Aug 8, 2007

The Lurking Horror by Infocom (retro review)

Text is a weird beast. It doesn't dance or jump up and down, doesn't change colors, produce richly animated 3D photo-realistic landscapes or get (even remotely) close to a true multimedia experience. On the other hand, it does invoke images only your (yes, your very own) imagination can bring forth; images, sounds, smells and feelings that no PS3 will ever be able to match. Text, you see, is so powerful a medium that has stuck around for more than 4 millennia. As Infocom a text dependent company- used to put it (apparently describing their use of text): "We're unleashing the world's most powerful graphics technology. Your brain". And they were right, even though they are also quite bankrupt.

But, who were they? Who were those Infocom guys? Well, if you don't know, you're a youngling and Google is your friend. I'll just give you a tip: Zork. You see, oh dear reader, besides plain old typed text, or even new-ish appearing-on-a-screen text, there has also been an interactive kind of text, a computerized version of novels, the aptly named text-adventure or interactive fiction games. And Infocom was the producer of the greatest.

Learning to read. And write.

Text adventures had, and actually still have, the most intuitive interface one could wish for. The player is presented with -astonishingly- a piece of text that describes the situation he or she faces, the surroundings and anything else the developer fancies. The player then just types what he or she wants to do. Simple as that, but an example should help everyone get it.

Imagine you are standing in front of your PC, as indeed you Ok, scrap that. Imagine the screen goes black, and then -magically- a text adventure is loaded. Guess what you'd see. Correct. Something like this:

"You are standing in front of the magical door everyone has been talking about. Everything else around you is barely visible, even though you can make out a cat, a glass of wine and an old shoe. What will you do?"

Then, you would be quite literally prompted to take action, by typing something appropriate after a nice old fashioned prompt ">". There you would probably type something like "Drink wine and kick cat" or "open door and kick cat", even "take cat" and the game would respond appropriately with something along the lines of "the cat is in your inventory" or more often than not with "I don't know the word cat".

The Horror's true form

The Lurking Horror, the game under this gnome's ever dissecting eye (the game being reviewed to cut the prose), was one of Infocom's last games, released in 1987 just a few years before its final collapse, and following a series of immensely successful and quite legendary games, like the aforementioned Zork, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Sorcerer and the rather risque Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Its author, none other than Dave Lebling of Zork fame, tried to create the first ever pure horror Infocom adventure game. Oh, and the first Infocom game, perhaps the first text-adventure ever, to incorporate sound. But more on that later.

For now, let's be as frank as the mists of nostalgia allow. The Lurking Horror is a very good game, which uses a mature, though still quite limited, version of the Infocom parser, and manages to infuse the player with an (admittedly false) sense of true freedom. Sometimes of dread too, as this game oozes atmosphere like an ooze oozes ooze. The rather loose and at times disjointed plot, that besides its shortcomings does a great job of being interesting and involving, puts you in the shoes of a GUE (George Underwood Edwards) student, in a typical dark and stormy night, one day before an assignment is due. The apparently desperate struggle to prepare said assignment soon turns into a dangerous journey to the GUE Alchemy department, through the old and Lovecraftian underground corridors of the University. Then you get to die a lot and experience quite a lot of weird and some (wisely few) quirky little funny moments.

Puzzles, on the other hand, though not necessarily deadly, are definitely varied, imaginative and happily not as difficult as one might expect from the era of the beautiful but expensive Infocom hintbook, even though saving often can be a damn good idea. After all, dying horrible and unexpected deaths isn't a rare incident in the dark underground corridors, as all you have to do is switch off the lights and something creepy will dismember you. In a nasty way, of course. Other than that, there are some brilliant riddles to be solved, and some, thankfully very few, incredibly silly puzzles like the operating the bleeding microwave bit to be endured. Mind you, and that's one of my minor Lurking Horror gripes, that at times it's just not clear what you're supposed to be doing.

Atmosphere. And plastic worm-thingies.

