Meretzky on Adams

In 1984, Steve Meretzky of Infocom collaborated with Douglas Adams to co-author one of the most successful and notoriously difficult computer games of all time – the interactive fiction of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 1985, the game sold nearly half-a-million copies, making it a phenomenal success for the time, given the number of personal computers then in the world. This wasn’t long before graphic computer games took over, at which point companies like Infocom and Level 9, both of whom specialised in intelligent games of the imagination, went to the wall. It wasn’t really until we released Starship Titanic in 2000 that the art of the conversation engine as a user interface was significantly advanced over Infocom’s parser, itself derived from the original work by Crowther and Woods at MIT in the 1970s. I still fervently believe that a natural language interface is the future of interaction and that universal communication by e-mail and text messaging and the blogosphere represents a re-evolution of the word as a means of interaction. Returning hastily from that small contextual digression, here’s a compendium of Steve Meretzky’s thoughts on the original game, working with Douglas and the fate of the interactive fiction industry. Thanks to Steve for providing this and giving permission to publish it here.

What about Douglas Adams? Working with him was a good experience?

Working with Douglas was great. He had such a different perspective on things, and came up with puzzles and scenes that I’d never have thought of in a million years on my own – having the game lie to you, or using a parser failure as the words which fell through a wormhole in the universe and started an interstellar war, or having an object like “no tea”. On the other hand, the man is the world’s worst procrastinator! I had to practically camp out on his doorstep in England to get him to finish his stuff for the game.

How did you come to work with Douglas Adams?

What was he like? Douglas was an Infocom player and fan, and so when he and his agent and his publisher began discussing the subject of a computer game adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide, he was pretty adamant that it be with Infocom. Marc Blank suggested that I collaborate on the game with Douglas, partly due to fortunate timing (I had just completed Sorcerer), partly because many people had found Planetfall to be reminiscent of the humor of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and partly because I was the only implementor who was as tall as Douglas. The best way to describe Douglas is that he’s the ideal dinner companion. He can speak intelligently and with wit about almost any topic under the sun. Unfortunately, as a collaborator, he suffered from the fact that he was the world’s worst procrastinator! I had to practically camp out on his doorstep in England to get him to finish his stuff for the game. Otherwise, working with him was great. He had such a different perspective on things, and came up with puzzles and scenes that I’d never have thought of in a million years on my own – having the game lie to you, or using a parser failure as the words which fell through a wormhole in the universe and started an interstellar war, or having an object like “no tea”.

How did the infamous Babel fish puzzle originate?

The basic idea was by Douglas, and I added some refinements (like the Upper-Half-Of-The-Room Cleaning Robot). More interesting is how close the puzzle came to being removed from the game; most of Infocom’s testing group thought it was too hard. I was going into a meeting with them just as Douglas was leaving for the airport at the end of his final trip to Infocom, and I asked him, “What should I tell them about the Babel fish puzzle?” He said, “What should you tell them? Tell them to fuck off!” So the puzzle stayed… and its very hardness became a cult thing. Infocom even sold T-shirts that said “I got the Babel fish.”

What are your memories of working on the Hitchhikers’ game?

Around May of 1984, with the game just a few weeks away from its deadline for start of alpha testing, and about half the game still undesigned, I went over to England. Douglas was not only procrastinating on the game, he was also procrastinating on the fourth Hitchhiker’s book, So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. His agent had sent him to a country inn in western England, far from the distractions of London life. That’s where I went, with instructions to basically camp out on his doorstep until the game design was done. We spent four days at this really pleasant inn, a former baronial mansion, sipping expensive wines and designing the game. How can life get any better than that?

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was an adaptation from an already much loved radio series (and book and TV show). How did you manage to adapt a piece of linear fiction into a compelling piece of interactive fiction? Was it a challenging experience?

