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Steve Meretzky

Fair warning: this post spoils Planetfall thoroughly and aggressively. If you want to play it unspoiled, do so now. (Yes, it’s worth playing.) Then come back here.

A hapless lone spacefarer — that’s you — comes upon an aged but now decaying alien artifact. You must ferret out its secrets, discover what it is and how it was meant to work, and finally repair its systems. When you succeed completely in this last the original inhabitants, who were only sleeping as they hoped and waited for someone like you to come along, are revived. You are rewarded for your efforts with fame and fortune on your home planet and beyond, along with the satisfaction of having completed another Infocom game.

Sounds like an Infocom game we’ve already looked at, doesn’t it? Stripped down to basics, it’s rather amazing how similar the plot of Infocom’s eighth release, Planetfall, is to that of their fifth, Starcross. Based upon my summary, one might ask whether Infocom was already running out of ideas. Yet few who have played both games have ever asked that question because when you’re actually playing them the two games could hardly feel more different. Planetfall, you see, marks the arrival of Steve Meretzky, who if (arguably) not Infocom’s best author was certainly the one with the most immediately distinctive voice and design sensibility. He would have a huge influence not only on Infocom’s subsequent works but on adventure gaming in general, an influence that persists to this day. For better (sometimes) or for worse (probably more often), we can still see his brand of madcap whimsy in new games both amateur and professional, both graphical and textual that come out every year. By now his influence is so pronounced that many designers, separated from Planetfall by two or three design generations, don’t even realize whom they’re copying.

I’ve already introduced Meretzky in a couple of articles on this blog. A self-avowed computer hater who was nevertheless chummy with the folks who created Zork at MIT and later founded Infocom, he got the adventuring religion when living as Mike Dornbrook’s roommate. He began to see the possibility of escaping the horrifying prospect of a career in construction management when he began testing Infocom’s games for money with Deadline in November of 1981. He then left construction behind forever in June of 1982, when he became the first salaried member of their new testing department. Meretzky was in Marc Blank’s words “so into it and had so many ideas” that it seemed only natural to let him try his hand at writing a game of his own. In the fall of 1982, at the same time as Stu Galley was starting on The Witness, Meretzky was therefore given carte blanche to write whatever kind of game he’d like. The project he began was a product of his two biggest cultural loves at the time: written science fiction, which he read virtually to the exclusion of anything else, and anarchic comedy on the wavelength of Monty Python, Woody Allen, and Gary Larson.

Planetfall casts you as a lowly Ensign Seventh Class in the Stellar Patrol aboard the SPS Feinstein. The bane of your shipboard existence, the “trotting krip” on whom most of your diary (included in the package) focuses, is Ensign Cadet First Class Blather, who is afflicted with the megalomania of middle managers everywhere. The game begins on just another day aboard the Feinstein, with you wielding your “Patrol-issue self-contained multi-purpose scrub brush” on deck-cleaning duty and trying to stay out of Blather’s way. But then the Feinstein is attacked by forces unknown. You must escape in a life pod, which deposits you next to a research complex of some sort poking above the waves of an otherwise completely water-covered planet. It’s here that your adventure begins in earnest.

The comedies that inspired Meretzky to make Planetfall gain meaning and resonance by saying something about the world in which we live. Monty Python satirizes the hidebound British class system and the prudery of middle-class life; Woody Allen dissects the vagaries of love, sex, and relationships. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams, an author with whom Meretzky would soon be indelibly linked, reveals the manifold absurdities of human social mores, of religion, of how we perceive our place in the universe through his science-fiction comedy of the absurd. Indeed, it’s often been noted that the best science fiction is relevant not so much as a guidepost to the future as for the light it sheds on the way we live and think today. Taking a story out of the here and now allows an author to examine big questions with a clear eye that would be obscured by the vicissitudes of culture and prejudice and emotion if set in our own world.

Planetfall, however, doesn’t really try to follow in that tradition. Instead it appropriates some of the broad tropes from Monty Python or Douglas Adams without finding the kernel of social truth at their heart that makes them relevant. The closest it comes is some gentle satire of bureaucracy (the game is packaged in a faux-file folder stamped “Authorized For Issuance”, “Authorized For Authorization”, “Authorized For Rubber Stamping”) and the over-the-top gung-ho-ness of military-recruitment advertisements (“Today’s Stellar Patrol: Boldly Going Where Angels Fear To Tread”, “The Patrol Is Looking For A Few Good Organisms”). On the tree of satire, this is not exactly the highest-hanging of fruits.

Mostly replacing satire in Planetfall is a sort of good-natured goofiness. You can’t fault it for effort. The feelies in particular throw so many gags at you that a few of them are bound to stick. This bit is the one that always makes me laugh:

Planetfall questionnaire

In the game itself there’s one consistent source of clever humor, which we’ll get to in a moment. But other gags, like the distorted spelling of the aliens who built the complex, start to wear thin after a while. (“Xis stuneeng vuu uf xee Kalamontee Valee kuvurz oovur fortee skwaar miilz uf xat faamus tuurist spot. Xee larj bildeeng at xee bend in xee Gulmaan Rivur iz xee formur pravincul kapitul bildeeng.”) Meretzky was known in Infocom’s offices for his cutting humor, which he deployed against Ronald Reagan and his conservative revolution, against the occasional concerned parent who wrote in to accuse Infocom of preaching Satanism via Zork, against the hordes of besuited businesspeople that Al Vezza began hiring as the Cornerstone project ramped up. It’s a shame the humor of Planetfall and his later games remained so relatively tepid in comparison.

Still, Planetfall has many other strengths to recommend it. It manages to be a beautifully crafted traditional adventure while also expanding the form in notable ways. It’s archetypical in its basic structure: a constricted opening act aboard the Feinstein and the life pod get you into the action, followed by a long middle section (at least 85 percent of the game) allowing for free, non-linear exploration and puzzle solving, which funnels at last into an absolutely cracking set-piece finale. You spend the first part of the long middle collecting information, gradually coming to learn that the aliens who used to live here are not dead but merely in suspended animation, having placed themselves there to avoid a deadly plague that was sweeping the planet and that will kill you as well eventually. It gradually becomes clear that you need to repair the planet’s malfunctioning systems and restart the central computer, which was on the verge of discovering a cure for the disease before it crashed. Repairing the systems is, once again, rather shockingly reminiscent of Starcross, requiring you to decipher simple alien machinery and status displays built around colored lights and the like. (Apparently red is the universal color for bad, green the universal color for good.)

In other respects, however, Planetfall departs radically from Starcross. For all that that game’s environment was infinitely more logical and designed than the world of Zork, it had an unreality of its own, an elegant adventure-game symmetry about it that was nothing like the real world. Each object had a purpose. You spent most of your time collecting and using a set of colored rods which each slotted into a single place. When you got to the finale, every object had been tidily utilized, every room explored and its puzzles solved.

Planetfall, by contrast, gleefully throws elegance and tidiness out the window. You begin the game with two red herrings already in your inventory, and the situation doesn’t improve from there. Planetfall has a dark area you can never explore because there is no light source in the game; an enticing helicopter for which there is no key; a pile of useless spare parts to go alongside the couple you actually need; a bunch of useless (in game terms) bathrooms. This sort of thing was unprecedented in 1983. Adventure games simply weren’t done this way, if for no other reason than designers couldn’t afford to waste the space. Predictably, it drove — and still drives — some players crazy. Now you can’t determine what might be useful for solving a given puzzle from what objects you haven’t used yet, can’t ever get a clear sense of just what still remains to be done and what is just a distraction. Yet it also goes a long way toward making Planetfall‘s world feel believable. Really, and Chekhov’s aphorism of the gun aside, why should every object in a world fall neatly into place by the end? (Perhaps the revelation at the end of Starcross that the whole experience was just an elaborate alien intelligence test, which I criticized in my review, suddenly makes more sense in this light.) Even the most often criticized aspects of the game, its rather sprawling map filled with so many empty or useless rooms and the necessity to eat and sleep, play into the new sense of verisimilitude.

This points to an interesting aspect of Planetfall: for all of the comedic trappings, the scenario and the complex that you explore are quite meticulously worked out. Most things in this world work as they should, sometimes to your detriment; try carrying the magnet at the same time as your magnetic card keys and see what happens. As you get deeper into the story and the tragedy that has happened here starts to become clear, the game deepens, the experience becomes richer. There’s almost a sense of horror that kicks in as you begin coughing and feeling weaker and weaker, and realize you are in a race against time — or, more accurately, against the plague. Here Meretzky departs sharply from Douglas Adams, who never worried about the details of his stories beyond what was needed as a scaffold to support his humor. Planetfall rivals Deadline and The Witness as a lived fictional experience, with the added advantage that it’s not as necessary to constantly restart to see it through.

All of that would be more than enough for one game to add to the established adventure-game template. But of course there’s more. We haven’t even mentioned Floyd.

All of the Infocom games prior to Planetfall had contained non-player characters of one sort or another, but none of those characters had been particularly fleshed-out. Even the mysteries had suffered from the need to include several suspects, which, given the harsh space limitations imposed by the Z-Machine, sharply limited their depth. Planetfall, however, takes place, apart from the brief opening sequence, within a deserted environment. Meretzky realized that he could alleviate the resulting sense of sterility by giving the player a sidekick. Further, this character, being essentially the only one in the game, could have a bit more depth, allow a bit more room for empathy on the part of the player than had been the norm.

Floyd is a “multiple purpose robot” whom you find deactivated in a corner fairly early in your explorations. If you search him before switching him on, you’ll likely wonder why he’s carrying a crayon in one of his compartments. Boy, do you have no idea what you’re in for. Turn him on and he springs to life a few turns later:

Suddenly, the robot comes to life and its head starts swivelling about. It notices you and bounds over. "Hi! I'm B-19-7, but to everyperson I'm called Floyd. Are you a doctor-person or a planner-person? That's a nice lower elevator access card you are having there. Let's play Hider-and-Seeker you with me."

From now on Floyd steals the show. He gets all the best lines. Whenever Floyd is involved, Planetfall becomes as funny as it wants to be. And it becomes something more as well. You fall in love with the little guy.

>play with floyd
You play with Floyd for several centichrons until you drop to the floor, exhausted. Floyd pokes at you gleefully. "C'mon! Let's play some more!"


Floyd notices a mouse scurrying by and tries to hide behind you.


You'll probably be asleep before you know it.
You slowly sink into a deep and restful sleep.

...Strangely, you wake to find yourself back home on Gallium. Even more strangely, you are only eight years old again. You are playing with your pet sponge-cat, Swanzo, on the edge of the pond in your backyard. Mom is hanging orange towels on the clothesline. Suddenly the school bully jumps out from behind a bush, grabs you, and pushes your head under the water. You try to scream, but cannot. You feel your life draining away...

***** SEPTEM 7, 11344 *****

You wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the challenges of this mysterious world.
Floyd bounces impatiently at the foot of the bed. "About time you woke up, you lazy bones! Let's explore around some more!"


Floyd produces a crayon from one of his compartments and scrawls his name on the wall.


>get all
multiple purpose robot: You manage to lift Floyd a few inches off the ground, but he is too heavy and you drop him suddenly. Floyd gives a surprised squeal and moves a respectable distance away.


Floyd rubs his head affectionately against your shoulder.


Machine Shop
This room is probably some sort of machine shop filled with a variety of unusual machines. Doorways lead north, east, and west.

Standing against the rear wall is a large dispensing machine with a spout. The dispenser is lined with brightly-colored buttons. The first four buttons, labelled "KUULINTS 1 - 4", are colored red, blue, green, and yellow. The next three buttons, labelled "KATALISTS 1 - 3", are colored gray, brown, and black. The last two buttons are both white. One of these is square and says "BAAS". The other white button is round and says "ASID".
Floyd follows you.

Floyd's eyes light up. "Oh boy! Are we gonna try something dangerous now?"
Floyd pushes one of the dispenser buttons. Fluid pours from the spout and splashes across the floor. Floyd jumps up and down, giggling.


>type 1
The screen clears and some text appears:

"Xe Zoork triloojee, an adventshur klasik, taaks plaas in aa deeliitful but daanjuris undurgrownd seteeng."

"Foor moor deetaald infoormaashun on xis tapik, konsult xe liibrereein foor xe aproopreeit spuulz. Tiip zeeroo tuu goo tuu aa hiiyur levul."
Floyd, peering over your shoulder, says "Oh, I love that game! Solved every problem, except couldn't figure out how to get into white house."


Repair Room
You are in a dimly-lit room, filled with strange machines and wide storage cabinets, all locked. To the south, a narrow stairway leads upward. On the north wall of the room is a very small doorway.
Lying face down at the bottom of the stairs is a motionless robot. It appears to be damaged beyond repair.

It is a robot-sized doorway -- a bit too small for you.

>floyd, n
Floyd squeezes through the opening and is gone for quite a while. You hear thudding noises and squeals of enjoyment. After a while the noise stops, and Floyd emerges, looking downcast. "Floyd found a rubber ball inside. Lots of fun for a while, but must have been old, because it fell apart. Nothing else interesting inside. Just a shiny fromitz board."

>floyd, get board
Floyd shrugs. "If you say so." He vanishes for a few minutes, and returns holding the fromitz board. It seems to be in good shape. He tosses it toward you, and you just manage to catch it before it smashes.

Meretzky may have devoted more text and code to Floyd than had been given to any previous Infocom NPC, but that doesn’t mean it adds up to all that much. Floyd has become a case study in creating more affect with less. In printed form, all of the code and text devoted to Floyd would fill less than ten typewritten pages. There’s very little that you the player can really do to communicate with him or affect his behavior. The gears ought to show through horribly, but somehow they don’t. Floyd’s childlike personality and diction makes it seem a little less weird that he rarely seems to fully understand you when you talk to him. And the relative dearth of text devoted to Floyd can actually work in his favor. We never learn clearly what Floyd actually looks like, although we learn that he has feet (because he can kick us when we fall asleep) and, most strangely, that he can somehow smile. I have a theory that we mentally replace Floyd the robot with whatever strikes us as most appealing — a beloved pet, say, or even a child. Here the medium of text, which lets us all create our own Floyds in our imagination, is key. It makes what eventually happens to him all the more devastating.

