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1984: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Hacker News - Thu Apr 8 11:38

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky
Released: October 1984 (Infocom)
Original Price: $39.95
Language: ZIL
Platform: Z-Machine version 3 (Apple II; Atari 8-bit; Commodore 16, Plus/4, 64; PC DOS; Macintosh; TI-99/4A; TRS-80)

Opening Text:

You wake up. The room is spinning very gently round your head. Or at least it would be if you could see it which you can't.

It is pitch black.

>inventory
You have:
  a splitting headache
  no tea

Note: contains in-depth discussions of several puzzles, including the Babel Fish, “common sense,” and Dark puzzles.

Douglas Adams, at first, did not like computers. In fact he had built a career out of making fun of them with his Hitchhiker’s Guide franchise, which began on the radio before spilling into other media, most famously a bestselling series of books. Hitchhiker’s is hard to summarize, but one of its overarching themes is that technology, in the hands of big business and bloated bureaucracies, does not make life better: in fact it makes it far, far worse. Hence characters like Marvin, a robot given a “Genuine People Personality” who promptly becomes terminally, insufferably depressed; Deep Thought, tasked with finding the meaning of life and coming back six million years later with the number 42; or the robot crew of an interplanetary flight whose departure has been delayed nine hundred years:

Ford: What’s happening on this hell ship?
Autopilot: There has been a delay. The passengers are kept in temporary suspended animation for their comfort and convenience. Coffee and biscuits are served every ten years, after which passengers are returned to suspended animation for their comfort and convenience. Departure will take place when flight stores are complete. We apologize for the delay.
Ford: Delay? Have you seen the world outside this ship? It’s a wasteland, a desert. Civilization’s been and gone. It’s over. There are no lemon-soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere.
Autopilot: The statistical likelihood is that other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon-soaked paper napkins. Till then, there will be a short delay. Please return to your seats.

Corporate-mandated cheerfulness, algorithmically-enabled mutually assured destruction, user interfaces so determined to be friendly they render themselves utterly useless: much of Hitchhiker’s is a prescient and sometimes rather dark prediction of a future that seemed very likely from the dawn of the 1980s, with IBM, the Cold War, and the rise of automated phone lines still dominant forces in the cultural imagination. “Dealing with the American Express computer” to acknowledge a change-of-address form, Adams once complained, “has been beyond Kafka’s worst paranoid nightmares.”

But then something changed. While living in Hollywood for a year as he attempted to write a Hitchhiker’s screenplay, Adams bought his own computer, and he got hooked. It was the ultimate procrastination device, of course, but also a tinkerer’s dream. For the first time, a computer wasn’t something being imposed on him by a soulless authority: it was a platform and a tool he could approach on his own terms. He taught himself some programming and tried playing a few games, but at first was unimpressed:

Up till then when people said “computer game,” I thought, oh, it’s shooting down rocket ships and chasing little aliens around mazes and all that kind of boring stuff, which a) I was bored by and b) I didn’t have the hand-to-eye coordination necessary to get any decent score.

But then he discovered interactive fiction. He played Adventure, and then got turned on to the games of Infocom: Suspended, in particular, fascinated him. He “discovered that there was a sort of great world of wit and invention and logical problems” in text games. “And I suddenly thought, ‘I would love to be doing this.’”

Adams got in touch with Infocom, who by 1984 were at the peak of their supremacy. Product manager Mike Dornbrook, noting to an interviewer that there were now almost two million personal computers in people’s homes, said the company’s research suggested their products had penetrated nearly half of those systems. “Our joke is that we have penetrated them all,” he quipped, “if you count the pirated games.” Two million was still a small audience compared to traditional media, but major publishing and entertainment companies were at last beginning to take note of it. Spurred by Infocom’s success, the massive popularity of games like The Hobbit, and the booming sales of gamebook series like Choose Your Own Adventure, 1984 saw an enormous influx of half-baked attempts by traditional media companies to create interactive books, playable adaptations of titles from big-name authors like Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and Anne McCaffrey. They were called everything from “electronic novels” or “compunovels” to “bookware” and even “living literature.” “Interactive fiction,” the phrase invented and then abandoned by Robert Lafore, was only just starting to become Infocom’s preferred term. The bookware games were almost universally awful, in part because most of their developers knew little about how to make interactive stories work, and perhaps too because the famous authors in question were rarely involved in the adaptations. Yet publishing houses were beyond keen to get in on some of that new software money: Simon & Schuster executives met with Infocom about the possibility of an acquisition, and were alarmed to learn that Infocom’s hint books were outselling many of their paperback titles.

