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Moonmist

Moonmist

THE IMPLEMENTOR’S CREED

I create fictional worlds. I create experiences.

I am exploring a new medium for telling stories.

My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they are. They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget everything but the experience. My goal is to make the computer invisible.

I want as many people as possible to share these experiences. I want a broad range of fictional worlds, and a broad range of “reading levels.” I can categorize our past works and discover where the range needs filling in. I should also seek to expand the categories to reach every popular taste.

In each of my works, I share a vision with the reader. Only I know exactly what the vision is, so only I can make the final decisions about content and style. But I must seriously consider comments and suggestions from any source, in the hope that they will make the sharing better.

I know what an artist means by saying, “I hope I can finish this work before I ruin it.” Each work-in-progress reaches a point of diminishing returns, where any change is as likely to make it worse as to make it better. My goal is to nurture each work to that point. And to make my best estimate of when it will reach that point.

I can’t create quality work by myself. I rely on other implementors to help me both with technical wizardry and with overcoming the limitations of the medium. I rely on testers to tell me both how to communicate my vision better and where the rough edges of the work need polishing. I rely on marketeers and salespeople to help me share my vision with more readers. I rely on others to handle administrative details so I can concentrate on the vision.

None of my goals is easy. But all are worth hard work. Let no one doubt my dedication to my art.

Stu Galley wrote the words you see above in early September of 1985, a time when Infocom was reeling through layoff after torturous layoff and looked very likely to be out of business in a matter of months. It served as a powerful affirmation of what Infocom really stood for, just as the misplaced dreams of Al Vezza and his Business Products people — grandiose in their own way but also so much more depressingly conventional — threatened to halt the dream of a new interactive literature in its tracks. “The Implementor’s Creed” is one of the most remarkable — certainly the most idealistic — texts to come out of Infocom. It’s also vintage Stu Galley, the Imp who couldn’t care less about Zork but burned with passion for the idea of interactive fiction actually worthy of its name.

Galley’s passion and its associated perfectionism could sometimes make his life very difficult. In the final analysis perhaps a better critic of interactive fiction than a writer of it — his advice was frequently sought and always highly valued by all of the other Imps for their own projects — he would be plagued throughout his years at Infocom by self-doubt and an inability to come up with the sorts of original plots and puzzles that seemed to positively ooze from the likes of Steve Meretzky. Galley’s first completed game, The Witness, was developed from an outline provided by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, while for his second, Seastalker, he collaborated with the prolific (if usually uncredited) children’s author Jim Lawrence. After finishing Seastalker, he had the idea to write a Cold War espionage thriller, tentatively called Checkpoint: “You, an innocent train traveler in a foreign country, get mixed up with spies and have to be as clever as they to survive.” He struggled for six months with Checkpoint, almost as long as it took some Imps to create a complete game, before voluntarily shelving it: “The problem there was that the storyline wasn’t sufficiently well developed to make it really interesting. I guess I had a vision of a certain kind of atmosphere in the writing that was rather hard to bring off.” Suffering from writer’s block as he was, it seemed a very good idea to everyone to pair him up again with Lawrence late in 1985.

Just as Seastalker had been a Tom Swift, Jr., story with the serial numbers not-so-subtly filed away, the new game, eventually to be called Moonmist, would be crafted in the image of an even more popular children’s book protagonist with whom Lawrence had heaps of experience: none other than the original girl detective, Nancy Drew. She was actually fresher in Lawrence’s mind than Tom: he had spent much of his time during the first half of the 1980s anonymously churning out at least seven Nancy Drew novels for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, creators and owners of both the Tom and Nancy lines. As in Seastalker, you provide Moonmist with a name and gender when the game begins. The game and its accompanying feelies, however, would really kind of prefer it if you could see your way to playing as a female. Preferably as a female named “Nancy Drew,” if it’s all the same to you.

The plot is classic Nancy, a mystery set in a romantic old house, with a hint of the supernatural for spice. You’ve received a letter from your friend Tamara, for whom a semester abroad in Britain has turned into an engagement to a Cornish lord. It seems she has need for a girl detective. She’s living with her Lord Jack now at his Tresyllian Castle — chastely, in her own bedroom, of course — and all is not well. Lord Jack’s father, Lionel, was a globetrotting adventurer who recently died of “some sort of fatal jungle disease” that he may or may not have accidentally contracted. Lord Jack’s last girlfriend, the beautiful Deirdre, became entangled with his best friend Ian as well, and then allegedly committed suicide by throwing herself off some nearby cliffs after Jack broke it off with her in retaliation. Now her ghost is frequently seen haunting the castle and, Tamara claims, trying to kill her with poisonous spiders and snakes. Joining you, Lord Jack, Tamara, and Ian at the castle for a memorial dinner marking the first anniversary of Lord Lionel’s death are Vivien, a painter and sculptor and the local bohemian; Iris, a Mayfair debutante who may or may not have something going with Ian; Dr. Wendish, Lord Lionel’s old best mate; and a slick antique dealer named Montague Hyde who’s eager to buy up the castle’s contents and sell them to the highest bidder.

