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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.)

 

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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.)

 
 

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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

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

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

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

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

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


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

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

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.

There is a satchel here.

In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

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

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

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

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

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

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

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>z
Time passes...

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

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

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

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

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

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

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

Dave searches Ed’s room.

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

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

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

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


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

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 
 

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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Moving to California

The work week of May 1, 1989, started off much like any other inside the beleaguered latter-day Infocom. In the cavernous 18,000 square feet of their office space at 125 CambridgePark Drive — its sheer size was an ever-present reminder of more optimistic times, when Infocom had thought themselves poised to become the next Lotus — the shrunken staff of just 26 souls puttered through another Monday, pausing now and again to chat about the weekend just passed. The old days when CambridgePark would buzz during off-hours with parties and socializing and passionate programmers and testers burning the midnight oil were now a memory of the past. Changing life circumstances — the majority of the remaining staff were now married, many with small children — had done as much as the generalized malaise now afflicting the place to put an end to all that. CambridgePark now felt much like any other office, albeit a peculiarly empty one, and one over which hung an almost palpable sense of impending doom. Still, when the axe finally fell it came as a shock. It always does.

A memo went out early that week asking everyone to attend a meeting on Thursday, May 4, “to discuss the next generation of internal products.” More ominously, the memo said that the 3:00 P.M. meeting would “go as late as necessary.” And evidently management expected that to mean quite late, for they would be “ordering out for dinner.”

The axe fell over the course of that long afternoon and evening. Infocom would be “moving” to California, where it was to be reconstituted and re-imagined as a more closely coupled subsidiary of Mediagenic,1 under a “general manager” named Rob Sears. Just 11 of the 26 current employees were offered positions at this new version of Infocom. Exactly whose name was and wasn’t on that list of job offers is neither necessary nor appropriate to discuss here. Suffice to say that those Mediagenic decided were desirable to retain often weren’t the pivotal creative voices you might expect, and that only 5 of the 11 accepted the offer anyway. Only one long-serving employee from Infocom’s glory days would end up making the move: Duncan Blanchard, a longstanding interpreter programmer and the last leader of the old Micro Group before it was assimilated into the Systems Group in 1987. For the other old-timers, it was all over. Another six weeks or so to finish a few final projects and tidy up the place, and that would be that.

Bob Bates, working on his licensed Abyss game from suburban Maryland, had planned to fly up to Cambridge for one of his regular design meetings on Monday, May 8. But Infocom’s new Mediagenic-installed head Joe Ybarra called him early in the week of May 1, saying he really needed him to come up this same week if at all possible. When Bates arrived on Friday, May 5, to a curiously subdued CambridgePark, he was ushered immediately into Ybarra’s office. Infocom was moving to California without most of its current employees, Ybarra informed him, and his Abyss project was being cancelled. Nor would Infocom be requiring Bates’s services again; his development contract was officially terminated as of today. When a shell-shocked Bates returned home on the red eye that same rainy night, he found that his roof was leaking buckets. It had turned into that sort of week for everyone.

Steve Meretzky had been scheduled to attend the Computer Game Developers’ Conference that very weekend in Sunnyvale, California. He was still allowed to fly out on Infocom’s dime, but replaced the company’s name on his badge with “Make Me an Offer!” It was at this event that word of the fate of Infocom, which everyone knew had long been troubled but which still remained one of the most respected names in computer games, was first spread within the industry.

News of Infocom’s fate first reached the world at large via an announcement in the May 22, 1989, issue of the Boston Globe Magazine. The understated headline has become oddly iconic among fans: “Computer-Games Firm Moving to California.” A “new consumer preference for games with graphics and sound,” went the workmanlike report, was responsible for Infocom’s travails, along with Nintendo and “the aging of Infocom’s traditional audience, composed of early computer users who spent evenings and weekends hunched over a terminal drawing maps in text-only games that took 20 to 50 hours to solve.”

When word reached the trade press, Mediagenic held tightly to the story that this was simply a move, not a shutdown. Rob Sears made the counter-intuitive claim that Mediagenic was doing what they were “not so much to close Infocom down as to ensure it survives.” “The Great Underground Empire, curiously enough, has not been shut down,” insisted Joe Ybarra. “What’s happened is we’re in the process of relocating it to the West Coast.” At the same time, though, Ybarra did have to quietly admit that none of the Imps who had built the Great Underground Empire would remain a part of it. He could only offer some unconvincingly vague suggestions that some of the former Imps might “do projects” at some point as outside contractors. Certainly anyone wedded to the idea of Infocom as a maker first and foremost of text adventures was given little reason for hope.

You’ll probably see a shift in direction that’s commensurate with which way the market is headed. If you look at all the successful products, they’re graphics- and sound-intensive. Products as a whole are pushing more toward role-playing than toward our classic adventure game. I think we’ll be building more hybrids that share elements of all these different genres. In particular, one of the areas I find most exciting is getting into more interactive graphics, the idea of doing things that are object-oriented… a cross between Manhole and the HyperCard environment and our traditional object-oriented ZIL environment.

(In case Ybarra’s comments don’t make it clear, know that “object-oriented” was one of the sexiest buzzwords of the period, to be applied to anything and everything possible.)

The personnel inside CambridgePark continued to perform their duties in desultory fashion during those final weeks following the meeting that informed them of their fate. There was still plenty to do; Infocom had still not delivered finalized versions of their four most recent works of graphical interactive fiction for MS-DOS, the most important platform in the industry. Yet there was, understandably, little enthusiasm for doing it. Employees spent a lot of time picking out free games from the collection around the office, bidding on the office furniture and computers, and indulging their black humor via vehicles like a lunchtime “slideshow history of Infocom” entitled “Cornerstone through Tombstone.” And then the last day came, and the lights inside CambridgePark were extinguished forever — or at least until the next corporate tenant arrived.

By the point of that final closure, a considerable amount of back-channel sniping by the people of the former Infocom had begun toward Mediagenic. Not coincidentally, Mediagenic’s own take on recent events also became less sanguine. Sources from Infocom claimed that Mediagenic had pulled the plug just as the money spigots were about to open, just before the all-important MS-DOS versions of their graphical interactive fictions finally hit the market; as it was, these versions would all be released by Mediagenic as un-promoted afterthoughts within weeks of the closure. Mediagenic, for whom Infocom’s slow progress on their MS-DOS interpreter had been a huge frustration and a significant factor in their decision to finally wash their hands of CambridgePark altogether, replied that “the consolidation might not have become necessary if the IBM SKUs could have been released initially.” Likewise, Joe Ybarra’s characterization of the fundamental failings of Infocom’s games grew more pointed: “We cannot continue, in the marketplace, living off products that take eight hours to play well and up to 200 hours to complete.”

The view of the decision of May 4, 1989, that prevails universally today, as representative of a definitive ending rather than a move or consolidation, was already taking hold. Mediagenic stopped giving even lip service to Infocom as an ongoing operation of its own in the spring of 1990, when Rob Sears left and the remaining handful of personnel who had worked under him were either let go or absorbed into the parent company. From now on, Infocom would be a mere label under which Mediagenic would release some of their more narrative-oriented games.

In the long run, the people who had made up the old Infocom would all be just fine. After all, they were one hell of an impressive group, with credentials and talents that made them eminently employable. For those stalwarts in positions of business or creative leadership, who had been forced to bear up under the ever more crushing burden of Infocom’s troubled finances since 1985, the final, sharply definitive ending to it all felt like something of a relief as soon as the shock and pain of the initial announcement had faded.

