From an anonymous source close to the company, I’ve found myself in possession of the “Infocom Drive” — a complete backup of Infocom’s shared network drive from 1989. This is one of the most amazing archives I’ve ever seen, a treasure chest documenting the rise and fall of the legendary interactive fiction game company. Among the assets included: design documents, email archives, employee phone numbers, sales figures, internal meeting notes, corporate newsletters, and the source code and game files for every released and unreleased game Infocom made.
For obvious reasons, I can’t share the whole Infocom Drive. But I have to share some of the best parts. It’s just too good.
So let’s start with the most notorious — Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the unreleased sequel to Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For the first time, here’s the full story: with never-before-seen design documents, internal emails, and two playable prototypes. Sit back, this might take a while.
Note: I’ve pieced together this history from emails and notes from the Infocom Drive. I haven’t contacted any of the people mentioned, so if you’re a primary source or authority, please get in touch so I can make corrections.
Update: Don’t miss the comments section. Infocom alumni Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, Amy Briggs, and Tim Anderson all comment on the story, Zork co-author Marc Blank helps correct an error, and writer Michael Bywater provides an alternative view of the events.
November 26, 2009:
After much consideration, I’ve edited this entry to remove the private correspondence that I never sought permission to publish. In my eagerness to share the story, I rushed to post instead of taking the time to reach out to everyone involved, against the recommendations of my source. At the time, I felt that 20 years of distance and the material’s historical value was enough to warrant bringing it to light without contacting each individual. I was wrong, and I’d like to apologize to each of the Infocom employees for my lapse in judgment.
On these pages, I’ve frequently waded into murky legal waters and I’m used to catching a certain amount of heat. But this article cost me far more than I ever anticipated — I lost a very close friend because of it. I deeply regret the error.
Douglas Adams (left) and Steve Meretzky in a promotional photo from 1984.
Written and designed by two legends in their respective fields, game designer Steve Meretzky and sci-fi author Douglas Adams, the first Hitchhiker’s Guide game was a tremendous success upon its release in November 1984. It quickly became Infocom’s bestselling game, selling over a quarter million copies in the two years after its release. (It ultimately became Infocom’s second-biggest seller of all time under Zork.)
Even before they’d finished writing the Hitchhiker’s game, Meretzky and Adams were considering two sequels based on the second and third books of the trilogy. In an email to Meretzky, Douglas Adams wrote down some notes from a design meeting, including a list of “some rooms we discussed (some might be kept for future games, which would be blatantly advertised at every opportunity).” The first three places on the list, “Milliways (need reservation to get in), Norway, Krikkit (placed off limits for protection of the galaxy, until you buy Game #3).”
A sequel seemed like such a sure thing, they mentioned it in the game’s ending. In the final scene, the Heart of Gold sets down on Magrathea and you exit the ship. “Slowly, nervously, you step downwards, the cold thin air rasping in your lungs. You set one single foot on the ancient dust — and almost instantly the most incredible adventure starts which you’ll have to buy the next game to find out about.”
But shortly after Hitchhiker’s was released, Douglas Adams proposed making Bureaucracy instead, a game inspired by his real-life experience dealing with government red tape after an address change. He proposed the idea to Infocom in late 1984 and Infocom agreed.
But by May 1985, it seems like Adams lost interest. With Adams busy working on Dirk Gently and other book-related projects, Bureaucracy languished. In his absence, Adams suggested a friend for the job, British writer Michael Bywater. Three years later and with no less than 10 co-authors, the game was finally released, crediting “Douglas Adams and the Staff of Infocom” on the cover. (The convoluted story of its development was detailed in an Easter egg in the final release of the game.)
Without Douglas Adams on board, the future of a Hitchhiker’s sequel was in limbo.
Three huge problems plagued Milliways from its start in 1985 until it was shelved in 1989: no solid game design, nobody to program it, and the backdrop of Infocom’s larger economic problems.
Searching the Infocom Drive, the very first mention of a Hitchhiker’s sequel is an email from Marc Blank to Stu Galley in May 1985, about Bureaucracy potentially pushing back Hitchhiker’s II in the production schedule. Indeed, by July 1985, Blank pushed back the Christmas 1986 deadline a full 18 months to June 1988.
Michael Bywater, as seen on his blog.
In 1987, Michael Bywater was flown in from London to stay at a hotel near Infocom headquarters in Cambridge, MA to work on Restaurant at the End of the Universe full-time. By July 1987, internal emails show some employees were unhappy with the arrangement, feeling Bywater wasn’t taking advantage of Infocom’s resources and could be just as productive back in London.
