Friday, 9 September 2022

Missed Classic: Lurking Horror - Amputated Content

Written by Joe Pranevich

It has become something of a tradition for me to dig into the “what ifs” of each Infocom game as I finish it. Unlike most of what we play, we are fortunate that so much Infocom material has been saved (in some cases “leaked”) to allow us to study their work in a way that would not otherwise be possible. With Lurking Horror, we find a game that struggled against too much content, almost from the very beginning. Dave Lebling had big ideas, and the game’s code is sprinkled with comments lamenting the size restrictions of the original ZIP engine. 

Lebling spoke about his wish for more space in an interview with Brass Lantern in 2002:

Stephen Granade: If you had the chance to redo any of your Infocom games, which one would you change? What would you do differently, or would you avoid the game entirely?

Dave Lebling: [...] I'd have loved to have done "The Lurking Horror" as a larger-size game (it was almost the last of the "small" games which had to fit in 84k bytes of disk space). Some good scary stuff got cut out of it or never implemented due to the size restrictions.

So what is this “good scary stuff” do we still know about? Let’s dig in.


Lebling’s villain inspiration.

The Initial Pitch

Analyzing dropped content from The Lurking Horror is both easier and more difficult than some of our other games. Stationfall left us with very few hints in its code about what was cut, but Lurking Horror leaves us with fewer still. There is no shortage of complaints in the code about the tight squeeze, but little about what the space may have been used for. We are left with only the design and feature documents that Lebling made for each major phase of development: the initial pitch, early versions, followed by “pre-beta”, “beta”, “gamma”, and “freeze”. Those will be the primary sources for this look-back, sprinkled in with source code comments and other sources where I found them. 

Lebling’s work was not completed until just after Stationfall, but design work on The Lurking Horror started at least six months prior to Meretzky’s game. The first pitch document we find is from sometime prior to April 1986. Lebling summarizes the game as a “King/Lovecraft milieu”: a “normal situation [...] becomes more and more horrific” and with “much of it underground”. So far so good! Lebling’s idea for the antagonist of the game was quite different however.

In this pitch, Lebling describes a two-layered villain. Initial clues would point the player towards the antagonist being a vampire. Lebling intended the player to be wrong-genre-savvy and attack the villain with (his words) “crosses, stakes, etc.” This vampire would even have its “Renfield” (from the Dracula stories), a human assistant who works with and appeases it. (The Professor of Alchemy is likely descended from this initial line of thought.) Just as the player develops a strategy for dealing with that kind of monster, the game would twist and the real villain would be revealed: a Cthulhu-version of Campbell’s “The Thing”. (Lebling specifically says not the 1982 movie version; his description best matches Campbell’s original 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?”) This monster possesses and duplicates people perfectly, leading to paranoia and fear; the player can never know who to trust. Lebling postulated that the form of this creature could be either “mechanical” or a “hive intelligence”. We would have to travel to its burrow where it is secretly creating “zillions” of similar creatures to take over the world. This initial pitch doesn’t suggest what we would do to defeat the self-replicating possession-monster, but it probably involved platinum foil. (The earliest written record I can find of Meretzky’s computer-possessing self-replicating monster from Stationfall postdates this by several months. Which author had this specific idea first is unclear.) 

Unpacking this, some aspects survive and some do not. We saw the creature possess the urchins (and possibly, the janitor), but not in the way that “The Thing” would suggest. Our creature also doesn’t duplicate anyone. This initial pitch also describes a dream that isn’t quite a dream, suggesting that the opening may have already been in his mind at the formative stage. He also specifies that scares should be written in through tension rather than gore. He did not feel that gore would translate well to a purely textual medium.

Would it have been possible to make this game? Absolutely. However the bait and switch with the villain, forcing the player to think they were dealing with one type of monster when they were really defeating another, feels confusing. Would players understand that the rug was pulled out from under them? Or would they be angry at a game that tricks them with false solutions? We’ll never know because that isn’t the game that he ended up making. 

We have the basic outline, but there is a lot more to come!

The Plasma Fusion Center, a building we didn’t quite make it to.

Moving to MIT

Lebling’s first dated design document, April 7th, 1986, reveals a game much closer to the final product. In particular, he has developed new ideas for both the villain and the setting. We’ll start with the villain. Not yet named (Lebling uses the hacker slang “Frob”), he describes the antagonist like this:

Frob has lived under the ground forever.  Every so often, activity on the surface disturbs it.  Indians, Puritans, etc. Now, new construction at the university has awakened it.  (Perhaps the evil professor detected it?) It's snarfing undergrads for various uses, such as raw material for its offspring. It's tapping into the phone and network lines.

This new villain comes with a new setting: an “MIT-like environment” where an ancient evil will intermingle with computers (“an Athena-like LAN”) to produce a very new kind of evil. It feels prescient. He suggests that the gore of the game should be described like the virgin-eating scene from the 1981 film, Dragonslayer. I’m not watching that to find out what it is like, but I welcome any commenters to watch it and report back what he might have adapted. Adding to his inspired-by-movies aesthetic, he even suggests that the Frob could lay eggs in people, similar to 1979’s Alien. To quote Lebling again, “There's also the whole Stephen King tradition of rotting bodies to consider.” Note that in the span of time between the initial pitch and this update, Lebling seems to have changed his stance on written gore or determined that doing jump-scares in text was just too difficult. 

