Missed Classic 57: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984)

From The Adventure Gamer

Written by Joe Pranevich

Infocom may have been the masters of text adventures, but they aspired to more. They wanted to be “interactive fiction”, to have the recognition that gaming could be an art form on the same level of a good book. To this end, they pursued authors, most notably up to this point Mike Berlyn (Suspended, Infidel, and Cutthroats) and Jim Lawrence (Seastalker). Even Steve Meretzky, Infocom’s jack-of-all-trades was now a published author. But could they have scored a greater prize in 1984 than Douglas Adams, already admired as one of the all-time greats (and all time weirdest) writers of witty and absurd adventures? Mr. Adams had written and performed with Monty Python. He had produced some of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who to date. He had found seemingly overnight success with his Hitchhiker’s Guide series on radio, albums, television, and books. Now he was coming to work with Infocom to adapt his most famous work to gaming. It would be a tremendous challenge, but if they succeeded it could change the face of Infocom and gaming forever… or at least until someone decided to bet the farm on business productivity software.

This week, we’ll tell his story and start the game that he produced. Can Mr. Adams’s style of humor translate to a good game? Is it even possible to make a good game based on a comedy? I am very eager to find out.

Still one of my most treasured books.

Let me start out with an admission: I am biased. Almost more than any other author, Douglas Adams was a cornerstone of my young adulthood. I had (at the time) a bit of an obsession with Piers Anthony, and I loved The Lord of the Rings, but Mr. Adams’s irreverent style was the one that I tried to emulate in my writing and in my humor. He had a turn of phrase, a weird way to look at the world that I absolutely adored. Sure, I found other authors that could scratch that itch a bit (Asprin’s Myth books, Pratchett’s Discworld, and Red Dwarf), but the Hitchhiker’s Guide was my bible, a book that I turned to frequently for inspiration and to help me through many difficult days in my youth. I cannot come to this game and this author without that baggage and the best thing I can do is lay it out in front of you in all honesty.

Another difference between Douglas Adams and many of the other designers that we have discussed on this blog is that he is famous. I mean, really famous. I found at least six biographies of him and his work, including one written by Neil Gaiman. When you have Mr. Gaiman writing your biography, you know you made it someplace in the world. So rather than scratching at ancient forum posts and blurbs in the back of manuals to pull together a weak biography of one of our creators, we have more material than we can possibly deal with, some of which is contradictory. To prevent this post from being novel-length, I’ll just keep to the high points.

Douglas Adams had been a comedy writer for approximately forever. Even as a schoolboy, he had a few pieces published here and there before being accepted (on the basis of what he considered a rubbish essay) into St. John’s, Cambridge. After being initially rejected by Footlights, the college’s premier comedy and drama club, he joined other less-prestigious groups until they finally agreed to accept him in his second year. He was persistent and he knew what he wanted. In his off time, he and his writing partners of “Adams, Smith, Adams” (with Martin Smith and Will Adams) hosted their own comedy revues for material they felt was too “edgy” for Footlights. This comedy team-up brought them multiple shows and even exposure in London, so much so that they added another “Smith” and “Adams” as they expanded– although how “Mary Allen” and “John Lloyd” were Smiths or Adams will have to be left as an exercise to the reader. At this point in his life, Mr. Adams wanted to be a comedic actor in addition to a comedic writer (in the pattern of Monty Python, perhaps), but he wasn’t being given the roles that he desired and was increasingly relegated to scriptwriter. This is probably a good thing in the end. It was also during this period that Adams tried his hand at hitchhiking all the way to Istanbul and back, although it didn’t quite go as planned and he ended up taking a train home. He did manage to lie nearly drunk in a field in Innsbruck and get the inspiration for what would eventually be the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (based on a book he was using, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe), so the experience was not a total loss.

If only this was one of my vacation photos.

