in your department to understand that we had moved? I enclose a copy of my new book which I hope will cheer you up. Happy Christmas.

History does not record whether this passionate missive was the one that finally did the trick.

Most writers collect interesting, humorous, and/or frustrating incidents as they go about their daily lives, jotting them down literally or metaphorically for future use, and Douglas Adams was certainly no exception. He tried to shoehorn this one into Life, the Universe, and Everything, his third Hitchhiker’s novel, via an extended riff about a change-of-address card that fouls up a planet’s central computer systems so badly that they initiate a nuclear Armageddon, but it just didn’t work somehow. The whole sequence ended up getting condensed down to a one-line gag in an extract from the in-book Hitchhiker’s Guide, listing “trying to get the Brantisvogan Civil Service to acknowledge a change-of-address card” as one of life’s great impossibilities. Still, he continued to believe the anecdote was worthy of more than that, worthy of more even than becoming just another of the arsenal of funny stories with which he amused journalists, fans, and party attendees alike.

It seems that it was the process of making the infuriating, subversive, brilliant Hitchhiker’s game with Infocom that first prompted Adams to think about making a game out of his travails with Barclays, along with the insane bureaucratic machinations of modern life in general. It was at any rate during Steve Meretzky’s visit to England to work on the Hitchhiker’s game with him that he first mentioned the idea. Meretzky, busy trying to get this game finished in the face of the immovable force that could be Adams’s talent for procrastination, presumably just nodded politely and tried to get his focus back to the business at hand.

Seven or eight months later, however, with the Hitchhiker’s game finished and selling like crazy, Adams stated definitively to Mike Dornbrook of Infocom that he’d really like to do a social satire of contemporary life called Bureaucracy before turning to the sequel. Asked by Electronic Games magazine at about this time whether he would “soon” be starting on the next Hitchhiker’s game, his answer was blunt: “No. I really feel the need to branch out into fresh areas and clear my head from Hitchhiker’s. I certainly have enjoyed working with Infocom and would very much like to do another adventure game, but on a different topic.”

The desire of this boundlessly original thinker to just be done with Hitchhiker’s, to do something else for God’s sake, certainly isn’t hard to understand. What had begun back in 1978 as a one-off six-episode radio serial, produced on a shoestring for the BBC, had seven years later ballooned into a second radio serial, four novels, a television show, a stage production, a pair of double albums, and now, so everyone assumed, a burgeoning series of computer games. Adams himself had a hand to a lesser or (usually) a greater extent in every single one of these productions, not to mention having spent quite some time drafting and fruitlessly hawking a Hitchhiker’s movie script to Hollywood. It had been all Hitchhiker’s all day every day for seven years.

Being the soul of comedy for millions of young science-fiction nerds had never been an entirely comfortable role for Adams. Sometimes the gulf between him and his most loyal fans could be hard to bridge, could leave him feeling downright estranged. Eugen Beers, his publicist, describes the most obsessive of his fans in terms that bring to mind a certain beloved old Saturday Night Live skit:

One of my abiding memories is how much he loathed book signings. It’s always a scary time for an author when you actually meet your fans, and Douglas had some of the ugliest and certainly some of the most boring people I’ve ever met in the whole of my life. They would come up to him to get their book signed and say, “I notice on page 45 you refer to…” and Douglas would say, “I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.”

Beers notes that Adams was “incredibly patient, in fact patient beyond anything I would have been.” Yet, and ungenerous as Beers’s description of the fans may be, the disconnect was real. Adams’s heroes growing up had been The Goon Show and later Monty Python, not Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein. He desperately wanted to prove himself as a humorist of general note, not just that wacky Hitchhiker’s guy that the nerds all like. Yes, Hitchhiker’s had made him rich, had paid for that wonderful Islington flat and all those lavish parties, but at some point enough had to be enough.

Infocom’s great misfortune was to have barely begun their own Hitchhiker’s odyssey just as Adams finally decided to bring his to an end. On the one hand, Adams’s desire to explore new territory must have sounded a sympathetic chord for many of the Imps; they had after all refused to continue the Zork series beyond three games out of a similar desire to not get stereotyped. But on the other hand they all had, and not without good reason, envisioned Hitchhiker’s as a cash cow that would last Infocom for the remainder of the decade, a new guaranteed bestseller appearing like clockwork every Christmas to buoy them over whatever financial trials the rest of the year might have brought. For Mike Dornbrook it must have felt like a nightmare repeating. First he had been deprived far too soon of the Zork series, the first of which still remained Infocom’s best-selling game; now it looked like something similar was happening even more quickly to the would-be Hitchhiker’s series, whose first game had become their second best-selling. In describing why he was “concerned” about making Bureaucracy Infocom’s Douglas Adams game for 1985 and pushing the next Hitchhiker’s game to 1986 at best, Dornbrook unconsciously echoes Adams’s own reasoning for wanting to move on: “The whole financial deal we had signed with him was based on a bestselling line of books that was very, very popular, very well-known. He hadn’t proved himself at anything else yet, for one thing. It was a little hard telling him that…”

It was a little hard to tell him, so Dornbrook and Infocom largely didn’t out of a desire to keep Adams happy. As his current contract with Infocom only covered Hitchhiker’s games, it was necessary to negotiate a new one for Bureaucracy. Dornbrook had some hopes of getting Adams at something of a discount, given that he’d be coming this time without the Hitchhiker’s name attached, but he was stymied even in this by Ed Victor, Adams’s tough negotiator of an agent. Infocom was left saddled with a game that they didn’t really want to do, which they would have to pay Adams for as if it was one that they wanted very badly indeed.

As Dornbrook and other staffers have occasionally noted over the years, there was nothing in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s contract that technically prevented them from just going off and doing the next Hitchhiker’s game on their own, whether in tandem with or instead of Bureaucracy. The contract simply gave Infocom the right to make up to six Hitchhiker’s games for the cost of a certain percentage of the revenue generated thereby, full stop. They’ve stated that it was their respect for Adams as a writer and as a person that prevented them from ever seriously considering making Hitchhiker’s games without him. I don’t doubt their sincerity in saying this, but it’s also worth noting that to go down that route would be to play with some dangerous fire. While Adams may have been personally sick to death of Hitchhiker’s, he had shown again and again that he considered the franchise to be his and his alone, that if anything got done with it he wanted to do it — or at least to closely oversee it — himself. Not only would a unilateral Infocom Hitchhiker’s game almost certainly spoil their relationship with him for all time, but it risked becoming a public-relations disaster if Adams, never shy of stating his opinions to the press, decided to speak out against it. And could any of the Imps, even Steve Meretzky, really hope to capture Adams’s voice? An Adams-less Hitchhiker’s game risked coming off as a cheap knock-off, as everything that Infocom’s carefully crafted public image said their games weren’t.  Thus Bureaucracy — and, for now, Bureaucracy alone — it must be.

In light of its being rather forced upon them in the first place and especially of the exhausting travail that actually making it would become, it’s difficult for most old Infocom staffers to appreciate Bureaucracy‘s intrinsic merits as a concept. Seen in the right light, however, it’s a fairly brilliant idea. Douglas Adams was of course hardly the first to want to satirize the vast, impersonal machines we create in an effort to make modern life manageable, machines that can not only run roughshod over the very individuals they’re meant to serve but that can also trample the often well-meaning people who are sentenced to work within them, even their very creators. What was the Holocaust but a triumph of institutional inertia over the fundamental humanity of the people responsible for its horrors? Years before those horrors Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, the definitive comedy about the banality of bureaucratic evil, a book as funny in its black way as anything Douglas Adams ever wrote. Just to make its black comedy complete, all three of Kafka’s sisters later perished in the Holocaust. Set against those events, Adams’s struggle with Barclays Bank to get his address changed seems like the triviality it truly was.

What, though, to make of this idea of a satire of the bureaucratic impulse as interactive fiction? I think there’s a germ of genius in there, a germ of something as brilliant and subversive as anything in the Hitchhiker’s game. Playing a text adventure — yes, even one of Infocom’s — is to often feel like you’re interacting with the world’s pettiest and most remorseless bureaucrat. We’re all only too familiar with sequences like this one, which as it happens is taken from the eventual finished version of Bureaucracy:

>put blank cartridge in computer
[This story isn't allowed to recognise the word "blank."]

[Your blood pressure just went up.]

>i
You're holding an unlabelled cartridge, an address book, a small piece of laminated card, an airline magazine, $57.50, an envelope containing a memo, a power saw, a Swiss army knife, a coupon booklet, a damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan, a flyer, a Popular Paranoia magazine, your passport, your Boysenberry computer (containing an eclipse predicting cartridge), a small case and a hacksaw. You're wearing a digital wristwatch, and you have a deposit slip and a wallet in your pocket.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You're holding too much already.

>drop painting
You drop the damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan.

You're beginning to feel normal again.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You take the eclipse predicting cartridge out of your Boysenberry computer.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
The unlabelled cartridge slips into your Boysenberry computer with a thrilling little click...

One of Adam’s initial ideas was to have a blood-pressure monitor that would increase every time you got into a tussle with the parser like the one above. This idea made it into the finished game. Yet there are signs, fleeting clues, that that should only have been a beginning, that he would have gone much further, that his idea was to create a game that would end up as, among other things, a self-referential commentary on the medium of interactive fiction itself, a further venturing down the road that the Hitchhiker’s game had already started on with its lying parser and its willingness to integrate your typos into its story. Tim Anderson of Infocom recalls a puzzle involving a pile of boxes, of which you needed to specify one that the parser would obstinately refuse to recognize. How fun such a game could have been is very much up for debate; it sounds likely to run afoul of all of the issues of playability and fairness that make Hitchhiker’s the last game in the world to be emulated by a budding designer of interactive fiction. Nevertheless, I would love to see that original vision of Bureaucracy. While some pieces of it survived into the finished game in the form of the blood-pressure monitor and the snooty, bureaucratic tone of the parser, for the most part it became a different game entirely — or, rather, several different games. Therein lies a tale — and most of the finished game’s problems.

Endeavoring as always to keep Adams happy, Infocom assigned as his partner on the new game no less august an Imp than Marc Blank, who along with Mike Berlyn had been one of the two possible collaborators Adams had specifically requested for the Hitchhiker’s game; he’d had to be convinced to accept Steve Meretzky in their stead. Alas, Blank turned out to be a terrible choice at this particular juncture. He was deeply dissatisfied with the current direction of the company and more interested in telling Al Vezza and the rest of the Board about it at every opportunity than he was in writing more interactive fiction. Bureaucracy thus immediately began to languish in neglect. This precedent would take a long, long time to break. The story at this point gets so surreal that it reads like something out of a Douglas Adams novel — or for that matter a Douglas Adams game. Infocom therefore included it in the finished version of Bureaucracy as an Easter egg entitled “The Strange and Terrible History of Bureaucracy.”

Once upon a time Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky collaborated on a game called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Everyone wanted a sequel, but Douglas thought it might be fun to do something different first. He called that something Bureaucracy, and wanted Marc Blank to work on it with him. Of course, Marc was busy, and Douglas was busy, and by the time they could both work on it, they were too busy to work on it. So, Jerry Wolper [a programmer who had collaborated with Mike Berlyn on Cutthroats] got a free trip to Las Vegas to talk to Douglas about it before it was decided to let it rest for a while instead. Jerry decided to go back to school, so Marc and Douglas spent some time on Nantucket looking at llamas, drinking Chateau d'Yquem, and arguing about puzzles. Nothing much happened for a while, except that Marc and Douglas got distracted again. Paul DiLascia [a senior member of the Cornerstone development team] decided to give it a try, but changed his mind and kept working on Cornerstone. Marc went to work for Simon and Schuster, and Paul went to work for Interleaf. Jeff O'Neill finished Ballyhoo, and, casting about for a new project, decided to take it on, about the time Jerry graduated. Jeff got a trip to London out of it. Douglas was enthusiastic, but busy with a movie. Progress was slow, and then Douglas was very busy with something named Dirk Gently. Jeff decided it was time to work on something else, and Brian Moriarty took it over. He visited England, and marvelled at Douglas's CD collection, but progress was slow. Eventually he decided it was time to work on something else. Paul made a cameo appearance, but decided to stay at Interleaf instead. So Chris Reeve and Tim Anderson took it over, and mucked around a lot. Finally, back in Las Vegas, Michael Bywater jumped (or was pushed) in and came to Boston for some serious script-doctoring, which made what was there into what is here. In addition, there were significant contributions from Liz Cyr-Jones, Suzanne Frank, Gary Brennan, Tomas Bok, Max Buxton, Jon Palace, Dave Lebling, Stu Galley, Linde Dynneson, and others too numerous to mention. Most of these people are not dead yet, and apologise for the inconvenience.

Trying to unravel in much more detail this Gordian knot that consumed more than twice as much time as any other Infocom game is fairly hopeless, not least because no one who was around it much wants to talk about it. The project, having been begun to some extent under duress, soon become a veritable albatross, a bad joke for which no one can manage to summon up much of a laugh even today. Jon Palace is typical:

There may be some fun things left in the game, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth. At some point it became, the less I can have to do with it the better. It wasn’t fun doing that game. Bureaucracy is the only game I can remember that was just downright not fun to do.

