Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", 1985.

As an extension of "Infocom week", and since Jimmy Maher has just now started to engage the topic in his phenomenal blog The Digital Antiquarian (already exploding myths and speculations I've shared, like how Douglas Adams might have learned about Infocom games by playing them on his Mac -- no, turns out his first exposure to a Mac was during a tour of the Infocom offices!), here we have an ad Bart Day kindly scanned for me for Infocom's Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This game needs no introduction. It was, after Zork, the lynchpin of the Infocom catalogue, after years of dominating the fields of radio, print and the TV screen. I rapidly wore out the spine of my father's paperback copy of the book, and one night was introduced to the game glowing on the Amiga screen in the basement computer room of my parents' friends, where I smugly succeeded at getting further into the game (into the Vogon hold) than six adults had. (Come to think of it, that was the same house and possibly the same visit that saw the commission of my cyborg dinosaur drawing you may recall. But that is a big digression even by my standards.) But our home computers were mutually unintelligible (and the reverse-engineering of the Z-machine years yet ahead), so that was it for me and the game... until my Grade 6 teacher saw me reading the book in class, and pirated me a copy so that I could help her progress further in it.

How cool is that? The Hitchhiker's Guide was so awesome it got the responsible adults in my life to offer to illegally copy software for me, so as to benefit from my unique focal expertise! Talk about setting a good example for me. I will never forget the neat schoolteacher handwriting on the diskette's palimpsest label inviting me to run HITCHHIK.EXE ... It's like Douglas Adams was so powerful he could compel doctors to harm, or policemen to commit crimes. (Hey, I don't need to remember it: here it is!)

The game's brutal difficulty is legendary, culminating in Infocom's commemorative "I got the Babel fish!" t-shirt. But no one completes this game by accident, and once you have figured out its systems and come to terms with its bizarre internal consistency (this is what an atomic vector plotter is for, and this is what you do with a cheese sandwich, and this is the right moment to accept Ford's offer of your towel), you have a good crack at playing the game mostly through to completion years or decades later. Jimmy Maher reports that Adams' contract with Infocom was for six games, but beyond this one and the recently-liberated barest bones of a prototype for game #2 (hello fanfic gamedevs, here's something to run with) all we got out of it was the similarly unforgiving Bureaucracy, perhaps the only game ever made that will kill players for making typos in the text parser. It's unclear just how much Adams is present in that game, but we know that along the way to founding the Digital Village and its pilot projects Starship Titanic and the h2g2, he stopped in at a meeting Activision was having with Lucasarts and the Jim Henson people, and with his strange exuberant charisma compelled them to include the obscure verb "adumbrate" on the verb-wheel of the Labyrinth film adaptation. In the software world he also played a role in a multimedia CD-ROM of his extinction book Last Chance to See before his own death (well, throwing in the towel) in LA overseeing Disney's Hitchhiker's Guide movie, and specifically its emergence from decades of development hell.

You should still be able to play the BBC's visually-enhanced online 20th-anniversary version of the Hitchhiker's Guide game, and there is also a Sierra-style graphical remake in the Adventure Game Studio, finally making good an idea I actually wrote Sierra to suggest back in the day.

Earth will be destroyed in 12 minutes to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Should you hitchhike into the next galaxy? Or stay and drink beer?

Slip the disk in your computer and suddenly you are Arthur Dent, the dubious hero of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, a side-splitting masterwork of interactive fiction by novelist Douglas Adams and Infocom's Steve Meretzky. And every decision you make will shape the story's outcome. Suppose for instance you decide to linger in the pub. You simply type, in plain English:


And the story responds:


Suppose, on the other hand, you decide to:


In that case you'll be off on the most mind-boggling, hilarious adventure any earthling ever had.

