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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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Shogun

Shogun

One of the generation of male writers forged in the crucible of World War II, James Clavell had a much harder war of it than such peers as Norman Mailer, James Jones, Herman Wouk, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger, and James Michener. As a young man of barely twenty years, he found himself facing the Japanese onslaught on the Malay Peninsula at the onset of hostilities in the Pacific Theater. Following the most humiliating British defeat of the entire war, he spent the next three and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps, watching as more than nine out of every ten of his fellow soldiers succumbed to malnutrition, disease, and random acts of violence. Somehow he survived it all and made it home.

In 1953, he emigrated from his native England to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a film director, despite knowing only as much about how movies were made as his actress wife had deigned to tell him. He never actually became a director, but he did gradually establish himself by dint of pluck and sheer stubbornness as a screenwriter. Clavell claimed he learned how to write stories with mass appeal in Hollywood, developing a style that would preclude more than the merest flirtations with the sort of literary respectability enjoyed by the list of names that opened this article. To hear him tell it, that was just fine with him: “The first time you write a novel you go into ecstasy with the purple prose — how the clouds look, what the sunset is like. All bullshit. What happens? Who does what to whom? That’s all you need.”

If one James Clavell novel was going to please serious students of the literary arts, it would have to be his first, a very personal book in comparison to the epic doorstops for which he would later become known. Holding true to the old adage that everyone’s first novel is autobiographical, King Rat was a novelized account of Clavell’s grim experience as a prisoner-of-war. Published in 1962, its success, combined with his difficulty finding sufficient screenwriting gigs, led him to gradually shift his focus from screenplays to novels. The next book he published, Tai-Pan (1966), was a much longer, more impersonal, wider-angle historical novel of the early years of Hong Kong. Four similar doorstops would follow at widely spaced intervals over the next thirty years or so, all chronicling the experiences of Westerners in the Asia of various historical epochs.

James Clavell’s fiction was in many ways no more thoughtful than the majority of the books clogging up the airport bestseller racks then and now. His were novels of adventure, excitement, and titillation, not introspection. Yet there is one aspect of his work that still stands out as surprising, even a little noble. Despite the three and a half years of torture and privation he had endured at the hands of his Japanese captors, he was genuinely fascinated by Asian and especially Japanese culture and history; one might even say he came to love it. And nowhere was that love more evident than in Clavell’s third novel, his most popular of all and the one that most of his fans agree stands as his best: 1975’s Shogun.

The star of Shogun is a typical Clavell hero, a Capable Man whose inner life doesn’t seem to run much deeper than loving queen and country and hating Papists. John Blackthorne is the English pilot — i.e., navigator — of the Erasmus, the first Dutch vessel to discover Japan, circa 1600. Unfortunately, the Spanish and Portuguese are already there when the Erasmus arrives, a situation from which will spring much of the drama of this very lengthy tale of 1100-plus pages. Blackthorne becomes Clavell’s reader surrogate, our window into the strangeness, wonder, mystery, and beauty of feudal Japan.

While Blackthorne’s adventures in Japan are (very) roughly based on those of an actual English adventurer named William Adams, Clavell plays up the violence and the sex for all its worth. Many a youthful reader went to bed at night dreaming fever dreams of inscrutable and lovely geishas and the boxes of toys they kept to hand: “The beads are carefully placed in the back passage and then, at the moment of the Clouds and the Rain, the beads are pulled out slowly, one by one.” (Did finding that sort of thing enticing mean you were — my God! — gay?) Read by adults, such passages… er, extracts are still riotously entertaining in the way that only truly committed Bad Writing can be. My wife Dorte and I used Shogun as our bedtime reading recently. While it didn’t do much to encourage conjugal sexy times, it certainly did make us laugh; Dorte still thinks “pillowing,” Shogun‘s favorite Japanese euphemism for sex, is unaccountably hilarious, and is forever going on about pillowing this and pillowing that. (She also loves the notion of a “poop deck,” but I suppose I can’t blame Clavell for that.)

Unsubtle prose and dodgy euphemisms aside, the first 25 to 30 percent of Shogun is by far the most compelling. Long enough to form a novel of reasonable length in their own right, the early chapters detail the arrival of Blackthorne and his Dutch cohorts in Japan, upon whose shores they literally wash up, starving and demoralized after their long voyage across the Pacific. I’ve occasionally heard the beginning of Shogun described as one of the finest stories of first contact between two alien cultures ever written, worthy of careful study by any science-fiction author who proposes to tell of a meeting between even more far-flung cultures than those of Europe and Japan. To that suggestion I can only heartily concur. As Blackthorne and his cohorts pass from honored guests to condemned prisoners and back again, struggling all the while to figure out what these people want from them, what they want from each other, and how to communicate at all, the story is compulsively readable, the tension at times nearly unbearable. (One suspects that some of the most horrific scenes, like the ones after Blackthorne and the crew are cast into a tiny hole and left to languish there in sweltering heat and their own bodily filth, once again draw from Clavell’s own prisoner-of-war experiences.) While I admit to being far from intimately familiar with the whole of the James Clavell oeuvre, I’d be very surprised if he ever wrote anything better than this.

After Blackthorne, stalwart Capable Man that he is, manages to negotiate a reprieve for the crew and a place for himself as a trusted advisor to a powerful daimyo named Toranaga, the book takes on a different, to my mind less satisfying character. It ceases to focus so much on Blackthorne’s personal plight as a stranger in a strange land in favor of a struggle for control of the entire country, once again based loosely on actual history, that looms between Toranaga, very broadly speaking the good guy (or at least the one with whom our hero Blackthorne allies himself), and another daimyo named Ishido. At the same time, the Portuguese Jesuits are trying to stake out a place in the middle that will preserve their influence regardless of who wins, whilst also working righteously to find some way to do away with Blackthorne and the Dutch sailors, who if allowed to return to Europe with information on exactly where Japan lies represent an existential threat to everything they’ve built there. Plot piles on counter-plot on conspiracy on counter-conspiracy, interspersed with regular action-movie set-pieces, as all of the various factions maneuver toward the inevitable civil war that will decide the fate of all Japan for decades or centuries to come.

In the meantime, Blackthorne, apparently deciding his life isn’t already dangerous enough, is carrying on an illicit romance with the beautiful Mariko, wife of one of Toranaga’s most highly placed samurai. Their relationship was much discussed in Shogun‘s first bloom of popularity as being the key to the book’s considerable attraction for female readers; very unusually for such a two-fisted tale of war, adventure, and history, Shogun supposedly enjoyed more female readers than male. True to Clavell’s roots, however, Blackthorne and Mariko’s is a depressingly conventional Hollywood romance. We’re expected to believe that these two characters are wildly, passionately in love with one another simply because Clavell tells us they are, according to the Hollywood logic that two attractive people of the opposite sex thrown into proximity with one another must automatically fall in love — and of course lots of sex must follow.

The plot continues to grow ever more byzantine as the remaining page-count continues to dwindle, and one goes from wondering how Clavell is possibly going to wrap all this up to checking Amazon to be sure there isn’t a direct sequel. And then it all just… stops, leaving more loose threads dangling than my most raggedy tee-shirt. I’ve read many books with unsatisfying endings, but I’ve never read an ending quite as half-assed as this one. It’s all finally come down to the war that’s been looming throughout the previous 1100-plus pages. We’re all ready for the bloody climax. Instead Clavell gives us a three-page summary of what might have happened next if he’d actually bothered to write it. It’s for all the world like Clavell, who admitted that he wrote his novels with no plan whatsoever, simply got tired of this one, decided 1100 pages was more than enough and just stopped in medias res. Shogun manages the feat, perhaps unique in the annals of anticlimax, of feeling massively bloated and half-finished at the same time. This is a Lord of the Rings that ends just as Frodo and Sam arrive in Mordor; a Tale of Two Cities that ends just as Carton is about to make his final sacrifice. I’ve never felt so duped by a book as this one.

But I must admit that I seem to be the exception here. Whether because of the masterfully taut beginning of the story, the torrid love affair, or the lurid portrayal of Japanese culture that pokes always through the tangled edifice of plot, few readers then or now seem to share my reservations. Shogun became an instant bestseller. In 1980, a television miniseries of the book was aired in five parts, filling more than nine hours sans commercials. It became the most-watched show ever aired on NBC and the second most popular in the history of American television, its numbers exceeded only by those of Roots, another miniseries event which had aired on ABC in 1977. When many people think of Blackthorne today, they still picture Richard Chamberlain, the dashing actor who played him on television. Together the book and the miniseries ignited a craze for Japanese culture in the West that, however distorted or exaggerated Shogun‘s portrayal of same may have been, did serve as a useful counterbalance to lingering resentments over World War II and, increasingly, fears that Japan’s exploding technological and industrial base was about to usurp the United States’s place at the head of the world’s economy.

At this point, at last, Shogun‘s huge popularity on page and screen brings us in our roundabout way to Infocom — or, more accurately, to their corporate masters Mediagenic.1 (If the preface to the real point of this article seemed crazily extended, I can only plead that, with Shogun the game having little identity of its own apart from the novel on which it’s based, it’s hard to discuss it through any other framework.)

Shogun the game at least looks pretty good.

Shogun the game at least looks pretty good.

Mediagenic’s absolute mania for licensed games following the accession of Bruce Davis to the CEO’s chair has been well-established in other articles by now. Infocom was able to find some excuse to head off most of the ideas in that vein that Mediagenic proposed, but Shogun was an exception. When Mediagenic came to Infocom with a signed deal already in place in late 1987 to base a game on this literary property — from Bruce Davis’s perspective, the idea was right in Infocom’s wheelhouse — their problem child of a subsidiary just wasn’t in any position to say no. Dave Lebling, having recently finished The Lurking Horror and being without an active project, drew the short straw.

Shogun the game was a misbegotten, unloved project from the start, a project for which absolutely no one in the Infocom, Mediagenic, or Clavell camps had the slightest creative passion. The deal had been done entirely by Clavell’s agent; the author seemed barely aware of the project’s existence, and seemed to care about it still less. It was a weird choice even in the terms of dollars and cents upon which Bruce Davis was always so fixated. Yes, Shogun had been massively popular on page and screen years earlier, and still generated strong catalog sales every year. It was hard to imagine, however, that there was a huge crowd of computer gamers dying to relive the adventures of John Blackthorne interactively. Why this of all licenses? Why now?

Shogun

Dave Lebling was duly dispatched to visit Clavell for a few days at his chalet in the Swiss Alps to discuss ideas for the adaptation; he got barely more than a few words of greeting out of the man. His written requests for guidance were answered with the blunt reply that Clavell had written the book more than a decade ago and didn’t remember that much about it; the subtext was that he couldn’t be bothered with any of it, that to him Lebling’s game represented just another check arranged by his agent. Lebling was left entirely on his own to adapt another author’s work, with no idea of where the boundaries to his own creative empowerment might lie. In the past, Infocom had always taken care to avoid just this sort of collaboration-in-name-only. Now they’d had it imposed upon them.