The natural question, then, is just what went so horribly awry for this game alone among all the others. Infocom’s official version of the tale neglects only to assign the blame where it rightfully belongs: solidly on the doorstep of Douglas Adams.

Adams was a member of a species that’s not as rare as one might expect: the brilliant writer who absolutely hates to write, who finds the process torturous, personally draining to a degree ironically difficult to capture in words. Even during the seven-year heyday of Hitchhiker’s, when he was to all external appearances quite industrious and prolific indeed, he was building a reputation for himself among publishers and agents as one of the most difficult personalities in their line of business, not because he was a jerk or a prima donna like many other authors but simply because he never — never — did the work he said he was going to do when he said he was going to do it. The stories of the lengths people had to go to to get work out of him remain enshrined in publishing legend to this day. Locking him into a small room with a word processor and a single taskmaster/minder and telling him he wasn’t allowed out until he was finished was about the only method that was remotely effective.

It wasn’t as if Infocom had never seen this side of Douglas Adams before. His procrastination had also threatened to scupper the Hitchhiker’s game for a while. They had, however, as they must now have been realizing more and more, gotten very lucky there. With Infocom’s star on the ascendant at that time, the publishing interests around Adams had clearly seen a Hitchhiker’s Infocom game as a winning proposition all the way around. They had thus mobilized to make it part of their 1984 full-court press on their embattled author that had also yielded So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the overdue fourth Hitchhiker’s novel. Infocom, meanwhile, had fortuitously paired Adams with Steve Meretzky, the most self-driven, efficient, and organized of all the Imps, who always got his projects done and done on time — as evidenced by his sheer prolificacy as an author of games, gamebooks, and lots and lots of fake memos. Even with Meretzky’s boundless creative energy on Infocom’s side, it had taken colluding with Adams’s handlers to isolate the two of them in a hotel in Devon to get Adams to follow his partner’s example and buckle down and work on the game.

With the industry now shifting under Infocom’s feet in ways that were hardly to their advantage, with Cornerstone threatening to sink the company even if they could find a way to keep selling lots of games, with the project in question a one-off that no one knew much about rather than another entry in the Hitchhiker’s line-up, Infocom lacked the leverage with Adams or his handlers to do anything similar for Bureaucracy. And Meretzky was staying far, far away, having apparently decided that he’d done his time in Purgatory with Douglas Adams and had earned the right to work on his own projects. Thus despite allegedly “working on” Bureaucracy personally for almost two years, despite all of the face-to-faces in Las Vegas, Nantucket, and London, Adams’s contributions at the end of that time amounted to little more than the rough idea he had brought to Infocom in the first place: the name, the blood-pressure monitor, and a few vague puzzles ideas like the boxes that sounded interesting but that no other than him quite understood and that he never deigned to properly explain. Meretzky:

Douglas’s procrastination seemed much worse than it was with Hitchhiker’s. That seems odd because he did the first game only grudgingly, since he had already done Hitchhiker’s for several different media, but Bureaucracy was what he most wanted to do. Perhaps the newness and excitement of working in interactive fiction had worn off; perhaps he had more distractions in his life at that point; perhaps it was that the succession of people who had my role in Bureaucracy didn’t stay with the project for more than a portion of its development cycle and therefore never became a well-integrated creative unit with Douglas; perhaps it was that, lacking the immovable Christmas deadline that Hitchhiker’s had, it was easier to let the game just keep slipping and slipping.

Brian Moriarty is less diplomatic: “Douglas Adams was a very funny man, very witty, a very good writer, and also very, very lazy. Anyone who knew Douglas will tell you that he really didn’t like to work very much.” Just to add insult to injury, when Adams did rouse himself to work on a game project it turned out to be for a competing developer. In January of 1986 he spent several days holed up in London with a sizable chunk of the staff of Lucasfilm Games, contributing ideas and puzzles to their Labyrinth adventure game. That may not sound like the worst betrayal in the world at first blush, but consider again: he devoted more time and energy to this ad-hoc design consultation than he ever had to what was allegedly his own game, the one Infocom had started making at his specific request.

The succession of Imps who were assigned to the project were forced to improvise with their own ideas in face of the black hole that was Adams’s contribution. Details of exactly who did what are, however, once again thin on the ground. The only Imp I’ve heard claim specific credit for any sequence that survived into the final game is Moriarty, who remembers doing a bit where you’re trying to order a simple hamburger in a fast-food joint, only to get buried under a bewildering barrage of questions about exactly how you’d like it. The inevitable punchline comes when a “standard, smells-like-a-dog’s-ear burger with nothing on it” is finally delivered, regardless of your choices.

By late 1986, as the Bureaucracy project was closing in fast on its two-year anniversary, it was not so much a single big game as a collection of individual little games connected together, if at all, by the most precarious of scaffolding, each reading not like a game by Douglas Adams but a game by whatever Imp happened to be responsible for that section. Not only had Adams’s ideas for leveraging the mechanics of program and parser in service of his theme been largely abandoned, but at some point a fairly elaborate satire of paranoid conspiracy theorists — sort of an interactive Illuminatus! trilogy — had gotten muddled up with the satire of impersonal bureaucratic institutions in general. As the recent revelations about the National Security Agency have demonstrated, the two all too often do go together. Still, those parts of Bureaucracy had wandered quite far afield from everyday frustrations like trying to get a bank to accept a change-of-address form. It had all become quite the mess, and nobody had much energy left to try to sort it out.

If you had polled Infocom’s staff at this point on whether they thought Bureaucracy would ever actually be finished, it’s unlikely that many would have shown much optimism. The project remained alive at all not due to any love anyone had for it but rather out of what was probably a forlorn hope anyway: that getting this game out and published would pave the way to the next Hitchhiker’s game, to another potential 300,000-plus seller. Having done their part in getting Bureaucracy done, with or without Adams, Infocom hoped he would do his by returning to Hitchhiker’s with them. Few who knew Adams well would have bet much on that particular quid pro quo, but hope does spring eternal.

And then, miraculously, more than a glimmer of real hope did appear from an unlikely quarter. Marc Blank was long gone from Infocom by then, but had continued to keep in touch with his old friends among the Imps. At the November 1986 COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas, he bumped into Michael Bywater, a good friend of Douglas Adams and a fellow writer — in fact, a practitioner of his own brand of arch British humor that, if you squinted just right, wasn’t too different from that of Adams himself. Knowing the fix his old friends were still in with the game he had been the first to work on so long ago, a light bulb went off in Blank’s head. He hastily brokered a deal among Infocom, Adams, and Bywater, and the last arrived in the Boston area within days to hole up in a hotel room for an intense three weeks or so of script-doctoring. Infocom’s Tim Anderson, the latest programmer assigned to the project, stayed close at hand to insert Bywater’s new text and to implement any new puzzles he happened to come up with.

Jumbling the chronology as we’re sometimes forced to around here in the interest of other forms of coherency, we’ve already met Bywater in the context of his personal and professional relationship with Anita Sinclair and Magnetic Scrolls, and the salvage job he would do on that company’s Jinxter nine months or so after performing the same service for Infocom. As arrogant and quick to anger as he can sometimes be (one need only read his comments in response to Andy Baio’s misguided and confused article on the would-be second Hitchhiker’s game to divine that), everyone at Infocom found him to be a delight, not least because here at last was a writer who was more than happy to actually write. In a few weeks he rewrote virtually every word in the game in his own style — a style that was more caustic than Adams’s, but that nevertheless checked the right “British humor” boxes. Just like that, Infocom had their game, which they needed only test and publish to finally be quit of the whole affair forever. Right?

Well, this being the Game That Just Wouldn’t Be Finished, not quite. Janice Eisen, a current reader and supporter of this blog and an outside playtester for Infocom back in the day, recalls being given a version of Bureaucracy for testing that was largely the same structurally as the released version and that seemed to sport Bywater’s text, but that nevertheless differed substantially in one respect. The ultimate villain in this version, the person responsible for all of the bureaucratic tortures you’ve been subjected to, was not, as in the final version, a bitter computer nerd seeking to exact vengeance on the world and (for some reason) on you for his inability to get a date, but rather none other than Britain’s Queen Mother. As a satirical theme it’s classic Bywater. He was and remains a self-described republican, seeing the monarchy as setting “an appalling example to the whole nation by making clear that there’s at least one thing — head of state — that you can’t achieve but can only be born to.”

Some weeks after testing this version of Bureaucracy at home as usual, Janice, who lived close to Infocom’s offices, got a call asking if she could come in to test what would turn out to be the final version on-site. She was also told she could bring a friend of hers, another Infocom fan but not a regular tester, to join in. They spent a Saturday playing through the game, with a minder on-hand to give them answers to puzzles if necessary to make sure they got all the way through the game. It’s not absolutely clear whether Bywater was involved in the further rewriting made necessary by the replacement of the Queen Mother with the nerd, but the lavishly insulting descriptions of the latter — “ghastly,” “sniveling,” “ratty,” and “ineffectual” number amongst the adjectives — sound nothing like any of the Imps’ styles and very much like Bywater’s. When she asked why Infocom had made the changes — she had enjoyed the Queen Mother much more than the nerd — Janice was told that Infocom had feared that they were going too far into the realm of politics, that they were afraid that the Queen Mother, 86 years old at the time, might die while the game was still a hot item, making them look “terrible.” (This fear would prove unfounded; she would live for another fifteen years.)

So, it was a tortured, cobbled, disjointed creation that finally reached store shelves against all odds in March of 1987, and apparently one that had been subject to the final violation of a last-minute Bowdlerization. For all that, though, it’s a lot better game than you might expect, a better game even than most of the Infocom staffers, having had it so thoroughly spoiled in their eyes by the hell of its creation, are often willing to acknowledge. I quite like it on the whole, even if I have to temper that opinion with a lot of caveats.

Bureaucracy shows clear evidence of the fragmented process of its creation in being divided into four vignettes that become, generally not to the game’s benefit, steadily more surreal and less grounded in the everyday as they proceed. The first, longest, and strongest section begins after you have just gotten a new job and moved to a new neighborhood. Your new employer Happitec is about to send you jetting off to Paris for an introductory seminar. You just need to “pick up your Happitec cheque, grab a bite of lunch, a cab to the airport, and you’ll be living high on the hog at Happitec’s expense.” Naturally, it won’t be quite that easy. It’s here that the game pays due homage to the episode that first inspired it: your mail had been misdelivered thanks to “a silly bit of bother with your bank about a change-of-address card.” Subsequent sections have you trying to board your flight at the airport; dealing with the annoyances of a transcontinental flight, which include in this case something about an in-flight emergency that will force you to bail out of the airplane; and finally penetrating the dastardly nerdy mastermind’s headquarters somewhere in the jungles of Africa.

Much of Bureaucracy‘s personality is of course down to Bywater (about whom more in a moment), but I’m not sure that he comprises the whole of the story. I’d love to know who wrote my favorite bit, which is not found in the game proper but rather in one of the feelies. Your welcome letter from Happitec is such a perfect satire of Silicon Valley’s culture of empty plastic Utopianism that it belongs on the current television show of the same name. The letterhead’s resemblance to Apple’s then-current Macintosh iconography is certainly not accidental.

Bureaucracy

From the cult of personality around Happitec’s “founder and president” to the way it can’t even be bothered to address you by name to the veiled passive-aggressive threat with which it concludes, this letter is just so perfect. All it’s missing is a reference to “making the world a better place.”

Bywater, for his part, acquits himself more than well enough as the mirror-universe version of Douglas Adams, almost as witty and droll but more casually cruel. His relentless showiness makes him a writer whom I find fairly exhausting to try to read in big gulps, but he always leaves me with a perfect little bon mot or two to marvel over.

This is the living room of your new house, a pretty nice room, actually. At least, it will be when all your stuff has arrived as the removals company said they would have done yesterday and now say they will do while you're on vacation. At the moment, however, it's a bit dull. Plain white, no carpets, no curtains, no furniture. A room to go bughouse in, really. Another room is visible to the west, and a closed front door leads outside.


This deeply tacky wallet was sent to you free by the US Excess Credit Card Corporation to tell you how much a person like you needed a US Excess card, what with your busy thrusting lifestyle in today's fast-moving, computerised, jet-setting world. Needless to say, you already had a US Excess card which they were trying to take away from you for not paying your account, which, equally needless to say, you had paid weeks ago.


The stamp on the leaflet is worth 42 Zalagasan Wossnames (the Zalagasans were too idle to think of a name for their currency) and shows an extremely bad picture of an Ai-Ai. The Ai-Ai is of course a terribly, terribly rare sort of lemur which is a rare sort of monkey so altogether pretty rare, so rare that nobody has ever seen one, which is why the picture is such a blurred and rotten likeness. Actually, come to think of it, since nobody has ever seen the real thing, the picture might in fact be a really sharp, accurate likeness of a blurred and rotten animal.


