Friday, 2 April 2021

Missed Classic: Bureaucracy - Devoured By Llamas (Deleted Scenes & Extras)

Written by Joe Pranevich

I didn’t like Bureaucracy. As we saw last time out, it scored the lowest of the Infocom games so far. I expect this disappointed some of you-- if Jimmy Maher ever reads this blog, that post may have been his last-- but it’s my honest assessment. Bureaucracy was developed over several years and rotated designers more frequently than some people change pants. This led to a disjointed product that didn’t quite live up to its premise or its pedigree. We have no idea which designers came up with each of the game’s elements, but thanks to the Infocom source code leak we have an amazing view into some of what was cut or retained, as well-- possibly for the first time-- to see the founding vision for the game. 

Unlike some of the other games I looked at, we can glean a veritable treasure trove of information from the code leak. Not only do we have several puzzle design documents and a circa-1985 game pitch, but also semi-complete alternate versions of three of the sections: “airport”, “jet”, and “maze”. The airplane portion alone went through five versions that we know of before the developers found a set of scenarios and they liked. Covering all of that may be tricky. My plan will be to first look at the original design document then iterate through each area in sequence, paying special attention to alternate versions and commented-out code to identify as many discarded sequences as I can.  

Will we discover that I like the cut content more than the real thing? Only one way to find out!

Every project has to start somewhere.

The Early Design

We’ll start our exploration with what appears to be the earliest document in the repository, a simple text document entitled “Ideas for Bureaucracy?”. No credits are given, but the early date suggests it could have been Marc Blank or Jerry Wolper. The trailing question mark also implies that there may have been other ideas tossed around, but unlike how we saw with Trinity, this pitch describes the final game fairly well. Here is an excerpt:

The global concept for this game can be summarized by the line "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that everybody isn't out to get you."

We've all had the feeling from time to time that somebody (particularly those small, beady-eyed bureaucrats who work for banks, insurance companies, etc.) is out to get us.  This game provides the answer: In fact, there is a massive conspiracy to do just that.  And things are stranger than that, because this conspiracy is centered in some sort of fantastical underground (literally) catacomb, connecting all of these various dens of iniquity.

The player, when he successfully completes the game, will have the intense satisfaction of having crushed the nameless and faceless hoard of bureaucrats, and, with luck, having gotten the bank to acknowledge his change of address (or whatever the player's initial task is set up to be).

The main enemy of the game?

What’s clear from this document is that the beginning and end of the game were defined early on: we start in our hometown doing an “initial task” and we end up in a strange catacomb at the center of the vast conspiracy. Even though a target was in mind, most of this pitch sketches only the opening stages of the game and leaves the ending to a vague statement that a “bizarre series of accomplishments will have to be made in order to destroy the enemy's apparatus”, plus the implication that it the ending might take place in a literal or metaphorical Hell. 

According to the document, the game would start with:

[...] the player needing to get some very simple task done (e.g. getting the bank to acknowledge a change of address form). This will turn into more of a problem than it seems and events will cause such things as his credit cards getting recalled, his house getting repossessed, etc. leading to absurd heights of nonsense. Clearly, at some point the player will realize that things are getting out of hand.

While the change of address changes and the expired credit cards remained a thorn in our side, we never had to deal with the “absurd heights of nonsense” that are implied. Our house is never repossessed. The document goes on to briefly mention several areas that would be located near your house: a bank, a post office, and an insurance company. The stamp-based puzzle may be an echo of this original concept for a post office, however the other areas were replaced by the tenement, travel agency, restaurant, and other locations. 

The designer also doesn’t seem to have a plan yet for how the puzzles will play out. In fact, a key aspect of “annoying bureaucrats” doesn’t seem to have survived to the final game at all:

One possible source of problems is trying to do the things that the bureaucracy hates most: folding, spindling, and mutilating punch cards, filling out forms incorrectly, perhaps stealing rubber stamps and stamping forms improperly, and otherwise botching up the works. Perhaps this type of problem in the above-ground area will help create a diversion allowing access to the underground where more bizarre things will happen.