After college, things didn’t immediately go well. On paper, a lot was looking up: he got some royalties for some of his Footlights work as it was produced for television and radio, but he was living in increasing debt struggling to find regular writing work that fit his style. Graham Chapman, himself a Footlights alumni of a previous generation, looked him up and they started a writing partnership– but this was in the nadir of the original Monty Python days and Mr. Chapman’s own battles with alcoholism made the pairing somewhat less fruitful than you might have hoped for. In the end, Adams contributed a few bits to Monty Python, got to act in exactly two skits, wrote a few failed pilots, and then it all went nowhere. Mr. Adams was broke, practically homeless, and quite close to giving it all up and getting a real job.

And in 1977, everything changed. Thanks to some good fortune and good contacts, the pilot for what would become the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series was ordered and he had both some spending money and good work to do. Because of the long interval between responses, he also shopped the script around to the Doctor Who team who was similarly taken with his grasp of science fiction tropes and his abundant writing skill. They commissioned a serial from him as well and because of poor timing, he ended up having to juggle both projects at once. After years of not finding his talents in demand, that was probably uplifting for Mr. Adams. In later years, he’d be known for his inexhaustible energy for procrastination. Actually having to produce two series at the same time may have been a challenge!

This isn’t a Doctor Who story, so I’ll breeze through those details quickly: Mr. Adams’s first commissioned serial was The Pirate Planet, a four-part epic during the Tom Baker era of the show. For my part, the script is a lot more intelligent than the direction as there are some character moments that the actors entirely fail to even notice are written into the dialog. Then again, Doctor Who wasn’t known in the classic period for its excellent direction… or lighting… or acting. It was an amazing show, but it was what it was. That morphed into a more full-time job as the script editor for the 1979-1980 series, during which he co-wrote City of Death. If you are a fan of “new” Doctor Who, you might have been told that “Blink” or some other episode is the ideal jumping on point for someone trying to find out what Doctor Who is about. The same can be said for City. It was without a doubt one of the greatest series of episodes of original Who, helped in no small part because it was filmed almost entirely on location in Paris with a trimmed-down cast list. If you want to know what original Who can be at its best, go watch it. A technician’s strike would ensure that his final Doctor Who script, Shada, would not get completed but it has subsequently been remade as novels and audiobooks and recently also as a video with unfilmed footage replaced by animation, with the original actors doing the voices. One more script, featuring the “Krikkitmen”, was not accepted but was instead adapted into Life, the Universe, and Everything, the third Hitchhiker’s book. (Thanks to Mr. Adams’s popularity, that unproduced script was also eventually released as a novel after his death.) If you are a fan of Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, you owe it to yourself to check out some of these. As “bonus content” during this Hitchhiker’s Guide review, I’m going to be covering some of these novels on my personal blog. More on this later.

A recording session from the seventh episode.

We’re not here to talk about Doctor Who. The first episode of Hitchhiker’s Guide was recorded in June of 1977 with actually completing the series a bit of a distant dream. There are some famous stories about how the original actors were cast, but as English radio talent is as alien to me as cricket, I have really no idea if it was a coup for them to get Peter Jones when they sought out a “Peter Jones-like” voice for the guide. Who the heck is Peter Jones? The series proceeded from there with the minor snag that writing it was more difficult than anticipated and Douglas Adams didn’t quite manage it– with all of his other commitments, the final two episodes of the series had to be co-written by John Lloyd, based on some science fiction stories he was already working on. The show premiered at 10:30 PM on March 8, 1978 to an official viewership of zero. Zilch. Nada. Listenership was so low, that the BBC’s metering simply couldn’t detect anyone listening in. And yet, someone must have been because the show exploded via word of mouth. By the end of the broadcast, there were calls for repeats and a commission for a second series. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a real thing and it was exploding faster than anyone had anticipated. I recently took a look at the scripts for the radio series on my personal blog; they are quite fantastic but not what you would expect if you are only a fan of the books.

