If that title didn’t make much sense to you then you’re going to have to bail out right now or take a deep breath and brace yourself for more of the same, because it’s all downhill from here. It is of course a piece of Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A wildly inventive classic sci-fi comedy that started out as a radio drama, then became a book, then a surprisingly good TV show for something made on an Eighties BBC comedy budget riding an undercurrent of unhealthy disagreements, then the text adventure I’m going to get around to examining in a few paragraphs time, then after an enormous gap a really-not-too-bad-all-things-considered movie starring the man who would go on to be both Bilbo Baggins and Dr Watson.
In yet another author-lead tweaking of Arthur Dent’s tale, this 1984 text adventure takes huge chunks from the original Hitchhiker’s, adds a dash of Restaurant, then abruptly cuts off just before anyone gets to set foot on the legendary planet Magrathea – a sequel was teased in the end scene, but sadly never completed. You mustn’t let that minor let-down put you off though as what’s here is as well-written as the very best parts of the books and that means anything you encounter within Hitchhiker’s is automatically better than the text found in most of the games created in the thirty-five years that have passed since. Hitchhiker’s did funny things to me when I first encountered it, rudely awakening the previously dormant part of my brain (contrary to popular opinion yes, I do have one) that’s responsible for a profound love of a specifically and unexplainably British kind of weirdness – and my life changed forever. The game hums with exactly the same brand of oddball razor-sharp humour/clarity, and anyone brave enough to persevere with it will eventually find themselves reaching a point where carrying tea as well as no tea together in their inventory seems like the perfectly reasonable solution to a talking door’s intelligence test (but only after the player’s physically removed Arthur’s sole common sense particle while standing inside his own brain), amongst many other perfectly-logical-ish-but-you-really-had-to-be-there scenarios.
Getting an ancient computer game up and running tends to be a bit of a struggle even at the best of times these days so it’s a good thing the BBC, bless their cotton TV license funded socks, not only went to the trouble of sorting out whatever legal finagling and code-based nightmares stood in the way of a 20th anniversary version of the game, but a decade later they tidied it up again for the 30th anniversary edition – and it’s still online. Want to play the best and most accessible version of the game for free with absolutely minimal effort? Click this way!
And that’s exactly what I did last week when I made a sneaky little reference in my previous blog post – only what was supposed to be a quick detour for the sake of a bit of fun ended up with me being completely absorbed by the game right until the very end. It’s hard, you’ll die a lot (a lot), and you’ll often find yourself making good progress while simultaneously silently locking yourself into an impossible-to-continue scenario at several points along the way. Yes, it’s bloody annoying – but it’s also utterly brilliant and an eternal joy to see a game so thoroughly and openly revel in its unique setting, carrying players along on sheer craft and enthusiasm alone.
I first encountered this particular strand of Hitchhiker’s on Commodore’s blessed Amiga, not that the format really makes a difference here (as a text adventure there’s basically nothing between any of the various ports). Needless to say I, like everyone else, didn’t get very far at the time – although I can remember lugging around the incredibly heavy spare probability drive and not knowing what to do with it (which is mostly leave it where you find it – just plug it into the vector plotter and put the long, dangly, bit into a suitable generator of Brownian Motion – apart from that one time you need to turn nuclear missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias), which means that I did at least somehow get past the comically cruel “get the Babel fish” part.
That particular puzzle is the first true test of your adventuring skills and a notorious early roadblock for many otherwise perfectly capable gamers. It should be a straightforward task: You need a Babel fish. You can see there’s a fully functional Babel fish dispenser in the room dishing the little auto-translating aquatics out at knee-height at the push of a button. So in theory all you have to do is…
>Press dispenser button
…and watch the plot-progressing poisson shoot across the room and through a small hole in the wall, lost forever.
After carefully examining the area and everything Arthur’s carrying you may discover that his dressing gown has a loop in it – just the thing you need to hang it up on the hook above that pesky hole in the wall…
>Press dispenser button
The next fish hits the gown with a satisfying thud and starts to slither down the garment – Oh! It’s going to land in his pocket, isn’t it?! – before plopping through a drainage grate in floor, never to be seen again. Right, back to the drawing board. What’s around here that could cover the grate…? Your towel! That’s it! So you cover that previously unmentioned grate with the towel and prepare to bask in the warm glow of a tricky puzzle put to rest.
