Saturday 6 February 2021

Missed Classic: Bureaucracy - An Unnecessary Essay on Cannibalism

Written by Joe Pranevich

I really want to like Bureaucracy. It’s partly written by one of my favorite authors, it is one of Infocom’s few truly collaborative efforts, and it has some great ideas. But, I don’t like it. At least at first, I assumed it was because of the moment that we are all living through-- the COVID epidemic, the fight for racial justice in the United States, and a contested election. Playing a game designed to annoy you isn’t fun when the world is already more stressful than it’s ever been. And yet, here we are in 2021 with vaccines coming (my wife gets her first dose next week!), the election behind us, and the sun just starting to peek out from behind the clouds. I thought that if I took a break and came back to the game now, I would feel better… but no, not really. Bureaucracy still pisses me off. 

To hopefully ensure a bit more consistent posting as we wrap this up, I have now beaten the game. I’m expecting to close this series out in three posts before moving on to Space Quest V, a game that I hope to enjoy playing a bit more. I will finish the airplane section this week, claim victory next time, and finally close out with a look at how the game changed from early design notes to the finished product. 

Before jumping into this session’s misadventures, I need to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and talk about the elephant that will very shortly be in the room: the Zalagasans. Roughly the next third of the game features them in ways that meet somewhere at the intersection of humorous, troubling, and racist. I am positive that Douglas Adams, Michael Bywater, and the Infocom crew did not mean any offense, but playing the game in 2021 feels different somehow than playing it in 1987. As ill-equipped as I am to write in detail about the systematic stereotyping of non-white peoples in American and European media, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on it. 

Black Panther winks at the unfortunate portrayal of African cannibals in fiction.

The Zalagasans are, directly or indirectly, the major antagonists in the next phase of the game. We will discover that our Omnia Gallia ticket is invalid as the airline has been recently bought out by Air Zalagasa, the national airline of Zalagasa. Hilarity and puzzle-solving ensue as we defeat the airport bureaucracy to get onto the plane. Only then do we “meet” the Zalagasans: a stereotypical group of black African tribal cannibals, transported whole cloth into the modern world. They run airlines, love Boysenberry computers, eat people, consider non-Zalagasans to be “animals'', and try to force our character to eat particularly repulsive stew. In short, they are not that fun to be around.

Other than an off-handed remark about bone-based nose jewelry, the game’s prose avoids direct descriptions of the Zalagasans. They are depicted as “extras from a Tarzan movie”, probably referring to the black cannibals that Burroughs depicted in his first book, 1912’s Tarzan of the Apes and related films. In that first adventure, Tarzan fought against cannibals (near modern Cameroon) before rejecting their practices himself:

Suddenly, a strange doubt stayed his hand. Had not his books taught him that he was a man? [...] Did men eat men? Alas, he did not know. Why, then, this hesitancy! Once more he essayed the effort, but a qualm of nausea overwhelmed him. He did not understand. All he knew was that he could not eat the flesh of this black man, and thus hereditary instinct, ages old, usurped the functions of his untaught mind and saved him from transgressing a worldwide law of whose very existence he was ignorant.

This rejection is depicted as being due to Tarzan’s “hereditary instinct”, his inherent European genes that placed him naturally above the barbarism of his jungle life. Certainly Adams and Bywater did not mean to incorporate all of that baggage into a simple textual reference, but it underscores just how harmful and difficult these stereotypes can be. To soften the blow, the game takes care to stress the unreality (and the humor) of the situation. Although the natives are primarily implied to be African, that is never made explicit. Their national food, the llama, is native to South America. Does that make it better? I’m not so sure. There may be other details that I missed, but as we’ll end the post today boiling in a stewpot, it’s difficult to find positive aspects to their depiction.

