The Master Storytellers did (Info-)Comics (and nobody took notice)

by Mr Creosote (2021-05-29)

Infocom and graphics – it was not an easy relationship, ever. Although it had been a topic almost right from its beginnings. Already by 1983, essentially at the peak of their success, first ads appeared addressing what later became a sore point. In a mocking tone, they addressed how graphics were not only unnecessary, but harmful to their games:


Another ad stated:

You'll never see Infocom's graphics on any computer screen. Because there's never been a computer built by man that could handle the images we produce. And, there never will be.

What could be perceived as either smart, witty or defensive (take your pick) apparently came from the heart, even if not necessarily to the pointed degree as published. Mike Dornbrook, longtime head of marketing at Infocom, reflects in retrospect what a double-edged sword this ad turned out to be: “That ‘We Stick Our Graphics Where the Sun Don’t Shine’ ad, though very powerful at that moment and highly memorable, definitely came back to haunt us. […] It did tie our hands later […]” Nevertheless, Infocom did look into graphics options long before its eventual takeover, as Mike explains: “We started our Graphics Group fairly early on, with the intention of making machine-independent graphics games. […] Despite the thought that text would continue, we did pursue graphics. We just thought that would be in different lines of games rather than illustrations for text games.” Apart from Fooblitzky, an ill-fated virtual board game, nothing materialized, however. In part, because nobody in-house wanted to compromise on “lowest-common-denominator” graphics necessary to ensure portability.

Even presenting their games on TV in early 1985, clearly a medium for moving pictures and sound, Infocom founder and prolific author Dave Lebling repeated the same mantra from the infamous ad (though toning it down to “with today's technology” instead of never) after being challenged immediately on exactly this point. The proverbial elephant in the room was already there, at the very start of his interview.

In all fairness, the introduction host Gary Kildall gave him surely was not in line with Infocom's self-proclaimed profile when he remarked: “These are the kind of games that mostly I guess kids play with […]” Infocom had already published such diverse, complex games as Deadline and Starcross by this point, the expert level Spellbreaker and A Mind Forever Voyaging (as epitome of a game clearly aimed at an adult market) already in the pipeline.

Right after, the interview moves to Activision's David Crane, visibly more relaxed, showing off his action-packed Ghostbusters game. Proudly grinning as a villain's laugh sounds from the speaker, the Ghostbusters musical theme plays (including a speech sample yelling Ghostbusters). Equipping the trademark car with additional equipment by simply moving things around the screen in purely graphical fashion.

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(Dave Lebling's interview begins at 15:13. He gives another statement after the Crane bit.)

Not only does Crane get to show off his game, the conversation becomes visibly lighter, with lots of laughter. Whereas the first words out of Dave Lebling's mouth were a fairly confrontational statement towards the host. Easy to say in retrospect, but it seems quite apparent Infocom's bold advertising claims were running a bit thin by this point. Dave himself called his appearance on the show a “disaster”, having been called on a day's notice from vacation to appear on the show without proper preparation: “[…] they got me a flight there and sent a diskette of Zork to the studio. I had no script and there was no time to run through the game beforehand and set up save positions, etc.”

On an ironic sidenote, Activision would acquire Infocom 1.5 years later, demanding a larger output of new games, diversification of the portfolio etc. One of the reasons Infocomics came into existence.

Zork was not shown on TV

Nevertheless, the in-house mindset didn't change a whole lot. Amy Briggs, author of Plundered Hearts, describes the Infocom attitude prevalent even in the late 80s in a way of a stubborn old-timer out of touch with the world: “[…] so proud as we were of our too-good-for-graphics stories.” (A bit like producers of websites nowadays still praising the advantages of a primarily text-driven web over audio and video formats.)

By 1988, even if Infocom's back catalogue had kept them afloat overall (albeit under Activision, rebranded as Mediagenic, management), marketing potential for pure text games was limited. In spite of their pride, people at Infocom were perfectly aware of the state of things by that time, as veteran Steve Meretzky puts it: “Certainly, by this point in time, text adventure sales were clearly declining. […] the writing was on the wall for text adventures.”

The past never became never say never again and the final Infocom text adventures (e.g. Shōgun) included illustrations along with the still primarily parser-based gameplay (albeit abandoning the idea of machine-independent graphics). Even the ads performed a 180° turn. Infocom was prepared for the inevitable fan backlash, as Mike Dornbrook explains: “We were well aware of the reaction we would get. People quoted the ‘We Stick our Graphics …’ ad to us, even though it ran for only one month 5 years earlier!” The official announcement in the Infocom customer newsletter was adequately defensive.

