[18 May 2004]
I don’t know if Joseph Stalin would have been a video game fan if he’d had the opportunity, but he was certainly someone who knew a great deal about destroying things, particularly people. He not only knew how to kill, but he knew what different magnitudes of death represented. As he once famously commented: “The death of one man is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Now, while I wouldn’t identify Stalin as a particularly perspicacious individual, this specific insight in to how we deal with the nature of sudden mortality strikes me as insightful. Wickedly insightful, but insightful nonetheless.
Prior to 2001, this particular turn of the calendar was, according to the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, meant to be a year of awe-inspiring hope. Three years later, we still don’t know what the events of 2001 really mean. It’s a fair bet they won’t herald a better world for either of the fundamentalisms engaged in a barbaric game of chess that can only result in a form of stalemate apocalyptic or otherwise. The events of 2001 were certainly sublime, in the grimmest of ways, but subsequent events help form the optimistic idea that from that horror might eventually emerge some good, good based around ideas of reconciliation or understanding.
Unfortunately we lived through the real 2001, rather than Clarke’s 2001. In the real post-2001 world, NASA’s reusable spacecraft explode in the sky, and we have no message on the moon, no luminous Star Child to show us the way as we do in Clarke’s world. The best we might get, I suspect, are plenty more HAL 9000s waiting to sing “Daisy, Daisy . . . .” at us more such HAL’s then we ever dared to imagine.
Lost somewhere in the disaster movie events of that particular annus horriblis was a far smaller tragedy. This was a year that saw the death of a single individual who’d meant a great deal to a of different people. Fans of comic literature, of science fiction, in fact anybody with a love of good, imaginative, lateral writing should have mourned his death. And fans of video games had particular reason to be sad.
Douglas Adams was a British writer who is currently best remembered for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a 1978 radio comedy first broadcast on the BBC that subsequently transformed into a series of enormously successful novels, a television series, a graphic novel and now a hotly anticipated movie, currently gestating in the womb of Disney. In addition to some acutely observed satire on contemporary living, Adams gently mocked the worlds created by writers like Arthur C. Clarke, along with the technology utopia ofStar Trek and the quasi-religiousness of Star Wars. (Anyone who knows Adams’ writing will remember his love of digression, so here’s one: one of the more bizarre pieces I read post-9/11 suggested that Bin Laden was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of sci-fi novels, and that the whole idea of Al Qaeda is derived from these books. Adams, I suspect, would have enjoyed the contention that the World’s Most Dangerous Man was a fan of 1950s pulp American sci-fi.)
My most prized possession is a copy of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Scripts. I prize it partly because my father gave it, and partly because its author spoke so directly to an awkward adolescent with a lateral imagination and oft-times bizarre sense of humour. In later years, when my long-held fascination with video games was being rekindled by a professional interest in the possibilities of interactive narrative and then digital games, I began to appreciate Adams in a different light. Perhaps surprisingly for someone who took such a skeptical view of the claims made of technology, Adams was consistently interested in the capabilities of the medium.
The video game version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was Adams’ first foray into the possibilities of an emerging art form. Given the relative sophistication of today’s polygon-constructed games, it’s refreshing to remember a time when some games constructed worlds using nothing more than words. The text-only Hitch-Hiker game extemporized around the events of the original radio series and novel with the ingenuity that characterized the vast of bulk of Adams’ fiction and non-fiction work. In Infocom, the company that produced the game, Adams clearly found individuals capable of supporting his talent; Infocom’s other text-only games, demonstrated the company’s focus on creating games that engaged players both on problem-solving and literary levels.
In many ways Adams contradicts what good game design is supposed to be about. The lateral plotting of the Hitch-Hiker game often rendered it incredibly difficult to discern how to complete a specific task. Of course there have been many other games in which completion of a certain mission is pretty damned impossible because of lazy game design; the difference with Hitch-Hiker is that the difficulty of the task was intentional. Players of the game will recall the bizarre series of events the player was forced to go through in order to obtain a Babel fish. In Adams’ surreal universe, this was a creature an individual placed in their ear in order to understand other languages (as Adams himself later observed, a neat way around a problem often skirted around by the science fiction genre: why do all aliens speak English?).
Finding yourself on a Vogon spaceship subsequent to the demolition of the planet Earth, you’re tasked with ascertaining how to get one of these fish out of a dispensing machine. The undertaking could only be completed by going through a series of actions in very deliberate order. It wasn’t like you could logically fathom this process. You just had to experiment, until you eventually got it right. In fact, everyone I knew whoever completed the game, me included, did so courtesy of a cheat book.
For those involved in designing video games, the tension between making tasks suitably difficult without rendering them totally impossible is a perennial issue. The fact that nobody really minded the difficulty in the case of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a tribute to how well the thing was written. It was the journey that mattered, not the destination. Richard Harris’ Java version is available to play at Douglasadams.com, though the lack of a “Save” facility might make the necessary levels of perseverance required to get anywhere in the game a tricky proposition. And though the game is brilliantly written, familiarity with either the radio, novel or television versions of the Hitch-Hiker’s story certainly provides some necessary context and makes engagement with the game a much more rewarding experience.
Adams’ subsequent forays into digital games demonstrate similar degrees of lateral inventiveness. In Bureaucracy (1987), another text-only Infocom collaboration, Adams forces the player to engage in a range of bizarre encounters with Beadledom in an effort to achieve some apparently fairly simple tasks. The game explores Adams’ enduring frustration with various forms of bureaucracy, a recurring theme in both his fictional work and his many adroitly observed essays (many of which are collected together in the posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt (2003, Pan).
The subsequent Starship Titanic (1998), produced by Digital Village, situates the player aboard a magnificent out-of-control space liner populated by a diverse range of idiosyncratic characters. Monty Python luminaries Terry Jones and John Cleese respectively provide the voices for a tetchy parrot and hilariously pompous, computerized talking bomb a sort of bureaucratic British version of Clarke’s HAL 9000. While the game uses a textual interface system to enable the player to “talk” to the various characters, it utilizes advances in technology to facilitate a point and click navigation system and to render the spaceship environment and characters in all their art deco glory.
I was fortunate to see Adams talk in person immediately prior to the launch of Starship Titanic in a question-and-answer session he gave in London. Certainly in hindsight, given Adams’ subsequent unexpected death, this was a moving event, but it was at the time, too: during the sneak preview Adams gave his adoring audience he was clearly incredibly moved at seeing the vivid complexity of his environment brought to life. Whereas the older text-based games are curiously less prone to ageing, you might imagine that Starship Titanic, because of its reliance on graphics, might date badly, but actually it stands up pretty well. This is important, because once again the lateral conception of the various tasks in the game makes achieving things an often very complex activity. Once again, it is the journey the player undergoes which makes the game worth sticking with.
Douglas Adams died in May 2001. He was exercising in a gym in Los Angeles, and might have appreciated the irony that attempting to keep fit eventually did him in. That his other work in the fields of literature and drama somewhat overshadow his contributions to the field of video games is a crying shame. In a world where pompous people seem hell-bent on imposing their narrow worldviews on the rest of us, Adams’ work stands as a necessary, escapist-corrective. For a medium still in its infancy, the importance of Adams’ contribution needs to be acknowledged.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/harvey040519/