Outside of the depiction in Tarzan, it’s worth noting that associations of cannibalism with less civilized nations stretches back to antiquity. Our term “cannibalism” comes as a derogatory association of the Carib people, from whom we also get the name of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish used accusations (and exaggerations) of cannibalism as part of their dehumanization of native peoples during conquest. Europeans seemed fascinated and revulsed by the practice, “discovering” it in many parts of the world including the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. Many of these depictions were exaggerations, but stories of whole crews of wrecked ships (the Boyd in 1809) and missionaries (Tom Baker in 1867, John Williams in 1839) eaten by cannibals sparked the imaginations of European and American writers. Herman Melville made his writing debut with Typee, a novel about his purported time living among cannibals. Edgar Allen Poe featured them in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Conrad in Heart of Darkness, Defoe in Robinson Crusoe. The list goes on. As 19th century literature gave way to 20th century pulp fiction, cannibalism remained a staple trope of the genre. Tin Tin, Conan the Barbarian, and many others tapped into these stock depictions. While I have no doubt that Adams was drawing from that well when depicting the Zalagasans and that no overt racism was intended, I find aspects of this whole sequence distasteful. I don't even care to speculate where lines should be drawn, but this whole bit made me queasy enough to try to better understand the history of the trope and share what I learned with you.

Thank you for humoring my digression. Now, we have a game to play.

Getting to “Boston Airport” is surprisingly easy and surprisingly difficult.

Last time out, we arrived at the airport after taking a taxi from home. Let’s try not to dwell too much on the annoyances involved in getting the cab, but after a bit of small talk and a surprisingly affordable fare, we’re there!

I take stock and re-read my airline ticket: we’re on Omnia Gallia Flight 105 at 4:00 PM. Since it’s just after 1:00, I should be fine to solve whatever challenges keep me from getting on my flight. Just in case, I take a save game, but how hard could boarding an airplane be? Answer: surprisingly difficult. As soon as I arrive, I am paged to pick up a white courtesy phone; I don’t see a phone anywhere so I head inside. Once there, I am greeted by the same nerdy salesman from home and he’s still trying to sell me things for just a bit more money than I have. Unless I missed a way to get an additional dollar someplace, I’m going to assume that all of his offers are just amusing asides. 

I find the Omnia Gallia ticket counter but am greeted by an ominous sign:

Omnia Gallia airlines has been sold; we no longer fly out of this airport. For further information, contact the Air Zalagasa desk. 

No problem! I just have to find the new desk and we can be on our way. Amusingly, I also hear an announcement that the white courtesy phone is missing and if you find it to please pick up the white courtesy phone. It’s funny!

The real airport isn’t nearly as confusing. I miss airports.

Exploring the airport doesn’t seem too bad. There is an inner concourse where the airline desks are located that loops around from west to east. That circle is well-marked by signs pointing in the direction of the various airlines’ counters. For example, “Air Zalagasa” (as well as “Air Worst”, “Air Moosehead”, “Kirin Airlines”, and “Low Ceiling”) are all to the east. No matter how far east or west I go, I never find the Zalagasan ticket counter although I catch a construction worker updating the directions on one of the signs. Is this a maze? Or is there a different trick?

I try waiting in line at a random counter until I can speak to a ticket agent and asking about Air Zalagasa. That doesn’t help. I stand in line again to ask about Omnia Gallia, but that doesn’t help either. 

With no path inside the airport, I step outside and explore the outer concourse where the taxi dropped me off. This is another west to east circle with signs pointing inside to the various ticket counters. I also locate a “Lost and Found” office, but there is nothing there that is either lost or found. After a while, I realize that nearly all of the sections of the outer concourse has “Air Zalagasa” on the signs. On a whim, I find a section that does not list Air Zalagasa and head inside there. Naturally enough, it works! I have found the ticket counter. How many games give you real-world challenges like these?

Okay, I lied. Logan really is that confusing, but we love it anyway.