Michael Bywater produced some preliminary design notes (partly reproduced in The Story section below), but it seems nobody was happy with it. In December 1987, it was rumored that Bywater could work on the project for another month, after which someone at Infocom would need to take over the project. But who? Within the first months of 1988, other Imps were considered, but Plundered Hearts creator Amy Briggs was asked to helm the project.
In early February 1988, while management searched for a project lead, Stu Galley was working on the Milliways skeleton file (playable in the next section) and Michael Bywater delivered a new outline.
But on February 24, management dropped a bomb — development of Milliways would be moved to the other side of the Atlantic, coded by British game developers Magnetic Scrolls and designed by Michael Bywater. Amy Briggs had declared her intention to leave the company and no suitable replacement could be found, so Infocom would not be involved closely in development.
The reaction was swift and angry from the original founders of Infocom, focusing on the loss of creative control and the potential message outsourcing such a critical property would send to industry. But without any viable volunteers, Joel Berez, Infocom’s president, had little choice.
Behind the scenes, Marc Blank started working on finding an alternative to Magnetic Scrolls. He emailed Meretzky and Lebling on February 29, fishing for a way to do it in-house, knowing that if either volunteered, the project could be saved.
The conversations that ensued inspired both Steve Meretzky and Dave Lebling, two of the best adventure game creators in history, to independently offer to take on Milliways, each with their own similar conditions. Meretzky and Lebling wanted to finish their existing projects first (Zork Zero and Shogun, respectively), both wanted to be considered collaborators and not just programmers, and they wanted complete outlines finished before they started.
A Hitchhiker’s sequel created by Meretzky or Lebling would’ve been amazing, but it didn’t get very far. No other mention of their involvement is in the archives.
The door to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe was finally closed on May 5, 1989, when Activision (renamed to Mediagenic, at the time) closed the Cambridge office and laid off 15 of the remaining 26 Infocom employees. Offering to relocate the rest to their offices in Menlo Park, only five accepted. Infocom was dead.
What would have Milliways looked like if it had been released? Several design notes by Stu Galley and Michael Bywater give us an idea. The first reference to the storyline is in a list of “Ideas for Next Project” from October 1986 created by Stu Galley.
MILLIWAYS or RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
Takes up where “Hitchhiker’s” left off. Manufactured planets, Deep Thought, white mice, time travel, 1001 verb tenses, digital watches, the Frogstar, Total Perspective Vortex, the End of History! (Does Douglas really want to work on this at this time? Does it matter?)
The plot changed significantly over the next three years, but Galley took a first pass in a set of design notes from February 13, 1987. In it, he proposes how the game should start and end, and a couple critical scenes.
1. It seems natural to include a scene in the restaurant, Milliways. Could be a bit of fun: strange parties, unctuous compere, self-introducing food. Perhaps there’s an object there that you need to get. (It could be a SPORK, a spoon with sort of forky tines on the end. Or would that be a FOON?) It could be a vehicle from the car park — Marvin has the keys. If you manage to re-enter Milliways at another time (oops! on another occasion), you will not meet yourself, “because of the embarrassment that usually causes.” What about a visit to the Big Bang Burger Bar?
2. Given point 1, you must have a means (or several meanses) of time travel. In fact time travel instead of space travel could be the primary method of changing scene. In the original, the party got to Milliways by accident: in the radio version, a “hyperspatial field generator” overheated; in the book version, Zaphod’s great-granddaddy screwed up the works of Eddie, the Heart of Gold computer. Maybe your trip to Milliways would require info from an anti-piracy device in the game package. Once at the restaurant, you can steal a timeship and go anywhen you want.
3. Given point 2, it seems natural for the “best ending” of the game to be your arrival on Earth before it’s destroyed, which is the ending of both the first radio series and the second (namesake) book. The original route to this ending was an accidental landing on Golgafrincham Ark B, with its cargo of telephone sanitizers, marketing consultants, etc. (the ancestors of Earth’s humans!). I rather like this bit, and hope we can work it into the game.
4. Okay, so what about the beginning of the game? The easy answer: take up the story where the “Hitchhiker’s” game left off, namely the arrival on Magrathea. But in the original this arrival is followed by a travelogue of Magrathea and a flashback to the Deep Thought v. philosophers’ union story (including the introduction of the “42” joke) and the joke about the true nature of mice. All funny bits, but I have a hard time envisioning how they can be made into interesting interactive versions. Perhaps you could time-travel to Deep Thought and interact with it yourself. The Magrathean catalog of planets on Sens-O-Tape could be useful.