>Press dispenser button
The fish hits the gown. Then it hits the towel. Then…
Then a cleaning robot dashes across the floor and tidies the fish away before disappearing out of sight through a panel in the wall before you can react. An intimidating Vogon has started shouting something that’s probably desperately important over the ship’s tannoy – you could understand what they were saying if only you had a bloody Babel fish in your ear…
So you’re not done yet – and it turns out you can block the robot’s exit with… Ford’s satchel! OK, this is it!
>Press dispenser button
The fish hits the gown. Then it hits the towel. The cleaning robot grabs the fish and hurtles into the satchel – yes! – then.. then…
Then the impact forces the fish from the robot’s grasp and high into the air, where a special upper half of the room cleaning robot catches it before zipping off with your much-needed prize.
Congratulations, you have just invented a new swear word.
The final piece of the puzzle involves placing some junk mail on top of Ford’s satchel to distract the upper half of the room cleaning robot – the junk mail only found on Arthur’s doormat, the junk mail inside the house that got demolished on the planet that was just obliterated to make way for an intergalactic bypass.
To be very clear on this point: There is no way to go back and get the junk mail if you missed it.
Upon realising this there’s a very good chance you vocalised another new swear word, assuming you didn’t choke on your own foaming spittle as you tried to force it out of your rage-filled throat. For those of you who, like me, lazily commanded Arthur to “>Take all” in every room up to this point you can relax because you’ve got just one last thing to do…
>Press dispenser button
What’s that? Oh, that’s the sound a Babel fish dispenser makes when it’s run out of fish, forcing you to restart from an earlier save (or the beginning of the game, if you haven’t thought to save yet) and go have a little scream into a cushion for a bit.
By the time you finally clear this segment there’s a very good chance you will want to get up and cheer, weep inconsolably, and shove the game into an active volcano filled with chainsaw-wielding scorpions all in one smooth motion. Even know-it-all fans of Adam’s work couldn’t rely on any previously acquired knowledge to give them the answer as in the book Ford simply slaps the fish straight into Arthur’s ear (in the game The Man Definitely Not From Guildford is fast asleep until you sort this out for yourself) – but the good news is if you can survive the maddening teasing of this comically mean drawn-out sequence as well as Hitchhiker’s distinctive un-logic then well done, you’ve successfully recalibrated your noggin and passed the test, and you can feel safe in the knowledge that you’re currently in the right frame of mind and have everything you need to tackle the rest of the game.
Apart from a proper cup of tea, that is.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for not enjoying the Babel fish segment – it is by any measure of “normal” gaming standards completely broken and in any other scenario I, like the hypocrite I am, would be first in line to complain about a puzzle featuring so many unforeseeable petty snags that you can permanently fail, and one that requires a seemingly insignificant item you can’t go back and pick up by the time you realise it has a use. It’s also undeniably clever: In part because it’s simply a funny and well-written joke at your expense, but also because the ludicrous lengths you have to go to all for one fish, please, accurately mirrors Arthur’s frustration at the sudden alien-ness of his new surroundings and the major inconvenience of having everything he’s ever know utterly destroyed due to bureaucratic paperwork. You don’t have to be told he’s currently a bit upset and deeply annoyed at this point, because you’re literally feeling it on his behalf. We’re used to games making us look cool, or well up with sadness, or be disappointed in the thoughts people feel the urge to express over voice chat, but for a game to deliberately wind us up? That’s still pretty rare – and it takes a lot of faith from the author (or a lack of concern) in the person playing to deliberately aim for something that might end up being nothing more than deeply irritating and make for an easy excuse to drop the game forever.
Me? I love it.
Well, no. Yes! Um. I hated it – but in a loving sort of way. The tone of the game is infuriatingly perfectly in keeping with the friendly sarcasm of the books, which also means it’s most definitely not even close to being considered fair when viewed in traditional gaming terms – regular logic and reason are most definitely out to lunch, leaving you to deal with life, the universe, and everything, all by yourself. In theory this makes it a simple task to disengage at this point – a game that kills you a lot and goes out of its way to make life difficult is easy to walk away from under most circumstances – but instead Hitchhiker’s tries very hard to keep you hooked by way of some beautifully humorous observations as well as impressively well thought out instances of randomisation that force you to pay attention and actively engage with the game.
