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Geek Hoarders

Back when I was in third grade, my father bought me an interactive fiction computer game called Zork.  You were the main character in the story, and it was played somewhat like a computer version of Choose Your Own Adventure without set choices at the end.  For instance, the game begins:

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

So now what do you do?  Instead of two choices, you have dozens of unprompted choices.  You could type “open the mailbox” or “go east.”  You could walk away from the house by choosing a different direction.  I loved this game because once you got the hang of it — that you had to visualize yourself in the moment and tell the computer what you would do — you could go on an adventure without ever leaving your living room.

The game was made by Infocom.  They made dozens of these interactive fiction games and we owned most of them.  My father bought them for me because I was a terrible speller and the game forced you to spell correctly.  Not only that, but if you cared about winning the game in as few moves as possible (which I did care about), you also didn’t want to mess up a move by typing something wrong (the equivalent to losing money because you got a speeding ticket vs. spending it on something you actually want).  So I learned to care a lot about word choice and typing skills and spelling.

Before I left for college, I bought myself The Lost Treasures of Infocom I and II — about 31 games.  Like my security books — you know, instead of a security blanket, I carry security books — the games just made me feel comfortable.  I knew those worlds as well as I knew my own house.  I could walk around them without a map, knew the best order to do tasks.  I played them a few times during college; I think it was more about having them there than needing to access them.

I brought them with me to graduate school and then down to DC when I moved back here and finally, they ended up in our storage room in a box containing hundreds of cassette tapes.  They weren’t usable anymore; I didn’t have a disc drive in my computer.  But I kept the games for old time sake.  Because they really were good friends of mine a long time ago, like my favourite books.

Fast forward until last week when a conversation with an old friend sparked a conversation with my parents.  I was trying to remember what I had done the New Years Eve in question, and I mentioned that I most likely stayed home and played Infocom games as I pitied myself for my plans changing.  As I said that aloud, my dad smiled and said, “Infocom games!”  And suddenly, I had a deep need to take them out of the basement.  I had all the discs, all the maps, all the hint books — all in pristine condition.

I had once bookmarked a GeekDad article about putting Infocom games on the iPad.  First, I downloaded the app Frotz, which I fell in love with instantly.  Like hardcore love.  Like want to know everything about you all at once sort of love.  Consuming love.  And then I wrote James Floyd Kelly and said, “pretty please how does one get the games into Frotz?”

At this point, I need to pause to publicly thank Jim because he could have blown me off.  But like that Pesach song “Dayenu,” which counts all the ways that each act would have been enough in the Pesach seder, Jim kept going above and beyond in patience to walk me through the process of loading the games onto my iPad as well as reminiscing about the games themselves.  He is truly a Tech Saint, a Geek beyond measure like Superman… only with computer and writing knowledge instead of the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

We had friends over for dinner in the middle of all of this, and I excitedly told them about pulling out my Infocom games.  The husband stared at me and said, “your basement is like… Geek Hoarders.”  So yes, I may have saved technology that is obsolete.  I may have saved interactive fiction games from 1984.  But it all meant something to me.  And I know that writing that doesn’t make a case that I’m not a Geek Hoarder, but my storage room is fairly tame.  I mean, yes, there are a lot of VHS and cassette tapes… but they’re all neatly labeled.  Er…

The most amusing part of this story is that as I sat down to write this post, I Googled “Lost Treasures of Infocom” so I could link to it.  And in doing so, the search engine asked if I wanted Lost Treasures of Infocom for iPad.  Uh, yes, I did want this very badly.  So it turns out that almost all the games were released on iTunes!  The free app comes with Zork.  You need to buy the other games, but the entire bundle of games is only $9.99.  You can also buy the maps and clue books.

I told Jim, and then went to pick up the kids from school, starting a game of Wishbringer while I waited.  And without a map, without playing the game for about 20 years, I could still walk through the town.  Still knew what to do.  Still remembered all the various prompts and locations and tasks.  It was like walking back into my childhood home.  I wanted to hug all the characters in the game, tell them, “it’s me, Melissa!  I’m back.  I’ve missed you guys so much.”  The ChickieNob and I have been playing Wishbringer together.  She is “this” close to finding the wish stone.

