...Or as a lamb to the slaughter, star-struck cub-reporter Nik Wild took a rare opportunity provided by the Personal Computer World Show to chat with one of the greats of American adventure games, INFOCOM's David Lebling. Co-author of Zork and author of Sorcerer, Spellbreaker and many more great adventures, Lebling spoke with grave frankness. But first, there was the adventure of reaching him in his eyrie...
When I heard that David Lebling was to be available for interview at the PCW show, I jumped at the chance of meeting him. Brandishing my weapon in one hand and shield in the other (pen and paper to you), I left the relative safety of Newsfield's fortress on Olympius to join my quest in search of this member of the high priesthood of adventure authors.
Charged with the task of bringing home a few words of wisdom from the esteemed shaman, the very thought of such a meeting gave me the strength I needed to face the terrors which lay before me. Would I survive the human tidal wave which pushed against my endeavours and successfully reach the Guardian Of The Stairs where all my stealth would be needed to pass, or else suffer banishment to the Side Exit?
Once on Level One, had I the willpower to pass the Siren (Lesley of Electronic Arts who seemed to guard all stands) without falling into her deadly arms? (No! Between you and me). And could I challenge the Out-Run ogre while still having sufficient time left in the day to question the master? As the Tower Of Activision loomed into view, I realised that the toughest part of my task was yet to come - the interview!
Suddenly there he was, Dave Lebling, author of Infocom adventures, standing not ten feet away. Staring at my identification medallion he smiled, and we exchanged greetings. He led me to his inner sanctum. Reclining on the silken cushions of Electric Dreams amid the bustling of many fair maidens and musclebound eunuchs, and with the friendly sounds of 8-bit playing in the background, the conversing commenced.
Looking at me with a polite expression he spoke, his strange accent adding to the power of his words: 'A bunch of us guys from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) thought ourselves so intelligent that the world would be our oyster. Setting up a computer program orientated company seemed inevitable, and development of a business package called Cornerstone and an adventure utility named Zil (don't ask!) began.
'Unfortunately our first real taste of the big bad world outside came when Cornerstone flopped and we had to concentrate on the games market if we were to survive.'
Pause for thought and to let Clare Hirsch (an Activision siren) squeeze past. I was now really getting into this question and answers game and thought the next inquiry should be a real humdinger, soul-searching and revealing. 'How many writers do you have at Infocom?' asked I.
'...and do you all work in the same office?'
Looking heavenward I prayed. Please, not another one-word answer. But the gods were with me it seemed, for he continued: 'We have a large open-plan affair with smaller offices leading off. The central area is a very useful place to be if you want to learn the innermost secrets of forthcoming games.' Aiming to be professional, I adopted a puzzled look designed to coax him on. It worked: 'Here any puzzles and their solutions are inadvertantly given away,' he went on, 'as the writers, excited and pleased by their work, come screaming out of their office and, well, BRAG!'
'Does this not give you an unfair advantage when playtesting their games?'
'I try not to listen!'
A small element of panic now crept into my brain. To try and maintain some sort of conversational flow I needed to ask about playtesting, or continue with the author theme. Having a quick brain, I decided to incorporate both ploys.
'When you playtest a game can you tell from the way it's written which of your colleagues wrote it?'
He smiled (wow), 'Oh yes, definitely. Jeff O'Neill (Nord And Bert Couldn't Make Head Or Tail Of It), for example, has a sardonic wit which is very bubbly and easily recognised...'
I interrupted, too quickly I think, 'And your own style?'
'I have a reputation for purple prose. My descriptions are what my partners call 'flowery'.'
I desperately tried to remember a particularly flowery location in The Lurking Horror, failed miserably and blurted out something about the zombie waxing the floor.
'Did you realise that the whole of the GUE campus was actually fashioned on MIT which me and my buddies attended?'
'Was it really?' I asked realising that articulation may not be one of my stronger points.
'Yes, it's actually a mirror image of the place, and the dome and everything is really there. The guy who waxes the floor looked like a zombie and he did try to stop us students exploring all those little nooks and crannies and ...' he looked at me as though some revelation was due .... 'there was a room along this featureless corridor which had a door marked Alchemy Lab.'
My eyes widened as I recalled what lay behind this door in the game.
'What was in this room?' I asked, hardly daring to listen to the answer.
'I don't know. I never went into it.'
Damn!! One shock horror scandal out the window. I would at this point have dearly loved to continue my in-depth questioning on The Lurking Horror (and perhaps even gleaned some tips), but professionalism took over, and taking a sip of nectar I decided to change the direction of my questioning. Unfortunately Mr. Lebling couldn't hear me with my back to him so I turned round again.
'No.' Aaaaaarrghhh ... not again please. 'Why?'
'Discounting their graphics, they are doing what Infocom has been doing for years. It's very complimentary to have such skilled people emulate your efforts.'
Failing miserably to hide my shocked expression I grilled David on the graphics issue. 'Why do you discount their rather splendid graphics so easily, don't you like them?'
'Yes they're very nice, but do they actually add to the game and how one may play or win?'
I knew about these situations, I've watched Wogan. There is always a stage during the interview when the interviewee tries to turn the tables and take control. This was not going to happen to me.
Brilliantly turning his question into another I said: 'So you feel graphics are an extra to adventure games and have no real place among the prose?'
'That's right. Houses, trees and so on which appear in the pictures and not in the text cannot usually be examined or manipulated, and once they can we begin to approach that thin line which divides arcade and adventure games.'
This was obviously a huge topic for debate, Sadly time was against me and a couple more questions had to be answered and quickly if I was to make it back to fortress Newsfield before nightfall.
Forget the flow I thought, just ask the questions. 'What machine do you write your adventures on David?'
'We use a Dec System 20 which is a large, early Sixties mainframe with thousands of megabytes at its disposal. It's a very fast machine of an architectural type no longer made. Visually it's reminiscent of something used in the early Flash Gordon movies, all wheels and pipes.'
'Finally,' I lied, 'where do you see Infocom going?'
'Our games system Zil has been updated to Xzil (don't ask), and it's on this utility that Beyond Zork has been written.'
'Beyond Zork?' I asked, pretending to know nothing about this venture.
'Yes, Beyond Zork. It's our new game. We're very excited about it as it incorporates more of a role-playing style with statistics such as strength, charisma and so on, being available to the player. These will be shown on screen in the form of bar charts ...'
He must have seen the look of sheer horror on my face because he quickly added: 'In no way will it detract from the adventure element of the game. It will add to it. There's even the option to work your way through the game as a text adventure with hardly any role-play elements at all. Our playtesters have had more fun playing this game than any other adventure we've done, we take this as a good sign pointing the way for us to go.'
'It does sound very interesting,' I said, 'What if it flops?'
'Then we go back to the old style game.'
He stared at me with those eyes of his (what else?). The ground trembled and beams of light shot into the sanctum (as Clare opened the door). Would David Lebling, this king of adventuredom actually bother to answer, or would be just end the interview here and now with but a flick of a hand? To my relief he smiled and spoke ...
'At this present time our days are taken up developing new systems and writing new games. When things quieten down sufficiently we will certainly make time to work on this problem. Obviously the larger the game is the more the smaller machines such as the 64 have to access the disk. But until we develop the system, players will regrettably have to sacrifice speed for size.'
Throughout our short time together my opinion of Mr. Lebling had grown higher and higher. His calm thoughtful answers, and his patience with a none too-experienced interviewer were certainly elements of the day which I would remember. All too soon, and feeling a mite drained, I departed for the domain of the innkeeper to collect my thoughts on the very pleasant previous hour.
Thanks to Mark Paskin for transcribing and donating this article.