Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Zork: Grand Inquisitor", Windows 95, 1997.

So Infocom's spreadsheet application, Cornerstone, came and went; the company's fortunes changed and a friendly buyout by Activision turned into an antagonistic arrangement not entirely dissimilar to the life-sapping co-opting of TSR by Buck Rogers that we have seen. Infocom was stripped of resources, ordered to make more games, more frequently, and forced to manufacture them more expensively through Activision. The brand name was subjected to a humiliating debasement of OK -- but no Infocom -- material from Westwood and the new media folks who gave us the InfoComics. They gave up the ghost in their battle with graphics and began incorporating them into their text adventures, leaving a company that stood for nothing but mysteriously lent its brand to an NES cart. It's like Activision started diverting its "weird crap" slush pile through the Infocom brand in some self-defeating gesture to interfere with the return on their investment. Then, for a while, the brand lay dormant, its fields scorched and ashen. The myth grew and the fan community began tinkering. Finally, about the time Myst hit the market, someone at Activision woke up and had a closer look at what they'd been sitting on. "Do we have any properties in our portfolio suitable for an interactive CD-ROM? Pitfall? Maybe not. River Raid? Ehh, I'll pass. Zork? What the hell is Zork?"

Anyhow, for a brief moment the IP stirred back into a zombie-like life, with a loose trilogy of Zork-branded games being released into the wild (plus LGOP2 and work on a Planetfall sequel.) This is the last of them. Sorry to end "Infocom week" on such a downer, with no Infocom logo (perhaps mercifully) even present on the ad! The good news is that there are plenty of other Infocom games out there with ads I haven't covered, so maybe we can revisit this territory someday.


adventurer wanted
inquire within


Attention all adventurers. By edict of the Grand Inquisitor, the Great Underground Empire of Zork has been sealed off and the practice of magic declared punishable by totemization (a very bad thing). Only a true adventurer can stop the Grand Inquisitor and restore magic to its rightful place. Can you save the Underground?

I have never played this game. The entire interactive CD-ROM era passed me by, because who had time to download all those disks? (nervously waits for laughter, hears none) I only have the scantiest of experience with its first predecessor, Return to Zork (enough to establish that it does indeed run under SCUMMVM) and even less with the follow-up, Zork Nemesis. That means I get to judge this ad pretty much by its ad-ly merits alone. So: visiting legendary Zork landmarks -- here we see the white house in the field (sadly for Zork historians, Google is unable to distinguish our white house from Washington, D.C.'s White House) ... looks to be a nice enough place, however boarded-up (Zork must have a terrible problem with squatters. Then again, even the New York subway system has denizens of its Great Underground Empire) and beside it there is the renowned Flood Control Dam #3 complete with some kind of energy bridge spanning over its reservoir and some weakly suggested water flowing out of it. Now because we are in an interactive CD-ROM, I see the next picture has some enigmatic machinery -- and the caption's suggestion that it demonstrates "irreverent unpredictability" makes me think that I wouldn't want to have to brute force my way to the solution of a puzzle with a ticker that counts to ten thousand. "Myst: now with unreliable narrator!"

This actor is, apparently, "classic", but insufficiently so for me to tell you off the top of my head what his name is and what roles he is known for. (Because I hate leaving easily-Googleable open questions: Erick Avari, it turns out, and here he is portraying the titular Inquisitor.) Beneath him is a duo of "fantastic characters" with abysmal character design, reminding me of nothing so much as one of those R-Type bosses made of a series of connected circles to simulate articulation.

Did you know that the original "cave game", the spelunking ADVENTURE, actually intended "lamp" to denote a battery-powered headlamp? Strange but true. This striking lantern certainly does speak more to the spirit of fantasy adventuring, however contemporary it may actually be in its design. Who is that hiding in its lens flare? Could that be the allegedly classic actor at 8 'o clock opposite?

The ad's text tells me that the story is now one of rebellion against oppression (you can't do much better than a Grand Inquisitor for an antagonist!) and just to rankle players, apparently all the best elements of Zork have been outlawed: magic and going underground. (Don't worry, everyone will be glad to know that playing baseball and spooking cyclopes are still kosher.) What is totemization? We'll pique your interest by coining a new term, and then make a show of not explaining to you what it is. (Apparently a kind of magical preservation in a bansai form under glass?) Blah blah, restore the wonder of magic to Zork, restore the greatness of Infocom to Activision. It's all allegorical.