Lebling chose to structure his version of Shogun as a series of Reader’s Digest “scenes from” the novel, cutting and pasting unwieldy chunks of Clavell’s prose into the game and demanding that the player respond by doing exactly what Blackthorne did in the novel in order to advance to the next canned scene. The player who has read the novel will find little interest or challenge in pantomiming her way through a re-creation of same, while the player who hasn’t will have no idea whatsoever what’s expected of her at any given juncture. It’s peculiar to see such a threadbare design from a company as serious about the craft of interactive fiction as Infocom had always been. Everyone there, not least Lebling himself, understood all too well the problems inherent in this approach to adaptation; these very same problems were the main reason Infocom had so steadfastly avoided literary licenses that didn’t come with their authors attached in earlier years. One can only presume that Lebling, unsure of how far his creative license extended and bored to death with the whole project anyway, either couldn’t come up with anything better or just couldn’t be bothered to try.

Shogun includes one graphical puzzle reminescent of those in Zork Zero, a maze representing the tangled allies of Osaka.

Shogun includes one graphical puzzle reminiscent of those in Zork Zero, a maze representing the tangled alleys of Osaka.

Consider the game’s handling of an early scene from the novel: the first time Blackthorne meets Yabu and Omi, respectively the daimyo and his samurai henchman who have dominion over Anjiro, the small fishing village where the Erasmus has washed up. Also present as translator is a Portuguese priest, Blackthorne’s sworn enemy, who would like nothing better than to see him condemned and executed on the spot. In the book, Blackthorne’s observations of the priest’s interactions with the two samurai convince him that there is no love lost between him and them, that Yabu and Omi hate and mistrust the priest almost as much as Blackthorne does. Blackthorne wants to communicate that he shares their sentiment, but of course all of his words are being translated into Japanese by the priest himself — obviously a highly unreliable means of communication in this situation. Desperate to show his captors that he’s different from this other foreigner, he lunges at the priest, grabs his crucifix, and breaks it in two, a deadly sin for a Catholic but a good day’s work for a Protestant like him. Yabu and especially Omi are left curious and more than a little impressed; Blackthorne’s action quite possibly staves off his imminent execution.

In the book, this all hangs together well enough, based on what we know and what we soon learn of the personalities, histories, and cultures involved. But for the game to expect the player to come up with such a seemingly random action as lunging for the crucifix and breaking it is asking an awful lot of anyone unfamiliar with the novel. It’s not impossible to imagine the uninitiated player eventually coming up with it on her own, especially as Lebling is good enough to drop some subtle hints about the crucifix “on its long chain waving mockingly before your face,” but she’ll likely do so only by dying and restoring many times.

Shogun is the only Infocom game outside of Leather Goddesses of Phobos in which you have to "make love to" someone -- or use another euphemism -- in order to score points.

Shogun is the only Infocom game outside of Leather Goddesses of Phobos in which you have to “make love to” someone — or type another euphemism, if you like — in order to score points. (Unfortunately, you can’t use “pillow” as a verb. This Dorte finds deeply disappointing.) It’s also, needless to say, the only one with nudity. Too bad Blackthorne is covering up his legendary manly member, whose size is a constant point of discussion in the book.

And this is far from the worst of Lebling’s “read James Clavell’s mind” moments. In their announcement of the game in their newsletter, Infocom noted that “the key to success in the interactive Shogun is the ability to act as the British pilot-major Blackthorne would.” For the player who hasn’t read the book and thus doesn’t know Blackthorne, this is quite a confusing proposition. For the player who has, the game falls into a rote pattern. Remember (or look up) what Blackthorne did in the book, figure out how and when to phrase it to the parser, and you get some points and get to live a little longer. Do anything else, and you die or get a message saying “this scene is no longer winnable” and get to try again. In between, you do a lot of waiting and examining, and lots of reading of textual cut scenes — called “interludes” by the game — that grow steadily lengthier as the story progresses and Blackthorne’s part in it becomes more and more ancillary.

In a telling indication of how the times had changed for Infocom, by far the most impressive aspect of Shogun is its visual presentation. Promoted, like the earlier Zork Zero, as “graphical interactive fiction,” it and the simultaneously released Journey are the first Infocom games to unabashedly indulge in pictures for their own sake, abandoning Steve Mereztky’s insistence that his game’s graphics always serve a practical gameplay function. Shogun‘s pictures, drawn in the style of classical Japanese woodcuts by Donald Langosy, are lovely to look at and perfectly suit the atmosphere of the novel. The game’s one truly innovative aspect is the same pictures’ presentation onscreen. Rather than being displayed in a static window, they’re scattered around and within the scrolling text in various positions, giving the game the look of an unfurling illustrated scroll. Infocom had had their share of trouble figuring out the graphics thing, but Shogun demonstrates that, clever bunch that they were, they were learning quickly. Already Infocom’s visual palette was far more sophisticated than that of competitors like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 who had been doing text adventures with pictures for years. Pity they wouldn’t have much more time to experiment.

"The socks stay on, Mariko!"

“The socks stay on, Mariko!”2

But of course, as Infocom’s vintage advertisements loved to tell us, visuals alone do not a great game make. Shogun stands today as the most unloved and unlovable of all Infocom’s games, a soulless exercise in pure commerce that didn’t make a whole lot of sense even on that basis. Released in March of 1989, its sales were, like those of all of this final run of graphical games, minuscule. In my opinion and, I would venture, that of a substantial number of others, it represents the absolute nadir of Infocom’s 35-game catalog. It is, needless to say, the merest footnote to the bestselling catalog of James Clavell, who died in 1994. And, indeed, it’s little more worthy of discussion in the context of Infocom’s history; the words I’ve devoted to it already are far more than it deserves. I have two more Infocom games to discuss in future articles, each with problems of their own, but we can take consolation in one thing: it will never, ever get as bad as this again. This, my friends, is what the bottom of the barrel looks like.

(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. And the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)


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

  2. Al and Peg 

 

Tags: , ,

MIT and GUE (or, The Annotated Lurking Horror)

MIT

We have a fair number of games and events still to cover in the ongoing history of Infocom that’s been biting such a good-sized chunk out of this blog for so long, but the end is slowly heaving into sight. The same was also true, albeit in a less certain and more intuitive way, for those actually at Infocom at the time of The Lurking Horror‘s release. The winds of the industry were quite clearly blowing against them, and even if they could manage to eke out another hit or two it wasn’t at all clear how they could remake themselves to conform to the new order in the longer term. Meanwhile some of the Imps were beginning to wonder what the point of surviving as a developer of interactive fiction might be anyway. They knew how to make rock-solid text adventures in their traditional style, but they didn’t quite know how to advance beyond that. Given that they were unlikely to ever make a better game in that traditional style than Trinity, and that their players had proved unreceptive to their one attempt to radically upend the formula with A Mind Forever Voyaging, that was a problem. Infocom wasn’t populated by the sort of people who are comfortable just reworking the status quo year after year.

All of these feelings must have fed into David Lebling’s decision to set his game for 1987 at a lovingly recreated MIT, known as GUE Tech in the game. With commercial pressures threatening to crush an Infocom that had long since lost control of their own destiny and artistic ennui threatening to crush the Imps’ souls as well, it was nice to think back to the simpler days at MIT where it had all begun as just another hacking exercise, where that original mainframe Zork had represented for Lebling and his earliest co-Implementors something so inspiring and genuinely new under the sun. By way of honoring those feelings, I thought we could also take one last lingering look back along with Lebling today. I’d like to take you on a guided tour through The Lurking Horror‘s MIT… oops, GUE. If you haven’t played this one before, or if it’s been a while, feel free to play along with me. I won’t solve the puzzles for you — although a little nudge here and there may be in the cards — but I will tell you a bit more about what you’re seeing. For what follows I’m hugely indebted to Janice Eisen (MIT Class of 1985), a Patreon supporter who not only pays me for each of these articles but all but did my job for me when it came to this one by sharing her own experiences of life at MIT as it was then and presumably still is today. So, come along with Janice and me and let us tell you a little about the place where Infocom began.

Whether you’re playing along or not, the map found in the center of the GUE Tech brochure that accompanies The Lurking Horror is well worth referring to now and throughout this tour. It roughly corresponds to the heart of the real campus, albeit with some important differences that I’ll be explaining when we come to them. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you may also want to pull up MIT’s official campus map for comparison purposes. To orient yourself, know that the Great Dome is found on Building 10 on that map.

G.U.E. map

We start our adventurous evening one dark and snowy winter night in GUE Tech’s so-called “Computer Center,” which corresponds to MIT’s Building 13 (an ominous start, no?).

Terminal Room
This is a large room crammed with computer terminals, small computers, and printers. An exit leads south. Banners, posters, and signs festoon the walls. Most of the tables are covered with waste paper, old pizza boxes, and empty Coke cans. There are usually a lot of people here, but tonight it's almost deserted.

A really whiz-bang pc is right inside the door.

Nearby is one of those ugly molded plastic chairs.

Sitting at a terminal is a hacker whom you recognize.

Know first of all that this is not the place where so many future Infocom staffers worked throughout the 1970s, and created Zork near the end of that decade. That work took place on the leased top floor of the nine-story Building 47. Standing some distance to the north of the campus core, Building 47 is described by Steven Levy in his seminal Hackers as “a building of mind-numbing dullness, with no protuberances and sill-less windows that looked painted onto its off-white surface.” It still looks about the same today, and houses MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies among other tenants. Building 13, meanwhile, is not and never has been earmarked as a computer center; it houses the Material Sciences and Engineering Center among others.

That said, the description of the place, unholy mess included, is very typical of the computer labs that were and are scattered all over the campus. The hacker who inhabits it alongside us is certainly worth a look.

>examine hacker
The hacker sits comfortably on an office chair facing a terminal table, or perhaps it's just a pile of old listings as tall as a terminal table. He is typing madly, using just two fingers, but achieves speeds that typists using all ten fingers only dream of. He is apparently debugging a large assembly language program, as the screen of his terminal looks like a spray of completely random characters. The hacker is dressed in blue jeans, an old work shirt, and what might once have been running shoes. Hanging from his belt is an enormous ring of keys. He is in need of a bath.

It’s instructive to compare this depiction of a prototypical hacker — i.e., practically Richard Stallman in the flesh — with Michael Bywater’s “horrible nerd” from Bureaucracy. Lebling, while certainly not blind to his character’s annoying eccentricities, also shows a knowing familiarity that borders on affection. Bywater… doesn’t. Particularly knowing on Lebling’s part is the hacker’s typing ability, or if you like the lack thereof. Hackers have always looked on proper ten-fingered typing as a sure sign that the person in question is not one of them.