Atmosphere. Yes, atmosphere. The secret ingredient, that, along with that gameplay thing, used to be found in almost every game of yore. An elusive, and nowadays rarely achieved goal, which also happens to be The Lurking Horror's strongest asset. Everything my dear point-and-clickers has been carefully calculated. The game's box is an impressive and very physical beginning in your immersion in the world of Lurking horror (you even get a disgusting little red plastic bug-worm hybrid), which will only intensify when you read some excellent prose that is dramatically connected to very well thought-of sounds, eerie chants, screeches and unexpected bangs. Sound, a genre innovation, is used sparingly, at excellently chosen times and admittedly to great effect. Usually just when you've forgotten this game features any. Even the copy protection is perfectly blended to the game's tone (it does feel like an actual puzzle), let alone the manual. Don't believe me? Have a look then.

Thus, to experience the full monty, I do believe that a bit of ebay or Retro Treasures hunting is necessary. To experience (a.k.a. download) the light, prop-less but still very engaging version try your luck with Google. You'll get lucky. Then again, you could always play a lovely online version of The Lurking Horror right here.

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Sierra's Mystery House revisited, Vinyl Data, Text-adventure maps, naughty i-f


  1. Didn't they go broke because they put almost all of their game money into a spreadsheet program they bought or developed?

  2. Indeed they did... It was the infamous "Cornerstone" database programme...

  3. ...the rock they perished on... so to speak...

    ahem! okay im sorry....

    another extraordinary post Gnome, i'ts a joy to read and i'm a much wiser old person than I was when i arrived here.... less funny but wiser..

    (steps on bug.....)

  4. Actually I'd say wiser in a idiosyncratic yet funny way. Yes, that's it. Oh, and thank you for your kind words. Guess I'll go somewhere private and blush...


  5. Have you ever played "Anchorhead"? Definitely one of the best horror IF games. And possibly even of the best IF games. Period.

  6. (brings in replacement bug.....heads to Gnomes blushing room)

    hi Gnome.... thought i might find you back here...

    ..I felt guilty about the bug I squashed, here this is for you... (hands Gnome new hybrid bug-worm...)

  7. Bjorn I had started with Anchorhead a year or so ago, but for some silly reason I didn't finish it. Still, it's a bloody amazing game. You're right. Better give it another try. Thanks for the tip mate!

    eeeeek! a disgusting bug-worm-thingy...


  8. While Cornerstone certainly contributed to Infocom's demise, the commercial viability of the text adventure is the primary reason they folded.

    Text adventures enjoyed the early success they did because, ironically, they were the only medium capable of injecting "realistic" images into the player's head. Graphics-based games were either too crude to convey a credible sense of reality, or else they'd forego any attempt to portray reality and opt for the abstract instead.

    Once we started wandering into the 16-bit era, visual realism increased to such an extent that developers could make stylistic, artistic statements with the game's visuals that still met the player's imagination half-way. A much better compromise.

    I think The Secret of Monkey Island represented the point of no return for the adventure genre. While it was by no means the first point & click graphic adventure, it was the first time the medium's constituent elements were given enough of a polish to set it apart from what had come before. Monkey Island wasn't just about the jokes -- it was about the graphics, the music and the interface. Can you imagine Monkey Island being as much fun if it were purely a text adventure?

    Anyway, with the point & click adventure game, storytellers now had a new sandbox in which to tell their stories. Some developers were in a better position than others when it came to throwing resources into this new genre. Unfortunately, the likes of Infocom, Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls weren't among them.

  9. (sobers up......sits up and pays attention....)

    ..who's that? (runs to get autograph book....)

  10. Sonance, thanks for dropping by and -especially- for taking the time to write sich an interesting and apparently time consuming comment.

    I actually do see your point, and believe you're right regarding the commercial logick behind the death of the commercial text-adventure.

    On the other hand, I just can't say I prefer a game with graphics to a text adventure, just as I can't say I prefer movies to books. Different mediums, different strenghts, even though the constantly lowering level of the mainstream audience doesn't help quality much.

    Ah, Magnetic Scrolls. Lovely and beautifull games too. Think they lasted a bit longer...

    (Don't know who that is elderly dear, but pleae don't hit him with your autograph book)

  11. (sits patiently in front of exit, with unsigned autograph book and biro.....)



  12. (brings Elderly a Nintendo Ds)

  13. thanks gnome.... (gets distracted long enough by DS for the honourable sonance to slip by him unnoticed...)

  14. psst...

    besides, we don't know who he is matey...