There comes another point, like the last one shown above, where you the player are utterly stymied. Once again Floyd comes to the rescue… only this time he pays the ultimate price for his helpfulness.

>look through window
You can see a large laboratory, dimly illuminated. A blue glow comes from a crack in the northern wall of the lab. Shadowy, ominous shapes move about within the room. On the floor, just inside the door, you can see a magnetic-striped card.
Floyd stands on his tiptoes and peers in the window. "Looks dangerous in there," says Floyd. "I don't think you should go inside." He peers in again. "We'll need card there to fix computer. Hmmm... I know! Floyd will get card. Robots are tough. Nothing can hurt robots. You open the door, then Floyd will rush in. Then you close door. When Floyd knocks, open door again. Okay? Go!" Floyd's voice trembles slightly as he waits for you to open the door.

>open door
The door opens and Floyd, pausing only for the briefest moment, plunges into the Bio Lab. Immediately, he is set upon by hideous, mutated monsters! More are heading straight toward the open door! Floyd shrieks and yells to you to close the door.

>close door
The door closes.
From within the lab you hear ferocious growlings, the sounds of a skirmish, and then a high-pitched metallic scream!

Time passes...
You hear, slightly muffled by the door, three fast knocks, followed by the distinctive sound of tearing metal.

>open door
The door opens.
Floyd stumbles out of the Bio Lab, clutching the mini-booth card. The mutations rush toward the open doorway!

>close door
The door closes.
And not a moment too soon! You hear a pounding from the door as the monsters within vent their frustration at losing their prey.

Floyd staggers to the ground, dropping the mini card. He is badly torn apart, with loose wires and broken circuits everywhere. Oil flows from his lubrication system. He obviously has only moments to live.

You drop to your knees and cradle Floyd's head in your lap. Floyd looks up at his friend with half-open eyes. "Floyd did it ... got card. Floyd a good friend, huh?" Quietly, you sing Floyd's favorite song, the Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner:

O, they ruled the solar system
Near ten thousand years before
In their single starcrossed scout ships
Mining ast'roids, spinning lore.

Then one true courageous miner
Spied a spaceship from the stars
Boarded he that alien liner
Out beyond the orb of Mars.

Yes, that ship was filled with danger
Mighty monsters barred his way
Yet he solved the alien myst'ries
Mining quite a lode that day.

O, they ruled the solar system
Near ten thousand years before
'Til one brave advent'rous spirit
Brought that mighty ship to shore.

As you finish the last verse, Floyd smiles with contentment, and then his eyes close as his head rolls to one side. You sit in silence for a moment, in memory of a brave friend who gave his life so that you might live.

Apart only from the famous white house at the beginning of Zork, this is by far the most remembered scene from any Infocom game. It’s also amongst the most crassly manipulative. Meretzky admits that Floyd’s death was very much a calculated move. Having put so many “eggs in the basket” of Floyd, he asked what the best way would be to “cash in” on that connection. Thus poor Floyd had to die. Planetfall was in final testing when Electronic Arts debuted with the famous “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” advertisement. That made the death scene feel even more appropriate: “There was a little touch of budding rivalry there, and I just wanted to head them off at the pass.”

Perhaps death scenes are like sausages; it’s best not to see how they’re made. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. Floyd’s death still gets me every time, and it seems I’m hardly alone. Significantly, while Floyd’s death is generally described as taking place very near the end of the game, this isn’t always necessarily the case. It’s possible for him to sacrifice himself while there is still quite a bit left to be done before the end-game. Such a scenario might be the most heartbreaking of all, as you’re forced to spend quite a lot of time wandering the complex alone. Without Floyd, it feels sadder and more deserted than ever.

The significance of Floyd and the impact of his death was remarked early and often. Just weeks after Planetfall debuted, Softline magazine shockingly spoiled the game by printing Floyd’s death scene on the front cover(!). Inside was a feature article (“Call Me Ishmael: Micros Get the Literary Itch”) that struggled to come to terms with What Floyd Meant for the evolution of adventure gaming.

The rising level of sophistication in the adventure game — that most sophisticated of entertainments ever to pass through a central processing unit — has fain threatened to take it out of the computer junkies’ realm of private delight and toss it into the center ring of popular culture, along with books, plays, and movies. Can it absorb the culture shock and continue to develop and transcend standards that are already high, or will it be homogenized, simplified, and forced to satisfy the lowest social denominator?

Notably, Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn make a prominent contribution to the article, and here refer for the first time to my knowledge to Infocom’s games as “interactive fiction.”

Floyd was introduced to academia by Janet Murray in 1997’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. Since then he has been a football kicked around in a thousand debates. Some, like Murray, point to him as an example of the emotional potential of ludic narrative, while lamenting that there have been so few similar moments in games since Planetfall. Others, like the ever-outspoken Chris Crawford, point out that Floyd’s death is a pre-scripted, unalterable, non-interactive event, and use it as an example of the fundamental limitations of set-piece storytelling in games. It is, of course, ultimately both.

Less discussed than Floyd’s death — and for good reason — is his return at the end of the game.

A team of robot technicians step into the anteroom. They part their ranks, and a familiar figure comes bounding toward you! "Hi!" shouts Floyd, with uncontrolled enthusiasm. "Floyd feeling better now!" Smiling from ear to ear, he says, "Look what Floyd found!" He hands you a helicopter key, a reactor elevator card, and a paddle-ball set. "Maybe we can use them in the sequel...

Floyd’s death may have been manipulative, but this is the worst sort of sentimental pandering. It retroactively devalues everything you felt when Floyd made his sacrifice, turning a tragedy into a practical joke — “Ha! Got ya!” I unabashedly hate everything about it. It was added at the behest of marketing, who were in turn responding to distressed playtesters and were concerned about releasing such a “downer” game. As indicated by the extract above, the potential for a sequel starring Floyd was also no doubt in their minds; it had already become clear during testing that players responded to the little fellow as they had to no one in any of Infocom’s previous games. Marketing at Infocom was usually remarkably willing to stay out of the way of artistic decisions. It’s too bad they made an exception here, and too bad Meretzky didn’t stick to his guns and tell them no. As it is, Planetfall goes down as one of a number of Infocom games that fail to stick the landing.

Released in August of 1983, Planetfall was another solid commercial performer for Infocom. It sold some 21,000 copies in the last months of 1983, followed by almost 44,000 the following year, numbers very close to those of The Witness. That’s just a bit surprising in light of Planetfall‘s name recognition today; it stands as one of the best remembered and best loved of the Infocom games, almost entirely due to Floyd, while The Witness goes relatively unremarked except amongst the hardcore. Nevertheless, Trip Hawkins got his answer far sooner than he ever expected to, while today Planetfall‘s legacy as the first computer game to make us cry stands secure.

(I must thank Jason Scott for sharing with me additional materials from his Get Lamp project for this article. There’s also a very good extended interview with Steve Meretzky in Game Design: Theory and Practice.)


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Steve Meretzky was a boundless fount of creative energy which couldn’t be contained by even his official projects for Infocom, many and varied as they were, and spilled over into daily life around the office in the form of elaborate themed parties, games that ranged from a multiplayer networked version of Boggle played over the DEC minicomputer to intense Diplomacy campaigns, and endless practical jokes. (“Memo hacking” became a particular favorite as Business Products ramped up and more and more buttoned-down business types started to appear in the office.) The lore and legends of daily life at Infocom, eagerly devoured by the faithful via the New Zork Times newsletter, is largely the lore and legends of Steve Meretzky, instigator and ringleader behind so much of the inspired lunacy.

Yet there was also another, oddly left-brained side to Meretzky. He was a compulsive organizer and even a bit of a neat freak; his meticulous and breathtakingly thorough archives informed much of Jason Scott’s Get Lamp project and, by extension, much of the Infocom history on this site. Mike Dornbrook, Infocom’s marketing director, calls Meretzky the most productive creative person he has ever met, one who evinced not a trace of the existential angst that normally accompanies the artistic temperament. Writer’s block was absolutely unknown to him; he could just “turn it on” and pour out work, regardless of what was happening around him or how things stood in his personal life.

But there was still another trait that made Meretzky the dream employee of any manager of creative types: he was literally just happy to be at Infocom, thrilled to be out of a career in construction management and happy to work on whatever project needed him. And so when Dave Lebling decided he’d like to write a mystery game and Marc Blank wanted to work on technology development, leaving the critical second game in the Enchanter trilogy without an author, Meretzky cheerfully agreed to take it on. When a certain famous but mercurial and intimidating author of science-fiction comedies came calling and everyone else shied away from collaborating with him, Meretzky said sure, sounds like fun. And when Tor Books offered Infocom the chance to make a series of Zork books in the mold of the absurdly successful Choose Your Own Adventure line, and everyone on the creative staff turned up their noses at such a lowbrow project even as management rubbed their hands in glee at the dollar figures involved, Meretzky took the whole series on as his moonlighting gig, cranking out four books that were hardly great literature but were better than they needed to be. Most gratifyingly of all, Meretzky ripped through all of these projects in a bare fifteen months whilst offering advice and ideas for other projects and, yes, getting up to all that craziness that New Zork Times readers came to know and cherish. Meretzky was truly a dream employee — and a dream colleague. One senses that if management had asked him to go back to testing after finishing Planetfall he would have just smiled and kicked ass at it.

Sorcerer, his sequel to Enchanter and Infocom’s first game of 1984, was, like so much of Meretzky’s work in this period, a bit of a thankless task. He neither got to devise the overarching plot and mechanics for the trilogy nor to bring things to a real conclusion, merely to write the bridge between fresh beginning and grand climax. Middle works in trilogies have always tended to be problematic for this very reason, and, indeed, Sorcerer is generally the most lightly regarded of the Enchanter games. I won’t really argue with that opinion, but I will say that Sorcerer is a very solid, entertaining work in its own right. It’s just that it gets a bit overshadowed by its towering companions, together arguably the best purely traditional adventure games ever to come out of Infocom, while also lacking the literary and thematic innovations that make games like Planetfall and Infidel — to neither of which it’s actually markedly inferior in overall quality — so interesting for people like me to write about.

Sorcerer casts you as the same budding enchanter you played in the game of that name. Having vanquished Krill, however, your star has risen considerably; you are now a member of magic’s innermost circle, the Circle of Enchanters, and protege of the Leader of the Circle, Belboz. Sorcerer opens with one of its most indelibly Meretzkian sequences. You are snug in your bed inside the Guild of Enchanters — but you don’t actually realize that for a few turns.

You are in a strange location, but you cannot remember how you got here. Everything is hazy, as though viewed through a gauze...

Twisted Forest
You are on a path through a blighted forest. The trees are sickly, and there is no undergrowth at all. One tree here looks climbable. The path, which ends here, continues to the northeast.
A hellhound is racing straight toward you, its open jaws displaying rows of razor-sharp teeth.

>climb tree
Tree Branch
You are on a large gnarled branch of an old and twisted tree.
A giant boa constrictor is slithering along the branch toward you!
The hellhound leaps madly about the base of the tree, gnashing its jaws.

You are empty-handed.
The snake begins wrapping itself around your torso, squeezing the life out of you...

...and a moment later you wake up in a cold sweat and realize you've been dreaming.

Copyright (c) 1984 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SORCERER and INTERLOGIC are trademarks of Infocom, Inc.
Release 4 / Serial number 840131

Your frotz spell seems to have worn off during the night, and it is now pitch black.

Like the similarly dynamic openings of Starcross and Planetfall, albeit on a more modest scale, Sorcerer‘s dream sequence can be a bit of a misnomer. The rest of the game is much more open-ended and much less plot-driven than this sequence might imply. As you explore the conveniently deserted Guild — everyone except you and Belboz have gone into town to shop for the Guild picnic — you soon realize that Belboz has mysteriously disappeared. And so the game is on, fueled by the same sort of magic-based puzzles that served Enchanter so well. Indeed, Meretzky copied the code for the Enchanter magic system wholesale into Sorcerer, along with some of the same spells, which had to be a great help for someone working on as tight a timetable as he was. Sorcerer‘s one big magical innovation is a set of potions to accompany its spell scrolls, something notably absent not only from Enchanter but also from Lebling’s Spellbreaker, the final game of the trilogy.

Like all of the Enchanter trilogy a very traditional game, Sorcerer is divided into two open-ended areas of exploration, the Guild of Enchanters and a sprawling wilderness and underground map which ultimately proves to house Belboz’s abductor, the demon Jeearr (another thoroughly Meretzkian name, and a character who also turns up in the last of the Zork gamebooks he was writing at the same time). The overall feel is looser than Enchanter, with the first game’s understated humor replaced with a more gonzo sensibility that can rub some players the wrong way. This player, who felt that Planetfall often seemed to be trying just a bit too hard, doesn’t exactly find Sorcerer hilarious but never really found it irritating in the way that Meretzky’s earlier game could occasionally be either. Perhaps the fact that Sorcerer wasn’t explicitly billed as a comedy left Meretzky feeling freer not to force the issue at every possible juncture.

Another Planetfall trait, that of lots of Easter eggs and red herrings, is also notable in Sorcerer, but again to a lesser extent. The useless bits, such as a functioning log flume and roller coaster inside the amusement park inexplicably located almost next door to Jeearr’s infernal lair, are mostly good fun. The sadomasochistic “potion of exquisite torture” is a standout that is just a bit risque for the prudish world of adventure gaming:

>drink indigo potion
The potion tastes like a combination of anchovies, prune juice, and garlic powder. As you finish swallowing the potion, a well-muscled troll saunters in. He whacks your head with a wooden two-by-four, grunting "You are playing Sorcerer. It was written by S. Eric Meretzky. You will have fun and enjoy yourself." He repeats this action 999 more times, then vanishes without a trace.

