The Archaeology of the Hitchhiker’s Guide

<img src="files/dna/infopic.jpg” alt=”HHGG Game Cover” />

Author’s February 2005 Note:

Back in 1998, I turned my wider interest in archaeology to something more specific to my profession: software archaeology. A long session of clambering and excavation in my attic revealed my 1985 copy (on floppy disk, yet) of one of the most compelling and insane frustrating computer games of the time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Under laboratory conditions, I then callously performed a dataectomy on it – extracting the game content from the enveloping application. The next step was to source Java interpreters that could run the extracted game data online, and on a variety of portable devices. The result is what first appeared on the TDV web site. I also ported it to the Palm and Newton, installing a copy on Douglas’s own Newton when he wasn’t looking – I’m not entirely sure if the subsequent exclamation was one of pleased surprise or historical pain.

I then, with permission from Activision, who’d taken over the code (but not script) rights when Infocom folded, used the game, in Java form, as part of the 1999 Comic Relief web site. Plans to release it formally as feeware on a variety of mobile platforms were put temporarily on hold when TDV was sold off, and things then lay quiet for several years. That was until 2004, when my erstwhile colleagues, Sean Sollé and Shimon Young, took the data file and, working with Rod Lord – the artist who created the graphics for the original BBC TV series – created a complete client-server implementation of the game, with a C++ application on the server and a very nice Flash-based browser interface. This has been released on the BBC’s web site, where it has been a huge success, resulting in an Interactive BAFTA award and the latest version, the Twentieth Anniversary Edition.

So if you want to play the game, I’d very strongly recommend you do so on the BBC’s web site, where you can make “Ooh” and “Aah” noises at the graphics and, usefully, save the game as well, something the original Java implementation couldn’t do. That I’ve included here, for historical reasons, along with the 1999-2001 introduction and help information I wrote (itself now being used by the BBC).

About the Hitchhiker’s Guide

The Hitchhiker’s Guide was renowned as one of the most fiendishly complex adventure games ever released. Many considered it a signal achievement even to get out of the house at the start. The Java version I’ve put up here won’t let you save or restore a game, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with starting from scratch each time you play.

If you aren’t familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you will likely be very confused. If you are familiar with the HHGG, you will also be very confused – while the game starts similarly to the book, it soon diverges. In summary, you play the part of Arthur Dent a rather ordinary and ineffectual Earth being with a liking for tea. The game starts when the local council makes a spirited attempt to demolish your house to make way for a bypass. While you’re trying to cope with that, your friend Ford Prefect drops past to tell you that your efforts are pointless, as the Earth itself is about to be demolished to make way for a Hyperspace bypass. The rest is up to you!

History

There was a time when computer games didn’t have graphics. Or at least they couldn’t have graphics and sound at the same time. They certainly couldn’t have graphics, sound and enough content to keep even a human being amused for more than a few minutes. So they had text. This was radical – a computer game you could control by typing in commands. The game would then respond to your commands with a breathtakingly prescient understanding of your intent. Or not. Usually not – the early text parsers (circa 1977) weren’t that bright. But, as long as you limited yourself to what the game understood and the game designers wrote creatively enough to misunderstand you in a humorous and entertaining fashion, it all worked. It therefore stands to reason that any game which combined a really good programmer with a really good writer was likely to do well. So when Steve Meretzky of Infocom got together with Douglas Adams to create a game based around the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the result was never going to be less than interesting and more than likely insane. So it proved – the Hitchhiker’s Guide adventure game was one of the best-selling games of its era, selling some 350,000 copies. In 1984.

Then graphics games came along and the computer using portion of the human race forgot all about 500,000 years of language evolution and went straight back to the electronic equivalent of banging rocks together – the point’n’click game. Infocom and most of its competitors went to the wall – signaling the arrival of the post-literate society. That’s the way it’s been for most of the last dozen years.

Something strange has now happened. The Net, and particularly e-mail, has become an integral part of millions of lives. People have learned to type again and are taking an interest in interacting, via their computers, with other people and with content: in little more than a decade, we’ve moved through the post-literate society, to the post-post-literate one. At TDV, we took the basic need to create products with wit, intelligence and humour and created Starship Titanic – the game that reinvented the art of conversation. Following many requests from HHG fans and those sad people who still remember it, we’re also been promising since forever to re-release the original game. With the passing of Douglas, that would seem to be a fitting memorial, so rest assured we’re working on it. In the meantime, here’s the Java version. Enjoy and remember.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *