Tuesday 23 February 2021

Missed Classic: Bureaucracy - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

I would love to tell you that Bureaucracy is a beautiful throwback to a bygone era of games where one screwup at the beginning would, hours later, make it impossible to win. That would be a lie. Playing as we are in gaming history, this was still considered (somehow) good game design. Add to it that Bureaucracy is essentially gamified frustration and it’s inevitable that we’d have some walking dead scenarios. Regretfully, I hit one. 

At the start of the game, we have a Boysenberry computer in our house. This is 1987 when laptops might fit in a backpack if you are lucky and tablet computers were a trope of science fiction. This is two years before the Gameboy! My assumption is that this is a standard desktop computer for the era. At one point, I noticed that I could pick it up, carry it around, and even use it without it being plugged in. This felt like a bug where the developers (who can be forgiven for not knowing what computers were like) forgot that they needed to be plugged in and so didn’t code in that logic. Perhaps because of that, or because I simply made an error, I left my Boysenberry computer at my house when I headed off to the airport. Big mistake.

I fought my way through the airport crowds, defeated the evil llama stew, and jumped into a cannibal-infested jungle before discovering that I lose immediately if I parachute in without the computer. While the game hints that the natives we are captured by like computers, it doesn’t explicitly say that we needed to bring one with us; a player would be left with a dead end and no obvious way to advance if it had not been for the hint book. I wasn’t pleased. I am committed to solving this game and so played through the previous sections again. It’s not that they were tremendously difficult or time-consuming, but when I am struggling to enjoy a game, playing it again doesn’t make it more endearing. On the bright side, I’m wrapping up the game today. Let’s get this over with. 

Bureaucracy even predates the PADDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I find myself, as before, in a stewpot. The natives dance around shouting “Z-BUG! Z-BUG!” as they prepare to eat me, but (on the bright side) I am not dead yet. The game reminds me that the Zalagasans look like “extras in a Tarzan movie”, but I spilled too many words on that topic already. What am I supposed to do? I show them my computer and the recipe cartridge, but I cannot talk to them or give them anything. What magical incantation do I need to do?

The answer is as simple as it is inscrutable: I boot up the computer with the recipe cartridge installed. (You may recall that this is the special bootleg cartridge that I picked up at the bookstore in the first post.) Somehow, this encourages the whole tribe to gather around me and:

The entire tribe goes into an ecstatic frenzy. They grab the cartridge from your computer and run off to try it on their Boysenberry. One kindly soul, remorseful at taking your cartridge without compensation, gives you another one. “Maybe you’ll like this.” He also hands you an address book. “If you see that nerdy fellow, give him this. He dropped it here just now.”

Oh God. The nerd has followed me all the way to (probably) Africa.

I had not realized that my address book was lost! And yet, it has been changed. The nerdish fellow has replaced my address at the front of the book with his! His name is “Random Q. Hacker”-- a bit on the nose perhaps, but it was the 80s. While Adams fans may assume this is a reference to Random Dent, Arthur’s daughter introduced in Mostly Harmless, this predates her introduction by a few years. In what may be a bug, the hacker updated his information under my old (crossed out) address rather than my current one. 

The new cartridge is fairly inscrutable. It has six commands: “PRINTB” (as well as “C”, “D”, and “E” versions), “NOOZ”, and “CLEAR”. The printouts are just random sets of characters and I discern no immediate pattern. Running the commands over and over again causes some discernible text to appear (you can see the word “PRINT” a few times in the screenshot below), but my explorations do not find a pattern that brings the message into focus. 

Garbled nonsense.

The “NOOZ” command is a famous easter egg displaying "The Strange and Terrible History of Bureaucracy”, a brief history of the development challenges that faced the game. (I was aware of this easter egg, though I wasn’t sure where in the game it was; I included much of the information as part of my initial history.) I have been trying to get MobyGames to accept the more complete credit list given there for Bureaucracy, but they haven’t accepted them yet. I always correct or submit credits for the games that I play for this blog.

Leaving the pot, I walk past the cannibals working on a “missionary and explorer recipe” for National Geographic when I fall into a pit that smells of old socks. 

