Infocom

My Top 10 in IF

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There's a thread on the intfiction forum regarding the creation of a top 50 list for Interactive Fiction.  Ok, fair 'nuff...  I'm in.  I've probably played fewer IF games than many hardcore fans, so I've limited myself to a top 10 list.  It's not the most varied list around, reflecting my own personal bias towards old school Infocom games and mystery stories.  Still, maybe you'll find a few reasons to try out these games on IFDB.

  • The Witness 
    This is my all-time favorite interactive fiction story and really one of the first that I was able to solve without too many hints.  It's definitely old-school with all the good and bad of what was state of the art Infocom in the 1980s. It also included great "feelies" in the package.  My own work-in-progress game "The Z-Machine Matter" has a modest tip of the hat to The Witness and other IF mystery games.    
  • Border Zone
    Another great Infocom title, Border Zone was an espionage story that took place in 3 acts with a real-time clock.  It's tricky, but a fun story where you have to move quickly.  Definitely gets your heart racing!  I was finally able to pick up a copy on eBay many years after having lost my earlier version in misguided spring cleaning years ago.  What memories this game had for me!
  • Trinity
    While I never finished Trinity, I still think it is one of the coolest concepts for a game.  Great historical story telling that goes into a while other level of mythology working on multiple levels.  Also included a very cool comic book and great props.
  • An Act of Murder
    This is a great short "who done it" mystery by Chris Huang.  This was one of the games that got me back into Interactive Fiction after a long absence.  It's very approachable and does a great job of creating a randomized mystery story.  Huang's story is also an inspiration to my own game.
  • Photopia
    While Photopia is more story than game, it's an excellent example of a more experimental style of IF that is actually interesting and moving.  Definitely worth trying out.  Extremely compelling writing.
  • Lord Bellwater's Secret
    This is a short one-room mystery.  While it has some quirks and some puzzles that are not completely logical, it's still a pretty darned good piece of entertainment.  The writing is strong and there's some good surprises for such a tight-knit game.  
  • Spider & Web
    An intriguing piece of IF with some interesting narrative techniques and solid writing by Andrew Plotkin. It might take you a few attempts for the game to pull you in, but once it does, it's a compelling story.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches
    Admittedly, I'm late to this game, trying it for the first time with the recently released Kindle version.  I could use Zoom on my Mac, but I really wanted to see whether IF could work well on the Kindle.  I'm just blown away at what a great job Jimmy Maher has done exploiting the Kindle UI.  This truly captures what an interactive novel should feel like.  Elizabethan stories are not usually my cup of tea, but this is so well done I'm willing to stretch a bit.  If you have a Kindle, how can you not try this out?  

  • Make it Good
    This is the most awesome post-Infocom detective mystery story out there.  It's truly an epic piece of work taking Jon Ingold several years to deliver this story.  But it was worth it.
  • Lost Pig
    Despite the fact that it's not a mystery story, this is a fun game with a helluva great narrative voice.  It's fun, it's entertaining and it's not crazy hard.

Infocom Gone Wild!

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After I saw the "Get Lamp" Interactive Fiction documentary film last summer, I began to have deep regrets about the Infocom games I had collected and somehow let slip through my fingers around 20 years ago. When Infocom released the Lost Treasures series, I decided to consolidate space and get rid of all of my original Grey Box editions in a misguided attempt at Spring cleaning.  (Luckily, I did keep all the feelies!) While my collection was not complete, I had all of the Infocom Mystery titles as well as a good number of Science Fiction and Comedy.  Most of them I had picked up in the 1990s at bargain prices.  So it was quite a depressing realization that in recent years, Infocom games had become even more rare. 

Nonetheless, after many months and at some considerable effort, I managed to rebuild the collection from eBay and Amazon.  I also added quite a few additional titles in the process including original "folio" editions of Deadline, The Witness and Infidel.  These were the original packages and were influenced by the famous Dennis Wheatley crime dossier reprints of the 1970s. I'm especially proud of those and they weren't outrageously expensive either.  If there's interest I'll write up a separate post on those later in the summer.

The price I paid for my Infocom titles varied from $5 to $49, most under $25.  Though I was tempted, I drew the line at not paying more than the original list price for games.  Some titles, such as Sherlock, Stationfall and Border Zone seem to be quite rare, so these all came right up to my limit and I was often outbid in the process.  Still, Border Zone was one of the games I was very fond of, so I learned to be patient.  Also, since I already had all the game files, I didn't really need the disks.  That said, I still bought most of the Activision collections: Adventure, Sci-Fi, Mystery and Comedy just out of compulsion.

Infocom3

Anyways, I'm very proud to now have so many of these Infocom titles taking up space in my cluttered home office.  And when I think about all the Dennis Wheatly crimefiles I've bought in addition to the Infocom games and time spent on programming my game The Z-Machine Matter, I realize what an expensive movie "Get Lamp" turned out to be.  

