RSS

Tag Archives: infocom

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 3: A Renaissance is Nigh

In 1397, a Byzantine scholar named Manuel Chrysoloras arrived in Florence, Italy. He brought with him knowledge of Greek, along with many ancient manuscripts in Greek and Latin that had been lost to the West in the chaos following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This event is considered by many historians to mark the first stirrings of the Italian Renaissance, and with them the beginning of the epoch of scientific, material, and social Progress which has persisted right up to the present day.

In 1993, an Oxford graduate student named Graham Nelson released a text adventure called Curses that, among other things, functioned as an advertisement for a programming language he called Inform, which targeted Infocom’s old Z-Machine. This event is considered by most of us who have seriously thought about the history of text adventures in the post-Infocom era to mark the first stirrings of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, and with them the beginning of an interactive-fiction community that remains as artistically vibrant as ever today.

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes at the foregoing. On one level, it is indeed an unbearably pretentious formulation, this comparing of one of the most earthshaking events in human culture writ large with the activities of a small community of niche enthusiasts. Yet, if we can agree to set aside the differences in scale and importance for the moment, the analogy really is a surprisingly apt one. Like the greater Renaissance in Europe, the Interactive Fiction Renaissance prepared a group of people to begin moving forward again by resurfacing old things that had been presumed lost forever. Taking pride of place among those things, being inextricably bound up with everything that followed, was the Z-Machine, functioning first as a means of running Infocom’s classic games, as we saw in the first article in this series; and then as a means of running new games, as we began to see in the second article and will examine in still more detail today.


As Graham Nelson began to pursue the dream of writing new software to run on Infocom’s old virtual machine, he had no access to the refined tools Infocom had used for that task. Thus he was forced to start from nothing — from what amounted to a bare chunk of (virtual) computing hardware, with no compilers or any other software helpers to aid his efforts. He had to start, in other words, at the bare metal, working in assembly language.

Assembly language is the lowest level at which any computer, whether real or virtual, can be (semi-)practically programmed. Its statements correspond to the individual opcodes of the processor itself, which normally encompass only the most granular of commands: add, subtract, multiply, or divide these numbers together; grab the number from this local register and put it into that memory location; etc. Assembly language is the primordial language which underpins everything, the one which must be utilized first to write the compilers that allow programmers to develop software in less granular, more structured, more human-friendly languages such as C, Pascal, and BASIC.

Already at this level, however, the Z-Machine separates itself from an ordinary computer. Alongside the rudimentary, granular opcodes that are common to any Turing-complete computer, it implements other opcodes that are absurdly baroque. The “read” opcode, for example, does all of the work of accepting a full line of text from the keyboard, then separating out its individual words and “tokenizing” them: i.e., looking them up in a dictionary table stored at a defined location in the virtual machine’s memory and converting them into the codes listed there. Another opcode, “save,” simply orders the interpreter to save the current state of the machine to disk, however it prefers to go about it; ditto the “restore” opcode. These complex and highly specialized opcodes exist because the Z-Machine, while it is indeed a Turing-complete, fully programmable anything machine in the abstract, is nevertheless heavily optimized toward the practical needs of text adventures. Thus an object table meant to represent rooms and things in the world of a game is hard-coded right into its memory map, and there are other single opcodes which encapsulate relatively complex tasks like looking up or changing the properties of an object in the world, or moving one object into another object.

Strictly speaking, none of this is really necessary; the Z-Machine is far more complicated than it needs to be in abstract terms. Infocom could have created a robust virtual machine which implemented only traditional low-level opcodes, building everything else out in the form of software libraries running on said virtual machine. But they had a strong motivation for hard-coding so many of the needs of a text adventure right into the virtual hardware: efficiency. A baroque opcode like “read” meant that all of the many steps and stages which went into accepting the player’s command could take place at the interpreter level, running natively on the host computer. Implementing a virtual machine of any sort was a serious challenge on a 1 MHz 8-bit computer like an Apple II or Commodore 64; Infocom needed every advantage they could get.

By the time of Graham Nelson’s experimentation with the Z-Machine, most of the concerns that had led Infocom to design it in this way had already fallen by the wayside. The average computer of the early 1990s would have been perfectly capable of running text adventures through a simpler and more generic virtual machine where the vagaries of the specific application were implemented in software. Nevertheless, the Z-Machine was the technology Graham had inherited and the one he was determined to utilize. When he began to work on Inform, he tailored it to the assumptions and affordances of the Z-Machine. The result was a high-level programming language with an unusual degree of correspondence to its underlying (virtual) hardware. Most obviously, the earliest versions of Inform couldn’t make games whose total compiled size exceeded 128 K, the limit for the version 3 Z-Machine they targeted. (This figure would be raised to 256 K once Inform began to target the version 4 and 5 Z-Machine.)

Yet this limitation was only the tip of the iceberg. Each function in Inform was limited to a maximum of 15 local variables because that was all that the stack mechanism built into the Z-Machine allowed. Meanwhile only 240 global variables could exist because that was the maximum length of the table of same hard-coded into the Z-Machine’s memory map. Much of Inform came to revolve around the Z-Machine’s similarly hard-coded object table, which was limited to just 255 objects in version 3 of the virtual machine. (This limitation was raised to 65,535 objects in the version 4 and 5 Z-Machine, thereby becoming in practice a non-issue.) Further, each object could have just 32 attributes, or states of being — its weight, its open or closed status, its lit or unlit status, etc. — because that was all that was allowed by the Z-Machine’s standard object table. (Starting with version 4 of the Z-Machine, objects could have up to 48 attributes.) All of the dynamic data in a game — i.e., data that could change during play, as opposed to static data like code and text strings — had to fit into the first 64 K of the story file, an artifact of the Z-Machine’s implementation of virtual memory, which had allowed it to pack 128 K or more of game into computers with far less physical memory than that. This limitation too was inherited by Inform despite the fact that by the early 1990s the virtual-memory system had become superfluous, a mere phantom limb which Inform nevertheless had to accept as part of the bargain with the past which it had struck.

Indeed, having been confronted with so many undeniable disadvantages arising from the use of the Z-Machine, it’s natural for us to ask what actual advantages accrued from the use of a fifteen-year-old virtual machine designed around the restrictions of long-obsolete computers, as opposed to taking the TADS route of designing a brand new virtual machine better suited to the modern world. One obvious answer is portability. By the early 1990s, several different open-source Z-Machine interpreters already existed, which between them had already been ported to virtually every computing platform in the world with any active user base at all. Any Inform game that Graham Nelson or anyone else chose to write would become instantly playable on all of these computers, whose combined numbers far exceeded those to which Mike Roberts, working virtually alone on TADS, had so far managed to port his interpreter. (The only really robust platform for running TADS games at the time was MS-DOS; even the Macintosh interpreters were dogged by bugs and infelicities. And as for Graham’s favored platform, the British-to-the-core Acorn Archimedes… forget about it.)

In reality, though, Inform’s use of the Z-Machine appealed at least as much to the emotions as to technical or practical considerations. The idea of writing new games to run on Infocom’s old virtual machine had a romantic and symbolic allure that many found all but irresistible. What better place to build a Renaissance than on the very foundations left behind by the storied ancients? Many or most of the people who came to use Inform did so because they wanted to feel like the heirs to Infocom’s legacy. Poor TADS never had a chance against that appeal to naked sentimentality.

Even as Inform was first gaining traction, it was widely known that Infocom had had a programming language of their own for the Z-Machine, which they had called ZIL: the “Zork Implementation Language.” Yet no one outside of Infocom had ever seen any actual ZIL code. How closely did Inform, a language that, like ZIL, was designed around the affordances and constraints of the Z-Machine, resemble its older sibling? It wasn’t until some years after Inform had kick-started the Interactive Fiction Renaissance that enough ZIL code was recovered to give a reasonable basis for comparison. The answer, we now know, is that Inform resembles ZIL not at all in terms of syntax. Indeed, the two make for a fascinating case study in how different minds, working on the same problem and equipped with pretty much the same set of tools for doing so, can arrive at radically different solutions.

As I described in an article long ago, ZIL was essentially a subset of the general-purpose programming language MDL, which was used heavily during the 1970s by the Dynamic Modeling Group at MIT, the cradle from which Infocom sprang. (MDL was itself a variant of LISP, for many years the language of choice among artificial-intelligence researchers.) A bare-bones implementation of the famous brass lantern in Zork I looked like this in ZIL:

<OBJECT LANTERN 
           (LOC LIVING-ROOM) 
           (SYNONYM LAMP LANTERN LIGHT) 
           (ADJECTIVE BRASS) 
           (DESC "brass lantern") 
           (FLAGS TAKEBIT LIGHTBIT) 
           (ACTION LANTERN-F) 
           (FDESC "A battery-powered lantern is on the trophy 
             case.") 
           (LDESC "There is a brass lantern (battery-powered) 
             here.") 
           (SIZE 15)>


Inform has a fairly idiosyncratic syntax, but most resembles C, a language which was initially most popular among Unix systems programmers, but which was becoming by the early 1990s the language of choice for serious software of many stripes running under many different operating systems. The same lantern would look something like this in a bare-bones Inform implementation:

Object -> lantern "brass lantern"
  with name 'lamp' 'lantern' 'light' 'brass',
    initial
      "A battery-powered lantern is on the trophy case.",
    description
      "There is a brass lantern (battery-powered) here.",
  after [;
    SwitchOn:
      give self light;
      StartDaemon(self);
    SwitchOff:
      give self ~light;
  ],
  size 15,
  has switchable;


After enough information about ZIL finally emerged to allow comparisons like the above, many Infocom zealots couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed about how poorly Infocom’s language actually fared in contrast to Graham Nelson’s. Having been designed when the gospel of object-oriented programming was still in its infancy, ZIL, while remarkable for embracing object-oriented principles to the extent it does, utilizes them in a slightly sketchy way, via pointers to functions which have to be defined elsewhere in the code. (This is the purpose of the “ACTION LANTERN-F” statement in the ZIL code above — to serve as a pointer to the routine that should run when the player tries to light the lantern.) Inform, on the other hand, allows all of the code and data associated with an object such as the brass lantern to be neatly encapsulated into its description. (The “SwitchOn” and “SwitchOff” statements in the Inform excerpt above explain what should happen when the player tries to light or extinguish the lantern.) A complete implementation of the Zork I lantern in Inform would probably fill a dozen or more lines than what we see above, monitoring the charge of the battery, allowing the player to swap in a new battery, etc. — all neatly organized in one chunk of code. In ZIL, it would be scattered all over the place, wired together via a confusing network of pointers. In terms of readability alone, then, Inform excels in comparison to ZIL.

Most shockingly of all given the Infocom principals’ strong grounding in computer science, they never developed a standard library for ZIL — i.e., a standardized body of code to take care of the details that most text adventures have in common, such as rooms and compass directions, inventory and light sources, as well as the vagaries of parsing the player’s commands and keeping score. Instead the author of each new game began by cannibalizing some of the code to do these things from whatever previous game was deemed to be most like this latest one. From there, the author simply improvised. The Inform standard library, by contrast, was full-featured, rigorous, and exacting by the time the language reached maturity — in many ways a more impressive achievement than the actual programming language which undergirded it.

Because it was coded so much more efficiently than Infocom’s ad-hoc efforts, this standard library allowed an Inform game to pack notably more content into a given number of kilobytes. The early versions of Curses, for example, were already sprawling games by most standards, yet fit inside the 128 K Z-Machine. Later versions did move to, and eventually all but fill, the version 5 Z-Machine with its 256 K memory map. Still, the final Curses offers vastly more content than anything Infocom ever released, with the possible exception only of Zork Zero (a game which was itself designed for a version 6 Z-Machine that took the ceiling to 512 K). Certainly any comparison of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity — both famously big games with a story-file size pegged to the version 4 and 5 limit of 256 K — to the final version of Curses — story-file size: 253 K — must reveal the last to be an even more complex, even more expansive experience.

So, the Inform development system could hold its head up proudly next to ZIL; in fact, it was so well-thought-through that ZIL would thoroughly disappoint by comparison once hobbyists finally learned more about it. But what of Curses itself, the game with which Inform was so indelibly linked during the first few years of its existence? Was it also up to the Infocom standard?



Before delving into that question in earnest, I should perhaps elaborate a bit on Graham Nelson’s own description of Curses from the previous article.

In the game, then, you play the role of a rather hapless scion of a faded aristocratic family. Aristocratic life not being what it once was, you’ve long since been forced to register the familial mansion with the National Trust and open it up to visitors on the weekends in order to pay the bills. As the game proper begins, your family is about to take a jaunt to Paris, and you’ve come up to the attic — a place in as shabby a state as the rest of the house — to look for a tourist map you just know is lying around up here somewhere.

It's become a matter of pride now not to give up. That tourist map of Paris must be up here somewhere in all this clutter, even if it has been five years since your last trip. And it's your own fault. It looks as if your great-grandfather was the last person to tidy up these lofts...

Attic
The attics, full of low beams and awkward angles, begin here in a relatively tidy area which extends north, south and east. The wooden floorboards seem fairly sound, just as well considering how heavy all these teachests are. But the old wiring went years ago, and there's no electric light.


A hinged trapdoor in the floor stands open, and light streams in from below.

In the best tradition of shaggy-dog stories, your search for the map turns into an extended adventure through space and time. You just keep finding more and more secret areas and secret things in the attics and the grounds surrounding the house, including a disconcerting number of portals to other times and places. The whole thing eventually comes to revolve around an ancient familial curse reaching back to the time of Stonehenge. If you manage to get to the end of the game — no small feat, believe me! — you can finally lift the curse. And, yes, you can finally find the bloody Paris tourist map.

It’s hard to know where to start or end any discussion of Curses. It’s one of those works that sends one off on many tangents: its technology, its historical importance, its literary worth as a writing exercise or its ludic worth as an exercise in design. Faced with this confusion, we might as well start with what Curses has meant to me.

For Curses is indeed a game which carries a lot of personal importance for me. I first discovered it about four or five years after its original release, when I was working a painfully dull job as a night-shift system administrator — a job which paid not so much for what I did each night as for my just being there if something should go wrong. I had, in other words, copious amounts of free time on my hands. I used some of it playing a bunch of post-Infocom text adventures which I hadn’t previously realized existed. Because they looked — or could be made to look — like just another scrolling terminal window, they suited my purposes perfectly. Thus my memory of many a 1990s classic is bound up with those nights in a deserted data center — with the strange rhythm of being awake when everyone else is asleep, and vice versa.

Of all the games I played during that time, Curses made one of the greatest impressions on me. I was still young enough then to be profoundly impressionable in general, and I found its casual erudition, its willingness to blend science with poetry, mathematics with history, to be absolutely entrancing. Having been a hopeless Anglophile ever since I first heard a Beatles record at circa six years old, I was well-primed to fall in love with Graham Nelson’s dryly ironic and oh-so-English diction. In fact, as I began to write more seriously and extensively myself in the years that followed, I shamelessly co-opted some of his style as my own. I like to think that I’ve become my own writer in the time since that formative period, but some piece of Graham is undoubtedly still hiding out down there somewhere in the mishmash of little ticks and techniques that constitute my writer’s voice.

For all that Curses entranced me, however, I never came close to completing it. At some point I’d get bogged down by its combinatorial explosion of puzzles and places, by its long chains of dependencies where a single missed or misplaced link would lock me out of victory without my realizing it, and I’d drift away to something else. Eventually, I just stopped coming back altogether.

I was therefore curious and maybe even slightly trepiditious to revisit Curses for this article some two decades after I last attempted to play it. How would it hold up? The answer is, better than I feared but somewhat worse than I might have hoped.

The design certainly shows its age. I have less patience than ever today for walking-dead scenarios that are as easy to stumble into as they are here. I wholeheartedly agree with Graham’s own statement that “Curses is by any reasonable standard too hard.”

