History

Infocom Source Code and Resources

Github screenshot
Last month, Jason Scott, Internet Archivist and director of the terrific Get Lamp interactive fiction documentary, posted an entire hard drive's worth of Infocom source code on GitHub. I thought I'd share a few observations and links to resources that might be helpful to others in exploring this code and the history of Infocom.

The GitHub repositories include the original ZIL source code to thirty classic interactive fiction games from the '80s: Zork, Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and my personal favorites, the mystery stories Deadline, Suspect and The Witness. There are also unpublished fragments including the lost Hitchhiker's sequel Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Stu Galley's unreleased Checkpoint game, and an ill-fated tie-in to James Cameron's movie The Abyss.  

Deadline screenshotThe games are written in a defunct proprietary Lisp-like language called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language). Sadly, I'm not aware of any working compilers that can compile this code, though I understand There are efforts underway to redevelop a ZIL compiler and most of the Infocom games are now compilable. Which is cool since the Z-Machine is the basis of the underlying architecture and virtual machine code systems for games written in Inform.  Infocom published a manual for ZIL for internal use that is available online. Zarf has also posted a helpful article on ZIL. To me ZIL is kind of like assembly language (with (parentheses)), but the code is still fascinating.

The original MDL mainframe version of Zork (also known as Dungeon) was later translated into Fortran and then machine translated into C. These are higher-level languages than ZIL, but still hard slogging. Luckily, Zork was later ported to Inform6 and Inform7.

Some years ago Volker Lanz wrote and published equivalent version of Deadline in Inform6, but it requires an old version of Inform and as far as I can tell there's no compiled binary version of the game. Most likely the author was concerned that this might have been too close for comfort as copyright violation. It will be interesting to see if anyone translates any of these Infocom games into a modern equivalent in Inform 7. 

Scott had previously posted several Infocom file cabinets --digitized versions of Infocom printed materials including design documents, internal memos, sales reports, logo designs, photos, advertisements, etc which provide a fascinating glimpse into the internal operations of Infocom during it's hey day.

No one seems to have complained about the posting of the Infocom source code, but if it's of interest, I'd get it quick.

For those interested in the history of Infocom and the impact of it's games, I strongly recommend the well-written student research project The History of Infocom (PDF) as well as Jimmy Maher's excellent articles at The Digital Antiquarian.

And for further historical context, here's a link to the Infocom Documentary Scott released along with Get Lamp:


Operation Paperclip

Paperclip

I've been revising the latest draft of my novel, "Gumshoe Rules." The publisher asked me to provide more historical context around some events during and following World War II. As a result, I have been researching the liberation of the Mittelwerk slave labor manufacturing facility by the 104th Infantry Division of the Army and Operation Paperclip, the US Government program to recruit German scientists to the US after the war. Both of these elements feature in the background of the story.

For those who are curious about Operation Paperclip, I highly recommend the book of that name by Annie Jacobsen. She provides a detailed account of many famous scientist and doctors who were recruited to the US, including Wernher von Braun, who was instrumental in developing the Saturn V rockets which powered the Apollo mission to the moon. He also ran the underground slave labor factory which made V-2 rockets at Mittelwerk and was both a Nazi party member and a Sturmbannfuhrer in the SS. I don't think any of these scientists were quite what they purported to be, but the US government did not want them falling into the hands of the Russians. 

So that’s been the focus for the past month. I’m glad to report that a new revised outline has been submitted and new writing has begun. While it’s still the same noir detective murder mystery, there is a more ambitious middle section and an overall faster pace. My book is available for pre-order at Inkshares and I expect to finish all of the rewriting and editing in the next couple of months.


Death in Ice Valley

Icevalley

BBC Radio 4 in collaboration with NRK, the national radio of Norway, has launched a new podcast "Death in Ice Valley." It's a modern cold-case investigation of the mysterious 1970 death of a woman in a remote part of Norway known as Isdal, or ice valley. It's one of those strange cases, like the "Somerton Man," that gets more complex the more you dig in. How did she die? Why were the tags clipped from her clothing? Where was she from? Did she have a false identity? 

So far, two episodes have been produced. The production and writing are excellent. Clearly this team has been influenced by the well researched Serial show from NPR. While things start a bit slow, each episode ends with more unanswered questions. The story is told jointly by NRK investigative journalist Marit Higraff and documentary filmmaker Neil McCarthy in a style is reminiscent of the BBC's radio versions the Martin Beck Swedish police procedurals. Because the case is not quite fifty years old, there are interviews with witnesses who met or investigated the Isdal woman who are still alive today.