The Wolvog has taken to interactive fiction with a vengeance.  If you have a kid who gets overwhelmed by loud noises and intense graphics, interactive fiction games are perfect.  There is no sound, no image; just story.  It took him a day or two to figure out how to imagine himself in the story, to figure out how to direct his character.  Now he moves between the games on Frotz and the Infocom games, playing without needing to ask more than a question or two every once in a while.  There are thousands of these games online; an endless supply, and finding them has opened up a new world for him.  He wants to learn how to code his own interactive fiction games, write his own interactive stories.

Interactive fiction games made me a better writer.  They taught me how to keep a vivid world inside my head; keep track of what I’ve already written and where I want to go.  A novel is just an interactive fiction game set in stone.  Is it a little geeky?  Hells yeah.  But it makes me so damn happy to play these games.  To be frustrated with these puzzles and figure out solutions and read what happens next.  There are still so many out there that I haven’t played yet.

It’s like Pottermore before there was Harry Potter.  Just boiled down to walking through the words of the story instead of having someone else feed you the images.

I find it amusing that the online abbreviation of interactive fiction is also IF.  So I am once again on IF boards and reading IF blogs and discussing IF… except there are no needles, no scans, no speculums, no bad phone calls.

Just Grues.

So… anyone want to play some Zork with me?


1 Chickenpig { 02.26.13 at 8:35 am }

Sounds fun! But I am not at all tech savvy. What do I have to do again?

2 Kristin { 02.26.13 at 8:45 am }

How did I never play those games? They sound like fun.

3 a { 02.26.13 at 9:12 am }

Those games sound familiar…

I may have to check them out. Like I need any more ways to divert my attention!

4 A.M.S. { 02.26.13 at 9:30 am }

I remember the sense of incredible pride once I got Arthur Dent on the Vogon spaceship AND got the babelfish in his ear!

Infocom text games were my gateway drug into Sierra Games adventures. And, I also had a stack of CYOA books as tall as I was.

5 Thea { 02.26.13 at 9:37 am }

Tell me you’ve seen this.

6 magpie { 02.26.13 at 10:18 am }

Oh, man. This so brings me back. We used to play Adventure on the college mainframe. (Yes, I’m old, there were no PCs in college.) “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”

7 Queenie { 02.26.13 at 10:44 am }

I am so excited to go find these. I never played them as a kid, but I would have loved them. I wonder if they come in Spanish? I could really use them in Spanish!

8 Alexicographer { 02.26.13 at 11:46 am }

OK, so talk me through this (if you would) because these sound like a good thing for my kindergartener but he’s not really reading yet. Would it be nuts to envision us playing these together, i.e., I read the words to him and he makes the choice and I enter (type) it for him? Or am I misunderstanding how they work? Would I need to type the action, or am I misunderstanding how one chooses?

9 loribeth { 02.26.13 at 11:46 am }

I never got into the gaming thing. The only “video game” that existed when I was a teenager was Pong. We had Galaga & PacMan in the arcades/bars at university, and around that time, my Dad bought an Intellivision console & some games (I think they eventually got sold in a garage sale). I got dh a Nintendo system when they first came out (Duck Hunt, anyone??) but never really bought any games beyond the very first Super Mario Brothers (included with the console, along with Duck Hunt) & Tetris. These days, I enjoy the occasional game of solitaire on my laptop but that’s about it. I refuse to get sucked into playing any of the games available on Facebook… I waste — errrr, spend — enough time there as it is. (My sister, on the other hand, plays World of Warcraft online with teenaged boys who try to pick her up, not knowing that she’s as old as or older than their mothers, lol.)

Of course, I do have about six different versions of Trivial Pursuit in the basement (including the Baby Boomer and Beatles editions). To each their own…! 😉

10 idioticinfertility { 02.26.13 at 12:30 pm }

Oh good gracious. I am all over this. Thank you. How could I have not known about the resurrection of Zork? This will be my tool for coping with my next 2ww. (iPad signals aren’t bad for an embryo, are they?)