The first and most straightforward example you come to is in the Vogon spaceship – you need to know a specific word from the second verse of the captain’s poetry, and as this word is different every time you play you can’t lazily FAQ the solution before you’ve even heard it, which has the knock-on effect of making sure you can’t skip the infamous Babel fish section that comes before it too. There’s also an end of game request from Marvin, your Plastic Pal, that you can’t get right by brute forcing it because the thing he asks you for is always – and very deliberately – the one thing you won’t have with you unless you complete a different puzzle beforehand that involves growing a vision-granting fruit in a sauna, but we won’t go into that here. The most interesting one of all is the Dark (yes, capital D) – a mysterious nowhere hub area that links several disconnected yet relevant scenarios together as you quest across time and space for four pieces of fluff. The Dark is a disorientating and strange place – and it should be, seeing as your consciousness is travelling across all sorts of interesting and wholly impossible locations – but you can’t help but pay attention when your senses could end up taking you anywhere and anywhen, and as anyone too. These manageable micro-stories create a lot of variety from what would have otherwise been a very limited setting (Arthur is technically stuck on the Heart of Gold by himself for most of the game) and in their own way are a small island of calm in an ocean of chaos: You’ve got no idea what’s going on anywhere else, or indeed in general, but just maybe you can work out how Zaphod stole his improbable ship, work out how to evade a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Trall, or pick some fluff off Arthur’s jacket at a boring party, and restore a tiny bit of personal sanity in the process.
You’ll need to have some slight grip on reality because when the game’s not being random and unpredictable it will on occasion literally lie to your face: Your narrative guide through Hitchhiker’s is an unreliable soul and a borderline character in their own right, passing deadpan comments on your frequent deaths “You keep out of this, you’re dead.”, wilfully obstructing you on one memorable occasion and even giving a pithy little response if you choose to panic (or “don’t panic”, if you’ve kept the Guide’s cover in mind). If I briefly put my sensible gamer hat on this is all extremely annoying and plain unfair, and the next logical step is to feel mistrust towards a game that will break into a smile at your expense for no apparent reason other than its own personal amusement. This is all wrong – the game exists for your benefit, doesn’t it? It should do what it’s damned well told and only ever tell you things you need to know.
Unless it’s better this way? Getting sassed by a responsive interface and having to fight just to get it to behave at times makes the whole game feel so alive, as if it’s genuinely listening to your input and reacting to you, personally. Nobody said you had to be friends with your UI. One especially fantastic “stand on your chair and thank the goddess for your existence” moment occurs later on in the game when you find yourself experiencing the opening segment from Ford’s, rather than Arthur’s, perspective:
“You look around. You notice the bulldozer properly for the first time. You notice Arthur’s house. You notice the workmen. The penny drops. His HOUSE is about to be demolished. You feel like a complete… what’s the word?”
The narrator pauses, awaiting your input. You’ve got this. You’ve come this far, through tea substitutes, feeding cheese sandwiches to hungry dogs, and Zaphod Beeblebrox sodding off to the sauna. You’ve struggled against terrible odds, won through, and know exactly where your towel is.
You feel like a complete…?
It’s got to work. It has to. This game’s far too clever, too self aware, and the moment is just too good for either side to cock it up now.
“Thank you. An idiot is exactly what you feel like.”
Our unseen orator was clearly fishing for it – it’d be kipper-to-the-face obvious in any normal conversation – but in a game? It’s such a small thing but the result’s incredible, a pure drop of true interactive fiction: For one glorious moment the game was, however briefly, like having a conversation with a sassy pal and neither the decades passed, the interface, nor anything else at all came between the game and the person playing it.
To think a text adventure adaptation of a comedy radio play from 1978 has the guts to roll up and show up every other game like that is nothing less than astonishing.
Except it’s not really a text adventure, is it? It’s interactive Hitchhiker’s and only after you’ve died and died and died, after you’ve missed something you definitely needed yet again and had to ask “Who am I?” on several occasions and got a different response each time, do you start to grasp how to approach it and understand what it wants from you – it doesn’t care about the usual expectations of games or gamers, and that’s why this wonderful experience endures: It’s a lot harder to age if you were never following the trends to begin with, after all. The game’s a brave title that make us relinquish a little bit of the control we expect to have and play a game in the more innocent sense of the term, to be teased and have the opportunity to tease back. Hitchhiker’s remains a sublime piece of fiction in any form you choose to consume it in, but as a game it comes across as a joyfully experimental experience that still feels as refreshingly inventive as ever.