So far, so expected. But I was somewhat more surprised by my crotchety middle-aged take on the writing. Mind you, some aspects of it still bring a smile to my face; I still can’t resist saying, “It’s a wrench, but I’ll take it,” every time I pick up a wrench in real life, much to my wife’s disgust. (Luckily, as she’d be the first to point out, I’m not much of a handyman, so I don’t tend to pick up too many of them.) In other places, though, what used to strike me as delightful now seems just a little bit too precious for its own good. I can still recognize the influence it had over me and my own writing, but it does feel at times like an influence I’ve ever so slightly outgrown. Today, things like the game’s quotation of the lovely Dorothy Parker poem “Inventory” — “Four be the things I’d been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.” — when you first type the command of the same name can feel just a little bit facile. Curses is constantly making cultural cross-connections like these, but they’re ultimately more clever than they are profound. It’s a game packed with a lot of cultural stuff, but not one with much to really say about any of it. It instead treats its cultural name-dropping as an end unto itself.

Curses strikes me as a young man’s game, in spite of its showy erudition — or perhaps because of it. It was written by a prodigious young man in that wonderful time of life when the whole world of the intellect — all of it — is fresh and new and exciting, when unexpected pathways of intellectual discovery seem to be opening up everywhere one looks. In this light, Emily Short’s description of it as a game about the sheer joy of cultural discovery rings decidedly true. Graham himself recognizes that he could never hope to write a game like it today; thus his wise decision not to return to the well for a sequel.

But to fairly evaluate Curses, we need to understand its place in the timeline of interactive fiction as well as in the life of the man who created it. It’s often billed — not least by myself, in this very article’s introduction — as the game which kicked off the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, the first of a new breed which didn’t have to settle for being the next best thing to more Infocom games. It was the first hobbyist game which could stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with the best works of Infocom in terms of both technical and literary quality.

On the face of it, this is a fair evaluation — which is, after all, the reason I’ve deployed it. Yet the fact remains that Curses‘s mode of production and overall design aesthetic mark it as a distinctly different beast from the best later works of the Renaissance it heralded. While the games of Infocom certainly were an influence on it, they weren’t the only influence. Indeed, their influence was perhaps less marked in reality than one might imagine from the game’s intimate connection to the Z-Machine, or from its borrowing of some fairly superficial aesthetic elements from Infocom, such as the letterboxed literary quotations which were first employed to such good effect by Trinity. While Curses‘s technology and its prose were unquestionably up to the Infocom standard, in spirit it verged on something else entirely.

In the beginning — the very beginning — text adventures were written on big institutional computers by unabashed eggheads for a very small audience of other eggheads. Games of this type were expected to be hard; questions of fairness rarely even entered the conversation. For these games weren’t just designed for single eggheads to play and conquer — they were rather designed for entire teams of same; adventure gaming in these early days was regarded as a group activity. These games were made publicly available while still works-in-progress; their mode of production bore an ironic resemblance to modern attitudes about “software as a service,” as manifested in modern gaming in things like the Steam Early Access program. In fact, these text-adventures-as-a-service tended not to ever really get finished by their designers; they simply stopped growing one day when their designers left the institution where they lived or simply got bored with them. Graham Nelson was exposed to this tradition early on, via his first encounters with the Crowther and Woods Adventure. (Remember his telling reminiscence: “It seemed like something you were exploring, not something you were trying to win.”) When he came to Cambridge in 1987, he was immersed in a sustained late flowering of this design aesthetic, in the form of the text adventures made for the Phoenix mainframe there.

This attitude cut against the one which Infocom had long since come to embrace by the time Graham arrived at Cambridge: the notion that text adventures should be interactive fictions, soluble by any single player of reasonable intelligence in a reasonable amount of time. As the name “interactive fiction” would imply, Infocom adopted a fundamentally literary mode of production: a game was written, went through lots of internal testing to arrive at some consciously complete state, and then and only then was sent out into the world as the final, definitive work. Infocom might release subsequent versions to fix bugs and incongruities that had slipped through testing, just as the text of a book might receive some additional correcting and polishing between print runs, but Infocom’s games were never dramatically expanded or overhauled after their release. Post-Curses, the hobbyist interactive-fiction community would embrace this Infocom model of production almost exclusively. In fact, a game released “before its time,” still riddled with bugs and sketchily written and implemented, would attract the most scathing of rebukes, and could damage the reputation of its author to the point that she would have a hard time getting anyone to even look at a subsequent game.

Yet Curses was anything but an exemplar of this allegedly enlightened interactive-fiction production function. Graham Nelson’s game grew up in public like the institutional games of yore, being expanded and improved in six major stages, with more than two years elapsing from its first release to its last. Betwixt and between them, Graham shared yet more versions on a more private basis, both among his local peer group and among the burgeoning community of Curses superfans on the Internet. As each new version appeared, these armies of players would jump into it to find the new puzzles and give their feedback on what else might be added to or improved, just as an army of MIT students once did every time the people who would eventually found Infocom put up a new build of the PDP-10 Zork. There are, for example, seven separate ways to solve an early puzzle involving the opening of a stubborn medicine bottle in the final version of Curses, most of them the result of player suggestions.

So, Curses should be understood as an ongoing creative effort — almost, one might say, a collaboration between Graham Nelson and his players — that grew as big as it could and then stopped. A scrupulous commitment to fairness just wasn’t ever in the cards, any more than a rigorously pre-planned plot line. In a telling anecdote, Graham once let slip that he was surprised how many people had finished Curses at all over the years. It was designed, like his beloved Crowther and Woods Adventure, to be a place which you came back to again and again, exploring new nooks and crannies as the fancy took you. If you actually wanted to solve the thing… well, you’d probably need to get yourself a group for that. Even the hint system, grudgingly added in one of the later versions, is oblique; many of the hints come from a devil who tells you the exact opposite of what you ought to be doing. And all of the hints are obscure, and you’re only allowed three of them in any given session.

All of which is to say that, even as it heralded a new era in interactive fiction which would prove every bit as exciting as what had come before, Curses became the last great public world implemented as a single-player text adventure. It’s an archetypal Renaissance work, perched happily on the crossroads between past and future. Its shared debt to the institutional tradition that had stamped so much of interactive fiction’s past and to the Infocom approach that would dictate its future is made most explicit in the name of the language which Graham developed alongside the game. As he told us in the previous article in this series, the first syllable of “Inform” does indeed refer to Infocom, but the second syllable reflects the habit among users of the Cambridge Phoenix mainframe of appending the suffix “-form” to the name of any compiler.

Speaking of Inform: Curses also needs to be understood in light of its most obvious practical purpose at the time of its creation. Most new text-adventure creation systems, reaching all the way back to the time of Scott Adams, have been developed alongside the first game to be written using them. As we’ve seen at some length now in this article and the previous one, Inform was no exception. As Graham would add new features to his language, he would finds ways to utilize them in Curses in order to test them out for himself and demonstrate them to the public. So, just as Inform reflects the Z-Machine’s core capabilities, Curses reflects Inform’s — all of them. And because Inform was designed to be a powerful, complete system capable of producing games equal in technical quality to those of Infocom or anyone else, the puzzles which found their way into Curses became dizzying in their sheer multifariousness. Anything ZIL could do, Graham was not so subtly implying, Inform could do as well or better.

Here, then, the Infocom influence on Curses is much more pronounced. You can almost go through the Infocom catalog game by game, looking at the unique new interactive possibilities each release implemented and then finding a demonstration somewhere in Curses of Inform’s ability to do the same thing. Zork II introduced a robot to which the player’s avatar could issue verbal commands, so Curses does the same thing with a robot mouse; Enchanter had an underground maze whose interconnections the player could alter dynamically, so Curses has a hedge maze which let its player do the same thing; Infidel drew hieroglyphic symbols on the screen using groups of ASCII characters, so Curses has to demonstrate the same capability; etc., etc. (One of the few Infocom affordances that doesn’t show up anywhere in Curses is a detailed spell-casting system, the linchpin of the beloved Enchanter trilogy — but never fear, Graham wrote an entirely separate game just to demonstrate Inform’s capabilities in that area.) If all this doesn’t always do much for the game’s internal coherence, so be it: there were other motivations at work.



Graham Nelson’s own story of the first release of Curses is stamped with the unassuming personality of the man. On May 9, 1993, he uploaded it to an FTP site connected with the Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung — a research institute in Bonn, Germany, where a friendly system administrator named Volker Blasius had started an archive for all things interactive fiction. He then wrote up a modest announcement, and posted it to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction — a group originally set up by stuffy academic hypertext enthusiasts of the Eastgate stripe, which had since been rudely invaded and repurposed by unwashed masses of text-adventure enthusiasts. After doing these things, Graham heard…nothing. Feeling a little disappointed, but realizing that he had after all written a game in a genre whose best days seemed to be behind it, he went about his business — only to discover some days later that his incoming Usenet feed was bollixed. When he got it fixed, he found that his little game had in fact prompted a deluge of excitement. No one had ever seen anything like it. Just where had this mysterious new game that somehow ran on Infocom’s own Z-Machine come from? And where on earth had its equally mysterious author gone to after releasing it?

It really is hard to overstate the impact which Curses, and shortly after it Inform, had on the interactive-fiction community of 1993. Text adventures at that time were largely an exercise in nostalgia; even all of the work that had been done to understand the Z-Machine and make new interpreters for it, which had been such a necessary prerequisite for Graham’s own work, had been done strictly to let people play the old games. While some people were still making new games, none of them could comprehensively stand up next to Infocom at their best. Yes, some of them evinced considerable creativity, even a degree of real literary ambition, but these were held back by the limitations of AGT, the most popular text-adventure development system at the time. Meanwhile Adventions, the makers of the most polished games of this period, who were wise enough to use the technically excellent TADS rather than the more ramshackle AGT, were more competent than inspired in churning out slavish homages to Zork. All of the absolute best text adventures, the ones which combined literary excellence and technical quality, were still those of Infocom, and were all more than half a decade old.

And then along came Curses as a bolt out of the blue. Even if we wish to argue that some aspects of it haven’t aged terribly well, we cannot deny how amazing it was in 1993, with its robust determination to do everything Infocom had done and more, with its distinct and confident literary sensibility, and not least — the appeal this held really cannot be emphasized enough — the fact that it ran on Infocom’s own virtual machine. It dominated all online discussion of text adventures throughout the two years Graham spent continuing to improve and expand it in public. The gravitational pull of Curses was such that when Mike Roberts, the creator of TADS, released an epic of his own later in 1993, it went oddly unremarked — this despite the fact that Perdition’s Flames was progressive in many ways that Curses distinctly wasn’t, making it impossible to lock yourself out of victory, prioritizing fairness above all other considerations. It stands today as the better game in mechanical terms at least, recommendable without the caveats that must accompany Graham’s effort. Yet it never stood a chance in 1993 against the allure of Curses.

And so it was that the quiet, thoughtful Englishman Graham Nelson — hardly the most likely leader of a cultural movement — used Curses and Inform to sculpt a new community of creation in his own image.

Graham’s technological choices became the community’s standards to a well-nigh shocking extent. The version 5 Z-Machine, the last and most advanced of its text-only iterations to come out of Infocom, had only been used by a few late Infocom games, none of them hugely beloved. Thus its implementation had tended to be a somewhat low priority among interpreter writers. But when Curses outgrew the 128 K memory space of the version 3 Z-Machine fairly early in its release cycle, and Graham stepped up to the 256 K version 5 Z-Machine, that decision drove interpreter writers to add support for it; after all, any Z-Machine interpreter worth its salt simply had to be able to play Curses, the sensation of the text-adventure world. Thus the version 5 Z-Machine became the new standard for the hobbyist games that followed, thanks not only to its expanded memory space but also to its more advanced typography and presentation options. (Graham would later define two new versions of the Z-Machine for really big games: an experimental and seldom-used version 7 and a version 8 which did come into common use. Both would allow story files of up to 512 K, just like Infocom’s graphical version 6 Z-Machine.)

Graham was utterly disinterested in making money from his projects. He made Inform entirely free, destroying the shareware model of AGT and TADS. David Malmberg, the longtime steward of AGT, stepped down from that role and released that system as well as freeware in 1994, signalling the end of its active development. Mike Roberts did continue to maintain and improve TADS, but soon bowed to the new world order ushered in by Inform and made it free as well. Not coincidentally, the end of the era of shareware text adventures as well as shareware text-adventure development systems coincided with Graham’s arrival on the scene; from now on, people would almost universally release their games for free. It’s also of more than symbolic significance that, unlike earlier hotbeds of text-adventure fandom which had coalesced around private commercial online services such as CompuServe and GEnie, this latest and most enduring community found its home on the free-and-open Internet.

It’s important to note that Graham’s disinterest in making money in no way implied a lack of seriousness. He approached everything he did in interactive fiction with the attitude that it was worth doing, and worth doing well. In the long run, his careful attention to detail and belief in the medium as something worthy of serious effort and serious study left as pronounced a stamp on the culture of interactive fiction as Inform or Curses themselves.

In 1995, he produced “The Z-Machine Standards Document,” which replaced years of speculation, experimentation, and received hacker wisdom with a codified specification for all extant versions of the Z-Machine. At the same time that he worked on that project, he embarked on The Inform Designer’s Manual, which not only explained the nuts and bolts of coding in the language but also delved deep into questions of design. “The Craft of Adventure,” its included essay on the subject, remains to this day the classic work of its type. Working with what was by now an enthusiastic hobbyist community which tempered its nostalgia for the medium’s commercial past with a belief in its possibilities for the present and future, Graham even saw The Inform Designer’s Manual — all 500-plus pages of it — printed as a physical book, at a time when self-publishing was a much more fraught endeavor than it is today.

But the most amusing tribute to the man’s sheer, well-earned ubiquity may be the way that his personality kept peeking through the cracks of every game made with Inform, unless its author went to truly heroic lengths to prevent it. His wryly ironic standard responses to various commands, as coded into the Inform standard library — “As good-looking as ever” when you examined yourself; “Violence isn’t the answer to this one” when you gave in to frustration and started trying to beat on something; “You are always self-possessed” when you attempted to take yourself — proved damnably difficult to comprehensively stamp out. Thus you’d see such distinctly non-Nelsonian efforts as zombie apocalypses or hardcore erotica suddenly lapsing from time to time into the persona of the bemused Oxford don wandering about behind the scenes, wondering what the heck he’d gotten himself into this time.



Seen with the hindsight of the historian, the necessary prerequisites to an Interactive Fiction Renaissance aren’t hard to identify. The Internet gave text-adventure fans a place to gather and discuss the games of the past, as well as to distribute new ones, all unbeholden to any commercial entity. Free Z-Machine interpreters made it easy to play Infocom’s games, widely recognized as the best of their type ever made, in convenient ways on virtually every computer in existence. Activision’s two Lost Treasures of Infocom collections made the complete Infocom canon easy to acquire, placing all text-adventure fans on an even footing in the course of providing them with their equivalent of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. And then Graham Nelson came along and gave so much: a superb programming language in Inform, a superb demonstration of where interactive fiction could go in the post-Infocom era in Curses, documentation that exceeded the standard of most professional efforts, and, perhaps most of all, a living example of how interactive fiction was worth taking seriously in all its aspects, worth doing completely and well — and forget worrying about making money out of it. So, my next statement is as cringe-worthy as it is inevitable: Graham Nelson became interactive fiction’s Renaissance Man.

Now, it was just a matter of time before all of these forces forged something rather extraordinary. The year after Graham arrived on the scene in such exciting fashion was actually one of the quietest in the history of text adventures in terms of new releases; AGT was dying, while Inform was just beginning to pick up steam as an entity separate from Curses. But the following year, 1995, would see an embarrassment of worthy releases, large and small, trying all sorts of things, even as the cultural capstone to the new edifice of post-Infocom interactive fiction — an annual Interactive Fiction Competition — arrived to complete the construction process. The events of 1993 had been the harbinger; 1995 would become the true Year One of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance.

(Sources: the book The Inform Designer’s Manual by Graham Nelson; Stephen Granade’s timeline of interactive fiction on Brass Lantern; archives of rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction, available on the IF Archive. My warmest thanks go once again to Graham Nelson for sharing so much of his story for these articles.

Curses remains available for free. It can of course be played on any Z-Machine interpreter.)

