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Inside View: Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky - Designers Behind The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

COMPUTE!'s Gazette April 1985

Sharon Darling, Research Assistant

Take two minds that have created some very witty books and computer games, put them together, and what do you get? The zany game version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The happy result of those two very different backgrounds is a microcomputer game version of the popular Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It took six years for Adams' original idea of a story about a guide to the universe-similar in nature to those books on how to travel the continent using one's thumb-to come to fruition. However, that idea, launched while Adams was hitchhiking through Europe, quickly snowballed from a simple concept into a long-lasting fad which has put such phrases as "don't panic" and "don't for get your towel' into the vocabulary of millions of people, first in England, and then in the United States.

The first volume quickly led to three other books: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

Imagine yourself as hapless Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered Englishman who is quite fond of ale from the local pub. Upon groggily waking up one morning with a terrific headache from too much beer at that same pub, you discover that your house is sched uled to be demolished in order to make room for a new highway.

Little do you realize that that is the least of your worries today-for earth is scheduled to be destroyed, also-to make room for an intergalactic bypass.

From there you begin a journey through the universe accompanied by your friend Ford Prefect, a professed actor who is really a roving researcher for the Guide (a sort of computerized radio that's hooked into a encyclopedic database, very useful for hitchhikers). In reality, he's also an alien who hails from near the star Betelgeuse. Prefect's mission on Earth: To come up with a more detailed description of the planet than the two words contained in the Guide's current issue: "mostly harmless."

Douglas Adams

Curriculum Vitae: Douglas Adams, Place of birth: England, Graduate, Cambridge University, Activities: Footlights Club, launching pad for many of Britain's great comics. Work history: Collaborated with Monty Python's Graham Chapman on several projects; writer and script editor for the TV series Dr. Who; creator of the BBC radio serial, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which spawned four books, a television series, two records, a stage show, and a soon-to-be-filmed movie.

Since the game doesn't hinge on the action in the book, players don't need to have read Hitchhiker's Guide in order to play it, Meretzky says. "If you've read the book, it will probably make the first part of the game a bit easier for you, but that's about it,". he adds.

But both Adams and Meretzky worked long and hard to make sure the game was faithful to the book, while at the same time turning it into a new adventure. What they did weave into the fabric of the game were detailed explanations of events that are mentioned only briefly in the book.

"In some ways it's easier, and in some ways, it's harder" to write a game from a book, versus using an original concept, says Meretzky. "It's easier because you have some constraints on the universe you're going to be designing, and on the characters you're going to be using and you don't have to come up with as many ideas.

"On the other hand, there's more of a challenge because you want to take advantage of the features of an interactive game, and you don't want it to be just a translation of the book, be cause the book is necessarily linear. If it was just a translation," he adds, "there wouldn't be any reason to do it at all. You have to avoid getting into the trap of 'well, this is the way it was in the book, so this is the way it has to be in the game.'"

Tackling computer games was a new experience for Adams, even though he has Ford Prefect referring to the Guide as an electronic book, a familiar computer term today, but a new concept in 1977. "As far as I was concerned, it was completely imaginary," Adams says. "I didn't even become computer literate until about a year ago, whereupon it suddenly sort of swept over me like a tidal wave."

Author, humorist, and composer Christopher Cerf brought Adams and Infocom together. "I'd seen Infocom's games in detail, and one or two other adventure games briefly," Adams says. "I'd not been interested, but Infocom's were obviously a great deal better than the others-they'd been written with style, wit, and intelligence, and I just felt that here were guys on the same wavelength."

Steve Meretzky

Curriculum Vitae, Steven Meretzky, Place of Birth: United States, Graduate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), breeding ground for many of Infocom's computer game designers. Work history: Before realizing his calling as a computer game designer, worked in construction project management; started playtesting games for Infocom in his spare time. Eventually moved up to writing games. Game writing credits: Planetfall and The Sorceror.

Adams' ideas about adapting a creative work in print form to video perhaps explains how Hitchhiker's Guide has maintained its integrity and style in all its various permutations. "Rather than just picking up a book and entering it into the computer, you have to go all the way back to the very jumble of ideas about what might be in it, just a sort of feeling about it.