The machine says: "Jones here. I'm the new tenant of your old house. There's a whole bunch of mail been arriving here for you. Urgent stuff from the Fillmore Fiduciary Trust. You know what I thought? I thought 'Do the right thing, Jones. Forward the guy's mail.' Then I found out about the termites. Then I found out about the nightly roach-dance. So I thought 'Rats.' I've returned your mail to your bank. Sort it out yourself."

So, when the scenario gives him something to work with Bywater can be pretty great. He’s much less effective when the game loses its focus on the frustrations of everyday existence, which it does with increasing frequency as it wears on and the situations get more and more surreal. He seems to feel obligated to continue to slather on heavy layers of snark, because after all he’s Michael Bywater and that’s what he does, but the point of it all begins rather to get lost. His description of your fellow passengers aboard an African airline as playing “ethnic nose flutes” is… well, let’s just say it’s not as funny as it wants to be and leave it at that. And his relentless picking away at the service workers you encounter — “The waiter squints at his pad with tiny simian eyes, breathing hard at the intellectual effort of it all.” — doesn’t really ring true for me, largely because I never seem to meet so many of these stupid and/or hateful people in my own life. Most of the people I meet seem pretty nice and reasonably competent on the whole. Even when I’m being gored on the bureaucratic horns of some institution or other, I find that the people I deal with are mostly just as conscious as I am of how ridiculous the whole thing is. As Kafka, who was himself an employee of an insurance company, was well aware, this is largely what makes bureaucracies so impersonal and vaguely, existentially horrifying. Ah, well, as someone who sees nothing cute about someone else’s baby — sorry, proud parents! — I can at least appreciate Bywater’s characterization of same as a “stupid, half-witted” thing emitting “hateful little bleats.”

The puzzles are perhaps the strangest mixture of easy and hard found anywhere in the Infocom catalog. The first two sections of the game are very manageable, with some puzzles that might almost be characterized as too easy and only a few that are a bit tricky; the best of these, and arguably the most difficult, is a delightful bit of illogical logic involving your bank and a negative check. When you actually board your flight and begin the third section, however, the difficulty takes a vertical leap. The linear run of puzzles that is the third and fourth sections of Bureaucracy is downright punishing, including at least three that I find much more difficult than anything in Spellbreaker, supposedly Infocom’s big challenge of a game for the hardcore of the hardcore. One is an intricate exercise in planning and pattern recognition taking place aboard the airplane (Bywater claims credit for having designed this one from scratch); one an intimidating exercise in code-breaking; one more a series of puzzles than a single puzzle really, an exercise in computer hacking that’s simulated in impressive detail. None of the three is unfair. (The puzzle that comes closest to that line is actually not among this group; it’s rather a game of “guess the right action or be killed” that you have to engage in whilst hanging outside the airliner in a parachute.) The clues are there, but they’re extremely subtle, requiring the closest reading and the most careful experimentation whilst being under, in the case of the first and the third of this group, time pressure that will have you restoring again and again. Bureaucracy raises the interesting question of whether a technically fair game can nevertheless simply be too hard for its own good. The gnarly puzzles that suddenly appear out of the blue don’t serve this particular game all that well in my opinion, managing only to further dilute its original focus and make it feel still more schizophrenic. I think I’d like them more in another, different game. At any rate, those looking for a challenge won’t be disappointed. If you can crack this one without hints, you’re quite the puzzler.

Although it’s Infocom’s third release in their Interactive Fiction Plus line of games that ran only on the “big” machines with at least 128 K of memory, Bureaucracy doesn’t feel epic in the way of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. A glance at the story file reveals that it doesn’t completely fill the extra space allowed by the newer Z-Machine, in contrast to the previous two games in the line that stuff the format to the gills. I would even say that quite a number of Infocom’s standard releases subjectively feel bigger. Bureaucracy became an Interactive Fiction Plus title more by accident than original intent, the extra space serving largely to give a chatty Michael Bywater more room to ramble and to allow stuff like that elaborate in-game computer simulation. And given the way the game was made, I’d be surprised if its code was particularly compact or tidy.

Despite all of the pain of its creation and the bad vibes that clung to it for reason of same, Infocom released Bureaucracy with relatively high hopes that the Douglas Adams name, still printed on the box despite his minimal involvement, would be enough to sell a substantial number of copies even absent the Hitchhiker’s name. Adams, showing at least a bit more enthusiasm for promoting Bureaucracy than he had for writing it, gave an interview about it to PBS’s Computer Chronicles television program, during which it becomes painfully apparent that he has only the vaguest notion of what actually happens in the game he supposedly authored. He also appeared on Joan Rivers’s late-night talk show; she declared it “the funniest computer game ever,” although I must admit that I find it hard to imagine that she had much basis for comparison. None of it helped all that much. As was beginning to happen a lot by 1987, Infocom was sharply disappointed by their latest hoped-for hit’s performance. Bureaucracy sold not quite 30,000 copies, a bit better than the Infocom average by this point but short of Hitchhiker’s numbers by a factor of more than ten.

The game’s a shaggy, disjointed beast for sure, but I still recommend that anyone with an appreciation of for the craft of interactive fiction give it a whirl at some point. If the hardcore puzzles at the end aren’t your bag, know that the first two sequences are by far its most coherent and focused parts. Feel free to just stop when you make it aboard the airplane; by that time you’ve seen about 75 percent of the content anyway. Whatever else it would or should have become, as Infocom’s only work of contemporary social satire Bureaucracy is a unique entry in their catalog, and in its stronger moments at least it acquits itself pretty well at the business. That alone is reason enough to treasure it. And as a lesson in the perils of staking your business on a single mercurial genius… well, let’s just say that the story behind Bureaucracy is perhaps worthwhile in its way as well.

(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. Reader Janice Eisen took the time to correspond with me about her memories of testing Bureaucracy, for which I owe her huge thanks. Other sources include the two Douglas Adams biographies, Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson and Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb; the Family Computing of September 1987; the Electronic Games of April 1985; and the audio of Steve Meretzky and Michael Bywater’s joint conversation in London back in 2005.)

 
 

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A New Force in Games, Part 3: SCUMM

Maniac Mansion

As part of a general rearranging of the deck chairs at Lucasfilm in late 1985, the Games Group got moved from their nondescript offices in San Rafael to nearby Skywalker Ranch, the “filmmaker’s retreat” at the very heart of George Lucas’s empire. They were housed in an ornate structure of Victorian brick called the Stable House, with crackling fireplaces in almost every room. Later, old-timers would tell newcomers stories of the Games Group’s time at Skywalker Ranch, which would last for just a few years, like legends from before the Fall: catching a sneak preview of a new David Lynch film in the company of Lynch himself in the Ranch’s beautiful 300-seat art-deco theater; hanging out on a regular basis with Steven Spielberg, who wanted to play everything the Games Group had in development every time he stopped by, sometimes for hours at a stretch; playing softball on the Ranch’s gorgeously manicured field with rock star Huey Lewis; hiking up to the observatory after a long day at the office to do another sort of stargazing; eating gourmet lunches every day at the Ranch’s restaurant for $5 a pop. They might not have been able to make Star Wars games, but they could surround themselves with its trappings: when first moving in, they were given a chance to rummage through an enormous warehouse full of old props and concept art for office decorations. It’s questionable whether any other game studio, ever, has worked in quite such a nerd Elysium.

Continuing to blow through Skywalker Ranch as they had San Rafael, however, were winds of change that had been steadily altering Lucasfilm’s expectations of their little Games Group. As the middle years of the decade wore on, the company was becoming a very different place from what it had been during the free-and-easy early 1980s, when money seemed to flow like water. Lucasfilm’s financial outlook had changed almost overnight in 1983 when, even as Return of the Jedi was doing the expected huge numbers in theaters, George Lucas announced that he and his wife Marcia were getting a divorce. An accomplished film editor in her own right, Marcia had been a huge contributor to the Star Wars movies, especially the first, for which she’d won an Oscar — something her ex-husband has never managed — for her editing work. Now her divorce settlement would cost Lucasfilm big, to the tune of $50 to $100 million (precise estimates vary). Lucasfilm’s financial advisers were able to convince her to take her settlement as a series of payments spread over years rather than the lump sum the initial agreement demanded, but those payments nevertheless put a tremendous drain on the company’s finances.

And soon the other side of the ledger, that of incoming earnings, also began to diminish. George Lucas had long since declared that Star Wars was to be but a single trilogy of films, that there would be no more after Return of the Jedi. The lack of new films inevitably meant not just the loss of box-office receipts but also diminished sales of the toys and other merchandise that had always been the franchise’s biggest cash cow. Meanwhile the Indiana Jones series, which had turned into almost as successful a franchise as Star Wars, fell into a five-year hiatus after 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Filling that gap for Lucasfilm were a series of middling disappointments — Labyrinth, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Willow, some almost perversely low-stakes Star Wars television programs featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO and, God help us, the Ewoks — and at least one outright bomb big enough to have become a punchline for the ages in Howard the Duck. It seemed that Lucas, who could do no wrong in the eleven years between American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, had suddenly seen his Midas Touch desert him.

Never much of a manager and certainly not a numbers guy, Lucas hired a no-nonsense sort named Doug Norby to become Lucasfilm’s president in 1985. “Do what you have to do,” he told him, “and I’m just going to stay out of it.” Norby declared that there needed to be a culture change. Every division would now be expected to justify their existence by earning money for the company rather than costing it money. Those who couldn’t see a way to do so would get the axe. Ditto individual personnel within departments that had become too bloated; Norby orchestrated the first significant wave of layoffs ever to sweep over Lucasfilm. As the conflict-averse Lucas had likely intended, Norby was blamed for all of the pain and chaos, became for some time the most hated name at Lucasfilm, while Lucas himself was largely given a pass, as if he somehow didn’t know about the changes underway in his own namesake company.

As part of the restructuring, it was decided that Lucasfilm would now engage in only two specific lines of business: providing production services to the film industry (Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound) and making mass-market entertainments. The old Computer Graphics Group that had awkwardly spawned the Games Group still hadn’t really proved themselves to belong in the former category, while the Games Group, at least if you squinted just right, pretty much did belong in the latter. Thus, while the Games Group got to remain at Lucasfilm, the Graphics Group in February of 1986 was spun off to a collection of investors that included many of their own current personnel as well as, as ringmaster of the whole proceeding, Steve Jobs, recently exiled from Apple. The old Graphics Group was now known as Pixar, selling a $135,000 graphics workstation which they had developed during their years with Lucasfilm. Most of the rest of Lucasfilm’s computer-oriented research was either cancelled outright or similarly packaged up and sold off. (Most notably, Lucasfim’s EditDroid digital-editing project became an independent company called Droid Works).

Soon the old Games Group represented the only significant hacker presence left at Lucasfilm. It was during this period of colossal change that George Lucas took rare personal notice of Games for long enough to deliver his most oft-quoted piece of advice to Steve Arnold: “Stay small, be the best, don’t lose any money.” This commandment has often been taken to represent a sort of creative carte blanche for Arnold and his charges. Taken in the context in which it was uttered, however, it’s probably better seen as a warning. The Games Group was free to continue to trade on the Lucasfilm name and enjoy their gourmet lunches at the company cafeteria, but they’d have to start paying their own way from here on. Should they fail at that, their rope would not be a long one, for Lucas had little personal investment in their work.

Given this situation, when Lucasfilm’s brass decided to throw the Games Group a bone in the form of an actual piece of intellectual property with which to work Arnold certainly didn’t turn up his nose at the prospect. It wasn’t Star Wars or even Indiana Jones, but it was a much-anticipated film called Labyrinth, a fantasy adventure directed by Jim Henson and starring David Bowie that was to be released in the summer of 1986. Beginning in November of 1985, Arnold poured most of his resources into the project, Lucasfilm Games’s first adventure game. The Henson connection secured the involvement of Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street stalwart and all-around Renaissance man of the arts who seemed to know everyone and be involved with everything in the world of entertainment. Cerf was a good friend of Douglas Adams, a frequent guest at his legendary gala dinner parties; it had in fact been Cerf who had largely brokered the deal with Infocom that had led to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game. In January much of the Games Group flew to London for an intense week of consultation with Henson, Cerf, and their buddy Adams.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth had been conceived from the beginning as a graphic adventure, a genre that was just beginning to emerge from the primordial muck thanks largely to the work of Sierra and ICOM Simulations. It was Adams who suggested the game’s brilliant cold open: it begins as an ordinary text adventure, and not a very good one at that, until you arrive at a cinema and get sucked into the movie playing there by a pixelated David Bowie. It’s a ludic version of that iconic moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film suddenly shifts from black and white to color. Some of his other subversive touches, playing as he loved to do with the artificiality of the medium itself, weren’t so easily implemented. The team particularly lamented that they wouldn’t be able to use Adams’s idea for a film-editing room found in the game. He suggested that you should be able to view the scraps of film to see snippets of your own previous adventures, maybe even forgotten tributaries down which you’d wandered before restoring the game to its current state. Alas, something like that just wasn’t going to happen on the likes of a Commodore 64.

