[1/3] Bookware Boom: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

1984’s Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams team-up The Hitchhiker‘s Guide to the Galaxy would prove Infocom’s only collaboration between an implementor and a major author, and it sold like crazy (Shogun? What’s a Shogun?).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984)

Implemented by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky

Packaging, Documentation, and Extras

HHGG gray box documentation (MoCAGH)
HHGG map (scroll to back pages (MoCAGH)
(For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: HHGG
Nathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs: HHGG
Transcript of play (not my first time)


(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 31 (110)
Vocabulary: 971 (697)
Takeable Objects: 45 (60)
Size: 113.3KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 18,965 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

Infocom interactive fiction - a science fiction story
Copyright (c) 1984 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
Release 59 / Serial number 851108

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.

Remembering HHGG

I went about things backwards, as I often did and do. When I was ten, I had never heard of Douglas Adams, but I certainly knew Infocom. After reading about a new game called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or HHGG for short) in The Status Line newsletter, I wondered if it was a good idea for Infocom to make a game based on someone else’s book. After all, they were doing a fine job making stories of their own. The next time we were at the mall, I asked my mother to buy me a copy of HHGG. We didn’t have much money in those days, but she was always happy to encourage my sister and me to read. By then So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish–the fourth book in the “trilogy”–was out, and it wouldn’t be long before I had read them all. By the time the next Christmas rolled around I only wanted one thing: Infocom’s HHGG.

And so it came to pass: Christmas morning, I found HHGG for my Commodore 64 under the tree. I dutifully opened socks and sweaters and the like, waiting for a chance to run to the computer. Once the wrapping paper and ribbons and cellophane were cleared away, I was finally permitted to head for my room. While I waited for the game to load (the C64 disk drive was notoriously slow), I began flipping through the browsie, chuckling like a weathered insider at its advertisement for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (not the game but a fictional object). I had read all the books. I was ready to take my victory lap through HHGG.

It didn’t happen because that game was hard. Harder to me than Enchanter or Sorcerer. Harder than Zork I or Zork II (if you don’t count the baseball or Bank of Zork puzzles). I got stuck at the beginning, stuck in the next part, stuck in the part after that. I think it might have been the second hardest Infocom game I had played at the time (Deadline was still the most difficult to me). I was surprised to discover that the game did not follow the events of the book too closely, that I was no expert, and that this would be no victory lap. Whether its difficulty hurts or helps its case, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remains one of Infocom’s best-remembered games, and is ranked fifth among their titles listed on IFDB.

Steve Meretzky and Douglass Adams, co-authors of HHGG, pose together in this photograph from 1985. Steve has a full beard and is smiling, while Adams might be a little impatient with the camera.
A photo of Steve Meretzky (left) and Douglas Adams. Retrieved from The Dot Eaters.

An Introduction to HHGG

So far as I understand things: Douglas Adams loved Mike Berlyn’s Suspended. When the idea that Infocom and Adams might work together on a project, Adams requested Berlyn. While it might seem strange that Berlyn refused, it isn’t necessarily surprising. He liked doing things his own way. Even though Berlyn was hired for his writing chops, Suspended was the least traditional–in terms of the craft of fiction–game that Infocom had released to date. He saw Infidel as a chance to drag the treasure-hunting genre through the dirt, and he did so at the risk of alienating his audience.

It was Steve Meretzky who agreed to work with Adams and, looking back, I’m not sure who else could have pulled off HHGG. Their senses of humor were well-aligned, and Meretzky appreciated the source material, having included a towel (a crucial survival tool in the HHGG universe) in Planetfall‘s opening sequence:

The pod lands with a thud. Through the viewport you can see a rocky cleft and some water below. The pod rocks gently back and forth as if it was precariously balanced. A previously unseen panel slides open, revealing some emergency provisions, including a survival kit and a towel.

More important–and I think this surprises some people–Steve Meretzky was a very organized and methodical implementor (have you seen the Infocom cabinet materials at the Internet Archive?) that could drive a project to completion, even if his collaborators were not as results-oriented as he was.

The end result is a Steve Meretzky game in an already well-developed universe that avoids the problems of a Sorcerer or Zork Zero by offering both freedom to roam as well as clearly delineated boundary edges–there would be no Double Fanucci in HHGG, for instance. While many prefer Planetfall, others (myself included) believed HHGG was, in 1984, Meretzky’s best game yet. Whatever your feelings are, it must be admitted that HHGG has many formal innovations that all but certainly are Steve Meretzky’s doing. The first is the map, which, rather than consisting of large, contiguous areas, features many small areas, or vignettes. This design makes it possible for the player to control multiple characters and not in the simulation style of Suspended. Rather, various characters are stars of their own episodes in the overall game.

This innovative design had never been seen before in an Infocom game, though playing through episodes or a series of small maps is now an established practice in IF. Finally, HHGG experimented in what might be considered post-modern (or post-post-post-post-modern) approaches to input and feedback. For instance, a central problem of the game is making real tea as opposed to the tea substitute fabricated by the Nutrimat food synthesizer. The game underscores this problem by placing “no tea” in the player’s listed inventory:

You have:
  no tea
  Advanced Tea Substitute
  an atomic vector plotter
  your gown (being worn)
  It looks like your gown contains:
    a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
    It looks like the thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is contains:
      a pair of tweezers
      a flathead screwdriver
      a toothbrush
      pocket fluff
      a molecular hyperwave pincer
  a towel
  a babel fish (in your ear)
  The Hitchhiker's Guide
  an electronic Sub-Etha signaling device

HHGG‘s playfulness when it came to tropes of adventure gaming was one more part of its appeal. It was undoubtedly Infocom’s first undisputed knockout since Enchanter, and that’s before considering the charm and appeal of Douglas Adams’s created universe. That it would prove to be Infocom’s second best-selling game (after Zork I, of course) is hardly surprising.

