Scanning Infocom

Posted: November 25th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, production, Text Adventure History | 7 Comments »

There are worse places to be than Steve Meretzky’s basement.

As part of the GET LAMP project, I’ve been collecting artifacts and images throughout the commercial heydays of text adventures, and nobody got bigger than Infocom in the early 1980s. And Steve was one of the big designers at Infocom, creating or co-creating some of the most lasting games in the genre: Planetfall, Sorcerer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Stationfall… and then went on after Infocom to make many other classics as well. He is a towering figure in the games industry, recognized as one of the greats, among other designers who have produced one-tenth his output.

But beyond his place in the history of text adventures, he’s also acutely aware of the history of text adventures, and the process, and the trends of a gaming industry. Unlike a lot (and I do mean the vast majority) of commercial text adventure authors, he’s still in the game-making business; a lot moved into other programming jobs, or contract work, or basically stepping upwards into management of other programmers. (A few walked away from computers as a livelihood, too.)

But even beyond that, beyond the fact that he was this great designer and also associated with this great company and has been a willing participant in recounting the history of this genre, is the fact that he’s been a tireless archivist of all the history he’s walked through or been a part of.

This can’t be trumpeted enough: Steve saved everything.

He’s let me go through a lot of what he saved, to scan parts of it for use in my movie. And there was a lot to go through.

He followed one of the core tenets of archiving: save everything you can, because you never know what will end up being the most important items in the regard of history. He saved memos, handwritten notes, ad copy, correspondence with printers and PR folk. He saved invitations to parties, softball game announcements, photos and sketches.

This is also critical: it’s sorted. He didn’t sort it to the level of fanaticism that would require someone to only keep a subset of stuff, but he has it in arrangements that made my life a lot easier: memos by years, folders for sales, folders for drawings, and game design binders. Did I mention the game design binders? Every scrap of paper related to the design of his games, thousands of pages of revision, discussion, improvements, dead ends and so on.

He also had a really nice copy of Cornerstone, the ultimately-failed Infocom business product:

I can’t imagine there are that many pristine copies of this product left; that one of them would be in the collection of someone whose company partially failed because of this product shows his stellar attitude to saving the artifacts.

I wish more people who worked in firms of great fame or whose company has or had great influence in the minds of the world would be like this. While for many it might not be informative to browse over the castoffs of a commercial enterprise, for others it’s a perfect insight into what came before. Infocom had to pioneer many now-common ideas in marketing, production and programming approach; the academics that started the company threw a lot of very interesting incubated ideas into the mix and I personally believe that’s what led to its initial success. Beyond that, though, you can’t discount the work of their creative teams to turn very good game ideas into must-have classics.

I must state clearly that not every step of Infocom was a sure-footed midas touch, and not every choice made came back a hundred-fold in riches. Contained in these documents are silly demands, poorly-considered options, badly-handled maneuvers, and the failings of people all too human.

These are not items saved to trot out at every gathering of folks to self-aggrandize. They aren’t trumpeted in every piece of post-1990 correspondence to win arguments by fiat. This is a collection of influential writings and behind the scenes artifacts that a serious student of games and self-proposed archive of gaming materials would have to acknowledge as a world-class library. We are all very lucky that Steve had the forward-thinking approach to his work to keep such a tight record of the last few decades of his productive life. We will all be better for it.

How lucky I was to have contact with Steve Meretzky. How lucky we all are!

7 Comments on “Scanning Infocom”

  1. 1 Matt said at 1:54 pm on November 25th, 2008:

    I’ve interviewed Steve too. He has always been kind and participative with the fan community in my experience – a truly nice guy.

    He’s also very funny. At the end of the interview I asked him what his inside leg measurement was. He replied that he didn’t have an inside leg, just two outside ones :-)

  2. 2 josh g. said at 10:52 pm on November 25th, 2008:

    “I wish more people who worked in firms of great fame or whose company has or had great influence in the minds of the world would be like this.”

    Most people who work in firms of great fame, etc these days would be risking their jobs by archiving company information like this. I had someone watching very carefully as I packed up my desk’s contents when I was laid off from a game industry job, and they were equally paranoid about access to CD-ROM burners or any other writable media. I think even printing out an internal phone list was technically against the rules.

  3. 3 Elizabeth said at 6:35 am on November 27th, 2008:

    I happen to know Steve’s inside leg measurement and it is not as long as you’d think, nor is it nearly as long as his son’s, the nearly as infamous 4 summer veteran QA maven of Harmonix.

  4. 4 Johan Herrenberg said at 8:38 am on November 27th, 2008:

    Those pics are quite mouth-watering…

  5. 5 MrX_TLO said at 11:31 pm on December 9th, 2008:

    Very cool!

  6. 6 namekuseijin said at 4:47 pm on February 26th, 2009:

    Terrific! I’m very eager to buy a copy of the documentary once it lands.

  7. 7 Advice_Man said at 12:39 pm on February 10th, 2011:

    You must absolutely put me down for a copy of this. The level of research you are putting forth here gives me hope for the preservation of the culture that 99.99% of the populace cared nothing for when we were kids. Very well done so far! Thank you.

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