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

I trust I’m not giving too much away if I mention that that “enormous ring of keys” will become a critical part of the game. Strange as it may sound, keys, the more exotic the better, are in fact a status symbol at MIT. Keys imply knowledge of and access to the labyrinthine tunnels and cubbyholes that riddle the campus. “Roof-and-tunnel hacking,” something we ourselves will be indulging in on this snowy night, has always been a popular pastime at MIT, tolerated if not officially condoned by the administration and campus police — tolerated not least thanks to the fact that, contrary to The Lurking Horror‘s GUE Tech brochure, no known deaths can be attributed to the practice. Janice told me the the story of joining a “very unofficial student-run tour of the roofs and tunnels” as a freshman. After making their way down a creepy old steam tunnel, they popped out through a grating in a sidewalk right in front of a campus policeman. “You’re not supposed to be in there! Go back the way you came!” he ordered, leaving them no choice but to scurry back down the tunnel. One can imagine a self-satisfied character like our hacker here leading just such a tour, flaunting his knowledge and his enormous ring of keys before the newbies.

The word “hack” itself originated at MIT, where it originally implied both campus explorations of the sort just described and the sort of clever and usually elaborate practical jokes in which MIT students, once again with the tacit acceptance of the campus police and administration, have always indulged. In time anything done in an original, clever, and/or cheeky way came to be called a “hack.” By the 1960s it was being applied to computing at MIT, to the burgeoning culture of unrepentant oddballs who spent their lives trying to make these strange new machines run better, faster, and smarter. As former MIT hackers got jobs in private business and accepted postings at other universities, the usage became universal.

But we do have an assignment to write, so let’s see what we’re up against.

>examine assignment
Laser printed on creamy bond paper, the assignment is due tomorrow. It's from your freshman course in "The Classics in the Modern Idiom," better known as "21.014." It reads, in part: "Twenty pages on modern analogues of Xenophon's 'Anabasis.'" You're not sure whether this refers to the movie "The Warriors" or "Alien," but this is the last assignment you need to complete in this course this term. You wonder, yet again, why a technical school requires you to endure this sort of stuff.

Many an MIT student over the years has doubtless wondered the same thing. Like all accredited American universities, MIT conforms to the “balanced person” ideal of education, which demands that each student take a smattering of humanities and other subjects outside her major during her first year or two at university. Derided as the requirement often is, I tend to feel we could use more balanced people in the world today. The collision between technology and the humanities at MIT in particular has yielded some fascinating results, such as Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck and Nick Montfort’s work in many areas of computational creativity.

Buildings at MIT are, with only a few exceptions, referred to only by their numbers, and the same holds true for courses; thus the “better known” in the passage above is literally accurate. The prefix of “21” does indeed correspond to the Department of Humanities at MIT.

Let’s turn to that “really whiz-bang pc” and see if we can get to work.

>examine pc
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.

It’s a bit odd that The Lurking Horror refers to this machine as a PC at all; it’s obviously a workstation-class machine, generally considered a different species entirely from the more humble PC during the 1980s. Not only is this computer far beyond what would have been available to Lebling during his time at MIT, it’s also far beyond what the average student even in 1987 could hope to have at her disposal. It appears to represent a 3M workstation, a term first coined by Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Reddy in the early 1980s. More of an aspiration than a practicality at that time, a 3M machine demanded at least 1 MB of memory, a display consisting of at least 1 million pixels, and a CPU capable of processing at least 1 million instructions per second. While a few such machines were available by 1987 and others were in the offing — after leaving Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs founded NeXT with this very specification in mind — very few were likely to be at the disposal of ordinary students looking to write Classics papers. Back in Lebling’s day, almost all of the work at the Laboratory for Computer Science was being done on text-only terminals — no mouse, no hard disk, no color, and for that matter no pixels that didn’t form textual characters — attached to a central DEC PDP-10. Indeed, this was largely the way that an increasingly anachronistic Infocom was still working in 1987. Nowadays, of course, a Raspberry Pi blows right past most of the 3M specification and just keeps on going for orders of magnitude afterward.

Let’s log in, shall we?

>turn on pc
The computer powers up, goes through a remarkably fast self-check, and greets you, requesting "LOGIN PLEASE:". The only sound you hear is a very low hum.

>login [you'll have to figure this out for yourself]
The computer responds "PASSWORD PLEASE:"

>type [this too]
The computer responds "Good evening. You're here awfully late." It displays a list of pending tasks, one of which is in blinking red letters, with large arrows pointing to it. The task reads "Classics Paper," some particularly ominous words next to it say "DUE TOMORROW!" and more reassuringly, a menu box next to that reads "Edit Classics Paper."

>click menu box
The menu box is replaced by the YAK text editor and menu boxes listing the titles of your files. The one for your paper is highlighted in a rather urgent-looking shade of red.

The “YAK” text editor is an obvious reference to Richard Stallman’s GNU project, an attempt to create a completely free and open-source operating system that he began at MIT in 1983. One of the tools Stallman brought to the GNU project at its founding was his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink text editor Emacs, a great favorite with hackers to this day. After years of uncertain progress, the utilities developed by Stallman and others for GNU were merged with Linus Torvalds’s new Unix-like kernel in the early 1990s to create the operating system known as “Linux” today — or “GNU/Linux,” as Stallman would undoubtedly correct me. The first two letters in the name of The Lurking Horror‘s YAK editor were and are very common in hacker acronyms, standing for “Yet Another.” As for yet another what in this instance… your guess is as good as mine.

Stallman was at MIT throughout the 1970s, but he worked for the other half of MIT computer research’s split personality, the AI Laboratory rather than the Laboratory for Computer Science. (The names were of little relevance, with the latter often conducting AI research and the former often wandering far afield from it.) His path doesn’t seem to have crossed those of the future Infocom crowd with any great frequency, especially given that the Laboratory for Computer Science always had the reputation of being the more pragmatic and commercially oriented of the two groups. He would have held Infocom in contempt for attempting to market their innovations. Never one to hold back his opinions, Stallman liberally bestowed epithets like “fascist” on those who defied his “free as in freedom” hacker ethics by, say, trying to install a reasonably secure password system onto the campus computer systems.

I’ll leave it to you to read the paper, which turns out to be something very different than expected, and to talk with the hacker about it; be sure to appreciate the “explosion in a teletype factory” line, one of the best Lebling ever wrote. Afterward let’s have a look in the kitchen.

Kitchen
This is a filthy kitchen. The exit is to the east. On the wall near a counter are a refrigerator and a microwave.

Sitting on the kitchen counter is a package of Funny Bones.

>open refrigerator
Opening the refrigerator reveals a two liter bottle of Classic Coke and a cardboard carton.


>x carton
This is a cardboard carton with an incomprehensible symbol scrawled on the top.

>open carton
Opening the cardboard carton reveals Chinese food.

A joke among MIT hackers had it that the four basic food groups were caffeine, sugar, salt, and grease. What with caffeine and sugar getting pride of place even on that list, the infamous switch to the New Coke formula in 1985 hit them particularly hard. When the Coca-Cola Company bowed to popular demand and reintroduced the old formula as “Coke Classic” just a few months later, many hackers latched onto the theory, since disproved, that it was all a big conspiracy to switch out real sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in their favorite drink.

The connection between hacking and Chinese food is just as longstanding. A Chinese menu is a system of flavor combinations that’s infinitely intriguing to a certain kind of mind, and thus MIT hackers have been haunting Boston Chinatown since the late 1950s. Many bought Chinese-English dictionaries in order to translate the Chinese menus that were normally only given to Chinese patrons; these were always much more interesting than the safe choices reserved for English speakers. Yes, sometimes the results of the hackers’ culinary experiments could be vile, but other times they could be magnificent. In a sense it didn’t really matter. It was all just so interesting, yet another fascinating system to hack.

A favorite of the future Infocom staffers, as it was of many MIT hackers, was a place called The House of Roy, presided over by the inimitable Roy himself, whose sense of humor was surprisingly in sync with that of his favorite non-Chinese patrons. I love this anecdote from a regular customer:

We asked for tea and Roy (we think this was the family name) told Suford she would be allowed to go into the kitchen and make it for us. When she returned she informed us that the kitchen was ruled over by a large tom cat. (“Did you pet him?” “No, he was on duty.”) When we queried the owner his response was that the cat kept down vermin and was safer than chemicals. We asked about the Health Inspector and were told “cat cleaner than Health Inspector.”

Roy had only recently died at the time that The Lurking Horror was written, his beloved restaurant closed. Lebling pays tribute to this lost and lamented MIT institution by including it as the only nonfictional “Favorite Hangout” in his GUE Tech brochure.

If we put the Chinese food in the microwave for far too long — don’t try this at home without saving first! — we get an interesting description when we look at it again.

>x chinese food
This is a carton of radioactive Szechuan shrimp. Lovely red peppers poke out of the sauce.

The association of microwaves with nuclear bombs, and particularly the now ubiquitous slang to “nuke” one’s food, would appear to be another MITism that has entered the larger culture. Janice remembers hearing the slang during her time there as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, yet online etymologies claim its first documented use dates from 1987, the very year of The Lurking Horror.

At this point I’ll leave you to do something for the hacker and get something from him in return. Once you’ve taken care of that, let’s head for the elevator to begin to explore the rest of the campus.

>s
Elevator
This is a battered, rather dirty elevator. The fake wood walls are scratched and marred with graffiti. The elevator doors are open. To the right of the doors is an area with floor buttons (B and 1 through 3), an open button, a close button, a stop switch, and an alarm button. Below these is an access panel which is closed.

>x graffiti
"'God is dead' --Nietzsche
'Nietzsche is dead' --God"

The elevator doors slide closed.

>g
"Tech is hell."

>g
"I.H.T.F.P."

The nickname of simply “Tech” in reference to MIT is like many traditions there in that it goes back one hell of a long way. Between its founding in Boston in 1861 and its move across the Charles River to Cambridge in 1916, MIT was more commonly referred to as “Boston Tech” than by its official name. In student parlance part of the nickname stuck around even after the move.

“I.H.T.F.P” is another phrase with which all too many students are casually familiar. Sometimes described as the university’s unofficial motto, it stands for “I hate this fucking place.” Much as so many come to cherish their time at the university, the graffiti highlights a fact that can often get lost amid descriptions of all of the assorted traditions and tomfoolery (often one and the same) that go on at MIT: the fact that it is indeed, as Infocom’s GUE Tech brochure says, “a high-pressure school.” In fact, it’s the most demanding STEM university in the world. For decades there have been dark jokes among the student population about suicide, along with suspicions that the actual suicide rate is not being accurately reported. How’s that for a spot of horror?

Let’s take the elevator down a floor — be sure to check out that access panel first! — and then head out to the street.

>n
You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Smith Street
Smith Street runs east and west along the north side of the main campus area. At the moment, it is an arctic wasteland of howling wind and drifting snow. On the other side of the street, barely visible, are the lidless eyes of streetlights. The street hasn't been plowed, or if it has been, it did no good.

Massachusetts winters can be every bit as brutal as the one described here; they’re as much a fixture of life at MIT as any other tradition. As for the streets themselves: MIT’s Vassar Street is slyly replaced here by Smith Street, Smith being another of the “Seven Sisters” of prestigious, historically female liberal-arts colleges. Just down Smith Street to the east is an innocuous-looking “temporary building” with one hell of a story to tell.

>s
You push your way into the comparative warmth of a laboratory.

It is pitch black.

