Sunday, March 11, 2012

Douglas Adams, a Hoopy Frood Remembered

Had famed author and raconteur Douglas Noel Adams not been so rudely taken from us in 2001, he would be turning 60 today.

Although Adams produced a wealth of material in his life, including the Dirk Gently series of books as well as scripts for the immensely popular and long-running British SF TV series Dr. Who, he will no doubt be best remembered as the author of the increasingly inaccurately named five-book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Dealing with the misadventures of the hapless Arthur Dent, who narrowly escapes the destruction of Earth in order to make way for an interstellar bypass, Hitchhiker's began life as a BBC radio comedy series originally aired in 1978.  It was the subsequently released book series that brought Adams to global prominence, and represented my first exposure to his brand of off-beat and knowing humour. It's hard to quantify the effect that these works had on me growing up, because upon my first reading of the original Hitchhiker's book, Adams' attitudes towards life, the universe, and everything were instantly melded with my DNA, forever changing my outlook on the ridiculousness of what was going on around me. I'd say only the books of American humourist Kurt Vonnegut have had such a powerful impact on me, but while Vonnegut looks at the human condition as fairly hopeless and doomed, Adams' approach was a combination of exasperation, whimsey and a kind of cross-eyed optimism.

Apropos to this site, Adams also had a profound impact on computer games. He was an early computer-phile when there was need for such a term, before computers became as ubiquitous as refridgerators in households. Starting out with text adventures, Adams progressed eventually to full-blown graphical extravaganzas, spanning the years between 1984 to 1998. Here is a look at his main contributions to the world of video games.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Infocom 1984

Hitchhiker's Cover
Just as the book was a smash success, so was the computer game based upon it, Adams' first foray into the medium. Approached many times with the idea of turning his most famous work into a game, Adams rebuffed them all, until he got a taste of the exceptionally well-written and wildly popular text adventure games coming out of Infocom in the early 80's. In late 1983, he got in contact with the company. Jumping at the chance, Infocom signed Adams to a six-game contract, with two to be based on the published Hitchhiker's books.  It was a natural for Infocom to pair up Adams with Steve Meretzky, the latter producing some of the company's most popular, not to mention most funny, games. In particular, it was Meretzky's Planetfall (and later sequel, Stationfall) that made him such a perfect match, as these games were noted for having an altogether Adams-y sense of humour.  Meretzky had not heard of Hitchhiker's before writing Planetfall, but people testing the game remarked how much it reminded them of Adams' works.

Steve Meretsky
During the game's six-month development time, Adams would write passages in England, and send them via computer to Infocom in Boston, where Meretsky would add additional material and then program everything into the game using Infocom's game development system. The two writers would exchange emails daily, a rarity at the time, and phone calls weekly. In mid 1984, with the testing schedule looming in a few weeks and a release window established to take advantage of the Christmas season, Infocom sent Meretzky to England to prod the famous procrastinator Adams to finish his work on the game. At the time, the author was ensconced in the Huntsham Court country inn by his book publisher, hoping to help him focus on the fourth Hitchhiker's book, titled So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. Hence the two of them hammered out the remaining material for the game in four days. Returning to the U.S., Meretzky must have missed the bucolic scenery and relaxed atmosphere of the English countryside as he delved into an intense three week crunch session to finish the programming of the game. After a brief testing phase, Adams did some rewrites of the material per testing results.

Released in October 1984, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure became an immediate success, selling over a quarter of a million copies. It rode the top of the game charts for months, and was Infocom's second-best seller, topped only by the company's first game, the legendary Zork.
Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky
While faithful to the tone of the books, the game revels in breaking as many of the cardinal rules then established in interactive fiction, including outright lying to the player about available directions to travel in, and even what the player is able to see. In fact, Hitchhiker's is cruelly obtuse, often requiring players to initiate actions outside of any offered information in the game, and at many times only those with knowledge of events in the books would know what to do. It also appears to be a favourite torture of Adams to let you miss some critical piece of equipment during a scene that would cause the game to dead-end later, with no recourse but to reload a save or replay the game. The goals of the game are unclear, except perhaps to retain your sanity as you play it. At times it seems that the game was purposefully created as a ploy to sell more Infocom Invisiclue hint books.

These brutalities aside, the game is an interesting extension of the Hitchhiker's cannon, extending the book metaphor by  featuring the literary device of footnotes that offer asides to the action. The actual Hitchhiker's Guide is an inventory item in the game, and features plenty of articles for the player to consult about. The game also takes a philosophical bent, with "no tea" being an inventory item that the player at one point drops after getting some real tea, and is eventually able to carry both tea and no tea at the same time after some synaptic calisthenics. Random events also serve to keep subsequent playthroughs interesting.

The game is also strangely obsessed with fluff of all kinds. It is no fluff-piece, however, but a fitting entry to the Guide. Soul-crushingly frustrating, but fitting none-the-less. As an example, I'll leave you with video of the infamous "Babel Fish Puzzle".