The majority of the old Infocom staff exited the games industry at the same time that they exited Infocom, never to return. The limited or nonexistent applicability of the skills of some of Infocom’s most essential employees to the games being made by other companies — like, for instance, those of editor, producer, and all-around unsung hero Jon Palace — says much about just how unique Infocom really was. For others, though, the decision to get out of games had more to do with their fatigue with such an eternally tormented and tormenting industry than it did with job opportunities or a lack thereof inside it. Put simply, there are easier ways to make a living than by making computer games, and masterful programmers like Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, and Stu Galley reckoned they were ready for more ordinary jobs. They and many others like them went on to live happy lives, building good, enjoyable careers that needn’t consume them. But there were also some gluttons for punishment who hadn’t yet burnt out on games. Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, Mike Dornbrook, and Bob Bates would all be stubborn and passionate enough to remain in the industry. We’ll thus be meeting at least some of them again in future articles.

Seen purely as a business proposition, Infocom had been a colossal, unadulterated failure. Whether as independent company or Mediagenic subsidiary, Infocom never enjoyed a single profitable year after 1983, and its final ledger shows it to be millions in the red over the course of its relatively brief lifetime. But very few of those who had worked there thought of Infocom as a failure in the aftermath of its death — not even those former employees whose jobs had entailed fretting about the endless cavalcade of quarterly and yearly losses.

For some former employees, including many who might have had little to no interest in the company’s actual products, Infocom remains forever in their memories just a really fun office to work in — indeed, the best they could ever imagine. Plenty of these people would be shocked to learn of the aura of awed respect and love that still surrounds the very name of Infocom in the minds of fans today; they never realized they were creating timeless games. Others, of course, including virtually everyone who played a major creative role in making the games, did realize, at least after the fact, that they had done something very special indeed. Some former employees accept the bad decisions and missed opportunities that so frustrate fans peaceably, as karma, fate, or just plain old learning experiences. Others, thankfully a minority, still curse the names of either or both Al Vezza and Bruce Davis, the two great villains of the story, and are intermittently tormented by thoughts of what might have been.

What might have been… it’s a fraught question, isn’t it? Yet it’s a question that we as humans, confronted with something as special and noble as Infocom that seems so self-evidently to have died too soon, can hardly resist asking. The historian in me knows to be very leery of setting off down that road. Still, just this once, coming as we are to the end of the most detailed story I’ve ever told on this blog, maybe we can indulge in a little bit of counter-factualizing.

It seems to me that the first and perhaps most important thing we need to do to come to grips with the might-have-beens that surround Infocom is to separate the company itself from the medium of the text adventure. Such a separation can be weirdly difficult to actually accomplish. Infocom didn’t create the text adventure, nor did the company’s end mark the medium’s end — far from it, as years of articles that are hopefully still to come right here on this site will underline — but the name of Infocom would always remain all but synonymous with the form. Jason Scott has told how, when he was making his Get Lamp documentary about the life and times of the text adventure, he was constantly asked by friends how his “Infocom movie” was coming. At a certain point, he just gave up on correcting them.

Given this close connection, it can be jarring to consider that few to none of the people working at Infocom, even among those who weren’t on Team Cornerstone, thought of their company as an exclusive maker of text adventures. The story of how Infocom first came to make text adventures almost accidentally — that of needing a product to bootstrap their operation, and pulling good old MIT Zork down off the shelf as the fastest way to make one — has of course been well-documented, here and in plenty of other places. But even after they had become identified as makers of the world’s most sophisticated text adventures, they were very reluctant to settle for that niche. A research project into cross-platform graphics was begun already in 1983, at the same time that they were running all those iconic “anti-graphics” advertisements; said advertisements were merely clever promotions, not the expression of an absolute corporate philosophy. In 1984, Mike Berlyn and Marc Blank poured considerable time and effort into another innovative research project that came to naught in the end, a multi-player MUD-like environment to be hosted by the online service CompuServe. The following year brought the multi-player computerized board game Fooblitzky, Infocom’s first graphical product and one of the oddest they ever released. In short, Infocom always had ambitions beyond the text adventure, but those ambitions were consistently crippled by the lack of money for game development that plagued the company beginning as early as 1983, when Cornerstone first began to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

