Tag Archives: hitchhiker’s

Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

This blog has become, among other things, an examination of good and bad game-design practices down through the years, particularly within the genre of adventure games. I’ve always tried to take the subject seriously, and have even dared to hope that some of these writings might be of practical use to someone — might help designers of the present or future make better games. But, for reasons that I hope everyone can understand, I’ve spent much more time illuminating negative than positive examples of puzzle design. The fact is, I don’t feel much compunction about spoiling bad puzzles. Spoiling the great puzzles, however, is something I’m always loath to do. I want my readers to have the thrill of tackling those for themselves.

Unfortunately, this leaves the situation rather unbalanced. If you’re a designer looking for tips from the games of the past, it certainly helps to have some positive as well as negative examples to look at. And even if you just read this blog to experience (or re-experience) these old games through the sensibility of your humble author here, you’re missing out if all you ever hear about are the puzzles that don’t work. So, when my reader and supporter Casey Muratori wrote to me to suggest an article that singles out some great puzzles for detailed explication and analysis, it sounded like a fine idea to me.

It’s not overly difficult to generalize what makes for fair or merely “good” puzzles. They should be reasonably soluble by any reasonably intelligent, careful player, without having to fall back on the tedium of brute-forcing them or the pointlessness of playing from a walkthrough. As such, the craft of making merely good or fair puzzles is largely subsumed in lists of what not to do — yes, yet more negative reinforcements! — such as Graham Nelson’s “Bill of Player’s Rights” or Ron Gilbert’s “Why Adventure Games Suck and What We Can Do About It.” It’s much more difficult, however, to explain what makes a brilliant, magical puzzle. In any creative discipline, rules will only get you so far; at some point, codification must make way for the ineffable. Still, we’ll do the best we can today, and see if we can’t tease some design lessons out of ten corking puzzles from adventure games of yore.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers galore in what follows, so if you haven’t played these games, and you think you might ever want to, you should absolutely do so before reading about them here. All ten games are found in my personal Hall of Fame and come with my highest recommendation. As that statement would indicate, I’ve restricted this list to games I’ve already written about, meaning that none of those found here were published after 1992. I’ve split the field evenly between parser-driven text adventures and point-and-click graphic adventures. If you readers enjoy and/or find this article useful, then perhaps it can become a semi-regular series going forward.

And now, with all that said, let’s accentuate the positive for once and relive some classic puzzles that have been delighting their players for decades.

1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

By Will Crowther and Don Woods, public domain, 1977.

How it works: Deep within the bowels of Colossal Cave, “a huge green dragon bars the way!” Your objective, naturally, is to get past him to explore the area beyond. But how to get him out of the way? If you throw your axe at him, it “bounces harmlessly off the dragon’s thick scales.” If you unleash your fierce bird friend on him, who earlier cleared a similarly troublesome snake out of your way, “the little bird attacks the green dragon, and in an astounding flurry gets burnt to a cinder.” If you simply try to “attack dragon,” the game mocks you: “With what? Your bare hands?” You continue on in this way until, frustrated and thoroughly pissed off, you type, “Yes,” in response to that last rhetorical question. And guess what? It wasn’t a rhetorical question: “Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! (Unbelievable, isn’t it?)”

Why it works: In many ways, this is the most dubious puzzle in this article. (I do know how to make an entrance, don’t I?) It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people who have “solved” it have done so by accident, which is not normally a sign of good puzzle design. Yet classic text adventures especially were largely about exploring the possibility space, seeing what responses you could elicit. The game asks you a question; why not answer it, just to see what it does?

This is an early example of a puzzle that could never have worked absent the parser — absent its approach to interactivity as a conversation between game and player. How could you possibly implement something like this using point and click? I’m afraid a dialog box with a “YES” and “NO” just wouldn’t work. In text, though, the puzzle rewards the player’s sense of whimsy — rewards the player, one might even say, for playing in the right spirit. Interactions like these are the reason some of us continue to love text adventures even in our modern era of photo-realistic graphics and surround sound.

Our puzzling design lesson: A puzzle need not be complicated to delight — need barely be a puzzle at all! — if it’s executed with wit and a certain joie de vivre.

2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

How it works: As you’re exploring the castle of the mad wizard Krill, you come upon a maze of eight identical rooms in the basement. Each location is “a peculiar room, whose cream-colored walls are thin and translucent.” All of the rooms are empty, the whole area seemingly superfluous. How strange.