Bureaucracy, Infocom 1987

With the resounding success of the Hitchhiker's game, it was no wonder that Infocom was anxious for a sequel.  The problem was that Adams was tiring of producing sequels of his Hitchhiker's material, and suggested instead Bureaucracy, an original game based on his real-life frustrations at trying to get his bank and utility companies to acknowledge a change-of-address after moving households.  Infocom, having signed Adams on the idea that he would be bringing his popular Hitchhiker's material with him, balked at the idea, but eventually came to terms with producing an original work with Adams.  

Outside of this initial concept, however, Adams began to let the project be bumped by other commitments, and he tapped long-time friend Michael Bywater to eventually finish the project.  In line with the initial concept by Adams, the game has the protagonist jumping through hoops to accomplish the most simple tasks, such as withdrawing money from a bank, purchasing an airline ticket or even ordering food at a restaurant.  The ultimate goal, of course, is to get the bank to recognize a change-of-address card.

The game starts, in true bureaucratic form, by having the player fill out a "software licence application" form for the game, providing humorous comments as you fill in lines such as your last name, name of boy/girl friend, and whether the player is male or female.  The game will then reference you using the opposite of the information provided, such as calling you Mr. if you put your sex down as female.  Throughout the game, the blood pressure of the player is shown on the top right of the screen, rising as annoyances occur or when the player enters an invalid command.  It is possible to die of an aneurysm if the player lets this rise too high without taking a cooling off period.  Following a lead from Hitchhiker's, the game throws many random events at the player.

Unfortunately, the prose in Bureaucracy is a bit twee, and the humour often comes off as forced.  It moves from ridiculous to just plain stupid for convenience sake, offering up  the idea of having to give a long, drawn-out food order in a restaurant to the waitstaff multiple times as the height of hilarity.  It is less the Kafka-esque, paranoid nightmare it wants to be than an annoying, tortuous exercise in tedium.  That might be the ultimate point of Bureaucracy, but does that make it an enjoyable game to play?  The public didn't think so, as the game sold well under the numbers that Hitchhiker's did.  Filed below is a video of the iconic sequence that takes place in the game's Fillmore Fiduciary Trust Bank.

Starship Titanic, Simon & Schuster Interactive 1998

Over ten years later, Adams returned to interactive media with Starship Titanic, a graphical adventure along the lines of the blockbuster Myst.  The titular ship had first surfaced in Adams' second Hitchhiker's book, Life, the Universe and Everything.  It was described as "a majestic and luxurious cruise-liner launched from the great shipbuilding asteroid complexes of Artri-factovol", and which on its maiden voyage "did not even manage to complete its very first radio message - an SOS - before undergoing a sudden and gratuitous total existence failure.". The game changes this slightly, by having the big ship crash into a house on earth, who's owner, the player, enters the crippled ship, converses with a crew of robots and other characters, and attempts to find the parts needed to repair the ship.   It was developed by a digital media company founded by Adams, Richard Creasey and Robbie Stamp in 1996 called The Digital Village.  The three man writing team of Adams,  Neil Richards and Michael Bywater were backed by a 20-30 person production team, all working over two years to make the game.  

The idea was to combine the lush graphics of Myst with the textual engagement found in the games of Infocom.  To facilitate this conversation between player and computer, the game employed an advanced communication system dubbed SpookiTalk.  It featured a database of over 10,000  phrased responses, in order to allow the player to naturally converse with the ship's characters, including members of the Monty Python comedy troupe Terry Jones as a deranged parrot, and John Cleese as a distracted bomb.  Adams himself makes several cameos in the game.  16 hours of dialog was recorded for responses given back to the player.

While the graphics are certainly luscious, and the characters humorous, Starship Titanic struck ice-comets with its inconsistent handling of player interactions and confusing-to-the-point-of-dementia puzzles, problems that would sink any adventure game.  The game was met with middling sales in contrast to the feverish hype that had preceded it, in a market that had moved on from static Myst-y adventures to the visceral action of FPS games like Doom. To many, its fate seemed as sealed as the original doomed vessel it takes its inspiration from.  Here is the debut trailer for the game:

Little did the world know that Adams himself would succumb to a "total existence failure" a few years later, leaving, as Adams biographer Neil Gaiman would note, "a Douglas Adams-sized hole in the universe.".  But while the man is gone, his work lives on, inspiring users and game creators alike to search for what the question actually is.  


  1. I didn't even know about Bureaucracy! Wow!

    Good read, but a couple of things you missed out: 1. Adams wrote the fourth-wall breaking opening to LucasArts' game adaptation of the movie Labyrinth, where you are someone who goes into a theatre to see the movie and get sucked into it.
    2. There was another game version of Hitchhiker's Guide in production with help from Adams at the time of his death - after which it was sadly cancelled.

    1. I had Labyrinth lined up for a mention in this article, but its length and the fact of Adams' limited involvement led me to cut it. It was also historically interesting as the first adventure game from LucasArts, a kind of missing link between their desire to make a point-and-click adventure game, pre-SCUMM.

      Thanks for reading.