Interactive fiction: Interview with Steve Meretzky

From the dining room to the galaxy

I am an interactive fiction enthusiast and writer and I want to celebrate my first day on Medium with an old interview, originally published on my website www.avventuretestuali.com in 2001, with one of the best authors of all time: Steve Meretzky, who developed legendary games like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall and my favorite, Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Don’t forget to admire the treasure: the original Meretzky’s notes for Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the end of the interview.

It all started with a hunt for a bug. Steve Meretzky was a beta-tester and later became one of the best IF writer of all times.
Now he has another job because text adventure games are not a job anymore.
Maybe in another galaxy, in one of the worlds he created for the legendary Infocom, things would have been different.
At the moment, we can only relive what happened a long time ago…

Is it true that a roommate brought you to Infocom?
In ’81, my roommate Mike Dornbrook was Infocom’s first and, at the time, only tester. He started testing Zork I on an Apple II on our dining room table. When he was around, I started playing a little, and was soon very hooked. Zork II soon followed Zork I into our dining room “test lab”. I reported all the bugs that I found, even though Mike was getting paid to find bugs and I wasn’t. Then, Mike went off to business school in Chicago, and Marc Blank needed someone to test Infocom’s next game, which was Deadline. And since I’d done a good job finding bugs in Zork I and Zork II, he asked me. I’d recently quit my job (working for a construction company, which I hated) so I said sure!

Infocom didn’t have an office at the beginning… then you choose one, isn’t, it? Where it was? Can you describe it? What about the atmosphere there?
At first (and this is before my time) Infocom just operated virtually. Then, Infocom got a small office at Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston, just a one-room office for the President (Joel Berez) with a shared secretary. In January of 1982, Infocom moved into its first real offices, at 55 Wheeler Street in Cambridge. It was a wonderful space, wood frame construction, private offices (no cubicles), openable windows and personal heater/air conditioners in every office, lofts, spiral stairs, a wooded courtyard with a goldfish pond, a rec center with swimming pool on the premises… The atmosphere at Infocom, especially in the early days, was great. Everyone was young, it was a really creative group of people, the games were selling extremely well, and it seemed like the sky was the limit. We worked together, and socialized together as well. It was a fun working environment, and a great group of people.

Tell us the best thing happened while you were at Infocom.
 The best thing was that I met Betty Rock who, for the last 15 years, has been my lovely and loving spouse!

And the worst?
 The worst was, of course, when Activision shut Infocom down in May of ’89. And the three layoffs in ’85 and ’86 were also the pits.

Did you ever get angry with someone?
 The angriest I usually got were the wrangles with marketing, and specifically with the ad agency who did our packaging during the first several years. They did some good work, such as the Deadline package, but they used to gouge Infocom with all sorts of unconscionable charges, and they used to make creative decisions that would impact the game without telling the game writers. The worst: In my game Sorcerer, I wrote a guide to some of the creatures you’d run across in the game. It was designed to be a little booklet in the package. The agency came up with the idea of doing it as a rotating data wheel, which everyone thought was a pretty neat idea. Many weeks later, when it was far too late to change course, they came in with the ready-for-press mockups of the code wheel, or as I named it, the Infotater. They had cut all the descriptions of the monsters to less than half their original length. “Oh,” they said, “of course we don’t have as much space for text in this code wheel concept.” I blew my top, and we went to a smaller point size, and restored some of the cut text, and it was totally unpleasant. Ironically, a year later all the Infocom games were repackaged into smaller, standardized packages (the familiar ones, with pinstripes, that opened like a book) and the code wheel was too large to fit into this new package — so the piece was redone… as a booklet.

How much did you gain at the time?
 I was always just a salaried employee at Infocom, so I never got royalties or anything. But in addition to my salary, I also got tremendous job satisfaction, and the start on a good career.

By what were — and are — you inspired? Which kind of books, movies, etc.?
No one thing, or handful of things… As a reader, growing up, I was mainly an SF fan, and my favorite authors were Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, later Niven and Card. I was a huge fan of the original Star Trek series. I’ve always been a huge movie consumer, all genres. I’m probably most known for my humor, and on that front my inspirations are also numerous: Woody Allen, Monty Python, Gary Larson (The Far Side), B. Kliban, the early Saturday Night Live, Dave Barry… In my younger days, Mad Magazine.

Which language did you use to write Infocom games?
 Infocom had a proprietary language, called ZIL, that was based on a language that the founders of Infocom had created at MIT’s Lab for Computer Science, called MDL (pronounced “muddle”).

Which kind of language would you use today to write a game: Inform, Tads, Hugo?
 I don’t know enough to say; I’d have to look into it before starting.

What is the best Infocom game in your opinion? 
My favorite Infocom game has always been Dave Lebling’s “Starcross”, but I also have always loved Jeff O’Neill’s “Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It” for being so original and different. And I must admit that I haven’t played all 40 or so Infocom games through to the end, so it’s hard to answer the question definitively.

And the worst?
 I think the worst games were probably the InfoComix series that we did as a joint venture with another company. They were sort of interactive comic books, but the interactivity was on the level of a “what do I do now?” book.

And the best adventure game ever written?
 Well, I’d have to again say Starcross, although I’d have to give honorable mention to the Zork Trilogy, just because of its historic importance. I think Witness had the best writing I’ve ever seen in a computer game. Visually, I’d give the nod to Grim Fandango. Also, if you want to stretch the definition of an adventure game to include it, I’ve always really loved The Fool’s Errand, by Cliff Johnson.