Elsewhere in the castle, you’ve discovered (or will discover) a few other interesting items. One is an old book containing “The Legend of the Unseen Terror”:

This legend, written in an ancient tongue, goes something like this: At one time a shapeless and formless manifestation of evil was disturbed from millennia of sleep. It was so powerful that it required the combined wisdom of the leading enchanters of that age to conquer it. The legend tells how the enchanters lured the Terror "to a recess deep within the earth" by placing there a powerful spell scroll. When it had reached the scroll, the enchanters trapped it there with a spell that encased it in the living rock. The Terror was so horrible that none would dare speak of it. A comment at the end of the narration indicates that the story is considered to be quite fanciful; no other chronicles of the age mention the Terror in any form.

And you’ve found a map, drawn in pencil. With a start, you realize that it corresponds exactly to the map you’ve drawn of the translucent maze, albeit with an additional, apparently inaccessible room located at point P:

B       J
!      / \
!     /   \
!    /     \
!   K       V
!          / \
!         /   \
!        /     \
R-------M       F
 \     /
  \   /
   \ /
    H       P

Finally, you’ve found a badly worn pencil, with a point and an eraser good for just two uses each.

And so you put the pieces together. The Terror and the “powerful spell scroll” mentioned in the book are encased in the “living rock” of the maze in room P. The pencil creates and removes interconnections between the rooms. You need to get to room P to recover the scroll, which you’ll need to defeat Krill. But you can’t allow the Terror to escape and join forces with Krill. A little experimentation — which also causes you to doom the world to endless darkness a few times, but there’s always the restore command, right? — reveals that the Terror moves one room per turn, just as you do. So, your objective must be to let him out of room P, but trap him in another part of the maze before he can get to room B and freedom. You need to give him a path to freedom to get him moving out of room P, then cut it off.

There are many possible solutions. One is to go to room H, then draw a line connecting P and F. Sensing a path to freedom, the Terror will move to room F, whereupon you erase the connection you just drew. As you do that, the Terror moves to room V, but you erase the line between V and M before he can go further, trapping him once again. Now, you have just enough pencil lead left to draw a line between H and P and recover the scroll.

Why it works: Solving this puzzle comes down to working out how a system functions, then exploiting it to do your bidding. (Small wonder so many hackers have found text adventures so appealing over the years!) First comes the great mental leap of connecting these four disparate elements which you’ve found scattered about: an empty maze, a book of legends, a map, and a pencil. Then, after that great “a-ha!” moment, you get the pleasure of working out the mechanics of the Terror’s movements and finally of putting together your plan and carrying it out. Once you understand how everything works, this final exercise is hardly a brain burner, but it’s nevertheless made much more enjoyable by the environment’s dynamism. You feel encouraged to sit down with your map and work out your unique approach, and the game responds as you expect it to.  This simulational aspect, if you will, stands in marked contrast to so many static adventure-game puzzles of the “use X on Y because the designer wants you to” variety.

It’s worth taking note as well of the technology required to implement something like this. It demands a parser capable of understanding a construction as complicated as “draw line from H to P,” a game engine capable of re-jiggering map connections and rewriting room descriptions on the fly, and even a measure of artificial intelligence, including a path-finding algorithm, for the Terror. Nobody other than Infocom could have implemented a puzzle of this dynamic complexity in 1983. I’ve often noted that the keystone of Infocom’s design genius was their subtly advanced technology in comparison to anyone else working in their field; this puzzle provides fine proof of what I mean by that.

Our puzzling design lesson: Technology isn’t everything in game design, but it isn’t nothing either; the tools you choose to work with have a direct impact on the types of puzzles you can attempt. A corollary to this statement is that the technology which goes into design affordances is often far more subtle than that which allows whiz-bang graphics and sound.

3. Getting the babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

How it works: You’ve escaped planet Earth just seconds before its destruction at the hands of a Vogon Constructor Fleet. You’re now in the hold of one of the Vogon ships:

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.

There is a satchel here.

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.

That dispensing machine contains babel fish, which, when inserted into your ear, will allow you to understand the many strange alien languages you’ll soon be encountering. Rather than belabor this famously extended puzzle point by point, I’ll just provide you with a transcript of the steps you need to go through to solve it. In real life, of course, you would spend much more time bumbling and fumbling than does our ideal player here.

