Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Won!

Hitchhiker's Guide, in a way, feels like a predecessor to the "time loop" trend that exploded in indie adventure games around the late 2010's and reached critical mass in 2021. Living, reliving, and jumping around the events of earth's destruction, the ensuing havoc suffered by humanity's last survivor, and the events leading up to it, it's up to you to discover the right sequences of actions to manipulate the timeline so that you not just survive but also can complete the game's final set of tasks.

There's diegetic manipulation via improbability drive, and non-diegetic manipulation via conventional saving/loading and restarting. It's just a pity that, with so many ways of locking yourself out of victory in ways that can't be reversed with the improbability drive, "restarting" becomes your de facto method, squandering a lot of potential in the concept.

I restarted and played out the opening acts as I had before, only this time I stopped to feed the dog, as I now knew was required. The next few sequences - escaping earth, getting the Babel Fish, enduring the Vogons, activating the improbability drive, etc., played out normally. Things diverged at the war chamber scenario, where the grateful warlords dropped me off at the Heart of Gold, now miniaturized, and apparently inside someone's brain.

Wandering around, I soon found a particle inscribed with words.

  Sense, Common for:
     Dent, Arthur
   (for replacement,
  order part #31-541)


Taking it scored some points and ended the scenario.

I cycled through the rest of the scenarios, still done by repeatedly throwing the switch at the improbability drive until randomly arriving at an uncompleted one, but now faced an additional hazard - randomly materializing inside my own head, to spectacularly fatal results. I could find no way to avoid this except by saving before throwing the improbability switch.

Eventually I completed them all, brewed my tea, saved the ship, got my tea (and my no tea, an action now possible with my auto-logikosectomy), and used the tea to warp into the whale.

I thought that I might be able to use the hitchhiking device to escape with the flowerpot and the rest of my stuff, but it failed. The device's other function called tech support, who uselessly told me it was out of warranty.

Back on the Heart of Gold, I could open the locked room by possessing tea and no tea simultaneously (something I knew about from prior reading long ago), but entering is immediately fatal if you don't drink the tea first. Marvin lives inside, and once the ship lands, can be asked to open the hatch for you. I did, and he asked me to meet him in the access space with the "right" tool.

Turns out this bastard won't tell you what the "right" tool is until you're there, and it will always be something you aren't holding in your limited inventory.

Zaphod's toolbox was on the ship, and I thought I might be able to use it to carry all of the tools, but it was locked, and I couldn't find a way to express my desire to force it open with one of the many tools I gathered in my travels.

I reloaded a much earlier save and found that in Zaphod's scenario, the key to the toolbox was underneath his seat. Inside the toolbox, a magnifying glass and laser-sighted wrench.

After refinishing this scenario, I tested my theory. It turned out to be dead wrong - the game just won't let you carry the toolbox into the crawlspace unless the toolbox is empty.

Turning to a walkthrough yet again, it said I had to collect four pieces of fluff and put them in the flowerpot. Capricious as this might seem, the Guide will actually clue you into this if you think to ask it about fluff, which of course I hadn't until just now.

One ancient legend claims that four pieces of fluff lie scattered around the Galaxy; each forming one-quarter of the seedling of a tree with amazing properties, the sole survivor of the tropical planet Fuzzbol (Footnote 8).

The guide also revealed my problem with the device - I had simply activated it at the wrong time and broken it.

I reloaded a save from near the start to repeat the improbability drive scenarios, this time making sure any fluff encountered came back with me. The first piece, of course, had been in Arthur's pocket the entire time. The rest of them were found in other characters' scenarios:

  • Zaphod's scenario, under his seat. By putting the fluff in the toolbox, it will be found there later.
  • Ford's scenario, inside his satchel. Arthur is too polite to open it, but as Ford, you can give Arthur the fluff, and then have it once the scenario ends.
  • Trillian's scenario, on Arthur's jacket. Putting it in her handbag, which Arthur doesn't mind rummaging through, lets you retrieve it on the Heart of Gold later.

After, once again, working my way back to the inside of the sperm whale, I, once again, found the device broken. By working my way backwards with saves, I found the precise moment it (silently) broke - when the missiles launch.

The walkthrough gave me a solution one last time - bring nothing to the sperm whale, not even your gown. The indescribable "thing" will come with you. Put the flower pot inside the thing - yet another action that absolutely nothing indicates is a possibility except for trying it - and you'll find it on your return to the Heart of Gold.

