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)
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY 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.
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.
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:
>i 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.
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!