>examine machine
The dispenser is tall, has a button at around eye-level, and says "Babel Fish" in large letters. Anything dispensed would probably come out the slot at around knee-level. It bears a small label which reads "Another fine product of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation."

You have:
no tea
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a towel
It looks like your gown contains:
pocket fluff
The Hitchhiker's Guide
an electronic Sub-Etha signaling device
a loose pile of junk mail
a toothbrush
a flathead screwdriver

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook.

>remove gown
Okay, you're no longer wearing your gown.

>hang gown on hook
The gown is now hanging from the hook, covering a tiny hole.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain.

>put towel on drain
The towel completely covers the drain.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot zips through the panel, and is gone.

>cover panel with satchel
Okay, the satchel is lying on its side in front of the tiny robot panel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. 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.

>put mail on satchel
Okay, the loose pile of junk mail is now sitting on the satchel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc surrounded by a cloud of junk mail. Another robot flies in and begins madly collecting the cluttered plume of mail. The babel fish continues its flight, landing with a loud "squish" in your ear.

Why it works: This is easily the most famous text-adventure puzzle of all time, one whose reputation for difficulty was so extreme in the 1980s that Infocom took to selling tee-shirts emblazoned with “I got the babel fish!” In truth, though, its reputation is rather exaggerated. There are other puzzles in Hitchhiker’s which rely heavily — perhaps a little too heavily — on the ability to think with the skewed logic of Douglas Adams. This puzzle, however, really isn’t one of them. It’s certainly convoluted and time-consuming, but it’s also both logical in a non-skewed sense and thoroughly satisfying to work out step by step. From the standpoint of the modern player, its only really objectionable aspects are the facts that you can easily arrive at it without having everything you need to solve it, and that you have a limited amount of tries — i.e., a limited number of spare babel fish — at your disposal. But if you have made sure to pick up everything that isn’t nailed down in the early part of the game, and if you use the save system wisely, there’s no reason you can’t solve this on your own and have immense fun doing so. It’s simply a matter of saving at each stage and experimenting to find out how to progress further. The fact that it can be comfortably solved in stages makes it far less infuriating than it might otherwise be. You always feel like you’re making progress — coming closer, step by step, to the ultimate solution. There’s something of a life lesson here: most big problems can be solved by first breaking them down into smaller problems and solving those one at a time.

Importantly, this puzzle is also funny, fitting in perfectly with Douglas Adams’s comedic conception of a universe not out so much to swat you dead all at once as to slowly annoy you to death with a thousand little passive-aggressive cuts.

Our puzzling design lesson: Too many adventure-game designers think that making a comedy gives them a blank check to indulge in moon logic when it comes to their puzzles. The babel fish illustrates that a puzzle can be both funny and fair.

4. Using the T-removing machine in Leather Goddesses of Phobos

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

How it works: While exploring this ribald science-fiction comedy, Infocom’s last big hit, you come upon a salesman who wants to trade you something for the “odd machine” he carries. When you finally find the item he’s looking for and take possession of the machine, he gives you only the most cryptic description of its function: “‘It’s a TEE remover,’ he explains. You ponder what it removes — tea stains, hall T-intersections — even TV star Mr. T crosses your mind, until you recall that it’s only 1936.”

Experimentation will eventually reveal that this “tee-remover” is actually a T-remover. If you put something inside it and turn it on, said something becomes itself minus all of the letter Ts in its name. You need to use the machine to solve one clever and rather hilarious puzzle, turning a jar of untangling cream into unangling cream, thereby to save poor King Mitre’s daughter from a tragic fate:

In the diseased version of the legend commonly transmitted on Earth, Mitre is called Midas. The King was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. His greed caught up with him when he transformed even his own daughter into gold.

King Mitre's wish was, in fact, that everything he touched would turn to forty-five degree angles. No one has ever explained this strange wish; the most likely hypothesis is a sexual fetish. In any case, the tale has a similar climax, with Mitre turning his own daughter into a forty-five degree angle.

This is pretty funny in itself, but the greatest fun offered by the T-remover is in all the other places you can use it: on a tray (“It looks a little like Ray whatsisname from second grade.”); on a rabbit (“A bearded rabbi wearing a prayer shawl leaps out of the machine, recites a Torah blessing, and dashes off in search of a minyan.”); a raft (“It sinks like a stone. I guess a raf doesn’t float nearly as well as a raft.”); a pair of cotton balls (“Let’s just say that some poor male raccoon is speaking in a particularly high-pitched voice.”).