You can download the series from the BBC or wherever you get your podcasts. If you've listened to the show, let me know what you think of it by posting a comment below.


Mickey Spillane - 100 Years of Attitude

Last stand
March 9 marks Mickey Spillane's 100th anniversary. He was a helluva writer, but he rarely got the respect he deserved. His first published book "I, the Jury" was written in 3 weeks earning him an advance of $1000, the amount needed to buy land and build a house. Even though it's a short novel, clocking in at 160 pages or about 53,000 words, that's s fast pace for any writer.

Spillane's tough guy private detective Mike Hammer became the template for a blood-and-guts noir style that was immortalized on film, television and radio and begat dozens of imitators. Spillane paved the way for many private detective writers and helped legitimize the paperback original genre. 

Nonetheless, Spillane was scorned by the literary world who disliked his pulpy style and heavy-handed plots. But he had the last laugh, writing more than 30 novels that sold more than 200 million copies in his career, making him one of the bestselling authors in the 20th century. As he put it "peanuts outsell caviar." What critics sometimes missed in Spillane and other noir authors' works was the pacing that drew readers in and kept them reading chapter after chapter, book after book.

"Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."
--Mickey Spillane

Ironically, Spillane's death in 2006 hasn't hurt his productivity. Max Allan Collins has gone on to co-write more than a dozen novels Mickey Spillane from unfinished manuscripts that Spillane left in his trust.

To commemorate Spillane's 100th anniversary, two new Spillane / Collins titles are being published for the first time ever: Killing Town, the lost first Mike Hammer novel, and  The Last Stand, the last novel Spillane completed just before his death. (Both are available for pre-order with delivery in April.)

We owe much to Max Allan Collins, Hard Case Crime and Titan Books for their work in publishing these works. 

Like Mickey Spillane? Hate the covers? Let me know in the comments below.


Art of Atari

Art atari

If you're a fan of ''70s era retro computing, or graphic design in general, you should check out Dan Lapetino's "Art of Atari."  First of all, it's worth noting this is a hefty book; it clocks in at just about 300 full color pages in a nice hardback binding. And this book covers everything you could wish for from this era. It includes plenty of over-the-top cheesy Atari game box art, artist profiles, ads, screenshots (which never even come close to living up to the box art), rough drafts, artist notes, industrial design and more. The book skews more towards the console side of Atari than the personal computer era and largely stops at the end of the '70s. That said, it includes profiles on the Atari 400 and 800 which were released in 1979.

I was more of an Apple ][ than Atari, but it's clear the influence Atari design esthetic influenced an entire industry. And some of the artists profiled were influential in the Apple world also. But if Lapetino or anyone else decides to create a book like this that covers Apple in the late '70s and early '80s, I'm all in.

"Art of Atari" is available on Amazon and most good bookstores. And coming up soon, I'll take a look at a similar book focused on early '80s UK home computing...


Last chance to support Bob Bates' IF Kickstarter

Thaumistry

Infocom author and gaming legend Bob Bates is running a Kickstarter project to support his new IF game "Thaumistry: In Charm's Way." Bates was the only non-Infocom employee who wrote for the company with two classic IF titles to his credit ("Sherlock" and "Arthur"). Bates also co-founded Legend Entertainment, and published a series of innovative graphical adventures that married some of the best elements of parser driven interactive fiction with good graphics, publishing titles such as "Timequest", "Spellcasting 101" and others. 

The Kickstarter project has met it's funding goal, but is now on it's way to stretch goals that would enable the development of digital feelies and possibly porting to more platforms. 

If you're interested in modern IF or want to pay homage to one of the original IF authors, I encourage you to help fund this project. It ends late tonight Feb 21. 


Lights Out Old Time Radio

 

Lights-out
I recently ran across the Lights Out old time radio (OTR) show from the '30s and '40s. I've always been a fan of the old Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio shows. Lights Out predates these and has a uniquely gripping, if occasionally gruesome, style. These stories have a fascinating noir feel to them, not unlike some of the 1950's EC Comics' Weird Fantasy or Crime Suspense Stories or later Twilight Zone. As the shows were originally broadcast after midnight and without advertising, they went well beyond the usual "family friendly" radio dramas that most people are familiar with.

Perhaps the most famous from this series is the "Chicken Heart" episode. But I can also recommend "Oxychloride X," "Man in the Middle," "They Met at Dorset," "Author and the Thing," and "Christmas Story." Actually, they're all pretty good if you don't mind the occasional second-rate acting.

LightsOut -- ChickenHeart

If you're interested, check them out on the Internet Archive where you can download many of the shows made in the '40s by Arch Oboler. Oboler built on the work by series originator Wyllis Cooper, and added an interesting anti-fascist political style to some of the shows. 


