Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Lost Treasures of Infocom", 1991.

OK, Hallowe'en is behind us now. But there are no shortages of Halls of the Dead for us to flit through. And on a zombie-ish theme, text adventures are the genre that refuse to die! The ?19th annual RAIF amateur interactive fiction competition is still underway, with 35 (?!) free games available to be sampled and rated -- votes will be accepted until November 15th. This is the year that branching-choice games hit the compo hard, in response to awareness of the super simple Twine tool for making them (which is really grist for my other blog), but there are still plenty of text parser games to be had, following the lead of Infocom and its contemporaries. Which brings us to... Infocom week!
IT TOOK YEARS TO DEVELOP 20 OF OUR GREATEST ADVENTURES.

THE HARD PART WAS SQUEEZING THEM ALL INTO ONE BOX.

It could take a lifetime and cost a king's ransom for you to collect 20 of Infocom's greatest text adventures.

But now they're all here in one box, ready to challenge you with the most perplexing puzzles you've ever faced.

You get 15 disks. All hint books. Maps and manuals. Everything you need to lose yourself in the games that put text adventure on the map.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom.

Think of it as a treasure chest that doesn't cost a fortune.

Another anthology joke about the effort of compressing lots of small software into a single box. Text adventures: they compress down well. (Infocom didn't even play the compression-shenanigans game that eg. Level 9 did, encoding frequently used non-verbal strings including spaces and punctuation marks as single characters, then reversing the packing for screen display.) For extra comic effect here, we can depict the box as extra-small.

How long would it take to collect these 20 games? Sit on eBay for a couple of months and see what comes up. The king's ransom might well be more true today than here in 1991, since the games are quite a bit older now and the ravages of time have had greater opportunity to wreck their havoc on the charming packages.

Have I faced more perplexing puzzles? Certainly many graphical adventure games took the puzzle ball and ran way, way out of bounds: I'm looking at you, Gabriel Knight 3. Most of Infocom's made some kind of sense -- the company is renowned for their games' internal consistency. I figured out the devious Babel Fish puzzle on my own and that particular puzzle has graduated to the rare upper echelon of puzzles immortalized on t-shirts. Maybe The Fool's Errand had more perplexing puzzles, but then it was a puzzle game, not an adventure game. If you want to perplex me, just throw in a Tower of Hanoi puzzle -- and I will be perplexed, as in "why am I playing this again?"

15 disks. That's substantial! That would be a single contemporary Sierra graphical adventure game (add one more if you want to hear the digital audio clip of "Girl in the Tower") and, well, enough floppies to require a box; that said, it's only 4 layers of 4 floppies per layer. Hint books (invisiclue ones?), maps and manuals? Infocom broke the mold for "feelies" and it's nice to hear that some of the games' paraphernalia accompanied them here on a final voyage. Let's not revise history here: Crowther's ADVENTURE was the one that put text adventure on the map (after all, we call them text ADVENTURES, not text DUNGEONS. Except for the MUD players.)

"A treasure chest that doesn't cost a fortune"? I enjoy these games very much, and think that having them for sale at any price is a good deal. In 1997 however they would have been a hard sell to anyone not already saddled with nostalgia for them. These games would find themselves anthologized a few more times over the years (eventually, there will be more "best-of" Infocom bundles than games Infocom ever actually made and released), but this may be the last time Hitch Hiker's Guide was included in the bundle -- Infocom's licensed games (also including eg. Shogun) found themselves quietly dropped from later re-releases, despite the enormous popularity of this particular title. Douglas Adams wasn't looking back, he was boldly pushing forward with the bold mess of Starship Titanic and the h2g2.

This last huzzah for Infocom must also have been one of the last huzzah for commercial software sold for the Amiga, though really -- having developed interpreters for all the flavours of microcomputers, the extra work of porting new games to other platforms had by and large already been done. The ad may as well have advertised anthology release for the C64 (as with ZTUU), TRS-80 CoCo, Apple 2 and PDP-10, but I suppose supporting some retrograde niche markets hurts your brand more than it helps. (Heh, turns out it /was/ released for the Apple IIgs, but that's not mentioned in this ad.)

"COMING SOON: LOST TREASURES II". You know what, Activision? How about: "Coming soon: a new Infocom text adventure game"? They had the staff, the license, the technology; the power was in their hands. (Who knows: perhaps if Infocom had remained a team in its original offices, Syphon Filter and Guitar Hero might have emerged from its halls rather than from the successors of its alumni.) I suppose we did get three Zork graphical adventures, an unlikely sequel to Leather Goddesses of Phobos and a half-baked third Planetfall prototype before the shine completely came off the union, so I can't pretend the properties were entirely buried.

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And if you like text games, are finished with the IF compo, and aren't quite done with the Hallowe'en spirit, the fan community has 24 more free games for you to try in this year's EctoComp!