Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [1984]

Here, we reach an important milestone for this blog: This is the first game I’ve written about that I’ve actually played before. When I was a kid (I think somewhere from age 10 to 13) I nearly completed this game, without even saving. When I was an even younger kid (think 4 to 7,) The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [1979-1992] book series (in omnibus form), no exaggeration, taught me to read. Obviously I was also being read to and reading stuff that was more age-appropriate as well, but this funny and fascinating gigantic blue book in the hallway was a big motivator. I liked its adult heft: even when I was a child, I always disliked and distrusted children’s media, with notable exceptions that never threw out condescending vibes. I would start reading it, then have to stop at some point when the slowness of my reading and my lack of comprehension would stymy me, and then a few months later have to start over from the beginning, and it felt like a massive triumph when I was able to read all the way to the last page. (Now that I’m writing it out, it occurs to me that that was the same basic rhythm as playing the game without saving…)

Suffice to say, I’m not going to be able to get critical distance on this like I can with other games. I’m frankly not even going to try to separate the book and the game as much as I should, nor am I even going to mention the other adaptations. I’m extremely biased. I am more than merely a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide: the books got to me early and form a notable proportion of the very foundation of my outlook on everything. The game has a reputation for difficulty that I just don’t experience, in part because when I solve its puzzles in 2021 I have to half-wonder if I’m remembering the solution, but also in part because The Hitchhiker’s Guide so informed my sense of humor and philosophy that its perverse nonsense makes perfect sense to me.

Hitchhiker’s Guide is a post-apocalypse story, though it doesn’t have any of the genre hallmarks, save one (aside from the presence of apocalypse itself.) Arthur Dent’s survival isn’t a matter of toughing things out or any kind of personal virtue, it’s a mixture of capricious luck and having the right friend. The Earth’s destruction is both complete and deliberately downplayed — there’s only some passing nostalgia, no angst. Even death itself is banal and shrugged-off, befitting a Text Adventure, but indeed in the books even the Earth returns to life several times over. In the game, the Earth is depicted as consisting entirely of Arthur’s walk from his house to the pub and back. It’s a reasonable extrapolation that that’s basically how Arthur experiences Earth, and why he’s so much more distraught about the destruction of his house than the planet. The feelies help sell the metaphor, providing an eviction notice for both Arthur’s house and the Earth that look very similar.

The hallmark it keeps is the endless replication of old social structures in the post-apocalypse. Material social relations are, in the broad strokes, identical no matter how improbable the place you end up in is: mediated through a impenetrable bureaucracy that is utterly impotent to help you, but quick to hinder you, where the only real difference between a state and a corporation is that the latter is more likely to gas you up with insufferable glad-handery. It’s not a story about life after civilization, but rather one where life is, distressingly, the same all over, the structures of mid-century British society replicated infinitely, grotesquely, and above all fractally, with everything from the intergalactic to the microscopic operating in the same ways. (It is, as the now-cliche Frederic Jameson quote goes, “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” understood in Hitchhiker’s as cultural bureaucracy more than as, say, markets.) There’s a gag in the game where you can travel back in time to the 10th Century AD, and the Mongols sweep through and destroy your home in pointedly another on-the-nose callback to the start of the story. In the books, there’s a matching but exactly opposite gag where we meet Genghis Khan and find he acts like a henpecked middle-class husband of the 20th century. To Hitchhiker’s Guide, functionaries of your own government are exactly as foreign and menacing and inexplicable as space aliens and Mongols. Which is to say, they are at once foreign and rendered extremely un-foreign, and incomprehensible but eagerly and easily explained step by step. Macrocosm and microcosm is the basic ordering and homogenizing principle of the universe. It’s a flat cosmos.

Famously, though the game doesn’t cover this part, in Hitchhiker’s Guide the meaning of life is calculated by a big computer and comes out as “42,” a completely inscrutable and arbitrary answer that only raises more questions and prolongs the search for meaning. Among them: Why trust the computer? Seeking the meaning of life is like a dog chasing a car: you’ll never catch it, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know what to do next. Instead, another computer is the story’s preferred North Star. The game simply can not be beaten without knowledge from the titular Guide or its metatextual equivalents the hint book or walkthrough. It gives you the lowdown on all the science fiction balderdash you’ll encounter, mixed in with opinion that underlines that The Guide, despite its reliability, is a authored and thus biased work. Overall, its emphasis is on practical advice. That can be taken as an anti-philosophy, but actually this focus on things that are local and immediately germane is where the philosophy ends up. There’s a strawman nihilist, Marvin The Paranoid Android, who’s a kind of Eeyore who persistently brings up how depressingly pointless everything is — and, incessantly, how much smarter he is than everyone else for having figured this out, like a real asshole. Contrast Arthur Dent, our protagonist and primary player character, who is extremely parochial. He crosses the universe on a fantastical adventure, and one of his main preoccupations in the game is to get a proper cup of tea like back home. But once he sips that tea, he knows a profound contentment, worth I believe more points than any other action in the game. Hitchhiker’s entertains both viewpoints: The universe is meaningless and chaotic and arbitrary and massive, therefore you should limit your focus down to the immediate, and on what you value and enjoy. (Not to make this about the book, but there’s a machine in there that literalizes this moral under penalty of death!) Ford Prefect manages better than Arthur by being adaptable to any situation, personifying the Guide, as does Zaphod Beeblebrox, strawman hedonist.