And the best author?
I’m not going there — too many of my friends are adventure game authors, I’m not going to alienate most of them!

Which movie, which book could become a good adventure?
 My criteria would be things where the book(s) or movie(s) creates a rich universe with lots of possibilities for stories that aren’t necessarily the one told in the original book or movie. For example, I think that’s why Hitchhiker’s was such a successful game, and why it got better further in the game, when we diverged more from the scenes of the original story line. The Wizard of Oz series, the Highlander movies, Harry Potter, the first Ender book by O. S. Card, are some examples off the top of my head. The original Twilight Zone TV series would also be great material for an adventure game.

Which suggestion would you give to IF authors?
 Don’t quit your day job.

What about non professional adventure game of today?
 I’ve played a few, and wish I had time to play more. The ones I’ve seen are of pretty high quality, and I’m delighted to see that the art form continues to thrive, albeit in a non-commercial form.

IF can have a new market?
Some new technology needs to come along that makes adventure games the coolest and most cutting edge games again, instead of the least. Perhaps speech recognition. Also, tools that bring down the cost of production without reducing the quality of the presentation would help a lot, to make the genre economically viable again.

What about Worldwinner? Are you happy working there?
I’ve been here just over a year now, and it’s been a lot of fun. For your readers who aren’t familiar with worldwinner.com, it’s an online game site where people can pay money to play games of skill in tournament of various sizes; players with the highest scores in each tournament win cash prizes. Anyone can play for free, but currently the prize tournaments are only open to U.S. players; however, that will be changing in the very near future, as we research each country’s tax laws, credit card laws, and laws regulating tournaments with prizes. It’s been a nice change of pace from the previous 18 or so years. It’s fun to work on these small, casual games; it’s exciting to be part of a start-up again; it’s my first significant online experience, so that’s pretty exciting for me; it’s wonderful to be able to complete games in a month or two, compared to a couple of years! Also, because of the download issues, we have to keep our games down to a few hundred K, which is quite nostalgic after years of CD-based games measured in the hundreds of megabytes.

What about you? What do you do in free time?
 I live in the Boston area, married with two kids: Dan (13) and Sasha (about to turn 11). I’m 44 years old, which on a game industry scale puts me somewhere between “Moses” and “Methusaleh”. I no longer have any free time, although DVDs have taken some of the sting out of never being able to get a babysitter…

What about Douglas Adams? Working with him was a good experience?
Working with Douglas was great. He had such a different perspective on things, and came up with puzzles and scenes that I’d never have thought of in a million years on my own — having the game lie to you, or using a parser failure as the words which fell through a wormhole in the universe and started an interstellar war, or having an object like “no tea”. On the other hand, the man was the world’s worst procrastinator! I had to practically camp out on his doorstep in England to get him to finish his stuff for the game.

And Scott Adams? Many people discovered text adventures with him. I’ve never met him, and have only the dimmest memory of the Adventure International games. But there’s no denying his role in history of the genre.

Did someone ever try to translate your games?
Nope. Jeff O’Neill (who wrote “Ballyhoo” and “Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It”) spent a while rewriting the parser to understand German syntax, and translated Zork I into German, but I don’t think the resulting German version was ever tested or marketed.

You said: “In games God is in details”. Why?
 What separates the “A+” games that sell a million copies from the merely “A” games that make hardly a splash is the effort spent on all those myriad little details — a sound effect here, and keyboard shortcut there, an easter egg here, an improved auto-save mechanism there… all those hundreds of tiny, almost unnoticed things that turn an okay experience into a really special, memorable one. In an adventure game, those extra things are the extra testing to get rid of bugs, the alternate solutions to puzzles, the sprinkling of subtle hints that gets a puzzle difficulty “just right”, and the special responses to all the wacky things that players try when they’re floundering around at an obstacle.

Is it true that Activision “destroyed” Infocom?
 Activision certainly made a lot of harmful decisions, mostly after Bruce Davis replaced Jim Levy as CEO and began stripping Infocom of more and more functions. For example, Activision took over PR from Infocom, didn’t a miserable job of it, and then put an internal charge on Infocom’s books for PR that was more than Infocom was paying to do it internally, which made Infocom look less profitable than it was. But the real demise started with the decision to do a business product — Cornerstone-, and the completely inept handling of the marketing of it. That venture lost something like $8 million dollars at a time when the games side of the company was turning a profit of, perhaps, $1 million dollars per year or a bit more. So that was a wound that Infocom was never able to recover from. And, even without Cornerstone, and even without Activision’s heavy-handed management, who knows whether Infocom would have successfully made the transition from a text-adventure company to a graphic-adventure company (or to any other genre, for that matter). Until someone can figure out a way to visit alternate universes, we’ll never know.

Without the internet, interactive fiction would be dead today?
 Yes, I hadn’t thought of it before, but that’s probably true. There would probably be people writing text adventures for the fun of it, but how would they reach an audience outside of their small circle of friends.

Meretzky’s Papers: Various design notes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984). Of those, the three on green paper are notes from his weeklong visit to Douglas Adams in England, while he was holed up in a country inn far from the distractions of London, trying to finish “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish”. These, of course, are particularly poignant in light of Douglas stunning and much-too-young death.