Two Puzzles in a Grubby Antechamber

The room we find ourselves in reminds me (pleasantly!) of some of the puzzles of Zork III. Why they are in a random pit that we happen to fall into in Africa is another story, but I’m happy with what appears to be two separate puzzles to explore.

First, we have a locker on the west wall with three handles which can be either “up” or “down”. (At the start, they are up, down, and up.) There’s a sign that contains “arcane text,” a series of binary digits: 010, 100, 001, and 1111. The game hints that we wonder why it doesn’t just say “2417”, further clueing us into the digits being in binary. If you are a mathematical purist, you would observe that 2417 is something entirely different in binary, but let’s just leave that aside for the moment and accentuate the positive. Unfortunately, I cannot figure out how to pull the handles and I assume that we just aren’t intended to do this puzzle quite yet. 

To the east is a maze, but not like one that we’ve seen before. Each room is numbered:

Switchgear Room 22

You are in a switchgear room, with exits in all directions. Inscribed on the wall is the number 22. 

Moving in any direction takes me to a near-identical room with a different number. Backtracking doesn’t work; each time I move, even if back the way I came, the number goes up. This time, I go east to 35, west to 67, west to 89, north to 113, north to 134, and then back to the antechamber. I reenter the maze and get different sets of ascending numbers each time, with the only consistent pattern that we exit the maze on the seventh move. The game also politely tells us that saving won’t help. Oh boy.

With no progress on the maze, I return to my computer and try every possible combination of the “PRINT” commands to see if any of them reveal anything intelligible. And… sometimes it almost does. I found the word “Henry” (my name in-game) and “Infoclues” once, but nothing I did made the text clear. Each of the four “PRINT” statements focus on clearing a specific corner, but then write random-seeming characters just about everywhere. (B clears the upper-left, C the lower-right, D the lower-left, and E the upper-right.) My only course of action is to brute force try all 24 combinations, assuming that each is only used once. I expected a clear message would emerge with one of them, but I was wrong. Perhaps I need to use a letter more than once? The puzzle no longer seems brute-forcible.

Switchgear: noun; switching equipment used in the transmission of electricity.

Based on the lever puzzle, I look for a pattern in the binary depictions of the room numbers. Despite several attempts, I leave disappointed. 

It takes me too long to work out the trick of the handle puzzle: we have to turn multiple handles at a time. I had been trying to turn one at a time which never appears to work. Since we start with the handles being up-down-up and the first line of the sign is 010, I assume that “up” means zero while “down” means one. (That’s the opposite of what we would expect, but puzzles can be tricky!) The second line of the sign is “100” and so I need to turn the first two handles since the third (a “0”) is already correct. Success! I hear a click. I repeat for each line of the sign and unlock the door. 

While I imagined it as a footlocker, it turns out to be a whole room. Inside is a magnetic key-card with the initials “R.Q.H.”, no doubt belonging to our friend Mr. Hacker. 

A 1980s-era magnetic keycard.

Unfortunately, there are no doors that I am aware of to key-card and the maze doesn’t change on my next pass just because I am holding it. What to do?

In the end, I took a hint. The maze relates directly to the mystery cartridge and I was correct in assuming that I needed to punch the four “PRINT” commands in the correct order… but I missed that the answers were written top-to-bottom rather than left-to-right. And while I could have discovered it through brute-force, the correct order is (somehow?) related to the order of the lettered stamps that we received at the beginning of the game. While you are right that I took good notes, I also restored and replayed so many times that I’m not positive this specific save game exactly matched what I wrote in the first two posts. 

No way I was going to notice the top-to-bottom letters.

After brute-forcing once again to find the order that I must have retrieved the stamps, I am left with a headache. Maybe this was easier on an old-style monitor, but I find reading the text like that to be exhausting. I decode this message:

To find the entrance to Headquarters, upon entering the first numbered room, go in any direction. Thenceforth, subtract the number of the previous room from the number of the current room. Take the last digit of the difference. If it is zero, go East; if one, go South; if two, Up; if Three, North; if four, Down; if five, West. For example, the first numbered room is 64; the second is 105. The difference is 41, making the last digit one; you should go south in this case. Failure will return you to the antechamber.

