Aaron A. Reed on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Hi! I’m Aaron A. Reed, author of the forthcoming book 50 Years of Text Games: From Oregon Trail to A.I. Dungeon. Thanks to Drew for letting me crash his blog! IF fans may know me better from my games like Blue Lacuna and Whom the Telling Changed, but my very first game was an interactive comedy called Gourmet that involved a chef, a pneumatic tube food delivery system, and a runaway lobster. It was very much inspired by my love for Infocom and Hitchhiker’s Guide in particular, so it’s a privilege to be able to add a little coda to his excellent coverage of this classic game.

Drew’s previous articles [See the table of contents! DSC] have already done a great job covering Hitchhiker’s: so as not to duplicate them, or my own coverage for the 50 Years of Text Games blog, I’d like to debut here some bonus material from the book on the way Hitchhiker’s deploys metatextual humor.

As might be expected from Douglas Adams—who worked in mediums from radio to television and novels to magazine columns—Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s is intensely engaged with its medium in a way few games before it had been. From its lying, occasionally willful parser (who misleads you about the exits from rooms, and sometimes needs to be persuaded to take them) to its incorporation of player typos into the narrative (in the infamous sequence where your keyboard slip-up causes a major intergalactic war), I’ve compared it to the singular 18th century novel Tristram Shandy, which broke all the inviolable conventions that were then developing around novels. It directly addressed its reader, instructed them to turn to different pages out of sequence, rip some out or draw on others, and famously stuck a marbled endpaper in the middle of the volume to make an extremely meta joke about the clarity of its prose. Both Shandy and Hitchhiker’s enjoy thumbing their nose at conventions the audience has come to expect.

One example of many is the puzzle involving the room called just “Dark” in the game. The first time you come here, you get the message:

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

The text varies slightly each time you see it:

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

Eventually, astute readers will realize one of the senses is left out: smelling the darkness is the key to escaping it. This is a metatextual puzzle: it works not on the level of the narrative itself but the particulars of its delivery mechanism: in this case, interactive fiction. You couldn’t really adapt the pleasure of the core revelation here to a visual or audio medium in any satisfying way: it works because it’s about noticing how the language is being deployed. The puzzle mirrors a similar metatextual puzzle in the genre’s ancestor, Adventure, where you must escape from a “maze of twisty little passages” (or a “twisty little maze of passages,” or a “little maze of twisty passages”) by noticing particulars of the words used to describe it.

Another example is the inventory item called the “thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is”. This is also a metatextual joke, being a phrase too long and filled with prepositions to be a good “short name” for an IF inventory object, as well as utterly failing at the short name’s chief purpose of succinctly describing what it is. When examined, the thing’s full description (which in other games would be used to paint a fuller picture of what it looks like in the reader’s mind) offers almost no help on this front:

Apart from a label on the bottom saying "Made in Ibiza" it furnishes you with no clue as to its purpose, if indeed it has one. You are surprised to see it because you thought you'd thrown it away. Like most gifts from your aunt, you've been trying to get rid of it for years.

It’s funny, but the description is also providing a hint as to the item’s purpose. The key insight here is that it doesn’t actually matter what the thing is or what it looks like: what matters is what it does. (This is often the case with text adventure inventory items, most of which are destined for exactly one useful purpose, despite being described as if their visual representation is the most important thing about them; but few games have ever called this out quite so explicitly.) What defines the thing is not its shape, but that it keeps turning up even after you throw it away, and this proves key to using it to solve a later puzzle.

The game combines humor with laterally functional prose in many other ways. There are ten objects scattered throughout the game which all feature an identical description save for the name. You encounter the first one in Arthur’s bedroom, a toothbrush:

It looks like every other toothbrush you've ever seen.

This becomes a recurring joke when the same message gets applied to other random objects you find lying around the galaxy, which a player from Earth might be justifiably keen to get a more robust description of:

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

But it’s not just a joke: it’s a clue. The objects bearing this description are part of a set, one member of which is randomly selected as a puzzle solution in the endgame. Realizing that their shared description (again, a meta-level quality) joins these disparate items together is necessary to finishing the game.

There are many other examples, some more subtle than others, and I think it’s fair to say a good part of the lasting charm of Hitchhiker’s comes from the way it doesn’t just ape its source material, but genuinely adapts it for a new medium where the reader is inherently part of the story. A line like this wouldn’t work nearly so well in a novel:

>get toothbrush
As you pick up the toothbrush a tree outside the window collapses. There is no causal relationship between these two events.

…because as a player, you expect that things to happen in the world because you acted upon it. Taking pains to point out that (in this case) they did not is a joke tailor-made for a text adventure.

Thanks again to Drew for letting me take the Gold Machine for a spin! 50 Years of Text Games: From Oregon Trail to A.I. Dungeon has tons more great stories about Hitchhiker’s and 49 other text games from each of the last five decades. It’s on Kickstarter now through July 7th.

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