>turn on flashlight
The flashlight clicks on.


Temporary Lab
This is a laboratory of some sort. It takes up most of the building on this level, all the interior walls having been knocked down. (One reason these temporary buildings are still here is their flexibility: no one cares if they get more or less destroyed.) A stairway leads down, and a door leads north.

There is a metal flask here.

>get flask
Taken.


>d
Temporary Basement
During the Second World War, some temporary buildings were built to house war-related research. Naturally, these buildings, though flimsy and ugly, are still around. This is the basement of one of them. The basement extends west, a stairway leads up, and a large passage is to the east.

This rattletrap of a structure corresponds to the real MIT’s now long-gone Building 20, one of the most storied places on the campus. It was built quickly and cheaply in 1943 to house vital wartime research into radar. The expectation was that it would be destroyed as soon as the war was over. But, with postwar attendance booming thanks to the G.I. Bill and research space at a premium, no one quite got around to it for more than fifty years. Building 20 was a famously ramshackle place, showing ample evidence of its cheap and rushed construction. Walls were made of exposed plywood; ceilings were hidden above a tangle of pipes and wiring; floors were treacherously uneven; the roof leaked; windows never really fit right, and had a disconcerting habit of falling off entirely; the whole structure creaked alarmingly in the winds that blew right through its interior. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter, and coated with a litigator’s wet dream worth of asbestos and lead-based paint. Yet the people who worked inside it loved the place, dubbing it their “plywood palace.”

Building 20

Building 20 would be of great historical importance were it only for the World War II research that went on there. Research into radar was funded almost as lavishly as the Manhattan Project, and was even more important for actually winning the war; “Radar won the war, and the atom bomb ended it,” goes the old saying. Much of that war-winning effort was centered right here.

But that was only the beginning. In later years countless other groups moved in and out of Building 20, doing important research into physics (an early atomic accelerator was built here, as was the world’s first atomic clock); linguistics (Noam Chomsky worked here for many years); neurology (Jerome Lettvin’s pioneering experiments on the relationship between the eyes and brains of frogs took place here); acoustics (Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation, worked here). Researchers loved Building 20 precisely because it was such a dump. They could feel free to drill holes in walls for cables — or knock them down entirely for that matter — and do plenty of other things that would require reams of paperwork and several safety reviews and months of bureaucratic wrangling to do anywhere else.

Most fascinating of all for our purposes, Building 20 is also Ground Zero for hacker culture. During the late 1950s it was the home of the Tech Model Railroad Club, about half of which consisted of typical train enthusiasts and half of which were there for the intrinsic interest of the plumbing, so to speak: all those wires and switches and diodes found underneath the big tables that supported the track layout. Much of the vocabulary they developed remains with us to the present day: a bad design was “losing”; a broken piece was “munged” (“mashed until no good”); unnecessary extra pieces were “cruft”; and, yes, a “hack” was a particularly clever technical feat, and “hacking” was… you get the idea. This diction and, even more importantly, the way of thinking behind it was transferred into a new field when a former TMRC member and current MIT professor invited some members to have a go at a new toy: a home-built something called the TX-0, one of the first transistorized computers and one of the first designed to be programmed and operated interactively rather than functioning as essentially a huge static calculating and collating machine. Several of the men who had helped design it went on to form Digital Equipment Corporation, donating the very first complete prototype computer they ever made, of their debut PDP-1 model, to MIT for more TMRC alumni to swarm over. Thus cemented, the links among DEC, MIT, and hacker culture persisted through the heyday of the original PDP-10 Zork and on into the 1980s. Infocom’s own aging PDP-10, on which The Lurking Horror itself was written, was just one more testament to the durability of those links.

Building 20 was demolished at last in 1999 to make room for the Stata Center, a massive slab of postmodern architecture, sort of a 21st-century Sagrada Família, that was opened in 2004. In the tradition of its predecessor, the Stata Center has been plagued by leaks, plumbing problems, and structural failures since its opening. Perhaps a ghost or two lives on?

The Lurking Horror departs from reality in giving its version of Building 20 a basement and an underground connection to the central buildings of the campus. In the game’s defense, visitors to Building 20 often remarked that the ground floor was so dank and dark that it felt like a basement. For reasons that have been lost to history, MIT chose to label that ground floor, normally Floor 1 in the university’s nomenclature, as Floor 0, as if it was indeed a basement. Just after the building was demolished in 1999, a student hack stuck an elevator in the midst of the rubble leading to a “previously hidden” subbasement stretching five stories below ground-level, presumably home of some top-secret and quite possibly nefarious government research. Aliens, anyone? These days the joke is that Building 20 is actually still standing, but hidden behind an invisibility field — perhaps a gift of those same aliens?

At some point you’ll meet an urchin skulking about down here in the basement.

>x urchin
This is an urchin. He's a youngish teenager wearing a ski hat, running shoes, and a bulky, suspiciously bumpy, threadbare parka. He's jumpy, and looks suspiciously at you.

I’m going to spoil things just to the extent of telling you that what he’s carrying beneath his parka is a pair of bolt cutters. It appears that this fellow is a bicycle thief, a consistent plague on the MIT campus since time immemorial. Kids like this one who hang about, usually for shady purposes, are indeed known as “urchins” in student parlance. When their crimes get particularly blatant, “urchin alerts” are sent out to the affected areas to warn students and faculty to keep a close eye on their valuables.

At this point you’ll likely want to do something about those old pallets off to the east and then do a bit of exploring in that direction. When you’re ready, let’s go all the way west and down the stairs to the subbasement, and then squeeze northwest through the crack.

Tomb
This is a tiny, narrow, ill-fitting room. It appears to have been a left over space from the joining of two preexisting buildings. It is roughly coffin shaped. The walls are covered by decades of overlaid graffiti, but there is one which is painted in huge fluorescent letters that were apparently impossible for later artists to completely deface. On the floor is a rusty access hatch locked with a huge padlock.

>read graffiti
It reads "The Tomb of the Unknown Tool."

The Tomb of the Unknown Tool is a real place at MIT, and another semi-legendary one at that. Legend has it that long ago there was an MIT student who was trying to study — to “tool” in student parlance; similarly, the noun “tool” is a dismissive term for a good, conventionally diligent student — but couldn’t because of all the loud parties in his dorm. So he found a little cubbyhole far underground, filled with heating and air-conditioning pipes and ducts, and made it his home, eating there, sleeping there, and most of all tooling there in peace. The unknown tool himself was long gone even by the time Lebling first arrived at MIT in the late 1960s, but his legend lives on. Always an early destination of aspiring roof-and-tunnel hackers, the real Tomb is situated in roughly the same location as the one that’s found in the game. And its walls are indeed covered with graffiti left behind by the many who have visited.

Tomb of the Unknown Tool

The Lurking Horror is actually not the first game in which Lebling referred to the Tomb of the Unknown Tool. The original PDP-10 Zork includes a “Tomb of the Unknown Implementors,” with graffiti of its own that says to “Feel Free!”

In that spirit, feel free to go through the hatch here and explore even deeper. When you’re ready, let’s go southeast from the Tomb, up twice, south to the Infinite Corridor (which we’ll come back to in just a moment), and finally west into the great outdoors again.

Mass. Ave.
This is the main entrance to the campus buildings. Blinding snow obscures the stately Grecian columns and rounded dome to the east. You can barely make out the inscription on the pediment (which reads "George Vnderwood Edwards, Fovnder; P. David Lebling, Architect"). West across Massachusetts Avenue are other buildings, but you can't see them.

The Rogers Building

We’re now standing at the front door to MIT. The address of the imposing building that stands here, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, is the official address of the institution as a whole. Erected in 1939, the Rogers Building (Building 7) gets its name from that of MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers. It also bears his name on its pediment, although no “Architect” is credited.

Massachusetts Avenue is the only MIT street name that remains unaltered in the game. That it shows up in abbreviated form as the location name is not accidental; it’s universally pronounced “Mass. Ave” by students.

But it’s cold out here, no? Let’s go back inside.

Infinite Corridor
The so-called infinite corridor runs from east to west in the main campus building. This is the west end. Side corridors lead north and south, and a set of doors leads west into the howling blizzard.

There is a plastic container here.

There is a largish machine being operated down the hall to the east.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor is another source of much MIT lore. It’s the longest university corridor in the world, stretching east from the Rogers Building under the Great Dome and across the pre-World War II heart of the campus to Building 8 — a distance of 825 feet. One of the most celebrated events at MIT is the so-called “MIThenge,” when twice per year the sun shines just perfectly into the corridor to illuminate it down its entire length. If all that wasn’t enough to ensure the Infinite Corridor’s notoriety, many fondly remembered hacks have also taken place here. A popular theme for decades had been to deck out the Corridor like a highway of one sort or another, often complete with lane markings, road signs, and billboards.

>get container
Taken.

>x container
It's a plain plastic container with something written on it. The plastic container is closed.

>read container
"Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping)"

The joke above isn’t quite original, and for once it’s not an MIT-specific in-joke. It harks back to a classic skit from the very first season of Saturday Night Live, in which Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase bond over Shimmer, a floor wax and dessert topping. One can imagine Lebling laughing at this around the same time he was working on Maze War at MIT, the world’s first networked multiplayer first-person shooter which he helped create almost two decades before Doom.

Moving down the Infinite Corridor to the east, we come upon a maintenance man.

A maintenance man is here, riding a floor waxer.

The maintenance man’s presence is a very subtle shade of in-joke. MIT’s housekeeping and custodial staff tended to do their work in the middle of the night, when the campus was largely deserted. Hackers like Lebling and company, however, tended to keep exactly same sorts of odd hours, another tradition that stretched all the way back to the days of the TX-0; “legitimate” users always kept that machine booked during the day, leaving it available only during the nighttime for the likes of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Hackers were often the only students that the janitors and housekeepers ever actually encountered, and some surprising and kind of sweet friendships formed thanks to the forced proximity between these very different walks of life.

This particular maintenance man, however, definitely doesn’t want to be our friend. I recommend that you deal with him now, if you can. If you’ve been dutifully gathering up the stuff you come across, you should have everything you need. I’m going to go south from the center of the Infinite Corridor, but you don’t want to follow me to where I go next unless you save first because the door will lock behind us, and for once our master key won’t open it (a rather pointless bit of cruelty on the whole, although to his credit Lebling does warn us).

Great Court
In the spring and summer, this cheery green court is a haven from classwork. Right now, the majestic buildings of the main campus are almost invisible in the howling blizzard. A locked door bars your way to the north.

We’re standing now at the center of the original 1916 Cambridge campus, designed by architect William Welles Bosworth. This court was also known as the Great Court at the real MIT until 1974, when it was renamed Killian Court after former MIT president James Rhyne Killian. Despite the rechristening, the old name stuck around for a long time, especially among folks like Lebling who were here before the change. MIT architecture in general is noted for its complete disharmony, a riot of mismatched buildings that seems to include at least one example of every American architectural school of the last century along with plenty of bland beige buildings with no discernible style at all. This original part of the campus, however, is coolly neoclassical, the lushly manicured central court bordered by trees, the buildings on either side forming arms that seem to bid the world to enter, much like St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s here, the only really bucolic place on campus, that commencement ceremonies are held every year.

