Sunday, 19 August 2018

Missed Classic: Hitchhiker’s Guide - I Got the Babelfish!

Written by Joe Pranevich

What is the most famous puzzle in adventure game history? Is it defeating the snake in Colossal Cave? Sneaking in the back of the white house in Zork? How about something from King’s Quest or Maniac Mansion? In 1984, one of the most famous puzzles (at least according to the marketing department at Infocom) was the babel fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The puzzle was so famous that successful players purchased a now-prized t-shirt advertising that fact: “I got the babel fish.” If I had lived in 1984 and played this game, I would definitely have bought the shirt. Why? Because, this week I got the babel fish. I confess that this puzzle probably isn’t that famous considering that I do not remember it from my original playthrough of this game more than twenty years ago, but it was still fun. I’ve received t-shirts for dumber reasons.

Before we begin today, I recommend setting the mood in with “Journey of the Sorcerer”, the theme song to the original series. In a burst of cosmic similarity, I’m going to cover in this post roughly the same ground as the first episode of the radio and television series. I doubt I’ll be able to keep that up as the game will diverge from the source material, but it’s as good as any place to begin.

Salted peanuts to keep you awake after matter transmission.

We start this week in the dark, having just been transported to the Vogon ship (we assume) by some sort of sci-fi matter transmission device after we pressed the “hitchhike” button. I cannot talk enough about how much I enjoy the text in this game, but let me present you with the room description:
There’s nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, and you do not even know who you are.

It’s terse, but it’s evocative. It’s powerful. And we see it (or several close variations) as we try to solve the next puzzle of the game. In short, after transmission, we can do nothing. We cannot look around, take inventory, or anything else. Every command we type gives us (or a close variation) that over and over again.

Except, that’s not true. After a few turns of scrambling to find out what to do, the text changes subtly. I didn’t even notice right away:
You can’t hear anything, see anything, feel anything, or taste anything, and you do not know where you are, who you are, or how you got there.
The new text has the senses in a different order and is more explicitly second person (“you can’t” rather than “there’s”), but even the length is about the same. Read carefully and you realize that they added the “how you got there” but took away any mention of a sense of smell. Why? Well, because now you can “smell here” and we get a whiff of something pungent. The darkness starts to recede. The name of the room even changes to “darkness” in lowercase rather than the capitalized “Dark”. We can make out a shadow in the dark and if we “examine” it, we emerge from our stupor: it was Ford Prefect waving some mineral water under our nose and he hands us some peanuts.

I am a bit in love with this puzzle, not because it was very difficult, but because it is so meta-fictional. This is not the type of puzzle that Infocom was known for and I just love that it is here. It’s crazy, but it makes sense.

Vogon ships over Earth (1981 TV series)

I wake the rest of the way up and find myself in a Vogon hold. There are a lot of things here that are setting my Adventure Gaming Instincts off: there’s a door to port and an airlock starboard, an “atomic vector plotter” in a glass case, a switch and a keyboard attached to said case, and a tall dispensing machine. Ford also gives me some peanuts. I start to look around, but I very quickly get groggy. Eating the peanuts seems to help.

The dispenser appears to give out “babel fish” out of a slot at approximately knee-level. I know because I’ve read the books (and so many other things) that I will need to get myself one of those if I am to be able to understand the alien languages spoken around the galaxy. Pressing the dispenser button doesn’t help as the fish flies out the machine and through a hole in the other side of the room. That sounds like a puzzle! Before I can move to look at the vector plotter and case, Ford comes up and tells me that he’s off to take a nap. Matter transmission takes a lot out of him… maybe he should have eaten more peanuts? He hands me his copy of the guide and whispers through the fourth wall that I will be unable to beat the game without consulting it frequently. Is this the “real” beginning of the game? I consult the guide on Vogons then about their poetry and it’s all taken pretty directly from the book.

At this point, something strange happens: I learn that a typo I used just a few turns ago (“search guide for vogons”, as it turns out; the correct verb is “consult”) actually flew back in time through a wormhole to a distant galaxy where two warlike beings were meeting on the brink of war, their massively armed battle fleets ready to atomize each other at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, that phrase was a dire insult in one of the languages and so the two creatures went to war with each other, killing many millions. All because I had a typo. I guess I should be more careful selecting my verbs! I am going to hope that Infocom is not so terrible that a typo can land us in a dead man walking scenario, but if I am somehow stuck because of this someone can let me know.

