If you ever wake up one morning and find yourself in a strange room with a splitting headache and no tea, where would you be? No, no, not there (but what a deliciously naughty thought). Rather, you'd be about to spend a wondrous sojourn inside the fertile mind of Douglas Adams, creator of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The four books in the Hitchhiker Trilogy (that anomaly is consistent with known improbabilities) have generated such a devoted following worldwide that the books have obtained major cult status. While many unenlighted people still respond, "Who?" to a suggested viewing of a Dr. Who episode, the mention of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy elicits such comments as "Now, that's funny!"; "What a book!"; "Awesome"; "Isn't that the Carl Perkins show?"; "The movie was excellent"; "I hear that Douglas Adams is really Arthur Dent and that the book is an autobiography"; and even a whispered "I hear the guide is for real, honest." All of the above is true except for the part about the movie which wouldn't be released until the turn of the millennium, and that bit about Douglas Adams being Arthur Dent. Anyone who knows Douglas Adams well, would know he was really Ford Prefect, the celestial vagabond on an expense account.
Douglas Adams began only slightly humorous. So, how does one learn to be really funny? Well, it pays to be born into an aristocracy noted for its unintentional humor. Then go to an exclusive private school that requires everyone to wear hilarious uniforms, and where they turn the worst students into lovely rocking chairs. Finally, one should attend a world-famous University that specializes in classic comical curriculums. No, it is not Harvard (good guess), or even Brown (which is much closer to the truth), but, is in fact, Cambridge. Ah, almost caught you there! You were thinking, "But Harvard is in Cambridge." But this is the Cambridge that is in Cambridge, which is to say, a town in England (a.k.a. Great Britain, United Kingdom, Arthur's Place). The guidebooks refer to Cambridge as one of the country's great inland ports, though perhaps the word "port" was a typo for portal.
Another critical ingredient for becoming a successful comic writer is being born in 1952. That means that during the early 70's you'd be able to mix and match wits with such luminaries and great straight men as Dudley Moore, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman. Stir that all together and, while you do not get Hamlet written by 500 monkeys, you do get Monty Python (and friends). Douglas Adams qualified as an early friend and occasional collaborator on the hit television series. Asked about his continuing relationship with the Monty Python people, Adams says, "Terry Jones and I have been great friends for a long time. We often have lunch to discuss what we're going to do together and we always end up having a great lunch."
Adams shamelessly traded in on his numerous Python-generated contacts within the BBC (not an easy feat) for a job as one of the script editors for the mega-series Dr. Who. Adams even got to script a couple of the more vaguely unforgettable episodes. Following the good doctor through a few seasons of reincarnations and personality changes taxed even Adams' hardy constitution.
Wanting to get away from it all, and relax in a quiet environment, Adams hired on as a bodyguard to an Arabian royal family. This low-key job only required him to stand outside a door, bow occasionally, and duck hand grenades. Seems Adams took this employment with his usual acute sense of timing - the height of the OPEC oil crisis and rabid anti-Arab sentiment. The only momento that Adams still has from those fun-filled days is his heavy-duty, official Chuck Norris black leather jacket. He is rarely seen in public without it, lending credence to the rumor that it is so bulky because it is Ninja proof.
Leaving this job for the exciting, globe-trotting career as a world famous, wealthy author was easy. However, there were a few small in-between stages, like becoming wealthy, and becoming famous. The globe-trotting part was fun and actually led to the rest.
Travelling through Europe on a negative cash flow is not easy, but it can be done. Carrying his trusty, much worn, copy of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe," Adams went where few natives dared to tread, even off-season. One night in a slightly drunken stupor, Adams found himself in Innsbruck, Austria, face up, looking at the starry sky (the entire fate of the unknown universe would have been changed if it had been cloudy that night). The thought randomly came to him: "Eureka! It floats!" This was closely followed by two arias from Bartok's atonal opera, Bluebeard. Then in thirty-foot high letters, tilted back and receding, came the thought Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Why not, no one had done it before! It's a catchy title and think of all those galactic royalties if it goes into syndication.
Now the dilemma was what medium would maximize the audience? Since most of the readers were going to be Pan-Galacticans, the best way to reach them would obviously be through a radio telescope beamed across the universe and all adjacent slums. Flush with triumph at this brilliant marketing idea, Adams hurried to the BBC. Detoured en route by a six-year time warp (he had to write copy sometime), he arrived at the BBC just when they were fresh out of telescopes. So, in typical BBC practicality, they put the show on the radio and beamed it across the Thames to adjacent slums.
The rest is history. Every Pan-Galactican living in disguise in London listened to the show (1978 was the year of the supersaver El-Alien tours) and sent in tons of incomprehensible fan mail. Since the BBC reportedly never actually reads a show's mail but just weighs it, the program was declared a two-ton smash hit and renewed for a second year.