Another great bit comes if you use the aimfiz spell — “transport caster to someone else’s location” — to try to find Meretzky himself:

>cast aimfiz on meretzky
As you cast the spell, the moldy scroll vanishes!
You appear on a road in a far-off province called Cambridge. As you begin choking on the polluted air, a mugger stabs you in the back with a knife. A moment later, a wild-eyed motorist plows over you.

**** You have died ****

Like any old-school adventure game, Sorcerer is full of goofy and often random ways to die, from wandering into a room that’s missing a floor to getting buried under coins by an overenthusiastic slot machine. Still, Meretzky manages to skirt the letter if not quite the spirit of Andrew Plotkin’s Cruelty Scale through the gaspar spell: “provide for your own resurrection.” Gaspar returns you upon your death alive and well to the place where you last cast it, a handy substitute for the technological rather than arcane solution of restoring a saved game. If nothing else, its presence proves that Infocom was thinking about the arbitrary cruelty of most adventure games and wondering if a friendlier approach might be possible. (Space limitations would, however, always limit how far they could travel down this path. It would always be easier to simply kill the player than try to implement the full consequences of a bad — or simply unplanned for — decision.) Another sign of evolving thought on design comes in the form of the berzio potion (“obviate need for food or drink”), which slyly lets you bid adieu to the hunger and thirst timers of Enchanter and Planetfall. A year later, Spellbreaker would not even bother you with the whole tedious concept at all.

As the presence of amusement parks and casinos next to abducted enchanters and demons would imply, Sorcerer doesn’t concern itself at all with the fictional consistency that marked Planetfall or even, for that matter, Enchanter. Plot also takes a back seat for most of the game. You simply explore and solve puzzles until you suddenly bump into Jeearr and remember why you’re here. Likewise, some of the writing is a bit perfunctory if we insist on viewing Sorcerer as a literary experience. That, however, is not its real strength.

I find Meretzky slightly overrated as a writer but considerably underrated as a master of interlocking puzzle design. Sorcerer is full of clever puzzles, one of which, a relatively small part of the brilliant time-travel sequence in the coal mine, represents the last little bit of content which Infocom salvaged from the remaining scraps of the original MIT Zork. Yet it isn’t even one of the most memorable puzzles in Sorcerer; those are all Meretzky originals. In addition to that superb time-travel puzzle, there’s a fascinating thing that seems to be a maze but isn’t — quite. Both time-travel puzzles and pseudo-mazes were already burgeoning traditions at Infocom; both would remain obsessions of the Imps for years to come. Meretzky does both traditions proud here. I won’t say too much more about Sorcerer‘s puzzles simply because you really should enjoy them for yourself if you haven’t already. They’re always entertaining, clever, and (sudden deaths and one tricky sequence involving a timed mail delivery early in the game aside) fair, and don’t deserve to be spoiled by the likes of me.

Sorcerer shipped in March of 1984 in a box that was fairly plebeian for this era of Infocom. The crown jewel was contained inside the box this time, in the form of the infotater, an elaborately illustrated code wheel that was both one of Infocom’s most blatant uses yet of a feely as unabashed copy protection and so cool that it didn’t really matter. The infotater is today among the rarer pieces of Infocom ephemera. It remained in production for just a few months before Infocom switched to a standardized box format that was too small to accommodate it, and were thus forced to replace it with a less interesting table of information on plain paper.

Sorcerer sold decently, although not quite as well as Enchanter or the Zork games. (The steady downward trend in sales of Infocom’s flagship line of fantasy games would soon become a matter of increasing concern — but more on that in future articles.) Lifetime sales would end up in the vicinity of 45,000, with more than two-thirds of those coming in 1984 alone. It’s not one of the more ambitious games of Infocom nor, truth be told, one of the absolute best, but it is a solid, occasionally charming, playable game. If you find yourself in the mood for an enjoyable traditional text adventure that plays relatively fair with you, you could certainly do a lot worse.

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


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The Computerized Hitchhiker’s

Born in Cambridge, England, in 1952, Douglas Adams received a good public boarding-school education at Brentwood School before entering Cambridge University to read English in 1971. His dream, however, was not to become a scholar but to write and — and this is often overlooked — perform comedy like his hero, another ludicrously tall and ungainly-looking British comic named John Cleese. Thus Cambridge was attractive not so much because it was one of the two most storied universities in Britain but because it was the home of the almost equally legendary Footlights theatrical troupe, incubator of Cleese and the rest of his mates in Monty Python and, indeed, a whole generation of British comedy. Adams was eventually accepted by the Footlights, but came gradually over the course of several years to the disheartening realization that he was no John Cleese. He just wasn’t much good as a performer. His stage presence was awkward when not nonexistent, and he could never seem to suppress his big, goofy, good-natured laugh, which was literally infectious; it would suddenly ring out in the middle of a sketch, then quickly spread to his fellow players and derail the entire performance. His career in comedy, if he was to have one, would have to be made off the stage.

Adams, whose social gifts are legendary, managed to make the acquaintance of most of the members of Monty Python while still a starving student. After graduating in 1974, he did some writing for the truncated final season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and also had a couple of onscreen cameos that mark his swansong as a performer. Otherwise, however, his mid-1970s were largely a period of disappointment: an aborted television special that was to feature Ringo Starr (meeting whom must at least have been a huge thrill for Adams the rabid Beatles fan); various other failed or stillborn television specials and pilots; various disappointing stage revues. He was about ready to give it up, move to Hong Kong, and become, of all things, a ship broker, when BBC radio bit on his proposal for a science-fiction comedy serial called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The first of its six half-hour episodes, named by Adams “Fits” in homage to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” premiered on March 8, 1978, with no promotion and in a truly horrid time slot: 10:30 PM on a Wednesday night.

Predictably enough, it pulled a 0.0 in audience share, which would seem to indicate that absolutely no one heard it and that it was destined for the same fate as all of Adams’s previous projects. But the rounding error in that figure was apparently a very vocal lot. Entirely due to word of mouth, ratings increased steadily with each additional episode, prompting the BBC to rerun the entire thing to yet better ratings just two weeks after “Fit the Sixth” concluded the serial. Hitchhiker’s was on its way to becoming a full-fledged phenomenon. Ironically, it happened just as Adams also sold a television script to Doctor Who (“The Pirate Planet”) and took the position of script editor for the series. Suddenly he went from knocking on doors to the heart of the BBC machine, with more work than he could handle; he lasted just a year with Doctor Who before it became clear that the smart move was to ride this Hitchhiker’s thing as far as it could take him.

And that, of course, turned out to be very far indeed. Although conceived before the film’s debut, Hitchhiker’s had the good fortune to premiere just after Star Wars made Britain, like the rest of the Western world, wild for anything science fiction. Adams soon found himself sitting at the nexus of an entire cottage industry, as Hitchhiker’s was adapted into seemingly every medium imaginable: novels (three of them in the initial rush); another six-episode radio serial; another audio version released as two double albums; a six-episode television serial; even theatrical performances. Adams was intimately involved with all of these variations and re-packagings, with the exception only of the plays.

It was, to say the least, a heady time in the life of the still very young Douglas Adams. His first Hitchhiker’s novel was published in October of 1979 and within a few weeks was the bestselling paperback in Britain. Suddenly he was a wealthy and even modestly famous man. He later colorfully described this period as “like having an orgasm with no foreplay.” It was even stranger because the role in which he would enjoy his biggest success, that of novelist, had never been anywhere on his career agenda, a fact which perhaps does a great deal to explain why he would struggle so mightily to actually, you know, write books in the years to follow. Initially a strictly British phenomenon, Hitchhiker’s spread to the United States as well within a year or two, when the books were picked up by Simon and Schuster’s Pocket imprint and PBS broadcast the television version. By 1982, when the third book debuted a bestseller, Hitchhiker’s was firmly ensconced as an institution in nerd culture on both sides of the Atlantic, a place it still occupies to this day. And it looked to have the potential of spreading well beyond the nerds: immediately after finishing the third book, Adams moved to Hollywood to begin working on the script for a Hitchhiker’s feature film to be produced by Ivan Reitman of Animal House fame.

Hitchhiker’s wasn’t the only novelty in nerd culture of the early 1980s. There was also the computer, and computer games. These two things inevitably came together quite early. In 1981, a British civil servant named Bob Chappell decided he’d like to write a text adventure based on Hitchhiker’s for his Commodore PET. He wrote to Adams’s British publisher, Pan Books, to ask permission. With little idea just what he was really on about, they said sure, as long as Pan and Adams himself were properly acknowledged. Chappell made his game, a simple treasure hunt which demanded you return five items to the “Five Artefacts Inn” to win; the parser which did the demanding was “Eddie, your faithful computer” from the novels. Chappell sold the game to software publisher Supersoft for “£500 worth of microchips and assorted programs.” However, the British software market was still in its infancy and the market for PET games — the PET being a fairly expensive machine used primarily for business — was a pretty small part of even that. Thus this original version of Hitchhiker’s made little impression, and seems never to have even been noticed by Adams himself or any of his immediate associates.

"Hitchhiker's" on the BBC Micro

“Hitchhiker’s” on the BBC Micro

"Hitchhiker's" on the Spectrum

“Hitchhiker’s” on the Spectrum

Eighteen months later, the situation had changed dramatically. Not only was Hitchhiker’s more of a phenomenon than ever, but computer use was also exploding in Britain, with Clive Sinclair the toast of the nation. Supersoft decided to give the game another belated push, in new versions for the Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, and Dragon 32. Meanwhile, thanks to the original having been written in easy-to-modify BASIC, clones and variations were starting to pop up on other platforms. At least two companies attempted to sell their own versions: Computer Concepts made one for the BBC Micro, while Estuary Software Products made one for the Speccy and the Apple II.

Those completely unauthorized knockoffs, infringing as they did both on the intellectual property of Supersoft and that of Adams, were easy enough to head off. But the situation with the Supersoft version, thanks to that damned letter from Pan Books, was more complicated. It was pretty obvious to everyone in Adams’s camp that a computer game based on Hitchhiker’s was a natural, what with the demographic intersections at play between computer gamers and Hitchhiker’s fans, but the decision had been made to make any such project a tie-in to the big movie version of the story, for which Reitman and Columbia Pictures had just paid £200,000 and which everyone hoped might be released as early as 1984. “A legal storm is brewing,” announced the British weekly Popular Computing with gleeful anticipation in their April 21, 1983, issue. Sonny Mehta of Pan Books, the people who had created this mess in the first place, said they were “very concerned” about the game. Peter Calver of Supersoft insisted that they had all the permission they needed in that two-year-old letter.

As these things so often do, it all blew over rather anticlimactically. Within two weeks of pronouncing their defiance, Supersoft, apparently deciding it was best not to tangle legally with several companies hundreds or thousands of times bigger than they were, settled out of court, and agreed to remove all Hitchhiker’s references from the game. The game was renamed Cosmic Capers. “Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe” became “Colonel McWimpays, the Fastest Restaurant in the Galaxy”; “Vogons” became “Verrucans”; the “Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal” became the “Barbaric Binge Beast of Bongo”; the “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster” became the “Burgunzian Shazam Shandy”; etc., etc. It wasn’t a particularly good game with or without the Hitchhiker’s license, and sank at last without leaving much of a trace. But still the game of Whack-a-Mole continued. Fantasy Software soon released a very thinly veiled Hitchhiker’s knock-off for the Spectrum called The Backpacker’s Guide to the Universe which at least had the virtue of being an original piece of code. Once again Adams’s lawyers sprung into action, and Fantasy was forced to re-release it as simply Backpacker and take out a series of advertisements in magazines saying that “Backpacker is in no way connected with the works of Douglas Adams.”

The Backpacker's Guide to the Universe

Douglas Adams was paying much more attention as all of this went down for the very good reason that he had himself become an avid computer user in the time since Pan had sent Chappell that troublesome letter. He had been a bit of a gadget freak since his photography classes back at Brentwood, where he found himself fascinated not so much with the art of photography as with the technology — the cameras themselves. Now that he could afford it, he filled his home with cameras, guitars (Adams was something of a frustrated would-be rock star who delighted in palling around with Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, and Paul McCartney’s band), and, of course, cars (he bought his first Porsche with the advance for the first Hitchhiker’s novel and just kept going from there). Computers, when he discovered them, were a natural progression. As with Michael Crichton, another author turned computer enthusiast, his first tentative steps came in the form of a standalone word processor. He’d soon replaced it with a real computer, a DEC Rainbow. Many, many more would follow. More so than even Crichton, for whom hacking was apparently something of a passing phase, Adams would remain a noted computer enthusiast and popularizer for the rest of his life.

Which brings us to Infocom. The story of how Douglas Adams ended up working with them is still somewhat murky. What follows is my best reconstruction of events from the many and occasionally contradictory available sources.

Adams discovered Infocom very soon after he discovered computers. He ended up buying several of their games, developing a particular fascination with Mike Berlyn’s Suspended. He found them a great aid to “not writing” during days in his study; not, as Infocom would soon learn, that he needed much help in that area. One day on a press junket of some sort or another he started discussing computer games with an executive from his American publisher, Simon & Schuster. He said he was rather nonplussed as a whole with what he’d seen, with the exception of this one company, Infocom. Without saying anything more about it to Adams himself, the executive interpreted Adams’s admiration to indicate that he would likely be willing to make a computer version of Hitchhiker’s in partnership with them.

Soon after, Simon & Schuster began to reach out to Infocom with an eye to possibly acquiring them. Whether there is, to borrow from the eventual Infocom Hitchhiker’s game, any causal relationship between these two events is not clear to me; Infocom may already have been on Simon & Schuster’s agenda. What is clear, however, is that Simon & Schuster took Adams’s alleged interest to Infocom when they did reach out, adding the Hitchhiker’s franchise to Star Trek on the list of things they could do for them. It was a tempting proposition indeed. In Mike Dornbrook’s words: “We were interested in both of these things, and we actually had a fairly intense internal debate because we didn’t think we could do both at once.” Then word reached Adams through the grapevine that Simon & Schuster was “dangling him like a carrot” before Infocom. A very unhappy Adams let Simon & Schuster know in no uncertain terms that there was a big gap between an expression of admiration for someone and a proposal of marriage. Adams being the cash cow he was, Simon & Schuster had to keep him happy. They thus had no choice but to go back to Infocom and sheepishly say that, well, the Hitchhiker’s thing might not be such a done deal after all. But hey, there was still Star Trek! The dance between the two companies then continued for many more months.