The TV show’s guide entry on “babel fish”.

I try to free the atomic vector plotter from the case, but that is useless. Activating the switch just has it talk to you in Vogon and the keyboard is useless unless you know what you want to type. I expect that I am going to have to solve the babel fish puzzle first. This is reiterated around turn 66 when there’s an announcement over the intercom that I cannot understand. I need to figure this out!

I’ll told you so already, but the babel fish puzzle is one of the most unique puzzles that I have ever experienced:
  • Pushing the button, as I mentioned earlier, just causes the fish to fly out of the machine and through a hole. There’s a hook above the hole.
  • What can I put on the hook? I try the towel first but that just falls off. Ignoring my own sense of modesty, I put the dressing gown on the hook instead. Am I now facing off against the Vogons naked? I hope I at least have some underwear on.
  • The next time I push the button, the fish sails across the room and lands in the gown, slides down the sleeve, and falls into a grate in the floor that we conveniently didn’t notice before.
  • I put the towel on the grate. The next time I push the button, the fish sails across the room, slides down the sleeve, lands on the towel, and then gets immediately picked up by a cleaning robot.

A few turns later, I get hauled into the Captain’s quarters and spoken at in Vogon for a while. I have no idea what happens, but after a while I get thrown back into the hold. I restore rather than risk missing something important.

Vogons from the 1981 TV series.

What am I carrying that might help with this? The only thing that comes to mind is the junk mail. I put it on the towel. I put it on the floor. I even put it in front of the panel where the robot zooms into. None of them prove to be much of an obstacle to the little cleaning robot who just zips by. Good news: putting it in front of the little robot panel at least changes the message! Now it tells me that the robot easily goes around the pile of mail so there might be something else I can do there. Bad news: Eventually, the little babel fish dispenser just goes “click” and I need to restore again to restart the puzzle. This is tricky!

What else do I have that might work? A toothbrush? The guide? A screwdriver? None of them seem particularly good at blocking little robots. It takes me a minute, but I work it out: the satchel! Ford is asleep and I can grab his satchel now. Placing it in front of the hole where the cleaning robot escapes, I cause the robot to crash! It sends the babel fish flying… straight into the paws of an airborne cleaning robot which files into a different hole. This is getting ridiculous. At least there is a new clue: the flying robot catches the fish because it is “all the flying junk it can find”. On my next attempt, I put the pile of junk mail on the satchel and press the button. The robot slams into the satchel, sending the fish and the mail flying in all directions. The airborne cleaning robot collects everything it can, but narrowly misses the fish which lands directly into my ear. I got the babel fish!

Vintage “babel fish” tee-shirt! (From MOCAGH)

With the babel fish in my ear, I can now understand the instructions from the atomic vector plotter case: I have to enter in the second word from the second verse of the Captain’s favorite poem. It also warns me that an incorrect entry will cause the case to explode. Well, that is difficult considering that, if I heard any poetry so far, it was all in Vogon. Now that I have the babel fish, I should be able to understand it, right?

As if right on cue, the Vogon captain comes over the intercom and this time I can understand him: he’s detected our presence, isn’t very happy about it, and plans to shove us out the airlock as soon as he can find us. If we’re really lucky, he’ll read some poetry to us first. Score! So all I have to do is wait for the guards and I’ll get that poetry reading that I need in order to get the plotter. (Why do I need the plotter? I have no idea but this is an adventure game. We need everything, especially when what we need is surrounded by a complicated puzzle.)

Arthur and Ford enjoy some poetry (from the 2005 film)

I wait and wait a bit longer and the guards eventually find me and haul me off into the “poetry appreciation chair”. While I am strapped in, there’s not much that I can do or see but read the poetry… “Oh freddled gruntbuggly, thy naturations are to me!” If you’ve read the books, you know what to expect. If English isn’t your first language, don’t worry. Some Vogon terms are beyond even the babel fish’s ability to translate. I’d copy it all down here except I’m not that crazy and there’s no easy way to cut-and-paste out of Boxer that I have found. After listening to a verse of poetry, the Vogon throws me back into the hold. But… but… I needed the second verse? How do I get him to tell me the second verse?