On February 17, 1987, Steve Meretzky provided this feedback on the design notes:
Some thoughts upon re-reading your notes:
The Infinite Improbability Drive acts as a time travel device, as well as a space travel device and an identity changing device. The trips to the party (as Trillian), to Damogran (as Zaphod), and the Earth (as Ford), all involve going back in time. Therefore, the IID could be your time travel device, if you want to avoid the hassle of inventing a new one. (It also provides some continuity with Game One.)
As I think I said before, I think it will work best if you forget about the original stuff, like the Deep Thought flashback, and come up with new stuff instead. References to the original stuff can be used to provide familiarity for “old-timers” and to supplement the humor of the story line.
A month later, on March 13, 1987, Galley’s second set of design notes outlined some innovative gameplay possibilities with third-person perspective, multiple viewpoints, text-based visual effects, and a parser with personality.
1. Shall we try to present multiple viewpoints in this version of the story? In the original version(s), the group of travellers became separated while visiting Magrathea, and again later on, with the story following either Arthur’s or Zaphod’s viewpoint. I have in mind a scheme to narrate the story in the third person, rather than the second, provided that the parser can handle declarative sentences, rather than (or in addition to) imperative ones. Example: “>ARTHUR SEARCHES FOR A GOOD CUP OF TEA. He fails to find any, but he does turn up the spork that he thought he’d lost.”
2. If there are multiple viewpoints, how does one change viewpoint? Provisional answer: with the “verb” MEANWHILE. Example: “>MEANWHILE, ON THE HEART OF GOLD. Zaphod is still trying to persuade the computer to unlock the sauna. Ford is chatting up Trillian.” Now the story begins to sound more like traditional fiction, with an omniscient viewpoint. What happens to the scene that one leaves when switching to a new viewpoint — does it go on by itself? Answer: perhaps it doesn’t matter. If one returns to the old scene to find that time has passed, one can use time travel to return to the scene as it was left.
3. And now for something completely different. I’ve been experimenting with textual “visual effects”, along the lines of the Boysenberry computer display in Bureaucracy. These effects depend on the ability (available only in Interactive Fiction Plus) to put any character on the screen at any place. One effect I’ve tried out makes the characters in a message appear in an area of the screen, seemingly at random, until in the end the message is completely spelled out and readable. Another effect “moves” a word up one line at a time, so that it appears to “float” to the top of the screen. (Since the program can’t tell what the word has overwritten, the word leaves a trail behind it.) I don’t know yet whether visual effects will prove useful or even interesting.
4. I’ve been talking with Tim Anderson about using the New Parser in this game. It still needs a lot of development, and in the end it may prove to be slow in operating, but it promises to be very capable. Now here’s the question: should the game itself make a big deal out of the New Parser? For example, the game could begin with the parser introducing itself to the player, asking the player to type a few sentences to “warm up” the parser, before getting on with the story itself. The parser could take on a personality, explaining that this is its first job, that it means well but it may not succeed. Perhaps it gets depressed and refuses to work at all. Perhaps the parser is in fact Marvin’s new aural interface module, depressing him even further.
While Galley was thinking about the game’s design, Michael Bywater was making his own design notes independently. The authorship isn’t completely clear, but I believe this very rough outline for the plot was created by Bywater on July 23, 1987.
The game has a three-part structure. You begin at the base of the ramp leading from the Heart of Gold; that is, where HH1 ended. As you look forward to exploring this apparently acceptable planet with your faithful companion Marvin and your friends Trillian, Zaphod and Ford, you realize that you are alone. You turn round to find that Marvin has gone back inside the ship. The others are nowhere to be seen.
PUZZLE 1 is to persuade Marvin to come out of the Heart of Gold and help you. WARNING: this is a nasty trick puzzle because if you solve it, you lose the game (although there is a safety-net). Marvin is enticed from the ship by means of an hallucinogenic psychodysleptic. Somewhere close by the H of G you find a broken radio (“a miserable-looking piece of technology” is the clue). Elsewhere, you find a plant. The plant, once picked, begins to deliquesce. You have to put the plant in the radio, whereupon the radio bursts into cheerful music. The plant appears to have lifted its spirits, if such a thing was possible. Marvin will come out of the spaceship to get the plant and immediately go into a state of intoxicated euphoria, whereupon he will fuck off and not be seen again. (Not until the parking lot at Milliways, anyway). You score points for this solution, but it is the wrong one. In fact, the winning score is 470 out of 490; if you get ALL the points, you lose.