Labelled as an “Introductory” level game, Moonmist splits the difference between earlier Infocom games to bear its “Mystery” genre tag. It doesn’t use the innovative player-driven plot chronology of the most recent of those, Ballyhoo, opting like DeadlineThe Witness, and Suspect for a more simulationist turn-by-turn clock that gives you just a single night to solve the mystery. However, you the player don’t have to engage in the complicated, perfectly timed story interventions demanded by those earlier mysteries. After the events of the dinner party that sets the plot in motion, Moonmist is actually quite static, leaving you to your own devices to search the castle for clues and assemble a case that will reveal exactly what happened to Deirdre and who is dressing up as her ghost every night. (You didn’t think the ghost was real, did you? If so, you haven’t had much exposure to Nancy Drew or the works she spawned — like, for instance, Scooby-Doo.) You’ll also need to find a mysterious treasure brought back to Cornwall by Lord Lionel after one of his expeditions abroad. Depending on which version of Moonmist‘s mystery you’re playing, therein may also lie another nefarious plot.

But wait… which version? Yes. We’ve come to the most interesting innovation in Moonmist. The identity of the guilty one(s) and the nature of the treasure change in four variations of the plot, which you choose between in-character by telling the butler your “favorite color” at the beginning of the game: green, blue, red, or yellow. (I’ve listed them in general order of complexity and difficulty, and thus in the order you might want to try them if you play Moonmist for yourself.) Infocom had tried a branching plotline once before, in Cutthroats, but not handled it terribly well. There the plot suddenly branched randomly well over halfway through the game, leading you the intrepid diver to explore one of two completely different sunken shipwrecks. If the objective was to make an Infocom game last longer, the Cutthroats approach was nonsensical; it just resulted in two unusually short experiences that added up to a standard Infocom game, not a full-length experience that could somehow be experienced afresh multiple times. And randomly choosing the story branch was just annoying, forcing the player to figure out when the branch was about to happen, save, and then keep reloading until the story went in the direction she hadn’t yet seen. The worst-case scenario would have to be the player who never even realized that the branch was happening at all, who was just left thinking she’d paid a lot of money for a really short adventure game.

While it’s not without problems of its own, Moonmist‘s approach makes a lot more sense. I do wish you were allowed to name your color a bit later; this would save you from having to play through a long sequence of identical introductions and preparations for the dinner party that kicks off the mystery in earnest. Still, Moonmist‘s decision to reuse the same stage set, as it were — rooms, objects, and characters — in the service of four different plots is a clever one, especially in light of the limitations of the 128 K Z-Machine. It’s of course an approach to ludic mystery that already had a long history by the time of Moonmist, beginning with the board game Cluedo back in 1949 and including in the realm of computer games the randomized mysteries of Electronic Arts’s not-quite-successful Murder on the Zinderneuf and the hand-crafted plots of Accolade’s stellar Killed Until Dead amongst others.

Moonmist is, alas, less successful at crafting 4 mysteries out of the same cast and stage than Killed Until Dead is at making 21. Moonmist‘s variations simply aren’t varied enough. Although the perpetrator, the treasure, and the incriminating evidence change, the process of finding them and assembling a case is the same from variation to variation. After you’ve solved one of the cases, and thus know the steps you need to follow, solving the others is fairly trivial. The process of finding Lord Lionel’s treasure is literally a scavenger hunt, a matter of following a trail of not-terribly-challenging clues in the form of written messages until you arrive at its conclusion. The guilty guest, meanwhile, is readily identifiable as the one person who leaves the dinner party and starts poking restlessly around the rest of the castle. And once the treasure is secured and the guilty one identified it’s mostly just a matter of searching that person’s room carefully to come up with the incriminating evidence you need and making an “arrest.” The changes from variation to variation amount to no more than a handful of objects placed in different rooms or swapped out and replaced with others, along with a bare few paragraphs of altered text. Although they’re not randomly generated, the cases feel unsatisfying enough that they almost just as well could have been; there’s a distinct “Colonel Mustard in the lounge with the candlestick” feel about the whole experience. Even the exact words that the guilty party says to you never change from variation to variation. Most damningly, Moonmist never even begins to succeed in giving you the feeling that you’re actually solving a mystery — the feeling that was so key to the appeal of Infocom’s original trilogy of mystery games. You’re just jumping through the hoops that will satisfy the game and cause it to spit out the full story in the form of the few bland sentences that follow your unmasking of the mastermind.

Some of these shortcomings can doubtless be laid at the feet of the aging 128 K Z-Machine, whose limitations were beginning to bite hard into Infocom’s own expectations of even a modest work like Moonmist by 1986. Even reusing most of the environment apparently didn’t give Galley and Lawrence enough room to craft four mysteries that truly felt unique. On the contrary, they were forced to save space by off-loading many of the room descriptions into a tourist’s guide to Tresyllian Castle included with the documentation. So-called “paragraph books” fleshing out stories (and providing copy protection) via text that couldn’t be packed into the game proper would soon become a staple of CRPGs of the latter half of the decade wishing to be a bit more ambitious in their storytelling than simple hack-and-slashers like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. But a CRPG is a very different sort of experience from a text adventure, and what’s tolerable or even kind of fun in the former doesn’t work at all in the latter. Having to constantly flip through a slick tourist brochure for room descriptions in Moonmist absolutely kills the atmosphere of a setting that should have fairly dripped with it. Tresyllian Castle is, after all, set on a spooky moor lifted straight out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and comes complete with everything an American tourist thinks a British castle should, including a hedge maze (thankfully not implemented as an in-game maze), a dungeon, and a network of secret passages.