Dent is only the primary player character, because the game changes which character’s perspective we control and see things through frequently, always accompanied also with flashback. Well, time travel technically: you need to collect items and possibly do tasks once-not-done in the past to change the present to give the flashback segments mechanical puzzle reasons to be there. But this swapping of perspectives also does a couple other things. Firstly, it gives us scenes to flesh out the characters, as if to replace the typical Hitchhiker’s method of characterization through spiraling banter. (In my opinion, the absolute hardest puzzles in the game are when you need to say things, when it consistently devolves to guessing phrases. The game is otherwise so committed to avoiding that technical challenge it makes a joke of it, having characters take a nap or lounge in an inaccessible sauna during moments of great crisis.) This fleshing-out includes Arthur Dent himself, who is seen from the perspective of others to be an incredible dullard, but it also gives Zaphod and Trillian their only screentime.

Secondly, swapping perspectives is something disorienting. The Hitchhiker’s game plunges you into a darkness that annihilates the self and the possibility of knowledge, over and over again, as a matter of routine progress. It even starts the game there, just to emphasize that as its baseline. Swapping perspectives is very well-trod ground in most other narrative mediums by 1984, but in the context of video games it’s nose-tweakingly experimental, to the point of needing to use a science-fiction doo-hickey to justify it. (Infocom’s earlier Suspended [1983], which Adams loved, went even further along those lines.) If Hitchhiker’s were adapted into a knife, the familiarity of the satirical micro/macrocosm would be the blunt side, and strangeness the sharp. Suddenly changing who “you” are is one of the opportunities it takes to introduce the friction of suddenly being unfamiliar with things, same as the sci-fi trappings. The thing that makes Hitchhiker’s so interesting as a game is its impish delight in being odd and often obtuse, a fairly natural progression from its absurd sensibility. It goes above and beyond the standard-issue text adventure zaniness into territory that plays with the outer formal possibilities of words and interaction melded to one another: the narrator lies to you about what exits there are; you have an inventory item called “no tea” that gets put down when you get tea; the text of the game is peppered with marked-off footnotes which you can technically read at any time in any order, and doing so is nonsensical but delivers you a unique gag and makes a runner more noticeable; there’s fake hints in the hint book.

That said, it’s not as though Hitchhiker’s invented wordplay and blatant unfairness in a text adventure. Don Woods’ maze in Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] relies on wordplay for attentive readers in much the same way as Hitchhiker’s many darkness segments, and games like Quondam [1980] turn on puns and a complete disregard for the fourth wall. Hitchhiker’s is as traditional as it is experimental: it’s a quasi-treasure hunt made by and for the hardcore. Its two most infamous puzzles are actually downright marvels of classical construction, with much more generous and legible hinting than Zork [1980]. One of them, the unforgettable “cheese sandwich” puzzle, is a perfect example of a situation where you don’t do some arbitrary and obscure action at the very beginning of the game, so you die unpredictably 100 turns later. But after seeing the consequences of your negligence, it may not be necessary to even reload much less restart, because Ford’s flashback segment (if you haven’t already finished it) allows you to revisit the start of the game. From there, the main obstacle to your solving the puzzle is examining the right thing so that you know of the cheese sandwich, and it’s a thing you can’t avoid examining and still beat Ford’s segment. And if you still don’t understand what in particular to do about the dog, hopefully you’ll still be in the good habit now of examining everything, which will tell you the cheese sandwich is “not fit for human consumption.” You don’t have to read the author’s mind, just their text. Compare Quondam’s sandwich puzzle, where you eat a sandwich and die from a cause that should be obvious but is never stated until after the puzzle is solved, and the solution is to use one of the verbs the game has, simply because you know it has that verb. Its only mercy is that it kills you fast enough that you don’t forget you ate the sandwich nor mistakenly ascribe the death to something else. But only one of these two games by and for seasoned text adventurers were sold in large quantities to novices.

