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Historic Infocom Documents Released

By WskOsc25-11-2015

Infocom were giants of the early computer gaming industry. Founded in 1979 by MIT staff and students. Growing publishing giant Activision snapped them up in 1986 and were shut down in 1989 by the publisher. The trademark was abandoned in 2002.

Sounds like a sad story, and reads like the Wikipedia article. Modern gamers may not be familiar with the products that Infocom put out, so lets take a quick recap of their legendary adventure games:

Zork is an interactive fiction title, more commonly called a text adventure game from 1980 where you play a nameless adventurer, meant to be yourself, who is exploring an ancient underground empire and famously trying not to be eaten by a Grue. Zork was praised by critics for its inventive creatures and objects but mainly for its rich fiction and descriptions which are both deep and humorous.

Zork, still one of the best adventures ever.

Zork, still one of the best adventures ever.

Zork was followed up by Zork 2 (1981) and Zork 3 (1982) which were similarly detailed and comprise the core Zork trilogy of games. You can play all three of these games from the Infocom fan site Infocom-if for free and legally if you're interested. They're also available on GOG along with other entries from Infocom.

As great as the original Zork trilogy is, there's more games in the series; Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, and Zork: The Undiscovered Underground the latter of which was released for free in 1997 to promote Activision's Zork: Grand Inquisitor which is a graphic adventure, featuring actors and pre-rendered scenes alongside each other. Safe to say, it's as silly as it sounds.

Infocom are known for more than Zork, though it's easily their most famous series to gamers who were around in the '80s and early '90s. Planetfall (1983) could be considered a strong influence on Sierra's Space Quest series as it shares a similar protagonist and introduction sequence. It was also a very popular game at the time but only received one sequel.

Another Infocom classic.

Another Infocom classic.

A large part of the Infocom legacy can be attributed to their “feelies” which are items included in game boxes such as maps, diaries, trinkets from the game world or code books. These were introduced in 1982's Deadline. “Feelies” were perhaps most effectively used with 1984's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy which came with items like “peril sensitive sunglasses”, black cardboard “sunglasses” and “official microscopic space fleet”, an empty plastic bag and a pin-on badge printed with “Don't Panic!” in large friendly letters. There were other items included too, much to the delight of fans of the books the game was based on.

Many of these games have had such an impact on gamer and geek culture that phrases like “you are likely to be eaten by a Grue” are common jokes and universally understood even by gamers who haven't touched the games they came from. Even geek artists like MC Frontalot who references half of Infocom's library in It Is Pitch Dark.

That's only scratching the surface of the original Infocom influence and library and not even delving into their years under Activision which includeis games developed by Westwood and Zombie (Battletech and Zork Nemesis respectively.) Infocom games have had multiple re-releases, collections and possess such lasting appeal that it's safe to say Infocom are the defining force behind text adventure games. Very few text adventures can match the quality and style of an Infocom game with only Fish! and Wonderland coming to mind, both from Magnetic Scrolls who are considered equals of Infocom and pioneers of the growing adventure genre.

Truly, deeply, unabashedly evil.

Truly, deeply, unabashedly evil.

Now we understand what makes Infocom so important to the gaming industry and the history of gaming it's time to get to the point – Steve Meretzky, a developer from Infocom compiled a huge collection of documents for a 2006 documentary called GET LAMP which delves into the realm of text adventures. The documents had been languishing in Meteszky's basement for decades and were scanned by film maker Jason Scott for use in the documentary.

The majority of the scanned documents is now available on archive.org here and includes maps, design documents and many many more materials related to Infocom and their games. Speaking frankly, some of the documents just won't be that interesting to all but the hardcore history buff but the design documents from classic text adventure games, flow charts and maps are well worth taking a peek at, especially if you've played those classic adventures in the past.

So go enjoy poking through a chunk of history, delve into the charts, tables and pages written by developers working out how a text parser should understand the player and enjoy flow charts of worlds that existed in our imaginations and whose mere mention can trigger joyful nostalgia trips even thirty years later.


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