Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Down From the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom - Book Review

A few days ago, I mentioned a book called Down From the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom. I had seen it published by Rolenta Press (which has put out a couple of other cool video game books like Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames in 2010, but what I didn't know when I bought it is that it was actually a reprinting from a college paper back in 2000. This doesn't really offend me - it's a really good paper and I'm happy to support the small press on topics like these, of which books are rare. The central thesis of the book is that Infocom's downfall was not solely caused by the development of Cornerstone, the database software that massively flopped and drained substantial resources from the company. Personally, I didn't even know that was an argument - I guess maybe some interactive fiction fans were incredibly annoyed that the company was diverting so much of its resources away games and putting them towards boring business software, but I think in retrospect, most people realize that text adventures were simply falling out of fashion, and Infocom was doing a poor job adapting to new marketplace. Of course, there are many more reasons than that, which this book handfully illustrates. Indeed, the executives seemed to realize that Infocom's games might eventually go out of fashion and sought to diversify, which was where the idea for Cornerstone came from. Of course, that didn't quite work out in practice, for reasons which are, again, well explained. My favorite bit is this advertisement, teasing the likes of Sierra and other adventure game developers for their awful graphics.

It's a great, but with a few fundamental issues. Mostly, much like GET LAMP, it does a fantastic job illustrating the history of the business and (to a lesser extent), why the genre is so fascinating...but it largely glosses over the games themsevles. It talks about the creation of feelies for Deadline and a bit of about Floyd in Planetfall...but bairly mentions any of the rest of their titles, other than that they exist? I know this was initially a history paper and such criticism would have originally been beyond the scope...but the result is that the book is just way too short, considering it's only 50 pages worth of content and sold for $10. I haven't done thorough word count comparisons, but I think the Zork article in the upcoming HG101 adventure game book is longer than this entire production. Indeed, I've got at least a half a dozen ideas for a follow up book, one of which is one focusing on interactive fiction, including a comprehensive look at Infocom titles. It's been a long time since I've been into them personally - I played through Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the book, but haven't touched others since I was in high school. (I actually wrote some UHS hint files for the likes of Trinity, Bureaucracy and Infidel some fifteen years ago.) Indeed, if you've got any interest in the subject and would like to contribute, please drop me a line and we can hash out some details.

But, oh, right, this book? The gist of it - great read, you should support the press and the authors by buying it, but it really is way too short.


  1. I remember a few years back there was an oddly long-winded hubbub in some game site's comment section when some guy who claimed to ghost write for Douglas Adams happened. Grew out of an article about the H2G2 game (might've mentioned the unproduced n64-ish one, I forget)

  2. Interesting. How'd you hear about this?