Dave Lebling remarks that even beyond that, there was little choice left: “Desperate times require desperate measures.”, and the lesser known attempt to move into graphical games were the Infocomics, which spelt a much broader departure from company tradition.

Infocomics in action

Infocomics were launched as a collaboration with Tom Synder Productions, makers of successful educational games. The initiative came from Tom Snyder Productions side. Omar Khudari (who soon after founded his own studio, Papyrus, makers of successful racing games) had developed an “interactive comics” engine capable of displaying images along with text which supported a story branching scheme.

Tom Snyder Productions looked for a partner to create stories and publish. Bruce Davis, new president of Activision/Mediagenic, was strongly advocating for Infocom to move into graphics, and pushed the project to the subsidiary which was in no position to refuse. It further made sense on the surface, as the Tom Snyder and Infocom offices were just down the road from each other, within walking distance.

At implementor level, it was not a very popular endeavour. Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky echo the dilemma of the time, torn between their own tradition, but seeing this very tradition failing: “It would be fair to say that no one at Infocom liked the idea.” “The Khudari engine was tempting, in its ease of use, low cost of production, and thus resulting low cost to the consumer.” Amy Briggs, who had already given notice to leave the company at the time of the project's launch, remained skeptical: “I saw little future in them. They didn’t seem very on-brand, for Infocom”

Elizabeth Langosy, on the other hand, recalls some more positive feelings, hoping for a revitalization of Infocom's core business through this approach as well: “I had always been interested (still am!) in the idea of the repercussions of choices we make throughout life and how the simplest decision can have major ramifications that affect not just us but those around us and people we don’t even know. It’s one of the things that intrigued me about interaction fiction and also about Infocomics. I hoped they’d attract people who might not be as interested in puzzle-solving but still wanted to follow a good story set in the Zork universe. And maybe these people would be inspired to go on to Infocom’s IF adventures.”

Meanwhile, in France, interactive comic books looked like this

Comic creation was shared between Infocom and Tom Snyder employees. The Infocom Imps wrote the characters, stories and branching flowcharts (sometimes even on paper), the Tom Snyder people created the graphics. The latter were given an office in the Infocom building for closer collaboration. Finally, everything was fed into the tool at the Tom Snyder offices, with hands-on participation from the Infocom people where needed.

The game engine was interesting insofar that it relied on vector graphics. At first glance, a surprising choice to represent comic book panels. Indeed, the resulting illustrations mostly lacked in visual details. On the other hand, this format allowed for fairly free panning and zooming over and into the images, making for some nice effects. Though finally, according to Omar Khudari, this was a purely technical choice: “I think we were aiming to maximize the quantity of graphics over quality. We figured vector graphics were the most compact on storage media.”

Dave Lebling describes the theoretical business case: “They could come out every month, and the idea was that they were like paper comics (Marvel, DC, etc.) in that they would have a cast of repeating characters (Lane Mastodon, for example).” In today's terms, the idea was thus to go into serial storytelling. Establish different series, push out “issues” of each in close succession at a low price. Writing time for an Infocomic was planned to last three months per issue, whereas a full-fledged classic interactive fiction game took a minimum of six month, and could be up to ten. Each Infocomic went for $12, mirroring the classic 12 cent price of comic books in the United States. Considerably below the price tag of a typical computer game at the time. Well above that of a regular (printed) contemporary comic book, but one Infocomic had plot enough for several traditional print issues.

…though they had their own issues with storytelling and interaction model

Though it all came differently. What had likely begun as hope at management level to at least bring some temporary financial relief and maybe open new markets turned into another commercial failure, Steve Meretzky admits: “Certainly the marketplace reception was anemic, and the project was quickly abandoned.” Sales figures showed even only low initial interest, nowhere sufficient to the high volume necessary for such low-priced products to become profitable. Even that dropped to almost nothing with the second batch (ZorkQuest II). What caused this failure? Entering the area of speculation, a number of points likely contributed.

First, there was little marketing push behind the project. Mike Dornbrook explains that by the time, this wasn't just for Infocomics, but a general issue in the company: “We didn’t have much of an advertising budget in the final couple of years. Our primary advertising was the New Zork Times mailing (which by then was called The Status Line). Whenever budget cutters tried to cut the budget for that I could point out that the direct sales generated alone more than paid for the mailing, and we knew the direct sales were only a fraction of the indirect sales through retailers.” The Status Line was indeed used for a relatively big announcement in its first 1988 issue (note the two sample graphics are – I'm quite sure – not used in the final games as released). Beyond the next Status Line issue, that was it, however. Mike further explains that the low price for sure played a central role in the attempt to reach an audience: “We envisioned these as impulse purchases at the cash register.”