The counter-factual scenario most likely to yield an Infocom that survives beyond the 1980s is, as fan wisdom has long attested, one in which they never start down the Cornerstone wormhole. Yet the same best-case scenario is also possessed of a trait that fans may be less eager to acknowledge: in it, the money not spent on Cornerstone isn’t spent on making ever more elaborate text adventures, but rather on embracing new genres, new paradigms of play. Infocom could quite likely have survived if they’d avoided Cornerstone and made smart business decisions, and the world of gaming would doubtless have been a better place for their tradition of literacy, thoughtfulness, and innovation. But unfortunately, those same smart business decisions would likely have to entail branching out from the text adventure early, and eventually moving on completely. Dave Lebling:

I think in terms of continuing to produce the kind of thing we had been producing — i.e., text adventures with lots of cool technology to make them more realistic, lots of plot value, etc. — we could have gone on forever. I’m less sure whether the market would have continued to buy those. We had big arguments about this even before the Mediagenic/Activision acquisition. If you’ve spent several thousand dollars for a computer with a color screen and a video card and you want to display lots of pretty pictures, are you going to settle for a text adventure?

In my opinion, that was sort of a minority taste, just like reading is somewhat of a minority taste. People would much rather look at pictures than read as a rule. There’s a subculture of people who love to read, who are passionate about reading, passionate about books, but it’s not the majority of the public. The same thing is true in computers. There are people who like pictures and action and so forth, and there are people who like reading. And again, they are a minority.

So, I don’t think Infocom could have continued to go on from strength to strength the way we seemed to have been doing initially; we would have plateaued out. I think we eventually would have had to branch out into other kinds of games ourselves. The advantage would have been that we would have decided what to do, rather than some other company.

For proof of Lebling’s assertions, we need only look to what happened in the broader computer-game industry of our own timeline during the mid- to late-1980s. In 1984, at the height of the bookware frenzy, at least a dozen publishers in the United States alone could lay claim to major initiatives in the realm of text adventures, a medium that, being in most people’s mind the ultimate anti-action game, seemed the perfect fit for post-Great Videogame Crash electronic entertainment. Every single one of those initiatives, excepting only the games Infocom released that year, disappointed to one degree or another. To imagine that a counter-factual Infocom — even one with the resources to improve their technology, to offer even bigger and better games than the ones we know, to include pictures and interface conveniences years before the Infocom of our own timeline — could have continued to buck the trend for very long seems a stretch. And indeed, many of Infocom’s financial travails, which began already in 1985 when a subtle but worrisome sales slowdown on the part of many of their games first became evident alongside the obvious disaster that was Cornerstone, had far more to do with the wider market for text adventures than it did with Cornerstone. Put another way: if their games business had continued to explode as it had in 1983 and 1984, Infocom could have weathered the storm of Cornerstone’s failure bruised but solvent. It was a perfect storm, a combination of their slackening games business and the fiasco that was Cornerstone, that cast them into Mediagenic’s arms in 1986.

So, to understand the reasons for Infocom’s collapse we need to ask why it was that the bookware boom, during which they were the shining example to be emulated by all those other publishers, so comprehensively failed to meet expectations. I think there are two reasons really, involving two D-words I tend to dwell on a lot around here: Demographics and Design.

Simply put, the games industry of the mid- to late-1980s wasn’t populated by enough readers to sustain a vibrant culture of commercial text adventures. The overwhelming computer-game demographic by 1985 was teenage boys, who have never been known as a terribly thoughtful group. The dominance enjoyed by text adventures during the earlier years of the decade owed much to the fact that computer gaming was a much more exclusive hobby during that period, practiced only by those with a restless bent of mind and the financial resources to invest thousands of dollars in an object as ultimately useless as an early microcomputer for the home. Mike Dornbrook and others involved with Infocom near the beginning have often mentioned their wonder at the sheer number of doctors and lawyers on their mailing lists. The demographics of gaming began to change with the arrival of the inexpensive Commodore 64 as a major market force in 1983. Within the next year or two, it remade the entire industry in its image — and most definitely not to the text adventure’s benefit.