Infocom paired Adams up with Steve Meretzky, a veteran of several Infocom projects including the well-regarded sci-fi comedy Planetfall. Meretzky, like Adams, was a converted technophobe. He had first joined the company as a tester, after Dornbrook, his roommate at the time, kept bringing unfinished Zork games home: at first disdainful, he eventually got sucked in and became a passionate champion of the new medium’s potential. While Adams originally wanted to do something other than another Hitchhiker’s adaptation, it was by far the most obvious choice for a project, and he perked up at the notion that the game could be more experimental than previous incarnations. “I could take stuff out of the book, and didn’t have to follow it slavishly,” he recalled: “The book became a bank of ideas. In fact, I looked for things that weren’t well-developed in the book: odd lines that seemed to go nowhere.” In the end he imagined the game would bear “as much relationship to the books as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead does to Hamlet.”

As in previous versions, the game of Hitchhiker’s follows hapless Earthman Arthur Dent, who loses first his house and then his entire planet to unscheduled demolitions at the hands of uncaring civil services, local and galactic. Arthur joins up with Ford Prefect, a roving researching for the titular Guide—basically space Wikipedia on a tablet, before either such concept had been invented—which provides a useful source of authorial digression and, in the game, occasionally useful information. The plot of the game involves collecting four pieces of fluff from across space and time that will combine to form a seedling of a plant that offers a glimpse of the future: but, as in the previous incarnations, the plot wasn’t really the point. Half the fun was putting the player in bizarre situations that gave Adams’ and Meretzky’s writing a chance to shine.

>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.  
>open door
The door explains, in a haughty tone, that the room is occupied by a superintelligent robot and that lesser beings (by which it means you) are not to be admitted. "Show me some tiny example of your intelligence," it says, "and maybe, just maybe, I might reconsider."

>kick door
"I suppose you think that since you have legs and I have not, you can get away with that sort of thing. Well," the door continues stiffly, "maybe you can and maybe you can't."
There is a molecular hyperwave pincer here.

>examine pincer
It looks like every other molecular hyperwave pincer you've ever seen.

The famously discursive Hitchhiker’s style was difficult to squeeze onto a floppy, but often shone through in unexpected places, as in this death message seen when the player fails to take proper precautions after teleportation:

Your serious allergic reaction to protein loss from matter transference beams becomes a cause celebre among various holistic pressure groups in the Galaxy and leads to a total ban on dematerialisation. Within fifty years, space travel is replaced by a keen interest in old furniture restoration and market gardening. In this new quieter Galaxy, the art of telepathy flourishes as never before, creating a new universal harmony which brings all life together, converts all matter into thought and brings about the rebirth of the entire Universe on a higher and better plane of existence. However, none of this affects you, because you are dead.

But the Hitchhiker’s game was more than funny prose. Much of its humor comes from poking fun at—even deconstructing—the emerging conventions of the text adventure: playing with the nature of interactivity and with its own limitations in a way that few games had yet attempted.

Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

>aft
That entrance leads to the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. It's supposed to be a terribly dangerous area of the ship. Are you sure you want to go in there?
 
>yes
Absolutely sure?
 
>yes
I can tell you don't want to really. You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.

When the player convinces the parser that they really do want to enter the drive chamber, it sulkily refuses to describe any of the objects therein until the player insists.

The unreliable narrator shows up in other moments of the game:

You hear the deep and distant hum of a star drive coming from far above. There is an exit to port.

>port
You can't go that way.

>go to port
You can't go that way.

>move to port
You used the word "port" in a way that I don't understand.

>starboard
You can't go that way.

>aft
(We were lying about the exit to port.) You emerge from a small doorway...