Of course, with that kind of success, the novelization was inevitable but not without some drama. After initially planning to co-write the work with John Lloyd, Mr. Adams elected to take the whole thing under his wing. This meant both depriving Mr. Lloyd of some financial royalties, but also excising his contributions to the series from the final product. Almost nothing remains of his work– essential to completing the first series on time– from the books. This caused a lot of pain between the two former writing partners that took years to heal. Things proceeded quickly from there including a recorded album version of the series, at least two stage plays, and even a TV series. Later on, Mr. Adams would call the explosion of success after years in the mud as an “orgasm without the foreplay”, but it was obviously quite deserved. It was in this heady period that Bob Chappell produced his authorized computer game version of the series, which we covered in a previous post.

Ford and Arthur, united in poor fashion choices.

I bet you are wondering when I’m going to talk about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game; after all, that is the title of this post. I’m almost there, I promise. After the TV series was both good enough to be successful but not good enough to warrant a second series, and during a time when Mr. Adams’s success in the United States was dwarfing his success in his home country, the plan was hatched to make a movie. Mr. Adams even moved to California to be closer to the movie-types to make selling and writing the film easier. In hindsight, we know that the film didn’t get made until many years later, after his death. But at the time, it was exciting and he got to have lunch with important people in California which was certainly something. Unfortunately, the process of trying to make a movie was exhausting with writes and rewrites as American producers (even Ivan Reitman!) did not quite get his humor and how it could be adapted to the big screen.

And now here’s where we get to the bit about the game: as Mr. Adams struggled to write a screenplay for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he instead played a lot of computer games including many of the Infocom adventures that I have been reviewing. He was particularly enamored by Suspended, for example. Mr. Adams contacted Infocom and they agreed to buy the rights to produce a game based on his series for approximately one million dollars. Adams announced the game to his fans in January 1984 and started to work with Steve Meretzky a few months later, using high-tech “international packet switching” to communicate between Los Angeles and Boston. He had initially hoped for Mike Berlyn, but for whatever reason Mr. Meretzky was the author assigned to work with him. While I love Mr. Berlyn’s work for their artistry and desire to push the boundaries of interactive fiction, Mr. Meretzky had more than demonstrated his ability to make great and funny computer games. The game was a best-seller for Infocom, rapidly shooting to the top of the sales charts and scoring approval for a sequel. That will have to be a topic for another day.

I want one! But can I get a touch screen model?

For a game like Hitchhiker’s Guide, devised by one of the greatest comic minds of his generation, you’d expect a fantastic manual and “feelies”. I’m not sure that is exactly what we get. While older games were permitted to have off-the-wall box designs (most famously, a circular “box” for Starcross), all we get here is a regular boring manual with an interesting prologue: an eight-page advertisement for the fictional corpus of all valuable information in the universe. It’s not that it isn’t cool, I just expected a bit more. I have to doubt that Douglas Adams even contributed to it. The advertisement segues into the manual itself, again the bland variety produced with the gray boxes: we are playing as Arthur Dent, our house and planet are about to be blown up, and here are some sample commands and an explanation on mapping. Blah, blah, blah. We’ve seen it all before.

Actually, I will give them some credit: the fake walkthrough for how to play the game is actually quite funny:

Would you like to buy some granola?

In addition to the manual, the “feelies” in the box included a “Don’t Panic” pin, two strangely similar destruction orders for Arthur’s house and planet respectively, some peril sensitive sunglasses, and a plastic bag purported to contain a microscopic space fleet. All of the items seem quite at home in the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe and are no doubt collectors items today. On the destruction order, we discover that our game takes place ever so slightly in the past: October 4, 1982. What is the significance of that date? I have no idea, but I hope some of our commenters have a clue. In real life, this was right after the publication of the third book.

In reading through all of it, I do not find anything that I particularly need to know for playing the game. If there is copy protection hidden in here someplace, I can’t find it. Before I play, I want to clarify that I have played this game before roughly twenty years ago. Like most Infocom games, I remember almost nothing except that I may have finished this game with a walkthrough just because I wanted to get to the end of the story. The only part of the game that I still remember is that at some point you have to have “tea” and “no tea” at the same time, although I do not recall why or how you would manage this impossible combination.