It was actually quite ideal for adaptation, because it was a fairly episodic storyline, and because it was an environment filled with all sorts of great characters, locations, technologies, etc. while the story line wasn’t all that important. It was challenging – but good challenging, not bad challenging.

How was it working with Douglas Adams? Did he have trouble converting over to the interactive form?

On the plus side, Douglas was already an Infocom fan and had played several of our games, so he understood what an adventure game was and he understood the abilities and limits of our system. On the other hand, he had never written non-linearly before, and that’s always a difficult process to get a handle on. Also, I was somewhat awed to be working with him, and didn’t assert myself enough at the start of the process. So I think you’ll see that the beginning of the game (the destruction of Arthur’s house, and the scene on board the Vogon ship) are quite linear. Later, when Douglas became more comfortable with interactive design, and when I got over my sheepishness, the game became one of the most ruthlessly non-linear designs we ever did. It was quite wonderful to collaborate with Douglas. He’s a very intelligent and creative person, and humorous as well (though not a laugh-a-minute, as you might expect from his writing; more wry with lots of great anecdotes). He was constantly coming up with ways to stretch the medium in zany ways that I never would have thought of on my own – having the game lie to you, having an inventory object like “no tea”, having the words from a parser failure be the words that fell through a wormhole and started the interstellar war, etc.

How evenly was the work divided?

The original goal was that we’d do the design together, Douglas would write the most important text passages, and I’d fill in around them, and I’d do the implementation (read: high-level programming, using Infocom’s development system). Douglas came to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a week when we got started. Then we exchanged emails daily (and this was in ’84, when non-LAN email was still pretty rare) and phone calls approximately weekly. However, the single overriding characteristic of Douglas is that he is the world’s single greatest procrastinator. He was slipping further and further behind on his schedule, and at the same time, his fourth Hitchhiker’s book (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish) was about a year late and he hadn’t written a word. So his agent sent him away from the distractions of London and forced him to hole up in a country inn out in the western fringes of England. I went over there to stay at this inn, which was an old baronial estate called Huntsham Court which had been converted into a delightful inn, and spent a week there completing the design. Then I returned to the U.S. and implemented the entire game in about 3 intense weeks, just in time for an abbreviated summer of testing. Douglas came back over in September for some final rewriting of key text portions, and it was done in time for a late October release. The game quickly shot to #1 on the bestseller lists, and stayed there for months.

I’ve seen HHGTTG referred to as a particularly hard Infocom game. Do you think some of the puzzles were too crazy or obtuse and hence too difficult? Why do you think that happened?

Douglas and I both felt that adventure games were becoming a little too easy; that the original Zork had been much harder than more recent offerings, and the 24/7 obsessive brain-racking was what made these games so addictive. So we might have overreacted and gone too far in the other direction; certainly, Infocom’s testing staff was strongly urging that the game be made easier. On the other hand, the game’s most difficult puzzle, the babel fish puzzle, became a revered classic, and Infocom even began selling T-shirts saying, “I got the babel fish.” So it’s possible that, while some people were turned off by the level of difficulty, others were attracted by it. My feeling was, and continues to be, that people who find the game too hard can get hints, while people who find the game too easy are screwed because there’s no way for them to make it harder. Another contributor may have been the abbreviated testing schedule for the game, because an already-aggressive schedule was made even more so by Douglas’ spell of procrastination. More time in testing generally results in an easier game, because the inclination is that if even a single tester found a puzzle too hard it should be made easier.

How did Douglas first approach Infocom?

Douglas had already played a few Infocom games, so it was just a matter of making the introduction. The initial contact, probably sometime in the latter half of 1983, was made by a mutual acquaintance of Douglas and Infocom, Christopher Cerf. Christopher is a writer and editor (and the son of humorist Bennett Cerf) and was apparently fond of (and good at) bringing people together with good ultimate result. Douglas always referred to him as a “human catalyst”.

Why did you get the job of working with Douglas?