This ad utilizes one of those '90s fonts that typographically enrages me, haphazardly incorporating elements of both lower and upper case, which uncannily produces an effect similar to being yelled at by a kindergartener.

This game was cross-promoted with the release of Zork: The Undiscovered Underground, a short "classic" text adventure designed and Implemented by classic Infocom Imps using tools the fans had come up with to reproduce the Z-machine's functionality, leading to the strangeness of a new Infocom text adventure, playable on a C64, released in 1997. Speaking of playability in deprecated environments, a Summer of Code student has been hard at work trying to integrate support for these last two Zork graphical adventure games (with their panoramic "Z-vision" engine) with SCUMMVM. Looking forward to the results! Then I might actually play the game someday...

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.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Perhaps I should have opened with this ad, fresh off of Hallowe'en -- Flesh Feast, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Zombie Nation... Teenage Zombie! Oh well, something to keep in mind next time I open a seasonal game advertising blog!

(Borrowed from Vintage Computing)



"IT GOT SO I COULDN'T LET GO" confesses John Carlson of Hickory Falls, Iowa. "My hands were welded to my joystick twenty-four hours a day. Blisters covered both my thumbs, my wrists ached, my eyes throbbed ... I'd given up eating and sleeping." It had started as a mindless hobby for young Johnny. But now, it was turning his mind to green jelly.

Finally, a concerned relative decided it was time to take action. Johnny remembers: "I'd passed out after 63,000,000 points — I forget which game. When I came to, there was this personal computer in front of me, with an Infocom game in the disk drive. I just sat there, numb, staring at the words on the screen."

Then, the extraordinary happened. "It was like there was this voice in the computer, talking to my imagination. Suddenly, I was inside the story. It was something I'd never experienced before — challenging puzzles, people I could almost touch, dangers I could really feel. Kind of like Infocom had plugged right into my mind, and shot me into a whole new dimension."

"Sure, I still play video games. But the Infocom experience opened my eyes. I know now there's more to life than joysticks."

Johnny's folks agree. "We've got our boy back," says Mrs. Carlson, "thanks to Infocom."

We can't save all the Johnnies out there. But hope still remains for countless thousands in the remarkable prose of the ZORK® Trilogy, DEADLINE, STARCROSS, and SUSPENDED. So please — before it's too late — rush today to your local computer store. Step up to Infocom games. All words. No pictures. The secret reaches of your mind are beckoning. A whole new dimension is in there waiting for you.

Infocom - The next dimension.

Deprogramming isn't something that video game companies are accused of very often! Is Hickory Falls really a place? (I can find several, but none in Iowa.) If blisters covered my thumbs, I'd probably adjust my grip. (Covered? even the tops?) Giving up eating and sleeping sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration, but here in 1983 we weren't too far from video gaming's first fatality, the Berzerk player who was cut down in the arcade by a heart attack after setting a high score in 1981.

Not knowing what game the score was achieved in is a nice touch, but awakening with a family-bought PC before his eyes is, in 1983 dollars, a hugely pricey proposition that challenges the "Would you shell out $1000 to match wits with this?" question from a few ads back. A concerned family might genuinely front that kind of cash for a cult deprogrammer, but not to tip off a gamer to a new genre; it's like the ad presents itself as goofy but demands we take it seriously. (What fruit goes into "green jelly"? Grapes? Apples? Gooseberries? At least since You Can't Do That On Television, slime is now the standard green goo.) "I just sat there, numb, staring at the words on the screen" looks like set-up for an MS-DOS joke, but of course in '83 pretty much all OSes fit that description.

Then comes the subjective part: voice in the computer, talking to my imagination, inside the story, plug into my mind, shot me into a whole new dimension. From the sounds of things if this fellow hadn't fallen in with video game addiction, he would have thrown his lot in with some other cultish preoccupation instead, just predisposed, as are many young people without direction, to align with some movement or another. If it wasn't videogames it would have been Hare Krishna, or TM... or Emacs, heaven forbid!

That whole "All words. No pictures. The secret reaches of your mind are beckoning. A whole new dimension is in there waiting for you." business is practically all the writing any of these ads need, except for maybe a brief paragraph of text to qualify what the heck they're talking about. I'm not convinced that the rest isn't just drag factor filler.

