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More Interviews With the Infocommies

The following interviews Matt Newsome conducted with Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame, were compiled from a number of email exchanges during the spring of 1996. Marc and Dave were the credited authors of the original Zork game, while Steve furthered the saga with Zork Zero. Matt started by asking them how they felt about other people furthering the Zork story...

Marc Blank: I'm pleased that there is still interest in the Zork universe, and somewhat surprised whenever I hear people express continued delight with the old text-only games.

Dave Lebling: I don't particularly feel they're "maintaining" the saga, other than to keep the Zork name before a public that has mostly forgotten text adventures. What Activision is doing is exploiting a well-known trademark that they own. They're certainly entitled to do this, but I get somewhat the same feeling as I do when I hear someone is making a sequel to Casablanca.

On the other hand, if they asked me to do it (or Marc, or Brian, or Steve) that might be another matter. Then they'd at least get a legitimate perversion of the original.

This is not to run down the creative efforts of the people who have worked on their new games -- I'm not one of those who think things like the Star Trek "franchise" books are evil. You can do good work even within those limitations.

Steve Meretzky: Well, even though I had a hand in developing the Zork universe, I certainly came in years after its birth, so far be it from me to say that no one besides the original creators should work within that universe. If that were so, I never would've have gotten a chance to write Sorcerer and Zork Zero. I would say that people continuing the saga is a good thing as long as they spend the time to become thoroughly familiar with the earlier games and remain true to their spirit.

XYZZYnews: Have you played Return to Zork or Zork:Nemesis? If so, do you feel they accomplish the kind goals you were striving for in Infocom's games? Assuming you have played the graphical Zorks, do you feel they are progressing in the direction you would like, or are they losing the plot (sorry, bad pun!)?

Blank: I played RTZ for a short while, and felt it was a great victory for style over substance. And, although the interface was highly touted at the time, I thought it was particularly clumsy. I might try Zork Nemesis if somebody would send me a copy, but I certainly don't have enough interest to purchase the game.

My sense, from talking to Zork Nemesis' producer, is that there was every intention to follow the direction taken in the original zork games, though I am more than a little skeptical. However, since I haven't played the game, it wouldn't be fair to comment further.

Lebling: I've played Return to Zork, which I thought was a flawed but ambitious attempt at a graphic adventure. It didn't really have much to do with Zork, of course. The puzzles were pretty lame, the acting was awful, there was no story. However, on the plus side they were trying to do something big and interesting. Like many first attempts, it wasn't that awesome. I haven't played Zork: Nemesis yet, but I plan to. I've heard reasonably good things about it, so I'm actually more-or-less looking forward to it.

I think they are attempting to be good graphical adventure games. This is not the same thing as being a good Zork game. There's no inherent reason why one can't write a good graphical Zork, but the "goals," if any, of the Zork series had more to do with creating an immersive environment that projected the illusion of complete responsiveness and flexibility. The idea was "interactive fiction," not "interactive movies." An "interactive movie" _can_ be "interactive fiction," but most interactive movies aren't even terrifically interactive.

As the graphical component of the games has taken over, the interactivity and responsiveness have dropped. We tried to make our games understand anything (taking the word "anything" with several large grains of salt, of course) that the user could type in.

A major issue in adventure games is always communication between the game and the player. We tried to solve the "guess the word" problem by widening the communication channel. Graphic games "solve" it by narrowing the channel. This is too bad.

Meretzky: I played Return to Zork to the end. I have only played Zork Nemesis for an hour or so, not getting beyond the temple. In addition, I've read a few reviews and walkthroughs. I thought that Return to Zork was particularly weak in matching the visual feel of the Zork Universe; it was too modern, not fantasy-ish enough, and not very "quirky". There were a few good puzzles, but most were pretty mediocre. The acting was pretty awful, and the story was pretty uncompelling, and was confusingly told. On the other hand, the interface was excellent, and the music was among the best I've heard in an adventure game.

Based on the little I saw, Zork Nemesis: was visually somewhat closer to my mental image of the Zork universe. The panoramic view of locations is far superior to RTZ's sudden 90 degree or 180 degree turns. On the other hand, the interface is far shallower than RTZ; they lobotomized many of the best features of the RTZ interface. Also, they appear to have completely thrown out character interaction! Design decisions appear to be completely driven by Myst-imitation syndrome, rather than keeping what worked well in RTZ and improving on it. Also, while RTZ has some of the humor of the original Zorks, ZN seems to have none. Based on what I've seen, ZN is much further from the spirit of Zork than RTZ.

By the way, my company (Boffo Games) is currently creating a large graphic adventure, to be published this Xmas by Rocket Science. Called The Space Bar, it is comparable in size and budget to ZN. As part of this effort, we are creating an adventure game engine called BAGEL (Boffo Adventure Game Engine and Libraries). When you see BAGEL (in the form of The Space Bar) you will see that it is much closer to RTZ than to ZN or Myst (although it does feature a panoramic view of locations, just like ZN). To me, BAGEL is where Activision should have gone from RTZ, but didn't. I am obviously speaking about adventure games in general here, rather than the Zork universe specifically.

