Eaten By A Grue

Eaten by a grue

If you have any interest in the classic Infocom Interactive Fiction games of the 80s, you should check out the wonderful podcast "Eaten by a Grue" where computer historians Kay Savetz and Carrington Vanston make their way through every Infocom game ever made. It's a fun show, with plenty of insightful analysis, witty banter and hints well covered by spoiler fences.  There's also a great interview with master game designer Steve Meretzky and also reviews of post-Infocom games that came out of the IF community. 

I hope they'll give Chris Huang's An Act of Murder a try! 

I'm almost tempted to fire up Inform7 and get back to work on my long-stalled game The Z-Machine Matter. Or maybe I should get back to work on the sequel to my novel "The Man from Mittelwerk." 

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 There are also unpublished fragments including the lost Hitchhiker's sequel Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Stu Galley's unreleased Checkpoint game, and an ill-fated tie-in to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:

Last chance to support Bob Bates' IF Kickstarter


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. 

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

Z-Machine Interpreter for Android

TextFiction Android

OnyxBits has released a new Android IF interpreter called TextFiction.  While not quite as full-featured as iFrotz on iOS, it looks to do a good job with classic Infocom games using Z3, Z5, Z8 files as well as more modern (and larger) ZBlorb games created with Inform.  It also provides a cool "text message" type of user interface that looks pretty cool.

You can download the app from Google Play or get the source code directly from GitHub.  So if you've got some old Infocom games lying around, or want to investigate modern games written in Inform, TextFiction looks like a good way to bring the games onto Android.  There are plenty of free Interactive Fiction games available on IFDB.

I don't have any Android devices personally, so I've not been able to test it out.  If you're an Android user, let me know how you like TextFiction by posting to the comments below.  


New JJ Abrams, Doug Dorst Book Inspired by Dennis Wheatley

S page

Acclaimed television and film director JJ Abrams' latest project is a distinctly analog book called "S." written by Doug Dorst.  The book is built on a mythic turn of the century novel "The Ship of Theseus" by a mysterious VM Straka.  More importantly, the book, which is made to look like an old library volume, includes margin comments from two college students, old letters, post cards, photographs, newspaper clippings and other assorted items that provide the reader with all the clues necessary to unravel a larger mystery.  Sound familiar?  

In an LA Times story, Abrams acknowledged his childhood fascination with the crime dossiers of bestelling English author Dennis Wheatley:

He hit upon the idea of “S.” after discovering a novel that had been left behind by another traveler, and he drew inspiration from the murder mysteries of British author Dennis Wheatley, who included dossiers of evidence in his books.

“There was one I remember called ‘Who Killed Robert Prentice?’” Abrams said. “It had a torn-up photograph in these little wax paper envelopes. As a child, I remember seeing those. That always stayed with me, that idea of getting a book, a packet, that was not just like any other book.”

"S" Looks like a fascinating old-school approach to meta-level fiction and the production appears to be top notch.  Here's a video from Mullholland Books that shows more details:

There's also an electronic version of "S." available for iPad. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the print version is the way to go. 

Update: I've added a few more links to related reviews and articles. 

Theme from Lovecraft


I've finally got some time to devote to my game The Z-Machine Matter. But rather than dive immediately back into programming, I have been working on tightening up the story.  It's a murder mystery, so the most important thing is to make sure that the suspects, motivations, clues and red herrings all fit together in a cohesive fashion.  No point programming up a bunch of interesting objects if the underlying story doesn't make sense.  

I've also been working on the underlying themes. One area that I've lifted from is the works of HP Lovecraft.  The story is more murder mystery than horror and is set in cold-war era 1950s.  However, it does tie into some interesting themes of Cosmicism as explored in many of Lovecraft's works and makes reference to the fictional town of Arkham Masschussetts and Miskatonic University.

For those seeking a more complete Lovecraft interactive fiction game, there are a good many to choose from including Infocom's The Lurking Horror, Michael Gentry's award-winning Anchorhead, Jimmy Maher's The King of Shreds and Patches, and a recent trilogy of shorter works by Marshal Tenner WinterThe Surprising Case of Brian Timmons, Ill Wind, and Castronegro Blues.