Why it works: The T-removing machine is sometimes held up as another puzzle concept that couldn’t possibly work in any other medium than text. I’m not sure if that’s literally true — later in this very list we’ll see another funny wordplay-based puzzle that does work inside a graphic adventure — but it certainly is true that no responsible producer would agree to pay for all the work required to implement all those one-off, just-for-fun responses in graphics. In text, though, they’re just a matter of an additional sentence or two.

Adventure designer Bob Bates likes to point out that the vast majority of what the player attempts to do will always be wrong; that’s just the nature of the endeavor. When she does one of these wrong things, the designer needs to do as much as possible to entertain her. A later generation would dub this the “juicy” approach to game design: rewarding curiosity and creativity, even if none of it contributes directly to the prosaic task of finishing the game. Steve Meretzky had a great puzzle already with the T-remover, King Mitre, and the untangling/unangling cream. He could have left it at that by coming up with excuses for why you couldn’t put other things in the T-remover. Instead he stayed faithful to his invention and implemented many alternatives alongside the “correct” use of the machine.

Our puzzling design lesson: Don’t ignore the “else” in the “if, then, else” of an adventure game. It makes your game feel like a living world rather than an arbitrary collection of logic gates to be navigated, and shows that you respect your player’s creativity.

5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

How it works: Would I be engaging in too much gender stereotyping if I noted that the puzzles in the only Infocom game to be written by a woman often deal in social intelligence rather than abstract logic? This is another fairly lengthy sequence, so it’s best if I once again just show you what happens if you do everything correctly.

"Welcome, ma petite." Lafond bows you in.

Lafond's Bedroom
Lafond's bedroom shows all the outpourings of his megalomania. Royal hues of
purple and gold weigh down the hangings on the bed and the eastward window, as if trying to smother the moonbeam shining in.

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

A lace-covered table crouches beside a wing-backed chair in one corner. Sitting on the table is a green goblet, a blue goblet and a flagon.

"Have some wine." Lafond pours wine into two glasses, giving a blue one to you. "Drink this down. We have a long night ahead of us." He drains his own.

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says, "Let's see more cooperation of this sort."

Suddenly, the door slams open. It is Jamison, coatless, sword bared, his shirt ripped. "Thank God I am not too late. Leave, darling, before I skewer this dog to his bedposts," he cries. The scar on his cheek gleams coldly.

With a yell, Crulley and the butler jump out of the darkness behind him. Nicholas struggles, but soon lies unconscious on the floor.

"Take him to the dungeon," Lafond says, setting down his glass. "You, butler, stay nearby. I do not wish to be disturbed again.

"Now that we are rid of that intrusion, cherie, I will change into something more comfortable. Pour me more wine." He crosses to the wardrobe removing his coat and vest, turned slightly away from you.

>pour wine into green goblet
You fill the green goblet with wine.

"In private, call me Jean, or whatever endearment you choose, once I have approved it." Lafond is looking into the wardrobe.

>squeeze bottle into green goblet
You squeeze three colorless drops into the green goblet. You sense Lafond
hesitate, then continue primping.

The butler enters, laying a silver tray of cold chicken on the table. "The kitchen wench has gone, your grace. I took the liberty of fetching these
myself." He bows and leaves the room.

"Sprinkle some spices on the fowl, ma petite," Lafond says, donning a long brocade robe, his back to you. "They are hot, but delicious."

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

"Tsk. The cook has gone too far. She shall be 'leaving us' tomorrow." Lafond adjusts the lace at his neck.

>put spices on chicken
You sprinkle some spices on a wing and nibble it. The peppery heat hits you like a wave, leaving you gasping, eyes watering.

Lafond strolls to the table smiling slyly. "But you haven't finished pouring the wine." He tops off both glasses. "Which glass was mine? I seem to have forgotten." He points at the green goblet and smiles in a way that does not grant you confidence. "Is this it?"

You shake your head, teeth clenched.

"Ah yes, of course." Lafond obligingly takes the blue goblet.

He inhales deeply of the bouquet of his wine, then turns to you. "You must think me very naive to fall for such a trick. I saw you pour something into one of these glasses -- although I cannot smell it." He switches goblets, setting the blue goblet into your nerveless grasp and taking up the other, smiling evilly. "Now you will drink from the cup intended for me."

>drink from blue goblet
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says. Lafond takes the leather bottle and drops it out the window. "You shall not need this. You may suffer no headaches in my employ."