Second, there was the choice of target platforms. The games were released for the Apple II, the C64 and the IBM PC. Out of these, at least two were clearly on the way out of commercial relevance by the late 80s. Omar Khudari attributes this to a decision of low initial investment: “We had some inertia. That is, we had a lot of in-house technical experience on the Apple II.” Notably, the Apple II was still quite strong on the US educational market, Tom Snyder Productions' core business, and also still considered for the final Infocom illustrated text adventure releases.

Shōgun on the Apple II

This choice nevertheless dictated limitations for the visual quality of what was, after all, supposed to rival printed comic books. Even on the IBM, graphics were limited to supporting the ageing CGA standard, restricted to four (ugly) colours (only marginally more when using CGA composite mode). Dave Lebling shares the impression of having been outdated at release: “Unfortunately, the graphics were not as compelling as paper comic graphics or even the graphics in videogames of the era.” Instead of spearheading quality when finally embracing graphical games, the approach was incredibly backwards looking in technical terms.

Last, but not least, even the status as games could be contested. What the engine allowed was branching, though not in the way of what people were used to from a typical gamebook at the time. The only thing possible for the reader was, at pre-defined places, to jump to another character's viewpoint and experience the plot from there. This way, he or she could learn additional details about the story, but without any way to actually interact with the story, much less influence its outcome. Meaning the Infocomics were “stories told interactively”, but not “interactive stories”.

Omar Khudari clarifies that this was by design, and not even just to keep technical complexity in check: “Tom & I both felt that controlling the outcome of the story was a problem for the viewer's suspension of disbelief (and immersion in the story world). Infocomics was an experiment to see if changing viewpoints was a viable alternative.” On Infocom side, this was considered differently, as Steve Meretzky laments: “The amount of player agency was so low, and the interactivity so shallow, particularly compared to what we were delivering with our text adventures.”

While technical limitations could probably have been resolved gradually, with such conceptually opposing viewpoints between the partners, major discussions about where to go would have been necessary, though the project never got that far.

Overall, four Infocomics were created (for details on each, follow the links):

Creation of these was largely driven by each individual author. All confirmed there was no masterplan behind how to approach this new format. It shows insofar that each of the four uses the limited options offered by the engine in quite different ways with respect how to tell their stories. Two axes can be identified in this context: whether to tell just one story or several (most apparent in ZorkQuest II) and whether to make the narrative coherent regardless of reader interaction choices or rely fully on them replaying several times (most apparent in Gamma Force).

Meaning the artifacts remaining of this project illustrate quite well not only the limits of the concept and technology, but also the span of where things could have developed had this taken on. Facing commercial failure, plans for further issues and other series (one apparently called “Haitian Honeymoon”, another one A Zorkian Christmas) were stopped before a common ground was found.

The Infocomics finally came full circle with ZorkQuest II: Infocom's strength was not with visual storytelling. This one has well fleshed out characters within a genre setting, a rather thrilling story arc, lots and lots of things happening in parallel, but all fully making sense within the world and masterfully balanced. Though the illustrations still remain an afterthought, not enhancing the experience at all. Never having looked appropriate even at the time, these days, they could even be considered detrimental. Working within a visual story telling medium would have required an adaptation of approach, however, to make it work, even within the confines of the engine.

The closing thoughts shall belong to Dave Lebling, who concludes Infocom may not have been a great match for this project after all: “Infocom's forte was the writing, plotting, and parser-based interactivity in our 'interactive fiction' games. The best possible implementation of Infocomics (the 'engine' especially) would have basically been a single-player video game (RPG, open-world, or some other sub-genre). Those already existed. The only 'sales pitch' to a buyer was the Infocom name, which carried with it expectations that the implementation didn't provide.”


Thanks to (in alphabetical order) Amy Briggs, Dave Lebling, Elizabeth Langosy, Mike Dornbrook, Omar Khudari and Steve Meretzky for their willingness and patience in answering questions, providing all those insights!
The Infocom Cabinet, from the files of Steve Meretzky and curated by Jason Scott, has been an invaluable source.
Full issues of The Status Line quoted can be read and downloaded from The Internet Archive (1, 2).
Release dates taken from the Infocom Fact Sheet.

Comments (1) [Post comment]

mtw (2021-10-10):
Great post.