A book was written based on the shows, certainly an excellent ecological recycling of old scripts. This book was named Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (might as well run with the proven winner), and promptly sold out. Little realizing that the first book had only been bought as a souvenir item by the departing Pan-Galacticans at the end of their tour, Adams wrote a second novel: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. This book was appropriately placed in the culinary sections of the bookstores. Julia Child even did a television show on how to properly prepare a talking-steak dinner. Some dark rumors circulated afterward about the simultaneous disappearance of her arch rival, the Galloping Gourmet. People, however, rushed out to get the recipes from the first book, as the second book continued after the appetizers.
The BBC decided that if it was good enough for the French Chef, then it was good enough for British television. So, a BBC television mini-series was done on the books patterned after the maxi-series, The Forsythe Saga. Belatedly realizing that Adams Chronicles had already been usurped as a title, the BBC imaginatively called the series Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In true economical BBC fashion, the television series was a condensed version of both books, thus saving the BBC from paying out for two shows.
Now the initial book really started to hit some sales figures. It was also first reported being smuggled into the United States via a case of Snickers. The desperate smugglers were thus able to bypass the numerous federal agencies on guard for illegal British humor.
Alas, the government's worst fears were confirmed when the highly contagious Hitchhiker proceeded to sweep the ranks of science fiction readers in the United States. The condition reached epidemic proportions when British press copies of the third book, Life, Universe, and Everything, flowed over the borders from Canada. Faced with the prospects of detoxifying thousands of rabid fans, the government capitulated and declared Douglas Adams a schedule-one uncontrollable British humorist.
Official U.S. versions of Adams' books now appeared everywhere to rave reviews. Numerous radio stations broadcast the old shows. Channel 2 in Boston, the most avant-garde of the nation's PBS stations, even dared to show the highly subversive BBC television series.
When the third book was released in the United States, Life, Universe, and Everything was immediately recognized as heavy-duty philosophy. Therefore it was put on bookstore shelves right next to Carlos Castanada's latest book: The Teachings of Ron Don: The Yankee Way to Knowledge. Adams' third book immediately became the darling of the coffee table set. They, in turn, had to rush out and buy the first two books since the third one made no sense without reading the others first (Now that really is profound).
Douglas Adams was (and is) an international celebrity. His U.S. tour was a great success as he was lionized from coast to coast. So delighted was he with the overbearing American hospitality, tedious talk shows, and unending dinner speeches that he titled his fourth (and supposedly final) Hitchhiker book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.
What to do next? Let's see...books, records (of the radio shows), television, stage play (Off-Off-Off-Broadway. Liverpool perhaps, or maybe it was the Orkneys), even the obligatory movie contract. "Say", said Adams one night, in a not-so-drunken stupor, "How about a computer game version!" (The difference between doing a game or a book, Adams says, is that "A game is fun. A book is staring at a piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.")
A quick marketing survey showed him that a small adventure game company in Cambridge, MA (note the auspicious location, heavy Karmic influences, and Freudian overtones) named Infocom owned the entire computer text adventure field. In fact, Douglas' first introduction to Infocom was through playing Suspended, one of the company's most mind-boggling games. (Yes, he solved it.) It occured to him that here was a company with minds as devious and eccentric as his own. He decided to approach them about Hitchhiker's. Little did Adams realize that Infocom was actually only leasing the highly lucrative field from the Gnome of Zurich. In fact, a check with the Frozboz Chamber of Commerce would have revealed that Infocom was in fact a front for a vast Underground Empire. Many an adventure game player had disappeared forever into its clutches; their jobs, families, and sanity ensnared by slavering Grues. The few that escaped usually wandered around saying "Hello, sailor," or "Frotz," and carrying a strangely familiar lamp. The Chaucer of British humor was about to meet the dreaded Masters of the Purple Prose.
Initial contact was made ethereally through a transoceanic computer bulletin board. Further discussions were held in a variety of British pubs. It is even money that one of them must have been The White Hart in London; so appropriate with Arthur C. Clarke's personal table in the far corner, right next to the cheese sandwiches. Another creative locale was Huntsham Court, a hotel in the village of Huntsham, near Tiverton, Devon. Adams wrote So Long and Thanks for All the Fish there, and a lot of the electronic version of Hitchhiker's as well. He also bought part of the establishment. How did that come about? "One night after a few drinks," says Adams, "it seemed like a good idea."
Adams insisted on only dealing with the game designer who had the greatest stature in Infocom. Steve Meretzky, at 6'4" was taller than Marc Blank, so he was drafted.
Meretzky was one of Infocom's early playtesters, and suffered from a terminal case of "Boy, game design is a snap. Why, even I could do a better job in a few weeks than...." So, being highly sadistic, Infocom gave Meretzky a chance to design a game. Somehow the few weeks evolved into over a year, but much to everyone's amazement (except Meretzky's), the game was fantastic. Who can forget Floyd's tragic death? Planetfall earned Infocom a whole shelf full of Best Game awards for that year.
