Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky
In 1984 Douglas Adams got together with Steve Meretzky of Infocom to create the Hitchhiker's Adventure Game.
In this interview Steve explains how the project evolved.
Spoiler Warning: The following answers include details about the puzzles within the game.
How did you come to work with Douglas Adams?
Douglas was an Infocom player and fan, and so when he, his agent and his publisher began discussing the subject of a computer game adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide, he was pretty adamant that it be with Infocom. Marc Blank suggested that I collaborate on the game with Douglas, partly due to fortunate timing (I had just completed Sorcerer), partly because many people had found Planetfall to be reminiscent of the humor of Hitchhiker's Guide, and partly because I was the only implementor who was as tall as Douglas.
What was he like?
He was the ideal dinner companion. He could speak intelligently and with wit about almost any topic under the sun. Unfortunately, he was also the world's worst procrastinator! Otherwise, working with him was great. He had such a different perspective on things. He was constantly inventing ways to stretch the medium and came up with puzzles and scenes that I'd never have thought of in a million years on my own - like having the game lie to you, or having an object like "no tea".
What are your memories of working on the game?
The original goal was that we'd do the design together, Douglas would write the most important text passages, and I'd fill in around them, and I'd do the implementation (read: high-level programming, using Infocom's development system). Douglas came to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a week when we got started. Then we exchanged emails daily (and this was in 1984, when non-LAN email was still pretty rare) and phone calls approximately weekly.
Around May 1984, with the game just a few weeks away from its deadline for start of alpha testing, and about half the game still undesigned, I went over to England. Douglas was behind schedule both with the game and the fourth Hitchhiker's book, So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. His agent had sent him to a country inn in western England, far from the distractions of London life. That's where I went, with instructions to camp out on his doorstep until the game design was done. We spent four days at this really pleasant inn, a former baronial mansion called Huntsham Court, sipping expensive wines and designing the game. How can life get any better than that?
I then returned to the US and implemented the entire game in about three intense weeks, just in time for an abbreviated summer of testing. Douglas came back over in September for some final rewriting of key text portions, and it was done in time for a late October release. The game quickly shot to No 1 on the bestseller lists, and stayed there for months.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy game was an adaptation from an already much loved radio series (and book and TV show). How did you manage to adapt a piece of linear fiction into a compelling piece of interactive fiction? Was it a challenging experience?
It was actually ideal for adaptation, because it was a fairly episodic storyline and it was an environment filled with all sorts of great characters, locations, technologies, etc. while the storyline wasn't as important. It was challenging - but good challenging, not bad challenging.
Did Douglas have trouble adapting to the interactive form?
On the plus side, Douglas was already an Infocom fan and had played several of our games, so he understood what an adventure game was and he understood the abilities and limits of our system. On the other hand, he had never written non-linearly before, and that's always a difficult process to get a handle on. The beginning of the game (the destruction of Arthur's house, and the scene on board the Vogon ship) is quite linear. Later, when Douglas became more comfortable with interactive design, the game became one of the most ruthlessly non-linear designs we ever did.
I've seen HHGTTG referred to as a particularly hard Infocom game. Do you think some of the puzzles were too crazy or obtuse and hence too difficult? Why do you think that happened?
Douglas and I both felt that adventure games were becoming a little too easy; that the original Zork had been much harder than more recent offerings, and the 24/7 obsessive brain-racking was what made these games so addictive. We might have overreacted and gone too far in the other direction; certainly, Infocom's testing staff was strongly urging that the game be made easier.
On the other hand, the game's most difficult puzzle, the Babel Fish puzzle, became a revered classic, so it's possible that, while some people were turned off by the level of difficulty, others were attracted by it. My feeling was, and continues to be, that people who find the game too hard can get hints, while people who find the game too easy are screwed because there's no way for them to make it harder.
Another factor may have been the abbreviated testing schedule for the game, because an already-aggressive schedule was made even more so by Douglas' spell of procrastination. More time in testing generally results in an easier game, because the inclination is that if even a single tester found a puzzle too hard it should be made easier.
How did the infamous Babel Fish puzzle originate?
Douglas had the basic idea, and I added some refinements (like the Upper-Half-Of-The-Room Cleaning Robot). More interesting is how close the puzzle came to being removed from the game; most of Infocom's testing group thought it was too hard. I was going into a meeting with them just as Douglas was leaving for the airport at the end of his final trip to Infocom, and I asked him, "What should I tell them about the Babel Fish puzzle?" He said, "What should you tell them? Tell them to f*** off!" So the puzzle stayed... and its very difficulty became a cult thing. Infocom even sold T-shirts that said "I got the Babel Fish."
Tell us more about how you got the job
The decision was made by Marc Blank (who was Vice President of Development at Infocom, and was co-author of several Infocom games including Zork and Deadline). Partly it was a matter of timing; I'd just finished my previous game, Sorcerer, in early February just as the Hitchhiker's game was ready to start. And partly it was Marc's feeling that I'd be a good match for Hitchhiker's; among the Infocom game authors (known in company jargon as "implementers" or as "imps") I was known for humor, and my first game, Planetfall, was considered very Hitchhiker's-like. I'd never heard/read/seen Hitchhiker's when I wrote Planetfall, but as Infocom folks and outside testers began playtesting the game, so many of them said "this reminds me of Hitchhiker's Guide" that I borrowed a set of tapes of the radio show from a friend and listened to them. I loved it, of course, and decided to put an homage to Hitchhiker's into Planetfall, just before it shipped. So, near the beginning of the game, when your escape pod lands on the planet, a hatch pops open revealing a food kit, a first aid kit, and a towel. And if you read the towel, it says something like, "Escape Pod No 42. Don't Panic!"
What sort of ideas did Douglas have at the start of the project?
His overall take on the game was a fairly direct adaptation of the existing storyline. Where he really had a flood of ideas was on some of the more incidental stuff, playing with the medium of interactivity and text adventures. Things like having an inventory object called "no tea"; having the game lie to you; having to argue with the game to get past a certain door; having an object called "the thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is" which keeps coming back to you even if you get rid of it; having a player input which results in a parser failure (that is, an input which couldn't be understood by the game for some reason) be the words which fall through a wormhole in the universe and start an interstellar war. And so on.
How much input did Douglas have into the technical side of the game, and how much did you have into the writing side?
On the technical side, some of the things Douglas wanted to do were beyond the ability of the existing development system. For example, having some of the words you type fall through a wormhole in the space-time fabric, described above. The typed words needed to be repeated back by the game when describing the impact of those words a number of turns later. Another example was all the different ways you could say "CARVE ARTHUR DENT ONTO THE MEMORIAL" in the lair of the Bugblatter beast of Traal. A third example is just the difficulty of parsing an object named "no tea". Some of those things required changes to the low-level code that supported the development system. That was stuff I couldn't do myself, because I was not what you'd call a studly-programmer; I was a tool-user, not a tool-creator. So those sorts of changes required intervention by Marc and other more wizardly technical folks.
On the writing side, I did quite a bit of the writing. Douglas wrote the bulk of the responses to "correct inputs" - game responses to inputs where the player has done the right thing. But that's just a small part of the text in an adventure game because (unless it's going to be a very short game) the majority of the things a player tries to do are not the correct thing. So the game has to have a zillion responses for what happens when you try to use the Infinite Improbability Drive without first plugging in the Atomic Vector Plotter, or what happens when you fail to lie down in front of Mr Prosser's bulldozer. I was gratified when, in the final days before the game shipped, Douglas remarked that in many cases he couldn't tell which bits he'd written and which bits I'd written.
How did you and Douglas work together on the game?