The right solution is to TELL Marvin about the plant but not to GIVE it to him; he will follow you fairly faithfully if you have the plant in the radio for the first few plays of the game. After a while the radio begins to drive you mad. Shortly after this, you will be given the opportunity to find the thing your Aunt gave you; you can use this to store the plant. If you don’t, the inanities of the radio will drive you insane.
You need to keep Marvin with you until you have encountered Slartibartfast’s vehicle, but first you have another problem. While you are fooling around on Magrathea, Zaphod gets fed up and disappears in the Heart of Gold to go somewhere really fashionable. If you still have the radio (i.e., haven’t gone prematurely insane) you will hear an announcement to the effect that Milliways is the most fashionable place in the Universe.
Consulting the Guide about Milliways reveals the details. Now you have to get to the restaurant. You will need Marvin to get you there unless you are very, very lucky.
Once you get to Milliways, you have a problem: they won’t let you in. You aren’t fashionable enough. There are two solutions to this problem. If you fucked up puzzle 1, Marvin will turn up dressed as a parking attendant. You can borrow his clothes and go in as a high-fashion crypto-punk. If you didn’t get Marvin smashed on the plant, you can send him in instead, because his pose of fashionable paranoia is regarded as chic by the doorman.
Once in the restaurant, you have to get a response for the dead pop singer to find out where his ship is. There then follows a parking puzzle with Marvin, and you gain access to the ship. The roles of the other characters (Zaphod et al) are not clear here. We may leave them somewhere.
The ship is intercepted and you solve a navigation puzzle to return to Magrathea, where you are snaffled by Slartibartfast. The next major section of the game now takes place, here on Magrathea, and consists of three nested layers of puzzles.
The first level of puzzles are standard adventure stuff, but the objective is to assemble a time machine. Slartibartfast has told you of the great history of Magrathea as the Universal Planetary Design workshop, and says he can show you how it all worked but the machine is broken. It is necessary for you to fix the machine, which you do by pottering about the geography of Magrathea. Next, once the machine is working, you have to get into it WITHOUT Slartibartfast but WITH Marvin. If you get in with S. alone, all he’ll show you is Magrathea, boasting about his fjords etc. If however you get there with Marvin alone, Marvin will be so depressed that he’ll try and depress you too, which he does by taking you back to Earth. However… the machine only works from the point of view of Slartibartfast, so that’s in effect who you become. You observe a small flaw in one of the Norwegian fjords – a design change carried out without your (Slartibartfast’s) authority which is responsible for all the awful things which have happened since.
Returning to reality, your job is to arrange for the rebuilding of Earth. You are allowed into Slartibartfast’s workshop and you have to give him a huge philosophical puzzle to work on. This, like all the other puzzles in this penultimate part of the game, works on two elvels: it solves itself and allows you to proceed, but it also forms one element of the final endgame puzzle.
The endgame itself consists of a number of elements which are solved by assembling the consequences of solving eight other puzzles within the planetary workshop. To solve these puzzles you have to travel in space around the workshop visiting various locations which turn out to be planets, all of which are in the solar system and all of which are subtly wrong (Saturn has no rings, etc). To do this, you have a Solar System Bug-tester’s report as part of the packaging. When you have solved these eight puzzles, you effectively (eight planets plus Slartibartfast’s “Sun” puzzle) have all the solar system except Earth, and can then tie all the pieces together to make the adjustment to the fjords. (What we do about THAT, I don’t know. There are an infinite number of possibilities).
The FINAL part of the endgame is to propel this new Solar system into its correct galactic location. This is a complex puzzle and to solve it you have to be on the Heart of Gold at the time the Solar System settles into position. At that point the Inifinite Improbability Drive detects that something infinitely improbable has happened and ejects you onto Earth, ready to begin the final part of the trilogy.
Michael Bywater took a final pass at the plot on August 7, 1987, but only gets a description of the first scene before it ends in mid-sentence:
These notes should be read in conjunction with the earlier synopsis in H2… no, they shouldn’t. To hell with the earlier synopsis. What a cartload of pinwheel horse-shit. Screw the earlier synopsis altogether. Okay? Okay.