The decision was made by Marc Blank (who was VP of Development at Infocom, and was also co-author of several Infocom games including Zork and Deadline). Partly it was a matter of timing; I’d just finished my previous game, Sorcerer, in early February just as the Hitchhiker’s game was ready to start. And partly it was Marc’s feeling that I’d be a good match for Hitchhiker’s; among the Infocom game authors (known in company jargon as “implementers” or as “imps”) I was known for humor, and my first game, Planetfall, was considered very Hitchhiker’s-like. (I’d never heard/read/seen Hitchhiker’s when I wrote Planetfall, but as Infocom folks and outside testers began playtesting the game, so many of them said “this reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide” that I borrowed a set of tapes of the radio show from a friend and listened to them. I loved it, of course, and decided to put an homage to Hitchhiker’s into Planetfall, just before it shipped. So, near the beginning of the game, when your escape pod lands on the planet, a hatch pops open revealing a food kit, a first aid kit, and a towel. And if you read the towel, it says something like, “Escape Pod #42. Don’t Panic!”)

What sort of ideas did Douglas have at the start of the project?

His overall take on the game was a fairly direct adaptation of the existing storyline. Where he really had a flood of ideas was on some of the more incidental stuff, playing with the medium of interactivity and text adventures. Things like having an inventory object called “no tea”; having the game lie to you; having to argue with the game to get past a certain door; having an object called “the thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is” which keeps coming back to you even if you get rid of it; having a player input which results in a parser failure (that is, an input which couldn’t be understood by the game for some reason) be the words which fall through a wormhole in the universe and start an interstellar war. And so on.

How much input did Douglas have into the technical side of the game, and how much did you have into the writing side?

On the technical side, some of the things Douglas wanted to do were beyond the ability of the existing development system. (For example, having some of the words you type fall through a wormhole in the space-time fabric, described above. The typed words needed to be repeated back by the game when describing the impact of those words a number of turns later. Another example was all the different ways to you could say “CARVE ARTHUR DENT ONTO THE MEMORIAL” in the lair of the Bugblatter beast of Traal. A third example is just the difficulty of parsing an object named “no tea”.) Some of those things required changes to the low-level code that supported the development system. That was stuff I couldn’t do myself, because I was not what you’d call a studly-programmer; I was a tool-user, not a tool-creator. So those sorts of changes required intervention by Marc and other more wizardly technical folks. On the writing side, I did quite a bit of the writing. Douglas wrote the bulk of the responses to “correct inputs” – game responses to inputs where the player has done the right thing. But that’s just a small part of the text in an adventure game because (unless it’s going to be a very short game) the majority of the things a player tries to do are not the correct thing. So the game has to have a zillion responses for what happens when you try to use the Infinite Improbability Drive without first plugging in the Atomic Vector Plotter, or what happens when you fail to lie down in front of Mr. Prosser’s bulldozer. I was gratified when, in the final days before the game shipped, Douglas remarked that in many cases he couldn’t tell which bits he’d written and which bits I’d written.

How did you and Douglas work together on the game, in terms of both personal compatibility and transatlantic technology?

At first I was a little shy to speak my mind, given Douglas’ fame and brilliance and given that we were adapting his material. As a result, the early parts of the game (which are the parts we designed first) are structurally weakest, in terms of being too linear and relying too heavily on prior familiarity with the Hitchhiker’s story. I’m referring to the Earth and Vogon Ship sections of the game. Later, as Douglas became more comfortable working in a non-linear medium, and as I became more comfortable making my opinions known, the game became much stronger. I think that once you arrive at the Heart of Gold, the structure of the game changes for the better, becoming less linear, more original, fairer to the player, and just plain more fun. (Douglas always described the structure of the game as “pear shaped” – narrow toward the stem end, then suddenly ballooning wider, and finally coming together at the end.) As far as how we worked together given the intervening ocean… In February of ’84, things started with Douglas coming over to Massachusetts for a week. During that time, we got those first two sections of the game roughly done. (I remember Douglas’ amazement when I showed him a playable version of the first scene after our first day of work – he had no idea that our development system allowed for such rapid implementation.) Then he went back to London and we spoke by phone about once a week, and more frequently by email. This is way before the days of widespread email, in terms of reliability and ease of use it was perhaps half a step ahead of signal fires. However, Douglas was falling well behind his targets for sending us material, which of course wouldn’t have surprised me had I known him better at this point. So in May of ’84 I went over to England and stayed with Douglas for several days while we finished the design of the game. (More on this experience later.) I came back to Cambridge (Massachusetts, that is) and implemented this in about three frenzied weeks. Then, after a few months of testing, Douglas came back over to Cambridge, September ’84, for a week of final text writing and cleanup.