Like Tristram Shandy, the 18th-century novel that violated every inviolable convention of the book, Hitchhiker’s delights in breaking the still-solidifying rules of its own new medium. The game has points, for instance, but they don’t really matter: the highest-scoring action by far is simply drinking a cup of tea, a remnant of an early Adams idea that you’d earn points not for collecting treasure but for enjoying things. Early on, you can die and the game keeps going:

You try to think of some suitable last words, but what with the confusion of the moment and the spinning of your head, you are unable to compose anything pithy and expire in silence.

>look
You keep out of this, you're dead. An ambulance arrives.

>look at ambulance
You keep out of this, you're dead and should be concentrating on developing a good firm rigor mortis. You are put in the ambulance, which drives away.

At one point (in a passage lifted from the book) the action is interrupted by a long story wherein some random words of Arthur’s are sucked through a freak wormhole in the space-time continuum and end up precipitating an intergalactic war. In the game, the words are a recent player command which the parser didn’t understand:

The creature stirred in its sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words "move to port" drifted across the conference table. Unfortunately, in the Vl'Hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.

...You have destroyed most of a small galaxy. Please pick your words with greater care.

Then there were the puzzles, and it’s impossible to talk about Hitchhiker’s without talking about the Babel Fish puzzle. Say this phrase to any text game fan alive in the 1980s and you’ll get a knowing look: it would become shorthand for puzzles that were outrageously hard or outrageously unfair. The truth, though, is that the Babel Fish puzzle wasn’t really either: to defend this claim will require some explanation of how it worked. Arthur, trapped in the hold of a spaceship, needs to operate a dispenser to retrieve a babel fish which will allow him to understand alien languages:

>examine dispenser
The dispenser is tall, has a button at around eye-level, and says "Babel Fish" in large letters. Anything dispensed would probably come out the slot at around knee-level. It bears a small label which reads "Another fine product of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation."

>press dispenser button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook.

Arthur is probably wearing a dressing gown at this point with “a small loop at the back of the collar,” so observant puzzle fiends will eventually try:

>put gown on hook
The gown is now hanging from the hook, covering a tiny hole.

>press dispenser button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain.

The drain can be covered by a towel, but this produces another complication; and resolving that one leads to yet another. The final step in the chain involves a cleaning robot which “flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.” The puzzle occurs fairly early in the game, and one of the few remaining items on hand which hasn’t yet been deployed is a pile of junk mail, which the “flying junk” phrase nods to. The junk mail can be used to distract the cleaning robot, which allows Arthur to finally acquire the fish. It’s a complex puzzle, to be sure, but each step is decently clued, and an experienced adventure gamer can generally get through the sequence without too much trouble.

The problem was that Hitchhiker’s wasn’t destined to be sold to experienced adventure gamers. Based on a well-known title, arriving during a watershed year for the penetration of personal computers into regular homes, an enormous number of its players would not have come up through the trenches of Zork and Suspended, solving puzzles like the early hackers did for the sheer pleasure of applied problem-solving. They were expecting something more like a story from a game based on a bestselling book. And taken that way—as part of a story—the Babel Fish puzzle can be infuriating. Why would Arthur have picked up the pile of junk mail from his doorstep in the first place, when his home and planet were about to be demolished? Why can he only hang the dressing gown from the hook, not the towel? Why does COVER DRAIN WITH TOWEL work but not PUT TOWEL ON TOP OF DRAIN, when the manual says only to “type your sentence in plain English each time you see the prompt?” Why can’t Arthur get Ford to help him get the babel fish, as in the book; or for that matter, why can’t he just stand directly in front of the dispenser and catch the fish as it comes out of the slot? The contortions necessary to marry logic puzzles with a narrative environment become strained as the narrative takes on more importance, and the audience grows less familiar with existing conventions. Hitchhiker’s had both the most narrative storyline and the least experienced audience of any previous Infocom game.

