How I Learned to Love Typing: The Games of Infocom

Returning to Infocom’s Canonical Games

For a while–years, perhaps–I have wanted to return some games I played in my childhood. This is, I believe, the sort of thing we people desire after a certain age. Perhaps we have reached a milestone of one sort or another, or have otherwise grown reflective upon reaching the middle of our lives. Maybe we just remember having fun and would like to have it again.

As for my time of reflection: yes, I recalled Oklahoma’s Lake Tenkiller, surrounded as it was by cliffs. I was, in those days, one of a countless number of shirtless and courageous youths falling thirty feet from high stone to green water. I believe this experience was featured in an 80’s television advertisement for Oklahoma tourism. Those cliffs have been fenced off for two decades or more now, and the children of Cherokee County have presumably found something else to do.

In this advertisement from the 1980's a family sits together playing an educational game on a Commodore 64 computer.
Retrieved from pocket-lint.com

Another thing I recall is the countless hours I spent with an inexpensive microcomputer that my parents had purchased for supposedly educational purposes. At least, they believed me when I told them that I could use it for schoolwork. Many people believe that the great Video Game Crash of 1983 ushered in a dark period in American electronic entertainment, but this simply wasn’t so. The action had moved from dedicated video game machines (such as the Atari 2600 and its successors) to more ostensibly cerebral fare such as my own Commodore 64 complete with 170KB disk drive.

A screenshot of '80s Commodore 64 hacking tool "Fast Hack'Em"
One of the more successful Commodore 1541 hacking tools

While I take no pride in saying so, there was a surprisingly lively pirating scene in my modestly-sized hometown in Arkansas. At least one person had a device that could dump cartridge ROMs to disk–in those days, most computers had a cartridge slot. Disk-based copy protection could be overcome through homebrew applications that employed a variety of tactics (this technical writeup explains the 1541’s operation if any hackers are curious). Somehow, the local high school had a number of clever teenagers who had the tools and expertise to crack any game out there. Thanks to these helpful felons, I had access to more video games than I had ever imagined possible.

I was exposed to almost every game that interested me in this way. Jumpman and Skate or Die were two of my favorite action games. What I really loved, though, were RPGs and adventure games. I recall The Bard’s Tale and Ultima franchises as RPG standouts. My favorite type of game by far was what we then called “text adventures.” Sometimes my friends and I even called them “Infocom games” in recognition of the company who made better text games than anyone else. Everybody I knew had illegal copies of the Zork trilogy. Some, like me, went further, playing copies of Deadline, Suspended, and Enchanter.

In these text games, there were no graphics. The game would supply, in text, descriptions of locations, items, and actions in the fictional game word. Players would, in turn, enter text commands that allowed them to interact with the game:

Shaft Room
This is a large room, in the middle of which is a small shaft descending through the floor into darkness below. To the west and the north are exits from this room. Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached.
At the end of the chain is a basket.

>put torch in basket
Done.

>examine chain
The chain secures a basket within the shaft.

>pull chain
The chain is secure.

>examine basket
The basket contains:
  A torch (providing light)

>lower basket
The basket is lowered to the bottom of the shaft.
It is now pitch black.

>turn on lamp
The brass lantern is now on.

Unlike most computer games at the time, Infocom’s titles were not hard to copy. They had no deliberately-placed disk errors or other countermeasures. Instead, they came to include documents and knickknacks in their packaging that had information necessary for winning the games. I hit this wall with Deadline, and nothing would do except for me to legally own the game. Fortunately I had just gotten a report card with strong marks, and my mother bought it for me as a reward. Since Deadline will get a write-up of its own, I’ll simply say that the quality of Deadline‘s packaging convinced me that only by owning the games could I have a complete experience. For a time, every time I received a gift or reward, I asked for more Infocom games. They were just too good to pirate.

A promotional catalog for Infocom's games, titled "The Master Storytellers."

I loved Infocom’s titles, and even managed in my youth to beat some of them. As I said at the beginning, I have wanted to go back. There are 35 canonical Infocom titles, and I commit here to playing each of them to completion in chronological order of release. I’ll then talk about them here. My focus will be on “reading” each title as a composite text made up of not only the game itself, but also that game’s packaging, in-box material, and any other relevant knickknacks that could affect its promised experience. Others have made this trip over the past decade, but I hope own experiences with making and digesting text will lead to some novel insights. Jimmy Maher does an excellent job exploring each title’s historical-critical context, so I won’t embarrass myself with an almost certainly inferior retread of that ground. In any case, as a stranger to the contemporary interactive fiction community, I don’t have access to the people and resources that such a reading would require. If I talk about Steve Meretzky, for instance, I will be talking about his body of work rather than him. While sometimes one cannot help but think of authors and history, my critical priority will always be the composite text and, at its center, the game itself.

Speaking of history: Before I can dive into the 35 games, I need to introduce the first two foundational texts of interactive fiction: Colossal Cave Adventure (or ADVENT) and Zork for the PDP (aka Dungeon). I have replayed both recently and will hopefully be able to talk about them in an interesting and appealing way. Please look forward to it after a forthcoming post on sources and methods.

About me:

By training, I am a reader and writer of literature. While I have been known to write high-flown nonsense with titles like “Verticality and the Mythic Sophistication of Modernism,” I also watch every superhero movie that comes out. Since I do sometimes–rather inelegantly–write “I” in multiple consecutive sentences, I really think it’s best not to take myself too seriously. I enjoy video games old and new and additionally like thinking about how and why they can be compelling. My spouse and I live in the Acadiana region with three cats and a stove that we really ought to replace soon. I am always happy to discuss Infocom with strangers, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

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6 thoughts on “How I Learned to Love Typing: The Games of Infocom

  1. Good to see these games getting well-deserved recognition. I agree interactive fiction is not directly comparable to literature; it’s sort of in a league of its own. There were other players, some using a fusion of graphics and text, but Infocom was by far the best. It’s remarkable how vividly evocative Infocom’s games could be with such spartan text (e.g., “slavering fangs”). I suspect many of the writers had experience in journalism or copywriting, given the economy of their prose.

    1. I think perhaps programming experience encouraged economical writing, too. In any case, Lebling (the grue description and many others) and Blank (the first two-thirds of Zork III) proved to be highly capable writers of interactive fiction. Agreed!

  2. Found your blog through Facebook. I’m very interested in seeing what you have to say since I played these games as a teenager and still love them today. I still love booting up an Infocom game on my Apple IIe as I did back in the 1980s.

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