If you are over the age of forty—or if you’re related to someone over forty who makes you listen to their boring stories about life before 1990—there’s a decent chance you’re familiar with Zork. You might know that it was a series of computer games. You might recall it had something to do with text. And you might even remember that it all started with a company called Infocom, Inc.
In the late 1970s, computers were universally exotic. For a nine-year-old kid, any touchable computer had an appeal like that of an expensive sports car or a ring of great power. You’d go to a museum with your parents and spot fifty kids piled up like bugs on a porch light, and if you managed to press close enough to get to the center of the cluster, you’d find a monochrome DEC-VT100 terminal running some multiple-choice quiz program about biology, and all the kids clambering to be the next one allowed to press a couple of keys. Half the time, kids didn’t even try to read the questions. They just wanted to press the keys and see the patterns of light on the screen change.
On a similar monochrome terminal—at a two-week summer camp where we were taught computer programming by a couple of local college professors—a cluster of friends and I played Colossal Cave, the first computer text adventure, and its more widely known successor, Zork. (You can try it out online here.)
In 1980, Zork would become the first work of “interactive fiction” sold by a software company called Infocom, and it would eventually become the most commercially successful game of its kind. (Retro Gaming Mag has a great 35th-anniversary appreciation.)
In Zork and other interactive fictions, the player was offered textual descriptions of his or her surroundings and could interact with them by typing simple sentences, as in this video demonstration from Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz:
The player made their way through the game by picking up and using various objects, by interacting with other characters, and by solving puzzles which were sometimes literal (like a maze) or more often situational. When confronted by an impenetrable wall of ice, for example, perhaps you needed to find a way to get a dragon involved. (Most of the puzzles were not that easy. And some of them were, admittedly, ridiculous.)
The market was small, at first. But just a year or two later, the middle class embraced the Apple IIe and the Commodore 64 in a big way, and with them Zork and its many successors, among them Enchanter, a spell-based fantasy work set in the Zork universe; Deadline, a whodunit with a twelve-hour time limit; Suspended, a sci-fi robot puzzler; and Planetfall, in which you enlist the help of the loveable robot Floyd, whose emotional resonance for players of this game has been described by the scholar Janet Murray as being “a minor milestone on the road from puzzle gaming to an expressive narrative art.”
This allowed Infocom to release new titles across multiple machines simultaneously, without spending any extra on development. It also meant that Infocom games were among the few experiences that friends with different computer systems might have in common, making them important reference points within the larger community of computer users.
Arch Remarks and Artifacts
To package and market its understated marvels, Infocom enlisted the help of ad agency Giardini/Russell. Infocom games came with elaborate extras, called feelies, to extend the fictional world: mocked-up maps, documents, journal entries, newspaper or magazine articles, and also artifacts (called “feelies”) from the world inside the game.
An Infocom adaptation of Douglas Adams’ popular novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came with a Don’t Panic pin-on button, a pair of peril-sensitive sunglasses, a microscopic space fleet (impossible to discern inside its tiny, clear plastic bag), and orders of destruction for both Arthur Dent’s house and the Earth.
The ads, also by Giardini/Russell, were on point. Infocom’s key feature was its reliance on good stories and good writing—its major stumbling block with potential players was that those stories didn’t come with graphics or sound. Magazine ads trumpeted this as a feature and also charmingly slammed the competition for the blocky simplicity of their graphics.
Besides being good-looking and clever, Infocom’s strong branding sold software. Between 1982 and 1985, the company often had multiple titles on Softsel’s “HotList” of best-selling games. It was one of the few companies whose titles were available in bookstores. Its sales figures rocketed to over half a million units in 1984 and were only a bit lower in 1985, just five years after the launch of Zork.
**** You have died. ****
So if Infocom was so successful and smart, what the hell happened to it?
Its decline was remarkably precipitous. Sales in 1986 were less than half what they had been the previous year. And before that year was out, it agreed to a buyout by the videogame company Activision in order to avoid bankruptcy. Activision continued to develop interactive fiction and text-graphic hybrids under the Infocom name, with rapidly diminishing success, through 1989.
Those who’ve studied the company in depth point to three main factors that played into the decline: Infocom’s focal shift toward an overpriced, underperforming piece of business software called Cornerstone, which drained the company’s bottom line and alienated its talented writers and game designers; the tech downturn of 1985, which left the entire industry more vulnerable; and Infocom’s failure to adapt its interactive fiction for the advances in computer graphics and sound that were taking computer gaming in a different direction.
In regard to that final point: The graphics of 1986 were not that much better than what they had been two years before. Sure, console games like Super Mario and Zelda were having a big moment. But I’d argue that it wasn’t Infocom’s failure to add graphics that doomed it, so much as it was the distraction from its chief strength: the complexity of the storytelling and the quality of the prose.
The text-graphic hybrids with which the company struggled to stay relevant were far from its finest work. Late titles added static illustrations, but these just seemed to cheapen the rich potential of narrative description. More role-playing elements (a la Dungeons & Dragons) were introduced, but beyond some surface affinities, interactive fiction had never really been all that similar to D&D. While D&D incorporated story into strategy and the vagaries of chance, interactive fiction was more like a collection of clues or puzzles you tried to work out while wandering around inside a book.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to second-guess the strategy. But I can’t help wondering: What if Infocom had leaned into its strengths, rather than scramble to respond to the sound and graphics zeitgeist? Though the early games played it safe, relying on players’ familiarity with the tropes of genre fiction—fantasy, sci-fi, mystery—later games such as A Mind Forever Voyaging (a dystopian critique of Reagan-era political policies) and Trinity (a wide-ranging exploration of the history of nuclear warfare) had much grander ambitions and created a lot of fans (myself included) who were eager to see where the medium could go.
Would you like to play again? (Y or N?)
In truth, even without a commercial footing, interactive fiction has continued to mature as a form. A hobbyist community of interactive fiction authors and enthusiasts has kept on writing and playing it, extending the possibilities in all kinds of compelling ways. Whereas in Infocom games the protagonist tended to be generic—an “adventurer” or an “apprentice” or an “ensign seventh class”—independent developers have since explored protagonists with very specific identities and much more backstory. In some of the most compelling works, understanding the character and his or her motivations has become an integral part of the overall puzzle.
In recent years, much has been made of the potential for an interactive fiction revival, given that our smartphones and tablets have people reading and typing more constantly than they have in decades. A few of the form’s most venerable practitioners are finally making a go of it again on a commercial basis. The lower pricing that has evolved for most mobile games works in interactive fiction’s favor, and the growing credibility of self-published works in both literary and digital spheres means that the imprimatur of a publisher is no longer necessary to create a following.
And ironically, advances in sound and graphics have made the “illuminated” text adventure viable in ways that haven’t been sufficiently convincing or exciting before. One mesmerizing recent example is Device 6 by a development team out of Malmö, Sweden. The player literally traces a line of text through the story, searching for clues that are to be found not only inside the sentences, but also in the subtly animated illustrations and evocative soundtrack. There’s unexplored potential in the concept of making text itself part of the map, and I’ll be interested to see if this game inspires others to try new directions.
Speaking of new directions: Given the recent ascendancy of podcasts and dramatically better speech recognition technology, could interactive audio fiction become a viable market sometime soon? Get Lamp, a recent documentary on the interactive fiction community, spends more than a moment exploring the importance that text-based computer games have had to the visually impaired community. Like Books for the Blind, which grew and evolved into a much broader audio market, interactive audio fiction could evolve into something more mainstream—providing a new and engrossing escape for anyone who loves a tale well told and the warmth of a simulated human voice.
This story also appears in Punchnel’s, a Well Done web magazine project.