Not really a bad game but also not quite a fully baked one, Labyrinth would prove to be something of a steppingstone on the way to a grand tradition of Lucasfilm adventure games still to come. Your character can be moved about using the joystick, but other commands must be constructed rather awkwardly, by using the arrow keys to cycle through two separate lists, one of available verbs and one of nouns. Notably, when a verb is selected the list of nouns is limited to only those which logically apply, thus making it at least theoretically impossible to construct a completely nonsensical “sentence.” Driving much of the design was a philosophy that adventure games should be friendlier, less tedious, and much less deadly than was the norm from competitors like Sierra. It is, for instance, almost impossible to get yourself killed in Labyrinth, and David Fox noted in contemporaneous interviews how he had strained to “eliminate the dead-end or ‘insoluble’ situation.” In years to come Lucasfilm Games would virtually define themselves in opposition to what they saw as the Bad Old Way of doing adventure games, as particularly personified by the games of Sierra. It’s an idea that would take some experience and some technology upgrades to reach complete fruition, but it’s interesting to note that it was present right from the beginning.

Note the "slot-machine" verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Labyrinth. Note the “slot-machine” verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Released in June of 1986, the movie version of Labyrinth thoroughly underwhelmed by the standards of an expensive would-be blockbuster, spending just one week inside the top ten in the United States and garnering mixed (at best) reviews. The odor of a flop inevitably clung to the game as well when it was released two months later. Despite lots of advertising and the usual free publicity garnered from journalists eager to come out to Skywalker Ranch and bask in the aura of Star Wars, it became on the whole a commercial disappointment. This was now becoming a depressingly common theme for the Games Group. They were perilously close to violating that last and most important of Lucas’s commandments.

Their savior would come from a much smaller, quieter project than the big Labyrinth tie-in — indeed, a project from which Steve Arnold seemed to have no real expectations at all. Its father had himself been heretofore one of the less noticeable employees of the Games Group, a friendly, unassuming fellow with a wry sense of humor and a great aptitude for programming. His name was Ron Gilbert, and he was motivated by that most compelling of all workplace impulses: he was just trying not to get fired.

Born in 1964 in the rural Oregon town of La Grande, Gilbert had been programming since 1977, when his father brought home the family’s first Texas Instruments programmable calculator. Soon after starting at his hometown Eastern Oregon State College in 1982, he bought his first Commodore 64, and immediately discovered one of that machine’s most conspicuous weaknesses: its BASIC interpreter had no support whatsoever for the very graphics and sound capabilities that made the 64 so special. Working with a buddy named Tom McFarlane, he developed a BASIC extension called Graphics BASIC to change all that, adding over a hundred new commands to the language. It was impressive enough that they were able to sell it to HESWare, one of the biggest publishers in software at the time. In fact, HESWare was so impressed with Gilbert personally that they offered him a full-time job as an in-house programmer. So, he dropped out of university to move to Brisbane, California.

It didn’t work out. HESWare turned out to be a flash in the pan that had made a ton of unwise financial decisions in their eagerness to rule the software roost. Within months of Gilbert’s arrival the company collapsed, well before releasing anything he had worked on. He was forced to return sheepishly to La Grande to contemplate re-enrolling at Eastern Oregon — luckily, his dad was the president there — and getting back to the real world of adult employment; maybe he could get a job as a programmer at a bank or something. Then, one day in October of 1984, the telephone rang just as he was leaving the house. Prompted by he wasn’t quite sure what, he decided to rush back inside and answer it. It was Steve Arnold from Lucasfilm Games. He and his colleagues had seen Graphics BASIC and heard about Gilbert’s talents through the grapevine, Arnold explained. They needed someone to help port their games, which had been originally developed for Atari 8-bit machines, to the Commodore 64. Would he be willing to come down to San Rafael to talk about a possible contract? Like most prospective employees Arnold spoke to, Gilbert didn’t have to think twice when the company behind Star Wars came calling. It was just an interview, and for a contract position at that, but he nevertheless packed all of his possessions into his 280Z and took off for California. He had no intention of coming back.

He didn’t need to; he got the job. Still, as a contractor rather than a regular employee he was left perpetually uncertain about how long he’d get to live the dream. His anxiety only increased after the Commodore 64 versions of the Games Group’s modest early catalog of four action games were all pretty much complete and nobody seemed to be giving him any clear information about what he was expected to do next. Working with a couple of the other guys, he came up with a fanciful game proposal for Arnold’s bulging ideas file: I Was a Teenage Lobot, a “science-fiction role-playing strategy adventure game.” (Better check again, guys; I think you may have missed a genre or two.) But then the big Labyrinth project came along, depriving him of his would-be partners. Ominously, Gilbert was one of the few people in the Games Group not earmarked to that game.

Whether Steve Arnold was really snubbing him or whether he saw something special in him and wanted to give him his own space to figure out for himself what that was is still an open question. What is clear is that Gilbert started toying with another idea to justify his existence there at Skywalker Ranch, involving a group of kids sent, Scooby-Doo-style, to explore a creepy old mansion.

Gilbert claims that he didn’t originally conceive of Maniac Mansion as an adventure game at all, perhaps because one of its central conceits had rarely been done in an adventure game before. From the beginning, he was determined that you should be able to control several kids rather than just one, each of whom would have her own personality and abilities. Much of the gameplay would hinge on coordinating the kids’ actions to achieve things none of them could manage on her own. And that was pretty much the whole idea; just about everything else about the design seemed to be up in the air. But then, visiting home for the Christmas of 1985, he saw his eight-year-old cousin obsessively playing Sierra’s King’s Quest. Gilbert loved the graphics, but didn’t care for Roberta Williams’s death-heavy philosophy of game design any more than he did for Sierra’s primitive parser, which made a particularly poor fit with a game that was otherwise so graphics-oriented. He decided that he wanted to do an adventure game “because I hate adventure games,” because he wanted to show the world how they could be so much better.

I hated that you died all the time. You’d be walking along and you would step somewhere and out of the blue you would die. That just seemed frustrating to me. I think a lot of designers must think that’s fun. But it’s not. It’s horrible.

And too often the game devolved into what Gilbert calls “second-guess the parser”:

You would see a bush on the screen, and you’d type, “Pick up bush,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘bush’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up plant,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘plant’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up shrubbery,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘shrubbery’ is.” Pretty soon you’d type, “Fuck you,” and it would say, “I don’t understand what ‘fuck’ is.”

So, I’m looking at this bush or plant or shrub and I cannot figure out the word that the game designer is using for it. That’s very frustrating because I can see it right on the screen. Why can’t I just click on it?

And the next logical step is: if I can just click on objects on the screen, why can’t I just click on verbs as well? Really, despite what the marketing departments and the backs of the boxes were telling us, these games only understood a very small number of verbs.

Beginning from textual lists of verbs and nouns much like the interface of Labyrinth, Maniac Mansion evolved into a much more intuitive experience: a clickable list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, which can be combined with hotspots in the pictures proper to build commands. In its day it was simply the best, most elegant interface for graphical adventuring yet devised. One might call it a combination of the best traits of the two most prominent systems for graphic adventuring already extant at the time: Sierra’s AGI games that debuted with King’s Quest and the ICOM Simulations line of adventures that began with Déjà Vu. Like the former, you can see your avatar (or avatars in this case) and move them about onscreen, but like the latter you don’t have to wrestle with a parser, being able instead to simply click on verbs and objects in your inventory or in the environment proper to construct commands. It’s afflicted with neither the perpetual disconnect between textual parser and graphical worldview that can make the AGI games so frustrating nor the cluttered, cramped feel of ICOM’s overly baroque interface. Maniac Mansion would prove to be by far the most graphical graphical adventure of its time, willing to do most of its storytelling through visuals and the occasional well-chosen sound effect rather than the big text dumps that mark the Sierra and ICOM games. Tellingly, it devotes exactly one line of the screen to text messages.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal "New Kid") and the character's inventory below.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal “New Kid”) and the character’s inventory below.

Gilbert found a great supporter of his budding adventure game in Gary Winnick, the Games Group’s indefatigable visual artist. In between contributing much of the art found in both Labyrinth and Habitat, Winnick found time to brainstorm Maniac Mansion and to create heaps of sample art. Yet progress was painfully slow. Gilbert was trying to build Maniac Mansion in the same way that Labyrinth was being built, by coding it from scratch in pure assembly language. Problem was, he was trying to do it alone. As 1986’s midpoint approached, Steve Arnold was getting noticeably annoyed at his apparent lack of productivity and Gilbert was surer than ever that he would be sent back to La Grande any day now.

It was at this juncture that Chip Morningstar made the suggestion that would change the direction of Lucasfilm Games forever. Why didn’t he devise a high-level scripting language that could be compiled on the Games Group’s big Unix workstations, then run on the Commodore 64 itself via an interpreter? Morningstar even took the time to help him design the language, a sort of cut-down version of some of the tools he and Randall Farmer were using to build the virtual world of Habitat, and to write the first compiler. SCUMM — the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion — was born.

It wasn’t precisely a new idea, but it was vastly complicated by the need a graphic adventure like Maniac Mansion had to do many things concurrently, in real time. Many different “scripts” would need to run at the same time, forcing Gilbert to code what amounted to a multitasking kernel for the whole system on the little Commodore 64. Even with Morningstar’s help, it took Gilbert a full six months to get the SCUMM system up and running. Meanwhile Gary Winnick’s art continued to pile up, looking for a home, and Gilbert continued to tremble every time Steve Arnold looked his way. At last at the end of 1986 SCUMM was complete enough that he could return to the game proper. Arnold, evidently beginning to feel that his work had real potential, allowed David Fox to join him as a SCUMM scripter. Winnick as well was now working virtually full-time on the project, contributing not only all of the art but also major swathes of design and story.

Gilbert credits SCUMM and the relative ease with which it let the programmer script interactions for making the world of the finished Maniac Mansion much more interactive and alive than it could otherwise have been. Not least amongst the little gags and Easter eggs SCUMM facilitated was a certain soon-to-be-infamous hamster-in-a-microwave bit. Gilbert insists that it was actually Fox and Winnick who came up with and implemented this particular piece of tasteless humor, so angry missives should be directed their way rather than to him.


Winnick drew the kids you control and the other characters that inhabit the mansion like bobblehead dolls, heads out of all proportion to their bodies, to make sure their personalities came across despite the low screen resolution of the Commodore 64. He had already used the same technique in both Labyrinth and Habitat and would continue to do so for some time to come; it would become the most instantly recognizable graphical trait of early Lucasfilm adventure games. Gilbert’s original plan had called for the kids to literally be kids — children. Realizing, however, that no one wanted to see children endangered and potentially dispatched in gruesome ways, Gilbert and Winnick decided to make the kids teenagers, which made a better demographic fit anyway with the teenage players who were the biggest audience for computer games. They form a group of seven broad high-school archetypes, sketched with just a hint of a satirical edge, from amongst which you choose three to see you through the game. Bernard is an electronics buff, physics champion, and all-around nerd; Wendy is a prim and proper “aspiring novelist” who seems to have been born at age 40; Michael is Yearbook Guy at the school, an ace photographer; Jeff is a surfer dude who seems to have wandered into Maniac Mansion whilst looking for California Games; and, betraying perhaps a slight flagging of the creative muscles, both Sid and Razor are would-be rock stars (Sid’s a new waver, Razor a punk, for whatever that’s worth). And finally there’s Dave, a Good Kid of the sort who runs for Class President. He’s the leader of the group and the one kid you have to play with. It’s his girlfriend Sandy — a cheerleader, naturally — who’s been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, the creepy owner of the mansion, to feed to aliens. Some real people found themselves immortalized inside these archetypical shells: Razor’s look was based on Winnick’s girlfriend, Wendy on an accountant (what else?) at the office, Dave on Ron Gilbert himself. All of the kids have unique talents, some expected, some less so; clueless Jeff’s inexplicable hidden talent for fixing telephones is actually one of the funniest gags in the game. The idea was that any combination of kids should be capable of solving the game.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

It was an idea that would cause Gilbert and Winnick no small amount of angst. Neither had ever designed an adventure game before, much less a knotty tapestry like this with its combinatorial explosion of protagonists, and their design document consisted of little more than a map of the mansion and a list of objects and the puzzles to which they applied. They desperately wanted to create an adventure game that would be more friendly and forgiving than the typical Sierra effort, but, inevitably, their lack of experience and planning and time, not to mention play-testing — the Games Group’s testing department consisted of exactly one guy sitting in front of a Commodore 64 with a pad of paper — led to a game fairly riddled with potential dead ends and unwinnable situations despite its designers’ best intentions. Gilbert, a great and much-needed advocate for fairness in adventure design, still castigates himself for that to this day.