I'd had just about enough, and thankfully, the end was near. I put the four pieces of fluff into the flowerpot, and a sprout grew. I took it into the ship's sauna, and it bore fruit, which I ate and received a vision of handing Marvin a laser monkey wrench. On planetfall, I got the wrench, asked him to open the hatch, met in the crawlspace, gave it to him, endured one last bit of passive aggressive whining, and finally,

You step onto the landing ramp leading down toward the surface of the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. "Announcement, announcement. This is Eddie (the shipboard computer). Someone is leaving the ship on a strange planet without wrapping up all nice and warm. It'll all end in tears, I just know it..." The voice fades behind you.

The wind moans. Dust drifts across the surface of the alien world. Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian appear and urge you forward.

Slowly, nervously, you step downwards, the cold thin air rasping in your lungs. You set one single foot on the ancient dust -- and almost instantly the most incredible adventure starts which you'll have to buy the next game to find out about.

Your score is 400 of a possible 400, in 582 turns.

By the way, there WAS a causal relationship between your taking the toothbrush and the tree collapsing at the very beginning of the game. We apologise for this slight inaccuracy.

GAB rating: Average. Like the novel, this game is a classic. Also like the novel, it's not for everyone, including me. This makes it a tough one to evaluate - it's a well crafted, technically polished game with some truly clever bits and it largely succeeds at what it sets out to do, but too often its greatest success was pissing me off.

Hitchhiker's strengths are prominent - the writing, partly contributed by Douglas Adams himself, is some of Infocom's strongest yet, and when it's not merely cribbing passages from the book, shows plenty of medium awareness. Vivid descriptions make the various locales become alive, the characters like Marvin, Ford, Arthur, and Eddie show personality throughout with economical scripting and dialog (although Zaphod and Trillian, sadly, do not), and most of all, the very parser becomes an impish surrogate for Meretzky and Adams, purposefully misleading you and snarking with sarcastic wit. With only about 30 rooms, most of them part of small self-contained areas, Hitchhiker boldly de-emphasizes the exploration that defined adventures since their namesake (it doesn't even have a lantern!) in favor of a focus on interactions, dynamic events, and puzzles. Conventions of the genre, well established even by 1984, are parodied and subverted, sometimes cleverly, sometimes not, but seldom played straight.

Trope deconstruction is a tricky business, though, especially in a video game. When you spring a "gotcha" moment too obviously, the effect falls flat and it feels forced instead of clever. That isn't a problem here, but when it doesn't spring at all, not even subtly, the player has no way of figuring out they've been had, and frustration ensues. Consequently, some puzzles in Hitchhiker are indeed clever and make you feel clever for figuring out the trick, while others just evaded me completely until I had to look up the solutions, and as I got close to the game's end, this frequently meant being forced to restart large portions of the game again and again while also being annoyed at the solutions' obscurity.

The Heart of Gold, reached about 25% of the way into the game, is where things really fall apart for me. A time traveling non-linear meta-puzzle of seemingly unrelated sequences that tie into each other isn't a bad idea at all, but two aspects made it torturous. First, there's the sheer tedium of performing repetitive actions until you randomly jump into the desired scenario. I got horribly sick of pulling the switch, waiting until smell returns, smelling a shadow, getting killed, waiting until hearing returns, listening, and going back to the bridge to pull the switch again and hoping that this time it gets me somewhere with an uncompleted task. Second, surviving a scenario without completing all of the required actions, most of which you probably won't even deduce are required until you reach the endgame sequences, locks you out of that scenario, forcing you to replay this tedious and lengthy portion (and everything after it) again and again.

Two things could have fixed my gripes - first, just let the player pick a scenario after improbability driving, determined by the sense used. None of this waiting around for a sense to randomly return - that's fine for the Vogon hold and other parts where there's only one location to warp into, but for this midgame portion, let sight bring you to Ford's scenario, hearing bring you to the warship, feeling bring you to Zaphod cruising in his speedboat, smell bring you to the beast's lair, and taste bring you to Trillian sipping wine at a dull party. Then, don't lock out the player from a finished scenario. Let me go back and search time and space for fluff once it dawns in on me that the fluff is important without having to reload and repeat most or all of the game!

Hitchhiker is ambitious, polished, and well made with impressive attention to detail, but overall I didn't like it.

I thought the best aspect of Hitchhiker was the sardonic narration, which isn't easy to convey in a normal playthrough, as so much of it is triggered by going off the critical path and doing things that don't advance your progress, but are recognized by the prompt anyway. So here are some of my favorite parser responses, presented in postscript.

