In a world of magic, spells are power, and magicians rule the land. But not only the wise and good sorcerers of the circle can cast spells. Evil forces lurk, and you, a novice enchanter, must master the powers which will overcome ever more dangerous enemies, until at last the fate of magic itself hangs in the balance.
"Okay, let's go."
We didn't move. The two of us stared up the length of the six-story, glass-and-steel corporate monolith rising before us. The crisp December morning air pinched at our checks, bringing blood to the surface. Subtle shivers rippled through me. Belboz only knew what could be in there.
I repositioned the coil of rope looped over my shoulder and flicked the switch of the flashlight. The bulb struggled into yellow life, then slipped back to dark oblivion.
"You got a spell memorized?"
He nodded. His tongue crept out, then want back into hiding.
"Which one?" I asked.
"Ozmoo, of course."
"Yeah, that's the one to know." It was a grim thought, but without the Ozmoo spell, who could say if we'd even survive?
"Okay, let's go."
I cleared my throat.
I shuffled my feet.
I stared up.
The fifth floor, The Infocom lair, leered down. Come to us, oh friends, came the siren call. We have myriad surprises. Yes, indeed, we do. Wander rock-strewn passageways! Become hopelessly lost in sadistic mazes! Battle trolls and dwarves! Pay an additional $7.95 for a hint book! Krill awaits you. And he's very anxious to make your acquaintance.
I shivered, glanced down at the bright yellow circle pinned to my jacket. "DON'T PANIC," it read. Good advice, but its implications were not terrifically hopeful.
My companion took a step forward, then stopped.
"Let's do it," he urged.
There was a bright side. I tried to think of the treasures waiting to fill our fur-lined pockets. Rare art. Gold coins. Diamonds. Review copies of software.
"There's monsters in there," I murmured to no one in particular. "And Grues!"
My companion frowned. "What is a Grue?"
"The Grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the Earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No Grue has ever been seen in the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale... Gosh, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?"
"Here we go," he said.
I assembled all the courage I had hoarded over what was sure to be a short life and pulled open the door.
Immediately, we were swallowed by a swirling blackness, a vortex that sucked us down past scenes of oceans and caverns and castles, alien landscapes and gothic mansions. There were gunshots and the clanging of swords. Screams and whimpering. Chuckles and bellows. The face of a horrible, alien creature swam up from the darkness, mouthing words that brought my stomach up to the base of my throat: "Oh freddled gruntbuggly, ...thy nacturations are to me/As plurdled gabbleblotchits on lurgid bee." A pyramid, its ancient surface baked dry in the desert sun, burst into view, whirled by us and was gone. Then a rumble. At first felt more than heard, it built to a deafening crescendo, and a huge mushroom of radioactive dust glared down on us, the face of a god. The shock waves and winds hit. A billion scratch-and-sniff cards bubbled out from the tornado, forcing upon us olfactory tortures beyond inagining.
My fellow adventurer screamed, hid his nose behind his hands. "The hint book! We're really going to need the stupid hint book!"
My fingers jabbed at the air.
To hell with hint books. Where was the blasted RESET key?
Visiting the offices of Infocom, Inc. is sure to stimulate the imagination of even the most feeble of intellects - as the above paragraphs surely serve witness.
Ahem... that didn't really come out as I meant it to, did it? I was, of course, not implying any feebleness on the part of my mind (although there are many who would argue that, implied or not, the encroaching ruin of my gray matter is an undeniable fact), but that the thought of a visit to the official headquarters of Zork, et al. is, for anyone, a great stimulant to the imaginative juices.
The fine people at Infocom have offered us such a huge array of stimulating tales - always of unimpeachable quality - one could say they have single-handedly backed an entire industry. Quite a claim, eh? Let me explain.
Talk to any adventure addict. Go ahead, pick one. Ready? Ask him whose games have consistently provided the most detailed, creative, funny and absorbing hours of play. What did he say? Just as I thought. You see, confronted with a shelf-ful of text adventure games, adventurers in the know will, nine out of ten times, choose the Infocom game. It's a non-risk, a sure winner, guaranteed to provide more than adequate compensation for the thin green slips of paper traded for it.
But I still haven't substantiated the outrageous claim I made two paragraphs ago. The substantiation is in the quality. When gamers finish the latest Infocom title, they want more... because the game's quality left them feeling that way. And what does one do when one has finished that new Infocom game, having played all the others within a week of their release? One purchases a competitor's game, of course.
I'm not implying that Infocom's competitors supply inferior products. There are many fine adventures under other trademarks. As a great movie bolsters the film industry by drawing audiences back to the theaters, Infocom games create an unyielding urge to play adventure games - by the dozen.
In the beginning.
It's ironic, then, that when Infocom first sprang into the imaginations of its founders, games were the furthest thing from their minds.
The name Infocom is an amalgamation of the words information, communication and computer. Doesn't sound very "gamey," does it? Infocom's original objective was to supply some competition to companies providing large-scale business programs (such as Lotus 1-2-3) to the growing corporate market. A special project was begun. Shrouded in secrecy, behind locked doors in their computer rooms (I exaggerate slightly), the programmers set to work. What emerged after several years of grueling labor was the impressive (but under-achieving) Cornerstone package.