For all that I like these design ideas, the game doesn’t seem well-defined at these early stages, but the rest of the game seems to have clicked in (at least in outline) very shortly thereafter. 

All the best ideas come from 1985!

Bureaucracy 1985

Stashed away in the source for Bureaucracy are a few further hits to the initial composition of the game. While we do not know when the initial “Ideas” document was written (either 1984 or 1985), a few scattered notes remain from the earliest phase of development. 

The earliest original source file (dated 1985) describes the player character leaving his hometown to travel to (and solve puzzles in) an airport before boarding a plane. All of that iteration of the airport has been lost to us except for a note that there would be three exits, each one leading to a different airline and a different adventure. One of those three would be on Air Zalagasa, however that excursion is completely different from the version in the final game. All three end with you parachuting out of the plane to locations unknown.

I’ll cover the airport and air travel in more detail in upcoming sections, but it’s worth highlighting this point: even by 1985, the full shape of the game was in place. Although the details of the scenarios would end up quite different, the outline was in place. For better or worse, it was up to each iteration of designer/developer to make each section as good as it could be. 

Why do houses like this scare me, but apartment buildings don’t?


Home Sweet Home

From here, we must depart our chronological look at the game. All remaining source files contain a 1987 copyright date even though some of them are clearly older. Instead, I’ll follow through the stages of the game sections in order, analyzing alternate versions, commented code, and design documents where available. Naturally, we will miss updates where the developers didn’t leave a “trail”, but we will at least be able to speculate on what might have been left out. Please treat this with a healthy dose of skepticism; we are assembling a picture as best we can from incomplete information and do not have a change-by-change breakdown of the development process. 

All that said, the opening area has few additional hints to be discovered in the code. Even so, there are some fun things:

  • The old hard-of-hearing woman with the mail-stealing parrot was initially described as a “nightmarishly hideous old bimbo”. This feels like an error or a joke. Merriam-Webster defines “bimbo” as an “attractive but stupid woman”, but such a woman would not be “nightmarishly hideous”. Exactly how that morphed into a benign but well-armed old woman is unclear.

  • The copy protection with the paranoid individual was originally more difficult: if you got all of the answers correct, he would also consider you a spy because only a spy could have been that good. He also had one additional question (“How many health fascists are in the FDA?”) that was removed before publication.

  • The Dork adventure card for the Boysenberry was originally a game called Westminster. All we see of it is that you start on the Westminster Bridge before it errors out. Presumably, the change to Dork was intended to honor or parody the Infocom title that started it all.

  • If you picked up the damaged money order from the parrot on the porch, it was intact but covered in guano. The developers switched it to being shredded. My guess is that too many players wasted time trying to clean off the guano and missing the need to do the check cashing puzzle. 

  • The waitress at the restaurant originally dropped your order because she had to go on break rather than a computer crash.

With no major plot changes, we advance to the airport!

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I find 1970s cars to be hideous.

Exploring the Airport

As described previously, the airport is the first area where we have multiple distinct source files that represent different phases of development. These appear to have been labeled “airport”, “nairport” (new airport?) and “nnairport” (new new airport!); unfortunately the first and potentially most interesting of those is missing. 

All we can glean about this initial “airport” segment comes from the lone 1985 source file for “jet”, the next area. Based on this, we can tell at least that some variation of the airport sequence existed even in the earliest drops of code. We also learn that there would have been three separate exits from the puzzle. Depending on unknown actions, we could have ended up on Air Zalagasa, Air Gaul, or World Charters. Beyond that tantalizing note, we have no surviving clues how that might have worked. 

The two “n” versions of the airport area are broadly similar in approach. While they have significant differences, they include the same beats: navigating a concourse, climbing the pole, distracting the air traffic controllers, and short-circuiting the sound system. The actual implementation logic for these has been rewritten and tightened up; the implementers added detailed comments describing the concourse and sign layouts, for example. From a brief reading of the code, it’s difficult to tell how the old and new versions would have played differently.