He lifts his glass to drink, but stops. "Your father, for all his idiotic meddling in other people's business, is not a fool. I doubt you are, either." He calls in the butler, ordering him to empty the green goblet. The man reports no odd taste and returns to his post.

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

Lafond draws near, whispering indecencies. He caresses your lily white neck, his fingers ice-cold despite the tropic heat.

>throw spices at lafond
You blow the spices off your fingertips, directly into Lafond's face. He
sneezes, his eyes watering from the heat of the peppers. Reaching blindly for some wine, he instead upsets the table, shattering a glass. Lafond stumbles cursing out of the room, in search of relief.

You run out -- into the butler's barrel chest and leering grin. You return to the bedroom, the butler following. "The governor said you were not to leave this room."

Time passes...

The butler seems to be having some problems stifling a yawn.

Time passes...

The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

You creep over the prostrate butler.

Why it works: Plundered Hearts is an unusually driven text adventure, in which the plucky heroine you play is constantly forced to improvise her way around the dangers that come at her from every direction. In that spirit, one can almost imagine a player bluffing her way through this puzzle on the first try by thinking on her feet and using her social intuition. Most probably won’t, mark you, but it’s conceivable, and that’s what makes it such a good fit with the game that hosts it. This death-defying tale doesn’t have time to slow down for complicated mechanical puzzles. This puzzle, on the other hand, fits perfectly with the kind of high-wire adventure story — adventure story in the classic sense — which this game wants to be.

Our puzzling design lesson: Do-or-die choke point should be used sparingly, but can serve a plot-heavy game well as occasional, exciting punctuations. Just make sure that they feel inseparable from the narrative unfolding around the player — not, as is the case with so many adventure-game puzzles, like the arbitrary thing the player has to do so that the game will feed her the next bit of story.

6. Getting into Weird Ed’s room in Maniac Mansion

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

How it works: In Ron Gilbert’s first adventure game, you control not one but three characters, a trio of teenage stereotypes who enter the creepy mansion of Dr. Fred one hot summer night. Each has a unique skill set, and each can move about the grounds independently. Far from being just a gimmick, this has a huge effect on the nature of the game’s puzzles. Instead of confining yourself to one room at a time, as in most adventure games, your thinking has to span the environment; you must coordinate the actions of characters located far apart. Couple this with real-time gameplay and an unusually responsive and dynamic environment, and the whole game starts to feel wonderfully amenable to player creativity, full of emergent possibilities.

In this example of a Maniac Mansion puzzle, you need to search the bedroom of Weird Ed, the son of the mad scientist Fred and his bonkers wife Edna. If you enter while he’s in there, he’ll march you off to the house’s dungeon. Thus you have to find a way to get rid of him. In the sequence below, we’ve placed the kid named Dave in the room adjacent to Ed’s. Meanwhile Bernard is on the house’s front porch. (This being a comedy game, we won’t question how these two are actually communicating with each other.)

Dave is poised to spring into action in the room next to Weird Ed’s.

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

Dave makes his move as soon as Ed clears the area.

Dave searches Ed’s room.

But he has to hurry because Ed, after telling off Bernard, will return to his room.

Why it works: As graphics fidelity increases in an adventure game, the possibility space tends to decrease. Graphics are, after all, expensive to create, and beautiful high-resolution graphics all the more expensive. By the late 1990s, the twilight of the traditional adventure game as more than a niche interest among gamers, the graphics would be very beautiful indeed, but the interactivity would often be distressingly arbitrary, with little to no implementation of anything beyond the One True Path through the game.

Maniac Mansion, by contrast, makes a strong argument for the value of primitive graphics. This game that was originally designed for the 8-bit Commodore 64 uses its crude bobble-headed imagery in the service of the most flexible and player-responsive adventure design Lucasfilm Games would ever publish over a long and storied history in graphic adventures. Situations like the one shown above feel like just that — situations with flexible solutions — rather than set-piece puzzles. You might never have to do any of the above if you take a different approach. (You could, for instance, find a way to befriend Weird Ed instead of tricking him…) The whole environmental simulation — and a simulation really is what it feels like — is of remarkable complexity, especially considering the primitive hardware on which it was implemented.

Our puzzling design lesson: Try thinking holistically instead of in terms of set-piece roadblocks, and try thinking of your game world as a responsive simulated environment for the player to wander in instead of as a mere container for your puzzles and story. You might be surprised at what’s possible, and your players might even discover emergent solutions to their problems which you never thought of.