Over the next several weeks, Lebling updates and deepens his design and it becomes recognizable as the Lurking Horror that we just played. By the end of April, Lebling had decided on the hacker and the PC puzzle opening, the master key, rats as an enemy, the enslaved urchins, and even the eventual death and resurrection of the hacker. Only a few of the ideas documented over this rapid period of development did not appear in the final product: a proposed switch to first person narration (“I” instead of “You”) and one more M.I.T. campus building.

Which one was dropped? The “Plasma Fusion Center”. This building would have been to the northwest of the campus center where the game takes place. In real life, the area researches high-temperature plasma and other advanced physics, clearly an easy call if you wanted to (for example) create a portal to Hell. Exactly what Lebling would have done with the building is unclear. Lebling did not mention at this point the Infinite Corridor or the Nutrition Building, but the list may not have been intended to be comprehensive.

A M.I.T. computer center in the mid-1980s.

The Pre-Beta

The next set of notes we have is undated but described as “pre-beta”. The game appears to be mostly complete at this point and already under playtesting. It was also too large with content being excised even at this early stage. Lebling suggests cutting out the 3rd floor of the computer center, for example, but ultimately elects to keep it in. 

Even as the game was coming together, Lebling seemed to be aware of plot weaknesses. He writes:

Does it matter that there's really no full explanation of what's going on? I don't think it does, and it would take up a lot of space. I'm curious what YOU think is going on.

I like the idea that the player may enjoy the game more if the details are less spelled out, but it seems almost as likely that Lebling simply hadn’t decided on a canonical reason yet. He was similarly worried about the ending, writing:

Some think the ending is anti-climactic after the mass is fried. Particularly, throwing the stone is a "repeat" solution. I happen to like it, personally. Any ideas for a different solution for this puzzle (or, perhaps a different one for getting rid of the flying monster)?

Was the monster flying at the end? I don’t remember. 

G.U.E. Tech by a slightly different name. (Credit Wikicommons.) 

Ideas Abandoned

If I could summarize the “beta” and “gamma” phases of the game, from publicly available information, I’d call it “enforced stagnation”. Reading these notes, we can see that bugs were found and fixed, but that Lebling was unable to make larger changes that he likely wanted to make. Overall, I get the impression that the elevator puzzle sucked all of the air out of the room (and the memory out of the interpreter), making final adjustments more difficult than intended. Alternatively, perhaps a decision was just made to cut and release what they had without further work.

In these notes, Lebling talks about improving three separate areas, but for whatever reason these changes were never made:

  • The Janitor Puzzle - Lebling was concerned that the puzzle may have been too easy and commented specifically that the janitor, floor wax, and emergency cabinet (with the axe) were all located too close to each other.

  • Moving the Pallets - At a late stage, Lebling considered making the pallet moving in the tunnels beneath the “Temporary Building” a puzzle instead of just typing “again” several times.

  • The Urchin - In contrast, Lebling seems concerned that the urchin puzzle was too difficult. He suggested adding clues to suggest scaring him. Some of these may have been added, but the puzzle ultimately remained as-is. 

There are further notes about deleting extraneous rooms (with the 3rd floor of the computer lab coming up once again, among others), but none of that pruning happened either. It seems that not much beyond bug fixes happened in these final phases. For better and worse, Lebling had made the best horror game that he could and all that was left was to release it to the masses.

And that will be how we end our coverage of The Lurking Horror for now. Could his bait-and-switch vampire idea have worked? I’m not sure. On the bright side, I’ll be able to get my vampire fix with Dracula Unleashed soon enough. For my part, I hope to do a final comparison of G.U.E. Tech locations with their M.I.T. counterparts, but that will have to wait until I can get permission to access some of the more interesting locations. I’d like to take photos and video, but we will see what happens. Up next from me will be another Nord and Bert post (and possibly an interview!)

4 comments:

  1. I don't really remember Dragonslayer all that much, but I believe the scene in question had baby dragons gnawing on an already dead woman's torn apart body, with one not really eating a severed leg. Shocking and gruesome for a Disney film, but brief. There was a dragon getting disemboweled though, which was the real disgusting bit.
    Mind you, I could be forgetting how it went, since when I saw the film earlier this year I found it boring, and what seemed to be an angry tirade against a genre of films that didn't exist.

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    1. Already, you know more about this than I care to...

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  2. "Was the monster flying at the end? I don’t remember."

    I think that by flying monster Lebling was referring to the creature you meet at the rooftop that was also dealt with the stone.

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  3. This was a tricky post and I'm not that happy how it came out. As we get into these more "rushed" games, there is less work abandoned in the editing process for us to tease out. The biggest surprise here was that Meretzky and Lebling pretty much nearly had the same ending twice in a row, but that was thankfully avoided.

    The vampire angle is fascinating, especially as it comes before the M.I.T. setting was decided upon. (Or at least, before the setting was documented anywhere that I found. Lebling could have had that idea previously.)

    I wish I understood the code better. The elevator puzzle seems to have expanded to fill all available space, perhaps to the game's ultimate detriment.

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