Other differences include:

  • The final version includes a sequence where you lose your address book so that it can be picked up by the hacker. I had mistaken this for losing a random item in the crowd, but it appears that it will always be that book.
  • We discover a sign for the “Lost and Found” in the earlier file, but it was added as a full room in the final release.
  • Several removed signs remind passengers to ensure that they have the correct visas, plus logic was present to allow you to check the visas in your passport. This appears to be related to a visa “puzzle” that we will soon discover on the jet and excised when that puzzle was removed. 

All of this makes me want to look up visa restrictions for traveling to France from the US or UK in 1987, but I need to pass on that for now. One cannot go down every rabbit hole, right?

Let’s board the plane and see what removed content we can find while airborne.

“Open Air Gaul” now appears to be a concert series.

Flying the Friendly Skies (Jet v1 and v2)

Of the several locations in the game, the airplane segment has the most distinctly versioned filenames. The developers started with “jet”, moved on to “njet” and “nnjet”, before ending with “xjet” and “xxjet”. We have five different (but similar) versions of our airplane adventure to sift through for hidden clues and meaning!

The very first of these source files, dated 1985, connects to the missing airport scenario and features three separate mini-adventures. They do not appear to have been fully coded (at one point the game simply says “this will be the meal episode”) but we can see the rough shape and a few of the puzzles that they would have featured. The three paths are:

  • Path #1 - Air Gaul on a direct flight to France. This scenario would feature a humorous in-flight movie that documented your trip through the game so far followed by the plane being attacked by hijackers. For whatever reason, the hijackers take our player character hostage and force us into the cockpit. After his gun jams, the hijacker tosses a grenade that will destroy the plane in a few turns after it is thrown. I am uncertain what happens next as the scenario does not appear to be complete. Presumably, we disarm the grenade or leap out of the plane with it. 
  • Path #2 - Air Zalagasa with a connection in Bananareeve. This flight doesn’t appear to have a movie, but the authorities in Zalagasa are extremely strict about visa policy. When we are unable to fill out a required immigration form because we do not have a visa for Zalagasa (we’re supposed to be going to France!), the plane is unable to land. Eventually, the crew determines a solution: they hand us a parachute and toss us out of the plane. We are briefly trapped in the door-- an element that is retained into the final product-- but free ourselves and drift to the country below.
  • Path #3 - Charter Holidays, although it is unclear if it is intended to be direct or not. The flight had secretly been chartered by a skydiving troop. After an inflight film about skydiving, we are drafted into the group and jump out of the plane. Exactly how that might have worked has not been revealed.

Each of the three flights would also have an in-flight meal, but none of the meal logic was coded at this early stage. All in all, it is curious that they would have a fork in the road here, but it worked (well enough?) in Cutthroats

The second iteration of the jet sequence appears to be a cleaned up and expanded version of only the Air Zalagasa flight (#2), including the visa problems. The code appears to be incomplete and it’s unclear whether the designer intended to make that the only option or he simply didn’t get around to writing the rest of the sequences before abandoning this file and working on the next major revision.

Do you think the skydivers would be eaten by cannibals?

It Was Only A Dream… Or Was It? (Jet v3)

The next iteration returns to three separate sequences, but this time all of the events happen on the Air Zalagasa flight. Two of them would be revealed to be dream sequences, while the third will be (surprise!) “real” and we improbably find ourselves dangling on a parachute over a foreign nation. 

In this case, we have a good design note so I’ll just quote it in full:

There are three scenarios. The first two that are played out turn out to be dreams, as you discover when you wake up just before crashing into the ground because your parachute didn't work. The third is real, and in that one, assuming winnage, your parachute works and you land in the stew.

The scenarios are:

1) Hijacking. The plane is hijacked by someone who decides to escape with a randomly-chosen hostage, namely you. Why? Who knows. If you do the wrong thing, you get blown away (of course, in the dream sequence you just wake up). Maybe the airplane too.

2) Bad breath. You foolishly eat your airline food. Failure to do so gets you thrown off for being rude to the chef. If you do, you develop severe halitosis, forcing you to go brush your teeth; failure to do so gets you thrown off for being a chomper. When you brush your teeth, you can either clean out the sink (per the sign), in which case you're delayed past the seat-belt and return-to-seat signs coming on; you get thrown off for not obeying that. Otherwise, you get thrown off for not cleaning out the sink.

