Infocom stood as one of the giants of interactive fiction during the eighties.
The ad above from 1984 was perfectly accurate — the best graphics were in the heads of their players because the adventures that they wrote up weren’t so much games as they were “interactive fiction”, a term that was coined back then to describe them. These wordsmiths produced some of the most compelling, philosophically pointed, and wickedly tough adventures ever to grace keyboards garnering accolades from critics such as those at the New York Times or even Rolling Stone.
Back in the 70s, a text-based adventure called Colossal Cave, which would also be known as Adventure, began making the rounds on ARPAnet — the precursor of today’s Internet — making it a popular game among college students. Though it was written up in 1972 by Willie Crowther over at Boston University, it underwent a number of additions over the years becoming a huge, sprawling adventure by the time Dave Lebling and Marc Blank at MIT found it in 1977. It was a revolutionary piece of gaming that would inspire these two to try and make something that would be better and by extension, introduce the world to what would become the genre of interactive fiction changing the way that stories could be told on computers forever.
Lebling and Blank would later be joined by Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels. Together, they would work to outdo Colossal Caves which, in an article for the New York Times, Anderson admits that its popularity among students could have “set the entire computer industry back two weeks”, a charge that id’s Doom would later be guilty of doing by others nearly more than a decade and half later.
Over the next few years after 1977, and with the help of their own programming language to make it portable on any machine, they eventually came up with what would become the original Zork. At the time, the name was just a placeholder, a nonsense word that didn’t mean anything, but it would stick.
They were later joined by Joel Berez and would form the original group that would go on to found Infocom in 1979. Their first product would be a slimmed down version of the original Zork that had become a runaway hit on the mainframe in the same way Colossal Cave had been, greasing the wheels that would take the Great Underground Empire from its mainframe origins to PCs everywhere.
Players were impressed by Infocom’s parser enabling them to type simple commands in order to push the story along and actually do things that would make them feel part of the story that was unraveling around them. They could “talk” to NPCs, scout for clues, gather evidence, and figure out puzzles as if they were characters in a book. Aside from the technical specialization that made everything work beneath the hood so well, it also helped that the developers were sharp storytellers who could code and write prose at the same time, a typical story among many early designers from Richard Garriott to Roberta Williams.
Other games would eventually arrive from Infocom’s imagination factory further cementing the company’s reputation as a premier storyteller — Deadline, Planetfall, Enchanter, Suspended — and the games were also renowned for the “feelies” included with each one whether it was travel brochures for the Great Underground Empire or the creepy, plastic, mask-like box that Suspended arrived in. Charles Ardai, writing for CGW, had even related in an article covering the company in ’87 that a “voice-controlled Zork had been developed but was not going to be released until the market was ready to support it”.
Graphics at the time, however, would begin moving away from their monochrome roots. Consoles such as the Magnavox Odyssey and the Atari 2600 used televisions to bring their worlds to life and later, computer monitors would begin to display colors unlike anyone had experienced before. They were still crude by today’s standards, but back then, they were starting to influence a number of designers into making them an integral part of their own worlds as the adventure genre continued to take off in the early eighties on PCs. For more than a few young kids and adults enjoying the games they had to offer, pictures literally spoke a thousand words.
Infocom’s text-only titles were still doing well, however, but they had also banked on expanding their focus into business software with a database program called Cornerstone in 1985. They had already begun pouring resources into their newly minted business division in ’84, eating valuable capital in the process which would come to haunt them when Cornerstone failed in the market.
As a research article written in 2000 at MIT on Infocom concluded, the “working strategy for one kind of business does not necessarily translate to a working strategy for another business”. In this case, the same kind of virtual machine that enabled Infocom’s games to run on any PC turned out to be a disastrous architectural decision for Cornerstone that doomed its performance in the face of other competing products. People that had also expected the ease of use found with Infocom’s parser commands in their games didn’t find the same with Cornerstone.
It was a failure that severely crippled Infocom’s ability to keep up and forced them to consider throwing in with Activision in 1986. Games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Trinity, and The Lurking Horror would continue to hit shelves, feelies and all, but sales were also beginning to decline sharply as losses began mounting, no thanks to the change in management under their new owners.
Graphic adventures such as Sierra’s King’s and Space Quest series, Activision’s Murder on the Mississippi, Polareware’s titles such as Crimson Crown, or the luscious look of Cinemaware’s array of titles made it harder for Infocom’s text-only worlds to stay ahead of the crowd. Even though Infocom’s ad in ’84 teased the inferiority of graphics compared to what anyone’s imagination could dream up, graphical adventures soon began to assert themselves more and more as their own storytellers continued to improve their art.
Infocom attempted to bring graphics into their lineup with a line of cheap, and short, Infocomics lineup which ran much like interactive comics. For $12, players could pick one up and follow its character through their adventure and if they had another one that crossed their path, they could switch over to that other character and see the story from their perpective. Other efforts such as Zork Zero and the Tolkien-inspired Journey also attempted to update their library. While Zork Zero was received well, others such as Journey weren’t. A number of Infocom’s fans didn’t like the new direction being taken, either, preferring the games to stay as they were as unique pieces of interactive fiction.
Eventually, Activision decided to shutter the original offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Out of the 26 employees left, 11 were let go. The rest were offered jobs if they’d move to Menlo Park, California, which only 5 took up. Everything else after ’89 were done by a different crew of developers that had nothing to do with the original authors, though there were one or two few standouts such as Circuit’s Edge in ‘9o.
By the late eighties and early nineties, however, graphical adventures were the thing to play if you wanted a great story, puzzle solving, and plenty of heroes and villains in one place as Sierra, Lucasarts, Legend (which was founded by Bob Bates who had worked on three games for Infocom before it was shuttered), and many others swept into players’ living rooms and dens.
Yet Infocom’s influence on the industry can never be understated. From the packaging to the stories told, Infocom’s games welcomed players into an author’s imagination that few games could in those days, while simultaneously pushing the idea of games as being more than simple twitch titles or action oriented arcade ports. Speaking of which, Zork was even included as an easter egg in Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops which was completely playable.
Even today, interactive fiction continues to plug on thanks to a community of dedicated fans who have come up with their own tools and competitions to keep the genre alive. MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, continue lurking in the corners of the ‘net as text-based RPGs covering a wide range of worlds from fantasy to sci-fi. Sites covering the history of Infocom continue to archive what they can for anyone curious about its history. Most recently, the indie cyberpunk adventure, Cypher, has made the rounds blending background visuals with a traditional, interactive text format, making those otherwise monocolor backdrops gush with color and character. You can even print out feelies to go along with the game!
Infocom may be gone, but its legacy lives on to inspire new generations of players and would-be designers, the lessons left by the deep stories buried within their prose and the often brutal challenges coded into every syllable finding helping to push adventure gaming forward into many of its greatest moments. Arguably, they hold the line against the debate that games are nothing more than simple pasttimes with no redeeming value. These were titles whose words expressed bold ideas, beliefs, and humor in ways that any other book could with one difference — the pages being turned were inside the player’s imagination.