But I get ahead of myself. A new company, as Infocom was then, has a burgeoning need for additional capital. Someone has to pay the staff and the rent, and three years tucked away in front of glowing CRTs working on a single long-term project do not revenue make.
Well, there was this game Zork, which Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels had up and running on a mainframe. They emerged from their underground labyrinth long enough to look around and say, "Hey, these new micro-computers are doing pretty well; in fact, people seem to be scoffing them up like free tickets to a Beatles concert. Why don't we port this thing over to a couple of home computers and see how it sells? That'll get the checks signed while the serious work is going on."
History springs from most humble beginnings.
Zork sold. The reviews began rolling in, praising the ahead-of-its-time parser and imaginative prose. Zork II eased tentatively into the marketplace. It sold. Revies rolled in again. Then came Zork III... and the sales... and reviews. New games emerged featuring innovative packaging; people bought them just for the box!
Humble beginnings, you know... And never looking back.
The zany Infocom of today.
Infocom has created a reputation for itself that swings far wide of the corporate reality. The games get crazier and crazier. Infocom's newsletter The Status Line (formerly The New Zork Times, until a certain unamused newspaper brought down the axe) has done nothing to tarnish the carefully constructed atmosphere of insane joviality that permeates every product leaving the warehouses.
I hate to shatter those pictures waltzing in your head, but the truth is that it's unlikely you'll ever find these folks thirsting for a trip into a dangerous underground maze. They're a young, intelligent, professional lot. And, as such, their primary concerns are not focused on what they'll wear to the next Enchanter's Circle, or even on whose turn it is to be Dungeon Master (although they sometimes argue about who bought the Cheese Doodles). Their concern is the product: the finest they're capable of making.
Ah, the product...
It all starts with an idea. It may be a fascinating puzzle; it may be a mystery that needs a solution; it may be nothing more than an intriguing entry on an object list that insists upon its own tale. Whatever the trigger, it's up to Infocom's team of writers to come up with the stories - and come up with them they do. Since the publication of Zork in 1980, Infocom has released over twenty complex adventures, with more waiting in the wings.
Each writer has his or her own style for developing a tale. Dave Lebling (Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Starcross, Enchanter, Spellbreaker and Suspect) likes to begin with a setting, then sprinkle interesting objects about. As the setting comes to life, the objects start to suggest plot and puzzle possibilities. The exception to this is when he's working on a mystery; in that case, obviously, the plot must come first.
Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Sorcerer, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Leather Goddesses of Phobos), the comedian of the group, writes several brief ideas on a piece of paper, then asks his associates to pick their favorite one. He will then cross the chosen ideas off the list and begin work on the one nobody picked. (That's Steve for you.) Once he's got the basic idea nailed down, he fleshes out the story line and creates the geography. Rather than place objects into his story right away, he first works out the puzzles. The objects needed to complete the puzzles (and any other fun things he wants to toss in) are then placed in the game.
Stu Galley (The Witness, Seastalker and Moonmist) takes an approach similar to Steve's, circulating his ideas and getting opinions from the others. Stu treats the voting procedure in the more traditional manner, however, choosing the story line that most people liked.
Amy Briggs (the newest member of the team, and the only female) says she makes "copious notes then completely rewrite[s] them because they're all wrong." She must have gotten her notes in order, though; she's hard at work on her first game.
Generally, the writers have free rein over their ideas. There is no formal approval process that must be adhered to (as in most of today's bureaucratic business). The story ideas prove themselves over the course of their development, as more and more people become involved, and contribute their opinions and ideas.
The system must work. Only one product has ever been scrapped beyond the initial testing stage.
Sometimes ideas are put on a back burner, but rarely is one scrapped. When Brian Moriarty (a former ANALOG Computing editor) began at Infocom, he had already started to formulate the plot of his latest game, Trinity. Infocom thought the idea was too complex. At the time, they really needed another beginner-level game. So Brian began creating Wishbringer. Once Wishbringer was on the market, work on Trinity (finished about eight months ago) resumed.
The hardware and software.
All of Infocom's games are written on a DEC-20 mainframe (named Fred) using their own development language. The language, dubbed ZIL (Zork Implementation Language), is a cousin to LISP, the language popular with programmers involved in the artificial intelligence field. ZIL include a full list of the most common words used in Infocom games, ready-to-go. When one of the writers gets to work on a new project, he or she has to worry only about the new words needed in the game.
Parsers are personal things, however. Each of the writers has a slightly different idea of the way certain words should be implemented. As a result, they each have their own copy of the parser, one that has been "tweaked" up a bit to reflect the current project's needs. Sometimes, for example, the word put may require a particular meaning in a given set of circumstances. Out comes the parser for a modification and put takes on a new responsibility.
ZIL is a very "high-level" language (akin to some of the fourth-generation languages gaining popularity in the business world) that takes only limited training to get acquainted with. As a result, writers at Infocom need not be programmers; their imagination and sense of adventure adequately carry them through the process of game development.