3) Visa. You're required to fill out some entrance form, with a visa number that you don't have and can't get. Failure to do so results in ejection.

I love this! At 3,500 lines of code, this version seems and feels as if it was a nearly complete. Most of the elements from the final game are in place and the source appears to be well-polished and with many corner cases written. You can swap seats around the plane, for example, and there was code if you left things at your old seat which isn’t in the final product. We could chat up several neighbors (including a grandmother, a young mother and baby, and a businessman) and try to steal their visa numbers. We could have a conversation with the businessman about this rare recipe cartridge that he picked up that turns out to be the same as yours. Logic is also included for a sequence where you confront a smoker who can kill you for complaining about his habit. You can even make a phone call using the plane phone, although the calls themselves are not finished in the code. (My best guess is that you could try to call the travel agency for a visa number.) 

Dental health is important!

“New Bywater Theory” (Jet v4 and v5)

Despite a near-complete “Jet” sequence, the source was updated again with an explanatory comment on top: this is the “New Bywater Theory”. One presumes that Bywater was displeased with the near-complete airplane sequence and desired to put his own spin on the puzzles. As this is the only attributed section in the leaked source code, we can at least glean some hints as to how Bywater’s approach differed from his predecessors’. 

The fourth version appears to be an intermediate step between the final revision and the previous ones. Bywater (or someone) penned two descriptive narrations, one describing the opening play after you arrive on the airplane and the other detailing the button puzzle and its two solutions. The most critical change is an alternate path for the halitosis puzzle: if we use the seat buttons (scrambled as in the final product) to spill the stew, we bypass the need to eat it and never trigger the tooth-brushing sequence. If we did need to brush our teeth, this version switches to an electric toothbrush with a small associated puzzle plugging it in. Although the visa puzzle and ability to talk with our neighbors remains in the code, the design document describes only buttons and halitosis puzzles. 

The final (after five tries!) version of the file is the one that we played. Given how many passes went over it, it surprisingly does not have a ton of dead weight. There’s still a bit in there about a smoker that can kill you plus commented out logic for when the fasten seatbelt sign comes on. There is also one additional passenger: a bald man. Why he was removed, I have no idea. I’m more surprised that the halitosis puzzle was removed, but my guess is that Bywater was so proud of the seat buttons that he wanted to steer players in that direction. The hook in the code that would have triggered your bad breath was replaced with an instant death sequence.

Ms. Sinclair was a talented designer and businesswoman in her own right.

Enter: Anita Sinclair

For me, one of the most surprising things about this sequence was not in the game at all! Included in the code leak is an emailed bug report. From the content of the mail, it seems to be one of many, but none of the others were retained for us in this leak. The surprising bit isn’t the bug (a run-of-the-mill parser issue) but rather the reporter: Anita Sinclair.

I can see from your expression that you are either shocked to silence or have no idea who she is. Ms. Sinclair was the founder of Magnetic Scrolls, one of Infocom’s premier competitors in the Interactive Fiction space. She was close with Michael Bywater during this period and may have agreed to work with her ostensible business rivals as a favor to him. I would love to explore the connections between Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls in the future but seeing her name pop up here was nothing short of amazing. It may be worth noting that while the in-game credits for Bureaucracy cite more than a dozen contributors, Sinclair’s name is not among them. I cannot help but feel there is a bigger story here, but we’ll save that for another time.

What 1980s nerds lacked in fashion sense, they made up for in conquering the world.

The Switchgear Maze

The final segment of the game is the nerd’s catacombs. While the Infocom code leak preserved alternate versions of the previous two areas, the situation with the endgame is somewhat different. While only the final code file is preserved for the majority of the content, three versions of the switchgear maze are preserved. These are curiously named “maze-program”, “nmaze-program”, and “mumble”. These files do not control the maze navigation, but rather the computer-displayed hint that we needed to find to solve the maze. (Presumably, the maze code was or would have been updated to match the hint.)