Both Gilbert and Winnick were fans of knowingly schlocky B-grade horror movies like the then-recent Re-AnimatorManiac Mansion was conceived very much as an homage to the genre. The actual plot, of the mad scientist who owns the mansion attempting to tap the power of a mysterious meteorite that fell on his property, was inspired by one of the vignettes in Creepshow, an anthology of short horror films. Other references, like the man-eating plant lifted whole cloth from Little Shop of Horrors, are even more obvious. Still, it was going to have to be a much more family-friendly affair if it was to bear the Lucasfilm name. When Arnold demanded that all traces of swearing be removed from the game, Gilbert and Winnick did so only under duress, and to the tune of plenty of grumbling about “artistic vision” and the like. If you can tell me exactly why Dave has to call Bernard a “shithead” at the outset of the night, said Arnold, you can keep it. No one could. Gilbert says that the lesson thus imparted about the pointlessness of gratuitous profanity has stuck with him to this day.

Maniac Mansion

Better a tuna head than a shithead…

For the mansion itself, they a found a fecund source of inspiration very close to home indeed: the big neo-Victorian “Main House” at Skywalker Ranch. The spiral staircase inside the library in Maniac Mansion is lifted straight from the “filmmaker’s research library” in the Main House. In the game, the staircase has an “out of order” sign on it and cannot be climbed under any circumstances. This was a subtle inside joke: George Lucas’s personal office was on the balcony at the top of those stairs in the real house, and nobody was allowed to go up there without an invitation.

Skywalker Ranch

Maniac Mansion

Given that it was a game inspired largely by movies that was being developed at a movie studio, Gilbert wanted to give Maniac Mansion a cinematic flavor. He imagined little episodes that would “cut away” from the player’s current actions to advance the plot and show what the captive Sally, her captor Dr. Fred, and the other creepy inhabitants of the mansion were up to. He asked Arnold if there was a filmmaking term for this technique that he could employ. Arnold said that “cut scene” sounded more than good enough to him. Thus did a new term enter the gaming lexicon. Maniac Mansion was hardly the first game to employ them — there was Jordan Mechner’s 1984 classic Karateka and Sierra adventure games like Space Quest and even the old Ms. Pac-Man game in the arcades — but it had been left to Lucasfilm to finally give them a name. The concept was baked right into the SCUMM language, with a special kind of script called simply “cut-scene” that when triggered would automatically save the player’s state, play the cut scene as a little animated movie all its own, and then restore the player to control.


One ironic consequence of the cut scenes is to make the game harder in just the ways that Gilbert would have preferred to avoid. Most of them are triggered by simple timers. While some are just there for atmosphere or to convey information, others directly affect the state of the world, such as when a postman arrives with a package. There are often things you must do to react or to prepare for these dynamic events; failing to do so can lock you out of victory. Had anyone been paying attention, Infocom’s Ballyhoo had already pioneered a better way to advance the plot inside an adventure game, by tying events to the player’s progress rather than hard-coded timers. Like many such lessons, it would be learned only slowly by game designers, and largely by a process of reinventing the wheel at that. As it is, Maniac Mansion has some of the feel of the earlier Infocom mysteries, of needing to learn how to steer events just right over the course of multiple restores.

Shortly before the release of Labyrinth, Lucasfilm Games had severed their relationship with Epyx and moved on to Activision. It was thus under that company’s banner that Maniac Mansion made its public debut at the June 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, host to so much of the last great wave of Commodore 64 software. Before Maniac Mansion could actually be released, however, Arnold made the huge decision to self-publish it under Lucasfilm’s own banner. Lucasfilm Games changed from being a mere developer to being an “affiliated publisher” of Activision, a status that gave them more independence and put their own name alone on their boxes but still gave them access to the larger company’s distribution network and other logistical support. Even with Activision’s support, publishing entailed engaging with entire facets of the software industry from which they’d always been happily insulated before. They learned a harsh lesson about the sensitivities of some Americans when Toys ‘R’ Us, one of the biggest Commodore 64 game retailers in the country, abruptly pulled the game off their shelves in response to a customer complaint. It seemed some old biddy had seen the tongue-in-cheek copy on the back of the box, which declared Maniac Mansion to be (amongst other things) a story of “love, lust, and power,” and had objected in no uncertain terms. Lucasfilm was forced to hurriedly redesign the box in order not to lose Toy ‘R’ Us forever.

Lucasfilm Games's Maniac Mansion advertisements took aim at "most story game designers" who "seem to think people love to get clobbered." Here's looking at you, Sierra.

Lucasfilm Games’s advertisements took aim at “most story game designers” who “seem to think people love to get clobbered.” I wonder which designers they’re talking about…

But it all worked out in the end. Coming out as it did with the Lucasfilm Games logo — and only the Lucasfilm Games logo — all over its box, Maniac Mansion proved a pivotal release for this little concern that, despite brilliant personnel and a name to die for, had struggled for years now to come up with a definitive commercial identity. One of the huge advantages of the SCUMM system was that it made porting games to new platforms relatively easy, just a matter of writing a new interpreter. Thus by 1988 Maniac Mansion could be bought in versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, and MS-DOS in addition to the Commodore 64 original. In time it would even make its way to the Nintendo Entertainment System. (See Doug Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion to learn of the hilarious lengths the Games Group had to go through to get it accepted by Nintendo’s censorious management regime, who made the Toys “R” Us lady look like a libertine.) While it never topped many sales charts, Maniac Mansion turned into a perennial back-catalog star, selling far more units when all was said and done than any game the Games Group had released before. Its continuing popularity was such that in 1990 it spawned a successful children’s television series, a claim to fame that very few games can boast. Such success enabled Lucasfilm Games at last to firmly plant their feet and adhere to Lucas’s dictum to “not lose any money” while they built upon the reputation it engendered for them. They were now known first and foremost as a maker of graphic adventure games, the yin to Sierra’s yang. They had traveled a long and winding road to get here, but it seemed they had finally found a calling.

Maniac Mansion’s intrinsic value as a game is often dismissed today in favor of its historical role as the urtext for the many much-loved SCUMM games that followed it. That, however, is a shame, for its charms as the best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 are real, varied, and considerable. Yes, it’s a bit of shaggy beast in contrast to those later Lucasfilm classics, but it’s also in many ways the most complex and interesting game game of any of them; no other SCUMM game boasts anything like its seven different playable characters, with all of the alternate storylines and solutions they bring with them.

Yet the most winning thing about Maniac Mansion is its personality, which is in turn a tribute to the personalities who created it. Gilbert and Winnick, one senses, want you to have a good time, want you to solve the game and then come back for more, trying on new combinations of characters for size. Thanks largely to the essential good faith and sense of fair play with which its authors approached it, Maniac Mansion is a game that’s hard to dislike, despite its occasional sins in the form of a puzzle or two that could have been clued slightly better and one really egregious example of hunt-the-hotspot (hint: check the library very carefully). Its puzzles are varied, usually logical in their wacky way, and always entertaining, and are given a wonderful added dimension by the need to coordinate two or sometimes even all three kids in far-flung corners of the mansion to solve some of the more intricate problems. (Interestingly, Level 9 in Britain was doing much the same thing during the same time period in the realm of text adventures.) One other thing that helps immeasurably is that the mansion is a relatively constrained environment, limiting the scope of possibility enough to keep things manageable. And of course it also helps that the game manages to evoke the sylvan atmosphere of a long teenage summer night so beautifully using the blunt instrument of 8-bit graphics and sound. Likeability, good faith, and good intentions will get you a long way, in games as in life, and talent doesn’t hurt one bit either. Thankfully, Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and their colleagues were possessed of all of the above in spades.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; The Transactor of July 1986; The LucasArts Adventurer of Spring 1991; Commodore Magazine of June 1987 and November 1988; Computer and Video Games of December 1986; Retro Gamer 94 and 116. Ron Gilbert has a wealth of material on his own history on his website and his “Making of Maniac Mansion” presentation was also invaluable.

Feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Maniac Mansion from here.)

 

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Hitchhiking the Galaxy Infocom-Style

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>w
You can't go that way.

>n
You can't go that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>yes
Absolutely sure?

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

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

>no
Engine Room
You're in the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.

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

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

(Footnote 10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fleet continues to hurtle sunwards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>w
The screening door is closed.

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

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

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

>get no tea
no tea: Taken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. “As seen on Tri-D!” 

  2. Easily mistaken for an plastic empty baggie. 

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

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

  5. Or whatever it’s supposed to be. 

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

  7. Or not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  13. Don’t ask. 

  14. Really don’t ask. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  23. Not to mention this post. 

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

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

 

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The Computerized Hitchhiker’s

Born in Cambridge, England, in 1952, Douglas Adams received a good public boarding-school education at Brentwood School before entering Cambridge University to read English in 1971. His dream, however, was not to become a scholar but to write and — and this is often overlooked — perform comedy like his hero, another ludicriously tall and ungangly-looking British comic named John Cleese. Thus Cambridge was attractive not so much because it was one of the two most storied universities in Britain but because it was the home of the almost equally legendary Footlights theatrical troupe, incubator of Cleese and the rest of his mates in Monty Python and, indeed, a whole generation of British comedy. Adams was eventually accepted by the Footlights, but came gradually over the course of several years to the disheartening realization that he was no John Cleese. He just wasn’t much good as a performer. His stage presence was awkward when not nonexistent, and he could never seem to surpress his big, goofy, good-natured laugh, which was literally infectious; it would suddenly ring out in the middle of a sketch, then quickly spread to his fellow players and derail the entire performance. His career in comedy, if he was to have one, would have to be made off the stage.

Adams, whose social gifts are legendary, managed to make the acquaintance of most of the members of Monty Python while still a starving student. After graduating in 1974, he did some writing for the truncated final season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and also had a couple of onscreen cameos that mark his swansong as a performer. Otherwise, however, his mid-1970s were largely a period of disappointment: an aborted television special that was to feature Ringo Starr (meeting whom must at least have been a huge thrill for Adams the rabid Beatles fan); various other failed or stillborn television specials and pilots; various disappointing stage revues. He was about ready to give it up, move to Hong Kong, and become, of all things, a ship broker, when BBC radio bit on his proposal for a science-fiction comedy serial called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The first of its six half-hour episodes, named by Adams “Fits” in homage to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” premiered on March 8, 1978, with no promotion and in a truly horrid time slot: 10:30 PM on a Wednesday night.

Predictably enough, it pulled a 0.0 in audience share, which would seem to indicate that absolutely no one heard it and that it was destined for the same fate as all of Adams’s previous projects. But the rounding error in that figure was apparently a very vocal lot. Entirely due to word of mouth, ratings increased steadily with each additional episode, prompting the BBC to rerun the entire thing to yet better ratings just two weeks after “Fit the Sixth” concluded the serial. Hitchhiker’s was on its way to becoming a full-fledged phenomenon. Ironically, it happened just as Adams also sold a television script to Doctor Who (“The Pirate Planet”) and took the position of script editor for the series. Suddenly he went from knocking on doors to the heart of the BBC machine, with more work than he could handle; he lasted just a year with Doctor Who before it became clear that the smart move was to ride this Hitchhiker’s thing as far as it could take him.

And that, of course, turned out to be very far indeed. Although conceived before the film’s debut, Hitchhiker’s had the good fortune to premiere just after Star Wars made Britain, like the rest of the Western world, wild for anything science fiction. Adams soon found himself sitting at the nexus of an entire cottage industry, as Hitchhiker’s was adapted into seemingly every medium imaginable: novels (three of them in the initial rush); another six-episode radio serial; another audio version released as two double albums; a six-episode television serial; even theatrical performances. Adams was intimately involved with all of these variations and re-packagings, with the exception only of the plays.

It was, to say the least, a heady time in the life of the still very young Douglas Adams. His first Hitchhiker’s novel was published in October of 1979 and within a few weeks was the bestselling paperback in Britain. Suddenly he was a wealthy and even modestly famous man. He later colorfully described this period as “like having an orgasm with no foreplay.” It was even stranger because the role in which he would enjoy his biggest success, that of novelist, had never been anywhere on his career agenda, a fact which perhaps does a great deal to explain why he would struggle so mightily to actually, you know, write books in the year to follow. Initially a strictly British phenomenon, Hitchhiker’s spread to the United States as well within a year or two, when the books were picked up by Simon and Schuster’s Pocket imprint and PBS broadcasted the television version. By 1982, when the third book debuted a bestseller, Hitchhiker’s was firmly ensconced as an institution in nerd culture on both sides of the Atlantic, a place it still occupies to this day. And it looked to have the potential of spreading well beyond the nerds: immediately after finishing the third book, Adams moved to Hollywood to begin working on the script for a Hitchhiker’s feature film to be produced by Ivan Reitman of Animal House fame.

Hitchhiker’s wasn’t the only novelty in nerd culture of the early 1980s. There was also the computer, and computer games. These two things inevitably came together quite early. In 1981, a British civil servant named Bob Chappell decided he’d like to write a text adventure based on Hitchhiker’s for his Commodore PET. He wrote to Adams’s British publisher, Pan Books, to ask permission. With little idea just what he was really on about, they said sure, as long as Pan and Adams himself were properly acknowledged. Chappell made his game, a simple treasure hunt which demanded you return five items to the “Five Artefacts Inn” to win; the parser which did the demanding was “Eddie, your faithful computer” from the novels. Chappell sold the game to software publisher Supersoft for “£500 worth of microchips and assorted programs.” However, the British software market was still in its infancy and the market for PET games — the PET being a fairly expensive machine used primarily for business — was a pretty small part of even that. Thus this original version of Hitchhiker’s made little impression, and seems never to have even been noticed by Adams himself or any of his immediate associates.