But Adams was actually not hostile at all to the idea of working with Infocom. He just didn’t like the way that Simon & Schuster had handled it. In fact, there was no legal reason that Simon & Schuster need be involved at all. Yes, they were Adams’s American publisher, but the franchise itself belonged to him, as evidenced by the fact that he had been able to sell the movie rights to Columbia rather than Paramount, who shared with Simon & Schuster the parent company of Gulf and Western. Speaking of that movie: it was starting to look like it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Douglas Adams the scriptwriter had proven underwhelming to Reitman and his colleagues. They said his script was too long, and wasn’t structured the way a three-act commercial blockbuster needed to be. Adams was digging in his heels on the requested changes, and, worst of all, Reitman and Adams mixed like oil and water — or a commercially-oriented Hollywood producer and a quirky British humorist. About the only qualities the two men seemed to share when together in a conference room were stubbornness and arrogance. And then there was Adams’s legendary gift for procrastination. As 1983 ground on and the script failed to progress, Reitman grew more and more infatuated with another far-out comedy that had crossed his desk, a little thing called Ghostbusters which was written by Dan Aykroyd, a Hollywood pro he knew how to deal with. By that autumn he had put Hitchhiker’s on the shelf, where it would linger for many years, much to Adams’s chagrin, to proceed full speed ahead with Ghostbusters. Adams returned to Britain a frustrated man, having just experienced his first real failure since selling that first Hitchhiker’s radio serial. With no need to wait for the movie to make a computer-game version, perhaps an Infocom Hitchhiker’s could serve as something of a consolation prize. After all, apart from film computer games represented about the only medium the franchise had not yet conquered (unauthorized or semi-authorized knockoffs excepted, of course).

Ed Victor, Adams’s agent, therefore contacted Infocom’s Mike Dornbrook through a mutual acquaintance, Christopher Cerf of the Children’s Television Workshop, a fellow who was clearly very interested in interactivity and shows it by continuing to show up as a supporting player to so many of the little dramas I write about in this blog. Dornbrook and Victor hammered out an agreement over the course of several meetings, with only limited input from Adams, who in the words of Dornbrook “would often be at the meetings, but would certainly defer to Ed on any business-related decisions.” Still, a creative problem soon surfaced that, much to Dornbrook’s chagrin, threatened to derail negotiations.

Douglas wanted to work with Marc [Blank] or Mike [Berlyn]. He was dead set on them, because they had written the games that he liked. He really liked Suspended, really wanted to work with Mike Berlyn. Mike Berlyn wanted nothing to do with a collaboration. I was saying, “Oh, my God! We’ve got Douglas Adams desperately wanting to write a game with us! He wants to do Hitchhiker’s with us! There’s no question whether this will be a success!” Who wouldn’t want to work with this incredibly creative guy? But no one wanted to do it.

Just glancing at their relative sales and statures as writers, it does indeed seem incredible that Berlyn would turn down such a career-making opportunity. But these were heady times at Infocom, which prompted many of the still young men who worked there to have a somewhat, shall we say, exaggerated sense of themselves. With the lukewarm, sour-atmosphered Infidel as evidence of the work Mike Berlyn did when pushed into a project he wasn’t enthusiastic about, Dornbrook knew he needed to a) find a new partner for Adams (which was more difficult than it ought to be; Berlyn’s wasn’t the only big ego in the place); and b) sell Adams on whichever Imp he could convince (also no trivial task, given that Adams was another guy flush with commercial success and critical praise who liked things his own way).

At the time, Steve Meretzky was just finishing up Sorcerer. For a next project, Infocom had planned to partner him with science-fiction writer Joe Haldemann on an adaptation of the latter’s 1977 novel All My Sins Remembered. With Haldemann spending a year as a visiting professor at nearby MIT, it seemed the perfect window of opportunity for what would have been Infocom’s first full-on foray into bookware. But Haldemann didn’t seem as enthusiastic as his agent had been, and the project stalled after one or two phone conversations between the two. With Meretzky thus left without an obvious next project, and with the Haldemann project as evidence that he — steady, reliable fellow that he was — would be willing to work as inevitable second fiddle to a name author where the other Imps weren’t, he was the obvious choice. And of course his first game, Planetfall, had been more than a little similar to Hitchhiker’s.

Indeed, Planetfall is so similar to Hitchhiker’s in tone as well as subject matter that most still assume it to have been an homage to Adams’s work from the start. In fact, however, Meretzky had not been aware of Hitchhiker’s at all when writing the game. It was the testers who first told him that, you know, this really feels like something by this guy named Douglas Adams. This prompted him to borrow cassettes of the original series from a friend. He loved them — loved them so much that he added a little tribute in the game, in the form of a towel with “Escape Pod #42” and “Don’t Panic!” stenciled on. That was perhaps a bad move in the long run, because it left many people with the impression that Meretzky had been aping Adams from the start, when it really was just a matter of the proverbial great minds thinking alike. At any rate, as Infocom’s resident comedy-science-fiction Imp Meretzky would seem to have been the natural choice for a partner for Adams from the start. Yet it actually took all of Dornbrook’s charm to sell him on the idea; Adams was apparently entirely unaware of Planetfall, or had dismissed it as yet another cheap knock-off of his work.

Once Adams agreed to Meretzky, the contract was quickly signed. It was quite an ambitious one. Adams and Infocom agreed to do not just one Hitchhiker’s game but six. Given the technical limitations under which Infocom labored, which limited every game to no more than a novella’s worth of total text, each game would cover half of one of the then-extant three Hitchhiker’s books. The deal was signed just as 1983 turned into 1984. The first game should be out in time for Christmas 1984, with another presumably following every year.

Technophile that he was, Adams was hugely excited by the project — probably more excited, in fact, than he was about writing a fourth Hitchhiker’s book, the contract for which he signed at about the same time. He was even briefly taken with the notion of learning ZIL and actually helping to program the game; Meretzky remembers Adams proudly pulling out a simple “3D Tic Tac Toe” game he had written in BASIC to show off his burgeoning programming chops at one of their first meetings. But given Adams’s schedule for the year — which included writing the aforementioned book as well as the game, while also needing to leave time for his many and varied social and recreational pursuits — cooler heads prevailed. In Meretzky’s words: “We’d do the design together, Douglas would write the most important text passages and I’d fill in around them, and I’d do the implementation, meaning the high-level programming using Infocom’s development system.” They would do most of the collaborating electronically using Dialcom, the world’s first commercial email provider, after they spent a week together in Cambridge to get things rolling.

Adams accordingly came to Infocom’s offices in February of 1984 to spend a week hammering out the basic structure of the game with Meretzky. He arrived with no fanfare whatsoever. Stu Galley:

I happened to be walking by the front door when he came in — unescorted, with no one there to welcome him. I had to ask who he was. When he told me, I said, “You probably want to go talk to Joel [Berez] or Marc.”

Looking beyond the obvious commercial attractions, Hitchhiker’s made a pretty great setting for a game. The Achilles heel of any novel-to-game adaptation is generally the plot, specifically the question of what to do when the player deviates from it. But, as Meretzky notes, Hitchhiker’s was more like a grab bag of “characters, locations, technologies, etc., while the story line wasn’t all that important.” Or even more flexibly, as Adams put it in a contemporary interview, “a set of approaches and attitudes, with a few rough ideas about characters.” At first, Meretzky admits that he was “awed” by Adams, while Adams was uncertain about interactivity and how to use it. Meretzky sees this as the explanation for the beginning of the game, which is very linear and quite slavishly follows the opening of the book. Later, however, after the player (as Arthur Dent) and Ford Prefect escape the Earth just as it is destroyed by the Vogons, the game blossoms into its own original, wildly nonlinear design, a reflection of Adams’s growing comfort with the medium and both men’s growing comfort with one another.

Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, February 1984, with the first Mac Adams ever saw

Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, February 1984, with the first Mac Adams ever saw

It was also at Infocom that February that Adams began a love affair that would continue for the rest of his life. As part of his tour around their offices, the Imps took him to the loft above the main floor where the Micro Group kept dozens and dozens of different computers, practically a showroom of all of the significant — and most of the insignificant — microcomputers that were now being or in the recent past had been manufactured. The crown jewel of the collection was a pre-release version of the Apple Macintosh, sent by Apple so that Infocom could have their games on the new machine as quickly as possible. Adams was immediately entranced. He promptly went out to buy one for himself, to take back to Britain with him. He claimed until the end of his life, quite possibly rightly, that this machine was the first Macintosh ever to make it to British soil. By 1985, when he was profiled in MacWorld magazine and thus first began to become known as a zealot for this platform so known for zealotry, he owned three; by 1987, six. The passion never faded. Right up until his death in 2001 he could be found waxing lyrical on the Internet about his collection. By then he required an entire room just to store all his obsolete models. As for the latest models: he “just wanted to hug” them every time he turned them on, just like in the old days. Macs do strange things to some people. Having never caught the bug myself, I’ll say no more, but just get back to 1984.

As everyone at Infocom would learn all too well before the company wound up, counting on Adams to deliver anything on time — or at all, for that matter — was usually a fool’s game. It was typical of him to start a project with huge enthusiasm; thus things went pretty swimmingly over that first week in Cambridge. But once Adams returned to Britain Meretzky found it harder and harder to get any work out of him. He wasn’t the only one: Adams was supposed to be working on that fourth Hitchhiker’s book, also to be in stores in time for Christmas, and had yet to even begin. His various handlers encouraged him to get away from the distractions of a London chock full of far too many shiny objects. So he packed his Saab with books, files, and computers and checked into Huntsham Court, a tiny hotel in Devon. It didn’t help much. In ten weeks there he wrote not a page of the would-be book, although he did develop a new hobby of comparative champagne-shopping and generally enjoyed himself immensely.

In many ways the game was looking quite promising, but there were still huge gaps in the design to be filled. Infocom finally decided to get more confrontational — usually the only way to get any work at all out of Adams after his first blush of enthusiasm for any given thing had faded. In May, shortly after Adams had ensconced himself in his remarkably unproductive writer’s retreat, they sent Meretzky over to join him there for four days, under orders to finish the design at all costs. With the game needing to ship by October to join the Christmas rush and heaps of coding and testing needed before that could happen, it was either that, let Meretzky finish it alone (a bad move politically, especially considering that Infocom hoped to get five more games out of Adams after this one), or postpone it — which would likely mean cancellation in the long run, as it was unlikely that Adams would get any more interested in the future.

Douglas Adams on the beach at Exmoor National Park in May 1984, where he and Steve Meretzky finished the Hitchhiker's design

Douglas Adams on the beach at Exmoor National Park in May 1984, where he and Steve Meretzky finished the Hitchhiker’s design

Meretzky in person proved to have just the right touch; he managed to keep Adams “pretty focused” on the game despite also allowing time for some sightseeing and for enjoying the “opulent cuisine” of Huntsham Court. The two came up with the final puzzle on the last day of the visit on the beach at Exmoor National Park. Then Adams returned to not writing his book, while Meretzky jetted back to the United States for three more weeks of feverish implementing. By July the game was in the hands of the first testers in roughly complete form. In September Adams dropped by Infocom’s offices to work out answers to some final questions raised by the testing process, and that was that.

Until now we’ve been seeing Adams at his most exasperating. Certainly it’s true that he didn’t have to work that terribly hard to earn his co-authorship credit alongside Meretzky; at least 90% of the actual work that went into the game was the latter’s. Meretzky not only did all the programming but also wrote at least as much of the text as Adams. The latter mostly provided just the text for the direct path through the game, leaving Meretzky to deal with all of the side trips and the incorrect and crazy things the player might try as well as any of the boring bridging passages that Adams couldn’t be bothered about. For all the superficial similarities in their humor, the two men’s working habits could hardly have been more different. Meretzky was disciplined, organized, methodical, seemingly immune to writer’s block and artistic angst, a dream employee for any manager of creative types. Adams was… well, Adams was Adams. Suffice to say that the spaceship captain in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe who just can’t seem to will himself out of his bathtub for years at a stretch was based on Adams himself. Although he is unfailingly diplomatic when describing the experience today, Meretzky must have suffered greatly at being saddled to such a temperament. Yet it’s also true, as Meretzky freely admits, that that unique Douglas Adams sensibility was essential to making the game the off-kilter, vaguely subversive creation it became. Who else on the planet would have thought to make “no tea” and “a splitting headache” an inventory object? Who would have thought to make the game lie to you? Who would have thought to make the player’s random typo from dozens of moves ago an integral part of the story? Adams pushed Meretzky to, as Mike Dornbrook puts it, “break the rules” that he’d thought were inviolate.

If Infocom thought they’d had it bad working with Adams, they could rest assured that the book had proven to be an even more nerve-wracking project. Upon Adams’s return to London late that summer with exactly no progress to show for his ten-week writer’s retreat, a desperate Sonny Mehta of Pan Books moved into a hotel suite with him for two weeks, during which he literally stood over him and forced him to write the book. Thanks to a subsequent mad scramble by both his British and American publishers it arrived in stores slightly ahead of the game. Unsurprisingly given its gestation, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is both shorter than and in most people’s opinion worse than its three predecessors. But as for myself: as I wrote in my previous article, I find the book a refreshing change from its predecessors. Go figure.

Having seen Adams at his worst, if not quite his truly infuriating worst, Infocom would now get the opportunity to see him at his best, to learn why so many people adored the guy even as he continually made their lives hell by not doing what he promised to do. Shortly after Adams’s last visit to Infocom that September, Marc Blank and Mike Dornbrook flew to London to plan the game’s promotional strategy. They had over a week there, which they expected to be largely filled with waiting for a few productive meetings with Adams and his people. They didn’t know Adams that well. He loved nothing better than to play the host and entertainer, and with book and game now both complete he could do so without guilt. He and his girlfriend (later wife) Jane Belson filled “almost every waking hour” the pair spent in London, and charmed the hell out of them in the process. Dornbrook:

We’d drive past a building and he would start telling a story. Now, he knew a lot about English history — but the thing was, Jane knew a lot more! Douglas tended to know the commonly accepted story, but she would know what the latest interpretation of that was. Just driving around the city and hearing all this history, and in a very classy, intellectual way, arguing over the history — it was just amazing.