This is unusual because it appears to feature a backtrack. We can only surmise based on limited evidence, but the development of these three files appear to be in that order: the original file, the “n” version which matches the naming convention used elsewhere, and then a strange rename to “mumble”. All three files contain code differences that are too subtle for me to understand without compiling, but the first and third of those included the hint text identical to what was in the finished game. 

The second featured a different clue: 

To find the entrance, from the first numbered room, go in any direction. Thenceforth, subtract the number of the previous room from the current one. Use the first digit of the difference to select one of the following strings: 1 gives NSEWUD, 2 gives NWESDU, 3 gives USDNEW, 4 gives SUNDEW, 5 gives ENUDSW, 6 gives DWEUNS. Use the second digit to select a letter from the string, and go in that direction. Thus, room 64 to 105 gives a difference of 41. Take the first letter from the fourth string, and go South.

In the final game, the maze direction is based only on the difference in room numbers. Adding the extra strings significantly increased the complexity of the solution, but doesn’t add much value. Since we could not have guessed at the pattern without the hint, the “puzzle” of the situation is working out how to get the correct hint out of the computer. Once we have that, the solution needs only to be complex enough that we could not stumble on it by accident. Requiring more seems like complexity for its own sake and adds nothing to the puzzle. Without evidence one way or the other, it’s impossible to say why the developers rolled back to the less complex version of the puzzle, but trimming out unnecessary complexity seems as good a theory as any.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1986.

The (Wo)man Behind the Curtain

Beyond that change, most of the remaining code changes relate to different viewscreen experiences that were originally written into the final hallway. Of these, the most interesting is a progression of details about the nerd that were commented out. These would have been visible prior to solving the computer puzzle at the end. The third of these is the version that was in the final game:


  • The nerd looking for lost things to try to return to unsuspecting owners

  • The nerd staring intently at a computer screen. Also in the picture is another monitor screen, which shows someone standing in a corridor.

  • The nerd is sitting at a terminal, hacking away. He looks about as happy as someone who has clearly never been out with girls can look. Above his head is a monitor screen, showing a really rather attractive individual looking at a monitor screen which shows a computer room with a dirty great mainframe..

While the final version reads like a Bywater-improved version of the second, that first commented out line (double commented out!) suggests that perhaps the nerd wasn’t intended to be the final antagonist after all. It’s a stretch, but there is a “famous” rumor that the original villain of the game was intended to be the Queen Mother. This is supported based on a note in the manual and several characters have responses when asked about her. For our readers that care little about the British Royal Family, she was the queen consort during the reign of George VI and the current Queen Elizabeth II’s mother. Bureaucracy was released during a time when the monarchy was experiencing declining popularity (although just prior to the “annus horribilis” of 1992), but the Queen Mother remained one of the most beloved and popular members of the royal household. To make her the antagonist must have seemed quite funny to someone, although I’m not sure how well that joke would have landed with either American or British audiences. There is no evidence in the leaked code or other documents that the Queen Mother was intended to be the antagonist, but this tiny commented line implies at least that a version existed without the nerd as the man behind the curtain. 

A not entirely old picture of Mr. Bywater

Bywater’s Impact

While not “lost” code, one of my discoveries in reading through the source code was just how much prose is missed on a typical gameplay. The ending especially appears to have many corner cases that were well-written and funny, but unlikely to be seen by the average player. For example, if I had ascended to the jungle without defeating the nerd, I would have seen this message:

Look. Um...

We're not quite sure how to put this, so we got the lawyers to draft something instead.

"Infocom Inc. currently possesses no mechanism for allowing proactive product end-users" -- sorry about the tacky '80s MBA jargon, but you know how lawyers "love" bull like that -- "to escape from interactive fiction situations without having made the least attempt to solve the puzzles."

"The normal penalty under these circumstances would be death. However, we are prepared to offer you the option of returning whence you came."

"Actually, this isn't really an option. Look at it from our point of view. Suppose you said 'To hell with it, I'd rather die', where would we be then? We'd have no option but to sue the guts out of you. And have you the remotest idea of the paperwork "that" would involve? We have wives and families, you know, and girlfriends, and sometimes we just like to go bowling of an evening or just hang out at the gas station, drinking Fresca and bad-mouthing the treasury."

