In the late 1970's three young men found themselves sharing their time at MIT in the computer lab. Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Joel Berez began programming a text-only game called Zork. This game was unlike most anything else at the time because of a technique called ZIL. Zork Interactive Language allowed a person to use words and phrases to initiate modules of the program, in this case by using verbs you played a fantasy game. This technique is known as a parser. Zork was released as Infocom's first game in 1981 for the Apple II platform.
This was followed by other text adventure games Starcross, Zork II and Zork III. Infocom became a pioneer of interactive fiction and computer gaming by putting out several titles a year until they were bought by what is now Activision for some $7.5 million in cash and stock in 1986. It was twelve years of what is now the stuff of legend-high-flying fun making games for the personal computer market, making money and being creative. Even how they worked is now becoming the stuff of legend. As their company grew, the writers of Infocom called themselves "implementors" which was a jargon word used in the computer lab. Privately, they called themselves "imps" and every Tuesday they would gather for lunch and discuss game ideas and business.
Since Infocom's virtual extinction in 1989 to only an Activision label, there have been no more of the rich text adventure games. That's changing though. With to popularity of the Internet, there has been a growing and thriving cult movement keeping Infocom's games alive. Fans are now using reverse engineering to write their own text-based games. But the writers of Infocom's heyday have gone about their lives and careers. Some are still writing games, while others are far removed from the industry. This is where CGR comes in. Steven Greenlee has spent two months looking for the Infocom writers and found most of them. Some, like Jeff O'Neill, have dropped completely out of sight. Those CGR did find we interviewed. This is what follows - exclusive interviews with the Gaming Imps of the Lunch Table.
Dave Lebling was one of the original Imps co-authoring the mainframe Zork, then Zork II and Zork III. "The thing that's neat about Infocom," he says, "is the same thing that's neat about...oh, Tolkien in the early days or being a science fiction fan back when it was schmuck being a science fiction fan. That kind of thing. It's a small kind of cult thing and you can feel a sort of pardonable pride in being a little more literate than the people who like graphical adventures. So it's kind of kept on."
Lebling says that Infocom was fortunate because the company was formed while computers were coming into their own as well back in those late days of 1977. Working at Infocom was a "great experience" regardless of whether the company was making people "happy or infuriated or both," comments Lebling. He absolutely misses those days, even though he very much enjoys his current job - designing digital film software for commercial use.
Besides co-authoring the Zork trilogy, he also co-authored Enchanter and then by his lonesome wrote Starcross, Suspect, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror and Shogun, the last game released by Infocom. Does the first person admitted to the Science Fiction Writers of America for writing interactive fiction (along with Steve Meretzky) ever want to write another text-based game? "Every now and then I do, I must admit," he comments." I follow the Internet newsgroup that talk about interactive fiction...and there are things there that allow you to write Infocom-style games. It isn't the syntax we used at Infocom, and I occasionally think, 'You know, download one of those and write something.' "Lebling says all the duties of working and raising a family prevents him from actually creating a game.
One thing driving those Infocom hobbyists on the Internet is they don't believe many of today's graphical games have enough story. "I've heard that complaint, too," says Lebling. "I guess the only thing I can say [is that] it's sort of a compliment to us. The whole thrust of the text adventure was one picture was worth a thousand words and we would rather give you the thousand words."
All the Infocom writers talk about how much fun they had. Lebling is no different. "It was great fun. It was the kind of fun that I think [you have] when you are simultaneously young and doing something that no one has never done before and succeeding at it, which is even better." Lebling does feel good about the Zorks, but he has a special place for Starcross. It was his first game written without a co-author. "Starcross was completely insane. It was an homage to Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven who were two of my favorite science fiction writers, and you had one of the most amazing packages that anyone had ever done. It was packaged in a flying saucer that you could fly around the room. So that was pretty cool."
Spellbreaker, Lebling explains, was a gift to die-hard Infocom fans. He says they would call up and want something hard. "Spellbreaker was intended to be a nasty, vicious and cruel, hard game (laughs) and it succeeded in that (laughs)." On the other hand Lebling says the Lurking Horror was an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and MIT. "All the locations in the Lurking Horror are, pretty much, real places at MIT."