Standing in line, I am forced to endure an extended sequence as a passenger in front of me tries to exchange a ticket for a holiday flight in a few weeks, all the while hearing announcements that the Air Zalagasa Flight 42 to Paris is making its final boarding call. The guy finishes just as the flight finishes boarding. I speak to the agent and he is happy to exchange my ticket for the Air Zalagasa one, but it’s for the flight that I just missed. He offers an upgrade to a different flight for $200, but I have nowhere near that much money. When I ask him about it, he returns my worthless Omnia Galla ticket as they have no further flights to Paris. I continue searching through the airport, trying various ticketing counters, and generally making a fool of myself, but I am completely stuck. 

I restore but this time keep the Air Zalagasa ticket instead of trading it back. Maybe there will be another airline with a codeshare? Before I can even check, I notice that we can now see a pillar on the concourse that wasn’t there before. Or rather, it probably was there before, but the game didn’t call it out. At the top of the pillar is a speaker and metal grate:

You notice a pillar here with a single Gush-O-Slush(R) Spam-For-The-Ears(TM) speaker producing sound at a particularly high volume. In the ceiling above the pillar, there’s a grate covering a duct of some sort.

I’m taking “new” to mean “obviously important” and climb my way up. A crowd gathers below because a strange man climbing a pillar in an airport is noteworthy, but I slip in the grate and crawl through a series of ducts around the interior. There’s only one path to take as the ducts take me higher and higher before I emerge, surrounded by smoke, into the control tower:

An airport control tower, circa 1980.

You are in the air traffic control tower. There’s an open grate to the west.

Several air traffic controllers are hunched over consoles. 

Since air traffic controllers spend most of their lives staring thoughtfully into the clouds, they are a superstitious lot and, understandably, they mistake you, briefly, for some species of god. They are also a fairly short-tempered bunch, and with reason. All their working hours are spent looking after pilots and seeing that the poor little lambs are all right and know where they’re supposed to be going and don’t crash into things, but WHO GETS THE DATES at the end of the day? Not the air traffic controllers, that’s who. Bear this in mind as you strut, godlike, before them. They may think you’re a pretty heavy-duty deity right now, but they could come leaping back to their senses at any moment, and a maddened pack of air traffic controllers who realize they’ve been conned again is not something you’d want to be set on by. Ask what you will of them, but be quick about it. And do try to sound like Sir Lawrence Olivier if you possibly can. 

A console radio crackles to life nearby. “Air Zalagasa flight 42 to Boston tower. Request permission to take off.”

Aha! I very quickly radio to the departing plane “permission denied” and scamper back into the grate before the air traffic controllers know what was happening. The plane taxis back to the terminal and I can progress into my next challenge: boarding the flight. Back at the ticket counter, nothing has changed. I don’t know if this is a bug or something else, but the attendant insists that the flight has already left. Where is the security check? Where are the boarding gates? What am I supposed to do?

I have to take a hint, but perhaps it should have been obvious: I wasn’t done with the pillar. I could have noticed that not only was the grate on the top interesting, but so was the loudspeaker. I head back up and see red and black wires poking out the back. If I pull them out, the speaker stops. That’s a small win! But if I connect them together, it shorts out the whole PA system. Passengers applaud my efforts and somehow carry me all the way to my gate. Before we know it, I am on the plane and sitting in seat 3B. We did it!

I miss airplanes.

I find myself in an airplane seat. Up until my son was born, this was a regular event for me, although-- by some unlucky magic-- every time I would rise high enough in an organization to qualify for traveling business class, the policy would change and I’d be stuck in coach. In truth, I loved flying because it meant hours without email, with no expectation of being available, and I could just relax with a game on my laptop as I soared to wherever it was that I needed to be this time. These days with in-flight wifi, it’s just not the same. 