The text’s scarcity is doubly disappointing because the writing, when it’s there, is… well, I’m not sure I’d label it “great” or even “good,” but it is perfectly evocative of the sort of formulaically comforting children’s literature Jim Lawrence had so much experience crafting. How you react to it may very well depend on your own childhood experiences with Nancy Drew — or, perhaps more likely if you’re male like me, with her Stratemeyer Syndicate stablemates The Hardy Boys (yet another line for which Lawrence, inevitably, wrote a number of books). Just the idea of a white-haired old man raised in the swing era trying to write from the perspective of a 1980s teenager is weird; Nancy, born a teenager in 1930, is like Barbie and Bart Simpson eternally stuck at the same age both physically and mentally. Given that Nancy is, like Barbie, largely an aspirational fantasy for those who read her, Lawrence tries to make her life everything he thinks a contemporary twelve-year-old girl — the sweet spot of the Nancy Drew demographic — wishes her life could be in a few years. And given the artificial nature of the whole concept and its means of production, Nancy, and therefore Moonmist, inhabit a sort of cartoon reality where people routinely behave in ways that we never, ever see them behaving in real life. See, for example, your first meeting with Ian and Iris, nonsensically dancing together to pass the time before dinner “to the faint sound of rock music from a portable radio on a table nearby.” I mean, really, who the hell starts dancing just to pass the time, and who dances to the “faint sound of rock music?” Once or twice the writing veers into the creepy zone, as when Lawrence declares, “My, what a fine figure of a woman!” when you take off your clothes preparatory to taking a bath. But mostly it manages to be quaint and nostalgically charming with its mixture of Girl Power and romantic teenage giddiness.

"My fiance, Lord Jack Tresyllian," Tamara introduces him. "Jack, this is my friend from the States, Miss Nancy Drew."

"So you're that famous young sleuth whom the Yanks call Miss Sherlock!" says Lord Jack. "Tammy's told me about the mysteries you've solved -- but she never let on you looked so smashing! Welcome to Cornwall, Nancy luv!"

Before you know it, he sweeps you into his arms and kisses you warmly! Let's hope Tamara doesn't mind -- but for the moment all you can see are Lord Jack's dazzling sapphire-blue eyes.

Considered as an Infocom game rather than a Nancy Drew novel, however, Moonmist is afflicted with a terminal identity crisis. Infocom had been making a dangerous habit of conflating the idea of an introductory-level game for adults with that of a game for children for some time already by the time it appeared. Seastalker, the first game to explicitly identify itself as a kinder, gentler Infocom product, had originally been marketed upon its release in June of 1984 as a story for children, trailblazer for a whole line of “Interactive Fiction Junior” that would hopefully soon be selling madly to the same generation of kids that was snapping up Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks by the millions. Sadly, that never happened — doubtless not least because a Choose Your Own Adventure book cost $2 or so, Seastalker $30 or more. Upon the release exactly one year later of Brian Moriarty’s Wishbringer, an introductory-level game written using the same adult diction of most of Infocom’s other games, the “Junior” line was quietly dropped and Seastalker relabeled to join Wishbringer as an “Introductory” game, despite the fact that the two were quite clearly different beasts entirely. Then, in October of 1986, Moonmist was also released as simply an adult Introductory” game — but, as just about the entire article that precedes this paragraph attests, Jim Lawrence and Stu Galley apparently didn’t get a memo somewhere along the line. Moonmist the digital artifact was, in opposition to Moonmist the marketing construct, plainly children’s literature. At best — particularly if she used to read Nancy Drew — the adult player was likely to find Moonmist nostalgically charming. At worst, it could read as condescending. Any computer game released into the cutthroat industry of 1986 was facing a serious problem if it didn’t know exactly what it was and whom could be expected to buy it. Moonmist, alas, wasn’t quite sure of either.

That said, Moonmist actually did somewhat better than one might have expected given this confusion. Its final sales would end up at around 33,000 copies, worse than those of Seastalker but not dramatically so. There’s good reason for its modern status as one of Infocom’s less-remembered and less-loved games: it’s definitely one of the slighter works in the canon. Certainly only hardcore fans are likely to summon the motivation to complete all four cases. Despite its shortcomings, though, others may find it worth sampling one or two cases, and historians may be interested in experiencing this early interactive take on Nancy Drew published many years before the long-running — indeed, still ongoing — series of graphic adventures that Her Interactive began releasing in the late 1990s.

Moonmist would mark the last time that Stu Galley or Jim Lawrence would be credited as the author of an Infocom game. Lawrence returned to print fiction, where he could make a lot more money a lot more quickly than he could writing text adventures. Galley remained at Infocom until the bitter end, working on technology and on one or two more game ideas that would frustratingly never come to fruition. Given just how in love he was with the potential of interactive fiction, it does seem a shame that he never quite managed to write a game that hit it out of the park. On the other hand, his quiet enthusiasm and wisdom probably contributed more than any of us realize to many of those Infocom games that did.

(In addition to the Get Lamp interviews, this article draws from some of the internal emails and other documents that were included on the Masterpieces of Infocom CD. An interview with Galley in the June 1986 issue of Zzap! was also useful.)

