Gaming Made Me: The Hitchhiker’s Guide

By RPS on May 14th, 2011 at 11:39 am.

10 years ago this week, the great British author and dramatist Douglas Adams passed away suddenly at the age of just 49 – leaving behind a wealth of fiction, scripts, essays, humour and remarkable insight into the role of technology and the internet. Of course, it was the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a revered sci-fi comedy series which spanned radio, novels and video games, for which he will always be most renowned.

Here, Victoria Regan looks back to Adams’ seminal 1984 Hitchhiker’s text adventure game – a monochrome tale of the everyman, intergalactic absurdity and the bewildering cruelty of life.

The Mac took pride of place on the leather-topped desk in my Dad’s study, its blocky casing a fetching shade of beige which my brother would later christen ‘old man’s vest’. It was tall, with a tiny screen, and my Dad was acquiring an ever-expanding selection of games to play on it. His study was a mess of papers and books, records and cassettes, with disks on every surface in slithering piles that my brother and I would rummage through to find the game we wanted. Insert the disk. Wait impatiently for it to load. Suddenly the screen would go white, save for a few lines of text. Flashy and immediate it wasn’t.

It was here I learnt of the quiet heroism of Arthur Dent, who didn’t receive the notice about the forthcoming demolition of his home and found nothing of use within his dressing gown pockets except for a buffered analgesic. His willingness to lie down in the path of an oncoming bulldozer showed courage in the face of randomness, and randomness struck me then as what this game was all about, as I was sidelined from the action over and over by a smart-tongued aside.

Poor Arthur died countless times as I attempted to breach the fortress of vexing statements and clever words that I wasn’t yet old enough to understand, although I caught the tone and was intrigued. This was my first introduction to the work of Douglas Adams, in all its irreverent glory.

The Hitchhiker’s game left me curious and perplexed in equal measure. Why wasn’t my Dad any better at extracting progress from the game than I was? Or my older brother? The game was truly difficult. You would play for a few hours, learning by trial and error what the correct responses were to get you past the earliest hurdles, actually not getting very far at all. ‘Did you get onto the space ship?’ I’d ask my brother when he played, eager to hear news of what else the game had up its sleeve that I’d been unable to access but was keen to see. The urge to find out what was hidden was what I remember best, because this journey would be a fascinating, ever-unpredictable one; you could just tell.

We played again and again, challenged by the difficulty and drawn in by the clever words and brilliant mix of the humdrum and the fantastic. Hitchhiker’s made alien life seem as unexpected yet deeply predictable as our own, with its tribalism, rules and regulations and politics. Hazards such as being wiped out in a casual act of intergalactic roadhogging were presented with a world-weary shrug, as if it was all to be expected in the course of Arthur Dent’s very bad day. The game’s nonchalant tone was the core of its appeal to me, making me realise that stories in which noble heroes struggled to vanquish evil could be extremely banal, their very earnestness wiping out the scope for humour that Hitchhiker’s displayed.

Sometimes my brother and I would play the game together, with me sitting in the chair typing, whilst he leaned in to look at the screen, often walking gingerly around the book-strewn study floor with his hands crossed on top of his head as if to apply a thinking cap. We would invariably disagree about what response to type, get it wrong, or on the rare occasions we made some progress I would forget to save the game and we’d be back to the beginning again. The frustration was all part of the fun somehow, like my brother’s favourite toy of that time, the Rubik’s Magic. We were absorbed by Hitchhiker’s peculiar rewards because they were so very hard to attain.

Our family had a love affair with Macs, upgrading through every new model since the first one came out in 1984, so it seemed fitting to play a game developed by Adams, one of the first Mac owners in the UK. At my junior school, computing lessons consisted of typing lengthy code into a BBC computer that would, if successful, result in a full-screen picture of an owl made out of noughts and crosses when you pressed ‘Enter’. This lameness made the Mac games I played at home seem even more impressive and although other titles we had were easier and perhaps even more fun than Hitchhiker’s, that was the whole point; other games seemed dumb in comparison.

Douglas Adams was famous for his inability to meet a deadline, and with the Hitchhiker’s game perhaps he found a clever way of turning his problems with writing back onto his fans, presenting them with the empty page that every writer fears. Like mining a creative but cantankerous brain, it was up to you to winkle out the game hidden beneath, for Hitchhiker’s was sophisticated and self-confident enough to present its players with nothing but an empty screen with the briefest of phrases to get you started.

Like a club so exclusive that it has no need for a sign, the Hitchhiker’s game didn’t much care if you couldn’t get in, and affected an air of amused indifference to the fate of both protagonist and player. Too cool to be flashy or try-hard, it simply rolled its eyes at you and seemed to wonder when a more intelligent player was going to come along. ‘You keep out of this, you’re dead and should be concentrating on developing a good firm rigor mortis’ it would quip at you as you led Arthur Dent to another early demise at the hands of a bulldozer and a flying brick.

Arthur is a hapless foil for the events that are swinging his way, an everyman figure who only dimly remembers what he might have said in the pub the night before or indeed why he might have a hangover. You couldn’t help admiring his stoical response to a sea of surprising events, and in this respect playing Hitchhiker’s was a great preparation for adult life, in all its glorious muddle and confusion. Whilst Douglas Adams’ early death was a sad reminder of the randomness of life, the ultimate unfairness of it all, Hitchhiker’s gives us the enduring chance to admire his mischievous and original mind at play.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy can be played in your browser for free in its original version here, or as a modernised version with artwork here.

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45 Comments »

  1. JackShandy says:

    Oooh, god, I remember this. Can you believe that you had to feed the dog a sandwhich at the very start of the game or you were blown up by space invaders at the very end? Honestly, he’s having a laugh.

  2. tims says:

    Well said

  3. BooleanBob says:

    Babel fish. Robot vacuum cleaner. Astoundingly evil. All other memories: suppressed.

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      phlebas says:

      An infamously, horribly difficult puzzle. But an entirely fair one – it can be worked out in steps, and the clues are all there. It’s just bloody hard. And correspondingly rewarding when you finally get there.
      The sandwich puzzle, on the other hand…

  4. hungrytales says:

    This article, sir, is a proper tribute to the great man.

    • Persona Jet Rev says:

      I am pretty sure the author of this article does not like to be addressed as ‘sir’.

  5. lhzr says:

    according to google, Victoria Regan is a “Ballroom Dance Champion… and Broadway Performer”. huh.

    edit: what i mean is that it would’ve been nice if rps would’ve told us a little about their guest.

  6. Koozer says:

    Wait, wait. Douglas Adams is dead? What a great start to my Birthday-Boxing Day, thanks a bunch RPS.

  7. Ravenger says:

    I’ve still got my C64 version with the Joo Janta 200 Super Chromatic Peril Sensitive sunglasses, belly button fluff, microscopic space fleet, Don’t Panic button badge, and destruct orders for your home and planet included in the box.

    The manual supplied with the game was also amazing, an advertising booklet for the guide and was well worth a read in its own right. “The guide has more options than a 20 armed hrugmuss has hangnails!”.

  8. terry says:

    Very well-written article. I’ve got to confess that most Infocom games defeated me – there’s something deeply Sierra-like about their malevolent obscurity and none more so than Hitchhiker’s. Great game, but intimidating without a walkthrough.

    Interesting point about the blank page idea. The best text adventures definitely do their best to entangle you like a novel and the more blank the slate to begin with the more turns and twists the games can throw at you. I especially liked the Magnetic Scrolls games for this. Jinxter starts you on a banal bus journey and makes you potter around your house for a while before the game proper kicks in, Scapeghost … well, kills you and then makes you learn to be a ghost before it gives you much of a handle on the plot.

    The idea of distorting something familiar to make something new should be exercised a lot more often in gameworld crafting :-)

  9. Corrupt_Tiki says:

    These articles are great!

    I tried this game, all I got was a hard Bitchslap in the face from reality as I realised me and text adventure’s are incompatible.

  10. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Never could stomach games based on known books. And certainly not satirical books. The books were great thought. Along with Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet (the latter two wrote what’s perhaps my favorite book of them all; Good Omens), this “triumvirate” pretty much defined a great portion of my reading preferences still to this day.

    The games however… Dunno, maybe because I was such a fan of the books and the particular writing styles, as well as the book innate ability at keeping the narrative flowing, that games based on any of these authors always fell short for me. My bad, perhaps. But I was looking for something in the same vein of the experience of reading the books. And that’s certainly not possible.

    • CMaster says:

      Honestly, I still think by far the best version of The Guide was the original radio series. It much better suits the jokes and travel serial style. The books end up feeling they need a novel-length plot, rather than a series of (very improbably) adventures and always suffer a bit from that. Plus Bronthetal (sp) is much better than the Frogstar.

      Course, one of the joys of THHGTTG is that every version (radio, novel, TV, Film, game) is different, so having done one doesn’t spoil the others.

    • Rii says:

      Most of Douglas Adams’ appeal for me lay in his ability to use language to create or reinforce humour. The content also often contributed to the funny, but when pressed the words could serve alone, which is why I find ‘Last Chance to See’ almost as awesome as H2G2 and Dirk Gently. In that respect the books are unparalleled, and I hold Douglas Adams largely responsible for my own happy ignorance concerning proper sentence structure and the like.

    • Arglebargle says:

      @CMaster: Loved the radio series. We used to gather religiously and listen to it. Recorded it off the airwaves for friends who might miss an episode. Followed on with the books, TV, etc.

      The game: Less so.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Have only heard good things about the radio series. But unfortunately we didn’t have access to them back then, so I missed out. However, truth be told, I was 9 years old in 1978 and, as such, pretty much “immune” to Douglas Adam witty charm.

      Reading about it, it seems the last time they were re-released was in 1992. So I’m not sure if I could still find this somewhere.

    • CMaster says:

      @Mario
      I was born in 1986 and all. They’ve been re-released on CD fairly recently, as they made 3 new series (not written by DNA, but instead pretty much a retelling of novels 2, 3, 4 and 5 with a bit that apparently explains that series 2 was all a dream). The CDs/tapes/etc aren’t quite identical to the radio series, but they’re probably the closest most people (including myself) get to them.

    • Bhazor says:

      I don’t know about the different versions being a good thing. To me it’s like playing Ninja Gaiden Black, you know all the jokes coming up but you go through them to get to the new stuff.
      In this simile jokes are equivalent to ninjas.

      Edit: Just realised I was the 43rd comment. Terribly sorry Adam. Sodam.

  11. Ridnarhtim says:

    What an awesome man he was….

  12. Arglebargle says:

    Really enjoyed the story in it’s various forms. Adams was a hoot.

    The game suffered from the usual Infocom style horror of ‘Guess what the developer wanted you to say’. Thought they were all awful. The type of game where you die twenty times before finding out what the right little trick was, then progressed to the next 20 deaths (or whatever impediment was used) for the next trick, ad infinitum, was never my favorite. I learned my lesson after my second such game and kept away from them like the plague.

  13. trjp says:

    DNA – and specifically the HHG – are probably the main reason I’m an atheist (indeed an anti-theist).
    You can take Richard Dawkins’s (a personal friend of DNA) preaching and shove it, DNA demonstrates the futility of believing in a ‘sky wizard’/afterlife/our so-called uniqueness by parodying the whole human condition, our obsession with our self and in particular, our obsession with digital watches…
    There was something truly special going-on in his head – he will never be replaced…

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      I hope you are joking and didn’t base your decision to be an atheist on satirical books. It’s not that different from becoming religious because you read the bible. Unless you actually heard any of Douglas Adams talks on the subject, the books only approach the subject in satirical terms. And to my knowledge Douglas Adams never lectured on the values, virtues, or vices of Religion or lack of it. He simply made his position known on these matters.

      Besides, if you were to accept their books as some kind of gospel for atheists, you should realize they also have a strong nihilist (the existential kind) influence. And I bet you have your reservations about becoming a nihilist because Douglas Adams wrote, not in uncertain terms, about it in a few books of satire.

      That said, I’m myself an atheist. But can’t really put my finger on what made me become one. Certainly many influences. But, I’d like to think that life, more than a few comedy books, had the strongest influence. Heck, television will make anyone paying attention an atheist in no time! But Douglas Adams? I’m not even sure he would like to know he had that sort of influence.

    • PoLLeNSKi says:

      He said ‘MAIN’ reason. Not the only reason. I think DA sowed the seeds that germinated in my mind and achieved adulthood with the sunshine of Bill Hicks for me.

    • trjp says:

      Despite being taken to church, Sunday School and having a quite religious mum and Grandma, I never really took religion seriously. It always seemed a bit naff to me and no-one could answer my questions in a way which made sense.
      I’m actually quite chuffed about that because FAR smarter people than I have been drawn into this belief nonsense…
      When you’re 12/13 years old and just begining to get some idea of the scale of the human condition, something like HHG definately tips you in one direction tho. The idea that you can scale back your place in the universe for a moment (using a small piece of fairycake) appeals – I’d survive the Total Perspective Vortex because I know how insignificant I am ;)
      For the record, you don’t “become” an Atheist tho – it’s not a decision you take, it’s simply a lack of belief. I don’t “believe” there isn’t a God/Gods – I simply don’t consider the idea worthy of thought due to the total lack of evidence behind it.
      Some people say I should be agnostic because I don’t KNOW there isn’t a God – but I don’t KNOW there isn’t a Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Leprechauns and no-one is “Agnostic” about those are they? :)

    • Jason Moyer says:

      And to my knowledge Douglas Adams never lectured on the values, virtues, or vices of Religion or lack of it.

      Your knowledge would be provably false, sir.

    • Rii says:

      Pro cock-tease.

    • trjp says:

      To follow-up Jason Moyer’s comment

      http://www.atheists.org/Interview:__Douglas_Adams

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kK1YgR7J0g

      He’s creditted in The God Delusion too – that practically makes you a disciple of the ‘lack of religion’ that is Atheism…

    • Jason Moyer says:

      To follow up the follow up to my post, here’s his speech at Cambridge:

      http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/

      I’m pretty sure this and the American Atheists interview are both in Salmon of Doubt (which every DNA fan has surely read) but I could be wrong.

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      Harlander says:

      Until this very point I never knew that Douglas Adams had a middle name, or that people called him “DNA”.

      I was all “A DNA fan? Me too, I couldn’t live without the stuff”

    • adonf says:

      Thanks for the links. I didn’t know about the Starship Titanic game and novel that they mention at the end of the American Atheists article (although the novel is by not by Adams but by Terry Jones. He’s my favourite Python wen he dresses as a woman so that’s good anyways)

      Has anyone here played this game ?

  14. Sarkhan Lol says:

    I dimly remember trying to get into… I think it was the engine room, and being constantly told “No, you don’t want to go in there.” In various dismissive and discouraging tones. You had to keep trying until the parser finally cracked and let you in, whereupon you were told there’s absolutely nothing of interest. You had to keep typing LOOK until it finally throws its metaphorical hands up and spitefully informs you of the various objects lying around. And that’s why this game was so damn special.

    • sekullbe says:

      I love the books but that’s what made me hate the game. I just couldn’t abide the game flat out lying to me for no “real” reason.

    • Sarkhan Lol says:

      It was just another part of the meta-puzzle, for me. Realize that the parser itself was basically a passive-aggressive co-worker who wanted you to fail. Everything fell into place after that.

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    luminosity says:

    I never managed to get past the bulldozer/brick death in this game when I tried it. I ended up giving up and going back to the Zork games, which I never finished, but could at least make steady progress in. I ended up looking up walkthroughs for them all years later. Turned out I was two actions off winning Enchanter, and had no idea at the time.