I get the impression that Douglas enjoyed writing the game far more than writing any of his novels. Would you say this was true?

He did say that he enjoyed working on the game and was very happy with how it came out, and although he was a horrible procrastinator when it came to working on the game, my impression was he was an even more horrible procrastinator when it came to writing his novels. During the press tour for the game, he almost always started interviews by describing the work of a writer as “staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen until your forehead starts to bleed”. As he said on many occasions, he wasn’t fond of the actual act of writing, and I’m guessing he liked working on the game more than working on a novel because it interspersed pure writing with more enjoyable activities such as game design (a distinct task from writing). (For instance, deciding how the babel fish puzzle would be organized is game design. Composing the responses for what happens when you dispense a babel fish at various stages of puzzle completion is writing.) Also, Douglas was such a technophile, so working with the Infocom development system, which was quite an impressive piece of technology for its time, was a real joy for him.

Douglas was notoriously bad at hitting deadlines – how did he cope with the deadlines at Infocom?

Yes, he certainly raised procrastination to an art form. We had a really tight schedule for the game – we started work in late February of 1984, and we wanted to have it out for Christmas of that year (which means that we needed to release the code for disk duplication around October 1, so that it could be in stores by around November 1.) But he fell behind schedule almost immediately and kept falling further and further behind. Meanwhile, he was even further behind on finishing So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish, so his agent Ed Victor had sent him to a country inn in the middle of nowhere in western England, to keep Douglas away from the distractions of London life. It was Huntsham Court in Huntsham, a town so small that its mailing address is “Huntsham, near Tiverton”. That’s where I went to stay with him in May when we finished up the design for the game. See My orders were not to leave until the design of the game was done. While I was there, he stayed pretty focused on the game (when he wasn’t showing me around Devon, or when we weren’t enjoying the opulent cuisine of Huntsham Court…) I remember one day, probably the last full day I was there, we were trying to come up with the ending of the game, that would be the game’s ultimate puzzle, and would tie up all the loose ends of the story and would also use all the various items that we had introduced into the game (such as the four pieces of fluff). We were totally blocked and not getting anywhere. So Douglas suggested we drive out to Exmoor National Park. And there, sitting on driftwood on the beach, surrounded by sheep, we came up with the ending of the game (using the four pieces of fluff to create a seed that would grow a plant that produces a fruit which gives you a glimpse the future and predicts which of the ten or so possible tools would be the one tool Marvin would need to repair the Heart of Gold and land it on Magrathea).

How good was Douglas’ knowledge of computers at this point? And how did his knowledge develop over the course of creating the game?

Quite good – he was an early adopter of technology in general, and computers in particular. I remember the very first day we worked on the game, he showed me a three-dimensional computerized crossword game he’d created. And, as I said earlier, he’d already played several Infocom games.

Did Douglas offer comments on any other Infocom games?

The one I remember him being most impressed by was Suspended, by Mike Berlyn. It was an extremely innovative game in which you play a disembodied brain controlling a team of six robots, with the task of maintaining a complex that controls all the automated systems for a planet. An earthquake damages the complex and precipitates a crisis. Each robot has its own set of senses and abilities, and only by combining their information can you figure out what’s going on. And only by using the right robot for the right task can you get everything done in time.