In the old Infocom biography it said that Lebling's long-range ambition was to have a library for all his books. He says that is still a long-range ambition. He has not achieved his short-range plans either, which was to keep the squirrels out of his birdseed. "I failed at that one too. Just this morning I was watching a fat, satisfied squirrel sitting on the bird feeder munching away."
Marc Blank was heading toward a career as a medical doctor when he fell into the Infocom crowd. He was at MIT doing research work, and while he did become an M.D. he has never stopped designing games as his chosen career. Blank co-authored the Zork trilogy and Enchanter. He wrote Deadline, Infocom's first interactive mystery and Border Zone, Infocom's first tale of intrigue, alone. "I'm always amazed," says Blank, "like when I started doing Internet surfing over the last year or so I've been astounded about how many people are around that still remember the games and actually remember more about them than I do. It's sort of embarrassing." He's happy to see his work live on particularly since he comments that he still has "a lot of fondness" for the games. He believes that the Infocom text-based games are as good, "if not better" than the graphical games of today. "Especially now since graphics seems to be the almighty thing and video and Hollywood production value - it's nice that some people still value the printed word."
Echoing the sentiments of Lebling, Blank maintains that the text adventure games used words to evoke settings and mood. He says while all games have their strengths, he believes the text adventure games had "imagination" which has been "lost" in today's graphical games. "I think the other thing - it's more of a gaming thing - is when it comes to point-and-click interfaces or interfaces where you're either picking words or picking objects, I think the one thing that gets lost is the sense that you could do anything and the sense you could use any word or any verb [in the text adventure games] and it might work. So there is a sense of open-endedness [in the text adventure game] and the possibility that you could do anything. I think that is lost." He continues that he and the other Imps would think of responses to absurd words or verbs so the gamers could have some comic relief.
"You know it's funny cause every once and awhile I think it would be fun to write one again. You know kind of for old time's sake. I'm sure there's enough people out there that it would be worthwhile." The question in Blank's mind though is can you go back and recapture the feeling and the fun of those Zork days?
Dr. Blank says after the team had finished the Zorks they were deciding what to do next and he didn't want to do another fantasy game." Been there. Done that." His love of mysteries gave birth to Deadline. "I thought it was a great idea because most people, when they read mysteries, are constantly trying to think ahead, what happened. 'Ooh, I would have looked here, I would have done this. I would have been more clever.' So, it seemed to lend itself perfectly."
He says that he enjoyed doing Enchanter, but he was more excited about "going on and doing new things," a desire which led to Deadline, Border Zone and Journey being published.
These days Blank and former Infocom pal Mike Berlyn have formed a game company. He says they are doing games for the console and the PC and are currently working on a PlayStation game. Blank does believe that their company is a reincarnation of Infocom. "Let me say...I think the group we have here and the enthusiasm and the style and the tone of place is very very similar to what we had at Infocom in the fun days, which I'd say were '81 to '84. I think subconsciously or consciously, Mike and I tried to recreate that because we both enjoyed being there at that time." Blank doesn't believe though, that text adventure games will ever be commercially viable again.
"This may sound slightly pretentious of me, but in a way it's like being one of the Beatles," says Brian Moriarty on being a member of the cult-adored Infocom. "It's kind of weird, especially in the last few months where I'm getting all kinds of e-mail from people who are really interested in the Infocom thing. I have to admit, it's not a bad thing for the resume (laughs)." He really didn't ever think of how influential Infocom would become, but the reason it has lies with the games. "...they were really good games. They were much better than the stuff that's coming out now (laughs)." Moriarty says that the text adventure games didn't have the "twitch" factor, a term used to explain the pulling of a trigger when a shadow slides across the corner of your eye as in the case in many arcade games. "When you compare them [text based games] to the graphic adventure games that are coming out now, there's really no comparison at all in terms of quality and story."
