The Making Of: Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Upon starting work on the game, it was clear the process wouldn't be the same as past projects
Retro Gamer talks to Steve Meretzky about adapting Douglas Adams' classic story for Infocom
Published on Jan 30, 2009
It began with a radio comedy, and then it became a book, a towel, a TV series, an argument (regarding how to spell its title), and, in the early Eighties, interactive fiction. We are, of course, talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (‘Hitchhiker’s’ from here), Douglas Adams’ seminal story about the luckless Arthur Dent, whose world isn’t so much turned upside down as obliterated one morning when he wakes to find his house about to be demolished, that one of his friends is an alien researcher for an intergalactic encyclopaedia (and not an unemployed actor from Guildford, as he claimed), and a race of alien bureaucrats are about to demolish the Earth.
Humorous, irreverent, engaging and tremendous fun, Hitchhiker’s would prove a challenge to adapt for home computers. The challenge fell to Steve Meretzky, who worked in tandem with Douglas, turning his unique story into a game for Infocom, then undisputed kings of the text adventure. “I have a degree in construction project management, and that was the ideal background for getting into games design, because it convinced me that I wanted to actually do something that involved at least a slight bit of amusement and job satisfaction,” says Steve. After sharing an apartment with Mike Dornbrook, Infocom’s first tester, Steve took over the role when Mike departed for business school. “I liked the literate nature of Infocom’s games, and on top of that, the puzzles added an amazingly compelling aspect to the play,” explains Steve. “All adventure game players have experienced that middle-of-the-day epiphany – ‘Of course! I need to wear the Cloak of Doom and release the ferrets before I use the frob on the foozle!’ – and can’t wait to rush home to try it.”
With Hitchhiker’s, it was Douglas who made the first move. When the prospect of a game arose, during talks with his publisher and agent, Douglas was insistent Infocom develop it. “He was an Infocom fan, and saw its games as a step above the level of others being produced at the time,” recalls Steve, who also believes that Marc Blank (who worked on Zork and Deadline) was Douglas’s preferred partner in crime.
“But Marc was busy, so he asked if I’d be interested, partly because my first game, Planetfall, had a similar humour/sci-fisensibility to Hitchhiker’s, and partly because I was the only implementer as tall as Douglas, and therefore would be able to see eye to eye with him. I wrestled with the question for two or three milliseconds and said ‘yes’.” Upon starting work on the game, it was clear the process wouldn’t be the same as past projects. “First, there was the collaborative aspect. Companies were adapting literature for adventure games, with no involvement of the original authors, but we wanted full collaboration,” says Steve. “This was because authors know more about their work than us, but we knew more about the development environment and the rules and possibilities of text adventures than an author could pick up in a reasonable time frame.” Additionally, the very prospect of adaptation came with its own problems. “We had to create a puzzle-intensive game that a fan of Hitchhiker’s wouldn’t find trivial, and that someone unfamiliar with the story wouldn’t find impossible. I think we did a good job changing the story and situations just enough so existing fans found it familiar but didn’t know the solutions to all the puzzles,” says Steve.
At first, Douglas drove the design, because Steve was intimidated working with someone at Douglas’s level of success on his own creation. This is why the beginning of the game is very linear, almost directly following the plot of the book. “Not being a games designer, Douglas was still thinking linearly,” says Steve. “As we got more comfortable working together, and I began to assert myself, and Douglas got more familiar with the possibilities of non-linear storytelling, that changed – the majority of the game has the most fiercely nonlinear structure of any adventure title I’ve ever worked on.”
An obvious non-linear component involves the innovative idea of regularly switching characters throughout the game, sometimes revisiting a scenario, but as a different person. “That was Douglas’s idea, I believe from before I was even involved with the project, and it was great,” says Steve. “It created all kinds of comic possibilities, such as seeing Arthur through Trillian’s eyes during a party scene. And it created an anything-is-possible sense in the player, allowing us to play with time and space in all sorts of fun ways, such as going inside your own mind to remove the particle of common sense.”
In a time when it was rare to play a specific character, let alone several, this radical move was actually welcomed by Infocom, who’d previously mostly offered players genderless, nameless avatars. “There was a worry players wouldn’t be able to identify with a character who was clearly ‘not you’, especially if that character was a different gender,” recalls Steve. “It seems silly now, in a post-Sonic The Hedgehog, post-Lara Croft world, but it seemed a valid concern at the time, and the character-shifting helped mitigate that.”