 
44 Comments

Posted by on November 22, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 2: Hacking Deeper (or, Follies of Graham Nelson’s Youth)

Earlier this year, I reached out to Graham Nelson, the most important single technical architect of interactive fiction’s last three decades, to open a dialog about his early life and work. I was rewarded with a rich and enjoyable correspondence. But when the time came to write this article based on it, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. The problem was not, as it too often is, that I lacked for material to flesh out his personal story. It was rather that Graham had told his own story so well that I didn’t know what I could possibly add to it. I saw little point in paraphrasing what Graham wrote in my own words, trampling all over his spry English irony with my clumsy Americanisms. In the end, I decided not to try.

So, today I present to you Graham Nelson’s story, told as only he can tell it. It’s a rare treat given that Graham is, like so many people of real accomplishment, usually reluctant to speak at any length about himself. I’ll just offer a couple of contextual notes before he begins. The “Inform” to which Graham eventually refers is a specialized text-adventure programming language by that name targeting the Z-Machine (and much later a newer virtual machine known as Glulx which has finally come to supersede Infocom’s venerable creation); Inform has been the most popular tool of its type through the last quarter-century. And Curses is the first full-fledged game ever written with Inform, a puzzly yet eminently literary time-traveling epic which took the huddled, beleaguered text-adventure diehards by storm upon its release in 1993, giving them new hope for their beloved form’s future and inspiring many of them to think of making their own games — using Inform more often than not. In the third and final article of this series on the roots of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, I’ll examine both of these seminal artifacts in depth with the detachment of a third party, trying to place them in their proper historical context for you. For today, though, I give you Graham Nelson unfiltered to tell you his story of how they — and he — came to be…


Great Baddow, the quiet Essex village where Graham Nelson grew up.

I was born in 1968, so I’m coeval with The White Album and Apollo 8. I was born in Chelmsford, in Essex, and grew up mainly in Great Baddow, a quiet suburban village. There were arable farms on one side, where in those days the stubble of the wheat would still be burned off once a year. (In fact, I see that the Wikipedia page for “stubble burning” features a photo from the flat countryside of Essex, taken in 1986. The practice is banned now.) My street, Hollywood Close, had been built in the early 1960s on what used to be Rothman’s Farm. The last trees were still being cut down when I was young, though that was mainly because of Dutch Elm Disease. The houses having been sold all at once, to young families of a similar age, my street was full of seven-year olds when I was seven, and full of fifteen-year olds when I was fifteen. I went to local schools, never more than walking distance away. My primary school, Rothman’s Junior, was built on another field of the same farm, in fact.

My father Peter was an electronics engineer at English Electric Valve. My mother Christine — always “Chris” — was a clerical civil servant before she had me, at the National Assistance Board, which we would call social security today. In those days, women left work when they had a child, which is exactly what she did when she had me and my brother. But later on she trained as a personal assistant, learning Pitman shorthand, which I never picked up, and also typing, which I sort of did: I am a two-fingered typist to this day, but unusually fast at it. I did try the proper technique, but on our home typewriter, my little finger just wasn’t strong enough to strike an “A”. Or perhaps I saw no reason to learn how other people did things.

My parents had met in school in Gosport, a naval village opposite Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. As a result, both sides of my family were in the same town; indeed, we were the eccentric ones, having moved away to Essex. My many aunts, uncles, second cousins, and so on were almost all still in Portsmouth, and we would stay there for every holiday or school break. In effect, it was a second home. Though I didn’t know him for long, a formative influence was my mother’s father Albert, a navy regular who became a postman in civilian life. He was ship’s cook on HMS Belfast during the Second World War; my one successful poem (in the sense of being reprinted, which is the acid test for poems) is in his memory.

None of these people had any higher education at all. I would be the first to go to a university, though my father did the correspondence-course Open University degree in the 1970s, and my mother went to any number of evening classes. (She ended up with a ridiculous number of O-levels, rather the way that some Scouts go on collecting badges until their arms are completely covered.) They both came from genuinely poor backgrounds, where you grew a lot of your own food, and had to make and mend. You didn’t buy books, you borrowed them from the library — though my grandmother did have the Pears Cyclopaedia for 1938 and a dictionary for crosswords. But I didn’t grow up in any way that could be called deprived. My father made a solid middle-class income at a time when that could keep a family of four in a house of their own and run a car. He wasn’t a top-bracket professional, able to sign passport applications as a character reference, like a doctor or a lawyer, but he was definitely white-collar staff, not blue-collar. Yes, he worked in a factory, but in the R&D lab at one end. This is not a Bruce Springsteen song. He would not have known what to do with a six pack of beer.

My brother Toby, who later became a professional computer programmer working at Electronic Arts and other places, was two years younger than me, which meant he passed through school with teachers expecting him to be like me, which he both is and isn’t. He’s my only sibling, though I now also have a brother-in-law and sister-in-law. “Graham” and “Toby” are both definitely unusual names in England in our generation, which is the sort of thing that annoys you as a child, but is then usefully distinctive in later life. At least “Graham” is unabbreviable, for which I have always been grateful.

The local education authority would have expected me to pass the eleven-plus exam, and move up the social ladder to King Edward VI Grammar School, the best in the area by far. But my parents, who believed in universal education, chose not to enter me. So at eleven and a half, I began at Great Baddow Comprehensive School. I didn’t regret this then, and don’t now. I had some fine teachers, and though I was an oddity there, I would have been an oddity anywhere. Besides, I had plenty of friends; it wasn’t the social snake-pit which American high schools always seem to be on television.

Until around 1980, there were no commercial home computers in the UK, which was consistently a couple of years behind the United States in that respect. But my father Peter was also an electronics hobbyist. Practical Electronics magazine tended to be around the house, and even American magazines like Byte, on occasion; I had a copy of the legendary Smalltalk number of Byte, with its famous hot-air-balloon cover. But the gap between these magazines — and the book in my school library about Unix — and reality was enormous. All we had in the house was a breadboard and some TTL chips. Remarkably, my father nevertheless built a computer the size of a typewriter. It had no persistent storage; you had to key in opcodes in hex with a numeric keypad. But it worked. It was a mechanism with no moving parts. It’s hard to explain now how almost alchemical that seemed. He would give a little my-team-has-won-again cheer from his armchair whenever the BBC show Tomorrow’s World used the words “integrated circuits”. (I think this was a little before the term “microchips” came into common usage, or possibly the BBC simply thought it a vulgar colloquialism. They were more old-school back then.)

Until I was twelve years old, then, computing was something done on mainframes – or at any rate “minis” like the DEC VAX, running payroll for medium-sized companies. Schools never had these, or anything else for that matter. In the ordinary way of things, I would never have seen or touched a real computer. But I did, on just a few tantalising occasions.

Great Baddow was not really a tech town, but it was where Marconi had set up, and so there were avionics businesses, such as the one my father worked for, English Electric Valve. Because of that, a rising industry figure named Ian Young lived in our street. His two boys were just about the same age as me and my brother, and he and his wife Gill were good friends of my parents — I caught up with them at my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary only a few weeks ago. Ian soon relocated to Reading as an executive climbing the ranks of Digital Equipment Corporation, then the world’s number two computer company after IBM, but our families kept in touch. A couple of times each year my brother and I would go off to spend a week with the Youngs during the school holidays. This is beginning to sound like a Narnia book, and in a way it was a little like that. Ian would sportingly take us four boys to DEC’s headquarters — in particular, to the darkened rooms where the programmers worked, in an industrial space shared with a biscuit factory. (Another fun thing about the Youngs was that they always had plenty of chocolate-coated Club biscuits from factory surplus.) We would sit at a VT-220 terminal with a fluorescent green screen and play the DECUS user group’s collection of games for the VAX. These were entirely textual, though a few, like chess or Star Trek, rendered a board using ASCII art. Most of these games were flimsy nothings: a boxing simulator, I remember, a Towers of Hanoi demo, and so on. But the exception was Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, which I played less than a year after Don Woods’s canonical first version was circulated by DECUS. Adventure was like nothing else, and had a depth and an ability to entrance which is hard to overstate. There was no such thing as saving the game — or if there was, we didn’t know about it. We simply remembered that you had to unlock the grating, and that the rusty iron rod would… and so on. Our sessions almost invariably ended in one of the two unforgiving mazes. But that was somehow not an unsatisfying thing. It seemed like something you were exploring, not something you were trying to win.

It was, of course, maddening to be hooked on a game you could play perhaps once every six months. I got my first actual computer in 1980, for my twelfth birthday: an Acorn Atom. I had the circuit diagram on my wall; it was the first and last computer I’ve ever owned which I understood the physical workings of. My father assembled it from the kit form. This was £50 cheaper — not a trivial sum in those days — and was also rather satisfying for him, both because it was a lovely bit of craftsmanship to put together (involving two weekends of non-stop soldering), and also because he was never such a hero to his son as when we finally plugged it in and it worked flawlessly. Curious how much of this story appears to be about fathers and sons…

At any rate, I began thinking about implementing “adventures” very early on. This was close to impossible on a computer with 12 K of RAM (and even that only after I slowly expanded it, buying 0.5 K memory chips one at a time from a local hardware store). And yet… I can still remember the epiphany when I realised that you could model the location of an object by storing this in a byte which was either a room number or a special value to mean “being carried”. I think the most feasible creation I came up with was a procedurally-generated game on a squared grid, ten rooms wide by infinity rooms long, where certain rooms were overridden with names and puzzles. It had no title, but was known in my family as “the adventure of Igneous the Dwarf”, after its only real character. My first published game was an imitation of the arcade game Frogger for the Acorn Atom. I made something like £70 in royalties from it, but it really had no interactive-fiction content of any kind.

My first experience of commercial interactive fiction came for the BBC Micro, the big brother of the Acorn Atom; my father being my big brother in this instance, since he bought one in 1981. The Scott Adams line made it onto the BBC Micro, and so did ports of the Cambridge mainframe games, marketed first by Acornsoft and then by Topologika. I thus played some of the canonical Cambridge games quite a while before going to Cambridge. (Cambridge was then the lodestone of the UK computing industry; things like the BBC Micro and the ARM chip are easily overlooked in Cambridge’s history, given the university’s work with gravity, evolution, the electron, etc., but this was not a small deal at the time.) In particular, the most ambitious of the Cambridge games, Acheton, came out from Acornsoft on a disk release, and I played it. This was an extraordinary thing; in the United Kingdom, few computer owners had disk drives, and no more than a handful of BBC Micro games were ever released in that format.

I made something fractionally like a graphical adventure, called Crystal Castle, for the BBC Micro. (In 2000, Toby helpfully, if that’s the word, found the last existing cassette tape of this, digitised it to a WAV file, signal-processed the result, and ended up with about 22 K of program and data. To our astonishment, it ran.) It was written in binary machine code, which thus had no source code. Crystal Castle was nearly published, but the deal ultimately fell through. Superior Software, then the best marque for BBC Micro stuff, exchanged friendly letters with me, and for a while it really did look like it would happen. But I really needed an artist, and a bit more design skill. So, they passed. I imagine they had quite a large slush pile of games on cassette sent in by aspiring coders back then. You should not think of me as a teenage entrepreneur; I was mostly unsuccessful.

I did get two BBC Micro games published in 1984 by a cottage-industry sort of software house somewhere in Essex, run by a local teacher. Anybody who could arrange to duplicate cassette tapes and print inlay cards could be a “software house” in those days, and quite a lot of firms with improvised names (“Aardvark Software”, etc.) were actually people running a mail-order business out of their front rooms. They sold my two games as one, in that they were side A and side B of the same cassette. The games had the somewhat Asimovian names Galaxy’s Edge and Escape from Solaris. I honestly remember little about them, except that Escape from Solaris was a two-handed game. To play, you had to connect two BBC Micros back-to-back with an RS-423 cable, and then you had to type alternate commands. One program would stall while the other was active, but the thing worked. I cannot imagine that these games were any good, but the milieu was that of alien science being indistinguishable from magic. The role-playing game Traveller may have been an influence, I suppose, but my local library had also stocked a great deal of golden-age science fiction, and I had read every last dreg of it. (I hadn’t, at that time, played Starcross, though I’d probably seen Level 9’s Snowball.) I do not still have copies, and I am therefore spared the moral dilemma of whether I should make them publicly available. I did get a piece of fan mail, I remember, by someone who asked if I was a chemist. From this memory, I infer that there were some science-based puzzles.

The Quill-written games weren’t any influence on me, nor really the Magnetic Scrolls ones. The Quill was a ZX Spectrum phenomenon — and the Spectrum came from Acorn’s arch-enemy Sinclair. I think my father regarded it as unsound. It certainly did not have a keyboard designed to the requirement that it survive having a cup of coffee poured through it, as the BBC Micro did. But it did have an enormous amount of RAM — or rather, it didn’t consume all of that precious RAM on screen memory. The way that it avoided this was a distasteful hack, but also a stroke of genius, making the Spectrum a perfect games machine. As a result, those of my friends whose fathers knew anything about computers had BBC Micros, and the rest had Spectrums. It is somehow very English of us to have invented a new class distinction in the 1980s, but I rather think we did. Magnetic Scrolls were a different case, since they were adopting an Infocom-like strategy of releasing for multiple platforms, but they came along later, and always seemed to me to be more style than substance. The Pawn was heavily promoted, but I didn’t care for it.

I really must mention Level 9, though. They wrote 200-room cave adventures – albeit sometimes the cave was a starship – and by dint of some ingenious compression were able to get them out on tape. In particular, I played through to completion all three of the original Level 9 fantasy trilogy: the first being an extended version of the Crowther and Woods Adventure, the second and third being new but in the same style. I still think these good, in some relative sense. Level 9’s version of the Crowther and Woods Adventure, Colossal Adventure, was the first version which I fully explored, so that it still half seems to me like the definitive version. Ironically, none of Level 9’s games had levels in the normal gaming sense.

I didn’t play any of Infocom’s games until, I think, 1987. I bought a handful, one at a time, from Harrod’s in Knightsbridge — a department store for the rich and, it would like to imagine, the socially elite. I was neither of those things, but I knew what I wanted. Infocom’s wares were luxury goods, and luxury goods tend to stay on the shelves until they sell. Harrod’s had a modest stock, which almost nobody else in the UK did, though you could find a handful of early Infocom titles such as Suspended for the Commodore 64 if you trawled the more plebeian electronics shops of Tottenham Court Road. The ones I bought were CP/M editions of some of the classic titles of 1983 to 1985: Enchanter, I remember, being the first. These we were able to run on my brother’s computer, which was an Amstrad, a British machine built for word processing, but which — thanks to the cheapness of Alan Sugar, Amstrad’s proprietor, a sort of British version of Commodore’s Jack Tramiel — ran CP/M rather than MS-DOS.

That was just after I had begun as an undergraduate at Cambridge and joined the mainframe there, Phoenix, as a user. Each user had an allocation of “shares”, which governed how much computing time you could have. As the newest kid to arrive, I had ten shares. There were legends of a man in computational chemistry, modelling the Schrödinger equation for polythene, who had something like 10,000. At any rate, ten shares was only just enough to read your email in daytime. To run anything like Dungeon, the IBM port of Zork, you had to sit up at night — which we did, a little. I think Dungeon was the only externally-written game playable on Phoenix; the others were all homegrown, using TSAL, the game assembler written by David Seal and Jonathan Thackray. As I wrote long ago, to me and others who played them those games “are as redolent of late nights in the User Area as the soapy taste of Nestlé’s vending-machine chocolate or floppy, rapidly-yellowing line printer paper.” As I noted earlier, most of them ultimately migrated to Acornsoft and Topologika releases.

But there were other social aspects to Phoenix as well. There was a rudimentary bulletin board called GROGGS (the “General Reverse-Ordered Gossip-Gathering System”) and it was tacitly encouraged by the Phoenix administrators because it stopped people abusing the Suggest program as a noticeboard. (We did not then have access to Usenet.) GROGGS was unusually egalitarian — students and faculty somewhat mingled, which was not typical of Cambridge then. Its undoubted king was Jonathan Partington (JRP1), a young professor who had a generous, playful wit. The Phoenix administrators dreaded his parodies of their official announcements. In his presence, GROGGS was a little like the salon in which the hangers-on of Oscar Wilde would attempt to keep up. Numerous people had a schtick; mine was to mutate my user-name to some version of the Prufrockian “I am not Prince Hamlet”. Commenting on the new Dire Straits album, I would post as “I am not Mark Knopfler”. That sort of thing. Jonathan wrote some of the Cambridge mainframe games. He taught me for a few second-year options.

