Search Results for: Infocom

4000 pages of Infocom documents

I said 4000 pages of Infocom documents. You heard me, right?

These are paper records saved by Steve Meretzky while Infocom was operating. He saved them after the company fell down; he preserved them for decades; he let Jason Scott scan them while making Get Lamp. The originals are now at Stanford University. The scans (slightly edited to remove personal information) are now on the Internet Archive.

What's currently up there is all the design documents for many of Infocom's games. (I originally wrote "nearly all" but in fact it's seven of them.)

Further doc dumps (memos, email, schedules, business plans) will appear in the future -- they require more editing and permissions, since there's more personal information there.

Go nuts.

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Trinity: design ruminations

This is not a detailed review of Infocom's Trinity, because Jimmy Maher has just finished that job. His sequence of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) puts the game into its context in Infocom's history and, more broadly, in the history of the Atomic Age (remember that?) and the Cold War. Go read.

Inevitably Maher comes around to the question of the ending -- the "...what just happened?" denouement. (You can read just that one post if you're familiar with the game.) It's not the first time, of course. Maher links to a Usenet thread in which we went 'round this topic in 2001.

It's generally agreed that the plot logic of the ending doesn't really hold together. In fact, my teenage self was moved to write a letter of complaint to Infocom! I received a gracious response -- I think it was written by Moriarty himself -- which basically said "The game ends the way we felt it had to end." Which is unarguable. (This letter is in my father's basement somewhere, and one day I will dig it out and scan it with great glee.)

But today I am moved to be argumentative. If I were the author of Trinity, what would I have done?

(Oh, sure, I'm being presumptuous too. All due apologies to Moriarty. But we're both thirty years older; we're different people than the author and player circa 1986. It's worth a rethink.)

(I will assume that you've played the game and read Maher's post. If not, massive spoilers ahoy.)


As everybody has pointed out, Trinity is already constructed in the language of whimsy and metaphor; it starts out with a Lewis Carroll quote and builds from there. So expecting rigid logic is a fool's errand. Nonetheless, I do want a story to make sense when read at face value. (James Nicoll: "I don’t mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface.") Or, if the logic goes all Looking-Glass, it should do so in a thematic way.

Trinity offers the notion that the first atomic bomb would have "blown New Mexico right off the map" if we hadn't sabotaged it. Atomic bombs are vastly more powerful than we think. The little 20-kiloton blast that 1945 witnessed was "quantum steam", a side effect of changing history from a catastrophic New Mexino disaster to the timeline we know.

Maher discusses this in terms of eternal tragedy. Fine, I'd buy that -- except that it matters that atomic bombs don't work. Or work differently. Oppenheimer and Teller were wrong! All the physicists since then have been wrong. You can't just drop that into the story and not care what it means. Politics: all the mad calculations of MAD were orders of magnitude off-true. Science: the notion of fusion power, whatever that's worth, is built on quicksand. That's not a theme of "history is inevitable, we have come full circle" -- it can't be, because our history isn't what we think!

Or else the game isn't even about us, but about some other universe full of people. Sucks to be them.

But how else could the story have been cast?


Trinity could have followed through on its implied promise: you will prevent Trinity. Thus you prevent Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the nuclear detente of the Cold War; and the envisioned nuclear conflict which ends civilization. A game which goes down this road is clearly pablum. It trivializes every triumph and disaster of our postwar history with a jovial "Well, don't do that then!"

Alternate history is tricky at best. We've all seen "if this goes on" think-pieces, which project some pet peeve into (inevitably) some variety of jackbooted dystopia, all in three smug pages and a glowering byline. They're laughable. You can just about build a respectable novel this way, if you spend the pages to develop an actual world and characters; if you have the human insight of an Orwell or a Walton. Infocom's shot at this was of course AMFV, and we generally agree that it didn't work. The world they packed into 256k of Z-code was just too sketchy.

For Trinity, whose body was a solitary metaphorical puzzle-quest, to develop a vision of a nuclear-free utopia in the last scene -- it would be a joke. We'd have no reason to care, and no reason to believe it beyond the author's "I said so." Scratch that plan.


Trinity could have ended by snatching the candy out of your hand. You begin in our history, foreseeing a nuclear war. You try to sabotage Trinity to prevent it. But you cannot: the Laws of Time (or whatever) are immutable. Thus, all comes to pass. We got the Bomb, they got the Bomb, we are rushing towards the end.