Was Douglas involved in thinking up the paraphernalia that was included with the game?

No, neither of us was involved with the packaging; Infocom’s marketing chief, Mike Dornbrook, plus Infocom’s creative agency, came up with the ideas for what would go into the package, after playing earlier test-versions of the game.

Did Douglas comment on the use of the little green guy (which he hated) on the game’s packaging?

He wasn’t happy, of course, but I think by that time he was resigned to it being the iconic representation of Hitchhiker’s in the public’s mind.

What sort of publicity did you and Douglas do to promote the game?

There was an initial press conference, which was at whatever building in NYC has the Rainbow Room restaurant at the top. (The RCA building?) Then there were a ton of press interviews at the winter Comdex (Las Vegas, November 1984), plus a swing through the Bay Area for more interviews. And Douglas did some stuff on his own, such as an appearance on Letterman (back when he still had the late night slot, an hour later than he’s on now). Douglas was also publicizing So Long… at the same time, so the TV appearances were more oriented toward that, with hopefully a quick mention of the game thrown in. My strongest memory of those interviews was that Douglas used the same story to break the ice with each interview – the “biscuit story”, which really happened to Douglas, and which he turned into a fictional encounter for Arthur Dent in So Long… It’s certainly a terrific story, but after the 50th time I heard it I wanted to scream!

Photo of Steve Meretzky at the NYC press conference. Note the “Don’t Panic” button:

How happy was Douglas with the finished game?

He always said he was very happy with it, and it was well-received by both game reviewers and players, and it sold extremely well (about 400,000 copies in initial release, and was #1 on the bestseller lists for a good part of 1985). I think what he really liked about it was having friends over and booting the game and watching over their shoulder to see what they tried.

Was any serious consideration ever given to a second Hitchhiker’s game?

Yes, quite a bit. Douglas wanted to do Bureaucracy first, because he was so sick of writing in the Hitchhiker’s universe. Contractually, we could have written (I think) five more Hitchhiker’s games without Douglas’ involvement, but we of course preferred to have him involved, both for PR purposes and because he contributed so much great stuff to the first game (see question #3). So we agreed to do Bureaucracy first, and then that dragged on so long, by the time work started on the Restaurant at the End of the Universe game, commercial text adventures were already a dying breed. Stu Galley, who wrote The Witness and several other Infocom games, was slated to be Douglas’ collaborator for Restaurant, and he did quite a bit of design work for the game; I still have all his notes. But before the game was all that far along, Activision (which bought Infocom in 1986) decided that text adventures were dead and killed the project.

How and when was the idea of Bureaucracy first brought up?

I can remember Douglas describing his ideas for the game, which were already extensive, during that visit to England in May ’84. So by the time we finished Hitchhiker’s in October ’84, Infocom was well aware of Douglas’ interest in doing Bureaucracy next.

How much input did Douglas have on Bureaucracy? And why was this less than on Hitchhiker’s?

I didn’t work on Bureaucracy, so my knowledge here is secondhand, but Douglas’ procrastination seemed much worse than it was with Hitchhiker’s. That seems odd, because he did Hitchhiker’s only grudgingly, since he had already done Hitchhiker’s for several different media, but Bureaucracy was what he most wanted to do. Perhaps it was that the newness and excitement of working in interactive fiction had worn off for Douglas; perhaps it was that he had more distractions in his life at that point; perhaps it was that the succession of people who had my role in Bureaucracy didn’t stay with the project for more than a portion of its development cycle and therefore never became a well-integrated creative unit with Douglas (compared to Douglas and I with the Hitchhiker’s game); perhaps it was that, lacking the immovable Christmas deadline that Hitchhiker’s had, it was easier to let the game just keep slipping and slipping. Michael Bywater might be able to shed some light on this.

How did Douglas’ experience of having already created one game affect him when creating this second game?