Let’s play the game!

It’s blue! The “Lost Treasures” edition of HHGttG uses a 1987 engine instead
of the 1984 one. Is it all in service of a Hooloovoo joke I will discover later?

The game starts with us in bed and the room gently spinning. Is this the third game that has started with us waking up in bed? It’s practically a trope! Nonetheless, the room is dark and our head is spinning. I turn on the light and find that I’m (naturally enough) in my bedroom. The game is cheeky, already telling me that today will be the worst day of my life.

Cheeky text aside, my adventure-game playing brain turns on immediately and I notice a dressing gown (a robe, for us Americans) hanging on the chair, a screwdriver and toothbrush in the room, plus a washbasin and a curtained window. I try to pick up the screwdriver and I cannot because I’m still in bed. D’oh! I stand up first, but my head is spinning. I suppose this is what a hangover is supposed to feel like in text. I still cannot pick up the screwdriver because of my fumbling fingers and the sound that it makes when it hits the floor is deafening. I also cannot walk straight enough to leave; opening the window just shows a beautiful summer day with a bulldozer approaching the house. Okay, what can I do?

I can pick up and put on the dressing gown! What would Arthur Dent be if not the world’s foremost expert on exploring space wearing leisure attire? When I put it on, I am alerted that there seems to be something in the pocket. Looking in the pocket there is a “buffered analgesic”, a piece of fluff, and a “thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is”. Well, I have no idea what one of those things is but probably not why you expect: what the heck is an analgesic? I consult my friendly dictionary to learn that it is a “drug acting to relieve pain”. So… like aspirin? Sensing that must be a hangover cure, I take it and the spinning ceases. The game also doesn’t give us any good descriptions about what the “thing your aunt gave” is, but I suppose that is part of the text adventure challenge. I guess now I can start to figure out the game. I grab the toothbrush and screwdriver and leave the room to the south which immediately drops me onto the front porch. I live in a very small house.

Our cultures are so similar!

Just outside the house is a pile of junk mail. I read through to find advertisements for Infocom games as well as a demolition order for the house, dated for today. I pick up the mail… and then die when a bulldozer destroys the house. Or rather, I don’t die in the rubble, only horribly injured. As an ambulance rushes me off to the hospital, the planet is destroyed by a Vogon fleet. Now, I’m really dead. That all happened in just twenty turns. I guess I’ll have to do it all faster. Next time around, I make it off my porch to find Mr. Prosser (and his digital watch) bearing down on my house with his bulldozer. I think I know what to do about that, but would someone who hasn’t read the book? I try exploring around the back of the house, but the bulldozer does its job and this time a brick hits me squarely in the head, killing me instantly. I suppose that’s better than a Vogon, but not by much. This is fun and all, but would a player in 1984 be getting frustrated at this point?

On my third playthrough, I don’t bother exploring and just type “block bulldozer”. Prosser yells at me to move, but I just wait there and he has to stop the bulldozers. He’s not pleased about it, but just at that moment Ford Prefect comes by and offers me a towel while looking nervously at the sky. I take the towel… and he just thanks me for lending it to him and walks away. At this point in the book, he should be convincing me to follow him, right? I try to stand to follow him, but the bulldozer takes that as the signal it can keep moving and I’m dead again. That’s three deaths before we even get out of the introduction! I try it again but this time don’t bother trying to follow him. I wait patiently in the mud until then the Vogons destroy the Earth anyway. Four!

On the next try, I do not take the towel. Instead, I ask Ford about the sky. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but he does suddenly do a double-take and notice the bulldozer and everything. He isn’t sure what to say so he asks if we can discuss it at the local pub. Arthur refuses to come because his house is about to be knocked over so Ford helpfully goes off and has a chat with Prosser about it. A few turns later, Prosser agrees to lay in the mud himself so that we can go to the pub. With that settled, I can finally stand up. We head off to the south and west to enter the pub.

After we arrive, Ford starts handing me beers which I drink. I also try to explore a bit, finding a pack of peanuts that the barman won’t sell me as well as a barely-edible cheese sandwich that he will. I also learn that Ford is an alien, that the world is about to be destroyed, and that beer helps with the shock of a matter transfer beam. If I drink too many times, I get drunk and die (Five!), but the next go around I stop just after hearing my house getting knocked over. I also remember to snag the towel off of Ford. I suppose it’s not exactly surprising that in a game about the end of the world, life is cheap.

I moved my space fleet to a slightly larger bag.

I leave the pub and Ford follows. There’s a dog yipping outside now that wasn’t there before. I’m back in “adventure game” mode and examine him, immediately noticing that he’s hungry. What do you do with a hungry dog? Feed him! The dog LOVES the cheese sandwich in ways that cannot be expressed in human terms and is so enamored with it that he ignores a passing microscopic space fleet. That sounds important! The question is, was I supposed to save the fleet from the dog or ensure its destruction? I hope the former. Would this have been one of those annoying dead-man-walking puzzles if I hadn’t?

I run north and find Prosser looking “sheepishly triumphant”. I don’t get to talk to him much because at that moment the Vogon fleet arrives and announces that the Earth will be destroyed in two minutes. In the commotion, we drop the “thing we don’t know what it is” and it rolls away somewhere. Apparently, we’ve been trying to get rid of it for years. What the heck was the point of that? Ford is yelling something and he pulls out a device from his satchel, but with all the noise and vibrations he drops it without me being able to hear what he was saying. I pick up the device, noticing that one of the lights are blinking. Ford is still yelling and the winds are now hurricane-force. I examine it quickly and press the “hitchhike” button. We are immediately teleported away and I am left somewhere in the dark.

That is enough for an introduction! It’s obvious that this game isn’t like any of the ones that we have played before. I’m having fun and the writing is terrific, but I can see how someone could be frustrated by the very linear nature. If you don’t do exactly what the game wants you to, you die. Is the whole game going to be like this?

Time played: 35 minutes
Inventory: no tea, peanuts, Sub-Etha signaling device, towel, junk mail, dressing gown, pocket fluff

Like radio that you read!

Before we get into the score guessing, let me tell you about the Bonus Material. I so love this series that I’m going to try to look at something else Douglas Adams related each week until the game is completed. Rather than disturb King’s Quest and Alone in the Dark, I’ll be posting these on my personal blog.

This week, I have two:

  • I take a look at the original scripts for the radio series, including the bits that didn’t make it into the books. Could any of that appear in this game?
  • I also dug up an old project of mine from 1994-1996, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to TinyTIM, a guide that I built with many collaborators on one of the most popular online games of the 1990s. The guide isn’t that impressive, but it is an interesting time-capsule of life on the pre-web internet. 

With all that out of the way, now it is your time to guess the score or make any bets about puzzles that I am unable to solve (in rot13). Up to this point, we have played 17 Infocom games with an average score of 32 points. This is Steve Meretzky’s third game; his first two were Planetfall (48 points) and Sorcerer (43 points). TBD also covered Leather Goddesses of Phobos (40 points). After leaving Infocom, Mr. Meretzky will also write the Spellcasting series, the first two games of which scored 48 and 51 by our rating system, and the sequel to Leather Goddesses (43 points). Given the immense significance of the number, I am going to pre-claim “42” as the score: if the game by some stroke of luck scores 42 points, we will give CAPs to everyone that guesses any score, no matter how terrible. I promise to not rig the system. Given Mr. Meretzky’s scores so far and this game’s pedigree, I do not think that is particularly likely anyway.

I have played the game a bit and I am stuck already, so if you want to make any bets about where I am getting stuck, you might earn some very easy CAPs…

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There’s a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it’s an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won’t be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It’s also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.

Original URL: https://advgamer.blogspot.com/2018/08/missed-classic-57-hitchhikers-guide-to.html