This would be bleak. (Bleak is already on the table, of course.) It would fit Maher's discussion of the moment of the abyss, the Great Change in the midst of inevitable tragedy.

But, on the other hand, you'd have to make it work as a game too. It's hard to make failure work as a satisfying ending of a puzzle-quest. Possible, of course! But Infocom had already done Infidel (with mixed success, although teenage-me was satisfied). Repeating that ending would make it seem even more of a gimmick.

You'd have to rearrange the ending, anyhow. Infidel works because the final puzzle has powerful narrative momentum (Indy always finds the secret treasure!) and a direct link to the tragic ending (the tomb has One Last Trap). If Trinity's final puzzle is sabotaging the bomb, you're going to sabotage that bomb. Any other outcome would feel like a failure to solve the puzzle. If the puzzle were to reach the bomb -- and reaching it truly felt like a climactic moment -- then the player might accept some other denouement. But, more likely, it would feel like a cheat.

A variation would be for the protagonist to refuse to complete the sabotage. It's hard to imagine the player buying into this, though. You'd have to spend the whole game arguing for the preservation of history. Sure, erasing it all is empty polemic, but -- faced with the awful alternative -- the player engaged with the story has every motivation to try it.

So scratch that too.


We might leave the final choice unresolved; leave the future in the protagonist's hand, and thus in the player's imagination. This avoids both the unsatisfying failure and the just-so story of success. If done barefaced, though, it would be just as unsatisfying as an unsolved puzzle.

One can imagine ways to make it work. Perhaps build the entire story around choice, with visible glimpses of alternate outcomes for each scene. More ambitiously: have every major puzzle embody a choice, so that multiple solutions serve as multiple paths-not-taken for the story. These wouldn't have to form an exponentially-branching tree; a collection of independent (but irrevocable, in the story-world) choices would make the point. Have the paths-not-taken hover and haunt the player. Now the player, facing an unknown and unresolved ending, will do the work of imagining the alternatives for us. Or so we hope.


Being me, I have to suggest the indirect, metaphorical ending. You leave the conclusion open to interpretation: what was dream, what was metaphor, what was the hallucination of a brain being incinerated in nuclear fire?

Infocom went some distance in this direction, or we wouldn't have long blog posts about the ending to begin with. But I'd say they provided a single clear narrative for the ending -- terse, but clear. Other aspects of the story (such as the time-loop nature of the Wabewalker and their corpse) are left more open; to me, more satisfyingly open.

This stuff can be made to work, if you spend the game building up plausible hypotheses. And the author has to have a logical framework, even though it's not explained to the player. I'll admit up front that I have such a framework for Hadean Lands, and no, I won't talk about it... But I'll go through the process of imagining what might underlie this alternate Zarfian Trinity.

The hallucination-while-dying gag is even more of a gimmick than the Infidel ending. Go ahead, accuse me of using it anyway. Well, if Terry Gilliam can pull it off after Ambrose Bierce closed the book on it... But we won't try to repeat it here.

Nearly as common is the you-are-not-who-you-think-you-are gag. This, at least, can be varied to suit the storyline. We might decide that the protagonist is a guardian of history, a peer of the giggling narrator. Or that the protagonist is the giggling narrator, talking to themself across the timeline. Or maybe the protagonist is Oppenheimer?

Not Oppenheimer, let's say, but all of the innocent (or guilty) bystanders in each of the history scenes. You are not the London vacationer; you take their viewpoint temporarily, up to the point where they enter the explosion. Then you take the viewpoint of a Russian technician, and so forth. The realization that you are in a different body in every scene would arrive gradually. This would require a different approach to some scenes, of course. (There is no NPC viewpoint in space, and the Bikini test -- the dolphin perhaps?) Then, at the Trinity site, you are Donald Hornig, babysitting the equipment until -- contra real history -- you/he find yourself at risk. There's your crucial, personal choice.

I rather like this plan; it gives us a chance to read the story from a real person's perspective, rather than the Infocom-style everynerd. (Of course, at the time Trinity was being written, Hornig was teaching down the street at Harvard! There's a real-people-fiction discussion to be had there, but I won't get into it.)

All of these storytelling gimmicks, while certainly gimmicks, serve to refocus the player's attention on the story. That's why I keep coming back to them. Rethinking everything that's happened from a new perspective is, well, thinking about everything that's happened! And when your ending is difficult to accept, it always helps for the player to figure it out rather than being handed it on a plate. It gives 'em a sense of investment, right? That's the point of interactive narrative in the first place.


