Documents in Orbit of IF Works

Continuing my quest to delve deeper into interactive fiction, I’ve played through another three Infocom games: Plundered Hearts by Amy Briggs, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It by Jeff O’Neill, and the IF adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams with Steve Meretzky. As I continue to play through these classic IF games, I interact with a lot of other documents that become integral to my playing experience. This includes digitized copies of the ‘feelies’ and ‘browsies’ that came packaged with the original game, which often harbor hints and clues needed to solve puzzles in the game. A repository of these scans remains available at the well-curated GUE Technical Institute Infocom Gallery. The feelies and browsies extend a manifest world beyond the text of the game itself, adding depth to the interactions with the parser, like the eerily similar orders for destruction (of both Arthur Dent’s House and planet Earth) included with Hitchhiker.

These documents are not only referenced in the game, the paper copies giving the player a chance to peruse the orders in more depth than afforded in the game text, but also invoke a broader Hitchhiker’s universe. While Hitchhiker’s benefits from a preexisting ecosystem of books and radio programs, these feelies and browsies build up such an imagined world (if on a smaller scale) for sui generis Infocom games like Plundered Hearts, a take on pirate romance genre fiction set in the 17th century. Short of purchasing copies of an Infocom game on eBay — of which there are quite a few, if a bit pricey — these freely available GUE Tech scans provide ongoing access to current readers like myself who are engaging with these works as abandonware shared on GitHub. Going through these scans is a kind of correspondence course, even though I’m far from the hallowed halls of GUE Tech itself.

These are documents set by the writers and designers in the orbit of the game text, intended as part of the game playing experience. I’ve also become fascinated with the universe of documents created by players in the course of interacting with a work: reviews, transcripts of playthroughs, and walkthroughs. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, walkthroughs are especially intriguing to me for the consequential digital curation value that they hold as compressed yet easily navigable documentation of a work. In addition to the primary purpose of aiding players stuck at some juncture in the game, walkthroughs also capture the essential information needed to experience a game — if, paradoxically spoiling the intended (or idealized) experience of playing a game driven by the player’s own wits.

I have the seed of an idea for some further research of developing a walkthrough documentation model for works of e-lit, especially for works of ‘literary’ hypertext that is adjacent to games but are rarely considered as games. Similar to how Richard Rinehart’s Media Art Notation System departs from the musical score as a way of thinking about static/textual documentation of an inherently interactive experience,1 walkthroughs render interaction dependent on certain software and hardware into a straightforward text document. As a step toward that, I’ve been poring over walkthroughs of IF works — which, often treated principally as games by creators and players alike lend themselves readily to walkthroughs — and thinking about how they function in relation to the playing experience. With these three Infocom works that I’ve engaged with recently, I’ve had three quite different experiences with walkthroughs.

Before I delve into the particulars, I’ll share that I’ve mostly been looking at the fantastic walkthroughs at eristic.net. Complementing terse but readable descriptions of the commands that players need to input to advance the game, these walkthroughs detail Easter eggs or actions that will engender otherwise amusing or weird results. Breakdowns of the points you can earn throughout the sections of a game act as a sort of index, highlighting key junctures (and places for failure) in the game text. Links to other fan-driven Infocom documentation projects (like lists of bugs a player can encounter in the game) plug the walkthrough into an even larger orbit of documents to explore as part of the playing experience. There’s a lot to draw on here if I further pursue the idea of a walkthrough model of documentation for other kinds of e-lit works that don’t typically lend themselves to walkthroughs.