 
 

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Seastalker

Seastalker

When a starry-eyed youngster heads off to Hollywood to chase her dreams, one of two fates awaits her: she might become one of the small minority that makes it and becomes a star, or she might end up lumped in with the vast majority that struggle and wait tables (seemingly every waiter in Los Angeles is an aspiring actor) for years to no avail. It’s either “Hooray for Hollywood” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” writ large. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway. But there’s actually a third possibility: the life of the working character actor, who picks up work where she can find it in the form of whatever small roles are available that don’t need a star to fill them. Just as every kid who picks up a guitar dreams of playing to stadiums full of screaming fans (and don’t let any indie-rock snob tell you different), it’s probably safe to say that no actor sets out to be such an anonymous cog in the Hollywood system. Yet it’s not a bad way to earn a living in the craft you love if stardom eludes you. I’ve long been fascinated by these folks whose names usually appear in the credits only as the audience is filing out of the theater, these working professionals who earn a solid living under the radar of the Dream Factory by learning their lines, showing up on time, and doing whatever’s asked of them and doing it well. This other side of the acting life is the subject of The Dangerous Animals Club, written by one of these bit players, Stephen Tobolowsky. It makes for a great read.

Other forms of media have their own equivalents to Tobolowsky. The publishing industry, for example, has always had people like Jim Lawrence.

Jim Lawrence

Born in 1918, Lawrence began his writing career in 1941 when he was hired by the Jam Handy Organization as a scriptwriter for military training films. From then until the end of his life in 1994 he wrote for seemingly anyone who would pay him. Lawrence himself would be the last person to claim to be a great writer, but he always churned out copy that was, within the scope of the genres within which he worked, solidly crafted and eminently professional. When the project allowed, he even showed a considerable flair for imagination.

Lawrence wrote a staggering variety of stuff over his more than five decades as a working writer, but his specialty and greatest love was always fast-paced action-adventure stories for the young. In that genre, he wrote for old-time radio dramas like The Green Hornet; wrote Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries; wrote a James Bond comic strip for the newspapers; wrote a variety of Marvel comics. His oeuvre includes more than 60 novels alone, virtually none of which bore his own name anywhere in its pages. His most bizarre and disreputable assignment was a series of books about Peter Lance, an alien from the planet Tharb who has come to Earth to study this curious human phenomenon of sex — which he does enthusiastically and at considerable length, thanks to his superhuman stamina and a staggering variety of nubile young women eager to assist him in his research. But the place where Lawrence left his most obvious mark was a series of books about a young scientist/inventor/adventurer named Tom Swift, Jr.

The original Tom Swift was created by publishing pioneer Edward Stratemeyer, founder in the very early twentieth century of the so-called Stratemeyer Syndicate and its accompanying model of children’s book publication — a model that still persists to this day, and one whose echoes we can see in other media from superhero comics to Scooby Doo cartoons. His influence on publishing for adults and young adults was also profound; all those shelves full of Star Trek and Star Wars novels as well as Harelquin romances are, for better or for worse, thoroughly in the tradition of Edward Stratemeyer. His principal innovation was to deemphasize — indeed, to effectively do away with — the importance of the author in favor of the franchise. He published no standalone books, only series based around the recurring adventures of one or more juvenile heroes. All books in a series were allegedly written by the same author, whose name was carefully chosen by Stratemeyer to suit the tone of the series. In actuality, the books were written by teams of publishing B-listers like Jim Lawrence, who must at first usually work from plot outlines provided by Stratemeyer himself. Later, once they had proven themselves a bit, they were often trusted to create their own original stories, as long as they kept well within a detailed set of rules for what the books should and should not include. The best remembered series from Stratemeyer’s heyday today are The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but many others sold in huge quantities during the first half of the twentieth century.

Among them were the original Tom Swift stories, which reached 40 books and sold over 30 million copies. Swift was the aspirational product of his era, a time when people like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford were amongst the most admired in the country. Thus Swift was a teenage genius inventor who solved crimes and stymied his jealous rivals repeatedly using his various gadgets and vehicles. For all their pulpiness, the books included a surprising amount of real science and engineering. Amongst the technologies predicted in their pages were television, fax machines, and handheld movie cameras. Just as many flip-open mobile phones bear a suspicious resemblance to the old communicators from Star Trek, Tom Swift also wound up inspiring some technologies instead of just predicting them. Most famously, tasers were inspired by a Tom Swift story; the name is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”

The series petered to a close in 1941, by which time Swift had grown up and gotten married. The resulting drop-off in popularity prompted a couple of new rules for the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s other series: heroes should not age and should be kept free of romantic entanglements. The Tom Swift, Jr. stories, which began in 1954, were an attempt to right that mistake and turn back the clock by moving the focus to Tom Swift’s son, the spitting image of his father as a boy. The new series ran for 33 books between 1954 and 1971. The inventions got a bit more outlandish, reflecting the era’s obsession with rocketry and space exploration; the second series’s record of prediction is nowhere near as good as that of the first. The new series also never quite matched the first’s popularity or cultural ubiquity during its heyday. Still, it had its famous fans; Steve Wozniak in particular has mentioned the Tom Swift, Jr. books as inspiring him to become an inventor and engineer. Tom Swift Jr. was allegedly written by one Victor Appleton II, presumed son of the Victor Appleton who wrote the first series. However, most of them were actually written by Jim Lawrence.