With this rubric in mind, I navigate the switchgear maze and emerge at an “airlock” with a locked door. The path behind me closes and all I can do is go forward. The door accepts my keycard (thank goodness they hadn’t invented two-factor authentication yet!), but it remains stuck closed. When we try to open it, it moves only a little and our blood pressure increases. If you keep trying, eventually our rage gives us the strength of ten men and it gives way. Is that the only use of the blood pressure mechanic in the game? 

Where’s the Weather Channel?

The Persecution Complex

We emerge into a strange facility: the Persecution Complex. A sign in the corridor reads that “this week” their focus is on Henry Stiles of Happitech… that’s me! What makes me so special that they would focus their attention on me? And how did they already learn about my new job? We walk down a TV-covered hallway and observe scenes of people practicing to make my life miserable:

You look at this screen and see an image of the llama-food salesman walking around your neighbourhood practising making deliveries to the wrong address.


You look at this screen and see an image of the bank teller moving “NEXT WINDOW PLEASE” signs from window to window in the bank. 

Another screen shows a waitress practicing bad customer service. The final area of the hall reveals the mastermind behind it all: the nerd. He’s watching me watching him on the computer screen. He knows I’m here! This might be my favorite moment of the game so far. It’s fun that there really is a shadow agency making my life miserable and the “peering behind the curtain” reminds me of the ending to Colossal Cave and the original Zork games. This is good stuff. 

At the end of the hallway is a modular jack that I can plug my portable computer into. Doing so opens up a terminal program and we log into some mainframe somewhere. The first thing it asks for is an ID and password.

More security than the computer in Wargames (1983).

I try a few times to guess the username and password, but my attempts lead nowhere. I had to use another hint. While I had been using “RQH” as the username to match what was on the keycard, you actually have to type out “RANDOM-Q-HACKER” with dashes. The password was the name of his street, “RAINBOW-TURTLE”. It’s plausible that I was supposed to think those were important when he scribbled them into my address book, but I missed it if so.

Once logged in, I have access to CHA/OS, a mainframe that causes all sorts of grief in the world. It’s a multi-user system and we can also see what our nemesis is doing. The commands are:

  • WHO - Shows who is logged in and what they are doing. It shows Random Q. Hacker’s username as “RQH” in the display; I feel both vindicated and frustrated.He’s currently running something called “Airplane.HAK”. Aren’t DOS-style filenames great?
  • CLR - Clear the screen.
  • DIR - List files in my current directory. In this case:

  • TYP - Show a file on screen. 
  • REN - Rename a file.
  • COP - Copy a file.
  • DEL - Erase a file.
  • RUN - Run a program.

The old-school among you may recognize several of these commands as being similar to DOS, but we have to stretch back even further for what they are parodying here: CP/M. This was an operating system that was popular in the late 70s and early 80s. Microsoft borrowed many of its concepts for their early versions of DOS. In this case, it’s not an exact match (erase was “ERA”, for example), and multiple-users were only offered on some more advanced variations such as MP/M. My suspicion is that in 1987, this would have seemed just alien enough to be fun while similar enough to the operating systems of the day to be recognizable. (Compare this a similar-spirited Macintosh parody in Space Quest IV when we had to “flush” the security system software out of the super computer.)

While I am monologuing to you, I am alerted that RQH is about to use “POST.HAK”. From what I can tell, “HAK.EXE” is used to run the several “.HAK” files. If I look at “POST.HAK” (using the “TYP” command), I see that it’s a nicely-commented script. Good going evil programmers for documenting your code!

I don’t recognize the language from the little snippets. Any ideas?

The several other “.HAK” files cause chaos at banks, restaurants, travel agents, airports, and even one that keeps the Zalagasans from finding the hacker’s secret lair. One of the files-- the mysteriously named “DVH2”-- looks extra dangerous:

The contents of “DVH2.HAK

I am unable to look at the “.EXE” files so I try to run them instead. The “PLANE.EXE” file transmits some sort of request to an airplane, but I am uncertain what. I am unable to run “HAK.EXE” because the program is already in use by Mr. Hacker in another terminal session. While I play, I occasionally see him “about” to access a particular file. (How the system knows this is unclear.) That inspires me to do a bit of hacking myself: I delete the file that he is about to use and copy over the extra special DVH2.HAK. Moments later, I hear a scream of rage as the hacker trashes his own computer and we are ejected from the system.

