One of my earlier memories of interactive fiction - probably why I didn’t get into it until a few years after this experience - is playing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and getting stuck. I later looked it up and realized I’d ended up in an unwinnable state, with no warning ahead of time that I was painting myself into a corner. It seems that more recently, this sort of thing has been considered poor design, and I can see why - but I’m curious as to why earlier stories were so rife with it. Admittedly, IF has an UNDO command (typically) that the player can use for really bad screw-ups, but that only works if you know what you did right when you did it. Why are so many early IF stories unexpectedly so cruel (in the Zarfian sense)?

I absolutely chalk it up to game length. A cruel game must be completely replayed each time you realize that you messed up. This makes the game take much longer.

So the early makers of IF wanted their games to take longer?

Yeah, many of them would advertise their games as providing 40 hours of gameplay. There may be more to the story, though.

a) The game needed to be “longer” to justify a $60 price tag.

b) Douglas Adams, specifically, was a sadistic bastard who perversely celebrated player-unfriendly elements of game design.

You really have to temper your modern negative reaction with the understanding that, back in the Golden Age, this was not bad game design.

Yes, there was an element of “the game is longer and harder this way”. But the designers at the time were not trading off game quality for length and difficulty. They were maintaining high quality by providing the desired length and difficulty. They wanted to (and did) include the sort of puzzles where you had to reconsider the entire history of what you had already done, as well as your current resources.

(This is exactly what I was reconstructing in Hadean Lands.)

Exactly what zarf said. +100.

So it was more that people in that era expected/preferred games to be more difficult, rather than IF in particular being an unforgiving format?

Not necessarily difficult, but more involved. Puzzles were constructed to challenge seriously-minded puzzle fans and last a while. The Infocom guys were from M.I.T. where students were inventing intricate campus-wide scavenger hunts.

I was often stuck for months at a time on games before the internet, but that did not feel like a bad thing. I’d get as far as I could and then buy the invisiclues. Bad thing is once I got invisiclues, using that pen to reveal answers was like an addictive invisible ink drug.

I think this a controversial point for a lot of hardcore puzzlers, but I think a lot of games of that era were designed to be “too difficult,” in order to sell hintbooks.

Specifically in the case of HHG, in light of all the jokes and entertainment value there is in the hintbook itself, I think it’s at least fair to say that it’s better to play with the official Invisiclues, so much so that I speculate that it was meant to be played with the hintbook.

Hardcore puzzlers could brag about solving Infocom games without the hintbook; everybody else could get an enjoyable game that they could eventually complete (by revealing every clue, if necessary).

The sale of hint booklets may have kept the practice going, but the notion of breakable puzzles came first. The Invisiclues booklets appeared in spring of 1982 – published by the Zork Users Group, which was a separate company. Infocom didn’t directly make money off hint booklets until mid-1983. Their design style was well-established at that point.

(Thank you Digital Antiquarian.)

Again with the saying things foremost on my mind! What’s up with you, zarf?

Specifically, it’s very easy to judge the past from the perspective of the present. It’s the natural thing to do. So everyone interested in this would do well to read The Digital Antiquarian, which does an excellent job of providing context through research, interviews and, you know, playing the games of the time without preconceptions and comparing them with what came before instead of what came after.

dfabulich, from what I understand, it’s not that HHGG was meant to be played with the hintbook. It was made to subvert everyone’s expectations, just like Spellbreaker was made to be really really difficult. As it happens, that meant that you’d need a hintbook to play it through, and I’m not saying that some people didn’t accept it on that basis as well, but there’s enough information for us to say that it was not a design decision.

a) Minor quibble, were games back then sold at $60? I remember being appalled when Sierra published Disney’s The Black Cauldron at $38 and thinking video games might be an unsustainable habit. I still bought it.

b) In Bureaucracy, player-unfriendliness was the gimmick. And the Galaxy is not a friendly place, according to the Guide.

Re b), though, Adams’ contribution was… shall we say, limited… in comparison to HHGG.

But about that quoted b), again, it’s not that they were unfriendly - it’s that he was actively messing with people’s expectations, which is part of what made him such an interesting and funny writer (it’s a whole branch of comedy). That resulted in player-unfriendliness which wouldn’t be fully appreciated for a few years - but it’s not the same as him being a sadistic bastard.

Some non-Infocom observations:

If you go back to 1980, there were infinitely fewer games coming out at an infinitely slower rate than today. Microcomputers were new, and each game brought the possibility of major tech advancement or major new things that nobody had seen or done before.

My dad bought Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess (both 1980) for the Apple II when I was about 6. These are the first two microcomputer adventure (parser) games that had graphics. We played them together. We ran into progress walls all the time. Neither of us had preconceptions that we shouldn’t run into such walls, or about how things should work, or about how long the games should be (or actually were - we had no way of knowing). The graphics were the best anyone had seen at the time.

We were entertained, delighted, loved making breakthroughs that came months apart, and when we were away from the games, we had time to think about them before coming back and trying a few more things later. We’d be elated at each breakthrough we made.

This was our reality and context for playing two games that people today find unreasonable, dumb, and/or crazy hard (Wizard in particular!) but that was the context and reality of the day, probably typical for a lot of folks in the same situation as my dad and I. It’s simply not a reality that exists anymore.

Obviously I value these experiences a lot, but perhaps it’s equally important to say that I don’t devalue them in spite of the fact that today I would almost certainly not be prepared re-headbutt my way through a Wizard and the Princess from scratch, and without clues. But in its time, I loved it.

As I was saying, each new game you acquired in the earlier days of home computing could bring a perspective change.

For instance, I only had to get a little older to start getting grumpy as further Sierra games out which recreated earlier tricks if those tricks were too unreasonable. Cranston Manor starts with you buying items from a shop. You don’t have enough money to buy all, so if you don’t pick the right items, you just find out months later that you’re screwed.

That game was only released a year after Wizard… I could have played it anywhere between '81 and '84, but I didn’t like its beginning. So this is also an anecdote to indicate that what I’m saying isn’t all rose-coloured glasses, and that people didn’t just have a blah acceptance of great difficulties in those days, though lots of difficulties were much more acceptable in context. I think everyone was working it out; the people making the games, the people playing them. And they were doing so in a pioneering spirit with pretty new tech. In this light I find the Digital Antiquarian’s article about Wizard and the Princess a grouchy-making one, since it starts with Graham Nelson’s Bill Of Player Rights (from 13 years after Wizard) and then ticks off all Wizard’s transgressions. Though I think Jimmy is right that Roberta Williams was someone who seemed to never progress in her designs, which is why he started in pissed-off mode with Wizard. (Note that I am a fan of Digital Antiquarian 98% of the time!)


I recently went and looked at a 1983-ish Creative Computing ad. A mail-order house was advertising recent Infocom games at $34, older ones at $25.

(Ultima 2 was $39.)

Wolfram Alpha says that $34 in 1983 is equivalent to $84 in 2016.

I think severedhand is smack on with the explanation about how many more games there are today.

If I only had 10 games in my library, I’d treasure every one and play it into the ground - which was expected back then. But the experience of the modern IF player is an overabundance of riches.

It’s not just IF-specific, either - early commercial graphical games were harder than modern ones are. And permadeath is rare enough that it’s a hallmark of roguelike games, rather than the normal state of things.

That’s a depressing read…

(the link and article, not the sentence quoted!)

I think you’ll find the article (and the others on that site) are intended to be satire and are fictional.