You communicate - and the story responds - in full sentences. So at every turn, you have literally thousands of alternatives. If you decide it might be wise, for instance, to wrap a towel around your head, just say so:


And the story responds:


Simply staying alive from one zany situation to the next will require every proton of puzzle solving prowess your mere mortal mind can muster. So put down that beer and hitchhike down to your local software store today.

Before they put that bypass in.

Comes complete with Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, a Microscopic Space Fleet, a DON'T PANIC Button, a package of Multipurpose Fluff and orders for the destruction of your home and planet.

Building ad copy around a game transcript is a bold gambit, given that it's often touted as the weakest stage of the bridge between the player and the game world, but here we have dead ends which are lovingly detailed rather than frustratingly imposed. The link to the whimsical source material is made clear: though Adams didn't write the whole game (though he did pick up enough of Infocom's ZIL development language to make a 3D tic-tac-toe demo) he did apparently write enough of the game's text to string the player along a winning walkthrough path. (The un-fun, un-glamorous implementation details of side-avenues and dead-ends were left for Steve Meretzky to flesh out.) Fortunately for us, the text preserves the core of Adams-ness permeating the game. By 1985, the ALL CAPS text presentation was starting to be somewhat anachronistic; folks who cared about presentation had figured out how to get lower-case mileage out of their TRS-80s and Apple IIs, and other home computer flavours enjoyed lower-case functionality built in. One imagines Infocom would have chosen to sweep those minority consumers under the carpet (while taking their money with the other hand), but apparently not so here.

Game transcript excerpts aside, the ad copy does make some claims that don't entirely hold up. "Suddenly you are Arthur Dent"? SPOILER ALERT: Like Maniac Mansion, the player takes turns directing the actions of several characters in this game. That's actually a potential selling point that they passed over. "[A] side-splitting masterwork"? Well, OK. "[E]very decision you make will shape the story's outcome"? Only in the worst sense: like the AI in Bast[ard]Tet[ris], the game can keep track of what is useful and unuseful to you -- and if only one of the game's numerous bizarre tools slips your possession, you are guaranteed that it's the one Marvin will require in the endgame. I suppose players have input, especially once enjoying a nice, hot cup of tea, into the sequence in which the other-player areas of the game are explored. And yes, a player's typo provides the context for the Vl'Hurg / G'ugvunt conflict. (But what if the player types flawlessly and never typos-up?) That claim is much more reasonable for a collaborative storytelling game like Bioware or Choice of Games try to offer, stretching the whole story over any given configuration of underlying bones the player cares to arrange.

They are making a bit of a stink over the sophistication of the parser input, pretending players will type drink the beer instead of drink beer and exit the village pub then go north instead of exit. n: "You communicate -- and the story responds -- in full sentences." -- let's be honest here, what we want is for your game to understand us with a minimum of effort required on our part. That's how we end up with conventions like the shorthand "X" for "examine" and "g" for "again". ("Inventory" as a command was DOA.) "... will require every proton of puzzle-solving prowess your mere mortal mind can muster" is almost a spoiler for the particle of common sense puzzle, but also an odd backslip into generic game ad singsong wordplay, using the poetic device of alliteration mere breaths after preaching the sophistication of the game's intelligent prose. Choose one, guys -- this isn't Mindwheel (joke explanation: text adventure game by American poet laureate.) And then the bypass: end the text with a punchline with no joke. But c'mon, the HHG fans were going to buy the game anyway.

Other than the words, the ad is quite stark: some text and an arm with a cup. The housecoat is pure Arthur Dent, as is the jauntily proffered pint with a full head of foam, though it is a lost opportunity to present the quintessentially English Arthur's hand, in housecoat, holding a cup of tea. (It is a tasty, cool, refreshing-looking draught [but wait, the Brits drink it warm!]; wonder how many takes it took to satisfy the photographer? Was the spigot exacto'd out of the frame or is there a tapped keg just off-page? Or is this some photographer's illusion, milk foam atop apple juice or the like?) I like the Greek letters on the watch's face, but see it as another missed opportunity to riff off of the digital watches so prevalent in the original text. Why a watch at all is a good question with no real answer, but it still produces a whiff of arbitrary absurd strangeness that is not altogether alien to the source material.