"Hitchhiker's" on the BBC Micro

“Hitchhiker’s” on the BBC Micro

"Hitchhiker's" on the Spectrum

“Hitchhiker’s” on the Spectrum

Eighteen months later, the situation had changed dramatically. Not only was Hitchhiker’s more of a phenomenon than ever, but computer use was also exploding in Britain, with Clive Sinclair the toast of the nation. Supersoft decided to give the game another belated push, in new versions for the Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, and Dragon 32. Meanwhile, thanks to the original having been written in easy-to-modify BASIC, clones and variations were starting to pop up on other platforms. At least two companies attempted to sell their own versions: Computer Concepts made one for the BBC Micro, while Estuary Software Products made one for the Speccy and the Apple II.

Those completely unauthorized knockoffs, infringing as they did both on the intellectual property of Supersoft and that of Adams, were easy enough to head off. But the situation with the Supersoft version, thanks to that damned letter from Pan Books, was more complicated. It was pretty obvious to everyone in Adams’s camp that a computer game based on Hitchhiker’s was a natural, what with the demographic intersections at play between computer gamers and Hitchhiker’s fans, but the decision had been made to make any such project a tie-in to the big movie version of the story, for which Reitman and Columbia Pictures had just paid £200,000 and which everyone hoped might be released as early as 1984. “A legal storm is brewing,” announced the British weekly Popular Computing with gleeful anticipation in their April 21, 1983, issue. Sonny Mehta of Pan Books, the people who had created this mess in the first place, said they were “very concerned” about the game. Peter Calver of Supersoft insisted that they had all the permission they needed in that two-year-old letter.

As these things so often do, it all blew over rather anticlimactically. Within two weeks of pronouncing their defiance, Supersoft, apparently deciding it was best not to tangle legally with several companies hundreds or thousands of times bigger than they were, settled out of court, and agreed to remove all Hitchhiker’s references from the game. The game was renamed Cosmic Capers. “Millways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe” became “Colonel McWimpays, the Fastest Restaurant in the Galaxy”; “Vogons” became “Verrucans”; the “Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal” became the “Barbaric Binge Beast of Bongo”; the “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster” became the “Burgunzian Shazam Shandy”; etc., etc. It wasn’t a particularly good game with or without the Hitchhiker’s license, and sank at last without leaving much of a trace. But still the game of Whack-a-Mole continued. Fantasy Software soon released a very thinly veiled Hitchhiker’s knock-off for the Spectrum called The Backpacker’s Guide to the Universe which at least had the virtue of being an original piece of code. Once again Adams’s lawyers sprung into action, and Fantasy was forced to re-release it as simply Backpacker and take out a series of advertisements in magazines saying that “Backpacker is in no way connected with the works of Douglas Adams.”

The Backpacker's Guide to the Universe

Douglas Adams was paying much more attention as all of this went down for the very good reason that he had himself become an avid computer user in the time since Pan had sent Chappell that troublesome letter. He had been a bit of a gadget freak since his photography classes back at Brentwood, where he found himself fascinated not so much with the art of photography as with the technology — the cameras themselves. Now that he could afford it, he filled his home with cameras, guitars (Adams was something of a frustrated would-be rock star who delighted in palling around with Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, and Paul McCartney’s band), and, of course, cars (he bought his first Porsche with the advance for the first Hitchhiker’s novel and just kept going from there). Computers, when he discovered them, were a natural progression. As with Michael Crichton, another author turned computer enthusiast, his first tentative steps came in the form of a standalone word processor. He’d soon replaced it with a real computer, a DEC Rainbow. Many, many more would follow. More so than even Crichton, for whom hacking was apparently something of a passing phase, Adams would remain a noted computer enthusiast and popularizer for the rest of his life.

Which brings us to Infocom. The story of how Douglas Adams ended up working with them is still somewhat murky. What follows is my best reconstruction of events from the many and occasionally contradictory available sources.

Adams discovered Infocom very soon after he discovered computers. He ended up buying several of their games, developing a particular fascination with Mike Berlyn’s Suspended. He found them a great aid to “not writing” during days in his study; not, as Infocom would soon learn, that he needed much help in that area. One day on a press junket of some sort or another he started discussing computer games with an executive from his American publisher, Simon & Schuster. He said he was rather nonplussed as a whole with what he’d seen, with the exception of this one company, Infocom. Without saying anything more about it to Adams himself, the executive interpreted Adams’s admiration to indicate that he would likely be willing to make a computer version of Hitchhiker’s in partnership with them.

Soon after, Simon & Schuster began to reach out to Infocom with an eye to possibly acquiring them. Whether there is, to borrow from the eventual Infocom Hitchhiker’s game, any causal relationship between these two events is not clear to me; Infocom may already have been on Simon & Schuster’s agenda. What is clear, however, is that Simon & Schuster took Adams’s alleged interest to Infocom when they did reach out, adding the Hitchhiker’s franchise to Star Trek on the list of things they could do for them. It was a tempting proposition indeed. In Mike Dornbrook’s words: “We were interested in both of these things, and we actually had a fairly intense internal debate because we didn’t think we could do both at once.” Then word reached Adams through the grapevine that Simon & Schuster was “dangling him like a carrot” before Infocom. A very unhappy Adams let Simon & Schuster know in no uncertain terms that there was a big gap between an expression of admiration for someone and a proposal of marriage. Adams being the cash cow he was, Simon & Schuster had to keep him happy. They thus had no choice but to go back to Infocom and sheepishly say that, well, the Hitchhiker’s thing might not be such a done deal after all. But hey, there was still Star Trek! The dance between the two companies then continued for many more months.

But Adams was actually not hostile at all to the idea of working with Infocom. He just didn’t like the way that Simon & Schuster had handled it. In fact, there was no legal reason that Simon & Schuster need be involved at all. Yes, they were Adams’s American publisher, but the franchise itself belonged to him, as evidenced by the fact that he had been able to sell the movie rights to Columbia rather than Paramount, who shared with Simon & Schuster the parent company of Gulf and Western. Speaking of that movie: it was starting to look like it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Douglas Adams the scriptwriter had proven underwhelming to Reitman and his colleagues. They said his script was too long, and wasn’t structured the way a three-act commercial blockbuster needed to be. Adams was digging in his heels on the requested changes, and, worst of all, Reitman and Adams mixed like oil and water — or a commercially-oriented Hollywood producer and a quirky British humorist. About the only qualities the two men seemed to share when together in a conference room were stubbornness and arrogance. And then there was Adams’s legendary gift for procrastination. As 1983 ground on and the script failed to progress, Reitman grew more and infatuated with another far-out comedy that had crossed his desk, a little thing called Ghostbusters which was written by Dan Aykroyd, a Hollywood pro he knew how to deal with. By that autumn he had put Hitchhiker’s on the shelf, where it would linger for many years, much to Adams’s chagrin, to proceed full speed ahead with Ghostbusters. Adams returned to Britain a frustrated man, having just experienced his first real failure since selling that first Hitchhiker’s radio serial. With no need to wait for the movie to make a computer-game version, perhaps an Infocom Hitchhiker’s could serve as something of a consolation prize. After all, apart from film computers games represented about the only medium the franchise had not yet conquered (unauthorized or semi-authorized knockoffs excepted, of course).

Ed Victor, Adams’s agent, therefore contacted Infocom’s Mike Dornbrook through a mutual acquaintance, Christopher Cerf of the Children’s Television Workshop, a fellow who was clearly very interested in interactivity and shows it by continuing to show up as a supporting player to so many of the little dramas I write about in this blog. Dornbrook and Victor hammered out an agreement over the course of several meetings, with only limited input from Adams, who in the words of Dornbrook “would often be at the meetings, but would certainly defer to Ed on any business-related decisions.” Still, a creative problem soon surfaced that, much to Dornbrook’s chagrin, threatened to derail negotiations.

Douglas wanted to work with Marc [Blank] or Mike [Berlyn]. He was dead set on them, because they had written the games that he liked. He really liked Suspended, really wanted to work with Mike Berlyn. Mike Berlyn wanted nothing to do with a collaboration. I was saying, “Oh, my God! We’ve got Douglas Adams desperately wanting to write a game with us! He wants to do Hitchhiker’s with us! There’s no question whether this will be a success!” Who wouldn’t want to work with this incredibly creative guy? But no one wanted to do it.

Just glancing at their relative sales and statures as writers, it does indeed seem incredible that Berlyn would turn down such a career-making opportunity. But these were heady times at Infocom, which prompted many of the still young men who worked there to have a somewhat, shall we say, exaggerated sense of themselves. With the lukewarm, sour-atmosphered Infidel as evidence of the work Mike Berlyn did when pushed into a project he wasn’t enthusiastic about, Dornbrook knew he needed to a) find a new partner for Adams (which was more difficult than it ought to be; Berlyn’s wasn’t the only big ego in the place); and b) sell Adams on whichever Imp he could convince (also no trivial task, given that Adams was another guy flush with commercial success and critical praise who liked things his own way).

At the time, Steve Meretzky was just finishing up Sorcerer. For a next project, Infocom had planned to partner him with science-fiction writer Joe Haldemann on an adaptation of the latter’s 1977 novel All My Sins Remembered. With Haldemann spending a year as a visiting professor at nearby MIT, it seemed the perfect window of opportunity for what would have been Infocom’s first full-on foray into bookware. But Haldemann didn’t seem as enthusiastic as his agent had been, and the project stalled after one or two phone conversations between the two. With Meretzky thus left without an obvious next project, and with the Haldemann project as evidence that he — steady, reliable fellow that he was — would be willing to work as inevitable second fiddle to a name author where the other Imps weren’t, he was the obvious choice. And of course his first game, Planetfall, had been more than a little similar to Hitchhiker’s.

Indeed, Planetfall is so similar to Hitchhiker’s in tone as well as subject matter that most still assume it to have been an homage to Adams’s work from the start. In fact, however, Meretzky had not been aware of Hitchhiker’s at all when writing the game. It was the testers who first told him that, you know, this really feels like something by this guy named Douglas Adams. This prompted him to borrow cassettes of the original series from a friend. He loved them — loved them so much that he added a little tribute in the game, in the form of a towel with “Escape Pod #42” and “Don’t Panic!” stenciled on. That was perhaps a bad move in the long run, because it left many people with the impression that Meretzky had been aping Adams from the start, when it really was just a matter of the proverbial great minds thinking alike. At any rate, as Infocom’s resident comedy-science-fiction Imp Meretzky would seem to have been the natural choice for a partner for Adams from the start. Yet it actually took all of Dornbrook’s charm to sell him on the idea; Adams was apparently entirely unaware of Planetfall, or had dismissed it as yet another cheap knock-off of his work.

Once Adams agreed to Mereztky, the contract was quickly signed. It was quite an ambitious one. Adams and Infocom agreed to do not just one Hitchhiker’s game but six. Given the technical limitations under which Infocom labored, which limited every game to no more than a novella’s worth of total text, each game would cover half of one of the then-extant three Hitchhiker’s books. The deal was signed just as 1983 turned into 1984. The first game should be out in time for Christmas 1984, with another presumably following every year.

Technophile that he was, Adams was hugely excited by the project — probably more excited, in fact, than he was about writing a fourth Hitchhiker’s book, the contract for which he signed at about the same time. He was even briefly taken with the notion of learning ZIL and actually helping to program the game; Meretzky remembers Adams proudly pulling out a simple “3D Tic Tac Toe” game he had written in BASIC to show off his burgeoning programming chops at one of their first meetings. But given Adams’s schedule for the year — which included writing the aforementioned book as well as the game, while also needing to leave time for his many and varied social and recreational pursuits — cooler heads prevailed. In Meretzky’s words: “We’d do the design together, Douglas would write the most important text passages and I’d fill in around them, and I’d do the implementation, meaning the high-level programming using Infocom’s development system.” They would do most of the collaborating electronically using Dialcom, the world’s first commercial email provider, after they spent a week together in Cambridge to get things rolling.

Adams accordingly came to Infocom’s offices in February of 1984 to spend a week hammering out the basic structure of the game with Meretzky. He arrived with no fanfare whatsoever. Stu Galley:

I happened to be walking by the front door when he came in — unescorted, with no one there to welcome him. I had to ask who he was. When he told me, I said, “You probably want to go talk to Joel [Berez] or Marc.”