In a game like this, I doubt the flight will be quite as relaxing. Exploring the seat, I locate a few common features: a pair of headphones (before they charged extra!), a safety card, and a magazine in the front pocket. I can also raise or lower my tray table. Plugging in the headphones, I hear an instrumental version of “Theme from Shaft”; the music here is no better than the airport! The Air Zalagasa travel magazines contain a few unimportant details such as the way Zalagasan princesses enslave their men and the several forms of cannibalism that are still employed by their culture. The safety card has the final portion torn off-- I bet that will be important later-- and reminds Zalagasans to remove their nose bones in the event of an emergency landing. 

A few moments later, the flight attendant arrives to ask me about my meal preference: chicken or beef. Naturally, my first choice is all out. As well as my second. I am left instead with a gross-looking llama stew which the attendant delivers regardless of my views on the matter. I eat it and die immediately as my bad breath is toxic enough to knock out the passengers and split the fuselage in two. I restore and try not to eat the stew. Eventually, it comes alive and crashes the plane. As I can neither eat nor not eat the stew, I’ll need to find a third option.

Llama stew is a real thing! Except in South America rather than Africa.

On the next attempt, I ignore the stew and map the plane. The north/front end is the galley where the flight attendants sit when they aren’t torturing you with llama stew. The next nine rows are passengers in their seats, four seats in each row labeled B through E. There are no “A” seats and I am uncertain whether this is part of the puzzle or just something added for realism. The rear of the craft includes a bathroom (occupied), an emergency exit, and a telephone. I am too young to know if phones on planes were a thing in the 1980s, but it feels possible.

Seats are either empty or have a colorful character that you can somewhat interact with. I drew a map:

It’s been a while since I had to do a “spreadsheet map”.

While I map, the stewardess keeps pushing me to return to my seat so that I eat the stew. I try to give the stew to my neighboring Zalagasans, but I don’t have a way to pick it up and carry it to the row behind me. In fact, I cannot carry it at all. Jumping out the emergency hatch just causes me to plummet to my death, so let’s avoid that route for now. 

At this point, I realized that I was hitting a game bug. If I looked at the “buttons” on my seat, I was getting a useless answer and I couldn’t see how to interact with them. However, the game assumed that I was looking at the ones on my Swiss army knife! If I drop the knife in the aisle, I can now “see” the buttons on the seats and manipulate them. The “recline” button causes a ding-dong sound from somewhere behind me. The “call” button causes the light to turn on in the seat in front of me. The “light” has a more curious effect:

> press light button

From somewhere behind, you hear a sort of damp, gurgling grunt as if a pygmy hog had accidentally leapt into its trough on a dark, wet night. You immediately recognize this as the characteristic sound of a man who has been woken up from a refreshing sleep over his book, asked if he would like something to eat, said “No”, been brought it anyway, decided that he had better eat it so they would take it away so that he can go back to sleep, and innocently started to eat it when, like a bolt from the blue, the seat in front of him inexplicably shot back with astonishing force, hitting him on the back of his head and forcing his face into his food, then shot forward again with equal speed, forcing his food into his face.

Thanks to my map, I know that this was the sleeping man in 7E! I’m not sure how it helps me, but it’s obvious that the buttons control other seats elsewhere on the plane. Over a few saves and restores, I iterate through every empty seat in the plane and try out the buttons. This triggers a number of funny events (waking up the baby, bothering the overweight man, etc.), but we discover nothing new. I can upset the other passengers, but I do not see how this helps me. What passenger am I supposed to upset and when?

I take a hint and discover that I missed the point of the puzzle. The goal here is to recline the seat in front of me, spilling the llama stew and saving me from eating it. How it doesn’t eat through the floor and dissolve the plane is anyone’s guess, but jokes don’t have to be consistent. None of the buttons anywhere affect seat 2B’s seat. Therefore, the real trick is that we need to change seats first, as soon as we get on the plane and before the stewardess notices! If I slide over to 3C immediately after boarding and do all of that over again, I would discover that the “light” button in 8D would cause the 2C seat to recline and spill my stew. When I return to my spot, I discover that-- somehow-- the missing piece of safety card is now sitting on my seat. The stewardess seems shocked that my stew has disappeared (where did it go? Am I sitting on it?), but comes back a few minutes later to tell me that I have a telephone call.