There was also a form of direct messaging, the “notify” command, and you had the ability to link your filespace to somebody else’s, in effect giving them shared access. At some point Mark Owen and Matthew Richards, inseparable friends at Trinity College, observed that these links turned the users of Phoenix into a directed graph — what we would now call a social network. Mark and Matthew converted the whole mainframe into a sort of adventure game on this basis, in which user filespaces were the rooms, and links were map connections between them. You could store a little text file in your filespace as your own room description. Mark and Matthew’s system was called MEGA, a name chosen as an anagram of GAME. Mark went on to take a PhD in neural networks, back in the days when they didn’t work and were considered a dead end; he eventually wrote a book on signal processing. Matthew, a gifted algebraist and one of the nicest people I have ever known, died of Hodgkin’s disease only a couple of years into his own PhD — the first shock of death close up that most of us had known. The doctors tried everything to keep him alive. There’s no length they won’t go to with a young, strong patient, however cruel.

At any rate, back in the days of MEGA, it occurred to me that more could be done. Rather than storing just a single room description, each user could store a larger blob of content, and we would then have a form of MUD. This system, jointly coded by myself and a CS student called John Croft, was called TERA (I forget why we didn’t go up from MEGA to GIGA — perhaps there already was one?) and its compiler was “teraform”. This is the origin of the “-form” suffix in Inform’s name.

Cambridge mathematics degrees were in four parts: IA, IB, II, and III. Part III was an optional fourth year, which now earns you a master’s, but which for arcane funding reasons didn’t in my day. The Part III people were the aspiring professionals, hoping for a PhD grant at the end of it. Only seven or eight were available, which lent a competitive edge to a social group which was all too competitive already. I was thoroughly settled in Cambridge, living in an old Victorian house off Trumpington Street with four close friends, down by the river meadows. It was a very happy time in my life, and I had absolutely no intention of giving it up. As a geometer, I was hoping to be a research student of Frank Adams, a legendary topologist but a man with an awkward, stand-offish character. I’m now rather glad that this didn’t happen, though I’m sorry about the reason, which was that he died in a car crash. The only possible alternative, the affable Ray Lickorish, was just going on sabbatical. And so I found myself obliged to apply to Oxford instead. I was very fortunate to become the student of Simon Donaldson, only the fifth British mathematician to win the Fields Medal. (He is warmly remembered at St Anne’s College, where I now am, not for the Fields, or the Crafoord Prize, or for being knighted, or winning a $3 million award — not for any of that, but for having been a good Nursery Fellow, looking after the college crèche.) Having opened up a new and, almost at once, a rapidly-moving field of study, Simon was over-extended with collaborators, and I wasn’t often a good use of his time. Picture me as one of those plodding Viennese students Beethoven was obliged to give piano lessons to. But it was a privilege even to be present at an important moment in the history of modern geometry, and in his quietly kind way, Simon was an inspirational leader.

So, although I did find myself a doctoral perch, I had time on my hands — not work time, as I had plenty to do on that front, but social time, since everyone I knew was back in Cambridge. I read a great many books, buying up remaindered Faber literary paperbacks from the Henry Pordes bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, whenever I was passing through. The plays of Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, David Hare; the poems of Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Auden, Eliot, and so forth. I wrote a novel, which had to do with two people who worked in a research lab doing unethical things attempting to control chimpanzees. He took the work at face value, she didn’t, or perhaps it was the other way around. By the time I finished, I knew enough to know that it wasn’t any good, but in so far as you become a writer simply by writing, I had become a writer. I then wrote four short stories, and a one-act play called A Church by Daylight (a title which is a tag borrowed from Much Ado About Nothing). This play was thin on plot but had to do with loss. I wasn’t much good at dialogue, and in some way I boiled the play down to its essence, which was eventually published as a twelve-line poem called “Requiem”.

It was during my second year as a DPhil student that The Lost Treasures of Infocom came out. At this time my computer was an Acorn Archimedes with a 20 MB hard drive. I bought the MS-DOS box because I could read the story files from the MS-DOS disks, even if I couldn’t run the MS-DOS interpreter. I had no modem or network access from my house, and could only get files on or off by taking a floppy disk to the computing-service building right across town. I used the InfoTaskforce interpreter to actually play the games on my Archimedes.

So, I would say that the existence of a community-written interpreter was an essential precondition for Inform. In the period from 1990 to 1992, there were two significant Infocom-archaeology projects going on independently, though they were certainly aware of each other: the InfoTaskforce interpreter, and a disassembler called “txd” by Mark Howell. The InfoTaskforce people were based in Australia, and I had no contact with them, but I saw their code. Mark, however, I did exchange emails with. I remember emailing him to ask if anyone had written an assembler to make new games for the Z-Machine, and he replied with some wording close to: “Many people have had many dreams”. I set myself the task of faking a story file just well enough to allow it to execute on the InfoTaskforce interpreter.

I recall that my first self-made story file computed a prime factorisation and then printed the result. Except that it didn’t. I would double-click on the story file, and nothing would happen. I would assume that this was because there was some further table in the story file which I needed to fake: that the interpreter was refusing my file because it lacked this table, let’s say. As a result, I got into a cycle of making more and more elaborate fakes, always with negative results. Eventually I found that these faux story files had been correct all along; it was just that the user interface for the Acorn Archimedes port of the InfoTaskforce interpreter displayed nothing onscreen until the first moment when a game’s output hit the bottom of its virtual display and caused a scroll event. My story files, uniquely in the history of the Z-Machine, simply printed a few lines and then quit. They didn’t produce enough output to scroll, so nothing ever showed up onscreen. (This is why, for several years, the first thing that an Inform-written game did was to print a run of newlines.) So, when I finally managed to make a story file which factorised the numbers 2 to 100, and found that it worked correctly, I had a fairly elaborate assembler. This was called “zass”, and eventually became Inform 1.

The project might have gone no further except for the arrival of Usenet and the rec.arts.int-fiction newsgroup. Suddenly my email address was one which people could contact, and my posts were replied to. I was no longer on GROGGS, talking to a handful of people I knew in real life; I was on Usenet, talking to those I would likely never meet. People didn’t really use Inform much until around Inform 3, but still, there was feedback. An appetite seemed to exist.

A curious echo of the fascination the Z-machine held is that a couple of tiny story files produced by me in the course of these experiments — I remember one with two rooms in it and a few sample objects, one of them a football — themselves started to be collected by people. Of course there were soon to be lots of story files, an unending supply of them. But for just a brief period, even the output of Inform had a sort of second-hand glory reflected onto it.

Inform 1 was the result of my experiments to synthesise a story file, so it preceded Curses; it’s not that I set out to create both. Still, I did once write that Inform and Curses were Siamese twins, though the expression makes me flinch now. It’s not a comedic thing to be born conjoined. That aside, was it true, or did it simply sound clever? It’s true in part. I steadily improved Inform as I was building up Curses in size, and Curses undeniably played a role as a proof of concept. Numerous half-finished interactive-fiction systems had been abandoned with no notable games to their credit, but TADS, especially, shone by having been used for full-scale works. Yet this linkage is only part of the story.

In retrospect, the decision to write Curses fits with the pattern of imitation which you tend to find in the juvenilia of writers. I had read some novels, I wrote a novel; I had read some plays, I wrote a play; and so on. Lost Treasures may have played the same role for me, in computer-game terms, that those 1980s Faber & Faber paperbacks played in literary terms. But I also wrote Curses as an entertainment for my friends back in Cambridge, who attacked it without mercy. A very early version caused hilarity not so much for its intrinsic qualities as because the command “unlock fish” crashed it right out.

The title alludes to the recurring ancestral curses of the Meldrew family, each generation doomed never quite to achieve anything. (Read into that what you will, but it caused my father to raise an amused eyebrow.) The name was actually a hindrance for a while. In the days of Archie and Veronica and other pre-Web systems for searching FTP sites, “curses” was a name already taken by the software library for text windows on Unix.

What is Curses about? A few years ago Emily Short and I were interviewed, one after another, at the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture. Emily described Curses as being about the richness of culture and the excitement of discovering it. This may be an overly generous verdict, but I see what she means. Curses has a kind of exuberance to it. The ferment of what I was reading infuses the game, and although most people saw it as a faithful homage to Infocom, it was also a work of Modernism, assembled from the juxtaposed fragments of other texts. At Meldrew Hall, I could connect everything with everything.

There were four main strands here. Most apparent is the many-volume Oxford History of England, an old-school reference work, which lined up on my shelf in pale blue dust jackets. I had collected them by scouring second-hand book shops with the same assiduity as a kid completing an album of football stickers. Something of each went into Curses, from Roman England (Vol. I) through to society paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and so on. The second strand was Eliot and The Waste Land, not solely for its content but also for its permissive style, as if it had authorised me to throw everything together. The third strand was classics: I was reading a lot of those “Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Philosophy” type of books, and I liked to grab the picturesque parts. Lastly, of course, the fourth strand is Infocom. Some of the puzzle design is lovingly imitative of Lebling, especially. The hieroglyphics from Infidel make a direct appearance. I also took affectionate swipes at the conventions, as with the infamous “You have missed the point entirely” death incurred simply by going down from the opening room, or the part where the narrator awards some points and then, a few turns later, takes them back again. Or the devil, who gives hints, all of which are lies. People actually filed bug reports over that. But really, I don’t think I did anything so transgressive that Infocom might not have done the same itself.

Those four strands are the main ingredients, but I should also acknowledge the indirect influence of the 1980s turn towards magical realism in fantasy novels, where it became possible to marry the fantastical with the merely historical. I had certainly read John Crowley’s Little, Big, for example. You could, at a stretch, say that Curses lies in the same genre.

The art of the Modernist collage is to somehow provide some cement which will hold the whole thing together. In the case of Curses, that cement is provided by the continuity of the Meldrew family and of the house – to which, and this is crucial, the player is always returning, and which ramifies with endless secret rooms. Moreover, you always experience the house through its behind-the-scenes places, joined in a skeletal way around the public areas which you never get to visit. The game is at its best when this cement is strongest, with the puzzles directly related to family members or to the house’s nooks and crannies. It loses coherence when it goes further afield, and this is why a final proposed addition, to do with the subway systems of various world cities all being joined up, was dropped. It didn’t feel like Curses any more. The weakest parts of Curses are the last parts added, and I suspect that the penultimate release is probably a better experience than the final one.

I am sometimes asked if Curses was autobiographical. As the above makes clear, in one sense yes, in that it’s a logbook of my reading. And in another obvious sense, no: I never actually teleported to ancient Alexandria. Nor have I ever lived in a grand house. My family home was built around 1960. It had seven rooms, none of them secret, and its map was an acyclic graph. There were early players who imagined that I might really be from some cadet branch of the landed gentry, with spacious grounds out of my window. This was not the case. Our estate consisted of one apple tree and two gooseberry bushes. All the same, England is not like America in this respect. Because of the Second World War, and because of inheritance tax, the great stately homes of England had essentially all become public places by the time I was a child. A routine way to entertain visiting grandparents was to take them around, say, the Jacobean manor house at Hatfield, where the Cecils had lived since the reign of James I. You didn’t have to be at all rich to do this.

The Attic area of Curses, where the game begins, does also contain just a little of my real family. The most intriguing place in my childhood home was, for sure, the attic, because it was so seldom accessible to me: a windowless but large space, properly floored, but never converted into a living area. My father would develop photographs up there, pouring chemicals into a tray, under a red lamp with a pull-cord switch. He would allow me to pull this cord. The house also had an airing cupboard — that is, a space around the hot-water boiler where towels could be dried. In this cupboard, my mother at one time made home-brew wine, in a sort of slow chemistry experiment with evil-looking demijohns. My brother doesn’t really make an appearance in Curses, which I’m sad about now, but it’s essential that the protagonist has ancestors rather than contemporaries. Though the protagonist has a spouse and children, mentioned right up front, they never appear, which I think is worth noting in a game where almost everything else that is foreshadowed eventually comes to pass.

Curses is by any reasonable standard too hard. In its first releases, I would update it with new material each time I made bug fixes, so that the game evolved and grew. Some players would play each version as it came out, and this enabled them to get further in, because they had prior experience from earlier builds. A dedicated fan base sent in bug reports, my favourite being that the brass key could not be picked up by the robot mouse, because brass is non-magnetic. The reward for any bug reported was that the reporter could nominate a new song to be added to the radio’s playlist, provided that it was both catchy and objectively dreadful. It would be interesting to extract that playlist now and put it on Spotify.

Feedback from players gave Curses a certain polish, but it wasn’t the only thing. I think it’s noteworthy that, just as Infocom had an editor as well as play-testers, so too I had an editor for at least part of the process: Gareth Rees, a Cambridge friend, author of the very wonderful Christminster. Richard Tucker also weighed in. I have the impression that before 1992 works of interactive fiction didn’t have much quality control, not so much because people didn’t want it, but because networking conditions didn’t allow for it.

To my great regret, the source code for Curses is now lost. It was for a while on a disk promisingly labelled “Curses source code”, but that disk is unreadable, and not for want of trying. Somewhere in my many changes of address and computer, I lost the necessary tech, or damaged it. (And Jigsaw too, alas.) It wouldn’t be hard to resurrect something, by working from a disassembly of the story file: there’s actually a tool to turn story files into Inform 6 out there somewhere. I occasionally think of asking if anyone would like to do that, and perhaps produce a faithful Inform 7 implementation.

Today, people play Curses with a walkthrough by their sides. But the game never quite goes away. Mike Spivey told me recently that he introduced himself to modern interactive fiction – “modern” interactive fiction – by playing Curses in 2017. A few people, at least, still tread Meldrew Hall. I remain fond of the place, as you can probably gather from the length of this reminiscence. Once in a blue moon I am tempted to write a sequel, Curses Foiled. But no. Sometimes you really can’t go back.

 
 

Tags: , , ,

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 1: Digging the Trenches

One of the most oddly inspiring stories I know of in all computing history is that of the resurrection and re-purposing of the Z-Machine, Infocom’s virtual machine of the 1980s, to serve a whole new community of interactive-fiction enthusiasts in the 1990s and well beyond. Even as the simple 8-bit computers for which it had originally been designed became obsolete, and then became veritable antiques, the Z-Machine just kept soldiering on, continuing to act as the delivery system for hundreds of brand new games that post-dated the company that had created it by years and eventually decades. The community of hobbyist practitioners who spawned the Interactive Fiction Renaissance of the mid-1990s made the Z-Machine one of their technological bedrocks for reasons more sentimental than practical: most of them worshiped Infocom, and loved the way that distributing their games via Infocom’s venerable virtual machine made them feel like the anointed heirs to that legacy. The Z-Machine was reborn, in other words, largely out of nostalgia. Very soon, though, the hobbyists’ restless creativity pushed and twisted the Z-Machine, and the genre of games it hosted, in all sorts of ways of which even Infocom at their most experimental could never have dreamed. Thus a regressive became a progressive impulse.

In the end, then, a design which Joel Berez and Marc Blank first sketched out hurriedly at their kitchen tables in 1979, in response to the urgently immediate problem of how to move their DEC PDP-10 game of Zork out of the MIT computer lab and onto microcomputers, didn’t fall out of general use as a delivery medium for new games until after 2010. And even today it still remains in active use as a legacy technology, the delivery medium for half or more of the best text adventures in the historical canon. In terms of the sheer number of platforms on which it runs, it must have a strong claim to being the most successful virtual machine in history; it runs on everything from e-readers to game consoles, from mobile phones to mainframes, from personal computers to electronic personal assistants. (To paraphrase an old joke, it really wouldn’t surprise me to learn that someone is running it on her toaster…) Its longevity is both a tribute to the fundamental soundness of its original design and to the enduring hold which Infocom’s pioneering interactive fiction of the 1980s has had upon more recent practitioners of the form. Like so many technology stories, in other words, the story of the Z-Machine is really about people.