Looking beyond the obvious commercial attractions, Hitchhiker’s made a pretty great setting for a game. The Achilles heel of any novel-to-game adaptation is generally the plot, specifically the question of what to do when the player deviates from it. But, as Meretzky notes, Hitchhiker’s was more like a grab bag of “characters, locations, technologies, etc., while the story line wasn’t all that important.” Or even more flexibly, as Adams put it in a contemporary interview, “a set of approaches and attitudes, with a few rough ideas about characters.” At first, Meretzky admits that he was “awed” by Adams, while Adams was uncertain about interactivity and how to use it. Meretzky sees this as the explanation for the beginning of the game, which is very linear and quite slavishly follows the opening of the book. Later, however, after the player (as Arthur Dent) and Ford Prefect escape the Earth just as it is destroyed by the Vogons, the game blossoms into its own original, wildly nonlinear design, a reflection of Adams’s growing comfort with the medium and both men’s growing comfort with one another.

Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, February 1984, with the first Mac Adams ever saw

Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, February 1984, with the first Mac Adams ever saw

It was also at Infocom that February that Adams began a love affair that would continue for the rest of his life. As part of his tour around their offices, the Imps took him to the loft above the main floor where the Micro Group kept dozens and dozens of different computers, practically a showroom of all of the significant — and most of the insignificant — microcomputers that were now being or in the recent past had been manufactured. The crown jewel of the collection was a pre-release version of the Apple Macintosh, sent by Apple so that Infocom could have their games on the new machine as quickly as possible. Adams was immediately entranced. He promptly went out to buy one for himself, to take back to Britain with him. He claimed until the end of his life, quite possibly rightly, that this machine was the first Macintosh ever to make it to British soil. By 1985, when he was profiled in MacWorld magazine and thus first began to become known as a zealot for this platform so known for zealotry, he owned three; by 1987, six. The passion never faded. Right up until his death in 2001 he could be found waxing lyrical on the Internet about his collection. By then he required an entire room just to store all his obsolete models. As for the latest models: he “just wanted to hug” them every time he turned them on, just like in the old days. Macs do strange things to some people. Having never caught the bug myself, I’ll say no more, but just get back to 1984.

As everyone at Infocom would learn all too well before the company wound up, counting on Adams to deliver anything on time — or at all, for that matter — was usually a fool’s game. It was typical of him to start a project with huge enthusiasm; thus things went pretty swimmingly over that first week in Cambridge. But once Adams returned to Britain Meretzky found it harder and harder to get any work out of him. He wasn’t the only one: Adams was supposed to be working on that fourth Hitchhiker’s book, also to be in stores in time for Christmas, and had yet to even begin. His various handlers encouraged him to get away from the distractions of a London chock full of far too many shiny objects. So he packed his Saab with books, files, and computers and checked into Huntsham Court, a tiny hotel in Devon. It didn’t help much. In ten weeks there he wrote not a page of the would-be book, although he did develop a new hobby of comparative champagne-shopping and generally enjoyed himself immensely.

In many ways the game was looking quite promising, but there were still huge gaps in the design to be filled. Infocom finally decided to get more confrontational — usually the only way to get any work at all out of Adams after his first blush of enthusiasm for any given thing had faded. In May, shortly after Adams had ensconced himself in his remarkably unproductive writer’s retreat, they sent Meretzky over to join him there for four days, under orders to finish the design at all costs. With the game needing to ship by October to join the Christmas rush and heaps of coding and testing needed before that could happen, it was either that, let Meretzky finish it alone (a bad move politically, especially considering that Infocom hoped to get five more games out of Adams after this one), or postpone it — which would likely mean cancellation in the long run, as it was unlikely that Adams would get any more interested in the future.

Douglas Adams on the beach at Exmoor National Park in May 1984, where he and Steve Meretzky finished the Hitchhiker's design

Douglas Adams on the beach at Exmoor National Park in May 1984, where he and Steve Meretzky finished the Hitchhiker’s design

Meretzky in person proved to have just the right touch; he managed to keep Adams “pretty focused” on the game despite also allowing time for some sightseeing and for enjoying the “opulent cuisine” of Huntsham Court. The two came up with the final puzzle on the last day of the visit on the beach at Exmoor National Park. Then Adams returned to not writing his book, while Meretzky jetted back to the United States for three more weeks of feverish implementing. By July the game was in the hands of the first testers in roughly complete form. In September Adams dropped by Infocom’s offices to work out answers to some final questions raised by the testing process, and that was that.

Until now we’ve been seeing Adams at his most exasperating. Certainly it’s true that he didn’t have to work that terribly hard to earn his co-authorship credit alongside Meretzky; at least 90% of the actual work that went into the game was the latter’s. Meretzky not only did all the programming but also wrote at least as much of the text as Adams. The latter mostly provided just the text for the direct path through the game, leaving Meretzky to deal with all of the side trips and the incorrect and crazy things the player might try as well as any of the boring bridging passages that Adams couldn’t be bothered about. For all the superficial similarities in their humor, the two men’s working habits could hardly have been more different. Meretzky was disciplined, organized, methodical, seemingly immune to writer’s block and artistic angst, a dream employee for any manager of creative types. Adams was… well, Adams was Adams. Suffice to say that the spaceship captain in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe who just can’t seem to will himself out of his bathtub for years at a stretch was based on Adams himself. Although he is unfailingly diplomatic when describing the experience today, Meretzky must have suffered greatly at being saddled to such a temperament. Yet it’s also true, as Meretzky freely admits, that that unique Douglas Adams sensibility was essential to making the game the off-kilter, vaguely subversive creation it became. Who else on the planet would have thought to make “no tea” and “a splitting headache” an inventory object? Who would have thought to make the game lie to you? Who would have thought to make the player’s random typo from dozens of moves ago an integral part of the story? Adams pushed Meretzky to, as Mike Dornbrook puts it, “break the rules” that he’d thought were inviolate.

If Infocom thought they’d had it bad working with Adams, they could rest assured that the book had proven to be an even more nerve-wracking project. Upon Adams’s return to London late that summer with exactly no progress to show for his ten-week writer’s retreat, a desperate Sonny Mehta of Pan Books moved into a hotel suite with him for two weeks, during which he literally stood over him and forced him to write the book. Thanks to a subsequent mad scramble by both his British and American publishers it arrived in stores slightly ahead of the game. Unsurprisingly given its gestation, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is both shorter than and in most people’s opinion worse than its three predecessors. But as for myself: as I wrote in my previous article, I find the book a refreshing change from its predecessors. Go figure.

Having seen Adams at his worse, if not quite his truly infuriating worst, Infocom would now get the opportunity to see him at his best, to learn why so many people adored the guy even as he continually made their lives hell by not doing what he promised to do. Shortly after Adams’s last visit to Infocom that September, Marc Blank and Mike Dornbrook flew to London to plan the game’s promotional strategy. They had over a week there, which they expected to be largely filled with waiting for a few productive meetings with Adams and his people. They didn’t know Adams that well. He loved nothing better than to play the host and entertainer, and with book and game now both complete he could do so without guilt. He and his girlfriend (later wife) Jane Belson filled “almost every waking hour” the pair spent in London, and charmed the hell out of them in the process. Dornbrook:

We’d drive past a building and he would start telling a story. Now, he knew a lot about English history — but the thing was, Jane knew a lot more! Douglas tended to know the commonly accepted story, but she would know what the latest interpretation of that was. Just driving around the city and hearing all this history, and in a very classy, intellectual way, arguing over the history — it was just amazing.

But most amazing of all were the evenings. On his own Adams was already “probably the most interesting dinner companion you could have,” one of the great raconteurs of his time. Despite his reputation as a funnyman, he wasn’t a joke-a-minute kind of guy at all. What he was was deeply interested in and knowledgeable about all sorts of topics, from the universal to the esoteric, with lots of interesting thoughts of his own but also with a willingness to truly listen to and consider those of others. And then there was his guest list. Adams had taken advantage of the fame and fortune Hitchhiker’s had brought him to make the acquaintance of a dizzying cross-section of cultural, technical, and scientific movers and shakers: names like Alan Kay, Salman Rushdie, Bill Gates, David Gilmour. Evenings in Adams’s drawing room were like evenings spent in a classic Paris salon, or, as Mike Dornbrook put it, a visit to a Hollywood movie of the 1930s: “sparkling conversation by very interesting people talking about interesting subjects,” with wine to die for.

One evening Blank and Dornbrook found themselves breaking bread with Alan Coren (editor of Punch magazine), Terry Jones (of Monty Python), and Clive Sinclair in addition to Douglas and Jane. That dinner party, still remembered by Dornbrook as one of the most amazing evenings of his life, would also make its way into the British tabloid press. Adams had just that day received from Pan Books the very first copy of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. The press, for whom Sinclair could still pretty much do no wrong at this stage, would later report that Uncle Clive had insisted that he be allowed to buy it for a huge donation to charity. That account wasn’t precisely wrong, but the details were perhaps a bit more grubby than it might imply.

Adams was proudly showing the book to his guests when Sinclair, who was possessed of loads of imperiousness but very little social empathy, announced that he would like to have the book, to give to his son for his birthday. Adams, rather taken aback, said that he’d be happy to get another copy to him tomorrow, but this one was quite special to him, etc. Whereupon Sinclair offered “£1000 to the charity of your choice!” On the spot and very aware, as always, of his duties as host, Adams cheekily said fine, his choice would be Greenpeace — just about the last charity in the world to which Sinclair, arch-Tory and bosom buddy of Margaret Thatcher, would happily give money. But Sinclair agreed, and poor Adams saw his precious heirloom vanish into Sir Clive’s satchel.

Later in the evening Sinclair tangled with the less accommodating Marc Blank on one of those topics guaranteed to ruffle feathers in any mixed company: evolution. When Sinclair declared that natural selection was not sufficient to explain everything, Blank told him, at first politely but then increasingly less so, that he didn’t understand what he was talking about, and that he, Blank, with a degree in biology and training as a medical doctor, was better qualified to judge. The argument raged for the rest of the evening, while Douglas and Jane fruitlessly tried to change the subject. Later, Blank and Sinclair shared a cab ride home, with poor Dornbrook sitting uncomfortably between them in the “stony silence.” The two would never meet or speak again.

It’s possible that this argument may have had far-reaching consequences for Adams himself. He may have played the tolerant host at that dinner party, but he listened to the conversation keenly. Later in his life, after he became friends with Richard Dawkins, he himself became a noted (not to say strident) advocate for evolution. His biographer M.J. Simpon speculates that his interest in the topic may date from this evening. If so, two of the defining obsessions of Adams’s later life — his advocacy for evolution and his advocacy for the Macintosh — stem from his relatively few direct interactions with Infocom. (Which is not, of course, to say that he wouldn’t have discovered his interest in either by some other medium had he never come into contact with the Imps at all.)

Steve Mereztky introduces the Infocom Hitchhiker's to a packed room inside Rockefeller Center, October 1984

Steve Mereztky introduces the Infocom Hitchhiker’s to a packed room inside Rockefeller Center

Poor Steve Meretzky, the one who had done most of the actual work on the Hitchhiker’s game, didn’t get to experience the Douglas Adams Salon. He was back in Cambridge at the time, swatting the final bugs and prepping the game for release. At least he got a pretty nice consolation prize. Late in October, Adams came over to begin a publicity junket to promote his new book and game. It kicked off with a joint press conference with Meretzky and Infocom at Rockefeller Center, done just like the big boys in entertainment did it. The usual computer-trade-press suspects were almost lost amidst all of the mainstream-media reporters from places like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and even Playboy. Meretzky, barely two years removed from a career as a construction manager, got to stand at the podium in suit and “Don’t Panic!” button and trade jokes and repartee with Douglas Adams while the flash bulbs went off around them. (“I want you to know that I really enjoyed working on this game,” said Adams, “and I’m not just saying that because I’m trying to sell it. That’s only 90% of the reason.”) They were a good match physically as well as creatively; at 6’4″, Meretzky was about the only person from Infocom who could stand next to the 6’5″ Adams without looking like a dwarf. After the press conference the two jetted off to charm press and customers at the Las Vegas Comdex show and in Silicon Valley. Meretzky found it all very exciting, but found Adams’s now long-established press-conference schtick rather exhausting in time; he told the biscuit story from So Long using the exact same words at virtually every stop. He even told it during his somewhat awkward appearance on Late Night with David Letterman; Dave clearly had no real idea what Hitchhiker’s was, and a clearly nervous Adams rather flubbed the punch line. On the bright side, Infocom did at least get the most cursory of plugs on national television, when Letterman, rattling off the standard canned spiel about extant Hitchhiker’s incarnations, mentioned that it was now “even computer software.”

For Infocom, whose corporate rise had been almost as meteoric as Meretzky’s personal rise, this was truly the top of the mountain. Even as Hitchhiker’s soared to the top of the bestseller charts they were being wined and dined by Richard E. Snyder of Simon & Schuster in his private boardroom. Just a week after the Hitchhiker’s shindig in Rockefeller Center they hosted their second (and, as it would turn out, final) big press conference there, to announce their forthcoming database manager Cornerstone. Their booth at that Comdex, where they passed out thousands of free “Don’t Panic!” buttons to all and sundry, was amongst the most frequented and discussed at the show. They got their name onto National Public Radio stations around the country when they sponsored the first Stateside airing in years of the original Hitchhiker’s radio serials. They had truly arrived, and on multiple fronts at that.

