Picture of Infocom Passport

The "Real" Story

Some Iffy History




Some Dreams Take a Long Time to Die (Or They Never Do)

This is a letter I received in the 1980's from Infocom after I wrote asking them what programming language they used and how they made their games intelligent (I didn't know the word "parser" then). I planned to write a game and send it to them. The fantasy was that then they would be so impressed they would be dying to hire me. At least I remember asking something like that, but I no longer have a copy of my letter.

Letter I received from Infocom
(Actual size)

In addition to sending me quite a few back issues of the New Zork Times, I also received an 13-page Infocom press release. Not quite the response I had been hoping for at the time, but since then I've found the press release interesting. In additional to the usual promotional hype, it also includes a lot of M.I.T./Zork and Infocom history.

Infocom's tongue-in-cheek attitude and artwork also permeated everything they did. As witness below are some of the envelopes they sent me New Zork Times in, and the pamphlets promoting their games (found in game packages).

Infocom Envelope 1 Infocom Envelope 2
Small Scan of Press Release
This news release (graphic & HTML) may not be
reproduced elsewhere.

(Mailed from Infocom 7/16/1985. Yes, it was typed .)

Click release picture to read (in HTML format).
Infocom pamphlet one Infocom pamphlet two
Infocom pamphlet three
One of the first pamphlets
(or the first).

Click pamphlet picture
to see the inside.
Infocom pamphlet four

A Brief History of Zork & Infocom...

(Some of this information comes from the press release, but not all.)

Zork - Pre-Doom, "Zork" was the best selling computer game of all time. A group of students (among them:  Marc Blank, David Lebling and Stu Galley) who were working on artificial intelligence at MIT, played an underground mainframe game, "Colossal Cave," in their spare time. "Adventure," as it became known (written by Woods, refined by Crowther, 1976), established the standard for IF games. But having developed their own high-level computer language, MDL ("Muddle"), Blank and Lebling decided they could improve upon Adventure's simple two-word parser ("take axe"). So they wrote Zork, which could handle complete sentences ("take the axe and throw it at the troll"). It became an immediate collegiate hit (didn't these guys ever study?) and spread like wildfire to other college campses' mainframes. According to legend (and some of the tongue-in-cheek founders themselves), after graduation they were looking for a way to be gainfully employed without "really working" and remembered Zork. They decided to port it to personal computers and sell it to the burgeoning pc market. They needed to compress Zork and make it portable for different machines. Their brilliant solution was ZIL (Zork Interpreter Language), a computer language tailored for a platform-independent imaginary "z-machine" (similar in idea to the Java machine, but well before Java). Consequently, Infocom was founded and Zork went on to sell over 1/2 million copies.

Other Infocom Games - Zork (I), while a major achievement and outstanding for its time, was certainly not the best of the Infocom games. Like the original Adventure, the player sought treasures, without much rhyme or reason, in a vast underground cave. But with the release (thoroughly written by their own geniuses) of their third and fourth games, "Deadline" (a mystery by Blank) and "Starcross" (a science-fiction space opera by Lebling), Infocom proved Interactive-Fiction had finally arrived as a new art form -- a novel/game based on fiction genres. Eventually there were over 30 Infocom titles, covering:  action-adventure, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, horror, and romance. Some of the more popular were:  "Planetfall" (Steve Meretzky), which introduced Floyd the robot, and "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," based on Douglas Adam's book of the same name. For a complete list see Paul David Doherty's Infocom Fact Sheet at the IF Archive.

Puzzles & Hint Books - Puzzles ranged from the somewhat easy to very hard. Later Infocom rated their games (Introductory, Standard, Expert), but there was at least one puzzle (often more) in each game that could keep the unwary adventurer up to all hours (like Hitchhiker's Rube Goldberg classic, "How do you get an uncooperative Babble fish in your ear?"). If you read the story well, you could find hints in the text. If you were totally stumped you could buy a hint book. Invisiclues used a yellow marking pen to make invisible (and increasing helpful) hints, visible. They were funny and worth reading for themselves. They also set the standard for hint systems. But the ultimate reward of Infocom games was not just solving the puzzles and winning (most players did not make it through a game without being stumped at least once), but the whole entertaining, interactive experience.

How To Obtain Infocom Games Now - Finding copies of Infocom games is getting tougher and tougher. They are copyrighted and not in the public domain. Activision bundled most of them onto two 3.5 disks: "The Lost Treasures of Infocom," I & II. Later, they released all but two, Hitchhiker and James Clavell's "Shogun," on a cd called, "Masterpieces of Infocom." Masterpieces is now easier to find than LTOF. However, Zork I-III can be downloaded for free from Infocom Downloads and "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" can be played with a Java applet on Douglas Adam's home page. For LTOF I & II, search e-bay; for Masterpieces, also search ebay. You can also play part of Millways, the unreleased sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide -- downloadable from waxy.org. And, if you are interested in all things Infocom, it is definitely worth taking a look at The Infocom Documentation Project.

Game Rooms:
Zork I 110 110 28 698 84, 868 59
Zork II 86 81 50 628 89,136 49
Zork III 89 105 30 563 81,626 23
Enchanter 74 infinite 17 718 109,234 31
Sorcerer 84 110 70 1011 109,734 41
Starcross 86 84 39 561 84,740 23
Suspended 63 61 6 676 105,492 32
Planetfall 105 105 41 666 109,052 49
Deadline 51 49 2 656 108,454 37
Witness 31 28 2 711 104,704 18
Infidel 77 infinite 40 613 93,556 49

(Chart is from "The New Zork Times.")

