The First Virtual Worlds were Invisible

zork-I

Image: Infocom (1980)

Today I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sebastian Heath’s 3D modeling/simulation class at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) about archaeogaming, specifically about the nature of built environments within the context of video games. But my opening image was the one above, that of the first Zork game published by Infocom in 1980. The kicker: this classic piece of interactive fiction had no graphics at all yet created an immersive world.

My first experience with interactive fiction was not Zork, but was instead another Infocom title, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984), which I played on a first-generation Macintosh. One of the main criticisms about Macs was that there were so few games for them, so when I got this one for Christmas, I was overjoyed and spent the next couple of weeks reliving some of the most excellent bits of Douglas Adams’ novels, never mind that I was 12 and had no idea what “bitter” was, except that it was a muscle relaxant. Or so the game taught me. Here is a sample screen (albeit from a non-Mac rubbish version):

infocom

Opening screen, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Infocom (1984)

Between the game’s text and the text remembered from the novel (which I ultimately destroyed from overuse), I was quite satisfied to navigate myself-as-Arthur-Dent from Earth into space with my friend Ford Prefect (whom I insisted was named Ford PERFECT) and others, enduring Vogon poetry and other nasty business. I didn’t need graphics to understand the virtual world. Words were enough, and have been enough for world-building for hundreds if not thousands of years (when one counts Gilgamesh and Homeric epic). The difference of course was the interaction, that I could direct the story (or at least navigate its parameters) to either hilarious or tear-inducing results.

Once I finished the game, I played it again, and again, and again, until I had mastered/remembered each correct action/response. This became my first speed run of a game (a little over an hour), and I did it because it was fun. It was probably the first thing I’d ever really mastered, and was finally something that I could do that my parents and other friends couldn’t. You can watch a speed run (not mine) of Hitchhiker’s here. You can play the 30th anniversary version of the game for free via the BBC website (no registration required).

One of the coolest things about the game was that it came packaged with swag including pocket fluff, a microscopic space fleet, peril-sensitive sunglasses, and a Don’t Panic button. Today’s players rarely get real-world gear unless they pay a premium for a limited edition of a game. Having these artifacts on-hand helped make the virtual experience even more real. And no, I never attempted driving in the opaque eyewear. I swear.

hhgttg

Hitchhiker’s unboxed. Image: retro-treasures.blogspot.com

It’s too easy to imagine and experience virtual worlds as things we can see when we play, supplemented by audio design. Game franchises such as Zork ultimately went the graphics route, but kept things simple to convey the idea of a location, say a white house. I do see a return to the ’80s in the form of Twine games. I wonder when we’ll finally get a game set in a virtual world comprised only of audio effects and music with nothing to see. The first virtual worlds were invisible, and perhaps some future ones will be as well.

NOTE: Prof. Bill Caraher had a similar epiphany in 2008, which you can read here.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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6 thoughts on “The First Virtual Worlds were Invisible

  1. The nice thing about dispensing with graphics, is that you can get away with a lot. We’ve experimented with using this kind of thing to teach literacy to grade school kids, and to complicated ideas about geographic space with 3rd yr university students. I think there’s a lot of mileage for archaeogaming if we turn cpu/gpu power over to text based sims…

  2. This really brings me back to my Apple IIc days! Have you ever played Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards? I think it was later in the ’80s. I miss all the cool stuff you used to get with games.

    • I remember my dad letting me play LSL at his office(!) and telling me just to play poker. But yeah, the swag that came in the box was great — now you have to pay a premium for that, if you buy software in a box at all.

      • Haha! Your dad had a copy of that game? That’s awesome. I don’t think my parents had a clue as to the nature of that game of ill repute.

        On the subject of computer games, the Myst series were one of my favorites. I’ve lost one or two girlfriends when those came out. And I would do it all over again.

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