If we head back to the hallway, we can see the impact of our little hack:

The nerd is standing with his fingers in an I/O port trying to stem the flood of bits leaking out onto the floor. He looks distinctly like a nerd who has suddenly realised that it all would have been a lot better if he had spent his time having drinks at parties and going out with girls instead of playing with computers.

I check all of the monitors in the hall and see that all is right in the world. Waiters are delivering food! The llama delivery man is delivering llama food to houses with llamas! The banks have discovered customer service! A stockbroker bought stocks! It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye. (I'm not certain what is up with the stockbroker since all of the other monitors are just about inconveniencing me; perhaps this related to something that was cut or that I missed.) 

We escape the complex through an air shaft, emerging at an airstrip in the Zalagasan jungle. A plane arrives a few moments later:

Landing Strip

This is a bare landing strip surrounded by jungle. An air shaft leads down.

For some reason, the Zalagasans have started droning… or have they? No, it is the sound of an aircraft in the distance. The sound of the engines gets louder and louder until suddenly an ancient DC-3 appears nightmarishly low above the treetops, circles the airfield once, and lands in a cloud of dust and squeal of brakes. 

The door opens and you leap on board to be greeted by a beautiful copilot. “You finally fixed that dreadful nerd,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe what he was doing, even to our own navigation systems. It was as if he didn’t care who he inconvenienced, even himself, as long as he was hacking. Gosh, I’m just so grateful I could die!”

With that, the copilot enfolds you in her arms and you begin to realize why people like private aeroplanes. 

After an eventful and invigorating flight, you land at your home airport, pass through customs without the least difficulty, and are ushered into a waiting taxi, which drives you straight to the wrong place. Perhaps you thought that the taxi company was being fouled up by the nerd. Wrong. Taxi companies foul up because that’s what they like doing. 

The taxi drops us off a few doors down from our house, at the tenement where we found the stamp collector. I should have noticed it before (or perhaps the sign isn’t present earlier in the game), but the building appears to be owned by Random Q. Hacker. I guess that I triggered his “return home” program when I requested the plane and the taxi dropped me off at his place? It also goes a small way to explain why he was commuting all the way to Zalagasa to harass me, or perhaps it explains absolutely nothing. 

Back at my house, everything is perfect. The movers have arrived and set up all of my furniture. There is even soothing music playing for my arrival! A letter on the floor reveals that the bank’s address issues have been sorted and they are sending me on a trip to Paris for my trouble. (The letter was forwarded from my old address, so perhaps they are less “sorted” than we might hope.) The End. 

Time played: 4 hr 55 min

Total time: 11 hr 35 min 

Final Rating

We made it! All that remains is to dust off the PISSED rating system and see what comes in. I expect my feelings on this game have been quite clear, but I never know how these scores are going to go until I run the numbers. Let’s get on with it. 

Puzzles and Solvability - Let’s start with the good. The mail-collecting puzzles at the beginning of the game were quite good, as were some of the endgame puzzles such as opening the locker and the hacking challenge. While not difficult, the hacking puzzle ranks as one of my favorite puzzles of the Infocom canon so far! And yet, much of the rest is either difficult or nonsensical. Making puzzles out of comedy takes a level of skill and internal logic that this game lacks. I don’t feel that this game is “solvable” without a hint book. My score: 3

Interface and Inventory - The use of the “Plus” engine was a good choice as it supported both the Boysenberry interface as well as the text popups. While I usually give Infocom four points for this category, they seemed to have dumbed down the engine to provide a “frustrating” experience. I don’t want the game engine to actively fight the player. My score: 3

We never did make it to Paris...

