[3/3] The Hitchhiker’s guide to Modular Design

Bear with me. I get to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy five paragraphs in.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Postmodernity

The terms “postmodern” and “meta-” often occupy a sort of rhetorical garage where ideas are stowed away until they can be vaguely directed at some slippery artistic technique. In such cases, they are often used interchangeably with “weird.” This usually works. Consider the following:

  • Gravity’s Rainbow is postmodern.
  • Gravity’s Rainbow is meta.
  • Gravity’s Rainbow is weird.

It’s true that Gravity’s Rainbow is all of these things, but now and then some brave soul–certainly not me–wants to say something more specific about it. In such cases, that someone must explain that “postmodernism” is suite of theoretical and artistic practices as well as a continuum of ideas regarding what art might be for and about.

I say all of this to say that while previous Infocom games had toyed with self-referentiality (Zork‘s various in-jokes based on MIT slang, the FILFRE spell, Meretzky’s own AIMFIZ MERETZKY, and many more), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would press beyond such humorous flourishes to truly play with the narrative conventions of video games in 1984. In this, my final piece on HHGG, we’ll explore its application of what is called modular narrative design and consider how that structure set it apart as an innovative and playfully subversive Infocom game.

An image from the 1981 BBC series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is an image of a Vogon reading poetry. The special effects seem dated, and the actor is clearly wearing a painted rubber mask. His skin and clothing are a rather sickly green and he holds a red binder filled with his poetry.
A Vogon Poetry Reading from the 1981 BBC television series.

About Modular Design

Most narratives–novels, films, television shows–are linear. They start, follow one or more characters around, ask a dramatic question (“can the Avengers defeat Thanos?”), then spend the bulk of the story answering the question. There will be a climax of some sort, where the story’s business is settled decisively, and then a brief bit of declining action. This is called “linear narrative,” and it’s common because it’s an effective storytelling strategy. It works well in contemporary AAA gaming, as well. Large audiences gravitate toward linear games like The Last of Us because interactivity and inflexible storytelling work better than one might have guessed some 20 years ago.

Even in open world games, which possess a certain type of freedom that can be mistaken for a transcendent refutation of linear storytelling, there is usually a very narrow throughline surrounded by engaging diversions. You can do all kinds of stuff in, say, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but it doesn’t change the story beats. In this sense, a player’s moment-to-moment freedom is not the same as narrative freedom. CJ can steal some cars or deliver pizzas, but sooner or later he must discover the secret of the green sabre. Open world games, it would seem, run counter to a frequently heard critique of Infocom’s games: they aren’t really fiction. The idea is generally that the common “narrow-wide-narrow” design of cave games like Zork is anathema to linear narrative. Meanwhile Rockstar, several RPG studios, and other open world developers have been making narrow-wide-narrow games with linear narratives for decades.

That is an essay for another day. I suspect that most people claiming that Infocom’s games “aren’t really fiction” mean to say that they have no distinct narrative throughline which, it turns out, isn’t a prerequisite for something getting to be called “fiction.” That brings us (at last! some of you must be saying) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Infocom’s first attempt at modular narrative design. By “modular design,” I have a few things in mind. While modular design has a long list of possible strategies, these in particular are applied well.

  • It is not a linear narrative. Several modules or episodes occur at different times, in different places.
  • There is not always a causal link from module to module.
  • The modules do not have to be played in a specific order (except for maybe one case).
  • The modules often have different protagonists.
  • Finally, and this is one reason the game works so well, Meretzky and Adams have a narrative “frame” that introduces the characters and primary settting, and, at game’s end, presents the endgame puzzle and closing text.

Letting go of Linearity: The Basic Narrative layout of HHGG

After an opening that closely mirrors that of it’s affiliated novel, the primary protagonist, Arthur Dent, is left to his own devices above the spaceship the Heart of Gold. At this point, there are six locations and four playable protagonists. With only one exception, they have no causal relationship to the other modules; they only affect the framing module by gathering “treasures” for HHGG‘s two treasure hunts. For instance, Trillian, whom Arthur Dent tried to “pick up at a party in Islington just a few weeks ago,” becomes a playable character at said party. Her goal is to pluck a piece of fluff from Dent’s clothing and place it in her handbag. Two weeks later, on the Heart of Gold, Arthur can take the fluff from the handbag. Fluff, it turns out, is a precious resource in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and each playable character must retrieve a piece for Arthur Dent to use in the framing endgame puzzle.

A shot from the 1981 BBC series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At left, a human-looking alien named Ford Prefect wears a badly-mismatched striped jacket with a tartan sweater. The two-headed alien Zaphod Beeblebrox is nearby. One of his heads is clearly fake. Behind him, a blonde in a revealing red jumpsuit looks down at Zaphod.
Ford, Zaphod, and Trillian are the stars of their own respective modules.

