Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Max Fog
Max Fog’s Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is an old-school parser puzzler, and an explicit homage to the Infocom games of yore. Not only does it bill itself as a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is also written in ZIL, the programming language used by Infocom. This makes it a little bit awkward to review, at least for me. On the one hand, there are certain design decisions which I personally think we’re better off without, including the inventory limit and the fact that you can easily put the game in an unwinnable state. On the other hand, it makes absolute perfect sense to make those decisions when you’re explicitly positioning yourself in the tradition of Infocom games. So let’s let all of that slide.
Milliways puts us in the shoes of… well, I think it’s strongly implied that these are the shoes of Arthur Dent, hapless earthling, as he is travelling space and time with his ‘friends’ Ford, Beeblebrox, Marvin and Trillian. The game explains almost nothing about its setting and characters, and prior knowledge of Douglas Adams’s books is almost necessary to not feel completely lost. Perhaps it also helps to have played the Infocom game; I can’t say, because I haven’t played it. Descriptions in the game tend to be very short and/or non-existent, or even downright unhelpful:
What did you expect? It’s a TV.
although sometimes it’s possible to consult the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for more information.
Even with this background knowledge, though, setting and plot feel extremely arbitrary. At no point do we have any bigger motivation for pursuing certain goals. We’re just dropped in an environment, or rather, in a whole sequence of environments, and then we have to do things because they can be done. There’s a car park that you can only enter with an access card? Better go to extreme lengths to get that access card, even though there is literally no reason for you to want to go to the car park. There is a sense in which this is acceptable adventure game logic, but even Infocom had moved beyond this… well, from the beginning, I think. Zork’s treasure hunt isn’t much of an internal justification for exploring every nook and cranny of the world, but it’s something, and it’s more than Milliways gives us. When little plot lines do spring up – you team up with Marvin, you’re trying to escape from some mice – they invariably end very soon afterwards, because the game has a tendency to randomly change from one environment to another with little or no justification.
So, you’re going to be playing this for the puzzles. Those are quite varied and while they’re not easy, they also don’t seem to be unfair, at least as far as I’ve seen the game. (I ended my 2 hours with 155 of 400 points.) The implementation also seems solid. I ran into one game-breaking but apparently very rare bug, but otherwise Milliways seems well-tested. So if you like pure puzzle games where the reward for a puzzle is the next puzzle; and if you enjoy dynamic but not-too-coherent romps through space and time; then this might be a very fine game to check out. I personally prefer my parser games with more of a coherent character, motivation, and plot. But it’s certainly possible that Max Fog’s game actually fits the original Adams & Meretzky vibe better.