I looked it up! They were real! (And next to the emergency exits and bathrooms, too!)

I head to the rear of the plane to pick up my call. It’s from the restaurant; the waitress is incensed that I did not leave a tip for my hamburger. The nerve of some people! How did she get my number? More importantly, is this something that will force me to play the game again from the beginning? She is quickly cut off and I overhear the pilots talking with a control tower. The plane is going to crash in five minutes! Just to check, I wait five minutes and the plane does crash, although the pilots and crew manage to escape with parachutes (leaving all of the passengers to die, it appears). How can I be one of the lucky few that survives?

At this point, I feel like I fail the game. I play with the emergency hatch. I ask the flight attendants. I search for a parachute. There must be chutes somewhere because the crew escapes with them, but not anywhere I can access. I have to take yet another hint. Let’s look more carefully at the laminated card:

> read laminated card

The card is the missing bit from your safety instructions. Gingerly avoiding the horrid little patch of dried llama-spit, you see a really dreadful picture (especially commissioned from Zalagasa’s most famous primitive painter) of a smiling, cheerful Air Zalagasa flight attendant dangling happily from a colossal parachute on which is written “STINGLAI KA’ABI”. 

I had, of course, looked at it when I got back to by seat but I did not understand the trick. Apparently, if we say “STINGLAI KA’ABI” to an attendant, she recognizes you as “one of us” and she hands us a parachute. She heads off to make “pointlessly reassuring noises to the animals back there” and leaves me standing by the emergency exit with a parachute on. I open the hatch (lift it and pull!) and jump out. My chute immediately gets caught in the door. If I pull the ripcord, I die. If I don’t pull the ripcord, I die. I end up getting yet another hint and knock on the hatch. The stewardess frees the strap but tells us that it was just a computer malfunction and the plane is actually fine. (But… it crashed when I didn’t jump out…) She lets me go and I soar peacefully in my parachute to the ground below. 

Less pleasant than it appears.

And then immediately die:

> cut straps

You cleverly snip the parachute’s straps with the hacksaw, and immediately plummet towards the ground below. 


Cooking Pot

You are in a cooking pot beneath the tree from which you were previously hanging. The force of your impact seems to have emptied the pot. There is a tribe of Zalagasans dancing around the pot chanting “Z-BUG! Z-BUG!” Just as you are getting accustomed to your new surroundings and at least you are out of the clutches of bureaucratic foul-ups, a phalanx of drunken journalists in Banana Republic safari clothes appears, accompanied by an enormous number of happy, smiling, cannibal neighbors. In the instant before the natives invite you for dinner, you spot someone in the back of the crowd staring intently at what looks like a Boysenberry computer. 

With that, I am dead. Since I used too many clues already, I take one more to learn that this is an automatic death unless you brought the Boysenberry computer from home. I thought that I had, but either I left it back at the beginning of the game or it was dropped at the airport. Looks like I have to replay this whole bit over again. Fun! We’ll leave that for next time.

Time played: 2 hr 10 min
Total time: 6 hr 40 min
Inventory: laminated card, $48.50, memo, envelope, coupon booklet, damaged painting of Gorbachev, flyer, Swiss army knife, magazine, eclipse predicting cartridge, Beezer card, wallet, US Excess card, hacksaw, and passport. 

Is this the end!?


  1. Wow, it's always amazing how brutal some of these games were about leaving you walking dead. On some meta-level, it's appropriate for a game intended to maximise your blood pressure, but may be a case of experiential art that's better observed than actually experienced.

    1. I second that. Aspects of Bureaucracy are better written about than experienced! That said, the game isn't all bad and walking-dead scenarios were part of the genre in those days. It just doesn't mean we have to like it.

  2. I hear an instrumental version of “Theme from Shaft”; the music here is no better than the airport!

    Shut your mouth!