At first I was a little shy to speak my mind, given Douglas' fame and brilliance and given that we were adapting his material. As a result, the early parts of the game (which are the parts we designed first) are structurally weakest, in terms of being too linear and relying too heavily on prior familiarity with the Hitchhiker's story. I'm referring to the Earth and Vogon Ship sections of the game. Later, as Douglas became more comfortable working in a non-linear medium, and as I became more comfortable making my opinions known, the game became much stronger. I think that once you arrive at the Heart of Gold, the structure of the game changes for the better, becoming less linear, more original, fairer to the player, and just plain more fun. Douglas always described the structure of the game as "pear shaped" - narrow toward the stem end, then suddenly ballooning wider, and finally coming together at the end.
I get the impression that Douglas enjoyed writing the game far more than writing any of his novels. Would you say this was true?
He did say that he enjoyed working on the game and was very happy with how it came out. During the press tour for the game, he almost always started interviews by describing the work of a writer as "staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen until your forehead starts to bleed". As he said on many occasions, he wasn't fond of the actual act of writing, and I'm guessing he liked working on the game more than working on a novel because it interspersed pure writing with more enjoyable activities such as game design, a distinct task from writing. For instance, deciding how the Babel Fish puzzle would be organized is game design; composing the responses for what happens when you dispense a Babel Fish at various stages of puzzle completion is writing. Also, Douglas was a real technophile, so working with the Infocom development system, which was quite an impressive piece of technology for its time, was a real joy for him.
Douglas was notoriously bad at hitting deadlines - how did he cope with the deadlines at Infocom?
He certainly raised procrastination to an art form. We had a really tight schedule for the game - we started work in late February 1984, and we wanted to have it out for Christmas of that year (which means that we needed to release the code for disk duplication around 1 October, so that it could be in stores by around 1 November). But he fell behind schedule almost immediately and kept falling further and further behind. Meanwhile, he was even further behind on finishing So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish, so his agent Ed Victor had sent him to Huntsham Court (see above).
My orders were not to leave until the design of the game was done. While I was there, he stayed pretty focused on the game (when he wasn't showing me around Devon, or when we weren't enjoying the opulent cuisine of Huntsham Court...) One day, probably the last full day I was there, we were trying to come up with the ending of the game, the game's ultimate puzzle, which would tie up all the loose ends of the story and would use all the various items that we had introduced into the game (such as the four pieces of fluff). We were totally blocked and not getting anywhere. Douglas suggested we drive out to Exmoor National Park. And there, sitting on driftwood on the beach, surrounded by sheep, we came up with the ending of the game, using the four pieces of fluff to create a seed that would grow a plant that produces a fruit which gives you a glimpse of the future and predicts which of the ten or so possible tools would be the one tool Marvin would need to repair the Heart of Gold and land it on Magrathea.
How good was Douglas' knowledge of computers at this point? And how did his knowledge develop over the course of creating the game?
Quite good - he was an early adopter of technology in general, and computers in particular. The very first day we worked on the game, he showed me a three-dimensional computerized crossword game he'd created. And, as I said earlier, he'd already played several Infocom games.
Did Douglas offer comments on any other Infocom games?
He was most impressed by Suspended, by Mike Berlyn. It was an extremely innovative game in which you play a disembodied brain controlling a team of six robots, with the task of maintaining a complex that controls all the automated systems for a planet. An earthquake damages the complex and precipitates a crisis. Each robot has its own set of senses and abilities, and only by combining their information can you figure out what's going on. And only by using the right robot for the right task can you get everything done in time.
Was Douglas involved in thinking up the paraphernalia that was included with the game?
No, neither of us was involved with the packaging; Infocom's marketing chief, Mike Dornbrook, plus Infocom's creative agency, came up with the ideas for what would go into the package, after playing earlier test-versions of the game.
Did Douglas comment on the use of the little green guy (which he hated) on the game's packaging?
He wasn't happy, of course, but I think by that time he was resigned to it being the iconic representation of Hitchhiker's in the public's mind.
What sort of publicity did you and Douglas do to promote the game?