Games historian Jimmy Maher has speculated that the Babel Fish puzzle, appearing early in what was to become the bestselling text adventure of the year, may have marked the beginning of the end for a medium aspiring to be the future of both games and books. It frustrated tens of thousands: Infocom sold “I got the Babel Fish” t-shirts and lots of hint books. But folks who didn’t buy either—first-time computer users and interactive fiction novices—may have just given up on the whole concept of the text adventure: Hitchhiker’s may have been both the first and last such game many new computer users played. Some reviewers called it “utterly impossible” and “punishingly difficult”; others admitted with rare honesty that they hadn’t actually gotten very far into the thing before their deadlines. “It’s a masterpiece,” wrote one: “Hilarious. Adams has done a marvellous job. And next time I see him, I’ll kill him.” 1984 seemed like only the start of Infocom’s meteoric rise, but it would turn out to be the highest-grossing year of the company’s short history.

The babel fish was not the game’s only frustrating moment. “Douglas and I both felt that adventure games were becoming a little too easy,” Meretzky later recalled; “that the original Zork had been much harder than more recent offerings, and the 24/7 obsessive brain-racking was what made these games so addictive. We might have overreacted and gone too far in the other direction.” While characters almost never respond to attempts to give them orders, as in most Infocom games, on several occasions doing so is the only way to proceed. One scene requires ordering a whole group of guards to not do something, managing to combine several unlikely-to-work ideas into a single command. It’s easy to lose access to seemingly trivial items—the junk mail, or a toothbrush in Arthur Dent’s bedroom in the very first room of the game—that turn out to be vital hundreds of moves later. And the game at times requires unintuitive actions: if you take the towel Ford offers you in an early scene, something any fan would instantly do, it results in your unexpected death a few moves later.

And yet some of the Hitchhiker’s puzzles are delightful, examples of the text adventure and its unique brand of lateral thinking at their best. Once the early game is finished, you can find an Improbability Generator which, when activated, throws you into a seemingly featureless void:

Dark
You can see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, and are not entirely certain who you are.

>look
Dark
You can't hear anything, see anything, smell anything, feel anything, or taste anything, and do not even know where you are or who you are or how you got there.

The message changes subtly each time and the parser responds to none of your commands, but an observant player will soon notice that something about the text has changed:

Dark
You can hear nothing, taste nothing, see nothing, feel nothing, and are not even certain who you are.

>smell
(darkness)
It does smell a bit. There's something pungent being waved under your nose. Your head begins to clear. You can make out a shadow moving in the dark.

The player eventually learns how to manipulate the Dark to visit ten different environments across space and time (two for each of the five senses), all of them rather improbable situations as befitting your means of getting there. Some are scenes that have already happened: in one, you revisit the opening of the game, but this time as Ford Prefect, not Arthur. In another, you find yourself in the vanguard of the space fleet fighting the war precipitated by your earlier mistake:

>talk to g'gugvunt leader
You are clearly the worst diplomat that ever lived, and are about to become the worst one that ever died. That is an even worse insult in the G'Gugvunt tongue than "move to port" is in the Vl'Hurg tongue.

Solving most of the “past” scenes requires a certain amount of thinking like a time traveler. Many revolve around finding a way to make a particular item accessible to Arthur once you return to his body via another trip through the Dark. Generously, if you don’t complete a sequence successfully at first, the game lets you return as often as you like until you nail it: death is frequent but temporary. Another much-maligned Hitchhiker’s puzzle involves needing to feed a certain cheese sandwich to a certain dog to prevent it from devouring a certain microscopic space fleet, long before you would have any idea you needed to do such a thing: but a closer look at the structure of the game reveals it actually assumes you’ll fail to do this your first time through. It’s only once you replay the scene as a different character, having seen the consequences of the failed action, that you’re meant, à la Groundhog Day, to correct it.

“The puzzles are tough, but they follow a certain capricious, twisted internal logic,” one reviewer admitted; another praised the game’s “consistent illogic.” Perhaps the best example comes in a puzzle that requires you to be holding “tea” and “no tea” at the same time (for, well, reasons). While “no tea” is indeed listed in your inventory when the game begins, the parser dismisses any attempts to treat it like a distinct object:

>examine no tea
You're talking complete nonsense; pull yourself together.

>drop no tea
Your common sense tells you that you can't do that.

Yet at the same time the game persists in slyly implying “no tea” is an actual object simulated in the game’s code: just one that obviously can’t be held at the same time as tea.

>get tea
no tea: Dropped.