But most amazing of all were the evenings. On his own Adams was already “probably the most interesting dinner companion you could have,” one of the great raconteurs of his time. Despite his reputation as a funnyman, he wasn’t a joke-a-minute kind of guy at all. What he was was deeply interested in and knowledgeable about all sorts of topics, from the universal to the esoteric, with lots of interesting thoughts of his own but also with a willingness to truly listen to and consider those of others. And then there was his guest list. Adams had taken advantage of the fame and fortune Hitchhiker’s had brought him to make the acquaintance of a dizzying cross-section of cultural, technical, and scientific movers and shakers: names like Alan Kay, Salman Rushdie, Bill Gates, David Gilmour. Evenings in Adams’s drawing room were like evenings spent in a classic Paris salon, or, as Mike Dornbrook put it, a visit to a Hollywood movie of the 1930s: “sparkling conversation by very interesting people talking about interesting subjects,” with wine to die for.

One evening Blank and Dornbrook found themselves breaking bread with Alan Coren (editor of Punch magazine), Terry Jones (of Monty Python), and Clive Sinclair in addition to Douglas and Jane. That dinner party, still remembered by Dornbrook as one of the most amazing evenings of his life, would also make its way into the British tabloid press. Adams had just that day received from Pan Books the very first copy of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. The press, for whom Sinclair could still pretty much do no wrong at this stage, would later report that Uncle Clive had insisted that he be allowed to buy it for a huge donation to charity. That account wasn’t precisely wrong, but the details were perhaps a bit more grubby than it might imply.

Adams was proudly showing the book to his guests when Sinclair, who was possessed of loads of imperiousness but very little social empathy, announced that he would like to have the book, to give to his son for his birthday. Adams, rather taken aback, said that he’d be happy to get another copy to him tomorrow, but this one was quite special to him, etc. Whereupon Sinclair offered “£1000 to the charity of your choice!” On the spot and very aware, as always, of his duties as host, Adams cheekily said fine, his choice would be Greenpeace — just about the last charity in the world to which Sinclair, arch-Tory and bosom buddy of Margaret Thatcher, would happily give money. But Sinclair agreed, and poor Adams saw his precious heirloom vanish into Sir Clive’s satchel.

Later in the evening Sinclair tangled with the less accommodating Marc Blank on one of those topics guaranteed to ruffle feathers in any mixed company: evolution. When Sinclair declared that natural selection was not sufficient to explain everything, Blank told him, at first politely but then increasingly less so, that he didn’t understand what he was talking about, and that he, Blank, with a degree in biology and training as a medical doctor, was better qualified to judge. The argument raged for the rest of the evening, while Douglas and Jane fruitlessly tried to change the subject. Later, Blank and Sinclair shared a cab ride home, with poor Dornbrook sitting uncomfortably between them in the “stony silence.” The two would never meet or speak again.

It’s possible that this argument may have had far-reaching consequences for Adams himself. He may have played the tolerant host at that dinner party, but he listened to the conversation keenly. Later in his life, after he became friends with Richard Dawkins, he himself became a noted (not to say strident) advocate for evolution. His biographer M.J. Simpson speculates that his interest in the topic may date from this evening. If so, two of the defining obsessions of Adams’s later life — his advocacy for evolution and his advocacy for the Macintosh — stem from his relatively few direct interactions with Infocom. (Which is not, of course, to say that he wouldn’t have discovered his interest in either by some other medium had he never come into contact with the Imps at all.)

Steve Mereztky introduces the Infocom Hitchhiker's to a packed room inside Rockefeller Center, October 1984

Steve Meretzky introduces the Infocom Hitchhiker’s to a packed room inside Rockefeller Center

Poor Steve Meretzky, the one who had done most of the actual work on the Hitchhiker’s game, didn’t get to experience the Douglas Adams Salon. He was back in Cambridge at the time, swatting the final bugs and prepping the game for release. At least he got a pretty nice consolation prize. Late in October, Adams came over to begin a publicity junket to promote his new book and game. It kicked off with a joint press conference with Meretzky and Infocom at Rockefeller Center, done just like the big boys in entertainment did it. The usual computer-trade-press suspects were almost lost amidst all of the mainstream-media reporters from places like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and even Playboy. Meretzky, barely two years removed from a career as a construction manager, got to stand at the podium in suit and “Don’t Panic!” button and trade jokes and repartee with Douglas Adams while the flash bulbs went off around them. (“I want you to know that I really enjoyed working on this game,” said Adams, “and I’m not just saying that because I’m trying to sell it. That’s only 90% of the reason.”) They were a good match physically as well as creatively; at 6’4″, Meretzky was about the only person from Infocom who could stand next to the 6’5″ Adams without looking like a dwarf. After the press conference the two jetted off to charm press and customers at the Las Vegas Comdex show and in Silicon Valley. Meretzky found it all very exciting, but found Adams’s now long-established press-conference schtick rather exhausting in time; he told the biscuit story from So Long using the exact same words at virtually every stop. He even told it during his somewhat awkward appearance on Late Night with David Letterman; Dave clearly had no real idea what Hitchhiker’s was, and a clearly nervous Adams rather flubbed the punch line. On the bright side, Infocom did at least get the most cursory of plugs on national television, when Letterman, rattling off the standard canned spiel about extant Hitchhiker’s incarnations, mentioned that it was now “even computer software.”

For Infocom, whose corporate rise had been almost as meteoric as Meretzky’s personal rise, this was truly the top of the mountain. Even as Hitchhiker’s soared to the top of the bestseller charts they were being wined and dined by Richard E. Snyder of Simon & Schuster in his private boardroom. Just a week after the Hitchhiker’s shindig in Rockefeller Center they hosted their second (and, as it would turn out, final) big press conference there, to announce their forthcoming database manager Cornerstone. Their booth at that Comdex, where they passed out thousands of free “Don’t Panic!” buttons to all and sundry, was amongst the most frequented and discussed at the show. They got their name onto National Public Radio stations around the country when they sponsored the first Stateside airing in years of the original Hitchhiker’s radio serials. They had truly arrived, and on multiple fronts at that.

Mike Berlyn clowning around on the Infocom assembly line, November 1984

Mike Berlyn clowning around on the Infocom assembly line, November 1984

The Hitchhiker’s game itself was the biggest hit Infocom had ever had, just as Dornbrook had known it would be. They literally couldn’t make them fast enough to meet demand that Christmas. As Meretzky himself recounted in an article for The New Zork Times, Infocom had to take desperate measures. They leased some more warehouse space just to have someplace to put the avalanche of feelies, boxes, manuals, and diskettes coming in for assembly. Ernie Brogmus, Infocom’s production manager, came to Meretzky to ask if he could organize some help from his white-collar colleagues inside the Wheeler Street offices. That evening Meretzky put a sign-up form on the office billboard for twenty volunteers to come to the assembly plant for a seven-hour shift that Sunday. When he arrived in the office next morning at 9:30 there were thirty-five names on it. Forty people actually showed up. Soon Infocom organized a Saturday shift as well as evening shifts: “They were turning up with husbands and wives and mothers and sisters and brothers and friends.” Thanks to such dedication and camaraderie, Infocom in November of 1984 shipped more product than in any month before or after: 62,000 games, 6000 promotional “Sampler Packs,” and 21,000 InvisiClues hint books.

Hithchhiker’s went on to sell almost 300,000 units, over 200,000 of them in its first year, to become Infocom’s all-time second biggest seller, behind only Zork I, the game that had gotten it all started. Reviews were uniformly stellar. About the only grumbling came from some of Adams’s original British fans, who complained at his decision to work with an American company and at the fact that the game was never made available for the biggest home computer in Britain, the Sinclair Spectrum. “He’s putting the boot into his own fans, the British computer industry, and for all he cares the country itself,” wrote one particularly exercised ex-fan in Popular Computing. In Adams and Infocom’s defense, Sinclair’s decision not to produce a disk drive for the Spectrum made it impractical to port Infocom games to the platform. Publishers like Level 9 serving the thriving British adventure market were also a bit stung by the rejection, but to their credit largely seem to have taken it as motivation to improve rather than grounds for sulking.

Hitchhiker’s is not only of huge commercial and historical importance to Infocom and the adventure game; it’s also of huge artistic interest, with sections that almost feel like a deconstruction of the traditional text adventure. Accordingly, and having now given you the historic and commercial context, I think we should look at the game itself in some detail. Besides, it’s a fun one to write about, full of bits just screaming out for annotation. So, we’ll make that the next item on the agenda.

(The most detailed history of Adams’s relationship with Infocom from his standpoint is found in M.J. Simpson’s biography Hitchhiker. For the perspective from within Infocom, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp materials were, as usual, key. Also very useful were the April 1985 Compute!’s Gazette, the April/May 1985 Commodore Power Play, the April 1985 Electronic Games, the October 1982 Your Computer, and issues of Popular Computing from April 21, 1983; May 12, 1983; January 17, 1985; and March 28, 1985. And of course Infocom’s own New Zork Times newsletters from around the period. Oh, and thanks to Steve Meretzky for clearing up a question or two via email.)


Posted by on November 14, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Hitchhiking the Galaxy Infocom-Style

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Given that Hitchhiker’s is both one of the most commercially successful text adventures ever released and one that oozes with interesting things to talk about, I thought I would look at the experience in more detail than I have any Infocom game in quite some time. As we’ll see, Hitchhiker’s is not least interesting in that it manages to represent both a step forward and a step back for Infocom and the art of interactive fiction. What follows is a sort of guided tour of the game.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

As with any Infocom game, the experience of Hitchhiker’s for any original player began long before she put the disk in the drive. It began with the box and its contents. The Hitchhiker’s package is one of the most storied of all from this company that became so famous for their rich packages. It’s bursting with stuff, most of it irrelevant to the actual contents of the disk but all of it fun: an advertising brochure for the titular guidebook;[1]“As seen on Tri-D!” a microscopic space fleet;[2]Easily mistaken for an empty plastic baggie. a set of “peril-sensitive sunglasses”;[3]They turn opaque when danger is at hand to avoid upsetting your delicate sensibilities. The ones in the game package are, naturally, made of black construction paper. a piece of pocket fluff; a set of destruct orders for Arthur Dent’s house and the Earth; the obligatory “Don’t Panic!” button.[4]These were manufactured in huge quantities and given away for some time at trade shows and the like as well as being inserted into game boxes.

Impressive as the packaging is, not all of it was to Douglas Adams’s taste. He hated the gibbering green planet,[5]Or whatever it’s supposed to be. which had been designed and pressed into service by Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint without any input from him when they first began to publish the books in North America. He briefly kicked up a fuss when he saw it leering at him from the Infocom box as well, but Infocom’s contacts at Simon & Schuster, whom Infocom was considering allowing to buy them at just this time and thus preferred to remain on good terms with, had asked with some urgency that it be there. By the time Adams saw the box there wasn’t really time to change it anyway. And so the planet — and I have to agree with him that it’s pretty hideous — remained.

The game proper begins just where the books and the smorgasbord of other variations of Hitchhiker’s did: with you as Arthur Dent waking up hungover in bed on what is going to be “the worst day of your life.” You immediately get a couple of clues that this is not going to be your typical Infocom game. The first command you must enter is “TURN ON LIGHT,” a typical enough action to take upon waking up in a dark bedroom, perhaps, but one that could momentarily stump a seasoned adventurer, so accustomed to living in an object-oriented world where she can only interact with what the game tells her exists around her; the game, you see, never mentions the presence of a light switch or a light. Hitchhiker’s will continue to occasionally accept or demand inputs that you, the Seasoned Adventurer, just don’t expect to work. And then when you dutifully check your starting inventory, you learn that you have “no tea” and “a splitting headache.” Such mixing of the physical and the metaphysical amongst your possessions will also remain an ongoing theme.

Especially if you’re at all familiar with any of the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations, you probably won’t have too many problems getting out of the house and lying in front of Mr. Prosser’s bulldozer to stop (for the moment) the destruction of your house to make room for a new bypass. If you do misjudge things and get yourself killed, you get an early introduction to another of the game’s throughgoing traits: the narrator, or the computerized “game master” if you will, has a voice and personality all his own. Playing Hitchhiker’s is like having a conversation — often an infuriating one — with him.

The bulldozer driver gives a quick chew of his gum and slams in the clutch. The bulldozer piles into the side of your home.

Your home collapses in a cloud of dust, and a stray flying brick hits you squarely on the back of the head. You try to think of some suitable last words, but what with the confusion of the moment and the spinning of your head, you are unable to compose anything pithy and expire in silence.

You keep out of this, you're dead. An ambulance arrives.

>don't panic
You keep out of this, you're dead and should be concentrating on developing a good firm rigor mortis. You are put in the ambulance, which drives away.

For a dead person you are talking too much. As the ambulance reaches the mortuary a fleet of Vogon Constructor ships unexpectedly arrives and demolishes the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

We are about to give you your score. Put on your peril-sensitive sunglasses now. (Hit RETURN or ENTER when ready.) >

The narrator doesn’t just tell you what’s happening. He chats with you, messes with you, has fun at your expense, occasionally lies to you. This isn’t precisely new ground for Infocom; their games going back to Zork I had occasionally broken from being the neutral voice of the simulation to offer quips and funny responses. But it’s much, much more pronounced here, an integral part of the experience instead of just the odd response to the occasional misguided or intentionally bizarre input. A similar smart-alecky narrative voice was par for the course with other versions of Hitchhiker’s and, indeed, kind of Adams’s default persona as a writer. Certainly anyone who’s ever read a Dickens novel knows that a second- or third-person voice doesn’t mean the narrator isn’t a character in the work. But seeing it here… well, that feels significant for anyone who’d like to see interactive fiction as a defensible literary form. Chalk that up as a big step forward.

