I wasn’t sure which piece of ancient gaming software I was going to present this week. Then the Alhambra Superior Court happened.
Full disclosure, here. I am part of the problem. For the last seven-odd years I’ve worked my day job as a lowly cog in the State of California’s educational bureaucracy. I have been that unsmiling face at the window. I have had to tell people that, yes, I’m sorry they drove so far to get here, but I can’t make that change if you don’t have your driver’s license. Please take a number and have a seat, you will be served in the order called.
So to be fair, I understand the nightmarish specter of bureaucracy from the clerk’s perspective. I understand the feeling of being overworked and underpaid, of answering the same inane questions a thousand times in a row that someone could have figured out from a few seconds of reading, of poor communication of (ever changing) policies within the same office, much less with other departments. I know how it is to serve hundreds of people and then deal with the one who gets huffy because you don’t remember them from a week ago. I do indeed have to refer you back to the person you can’t get ahold of, because they are indeed the only ones with the authority to help you.
I also learned that compared to the Alhambra Superior Court, we are fucking amateurs. Three hours, I waited in that line for the cashier’s office. At my job I don’t think we’ve ever had a wait of more than an hour at most, and we have chairs for people to sit in. I don’t think I even waited three hours that one time we went to Comic-Con without pre-ordering, but even if we did, at least we got something out of it at the end. Here, I finally got up to the window and was informed that the “fix-it ticket” I’d been given a month ago had not been put into the computer system yet, so I’d have to come back another day. Apparently this was not an anomaly and the citations usually take 4-6 weeks to appear in the computer, despite that after 8 weeks they can issue fines and a warrant on you for not taking care of it.
Supposedly, now that I’ve at least had the vehicle inspected, I can actually take care of it by mail. I hope this is true, as this started as nothing more than having a couple brake light bulbs out which I got fixed at Pep Boys for $15. At the time, I even thought the cop was doing me a favor pointing it out because yes, driving around with no brake lights is not good. But this week’s experience was nothing less than soul-crushing, and like I said, that’s coming from someone who’s doubtlessly crushed a few souls of his own along the way. I bow to the masters.
So with that rant out of the way, I’ll now get to the point: back in 1987, Infocom made a text adventure game out of all this. Bureaucracy was a game that dispensed with dragonslaying and spaceships and instead faced the player with perhaps the most fearsome foe of all: the red tape of modern life. The project was born from the mind of Douglas Adams, who had this to say on its genesis.
“According to Adams, the premise of the game was inspired by a real-life experience. Before moving from one address to another in London, Adams filled out several change-of-address forms, including one he submitted in person at his bank. Shortly after settling into his new apartment, he found that his credit card no longer worked. The bank had invalidated his current card and sent a new one to his old address. Adams spent weeks trying to get the bank to correct its mistake, filling out several new forms and talking to several bank officials. The bank finally sent a letter apologizing for the inconvenience; naturally, it was sent to his old address.”
Infocom had been after Adams to author something else for them ever since the critical and commercial success of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game, and Bureaucracy would be that second effort. Unfortunately, this was during the time when Infocom’s glory days were fading, between an ill-fated venture into business software and a bad merger with Activision. Coupled with Adams being his usual wriggly self with deadlines and productivity (and really, what did anyone expect from a man who admitted he came up with the idea for HHGttG from staring up at the stars after collapsing in a field during an evening bender in Innsbruck?), the game ended up having several different authors working on it by the end, and it’s impossible to say how much Adams actually wrote. But perhaps, just perhaps, the atmosphere of corporate chaos actually helped out.
All I can say is that I cheated some this time around and didn’t work solely from memory, instead grabbing the game as a free download. I played it as a kid, but let’s face it, this just isn’t a game for kids. At age 14 you still imagine the world of adults to be a fantasyland of freedom and potential, where you can stay up late and go where you please and never have to worry about homework. Hell, you haven’t even had to file for a learner’s permit yet, much less a driver’s license. Even if you have a credit card, it’s probably in your parents’ name. What do you know of the perils of paperwork or the agony of misdirected bills? You still think the zit on your nose is the end of the fucking world.