At the same time that this demographic shift was underway, Infocom and the various bookware bandwagon jumpers were allowing themselves to become confused about the reasons for the text adventure’s ascendancy even among the relatively cerebral home-computer constituency of the early 1980s. Companies making text adventures in those early days can be divided into two groups: those like Sierra who were working in text because nothing else was practical at the time, and those like Infocom who saw the text adventure as a worthy new ludic and/or literary form unto itself. Sierra got away from text adventures just as soon as they could, and went on to become one of the biggest and most important game publishers of the 1990s. Infocom stuck with the form, and we know what happened to them. There is I think a lesson to be found therein. Infocom craved a sort of player who didn’t exist in the numbers they believed them to even in the early years, and who came to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the gaming public as time went by. By 1987, some of Infocom’s experiments were aimed at a computer-game customer who was all but nonexistent: like a fan of New Yorker-style verbal wit in the case of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It, or a romance-novel fan in the case of Plundered Hearts.

A tantalizing question must be whether a healthier Infocom could have created a market for such games among non-gaming, possibly non-computer-owning lovers of books and puzzles. Clearly their games did have appeal to some well outside of the typical computer-game demographic. Infocom during their halcyon days had enjoyed glowing write-ups in such places as the Boston Globe, the New York Times Review of Books, Discovery magazine, and even Rolling Stone. Still, the fact remained that their games threw up tremendous barriers to entry, beginning with the sheer cost of the equipment needed to run them and ending with the learning curve for interacting with them. While it’s tempting to imagine a world of interactive fiction existing entirely outside the rest of the games industry with its bash-and-crash take on existence — a world where literary sophisticates pick up a copy of the latest Infocom release from a kiosk in a trendy bookstore — it’s hard to imagine even a healthy Infocom creating such a milieu from scratch. It’s also doubtful, for that matter, whether most of their precious remaining base of customers really wanted to see them moving in that direction. The Infocom games that are most notable for their literary ambition, like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, were never among their biggest sellers. A substantial percentage of their customer base, as various Imps have wryly noted over the years, would have been quite happy if Infocom had churned out nothing but endless iterations on the original Zork. It was at least as much the Imps’ own creative restlessness as it was the need to serve the market that led them to dabble in so many different literary genres.

But what of those customers who were perfectly content with new iterations of Zork? Where did they disappear to as the years went by? After all, Infocom continued to indulge them with plenty of traditional games right up until the end, and plenty of other companies were equally willing to serve them. I think that it may be when we come to the Zorkian traditionalists that we especially have to consider that other D-word.

If you ask gaming old-timers about text adventures today, most will recall them as creaky, virtually unplayable things riddled with guess-the-verb issues and incomprehensible puzzles. And here’s the thing: such conventional wisdom really isn’t wrong. When I first began to write the history that this blog has become, I hoped I would be able to unearth a lot of hidden text-adventure gems from publishers other than Infocom to share with you. I did find some games that fit that description, but I also found that even the good games from other publishers stand as deviations from the norm of terrible design, sometimes fostered by an unusually dedicated development team, sometimes by the stars just seeming to align in the right way. It seems impossible to imagine that the bad design that was so endemic to the medium throughout the 1980s didn’t play a major role in turning many players away permanently. Infocom’s games were vastly better than those of their competitors, a fact which played a huge role in fostering the company’s small but legendarily loyal group of hardcore fans. Yet even Infocom’s games were hardly guaranteed to be completely free of design issues. Indeed, as Infocom’s personnel pool shrank and the pressure from Mediagenic to release more games more quickly increased, design issues that they once seemed to have put behind them began to creep back into their games to a rather disconcerting degree. With almost all of the trade-magazine reviewers uninterested in really delving into issues of design, playability, and solubility, players had no real way of knowing which games they could trust and which they couldn’t. The graphic adventures that came to supersede text featured lots of terrible design choices in their own right, but they at least had the virtue of novelty, and that of serving as showcases for the graphics and sound of the latest home computers. (In the longer run, there’s a strong argument to be made that the graphic adventure would wind up shooting itself in the head via poor design by the end of the 1990s exactly as the text adventure had ten years before.)

