It is something close to criminal that Infocom is not better known in the 21st century.

The iconic developer of all-text story games – commonly referred to as “text adventures” – like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Zork series ended in 1989, but not before releasing a library of titles that were among the first to demonstrate the storytelling potential of video games. It’s a rich history that was largely wasted under the leadership of Activision, which acquired Infocom in 1986.

Now, however, there’s hope for Infocom fans in the form of business news: Microsoft is lining up to acquire Activision Blizzard in a blockbuster deal worth nearly $80 billion. of dollars. Attention has rightly focused on the publisher’s popular franchises to be acquired like Call of Duty and Overwatch, as well as what the deal means for an employer facing a growing number of toxic accusations. in the workplace since last summer. But don’t overlook the potential here for Microsoft to preserve an important part of gaming history as well.

Infocom’s hits predate most of what’s popular in gaming today. Founded in 1979, the company released an entire trilogy of Zork games even before Nintendo’s first console, the Famicom, arrived in Japan. But these and other games have opened people’s eyes to a different kind of experience than they’re used to seeing with arcade hits like Pac man, donkey kong, and Frog.

Here was that line of games that had a story to tell, and in a way that gave players a sense of agency over how the plot would unfold. The rudimentary text inputs that made us type in cardinal directions to move around the world and basic actions like “get” or “look” to interact may be incredibly limited by today’s standards, but at their moment, they created the illusion of a virtual landscape where anything was possible.

Infocom backed up its in-game storytelling with a serious world-building approach that involved filling every game box with “feelings”. These were tangible items – brochures, maps, replica props, etc. – that helped color the margins of the game world and fill in details that were perhaps not as obvious or easy to express in the game text.

Infocom released an entire trilogy of Zork games even before Nintendo’s first console, the Famicom, arrived in Japan.

The inventive approach was naturally signaled when graphics replaced text and the world began to go online in the late 80s. Yet Infocom remains a pivotal figure in gaming history and one formative actors charged with selling the idea that home gaming could provide a different type of experience than arcades.

Ask all the gaming-loving Gen Xers or older in your life what they remember from Infocom, and you’ll get at least a few that will light up as they dive into long-buried memories. I always carry a bright, burning torch to A spirit always on the move, a thoughtful interactive adventure from creator Steve Meretzky that casts players as an artificial intelligence researcher who learns about the human experience by traveling through different moments in a fictional person’s life.

The studio founded by a group of college-age computer nerds saw there was merit in making games for an audience that wanted something meatier than chewing pellets through a maze while dodging ghosts. Bearer of wishes and The hidden horror gave players the opportunity to solve story puzzles in a horror setting. Bureaucracy joked about capitalism and Byzantine government processes with writings by Douglas Adams. the Hitchhiker’s Guide The creator also collaborated on the in-game adaptation of his beloved space novel, which is perhaps the studio’s best-known release.

Activision never really seemed to know what to do with Infocom. In the publisher’s credit, there wasn’t much conversation around game preservation when the brand and associated studio was acquired in the mid-’80s. But even as we began to think more actively about protecting gaming’s past in recent years, Infocom’s hardware has been conspicuously absent.

The best studio fans have ever gotten is an iOS version of Infocom’s Lost Treasures in 2012. Originally released in the 90s as a two-part compilation, the lost treasures The app brought together 26 Infocom classics in one place, with a virtual warehouse of thrills for each game and controls optimized for iOS (which were pretty good!).

It’s a great app that was rendered unplayable in 2017 when Apple stopped supporting 32-bit apps on iOS 11 in 2017. (I still keep an old iPhone 3GS at my desk for when I feel like to embark on an Infocom adventure.) Activision never hired Code Mystics, the studio that created the app, for a 64-bit update and never took any other steps to preserve the iOS version. So lost treasures languishes in obscurity ever since.

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The heroic efforts of fans and conservationists over the years have ensured that major pieces of Infocom history are not lost. The Internet Archive “Infocom Cabinet” is filled with material donated by Meretzky and curated by historian Jason Scott, who made a documentary about text adventures titled Get the lamp. (Meretzky also donated its original materials at Stanford University.) There are other legally dubious ways to interact with Infocom’s games and story online.

But now, under Microsoft, Infocom fans can have hope. Activision’s way tends to focus only on the biggest franchises, like Call of Duty. Microsoft, with its Game Pass subscription library and [email protected] indies program, was much more outwardly interested in maintaining a deep bench. Preservation in particular has become part of Xbox’s DNA thanks to Microsoft’s laudable efforts to make every new Xbox machine compatible with as many older games as possible.

Unfortunately, the Xbox maker is unwilling to report at this point on its thoughts regarding its plans for Infocom (and that’s assuming such plans exist at this point). But it’s already clear that the Microsoft we know in 2022 is far better positioned to be the steward of Infocom’s library deserves.