Stories are what Infocom really sells, but they're still only a portion of the labor that must be completed to place the product into the consumer's hands. Someone has to sit down and design packages and write copy - not to mention negociate with the writers about whether that "feelie" (that's the Infocom name for the fun stuff in the box) they want included is feasible or not. Special items, such as the glowing rock packaged with Wishbringer, must be researched, priced and checked for safety (the ingredient that causes the rock to glow was replaced with a different substance, due to the toxicity of the original choice). These responsabilities fall on the shoulders of Carl Genatossio and Elizabeth Langosy, the two members of the Infocom Creative Services department.
Carl handles the graphics end, designing the packages, hiring photographers and pulling together all the items to make the package special. He can tell you where to find pizza-smelling ink, or a wishbringer stone, or palm-tree swizzle sticks. Keep him in mind for your next party.
Elizabeth is Infocom's resident writer. She supplies much of the text for manuals and product announcements.
Carl's and Elizabeth's jobs begin when they sit down to play a new game, spending about a week to become familiar with the story. A meeting is then scheduled with the writer. Here they discuss the game in more depth, concentrating on what the package should be like. Creative Services is always looking for something special, something different from anything they've done before, but still appropriate to the game's concept.
Probably one of the most unusual items to crop up in an Infocom package is the scratch-and-sniff card that rounds out the Leather Goddesses package. There are still horror stories circulating in the Infocom offices about the day they had to sample the different odors. I bet there was no lunch that day.
Sooner or later, a game in development reaches the point of playability. It then falls into the hands of Infocom's five-person testing team. After each has tried out the game, they get together to compare notes. The game's overall logic is discussed; bugs are noted and sent on to the writers; spelling is checked; even geographical layout is verified (especially when based on real locations). Sentence syntax is analyzed to help rid the game of clumsy constructions and to offer the player as many ways of saying something as possible. A lot of concentration is focused on Infocom's infamous puzzles - adjusting each puzzle's difficulty to match the game's experience level, or removing those that are inappropriate or boring.
Suggestions are forwarded to the writer, the changes made, and the cycle repeats. The testing process may take as much as four months before everyone's satisfied.
Once a game has been cleaned up, it goes into "final freeze." At this stage, no changes are allowed; the game is considered in its final version, and the testers must ensure the product is ready for release. The newest game on Infocom's release schedule, Hollywood Hijinx by newcomer Dave Anderson, was in this stage of testing at the time ANALOG's visit and should be released soon.
What is the testing group's favorite Infocom game? When asked this question, they seemed to agree that it's Hitchhiker's Guide, not so much because of the story, but because of the interesting bugs which popped up. For instance, when trying to solve the Babel fish puzzle, if you've put your head or foot on Ford's satchel when it's hit by the robot, both your head and foot will fly up in the air. Sounds uncomfortable.
But, bugs or not, when conversation became more relaxed, everyone had something to say about a much newer and controversial game - Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
It seems that the sexual theme of Leather Goddesses brought out a portion of each tester's personality that the others had not been aware of. The game's report sheets became a source of shock and amazement. Frequently, shrieks of "I can't believe you tried that!" echoed in the halls. Hmmm. Stirs speculation, doesn't it?
Infocom and Activision.
When Infocom's purchase by Activision was made public, many loyal adventurers were seized with panic. What was going to happen now? Would Infocom go down the corporate tubes? Well, you can relax. The buyout actually had little effect on Infocom. Operations are a little more bureaucratic and systemized, time schedules are not loose and comfortable as they were in the past, and sometimes Activision executives wander about the offices - but, for the most part, life at Infocom goes on in much the same way as it did before.
The fact is: people at Activision know a winner when they see one. Activision doesn't even want their trademark appearing on the game packages, lest that company's image change the one that Infocom has worked so hard to form.
Time to disembark.
That about finishes our tour of Infocom, Inc. There are other important people we haven't mentioned, not the least of whom are in Infocom's Customer Support department. These five people handle such tasks as replacing defective disks, answering product questions (no adventure clues, so put down that phone), and handling upgrades (that 5 1/4-inch disk of yours can be upgraded to a 3 1/2 for $10.00, should you ever get an ST). Calls and letters come in from all over the world. This department even got a call from NASA once. Seems they wanted a bunch of DON'T PANIC buttons. Honest.
"Well, we made it."
We stood beside the car, taking a last look at the building where it had all taken place. The adventure was over. I flicked the switch of the flashlight. Nothing. The batteries were dead.
"Okay, let's go."
We got in the car. The engine rumbled to life, and we pulled out...
And I had the strangest feeling.
"You know, I think there's something in the back seat."
I shrugged. "I don't know... something that doesn't belong there. Do you hear breathing?"
We looked at each other and said nothing more. There was definitely something in the back - maybe even a Grue - but that was to be expected. Those Infocom games really stick with you.
ANALOG Computing would like to thank Spencer Steere (of Public Relations) for the fine job she did in arranging our visit and scheduling the interviews. We wish her happiness in her recent marriage and the best of luck in her new life.
Thanks to André St-Aubin for transcribing and donating this article.