Killian Court

Back inside — and assuming you’ve dealt with the janitor — let’s go up, up, up, all the way to the very tiptop of the Great Dome. You’ll need to solve a puzzle or two to manage it, but I’m sure you’re up to it.

You scramble up icy surface of the dome, almost slipping a few times, but finally you make it to the top.

On the Great Dome
This is the very top of the Great Dome, a favorite place for Tech fraternities to install cows, Volkswagen Beetles, giant birthday candles, and other bizarre objects. The top is flat, round, and about five feet in diameter. It's very windy, which has kept the snow from accumulating here. The only way off is down.

In the exact center of the flat area is a bronze plug.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Despite interlopers like the Stata Center, the Great Dome, referred to affectionately by students as “the center of the universe,” still stands as the most enduring architectural image of MIT. As the game has made evident, just getting up here at all is a major feat of roof-and-tunnel hacking. For the even more ambitious, it’s also the ultimate location for an MIT hack (in the practical-joking sense, that is). Over the years a police cruiser, an Apollo Lunar Module, a Doctor Who phone box, a self-propelled solar-powered subway car, and a living cow have all appeared up here. The Great Dome has been coated with tin foil and has been turned into R2-D2, Tolkien’s One Ring, a giant cupcake, and a Halloween pumpkin, while the lights that illuminate it at night seem to change color constantly to celebrate one occasion or another. One of the earliest and most legendary of the Great Dome hacks occurred in 1959, when a complete working Volkswagen was torn down, carted up to the Dome, and reassembled there in the course of one long night.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

After you’ve investigated thoroughly up here, let’s get back to ground level and go east to the end of the Infinite Corridor. Going north, we pass through the Nutrition Department.

>n
Fruits and Nuts
This is the central corridor of the Nutrition Building. The main building is south, and a stairway leads down.

The MIT Nutrition Department is indeed referred to with a certain contempt as “Fruits and Nuts” by hackers. (Think back to those four basic food groups…)

Going down the stairs here and then southeast takes us to the basement of the Brown Building. Let’s go up to the lobby and outside again.

Brown Building
This is the lobby of the Brown Building, an eighteen-story skyscraper which houses the Meteorology Department and other outposts of the Earth Sciences. The elevator is out of order, but a long stairway leads up to the roof, and another leads down to the basement. A revolving door leads out into the night.

>exit
You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.


Small Courtyard
This courtyard is a triumph of modern architecture. It is spare, cold, angular, overwhelming in size, and bears a striking resemblance to a wind tunnel whenever the breeze picks up. Right now this is true of the whole campus, though. A huge mass lurks nearby, and an almost featureless skyscraper is to the north.

>x mass
You see nothing special about it.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Green Building

GUE’s Brown Building stands in for the real MIT’s Green Building, which is even taller, a full 21 stories and almost 300 feet. Built in 1964, it’s yet another architectural outlier in this campus full of outliers, not only the only structure of its kind at MIT but also the only one in Cambridge; no other building there comes close to its height. As such a blatant violation of MIT and Cambridge’s normal philosophy of “horizontal continuity,” its construction was greeted with considerable controversy, not to mention outrageous rumors about the methods used to circumvent Cambridge’s normal building laws. The first tenants found that its height and proximity to the rest of the campus created a sort of artificial wind tunnel, the breeze coming off the Charles River getting so amplified that on blustery days it was impossible to even open the doors. Luckily, there were also connecting tunnels (like the one we just came through) leading to other buildings, preventing a change in the weather from trapping people inside. The original doors were eventually replaced with revolving doors. These largely alleviated one problem, but, as the description from the game relates, the courtyard remains a remarkably unpleasant place, particularly in winter.

Not really one of MIT’s more beloved buildings for all of these reasons, the Green Building’s height and general prominence on campus have nevertheless made it a target for hacks to rival the popularity of the Great Dome. For almost as long as the Green Building has existed, it’s been a Halloween tradition to throw dozens or hundreds of pumpkins down from its roof. In 1974, a professor and some of his students launched a concerted effort to operate the world’s largest yo-yo from the roof of the building, but for once this ambitious hack never quite worked out. Since the advent of cheap LED lighting, the Green Building has taken on a new role as a massive billboard telling the world what MIT students are thinking about at any given time. In 2012, students made the national news by turning it into the world’s biggest game of Tetris, inviting passersby to have a go for all of Cambridge to see. (No pressure!)

The Big Sail

The undefined “huge mass” that Lebling describes is a sly dig at another polarizing structure that sits before the Green Building, Alexander Calder’s monumental slab of modernist sculpture The Big Sail. When it was erected just a year after the Green Building itself, conventional wisdom had it that its primary purpose was to alleviate the wind-tunnel effect. But campus officials insisted that, no, this… whatever it is… exists only for aesthetic purposes. Oh, well… what better spot for a Big Sail than a wind tunnel? It does look a bit like one of Lovecraft’s horrid winged creatures might, at least if you squint just right, so I suppose it makes a good fit for the game.

The Green Building really does house, among other departments, many of MIT’s Meteorology and Earth Science facilities. In that respect its controversial height has been a blessing: the roof supports much meteorological and radio equipment used in various experiments. Let’s head inside and up there now.

Top Floor
This is the top of the stairway. A door leads out to the roof here, and you can hear the wind blowing beyond. There is a sign on the door.

>read sign
It says "NO ADMITTANCE!" In smaller, hand-written letters below, it says "This means you!" and below that in different handwriting, it says "Who, me?"

>unlock door with key
The door is now unlocked.

>open door
You push the door open, revealing a windswept, snow-covered roof. Frigid wind whips snow into your face.

When Dave Lebling was at MIT, he used to make his way out to the roof of the Green Building through a fire door that was much like this one. Its sign read, “Positively No Admittance, Opening Door Sounds Alarm.” The first student to trepidatiously push it open found that it did no such thing, and thus was yet another interesting space opened for exploration.

Let’s head onward, shall we?

>exit
You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.


Skyscraper Roof
A low parapet surrounds a small roof here. The air conditioning cooling tower and the small protrusion containing the stairs are dwarfed by a semitransparent dome which towers above you. The blowing snow obscures all detail of the city across the river to the south.

>x dome
The dome is large and semitransparent. It's made of some sort of milky-colored plastic. It dominates the roof. You can climb up to the entrance via a short ladder.


Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

>u
You push your way into the welcoming warmth inside.

Inside Dome
You are inside a large domed area. The dome contains equipment that makes it clear it is a weather observation station. For some reason, it also contains a small peach tree. Wind whistles outside, and snow blasts against the semitransparent material of the dome.


Something smashes against the glass of the dome! You turn and see a dark shape clinging to the outside of the structure.

As you can see from the picture of the real Green Building, its roof supports a large dome much like this one, full of meteorological equipment, albeit one that is opaque rather than transparent. Lebling insists, however, that there was once another dome that was semi-transparent like this one. Further, he insists that there really was a tree inside said dome, although he’s not sure that it was actually a peach tree. No one he asked seemed to have any idea who put it there or what its purpose was. Mysteries like this aren’t particularly unusual at MIT. Incomprehensible equipment from one esoteric research project or another positively litters the campus, often stashed in the very out-of-the-way corners that make roof-and-tunnel hacking so enticing.

Given that, why not a burgeoning temple to an eldritch god as well? Let’s head for the last stop on our tour, The Department of Alchemy — as soon as you’ve investigated the dome thoroughly and dealt with that inconvenient monster, that is. Afterward, you want to go back down to the basement, up into Building 8, and south from the eastern end of the Infinite Corridor.

Chemistry Building
This corridor is lined with closed, dark offices. At the south end of the corridor is a door with a light shining behind it. There is something written on the door.

>read door
Painted on the door, in calligraphy indistinguishable from any other door at Tech, is the phrase "Department of Alchemy." You always used to wonder what was behind that door.

Department of Alchemy door

As was the case with the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, you may be surprised to learn that the Department of Alchemy is a real place at MIT — or, at any rate, that this Department of Alchemy door is real. Like in the game, it’s inside the Department of Chemistry, an example of a hack dating back many decades that was just too good to ever unhack. And, again like in the game, the real door conceals a laboratory. But the people inside do not attempt to summon blasphemous creations from the Beyond, at least as far as anyone knows.

Inside the door you’ll find a tricky — and very dangerous! — sequence awaiting you. You definitely want to save before this one, as you’re probably about to get sacrificed a few times before you get it all sorted. When you do (get it all sorted, that is), you’ll have a class ring at your disposal.

>x hyrax
The G.U.E. Tech class ring is a gold ring depicting a hyrax eating a twig. Such rings are familiarly known as "brass hyraxes."

MIT class ring

The actual MIT class ring shows, for some reason, an alleged beaver eating a twig. But it looks more like a rat, and is thus commonly referred to as a “brass rat.”

And at this point we’ve largely seen the sights in The Lurking Horror that relate back to MIT. But there’s still lots of puzzles to solve and a blasphemous evil to defeat, so I’ll leave you to it. Remember the four basic food groups — particularly the first — when you get tired, and remember that Hollywood Hijinx isn’t the only Infocom game that evinces a certain fascination with elevators. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour. If you have, I’m pretty sure there are a couple of virtual tip jars around here if your scroll to the top and look to the right. Good luck!

(If you’d like all of these annotations and more in a succinct form, feel free to download the gloss of the game that Janice Eisen so kindly prepared for me. This document was the basis for much of what I’ve written above. The Lurking Horror itself is available for purchase along with most of the other Infocom games as part of an iOS app.)

 
 

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The Lurking Horror

The Lurking Horror

Given the demographics of many readers of H.P. Lovecraft, not to mention players of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, it was inevitable that the Cthulhu Mythos would make it to the computer. The only real surprise is that it took all the way until 1987 for the first full-fledged digital work of Lovecraftian horror to appear. That it should have been among all the Imps of Infocom Dave Lebling who wrote said work is, on the other hand, no surprise. The most voracious and omnivorous reader of all in an office full of them, Lebling was also the only Imp with deep roots in the world of tabletop RPGs; he had to have been aware of Sandy Petersen’s game even if he had never played it.

Running neck and neck as he was with Steve Meretzky for the title of most prolific and recognizable Imp, Lebling was pretty much given carte blanche to choose his projects. Thus his rather vague proposal, for a “kind of H.P. Lovecraft game set at a kind of MIT-ish place,” was all that was needed to set the ball rolling. Not that, even discounting Lebling’s track record, there was a lot of risk in the proposition: horror, while relatively uncommon in adventure games to date, was a fictional genre with obvious appeal for the typical player, and Lovecraft was as good a point of entry as any. Indeed, the graphical adventure Uninvited, which had thrown a bit of Lovecraft into its blender along with lots of other hoary old horror tropes, was doing quite well commercially at the very instant that Lebling was making his proposal. Horror was a perfect growth market for adventure authors and players tired of fantasy, science fiction, and cozy mysteries.

