Sunday 26 August 2018

Missed Classic: Hitchhiker’s Guide - Improbable Mission

Written by Joe Pranevich

Welcome back! Last week, I successfully defeated the Vogons, retrieved the elusive babel fish, and managed to secure an atomic vector plotter before being jettisoned out of an airlock. Not bad for a Thursday! This week, I will be picking up the thread just after passing out for lack of oxygen and very improbably being picked up by a passing spaceship: the Heart of Gold. Thus far, the Hitchhiker’s Guide game has been a lot of fun, if a bit linear. Contrary to my initial fears, Adams and Meretzky have managed to make the game funny without being inscrutable; there is a logic to the puzzles that makes them solvable and gives you a sense of pride for doing so.

I mentioned last week that I am stuck and I remain so, although I have some new things to try. I have decided to pause my own playing for another week or so until the writing catches up. I hope that my re-playing the events will inspire me to find the thing I missed. I think I realized something that I missed even while typing out this post, so I look forward to experimenting. Onward to the adventure!
How Stuff Works named the Heart of Gold one of their Top 10 Fictional Spacecraft

I ended last week with one of the little “Darkness” puzzles where you have to find the missing sense word after a few turns. In this case, I had to “listen” to discern the sound of the ship’s engines. That still led to a confusing sequence where I am told that the only exit is to port, but it’s actually south. I’d chalk this up to a minor bug, perhaps even a change in the directions Infocom has traditionally used for shipboard navigation, except that the game reveals that it was just kidding about the exit to port. I don’t get it. Is it supposed to be funny or does the joke pay off later? After escaping, I find myself in an entry bay with Ford Prefect and a sales brochure. Before I can do much, Ford drags me off to the bridge where we discover Zaphod, Trillian, and Eddie the computer. The game reveals that Arthur had met them both before, at a party in Islington, and that this coincidence is very “odd”. Zaphod reveals that he stole the ship, now revealed as the Heart of Gold, and he’s taking it to the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. He will be happy to tell us more… in the sauna. The three of them head off to the steam room, leaving me free to explore on my own.

I explore the whole thing. The ship isn’t huge-- only eight rooms-- but they are jam-packed with interesting hints of puzzles that I will get to later. Instead of narrating it room-by-room, let me just lay it all out for you:
  • I start on the bridge which contains the main console and Eddie the computer. Eddie doesn’t really respond to any questions that I ask him. Ford and Trillian both left their personal storage devices here when they went to the sauna: Ford’s satchel and Trillian’s handbag. For some reason, the game doesn’t let me into Ford’s stuff, but it does let me go through Trillian’s and I discover a pair of tweezers. There’s also a “molecular hyperwave pincer” in the room. 
  • West of the bridge is the sauna, but I cannot explore there. When I go, I get a message that I stayed for a few hours and return a changed man. I do not know if this is meant to imply something about the trio’s activities in the sauna, be a hint for a future puzzle, or just be a waste of time. Since this is a comedy, I check carefully to make sure the “changed man” didn’t change something that I needed, but I think I am okay. 
  • Below the bridge is a corridor, the northern end of which is where I arrived. I can read the sales brochure for the Heart of Gold, but it just gives me some basic information about the Improbability Drive and Genuine People Personalities. 
  • West of the hall is the galley containing a Nutrimat, a machine that gives you exactly the drink that you want most. It seems to have trouble with tea, only providing some “Advanced Tea Substitute” for Arthur’s nourishment. No mention is made of biscuits which is too bad. There’s also a carton labeled to contain a Nutrimat interface, but it actually has an Anti-Bugblatter gun inside. That is strange! Every now and then, Zaphod arrives, grabs a drink, and then leaves. I don’t see anything I can do with him. 
Do you happen to have a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster handy? (Image from the 1981 TV series.)

  • At the southern end of the hallway is a door that will not allow me to pass unless I can demonstrate my intelligence. Consulting the guide reveals that intelligence is contradiction. Is this the “tea”/”no tea” puzzle that I vaguely remember? 
  • Beyond the hallway is the engine room, but the game warns me that it is a very dangerous place so I skip it for now. 
  • The final area is off to the east: a hatch out of the ship and a crawlspace. I can only carry one item through the crawlspace, but it doesn’t seem to matter much since there is nothing to do on the other side. Opening the hatch is out of the question because I’d die immediately in the vacuum of space. 
  • Not an area, but I should mention that Marvin is randomly wandering from room to room, surrounded by a cloud of depression. I cannot see anything to do with him yet. It may be important that he, unlike Zaphod, seems to move from room to room rather like the characters did in the Sgt. Duffy mysteries. (That is, he seems to actually move around, unlike Zaphod who just seems to appear on the galley to get a drink.) 
There are so many things to consider there, I don’t know what to tackle first. But before I do, I push harder on the engine room. When you try to enter, the game tell you that it is dangerous. It makes me type “yes”, that I am absolutely sure that I want to go in. It them prompts me again to make sure that I am really really sure. I say “yes” again. The game still decides that you are better off not going in there, narrating a little paragraph how you decide not to go in with a spring in your step:
You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.

