Written by Joe Pranevich
This is going to seem like deja vu: 1987 had not been a great year for Infocom. The deal with Activision concluded, Cornerstone failed, and sales of text adventures were slowing down. Hollywood Hijinx bombed with only 12,000 copies sold. Bureaucracy failed to capitalize on its A-list author, Douglas Adams, and shipped only 28,000 copies. To offset the sales loss, Infocom was forced to produce twice as many games as before. Making games was difficult, but making twice as many games with the same team seemed impossible. Fortunately, Infocom still had a developer or two with recent hits: Steve Meretzky (with Leather Goddesses and Hitchhiker's Guide) and Brian Morarity (with Wishbringer). While these two would reach back to produce easily marketed sequels, other implementers sought fresh ideas. One of those was none other than Dave Lebling, one of Infocom’s founders and most prolific authors.
At that point, Lebling wasn’t bringing in the numbers Meretzky and Moriarty had been. Spellbreaker actually sold negative copies in 1986 as Infocom wrote off unsold inventory from the previous Christmas. Starcross and Suspect were long enough ago that their market performance could hardly be predictive. But Lebling had a plan to enter a market that Infocom hadn’t entered before: horror. Horror was then (and now) a popular genre. In October 1986, when Lurking Horror was just getting started, Steven King’s It was the bestselling book on the New York Times list. Through 1987, King would have three more of his books on the Top 10 list, including the #1 selling hardcover of the year, The Tommyknockers. Lebling may also have been inspired by the growing popularity of The Call of Cthulhu tabletop game. Whatever the reason, Lebling and Infocom were excited to try their luck at a new category of game.
The Lurking Horror didn’t even merit its own hint book!
Should I should start by asking what The Lurking Horror is? As I have not yet played it, I reserve the right to change my answer later. The back of the box claims that the game was inspired by the works of Steven King and H.P. Lovecraft, but this is not a “licensed game”. Unlike, for example, Sherlock Holmes (who we will see in a few games), the copyright status of Lovecraft’s works was (and is still) disputed. Lebling appears to have adapted the title of his game from Lovecraft’s 1922 short story, “The Lurking Fear”, but a glance at a plot summary doesn’t reveal any obvious connections. Similarly, this game doesn’t appear to have any direct connections to King’s work. It should come as no surprise that a successful author like King had already optioned away the rights to most of his books in a way that precluded games not associated with (or promoting) a film. Only a single novella, 1985’s The Mist by Angelsoft had been produced as a licensed game. At this stage, it is doubtful that Infocom could have sprung for a license to either property anyway. We’ll have to settle for a game that is merely “inspired” by the works of horror greats. As I am not tremendously familiar with either Lovecraft or King, I encourage you to point out all the obvious references that I miss.
A second question is sillier: Is The Lurking Horror a Zork game? You must think me nuts for even asking the question, but our setting of G.U.E. Tech was mentioned in Spellbreaker and will (down the road) be a key location in Zork: Grand Inquisitor. A couple of Zork reference sites, including the Zork wiki, list the game as taking place in the future of that series. (Curiously, the wiki doesn’t include Planetfall or Stationfall in that list.) I won't know for sure without playing the game, but the manual is clear that the G.U.E. of “G.U.E. Tech” is George Underwood Edwards and not the Great Underground Empire. That appears to dispel this theory immediately, but I’ll need to play the game to know for sure. If the so-called “Lurking Horror” is just an oversized grue, that would be a big hint.
While The Lurking Horror would not be a success like the old days, at nearly 23,000 copies sold, it did just a bit better than Stationfall and every other Infocom game of the post-Activision era except Beyond Zork. Infocom was entering its twilight period, but Lebling’s horror game gamble paid off. This may have encouraged Infocom to try other genres (such as their brief foray into romance), but no other horror games were produced on the line.
It’s been a long time since I had one of these.
The Manual & Feelies
Other than a stock “how to” guide on Interactive Fiction, the tactile world-building for this game is mostly a freshman guide to the “George Underwood Edwards Institute of Technology”. At only eight pages, it feels thin compared to similar feelies of the past, but it’s not that bad either.
The manual states the plot succinctly enough:
In The Lurking Horror, you are a student at G.U.E. Tech. You have braved a snowstorm to get to the Computer Center and finish work on an assignment. But the snowstorm has turned into a raging blizzard, and has trapped you in a complex of buildings late at night. You are not alone… fortunately… or perhaps, unfortunately.
From there, we have to sift our way through the articles to find what clues we can. The book itself feels “real”, down to the bookstore advertisement on the back cover and the late-night restaurant recommendations. I sift and take notes, but can only guess at what might be important later:
- The guide dispels the “rumor” that the school has the highest suicide rate in the country, but suggests that disappearing students merely “cracked up” and presumably went home.
