Sunday, November 3, 2013

Infocom's graphics

This is the stumbling block for a lot of people: up to a certain point (Zork Zero in 1988) these games are purely text. Like this blog, if, instead of showing you ads and writing about them, I just wrote about them. (But more interactive, except for Matthew Harris.) But this blog doesn't go to lengths to be immersive and won't seductively draw you into its rich world with its surprisingly rigorous simulationist nature (sad but true); Infocom's marketing division (and the advertising genii at Giardini/Russell aka G/R Copy) took the unusual tack of presenting the weakness as a strength instead, turning around at the first listing of the Uncanny Valley on a highway exit sign and devoting its resources into a system extraordinarily well suited to understanding natural language input for the solution of puzzles involving moving around medium quantities of dry goods on early microcomputers. The games weren't pretty, but they were smart.
WE STICK OUR G RAPHICS WHERE
THE SUN D ON'T SHINE.

You'll never see Infocom's graphics on any computer screen. Because there's never been a computer built by man that could handle the images we produce. And there never will be. We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination -— a technology so powerful, it makes every picture that's ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison. And nobody knows how to unleash your imagination like Infocom.

Through our prose, your imagination makes you part of our stories, in control of what you do and where you go -- yet unable to predict or control the course of events. You're confronted with situations and logical puzzles the like of which you won't find elsewhere. And you're immersed in rich environments alive with personalities as real as any you'll meet in the flesh -— yet all the more vivid because they're perceived directly by your mind's eye, not through your external senses. The method to this magic? We've found the way to plug our prose right into your psyche, and catapult you into a whole new dimension.

Take some tough critics' words about our words. SOFTALK, for example, called ZORK® Ill's prose "far more graphic than any depiction yet achieved by an adventure with graphics." And the NEW YORK TIMES saw fit to print that our DEADLINE™ is "an amazing feat of programming." Even a journal as video-oriented as ELECTRONIC GAMES found Infocom prose to be such an eye-opener they named one of our games their Best Adventure of 1983.

Better still, bring an Infocom game home with you. Discover firsthand why thousands upon thousands of discriminating game players keep turning everything we write into instantaneous bestsellers.

Step up to Infocom. All words. No graffiti. The secret reaches of your mind are beckoning. A whole new dimension is in there waiting for you.

This one is cheeky and promotes recent releases Zork 3, Deadline, Starcross and Suspended with the original, nonstandardized boxes that were tricky to keep on the shelf. There's another take on the same ad, from slightly later, with a different headline, one that deals with the page layout gutter slightly more adeptly. Thanks to Bart Day for scanning it up for me! Here it is:
WE UNLEASH THE WORLD'S MOST
POWERFUL GRAPHICS TECHNOLOGY.
That later ad still promotes Zork 3 and Deadline, now with Enchanter, Infidel, Planetfall and The Witness. Also at this point they explicitly supports all the usual gang -- Apple, Atari, Commodore, TRS-80, TI, plus: CP/M 8, DEC Rainbow, DEC RT-11, NEC APC, NEC PC-8000, Osborne -- and it's neat how IBM and MS-DOS 2.0 are listed separately, a reminder that DOS was only one of three potential OSes for the original PC.

It's hard to know if the claim is true: for certain the final games released bearing the Infocom imprint, as a label beneath parent Mediagenic / Activision, were packed with graphics fit to burst. Of course, it's not fair to compare the consumer-grade state-of-the-art circa 1982 to that in 1996; maybe what was available to them by that point in regards to display possibilities, storage options, and lack of multiple platform support requirement, would have been enough to compel them to change their minds regardless. But it's true that even now with our gaming hardware a thousand times more powerful than what we had to work with, it's still not hard to observe characters in a game and think that there's something a little "off" about them, regardless of how realistically the ragdoll physics causes their limbs to flail when they're pushed down the stairs. It must be necessarily true that time, effort, labour and money spent on realistically depicting shadows, multiple moving light sources, reflections in mirrors, flushing toilets, water splashes, the ricochets of tumbling shell casings, the unique splatter pattern of the mixture of brains and blood left on the wall behind someone shot in the head, and the ripples of fabric and hair in the wind might make for more compelling characters if all those details were left to player's brains and instead the resources devoted to giving everyone in the game hopes, dreams, a family, a job, a history, a daily routine, and a full emotional palette. Even with a very small development team, the folks behind Dwarf Fortress have managed to achieve much of that algorithmically. Gamers like to be impressed with the rigor of implementation (and is it any coincidence that InfoCom's developers were refered to as Implementors, or Imps for short?) when a game's systems overlap, like in NetHack (legendary for the slogan "the DevTeam thinks of EVERYTHING!"), rather than to be disappointed when lack of a "jump" button keeps an avatar from stepping over an inch-high ridge and breaking out of a tightly-scripted map on rails. The examples are both roguelikes, but they occupy a similar place on the textmode graphics spectrum as InfoCom's text adventures -- when you see the letter "f" on the screen, what it says is "please use your brain to come up with a picture of a cat here", instead of having to realistically model the skeleton and musculature of a cat, capture the movements of it jumping and cleaning itself, and paint an appropriate texture for its skin. Instead the resources are diverted to the stuff that the game is about. You won't think that your brain's proposal of cat substitution is "off" because its meow doesn't sound like your childhood cat's, because of course, it will. Infocom hit on the magical recipe to let your brain do the heavy lifting -- the game only described 1% of the game and left it to you to flesh out the remaining 99%. And perhaps that's the truth in the ad's artwork.

This ad always reminded me of a piece of ANSI art a talented friend made in the '90s for her BBS, an excerpt from a much greater substantial (but basically unrelated to this post) "colly" which you can enjoy in its fullness over here from its release in that '90s computer art group I coordinated. I don't know if the Infocom ad inspired it, but it's possible.

Since we're embarrassing people with old stuff, it's only fair that I submit my own (now wholly unrelated to gaming) take on the "your brain on drugs" meme in ANSI, a piece that, worryingly, celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.

It has been brought to my attention that there is a Flickr group that basically compiles quality scans of all classic Infocom ads. I probably won't be hitting all of them -- at least not this time around -- but if the subject is as compelling to you as to me, you might get a kick out of eyeballing them at least.