7. Getting the healer’s ring back in Hero’s Quest (later known as Quest for Glory I)

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

How it works: Hero’s Quest is another game which strains against the constrained norms in adventure-game design. Here you create and develop a character over the course of the game, CRPG-style. His statistics largely define what he can do, but your own choices define how those statistics develop. This symbiosis results in an experience which is truly yours. Virtually every puzzle in the game admits of multiple approaches, only some (or none) of which may be made possible by your character’s current abilities. The healer’s lost ring is a fine example of how this works in practice.

The bulletin board at the Guild of Adventurers tells you about the missing ring.

You go to inquire with the healer. Outside her hut is a tree, and on the tree is the nest of a sort of flying lizard.

Hmm, there’s another of these flying lizards inside.

I’ll reveal now that the ring is in the nest. But how to get at it? The answer will depend on the kind of character you’ve built up. If your “throwing” skill is sufficient, you can throw rocks at the nest to drive off the lizard and knock it off the tree. If your “magic” skill is sufficient and you’ve bought the “fetch” spell, you can cast it to bring the nest to you. Or, if your “climb” skill is sufficient, you can climb the tree. If you can’t yet manage any of this, you can continue to develop your character and come back later. Or not: the puzzle is completely optional. The healer rewards you only with six extra gold pieces and two healing potions, both of which you can earn through other means if necessary.

Why it works: This puzzle would be somewhat problematic if solving it was required to finish the game. Although several lateral nudges are provided that the ring is in the nest, it strikes me as dubious to absolutely demand that the player put all the pieces together — or, for that matter, to even demand that the player notice the nest, which is sitting there rather inconspicuously in the tree branch. Because solving the puzzle isn’t an absolute requirement, however, it becomes just another fun little thing to discover in a game that’s full of such generosity. Some players will notice the nest and become suspicious, and some won’t. Some players will find a way to see what’s in it, and some won’t. And those that do find a way will do so using disparate methods at different points in the game. Even more so than Maniac Mansion, Hero’s Quest gives you the flexibility to make your own story out of its raw materials. No two players will come away with quite the same memories.

This melding of CRPG mechanics with adventure-game elements is still an underexplored area in a genre which has tended to become less rather than more formally ambitious as it’s aged. (See also Origin’s brief-lived Worlds of Ultima series for an example of games which approach the question from the other direction — adding adventure-game elements to the CRPG rather than the other way around — with equally worthy results.) Anything adventures can do to break out of the static state-machine paradigm in favor of flexibility and dynamism is generally worth doing. It can be the difference between a dead museum exhibition and a living world.

Our puzzling design lesson: You can get away with pushing the boundaries of fairness in optional puzzles, which you can use to reward the hardcore without alienating your more casual players. (Also, go read Maniac Mansion‘s design lesson one more time.)

8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: Games like Hero’s Quest succeed by being generously expansive, while others, like Loom, succeed by boiling themselves down to a bare essence. To accompany its simple storyline, which has the rarefied sparseness of allegory, Loom eliminates most of what we expect out of an adventure game. Bobbin Threadbare, the hero of the piece, can carry exactly one object with him: a “distaff,” which he can use to “spin” a variety of magical “drafts” out of notes by tapping them out on an onscreen musical staff. Gameplay revolves almost entirely around discovering new drafts and using them to solve puzzles.

The ancestor of Loom‘s drafts is the spell book the player added to in Infocom’s Enchanter series. There as well you cast spells to solve puzzles — and, in keeping with the “juicy” approach, also got to enjoy many amusing effects when you cast them in the wrong places. But, as we saw in our earlier explication of one of Enchanter‘s puzzles, you can’t always rely on your spell book in that game. In Loom, on the other hand, your distaff and your Book of Patterns — i.e., drafts — is all you have. And yet there’s a lot you can do with them, as the following will illustrate.

Bobbin eavesdrops from the gallery as Bishop Mandible discusses his plan for world domination with one of his lackeys. His chief smith is just sharpening the last of the swords that will be required. Bobbin has a pattern for “sharpen.” That’s obviously not what we want to do here, but maybe he could cast it in reverse…

Unfortunately, he can’t spin drafts as long as the smith is beating away at the sword.

Luckily, the smith pauses from time to time to show off his handwork.