There was an initial press conference, at the Rainbow Room in New York. Then there were press interviews at the winter Comdex (Las Vegas, November 1984), plus a swing through the San Francisco Bay Area for more interviews. Douglas did some stuff on his own, such as an appearance on the David Letterman Show. Douglas was also publicizing So Long... at the same time, so the TV appearances were more oriented toward that, with hopefully a quick mention of the game thrown in.
My strongest memory of those interviews was that Douglas used the same story to break the ice with each interview - the "biscuit story", which really happened to Douglas, and which he turned into a fictional encounter for Arthur Dent in So Long... It's certainly a terrific story, but after the 50th time I heard it I wanted to scream!
How happy was Douglas with the finished game?
He always said he was very happy with it, and it was well-received by both game reviewers and players, and it sold extremely well (about 400,000 copies in initial release, and was No 1 on the bestseller lists for a good part of 1985). I think what he really liked about it was having friends over and booting the game and watching over their shoulder to see what they tried.
Was any serious consideration ever given to a second Hitchhiker's game?
Yes, quite a bit. Douglas wanted to do Bureaucracy first, because he was so sick of writing in the Hitchhiker's universe. Contractually, we could have written (I think) five more Hitchhiker's games without Douglas' involvement, but we of course preferred to have him involved, both for PR purposes and because he contributed so much great stuff to the first game. So we agreed to do Bureaucracy first, and then that dragged on so long, by the time work started on the Restaurant at the End of the Universe game, commercial text adventures were already a dying breed. Stu Galley, who wrote The Witness and several other Infocom games, was slated to be Douglas' collaborator for Restaurant, and he did quite a bit of design work for the game; I still have all his notes. But before the game was all that far along, Activision (which bought Infocom in 1986) decided that text adventures were dead.
Were ideas for any other Douglas Adams-related games ever bandied about?
During the same dinner in May 1984 that Douglas talked to me about his ideas for Bureaucracy, he also talked about another idea, a graphical game in which your goal is to control the evolution of a world from early life forms to intelligent creatures. I never heard any more about it after that. A game along those lines was later done by Maxis (the people who made SimCity) - although it was way more serious than Douglas' take on the idea would have been!
Did you ever work with Douglas on any other projects?
No. When he was working on Starship Titanic and I was working on The Space Bar, I did send him an email asking, "Why are we dividing the humorous science fiction adventure game market? Next time we should just work together." Of course, by the time those two games came out, there was no "next time" for adventure games.
How would you sum up Douglas as a person?
The thing I usually say when people ask me what Douglas was like is that it was astounding how he could speak so knowledgeably and so interestingly on such a wide variety of subjects. People often ask me if he was funny in person; he certainly wasn't a make-a-joke-out-of-everything person; I'd describe him more as "witty" than "funny". His technophilia was certainly a defining characteristic; he always loved a new toy. I remember an article he wrote for one of the Macintosh publications right after Hypercard was first released for the Mac; his first sentence was something like "Mozart, Velcro, and Hypercard - not bad for one civilization."
The last time I saw Douglas was November of 2000, when he was at MIT to give his "Last Chance to See" talk. Although we'd traded emails over the years, it was the first time I'd seen him in over 10 years. We had dinner before the lecture and then went drinking afterward. He showed me a Quicktime video of Polly dancing, sort of a music video. I'd seen Douglas the humorist, and Douglas the writer, and Douglas the deep thinker, Douglas the environmental activist, Douglas the gourmet, and Douglas the culture critic, but this was the first time I'd seen Douglas the family man, the proud parent.
Why do you think the Hitchhiker's game remains so popular even today?
For one thing, because the original material that the game is based on remains so popular today. Also, thanks to the platform-independence of the Infocom games, and the work of numerous technically-able Infocom fans, Infocom games run on virtually everything, from handheld PDAs to the Web, so it's pretty easy to still find the game if you want to play it, compared to most other games of its era. Also, the fact that the game was so brain-numbingly hard helped to make it a cult favourite.
This is an edited version of an interview conducted by Hitchhiker expert MJ Simpson - used by kind permission.
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