While it could not save Infocom, the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had another and perhaps more important effect: it gave Steve Meretzky the clout to get A Mind Forever Voyaging, one of the more historically significant games of the 1980s, on store shelves. Whatever your favorite Infocom game might be, you must admit that it took courage (or something more outlandish) to publish a puzzle-free anti-game about the dangers of conservatism in Reagan’s America. But that is a story for another day.

But Gee Whiz, It was Hard

HHGG was much harder than its “Standard” difficulty designation might suggest, and it had a mean streak, too. It was easy to get jammed up by missing items or situations thereby finding yourself locked out of victory. Moreover, knowledge of the books wasn’t of much help outside of specific situations like the first few moves of the game. It wasn’t too hard to die either, but as a developer Steve Meretzky knew that nothing softened the blow of a game over so much as a good, well-timed joke.

There is a popular theory that the marketing department dictated that HHGG be listed as Standard for sales reasons, though if I’ve seen or heard such a thing from a reliable source, I’ve forgotten (let me know if you can confirm this!). Whatever the truth is, I struggled with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a long time, taking frequent breaks to reflect and wait on inspiration. That time was well spent, though, as the game was worth the trouble. I think most players mourn its abrupt ending. A sequel was clearly planned for the near term, but, rather incredibly, no one at Infocom knew just how tenuous their place in the world of game publishing would soon prove to be. A very light unplayable area was sketched up, but that is all that remains. No sequel ever came, and Douglas Adams became interested–then just as quickly lost interest–in a game that almost everyone at Infocom worked on for five minutes or so, an expensive and disappointing boondoggle called Bureaucracy.

As I so frequently do, I owe a debt to the Digital Antiquarian, Get Lamp, and the Infocom Cabinet items at the Internet Archive.

Coming Soon

As usual, next week will be dedicated to the packaging and story of HHGG. The browsie and feelies are fantastic, even by Infocom standards, and as always there will be photos. Afterward, I will offer a brief critical treatment, focusing on Steve Meretzky’s innovative layout and the ways in which that offers new storytelling opportunities.

Finally, I’m excited to announce that we will feature a guest author on June 13th, a Gold Machine first! Aaron A. Reed will share some exclusive content from his forthcoming book, 50 Years of Text Games! Those of you who have followed this project are likely as thrilled as I am to anticipate this content here. Don’t miss out!

8 thoughts on “[1/3] Bookware Boom: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  1. I picked this up once it was in Solid Gold form (so it had the built in hints) which were use quite plentifully. I’d cheerfully call it the most difficult of all the Infocom games.

  2. HHGG is a great game, and I pretty much agree with the Standard difficulty rating. The puzzles play fair and are hinted if you look carefully. It probably helped that I was immersed in Adams’ sense of humor and style. I never was able to finish Bureaucracy or Starship Titanic… I’ll make another attempt at those some day.

    1. I never tried Titanic, though I’m curious about it. As another person posts below, Bureaucracy starts strong but gets sideways. You can tell it spent a lot of time in development hell.

  3. Bureaucracy’s a blast in the early game with a disappointing ending… there’s a pattern there. (I generally tell people to stop once they’ve made it to the airport.)

    1. Yeah, I’ll agree with that. The stuff in the protag’s neighborhood is genuinely funny with some good puzzles. But wow. When it tanked, it really tanked.

  4. The towel in Planetfall is none too subtle. If you READ TOWEL it says,
    Escape Pod #42
    Don’t Panic!”

  5. I guess I’m one more data point towards “this game did very well.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the single Infocom game I was able to play back when the company was still in business, getting a sense for “the game thinks about everything you type into it, then calls on the disk; will you actually succeed?” An uncle with a bit more computer savviness than my family (and we were pretty familiar with Radio Shack computers) gave us a nearly complete box (with no fluff or “Microscopic Space Fleet,” although it did have the “Passport To The United Products of Infocom” catalog, which inspired many daydreams over the years). Despite the warning in the manual not to rely on the novel, I did read it not that long after getting the game. However, I pretty much relied on the hints column in the Color Computer magazine “The Rainbow,” which dropped enough crumbs to carry me quite some ways into the game (up to the point, that is, of having to hold “tea” and “no tea” at the same time)… It took until the early 1990s and finding someone in high school had also once played the game before I was handed an old InvisiClues book, and it took a little while after that to make just enough sense of the long-developed, now-faded hints to be able to finish the game and be left thinking “so now what?” I’ll admit “The Lost Treasures of Infocom” was “better than nothing” for me.

    1. The tea and no tea puzzle was baffling. I think I was just trolling the parser. I didn’t actually understand the puzzle until college.

      Re: “Lost Treasures,” in a lot of ways, we players have things better today. There are high-quality scans available for every game (much better than the “Treasures” booklet), multiple versions of each game, and digital Invisiclues that actually reveal themselves one at a time (it was hard to avoid getting too much info out of those “Treasures” clue books). My main worry is that no formal organization is safeguarding these materials–I hope they remain available for future players.

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