XYZZYnews: Given that the interactive fiction Infocom produced enjoys such a devoted following, do you feel, as has been expressed by some critics of the new games, that graphics will never quite achieve what text adventures bring, i.e. in terms of atmosphere, immersion, etc.?

Blank: I wouldn't go so far as to say that graphics will NEVER achieve that which is possible with text (or audio, for that matter), but I have no trouble saying that the recent efforts have not been notably successful.

Lebling: "Do you feel that film will never quite achieve what books bring, et...." Graphic adventures are a different medium from text adventures. They have their own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes film is better than a book: think of 2001 as an example. Sometimes the book is better than the film: think of Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter. Text adventures are a medium of the mind, graphic adventures are a medium of the eyes.

Meretzky: It is hard to imagine that budgets of graphic adventures will ever be large enough to show everything that we were able to describe in a 100K text adventure, and therefore graphic adventure will indeed never match the depth of text adventures. On the other hand, I never dreamed that we'd see $10 million computer games, or 4GB computer games, so who knows what might happen in another 5 or 10 years?

XYZZYnews: Do you have any suggestions as to how these games could be improved?

Blank: I wouldn't presume to tell Activision how to run their business.

Lebling: Graphic games could be improved by recognizing that they aren't just Hollywood movies on a CD (or seven CDs, as the case may be). Too many use non-interactive sequences to excess, have limited interactivity throughout (heaven forfend that the user should have to *gasp* type!), have unimaginative puzzles, and so on, ad nauseum. Even Myst, which was in most respects pretty awesome, had really limited puzzles -- they were all "push the button" puzzles.

Meretzky: Again, watch for The Space Bar. While it certainly doesn't have the depth of gameplay that Infocom text adventures have, I think it will come closer than any graphic adventure ever has.

XYZZYnews: What would you say to someone who was about to embark on writing an IF game for the first time (graphical or textual in basis)?

Blank: I enjoyed the process of writing IF, particularly in considering the varied directions that our stories and/or puzzles could take. For someone of similar inclination, I would think it would be a rewarding and challenging proposition. However, I wouldn't try to convince anyone that writing if is a smart career move (anymore than I would say that writing novels is, for that matter).

Lebling: "Are you sure? Have you had your head examined?"

Meretzky: Advice: become familiar with the great games of the genre, and don't bother writing one unless you are prepared to push the genre significantly forward in some area, either technically or creatively.

XYZZYnews: Finally, if you had all the time and money to indulge whatever whim you fancied, would you go back to writing text adventures, employ the new technology to create multi-media games like Zork Nemesis, or do something else entirely?! (If it's not too personal, what would that other something be?)

Blank: I, with my partners (who include Mike Berlyn--author of Suspended, Infidel, etc. for infocom), are working on console games for the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. In all honesty, I have more fire in the belly for this sort of thing than I do for IF at this time. This is not to say that I haven't mused about doing another IF game, but I'm really not sure that the time is right.

Lebling: I suppose that in that unlikely eventuality, I'd do a graphic adventure as exciting and immersive as the best of the Infocom games, with great puzzles, full interactivity, great writing, and awesome graphics and sound. Or at least I'd try. I don't think I'd write another text adventure: "Been there, done that, wore out the T-shirt." Why do the same thing over and over again? Infinite loops are for computers.

Meretzky: If I had all the time and money to indulge whatever whim I fancied, I'd be lying on the beach in Tahiti reading through my backlog of about five million books while scantily dressed native women brought me a never-ending supply of rum punch. But seriously, I don't think I'd write text adventures, because I don't think there's much of a market for them anymore, and even aside from financial considerations I want lots and lots of people to play my games. I would just try to create a graphic adventure which allowed the player to do as many different things as the Infocom text games allowed.

Just as an aside from this interview with Dave, Marc and Steve, I thought it would be nice to end off with some brief comments from Stu Galley and Liz Cyr-Jones. Stu wrote Witness, Seastalker and Moonmist for Infocom while Liz was primarily the manager of the testing group. Here's what they had to say about the strength of Infocom and the work environment in contrast with the graphical adventure houses of the 90s:
Stu Galley: As for graphics in interactive story-telling, I'll say what I said to Bruce Davis when he took over Activision and wanted to launch a media empire: that it's not practical for a developer to implement all the various graphics needed to present a really flexible story in a convincing way. With words alone, a good writer can plant images and ideas in the player's mind using only a fraction of the bytes that pictures would need. And that's not counting the different personal ways that different players will envision the story.

Liz Cyr-Jones: I think Infocom's success was due in large part to the personalities of everyone involved. It was very magical; we'd have very serious discussions of what grues actually looked like, and whether they really would eat an adventurer, and stuff like that. The work environment was very nonserious. What I mean is, though we took games seriously, it was possible to get a bunch of people together and play Boggle on the mainframe.

Infocom nostalgia? I remember Marc interviewing some guy (can't for the life of me remember who it was) in his trademark aloha shirt and jeans, but he reclined on a chaise lounge, wore his sunglasses and sipped a frothy drink replete with umbrella and straw. In our heyday, we had a lot of perks-among them, free soda, bagels on Mondays...we also had a ping pong table in this huge room. This was '85...we used to play ping pong at times during the day.

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