Mike Berlyn clowning around on the Infocom assembly line, November 1984

Mike Berlyn clowning around on the Infocom assembly line, November 1984

The Hitchhiker’s game itself was the biggest hit Infocom had ever had, just as Dornbrook had known it would be. They literally couldn’t make them fast enough to meet demand that Christmas. As Meretzky himself recounted in an article for The New Zork Times, Infocom had to take desperate measures. They leased some more warehouse space just to have someplace to put the avalanche of feelies, boxes, manuals, and diskettes coming in for assembly. Ernie Brogmus, Infocom’s production manager, came to Meretzky to ask if he could organize some help from his white-collar colleagues inside the Wheeler Street offices. That evening Meretzky put a sign-up form on the office billboard for twenty volunteers to come to the assembly plant for a seven-hour shift that Sunday. When he arrived the office next morning at 9:30 there were thirty-five names on it. Forty people actually showed up. Soon Infocom organized a Saturday shift as well as evening shifts: “They were turning up with husbands and wives and mothers and sisters and brothers and friends.” Thanks to such dedication and camaraderie, Infocom in November of 1984 shipped more product than in any month before or after: 62,000 games, 6000 promotional “Sampler Packs,” and 21,000 InvisiClues hint books.

Hithchhiker’s went on to sell almost 300,000 units, over 200,000 of them in its first year, to become Infocom’s all-time second biggest seller, behind only Zork I, the game that had gotten it all started. Reviews were uniformly stellar. About the only grumbling came from some of Adams’s original British fans, who complained at his decision to work with an American company and at the fact that the game was never made available for the biggest home computer in Britain, the Sinclair Spectrum. “He’s putting the boot into his own fans, the British computer industry, and for all he cares the country itself,” wrote one particularly exercised ex-fan in Popular Computing. In Adams and Infocom’s defense, Sinclair’s decision not to produce a disk drive for the Spectrum made it impractical to port Infocom games to the platform. Publishers like Level 9 serving the thriving British adventure market were also a bit stung by the rejection, but to their credit largely seem to have taken it as motivation to improve rather than grounds for sulking.

Hitchhiker’s is not only of huge commercial and historical importance to Infocom and the adventure game; it’s also of huge artistic interest, with sections that almost feel like a deconstruction of the traditional text adventure. Accordingly, and having now given you the historic and commercial context, I think we should look at the game itself in some detail. Besides, it’s a fun one to write about, full of bits just screaming out for annotation. So, we’ll make that the next item on the agenda.

(The most detailed history of Adams’s relationship with Infocom from his standpoint is found in M.J. Simpson’s biography Hitchhiker. For the perspective from within Infocom, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp materials were, as usual, key. Also very useful were the April 1985 Compute!’s Gazette, the April/May 1985 Commodore Power Play, the April 1985 Electronic Games, the October 1982 Your Computer, and issues of Popular Computing from April 21, 1983; May 12, 1983; January 17, 1985; and March 28, 1985. And of course Infocom’s own New Zork Times newsletters from around the period. Oh, and thanks to Steve Meretzky for clearing up a question or two via email.)

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams

Hardcore fans of Douglas Adams can make the worst of ambassadors for his work. They go too often for the lowest-hanging fruit — like towels, “Don’t Panic!”, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a “trilogy” of five novels (a “joke” so thuddingly unfunny that I choose to believe it originated with some harried paperback copywriter rather than Adams himself). Or, God help us, “42.” All of these tropes had already had every last drop of novelty wrung from them thirty years ago. I can’t help but think about those awful teenagers — I should know; I used to be one — who march around repeating every line from their favorite Monty Python sketches verbatim in awful teenage faux-British accents in the belief that repetition is the soul of wit.

For me the real pleasures of Douglas Adams are subtler. He was a genuinely good crafter of sentences who cared about the way he put words onto the page, which is a quality rarer than it ought to be amongst popular writers. Even more unusually, he had a style all his own, crafting strange juxtapositions of words that shouldn’t work but somehow do. Some of the sentences in his books could have come from no one else’s pen. (Who else could have written, “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”?) His wordplay has drawn occasional comparison with Lewis Carrol:

“You’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

“You ask a glass of water.”

Hitchhiker’s as a whole is much more than a collection of intermittently amusing gags and goofy aliens. It’s no more really about outer space than Gulliver’s Travels is about Lilliput and Brobdingnag. At the same time, however, Adams wasn’t sending up or satirizing science fiction itself in the manner of something like, say, Space Balls. No, he was using his far-out settings and characters to comment on the real world around him: “I am writing about precisely here and now and putting it on an extreme epic cosmic scale to make fun of it.” Most of the best bits in Hitchhiker’s have recognizable analogues in human culture. It’s our sense of recognition, even if it’s subconscious, that makes them so funny. The Vogon captain is a stand-in for Adolf Eichmann and every other officiously bureaucratic little butcher in history. Through the band Disaster Area, “the loudest noise of any kind at all in the galaxy,” Adams mocked the pomposity of arena rock four years before This is Spinal Tap. Or take the resolutely non-sporting Adams’s description of Brockian Ultra Cricket as “a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away,” a description that could be applied to most of the team sports we humans play.

Like Jonathan Swift, Adams isn’t interested in peddling what he regards to be false comforts. There’s an unsettlingly nihilistic core to at least the first three and the fifth Hitchhiker’s books. Adams’s universe may be charmingly wacky, but it’s also meaningless and utterly uncaring, even if Adams still professed himself to be an agnostic rather than an atheist through the writing of most of the series. (That changed only in the lengthy gap between the fourth and fifth books, when he met and became hugely enamored of Richard Dawkins. He spent the remainder of his life as an outspoken atheist and anti-theist to rival Dawkins himself.) This is after all a series that begins with the destruction of the Earth and all its billions of inhabitants because a bunch of aliens randomly decide to build a “hyperspace bypass” through its orbit. He is cruel enough to offer a Nietzschian solution of finding meaning in self-actualization through the mouth of the old planet designer Slartibartfast, only to jerk it away as just as deluded as any other route to inner peace.

“Perhaps I’m old and tired,” he continued, “but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me: I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway.

“Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fjords all my life. For a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award.

“In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do and of course I’m doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them, and I’m old-fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough. Equatorial!” He gave a hollow laugh. “What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”

“And are you?”

“No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.”

It can all become a bit exhausting eventually, especially if you’re silly enough to try to devour the whole series in one gulp. Small wonder that Adams himself was prone to bouts of existential angst and depression throughout his life, during which times he admitted he could become embarrassingly like his terminally depressed robotic creation Marvin the Paranoid Android.

The emptiness at the heart of the other Hitchhiker’s books might explain why I like the fourth book, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, so much more than so many people, including on occasion Adams himself, tell me I ought to. The first time Adams tried to write a novel in the conventional way, from scratch (the first three books were all adapted from script treatments), it brings Adams’s hapless human victim-of-circumstances Arthur Dent back home to a resurrected Earth. (Don’t ask how; I’m not sure I even remember. No one reads Hitchhiker’s for the plot anyway.) There Adams lets him fall in love. More shockingly, it’s a disarmingly sweet little love story that, while funny, is funny in a completely different way from what we’ve come to expect. It shows the other side of Adams — the romantic — in passages that demand a noisily joyous soundtrack like, say, a little Raspberries. Or at least anything but Arthur’s album of bagpipe music.

That night, at home, as he was prancing round the house pretending to be tripping through cornfields in slow motion and continually exploding with sudden laughter, Arthur thought he could even bear to listen to the album of bagpipe music he had won. It was eight o’clock and he decided he would make himself, force himself, to listen to the whole record before he phoned her. Maybe he should even leave it till tomorrow. That would be the cool thing to do. Or next week sometime.

No. No games. He wanted her and didn’t care who knew it. He definitely and absolutely wanted her, adored her, longed for her, wanted to do more things than there were names for with her.

He actually caught himself saying things like “Yippee,” as he pranced ridiculously round the house. Her eyes, her hair, her voice, everything …

He stopped.

He would put on the record of bagpipe music. Then he would call her.

Would he, perhaps, call her first?

No. What he would do was this. He would put on the record of bagpipe music. He would listen to it, every last banshee wail of it. Then he would call her. That was the correct order. That was what he would do.

In moving his satirical eye to our own planet, So Long demonstrates how perceptive Adams really is about the world around him. The arguable highlight of the entire book is the biscuit story that Arthur shares with his new love Fenchurch. Unfortunately, it’s just too long to quote here. Instead I’ll share the alleged real-life origin of the story, which Adams later recounted in a speech collected posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt. (He helpfully translates “biscuit” into “cookie” here for the benefit of his American audience.)

This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.
Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know… But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I thought nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, that settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.

Whether in this or the more extended (and, truth be told, funnier) version in So Long, it’s a story that communicates worlds about Britishness. There’s been some doubt cast as to whether the story really happened at all; similar stories have apparently been passed around as urban legends since long before 1976. But then the story’s veracity or lack thereof isn’t actually the point, is it?

The series’s new tone didn’t last very long. When Adams returned to Hitchhiker’s under pressure from his publisher after a long hiatus, it was to write Mostly Harmless, a misanthropic little book that delights in blowing up the Earth and tormenting poor Arthur yet again and doesn’t even have the virtue of being all that funny. Big softie that I am, I prefer to pretend that it all ended with the perfectly tidy conclusion of So Long, with the Earth still intact, Arthur happily hitchhiking the galaxy again with Fenchurch, and Marvin dying — happy(!).

Amongst other things, Mostly Harmless was written as a sort of “Up Yours!” to Adams’s traditional fans, who hadn’t responded all that well to either the shift the Hitchhiker’s series had made in So Long or his Dirk Gently books, a pair of similarly earthbound philosophical detective novels he wrote between the fourth and fifth Hitchhiker’s books. (Some will tell you, and not without justification, that the Dirk Gently books were actually the best things Adams ever wrote.) It was a problem that frustrated Adams throughout his career: he wasn’t quite coming from the same place as most of the people who read what he wrote. While his fan base was rooted in science fiction, Adams never thought of himself as a science-fiction writer, in spite of some accidentally prescient things that sneaked into Hitchhiker’s — the most notable of which was the eponymous electronic guidebook itself, which is essentially Wikipedia running on a tablet, right down to the somewhat questionable veracity of much of what it offers and its editors’ somewhat, shall we say, idiosyncratic priorities.

Here’s what the Encyclopedia Galactica has to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

It says that the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.

The Guide also tells you on which planets the best Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters are mixed, how much you can expect to pay for one and what voluntary organizations exist to help you rehabilitate afterward. The Guide even tells you how you can mix one yourself…

Cue up the recipes, etc., etc. Earth, meanwhile, is dismissed in another of those jokes we never need to hear again as “mostly harmless.” Similarly, and as described in a recent MIT Technology Review article, Wikipedia lavishes more care on its “List of Pornographic Actresses by Decade” than on some entire countries.

Still, Adams himself noted that “saying I write science fiction is like saying the Pythons make historical movies.” He always thought of himself as a comedy writer who happened to play in a science-fictional setting rather than a science-fiction writer whose work happened to be funny. Being a voracious reader in general, he had read his share of science fiction before creating Hitchhiker’s, but he wasn’t particularly obsessed with the stuff. Certainly his opinions of some of the icons of the field were hardly glowing. He said he “wouldn’t employ Isaac Asimov to write junk mail.” Arthur C. Clarke fared only a little better: he was “a little dull perhaps.” The only two science-fiction authors he spoke of in consistently glowing terms were Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Sheckley. These are also two are of the relatively small stable of science-fiction writers who are genuinely, consistently funny, which perhaps shows where Adams’s priorities really lay. When Adams’s agent started booking him for science-fiction conventions in the first blush of Hitchhiker’s success, he was discomfited by the places, and soon asked to stick with traditional bookstore signings. His favorite writer was someone that most of the people who attended those conventions had probably never heard of: the great British wit, satirist, and societal deconstructor par excellence P.G. Wodehouse.

When others — and there have been tons of them, including heaps and heaps writing not books but games — try to write in the “comedy science fiction” genre Adams virtually invented, they tend to get the surface trappings but miss the Wodehousian wit and wisdom that underlie them. Thus you end up with, well, a collection of intermittently amusing gags and goofy aliens. You end up, in other words, with Space Quest. Infocom, however, had the luxury of working with Adams himself on their adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which led to something rather more interesting than most of the ludic works in this genre. Having bored and possibly inflamed you with my opinions, next time I’ll come down more on the side of facts as we look at how that most storied of Infocom collaborations came to be.

(Of the three extant Douglas Adams biographies, Neil Gaiman’s Don’t Panic is the most readable and M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker the most factually rigorous. The official biography can’t really be recommended on either count.

In addition to the biographies, I drew information for this article and those that follow from the April 1985 Compute!’s Gazette, the April/May 1985 Commodore Power Play, the April 1985 Electronic Games, and, most valuable of all, an interview a pre-Infocom Adams gave to the October 1982 issue of Your Computer. The image that begins this article was taken from the April 1985 Electronic Games.)

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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