Why it works: Loom‘s minimalist mechanics might seem to allow little scope for clever puzzle design. Yet, as this puzzle indicates, such isn’t the case at all. Indeed, there’s a certain interactive magic, found by no means only in adventures games, to the re-purposing of simple mechanics in clever new ways. Loom isn’t a difficult game, but it isn’t entirely trivial either. When the flash of inspiration comes that a draft might be cast backward, it’s as thrilling as the thrills that accompany any other puzzle on this list.

It’s also important to note the spirit of this puzzle, the way it’s of a piece with the mythic dignity of the game as a whole. One can’t help but be reminded of that famous passage from the Book of Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Our puzzling design lesson: Wonderful games can be and have been built around a single mechanic. If you’ve got a great one, don’t hesitate to milk it for all it’s worth. Also: puzzles can illuminate — or undermine — a game’s theme as well as any other of its aspects can.

9. Teaching the cannibals how to get a head in The Secret of Monkey Island

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: For many of us, the first Monkey Island game is the Platonic ideal of a comedic graphic adventure: consistently inventive, painstakingly fair, endlessly good-natured, and really, truly funny. Given this, I could have chosen to feature any of a dozen or more of its puzzles here. But what I’ve chosen — yes, even over the beloved insult sword-fighting — is something that still makes me smile every time I think about it today, a quarter-century after I first played this game. Just how does a young and ambitious, up-and-coming sort of cannibal get a head?

Hapless hero Guybrush Threepwood needs the human head that the friendly local cannibals are carrying around with them.

Wait! He’s been carrying a certain leaflet around for quite some time now.

What’s the saying? “If you teach a man to fish…”

Why it works: One might call this the graphic-adventure equivalent of the text-adventure puzzle that opened this list. More than that, though, this puzzle is pure Ron Gilbert at his best: dumb but smart, unpretentious and unaffected, effortlessly likable. When you look through your inventory, trying to figure out where you’re going to find a head on this accursed island, and come upon that useless old leaflet you’ve been toting around all this time, you can’t help but laugh out loud.

Our puzzling design lesson: A comedic adventure game should be, to state the obvious, funny. And the comedy should live as much in the puzzles as anywhere else.

10. Tracking down the pendant in The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

By Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg, Electronic Arts, 1992

How it works: This interactive mystery, one of if not the finest game ever to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, is notable for its relative disinterest in the physical puzzles that are the typical adventure game’s stock in trade. Instead it has you collecting more abstract clues about means, motive, and opportunity, and piecing them together to reveal the complicated murder plot at the heart of the story.

It all begins when Holmes and Watson get called to the scene of the murder of an actress named Sarah Carroway: a dark alley just outside the Regency Theatre, where she was a star performer. Was it a mugging gone bad? Was it the work of Jack the Ripper? Or was it something else? A mysterious pendant becomes one of the keys to the case…

We first learn about Sarah Carroway’s odd pendent when we interview her understudy at the theater. It was a recent gift from Sarah’s sister, and she had always worn it since receiving it. Yet it’s missing from her body.

We find the workplace of Sarah’s sister Anna. She’s also in show biz, a singer at the Chancery Opera House. The woman who shared a box with Sarah during Anna’s performances confirms the understudy’s story about the pendant. More ominously, we learn that Anna too has disappeared.

We track down Anna’s solicitor and surrogate father-figure, a kindly old chap named Jacob Farthington. He tells us that Anna bore a child to one Lord Brumwell some years ago, but was forced to give him up to Brumwell without revealing his parentage. Now, she’s been trying to assert her rights as the boy’s mother.

More sleuthing and a little bit of sneaking leads us at last to Anna’s bedroom. There we find her diary. It states that she’s hired a detective following Sarah’s murder — not, regrettably, Sherlock Holmes — to find out what became of the pendant. It seems that it contained something unbelievably important. “A humble sheet of foolscap, depending on what’s written upon it, can be more precious than diamonds,” muses Holmes.

Yet more detecting on our part reveals that a rather dense blackguard named Blackwood pawned the pendant. Soon he confesses to Sarah’s murder: “I got overexcited. I sliced her to make her stop screaming.” He admits that he was hired to recover a letter by any means necessary by “an old gent, very high tone,” but he doesn’t know his name. (Lord Brumwell, perhaps?) It seems he killed the wrong Carroway — Anna rather than Sarah should have been his target — but blundered onto just the thing he was sent to recover anyway. But then, having no idea what the pendant contained, he pawned it to make a little extra dough out of the affair. Stupid is as stupid does…

So where is the pendant — and the proof of parentage it must have contained — now? We visit the pawn shop where Blackwood unloaded it. The owner tells us that it was bought by an “inquiry agent” named Moorehead. Wait… there’s a Moorehead & Gardner Detective Agency listed in the directory. This must be the detective Anna hired! Unfortunately, we are the second to ask about the purchaser of the pendant. The first was a bit of “rough trade” named Robert Hunt.