For what it's worth, this was the golden age of the video arcade here -- by many standards, the zombifying joystick-operated action games are among the era's eternal classics, cherished and endlessly remade. ('83 was also admittedly very close to the industry-wide crash following the Atari 2600's market-saturation of unmitigated crapola for the home consoles.) This ad doesn't even forward the thesis that Infocom games are superior to arcade games, only... different. Really it's only by some stretch of the imagination that we're able to lump Pac-Man and Zork in the same category at all.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Myst: the Book of the Black Ships comic book, 1997.

I am way behind, only halfway through "Infocom week" which I expected to take me two weeks... slowed down while putting on my second retro video game party (now with Super Game Boy and ... portions of a Colecovision!)

... but I must interrupt the proceedings for some nominal connection to current events: Cyan's Rand brothers (of "Myst" fame) are involved in the closing days of a Kickstarter campaign.

I never liked Myst, though I could never appreciate it on its own merits: I saw it as occupying a position of populist devolution in the adventure game genre: beginning from a high point of Infocom, things were muddied somewhat with graphics' entry into the industry -- first static, "Mystery House" illustrations, then the PCjr-dazzling King's Quest presentation which totally obfuscated the text parser remaining at the heart of the game, then when Maniac Mansion boiled it explicitly down to x possible verbs and y possible nouns (laying bare that there were hard limits on the combinatorial possibilities, though practically we always knew that to be the case), then when Sam & Max reduced those to four actions on a fob... then to Myst, which abstracted out the inventory to the point where all that could be done was pointing, clicking, and eventually seeing if you noticed what happened two miles away. The adventure genre had gradually, if beautifully, degraded from somewhere you could solve problems with simulated interactions between medium-sized dry goods and superficial conversations with unintelligent NPCs to a kind of abstract and arbitrary giant sterile machine in which you couldn't take anything with you or interact with anyone. The genre had gotten streamlined and all the technological advance yielded was a more gobsmacking uncanny valley presentation, immaculately laying out a sterile, lifeless fantasy landscape on very restrictive (yet rarely conveniently-telegraphed) rails.

I always resented Myst as the antichrist of the adventure game genre; the Sierra / Lucasarts graphical adventure games had hammered in the final nails in the coffin of the text adventures (which had admittedly largely already done the work of digging their own grave) and then when this Hypercard wonder hit the scene and sold a million CD-ROM drives, it demonstrated to a generation of lazy game developers that all you needed to make a fortune (hey yes, that reminds me -- why do they need to Kickstart this game when they earned mountains of cash in the '90s?) was a series of still images and some mechanism, however obfuscated, of transitioning between them.

Anyhow, I didn't think that Myst made for the best candidate of conversion into a comic book, but anything that is sufficiently successful in a given medium will be given carte blanche for transition into an unrelated one. (And who knows, perhaps Myst would actually work better as a comic than as a game -- though I don't know too many people who want to read a comic about turning valves on mysterious and forgotten disused machinery.)

A journey of wonder through a mystical realm . . .
The Book of the Black Ships

A new comics series featuring characters from the best-selling interactive game.
On sale September through December.

Interactive game? Not like the other kind? Featuring characters from the game? Do they all creep into the panel, say their piece and then slink off again like monologist characters wearing different costumes in some one-man play? Is one of the characters a broken internal combustion engine? (No wait, that can be compelling -- Planescape did it!)

I should give Myst more credit. Some people whose opinion of games I value highly think quite highly of Myst (Zarf made a user-modifiable MMORPG fangame called Seltani for which a contest of sorts just opened). I know there is a great deal of lore surrounding and expanding on the games as I have a suite of three or four novels on the subject in my basement, and if I cared about the games at all I might actually read them. I imagine they contribute a great deal to the now-15-year-old comic book series... that or it might just be a largely-unrelated venture with the name of a successful franchise borrowed to brand it with the whiff of success.

(In any case, the brand association was insufficient to ensure the comic arc's successful publication; the series ended after two of four planned issues.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Beyond Zork", 1987.