One of the more ironic aspects of the Z-Machine story is the fact that it was never designed to be promulgated in this way. It was never intended to be a community software project; it was no Linux, no Mozilla, no Java. The ideological framework that would lead to such projects didn’t even exist apart from a handful of closeted university campuses at the time Berez and Blank were drawing it up. The Z-Machine was a closed, proprietary technology, closely guarded by Infocom during their heyday as one of their greatest competitive advantages over their rivals.

The first order of business for anyone outside of Infocom who wished to do anything with it, then, was to figure it out — because Infocom certainly wasn’t telling. This first article in a series of three is the story of those first intrepid Z-Machine archaeologists, who came to it knowing nothing and began, bit by bit, to puzzle it out. Little did they know that they were laying the foundation of an artistic movement. Graham Nelson, the most important single technical and creative architect of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance of the 1990s (and thus the eventual subject of my second and third articles), said it most cogently: “If I have hacked deeper than them, it is because I stand in their trenches.”



Although the Z-Machine was decidedly not intended as a community project, Infocom in their heyday made no particular attempt to hide the abstract fact that they were the proud possessors of some unusual technology. The early- and mid-1980s, Infocom’s commercial peak, was still the Wild West era of personal computing in the United States, with dozens of incompatible models jockeying for space on store shelves. Almost every published profile of Infocom — and there were many of them — made mention of the unique technology which somehow allowed them to write a game on a big DEC PDP-10 of the sort usually found only in universities and research laboratories, then move it onto as many as 25 normally incompatible microcomputers all at once. This was, perhaps even more so than their superb parser and general commitment to good writing and design, their secret weapon, allowing them to make games for the whole of the market, including parts of it that were served by virtually no other publishers.

So, even if highfalutin phrases like “virtual machine” weren’t yet tripping off the tongue of the average bedroom hacker, it wasn’t hard to divine what Infocom must be doing in the broad strokes. The specifics, however, were another matter. For, while Infocom didn’t hide the existence of a Z-Machine in the abstract, they had no vested interest in advertising how it worked.

The very first outsiders to begin to explore the vagaries of the Z-Machine actually had no real awareness of doing so. They were simply trying to devise ways of copying Infocom’s games — most charitably, so that they could make personal backups of them; most likely, so that they could trade them with their friends. They published their findings in organs like The Computist, an underground magazine for Apple II owners which focused mainly on defeating copy protection, hacking games, and otherwise doing things that the software publishers would prefer you didn’t. By 1984, you could learn how Infocom’s (unimpressive) copy-protection scheme worked from the magazine; by 1986, you could type in a program listing from it that would dump most of the text in a game for cheating purposes.

But plumbing the depths of a virtual machine whose very existence was only implicit was hard work, especially when one was forced to carry it out on such a basic computer as the Apple II. People tended to really dive in only when they had some compelling, practical reason. Thus users of the Apple II and other popular, well-supported platforms mostly contented themselves with fairly shallow explorations such as those just described. Users of some other platforms, however, weren’t fortunate enough to enjoy the ongoing support of the company that had made their computer and a large quantity of software on the shelves at their local computer store; they had a stronger motivation for going deeper.

Over the course of the 1980s, the American computing scene became steadily more monolithic, as an industry that had once boasted dozens of incompatible systems collapsed toward the uniformity that would mark most of the 1990s, when MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, and (to rather a lesser extent) the Apple Macintosh would be the only viable options for anyone wishing to run the latest shrink-wrapped commercial software. This gradual change was reflected in Infocom’s product catalog. After peaking at 25 or so machines in 1984, they released their final few games in 1988 and 1989 on just four of them. The realities of the market by then were such that it just didn’t make sense to support more platforms than that.

But technical transitions like these always come with their fair share of friction. In this case, plenty of people who had been unlucky or unwise enough to purchase one of the orphaned machines were left to consider their options. Some of them gave up on computing altogether, while others sucked it up and bought another model. But some of these folks either couldn’t afford to buy something else, or had fallen hopelessly in love with their first computer, or were just too stubborn to give it up. This state of affairs led directly to the world’s first full-fledged Z-Machine interpreter to be born outside of Infocom.

The orphaned machine at the heart of this story is the Texas Instruments 99/4A, a sturdy, thoughtfully designed little computer in many respects which enjoyed a spectacular Christmas of 1982, only to be buried by Jack Tramiel under an avalanche of Commodore VIC/20s and 64s the following year. On October 28, 1983, Texas Instruments announced they were pulling out of the home-computer market entirely, thus marking the end of one of the more frantic boom-and-bust cycles in computing history. It left in its wake hundreds of thousands of people with 99/4As on their desks or in their closets — both those who had bought the machine when it was still a going proposition and many more who snatched up some of the unsold inventory which Texas Instruments dumped onto the market afterward, at street prices of $50 or less. The number of active 99/4A users would inevitably decrease sharply as time went on, but some clung to their machines like the first loves they often were, for all of the reasons cited above.

This little 99/4A fraternity would prove sufficiently loyal to the platform to support an under-the-radar commercial- software ecosystem of their own into the 1990s. For many users, the platform was appealing not least in that it never lost the homegrown charm of the very earliest days of personal computing, when every user was a programmer to one degree or another, when the magazines were full of do-it-yourself hardware projects and type-in program listings, and when one kid working from his bedroom could change the accepted best practices of everyone else almost overnight. The Z-Machine interpreter that interests us today was a reflection of this can-do spirit.

Infocom’s first taste of major success had corresponded with the 99/4A’s one great Christmas. Naturally, they had made sure their games were available on one of the hottest computers in the country. Even after Texas Instruments officially abandoned the 99/4A, there was no immediate reason to ignore its many owners. Thus Infocom continued to make versions of their games for the machine through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in September of 1984. In all, they released fourteen 99/4A games.

But continuing to support any given machine eventually tended to become a more complicated proposition than simply continuing to use an already-extant interpreter. The Z-Machine in reality was more of a moving target than the abstract idea behind it might suggest. Infocom’s games got steadily bigger and richer as time went on, with more text, better parsers, and more ambitious world models. The original Z-Machine, as designed in 1979, had a theoretical maximum story-file size of 128 K, but the practical limitations of the machines running the interpreters kept the early games from reaching anything close to this size. (The original Zork, for example, Infocom’s very first game, was just 77 K.) As story files pushed ever closer to their theoretical maximum size in the years that followed, they began to exceed the practical limitations of some existing interpreters. When that happened, Infocom had to decide whether reworking the interpreter to support a larger story file was possible at all, and, if so, whether it was worth the effort in light of a platform’s sales figures. Following Hitchhiker’s (story-file size: 110 K), their fourteenth game, but before Suspect (story-file size: 120 K), their fifteenth, Infocom judged the answer to one or both of those questions to be no in the case of the 99/4A.

Barry Boone, the first person outside of Infocom to create a full-fledged Z-Machine interpreter.

As one might expect, this decision left a number of 99/4A users sorely disappointed. Among them was Barry Boone, a clever young man just out of high school who was already one of the leading lights of 99/4A hackery. Having read enough about Infocom to understand that their game format must be in some sense portable, he started doggedly digging into the details of its implementation. Soon he was able to make a clear delineation between the interpreter running natively on his machine and the story file it executed — a delineation the Apple II crowd writing for The Computist had yet to manage. And then he uncovered the big secret: that the interpreter packaged with one game could actually run the story file from another — even if said story file originated on a platform other than the 99/4A! Boone:

Having worked out the file format, I wrote a program to crunch the non-TI files and build the TI files. The resulting files appeared to work, but I quickly discovered [a] problem. If I converted an older game that already existed in TI format, everything worked perfectly. But with the newer games, there was a big problem.

The problem was that the interpreter software written for the TI had a number of bugs, many of which did not show up with the original set of games, but became all too apparent with the newer ones and made them unplayable. So I began a process of reverse-engineering the Z-Code interpreter for the TI. Once I reached a point of having recreated the source code, I began working on making the code more efficient, and fixing numerous bugs in the implementation. The largest bug I encountered was a vocabulary-table bug. Basically, the original TI interpreter would hit an overflow bug if the vocabulary table was too large, and the binary-search algorithm would start searching the wrong area of memory to look up words. This had the effect of making the last portion of the vocabulary inaccessible, and made the game impossible to play.

I also added a number of enhancements that allowed the games to load about twenty times faster, and modifications to play the games on TI systems equipped with 80-column displays. Finally, I had to make a second variation of the interpreter so that persons who had an extra 8 K of RAM (known as a Super Cart, or Super Space module) could play some of the games that required a larger memory footprint than 24 K of memory buffer. These games included Leather Goddesses.

Boone estimates that he finished his interpreter around 1986, whereupon he promptly began sharing it with his network of friends and fellow 99/4A enthusiasts, who used it to play many of the newer Infocom story files, transferring them from disks for other platforms. Boone was stymied only by the games from Infocom’s Interactive Fiction Plus line, such as A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. Those games used an expanded version of the Z-Machine, known internally as version 4 — the mature version of the original virtual machine was version 3 — which expanded the available memory space to 256 K, far beyond what the 99/4A could possibly manage. Even without them, however, Boone gave himself and his mates ten new Infocom games to play — i.e., all of those released for the 128 K Z-Machine between October of 1984 and July of 1987, when this original incarnation of the virtual machine made its last bow in Infocom packaging.

But even that wasn’t quite the end of the story. An obscure footnote to Infocom’s history took shape in late 1988 or early 1989, when Chris Bobbitt, founder of a company called Asgard, the 99/4A software publisher that most resembled a real business as opposed to a hobbyist project, had the idea of contacting Infocom themselves to ask permission to market the newer games, running under Boone’s interpreter, as legitimate commercial products. Although Bobbitt doubtless didn’t realize it at the time, Infocom was by then on the verge of being shut down, and Mediagenic, their less-than-doting parent company, were also beginning to feel the financial stresses that would force them into bankruptcy in 1990. They saw Bobbitt’s proposal as a handy way to clear their warehouse of old stock and make some desperately needed cash. Jim Fetzner, who worked with Asgard at the time, remembers how the deal went down:

[Bobbitt] contacted Infocom to ask for permission to release the later Infocom releases, and was given permission to do so on one condition: that the packaging and disks had to be originals for other systems, relabeled (the packaging) and reformatted (the disks) for use with the TI. Infocom scoured their warehouse and sent Chris two very large boxes of the titles he was asking to reproduce—and noted on the invoice that these boxes included every single copy of the relevant titles that Infocom still had in their possession. Some of the titles were relatively plentiful, but others were included in much lower numbers. The boxes only contained four copies of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, for example. All other titles had at least ten copies each, and some had a lot more. He was permitted to buy more copies from remainders in the retail channels, though, so it is possible there are more properly badged Asgard copies of the titles that were harder to find. All of the stock he received from Infocom was gone in a matter of months.

These games, which Bobbitt bought for $5 apiece and sold on for several times that, thereby became the last new Infocom games ever sold in their original packaging — out-of-print games from a dead company sold to owners of an orphaned computer.

Asgard prepared their own platform-specific reference card after the Infocom example and inserted it into the box.

Well before Asgard entered the scene, however, another, more structured and sustainable project had led to a Z-Machine interpreter much more amenable to being ported and built upon than Boone’s incarnation of same for an idiosyncratic, bare-bones, orphaned platform. Not long after Boone first started sharing his 99/4A interpreter with friends, a few students at the University of Sydney in far-off Australia started disassembling another of Infocom’s own interpreters — in this case one for Zilog Z80-based computers running the operating system CP/M. The group included in their ranks David Beazley, George Janczuk, Peter Lisle, Russell Hoare, and Chris Tham. They gave themselves the rather grandiose name of the InfoTaskforce, but they initially regarded the project, said Janczuk to me recently, strictly as “a form of mental calisthenics”: “This was never meant to be a public exercise.”

Still, the group had several advantages which Boone had lacked — in addition, that is, to the advantage of sheer numbers. Boone had been a bedroom hacker working on fairly primitive hardware, where cryptic assembly language, highly specific to the computer on which it was running, was the only viable option. The InfoTaskforce, on the other hand, had more advanced hardware at their disposal, and were steeped in the culture of institutional hacking, where portable C was the most popular programming language and software was typically distributed as source code, ready to be analyzed, ported, and expanded upon by people other than its creators, quite possibly working on platforms of which said creators had never dreamed. And then, thanks to their university, the InfoTaskforce was connected to the Internet, long before most people had even heard of such a thing; this gave them a way to share their work quickly with others across a wide, international swath of computing. The contrast with the segregated ghetto that was the world of the 99/4A is telling.

David Beazley, who did almost all of the actual coding for the InfoTaskforce interpreter — the others had their hands full enough with reverse-engineering the Z-Machine architecture — did so in C on a first-generation Apple Macintosh. On May 25, 1987, he used this machine to compile the first truly portable Z-Machine interpreter in history. Within a week, he and his mates had also gotten it compiled and running on an MS-DOS machine and a big DEC VAX. (Ironically, the latter was the successor to the PDP-10 line so famously employed by Infocom themselves; thus one might say that the Z-Machine had already come full-circle.)

As Janczuk remembers it, the first version of the interpreter to reach the Internet actually did so accidentally. He gave it to a friend of his at university, who, as so many friends have done over the years, uploaded it without permission on June 2, 1987. There followed an immediate outpouring of interest from all over the world, which greatly surprised the interpreter’s own creators. It prompted them to release an official version 1.0, capable of playing any story file for the standard — i.e., 128 K — Z-Machine on August 1, 1987. Already by this time, the Commodore Amiga personal computer and several more big machines had been added to the list of confirmed-compatible host platforms. It was a milestone day in the history of interactive fiction; Infocom’s games had been freed from the tyranny of the hardware for which they’d originally shipped. And they could remain free of the vicissitudes and fashions of hardware forevermore, as long as there was an enterprising hacker ready to tweak an existing interpreter’s source code to suit the latest gadget to come down the pipe. (So far, there has been no shortage of such hackers…)

With their university days coming to an end, the InfoTaskforce boys worked on their interpreter only in fits and starts over the years that followed. Not until 1990 did they finish adding support for the Interactive Fiction Plus line; not until 1992, in a final burst of activity, did they add support for Infocom’s last few text-only games, which ran under what was known internally as the version 5 Z-Machine. This last release of the InfoTaskforce interpreter actually attracted a bit of scoffing for its inefficiency, and for generally lagging behind what other hackers had done by that point in other interpreters.

In reality, information and inspiration rather than the software itself were the most important legacies of the InfoTaskForce interpreter. Beazley’s C source told you almost all of what you really needed to know about the Z-Machine, so long as you were sufficiently motivated to dig out the information you needed; doing so was certainly a fair sight more pleasant than poring over eye-watering printouts of cryptic disassembled Z80 machine language, as Beazley and his pals had been forced to do before coming up with it. The InfoTaskforce interpreter thus became the gateway through which the Z-Machine burst into the public domain, even as Infocom was soon to collapse and abandon their virtual machine. This was a role which Boone’s interpreter, for all its naïve brilliance, just wasn’t equipped to play, for all of the reasons we’ve already explored.

An enterprising American hacker named Mark Howell did perhaps the most to build upon the foundation of the InfoTaskforce interpreter during the half-decade after its initial appearance. His own interpreter bore the name of ZIP (for “Z-Machine Implementation Program”), a name it shared with the popular compression format, to enormous confusion all the way around — although, to be fair, this was also the name by which Infocom knew their own interpreters. ZIP was faster and less buggy than the InfoTaskforce interpreter, and for this reason it soon surpassed its older sibling in popularity. But Howell also delved further into the architecture of the Z-Machine than anyone before him, analyzing its design like a computer scientist might rather than as a hacker simply trying to write a quick-and-dirty clone of Infocom’s existing interpreters. When he came up for air, he uploaded his set of “ZTools” — programs for probing story files in all sorts of ways, including a disassembler for the actual code they contained. These tools did much to set the stage for the next phase of the Z-Machine’s resurrection and liberation.