I restore back again and try again. The solution was once again in the text: the captain said that he’d throw me back in the airlock because I did not enjoy the poetry enough. So what to do? I try “enjoy poetry” and that seems to work! Because I liked the first verse, he kindly (so to speak) reads the second one as well. When he’s done, he still plans to throw us out the airlock. Ford tries to talk the guards out of it, asking if they really enjoy throwing people out of airlocks. You know the drill. I quickly type the second word (“lyshus”) into the machine and I can grab the vector plotter! (When replaying this later to finish the write-up, I was asked for a different word. I assume this is somewhat random.) The plotter has a small receptacle and a “dangly bit”, but I have absolutely no idea what to do with either of those. Consulting the guide suggests that they are used in improbability physics. While I try to work it out, Ford keeps talking and the guard eventually tosses us into the airlock. We have two minutes to live.

How do we survive this? I survey the room looking for a puzzle. I don’t find any. Do I just wait around? In the books, Arthur and Ford get picked up by a ship when they get ejected from the airlock. Ford starts writing equations on the wall. I guess he is trying to solve the puzzle. He eventually works out that we can use the signaling device, but exactly the same time that we get tossed out the airlock. Twenty-nine seconds later, we are picked up by a ship just as we pass out for lack of oxygen.

The Heart of Gold in the 1981 TV series.

You can’t hear anything, see anything, smell anything, feel anything, or taste anything, and you do not know where you are, who you are, or how you got there.

Oh no. Not this again. At least I know how to solve it!

But that will be all for me today. Given all of the interest from the introductory post, I am going to take this slow and enjoy the game and do my best to explain the puzzles and such as I go. I could tell it all in fast-forward like some of the other games, but this seems to be a flavor best savored. If we get to a ridiculous number of posts, I’ll happily speed up. If you happen to fancy getting a babel fish shirt, I found a Zazzle store that is selling replica copies. They are probably violating copyright a half-dozen ways, plus the font and layout aren’t exactly the same as on the original. You can grab this replica shirt here:

Next week: The Heart of Gold and a battle to the death with a Bugblatter Beast of Traal! No bonus post this week. I have finished reading the novelization of Shada, but I ran out of time without watching the animated recreation. I’d like to at least view a bit of that before I finish my write-up.

Inventory: no tea, atomic vector plotter, towel, gown (being worn), pocket fluff (in gown), thing which your aunt gave you, babel fish (in ear), Hitchhiker’s Guide, signaling device, toothbrush, screwdriver
Time played: 1 hr 00 min
Total time: 1 hr 25 min


  1. I think there's going to be some disappointed punters. Enough people guessed Joe was going to get caught up on that puzzle that I now know that babel, after being rot13'ed is 'onory'

    1. This is my 15th Infocom game. Have more faith in me than that. :)

      But I am still stuck... a bit farther...

    2. I'm still holding out for one, but I remember the babel fish puzzle vividly simply because of how much it drove me nuts when I was much younger. I think I hadn't picked up the junk mail at the beginning of the game, so I had already dead-ended myself and it took me far too long to figure it out and restart. I played through the game again after seeing the introduction post and this was one of maybe three puzzles in the game where I could remember exactly what to do simply because I could picture the scene. At the very least, the game had helped reinforce the rule of 'Pick up absolutely everything no matter how silly' for me from then on.

  2. Well. Joe is clever. I'm not guessing about getting stuck any more, I don't think.

    1. I'm not THAT clever. This puzzle actually has some pretty good hinting in the text descriptions if you read carefully. I mentioned the airborne robots looking for "junk" echoing the "junk mail" that you could have picked up, plus if you are on the right track but use the wrong object, it usually changes the description just a bit to show you that SOMETHING happened.

