#73 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Posted: 23rd September 2021 by Jeroen in Games
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1001th played so far

Genre: Interactive Fiction
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1984
Developer: Infocom
Publisher: Infocom

So this is weird. If there had not been a second edition of the book, I would be done now – instead I’m going into overtime. I’m playing the final double digit game – it was the last game remaining for it and is one of those weirdly eccentric entries that deserves it. And sticking with our milestone + 1 rule, Infocom feels a bit like its own indie of the day – independent with its own niche – even if it was really a big publisher of its day. And since it’s part-designed by Douglas Adams, this is also another version of the story that we’ve seen told before in radio, book, TV and movie form.

I’ve been looking forward to this one.

Interactive Fiction

Partially due to my own edits, the interactive fiction bag has been a bit of a mix of games. What you get, to a greater or lesser extent, is the focus on and experimentation with storytelling, at times combined with puzzle solving. That’s abundantly clear in the exploration of A Mind Forever Voyaging and the oddities of Thirty Flights of Loving, but I feel that it’s also a genre that has exploded in the decade after the book’s publishing. While they’ve been referred to with the deriding term ‘walking simulator’, there have been a lot of games that took gameplay elements and moved them to focusing on their story, with a differing amount of other interactions. In fact, as I write this I finished What Remains of Edith Finch a day ago and its structure of voice overs while you play simple mini games is an evolution of what started with Infocom’s experiments with narrative.

While I wouldn’t have said this a decade ago, it feels like this is the purest expression of video games as art – a system that tells a story and creates an emotional response in part through the way you interact with it, as an active participant rather than a passive observer. It shows the power of the medium, and it’s been the smaller indie developers that really pushed it. It’s a small fraction of the list, but it also contains the games that had the biggest impact on my thoughts of what a game is.

Our Thoughts

It feels almost inevitable than any interpretation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feels a bit like fan fiction, even if (as is the case here) Douglas Adams had a hand in it. For the video game, that means that the initial scenes are incredibly familiar – wake up, lie in front of a bulldozer, get teleported to a Vogon spaceship – are all there. Playing as Arthur Dent, though, means that your perspective on these is quite different. You know what instructions to follow, but Ford going off means you have to trust that what happens makes sense. While the initial beats of the story stay the same, they diverge at one point as you can dive into the memories of several of the known characters, seeing major scenes from their perspective and with their take on it. Aside from a nice way to get in the moments you almost expect to see, it feels like a really good way to enhance the storytelling in a way that you don’t get in a more passive work, especially not outside the books. It only covers a small amount of the story from other works, but it’s satisfying in what it does have.

It’s more difficult to say the same from the other side, when it comes to the puzzles the game has. There are a lot of options and blind alleys that leave you in trouble long after you made the initial decision. I soon switched to playing with a guide to avoid the pitfalls (and there are many, even with a guide I messed up the timing of a few events) and my enjoyment increased immensely as I could actually see the story beats, while using some save games to follow other paths. It’s neat once you do that, but it does feel like a flaw in the core game, albeit a flaw I expect from the era.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the video game, would work as well as just telling a story. The parts where you have to go around, take certain actions and react to the world work to tell of what you’re doing, and the many failure situations work to explore why you need to do them. On the other hand, it feels like the gameplay and puzzles are a bit too difficult to keep track of, and almost delight in their cruelty when you miss doing something. A guide and save games help, but if I didn’t have both to help me, it feels like it would have really tested my patience.