It ain't pretty from here on. Jun '83, 20 employees. Jun '84, 40. Jun '85, 100. Jun '86 ... back to 40. The bell curve's return to terra firma is inexorable, and all the classics are behind us here, with only experiments ahead: the real-time Border Zone, the illustrated Zork Zero, the multiple-choice Journey, the InfoComics, Bob Bates' games (a parting breath of fresh air -- not so much the end of Infocom as the start of Legend) and the beginning of InfoCom as a Westwood cover label.
The Zork Trilogy has become a legend in its time, selling nearly one million copies! Now the legend continues with an extraordinary new Zorkian universe that breaks ground in computer gaming. For the first time, the character-building and combat of role-playing games joins the masterly prose and puzzles of Infocom's interactive fiction.

Beyond Zork's sophisticated new interface makes interaction more natural than ever, plunging you into a world teeming with magic and peril. The vast and varied Southlands of Quendor come alive as you seek fantastic treasure and combat the vicious monsters who haunt the streets and wastelands.

Challenge yourself to a quest that's far beyond anything you've ever experienced. Beyond Zork. The incredible new interactive story from the master storytellers at Infocom.

One glance at Beyond Zork will show you that it's unlike any interactive story you've seen before. On-screen mapping. Window displays. A character that grows in strength and power. You get all the excitement of role-playing games, skillfully blended with the fabulous puzzles and award-winning prose of Infocom's interactive fiction.

There is innovation here, new components to the Infocom formula -- an early automap, randomized elements for replay, and MUD-like combat the likes of which haven't been seen since Zork 1. But novelty alone wasn't enough! Perhaps the problem with Infocom games wasn't that they were inadequately RPG-ish. (They weren't the only ones who would try to synthesize the genres, as with local devs Naughty Dog's 1989 Keef the Thief.)

The ad copy is somewhat hyperbolic, suggesting perhaps that Infocom had drunk their own Kool-aid: is this really "an extraordinary new Zorkian universe"? Is hunting for an enchanted coconut really "a quest that's far beyond anything [I've] ever experienced"? I think these hybrid attempts were shooting for a holy grail that it took the Coles to land on, Sierra's Quest for Glory in 1989, an adventure game with quests and classes allowing multiple solutions that were also tied to skill development! That world is full of jokes but it's internally consistent and still manages to take itself seriously, while this one sends you to Port Foozle and pits you in combat against organ grinders. Maybe the strain of MIT hacker strangeness that pervaded Infocom really was a mantle ultimately inherited by Kingdom of Loathing, a masterfully odd MMORPG aped, in a fashion, by the later, unsuccessful, Legends of Zork casual game densely populated with the strange creatures inhabiting Beyond Zork. Further research is clearly necessary.

(Thanks to for the ad scan!)

Thursday, November 7, 2013


The number of "killer apps" is necessarily small -- there are a lot of great games out there, but how many of them will inspire you to drop the money not only on a game, but on the machine needed to play it? Indeed, Space Invaders moved a lot of Atari 2600s, Donkey Kong moved a lot of ColecoVisions, Tetris moved a lot of Game Boys, Sonic moved a lot of Genesises (Genesii?), Final Fantasy VII moved a lot of PlayStations, Grand Theft Auto III moved a lot of PlayStation 2s and Halo moved a lot of Xboxes. (No, thank you, Wikipedia.) But it's a bold move to pitch your games as the ones justifying the purchase of a machine. Still, Infocom could hedge their bets -- with all the gutless microcomputers supported by their platform-independent Z-machine, they really didn't care that you bought a particular computer as long as you had some kind (while most of those games above were, at least for a time, platform exclusives -- practically the opposite state of affairs.) And the challenge -- buy a computer to play our games on -- lowers the ante when the ads are run in computer magazines, which are after all read primarily by individuals already owning computers or at least planning on purchasing one.

Meet your match. Meet Infocom games: perhaps the best reason in software for owning a personal computer.

In fact, people have been known to purchase computers and disk drives solely for the purpose of playing our games. And they haven't been disappointed. Because Infocom 's prose stimulates your imagination to a degree nothing else in software approaches.

Instead of putting funny little creatures on your screen, we put you inside our stories. And we confront you with startlingly realistic environments alive with situations, personalities, and logical puzzles the like of which you won't find elsewhere. The secret? We've found the way to plug our prose right into your imagination, and catapult you into a whole new dimension.

If you think such an extraordinary experience is worth having, you're not alone. Everything we've ever written - ZORK I, II, and III, DEADLINE, STARCROSS, SUSPENDED, THE WITNESS, PLANETFALL, ENCHANTER and INFIDEL - has become an instant bestseller. For the simple reason that Infocom offers you something as rare and valuable as anything in software — real entertainment.