So, Ford Prefect arrives just as expected to return your towel preparatory to getting off this rock before the Vogons blow it up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. If you haven’t experienced it already, here you are also introduced to another dominant trait: the game’s often arbitrary cruelty. If you simply take the towel Ford offers, he marches away, the Vogons arrive, and it’s game over. No, you have to refuse the towel to force Ford to actually notice your situation and come to the snap decision to take you with him.[6]Ford Prefect’s name, by the way, is one of the subtler jokes in Hitchhiker’s, and one that was entirely lost on American readers. The Ford Prefect, you see, was once a model of automobile in Britain. When the Betelgeusian Ford Prefect chose the name as “nicely inconspicuous,” he did so because he had, as Adams himself later clarified, “mistaken the dominant life form” on the planet.

Ford convinces Prosser to take your place in front of the bulldozer, just like in the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations. You head for the pub, where you consume beer and peanuts to fortify yourselves for the matter transference beam. Then Prosser wises up and knocks down your house after all, prompting you, reenacting the role of the Arthur you remember from the book, to run screaming out of the pub. On the way you meet a hungry dog, who is key to one of the most legendarily cruel puzzles in the game. You need to feed him. As for why… well, that you won’t learn until much later. Then the Vogons show up with appropriate pomp and circumstance, and you and Ford have a bare instant to make your escape.

You wake up in darkness. The puzzle that follows can almost be read as an homage to the original Adventure, which had a maze for which close reading was similarly key. It’s early evidence of another trait of Hitchhiker’s: a tendency to evoke and occasionally subvert the adventuring heritage that preceded it. For instance, it will later hit you with a blessedly fake maze. As David Lebling recently put it, the form by 1984 was old and established enough that it could be parodied.

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

There's nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, you do not even know who you are.

There's nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, you do not even know who you are.

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

It does smell a bit. There's something pungent being waved under your nose. Your head begins to clear. You can make out a shadow moving in the dark.

>examine shadow
The shadow is vaguely Ford Prefect-shaped.

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.
In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter
Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

Ford removes the bottle of Santraginean Mineral Water which he's been waving under your nose. He tells you that you are aboard a Vogon spaceship, and gives you some peanuts.

That “tall dispensing machine” marks the most famous puzzle ever to appear in an Infocom game, or in any text adventure by anyone for that matter. A whole mythology sprung up around it. Infocom did a booming business for a while in “I got the babel fish!” tee-shirts, while it’s still mentioned from time to time today — sometimes, one suspects, by folks who actually know it only as a trope — as the ultimate in cruel puzzles. Yet I’ve always been a bit nonplussed by its reputation. Oh, getting the babel fish from dispenser to auditory canal is a difficult, convoluted game of Mouse Trap which is made yet more difficult by the facts that the dispenser has only a limited number of fish and you have only a limited number of turns in which to work before you’re hauled off to the Vogon captain’s poetry reading. Still, solving this puzzle is far from an insurmountable task. You’re given good feedback upon each failure as to exactly what happened to intercept the babel fish on its journey, while your scope of possibility is somewhat limited by the fact that this is still quite early in the game, when there aren’t yet that many objects to juggle. I feel like its reputation probably stems from this fact that it’s met so early in the game. Thus even most casual players did encounter it — and, it being the first really difficult puzzle, and one of the first for which prior knowledge of the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations was of no use, many or most of those players likely never got any further. The Imps have often noted that most people never finished most of the Infocom games they bought. What with its mass appeal to people who knew nothing of Infocom or adventure games thanks to the license as well as its extreme difficulty, one would presume that Hitchhiker’s had an even more abysmal rate of completion than the norm.

Since solving the babel-fish puzzle[7]Or not. is something of a rite of passage for all adventurers, I won’t totally spoil it here. I will note, however, that the very last step, arguably the most difficult of all, was originally even more difficult.

A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.

The original version didn’t have that crucial parenthesis; it was wisely added at the insistence of Mike Dornbrook, who felt the player deserved just a little nudge.

The babel fish, of course, lets you understand the Vogon language, which is in turn key to getting that atomic vector plotter that is for some reason on display under glass amidst the “smelly bits of alien underwear.” Also key to that endeavor is the Vogon poetry reading to which you’re soon subjected.[8]The original Hitchhiker’s radio serial mentions Vogon poetry as the third worst in the universe. The second is that of the Azgoths of Kria, while the first is that of Paul Neil Milne Johnstone of Earth. Rather astoundingly, Johnstone is actually a real person, a bunk mate of Adams’s back at Brentwood School who would keep him awake nights “scratching this awful poetry about swans and stuff.” Now, it was kind of horrible of Adams to call him out like that (and probably kind of horrible for me to tell this story now), but it just keeps getting better. Poor Johnstone, who was apparently an earnest poet into adult life but not endowed with much humor not of the unintentional stripe, wrote a letter to Time Out magazine that’s as funny as just about anything in Hitchhiker’s:

“Unfortunate that Douglas Adams should choose to reopen a minor incident; that it remains of such consequence to him indicates a certain envy, if not paranoia. Manifest that Adams is being base-minded and mean-spirited, but it is surely unnecessary for Steve Grant [a journalist to whom Adams had told the story] to act as a servile conduit for this pettiness.”

With Johnstone’s lawyers beginning to circle, Paul Neil Milne Johnstone became Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in the book and later adaptations.
What you’re confronted with here is a puzzle far more cruel in my eyes than the babel-fish puzzle. It’s crucial that you get the Vogon captain to extend his reading to two verses; let’s not get into why. Unfortunately, at the end of the first verse he remarks that “you didn’t seem to enjoy my poetry at all” and has you tossed out the airlock. The solution to this conundrum is a bit of lateral thinking that will likely give logical, object-focused players fits: you just have to “ENJOY POETRY.”

>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. It’s undeniably clever, and almost worth any pain for the great line “worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school.” But at heart it’s guess-the-verb, or at least guess-the-phrase, a rather shocking thing to find in an Infocom game of 1984. Now maybe my description of Hitchhiker’s as both progressive and regressive starts to become clearer, as does Dornbrook’s assertion that Adams pushed Meretzky to “break the rules.” A comparison with the babel-fish puzzle shows Hitchhiker’s two puzzling personalities at their extremes. For all its legendary difficulty, the babel-fish puzzle feels to me like a vintage Meretzky puzzle: intricate but logical, responsive to careful reading and experimentation. “ENJOY POETRY,” on the other hand, is all Adams. You either make the necessary intuitive leap or you don’t. If you do, it’s trivial; if you don’t, it’s impossible.

In the session I played before writing this article, something else happened in the midst of the poetry-as-torture-device. Suddenly this long piece of text appeared, apropos of nothing going on at the time:

It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated. For instance, at the exact moment you said "look up vogon in guide" a freak wormhole opened in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried your words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time. A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'Hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G'Gugvunt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green, sweet-smelling steam. As a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, the Vl'Hurg challenged his vile enemy to take back what it had said about his mother.

The creature stirred in its sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words "look up vogon in guide" drifted across the conference table. Unfortunately, in the Vl'hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries. Eventually the error was detected, but over two hundred and fifty thousand worlds, their peoples and cultures perished in the holocaust.

You have destroyed most of a small galaxy. Please pick your words with greater care.

It incorporates an invalid input I had tried earlier, an attempt to look something up in the in-game version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide using syntax the game didn’t much like.[9]It’s fairly persnickety here; you can only “CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT” things. The little story is funny, especially if you haven’t recently read the novel version of Hitchhiker’s; it’s lifted verbatim from a passing riff near the end of the book, with only your invalid input replacing the novel’s version of Arthur’s comment that “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle.”[10]Indeed, it seems to go relatively unremarked just how much text in the game is lifted directly from the novel, another artifact perhaps of the sheer difficulty of getting original prose out of Adams. More interesting to me, however, is what it represents conceptually. In incorporating a spurious input into the story in this way, it represents a sort of breaking of the fourth wall — a fascinating development in light of the fact that Infocom had spent a great deal of effort building said wall in the first place. By the time of Hitchhiker’s they scrupulously distinguished between what I’ll refer to as diegetic commands (things that cause things to happen in the storyworld) and non-diegetic — or, if you like, utility — commands (things like “SAVE” or “RESTORE” or, indeed, invalid inputs that don’t affect the storyworld). For instance, time passes in the story and the turn counter advances only in the case of the former. Infocom’s goal had long ago become to separate the undesirable challenge of interacting with the parser from the desirable one of interacting with the storyworld. Now along comes Adams to muddy it all up again. The difference, of course, is that early text adventures confused the layers of interface and simulation because they didn’t entirely know what they were doing. Adams and Mereztky break the formal rules the way artists do — consciously.

That’s not the end of the fellow in the jeweled battle shorts and his buddy; you’ll be meeting them again soon. But in the meantime you’re thrown out of the Vogon airlock[11]Although hopefully not before collecting the essential atomic vector plotter and picked up at the last possible second by the Heart of Gold, thanks to the magic of Infinite Improbability Physics. You end up in Darkness again, a motif that will continue to recur. You come out of it via another of the game’s most storied bits, the first of two incidents of it flat-out lying to you:

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

You can't go that way.

You can't go that way.

(We were lying about the exit to port.) You emerge from a small doorway...

Entry Bay Number Two
This is an entry bay for the Heart of Gold. A corridor lies aft of here.
There is a sales brochure here.

"This looks like that incredible new Infinite Improbability Drive spaceship, the Heart of Gold!" says Ford, with growing excitement.

"Announcement, announcement. This is Eddie (the shipboard computer). We have just picked up two hitchhikers at an improbability factor of 2 to the 21,914 power to 1 against."

Just as you’d expect from the novel, you soon meet the masters of the Heart of Gold, two-headed party fiend Zaphod Beeblebrox and his Earthling girlfriend Trillian, née Tricia McMillan, whom you (Arthur) once tried to pick up at a party in London only to watch her leave with Zaphod.[12]I’ve always found Zaphod a hilarious character because he was such a walking, talking anachronism even in the early 1980s. He’s just so obviously a creature of the 1970s, from his hippy-dippy diction to his easygoing, lackadaisically stoned take on existence. He’d fit right in in Dazed and Confused. But from here things suddenly diverge from the novel. Your companions all bugger off to the sauna, conveniently removing themselves from the implementation equation and leaving you to explore the Heart of Gold and, eventually, a number of other realities to obtain a collection of tools,[13]Don’t ask. a collection of fluff,[14]Really don’t ask. and, stereotypical Englishman that you are, a good cup of tea. Ford helpfully leaves his copy of the Guide with you; you can “CONSULT” it about an impressive number of things. Some of these entries are just meant for fun, although they are once again often just recycled bits from the book. At least a few, however, are essential reading.

The Heart of Gold also contains the second instance of the game lying to you, this one much more extended.

Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

That entrance leads to the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. It's supposed to be a terribly dangerous area of the ship. Are you sure you want to go in there?

Absolutely sure?

I can tell you don't want to really. You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.

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

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

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

Engine Room
Okay, okay, there are a FEW things to see here. This is the room that houses the powerful Infinite Improbability Generator that drives the Heart of Gold. An exit lies fore of here.
Sitting in the corner is a spare, portable Improbability Generator.
There is an ionic diffusion rasp here.
There is a pair of hypersonic pliers here.

(Footnote 10)

>footnote 10
I guess it isn't all that dangerous a place after all.

Those footnotes which pop up from time to time are another of the game’s blizzard of new ideas — rather pointless really, but good fun.[15]Like (hopefully) the ones I’ve included in this article in homage. Or maybe this is my bid for literary greatness via my own version of Pale Fire.

If you experiment and use the Guide wisely, you’ll eventually find a way to transport yourself into about half a dozen little vignettes, sometimes still in the person of Arthur, sometimes in that of one of your three companions currently slumming it in the sauna. I won’t belabor most of these; this article has to end at some point, after all, and if you do play for yourself you deserve to discover something for yourself. But I do want to talk just a bit about one, or rather two that are closely interrelated, because they involve a puzzle often cited as an example of Hitchhiker’s extreme, downright un-Infocom-like cruelty.

One of the vignettes features our friend of the jeweled battle shorts. It seems that he and his erstwhile enemy have worked out the source of the misunderstanding that led to all those centuries of terrible war: a creature from Earth.[16]This would seem to belie the Guide‘s description of Earth as “harmless,” and even the revised description of it as “mostly harmless.” You’re transported onto the bridge of his flagship as he and his erstwhile enemy hurtle toward your planet, not yet destroyed by the Vogons in this vignette,[17]There’s a joke, or maybe an aphorism, in there somewhere. “Between a Vl’Hurg and a Vogon,” maybe? with malice in their hearts.

War Chamber
Spread before you, astonishingly enough, is the War Chamber of a star battle cruiser. Through the domed canopy of the ship you can see a vast battle fleet flying in formation behind you through the black, glittering emptiness of space. Ahead is a star system towards which you are hurtling at a terrifying speed.
There is an ultra-plasmic vacuum awl here.

Standing near you are two creatures who are gazing at the star system with terrible hatred in their eyes. One is wearing black jewelled battle shorts, and the other is wreathed in a cloud of green, sweet-smelling steam. They are engaged in conversation.

The fleet continues to hurtle sunwards.

If you’re like, oh, about 95% of players, your journey will end abruptly when the battle fleet, which in a fatal oversight on the part of our militant alien friends turns out to be microscopic by the scale of the Earth, is swallowed by a small dog. To prevent this, you needed to have taken the unmotivated (at the time) step of feeding something to the aforementioned dog way back on Earth in the first act of the game, before the Vogons arrived. Horribly cruel, no? Well, yes and no. Another of the vignettes — they appear in random order, thus justifying Meretzky’s assertion that Hitchhiker’s ends up representing one of the “most ruthlessly nonlinear designs we [Infocom] ever did” — has you replaying the opening sequence of the game again, albeit from the perspective of Ford Prefect. You can also feed the dog there. If you fail at a vignette, meanwhile — and that’s very easy to do — you usually “die,” but that’s not as bad as you might expect. You’re merely returned to the Heart of Gold, and can have another go at it later. This mechanism saves Hitchhiker’s repeatedly, and not least in the case of this puzzle, from accusations of relying on extensive learning by death.