Even with Meretzky's heavy credentials in computer game design (Planetfall and Sorcerer, another stellar scenario), he found it difficult to see eye-to-eye with Adams on every aspect of the game design. (The rumor is that Adams' real height is being kept a media secret in the U.S., because of his literary agent's fears that Adams will be shanghied by the Boston Celtics and never write again. He admits to 6'5".)
Luckily for computer adventure fans, the design did not become a battle of the Giants. Mutual respect was earned by the exchange of outrageous jokes, a similar fondness for wearing bizarre costumes (you must see Meretzky in his gorilla suit at some party), and sporting eye-blinding clothing. Adams is infamous for his day-glo ties that add new meaning to the phrase Contact High. Meretzky counters this with a collection of Dali-like Hawaiian floral sport shirts. These are the same shirts made famous by Americans traveling overseas in the 50's and 60's before the Geneva Convention ban on visual warfare.
The peril-sensitive sunglasses that were developed for the computer game are actual replicas of those worn by staff members who had to sit in on lengthy conferences when both Meretzky and Adams were present. In fact, almost all the goodies enclosed with the game originally had other uses: The fluff was really used for earplugs to deaden the impact of the puns. The official destruct orders were actually coded hit contracts on Adams and Meretzky put out by the bedraggled playtesters. The baggy containing the microscopic space fleet looks suspiciously like the bag provided by the airlines in each seat for heavy flying. The sales brochure is really Adams' dummy Swiss company that sells digital watches on late night television (remember the Gnome of Zurich). The Don't Panic button is, of course, the Unimportant Red Button (can you find the Important Green Button in the packet before the Earth blows up?).
The only thing in the game package that is what it seems to be is the "No Tea." Historians have long claimed that the entire expansion of the British Empire was based on the search for a real cup of tea. To date, they have only found Advanced Substitute Tea, which explains the fall of the Pound, the Falklands, the coal mine strike, and Stonehenge.
A few people in the Himalayas have written in and asked whether or not they could enjoy playing the computer game without having touched the books, seen the TV shows, felt the play, heard the records, or smelt a computer overheating from twelve hours of obsessive playing. To which Adams responded, "42!"
He further noted, "The game design is essentially pear-shaped. After the beginning player gets comfortable running around the narrow neck at the beginning, the bottom drops out." What an understatement! With the babel fish problem, the game shifts into really high gear. Many a seasoned player has been stumped here for hours. It does not help that Hitchhiker's is, in Adams' words, "the only game that deliberately lies to you."
Adams, however, has taken pity on those less brilliant and warped - over Meretzky's pleas to "let them suffer." For the first time, an Infocom game actually has hints to solving some of the puzzles built right into the game itself. Admittedly, they are most obscure, but nonetheless actually there. A perceptive adventurer will spot the clues quickly, but even the most dilettante player can grasp them, if they read all the text very carefully, and can visualize the entire floorplan of a typical Vogan space ship (copies of the floorplans are available from the traveling bookmobile run by Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged).
The game ricochets all across the universe in a bewildering kaleidoscope of improbable pasts, presents, and futures. The scenario design resembles a galactic pinball game. Watch out for the Black Hole or you may never get out again, and remember to be careful what you say or do. In Adams' universe causality is paramount. A stone thrown here blows up planets over there.
Meretzky and Adams have designed Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as really an artificial intelligence test. They will find out just artificial your intelligence really is. Try to deal with entire ship equipped with Sirius Cybernetics Corporation devices, whose motto is Share and Enjoy. This is usually considered sufficient cause through the galaxy for immediate self-destruction in order to save your sanity. See how good you are at cheering up Marvin, who is a manic-depressive robot. Need to open the screening door? Easy, just show it a little bit of intelligence. The clue to salvation may just be the "thing" your Aunt gave you that you can not get rid of no matter how hard you try. Then again, maybe not. At the bottom of Adams' pear is the jammed hatch puzzle. This puzzle will grow on you until it takes over your mind. Beware the Jabberwocks!
Now that Adams has conquered this new medium (the game is already in the top ten on the overall charts), what are his plans? Will he do Son of Hitchhiker, or Hitchhiker, Parts II-XXV? "No," says Adams, "I really feel the need to branch out into fresh areas and clear my head from Hitchhiker. I certainly have enjoyed working with Infocom and would very much like to do another adventure game, but on a different topic." Adams compares adventure games to movie-making in the early 1900's: "It's a real novelty medium and only the people doing them really know how great they are."
Sitting across the breakfast table from Meretzky and Adams is difficult indeed, even wearing the peril-sensitive sunglasses. The air between them seems to shimmer and blur. At times they bear a startling resemblance to that maestro of self-expediency, Zaphod Beeblebrox. The two heads seem to share the same body. Perhaps Zaphod is the end result of the cloned collaboration.
"Remember," says Adams, leaning over like a conspirator while chuckling diabolically, "To share the real feeling of the game, enjoy everything."
So, now that you have stayed up all night and have solved six impossible puzzles this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliway's. Go ahead. If you have just finished this computer adventure game, you have definitely earned it!
Thanks to André St-Aubin for transcribing and donating this article.