But rather than unspooling further counter-factual speculations on how it all could have turned out differently, maybe we should ask ourselves another important question that’s less frequently discussed: that of whether an Infocom that survived and continued making text adventures of one sort or another would really have been the best thing for the still burgeoning art of interactive fiction. It’s hard not to remark the sense of creative exhaustion that imbues Infocom’s last gasp, their final four attempts at “graphical interactive fiction.” Much of that is doubtless down to the strain of their ever-worsening relationship with Bruce Davis and Mediagenic, and the long run of commercial disappointments that had prompted that strain. But is that all that was going on? Both Dave Lebling and Marc Blank have spoken of a sense of not really knowing what to do next with interactive fiction after having innovated so relentlessly for so long. Lebling:

I think the space of what can be done in text adventures has been well-explored by a variety of very creative people (by no means all of whom worked at Infocom). It would take, I fear, a qualitative leap in the development language or environment to expand that space. We never got very good at doing conversation, for example. There’s a long way to go before realistic conversations exist in games. We were okay but not spectacular at giving people more than one way to solve a problem. You need a more advanced input method to solve that one. People are just not that interested in typing to the game to simulate physical actions. A virtual-reality suit would solve that but they’re a long way off.

No one has yet solved the primary problem of adventure games, which is, what happens when the player doesn’t do what you expected? Once progress is made on that one, it might be fun to write an adventure game again.

And Blank:

To me, the problem was where it could go, whether we had reached some kind of practical limit in terms of writing a story that way. People used to always ask whether you could have a more powerful parser. Could you have a parser that understood different kinds of sentences? Questions, statements to other characters like “I’m hungry.” Better interaction than the very stilted kind of thing we did in the mysteries, or in Suspended where you could only say things like “go to this room” — where you’re basically just adding the name of a character and a comma at the beginning of a sentence, but everything else is the same.

The problem is that the more things you want to handle the more cases you have to handle, and it becomes very open-ended. You end up much more with the guess-the-word problem. If all of a sudden you can ask any question, but there are really only three questions that are important to the story, you’re either going to spend all this time coming up with answers that don’t mean anything or you’re going to have a lot of “I don’t know that,” which is frustrating. I always suspected it was a dead end. The nice thing about the command-oriented game is that you can come up with a pretty complete vocabulary and a pretty complete set of responses. As soon as it becomes more open-ended — if I can say, “I’m hungry” or “I like blue rubber balls” — how do you respond to that? It’s like Eliza. You get an answer, but it has nothing to do with what you asked, and at some point you realize it’s a fraud, that there’s no information there. What happens is that the worlds get bigger as you open up the vocabulary, but they get sparser. There’s less real information; it’s mostly noise just there to convince you of the world. I think that’s when it gets boring.

I worried about this a lot because people would always ask about the next step, the next thing we could do. It really wasn’t clear to me. Okay, you can make the writing better, and you can make puzzles that are more interesting. But as far as pushing toward a real interactive story — in a real story, you don’t just give everyone commands, right? — that was an issue. We worked on some of those issues for quite a while before we realized that we just weren’t getting anywhere. It was hard to know where to go with it, what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, a world you can wander around in but not much happens? I always kind of hit a wall trying to move forward there.

So we said, okay, there are new [literary] genres. So then we had Amy doing Plundered Hearts, Jeff doing Nord and Bert, etc. We don’t know what the next step is technically, so instead we’re going to just kind of mess with the format. So we’ll do a satire and a pulp romance and a horror story. But there was a real issue of creative burnout. You’ve done all these things. Do you just keep doing them? Where does it go? Where does it lead? By the time Infocom closed down, I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t obvious. I got the sense that some of the games were just an excuse to try something else: “I don’t know what to do, let’s try this.”

