XYZZY Forever!

It’s funny how aspects of your past can come streaking through your present, unannounced and unbidden, but appreciated all the same.

I subscribe to a newsletter called WebWord, which deals with Web site usability issues. The most recent edition included a link to a copy of Infocom’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text-based RPG, which the good folks at have posted on their Web site. It’s almost identical to the game I used to play on my old Commodore 64, with the sole exception being that you can?t save your progress.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of two text-based games that did much to shape my child-mind, the other being Adventure (which you can play here), the original text-based RPG, which was originally written for mainframes in the early-1970s and later found its way onto my family’s Apple II+ in 1979.

The games included the most rudimentary of controls — if you wanted to go south, you typed ‘south?. If you wanted to interact with your environment you had to type “get rock” or “drink water” or “light lantern”, rather than simply clicking on the object like you would nowadays. Heck, there wasn’t even anything to click with or on in those days, mice having not yet arrived in the mainstream (and perhaps not even on the technological scene — I can’t remember when they were officially invented, although I know Apple started shipping them with the original Mac in 1984). I loved that text interface, which forced you to rely on your imagination to render the room, and your mind to puzzle out its mysteries by trying every possible text command imaginable.

So where does XYZZY come into play? It’s a nonsensical — and magical — word used in Adventure to teleport you back to your home base from certain locations within the dungeon. In the game, it was etched on the wall of one of the rooms, and you had to try using it in every room you entered in order to figure out what it did.

Both games evoke lots of warm, happy memories. I can remember playing Adventure with my mom, comparing notes every other day as one of us ventured further into the caves. Its probably not the sort of thing most sons did with their mothers, but then again, my mom wasn’t like most moms — she was a programmer, and — dare I say it — a proto-geek.

As for the Hitchhiker’s Guide, its memories are forever intertwined with Dave Prudenti, one of my oldest friends, with whom I played the game for countless hours, each of us trying to figure out how to solve it. Our major breakthrough came one rainy Saturday at the Mount Olive Library — we were supposed to be doing work for school, but when we found out that the library had a copy of the Guide, we immediately began playing it (actually, if I remember correctly, Dave had finished his work — not being the most academically responsible of kids, I think I simply blew off my assignment, much to the annoyance and frustration of my parents).

I have no doubt that Adventure and its kin were one of the main reasons I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons. When my mom bought me that first Basic set back in 4th grade it contained the same sense of wonder and creative challenges as Adventure, but with the added benefit of talking to real live people!

It’s a good thing I found that substitute — text-based games died in the late 1980s with the rise of mouse-based interfaces. Nowadays, games are bigger, louder and more visually stunning than ever before, but there’s a little slice of magic — that magic that we bring to the game through the power of our own minds — that’s always missing.