- The school has a tradition of puzzles, one of which involves locking the cafeteria with complex electronic equipment one day each year. Could that be today, I wonder?
- Underground tunnels connect most of the university buildings, but they are unsafe and should be avoided. Several students have died exploring the tunnels.
- The guide provides a reference to school jargon, but there’s a deeper story than might first appear. During the 70s and 80s, a “Jargon File” was started at Stanford and migrated to M.I.T. that provided definitions for computer nerd dialect. In specific, the glossary uses definitions (especially for “frob” and “hack”) found in the 1983 edition of the file rather than the 1981 edition. Is that important? Not at all. The 1983 edition was famously published as The Hacker’s Dictionary, edited by Guy Steele. I’ll be on the lookout for decoding any hacker-speak if I come across any.
- A “directory” page in the guide is partly filled in by our character. It contains phone numbers for four friends, the classroom number for “Intro to Calc”, and a password... My guess is that we will need at least the password for copy protection, but I’ll be on the lookout for a campus phone also.
The feelies also include a student ID card and a plastic centipede. The thing looks cheap, but I don't have a copy of the original to verify. I'm dreading the "covered with centipedes" episode that this item hints at. That's creepy.
The map looks familiar.
M.I.T. in All But Name
The final and perhaps most important element of the manual, a campus map, reveals the hardly-hidden secret of Lurking Horror: G.U.E. Tech is a barely disguised M.I.T. I am not a Boston native, but as a kid I fell in love with the city. I moved just outside of Boston after my 21st birthday and have lived and worked here for the past twenty years. I’ve driven by the M.I.T. campus hundreds of times and have attended more than a few events on campus. Even if I had not known this connection already, I would have caught on immediately.
MIT map from 2006. If anyone can find an older one, I’d appreciate it.
Just as in the real world, this section of G.U.E. Tech is bordered on the west by Massachusetts Avenue and to the east by Adams Street. Unlike our world however, the southern edge is “River Street” (instead of Memorial Drive) and the northern one is “Smith Street” instead of Vassar. The switch from Vassar to Smith may be a joke as both are names of colleges, but I don’t quite understand why they bothered to change Memorial Drive. These real-world names strongly suggest that we’re in a fictionalized “here” rather than the much more fantastic Zork universe.
The rest of the campus layout bears equal resemblance to M.I.T. Both have “arms” of their buildings wrap around a central court with the Great Dome as the centerpiece. While simplified, there are good analogues for all of the G.U.E. buildings on this map: Aerospace is the same spot in both G.U.E. and M.I.T., the Computer Center could be Sloan Labs, “Brown Building” naturally replaces Green, “Nutrition” as the Dorrance Building, and the so-called “Temporary Building” as Compton Labs. If I had a map of the campus in the 1980s, I would feel more confident about these connections, but it’s impossible to not see the resemblance between the two universities.
As the game progresses, I’ll gain a better understanding of the tunnels and buildings. While I am not certain what I can arrange in a post-COVID world, I have a few friends at M.I.T. that may be able to arrange a tour to let me scope out some of the analogues myself. If I manage it, I will be sure to write up my experiences.
|An Amiga from 1987.|
The Lurking Horror is almost unique in the Infocom text adventure canon for one more reason: it had sound effects! Sherlock is the only other Infocom adventure of this era to include them. These effects were only present on the Amiga version and not packaged in subsequent collections. Infocom’s experiments with sound ended quickly and support was not added to any other platform. The final game that was to have sound effects, Zork Zero, launched without them due to budget constraints.
I am still looking for a way to play with the original sounds intact. Frotz, an open source Z-interpreter supports them, but I will need to locate an Amiga release and extract from there. I am happy to take any advice on this that is offered. Right now, I plan to play the Lost Treasures version for consistency then try to win the Amiga version before the final rating. I expect that we’ll have at least one point in “Sound and Graphics!”
Enough preliminaries, let’s play!
Playing the Game
We start in a “Terminal Room” and are immediately reminded both of recent student disappearances and our need to complete a term paper. My first surprise is that we have to go to a computer center for this! By 1987, personal computers were common, but networking was less so. This implies that “TechNet” terminals may have been the sole way to access the university’s shared drives, but it hardly seems efficient to force students to work on humanities papers in labs. This also suggests a great question about the history of dorm computing, but I’ll set that aside for another day.
I read my assignment to learn that I am writing a 20-page paper about “modern analogues in Xenophon's Anabasis”. Is that relevant? Xenophon was a Greek general and Anabasis was his work about an ancient Greek campaign to seize control of Persia. The assignment specifically wants us to compare that with the 1979 films The Warriors and Alien. While I see similarities with The Warriors (both involve groups of “warriors” traveling overland, in the film’s case a street gang walking from northern Bronx to southern Brooklyn), I have no idea how that relates to Ridley Scott’s Alien. As I work up a thesis for my paper, I realize that this is just a game and the author never intended us to think this deeply about the assignment. Still, if I mail Lebling a 20-page paper on this, do you think he’d grade it? More importantly, are there clues in any of those three works to the game we will be playing?
