While Cutthroats had more protection than Fort Knox, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had no “hard” copy protection.
As is often the case, this article spoils the contents of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The Love Song of J. Pacman
The green, spherical face with spindly arms, a wide, toothy grin, and a long, red tongue that appears on many bits of American Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy media is apparently known as the “Cosmic Cutie” or, more likably but less widely, “Jeremy Pacman” (CF The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Wiki). Jeremy is so recognizable and well-liked (to Americans, at least) that not even Douglas Adams, who positively loathed it, could excise it from the HHGG brand. The Cosmic Cutie is the most prominent feature of the cover art for Infocom’s gray box release of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Even though it (Adams’s chosen pronoun for Jeremy) has no eyes, it nonetheless covers the place where eyes might have been with its hands.
To the left of the Cosmic Cutie is the familiar HHGG slogan: “DON’T PANIC!” Above it is the large title in a stylized yellow (with red highlights) font that consists of semi-contiguous lettering that was possibly inspired by neon signage. I say “neon” as opposed to “cursive” because the font may have originated with the first American paperback publication of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
But Wait… There’s More!
The browsie for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy must be one of the lightest–measured by word count–in the Infocom Canon. However, as a promotional flyer for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the in-universe text that the novel is named after), it is well-married to the tone of the game, and, better still, genuinely funny. One point of intersection for Adams and Meretzky would be their knacks for lampooning advertising and promotional copy.
The browsie serves to provide an in-universe rationale for the feelies bundled with the purchased game: they are promotional “bonuses” for buying HHGG (The game? The text? A bit of both, most likely).
The contents of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy box were similarly funny and world-appropriate. Interestingly, while more middling games (Cutthroats) or worse (Seastalker) boasted multiple instances of copy protection, the far more appealing HHGG had none whatsoever. Doubtlessly, sales were lost to piracy, but perhaps HHGG proved out the old adage that one catches “more flies with honey.” It was an attractive package complementing an attractive game, and undoubtedly worth owning.
The packed-in goodies include a yellow-on-red pin-on button with the words “DON’T PANIC!” in capital letters, a plastic baggie labelled “Microscopic Space Fleet,” a pair of “Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses” that grow darker as nearby dangers increase in seriousness (they are made of opaque cardboard), and, rather mysteriously, a bit of white “fluff” that resembles a scrap of cotton ball or upholstery stuffing. They all serve to illuminate or embody humorous bits from the game (and novels).
However, the prize may well be an “Order for Destruction” for protagonist Arthur Dent’s home, which serves as a humorous send-up of governmental bureaucracy and additionally features the signatures of Douglas Adams, Steve Meretzky, and–I’m not certain about this one–Marc Blank. That’s not all: also included is a Vogon order for the destruction of the planet Earth, written in an unreadable alien script. Even though it cannot be read, it is a visual match (blanks, check boxes, signature lines) for the earthly document. Humorously, the signatures on the Vogon document are barcodes. The barcodes seem to represent numbers (I scanned them). It’s a little disappointing that they aren’t text, but wide consumer access to barcode readers must have been unimaginable in the 1980s.
What Happens in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
The narrative structure of HHGG is, in craft fiction terms, modular design. That is, the story is not told in a linear fashion. This storytelling strategy–first used by Infocom in HHGG–will be discussed in greater detail next week. For now, though, the plot can be boiled down to this: fish out of water Arthur Dent, his home and planet recently destroyed, must survive a perilous journey to the legendary planet of Magrathea, whose cosmically powerful and knowing residents constructed the planet Earth, among other things.
Along the way, Arthur will hopefully survive an encounter with the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (with the help of his trusty towel) and endure the torture of notoriously bad Vogon poetry. His end goal–this isn’t at all clear for a while–is to get Marvin (an incredibly depressed robot) to open the ship’s hatch, thereby allowing Arthur to reach the surface of Magrathea. This involves three sub-goals. Arthur must first convince Marvin that he is worth talking to. The other two are treasure hunts, though one feels more like one than the other. The first involves collecting four pieces of fluff in order to… predict the future.
>consult hitchhiker's guide about fluff The Guide checks through its Sub-Etha-Net database and eventually comes up with the following entry: Fluff is interesting stuff: a deadly poison on Bodega Minor, the diet staple of Frazelon V, the unit of currency on the moons of the Blurfoid system, and the major crop of the laundry supplies planet, Blastus III. One ancient legend claims that four pieces of fluff lie scattered around the Galaxy; each forming one-quarter of the seedling of a tree with amazing properties, the sole survivor of the tropical planet Fuzzbol (Footnote 8). The ultimate source of fluff is still a mystery, with the scientific community torn between the Big Lint Bang theory and the White Lint Hole theory. >footnote 8 It's not a very good legend, is it?
The “treasures” of the second treasure hunt are ten tools. Rather cruelly, the game will let you keep playing all the way to the end if Arthur is missing one. It is randomly determined which tool Arthur needs, unless he does not have all ten. In that case, it will always be one of the missing tools.
Such design decisions undoubtedly contribute to HHGG‘s reputation as a difficult game, although nowadays difficulty and cruelty are considered separately. It may be fair to say that two additional characteristics of the game–above and beyond any specific puzzles–contribute to this perception. The first is that the primary means of travel between narrative “modules” (more on this tomorrow) is tedious and, worse still, is shockingly obtuse for Steve Meretzky, the most consistent puzzle creator at Infocom. The second issue is that the game’s objective (and its throughline) has a bit of Sorcerer‘s “just keep solving puzzles until it’s over” ambling nature. It’s more charming here, to be certain, but contributes to a hard-to-pin-down sense of pervasive aimlessness.
Like some other Infocom games (the best example is Wishbringer), fans will likely forgive or altogether miss The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s rough edges as a game too likeable to resent for long. In this retrospective critical context, they also seem the price of narrative innovation, as modular design would later be put to good use in that critical favorite, Trinity.
My final piece of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy coverage will focus on its modular narrative design, that strategy’s implications (good and bad), and the possibility space that it created for future Infocom titles.
The following week, a Gold Machine first: a guest writer! Aaron A. Reed, author and IF innovator, will share exclusive content from his forthcoming 50 Years of Text Games book. If you enjoy Gold Machine content, you won’t want to miss it!