We begin on Magrathea, on the ramp outside the Heart of Gold, which is where H1 ended. You are Arthur Dent — for the time being. The surface of the planet is cold and inhospitable. The others – Ford, Zaphod and Trillian – have wisely decided to stay aboard ship, in the sauna. You, unwisely but predictably, have forgotten your dressing gown. This poses a bit of a problem to you. Quite a lot of a problem, actually, since you are going to die. You are probably going to die anyway, before the cold gets to you. Irrational, I know, but that’s the Galaxy for you: cold, aloof, impersonal and always ready to crap on an organism for no good reason.
The first puzzle is a fairly straightforward, linear, closed-boundary job: to get someone to open the hatch to the Heart of Gold before you die of cold. On Magrathea is a crater left by the impact of the whale. (You don’t remember the whale? Then you’ll be even more confused by the petunias…) On the edge of the crater is the remains of a intergalactic ghetto blaster left by a touring member of the Arqublustian Space Force, a group of deep-space thugs whose mission is to tour the galaxy playing loud music. In the crater itself, among the other whale bones, is a whale bone. Except it isn’t: it’s the Thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is… and inside it is a Barry Manilow CD. You play the CD and become deeply depressed and realize that only someone like Marvin could truly appreciate this stuff.
Trying to get back into the Heart of Gold, you find that everyone else, being in the sauna, cannot hear you, and Eddie is stupefied with gloom, being engaged in “conversation” with Marvin. Marvin’s conversational powers are capable of breaking down any electronic device in the known universe. But Barry Manilow is even more potent. You potter about the ship until you can hear, through the hull, Marvin droning on, then you play the Barry Manilow CD. Marvin enjoys the “music” and frees Eddie to open the door. Marvin comes to the hatch bearing your gown, which contains the Guide and a key-card to the ship.
Now you can survive the cold long enough to explore the whale crater. You find not only the remains of the whale but the remains of the bowl of petunias. When planted in the Thing, the petunias take on a strange quality: if you are holding a…
And that’s where the design notes end. Was this the first part of the final outline delivered by Michael Bywater in February 1988? Hard to say, but it was definitely the most coherent. I wish there was more.
The project may have been shelved, but the Infocom Drive reveals two early Milliways builds, from May 1988 and another a year later in April 1989. Both are very similar, just simple stubs with sparse descriptions and a small handful of rooms. These appear to have both been written by Stu Galley, but it’s hard to say.
You start the prototype game as Arthur Dent, with Marvin, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Trillian standing nearby. It picks up where the last game ended, with our heroes standing “on the ramp leading from the starship Heart of Gold to the surface of the legendary lost planet of Magrathea, which isn’t. Lost, that is. It isn’t lost because if it were, you wouldn’t be here, but you are, so it isn’t.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much further than that. Strangely, the first build seems a bit more polished, with more rooms and a better intro, in which Ford, Zaphod, and Trillian leave you alone with Marvin on the ramp. There are a few rooms with sparse descriptions (“There will be an elevator there someday, but not yet”), but not much to do.
Play Milliways (Release 15, Serial 880512). Java 5 required.
In the later build, you can go down the ramp onto the planet, poke the characters, or try to talk to them, but that’s about it. Unlike the first build, you don’t have the Hitchhiker’s Guide in your inventory and the surface of Magrathea has a large crater next to the ship. Trying to go south-east to view it gives you an error, but in the source files, there’s additional text which explains the crater was created by the sperm whale that materialized next to the Heart of Gold.
“The dusty ground rises here before falling away into a crater. The crater seems rather new, as if it had been created by the impact of something huge and confused, travelling downwards at high velocity. It is as if a sperm whale had inexplicably materialized several miles above the surface of Magrathea and immediately plunged
downwards, reaching terminal velocity almost immediately, terminal incomprehension soon afterwards, and, finally, terminal impact just as it was wondering whether it was going to have a nice day. This impression is heightened by the shards of whalebone and meat you can see glistening here and there around the crater.”
That’s the longest description in the prototype, and a tiny glimpse at what might have been.
If you like, you can download the original Z-code files (release 15 and release 184), but you’ll need an interpreter that supports Z-Machine version 4 and version 6 story files. I’d recommend Windows Frotz 2002 for Windows or Spatterlight for Mac.
For more information and gossip about Infocom’s history, I highly recommend Down from the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom, Inc., The Lore and Legends of Infocom, Jimmy Maher’s Let’s Tell A Story Together: A History of Interactive Fiction.
Several of the bio photos come from Marco Thorek’s excellent Infocom: The Master Storytellers.
Special thanks to Wei-ju Wu’s Z-Machine Preservation Project, the Java interpreter I used above. It’s the only web-based interpreter that would play both prototypes at all. Highly recommended.