Finally (for this post) we have the ending in which you choose between our history and some more terrible one. This was Moriarty's option, and I think it's workable. My objection is to how Trinity framed that choice: as a forked history in which neither choice is really our world.

Can it be reframed? Not, I think, with "sabotage the bomb" as the final puzzle. If the winning outcome is our world, the bomb must go off as planned. Perhaps the player discovers some deeper threat -- aliens? time police? paradox itself? -- and must divert, at the last moment, from sabotaging Trinity to defeating this enemy.

"Paradox itself" is a tidy way to frame the threat: the bomb must go off, or history evaporates in a puff of logic! Except that this really falls back under the "immutable Laws of Time" scenario we covered earlier. It comes off as a cheat.

No, we need an enemy that the player will feel good about defeating. Aliens are too out-of-the-blue. Nazis are too Godwin (even in a WW2 game scene). Time travellers could work; a faction from the collapsing Soviet Union, perhaps. (Science fictional in 1986!) Say they pose an extreme threat -- say, a plan to change the outcome of the war, followed by a joint Nazi-Soviet hegemony of the world?

This would have to be developed at some length, and again, it's unclear whether Infocom had the resources to pull off a solid alternate history. But it's the option I'd try. If, you know, I knew anything about history.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Random historical "treasure"

Here's a thing I found in a box: the records of my solving Infocom games.

(click for bigger and larger)

Back when I was first playing these things, I would generate these transcripts. Not while I was solving them -- oh, what a waste of paper that would have been -- but when I finished. I'd start from the beginning and play through to the end, reeling out all my hard-won game expertise in one swoop.

Well, maybe not one swoop. You can see that one of the transcripts starts in the middle of Planetfall. Probably I came to the end of a ream of paper and had to feed in a new one.

This is fan-fold dot-matrix printout from an Apple 2. It was an Okidata printer. Microline model 92, I think?

I have no idea what to do with this stuff, other than put it back in a box. It doesn't encode anything interesting about my play experience, since I was aiming at a clean "speed run". I guess you could analyze my typos.

If I get sufficiently famous, I guess one day I can donate my papers to a literary foundation. Something to look forward to.

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The best achievements are the least obvious

AmusingOne of my favorite aspects of Portal 2 is its effective use of achievements, those meta-gamey pleasure-center tinglers now ubiquitous across modern videogames via services like Xbox Live and Steam. While the game carries the usual payload of milestone-badges, unavoidably “unlocked” just by traversing its two play modes, it splits the remainder between encouraging various player interactions in co-op mode and inviting a replay of single-player mode in a new context. This latter class of achievements proves most interesting to me, and brings to mind a certain beloved feature of classic text adventure games.

Some of Portal 2’s achievements offer straightforward challenges: one, for example, asks the player to solve a particular puzzle-chamber in fewer than 70 seconds. I find these the least engaging of the lot (and not just because I’ve so far failed to get my time under 100 seconds, ahem). Better are those that name a location in the game, but only hint at what one should do there. One of these instructs the player to “break the rules” in a certain chamber, and it’s up to them to figure out what this means, once they get there. For me, even though I’d seen and heard everything on this level already, the achievement-nudged realization of what I could do proved a fresh delight.

The most obscure of these achievements invert this pattern, suggesting what to do but not where, such as “Portrait of a Lady: Find a hidden portrait.” Even more enigmatic is the “Pit Boss” achievement, which bides you to simply “Show that pit who’s boss,” drawing the player to retrace their steps through the game to seek pits inviting extra interaction (and there is indeed one). My very favorite such achievement had me solve an optional layer of puzzles lurking in one section of the game, one that hid in plain sight during my first playthrough. I may have applauded my television when I realized.

I identify these coy achievements as the modern manifestation of the “AMUSING” postscript that would appear upon the completion of an Infocom text adventure game appears in certain 1990s text adventures, as well as some reprints of Infocom works (thanks to Zarf for the correction in the comments to this post). The game would invite the victorious player to type AMUSING to see a list of things of they might not have explored during their journey through the work — anything from one-off actions that generate sarcastic responses to entire, optional subsections of the game. More to the point, these were things that the game’s author felt they put a lot of clever work into, and hoped that player might go back to see if they missed them the first time ‘round. (One does still find AMUSING lists in some modern IF — the Inform 7 manual devotes a section to it — but their presence as end-of-game reward doesn’t have the ubiquitous status it once did.)

