I’m very glad that Michael suggested Grim Fandango as the introductory game for the Vintage Game Club, because adventure games and I go way back. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I’m fairly sure that I was aware of the Colossal Cave adventure before we even owned a computer: I think my brother got an account (or used our dad’s account?) on the Oberlin College systems, they had a version of it there (a 550-point version, not the standard 350-point version), and he told me about it. In fact, he was once willing to let me “play” it via a typewriter, with him simulating the computer – isn’t he a sweetie?
We didn’t have any game consoles when I was growing up (I didn’t own any until grad school), but we did get an Apple ][+ at some point. (The summer after fifth grade sounds about right, but I can’t remember for sure.) I played quite a few games on that system; probably the ones that stuck with me the most were the Infocom adventure games. (Though the various Ultima games are a close second.) Most people think of Zork when they think of Infocom, but we didn’t have a copy of that (or its two sequels); I’ve played it since, but I’m not sure it added all that much to the Colossal Cave formula. We did, however, have the tangentially related games Enchanter and Sorcerer, and I very much enjoyed those: they present a much more coherent environment than their predecessors, they add a well-done magic system as a gameplay element. And the games were actually solvable without hints, which mattered a lot more in that pre-gamefaqs time. Though I do remember having to bang my head against the stairs in Enchanter a lot – did I eventually figure that out myself or did I get a hint from a friend somehow?
I believe (but I’m not entirely sure, I might have only played it later) that we got the Hitchiker’s Guide game; not one of my favorites, they chose jokes over gameplay and the jokes were a lot better in the books. (At that time, the fact that works in other media rarely survive the journey to video games wasn’t yet burned into my brain.) A game with experimental gameplay that worked better was Suspended, where you had to switch back and forth between six robots with different senses and abilities to explore the world.
Which brings me to the packaging. Those were the days when (the best) games came with real, well-written manuals. Actually, ‘manual’ isn’t the right word, since that suggests something focused on instructions for playing the game: these, instead, were generally artifacts from the world of the game, e.g. a newspaper issue from the game, a one-zorkmid coin, etc. And Infocom was one of the best at this. (Though I also fondly remember the cloth map and ankh that came with Ultima II, if I’m remembering correctly.) Some of you may have seen the grey box editions of their games, but the earlier packaging of the games was even more impressive: I had the edition of Suspended that came with the huge inset plastic death mask and a map with tokens for the robots to move around, and I’m still kicking myself for not having saved that.
My favorite of their games, however, was Planetfall. Great gameplay, well thought-out puzzles; but the reason why the game sticks in my mind a quarter-century is Floyd. I’m probably missing some good examples, but I’m still not sure I’ve run into another video game NPC that mattered as much to me as Floyd did: he was this wonderful childish robot who tagged along, helping and entertaining you, and the scene where you have to send him to his doom (for which he bravely volunteers, if I’m remembering) combined with this later reappearance still choke me up as I’m typing this.
I didn’t manage to play their later games at the time: Spellbreaker needed too much memory to run on the Apple ][+ (perhaps a blessing in disguise, I played it later and it wasn’t nearly as good as Enchanter and Sorcerer), and I also missed out on Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging. I did play a bit of the former eventually, but I still haven’t either finished the former or gotten around to the latter; both would be excellent choices for later Vintage Game Club installments. (As would almost any of the games I’ve mentioned here!)
One other Infocom side note: their games were written in a language that compiled to a virtual machine, the Z-Machine. It has since been reverse engineered, and I wrote an interpreter for it in order to learn C++ when I was transitioning out of academia; if any of you are thinking of learning a new programming language and are looking for a decent-sized project to implement, you could do a lot worse than that.
I don’t recall playing many (any?) adventure games during my undergrad years. During grad school I rounded out my Infocom experience a bit more, and played Myst; I thought that game was excellent, but for whatever reason it didn’t inspire me to seek out more graphical adventures. Maybe I was jaded; maybe (despite Myst‘s phenomenal popularity), adventure games just weren’t near the center of the video game world the way they were in the early 80’s; maybe I was spending too much time learning math, doing research, reading books, and other unwholesome activities. Which was probably the correct choice at the time, but I’m very glad to have this opportunity to fill in a bit of my missing cultural heritage.
The club launches today; please join in! Just play Grim Fandango, hop on over to the discussion forum, and you’re all set.
This post has not been revised since publication.