      The biggest catch might be if you neglected to pick up the junk mail, but this is an adventure game and I have played fourteen other Infocom classics at this point. I knew not to leave Earth without the mail, toothbrush, and screwdrivers. (Presumably, they will come in handy at some point.) I also made sure that I left the Vogon ship with them although I notice now that I forgot to type out an inventory. Oops.

    2. I corrected the missing "Inventory" section.

      Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the "thing which your aunt gave you" is back in my inventory though I lost it last post. I didn't realize that it was back while playing the next segment (which is already done but not fully written out) but it apparently is. Still no idea what it is or will be used for.

    3. I'm probably being oversensitive to ROT13 this, but: Vg'f whfg n pbagnvare. Vg'f unaql, ohg vg'f abg qverpgyl vaibyirq va fbyivat nal chmmyrf.

  3. Yes, I would rate the Babel fish as the most infamous puzzle of all time. Allowing the player to leave Earth without the junk mail is a perfect illustration of "dead man walking" game design. Once you have all the pieces, it's a fun and funny puzzle since each thing you try gets you one step farther, and the next step is mostly adequately hinted.

    I would have said the Dragon rather than the snake in Colossal Cave. Or using the magic words. But the Babel fish is right up there with those.

    1. I've commented before on "closed" vs "open" puzzles in adventure games. The terms are completely made up BS, but for me a "closed" puzzle is like the ending to mainframe Zork, or like the time travel puzzle in Zork III. These are puzzles where you know you have everything you need in a confined puzzle-space (a few rooms) and you have to just push until you solve it. In contrast, an "open" puzzle is more like the fetch quest puzzles of Colossal Cave and most adventure game puzzles: you have to combine objects you pick up from a wide space and you don't know if you can solve the puzzle or not because maybe you are not taking them in the right order or because you missed picking up something earlier. In general, I love the "closed" puzzles while I find the "open" ones tedious unless done well. A good game seems to balance between the two (and other types besides).

      The babel fish puzzle, excepting that you could have missed the mail in the opening section, is a great example of a closed puzzle. You have everything you need. You have a time limit. And you have a LOT of fun toying with the environment in a confined space and seeing what happens. The text is a joy to read, the actual puzzle isn't very difficult once you realize you are essentially creating a Rube Goldberg machine, and it sets up the logic of the comedy world very well. I said in the start that I didn't know how you could make puzzles out of comedy because comedy doesn't have rules, but this puzzle immediately proved me wrong.

      That said, I admit that if you missed the junk mail you had a dead man situation. It just didn't occur to me to leave the mail behind so I didn't experience that bit of frustration.

    2. The junk mail wasn't nailed down.

      One should type "get all" in each room - the only reason not to pick something up is carrying capacity limits.

    3. Laukku: Are you speaking specifically about this game or generally about adventure games? I can come up with several reasons why "taking everything (within carrying capacity limits)" might not work or might even be a bad strategy.

      1) Might not work
      a) Item might be "nailed down", if some puzzle is not solved at first
      b) Item might be hidden (e.g. within a container or might require manipulation of some object in the room)

      2) Might not be optimal
      a) Item might be lethal, either instantly after picking it up or when triggered by something (e.g. after some number of turns or after doing some action necessary for getting further)
      b) Item might hinder some necessary action (for instance, in original Adventure carrying rod stops you from picking up a bird)

    4. I was thinking of typing "get all" in text adventures generally in the context of checking what's easily takable. Of course, it isn't the be-all-end-all solution, merely a first step; no generic command is going to solve even minor puzzles. Also, if it's obvious that [Item X] should NOT be taken, then "get all except [Item X]" should be written instead; if it's not obvious then the player would've picked it up anyway (as long as they're aware of its existence) and there's no practical difference.

  4. This puzzle actually didn’t seem THAT bad. Of course, you’re a highly skilled adventure game vet, so I shouldn’t be surprised that you added it.

    Still, it’s a clever puzzle, and as you say, as long as you pick up everything that isn’t nailed down, the clues are all here.

    As an aside, how come for licensed properties you get this, while I draw LA Law? Sigh...

    1. I would say that my past posts should have long since dispelled the rumor that I am somehow an expert...

      As for why I got to do this game? Let's just say that "Seastalker", "Cutthroats", and "Infidel" were my penance...