  3. Also:
    The north/front end is the galley where the flight attendants sit when they aren’t torturing you with lamb stew.

    I assume you meant llama here, not lamb. Unless it was just a bad stew in general I don't think lamb stew can qualify as torture.

    I suppose llama was chosen here mainly because it would be thought funny and exotic by Brits (and North Americans). (Cf. "Winamp: it really whips the llama's ass", if you'll forgive the throwback.) But the resulting joke being basically "the weird disgusting cuisine of weird barbarians, lol" is kinda annoying. I bet actual llama stew is not too bad. (Although maybe I still wouldn't trust airline llama stew - surely "airline food is terrible" is also part of the joke here.)

    1. You are correct, it was llama stew. I will fix it.

      The stewardess later tells us (when we are being given the parachute) that she is sorry for giving us the stew; she would never have given it to one of their own. Not sure what that implies, but it could be either (or all) of those possibilities.

      There's also the implication here that "we" could pass for Zalagasan and that she was convinced because we seemed to speak a few words of the language. I'm not sure what that says to the racial question, especially as the player is by implication American/European. (Or maybe some of that is my own biases showing.)

    2. Even if we assume the Zalagasans are black African, I'm sure you know that Americans and Europeans can also be black :) Although probably that is not what the writers were picturing in their own heads. It seems to be the typical Infocom habit of leaving the protagonist's appearance a blank slate or minimally described, even if that does create some moments of "but, wait --" in situations like this.

  4. Are you sure the Zalagassans are meant to be African cannibals? As it sounds like they’re intended to be South American ones (who were also characterised as having bones in their nose). That doesn’t make it better, of course, but in your descriptions I’m not seeing anything to say that they’re black.

    I wonder if the last 30 years of mass transport across the world giving almost everyone the ability to actually see different cultures for themselves is why we now see these things with distaste? Whilst back then, the closest a lot of people would have gotten to South American’s or African people might be though tv and these pulp stories?

    1. You are right that they are deliberately vague, especially with llamas being native to South America rather than Africa. I'm chalking my belief that they are intended to be Africans based on the "Tarzan" reference and because it is somewhat more likely that you would have an African stopover while transiting from North America to France than a South American one. Since it's all intended to be funny, maybe even that is looking too deeply.

      The main setting at the beginning of the game feels like a strange blending of UK and USA which I had chalked up to the mixed writing team. Perhaps both locations are intended to be amalgamations.

  5. As for telephones on planes, Air Canada (at least) had phones in the seat-backs into the early-2000s. I never saw anyone use them, but they existed for several years. (This predated individual screens in the seats.)

    1. I also remember those phones! What I had not realized is that there was a phase where there was just a "pay phone" in the back.

      Now a days, of course we could all call on planes if they allowed us to because the on-board data service is generally (nearly) good enough, but thankfully we are denied the constant chatter of passenger calls thanks to Rules.

    2. I never saw anyone use them either! I think they might still have been in some planes when I was regularly flying Air Canada between 2000 and 2008 (my now-husband lived in Ontario then and I visited a lot)... in 2015 when we visited his grandmother in Nova Scotia it was all individual personal entertainment screens.

    3. I remember the seatback phones, flying to college in the late 90s... and I recall they were more expensive than a cell call... co it was maybe $2 or more per minute to place a call. So only the rich used those, I'm sure, but I wasn't sitting in first class, so I didn't rub elbows with many rich people...

  6. I have to say it would have been nice to see some screenshots (even if just of the text descriptions) for this game. I wasn't expecting a lecture on cultural misanthrophy played for comedy, either, but I suppose it's an important aspect to address sometimes, especially for older, more tone-deaf titles.

    1. All of the bits above in fixed-width fonts are "screenshots" from the game, the text verbatim. I used to do screenshots of the text but other commenters have said that it is moire difficult to read the descriptions that way.

      I completely agree that part of the beauty of this game is the quality of the text.