In 1992, another building block fell into place when Activision shipped their Lost Treasures of Infocom collection to unexpected success. It and its sequel collected all of the Infocom games together in one place at a reasonable price, stored as neatly discrete story files ready to be fed into either the original Infocom interpreters included on the disks or an alternative of one’s choice. Lost Treasures shipped only in versions for MS-DOS, the Apple Macintosh, and the Commodore Amiga — the last three commercially viable personal-computing platforms left in North America by that time (and the Amiga wouldn’t enjoy that status much longer). But users of orphaned and non-North American platforms were soon passing around the tip that, if you could just get the story files off of the original Lost Treasures disks, they could be run on their own platforms as well with one of the interpreters that had by now spread far and wide. For example, our old friends at The Computist, still carrying the 8-bit torch in these twilight days of the Apple II, published instructions on how to do just that — a fitting end point to their earliest explorations of the Infocom format.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the magazine Acorn User published a similar article for users of the Acorn Archimedes, a machine that was virtually unknown outside of Britain, a few parts of mainland Europe, and Australasia. (“It’s hard to conceive of videogame nostalgia,” they wrote of the Lost Treasures collections, “but this is as close as it gets.” Little did they know…) It so happened that an Oxford doctoral candidate in mathematics named Graham Nelson was a stalwart Acorn loyalist and a regular reader of that magazine. By the time the article in question appeared, the window opened by the InfoTaskforce interpreter and all the software that had followed it, combined with the Lost Treasures collections, had already led him to begin sliding the next couple of building blocks of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance into place.

Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy running on an Acorn Archimedes — a platform for which it was never officially released — under a third-party Z-Machine interpreter by Edouard Poor.

(Sources: The Computist 5, 7, 34, 41, 47, 57, 58, 63, and 86; Acorn User of July 1993; Asgard Software’s newsletters from 1989 and 1990. Online sources include Barry Boone’s memories of writing his Z-Machine interpreter at The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History and his bio for the TI99ers Hall of Fame. The original source for the InfoTaskforce interpreter can be found in various file archives. My huge thanks go to Barry Boone, Jim Fetzner, and George Janczuk for talking to me about their pioneering early work in Z-Machine archaeology.)

 
 

Tags:

Return to Zork

Where should we mark the beginning of the full-motion-video era, that most extended of blind alleys in the history of the American games industry? The day in the spring of 1990 that Ken Williams, founder and president of Sierra On-Line, wrote his latest editorial for his company’s seasonal newsletter might be as good a point as any. In his editorial, Williams coined the term “talkies” in reference to an upcoming generation of games which would have “real character voices and no text.” The term was, of course, a callback to the Hollywood of circa 1930, when sound began to come to the heretofore silent medium of film. Computer games, Williams said, stood on the verge of a leap that would be every bit as transformative, in terms not only of creativity but of profitability: “How big would the film industry be today if not for this step?”

According to Williams, the voice-acted, CD-based version of Sierra’s King’s Quest V was to become the games industry’s The Jazz Singer. But voice acting wasn’t the only form of acting which the games of the next few years had in store. A second transformative leap, comparable to that made by Hollywood when film went from black and white to color, was also waiting in the wings to burst onto the stage just a little bit later than the first talkies. Soon, game players would be able to watch real, human actors right there on their monitor screens.

As regular readers of this site probably know already, the games industry’s Hollywood obsession goes back a long way. In 1982, Sierra was already advertising their text adventure Time Zone with what looked like a classic “coming attractions” poster; in 1986, Cinemaware was founded with the explicit goal of making “interactive movies.” Still, the conventional wisdom inside the industry by the early 1990s had shifted subtly away from such earlier attempts to make games that merely played like movies. The idea was now that the two forms of media would truly become one — that games and movies would literally merge. “Sierra is part of the entertainment industry — not the computer industry,” wrote Williams in his editorial. “I always think of books, records, films, and then interactive films.” These categories defined a continuum of increasingly “hot,” increasingly immersive forms of media. The last listed there, the most immersive medium of all, was now on the cusp of realization. How many people would choose to watch a non-interactive film when they had the opportunity to steer the course of the plot for themselves? Probably about as many as still preferred books to movies.

Not all that long after Williams’s editorial, the era of the full-motion-video game began in earnest. The first really prominent exemplar of the species was ICOM Simulations’s Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series in 1992, which sent you wandering around Victorian London collecting clues to a mystery from the video snippets that played every time you visited a relevant location. The first volume of this series alone would eventually sell 1 million copies as an early CD-ROM showcase title. The following year brought Return to Zork, The 7th Guest, and Myst as three of the five biggest games of the year; all three of these used full-motion video to a greater or lesser extent. (Myst used it considerably less than the other two, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the member of the trio that holds up by far the best today.) With success stories like those to look to, the floodgates truly opened in 1994. Suddenly every game-development project — by no means only adventure games — was looking for ways to shoehorn live actors into the proceedings.

But only a few of the full-motion-video games that followed would post anything like the numbers of the aforementioned four games. That hard fact, combined with a technological counter-revolution in the form of 3D graphics, would finally force a reckoning with the cognitive dissonance of trying to build a satisfying interactive experience by mixing and matching snippets of nonmalleable video. By 1997, the full-motion-video era was all but over. Today, few things date a game more instantly to a certain window of time than grainy video of terrible actors flickering over a background of computer-generated graphics. What on earth were people thinking?

Most full-motion-video games are indeed dire, but they’re going to be with us for quite some time to come as we continue to work our way through this history. I wish I could say that Activision’s Return to Zork, my real topic for today, was one of the exceptions to the rule of direness. Sadly, though, it isn’t.

In fact, let me be clear right now: Return to Zork is a terrible adventure game. Under no circumstances should you play it, unless to satisfy historical curiosity or as a source of ironic amusement in the grand tradition of Ed Wood. And even in these special cases, you should take care to play it with a walkthrough in hand. To do anything else is sheer masochism; you’re almost guaranteed to lock yourself out of victory within the first ten minutes, and almost guaranteed not to realize it until many hours later. There’s really no point in mincing words here: Return to Zork is one of the absolute worst adventure-game designs I’ve ever seen — and, believe me, I’ve seen quite a few bad ones.

Its one saving grace, however, is that it’s terrible in a somewhat different way from the majority of terrible full-motion-video adventure games. Most of them are utterly bereft of ideas beyond the questionable one at their core: that of somehow making a game out of static video snippets. You can almost see the wheels turning desperately in the designers’ heads as they’re suddenly confronted with the realization that, in addition to playing videos, they have to give the player something to actually do. Return to Zork, on the other hand, is chock full of ideas for improving upon the standard graphic-adventure interface in ways that, on the surface at any rate, allow more rather than less flexibility and interactivity. Likewise, even the trendy use of full-motion video, which dates it so indelibly to the mid-1990s, is much more calculated than the norm among its contemporaries.

Unfortunately, all of its ideas are undone by a complete disinterest in the fundamentals of game design on the part of the novelty-seeking technologists who created it. And so here we are, stuck with a terrible game in spite of it all. If I can’t quite call Return to Zork a noble failure — as we’ll see, one of its creators’ stated reasons for making it so callously unfair is anything but noble — I can at least convince myself to call it an interesting one.


When Activision decided to make their follow-up to the quickie cash-in Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 a more earnest, better funded stab at a sequel to a beloved Infocom game, it seemed logical to find themselves a real Infocom Implementor to design the thing. They thus asked Steve Meretzky, whom they had just worked with on Leather Goddesses 2, if he’d like to design a new Zork game for them as well. But Meretzky hadn’t overly enjoyed trying to corral Activision’s opinionated in-house developers from a continent away last time around; this time, he turned them down flat.

Meretzky’s rejection left Activision without a lot of options to choose from when it came to former Imps. A number of them had left the games industry upon Infocom’s shuttering three years before, while, of those that remained, Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, and Bob Bates were all employed by one of Activison’s direct competitors. Activision therefore turned to Doug Barnett, a freelance artist and designer who had been active in the industry for the better part of a decade; his most high-profile design gig to date had been Cinemaware’s Lords of the Rising Sun. But he had never designed a traditional puzzle-oriented adventure game, as one can perhaps see all too well in the game that would result from his partnership with Activision. He also didn’t seem to have a great deal of natural affinity for Zork. In the lengthy set of notes and correspondence relating to the game’s development which has been put online by The Zork Library, a constant early theme on Activision’s part is the design’s lack of “Zorkiness.” “As it stands, the design constitutes more of a separate and unrelated story, rather than a sequel to the Zork series,” they wrote at one point. “It was noted that ‘Zork’ is the name of a vast ancient underground empire, yet Return to Zork takes place in a mostly above-ground environment.”

In fairness to Barnett, Zork had always been more of a state of mind than a coherent place. With the notable exception of Steve Meretzky, everyone at Infocom had been wary of overthinking a milieu that had originally been plucked out of the air more or less at random. In comparison to other shared worlds — even other early computer-game worlds, such as the Britannia of Richard Garriott’s Ultima series — there was surprisingly little there there when it came Zork: no well-established geography, no well-established history which everybody knew — and, most significantly of all, no really iconic characters which simply had to be included. At bottom, Zork boiled down to little more than a modest grab bag of tropes which lived largely in the eye of the beholder: the white house with a mailbox, grues, Flood Control Dam #3, Dimwit Flathead, the Great Underground Empire itself. And even most of these had their origin stories in the practical needs of an adventure game rather than any higher world-building purpose. (The Great Underground Empire, for example, was first conceived as an abandoned place not for any literary effect but because living characters are hard to implement in an adventure game, while the detritus they leave behind is relatively easy.)

That said, there was a distinct tone to Zork, which was easier to spot than it was to describe or to capture. Barnett’s design missed this tone, even as it began with the gleefully anachronistic, seemingly thoroughly Zorkian premise of casting the player as a sweepstakes winner on an all-expenses-paid trip to the idyllic Valley of the Sparrows, only to discover it has turned into the Valley of the Vultures under the influence of some pernicious, magical evil. Barnett and Activision would continue to labor mightily to make Return to Zork feel like Zork, but would never quite get there.

By the summer of 1992, Barnett’s design document had already gone through several revisions without entirely meeting Activision’s expectations. At this point, they hired one Eddie Dombrower to take personal charge of the project in the role of producer. Like Barnett, Dombrower had been working in the industry for quite some time, but had never worked on an adventure game; he was best known for World Series Major League Baseball on the old Intellivision console and Earl Weaver Baseball on computers. Dombrower gave the events of Return to Zork an explicit place in Zorkian history — some 700 years after Infocom’s Beyond Zork — and moved a big chunk of the game underground to remedy one of his boss’ most oft-repeated objections to the existing design.

More ominously, he also made a comprehensive effort to complicate Barnett’s puzzles, based on feedback from players and reviewers of Leather Goddesses 2, who were decidedly unimpressed with that game’s simple-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence puzzles. The result would be the mother of all over-corrections — a topic we’ll return to later.

Unlike Leather Goddess 2, whose multimedia ambitions had led it to fill a well-nigh absurd 17 floppy disks, Return to Zork had been planned almost from its inception as a product for CD-ROM, a technology which, after years of false promises and setbacks, finally seemed to be moving toward a critical mass of consumer uptake. In 1992, full-motion video, CD-ROM, and multimedia computing in general were all but inseparable concepts in the industry’s collective mind. Activision thus became one of the first studios to hire a director and actors and rent time on a sound stage; the business of making computer games had now come to involve making movies as well. They even hired a professional Hollywood screenwriter to punch up the dialog and make it more “cinematic.”

In general, though, while the computer-games industry was eager to pursue a merger with Hollywood, the latter was proving far more skeptical. There was still little money in computer games by comparison with movies, and there was very little prestige — rather the opposite, most would say — in “starring” in a game. The actors which games could manage to attract were therefore B-listers at best. Return to Zork actually collected a more accomplished — or at least more high-profile — cast than most. Among them were Ernie Lively, a veteran supporting player from television shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard; his daughter Robyn Lively, fresh off a six-episode stint as a minor character on David Lynch’s prestigious critic’s darling Twin Peaks; Jason Hervey, who was still playing older brother Wayne on the long-running coming-of-age sitcom The Wonder Years; and Sam Jones, whose big shot at leading-man status had come with the film Flash Gordon back in 1980 and gone with its mixed reception.

If the end result would prove less than Oscar-worthy, it’s for the most part not cringe-worthy either. After all, the cast did consist entirely of acting professionals, which is more than one can say for many productions of this ilk — and certainly more than one can say for the truly dreadful voice acting in Leather Goddess of Phobos 2, Activision’s previous attempt at a multimedia adventure game. While they were hampered by the sheer unfamiliarity of talking directly “to” the invisible player of the game — as Ernie Lively put it, “there’s no one to act off of” — they did a decent job with the slight material they had to work with.

The fact that they were talking to the player rather than acting out scenes with one another actually speaks to a degree of judiciousness in the use of full-motion video on Activision’s part. Rather than attempting to make an interactive movie in the most literal sense — by having a bunch of actors, one of them representing the protagonist, act out each of the player’s choices — Activision went for a more thoughtful mixed-media approach that could, theoretically anyway, eliminate most of the weaknesses of the typical full-motion-video adventure game. For the most part, only conversations involved the use of full-motion video; everything else was rendered by Activision’s pixel artists and 3D modelers in conventional computer graphics. The protagonist wasn’t shown at all: at a time when the third-person view that was the all but universal norm in adventure games, Activision opted for a first-person view.

The debate over whether an adventure-game protagonist ought to be a blank slate which the player can fill with her own personality or an established character which the player merely guides and empathizes with was a longstanding one even at the time when Return to Zork was being made. Certainly Infocom had held rousing internal debates on the subject, and had experimented fairly extensively with pre-established protagonists in some of their games. (These experiments sometimes led to rousing external debates among their fans, most notably in the case of the extensively characterized and tragically flawed protagonist of Infidel, who meets a nasty if richly deserved end no matter what the player does.) The Zork series, however, stemmed from an earlier, simpler time in adventure games than the rest of the Infocom catalog, and the “nameless, faceless adventurer,” functioning as a stand-in for the player herself, had always been its star. Thus Activision’s decision not to show the player’s character in Return to Zork, or indeed to characterize her in any way whatsoever, is a considered one, in keeping with everything that came before.

In fact, the protagonist of Return to Zork never actually says anything. To get around the need, Activision came up with a unique attitude-based conversation engine. As you “talk” to other characters, you choose from three stances — threatening, interested, or bored — and listen only to your interlocutors’ reactions. Not only does your own dialog go unvoiced, but you don’t even see the exact words you use; the game instead lets you imagine your own words. Specific questions you might wish to ask are cleverly turned into concrete physical interactions, something games do much better than abstract conversations. As you explore, you have a camera with which to take pictures of points of interest. During conversations, you can show the entries from your photo album to your interlocutor, perhaps prompting a reaction. You can do the same with objects in your inventory, locations on the auto-map you always carry with you, or even the tape recordings you automatically make of each interaction with each character.

So, whatever else you can say about it, Return to Zork is hardly bereft of ideas. William Volk, the technical leader of the project, was well up on the latest research into interface design being conducted inside universities like MIT and at companies like Apple. Many such studies had concluded that, in place of static onscreen menus and buttons, the interface should ideally pop into existence just where and when the user needed it. The result of such thinking in Return to Zork is a screen with no static interface at all; it instead pops up when you click on an object with which you can interact. Since it doesn’t need the onscreen menu of “verbs” typical of contemporaneous Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, Return to Zork can give over the entirety of the screen to its graphical portrayal of the world.