After all that, I try again. The game asks if I am kidding and I say “no”. Finally, it relents and lets me into the drive chamber with a final note that “Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.” I’m not sure how I feel about games being deliberately cheeky like this, but it’s all fun and games, right? But… the game is lying again. I consider leaving, but the next time I type “look” the description changes to “I meant it! There is nothing to see here!” Only when I type “look” a third time does the game finally relent and give me the room description, with a tepid little note that it “isn’t that dangerous of a place after all.” What does the room contain? Other than the main drive, just a portable spare Improbability generator, an “ionic diffusion rasp”, and a pair of “hypersonic pliers”.

Bugblatter Beast of Traal

I had to look up what a “rasp” was.

Now I really am out of places to explore, so it’s time to solve some puzzles. The Improbability Drive has two cords (a long one and a short one), plus a switch. Consulting the Guide about it, I find that it needs a vector plotter (which I have!) and a source of Brownian motion. Consulting the guide again on those suggests that a drink with hot water would do the trick: tea! Of course, I have “no tea” but I do have the “Advanced Tea Substitute” that the Nutrimat gave me. Trial and error shows that I can put the plotter’s “dangly bit” in the tea and the short cord from the generator into the plotter. But what does the long cord connect to? Where does that go?

Eventually, I give up and just flip the switch. To my surprise, it works! A mist swirls around my head and I am sucked into a bottomless pit, only to land in the bottom and find that it is “Dark” once again. I do the puzzle again to find that “smell” is the missing sense and there is something pungent under my nose. Ford again? But when I look at the shadow, I realize that I am in the lair of the Bugblatter Beast of Traal and it was waving its tail in front of my nose. The monster advances on me and asks me for my name. Oh no! There are exits to the east and southwest. Just for a lark, I try to make a break for it. I cannot go southwest because he blocks the exit, but I can go east. That leads to his “Outer Lair” where he has built a memorial containing the names of all his victims. It’s a cute idea, but very dark. There are also some sharp stones on the ground. I try throwing one at him and that’s useless; he just laughs at me. The beast keeps asking me to tell him my name and I eventually do. Needless to say, he kills me a few turns later and writes my name on his memorial wall. I restore to try some more things. I can put a towel on my head and he ignores me for a few turns, but as soon as I remove it he eats me. I try shooting it with the special Bugblatter Beast of Traal gun that I found, but that doesn’t help either.

I die and restore and die and restore, but I eventually find the solution. When I arrive, I immediately tell him my name. Then I run off to the east and pick up a sharp rock. If I try to carve my name with the rock, it takes too long and he still eats me. But, I can put the towel on my head! Since the beast does not bother me when I am wearing the towel, I have plenty of time to carve my name in the memorial. The beast sees my freshly carved name and assumes that he must have done it so he settles down for a post-meal snooze. Problem solved! Now, how do I get out of here?

I head off to the west and find the payoff for one of the earlier jokes: the skeleton of a beast hunter is there, holding a “Nutrimat/Computer Interface”. D’oh! It must have been mis-delivered! I head back to the lair… and then a really strange thing happens. I get attacked by someone trying to collect the Beast for a zoo and end up in captivity for months before they notice their mistake. I then get impressed into a Bureaucratic Space Fleet to help on a filing and sorting mission, but get rescued by a group of asteroid painters. While painting an asteroid, I fall into a black hole… and end up back in “Dark”. A few turns later, I find that I can “hear” the hum of the spaceship and I’m back in the Heart of Gold! And I have a Nutrimat/Computer interface! And an asteroid paint chipper! I guess it wasn’t all a dream after all… I actually restore back and play the sequence over and over again to see if there is any way to escape without being captured. I try the Sub-Etha signaling device. I try hiding in the lair and not coming out. Really, there isn’t too much to try so I eventually decide that it was supposed to happen.