So I really didn’t “get” Bureaucracy at the time in the way I get it now. It’s a unique beast in the annals of gaming, and somehow manages to be fun in spite of (or more accurately, because of) its subject matter. Like any true adventure of our modern, civilized age, it begins with a form. Yes, before you even can start playing, you’re informed that no software license has been detected, so please complete the following electronic form (added at great expense for your convenience!) with your personal information. You then are jumped randomly around entries for your name, address, least favorite color, etc. until all are filled in, sometimes with snarky side comments from the computer (“Your parents had the last laugh”). The fruits of your personalized experience are shown right away as the introductory text keeps calling you “Mr.” if you chose female or “Ms.” if you chose male. You can also call up your former boyfriend/girlfriend and hear how much better off they are without you, and of course whatever you chose as your least favorite color will be showing up constantly throughout the story.
Like the best bureaucratic nightmares, the game starts off full of hope and new beginnings and quickly spirals into insanity as a result of your change of address form (like Adams’) getting munged by your bank, leaving you scrambling to find the misdelivered check from your new employers so you can catch that flight to the promised all-expenses-paid Parisian training seminar/vacation which leaves in a few hours. Also like the best bureaucratic nightmares, you think this is going to be an easy fix… a notion you are quickly disabused of in an ever escalating sequence of being stonewalled by the proper channels until you’re reduced to rooting through your neighbors’ mail, giving false names and even breaking and entering in desperate attempts to get something, anything going your way.
It’s true, you can start playing Bureaucracy in an entirely normal, law-abiding fashion… but eventually that will get you nowhere, and in fact may literally kill you. Bureaucracy tracks the blood pressure of your character, you see, and too many frustrating events will eventually lead to aneurysm. Not kidding. It even raises your blood pressure if you type a word the game parser doesn’t understand, which is all kinds of meta. I actually got some increased blood pressure just trying to remember how to check it (eventually I remembered it was part of the ‘SCORE’ command). Go long enough without a frustrating event and it will return to normal, but in the meantime the clock is ticking, and you just know that even if you manage to get to the airport in time, something bad’s going to happen…
Because of Douglas Adams, Bureaucracy is not straight-laced in the least. It might have its roots in horrible reality, but that reality is twisted and skewed in the best absurdist fashion a la Catch-22 or many a Monty Python skit. Also because the production of the game was so wonky, parts can seem wildly different from other parts, and the game is chock full of British terms and British spelling despite supposedly being set in the U.S. (your old address was in New Jersey, anyhow, and I suppose that does count).
Bureaucracy does have several of the same old problems of the era, though, which can take away from the intentional frustrations by providing ones that are just a product of the times. For instance, just after the game starts you are accosted at the front door of your new home by a man delivering a bag of llama chow and demanding payment. You did not order this chow, and if you delay enough he’ll even tell you you don’t have to accept the delivery if you don’t want to. Unfortunately, if you do the logical thing here and slam the door on him, the game becomes unsolveable, and you may not figure that out for hours, whereupon you’ll have to do a complete restart and go through all the intentional frustrations all over again… frustrations which aren’t so fun the second time around. Character blood pressure is one thing, but player blood pressure ought to ideally remain in the fun zone.
I should also mention that Bureaucracy lies solidly in the era where Infocom was getting really fancy with its copy protection. I’ve mentioned before (in this pre-CD era) how you’d have to type in certain code words from a game manual to play some games. Infocom went a step far further and in the late 80s would actually integrate necessary puzzle solutions into the “feelies” supplemental materials that came with their games, for instance in Ballyhoo there was a circus ticket with specific instructions that had to be followed. If you looked at your ticket in-game it would tell you to refer to the ticket in your packaging. For games of this era, including Bureaucracy, you’re going to want to keep something like this up in your windows and peruse the scans closely, or you’ll be stuck (or worse). In a way it was like an early version of demo software, since you could still get a taste for the game before running up against the wall. Of course, as shown by the gallery link above, this sort of protection is utterly obsolete now that the World Wide Web is upon us, but Infocom was long defunct by the time the Web started becoming common use.
All in all, Bureaucracy is a unique, fiendishly imaginative game full of fearsome adversaries all-too-recognizable to us, even almost twenty five years after its release (hell, my work’s computer system dates back to 1974, so this is hardly surprising). I did finish it as a kid, with copious amounts of hint booking, but despite the perils of old school game design I definitely want to get a new playthrough done with my jaded adult self, because I now know what I’m up against. This in spite of accidentally refusing the llama treats and thus having to start over with nothing to show for hours of my time. It’s still got nothing on Alhambra Superior Court.