"Then, you get interested in the medium, and explore that medium with some of those ideas in mind, rather than doing just straight text. The nice thing about Hitchhikers," he adds, "is it's not a concrete story, it's not particularly firm in any one medium-it's just a set of approaches and attitudes, with a few rough ideas about some characters."

That fluidity meant that there were several points in the book's story line where Adams and Meretzky could let their imagination's loose to create new situations for the game version. One thing that remained intact, though, was the humor inherent in the book. "A lot of the same humor is explicitly there, just in the text of the game," Meretzky says. "Also, a lot of humor is created just by using the style of the game." For example, one command common to all Infocom games is "inventory," where you find out everything you are carrying at any particular moment. At the start of Hitchhiker, you are told that Arthur Dent's inventory consists of a) no tea, and b) a splitting headache.

One convention carried over from the book was footnotes, which are sprinkled throughout Adams' novel. "I thought there must be some way to incorporate [those] into the game," Meretzky recalls. "So what happens is, at various points in the text of the game, you'll see a reference to a footnote, and simply as your turn, you type in footnote 12, or whatever, and you get the text."

While some of the footnotes are straightforward, they can be amusing, such as one referencing a ray gun that never seems to work properly. "It's not a very good ray gun, is it?" the game responds to that footnote. "There's a lot of that, kind of taking a step back from the game and laughing at it from the outside," Meretzky says.

Putting British humor into perspective for an American audience never posed a problem, Adams says. "I tend to feel the difference between English and American humor is much more apparent than real. I've never had the slightest problem in enjoying American humor. Everyone told me I was going to have immense difficulty in getting American audiences to respond to Hitchhiker, which has absolutely not been the case."

The book's humor has succeeded on both shores of the Atlantic perhaps because Adams didn't have any particular audience in mind, besides himself, when he wrote it in 1977. "Targeting something toward a particular audience, that's not something writers do, that's something that marketing or advertising people do," Adams feels. "I'm not selling toothpaste, I'm making ideas."

The process of translating those ideas from a novel to a computer game took about eight months, with Meretzky and Adams first meeting for about a week in Boston to map out the game's general direction. Then, Adams returned to England, and the two corresponded daily through electronic mail.

"When we had got a lot of it sitting there waiting to make sense, and not apparently being about to do that, Steve came over to England, and we hammered out answers to make it look as if the way it ended was what we'd intended all along," Adams recalls.

During the writing process, Meretzky says he tried to closely emulate Adams' style. Apparently, he succeeded, as Adams commented once that he couldn't tell whether he or Meretzky had written certain parts of the text.

As your game's journey continues, your survival depends on a very motley crew. Playing Arthur Dent, you've survived Earth's destruction by hitching a ride on a passing spaceship, but you're not sure that was really as lucky an occurrence as it first seemed. For now, your fate rests with two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the Imperial Galactic Government; his girlfriend, Trillian, whom you realize is the same girl you tried to pick up at a party recently; Ford Prefect; and Marvin, a paranoid android. Good luck.

Meretzky says one of the main reasons he was chosen to work with Adams was because of his previous work with comedic science fiction in Planetfall, an awardwinning game. He was also a Hitchhiker fan, as were most of the folks at Infocom.

The two started out their collaboration by following the plot of the book closely. Then, "I guess he (Adams) got used to the idea of writing interactively, and the more I got used to the idea of giving him ideas and of working with him, the more the ideas started to flow," Meretzky says. "By the end, we had way more ideas than we were able to use."

All those extra ideas that never made it into the game are "definitely" enough for a sequel, Meretzky adds. However, don't necessarily look for a fifth book in the Hitchhiker saga, Adams says. He claims the recently released fourth novel is the "final, final, final one. There is definitely, definitely, definitely not another one after this-at least not for a while."

But don't panic. Audiences both here and abroad have not heard the last from Adams. After filming is completed on the movie version of Hitchhiker's Guide, he says his next project will probably be a screenplay. A novel based on at movie will be written afterward, he says.

And Meretzky also has more games up his sleeve. While he's got some science fiction game ideas in mind, he's aIso contemplating a mystery game, which would be a new area for him.

Until then, enjoy your journey through the galaxy. And don't forget your towel.