In addition to being a method of recapturing screen real estate, the interface was conceived as a way to recapture some of the sense of boundless freedom which is such a characteristic of parser-driven text adventures — a sense which can all too easily become lost amidst the more constrained interfaces of their graphical equivalent. William Volk liked to call Return to Zork‘s interface a “reverse parser”: clicking on a “noun” in the environment or in your inventory yields a pop-up menu of “verbs” that pertain to it. Taking an object in your “hand” and clicking it on another one yields still more options, the equivalent of commands to a parser involving indirect as well as direct objects. In the first screen of the game, for example, clicking the knife on a vulture gives options to “show knife to vulture,” “throw knife at vulture,” “stab vulture with knife,” or “hit vulture with knife.” There are limits to the sense of possibility: every action had to be anticipated and hand-coded by the development team, and most of them are the wrong approach to whatever you’re trying to accomplish. In fact, in the case of the example just mentioned as well as many others, most of the available options will get you killed; Return to Zork loves instant deaths even more than the average Sierra game. And there are many cases of that well-known adventure-game syndrome where a perfectly reasonable solution to a problem isn’t implemented, forcing you to devise some absurdly convoluted solution that is implemented in its stead. Still, in a world where adventure games were getting steadily less rather than more ambitious in their scope of interactive possibility — to a large extent due to the limitations of full-motion video — Return to Zork was a welcome departure from the norm, a graphic adventure that at least tried to recapture the sense of open-ended possibility of an Infocom game.

Indeed, there are enough good ideas in Return to Zork that one really, really wishes they all could have been tied to a better game. But sadly, I have to stop praising Return to Zork now and start condemning it.

The most obvious if perhaps most forgivable of its sins is that, as already noted, it never really manages to feel like Zork — not, at least, like the classic Zork of the original trilogy. (Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero, Infocom’s final release to bear the name, actually does share some of the slapstick qualities of Return to Zork, but likewise rather misses the feel of the original.) The most effective homage comes at the very beginning, when the iconic opening text of Zork I appears onscreen and morphs into the new game’s splashy opening credits. It’s hard to imagine a better depiction circa 1993 of where computer gaming had been and where it was going — which was, of course, exactly the effect the designers intended.

Once the game proper gets under way, however, modernity begins to feel much less friendly to the Zorkian aesthetic of old. Most of Zork‘s limited selection of physical icons do show up here, from grues to Flood Control Dam #3, but none of it feels all that convincingly Zork-like. The dam is a particular disappointment; what was described in terms perfect for inspiring awed flights of the imagination in Zork I looks dull and underwhelming when portrayed in the cruder medium of graphics. Meanwhile the jokey, sitcom-style dialog that confronts you at every turn feels even less like the original trilogy’s slyer, subtler humor.

This isn’t to say that Return to Zork‘s humor doesn’t connect on occasion. It’s just… different from that of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. By far the most memorable character, whose catchphrase has lived on to this day as a minor Internet meme, is the drunken miller named Boos Miller. (Again, subtlety isn’t this game’s trademark.) He plies you endlessly with whiskey, whilst repeating, “Want some rye? Course you do!” over and over and over in his cornpone accent. It’s completely stupid — but, I must admit, it’s also pretty darn funny; Boos Miller is the one thing everyone who ever played the game still seems to remember about Return to Zork. But, funny though he is, he would be unimaginable in any previous Zork.


Of course, a lack of sufficient Zorkiness need not have been the kiss of death for Return to Zork as an adventure game in the abstract. What really does it in is its thoroughly unfair puzzle design. This game plays like the fever dream of a person who hates and fears adventure games. It’s hard to know where to even start (or end) with this cornucopia of bad puzzles, but I’ll describe a few of them, ranked roughly in order of their objectionability.

The Questionable: At one point, you find yourself needing to milk a cow, but she won’t let you do so with cold hands. Do you need to do something sensible, like, say, find some gloves or wrap your hands in a blanket? Of course not! The solution is to light some of the hay that’s scattered all over the wooden barn on fire and warm your hands that way. For some reason, the whole place doesn’t go up in smoke. This solution is made still more difficult to discover by the way that the game usually kills you every time you look at it wrong. Why on earth would it not kill you for a monumentally stupid act like this one? To further complicate matters, for reasons that are obscure at best you can only light the hay on fire if you first pick it up and then drop it again. Thus even many players who are consciously attempting the correct solution will still get stuck here.

The Absurd: At another point, you find a bra. You have to throw it into an incinerator in order to get a wire out of it whose existence you were never aware of in the first place. How does the game expect you to guess that you should take such an action? Apparently some tenuous linkage with the 1960s tradition of bra burning and, as a justification after the fact, the verb “to hot-wire.” Needless to say, throwing anything else into the incinerator just destroys the object and, more likely than not, locks you out of victory.

The Incomprehensible: There’s a water wheel out back of Boos’s house with a chock holding it still. If you’ve taken the chock and thus the wheel is spinning, and you’ve solved another puzzle that involves drinking Boos under the table (see the video above), a trapdoor is revealed in the floor. But if the chock is in place, the trapdoor can’t be seen. Why? I have absolutely no idea.

Wait! Don’t do it!

The Brutal: In a way, everything you really need to know about Return to Zork can be summed up by its most infamous single puzzle. On the very first screen of the game, there’s a “bonding plant” growing. If you simply pull up the plant and take it with you, everything seems fine — until you get to the very end of the game many hours later. Here, you finally find a use for the plant you’ve been carting around all this time. Fair enough. But unfortunately, you need a living version of it. It turns out you were supposed to have used a knife to dig up the plant rather than pulling or cutting it. Guess what? You now get to play through the whole game again from the beginning.

All of the puzzles just described, and the many equally bad ones, are made still more complicated by the game’s general determination to be a right bastard to you every chance it gets. If, as Robb Sherwin once put it, the original Zork games hate their players, this game has found some existential realm beyond mere hatred. It will let you try to do many things to solve each puzzle, but, of those actions that don’t outright kill you, a fair percentage lock you out of victory in one way or another. Sometimes, as in the case of its most infamous puzzle, it lets you think you’ve solved them, only to pull the rug out from under you much later.

So, you’re perpetually on edge as you tiptoe through this minefield of instant deaths and unwinnable states; you’ll have a form of adventure-game post-traumatic-stress syndrome by the time you’re done, even if you’re largely playing from a walkthrough. The instant deaths are annoying, but nowhere near as bad as the unwinnable states; the problem there is that you never know whether you’ve already locked yourself out of victory, never know whether you can’t solve the puzzle in front of you because of something you did or didn’t do a long time ago.

It all combines to make Return to Zork one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played. We’ve sunk to Time Zone levels of awful with this one. No human not willing to mount a methodical months-long assault on this game, trying every possibility everywhere, could possibly solve it unaided. Even the groundbreaking interface is made boring and annoying by the need to show everything to everyone and try every conversation stance on everyone, always with the lingering fear that the wrong stance could spoil your game. Adventure games are built on trust between player and designer, but you can’t trust Return to Zork any farther than you can throw it. Amidst all the hand-wringing at Activision over whether Return to Zork was or was not sufficiently Zorky, they forgot the most important single piece of the Infocom legacy: their thoroughgoing commitment to design, and the fundamental respect that commitment demonstrated to the players who spent their hard-earned money on Infocom games.  “Looking back at the classics might be a good idea for today’s game designers,” wrote Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia at the conclusion of her mixed review of Return to Zork. “Good puzzle construction, logical development, and creative inspiration are in rich supply on those dusty disks.” None of these, alas, is in correspondingly good supply in Return to Zork.

The next logical question, then, is just how Return to Zork‘s puzzles wound up being so awful. After all, this game wasn’t the quickie cash grab that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 had been. The development team put serious thought and effort into the interface, and there were clearly a lot of people involved with this game who cared about it a great deal — among them Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick, who was willing to invest almost $1 million to bring the whole project to fruition at a time when cash was desperately short and his creditors had him on a short leash indeed.

The answer to our question apparently comes down to the poor reception of Leather Goddesses 2, which had stung Activision badly. In an interview given shortly before Return to Zork‘s release, Eddie Dombrower said that, “based on feedback that the puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos [2] were too simple,” the development team had “made the puzzles increasingly difficult just by reworking what Doug had already laid out for us.” That sounds innocent enough on the face of it. But, speaking to me recently, William Volk delivered a considerably darker variation on the same theme. “People hated Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 — panned it,” he told me. “So, we decided to wreak revenge on the entire industry by making Return to Zork completely unfair. Everyone bitches about that title. There’s 4000 videos devoted to Return to Zork on YouTube, most of which are complaining because the title is so blatantly unfair. But, there you go. Something to pin my hat on. I made the most unfair game in history.”

For all that I appreciate Volk sharing his memories with me, I must confess that my initial reaction to this boast was shock, soon to be followed by genuine anger at the lack of empathy it demonstrates. Return to Zork didn’t “wreak revenge” on its industry, which really couldn’t have cared less. It rather wreaked “revenge,” if that’s the appropriate word, on the ordinary gamers who bought it in good faith at a substantial price, most of whom had neither bought nor commented on Leather Goddesses 2. I sincerely hope that Volk’s justification is merely a case of hyperbole after the fact. If not… well, I really don’t know what else to say about such juvenile pettiness, so symptomatic of the entitled tunnel vision of so many who are fortunate enough to work in technology, other than that it managed to leave me disliking Return to Zork even more. Some games are made out of an openhearted desire to bring people enjoyment. Others, like this one, are not.

I’d like to be able to say that Activision got their comeuppance for making Return to Zork such a bad game, demonstrating such contempt for their paying customers, and so soiling the storied Infocom name in the process. But exactly the opposite is the case. Released in late 1993, Return to Zork became one of the breakthrough titles that finally made the CD-ROM revolution a reality, whilst also carrying Activision a few more steps back from the abyss into which they’d been staring for the last few years. It reportedly sold 1 million copies in its first year — albeit the majority of them as a bundled title, included with CD-ROM drives and multimedia upgrade kits, rather than as a boxed standalone product. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick in the aftermath.

Perhaps. But more likely not. Even within the established journals of computer gaming, whose readership probably didn’t constitute the majority of Return to Zork‘s purchasers, reviews of the game were driven more by enthusiasm for its graphics and sound, which really were impressive in their day, than by Zork nostalgia. Discussed in the euphoria following its release as the beginning of a full-blown Infocom revival, Return to Zork would instead go down in history as a vaguely embarrassing anticlimax to the real Infocom story. A sequel to Planetfall, planned as the next stage in the revival, would linger in Development Hell for years and ultimately never get finished. By the end of the 1990s, Zork as well would be a dead property in commercial terms.

Rather than having all that much to do with its Infocom heritage, Return to Zork‘s enormous commercial success came down to its catching the technological zeitgeist at just the right instant, joining Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, and Myst as the perfect flashy showpieces for CD-ROM. Its success conveyed all the wrong messages to game publishers like Activision: that multimedia glitz was everything, and that design really didn’t matter at all.

If it stings a bit that this of all games, arguably the worst one ever to bear the Infocom logo, should have sold better than any of the rest of them, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Quality does have a way of winning out in the end. Today, Return to Zork is a musty relic of its time, remembered if at all only for that “want some rye?” guy. The classic Infocom text adventures, on the other hand, remain just that — widely recognized as timeless classics, their clean text-only presentations ironically much less dated than all of Return to Zork‘s oh-so-1993 multimedia flash. Justice does have a way of being served in the long run.

(Sources: the book Return to Zork Adventurer’s Guide by Steve Schwartz; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, July 1993, November 1993, and January 1994; Questbusters of December 1993; Sierra News Magazine of Spring 1990; Electronic Games of January 1994; New Media of June 24 1994. Online sources include The Zork Library‘s archive of Return to Zork design documents and correspondence, Retro Games Master‘s interview with Doug Barnett, and Matt Barton’s interview with William Volk. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in a personal interview.)

 

Tags: , , ,

An Unlikely Savior

Activision Blizzard is the largest game publisher in the Western world today, generating a staggering $7.5 billion in revenue every year. Along with the only slightly smaller behemoth Electronic Arts and a few Japanese competitors, Activision for all intents and purposes is the face of gaming as a mainstream, mass-media phenomenon. Even as the gaming intelligentsia looks askance at Activision for their unshakeable fixation on sequels and tried-and-true formulas, the general public just can’t seem to get enough Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush Saga. Likewise, Bobby Kotick, who has sat in the CEO’s chair at Activision for over a quarter of a century now, is as hated by gamers of a certain progressive sensibility as he is loved by the investment community.

But Activision’s story could have — perhaps by all rights should have — gone very differently. When Kotick became CEO, the company was a shambling wreck that hadn’t been consistently profitable in almost a decade. Mismanagement combined with bad luck had driven it to the ragged edge of oblivion. What to a large degree saved Activision and made the world safe for World of Warcraft was, of all things, a defunct maker of text adventures which longtime readers of this ongoing history have gotten to know quite well. The fact that Infocom, the red-headed stepchild a previous Activision CEO had never wanted, is directly responsible for Activision’s continuing existence today is one of the strangest aspects of both companies’ stories.



The reinvention of Activision engineered by Bobby Kotick in the early 1990s was actually the company’s third in less than a decade.

Activision 1.0 was founded in 1979 by four former Atari programmers known as the “Fantastic Four,” along with a former music-industry executive named Jim Levy. Their founding tenets were that Atari VCS owners deserved better games than the console’s parent was currently giving them, and that Atari VCS game programmers deserved more recognition and more money than were currently forthcoming from the same source. They parlayed that philosophy into one of the most remarkable success stories of the first great videogame boom; their game Pitfall! alone sold more than 4 million copies in 1982. It would, alas, be a long, long time before Activision would enjoy success like that again.

Following the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, Levy tried to remake Activision into a publisher of home-computer games with a certain high-concept, artsy air. But, while the ambitions of releases like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal still make them interesting case studies today, Activision 2.0 generated few outright hits. Six months after Levy had acquired Infocom, the preeminent maker of artsy computer games, in mid-1986, he was forced out by his board.

Levy’s replacement was a corporate lawyer named Bruce Davis. He nixed the artsy fare, doubled down on licensed titles, and tried to establish Activision 3.0 as a maker of mass-market general-purpose computer software as well as games. Eighteen months into his tenure, he changed the company’s name to Mediagenic to reflect this new identity. But the new products were, like the new name, mostly bland in a soulless corporate way that, in the opinion of many, reflected Davis’s own personality all too accurately. By decade’s end, Mediagenic was regarded as an important player within their industry at least as much for their distributional clout, a legacy of their early days of Atari VCS success, as for the games and software they published under their own imprint. A good chunk of the industry used Mediagenic’s network to distribute their wares as members of the company’s affiliated-labels program.

Then the loss of a major lawsuit, combined with a slow accretion of questionable decisions from Davis, led to a complete implosion in 1990. The piggy bank provided by Activision 1.0’s success had finally run dry, and most observers assumed that was that for Mediagenic — or Activision, or whatever they preferred to call themselves today.

But over the course of 1991, a fast-talking wiz kid named Bobby Kotick seized control of the mortally wounded mastodon and put it through the wringer of bankruptcy. What emerged by the end of that year was so transformed as to raise the philosophical question of whether it ought to be considered the same entity at all. The new company employed just 10 percent as many people as the old (25 rather than 250) and was headquartered in a different region entirely (Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley). It even had a new name — or, rather, an old one. Perhaps the smartest move Kotick ever made was to reclaim the company’s old appellation of “Activision,” still redolent for many of the nostalgia-rich first golden age of videogames, in lieu of the universally mocked corporatese of “Mediagenic.” Activision 4.0, the name reversion seemed to say, wouldn’t be afraid of their heritage in the way that versions 2.0 and 3.0 had been. Nor would they be shy about labeling themselves a maker of games, full stop; Mediagenic’s lines of “personal-productivity” software and the like were among the first things Kotick trashed.

Kotick was still considerably short of his thirtieth birthday when he took on the role of Activision’s supreme leader, but he felt like he’d been waiting for this opportunity forever. He’d spent much of the previous decade sniffing around at the margins of the industry, looking for a way to become a mover and shaker of note. (In 1987, for instance, at the tender age of 24, he’d made a serious attempt to scrape together a pool of investors to buy the computer company Commodore.) Now, at last, he had his chance to be a difference maker.