Still, there should be no mistake: Hitchhiker’s is punishingly difficult for even the most experienced of adventurers, the most challenging Infocom release since Suspended and the one with the most elements of, shall we say, questionable fairness since the days of Zork II and Deadline. While it is possible to repeat the vignettes until you solve each overarching challenge, it’s painfully easy to leave small things undone. Having “solved” the vignette in the sense of completing its overarching goal, you’re then locked out of experiencing it again, and thus locked out of victory for reasons that are obscure indeed.[18]Zaphod’s sequence is particularly prone to this, to the extent that I’ll offer a hint: look under the seat! One or two puzzles give no immediate feedback after you solve them, which can lead you to think you’re on the wrong track.[19]I’m thinking particularly of growing the plant here. For virtually the entire game after arriving on the Heart of Gold you labor away with no clear idea what it is you’re really supposed to be accomplishing. Sometimes vital properties of things go undescribed just for the hell of it.[20]I’m speaking particularly of the brilliantly Adamsian “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is,” of which it’s vital to know — take this as another tip — that you can put things inside it, even though that’s never noted or implied by its description. And then many of these puzzles are… well, they’re just hard, and at least as often hard in the way of “ENJOY POETRY” as in the way of the babel fish. The “Standard” difficulty label on the box, which was placed there purely due to marketing needs, is the cruelest touch of all.

So, we must ask just how Hitchhiker’s became such an aberration in the general trend of Infocom games to become ever fairer and, yes, easier. Meretzky noted that trend in his interview for Get Lamp and was not, either back in the day or at the time of his interview, entirely happy about it. He felt that wrestling with a game for weeks or months until you had that “Eureka!” moment in the bathtub or the middle of a working day was a huge part of the appeal of the original Zork — an appeal that Infocom was gradually diluting. Thus Meretzky and Adams explicitly discussed his opinion that “adventure games were becoming a little too easy,” and that Hitchhiker’s could be a corrective to that. Normally puzzles that were exceptionally difficult had their edges rounded during Infocom’s extensive testing process. But that didn’t happen for Hitchhiker’s to the extent that it normally did, for a couple of reasons. First, many of these puzzles had been written not by any ordinary Imp but by Douglas Adams; for obvious reasons, Infocom was reluctant to step on his toes. Additionally, the testers didn’t have nearly as much time with Hitchhiker’s as with an ordinary Infocom game, thanks to Adams’s procrastination and the resultant delays and Infocom’s determination to get the game out in time for Christmas. The testers did a pretty good job with the purely technical side; even the first release of Hitchhiker’s is not notably buggy. But there wasn’t time for the usual revisions to the design as a whole even had there been a strong motivation to do them from Infocom’s side. Any lack of such motivation was not down to lack of complaining from the testers: Meretzky admits that they “strongly urged that the game be made easier.”

The decision to go ahead with such a cruel design has been second-guessed by folks within Infocom in the years since, especially in light of the declining commercial fortunes of the company’s post-Hitchhiker’s era. Jon Palace presented a pretty good summary of the too-difficult camp’s arguments in his own Get Lamp interview:

Some have argued that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of the biggest mistakes we made because it introduced a huge audience to a relatively difficult game. The difficulty of the game and its design flaws[21]Palace was no fan of the dog-feeding puzzle in particular. may have turned off the largest new audience we could have had. Perhaps we should have made that game a lot easier. It’s very funny, and it’s got some terrific puzzles. But my point is that if it was the first time people were experiencing an Infocom game, because of the names “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Douglas Adams,” there was only so much Douglas Adams they could get out of it without working harder than they wanted to.

Steve Meretzky, on the other hand, remains unrepetant, as do Mike Dornbrook and others. Dornbrook’s argument, which strikes me as flawed, is essentially that most people didn’t finish most Infocom games anyway — even the easier ones — so Hitchhiker’s difficulty or hypothetical lack thereof didn’t make much difference. I suppose your attitude toward these issues says much about what you want Infocom’s games to be: accessible interactive stories with a literary bent or intricate puzzle boxes. It’s Graham Nelson’s memorable description of interactive fiction as a narrative at war with a crossword writ large yet again. For my part, I think interactive fiction can be either, an opinion apparently shared by Meretzky himself, the man who went on to write both the forthrightly literary A Mind Forever Voyaging and the unabashed puzzle box that is Zork Zero. Yet I do demand that my puzzle boxes play fair, and find that Hitchhiker’s sometimes fails me here. And while I have no objection to the concept of a tougher Infocom game for the hardcore who cut their teeth on Zork,[22]See 1985’s Spellbreaker, which unlike Hitchhiker’s was explicitly billed as exactly that and does a superb job at it. I’m not sure that Hitchhiker’s should have been that game, for the obvious commercial considerations Palace has just outlined for us.

And yet, and yet… it’s hard to see how some of the more problematic aspects of Hitchhiker’s could be divorced from its more brilliant parts. As a final example of that, I want to talk about — and, yes, spoil — one last puzzle, one of the last in the game in fact. By now you’ve collected all of the various bits and pieces from the vignettes and the narrative of the game has rejoined that of the book; the Heart of Gold has landed on the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. You’ve also managed to brew yourself a nice hot cup of tea. Now you need to get inside the room of Marvin the Paranoid Android to convince him to open the ship’s hatch to let you go exploring.

Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

The screening door is closed.

>open door
The door explains, in a haughty tone, that the room is occupied by a super-intelligent robot and that lesser beings (by which it means you) are not to be admitted. "Show me some tiny example of your intelligence," it says, "and maybe, just maybe, I might reconsider."

>consult guide about intelligence
The Guide checks through its Sub-Etha-Net database and eventually comes up with the following entry:

Thirty million generations of philosophers have debated the definition of intelligence. The most popular definition appears in the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation android manuals: "Intelligence is the ability to reconcile totally contradictory situations without going completely bonkers -- for example, having a stomach ache and not having a stomach ache at the same time, holding a hole without the doughnut, having good luck and bad luck simultaneously, or seeing a real estate agent waive his fee."

>get no tea
no tea: Taken.

You have:
no tea
a flowerpot
The Hitchhiker's Guide
a towel
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a babel fish (in your ear)
your gown (being worn)

>open door
The door is almost speechless with admiration. "Wow. Simultaneous tea and no tea. My apologies. You are clearly a heavy-duty philosopher." It opens respectfully.

I’m not quite sure how you make that intuitive leap precisely fair, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live without it. Maybe Hitchhiker’s is fine just the way it is. Soon after, you drink that glorious cup of tea, a feat which, in possibly the most trenchant and certainly the funniest piece of social commentary on the nature of Britishness in the entire game, scores you a full 100 of the game’s total of 400 points. Soon after that you step onto the surface of Magrathea, where “almost instantly the most incredible adventure starts which you’ll have to buy the next game to find out about.” That game, of course, would never materialize. The ludic version of Arthur Dent has remained frozen in amber just outside the Heart of Gold for almost thirty years now, giving Hitchhiker’s claim to one final dubious title: that of the only game in the Infocom canon that doesn’t have an ending.

Crazy and vaguely subversive as it is, Hitchhiker’s would have a massive influence on later works of interactive fiction. Contemporaneous Infocom games are filled with what feels to modern sensibilities like an awful lot of empty rooms that exist only to be mapped and trekked across. Hitchhiker’s, on the other hand, is implemented deeply rather than widely. There are just 31 rooms in the entire game, but virtually every one of them has interesting things to see and do within it. Further, these 31 rooms come not in a single contiguous and unchanging block, but a series of linked dramatic scenes. The Heart of Gold, which contains all of nine rooms, is by far the biggest contiguous area in the game. Hitchhiker’s can thus lay pretty good claim to being the first text adventure to completely abandon the old obsession with geography that defined the likes of Adventure and Zork. Certainly it’s the first Infocom game in which map-making is, even for the most cartographically challenged amongst us, utterly superfluous. This focus on fewer rooms with more to do in them feels rather shockingly modern for a game written in 1984. Ditto the dynamism of most of the scenes, with things always happening around you that demand a reaction. The only place where you can just explore at your leisure is the Heart of Gold.

Many a later game, including such 1990s classics as Curses, Jigsaw, and The Mulldoon Legacy, have used linked vignettes like those in Hitchhiker’s to send the player hopscotching through time and space. More have followed its lead in including books and other materials to be “CONSULT”ed. Even a fair number[23]Not to mention this post. have latched onto the pointless but somehow amusing inclusion of footnotes. Less positively, quite a number of games both inside the interactive-fiction genre and outside of it have tried very hard to mimic Adams’s idiosyncratic brand of humor, generally to less than stellar effect.[24]Tolkien is about the only other generally good author I can think of who has sparked as much bad writing as Adams.

Hitchhiker’s is an original, with a tone and feel unique in the annals of interactive fiction. It breaks the rules and gets away with it. I’m not sure prospective designers should try to copy it in that, but they certainly should play it, as should everyone interested in interactive fiction. It’s easily one of the dozen or so absolutely seminal works in the medium. Fortunately, it’s also the most effortless of all Infocom games to play today, as the BBC has for some years now hosted an online version of it. Yes, there’s lots of graphical gilding around the lily, but at heart it’s still the original text adventure. If you’re interested enough in interactive fiction to make it this far in this article and you still haven’t played it, by all means remedy that right away.

(In addition to the various Get Lamp interviews, Steve Meretzky’s interview in the book Game Design Theory and Practice was very valuable in writing this article.)


1 “As seen on Tri-D!”
2 Easily mistaken for an empty plastic baggie.
3 They turn opaque when danger is at hand to avoid upsetting your delicate sensibilities. The ones in the game package are, naturally, made of black construction paper.
4 These were manufactured in huge quantities and given away for some time at trade shows and the like as well as being inserted into game boxes.
5 Or whatever it’s supposed to be.
6 Ford Prefect’s name, by the way, is one of the subtler jokes in Hitchhiker’s, and one that was entirely lost on American readers. The Ford Prefect, you see, was once a model of automobile in Britain. When the Betelgeusian Ford Prefect chose the name as “nicely inconspicuous,” he did so because he had, as Adams himself later clarified, “mistaken the dominant life form” on the planet.
7 Or not.
8 The original Hitchhiker’s radio serial mentions Vogon poetry as the third worst in the universe. The second is that of the Azgoths of Kria, while the first is that of Paul Neil Milne Johnstone of Earth. Rather astoundingly, Johnstone is actually a real person, a bunk mate of Adams’s back at Brentwood School who would keep him awake nights “scratching this awful poetry about swans and stuff.” Now, it was kind of horrible of Adams to call him out like that (and probably kind of horrible for me to tell this story now), but it just keeps getting better. Poor Johnstone, who was apparently an earnest poet into adult life but not endowed with much humor not of the unintentional stripe, wrote a letter to Time Out magazine that’s as funny as just about anything in Hitchhiker’s:

“Unfortunate that Douglas Adams should choose to reopen a minor incident; that it remains of such consequence to him indicates a certain envy, if not paranoia. Manifest that Adams is being base-minded and mean-spirited, but it is surely unnecessary for Steve Grant [a journalist to whom Adams had told the story] to act as a servile conduit for this pettiness.”

With Johnstone’s lawyers beginning to circle, Paul Neil Milne Johnstone became Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in the book and later adaptations.

9 It’s fairly persnickety here; you can only “CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT” things.
10 Indeed, it seems to go relatively unremarked just how much text in the game is lifted directly from the novel, another artifact perhaps of the sheer difficulty of getting original prose out of Adams.
11 Although hopefully not before collecting the essential atomic vector plotter
12 I’ve always found Zaphod a hilarious character because he was such a walking, talking anachronism even in the early 1980s. He’s just so obviously a creature of the 1970s, from his hippy-dippy diction to his easygoing, lackadaisically stoned take on existence. He’d fit right in in Dazed and Confused.
13 Don’t ask.
14 Really don’t ask.
15 Like (hopefully) the ones I’ve included in this article in homage. Or maybe this is my bid for literary greatness via my own version of Pale Fire.
16 This would seem to belie the Guide‘s description of Earth as “harmless,” and even the revised description of it as “mostly harmless.”
17 There’s a joke, or maybe an aphorism, in there somewhere. “Between a Vl’Hurg and a Vogon,” maybe?
18 Zaphod’s sequence is particularly prone to this, to the extent that I’ll offer a hint: look under the seat!
19 I’m thinking particularly of growing the plant here.
20 I’m speaking particularly of the brilliantly Adamsian “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is,” of which it’s vital to know — take this as another tip — that you can put things inside it, even though that’s never noted or implied by its description.
21 Palace was no fan of the dog-feeding puzzle in particular.
22 See 1985’s Spellbreaker, which unlike Hitchhiker’s was explicitly billed as exactly that and does a superb job at it.
23 Not to mention this post.
24 Tolkien is about the only other generally good author I can think of who has sparked as much bad writing as Adams.

Posted by on November 19, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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A Mind Forever Voyaging, Part 1: Steve Meretzky’s Interiors

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Steve Meretzky earned the right to write A Mind Forever Voyaging. That, anyway, is one way to look at it, and one with which I believe many staffers at Infocom tacitly agreed. After his first game, Planetfall, his next two games had been works created to specifications with cheerful equanimity and breathtaking efficiency and not a trace of artistic angst. First there had been Sorcerer, the necessary second installment in the Enchanter trilogy that freed up Marc Blank to work on technology and Dave Lebling to write Suspect. And then of course there was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which fell into Meretzky’s lap because he was the only available Imp willing to play the subordinate role in a creative partnership with Douglas Adams. That game’s huge sales were almost certainly the only thing that allowed Infocom to survive (after a fashion) their disastrous 1985, thus making Meretzky in some sense the savior of everyone still employed there. Throw in the four contract-fulfilling Zork gamebooks he cranked out betwixt and between the computer games, plus all the help he gave to others with their designs, plus the way he just kept everyone insanely sane during all of the trials of the Cornerstone era with his parties and games and antics… yeah, Meretzky deserved carte blanche to make his next game exactly what he wanted it to be.