Story and Setting - We start the game planning to go to France and end the game right back in our hometown, having detoured through (we assume) Africa. The realization that there is a hacker hell-bent on ruining your life ties many of the parts together, but the game is more like four vignettes than a single adventure. The introductory area does the best to establish this world and its rules, but none of the other settings make as much internal sense or are as fun to play. My score: 3

Sound and Graphics - Unlike our normal zilch for an Infocom game, I’m going to give a point for the computer interface, especially during the final section. It’s all just ASCII text boxes, but let’s give some credit where due. My score: 1

Environment and Atmosphere - I am conflicted about this score. Environment is about how a game makes you feel, whether you were creeped out or joyful as you explore. The designers wanted the game to be frustrating and difficult; they succeeded. And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is no consistent tone between the various parts. Spellings alternate between American and British at random. There is good prose here and there, but little that drew me in. I almost want to give a five (or more!) because of how effective the game was in making me feel frustrated and powerless, but I am reluctant to reward the game for aspiring to be annoying. My score: 3

Dialog and Acting - All in all, this is a better category. The nerd is not well-drawn, but at least he is fun in a way. Other characters such as the militiamen, the over-patriotic parrot, and the stamp collector add to the allure of the game. Overall, it is well written and the ending is one of the most satisfying and well-written bits in a while. My score: 4

I am also going to use the reviewer's discretion to deduct a further point for, as they say in the vernacular, pissing me off. That might not be scientific, but a game with this caliber of talent could have been so much better.

Let’s add it up: (3+3+3+1+3+4)/.6 - 1 = 27 points

At only 27 points, that makes it the lowest rated Infocom game so far, excluding the Tutorial Game included in the sampler which was too small to get much of a score. Our average guess was 33 so most of you figured that I wouldn’t be overjoyed with the game. On the bright side, we have a tie for the winner! Will Moczarski and ShaddamIVth both guessed the closest score of 30. Congratulations!

In a strange way, looking over the scores for other Infocom games after playing this one has hit home that I may have judged a few too harshly because I forgot what a real slog felt like. Alas, scores are what they are, but perhaps we’ll revisit a few before the end. I have more than enough games yet to play in our marathon and not enough time to play them. This one took an embarrassing three months from first post to completion thanks to my insane schedule and the time I devoted to Sanity Clause and (more recently) Space Quest V. I’m taking a short break from the Infocom marathon, but will return with Stationfall before too long. 

That said, this isn’t really the end of Bureaucracy. I have one more bonus post coming up about what we can learn about the development of the game from the leaked source code and design docs. Expect to see that in the coming weeks while I play SQ5


  1. "Bureaucracy even predates the PADDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation."

    It's a little tricky to use a photo from a TOS episode to illustrate an STTNG concept, but perhaps that there demonstrates the contorting, convoluting depths of our bureaucratic nightmare.

    1. Yeah. I see how that reference didn't play the way I hoped.

      I was trying to show that TOS had basic pen-computers but that the more pop-culture portable computing that was in TNG hadn't actually been in TNG yet. (The game came out only a few months before "Encounter at Farpoint.) There are other sci-fi series that had portable computers of course (I think Asimov gets credit for the first?), but nothing that would have made me immediately believe that the Boysenberry was a "portable" computer.

  2. "His name is “Random Q. Hacker”-- a bit on the nose perhaps, but it was the 80s."

    Seems to be a riff on the old placeholder computing name https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Random_Hacker

    1. "While Adams fans may assume this is a reference to Random Dent"

      And of course I think that the more perceptive Adams fans will long since have thrown up their hands in despair of ever finding or even expecting any trace of their beloved auteur's genius here beyond its very opening premise and his lucrative name on the box.

    2. (I spoke too soon, I see the uniquely Adams character name "Slartibartfast" in one of your closing screenshots!)

    3. Actually, and I may not have mentioned this often enough, there are more than a smattering of Adams/Hitchhiker's Guide references in the game, but usually in the background.

      The most "direct" homage that I can recall is that Arthur's aunt is on the flight with you to Zalagasa and is holding the thing that his aunt will (very soon) give Arthur. (I suppose that makes Bureaucracy a prequel!?) There are other bits here and there such as the airport announcements and that sort of thing. I have half a mind to run through and see how many Guide references I can find for the wrap-up post.

      (Most of the references feel "shallow" rather than something that I expect Adams would have included if he had a larger role in the game.)

    4. That's really interesting. In the late 1970's, I played the Warlock RPG system at CalTech. People there used the term "J Random" for any poorly-defined NPC. When I asked, I was told that another game system had tables for various things, and that Table J allowed random generation of NPC's.

