This is the last of my daily posts. After this, I’ll just release new posts from time to time.
Steve Meretzky was an employee at Infocom, the company that created the Zork series, and the company who created the Z-code format, later adopted by Graham Nelson with the Inform programming language.
Meretzky’s games are the most enduringly popular of the Infocom authors. On the IFDB Top 100 list, Meretzky has 7 games, tied with Emily Short for the most by any single author.
The Digital Antiquarian says that Meretzky was “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.”
Meretzky’s first work, this game has had a substantial effect on the history of IF.
This was Infocom’s second space game after the serious 1982 game Starcross. That game had some moderate success, but it had a confusing map and dragged in places.
Planetfall has more pep in it. Meretzky created a believable universe (with a ineptly bureaucratic Stellar Patrol searching the galaxies) and a believable world. Unlike most IF designers, Meretzky built all the rooms a complex would need, including multiple barracks, each with their own bathrooms, items that had in-universe purposes but not in-game purposes, and rooms that could never be unlocked.
The game has timers (as many did back then), but they contribute directly to the story, leading to in-game effects that teach you more about the world. This, and the large environment with its ambient storytelling, help keep the player’s interest longer.
This game is most memorable for its NPC, Floyd the robot. It’s easy to be unimpressed by Floyd when you try the game after hearing decades of praise for him, but imagine trying this game with no idea what would be coming. Earlier Infocom games had experimented with active NPCs (such as the suspects in Deadline or the Wizard in Zork II) but Floyd was cute, friendly, active, game-relevant and had a major emotional scene. People cried in this game, and Club Floyd on IFMud is still named after him.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984)
This was one of Infocom’s best selling games, topped only by Zork I itself. The popularity of the original series, the fact that Douglas Adams was directly involved, and the overlap of interest between HHGTTG readers and Infocom players was a perfect combination.
Meretzky created a very challenging game. Many people’s memories of this game only extend to the first few scenes, as even progressing this far was a major challenge.
The game has a completely new storyline, and makes use of an innovative game structure where distinct sub-areas are accessed from a central hub.
This was the second game in the Enchanter series, which was a spiritual successor to the Zork trilogy. These games involved finding spell scrolls, copying them into your spellbook, preparing the spells, and casting them.
In contrast to the simple structure of the first game in the trilogy, this game has a huge, sprawling map with numerous red herrings. There is even an entire operational theme park tucked into a small corner of the map.
This game is dark, with a plotline involving nightmares, demons and torture, as well as many instant-death rooms.
A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985)
This game was a unique IF experiment and an enduring influence on future authors.
You play the role of an advanced super-computer. Your task is to predict the future (under Reaganomics, never mentioned but always present).
Gameplay is split into two portions: one where you control various cameras and library information in an office building, speaking to your creator (this heavily influenced my game Absence of Law) and one portion where you wander a city at various points in the future.
If you count each time period separately, the city has hundreds of locations, most of which do nothing. At any time (at the movies, a courtroom, a library, etc.) you can record what you see. Recording enough data unlocks the next phase of the future.
This game had strong political leanings. Very few people have attempted to create cities of this size; perhaps Nick Montfort’s Book and Volume come close. This is a really under-explored area, and if anyone’s looking to innovate in the parser area, this might be one place to look.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos (1986)
Infocom’s ‘naughty’ game, this game is well-known but not discussed much due to embarrassment. I put off playing it until I discovered it has a ‘tame’ mode, which I tried. I can verify that it is, in fact, tame, in general.
Outside of its optional steamy content, this is one of Meretzky’s most creative games (perhaps he finally found his element). A funny sidekick, a princess turned into an acute angle, a complicated teleportation system, and the legendary T-remover that inspired the enormously popular Counterfeit Monkey almost 30 years later.
A neglected Meretzky game, Stationfall is the sequel to Planetfall. The Digital Antiquarian said of this game:
“[i]f Stationfall is by conscious choice a throwback, it’s also a testament to just how far Steve Meretzky had come as a designer in the four years since Planetfall. That first game he ever wrote can feel at times like it’s rambled out of its maker’s control, leaving its various bits and pieces to dangle unconnected in the breeze. Stationfall in contrast is air-tight; even its red herrings are placed with purpose. Meretzky knows exactly what he’s doing at every juncture, is in complete control of his craft; all of its bits and pieces fit together seamlessly. Particularly noticeable is just how much better of a writer Meretzky has become”
This game reunites the player with Floyd and a new robot name Plato. This game is much darker, and has you investigating a spherical space station with murderous robots, as well as an entire attached trash city. The game has its own emotional moment, and one of a much more serious tenor than the first game.
Zork Zero (1988)
This is the only game on the list that I haven’t tried. A completely new style of game for Infocom, it included graphics and a grab-bag of every classic puzzle they could think of (Towers of Hanoi, Fox and Geese, etc.).
A huge game, and the last Zork game, it has remained popular enough with fans to make the IFDB top 100. Beyond that, if anyone with more knowledge of it wants to discuss it in the comments, go ahead.
Meretzky loved humor and unexpected surprises. His games have genuinely funny moments, such as Floyd’s interactions, the infamous Babel Fish puzzle, and the T-remover in Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
Meretzky loved big maps. According to the Infocom fact sheet, he had the top 2 biggest Infocom games, and many of the top 10. He also loved to litter his games with red herrings.
Meretzky made difficult games. Even A Mind Forever Voyaging had a very hard ending sequence. His puzzles tend to require complicated experimentation and thinking outside the box.
Meretzky was the most prolific author of popular games before the independent era. His legacy has affected dozens of future IF authors and other game devs.