"Professor" Brian Moriarty discovered Deadline while working as an editor at Analog Computing, which covered the Atari computer. "And the game had this intelligent parser which could actually parse more interesting sentences than simply verb/noun. You could have verb/noun and indirect object and other new stuff. And it was just so classy," says Moriarty, "and exciting...So I got the fever and I knew I wanted to do this."
It was in 1984 that Infocom reached out and tapped Moriarty for an engineering job. His first assignment was working on Seastalker.
Several months later, Moriarty wrote Wishbringer, "...which had the good fortune to come out right after Hitchhiker's (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)." Trinity, a fantasy game set around the development of the nuclear bomb, is Moriarty's favorite among the three he wrote, a list that includes Beyond Zork.
More recently, Moriarty had Loom published by LucasArts and worked on The Dig as well. For Rocket Science he designed Lodestar. He is now busy designing multi-player games for the Internet with his own company, Mpath.
He began at MIT in the summer of 1975 studying to become an architect but wound up becoming the architect of the text-based game genre. Along with Lebling he was admitted to the Science Fiction Writers of America as an interactive author [the SFA no longer will consider interactive writers for membership]. Steve Meretzky wrote Planetfall (1983), Sorcerer (1984), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (with Douglas Adams in 1985), A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985), Leather Goddesses of Phobos (1986), Stationfall (1987) and Zork Zero (1988)." In some sense starting Boffo Games has been at least a partial restoration of what things were like in those days, although, I don't think for me or any of the other people who were at Infocom will there be anything like it. I mean, we all were pretty young and everything was going so well. The industry was brand new and the sky seemed like the limit and all our games were bestsellers and it was such a great time..." While Meretzky enjoys his current job, he says "nothing will match the excitement and the fun of Infocom in its heyday."
Looking back, Meretzky suggests that perhaps he and his fellow Implementors should have gotten into graphics sooner, but he believes the getting into the business software side of the industry was "a huge mistake." While gaming was Infocom's core, there were those who wanted to make business software. The result was a productivity title called Cornerstone. This was an expensive product to produce and it did not sell well. As a result, Infocom had to take the profits made from the games to support their business products and that ultimately helped suck the financial life out of Infocom.
After working in the construction industry for two years - "...those are definitely not years that I look back on with any joy (laughs)" - Meretzky joined Infocom as a tester in November 1981 and became a full-time writer in June 1983, scripting Planetfall. During this time at MIT Meretzky says he was, to some extent, a computer nerd. "There are definitely gray scales of nerditude, and there are much hardcore nerds that I have known in my life, but definitely I had some components of nerditude."
As with many writers/game designers, deciding on which of their works is their favorite isn't easy. For Meretzky, Planetfall holds a special place because it was his first and he very much like the character of Floyd, who has become the de facto cult icon for Infocomphiles. He says he also cherishes working with Douglas Adams on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is the Leather Goddesses of Phobos which has the most interesting story of conception. " At the time Leather Goddesses came out, computer games were so incredibly pure and straightlaced. Although, looking at it now it seems pretty tame, at the time it really pushed the envelope a lot. "Meretzky says the game came about as an afterthought to a running joke at Infocom. He wrote the name on the project board as a joke, but later was asked to develop the game and use that name. But it was A Mind Forever Voyaging which allowed Meretzky to address social issues in a heady game environment. He also suggests that Zork Zero, released in 1988 near Infocom's total demise as a company, was the epitome of text adventure games.
Like most of the other Imps, Meretzky believes that the lasting value of the text games is that "...they really have so much more depth than games have nowadays and [it is] really easy to see why. You can do things in text so much more quickly, easily and cheaply than with graphics...or any visual method of showing the same thing. And therefore the games could be so much deeper and have so many more options and possibilities than games have nowadays." The major downside in terms of game play, of course, is that using a text parser requires that the player be willing to type in all of his or her answers...
There is little time for Meretzky to reminisce. His Boffo Games is designing Spacebar for Rocket Science, a game that he describes as a "detective/comedy."