11 Brookes4boys { 02.26.13 at 1:44 pm }

OMG! I have the complete Zork set saved in my garage also! I never imagined that they had released it on IOS devices! thank you so much! Now, if anyone could just release my beloved M.U.L.E and Little Computer People on Mac, I could die happy 🙂

12 Tracie { 02.26.13 at 3:03 pm }

I have never played these games, never even heard of them until now, but you make them sound like so much fun!

I did have one computer game that was similar. You had to type all the instructions (and spell correctly – that part was SO hard for me!) to move around and choose what you were going to do, and there were no fancy graphics, just a blueprint-type situation and typed descriptions of the rooms. But the premise of the game was like Clue, although it wasn’t called Clue. I remember playing that game for hours, finding all of the secret passages in the house, and solving all the mysteries. I wish I remember what it was actually called so I could look it up.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.26.13 at 3:32 pm }

So much to love about this post, you Geek! But my favorite part, the part that I want to emulate you on, is that you always seek to ask someone who can help you, to turn a stranger into an ally. Why don’t I do that more?

I remember a similar Apple II game from the mid 80s. I could never get past one point, no matter what actions I tried. I wish I could revisit it and give it another shot.

14 GeekChic { 02.26.13 at 3:53 pm }

I’ve played Zork endlessly over the years and have it (and the other games) on my iTouch. My husband and I met on a MUD (basically an online version of this type of game).

15 Melanie { 02.26.13 at 6:04 pm }

This brings back memories of my brother and I playing Zork on our Dad’s Atari PC. I didn’t know there was a whole series! Or that you could get it on the iPad. Checking that out right now!

16 Stinky { 02.26.13 at 6:21 pm }

never heard of Zork. But we had a similar game (Atari), could have sworn it was called the Golden Compass, but google is telling me this is something completely different. I was shite at it though, never knew what else to suggest, so helped by my bro. I remember commanding it to ‘eat leaves’ can’t remember what the response was, but I know the command “eat shit” drew a computer response of “go wash your mouth out!”

Love your geekiness, mine’s only gone as far as googling Chuckie Egg youtubes and trying to remember the rest of what we used to play (Ninja, Spy vs Spy, Spellbound – awww, the nostalgia overwhelmeth)

17 Jen (yup, another one) { 02.26.13 at 9:26 pm }

My stepmom worked in IT before it was called IT so I learned to play Adventure on a dumb terminal in our dining room when I was 8. We had Zork years later. And an absolutely bizarre game called Lounge Lizard Larry which never worked. Adventure is available online through some geeky archives but I didn’t know Zork, etc. could be put on an iDevice! Fun!

18 persnickety { 02.26.13 at 9:57 pm }

hmm, i never had Zork (we played the various Kings Quest games- also required written commands), but my husband recognised it when i brought it up on the iPad.
He is definitely a geek hoarder- we have boxes of VHS tapes in the garage (that he swears he will convert to DVD) and an old ATARI in the garage along with a lot of other stuff I would rather dispose of. Me- I bought the Game Boy micro in all its famicon retro glory (early nintendo game set in Japan, and the Micro is just a tiny gameboy advance- perfect purse size) and played Super Mario Bros and the original Zelda to my hearts content. Then i lent it to an 8 year old 1 christmas- she had NO idea how to play a super mario game 🙁 Officially old.

19 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 02.27.13 at 1:07 am }

I was terrible at those games. I preferred the kind with rudimentary graphics (3 colors, crude background, one character/monster on a screen standing still) where you walked around a world building up points and solving puzzles. Oh, how I loved mapping each level on graph paper and optimizing the balance of armor, weapons, etc. for the party. I was a spatial geek and list/logic geek rather than a word/story geek like you.

I have one small box with most of my old floppies — games, fonts, and my documents. It’s been years and years since I touched any of them, but I liked to have floppy drives around just in case I wanted to use my old floppies. I had a 5 1/4″ drive until well past college (I installed one into my custom-built PC even though noooo one else had used them in years) and a 3 1/2″ drive until 2012!

20 Tiara { 02.27.13 at 7:53 am }

Oh how I loved those games when I was young!! Thanks for bringing up such wonderful memories for me!!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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