I sit down at the computer and am prompted to login. I enter the password from the manual, but that doesn’t do it. I look around for help. The hacker just sits there, two-finger typing his way to heaven. A large keyring hangs from his belt, but that doesn’t seem pertinent yet. I admire that the PC monitor is 1024x1024, quite rare for 1987. (1024x768 would not hit the consumer market until 1990.) I eventually find a “help” key that reminds me that I need to login with a username first. Since none was provided in the manual, I panic for a moment before realizing that the number written on the ID card must be it. This was before “name” logins, clearly.
Barcodes like these were introduced in 1973.
I log in and edit my paper using the “YAK” text editor, no doubt an early reference to the GNU project (also started at M.I.T.) My filename is printed in an urgent red color. I try to “click” it, but the game doesn’t recognize that as a verb. “Selecting” works and I remember that this was probably before mice became ubiquitous. I open my paper to discover that it’s been changed into something strange, a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, with some words in English. (Exactly how Hebrew and Arabic would have been displayed on this terminal is again an exercise for the reader, however “Project Athena” pioneered graphical desktops at M.I.T. and Xerox had high-end systems for nearly a decade that could mix languages thanks to a precursor of UNICODE.)
I read what I can of my paper, touching “more” whenever needing to move on. The game uses the word “touch” when describing how we interact with the system, but I’m not sure if that’s describing a touch-screen interface or something else. Very little of “my” paper is readable but I read something about a “summoning” or a “visitor”. A third page includes woodcut illustrations and a poem, with a helpful translation in the margins:
He returns, he is called back (?)
The loyal ones (alcolytes?) make a sacrifice
Those who survive will meet him (be absorbed? eaten?)
They will live, yet die
Forever will be (is?) nothing to them (to him?)
His place (lair? burrow?) must be prepared
His food (offerings?) must be prepared
Call him forth (invite him?) with great power
Only an acceptable (tasteful?) sacrifice will call him forth
He will be grateful (satiated?)
A fourth page consists only of a photograph of a horrid mouth with something in it. If only this wasn’t just a text adventure! I continue reading, but the scare must be too much because I faint and find myself in a strange “Place”.
|Unnecessary illustration of a centipede.|
I Had the Strangest Dream
I find myself in a barren, gray “bowl” of basalt with only rocky nothingness in all directions. I descend into the bowl as a crowd of people, half-unseen, press against me. They seem to be expecting something as they push and jostle me towards a pedestal at the bottom of the bowl.
I find a small obsidian stone, softly glowing, on the pedestal. It has an unfamiliar rune carved into one side. No sooner do I pick it up than the crowd is attacked by a fiend. It is never described, other than having a mouth of foul ichor. It senses the stone and picks me up in its gaping jaws. Just as I am about to be eaten, I “wake up” and find myself back in the computer lab. It wasn’t just a dream: I still have the stone!
The hacker sees me wake and comes by to help. The strange text is gone, replaced by a snowy static pattern. The hacker determines that there was a filesystem error and my term paper was swapped with something on the Department of Alchemy’s “Lovecraft” server. I’ll have to go down there to get it. (Fortunately, “Alchemy” is one of the labels on our campus map!) I try to boot the computer and see the strange file again, but it’s empty now. I ask the hacker about Lovecraft, but he only knows him as some old fantasy author.
Is this the plot of the game? To find the Department of Alchemy and get my term paper back? I’ve heard weirder, I guess.
Lovecraft looks like the kind of guy that didn’t get invited to parties.
Nerds on Campus
Now that the introductory stuff is out of the way, I am free to explore campus. It’s strange just how realistic it is: although we’ve had a few games set in the modern day, none of them seem quite as murderously mundane as this one.
The computer lab is on the second floor of a three-story building with a basement. Next to the lab is a kitchen with “Funny Bones” snack food, Coke, and Chinese food. I pocket all of it. I hope that the “funny bones” will be useful in a scrying ritual or similar later. So many spooky things can happen with a bag of small bones, having the “bones” be peanut butter-filled chocolate cake would be hilarious. The kitchen also contains a microwave and a refrigerator, great for if I need to cook or chill things later. The third floor lab is blocked by a glass wall while the fourth is a scenic roof. Once there, I see buildings nearby but have no way to snowy-parkour over to them. Continuing to explore, I find a flashlight in an emergency panel in the elevator as well as graffiti that helpfully explains that “tech is hell”.