      As the wikipedia article attributes the term to the 1960's at MIT, it's quite possible that game chose Table J for that purpose as an obscure tech culture reference. Or the people that told me about it were unaware of the older attribution.

      CalTech was the first place I heard the term, but I later noticed it being used at D&D conventions such as DunDraCon.

  3. "I have been trying to get MobyGames to accept the more complete credit list given there for Bureaucracy, but they haven’t accepted them yet. I always correct or submit credits for the games that I play for this blog."

    The arc of Mobygames bends towards comprehensive accuracy, but sometimes it takes literally years. Your commitment is appreciated and will be celebrated by posterity!

  4. "the “peering behind the curtain” reminds me of the ending to Colossal Cave and the original Zork games"

    I recall there's a similar easter egg in a Sierra game (one of the early Larrys?) showing a "behind the scenes" glimpse of props etc from other games in the Sierra play factory. Fun postmodernism!

    1. You are probably thinking either Larry 1 death scene, where Larry's body is dropped into a factory where all the Sierra characters are created, or the end of Larry 3, where Larry and Patti end up in Sierra studios. And speaking of moments like these, let's not forget Space Quest 3, with Roger Wilco saving his creators and dropping them at Sierra facilities.

    2. And then of course "looking through the curtain" (using the x-ray glasses) in Quest for Glory II. But I was also reminded of the final scene in the extended version of ADVENT.

  5. At the start of the game, we have a Boysenberry computer in our house. This is 1987 when laptops might fit in a backpack if you are lucky ... At one point, I noticed that I could pick it up, carry it around, and even use it without it being plugged in.

    I can see why one might assume it was a desktop computer (afterall one is likely to be playing the game itself on something not exactly portable), but I don't think it's implausible it could be a "luggable" computer that works on battery power. We had a 286 similar to the picture you posted the top of this article. Another possibility, since "Boysenberry" is meant to parody Apple and Douglas Adams was known to be keen on his Mac, is that the Boysenberry is something like a Macintosh Plus- yes, needs to be plugged in, but plausibly portable enough for adventure game logic compared to an IBM-type PC.

    Rowan already griped about showing a picture of TOS when your caption refers to TNG (did they call that thing a PADD in TOS?), so I'll just add that PADD themes exist for today's real tablets.

    While Adams fans may assume this is a reference to Random Dent

    Hm, I don't think I ever thought this. Besides what Rowan said, "Random Q. [occupation]" can be considered in the mold of "John Q. Public" (for some reason Q is the canonical middle initial here).

    the correct order is (somehow?) related to the order of the lettered stamps that we received at the beginning of the game.

    I am not sure from your recounting whether or not it clicked for you that it is supposed to be the same order as you found the pieces of mail. Why this should have any causal connection is not clear; probably "a conspiracy" given the theme of the game...

    The password was the name of his street, “RAINBOW-TURTLE”.

    Presumably a reference to the rainbow turtle in Enchanter

    1. I was a proud owner of a Mac "luggable", their first portable computer. It was a beast! I loved it. I also have a hand-me-down Mac IIcx in my basement that I refuse to get rid of. (Stupid Joe trivia: the IIcx in my basement is the first ever IIcx to run Linux and one of the first ~12 or so 68k Macs to do so. I used to be one of the admins of the Linux-for-68k-Mac project around 1997 or so.)

      That said, I just don't think the computer in the game is well-defined. I'm sure that is in part deliberate and in part because they realized there would be no power plugs inside of an iron stewpot in the jungle so let's just run with it. I'm not sure how I would have perceived it in 1987.

      I'm glad that everyone has a better explanation for Random Q. Hacker than I did. I didn't consider the "John Q. Public" possibility, or the "J Random" one. I'm more annoyed honestly that they expected us to guess his username and password.

      I also completely forgot about the turtle in Enchanter!

  6. Based on popular demand, I have swapped the TOS graphic out for a TNG one. :)

  7. "he didn’t care who he inconvenienced, even himself, as long as he was hacking"

    Sounds a lot like like the writers of viruses.

    The whole plot is very much like something Adams would write, though admittedly lacking his writing skills. That said it did get something done Adams apparently could only do under sordid threat of death- get finished and released.

  8. Joel X Slartibartfast is a nod to Joel Berez?