Again, I don’t have any first hand knowledge here. It would just be more guesswork, as in the previous answer. If you want, I can put you in touch with some of the people who worked on Bureaucracy. (Because the project dragged on for so long, several different people filled the role that I had with Hitchhiker’s.)

How happy was Douglas (and indeed, Infocom) with Bureaucracy?

Infocom was certainly disappointed by the sales, and I assume Douglas was also. I never heard what Douglas thought of the final game from a creative standpoint, but it was well done and very faithful to his original design, so I imagine he was satisfied with it. The opinion of folks at Infocom was probably colored by the negative aspects of the project – the multiple delays, the turnover in personnel. For myself, who had very little to do with Bureaucracy, I found the game to be quite entertaining. I thought it was also one of our better packages; in particular, the 3-part form was brilliant.

Were ideas for any other Douglas Adams-related games ever bandied about?

During the same dinner in May 1984 that Douglas talked to me about his ideas for Bureaucracy, he also talked about another idea, a graphical game in which your goal is to control the evolution of a world from early life forms to intelligent creatures. I never heard any more about it after that. A game along those lines, called SimLife or maybe SimEarth, was later done by Maxis (the people who made SimCity) – although it was way more serious than Douglas’ take on the idea would have been! As I mentioned earlier, after Bureaucracy, work started on Restaurant, but was killed by Activision, and that was pretty much it for the Infocom-Douglas relationship. Infocom itself was killed within a year of the death of the Restaurant game.

Did you ever work with Douglas on any other projects?

No. When he was working on Starship Titanic and I was working on The Space Bar, I did send him an email asking, “Why are we dividing the humorous science fiction adventure game market? Next time we should just work together.” Of course, by the time those two games came out, there was no “next time” for adventure games (see the second-to-last question, below).

How would you sum up Douglas as a person?

The thing I usually say when people ask me what Douglas was like is that it was astounding how he could speak so knowledgeably and so interestingly on such a wide variety of subjects. He was pretty much the ideal dinner companion. People often ask me if he was funny in person; he certainly wasn’t a make-a-joke-out-of-everything person; I’d describe him more as “witty” than “funny”. His technophilia was certainly a defining characteristic; he always loved a new toy. I remember an article he wrote for one of the Macintosh publications right after Hypercard was first released for the Mac; his first sentence was something like “Mozart, Velcro, and Hypercard – not bad for one civilization.” The last time I saw Douglas was November of 2000, when he was at MIT to give his “Last Chance to See” talk. Although we’d traded emails over the years, it was the first time I’d seen him in over 10 years. We had dinner before the lecture and then went drinking afterward. He showed me a Quicktime video of Polly dancing, sort of a music video. I’d seen Douglas the humorist, and Douglas the writer, and Douglas the deep thinker, Douglas the environmental activist, Douglas the gourmet, and Douglas the culture critic, but this was the first time I’d seen Douglas the family man, the proud parent.

Why do you think the Hitchhiker’s game remains so popular even today?

For one thing, because the original material that the game is based on remains so popular today. Also, thanks to the platform-independence of the Infocom games, and the work of numerous technically-able Infocom fans, Infocom games run on virtually everything, from handheld PDAs to the Web, so it’s pretty easy to still find the game if you want to play it, compared to most other games of its era. Also, the fact that the game was so brain-numbingly hard helped to make it a cult favorite – did you know that Infocom did a brisk business selling “I GOT THE BABEL FISH!” T-shirts? The fact that the game was as hard as it was is also a contribution that Douglas made; he felt that an adventure game should be hard to finish, and he pushed pretty hard for not making the game easier. I remember that last week in Autumn of ’84, when he came over to Cambridge to finish up the game, he was just leaving to go back to England as I was going into a meeting with the testers, who were all clamoring to make the game easier. I said to Douglas, “What do you think I should tell them?” and he said, “Well, you should tell them to fuck off!”

More of the game design notes are to be found in the gallery.

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