"So: back you go."

Sorry about that. That's what the lawyers say, so that's what has to happen.

It’s great to see that Bywater spent so much time on the prose. Another example that was in the final game but that I missed was the gender-based responses. Depending on whether we selected “male” or “female” at the beginning of the game, a number of textual responses would be slightly different. Perhaps most notably, if we were female then the nerd would want to date us instead of our sister! (That makes the whole sequence even more uncomfortable.) In another small detail at the end of the game, we speak to a different person when we board the plane. If we are male, we speak with the female copilot. If we are female, we speak to a “ruggedly handsome flight attendant”. Given the prevailing gender expectations of pilots and attendants in 1987, this was a nice (if hidden) touch.

There is some also indication in the code that the game was developed using US spellings but switched (inconsistently) to British ones late in development. For example, all of the code uses only American spellings: “Jail” is always spelled “jail” in all variable names, but “gaol” in all of the player text. There is one line commented out that shows the “jail” spelling was originally in the player-text as well, but it is directly replaced by “gaol”. No proof there, but it suggests that the move to British spellings happened late in development, possibly at Bywater’s request or possibly to be more consistent with what was used in Hitchhiker’s Guide.  

I will close out with one final note, included in the game but that I never stumbled upon. For all that I found the Zalagasans a bit racist, there is a moment towards the end of the game where you can talk to one of them to receive a clarification:

One of the Zalagasans says, "We aren't actually cannibals. Our society is in fact quite technologically advanced. We have been trying to get "The National Geographic" to do an article about us to help us increase tourism. Unfortunately, technologically advanced Zalagasans aren't very interesting. Twentieth century cannibalism is still a fairly hot item, though, so we've been cooking missionaries, explorers and mercenaries to impress "The National Geographic".

Does that make it better or worse? I’ll leave you to decide.

After far too many months, I am pleased to finally bring Bureaucracy to a close. I hope you enjoyed our look at the source code; it took quite a while to sift through all of the various files and comments, but I am glad that I did. I have a much greater appreciation for this game than I did when I was playing it. From here, I’ll focus on Space Quest V for now, most likely followed by Stationfall. As those games are a bit similar, I may make a detour to another Missed Classic as a palate cleanser. 

Happy Easter and see you next week!

8 comments:

  1. Thanks Joe, this was very interesting (as always)!

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    1. This was a lot of work. I'm glad you enjoyed!

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  2. Very interesting. It is again perhaps meta-appropriate for the game to have been designed by a kind of rotating committee...

    Speaking of text adventures - there's an ongoing series of brief posts by Aaron Reed titled 50 Years of Text Games. One article each year highlighting a game from that year. Over here: https://if50.substack.com/

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    1. That is a cool blog! For 1983, I expect I would have picked Planetfall over Suspended, but I suppose the latter is the more innovative game by far. Thanks for the link.

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  3. Huh, I can't remember if I mentioned this before, but I find it interesting that "gaol" is actually a word. I was playing a French game, translated into English, won't say which one, hasn't been played on this blog yet, and they used that instead of jail. I just assumed it was a translation error. Although considering that its a bit dated, that could still be a valid interpretation. Glad to see they aren't just pulling it out of their butt though.

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    1. As someone in the UK, it’s basically an old fashioned variant of the word but generally people use jail or prison here. When you see gaol it’s usually to make it seem medieval/old-timey, just like saying ye olde

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  4. On reflection, I expect that I should do "Stationfall" next. While I fear two Sci-Fi comedies in a row (and partly at the same time) will be a bit much, I'm realizing that my own reduced writing pace and the huge number of Infocom magic left to cover means that we'll never finish if I don't buckle down and play.

    If anyone wants to suggest a shorter game that I can justify in some way (and preferably cover in one post), I'd be happy to consider it. Otherwise, I'm going to start the research for Stationfall.

    Next Space Quest V post should be out this week. It's coming along nicely.

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