But Douglas and Steve weren’t done rallying against convention. Despite having one of the smallest geographical environments of any Infocom game, Hitchhiker’s nonetheless pushed at the boundaries of the genre, Douglas’s uniquely creative assets shining through. “He came up with things I never would have come up with working alone – inventory items like ‘no tea’ and ‘the thing my aunt gave me which I don’t know what it is’, having a parser failure queue the words that fall through a wormhole and start an interstellar war, and many more,” says Steve. One of the strangest moments for players is arguing with the game to access a location, although Steve notes Hitchhiker’s wasn’t the first game to outright lie to a player. “There’s a similar moment in my Planetfall game,” he says. “Tired of the bland ‘You find nothing interesting’ responses I was writing, I made the game respond to ‘Look under the table’ in the dining hall with something like, ‘You find crates of food and water and medicine and a hyperspace radio and piles of gold and jewels… Just kidding, there’s nothing there.’ Of course, Douglas took it to the next level, making the game wait a couple of turns before admitting it was lying!”
Over time, this melding of minds became increasingly important as the pressures of deadlines (about which Douglas once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”) became increasingly apparent. “As the game’s development process went on, I did more and more of the writing,” says Steve. “Inherent in the process of creating text adventures is creating loads of responses to player inputs you hadn’t initially anticipated.
Given our schedule and the difficulties of communication in that pre-internet world – along with Douglas’s high level of busyness – I had to create those myself, sometimes by finding bits of appropriate text in the Hitchhiker’s canon, but more often just writing something in what I hoped was the same style. At the end of the project, Douglas mentioned that he could no longer tell what he had written and what I had written.”
Initially, the pair had spent a week working together in Massachusetts, during which time the first portion of the game – the Earth and Vogon ship scenes – were created. But then Douglas returned to the UK, and weekly phone messages and emails, via embryonic online services, enabled the pair to work remotely. “Douglas would send a ‘wodge’ – his term! – of material, which I’d try to turn into useable stuff,” says Steve. “Often, this was just wild brainstorms and little snatches of ‘player input/game response’ that needed to be shepherded into the constraints of the game environment.”
After a few months, and with the game running far behind schedule, the pair reunited in England, in a country inn where Douglas was holed up on the orders of his agent. “He was supposed to be writing So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, which was already something like 11 months late,” laughs Steve. “I remember when we got to the end of the game, we had all these loose ends – various pieces of fluff, all the tools you were collecting, the ‘tea’/’no tea’ items, the whale and the flowerpot, Eddie and the landing on Magrathea – and were trying to figure out how to tie it all up.” Stumped, the pair left the inn, went for a drive, and ended up on a beach. “While there, sitting on driftwood and surrounded by sheep, we came up with the final puzzles – using the fluff to create a seed for the flowerpot that produced the fruit that gave you a glimpse of the future that told you what tool to give Marvin that allowed you to get off the ship and explore Magrathea! – and I soon rushed back to the US to get the game into QA-ready state during an insane ten-day marathon,” says Steve.
The finished game met with an overwhelmingly positive response and was a major hit for Infocom. Buyers were further rewarded by various ‘feelies’ – bonus items in the game’s box. “Douglas suggested the sunglasses, which you were prompted to put on when it was time to view your score, but the creative agency in charge of developing the package came up with most of the feelies after playing an early version of the game,” explains Steve. “As a company philosophy, Infocom attempted to have a lot of fun stuff in the box – this made owning the packaging more desirable, and, therefore, probably cut down on piracy.”
Subsequent repackaging was more limited, but the game’s appeal shines to this day, with a recent online illustrated version for the BBC website (made to celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary) winning a BAFTA. Text adventures as a whole, though, have largely disappeared. As Richard Harris noted in an article originally written for DouglasAdams. com, “Graphics came along and the computer-using portion of the human race forgot all about 500,000 years of language evolution and went straight back to the electronic equivalent of banging rocks together – the point-andclick game […] signalling the arrival of the post-literate society.”
According to Steve (who still works in the industry as senior designer at Blue Fang Games), Infocom did its best to stop this inevitable shift, “The company tried hard to keep text adventures going, with new genres (such as romance in Plundered Hearts), licensed titles (such as Shogun), adding illustrations, and so on. But most of the audience had moved on to newer types of games. I certainly mourn their passing, as they were a huge part of my life for many years.”