Lost Treasures of Infocom on iOS

  Lost Treasures Icon

I'm not sure how it hapened, but someone working below the radar of senior management must have figured out a way to release the Lost Treasures of Infocom for iPhone and iPad.  Why else would such a great collection of games be made available at such a great price?  Twenty-six of the original Infocom classic Interactive Fiction (IF) games including the original Zork series, Deadline, Enchanter, Witness, PlanetFall and much more for a measley $10. Or if you're not interested in the full collection, you can buy 5-packs of games for just $2.99.  

If somehow you missed out on '80s Interactive Fiction and don't already have these games on 5.25" floppies or the reissued CD-ROM collections, this is a great way to get them on your iPhone or iPad along with a spiffy new UI, built-in documentation and reproductions of the classic Infocom "feelies".  I was a bit disappointed that maps and Invisiclues cost $1 extra each if you buy one of the $2.99 collections, but you'll gets all of the maps and all of the feelies for the entire series.  And if you spring for the full $10 bundle, you get the maps and Invisiclues for free as well as a bonus game, Zork: The Undiscovered Underground.  

Completists will note that there were in fact 31 games in the Infocom canon.  So take note that this does not include Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur, Sherlock, Shogun or Nord & Burt Couldn't Make Head or Tail of it, most likely due to licensing restrictions.  But if you're aware of those titles, you probably already have them running on iFrotz anyways. 

Here's the full list of games available:
• A Mind Forever Voyaging Lost-infocom
• Ballyhoo
• Border Zone
• Cutthroats
• Deadline
• Enchanter
• Hollywood Hijinx
• Infidel
• Leather Goddess of Phobos
• The Lurking Horror
• Moonmist
• Planetfall
• Plundered Hearts
• Seastalker
• Sorcerer
• Spellbreaker
• Starcross
• Stationfall
• Suspect
• Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare
• The Witness
• Trinity
• Wishbringer
• Zork 1: The Great Underground Empire (FREE)
• Zork 2 : The Wizard of Frobozz
• Zork 3 : The Dungeon Master
• Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (bonus game)

Parser Say "Happy New Year!"


It was a quiet New Year's eve, just before dinner and I managed to get a few hours of programming time on my long neglected IF murder mystery game. As I was working away, I noticed a couple of email notifications on Inform7 suggestions I had voted on.  Just as I was busily working away on my game, there were others, perhaps many others, around the world working on their own IF projects.  

No doubt there are people working on new games, writing code, creating extensions, writing hints and walkthroughs and feelies.  Others, like the Inform7 team, appear to be toiling away on bug fixes and new features for an upcoming release.  And hopefully there are newcomers, perhaps intrigued by the iOS Lost Treasures of Infocom or otherwise have stumbled upon IFComp and are taking a look at Inform7, TADS, Quest or other IF tools with the thoughts of creating their own games.  To all of you, I say "Happy New Year!"

I don't have many personal connections to the IF community, but if I did, I'd buy everyone a drink as a thank you for all that the IF community does.  There are so many people who have put in countless hours in projects that we all benefit from whether it's the Inform7 compiler, the IDEs, library extensions, documentation, historical essays, interpreters, Kindle & iOS ports, classic retro games, fantastic modern games, lively forums, competitions... You could not hope for a better, warmer and more inviting community. (Ok, with the possible exception of mean reviews, but even that seems to be getting better.)

Thank you!  I wish everyone a wonderful year and the best of success with your IF projects in 2013.

If there's something you're grateful for in 2012, please feel free to add a comment.

San Francisco IF Meetup


Dan Fabulich (above right) does a great, or dare I say, fabulous job organizing the local San Francisco Interactive Fiction meetup.  Meetings occur the first Saturday of every month and are generally in or around Berkeley or Oakland area.  Last week we met at the Musueam of Art & Digital Entertainment (MADE) offices in Oakland.  There was a lot of catching up on what everyone is up to, speculation on recent rumors about Steam's console PC, discussion of Double Fine's forthcoming Adventure game.  

Then we dove into a group session trying to solve Infocom's notoriously difficult Deadline interactive mystery game.  We had to dive into some online clues, but a good time was had by all.  Heck, Dan even brought pizza.  What a mensch!

Next meeting is April 7.  Hope to see you there.