Mike Berlyn Needs Our Help

Mark Blank Michael Berlyn 1985

Michael Berlyn, one of Infocom's more prolific authors (Suspended, Cuththroats, Infidel, Fooblitsky, Zork - The-Undiscovered Underground) is raising $36k for cancer treatment. His games touched a lot of peoples lives. Lets do the right thing and help Mike out. Go to GoFundMe to make a donation.


30 Years of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas adams infocom

It's hard to believe that Douglas Adams' classic comedy / sci-fi novel is thirty years old.  It's hard to believe because it's not true.  The novel is well on thirty-five years old, the original BBC radio broadcast is a year older at thirty-six, the TV adaptation is twenty-six and the film is just a wee nine year-old.  However, the Infocom game of the same name will be turning thirty on March 8th, so we may as well celebrate that. It's a nice round number, and I like round numbers.

Hitch_adAdams was a fan of technology, computers, games and procrastination.  So what better medium for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy than an interactive fiction version from Infocom?  

The project was co-authored by Steve Meretzky (above right) who wrote all of the program code as well as significant chunks of the prose, presumably while Adams was busy procrastinating on other projects.  Adams penchant for putting off projects has been well documented over the years and the game's development is  given a detailed treatment by IF historian and game author Jimmy Maher.  

Adams subsequently kicked off work on the game Bureaucracy, though he later lost interest and the game went through many co-authors over three years and was eventually published in 1987.  Following this, there were some ill-fated attempts to create a sequel game Milliways: Restaurant at the End of the Universe which was to be written by author Michael Bywater, who had worked on Bureaucracy. Alas, nothing came of these efforts except some rough prototypes, heated emails and plenty of bruised egos.  

BBC Hitch30BBC Radio 4  has released an updated online version of the game for the thirtieth anniversary with a fun graphical interface.  You can find it on the BBC site. They will also be re-broadcasting the original radio series. 

If you've got a copy of the old Z5 file you can play it with the Frotz interpreter or equivalent on just about any platform around including iPhone, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. Be warned though, it's a fun game, but remarkebly tough. It's virtually impossible to get through without a walkthrough.

Update: I have updated the links in this story


Open Enigma Project

Open Enigma

The wild and crazy guys over at S&T Geotronics, James Sanderson and Marc Tessier, have decided to go full tilt with a Kickstarter version of their DIY Open Enigma Project.  For those who missed the fanfare last year, they were featured on Instructables showing how to build an Arduino-based encryption machine that works exactly like a WWII era Enigma.  You know, the thing that Alan friggin' Turing and his team at Bletchley Park cracked to  bring an end to WWII?  Yeah, that Enigma.  

The Enigma was also featured in the aptly-titled novel "Enigma" by Robert Harris and the film starring Kate Winslet and some people I've never heard of.  That film was produced by Mick "code-breaker" Jagger.  Yeah, that Mick Jagger... By the way, Jagger owns his own personal friggin' Enigma machine.  How cool is that?  

The Enigma Machine (and it's cracking) remains one of the most significant breakthroughs in computing.  And Turing is considered one of the fathers of modern computing as well as a brilliant mathematician, logician, code-breaker and... wait for it.... world class marathon runner. (I kid you not, the guy ran a 2:46 marathon, coming in 5th in an Olympic qualifying round.  Take that Nazi scum!)

But unless you happen to have a spare $208,137 lying around to throw at a Christie's auction, the closest you're ever gonna get to an Enigma machine is to view Mick Jagger's Enigma sealed behind glass at Bletchley Park.  I've been there, it's fantastic.  But it's also heavily guarded.  Just sayin'. 

Enigma kitNow with the Open Enigma Project, you can get a working, life-size replica of the Enigma and be a part of computing history.  You can sponsor the Kickstarter project for as little as $5 (cheapskate), or if you're a DIY hardware hacker, for $250 you get a bag of electronic stuff you can assemble.  

Or if you're a software person who wouldn't know which way to plug in a soldering iron, then you can get a fully assembled kit (without a case) for $300.  And if you want the whole enchilada including the genuine wooden case, it's $600.  Executives, VCs, rock stars and others can splurge for even higher levels to help make this project a reality. 

This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a working Enigma replica.  And that is some cool cyber-encrypting steampunk goodness!  You can plug the Open Enigma into your PC via USB port and run some kind of crazy distributed big data bitcoin-mining NoSQL social media photo sharing site on it.  

All the hardware and software is open source so you can compute all you want on your desk, put it behind glass or run a marathon with it.  Just like Alan Turing would have done.