Still, it's cheaper than collecting cars or guitars.


Mock Z-Machine Ad

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I created a mock print ad for The Z-Machine Matter some months back.  I tried to capture the style of Infocom's old magazine ads. Yes, yes, I really should be finishing up the Alpha.  Or at least working on a better map.  But it was kind of fun.

Also for any testers who requested Alpha access but have not yet sent feedback.  Please, please, please do me a favor and send me your SCRIPT transcript.  I will be eternally grateful.  


The Z-Machine Matter Back Cover

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What Infocom game would be complete without wonderful packaging, enticing back cover copy and photo of the in-game feelies?  So after I developed The Z-Machine Matter front cover, I spent some time mocking up the rest of the box.  This is a draft version using a photo by Mark Williams with some of Propnomicon's HP Lovecraft props. The final version will have a different photo, and I hope to include some Arkham Asylum props. Click on the graphic above to view it full size.  

Since no Infocom box is ever in mint condition, I tried to give the front and back a bit of the aged look that classic '80s games usually have.  Meanwhile, still plenty of programming required to get to a beta stage and not enough time to do it all.  

Thanks to Propnomicon for the inspiration and props.


Game Theory Video on Story Telling

Wired recently published an article that highlights Scott Steinberg's video series Game Theory and their recent focus on storytelling in video games and interactive fiction.  It's a great video and includes interviews with Richard Garriott (Ultima), Bob Bates (Sherlock, Arthur, TimeQuest), Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight) and others.  

As the Wired article notes:

The short documentary covers the plots behind a wide range of games, from Zork to BioShock, and also features interviews with writers behind titles like Assassin’s Creed II and Mirror’s Edge. The video explores topics like the conflict between character motives and player desires, the influence of cinema on gaming, and the obstacles that today’s writers must leap while crafting game stories.

“I don’t think we’ve yet mastered the techniques of true interactive storytelling,” Garriott says in the video, pointing to his own Ultima IV as one of the first narrative-focused games. “I mean that not just in dialog [or] cut-scenes, but [really] in how you emotionally become engaged with what’s going on.”

The GameTheory videos and web site are definitely worth checking out!


Z-Machine Matter Box Art

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I haven't had much time for programming lately, but a while back, I put together some Infocom-inspired box art for the Z-Machine Matter.  I thought it came out pretty good and could sit nicely alongside Deadline, The Witness or Suspect.  You can click on the image above to see it full size.  I tried to use an image and fonts that were reminiscent of classic Infocom packaging.  I've also updated the aged and peeling system requirements sticker.

I'll have to figure out what kind of props I can make that would work well in PDF format, but I've got some ideas...


Infocom Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces

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I was in college during Infocom's glory years and though I was aware of their games, I had neither the time to play them nor the money to buy them.  Years later I was able to pick up some of the "grey box" versions of games like Border Zone, Deadline and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  But even these became quite hard to find in the pre-internet era.  And unfortunately, I tossed these some years later during some misguided spring cleaning.

Lucky for many, in 1991 Activision re-issued many of the Infocom games in the Lost Treasures of Infocom with 20 games in the first collection and another 11 in the second.  In 1996, Activision published the Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces collection with 33 titles on a single CD ROM.  

The only downside of these collections was that instead of getting the great Infocom props or "feelies" you got cheap black & white printed book with Lost Treasures and a PDF version in the Masterpieces collection. Still, for the price, it provided a good introduction to Infocom for a new generation of games. It's well worth picking up if you can find it on Amazon or eBay.

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All I Want for Christmas...

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I've been continuing to build out my long lost Infocom collection these last few months picking up a dozen old "grey box" editions on eBay and Amazon when the prices are not too crazy.  Thrilled as I have been to get Deadline, Trinity, Witness, Planetfall and others, I'm still missing two more.  

So all I want for Christmas is a nice clean copy of Border Zone, one of my favorite Infocom titles, which was written by Marc Blank.   Oh yeah, and maybe Sherlock, by Bob Bates.  Also another good book on Inform.  Aaron Reed's book is excellent, but it's not a reference.  And the Inform7 manual is causing me to tear my hair out. 

But most of all, how about world peace for Christmas?  That may be easier to come by than a copy of Border Zone.


Interviews with Infocommies

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The original interactive fiction authors at Infocom were heroes; they combined creative puzzles with compelling prose and great packaging.  Over the years, I've ready many good interviews with the Infocom implementors.  I've gathered up as many useful links as I could find from online sources as well as some old print magazines from back in the deay.  Here are a couple of short excerpts as well as links to the full interviews.

Steve Meretsky

What do you think had made Infocom initially so successful as a game developer and publisher before its demise under Activision in 1989?

