Here it is: the very first computer game my family ever owned, for the very first computer we ever owned; though as I’ve mentioned before, that was a first generation IBM PC, not an Atari as pictured on the box above. Remember when Atari made actual computers? Remember the Amiga? The Commodore? Tandy? Ah, the 1980s, when personal computing went far beyond the choice of which flavor of Mac, Windows, or Unix you wanted.
In 1984, Windows 1.0 was just being developed, and the first of the Macintosh line debuted that same year, Apple contrasting itself as the company of the people and the revolution, as opposed to humorless Big Brother IBM (oh, how that worm has turned). And I was 10 years old and, frankly, I can’t even remember whose idea it was that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came home as a package deal with our Tool of the Oppressor and its… 16k of RAM? 64k? I think we had one of the “larger” memory models, because I do recall hearing how much my parents paid for the thing and for a pre-adolescent it went into that vague “many” column where barely conceivable amounts like a gajillion dollars exist. By 1984 the original PC architecture was already a couple generations behind, though, so it wasn’t as big a gajillion as those fancy IBM ATs which had just debuted with some magic device called a “hard drive” that no longer required you to insert a DOS diskette to boot.
There was a time when text alone could still stretch the limits of an operating system’s capacity, and that time was unquestionably the era of Infocom. Infocom published adventure games that were entirely without graphics (barring the occasional ASCII title screen), which is about as low-rez as you can get, but despite that achieved incredible feats of storytelling and entertainment in their short time as a publisher. Roberta Williams may have been frustrated by the lack of pretty pictures in her gaming, but had she been playing in the post-Zork era, perhaps we would never have had a Mystery House or a King’s Quest. Infocom continually pushed the envelope in what could be accomplished in the realm of what they called “Interactive Fiction”, with inventive puzzles and a level of writing quality that could make you laugh, or even at times, cry (and not just because you’d been stuck in “a maze of twisty passages, all alike” for three hours). The pinnacle of their efforts still stands as my choice of Best Computer Game Ever, an article that will be coming up as soon as I can finally muster enough time to pay it proper tribute.
But back in 1984, I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t even know Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a concept predated the game. I hadn’t read the book or heard the radio show, I didn’t know who Douglas Adams was, but I thought the planet sticking its tongue out was pretty funny. The colorful game manual and other “feelies” were fun as well, even if it took me a few years to understand the joke behind the Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses.
Oh yes, let me back up a moment and talk about the “feelies”, as they were called. These were little extra items Infocom included in the game box for humorous or dramatic effect, helping draw you into the game world before you even booted up. Things like this:
But really, Infocom boxes were about as far as you can get from our sterile modern age where you’re lucky to get a manual with your CD (and even that’s going bye-bye thanks to digital downloads). You got STUFF. In fact, a site out there has lovingly gathered together images of all the STUFF you got with these games, including the manual. Here’s the page for HGttG:
It’s a known fact that kids love getting useless little goodies in packages. Cracker Jack’s entire business model revolves around this phenomenon. I puzzled over the space fleet and sunglasses and scratched my head at the piece of lint in a plastic bag, never knowing that these actually were crucial references to the game lore that were trying to prepare me for the onslaught of absurdist British-style science fiction I was about to encounter.
For one thing, the British seem to have this uncanny knack for turning armageddon into comedy gold, and HGttG is no exception. In play, book, and game, the Earth is destroyed quite early on, with hapless protagonist Arthur Dent presumably the last living survivor of the human race. Not exactly something you’d expect as the ingredients of laugh-out-loud funny, but Adams more than just gets away with it, he excels. After all, this is a man who gleefully pisses all over the idea of simile with lines like “The ships hung in the sky much in the way that bricks don’t”. And that same subversive attitude made its way into the game… although credit where it’s due, Steve Meretsky co-authored and supposedly ended up doing most of the work due to Adams’ legendary procrastination.
Meretsky, happily, was one of Infocom’s best and funniest designers, so the match-up still worked, and Adams still gets the credit for some of the HGttG’s most infamous “innovations”.
For instance, lying. HGttG was the first computer game that outright lied to you, becoming more than just a neutral narrator. Consider this early exchange:
>listen (to darkness)
You hear the deep and distant hum of a star drive coming from far above. There is an exit to port.
You can’t go that way.
You can’t go that way.
You can’t go that way.
You can’t go that way.
(We were lying about the exit to port.) You emerge from a small doorway…
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Later on, the narrator decides pompously that really, it knows better than you do, and when you override it it gets downright butthurt.
Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.
That entrance leads to the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. It’s supposed to be a terribly dangerous area of the ship. Are you sure you want to go in there?
I can tell you don’t want to really. You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.
What? You’re joking, of course. Can I ask you to reconsider?
You’re in the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.
I mean it! There’s nothing to see here!
Okay, okay, there are a FEW things to see here…
Absolute madness, and where I guess an old Zork grognard might have felt bewildered and betrayed, I loved it. I speculated for hours on what “That Thing Your Aunt Gave You Which You Don’t Know What It Is” might look like… it’s in your personal inventory from the start, has a seemingly endless capacity for holding other items, and always returns to you somehow even if you put it out an airlock. Being too young to drink or really even understand why you’d want to, I still was fascinated by the Guide’s entry on imbibing Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters as “rather like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon, wrapped around a large gold brick.”
I do remember getting stuck a lot, even with my dad’s help, but fortunately he had the foresight to bring home the Invisiclues booklet along with the game. Invisiclues was another (in)famous Infocom product, hint books with answers written in invisible ink, revealed by you with an accompanying pen in a step-by-step fashion should you become stonewalled by a particular puzzle. A true relic of a bygone, pre-WWW age, which you can check out here.
I also bring this up because the Invisiclues entry for the Babel Fish puzzle has 30 entries, as far as I know still the standing record. The Babel Fish puzzle was so infamous that Infocom marketed t-shirts reading “I got the Babel Fish!”, I guess on the offchance that you met a fellow nerd somewhere in a crowd (and we didn’t advertise as much back then). That was all that Adams’ guy’s fault, too, he wanted to take an action that seemed simple–getting a fish from a vending machine (don’t ask, just go with it)–and turn it into a convoluted nightmare that would have had a Charlie Chaplain tramp curled into a weeping fetal ball by the end.
Yet still, somehow, he made it funny.
RIP Douglas Adams, you and Steve Meretsky were my first introduction to computer gaming, and I don’t think my fragile little mind has ever recovered.
Oh, and there’s a link to play the game here: