Still December, still in low-impact posting mode. I figured I’d tell you all about interactive fiction authoring system Inform 7, which still feels new in my mind despite coming out 17 years ago.
I say “Inform 7” to distinguish it from previous versions, which were a very different system. Inform 6 was a cryptic C-style programming language; Inform 7 source code reads like English. Radically so:
I’ve long wanted to learn Inform 7 and create something interesting with it, but every time I do I run into a thick wall of error messages. I feel it’s important to emphasize, from my own experiences trying to code with Inform 7, that this apparent ease-of-use is completely fake. It reads like English, and does what it appears to say. But in fact it’s written in extremely fiddly and precise English. It’s still all programming language, with a precise syntax, it’s just a syntax that makes it readable to both humans and the computer. In this way, it’s like Ultra COBOL.
And yet, reading it is useful to understanding it in an intuitive sense that’s untrue of many programming languages. It eschews the usage of punctuation for random coder things, in the abhorrent C style. Yeah, I said it, I’ve wrestled with C syntax more than once, I even generally understand it, but I really don’t like it.
Inform 7 used to have a great website, at inform7.com, where it could both be obtained and had great examples. That site is gone now, replaced with a GitHub page that is also pretty great, but since it, like all GitHub sites, is relying on the largess of Microsoft, and subject to the eventual enshittification that inevitably affects all corporate-owned hosting, it feels like less than the original. Ah well.
This post risks defeating the entire purpose of making low-effort content during a busy time of year, suffice to say this is an unusually-deep rabbit hole of which much more deserves to be said. Later.
A long time ago, there was a radio series called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was about a man named Arthur Dent, who with the aid of his friend Ford Prefect managed to escape from the Earth when it was demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, after which he went to have increasingly weird and ridiculous adventures.
At the center of the story was an electronic book named, like the radio series itself, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was like an iPhone and Wikipedia combined into one device, only Douglas Adams somehow thought of them in 1978, which was the same year Space Invaders was being manufactured. It was written by a brilliantly funny man named Douglas Adams. Adams also wrote some scripts for Doctor Who, and some other books, including The Meaning of Liff, Last Chance to See and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Before he wrote those other books though, he wrote some more about the Hitchhiker’s Guide. He wrote a TV series based on the radio series. There was also a vinyl recording, which was simply called an album then because CDs hadn’t been invented yet. Each of these versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has substantial differences from all the others. Then Douglas Adams met Steve Meretzky, and the two of them did a computer game version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, itself with major differences from the other versions.
They made the game for a company called Infocom. Infocom was one of the first great successes in computer gaming. They wrote what they called interactive fiction, but could more generally be called text adventures. They presented the world of the game as text on a screen, like you were reading a book, and you expressed what you wanted the protagonist character to do by typing commands. Sort of like those things some inaccurately call AIs, and are more properly called Large Language Models, or LLMs, except a person actually wrote everything that can happen, and there’s a point to them.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the second best-selling game that Infocom ever did, after Zork. It sold over a million copies, a gigantic success at the time, and still pretty good today. So everyone was keen to do a second Hitchhiker’s Guide game. The game even says, at the end, that an incredible adventure was about to happen, but you’d have to buy the next game to find out what it was.
Infocom tried to get Douglas Adams to create a sequel. He did co-write Bureaucracy with the staff of Infocom, a lesser game with some brilliant ideas in it. Later he wrote Starship Titanic for a different company, which was fairly well-received. Douglas Adams was, as said, a brilliant person, but his was a whimsical and capricious intelligence, fixating on things that seized its fancy, but that made it difficult to focus on mundanities.
Infocom’s games sold steadily fewer copies as time passed. Eventually, they were bought by Activision, and functionally shut down. They made some Zork games themselves, but eventually Activision forgot that Zork or Infocom even existed.
Some more time passed….
Douglas Adams wrote some more Hitchhiker’s books. At the time there were already two, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, The Universe and Everything. He soon followed it up with So Long And Thanks For All the Fish, and then Mostly Harmless.
He never did write that sequel to the computer Hitchhiker’s game. Then, sadly, Douglas Adams, who in Last Chance to See wrote movingly about animals on the edge of extinction, went extinct himself, dying on May 11, 2001.
Time continued to pass. Disney, the least-suited company for such a thing, made a big movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It wasn’t too bad, all told, but it wasn’t Disney-level popular, probably because it didn’t have space magicians or superheroes in it.
Lots of people, not the least of which his old friends at Infocom, were saddened that Adams never followed up with that second Guide game.
Then in 2023, a person with the nom de net of Max Fox wrote their own version of what a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might have been. It’s called Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
It adheres to older trends in adventure gaming: you die sometimes just from trying things out. Puzzle solutions can be a bit cryptic. But it also has a simulation of Infocom’s “Invisiclues” built in, where you can pick the area you’re in and problem you’re having from lists and get a series of more specific hints for getting past your problem area, which is still a pretty good way to provide play help without giving away the whole puzzle like a walkthrough might.
No, it isn’t the sequel that Douglas Adams would have written. But that thing will never be. It’s possible that someday a different sequel will be written that matches Douglas Adams’s voice a little better. But in the meantime, we have one idea of what it could have been like.
It doesn’t make it a happier galaxy to live in. But it does make it marginally less sad, and that’s the best we can hope for.
(Note: following images have spoilers for the very early phase of the game. If you want to play this game, you’ll need a program that can play Z-machine files. I suggest Windows Frotz.)
Infocom text adventures in the classic style have this interesting thing they do where you explore interesting locations and solve puzzles in the rooms, but there’s also some miscellaneous things you have to do to keep yourself alive. Resource management.
Later Infocom games tended to go much easier on this kind of puzzle, but they were, then and now, a source of frustration to players, and that kind of difficulty termed friction by some, isn’t currently in fashion and can be excluding to new players.
Zork I in particular had two such elements: the need to keep a light source going in the underground at all times or else stumble around in the dark and soon get eaten by grues, and its carrying limit, which forced players to ascend to the White House frequently to deposit their treasures in the Trophy Case.
Similarly Planetfall, that game what has Floyd the robot in it, requires your character keep themself fed to stay alive, which is something of a distraction from the game’s mysteries. It also removes some ways the player can block themselves from winning, and removes some of the ways to die, in the name of fairness.
There are a couple of Github projects that took the publicly-released source code and removed these portions of the game. All of the rooms are still there, but the lamp has so much energy that it probably won’t run out, the player can carry much more and won’t fumble with the items they’re carrying unless they carry a huge amount, probably more items than there is in the game.
Just to let you know, I’m not yet aware of any such project to make the Babel Fish puzzle in the game of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy less infuriating.