We’re too late. Hunt has already killed Gardner, and we find him just as he’s pushing Moorehead in front of a train. We manage to nick Hunt after the deed is done, but he refuses to say who hired him or why — not that we don’t have a pretty strong suspicion by this point.

Luckily for our case, neither Gardner nor Moorehead had the pendant on him at the time of his death. We find it at last in their safe. Inside the pendant, as we suspected, is definitive proof of the boy’s parentage. Now we must pay an urgent visit to Lord Brumwell. Is Anna still alive, or has she already met the same fate as her sister? Will Brumwell go peacefully? We’ll have to play further to find out…

Why it works: Even most allegedly “serious” interactive mysteries are weirdly bifurcated affairs. The game pretty much solves the mystery for you as you jump through a bunch of unrelated hoops in the form of arbitrary object-oriented puzzles that often aren’t all that far removed from the comedic likes of Monkey Island. Even some pretty good Sherlock Holmes games, like Infocom’s Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, wind up falling into this trap partially or entirely. Yet The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes stands out for the way it really does ask you to think like a detective, making connections across its considerable length and breadth. While you could, I suppose, brute-force your way through even the multifaceted puzzle above by visiting all of the locations and showing everything to every suspect, it’s so much more satisfying to go back through Watson’s journal, to muse over what you’ve discovered so far, and to make these connections yourself. Lost Files refuses to take the easy way out, choosing instead to take your role as the great detective seriously. For that, it can only be applauded.

Our puzzling design lesson: Graham Nelson once indelibly described an adventure game as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” I would say in response that it really need not be that way. A game need not be a story with puzzles grafted on; the two can harmonize. If you’re making an interactive mystery, in other words, don’t force your player to fiddle with sliding blocks while the plot rolls along without any other sort of input from her; let your player actually, you know, solve a mystery.

(Once again, my thanks to Casey Muratori for suggesting this article. And thank you to Mike Taylor and Alex Freeman for suggesting some of the featured puzzles.)


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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]“As seen on Tri-D!” a microscopic space fleet;[2]Easily mistaken for an empty plastic baggie. a set of “peril-sensitive sunglasses”;[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. 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]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.

Impressive as the packaging is, not all of it was to Douglas Adams’s taste. He hated the gibbering green planet,[5]Or whatever it’s supposed to be. 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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 puzzle[7]Or not. 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]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.
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]It’s fairly persnickety here; you can only “CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT” things. 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]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. 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 Meretzky 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 airlock[11]Although hopefully not before collecting the essential atomic vector plotter 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:

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

You can't go that way.

You can't go that way.

(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]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. 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]Don’t ask. a collection of fluff,[14]Really don’t ask. 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.

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.

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?

Absolutely sure?

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.

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

Engine Room
You're in the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.

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

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]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.

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]This would seem to belie the Guide‘s description of Earth as “harmless,” and even the revised description of it as “mostly harmless.” 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]There’s a joke, or maybe an aphorism, in there somewhere. “Between a Vl’Hurg and a Vogon,” maybe? 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]Zaphod’s sequence is particularly prone to this, to the extent that I’ll offer a hint: look under the seat! 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]I’m thinking particularly of growing the plant here. 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]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. 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 flaws[21]Palace was no fan of the dog-feeding puzzle in particular. 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]See 1985’s Spellbreaker, which unlike Hitchhiker’s was explicitly billed as exactly that and does a superb job at it. 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.

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.

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.

You have:
no 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 Mulldoon 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 number[23]Not to mention this post. 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]Tolkien is about the only other generally good author I can think of who has sparked as much bad writing as Adams.

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 interested 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 empty plastic 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.

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 ludicrously tall and ungainly-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 suppress 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 years 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 broadcast 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. “Milliways, 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 more 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 computer 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 Meretzky, 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 worst, 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. Simpson 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 Meretzky 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 in 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.)


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 Carroll:

“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, Spaceballs. 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 Nietzschean 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 Performers 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 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.)


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


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