Lawrence had long since moved on to other series when one day during his morning coffee he read the first significant article about Infocom to appear in the mainstream media: Edward Rothstein’s piece on Deadline and other “participatory novels” which appeared in the New York Times Book Review of May 8, 1983. Although he had never written for the series, he had followed the birth of the Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s fiction with more than professional curiosity. But now what Infocom was apparently doing just sounded so much better. Lawrence, whose previous career proved if nothing else that he’d try just about anything once, was intrigued by the possibilities despite knowing nothing of computers or computer games. He called Infocom’s offices and arranged to drive up to Cambridge for a visit from his home in New Jersey.

The 65-year-old Lawrence looked in Stu Galley’s words “like Santa Claus,” and had the same enthusiastic twinkle in his eye when he talked about storytelling. This wise old veteran was certainly a different sort of presence in an office filled with ambitious go-getters in their twenties and early thirties, many of whom had grown up reading the various series to which he had contributed. Infocom, who counted it as a corporate goal to get “real” writers involved with their stories (thus the presence of Mike Berlyn, already working on his second game at the time), were thrilled to sign him to a contract.

Infocom was also, of course, eager to branch out into new genres, and here Lawrence’s particular expertise again seemed perfect. They concocted the idea of a new line of “junior” adventures aimed at a new generation of the same children’s readership that had once devoured the Tom Swift books — and who were currently being introduced to the idea of ludic narrative through the Choose Your Own Adventure books and the many other titles being churned out by the booming gamebook industry. If kids thought Choose Your Own Adventure was cool, wait until they saw an Infocom game! The new line could presumably also serve as a gentle introduction to Infocom for adults, an alternative to being thrown in at the deep end via the likes of Zork. Infocom made their first attempt ever to license an existing property, approaching the Stratemeyer Syndicate about licensing Tom Swift or his son for a series of interactive books for a new generation. The Syndicate was happy to do so — for far more money than Infocom was willing or able to pay.

Thus the decision was made to make the game that would become known as Seastalker a Tom Swift adventure in everything but name. In place of Tom, it asks you the player for your first and last name at the beginning. The full name which then appears on the screen becomes (for example) Seastalker: Jimmy Maher and the Ultramarine Bioceptor, a deliberate echo of the old Tom Swift books, which were invariably named Tom Swift and His (Flying Lab, Jetmarine, Rocket Ship, etc.) — only with you inserted, Chose Your Own Adventure-style, as the hero. The game closely echos Tom Swift in many other ways beyond the bare fact of your being a genius boy inventor. Tom Swift’s hometown of Shopton, for example, becomes Frobton (one of very few overt references to Zorkian lore), and sidekick Bud is replaced with a doppelganger named Tip.

For all of his flair for storytelling, there was no way that the thoroughly un-technical Lawrence was going to be able to learn to program in ZIL. Infocom thus decided to assign him Stu Galley as a partner. Lawrence would craft the story and write most of the text, while Galley would program it and finds ways to make it work as an interactive experience. It seemed a perfect assignment for Galley, one of the best pure programmers in a company full of brilliant technical minds but one who tended to have a bit of trouble coming up with original story ideas. (His first game The Witness, you may remember, had been created from an outline provided him by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling.) This use of development pairs was somewhat uncharted territory for Infocom as Seastalker was begun, but a model they would find themselves using for no fewer than three of the five games they would release in 1984.

Work on Seastalker commenced with a lengthy meeting between Lawrence and Galley at Infocom’s offices, during which they hashed out the basic plot: a genetically engineered sea monster is attacking your friends at the Aquadome undersea research station. Only you and sidekick Tip can save them, using the Scimitar, the experimental two-man research submarine you’ve just designed and built. Lawrence then went back home to New Jersey, and development progressed largely through paper mail and telephone calls, with just a few more in-person meetings to mark milestones. Working this way inevitably slowed the process — at more than nine months, Seastalker would have the longest active gestation of any Infocom game to date — but Galley generally found the project to be, like his gently unflappable collaborator, a delight.

There was a time when we got to the last act of the story, where you, the brilliant young inventor, know what the threat is, know what you have to work with (your own inventions and whatever else is available), know the other characters. How do we devise a game strategy that’s interesting but not too difficult to get you to the end? Jim and I worked on this a whole day in Cambridge. I told him, “I feel like we have a big job in front of us because we’ve set up all this elaborate storyline without really knowing how it’s going to end.” Jim said, “Don’t worry, Stu, I’ve gotten heroes out of much tougher situations than this.”

Unlike many established traditional authors who tried to make the leap to interactivity, Lawrence didn’t struggle hugely with his loss of control over every aspect of plotting and timing. Galley theorizes that he may have been aided by his experience writing for comic strips and comic books, for which he had to start putting stories down on paper long before he could foresee what their endings might be or even which writers for hire might end up writing them.