It was indeed a grand chance, but it was also an extremely tenuous one. He had been able to save Activision — save it for the time being, that is — only by mortgaging some 95 percent of it to its numerous creditors. These creditors-cum-investors were empowered to pull the plug at any time; Kotick himself maintained his position as CEO only by their grace. He needed product to stop the bleeding and add some black to the sea of red ink that was Activision’s books, thereby to show the creditors that their forbearance toward this tottering company with a snot-nosed greenhorn at the head hadn’t been a mistake. But where was said product to come from? Activision was starved for cash even as the typical game-development budget in the industry around them was increasing almost exponentially year over year. And it wasn’t as if third-party developers were lining up to work with them; they’d stiffed half the industry in the process of going through bankruptcy.

To get the product spigot flowing again, Kotick found a partner to join him in the executive suite. Peter Doctorow had spent the last six years or so with Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotten Activision). In the role of product-development guru, Doctorow had done much to create and maintain Accolade’s reputation as a maker of attractive and accessible games with natural commercial appeal. Activision, on the other hand, hadn’t enjoyed a comparable reputation since the heyday of the Atari VCS. Jumping ship from the successful Accolade to an Activision on life support would have struck most as a fool’s leap, but Kotick could be very persuasive. He managed to tempt Doctorow away with the title of president and the promise of an opportunity to build something entirely new from the ground up.

Of course, building materials for the new thing could and should still be scrounged from the ruins of Mediagenic whenever possible. After arriving at Activision, Doctorow thus made his first priority an inventory of what he already had to work with in the form of technology and intellectual property. On the whole, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Activision had never been particularly good at spawning the surefire franchises that gaming executives love. There were no Leisure Suit Larrys or Lord Britishes lurking in their archives — much less any Super Marios. Pitfall!, the most famous and successful title of all from the Atari VCS halcyon days, might be a candidate for revival, but its simple platforming charms were at odds with where computer gaming was and where it seemed to be going in the early 1990s; the talk in the industry was all about multimedia, live-action video, interactive movies, and story, story, story. Pitfall! would have been a more natural fit on the consoles, but Kotick and Doctorow weren’t sure they had the resources to compete as of yet in those hyper-competitive, expensive-to-enter walled gardens. Their first beachhead, they decided, ought to be on computers.

In that context, there were all those old Infocom games… was there some commercial potential there? Certainly Zork still had more name recognition than any property in the Activision stable other than Pitfall!.

Ironically, the question of a potential Infocom revival would have been moot if Bruce Davis had gotten his way. He had never wanted Infocom, having advised his predecessor Jim Levy strongly against acquiring them when he was still a mere paid consultant. When Infocom delivered a long string of poor-selling games over the course of 1987 and 1988, he felt vindicated, and justified in ordering their offices closed permanently in the spring of 1989.

Even after that seemingly final insult, Davis continued to make clear his lack of respect for Infocom. During the mad scramble for cash preceding the ultimate collapse of Mediagenic, he called several people in the industry, including Ken Williams at Sierra and Bob Bates at the newly founded Legend Entertainment, to see if they would be interested in buying the whole Infocom legacy outright — including games, copyrights, trademarks, source code, and the whole stack of development tools. He dropped his asking price as low as $25,000 without finding a taker; the multimedia-obsessed Williams had never had much interest in text adventures, and Bates was trying to get Legend off the ground and simply didn’t have the money to spare.

When a Mediagenic producer named Kelly Zmak learned what Davis was doing, he told him he was crazy. Zmak said that he believed there was still far more than $25,000 worth of value in the Infocom properties, in the form of nostalgia if nothing else. He believed there would be a market for a compilation of Infocom games, which were now available only as pricey out-of-print collectibles. Davis was skeptical — the appeal of Infocom’s games had always been lost on him — but told Zmak that, if he could put such a thing together for no more than $10,000, they might as well give it a try. Any port in a storm, as they say.

As it happened, Mediagenic’s downfall was complete before Zmak could get his proposed compilation into stores. But he was one of the few who got to keep his job with the resurrected company, and he made it clear to his new managers that he still believed there was real money to be made from the Infocom legacy. Kotick and Doctorow agreed to let him finish up his interrupted project.

And so one of the first products from the new Activision 4.0 became a collection of old games from the eras of Activision 3.0, 2.0, and even 1.0. It was known as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and first entered shops very early in 1992.

Activision’s stewardship of the legacy that had been bequeathed to them was about as respectful as one could hope for under the circumstances. The compilation included 20 of the 35 canonical Infocom games. The selection felt a little random; while most of the really big, iconic titles — like all of the Zork games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Enchanter trilogy, and Planetfall — were included, the 100,000-plus-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Wishbringer were oddly absent. The feelies that had been such an important part of the Infocom experience were reduced to badly photocopied facsimiles lumped together in a thick, cheaply printed black-and-white manual — if, that is, they made the package at all. The compilers’ choices of which feelies ought to be included were as hit-and-miss as their selection of games, and in at least one case — that of Ballyhoo — the loss of an essential feelie rendered a game unwinnable without recourse to outside resources. Hardcore Infocom fans had good reason to bemoan this ugly mockery of the original games’ lovingly crafted packaging. “Where is the soul?” asked one of them in print, speaking for them all.

But any real or perceived lack of soul didn’t stop people from buying the thing. In fact, people bought it in greater numbers than even Kelly Zmak had dared to predict. At least 100,000 copies of The Lost Treasures of Infocom were sold — numbers better than any individual Infocom game had managed since 1986 — at a typical street price of about $60. With a response like that, Activision wasted no time in releasing most of the remaining games as The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, to sales that were almost as good. Along with Legend Entertainment’s final few illustrated text adventures, Lost Treasures I and II mark the last gasps of interactive fiction as a force in mainstream commercial American computer gaming.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom — the only shovelware compilation ever to spark a full-on artistic movement.

Yet these two early examples of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of the shovelware compilation constitute a form of beginning as well as ending.  By collecting the vast majority of the Infocom legacy in one place, they cemented the idea of an established Infocom canon of Great Works, providing all those who would seek to make or play text adventures in the future with an easily accessible shared heritage from which to draw. For the Renaissance of amateur interactive fiction that would take firm hold by the mid-1990s, the Lost Treasures would become a sort of equivalent to what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare means to English literature. Had such heretofore obscure but groundbreaking Infocom releases as, say, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It and Plundered Hearts not been collected in this manner, it’s doubtful whether they ever could have become as influential as they would eventually prove. Certainly a considerable percentage of the figures who would go on to make the Interactive Fiction Renaissance a reality completed their Infocom collection or even discovered the company’s rich legacy for the first time thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

Brian Eno once famously said that, while only about 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, every one of them who did went out and started a band. A similar bit of hyperbole might be applied to the 100,000-and-change who bought Lost Treasures. These compilations did much to change perceptions of Infocom, from a mere interesting relic of an earlier era of gaming into something timeless and, well, canonical — a rich literary tradition that deserved to be maintained and further developed. It’s fair to ask whether the entire vibrant ecosystem of interactive fiction that remains with us today, in the form of such entities as the annual IF Comp and the Inform programming language, would ever have come to exist absent the Lost Treasures. Their importance to everything that would follow in interactive fiction is so pronounced that anecdotes involving them will doubtless continue to surface again and again as we observe the birth of a new community built around the love of text and parsers in future articles on this site.

For Activision, on the other hand, the Lost Treasures compilations made a much more immediate and practical difference. What with their development costs of close to zero and their no-frills packaging that hadn’t cost all that much more to put together, every copy sold was as close to pure profit as a game could possibly get. They made an immediate difference to Activision’s financial picture, giving them some desperately needed breathing room to think about next steps.

Observing the success of the compilations, Peter Doctorow was inclined to return to the Infocom well again. In fact, he had for some time now been eyeing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Infocom’s last genuine hit, with interest. In the time since it had sold 130,000 copies in 1986, similarly risqué adventure games had become a profitable niche market: Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, Legend’s Spellcasting series, and Accolade’s Les Manley series had all done more or less well. There ought to be a space, Doctorow reasoned, for a sequel to the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells. Hewing to this timeless maxim, he had made a point of holding the first Leather Goddesses out of the Lost Treasures compilations in favor of giving it its own re-release as a standalone $10 budget title — the only one of the old Infocom games to be accorded this honor.

Doctorow had a tool which he very much wanted to use in the service of a new adventure game. Whilst casting through the odds and ends of technology left over from the Mediagenic days, he had come upon something known as the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, the work of a small internal team of developers headed by one William Volk. MADE had been designed to facilitate immersive multimedia environments under MS-DOS that were much like the Apple Macintosh’s widely lauded HyperCard environment. In fact, Mediagenic had used it just before the wheels had come off to publish a colorized MS-DOS port of The Manhole, Rand and Robyn Miller’s unique HyperCard-based “fantasy exploration for children of all ages.” Volk and most of his people were among the survivors from the old times still around at the new Activision, and the combination of the MADE engine with Leather Goddesses struck Doctorow as a commercially potent one. He thus signed Steve Meretzky, designer of the original game, to write a sequel to this second most popular game he had ever worked on. (The most popular of all, of course, had been Hitchhiker’s, which was off limits thanks to the complications of licensing.)

But from the beginning, the project was beset by cognitive dissonance, alongside extreme pressure, born of Activision’s precarious finances, to just get the game done as quickly as possible. Activision’s management had decided that adventure games in the multimedia age ought to be capable of appealing to a far wider, less stereotypically eggheaded audience than the games of yore, and therefore issued firm instructions to Meretzky and the rest of the development team to include only the simplest of puzzles. Yet this prioritization of simplicity above all else rather belied the new game’s status as a sequel to an Infocom game which, in addition to its lurid content, had featured arguably the best set of interlocking puzzles Meretzky had ever come up with. The first Leather Goddesses had been a veritable master class in classic adventure-game design. The second would be… something else.

Which isn’t to say that the sequel didn’t incorporate some original ideas of its own; they were just orthogonal to those that had made the original so great. Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X really wanted to a be a CD-based title, but a critical mass of CD-ROM-equipped computers just wasn’t quite there yet at the time it was made. So, when it shipped in May of 1992 it filled 17 (!) floppy disks, using the space mostly for, as Activision’s advertisements proudly trumpeted in somewhat mangled diction, “more than an hour of amazing digital sound track!” Because a fair number of MS-DOS computer owners still didn’t have sound cards at this point, and because a fair proportion of those that did had older models of same that weren’t up to the task of delivering digitized audio as opposed to synthesized sounds and music, Activision also included a “LifeSize Sound Enhancer” in every box — a little gadget with a basic digital-to-analog circuit and a speaker inside it, which could be plugged into the printer port to make the game talk. This addition pushed the price up into the $60 range, making the game a tough sell for the bare few hours of content it offered — particularly if you already had a decent sound card and thus didn’t even need the hardware gadget you were being forced to pay for. Indeed, thanks to those 17 floppy disks, Leather Goddesses 2 would come perilously close to taking most gamers longer to install than it would to actually play.

That said, brevity was among the least of the game’s sins: Leather Goddesses 2 truly was a comprehensive creative disaster. The fact that this entire game was built from an overly literal interpretation of a tossed-off joke at the end of its predecessor says it all really. Meretzky’s designs had been getting lazier for years by the time this one arrived, but this game, his first to rely solely on a point-and-click interface, marked a new low for him. Not only were the brilliant puzzles that used to do at least as much as his humor to make his games special entirely absent, but so was all of the subversive edge to his writing. To be fair, Activision’s determination to make the game as accessible as possible — read, trivially easy — may have largely accounted for the former lack. Meretzky chafed at watching much of the puzzle design — if this game’s rudimentary interactivity can even be described using those words — get put together without him in Activision’s offices, a continent away from his Boston home. The careless writing, however, is harder to make excuses for.

In the tradition of the first Leather Goddesses, the sequel lets you choose to play as a man or a woman — or, this time, as an alien of indeterminate sex.

Still, this game is obviously designed for the proverbial male gaze. The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?

Earlier Meretzky games had known they were stupid, and that smart sense of self-awareness blinking through between the stupid had been their saving grace when they wandered into questionable, even borderline offensive territory. This one, on the other hand, was as introspective as one of the bimbos who lived within it. Was this really the same designer who just seven years before had so unabashedly aimed for Meaning in the most literary sense with A Mind Forever Voyaging? During his time at Infocom, Meretzky had been the Man of 1000 Ideas, who could rattle off densely packed pages full of games he wanted to make when given the least bit of encouragement. And yet by the end of 1992, he had made basically the same game four times in a row, with diminishing returns every time out. Just how far did he think he could ride scantily clad babes and broad innuendo? The shtick was wearing thin.

The women in many games of this ilk appear to be assembled from spare parts that don’t quite fit together properly.

Here, though, that would seem to literally be the case. These two girls have the exact same breasts.

In his perceptive review of Leather Goddesses 2 for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chris Lombardi pointed out how far Meretzky had fallen, how cheap and exploitative the game felt — and not even cheap and exploitative in a good way, for those who really were looking for titillation above all else.

The treatment of sex in LGOP2 seems so gratuitous, and adolescent, and (to use a friend’s favorite adjective for pop music) insipid. The game’s “explicit” visual content is all very tame (no more explicit than a beer commercial, really) and, for the most part, involves rather mediocre images of women in tight shirts, garters, or leather, most with impossibly protruding nipples. It’s the stuff of a Wally Cleaver daydream, which is appropriate to the game’s context, I suppose.

It appears quite innocuous at first, yet as I played along I began to sense an underlying attitude running through it all that can best be seen in the use of a whorehouse in the game. When one approaches this whorehouse, one is served a menu of a dozen or so names to choose from. Choosing a name takes players to a harlot’s room and affords them a “look at the goods.” Though loosely integrated into the storyline, it is all too apparent that it is merely an excuse for a slideshow of more rather average drawings of women.

You have to wonder what Activision was thinking. Do they imagine adults are turned on or, at minimum, entertained by this stuff? If they do, then I think they’ve misunderstood their market. And that must be the case, for the only other possibility is to suggest that their real target market is actually, and more insidiously, a younger, larger slice of the computer-game demographic pie.

On the whole, Lombardi was kinder to the game than I would have been, but his review nevertheless raised the ire of Peter Doctorow, who wrote in to the magazine with an ad hominem response: “It seems clear to me that you must be among those who long for the good old days, when films were black and white, comic books were a dime, and you could get an American-made gas guzzler with a distinct personality, meticulously designed taillights, and a grill reminiscent of a gargantuan grin. Sadly, the merry band that was Infocom can no longer be supported with text adventures.”

It seldom profits a creator to attempt to rebut a reviewer’s opinion, as Doctorow ought to have been experienced enough to know. His graceless accusation of Ludditism, which didn’t even address the real concerns Lombardi stated in his review, is perhaps actually a response to a vocal minority of the Infocom hardcore who were guaranteed to give Activision grief for any attempt to drag a beloved legacy into the multimedia age. Even more so, though, it was a sign of the extreme financial duress under which Activision still labored. Computer Gaming World was widely accepted as the American journal of record for the hobby in question, and their opinions could make or break a game’s commercial prospects. The lukewarm review doubtless contributed to Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2‘s failure to sell anywhere near as many copies as the Lost Treasures compilations — and at a time when Activision couldn’t afford to be releasing flops.

So, for more reasons than one, Leather Goddesses 2 would go down in history as an embarrassing blot on the CV of everyone involved. Sex, it seemed, didn’t always sell after all — not when it was done this poorly.

One might have thought that the failure of Leather Goddesses 2 would convince Activision not to attempt any further Infocom revivals. Yet once the smoke cleared even the defensive Doctorow could recognize that its execution had been, to say the least, lacking. And there still remained the counterexample of the Lost Treasures compilations, which were continuing to sell briskly. Activision thus decided to try again — this time with a far more concerted, better-funded effort that would exploit the most famous Infocom brand of all. Zork itself was about to make a splashy return to center stage.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1992, July 1992, and October 1992; Questbusters of February 1992 and August 1992; Compute! of November 1987; Amazing Computing of April 1992; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; .info of April 1992. Online sources include Roger J. Long’s review of the first Lost Treasures compilation. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk and Bob Bates for sharing their memories and impressions with me in personal interviews.)

 
 

Tags: , , ,