>drop tea
no tea: Taken.

In one of the Improbability vignettes, you find yourself wandering a “maze of twisty little synapses”—a nod to Adventure—which are, in fact, the spongy passageways of Arthur’s own brain. Therein you can find “a large black particle” blocking a gap between synapses, with “some faint markings” which read:

  Sense, Common for:
     Dent, Arthur
   (for replacement,
  order part #31-541)

Removing the particle—your own common sense—lets you at last carry tea and no tea at the same time, a triumph of wordplay and twisted logic fondly remembered by many fans.

Adams and Meretzky proved successful collaborators, with shared sensibilities in both humor and puzzle design. “Watching them work together is inspiring,” one reporter wrote, “as they thrust and parry understatements. Brilliant non sequiturs follow jabs of incongruities.” Though they spent only a few weeks together in person during the game’s development, they collaborated frequently via email, swapping ideas, designs, game text and playable prototypes as they pushed to have Hitchhiker’s finished in time for the 1984 holiday season. “Douglas wrote the bulk of the responses to ‘correct inputs,’” Meretzky remembered, “but that’s just a small part of the text in an adventure game.” He would end up authoring over half of the content, seamlessly matching the cadences and style of his much more famous collaborator, as well as doing all the coding. “I was gratified,” he proudly recalled upon the game’s release, when Adams “remarked that in many cases he couldn’t tell which bits he’d written and which bits I’d written.”

As the game moved toward completion and into its marketing phase, Meretzky remained heavily involved. Infocom had become known for a clever style of packaging which included bonus materials and knickknacks, the now-legendary “feelies.” In an age of rampant software piracy, a box full of extras provided an incentive for buying the game yourself rather than copying the disk from a friend. The Hitchhiker’s package would include a full-color brochure advertising the Guide itself, destruct orders for both Arthur’s home and the planet Earth, a bit of fluff, a Don’t Panic! button, and a small plastic baggie labeled “Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Microscopic Space Fleet”, with (apparently) nothing inside. Also included, each listing of the contents made sure to mention, was no tea.

Hitchhiker’s was destined to become one of the most profitable titles in Infocom’s history. Employees in the office were asked to volunteer for overtime shifts on the factory floor to ensure enough copies were ready to ship by Christmas. It would hover at the top of the bestseller lists for most of 1985, eventually selling nearly half a million copies. The promised sequel would never appear, since Adams had become weary of more Hitchhiker’s; but he’d go on to collaborate on a different game with Infocom, 1987’s Bureaucracy, in which you must go on an epic quest to get the post office to acknowledge a change of address form.

Adams would remain an enthusiast of computers as tools for self-expression for the rest of his life, becoming an early Mac evangelist and writing regular columns on software and technology for both mainstream and specialist audiences. “I think media are at their most interesting before anybody’s thought of calling them art,” he once observed, “when people still think they’re just a load of junk.” As a bona fide writer, he was often asked how he thought text adventures, or bookware, or IL (Interactive Literature, another acronym-of-the-week) compared with the real thing:

You can’t compare IL with literature. If you do, you can very easily make a fool of yourself. When Leo Fender first invented an electric guitar one could have said: “But to what extent is this real music?” To which the answer is: “All right, we’re not going to play Beethoven on it, but at least let’s see what we can do.”

Adams often expressed his hope that other non-coders and non-techies would try writing interactive stories: “Imagine if everything ever written on a typewriter had been written by the guys who invented the typewriter,” he once remarked. While bookware would prove a short-lived fad, the doors were indeed beginning to open for new kinds of creators—and the improbable games they’d create were like nothing the big publishing houses could ever have imagined.

Next week: In the aftermath of a devastating election, Steve Meretzky starts to wonder if a game could be political.

The best way to play Hitchhiker’s today is probably in a modern web version by the BBC; you could also download the story file and a player like Lectrote, or try playing in a DOS emulator for a vintage feel. Scans of the manual and feelies are also available, as is the ZIL source code. Steve Meretzky has preserved nearly 600 pages of notes on Hitchhiker’s as part of the Infocom Cabinet, an invaluable source for this article: other useful sources were the books “Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion” and “Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams.”

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