As one might expect given its pedigree, Seastalker absolutely nails the tone of its inspiration. Its is a gee-whiz world full of adventure and excitement in which no problem cannot be solved with a bit of science and a dollop of all-American bravery and ingenuity. It’s never afraid of going over the top; the package includes a letter from the President congratulating you on your latest invention. As fiction, Seastalker makes for a nice, nostalgic place to return to for some of us dealing with the vagaries of adult life. Yet as a system it’s also amongst the most complex things Infocom had yet attempted. Playing Seastalker really does feel, for the first time in an Infocom game and arguably in an adventure game, like taking the leading role in an adventure novel. Events tumble down around you one after another as the plot comes thick and fast, leaving you constantly scrambling to keep up, to save these people who make it clear they’re depending on you. Seastalker is all about its plot that just keeps pushing you along like a bulldozer. There’s little here that feels like a traditional adventure-game puzzle, little time for such cerebral exercises. Even that staple of adventure gaming, mapping, goes out the window thanks to the blueprints of the Scimitar and the maps of both undersea complexes you’ll be visiting included in the package, a first for Infocom. While Deadline and The Witness have a dynamism of their own, their characters go about their business oddly oblivious to you; your job is essentially to observe their behavior, to come to an understanding of their patterns, and then to force yourself into the plot to redirect it at crucial junctures. No forcing is required in Seastalker; you truly are the hero, the cog around which everything and everybody revolves.

The Commodore 64 version of Seastalker showing the split-screen sonar view

The Commodore 64 version of Seastalker showing the split-screen sonar view

One of the most impressive parts of Seastalker is its implementation of the Scimitar. You have to guide it around Frobton Bay yourself, using your sonar display and a depth map included in the package. Later, the climax of the story is an underwater battle involving the Scimitar, the sea monster, and the jealous rival behind all the chaos that is a genuine tactical struggle rather than an exercise in set-piece puzzle solving. For these sequences Infocom devised the first significant extension to the Z-Machine since its inception more than four years before: the ability to split the screen on certain computers, which Seastalker uses to display a non-scrolling upper window that shows your sonar screen as a simple textual rendering. (The member of the Micro Group responsible for moving this enhancement into the interpreters was the newly hired Brian Moriarty, a name we’ll soon be hearing a lot more of.)

Seastalker‘s feelies are, as you might have gathered given the wealth of maps and blueprints I’ve already described, unusually many and varied even for Infocom. There’s a clever set of “InfoCards” with hints printed in a special ink that can only be seen with the aid of an included InfoCard reader — just the sort of little gadget young Tom Swifts are likely to love. But Seastalker‘s packaging is most interesting today in that it serves as a sort of test run for much of what would follow just a month or two later, when Infocom converted their entire existing line of games into a new standardized packaging format, the classic and beloved “grey box.” For the first time we see in Seastalker a sample transcript showing how to interact with the game, an invaluable bit of teaching by example that would be included in every grey box to come. And the front of the box calls the game “Junior Interactive Fiction from Infocom.”

Infocom, despite a generally finely honed promotional instinct, had struggled for years to find a good label for what their games really were, wallowing around in unsatisfying pseudo-compounds like “InterLogic” and plebeian descriptives like “prose games.” Some of the Imps had at last begun to casually refer to their games as “interactive fiction” in interviews during the latter half of 1983, notably in a feature article in the September/October 1983 Softline which dwelt at length on Floyd’s death scene from Planetfall. Seastalker, however, marks its first deployment as part of Infocom’s official rhetoric — appropriately enough, given that Seastalker is more worthy of the label than anything that came before. Infocom wasn’t the first to use the term “interactive fiction” in a computerized context; that honor belongs to Robert Lafore, who created a set of simple branching stories to which he gave that label back in 1979. Yet it was perfect for Infocom’s games, the last piece of the rhetorical puzzle they had been assembling with the able assistance of their mates at G/R Copy for a few years now. With the arrival of the grey boxes, all of Infocom’s games would officially be interactive fiction, the name the whole field of literary games in the Infocom tradition continues to go by to this day.

Released in June of 1984, Seastalker initially sold very well: more than 30,000 units in its first six months. But sales tailed off rather quickly after that; its lifetime figure is in the vicinity of 40,000. It may very well have been a victim of Infocom marketing’s conflation of a game for kids with an introductory game for adults. Certainly Seastalker is very short. Any adult at all experienced with adventure games can easily finish it in an evening, any adult totally inexperienced at least within two. One suspects that the arrival in 1985 of Wishbringer, a much better introductory game for adults, ate into Seastalker‘s sales in a big way.

But then Seastalker wasn’t really designed for adults. Children, who read more slowly and have the patience to relive something over and over (and over…) will likely get considerably more out of it, especially since there are a fair number of alternate paths to follow and even the possibility to finish without the full score; if you screw the pooch, one of your heretofore helpless friends will often stop hand-wringing long enough to jump in at the last minute and save the day for you. Still, it’s debatable how many parents would have been willing to spend $30 or $40 on the game when they could pick up a Choose Your Own Adventure book for $2.

All of which leaves Seastalker feeling like a bit of a missed opportunity in spite of its perfectly reasonable commercial performance. Stu Galley recalls that Infocom demonstrated Seastalker for a group of schoolteachers at the 1984 Summer CES show to the rapturous response that this sort of thing was “just what they needed” to get their kids reading more. One wishes that Infocom could have found some way to reduce the price and/or work aggressively with schools to get the game into more children’s hands. As it was, they dropped the idea of “Interactive Fiction Junior” and of trying to compete with the Choose Your Own Adventure juggernaut within a year, relabeling Seastalker rather incongruously as an introductory-level game for adults like the aforementioned Wishbringer. Even Lawrence and Galley’s second collaboration, Moonmist, was largely marketed as just another adult mystery game despite being at heart a Nancy Drew story in the same way that Seastalker was a Tom Swift.