The Lurking Horror‘s title inauspiciously harks back to “The Lurking Fear,” a story from Lovecraft’s Edgar Allan Poe-aping early years that’s not all that fondly regarded even by aficionados. “The tempo increases imperceptibly from sluggish to slow” over the course of the story, and “the awful crescendo of terror that we have been promised is more of an anticlimax,” writes Lovecraft biographer and critic Paul Roland. Ah, well… at least it has a great title, as well as a gloriously cheesy opening line that comes perilously close to “It was a dark and stormy night”: “There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.”

The game casts you as a freshman at “GUE Tech,” a stand-in for MIT. It’s the end of the term, and your twenty-page paper on “modern analogues of Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis'” is due tomorrow. Lebling cleverly updates the classic Lovecraftian setup of a scholar coming upon a strange and foreboding document in an archive somewhere for the computer age. As you try to work on the paper inside the computer center, alone but for one occasionally helpful but usually infuriating hacker, you find that a strange file has replaced your own, a combination of “incomprehensible gibberish, latinate pseudowords, debased Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and an occasional disquieting phrase in English.” Your directory has somehow gotten mixed up with that of the “Department of Alchemy,” says the hacker. You’ll have to go down there to see if they can help you out. If you first help him out with a little problem of his own, he’s even kind enough to provide you with a key that will open most of the doors down there. And so you set off into the bowels of the university, deserted thanks to the blizzard raging outside on this dark winter night, all the while trying not to think about all the students that have been disappearing lately. Down there in the basements and steam tunnels you’ll encounter the full monty: a zombified janitor; a blood-encrusted sacrificial altar; hordes of rats running who knows where; an insane scientist trying to summon creatures from the beyond; lots of slime and general grossness; and, at last, the tentacled beastie at the heart of it all, who seems to be worming his way into the campus’s computer network to do… well, we’re never quite sure, but chances are it’s not good.

This last is The Lurking Horror‘s one really original contribution to Mythos lore, mixing it up with a bit of William Gibson-style cyberpunk; Neuromancer, another book Lebling had to have read, was the talk of science fiction at the time. The mash-up here anticipates a whole sub-genre (sub-sub-genre?) of stories, even if The Lurking Horror doesn’t do a whole lot with the premise beyond introducing it.

But then much the same thing could be said about the game’s relationship to Lovecraft in general. While most of the surface tropes are present and accounted for, most of the subtext of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror — humanity’s aloneness in a cold and unfeeling cosmos, the utter alienness of the Mythos that places it beyond our conceptions of good and evil, the sheer hopelessness of fighting powers so much greater than ourselves — is conspicuously absent. Likewise the actual creatures and gods of the Cthulhu Mythos; the only proper name from Lovecraft to be found here is that of the author himself, appearing as the name of a file on your computer by way of credit where it’s due. At the time that Lebling was writing the game, Arkham House was still emphatically claiming copyright to Lovecraft’s works, and companies like Chaosium who made use of the Mythos were paying licensing fees. Although Arkham’s claim would eventually prove dubious enough that Chaosium and others would drop the license and continue business as usual without it, it was likely copyright concerns that prompted Lebling not to name names. Unlike many computer games that would follow, The Lurking Horror also evinces no obvious debt to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG beyond the bare fact that both are games that build on Lovecraft’s writings. It’s all enough to make me feel a little embarrassed about the two-article buildup I’ve given this game, afraid that this article might now come across like the mother of all anticlimaxes. I can only ask you to be patient, and to know that those last two articles will pay off in spades down the road, when we encounter games that dig much deeper into Mythos lore than this one does.

The Lurking Horror

Even the language of The Lurking Horror doesn’t quite ever go all-in for Lovecraft in all his unhinged glory. While Lebling gets some credit for using “debased” in an extract I’ve already quoted, there’s not a single “blasphemous” or “eldritch” to be found. Part of the ironic problem here, if problem it be, is that Lebling is just too careful a writer — too good a writer? — to let his id run wild in a babble of feverish adjective in that indelible H.P. Lovecraft way. Consider for example this scene, which finds you peering down through a manhole into a pit of horror.

>look in plate
You peer through the hole, shining your light into the stygian darkness below. The commotion below is growing louder, and suddenly you catch a glimpse of things moving in the pit. Without consciously realizing you have done it, you slam the panel shut, reeling away from the source of such images. Now you know what has been done with the missing students...

Lovecraft would doubtless describe this scene as “indescribable,” and then go nuts describing it. Lebling throws in a Lovecraftian “stygian,” but otherwise much more elegantly describes it as indescribable without having to resort to the actual word, and then… doesn’t describe it. His final line is more subtly chilling than anything Lovecraft ever wrote, a fine illustration of the value of a little restraint. Lebling, it seems, subscribes to the school of horror writing promoted by Edmund Wilson in his famous takedown of Lovecraft, which claims the very avoidance of the overwrought adjectives that Lovecraft loved so much to be key to any effective tale.

Perhaps of more concern than Lebling’s failings as a 1980s reincarnation of Lovecraft is the fact that The Lurking Horror, despite some effectively creepy scenes like the one above, ultimately isn’t all that scary. As I noted in my review of the simultaneously released Stationfall, I find that game, ostensibly another of Steve Meretzky’s easygoing science-fiction comedies, far more unnerving in its latter half than this game ever becomes. The default house voice of Infocom is a sly tone of gentle humor, an unwillingness to take it all too seriously. Just that tone creeps into a number of their more straight-laced works, this one among them, and rather cuts against the grain of the fiction. And in this game in particular one senses a conflict in Lebling that’s far from unique among writers following in Lovecraft’s wake: he wants to pay due homage to the man, but he’s also never quite able to take him seriously. At times The Lurking Horror reads more like a Lovecraft parody than homage, a line that is admittedly thin with a writer as ridiculous in so many ways as Lovecraft. Even more broadly, it sometimes feels like a parody of horror in general. The disembodied hand whom you can befriend, for instance, not only doesn’t feel remotely Lovecraftian but is actually a well-worn trope from about a million schlocky B-movies, played here as it often is there essentially for laughs. After striking an appropriately ominous note at the very end of the game, when an egg of the creature you’ve finally destroyed apparently spawns and flies off to begin causing more havoc, Lebling just can’t leave it at that. Instead he closes The Lurking Horror with a bit of macabre slapstick that’s more Tales From the Crypt than Call of Cthulhu.

>get stone
You pick up the stone. It has a long jagged crack that almost breaks it in half. As you pick it up, you feel it bump to one side. Then, as you are holding it in your hand, something pushes its way out through the crack, breaking the stone into two pieces. Something small, pale, and damp blinks its watery eyes at you. It hisses, gaining strength, and spreads membranous wings. It takes to the air, at first clumsily, then with increased assurance, and disappears into the gloom. One eerie cry drifts back to where you stand.

Something rises out of the mud, slowly straightening. The hacker, mud-covered and weak, staggers to his feet. "Can I have my key back?" he asks.

But the most important reason that The Lurking Horror doesn’t stick to its Lovecraftian guns is down to the other, perhaps even more interesting thing it also wants to be: a tribute to MIT, the university where Infocom was born and where Dave Lebling himself spent more than a decade hacking code, eating Chinese food, and exploring roofs and tunnels.

In choosing to look back with more than a hint of nostalgia rather than to gaze resolutely forward, The Lurking Horror was part of a general trend at Infocom during these latter years of the company’s history, part and parcel of the same phenomenon that saw Steve Meretzky bringing back Floyd at last for Stationfall and, after five years without a Zork, the Imps suddenly pulling out that old name that had made them who they were twice in the space of less than a year. By 1987, with sales far from what they once were and their new corporate overlords at Activision understandably concerned about that reality, a sneaking suspicion that they may be nearing the end game must have been percolating through the ranks. Thus the desire to look back, to appreciate — and not without a little wistfulness — just where they’d been. Lebling himself, meanwhile, was fast closing in on forty, a time that brings a certain reflective state of mind if not a full-fledged crisis to many of us. Whatever else it is, The Lurking Horror is also a very personal game for Dave Lebling, by far the most personal he would ever write.

Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found myself growing more and more skeptical of parser-based interactive fiction’s ability to handle elaborate plotting worthy of a novel or even a novella. The Infocom ideal that was printed on their boxes for all those years, of “waking up inside a story,” was, I’ve come to believe, always something of a lost cause. In compensation, however, I’ve come to be ever more impressed by how good the form is at evoking a sense of place. Despite the name we all chose to apply to our erstwhile text adventures long ago, which I’m certainly not going to try to change now, architecture or landscaping may provide better metaphors for what interactive “fiction” does best. (It’s for this reason, for the record, that I’ve long since backed away from trying to painstakingly define “ludic narrative,” and moved away from an exclusive focus on digital storytelling for this blog as a whole.)

Given all that, I’m particularly fascinated by games like this one that embrace that great — greatest? — strength of the medium by letting us explore a real place. For all of the interactive fiction that’s been made during Infocom’s heyday and after, that’s been done surprisingly little. Only three Infocom games, of which this is the second, attempt to recreate real or historical places. I find The Lurking Horror particularly interesting because the landscape of MIT that it chooses to show us is so personally meaningful to Lebling, turning it into a sort of architecture of memory as well as physical space. I really want to do this aspect of the game justice, and so I have something special planned for you for next week’s article: an in-game guided tour of GUE/MIT.

For now, though, I’ll just note that The Lurking Horror is a worthwhile game if also a somewhat schizophrenic one. The comedy cuts against the horror; the Lovecraft homage cuts against the MIT homage. There’s a lot that Lebling wants to do here, and the 128 K Z-Machine just isn’t quite enough to hold it all. It’s one of the few standard-sized Infocom games that I find myself wishing had been made for the roomier Interactive Fiction Plus format. Still, nothing that is here is really objectionable. The puzzles are uniformly well-done, even if, oddly given that this game came out so close on the heels of Hollywood Hijinx, some of them once again revolve around an elevator. (I suspect a bit of groupthink, not surprising given the collaborative nature of Hollywood Anderson’s game). And the writing is fine, even if it does feel slightly strangled at times by the space limitations. The Lurking Horror feels a little like a missed opportunity, but it wouldn’t feel that way if what’s here — especially its recreation of MIT student life — wasn’t compelling already.

Infocom had high hopes for both Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, these two simultaneously released games of seemingly high commercial appeal written by their two most prolific and recognizable authors. The pair inspired the last really audacious promotional event in Infocom’s history — indeed, their most expensive and ambitious since the grand Suspect murder-mystery party of two-and-a-half years before. For the 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago — yes, that era-capping CES again — they rented the Field Museum of Natural History for hundreds of guests, as they had each of the two previous years, and sprung for a local rock band to liven the place up. This time, however, they also hired the famed Second City comedy troupe, incubator of talents like Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, to come in and perform improvisational comedy (“InfoProvisation”) based largely on Infocom games. From The Status Line‘s article on the event, complete with great 1980s pop-culture references:

Through a hilarious sequence of skits using very few props (a couple of chairs and a piano), the audience saw a computerized dating simulator, roared at a romance between a next-generation computer and a piece of has-been software, met Stationfall’s Floyd, visited GUE Tech, and even had the opportunity to affect the course of a scene or two.