My nemesis! Image taken from the BBC illustrated edition of Hitchhiker’s Guide. Will we play it eventually?

Death by Nutrimat

Now that I have a “Nutrimat/Computer Interface”, what am I supposed to do with it? I examine the machine in the galley closely. It has a service panel that I have not seen before; I open it to reveal a circuit board. Is anyone other than me having Starcross flashbacks? I remove the old circuit board and replace it with my new one. I use the Nutrimat again. This time, it decides that it can consult Eddie in the making of tea. It’s a strange thing involving leaves, cows, and who knows what else so it’s not that easy for a computer to understand. I wait a moment and a “Memory Overload” error appears. A moment later and the sign changes to “Reserved Memory Overload”. Then “Processor Overload”. It sure is working hard to make my tea! While I stand there doing absolutely nothing but typing “wait”, it tells me that it’s now accessing the main computer memory.

Unfortunately, I waited too long: Eddie pops up and tells us that we have arrived at Magrathea (already!?) and that their defensive systems will destroy us with nuclear missiles in eight turns. Just to check, I wait the eight turns and get exploded into a giant nuclear fireball. I restore back. How do I solve this situation? I use the only tool that I have: the Improbability Drive. I use it and become a whale, flying… no, falling… towards the planet surface below. I guess if this is like the book, the ship turned the missiles into the whale! I fall and die again, but this time I am back at “Dark”. I solve that to return to the Heart of Gold, but there is no tea. I didn’t get any points for the escapade either. In fact, I can do the whole sequence again so it’s like I traveled back in time by just a few minutes. Spooky! I examine the circuit board and find microscopic writing that I do not see a way to read, plus a collection of eight dip switches from “cholesterol register” to “bouquet arbitration bus”. It looks like this could be a puzzle, but if so I don’t see the point yet. I’ll make a note of it for when I find a way to read the microscopic writing.

I try the Drive again and this time end up back at the Beast of Traal’s lair, except he’s getting used to people popping in and eats me right away. Dark again. I think I’ve had enough of this for one day. There are a lot of puzzles to figure out, but at least I feel like I am making progress.

Score: 135
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, asteroid paint chipper, circuit board
Time played: 1 hr 35 min
Total time: 3 hr 00 min


It did not arrive in time for my posting, but I just received a copy of the DC comics version of The Hitchhiker's Guide, first published in 1993. I'll probably extract some more images from it later, but their version of the Bugblatter Beast was too good not to share:

Now just image that thing chasing you down screaming for you to just please tell it your name...


  1. I liked the solution to the 'Beast' puzzle - with writing your own name. I thought that was clever.

    And, pretty sure the 'port' joke is supposed to be the whole joke. It's one of the few things I remember from when I played years ago and I remember it largely because I thought it was funny.

    1. I have a problem with games that unexpectedly lie about cardinal directions. :)

      That said, I really enjoyed the Beast puzzle. It's a nice little example of a closed puzzle where you have everything you need, you just need to figure out how it works.

  2. For those of you that read the post already, I have added a postscript: an illustration from the 1993 Hitchhiker's Guide comic that I just received in the mail. I'm going to try to use some more illustrations from it as it has quite a different feel than either the TV series or the movies.

  3. Great write-up! What a bizarre game, but that’s to be expected. These puzzles are strange, but seem so satisfying once solved.

    Re: the jokiness—this game seems so well-constructed, I’d be shocked if these are just throwaway gags. But of course, time will tell.

  4. We've now seen the puzzle I referred to in a comment on one of the KQ6 posts (ROT13 to avoid a spoiler for that game): Obgu tnzrf unir n chmmyr cynlvat ba gur svir frafrf; va XD6 vg'f svaqvat na bowrpg sbe rnpu bs gur frafr-tabzrf, naq va Uvgpuuvxre'f vg'f abgvpvat juvpu frafr vf zvffvat sebz gur yvfg.

    Great write-up so far, Joe. I remember the first part of the game better than the second part, because I often played this game at a science museum near where I grew up. There, I was able to play through the first part, up until arriving at The Heart of Gold, but I either didn't understand what to do next or didn't have time to do it. As a teenager I did get through the whole game once, but I don't remember the back half all that clearly. Thanks for filling in the gaps in my memory.

  5. The humour does seem to be very much in line with the books, but since Adams was actually involved this is not surprising (if I read your intro post correctly). It does deserve some acknowledgement for involving the author himself, it's all too common for licenses to be bought and games developed with no involvement from the original talent, usually resulting in products that try very hard to feel like the source material but failing miserably.