Turning his training in physics and journalism into a vehicle foe creating computer games, Stu Galley is one of the core founders of Infocom. He authored Witness and Seastalker. He doesn't like to be called a cult icon. "Gee, I wish I had something elegant and inspiring to say about it, but the truth is I don't know how it would feel any other way." He admits to being surprised by the ascent of Infocom into cultdom. He always thought that it was strange that Infocom was about the only text adventure game company in business during the early 1980's, leading him to believe it was probably the company's destiny to be a cult item. "We were in the right place at the right time."
1982 was the time when one of the famous Imps of the Lunch Table decided that they needed a follow-up to Deadline. The title was called Witness. "The germ of the story came from Marc Blank," says Galley. "It was sort of a strategic move to make another game that sort of followed the lead of Deadline, but simpler. The feedback from the players [suggested that] the game was really great, but too hard." Galley says he agreed with that despite the fact he personally liked Deadline very much. But, "I couldn't finish it without Marc's help." So this simpler mystery - Witness - was born in the creative machinations of Galley's mind.
After Infocom Galley never had the opportunity to write another game. Currently he does technical management for Unix systems in a physics lab. He offers that he will write another game when "I win the lottery and have lots of free time. That will go on a list with travelling around the world and curing cancer (laughs)." Otherwise, Galley quotes the Doors to help explain his Infocom days and the impact on his life these days. "This is the strangest life I've ever lived."
Bob Bates was one of the later writers to become an Implementor after he began a company to compete with Infocom. He says he approached Infocom to license some of their technology and ended up joining them in 1986. "I was the only outside game designer that they ever used (with the exception of Douglas Adams)." The Infocom mythos was firmly in place by the time he arrived. "I was running in fast company and I was privileged to play in their yard."
The Infocom style stuck with Bates and is a driving philosophy behind his own company Legend Entertainment. For instance, Bates says, "It was clear that there were some good things [about game design] and there were some bad things. A 'restore puzzle' was a bad thing, something where a player had to die in order to learn the information that he would have needed in order to solve the puzzle. That was universally regarded as a sin against game design and that's something I have carried on and taught the designers here at Legend." For him, the Infocom style was a much bigger influence on his design work than any one of the writers. Much of that Infocom style can be seen in Legend's more recent releases of Mission Critical and the hot-selling Shannara.
Mike Berlyn was already an accomplished novelist before joining Infocom having written the books The Integrated Man and Crystal Phoenix among others published by Bantam Books. He really doesn't feel that he should have the cult attention saying the real honors should go to "Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, even Steve Meretzky... " as well as the other core Infocommies as they sometimes refer to themselves (along with Imps and Implementors). He comments that he looks back on his days with Infocom "quite often and with great fondness and warmth."
He explains that he had a competing business based in Colorado and actually published his first text adventure a month before Zork was released. He then saw Zork and "I said, 'Boy! These guys really know what they're doing, unlike me (laughs).'" Fate then played its hand by allowing Berlyn to meet Blank at an Applefest. Blank extended the invitation to apply for a job and Berlyn became an Imp.
Even with his novelist background (his latest book The Eternal Enemy was published in 1990 by Wm. Morrow), Berlyn says writing interactive fiction was very different and equally as hard as writing a novel. His interactive games are Suspended, Infidel and Cutthroats. He also headed up Fooblitzky.
Berlyn was the fourth person to join Infocom and he says he was very intimidated at first by working with highly intelligent people. "It seemed like overnight stardom for me."
Now, Berlyn has partnered again with Marc Blank to found Eidetic, Inc. to produce games that "push the envelope."
Besides all the men there were two women implementors at Infocom; Liz Cyr-Jones and Amy Briggs. Briggs began as many others as a tester for Infocom in 1984 and she went on to write a pioneering game from a woman's perspective with game enough for man to play as well. It was called Plundered Hearts.
"There was a swashbuckler; Cutthroats had already come out and there was a spy game being worked on - these were all kind of men things and I thought 'let's do something for women.'" The result was an Elizabeth Bennett-meeting-James Bond-type of adventure.
Briggs says she had "a helluva lot of fun" as Imp, something regulated to memory now as she is a cognitive psychology graduate student at the University of Minnesota studying how people read.
Thanks to André St-Aubin for transcribing and donating this article.