Granted, the comparison becomes more apt due to my own approach to achievements, especially in adventure games like Portal 2. Highly spoiler-averse, I refuse to even look at a new game’s achievement list if I anticipate a great story. Only after I survive through the ending credit roll will I allow myself to peek and see what I’ve missed. Lately, I begin to suspect that, beyond my overt desire to avoid plot giveaways, I’ve subconsciously wanted to treat a game’s achievements screen like an old-school AMUSING list — even before I become wholly aware of the similarity.

In a lesser game, I’d dismiss such vaguely worded challenges as twee, and their pursuit as not worth my time. And even for Portal 2, it took me a few months after my initial single-player traversal to work up the desire to return and mop up those achievements. When I finally did, last week, it felt like a directed homecoming, and I loved every moment I spent breathing that good clean test-chamber air once more, recycled though it may have been.

I’m not normally one to either reread books or replay solitaire videogames, but make exceptions for the the exceptional. And I’m pleased to see commercial adventure game designers find ways to turn some good out of obligatory achievement systems, much maligned and so easy to treat trivially. If they appear to take lessons from some of my favorite works of the distant past to do so, so much the better.

Image credit: “Amusing” by Flickr user kenjonbro. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

That "new" "official" Infocom web site

This story has already guttered out, but the serious disassembly happened on Usenet where most people won't see it. So I will dedicate a few hectopixels to documenting the situation.

It began on Thursday, Feb 18th, when Jason Scott -- who should have known better -- posted:

GOOD LUCK, KID: http://www.infocom-fiction.com/ (from @textfiles on Twitter)

The caps were apparently insufficient sarcasm, as this drew a flood -- okay, a small backwash -- of "Oh my god Infocom returns could it be true!" posts, on Twitter and various gaming web forums.

Let us now consider the facts.

The infocom-fiction.com web site has the old Infocom logo, the tagline "Interactive Fiction revisited", and this promo image:

Exciting, huh? The image name implies a game called "Triumvirate", presumably a follow-up to Trinity.

Except, alpha, the web site is not new. It appears to have been registered in June of 2007, and it was last updated in July of 2007. That "coming soon" has been frozen for two and a half years now.

And beta, the web site is not owned by Activision. It's registered to a guy in Germany named Oliver Klaeffling. Now, I have no beef with some IF fan deciding to write a followup to Trinity. That's fanfic, and fanfic is cool. But you shouldn't start cheering for the logo on his web site; cheer for the work. And Klaeffling does not appear to have finished the work.

"But what about the trademark?" you ask. Okay, this is where the story gets -- not exactly interesting, but at least a little bit convoluted.

Activision bought Infocom in 1986. That included all the games and all the trademarks. However, they stopped using the Infocom label on new releases after Return to Zork in 1993. (Zork Nemesis and Grand Inquisitor were just labelled "Activision".) They continued to reprint the old text games as "Infocom" until 2002, and then they dropped it entirely.

I don't know exactly when the legal status shifted, but at some time after 2002, the "Infocom" trademark was up for grabs. (In contrast, Activision kept a firm grip on "Zork".)

In July of 2007, Oliver Klaeffling applied for the Infocom trademark. He had already registered the infocom-fiction.com domain, and he put up the image you see above. Then -- nothing. He never completed the trademark application process. The USPTO declared it "abandoned" in October 2008.

At almost the same time -- October 2007 -- another Infocom trademark application went in, this one by "Omni Consumer Products LLC". This is a deliberately silly company name, but it's a real (small) company. It consists of Pete Hottelet finding fictional products (such as "Brawndo" from Idiocracy) and getting permission make them as real (licensed) products.

So that's where the "Infocom" trademark is now: it's held by the maker of Brawndo. Take that as the character note of the 21st century, if you like. Hottelet does not appear to have to have done anything IF-related, but Dave Cornelson said he was emailing him about the trademark, and maybe something will come of that.

Where does this leave Klaeffling? He doesn't have a trademark, and Activision still owns the copyright on Trinity. In the past, Activision people have been generous about permitting free fan-made games in the Infocom settings. But I have no idea if those people are still at Activision. I also have no idea if Klaeffling intended to release his game for free or as a commercial product. Also, of course, I have no idea how far he got implementing it. Conclusion: I have no idea. But it's safe to say the game isn't coming out this month.