To some extent, Lebling and especially Blank fall victim here to their need, being technologists at heart, to always measure the progress of the medium of the text adventure in technological terms. No one declares the novel to be a dead form because the technology of printed text hasn’t advanced in hundreds of years. As many of my earlier articles attest, I see immense value in many of the literary experiments of Infocom’s later years that Blank is a bit too eager to dismiss.

I see evidence in Lebling and Blank’s comments of two creatively exhausted people rather than a creatively exhausted medium. I suspect that the group of people who made up Infocom, brilliant as they were, had taken the art of interactive fiction just about as far as they were personally able to by 1989. The innovations that would follow — and, contrary to both men’s statements above, they most definitely do exist — would largely come out of a very different culture, one free of the commercial pressures that had begun more and more to hamstring Infocom by the end. A work that is to be sold for $30 or more as a boxed computer game has to meet certain requirements, certain player expectations, that often worked at cross-purposes to the medium’s artistic evolution. Must a game require many hours to play? Must a game have puzzles? Can a game feel like a personal testament? Is an interactive-fiction game necessarily a game at all? To paraphrase that famous old Electronic Arts advertisement, can a work of interactive fiction make you cry? These were questions that Infocom — especially but not exclusively an Infocom under Mediagenic, laser-focused as the latter was on delivering conventional hit games — wasn’t in any position to further explore. The medium’s creative future would have to be left to the amateurs.

If we begin to see Infocom as, rather than a beautiful thing that was strangled far too soon, a beautiful thing that simply ran its course, we might just begin to upend the narrative of tragedy that surrounds the legendary company to this day. Among many fans of text adventures today, there’s still a marked tendency to look back on the heyday of Infocom and the commercial text adventure in general as the pivotal era in the medium’s history, a lost golden age that ended far too soon. That’s understandable on one level. This brief era marks the only period in history when it was realistically conceivable to make a living authoring text adventures, a career that plenty of hardcore fans would rate as their absolute first choice in careers out of all of them. We’ve thus seen the tragic version of the medium’s history repeated again and again for far longer than the alleged golden age actually lasted. Ironically, we tend to see it especially in those summations of interactive fiction and its history that try to reach beyond the insular community of present-day enthusiasts to serve as introductions for the uninitiated. Such articles almost always begin with Infocom, proceed to dwell at length on those glory days gone by, then mention the modern community — “but wait, interactive fiction isn’t dead!” — in a way that inevitably smacks of a lingering population of diehards. It seems rather a shabby way to frame the history of a living literary form, doesn’t it? Perhaps we can learn to do better.

In his 2007 PhD thesis on interactive fiction, Jeremy Douglass proposed recasting the commercial era as “an important anomaly, a brief big-business deviation from the otherwise constant association of the IF genre with individual authors each networked into a kind of literary salon culture.” This was what interactive fiction largely was before Infocom, and what it became again after them. Seeing the medium’s history in this way doesn’t mean minimizing the accomplishments of Infocom, whose 35-game canon deserves always to be regarded as the text adventure’s version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the wellspring and constant source of inspiration for everything that followed. It does, however, mean recognizing that, in terms of great games that delight and amuse and tantalize and sometimes move their players, the text adventure was really just getting started even as Infocom died. Because this blog has long since begun to reach readers from well outside the interactive-fiction community from which it first sprang, I’m going to guess that some of you may have little experience with what came after Infocom. It’s for those readers among you especially that I plan to cover what came next with the same care I lavished on Infocom’s history. So, never fear. I plan to spend a lot more time praising the humble text adventure in the time to come, and I’m far from ready to bury it alongside Infocom.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Periodical sources include Computer Gaming World of September 1989; The Boston Globe Magazine of May 22 1989; Questbusters of July 1989; The Games Machine of October 1989, December 1989, and July 1990. See also Adventure Classic Gaming’s interview with Dave Lebling and Jeremy Douglass’s PhD thesis. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 

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