As funny a guy as he was, Meretzky was interested in being more than just Infocom’s go-to wacky comedy writer. Indeed, and even setting aside Floyd, anyone really looking at Planetfall can’t help but see an attention to science-fictional realism, even a certain amount of earnest worldbuilding, that its oft-cited similarity to Douglas Adams’s just-in-it-for-the-jokes settings and characters belies. Had he had his druthers, Meretzky’s follow-up to Planetfall may very well have been a carefully researched and very sober historical piece taking place aboard the Titanic. “Meretzky’s Titanic game” hung about Infocom so long and was proposed by him so many times that it became a running joke in itself. The rest of the company never warmed to the idea, feeling it lacked commercial potential — an extraordinary judgment call indeed in light of a certain movie from the following decade. Then again, Meretzky didn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio.

But in the immediate aftermath of Hitchhiker’s in late 1984, with complete carte blanche for the first and only time during his tenure with Infocom, Meretzky decided to go in another direction entirely. Even as he was basking in the glow of Hitchhiker’s huge initial sales and publicity, Ronald Reagan was defeating Walter Mondale in one of the biggest routs in American electoral history; Mondale carried exactly 1 state to Reagan’s 49.

The impetus to start working on it was Reagan’s reelection. I was appalled that he was not only reelected but reelected in a landslide. Everyone was talking about what an absorbing medium computer games in general and particularly interactive fiction was because even when you weren’t playing you were spending all your time thinking about it. You were always working on puzzles. When you were playing you were absorbed in it 100 percent, and when you weren’t playing part of your brain was still working on it, thinking about it.

I thought about how other media were constantly trying to get messages across, change people’s thinking. It seemed to me that interactive fiction could be an even more powerful medium for doing that. So that was my mission. I wanted to show people what a war-mongering, Christian-Right-pandering, environment-trashing, rights-trampling asshole Reagan was.

And of course the game was so successful that we’ve never had another President like that!

The question of just how to convey that message within the context of an interesting, playable work of interactive fiction was rather more fraught than the above description might imply. Could interactive fiction change hearts and minds the way that Art does it, not by offering reasoned arguments but by making the player really see and feel? Whatever else you could say about them, adventure games — even Infocom’s interactive fiction — hadn’t been doing a lot of that sort of thing. They’d been more than content to work within safe, established, inoffensive genre boundaries, a defensible enough choice at a time when just offering, say, a reasonably good interactive facsimile of a forgettable mystery novel could be rightly greeted as an amazing achievement. There had been glimpses of potential to do and be more, like Floyd’s death in Planetfall or Infidel‘s shocking ending. But could something like that be maintained over the course of an entire work? Sure, Meretzky could craft a broad satire in which Reagan would stand in for Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive, but he wanted to do something more thoughtful, more expressive.

Interactive fiction is an almost perversely limited medium from the perspective of a writer of static fiction. There are many, many things that it just can’t do well, and any sort of direct facsimile of literary fiction, even literary science fiction, is one of them. Such works invariably end up being either fundamentally un-interactive, the proverbial railroaded novel separated by the occasional command prompt, or impossible to implement; the grand bargains and life choices that are the stuff of literature represent a combinatorial explosion with which interactive fiction is utterly unequipped to deal. This doesn’t mean that interactive fiction can’t move and change us. It does, however, mean that its authors must approach their goals in different, more oblique ways than conventional authors.

Steve Meretzky, about to craft the first largely puzzleless work of interactive fiction ever to be released by a publisher, intuitively grasped this reality that has eluded many would-be “literary” interactive-fiction authors since. The central premise of the game that would become A Mind Forever Voyaging came to him one day at his breakfast table. It was an idea that played perfectly to his medium’s strengths. Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer? He would make the player’s avatar a “self-aware computer” observing the effects of Republican policies over a span of decades inside a simulation. There would still be room for player agency, secrets to be found and hidden corners to be investigated. But the larger-scale machinery of the simulation could grind on largely unaffected by this. A cop out? Perhaps, but also a brilliant one. The rest of the story — about the computer, named PRISM, and how he came to be — now began to flow.

Cop out or not, Meretzky’s idea was still hugely ambitious. He wanted to do nothing less than create a whole city in software not once but five times — the same place over a span of five decades. And woven around this central simulation would have to be a lot more material relating to PRISM’s operation and his exploratory mission. The scale of the whole was out of line with anything Infocom had attempted since the original PDP-10 Zork — you know, the one they’d had to chop into pieces to get onto microcomputers. Thankfully, Meretzky had a trump card in the form of a new technology that had been born at Infocom during 1984.

The system would be known to the world as Interactive Fiction Plus, and internally as either the version 4 Z-Machine or just EZIP. (“Extended Z-Machine Interpreter”; ordinary interpreters were customarily called “ZIPs,” a name which has nothing to do with the compression format of the same name.) The Imps had been growing increasingly frustrated with the Z-Machine, with its sharp limitations of 128 K of total code and data (allowing at best a short novella’s worth of text), its maximum of 256 objects (a much more restrictive number than it might appear at first glance when you consider that objects included not only items in the game but also rooms, your avatar and other people and animals, and even various abstractions like compass directions), its support for nothing more elaborate in the way of onscreen formatting than a fixed status line and a scrolling stream of text. They were aching to push their worlds and their parsers further than the cramped Z-Machine could allow.

Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn, who made a surprising but enduring pair of running buddies, worked toward a next-generation technology for interactive fiction even as Berlyn was also heading the cross-platform graphics initiative and designing Fooblitzky and also writing Cutthroats. They dreamed of a parser capable of understanding “kinds and qualities,” capable of facilitating real conversations with other characters. Blank:

We worked on it for quite a while before we realized it just wasn’t getting anywhere. It was too open-ended; it was hard to know where to go with it and what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, where you build a big world you can wander around in but not much happens? We kind of hit a wall.

It of course didn’t help that Cornerstone was continuing to suck more and more oxygen away from such blue-sky initiatives, nor that Blank himself was getting more and more distracted and embroiled in his disputes with Al Vezza and the rest of the Board. Berlyn and Blank’s grander plans never saw the light of day. However, the more plebeian technological foundation Blank had laid to support them did as Interactive Fiction Plus.

EZIP extended the basic Z-Machine in a fairly elegant, straightforward way. Maximum story size doubled to 256 K. The maximum number of objects expanded to a number big enough that nobody would ever, ever — even in the modern era — need to think about it again. A modest new set of opcodes building on work that had been begun to facilitate Seastalker‘s sonar display gave some new options for text layout and screen formatting. And that was about it really. Still, it should be just enough to let Meretzky build his city.

The luxuries of EZIP didn’t come without a steep price tag. Getting EZIP onto many of the target machines stretched the considerable talents of Dan Horn’s Micro Group to the limit. Andrew Kaluzniacki, for instance, had to invent a new filesystem for the Apple II to increase the capacity of a disk side. Even with such wizardry the new system was simply too much for a huge swathe of the many machines Infocom supported with the standard Z-Machine, like the Commodore 64, the Atari 8-bit line, and the many extant Apple IIs with less than 128 K of memory. The lowest common denominator for EZIP would have to be a machine with 128 K and an 80-column text display.

That looked like a dangerous move, especially in 1984 before the arrival of many of the more powerful consumer-focused machines of the latter 1980s like the Commodore 128 and Amiga and the Atari ST. But even then it wasn’t completely unprecedented. Sierra had elected to make 128 K a requirement for King’s Quest and its sequels, and had done quite well commercially by it. In fact, that game seemed to have discovered an audience of players with higher-speced machines who bought it because it required 128 K and thus was presumably more advanced than others on the market. Perhaps a similar touch of snobbery would rub off on Interactive Fiction Plus.

It was just one more way in which Meretzky’s project was an iffy proposition. Yet he got remarkably little pushback from marketing or anyone else about his game. He had gotten it off the ground at the perfect time, just before the disasters of 1985 would make such a risky project look crazy indeed to the embattled company. By the time the full horror of their financial situation started to become clear around mid-year, the game was far too far along to stop even had anyone seriously wanted to. But it’s far from clear that anyone did. Even Dave Lebling, the most conservative of the Imps and thus the most likely to find Meretzky’s game objectionable, declared that he was fine with the game, that it was a point of view which Meretzky had every right to express.

It was “Hollywood” Dave Anderson, a key tester who would later become an Implementor in his own right, who gave the project its enduring label inside Infocom: “Steve Meretzky’s Interiors.” Interiors, for those of you who aren’t Woody Allen fans, was Allen’s 1978 follow-up to the Best Picture-winning Annie Hall. All of Allen’s previous films had been comedies, if funny in increasingly nuanced ways. Interiors, however, was a complete departure, a somber Bergman-esque character study that begins with a separation and ends with a suicide, with nary a laugh in between. Allen later incorporated the reaction of many of his fans into Stardust Memories, whose filmmaker protagonist is constantly being asked when he’s going to get back to making “funny” movies again. Anderson’s epithet knowingly or unknowingly foreshadowed the similar reaction many of Infocom’s fans would soon have to Meretzky’s great artistic experiment.

Meretzky found a particularly great supporter and booster in Jon Palace, who still names the game today as by far his favorite. Palace, who when hired at the beginning of 1984 had not even known what interactive fiction was, had become one of the foremost proponents within Infocom of the medium’s potential to be meaningful and relevant and beautiful — to be Art. Many of the more experimental games of Infocom’s second half, beginning with A Mind Forever Voyaging, owe Palace an enormous debt for his dedication to the proposition of Infocom interactive fiction as something more than endless Zork rehashes even as times got leaner and commercial pressures mounted. Palace:

I really tried to emphasize the storytelling aspect rather than the puzzle aspect just because that’s what I liked. AMFV started as a story without puzzles, and even though puzzles went back in AMFV was about the story. It wasn’t about the puzzles. I was very, very pleased with that one.

At the same time, its reception was definitely mixed. A lot of the rabid puzzle-loving fans did not like it. They might have liked the politics — or maybe they didn’t like the politics — but some people did not like the lack of puzzles. But for me it was, like, “Great! Look, we can really elicit an emotional response!” — an emotional response which isn’t trite. That for me was the best.

Meretzky hugely valued Palace’s unstinting “advice and support” as he ventured into these uncharted waters, thanking him lastly and most prominently in the acknowledgements of the finished game.

Called simply PRISM through most of its development, A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s final name is lifted from a passage in William Wordsworth’s lifetime endeavor, the epic narrative poem The Prelude. There it’s applied to Isaac Newton, a statue of whom stood near the “nook obscure” where the young Wordsworth slept at Cambridge:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

The original Apple Computer logo

The original Apple Computer logo

It’s a passage that already had a place in hacker lore long before Meretzky stumbled upon it in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The first logo deployed by the nascent Apple Computer, created by the company’s forgotten third founder Ronald Gerald Wayne using pen and ink, consisted of a picture of Newton leaning against a tree, with the end of the passage quoted above running along the border. The very un-Apple-like logo didn’t last long; neither did Wayne, who sold his share back to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for $800 less than two weeks later.

While the strong political message remained, A Mind Forever Voyaging gradually evolved into a scenario much more complicated than Meretzky’s initial determination simply to out Reagan as an “asshole” might imply. Drawing upon the knowledge of artificial-intelligence theory which the collection of refugees from MIT’s Lab for Computer Science surrounding him possessed in spades, he created a detailed backstory for Perry Simm — i.e., PRISM — as an entity who has unknowingly lived his first two decades inside a computer simulation before suddenly being jerked out of his simulated reality and into the real world, to be assigned the mission of investigating the likely effects of one Senator Richard Ryder’s Plan for Renewed National Purpose on his home town, the fictional Rockvil, South Dakota, ten years in the future. The “present” in the game’s world is 2031, with simulated futures eventually reaching as far as 2081, making A Mind Forever Voyaging one more entry in science fiction’s huge catalog of works that are ostensibly about the future but really about the here and now. The implications and philosophical questions that surround Perry’s simulated version of existence, many of which the game doesn’t directly address and sometimes seems oddly oblivious of, end up being at least as intriguing as its more straightforward political message.

A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t the unblemished masterpiece many fans accuse it of being. The writing is compelling in many places, cursory in other places, gawky and awkward in yet others — sometimes endearingly so and sometimes just, well, awkwardly so. The sprawling city of Rockvil itself, impressive as it is as by far the largest contiguous space ever to appear in an Infocom game, is also often only sketchily implemented and described. (Much of this is certainly down to the space limitations of even the version 4 Z-Machine; the final game file reportedly has about ten bytes to spare, not enough for even a single extra sentence.) The dystopia that gradually emerges as you progress further into the simulation is, to say the least, rather derivative of Nineteen Eighty-Four; even some of the vocabulary, like “lustfilm” and “hatefilm,” seems lifted straight from a Newspeak dictionary. And as political commentary it’s at best simplistic and heavy-handed.

Yet A Mind Forever Voyaging manages the neat trick of being interesting because of its flaws rather than despite them. It’s a big, messy piece of work that tries to do a lot of things with mixed success even as it sort of accidentally does other things that I’m not entirely sure its maker was even aware of. Its nooks and crannies offer a downright bewildering number of things to talk about, seemingly endless philosophical tangents to wander down. While I can’t promise we’ll get to all of them, we are going to take our time here, not only because it’s one of the most significant games in interactive-fiction history but also because — and more so, really — the ideas it contains are just so interesting to think about. Thus the “Part 1” in this article’s title. With its history and technical logistics behind us, we’ll be ready next time to delve into the game itself.

(This and the following articles are drawn from, in addition to the game itself, my usual Infocom source of Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interview archives. Also useful was the Steve Meretzky interview in Richard Rouse III’s Game Design: Theory and Practice.)


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