In another interesting twist, Ford Prefect’s module is a Rashomon-like episode in which the opening scene of the game is revisited from his perspective. In many ways, it is a clever extrapolation of Sorcerer‘s coal mine puzzle, in that the player must reconstruct a past event from another perspective. However, this tactic is taken further with the addition of a second player character as well as an opportunity to make up for a missed action in the opening of the game. It also offers a chance to see Dent from another character’s perspective:

>open satchel
Opening the satchel reveals Santraginean Mineral Water, a towel, The Hitchhiker's Guide, an electronic Sub-Etha signaling device, and satchel fluff.

>get towel
Taken.

>give it to dent
Inexplicably, Arthur takes no notice of the towel which, magnificently, you are trying to return to him. Instead, he says, "Ford, what about my home?"

You start guiltily. Does he actually KNOW that the Earth is about to be destroyed? You start to ask him, then stop. If he knows, what the Zark is he doing lying here in the mud in front of...

You look around. You notice the bulldozer properly for the first time. You notice Arthur's house. You notice the workmen. The penny drops. His HOUSE is about to be demolished. You feel like a complete...what's the word?

>jerk
No, actually, "idiot" was the word I was looking for.

In a reckless moment you go completely mad and decide that you ought to take Arthur with you. You try to tell Arthur about the importance of getting a drink, but he's rambling on about a man called Prosser.
A section of the Invisiclues map for HHGG. It shows Trillians "party" area featuring three rooms, and an "Inside the Sperm Whale" room.
Just two modules from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s

The other treasure hunt involves ten tools that are scattered around HHGG‘s various settings. Both hunts involve a sort of meta-puzzle in which the player must uncover their purpose. The ongoing concern with improbability physics, in which an “infinite improbability drive” is more able to engender events as they grow more unlikely. Hence, some missiles become a sperm whale:

"Announcement, announcement. This is Eddie (the shipboard computer). Emergency situation! Nuclear missiles have just been launched at us from the approaching planet, which my data banks indicate is the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. I cannot perform evasive maneuvers because all circuits are currently engaged by the Nutrimat. The missiles will turn this ship into a huge atomic fireball in approximately eight turns. By the way, somebody didn't finish their spinach at dinner."

You hear distant sounds of panic: shouts of anger, cries of alarm, pounding feet.

>turn on drive
Everything becomes dark! But no, not quite everything ... There's a big bright planet below, just visible behind your mighty tail fin. Air begins rushing by, tickling your snout and dorsal fins ... you suddenly realise that, improbably enough, you've turned yourself into a sperm whale and are plummeting through the atmosphere of a planet! You begin experimenting with your new body, opening and closing your spout and wagging your enormous tail. Just as you are getting used to being a whale, the ground rushes up and hits you at about 200 mph. Everything becomes...

Dark

This is quite fitting, considering the improbability of four different people in various locales and settings finding the exact items needed for Arthur Dent to reach the surface of the planet Magrathea. While the goals of the game are seldom–if ever–clearly communicated, this feels appropriate in a game that dramatizes seemingly unrelated events that come together in the last few moments of the story. Furthermore, I consider these “random” treasure hunts a knowing, post-IF wink to an audience familiar with the conventions established by beloved games like Zork I, with goals that might be reduced to “solve puzzles until it’s over.” The Invisiclues for HHGG, presumably written by Steve Meretzky (the draft in his HHGG binder is not signed), has this to say:

  • What is the goal of the game?
    • Have you tried asking some of the other characters in the game?
    • Have fun, be happy.
    • Solve all the puzzles, reach the end.
    • The ultimate goal is to step out onto the surface of Magrathea.
    • Knowing this fact is of virtually no help in getting through the game.

Therfore

Through its novel narrative structure and sly, knowing tone, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy leans into the common criticism that Infocom’s IF “isn’t fiction” (I will never agree), thereby side-stepping it altogether. Modular design also provided Adams and Meretzky with opportunities to construct more varied settings and puzzles by implementing multiple, separate locales and player characters. It was Infocom’s most ambitious narrative design since Deadline, and unquestionably their best game of 1984. Infocom wouldn’t go on to release many modular games. Spellbreaker consists of many maps, but they are usually causally linked to each-other and the narrative is more contiguous than, say, Enchanter. Nord and Bert is modular in a technical sense, but I would rather call it discordant. The real jewel is Trinity, which is remembered as one of Infocom’s greatest games.

Modular design is not the only way in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy employs postmodern tactics. In fact, engaging in linguistic and rhetorical play is another way in which HHGG distinguishes itself. Be sure to tune in next week when guest writer Aaron A. Reed explores the ways that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy plays with our expectations (and our inputs) to great effect.

If you haven’t heard, Aaron is in the midst of a project called 50 Years of Text Games, which began as a fantastic newsletter and will soon be a book. I think any longtime Infocom fan will be interested in his work. Next week’s post will feature some insights from that project, and I’m happy to share his material here. You can learn more about the 50 Years of Text Games crowdfunding campaign here. If you want to see the sort of content that’s come out of that project so far, the newsletter is massive and free to view. See you next week!

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