At last, you can fritter away your evenings playing a computer game without feeling like you're frittering away your computer investment.

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

Infocom - The next dimension.

Funny how I was just referencing my past life in the field of ANSI art, as this seems to fall in neatly with that defunct world. It must pre-date ANSI art on PCs (which can't pre-date the EGA graphics standard, needing its sixteen foreground colours!) I dig the big monkey hands and the relatively swelling biceps on toothpick arms. But because every fight has a mental component, we see also the rays of intellect emanating from our foe's impassive head. It remains an intriguing character, though admittedly not $1000 interesting.

Infocom doesn't note that their game development pre-dates the home computer revolution, and their PDP-10 Zork might have been billed "the best reason to own a minicomputer"! I like the specificity -- to play our games, "people have been known to purchase computers and disk drives". Because unlike a Scott Adams text adventure, that would be a lot of source code to type in from a printout. (And while Scott's games were available as cartridges on selected machines, I don't know that Infocom's ever were! I don't even see any cassette tapes!)

"They haven't been disappointed." I know that Douglas Adams bought the first two Apple Macintosh computers in the UK (Stephen Fry bought the third!) and I am given to understand that he spent a lot of time listening to book deadlines whooshing by overhead while playing Infocom games, hence the cameo of "Dork 1" on the user's Boysenberry computer in his later Bureaucracy game. Later publishers would circumvent this problem by kidnapping him and locking him in a hotel room with a typewriter. But I digress.)

I think that Planetfall's Floyd might well qualify as a "funny little creature" on your screen, despite being bereft of a cute animated sprite (though... they were working on it!) I don't know if the Hitch Hiker's Guide game could be described as "startlingly realistic", though it's very much true that it includes situations and logical puzzles I would not find elsewhere.

I'm not sure that any game, really, could justify a computer investment, regardless of how much entertainment value you got from it -- computers are still expensive, and $1000 dollars in 1983 (that's $2,350.89 today!) seems quite pricey compared to, well, season's tickets to any sport or symphony. Word processing and spreadsheets were the tools that sold computers, and Infocom was acutely aware of it -- alas for their ill-fated expensive development of the Cornerstone spreadsheet.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz", Apple II, 1981.

These recent ads have been of a Zork 3-shilling vintage (shilling as in "offering for sale", not as in "a kind of coin" -- that would have been "a Zork 3-zorkmid vintage" -- but were zorkmids ever minted in 3-zorkmid denomination?), but we can peel back the onionskins of time a bit further and yield an ad for Zork 2 which I took from the fine fellows over at Retro Gaming Australia.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back underground again.


Your greatest challenge lies ahead -— and downwards. Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, will be unlike any computer age adventure you've ever encountered. The underground world of Zork is designed to be lived and experienced in the most realistic sense. It features the largest vocabulary, the widest range of command options, the special capability to let you speak in complete sentences rather than two-word commands, and the most intriguing plot in the genre. And because Zork's mysteries are of the most challenging nature, it will take all your intellectual abilities to survive and emerge victorious from the Great Underground Empire.

Zork II is the extraordinary successor to Zork I, which hit #4 on the SOFTALK Top 30 in its first month on the market. Both run on 32K Apple II's with a 16-sector disk drive. And both are available now for Christmas.

The door to Zork beckons you. Look for it at your local computer store today.

Basically Infocom does for ads what they do for games: power-load them with dense, intelligent text. Sometimes it sounds like copywriters are digging deep into empty pockets looking for something positive to say about the game they're selling (eg. "features password save!" or "incredible arcade-adventure strategy!") while these are written more like a tight essay: here's what it is, here's what makes it special, here's our track record and since we already know you want it, here's some compatibility information. It's very confident and confidence is persuasive.

I'm sure that Zork II is actually very much like Zork I, the two being hewn from the same cloth, the original mainframe Zork game that included portions of all three games (and a bit of Enchanter, to boot!) The claim for the world's design to be experienced in the most realistic sense is understatement compared to their later Enchanter games (I believe Planetfall had it, too) which would implement hunger, thirst and sleep daemons just to weigh things down with a little unwanted strategy element. Turns out that realism doesn't always make for a better game (following a recent discussion at the forums about how the "mimesis" ideal has risen and fallen since the late '90s), gaming being what we do sometimes to escape reality. But it will stretch it out same as any maze, carry limit or Tower of Hanoi puzzle and give players the appearance of more gameplay hours for their dollar, even if it is spent negotiating design filler.