If you have a child in that sweet spot of about eight to ten years in your life, you can begin to remedy that missed opportunity by giving her Seastalker and seeing what she makes of it. Like so much of Infocom’s work, it’s aged very little. For the rest of us, it’s a great piece of innocently cheesy fun that’s also quite technically and even formally impressive in its way. Infocom never made another game quite like it, which is alone more than reason enough to play it.

(As always, thanks to Jason Scott for sharing his materials from the Get Lamp project.)

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Witness

Stu Galley

Stu Galley, a man who would come to unabashedly love the games Infocom created, who would author the almost naively idealistic “Implementor’s Creed” to describe the job he and his fellow Imps did, took quite a long time to discover his passion. When he first saw the Zork game that some of the other hackers in MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group had created, he thought it clever but little else. He had no interest in fantasy fiction or Dungeons and Dragons, and no particular interest in exploring beyond Zork‘s first few rooms. Some of his disinterest may have been generational. Already in his mid-thirties when Zork was begun, he was five to ten years older than the people who made it. That’s not a huge gap, but it was enough to place him at a somewhat different stage of life, one where such idle amusements might not have quite so much appeal in light of his wife and young son.

When asked to become a founder of Infocom, he signed on because he had a lot of respect for the talents of the others. He thought they just might come up with something — who knew what? — really great, and he didn’t want to be kicking himself over the lost opportunity in five years. During this early period Galley, like most of the founders, did this or that for the company as time and inclination allowed, but kept it very much ancillary to his main working life. His official role at Infocom was to serve as treasurer. He also pitched in to help with odd jobs here and there: an experienced technical writer, he wrote the original manual for the commercial Zork, and helped Mike Dornbrook to set up and administer the mailing list that would morph into The Zork Users Group. But he mostly remained on the periphery, not quite ready to commit too much energy to the venture. Then came an epiphany.

Very early in 1982 Galley agreed to another of those odd jobs: to do some testing on Marc Blank’s new mystery, Deadline. Galley was blown away by the game for much the same reason it would soon cause a sensation in the world of adventure gaming in general. He still recalls vividly today how, when exploring the Robner house for the first time, he heard a phone ring in the other room but missed the call. Restarting, he made sure to be near a phone when the time came, and heard Mrs. Robner having a clipped conversation with her lover. That “blew his mind.” Here was a realistic, dynamic world to inhabit, one which struck him as far more interesting than the vast, empty dungeon of Zork with its static, arbitrary puzzles. “I could relive this story over and over and eventually, by looking at it from different angles and connecting the dots, find out what was really going on.” Galley was hooked at last.

In light of Deadline‘s commercial success, another mystery was obviously warranted. With some input from Dave Lebling, Blank began sketching out plans for a sequel almost immediately. He already had a clever gimmick in mind: the player would be invited to his home by the victim, where she would actually witness the murder in the opening scenes of the game. Nevertheless, it still wouldn’t be clear who was actually responsible. Unfortunately, Blank was absolutely swamped with other work: putting together Zork III, helping Mike Berlyn get up to speed on ZIL and ensuring he had the tools he needed for the game that would become Suspended, doing an ever-escalating series of interviews and PR junkets, sorting out business issues with the board. The game, to be called Invitation to Murder, remained only an outline of a few typewritten pages into the fall. That’s when it occurred to Blank, who was forever looking for ways to cajole his fellow founders into taking a more active role, to offer the outline to Galley, who still had stars in his eyes over his Deadline experience. Galley quickly agreed, and in October of 1982, while still only moonlighting at Infocom, started to work.

Working from a stripped-down skeleton of the original Deadline code, Galley gradually built a playable game over the next few months. Along the way, the project had one of the effects for which Blank had hoped: Galley was so inspired by the new work that he quit MIT and came to Infocom full-time before the year was out. In late January Infocom sat down with their ever-supportive advertising agency of G/R Copy to discuss the upcoming game. Just as they had with Deadline, G/R quickly replaced the original title with something much more punchy and direct: simply The Witness. Both Mike Berlyn and G/R also suggested that the time period and the tone be changed. They suggested that, rather than the ostensible present of Deadline, Galley move the game to the golden age of mystery, the 1930s. In retrospect this was a natural change. As I noted when writing about Deadline, that game felt like a product of the golden age anyway; The Witness would merely make it official. If anything the more important suggestion was to change the style to differentiate the new game from Deadline. If Deadline was a cozy mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, The Witness could be Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, a hardboiled tale of noirish intrigue.

Galley didn’t have much experience with this branch of the mystery canon, but, as he later put it, as soon as he started to read The Big Sleep he was convinced. Instead of the stately, blue-blooded Connecticut of Deadline, The Witness would take place in 1938 Los Angeles, at the peak of pre-war Hollywood’s loose glamor and danger. Galley lost himself in period research. In addition to the classic crime fiction of the period, he drew from a Sears catalog and other advertisements from the era, a 1937 encyclopedia, and The Dictionary of American Slang (to get the characters’ language right). He went so far as to track down a radio schedule for February 18, 1938, the evening of the crime, and make sure that the radio inside the house played the correct program from minute to minute.