Footnotes: Thanks to Stuart Moore for posting facts rapidly on rec.arts.int-fiction. Also this handy trademark blog post from 2007.

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Infocom sales figures

Simon Carless at GameSetWatch tips us off to a crazy piece of geek trivia: an internal sales report of Infocom text adventures.

  

Click for links to complete image scans. The watershed between the two documents is Activision's 1986 acquisition of Infocom.

These scans were posted by Jason Scott as part of the research he's done for his upcoming Get Lamp documentary.

I don't have a lot to add to the observations in the GSW column. Zork 1 was the biggest hit, and stayed strong throughout the company's existence. Hitchhiker's Guide was their second biggest game; then Zork 2, Deadline, and Zork 3. (But the Zork sequels never did half as well as the original -- a pattern echoed, for example, by the Myst series a decade later.)

I am surprised by the relative weakness of Sorcerer and Spellbreaker -- the latter was hit by nasty stock returns in 1986. (Was there some marketing or distribution screwup there? A lot of the numbers in the '86 column look too small, even assuming the report was written partway through the year.) Contrariwise, Cutthroats was a bigger hit than I ever realized. Probably my biases towards fantasy and against "mundane" fiction are showing. Of Infocom's later games, Wishbringer, Leather Goddesses, and Beyond Zork were the strongest -- but Zork 1 and HHGG just kept on selling.

And then there's Cornerstone, whose story I need not tell.

Are these the numbers I should be trying to beat when I launch my commercial IF career into triumph? Heck, I don't know. Probably not. Even comparing the sales numbers from 1981, 1985, and 1989 is somewhat apples to pomelos, given the enormous expansion of the computer game market over that era. Today's market makes 1989 look like a grape -- and then it's split and split again (consoles, casual gaming, MMO gaming...) and merged with a dozen other industries (movies, cell phones, advertising...) If I imagine a successful IF career today, I see something that runs between casual gamers and reading/blogging devotees. (Yes, folks, people read on the Internet.) Hasn't happened yet, no. I'll let you know.

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Quick Links (Spring Cleaning Edition)

Not so much with the posting lately; a new (game-related!) project that I can't talk much about yet has sprouted in my middle of my life like a delicious and fecund springtime mushroom. You see what it's done to my sense of metaphor? You don't want to see my writing right now, anyway.

But for now, it's time to close some tabs!


The Waxy.org fellow got his hands on an ancient hard drive from the offices of Infocom, the long-defunct (but Cambridge-based!) publishers of the most well-known text adventure games in the 1980s. He shares some details from "the best parts", including design notes and swirling, dramatic internal emails regarding a never-released sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


Because this received so many links from more timely game-news blogs (cough), a lot of the Infocom alums mentioned in the story showed up in the attached comment thread to flesh out the details personally, and one of them's apparently been move to pen his own view of the saga for Wired magazine. (See? There is an advantage in waiting a week to link to it. Mm-hmm.)


Lost Cities is out for XBox 360 now (as a US$10 download), and here's a video (using some whackjob MS-proprietary format, sorry) about the team adapting the tabletop party game Wits & Wagers for the platform. Word on the street that the numba-one game on Microsoft's "Live Arcade" downloadable-game service is not any sort of action-fighty game, but Uno, which has put away around 1.5 million copies through it.


So, yes, Microsoft has thrown down and put forward this console as embracing the world of tabletop games that are more obscure to American audiences than Risk. The examples I've gotten to see so far have been fairly decent and faithful adaptations, so I cautiously salute this.


Archaeologists in Iran have indentified some grid-shaped rock carvings on Khark Island as being the play surface of a millenia-old board game. No word on what kind of game it was, though the article seems to imply that it could be some relative of Backgammon. No additional commentary from the original designers this time, sadly. Anyway, an interesting antidote to the last time Iran showed up in this blog.
Andrew at Grand Text Auto describes another interesting never-was game from the 1980s, an Atari VCS game where you had to program an on-screen robot to complete tasks, such as navigating a maze. Yes, it looks like a totally bomb-ass cool version of Secret Collect. I would have loved this. Apparently the original designer is releasing some homemade cartridges with the game software on it; see article for details.
Via Play This Thing, we see that several of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf pick-a-path adventure game books from the 1980s have become free downloads. I played and enjoyed these as a kid, and as Greg notes in that post, they're an important evolutionary step in the development of single-player role-playing experiences, even though nobody(?) is publishing books like them nowadays.

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