And about that beginning of the game. Structurally, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy game takes the shape of a flower. The bulk of the game takes place in vignette offshoots accessible from the central hub, a prescient approach to quasi-non-linear modular game design, ala Super Mario 64 [1996]. But the very beginning is just the opposite: it is astoundingly linear. You wake up and move in a straight line up the stem, and once you’re at the first junction, if you go anywhere you instantly die. The only way to progress is to re-enact the plot of other adaptations. This is a discordant first note to hit, considering that otherwise it may be the most mutated variant and knowing the story will only once help you solve a puzzle after this. They even have to correct for it in the manual, stating “Although the opening of the game is fairly similar to the book, the story quickly diverges, with lots of new material and different twists.” It would be in keeping with the game’s ethos to set such an expectation and then ruthlessly undermine it, but in this case it simply doesn’t seem to me an intentional and considered maneuver, because the game doesn’t take pains to put a point on it like it usually does when setting up expectations to knock down. It’s actually a worse introduction than Zork’s dungeon opening up with an action that’s randomly ineffective. I often get the sense that nobody in the early 80s, especially those who make obtuse computer games, were thinking much about how the first impressions sculpt the player’s understanding of the game to come beyond Attract Mode.

The easy opening and traditionalist allegiances sold to a mass audience is probably how the Babel Fish dispenser (infamous puzzle #2) became known as legendarily difficult. Though you can solve the cheese sandwich puzzle early, you will not even know it is a puzzle until after the Babel Fish, and every other part of the opening is not just linear but trivial. The Babel Fish dispenser, then, is the first major stumbling block, after passing the challenges of wrangling the interface and knowing the story. It requires increasingly unusual uses of specific inventory items, and though some cases seem like something else should have worked just as well, in text it’s little bother to try alternatives. Moreover, none of the objects other than the Babel Fish itself do anything magical, they only are used as physical obstructions. Solving the puzzle is not a matter of enormous leaps of intuition, such as working out wordplay, but a matter of adventure gaming persistence, of doing things over and over again until you do it right. Frankly, it’s a model of adventure game puzzle design, and the fact that it has achieved infamy says to me that probably most people do not particularly like adventure game puzzles, those odd beasts of optimization and willful, baroque obtuseness. Now granted, it’s a dip in the deep end with no on-boarding. And it is more complicated than a straightforward lock-and-key puzzle, because what are keys and where are locks can be ambiguous, and it’s got multiple stages to it. This is mitigated somewhat by its proceeding step-by-step, but that could also be a source of infuriation as new knots emerge in the puzzle only when you’ve got it fully solved up to that point. Even if you were a savant of a first-time player, who picked up absolutely every item there was to be picked up even when it seemed like there was no reason to, who put the correct item in the correct place every time, the game would still have a snotty punchline to teach you adventure-gaming virtues: It throws 4 unexpected, unexpectable wrenches into your plans… and the dispenser only has 3 Babel Fish in stock. Save your game often.

My map of the game.

My best friend (only friend) in elementary school lived on the boundary of town — city limits actually split clean down the middle of the road, and you could see it just by how “developed” the properties were. On one side of the road, duplexes and cul-de-sacs and a wine factory. On the other, sprawling lots, overgrown with brambles and grass. My best friend lived in a house on a massive lot that also had a barn that their family used to store junk in, antique junk, there might have been some things 100 years old or at least 70 in there. One time, I sprained my ankle on the second floor of that barn by jumping off a rafter while we were talking about shooting a home movie. He liked Blackadder [1983-1989] and ginger ale, and I regret to say I gave neither a chance while I was hanging out at his place. We were both insufferably precocious misfits.

That house and barn is gone now. It was demolished to make room for a bypass around 4 years ago. That bypass had been stuck in bureaucratic infrastructure limbo since before either of us were born, so even as small children, we knew it was coming, and we joked about how it was just like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Well, “joke,” but there wasn’t any punchline, just a flight of fantasy. We just talked about how when his house went down, the world would also end, but that we’d be there together and hitch-hike away from this dying rock to a new life. (I think that was mostly me?) We stopped hanging out as much when he aged into middle school and I was still an elementary schooler, since that social line is inviolate. Eventually he made it out to some Jazz College to play saxophone. When all my school friends left for college, that left me with much the same friends situation I had in elementary school, except with less frequent visits. I stayed here, in the same house I was born in, in a village where nothing ever happens that I always hated and wanted to escape, but am too cowardly to. I’m not convinced the world didn’t end when they demolished his house. It’s hard to tell, because around these parts it seems like it never even started.

To be continued.

4 thoughts on “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [1984]

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