In the tradition of Deadline, the packaging of The Witness would be a major part of the experience. Accordingly, Infocom began working with G/R on it months before the game’s projected release. Already back when outlining the game Blank had proposed including a newspaper with articles giving background information on the victim and the suspects, another direct lift from the old Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers (a fold-out newspaper had been the showstopping centerpiece of Who Killed Robert Prentice?). With the newfound historical context, G/R now ran with the idea to create one of the most impressive feelies Infocom would ever release. They found a newspaper in the Los Angeles area, The Register of Santa Ana, who agreed to share several editions from the period on microfiche. They then had the whole thing typeset once again, with a couple of new, game-specific articles slyly inserted. As Galley later noted, some of the real stories from the newspaper (“Fear Lost Boy Victim of Cougar”; “Works Many Years with Broken Neck”; “Pajama ‘Parade’ Results as Toy Catches on Fire”) were more bizarre than anything they could have come up with on their own. Printed on perfectly yellowed cheap newsprint, the final result is a triumph.

The Witness newspaper, front The Witness newspaper, back

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
G/R contacted Western Union for help recreating a telegram from the period. Galley and G/R, who clearly had a great deal of fun with this project, scoured old magazines and catalogs for advertisements to include in the faux-detective magazine that serves as the manual. G/R was even able to get some of their other clients, such as American Optical, to loan their old adverts to the effort.

"advertisement" from The Witness  manual

For the obligatory physical prop, the equivalent to the pills included in the Deadline package, they added a matchbook with a cryptic phone number scrawled on the inside. Taken all together, The Witness outclasses even Deadline in its packaging. It’s almost enough to make the actual game it’s supporting feel just a bit underwhelming in comparison.

It’s not that there’s anything dramatically wrong with The Witness, just that after such a build-up the actual case at its heart is maybe not quite so intriguing as one might wish. The solution, when you uncover it, is thoroughly absurd, not at all unusual in this genre, but not ultimately all that interesting in spite of its absurdity. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there just aren’t enough suspects nor enough juicy secrets to be discovered about them. There are only three possible murderers, and one of those has been caught red-handed fleeing from the crime scene — which, as anyone who’s ever read a mystery novel should know, pretty much rules him out from get-go. Combined with the smallest map of any Infocom game to date — some 30 rooms, most of them empty and unnecessary to even visit — that’s likely to leave one rather nonplussed at the end, asking, “Is that really it?” It’s certainly one of the shortest games Infocom would ever release.

But that was more of a problem in 1983, when people were spending $30 or $40 to buy The Witness, than it is today, when we can enjoy it on its own terms. And in that spirit there’s a lot to recommend it. Although its case is not so intriguing, I actually found The Witness to be a better, more satisfying experience than Deadline was when my wife and I recently played it, for the simple reason that it’s fair. It’s blessedly solvable with some careful thought and attention, without needing to do anything absurd like DIG for no apparent reason. When we apprehended the killer, sans any hints at all, it was a great feeling, a testament to Infocom’s evolving design craft and the increasing involvement by this point of the in-house and out-of-house testers, who were now shaking down the designs and providing vital reality checks to the Imps. If anything, some might consider The Witness too easy, but that’s always been a more forgivable sin than the alternative of hardness-through-unfairness in my book.

Galley, who had never written a word of fiction before starting on The Witness, does a pretty good job with it here. The opening lines leave no doubt about the genre we’re in for:

Somewhere near Los Angeles. A cold Friday evening in February 1938. In this climate, cold is anywhere below about fifty degrees. Storm clouds are swimming across the sky, their bottoms glowing faintly from the city lights in the distance. A search light pans slowly under the clouds, heralding another film premiere. The air seems expectant, waiting for the rain to begin, like a cat waiting for the ineffable moment to ambush.

The constrained geography and relative paucity of interactable objects have the positive side effect of giving more space for exposition. The opening stages of the game in particular, before you witness the murder that really kicks off the case in earnest, are surprisingly florid, in a way that no previous Infocom game had been. It’s little surprise that so many tended to latch onto The Witness even more than Deadline as a harbinger of a new type of literature.

Still, The Witness‘s historical reputation has always suffered in comparison to that of Deadline, likely the inevitable result of being the follow-up to such a great, audacious leap. For another likely reason for its less than stellar ranking in the Infocom canon today we can look again to those wonderful feelies, which were both such an important part of the experience and, in the case of the newspaper, almost uniquely hard to recreate in a PDF document or the like. To the extent that these factors may blind people to The Witness‘s real merits — it’s not a masterpiece, but it is a solid piece of craftsmanship — that’s a shame.

Deadline also somewhat overshadowed The Witness on the sales charts. Release in June of 1983, The Witness sold a little over 25,000 copies before the end of the year, then some 35,000 the next, oddly failing to keep pace even when quite new with the older Deadline. Still, those numbers were more than enough to make it profitable for Infocom. And for anyone looking to get started with the Infocom mysteries today just for fun (as opposed to historical research), it’s definitely the one I’d recommend you play.

 
 

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