I leave the computer center to the north, straight into a blizzard. The only direction not blocked off by snow is east, the “Temporary Building”. Entering it and turning on the flashlight, I discover a World War II-era military lab that has been retrofitted into a more mundane space. I also find a metal flask filled with a liquid that creates fog as well as electrical gloves and a crowbar. I like the idea that there could have been strange occult World War II-era nuttiness here, but it doesn’t connect yet. At least I keep finding items. My guess is that the flask contains liquid nitrogen, either to freeze something or to create a spooky fog-filled room.
The basements of the two buildings are connected by an east-west tunnel. I flip a coin and head west to arrive at the Aeronautics Building basement. A forklift is down there, ready for use, but I leave it for now. At least this forklift isn’t trying to kill me… yet!
|And I... walk along... darkened corridors.|
Leaving the empty Aeronautics Building by the south hallway, I discover the “Infinite Corridor”, a landmark famous both in G.U.E. Tech and M.I.T. Really, it’s just a very long, perfectly straight hallway with offices on either side. I find a container of “Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping)” in the western end of the hall, suggesting that we could be in the Zork universe after all. An engineering building is to the south, but it’s locked. Mass Ave. is just to the west, but the blizzard prevents us from finding any other buildings that way. Our only choice is to head east down the hall. I see a “large machine” in the distance.
As I approach, I discover that the machine is a zamboni-style floor waxer being driven by a “zombie like” janitor. The waxer is electrical and one of the “rooms” along the corridor has a connected power-plug and long electrical cord. I hope that G.U.E. is paying this poor guy properly to clean floors in the middle of the night during a blizzard. A door to the south leads to death: I enter the general court but have no way back inside so I freeze to death. I’ll need to find a proper key to explore what is out there. Instead, I climb a set of stairs to the university’s Great Dome.
This game is surprisingly easy to illustrate.
The Great Dome
After ascending one flight of stairs, the ladder I expect to find is replaced by a “shiny rope-like thing” hanging down where the ladder should be. I try to climb, but it’s covered in weird goo that burns my hands. I put on the gloves and try again, this time having no problem clambering onto the catwalk. There I discover what I had been climbing: a tentacle from a squishy mass with a single eyeball in the center. (The thing on the game’s cover?) Before I can react, the creature climbs down and out of sight.
Since I’m up here already, I open the door into the blizzard and climb up to the top of the dome. There, I find a suicide note hidden beneath a bronze plug:
“I can no longer face what I’ve been doing. I can’t sleep. I start at the slightest noise, and even dulling my senses with drugs or alcohol is no longer enough. I refuse to participate in what he is doing anymore. Either he is insane, or I am insane, of (and this is what I fear most) the universe itself is insane. I have only one final warning: I am the only suicide, but I will not be the final death.”
Spooky! I recognize the name as a recent campus suicide, a student that jumped from the university’s tallest building. With no tentacle to help me, I am unable to climb down the way that I came up. Fortunately, I can lower the now-revealed ladder and return to the infinite corridor.
Back to back and belly to belly– well, I don’t give a damn because I’m stone dead already.
Another room east in the “infinite” hall, I discover one of the “break glass”-style of emergency cabinets. Smashing the glass with the crowbar, I retrieve a deadly-looking fire axe. Reminder me to try Colossal Cave’s famous “axe me” before I’m through. The end of the hall is just to the east, but the maintenance man will not let me by: he maneuvers the waxer to block any location I would try to go except west. I concoct a plan.
I first try to pull out the waxer’s plug, but that doesn’t work as it is stuck. This naturally encourages me to cut the line with the axe (while wearing the electrician’s gloves) and doing so stops the waxer in its tracks. It also enrages the maintenance man. He advances on me, still not letting me sneak back to the east, but now trying to get his hands wrapped around my throat. I attack him with the axe! The blade lodges in his chest with a sickening sound, but he just looks at it before grabbing and tossing the axe away. On the next turn, he kills me and I get the distinct impression of something gnawing on my face.
That feels like quite enough for a first post!
Time played: 1 hr 50 min
Inventory: Fire axe, bronze plug, piece of paper, crowbar, flashlight (on), smooth stone, assignment, Coke, Chinese food, snack food
My map so far.
This game has been fun so far and easier to map than Stationfall. It doesn’t seem scary yet, at least not the nondescript tentacle monster or the “zombie”. I expect more horror as we probe deeper.
Since this is an introduction post, you have the opportunity to guess the score! With a great showing on Stationfall, Infocom now averages 40 points although Dave Lebling is scoring slightly below that with 38. How will this one fare? I have no idea, but don’t forget that I’ll give it at least a point or two for “Graphics and Sound”, so maybe it will turn out to be (by default) the greatest Infocom game of all time! We’ll see in a few weeks.
Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introductory post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.