For its time, Infocom had very impressive technology: the multi-word parser was a huge improvement over the two-word parser that was state-of-the-art in those days, as well as the compression techniques that allowed Infocom to store an astounding amount of game play on a floppy disk which, in those days, held only about 80K of data! Also, Infocom as a company had a near-obsession with quality, which showed through in everything from package design to the scarcity of "bugs".

Dave Lebling

Among all people you have collaborated with, who gained your highest respect? Why?

I mostly collaborated with people inside Infocom. I always found Marc Blank to have a game-sense or puzzle-sense most like mine, and we collaborated easily on several games, most notably Enchanter. I think I was most in awe of Steve Meretzky, whose reservoir of ideas never seems to run dry, and who has always been a meticulous and dedicated craftsman about his work, and cares deeply about every aspect of it. All this while denying that he is a programmer.

Bob Bates 

What is your philosophy in designing puzzles for adventure games? In other words, what makes a great puzzle and what makes a poor one?

I've written extensively about this, and to answer the question completely would take much more time than is available in an interview. The basics, though, are that a puzzle must be fair, it should be natural to its environment, the information needed to solve it should be available in the game, and when the player finally learns the answer, if he didn't figure it out for himself, he should slap himself on the forehead and say, "Of course!!!" rather than wanting to shoot the designer.

Dave Lebling

Had elaborate packaging been one of Infocom's ideas from the start?

Well the first packaging of Zork was just the disk and the manual, very prosaic, and the first one that had really exciting packaging was Deadline, the first murder mystery we did. We had seen some things by Dennis Wheatley, I don't know what sort of books you'd call them, but they had clues, transcripts, all kinds of fun stuff in them, and I think it was Marc Blank seeing those things that motivated him to write Deadline and so we got the idea that it would be fun to have interesting stuff in our packaging too. It was such a success, and partly for that reason as well as being a good game, that the next time we did a game we thought, well, we can put some other keen stuff in it, and so we've just made a habit of it.

Click through to the links below to Adventure Classic Gaming to read the full interviews.

And more interviews at XYZZY News:

And some highlights of random interviews, from the Infocom Homepage:


Review: Get Lamp Documentary

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I've had a chance to review both DVDs in Jason Scott's epic Interactive Fiction documentary Get Lamp and I'm blown away.  I'm impressed not only that he kept at this for four years, but that he has single-handedly created the only documentary on the subject.  

Despite the fact that Get Lamp is a one man operation, the end result is a professional quality film with all of the trimmings: good navigation, compelling content, interviews with almost all of the luminaries in the field, bonus features, cool retro packaging and a unique numbered commemorative Get Lamp coin.  And the whole thing is just 40 Zorkmid plus shipping. 

I consider myself well-versed in Interactive Fiction (IF) but there are still plenty of things learned:

  • Adventure's original Fortran code was ported to C by DEC employee Bob Supnik
  • Infocom's Deadline packaging was inpired by the 1936 book "Murder off Miami"
  • Activision once tried to sell the rights to Infocom for $25,000 but had no takers
  • Spellbreaker was originally to be called Mage, but marketing overruled
  • Chris Crawford is a condescending windbag  (Ok, I knew that already)
  • Infocom tester and Borland exec Paul Gross once had hair (proof below!)
     

Infocom_paulgross
 

The film comes in a regular version (90 minutes) as well as an "interactive" version that lets you make decisions about which sections to view.  There are also two supplemental shorter movies, one detailed film on the history of Infocom and one on the Bedquilt cave which was the inspiration for the original "Colossal Cave" adventure written by Will Crowther.  Unfortunately, Crowther declined to be interviewed, but Don Woods, who went on to add additional sections to the game, is featured.  There are also 40 or so short snippets on the second disk providing additional commentary on topics like beta testing, bug fixing, programming, the development of InvisiClues, origins of Grues and more.
 

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Scott manages to interview some of the most famous folks from both the golden era of Interactive Fiction (Stu Galley, Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, Mike Berlyn, Hollywood Dave Anderson, Amy Briggs, Scott Adams, Bob Bates, Mike Dornbrook, Mary Anne Buckles) as well as modern authors (Adam Cadre, Andrew Plotkin, Nick Montfort, Aaron Reed, David Cornelson, Jeremy Douglass). 

The one area that I felt the film fell short was in not interviewing Graham Nelson, creator of the Inform programming language.  Perhaps Nelson is as much of a recluse as Crowther, but it would have been good to have had some presentation of the impact of Inform on the development of modern Interactive Fiction.

If you are at all interested in Interactive Fiction and its history, you should order Get Lamp. I mean, where else are you gonna find videos of Marc Blank talking about Deadline, Steve Meretzky's inspiration behind A Mind Forever Voyaging or Stu Galley talking about Witness? Plus you get a cool commemorative coin.

  Getlamp_coin