In a tribute to the best-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos, three vignettes, set in a singles bar and interspersed throughout the program, showed real-life versions of the three playing modes. Tame would have made Mother Teresa proud, but by the time they went from suggestive to lewd, it was enough to make Donna Rice blush.

Steve Meretzky (second from left) and Dave Lebling (second from right) ham it up with Second City.

Steve Meretzky (second from left) and Dave Lebling (second from right) ham it up with Second City.

Steve Meretzky and Dave Lebling even got to join the troupe onstage for a few of the skits. (This must have been a special thrill for Meretzky, who, judging by his love for Woody Allen and for performing in Infocom’s in-office productions, had a little of the frustrated comedian/actor in him, like his erstwhile writing partner Douglas Adams.)

But If the Second City gala harked back to the glory days of Infocom in some ways, the present was all too present in others. The new, cheap packaging was hard for fans to overlook, as was the fact that the principal feelie in The Lurking Horror, a packet of “rattlesnake eggs,” had nothing to do with the game. It looked like something that someone in marketing had just plucked off the discount rack at the local novelty shop — which was in fact largely what it was, as was proved when the final package came out with an equally inexplicable rubber centipede in place of the eggs; apparently it could be sourced even cheaper. The Second City event did get a write-up in newspapers all over the country thanks to being picked up by the Associated Press, but, alas, seems to have done little for actual sales of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, neither of which reached 25,000 copies. For the regular CES attendees who, whether fans of Infocom’s games or not, had grown to love their parties, this final blowout and its underwhelming aftermath was just one more way that that Summer 1987 edition of the trade show marked the end of an era.

Infocom, however, still wasn’t quite done with The Lurking Horror. A few months after all of the Chicago hoopla, a new version of the game, released only for the Commodore Amiga, reached stores. This one sported digitized sound effects to accompany some of its most exciting moments, a first for Infocom and the first sign of an interest in technical experimentation — not to say gimmickry — that would increasingly mark their last couple of years as a going concern. In this case the innovation came directly from an Activision that was very motivated to find ways to spruce up Infocom’s product line. But, unlike so many of Activision’s suggestions, Infocom actually greeted this one with a fair amount of enthusiasm.

It all began with a creative and innovative programmer named Russel Lieblich, who had come to Activision after spending some time at Peter Langston’s idealistic original incarnation of Lucasfilm Games. During the Jim Levy era Lieblich had been allowed to indulge his artistic muse at Activision, resulting in the interesting if not terribly playable commercial flops Web Dimension and Master of the Lamps. That sort of thing wasn’t going to fly in the new Bruce Davis era, so Lieblich, a talented musician as well as programmer, retrenched to concentrate on the technical aspects of computer audio, a field where he would spend much of his long career in games still to come. Of most relevance to Infocom was the system he developed for playing back digitized sounds recorded from the real world. Infocom had a playtester play through The Lurking Horror again, making a list of everywhere where he could imagine a sound effect. Lebling and others then pruned the list to those places where they felt sound would be most effective, and sent the whole thing off to Lieblich to hack into the Amiga version of the Z-Machine interpreter. At least a few other machines were theoretically capable of playing short digitized sounds of reasonable fidelity as well — the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Atari ST would have made excellent candidates — but sound was only added to the Amiga version, an indication of just what an afterthought the whole project really was.

As afterthoughts go, it’s not bad, although the fidelity of the sounds isn’t particularly high even by the standards of other Amiga games of the day. I doubt you’d be able to recognize “the squeal of a rat,” “the creak of an opening hatch,” or “the distinctive ‘thunk’ of an axe biting into flesh” — that’s how The Status Line describes some of the sounds — for what they’re supposed to be if you didn’t have the game in front of you telling you what’s happening. Still, they are creepy in an abstract sort of way, and certainly startling when they play out of the blue. While hardly essential, they do add a little something if you’re willing to jump through a few hoops to get them working on a modern interpreter. Whether the addition of a handful of sound effects was enough to make Amiga owners, madly in love with their computers’ state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities, consider buying an all-text game was of course another matter entirely.

Next week we’ll put Lovecraft to bed for a while (doubtless dreaming one of his terrible dreams of “night-gaunts”), but will take a deeper dive into the other part of The Lurking Horror‘s split personality, its nostalgic tribute to MIT and student life therein. If you haven’t played The Lurking Horror yet, or if you have but it’s been a while, you may want to wait until then to join me on a guided tour that I think you’ll enjoy.

(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. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include: the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The Status Line of Summer 1987, Fall 1987, Winter 1987, and Winter/Spring 1988.)

 
 

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Spellbreaker

Spellbreaker

As Infocom settled into their middle and latter period, their game releases also settled into a fairly predictable pattern that tried to balance innovation with traditionalism. Steve Meretzky:

The hardcore gamers, the people who liked Zork and just wanted more like Zork from Infocom, they were always made unhappy by [games like] A Mind Forever Voyaging or Plundered Hearts or Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. Anything that we did that was moving in a different direction or in any way experimental, they would always squawk. So the company’s plan was basically to try to do some of each, to always do a game or two every year that would be the “red meat” for those original hardcore players, and then to try to innovate with some of the other games each year.

Our subject for today, Spellbreaker, was the long-awaited third game in the Enchanter trilogy as well as Infocom’s most blatant of all bits of pandering to these traditionalists, who made up a much larger percentage of the company’s fan base than Infocom’s modern reputation for relentless innovation and dedication to the literary aspects of the humble text adventure might seem to imply. An “Expert” level game, it was explicitly created by Dave Lebling as a response to the carping of the hardcore of the hardcore that Infocom’s games had been getting much too easy since the days of Zork. “You want a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest?” Infocom asked. “Fine, we’ll give you a diamond-hard, traditional puzzlefest!” Coming out just weeks after the radical departure that was A Mind Forever Voyaging, Spellbreaker could almost be read as an apology to the hardcore for that namby-pamby, touchy-feely effort.

That said, it should also be noted that the concerns about creeping easiness, engendered by an ever more thorough testing process and the thoroughgoing sense of fair play that was always one of Infocom’s noblest traits, were not confined to fans outside the company. Meretzky himself, the perpetrator of A Mind Forever Voyaging, has noted that he also felt concerned as time wore on that at least certain types of Infocom games were losing some of their core appeal, that the struggle and sweat of the Zork games, the compulsion to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to test out some crazy action that just might solve a heretofore intractable puzzle, was the very thing that drew many people to them. Spellbreaker would be Infocom’s attempt to rekindle the masochistic joy of Zork.

There’s always a tendency in all forms of criticism to fetishize innovation over virtually everything else; music critics, for instance, will always favor the Clash, who morphed and relentlessly experimented and soon collapsed under the sheer weight of their artistic ambitions, over their punk-era counterparts Stiff Little Fingers, who have just continued to do what they’re good at for decades. It’s an understandable and even defensible impulse, but I also have to confess that, just as I’m more likely to pull out Stiff Little Fingers’s Go For It! than any Clash album, if you asked me which game among A Mind Forever Voyaging and Spellbreaker I most enjoy just playing every five to ten years, I’d have to name Spellbreaker. Spellbreaker is as constrained a design as A Mind Forever Voyaging is boundary-shattering: constrained by its need to please the puzzle-hungry hardcore, by its need to fit in with the two previous games of the Enchanter trilogy and continue with their spell-based puzzle mechanics and Zorkian fantasy premises. But it’s also an absolutely brilliant specimen of traditionalist adventure gaming, one of the best, tightest examples of pure game design Infocom ever crafted.

As old school as its sensibilities may appear in comparison to its immediate predecessor, Spellbreaker is not devoid of theoretical or historical interest. Far from it. In its quiet way, it asserts a profoundly important idea for the craft of adventure-game design: that fairness and difficulty are two independent scales. If virtually any of Infocom’s contemporaries decided to make a self-consciously difficult game like Spellbreaker, they would have simply filled it with punishing mazes and riddles and guess-the-verb problems and inscrutable puzzles dependent on unmotivated actions. We know this because that’s exactly what they did, over and over again. (For instance, have a look at Scott Adams’s two-part alleged brain-burner Savage Island for everything not to do in an adventure game in one convenient place). Certain designers never could seem to separate fairness from difficulty in their minds. (I can’t help but think of Anita Sinclair, who pronounced on the eve of Magnetic Scrolls’s second release Guild of Thieves that this would be an “easier” game. Actually, no, it turned out to be a very hard game — just one that wasn’t blatantly, repeatedly unfair like its predecessor The Pawn.) Many fans still have trouble with the concept today; I get occasional emails in response to my coverage of notable offenders like Roberta Williams’s The Wizard and the Princess and Time Zone asking why I’m so hard on “difficult” games, forcing me to respond that, no, I’m actually only hard on unfair games. One could advance a fairly compelling argument that the failure of the adventure-game industry at large to grasp this distinction played a big part in the commercial death of the text adventure — how many veteran gamers still remember the form largely for mazes, guess-the-verb, and illogical puzzles? — as well as the longstanding commercial doldrums of graphical adventures, what with their pixel hunts and click-everywhere-and-use-everything-on-everything-else-until-something-happens model of game design.

Spellbreaker is very tough, but it’s also downright noble in its commitment to fairness. There is, if you’ll pardon me, no bullshit here, none of the cheap tricks, designed and implemented in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, that designers have so often used to artificially lengthen games and make players pull their hair out. You don’t even need to draw a map to play Spellbreaker — but never fear, you will likely want pen and paper to sketch and plan and diagram a long series of tantalizing puzzles that have been lovingly crafted over days and weeks. In my book, that’s the way a game like this ought to be. Spellbreaker is a veritable capsule history of adventure-game puzzles (the good ones, that is): intricate pure spatial and mathematical puzzles like those so common in the Phoenix games; clever object-application puzzles; logistical puzzles requiring long-term planning; the best and most satisfying application yet of the spell system invented for Enchanter; the latest and greatest and most intricate in an ongoing series of Infocom time-travel puzzles; even a social-interaction puzzle to keep you on your toes. And there are lots and lots of them. While it runs under the standard 128 K Z-Machine, Spellbreaker stuffs it right to its limit, and will take quite some hours to complete. There are one or two puzzles that I might wish had been a bit less difficult — most notably a certain puzzle that takes place in a lava field and hinges on a property of a certain little box that you’re unlikely to discover until you really have exhausted every possibility for experimentation — but none that I can label truly unfair if we’re willing to give the game a free pass on Graham Nelson’s prohibitions against the occasional need for knowledge of future events and knowledge gained from dying. The key thing is that you can trust Spellbreaker as you try to beat it, can trust that the solution to the puzzle on which you’re currently working can be arrived at through observation and deduction rather than being some random phrase to be typed or senseless action to perform. I can’t emphasize enough what a difference this trust — or, perhaps better said, its absence in so many other games — makes for the player’s experience.