The parser is indeed formidable, Infocom's the greatest the industry ever came up with until amateur fans improved on it while reverse-engineering it some 15 years later. Like bubble memory or the ARM architecture, following impressive early leads, it's a field where very little research was conducted for quite some time after the initial forays. The Zorks aren't all that heavy on the plot (plunder dungeon, fill trophy case), at least not until Zork 3, but when you consider the Scott Adams material they were up against in "the genre", it's not hard to end up smelling like roses.

Edit: the blurb starts off with "ahead -- and downwards" -- how much z-axis travel is there in the Zork games, anyhow? Is it really underground in the sense of going down or just in the sense of preventing you from going up? Also I always dug the Zork logo, but given the state of the white house in the open field, wouldn't (SPOILER WARNING) an open window in the O make more sense?

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.

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:
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.

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 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.


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!

Friday, November 1, 2013

"Zombie Nation", NES, 1990.

One more "scary" game ad before all the Hallowe'en candy is gone, then I have another theme week for you folks. There is nothing terribly frightening about this game, except for the premise of just how far astray a mistranslation can take you. It's the immortal Zombie Nation, and an ad lifted from Extralives at World 1-1.


Ny I.C. GOOLS, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK - What appeared to be a harmless meteorite crashing in the Nevada desert has turned out to be Darc Seed, an evil alien creature with horrible powers. By shooting strange rays, Darc Seed has turned the helpless nation into zombie slaves.

Mayor Heminhaw immediately called an emergency press conference where he read the following prepared statement: "I um, er, ah, I am doing everything, ah, er, humanly possible to see to it that ah, this situation er, um, this terrible situation ah, comes to a ah, ahem, a swift and er, um, um, a swift and um, satisfactory close.

Ground Shaking NES Action

Zombie Nation is a ground shaking action / shooting game for the NES. The object of the game is to wreak total destruction on everything you see (it's a dark and dirty job, but somebody's got to do it). Meanwhile, you need to rescue as many zombie hostages as you can in order to gain enough strength for the ultimate showdown with Darc Seed (he's toast!)

Devastating Graphics and Pounding Sound

Zombie Nation's graphics are so devastatingly realistic you'll almost be tempted not to demolish them (yeah right!). And the relentlessly pounding sound effects will make you feel like you're right in the middle of the action hammering away at skyscrapers, mountains, and everything else that crosses your path. So don't just stand there like a Zombie, get your copy now!

It's unstated in this ad, but the first question players of the game have is "why am I a disembodied Japanese head horking ghostly sputum at buildings?" The story has it that the protagonist is the head of a samurai clan -- seemingly its chief, but also apparently its literal head. Perhaps as an avatar representing an entire player it can be filed with origin's Moebius and Windwalker, both of which reduced players to busts wandering around an exotified Orientalist landscape. (This head flies around and shoots; one wonders just how much vertical mobility the samurai chieftain possesses.)

Second to mind is that this game is really a rip on Cyberdreams' H.R. Giger showcase Darkseed, with its homonymic antagonist. What, was "Darth Vatur" taken?

The thing that jumps out for me in this ad copy is wondering just why there's so much emphasis on the landscape demolitions aspect of the gameplay? Ground shaking, ground shaking, wreak total destruction, devastating, hammering away at skyscrapers... sounds kind of like Rampage, but this, sir, is no Rampage. It does seem however that they had more space to fill than things to say, hence the serial parenthetical asides and the whole Mayor Quimby homage in the opening paragraph.

I don't know if the game contains "zombies" in the sense of "animated corpses" rather than just "mind-controlled living humans" interpretation, but the curious sculpture collage used as ad artwork here sure suggests the former. It's like a Wired magazine cover, somewhat difficult to interpret just what's going on; there's a very small car in the foreground (a Hot Wheels car? '57 Chevy, a classic!) crushed beneath a very large television set tuned to static. A trio of enormous zombies are behind them, in front of a very small supermarket (also dwarfed by a titanic rail crossing sign.) Behind it all lies a highly abstract background, plus an ominous hovering giant samurai head about to do its "wreak total destruction" act again. Just who is the menace to society here again?