Icing the cake they emphasize the feelies -- this game featuring notably underwhelming ones such as fluff, a nonexistent invading space fleet in an empty plastic baggie, and non-functional sunglasses. Uncharacteristically, the feelies are not used for copy protection. (Surprisingly, given the non-presence of the space fleet, they missed out on boasting that every copy of the game also included "no tea". Then again, all Infocom games did. Come to think of it, all games do. But it wouldn't be a relevant package inclusion to most of them!)

Wrapping it up, they target the sci-fi fan for crossover appeal, there at the bottom hawking Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross and Suspended -- all very different from the Guide, only fitting in with it under the SF umbrella on the basis of its being a very large umbrella. (In the assertion of trademarks in the bottom small print, it's curious that though they are all registered, AMFV is the only one explicitly registered by Infocom.) Planetfall is likely the most usefully cross-promoted title here, Meretzky sufficiently goofy as to prompt HHG comparisons from beta-testers even before he knew about it, ultimately shoehorning in a couple of Guide homage references prior to release. But since Douglas Adams didn't have any more computer games (yet) for a "other works by the author" sidebar, this is what we got. (Promoting Steve's games isn't so off-base, as he at least co-designed and implemented the HHG game; also, though Suspended is hugely different, it is the game that got Douglas Adams jazzed about Infocom in the first place, so it earned its place here. Starcross is just along for the ride, however.)

This entry took me something in the environs of a week to complete! That's wacky. It's been a demanding week, with a sick baby and an injured spouse, and one always runs the risk of overestimating what can be written in a graveyard shift coffee break -- sure, the time is there, but is the brain turned on? A big factor however is likely my failure to achieve arm's-length detachment from this particular piece of software. There are just too many memories, and they are too vivid. I enjoyed it too much and too completely to just write about it cursorily and then move on. All the same, I have little in terms of original scholarship to offer; I have pretty completely told the story of my involvement with this game. In parting, a bug I would have reported to Infocom had their fate not denied that avenue: in this game the player uses the Infinite Improbability Drive to visit different places at different times, and typically these locations have an "amusing" door-closing when re-visited after the business there has been completed. One of these locations is inside the brain of Arthur Dent, at microscopic scale, to conduct some allegorical surgery allowing him to really demonstrate his intelligence. When this location is revisited, the player materializes, as Arthur Dent, again inside Arthur Dent's brain. But this time, at full size. About 5 seconds into the future. At which point, Arthur Dent materializes inside the player's brain, and the game is over for this Arthur. With the improbability-mastery endowed by a good cup of really strong tea, it is possible to deliberately trigger this delayed game-ending situation. Furthermore, it is possible to trigger this situation after resolving 99% of the rest of the game, with just enough turns remaining to win the game, with full score, before Arthur-from-the-past materializes into your brain. The standard game-winning message involves the Heart of Gold's landing bay opening and Arthur setting foot on Magrathea, and invites the player to find out more in the next (and never-made) game in the series. I always felt that with the game won, by this slimmest of survivalist margins, with Arthur's inescapable death imminent, the game-end message ought to reflect how Arthur exploded by messily transporting inside his own brain shortly after disembarking from the ship. Consider it a species of death-cheating "sequence breaking". (The NetHack devs would have thought of it. Systems can always be gamed but the one that should always be inescapable is death. Just think of the Yeti from SkiFree.)

(My other greatest sequence-breaking triumph was in satisfying the three game-terminating conditions of Sid Meier's Civilization 1 in the same turn: retiring as Emperor, destroying the final rival civilization, and establishing a colony on Alpha Centauri all simultaneously. The game didn't know which ending to trot out, so play continued indefinitely with no competition. But... my digression.)