My use of walkthroughs for Plundered Hearts was the most typical. PH is itself quite a consciously literary work of IF, truly a compelling story with strong writing throughout. I found myself copying passages into my notes document: “Rats’ scratchings counterpoint the lullaby of bilge water sloshing in the bulkheads, punctuated by footsteps slapping the deck overhead.” The structure of the game is also on the linear side, with few opportunities (it seems to me) to get stuck in an unwinnable state. There are two main parts to the game with two main areas to explore, both relatively small and easy to map. Puzzles are well integrated into the gripping story, with bouts of exploration and puzzle solving in the small-ish environments breaking up on-rails scenes of dialogue and action. There were just a couple details of puzzles that left me confounded and seeking out help from the walkthroughs. Otherwise, the walkthroughs were something I read through later, complementing the more or less self-contained playing experience. After playing through, the walkthrough provides a good, quick recap and reference to the game, and also tipped me off to the existence of several different endings, a fact that isn’t advertised at the conclusion of the game itself.

For Nord and Bert, walkthroughs — or the in-game hints feature Infocom introduced in this title — are absolutely essential. This is not because the game is difficult per se but because the ‘solutions’ to many of the puzzles are specific to the point of being unknowable at times. The work consists of a series of loosely related mini-stories that all (mostly) involve forms of wordplay (e.g. homonyms, idioms, spoonerisms, etc.). Some of these stories would be incredibly difficult if English was not a native language, and a couple of the stories lack the wordplay element altogether and are just completely idiosyncratic. I really enjoyed parts of the game that utilized the wordplay mechanic to create and resolve absurd, surreal scenarios (there’s one scene where the player transforms a shoving leopard into a loving shepherd, for instance). Even though these were not difficult puzzles, the wordplay was a pleasure in and of itself — at its best, effecting a game world where words hold a sort of mystic power. Like any good joke that loses its humor when it gets explained, the wordplay at the core of the game does not translate well in the walkthrough — but the walkthrough does serve a good function as a quick compendium of the range and diversity of the wordplay encountered in the game.

I also made heavy use of a walkthrough for Hitchhiker’s, but for very different reason. HHG is tabbed as being one of the most difficult Infocom games — though it may just be a typically difficult game that many more people played than a typical title. In any event, I made it through the first half of the game without any hints; this first part of the game more or less follows the plot of the first Hitchhiker novel, which I read for the first time a couple years ago, and so I used my recollection of the novel to guide me. This mode of adaptation — from novel to game — of course, has some clear parallels to the adaptation from game to walkthrough. I may think more about adaptation in relation to walkthrough as documentation in the future… I’ve got Choice of Games’ The Road to Canterbury on my to-play list, so perhaps that will give me reason to think more about that.

The second half of HHG is episodic in really interesting — but also infuriating — ways from the standpoint of game design. Rather than an open map, there’s a quite small map (the Heart of Gold starship and its Infinity Drive — a triumph in physics, as scientists had long only been able to produce FINITE amounts of improbability) that is used as a jumping off point for a number of smaller quests. However, it’s not well explained how to navigate to those different episodes; within the episodes, it’s not well explained if you’ve done what you need to actually do before you get spit back out into the Heart of Gold.

That’s all well and good, but I have no qualms about cheating to get around cruel game design. For stretches of the second half of the game, I relied heavily on the walkthrough to make sure I was doing what I needed to do in each episode. While this might have been a chore to get just to a ‘successful’ ending in many games, I actually still very much enjoyed my guided course through this game as the writing itself is delightful — sardonic, verbose, satirical and strange in the best Douglas Adams fashion. I’m not a huge Hitchhiker’s fan, but I still got a great deal out of basically turning the interactive fiction work into a more straightahead fiction reading experience. In this case, the walkthrough could be used as a guide to Hitchhiker’s Guide, a tool that adds value to the work for certain desired playing experiences.

Though all these walkthroughs contained more or less the same kinds of information, I found them to function differently depending on the game and my own playing experience — from annotated summary, to necessary cipher, to an augmented guide. I suspect that this range of uses and lenses would broaden even further were I to compare across multiple different walkthroughs of the same game (i.e. compare how other walkthrough authors rendered Plundered Hearts). I may do that yet, as I suspect that my deep dive into walkthroughs is only just beginning.

Notes

  1. Richard Rinehart, “The Media Art Notation System: Documenting and Preserving Digital/Media Art,” Leonardo 40, no. 2 (2007): 181–87.

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