Post-Infocom... Modern IF

Some Modern IF Classics

Deep Space Drifter by Mike Roberts, 1988 - The release Deep Space Drifter, and TADS, really launched Modern IF. It proved to hobbyists that they too could write a challenging game that had a complex parser.

Curses by Graham Nelson, 1993 - Erudite, complex and big, this was the first Modern IF many felt equaled or surpassed Infocom's quality. By introducing Inform with its recreated z-machine, it also revitalized the IF community.

So Far by Andrew Plotkin, various 1996 XYZZY Awards - With its haunting, surreal imagery, So Far nudged IF away from the familiar dungeon crawls/treasure hunts into the realm of art.

Edifice by Lucian P. Smith, 1st place 1997 Annual Comp - This well-crafted combination of physical manipulation and language puzzles brushed AI's surface, using a programming technique that made the game seem able to learn.

Arrival by Stephen Granade, 4th place 1998 Annual Comp - The first effective use of graphics in Modern IF (with HTML TADS) forecast a possible multi-media IF future.

Muse by Christopher Haung, 2nd place 1998 Annual Comp - The first successful use of first person narrative voice was used in the first Modern IF romance.

Photopia by Adam Cadre, 1st place 1998 Annual Comp - Almost puzzleless, more well-written interactive story than traditional win-points game, its popularity launched a wave of puzzleless IF.

For A Change by Dan Schmidt, 2nd place 1999 Annual Comp - Not since Infocom's Nord and Burt has language been so distorted. Change carried IF's movement toward artistic expression one step further.

Galatea by Emily Short, Best of Show - IF Art Show 2000 - The believable and intriquing dialog between PC and NPC raised expectations for future IF conversations.

Who We Have to Thank...

Subject:  Re: [Announce] Once and Future Ships
From:	fake-mail@anti-spam.address (Neil K.)
Date:	Sat, 24 Oct 1998 03:58:23 -0700

 "David A. Cornelson"  wrote:

> Mike Roberts: Creator and _maintainer_ of the TADS development
> system upon which OaF was written. Once a licensed product, it has
> become freeware, and is a very popular system with a new HTML-TADS
> version out as well. Graham Nelson: Creator of The Z-Machine compiler,
> Inform, which seems to be the most popular system currently in use and
> also author of some excellent IF.

 Indeed. On ifMUD tonight I made a remark about the heroic toolmakers, and
Zarf (I think) followed with a crack about "blessed are the toolmakers."
Couldn't agree more!

> Andrew Plotkin: For pushing Interactive Fiction into less of a 'game'
> genre and more of a 'prose' genre. This was significant because one of
> the reasons IF had become stagnant was we had all gotten tired of mazes
> and treasure hunts. It also showed that IF has a place on bookshelves,
> not just games shelves.

 And he did it deliberately.

> The maintainers of FTP.GMD.DE, the IF-Archive.

 Volker Blasius and David Kinder. I remember Volker's announcement on
raif, all those years ago, that he was going to set up an IF archive on
GMD. And I remember thinking what a great idea it was. IF is a pretty
narrowly focused interest, after all. It takes the entire Internet to
assemble a critical mass of people interested in sustaining the genre. But
until the IF Archive came into existence there was no central point for
things to live. raif (and later rgif) were still very transient at that
point, as archiving services weren't widely available - you sort of
assumed that once your post expired on everyone's server, it was gone.
Unless you saved a copy locally of course. But the IF Archive gave us a
central focus for all of this stuff to live more or less permanently. A
focal point from which the Internet IF community could really grow. And
thankfully for all of us Volker's had the stamina to keep it going all
these years!

 We should also give credit to the authors of AGT and AdvSys (David
Malmberg, Mark Welch and Dave Betz) for coming up with the first really
viable non-Infocom development systems that actually let you write
moderately sophisticated games. Unfortunately, those systems were
pre-Internet and so were restricted to the somewhat more fragmented BBS
communities. TADS was pre-raif and started out in the BBS world (I
remember having to dial into the High Energy BBS in Palo Alto to get the
latest files and read the online discussion fora) but the explosion of
interest in the Net really helped it grow. And of course Inform is nothing
if not a child of the Internet - from Graham's first announcement (under
the mysterious name "Mathematical Institute") on.

> The newsgroups rec.games.int-fiction and rec.arts.int-fiction.

 And so we end up with one of the key factors of the development of the
post-Infocom IF world. Thanks to Adam Engst for starting the ball rolling
with raif, even if discussions quickly veered away into text adventure
territory and didn't really address the broader ideas of computer-assisted
fiction that Adam was, I understand, originally interested in. And whoever
pushed the RFD for rgif... can't remember who that was; sorry.

 But the list goes on, really... Dave Baggett and Dave Leary of
Adventions, for writing the first sizeable modern text adventures in TADS,
the early spelunkers into the Z-machine (the InfoTaskForce crew, Mike
Threepoint, Mark Howell, Marnix Klooster, Paul David Doherty, Stefan
Jokisch and many others) who set the foundation for Graham's later work,
Kevin Wilson for SPAG, running the first IF contests and putting up with
endless Avalon jokes, Eileen Mullin for her XyzzyNews newsletter, Stephen
van Egmond for his raif archives, Liza Daly for setting up ifMUD, the
first FAQ maintainers (David Graves, Jools Arnold)...

 - Neil K.

 PS: have you noticed there are a lot of Davids appearing in this story?
David/Dave, Neil and Adam seem to be the most common names in the IF

 t e l a  computer consulting + design   *   Vancouver, BC, Canada
web: http://www.tela.bc.ca/tela/   *   email: tela @ tela.bc.ca


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