The plot is obviously not the first priority for either player or writer of a game like this, but Spellbreaker‘s is in some ways more interesting than it ought to be. Having averted two previous disasters in Enchanter and Sorcerer, you’ve been elevated to head of the Circle of Enchanters. But now suddenly magic itself has begun to fail throughout the realm. The game opens at a conclave of Guildmasters that has been called to address the problem. Lebling was, along with Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neill, the best crafter of prose amongst all the Imps, and his writing is particularly good here, sparkling with subtle wit.

Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers is addressing the gathering. "Do you know what this is doing to our business? Do you know how difficult it is to make those yummy butter pastries by hand? When a simple 'gloth' spell would fold the dough 83 times it was possible to make a profit, but now 'gloth' hardly works, and when it does, it usually folds the dough too often and the butter melts, or it doesn't come out the right size, or..." He stops, apparently overwhelmed by the prospect of a world where the pastries have to be hand-made. "Can't you do anything about this? You're supposed to know all about magic!"

Hoobly of the Guild of Brewers stands, gesturing at the floury baker. "You don't know what trouble is! Lately, what comes out of the vats, like as not, is cherry flavored or worse. The last vat, I swear it, tasted as if grues had been bathing in it. It takes magic to turn weird vegetables and water into good Borphee beer. Well, without magic, there isn't going to be any beer!" This statement has a profound effect on portions of the crowd. You can hear rumblings from the back concerning Enchanters. The word "traitors" rises out of nowhere. Your fellow Enchanters are looking at one another nervously.

Then everyone except for you is abruptly turned into some variety of small amphibian, and your adventure truly begins. Ah, well, what did a committee hearing ever accomplish anyway?

You find yourself pursuing a mysterious antagonist — obviously the source of the magical disruptions — through a whole series of interlinked scenic vignettes, most no more than a few rooms in size (thus the lack of the need for mapping), which you reach by casting the Blorple spell (“explore an object’s mystic connections”) on a series of magical cubes you find. The acquisition of more of these cubes, representing as each does the next waypoint in a grand chase across time and space, turns out to be the main goal of most of the scenes you visit.

While certain aspects of Spellbreaker, like a group of wandering boulders on which you have to hitch a ride at one point, suggest that Lebling may have been reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels (as it happens, a subject we’ll get to very soon in another article), the most marked literary influence is Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, a great favorite of Lebling’s. Like the young wizard Ged, the protagonist of Spellbreaker realizes at the story’s climax that the shadowy being against whom he has been struggling is in fact a shadow of himself. The discovery is followed by Spellbreaker‘s ambiguously profound coda.

The shadow, now as solid as a real person, performs a back flip into the tesseract. "No!" It screams. "Stop! Fool, you've destroyed me! You've destroyed magic itself! All my lovely plans!" Now glowing as brightly as the construction it made, the figure approaches the center. It grows smaller and smaller, and just before it disappears, the hypercube vanishes with a pop, and the "magic" cube melts in your hand like an ice cube.

You find yourself back in Belwit Square, all the Guildmasters and even Belboz crowding around you. "A new age begins today," says Belboz after hearing your story. "The age of magic is ended, as it must, for as magic can confer absolute power, so it can also produce absolute evil. We may defeat this evil when it appears, but if wizardry builds it anew, we can never ultimately win. The new world will be strange, but in time it will serve us better."

Your score is 600 of a possible 600, in 835 moves. This puts you in the class of Scientist.

As with so much of Brian Moriarty’s best work, Spellbreaker‘s ending makes more mythic than literal sense. It seems our efforts have only led to the end of the Age of Magic and the beginning of the Age of Science. You can read this in many ways — personal and public, negative and positive. You can cast it as the proverbial setting aside of childish things (while hopefully still leaving space for the occasional computer game), marching into a future of adulthood and responsibility with clear eyes. You can cast it in a melancholy light, as the loss of, well, magic in a modern world where everything is already explored and mapped and monitored. Or you can, as I prefer, cast it as the dawning of a better age free of the prejudices and superstitious dependencies of the past. Any way you cast it, to my mind this textual Rorschach test is one of the strongest endings in the Infocom canon; the contrast of “Scientist” with your penultimate title of “Archmage” is bracing and surprising in all the right ways.

That, then, is Spellbreaker, and a thoroughly admirable effort it is. But I couldn’t conclude this article without also describing the great Spellbreaker vs. Mage feud of 1985, an internal struggle so pitched that it still prompts sheepish half-grins and slight discomfort amongst the principal antagonists, Mike Dornbrook and Dave Lebling, today.

Almost from the point he first accepted the assignment to finish out the Enchanter trilogy, Lebling had planned to call his game Mage. It not only gave the names in the trilogy a nice consonance, what with all being synonyms for a wizard or magic user, but also implied a progression of increasing magical potency. When Dornbrook’s marketing people did some impromptu person-on-the-street questioning, however, they discovered a dismaying fact: most people had never heard the word “mage” and had no idea how to pronounce it. Most opted for either something that rhymed with “badge” or a vaguely French pronunciation, like the second syllable in “garage.” The package designers were also concerned that the name was just too short and bland-looking, that it wouldn’t “pop” like it needed to on a store shelf. So Dornbrook went back to Lebling to tell him that the name just wasn’t going to work; they’d have to come up with another.

This in itself wasn’t all that unusual; games like Wishbringer, which had the perfect name almost from the beginning and kept it until release, were more the exception than the rule at Infocom. Most of the time the Imp responsible realized that his title was less than ideal and was willing to accept alternatives. That, however, was not the case this time. Lebling got his back up, determined that his game would be Mage and only Mage. Dornbrook got his up in response, and a lengthy struggle ensued. The other Imps and the other marketers fell in behind their respective standard bearers, leaving poor Jon Palace caught in the middle trying to broker some sort of compromise for a situation which didn’t really seem to allow for one; after all, in the end the game would either be called Mage or it wouldn’t.

From the perspective of today, the most interesting thing about this whole situation is the fact that so many people didn’t know the word “mage” in the first place. It really serves to highlight how much fantasy (nerd?) culture has penetrated the mainstream in this post-Peter Jackson, post-Harry Potter, post-World of Warcraft world in which we live. In 1985 Lebling’s strongest argument against marketing’s findings, one which strikes me as entirely reasonable, was that Dornbrook and company had simply been polling the wrong people. While the average person on the street may not have known the word “mage,” those likely to be interested in the third game of a fantasy trilogy explicitly pitched toward Infocom’s most hardcore fans almost certainly did. As for the aforementioned person on the street, she wasn’t likely to buy the game no matter what it was called.

As usual with such spats inside any relationship, there was actually a lot going on here beyond the ostensible bone of contention. Dornbrook had been frustrated for years already by what he saw as the Imps’ refusal to properly leverage the most valuable marketing tool at their disposal, the name Zork itself. Back in the company’s earliest days, when he had founded the Zork Users Group, he had simply assumed that Infocom would stamp the Zork brand on everything that would hold still for long enough.

It [the game that became Deadline] would have been Zork: The Mystery, etc. I thought that made sense at the time. We had this incredibly strong brand name. To me they were just going to be Zorks. We were going to own a word like “aspirin.” The name for a text adventure was going to be a Zork, and we were going to own that. But a decision was made while I was in business school and not contributing to the decision-making that we didn’t want to go down that path.

Dornbrook’s frustrations were made worse by 1983’s Enchanter, which everyone had assumed would be Zork IV until very shortly before its release, when Lebling and his coauthor Marc Blank suddenly announced that they didn’t want to be “typecast” by forever doing Zorks. Dornbrook tried fruitlessly to explain that, while it might not make sense that people would buy a game if it was called Zork but not if it was called Enchanter, that was just the way that branding worked. Observing how each game in the new trilogy sold fewer copies than the Zork games had and, even more dismayingly, fewer copies than its immediate predecessor, Dornbrook was soon convinced that the company had sacrificed tens or even hundreds of thousands of sales to the Imps’ effete artistic sensibilities.

I felt that marketing needed to be a little more respected, and if we had a strong feeling about something they [the Imps] shouldn’t just… I mean, the game developers, I got along very well and respected them, but there was a bit of, um… they were a little too full of themselves. A little too self-important. A little too, at times, megalomaniacal. Okay, that’s too strong a word… but it was frustrating sometimes from just a business standpoint. They kind of positioned themselves as, “We’re above all that! We’re artists!” Sometimes it seemed a little too precious.

As the 1980s wore on, Dornbrook couldn’t help but compare Infocom to competitors like Origin Systems and Sierra, who unabashedly milked their flagship brands — Ultima and King’s Quest respectively — for all they were worth via an open-ended series of numbered sequels, and, not coincidentally he believed, by mid-decade and beyond were selling far more games than Infocom. Dornbrook now saw a convenient opportunity to force through a mid-course correction of sorts. He thought about how Enchanter still had the internal inventory code of “Z4” at Infocom, Sorcerer and Lebling’s new game “Z5” and “Z6” respectively.

There was a time later on when I came back and seriously suggested, when there was the big fight over Mage vs. Spellbreaker, why don’t we just call it Zork VI? “You can’t do that! What about Zork IV and V?” I said, “Won’t that create a whole bunch of great questions? Maybe it will help sell Enchanter and Sorcerer if they finally realize, oh, those were Zork IV and V.” I never won that argument.

So Dornbrook still didn’t get his Zork; Lebling, who admits he was “terribly exercised” over the whole situation, wasn’t going to allow him that satisfaction, although he does concede it to have been an interesting idea worth considering today. But Lebling didn’t get his Mage either. The game shipped as another suggestion of Dornbrook’s people, Spellbreaker — not a half-bad name in my book, for what it’s worth. Lebling, however, wasn’t pleased at all, and indulged in an uncharacteristic final bit of sour-grapesmanship by sneaking a new routine into the final version that caused it to call itself Mage in the title line about one time out of every hundred.

Spellbreaker

The worrisome downward sales trend that Dornbrook had spotted wasn’t halted by Spellbreaker. Like its predecessor A Mind Forever Voyaging, it sold only about 30,000 copies, making these latest games the two least successful Infocom had so far released. There were obvious reasons for the low sales of each attributable to it specifically rather than Infocom’s position in the market as a whole — A Mind Forever Voyaging was highly experimental and required a fairly powerful computer to run, while Spellbreaker was unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already a hardcore Infocom fan who had already played Enchanter and Sorcerer — but, well, let’s just say that Dornbrook and everyone else had good reason to be worried.

But such external concerns needn’t distract us from playing and enjoying Spellbreaker today. It’s certainly not the place to start with Infocom, but when you’re ready for it it will be there waiting for you. It really is a masterful piece of game design, and even offers some lovely writing as well. It just might be Dave Lebling’s finest hour — and considering that Lebling also co-wrote Enchanter (and considering how much this critic loves that game as well) that’s really saying something.

(Most of the information here is, again, drawn from Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. The insight about A Wizard of Earthsea‘s influence on Spellbreaker I owe to an eight-year-old email exchange with Graham Nelson — to whom I also owe thanks just for getting me to read that book.)

 

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