Category Archives: interactive fiction

Not Mostly Harmless

How to Torture Gamers Without Even Trying

Woe to the poor gamer who slid the floppy for Infocom’s computer adventure game adaptation of Douglas Adams’ seminal book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into their unsuspecting drive. Not because it was a bad game; it wasn’t. Unless you mean bad as evil. Then it was very, very bad, indeed.

Adams was an early technophile, quickly falling in love with the Apple II, and subsequently with Apple’s revolutionary Macintosh computer. He was also fond of Infocom’s adventure games, and signed a multi-game deal with the company in early 1984. Paired with famed Infocom game implementer Steve Meretzky, the two banged out the Hitchhiker’s game over a six month period; Adams writing passages in England and emailing them to Meretzky in Cambridge, MA. Meretzky ended up having to chase famous procrastinator Adams down to a remote British resort  to finish work on the game.

Cover of Hitchhiker's game, Atari 8-bit computers version

Cover of Hitchhiker’s game, Atari 8-bit computers version

 

Upon release in late 1984, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a huge hit, moving over a quarter of a million copies. Breaking many cardinal rules then established in interactive fiction, it also caused a million hairs to be pulled out by frustrated gamers. Transgressions included outright lying to the player about available directions to travel in, and even what the player was able to see. It also often required players to have read the book to know what to do in certain situations. Perhaps worst of all, a favourite torture of Adams was to let you miss some critical piece of equipment during a scene that would cause the game to dead-end later, with no recourse but to reload a save or replay the game. At times it seemed that Hitchhiker’s was purposefully created as a ploy by Infocom to sell more of their Invisiclue hint books.

These brutalities aside, Hitchhiker’s is still an entertaining and interactive excursion through one of the greatest science fiction comedies of all time.

For more information on Hitchhiker’s and Infocom, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory.

Ad for Infocom's computer text adventure game Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams

Raise a beer to the great Douglas Adams, 1985 Ad

 

Excerpt from Zork cover art.

Zorked: The Story of Infocom

I’d be hard-pressed to do a review of the computer gaming I did in my youth and not dedicate an entire chapter to the wonderful text-adventures put out by Infocom in the 80′s.

I remember that the first disk I ever bought for my gigantic 1541 floppy drive, newly attached to my Commodore 64, was a Commodore-labelled version of Infocom’s Zork.  Just a few minutes exploring the surface landscape and then delving deep into an ever-expanding Underground Empire had me hooked.

Box art for Zork, a computer text adventure game for the TRS-80, by Infocom 1980

Zork, TRS-80 version

Starting as an answer to Crowther and Wood’s original Adventure text adventure, a group of MIT students designed Zork as a program on a mainframe computer, and eventually developed a system to port it to personal computers. After an initial release by VisiCalc makers Personal Software, the Infocom team decided to publish the games themselves, and hence was a computer game giant created.

Ten Zork games were eventually produced, along with a huge library of other works spanning genres such as science fiction, history, mysteries, fantasy, and on and on.  When Douglas Adams got wind of what Infocom is doing with interactive fiction, he signed on with the company to adapt his seminal comedy science fiction book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  From this unholy pairing of Adams and Infocom “IMP” Steve Meretsky would come one of the most cruel, diabolical computer games of all time.

Even as graphics eventually supplanted text and the human imagination as the canvas of computer game design, the great writing and intricate design of Infocom’s worlds kept me visiting them. For our full history of Zork and Infocom, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

It is pitch black…

Perhaps you’re like me, and one of the very first gaming experiences you had on a computer was a text adventure.

Sometimes a person is lucky enough to have a first experience, a first taste of something, that is so amazingly, compellingly good that it forever shapes how they think about that thing.  For me, that first thing was Infocom‘s Zork, and it gave me a lifelong love of computers and gaming.

The text adventure was a genre that ruled the landscape of early computer gaming, until advancing graphics technology inevitably supplanted text as the canvas for creating worlds on personal computers. GET LAMP, a documentary directed by Jason Scott, takes a close look at the genre, from its inception as Will Crowther‘s original cave-diving Adventure, to its perfection at Infocom, to its effective demise in the late 80′s and resurgence in the modern era as home-grown Interactive Fiction.

As the premiere text adventure company of the era, a particular light is shone on Infocom, producer of  classics such as the aformentioned Zork games, Deadline, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… the list is exhaustive.  Interviews of those involved are numerous and informative, and form a captivating narrative about the company and what it was like to work there.  It’s fascinating to hear the founders and game designers talk about how they were convinced they were on the cusp of creating a new type of literature that would stand the test of time.  Now we look back with 20/20 vision and it seems so obvious that the writing was on the wall for Infocom even as it began making games, that inherent in the very idea of text adventure computer games is the seed that will sow the company’s destruction.  It was inevitable that game designers, inspired by Infocom games, would eventually want to move on from monochromatic text and turn the lights on to see what is actually there.  As well, hobbyist IF writers and players also feature in segments that highlight the fact that text adventures have survived and thrived after the demise of Infocom.  Be sure to keep an eye out for a secret item in these interview segments.

Call them text adventures, or adventure games, or the more grandiose interactive fiction, these types of games created entire worlds only with words on a screen.  GET LAMP brightly illuminates the forgotten dark corners, hallways and caverns of these worlds and the people who crafted them.  Good thing too, because you don’t want to end up reading these words:

…you were eaten by a Grue.