>turn on light
Good start to the day. Pity it's going to be the worst one of your life.


>don't wait
Time doesn't pass...

>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.

>carve name on memorial
Whose name? The Beast's name? Your aunt's name? One of the Infinite Unknowable names of Buddha? How about the name of Fred who runs (or rather ran) your local chip shop? At least that's a short name -- you might have time to write it before the Beast eats you.

>carve "fred" on memorial
Concentrate. Learn to distinguish between genuinely helpful suggestions and mere sarcasm.

>talk to g'gugvunt
You are clearly the worst diplomat that ever lived, and are about to become the worst one that ever died. That is an even worse insult in the G'Gugvunt tongue than "look up marvin in guide" is in the Vl'Hurg tongue.


This is part of a spongy gray maze of twisty little synapses, all alike.


You look around. You notice the bulldozer properly for the first time. You notice Arthur's house. You notice the workmen. The penny drops. His HOUSE is about to be demolished. You feel like a complete...what's the word?

Thank you. An idiot is exactly what you feel like.

Upon entering the room, you are battered by tidal waves of depression. In fact, a lethal dose.

    ****  You have died  ****

>marvin, open hatch
"Humans are so depressingly stupid. Are you aware," he asks, "that this ship is in space, that space is an almost perfect vacuum, and that the hatch is the only thing holding in all the air?"

Your serious allergic reaction to protein loss from matter transference beams becomes a cause celebre amongst various holistic pressure groups in the Galaxy and leads to a total ban on dematerialisation. Within fifty years, space travel is replaced by a keen interest in old furniture restoration and market gardening. In this new, quieter Galaxy, the art of telepathy flourishes as never before, creating a new universal harmony which brings all life together, converts all matter into thought and brings about the rebirth of the entire Universe on a higher and better plane of existence.

However, none of this affects you, because you are dead.


  1. "just let the player pick a scenario after improbability driving"

    To some extent the game does, but only after you drink the tea. I recall from there on, you can force which sense gets you out of the eely blackness just by waiting, and every turn will offer you a different missing sense.

    1. That would be handy if drinking the tea weren't, for all intents and purposes, an endgame action.

    2. "but only after drinking the tea"

      It's not drinking the tea that makes the difference, it's using the tea (instead of the advanced tea substitute) with the improbability drive.

      With the tea substitute, you'll have to wait a few moves before regaining one of your senses at random. With the tea, you will immediately regain a sense, and it will cycle through the possibilities each move.

      If you hear the hum of a star drive far above, it's the Heart of Gold.
      If you hear the hum of a star drive far below, it's the microscopic fleet.
      If you see a light stabbing at the front of your eyes, it's Earth.
      If you see a light stabbing at the back of your eyes, it's Damogran.
      If you feel something cold and squishy, it's the party on Earth.
      If you feel something warm and squishy, it's the inside of the whale.
      If you smell something being waved under your nose, it's the vogon hold.
      If you smell something waving under your nose, it's Traal.

      (I hope I got all that right!)

      So that makes things a bit less repetitive.

  2. You get to choose your exit from Dark when using tea as your source of Brownian Motion instead of Advanced Tea Substitute. When using real tea, if you wait instead of using the missing sense to exit Dark, a different sense will be missing from the list each time, and there are two different exits for each sense and the exit will alternate between them each time you choose that sense. So you can keep waiting until your preferred exit of the 8 possible options becomes available.

  3. Can't wait for Dragon Slayer! Japanese PC games are some of my favorite whales!

  4. "Put the flower pot inside the thing - yet another action that absolutely nothing indicates is a possibility except for trying it - and you'll find it on your return to the Heart of Gold."

    I'm fairly sure you could also have used the electronic Sub-Etha signaling device. It's probably broken at this point, but can be repaired by using the red button.

    "and it will always be something you aren't holding in your limited inventory."

    Not only that, if possible the game will almost always pick a tool that's not aboard the Heart of Gold.

    And on the subject of strange and wonderful (?) responses, here are some that stuck in my mind:

    Prosser pulls a booklet out of his back pocket. "My game manual says that the goal is getting this here house knocked down."

    >FOOTNOTE 12
    This is the famous recursive footnote (Footnote 12).

    You are so keen on escape that you literally leap through the fabric of the space-time continuum. You wake up in a shack on tenth-century Earth. A dressing gown, a toothbrush, and a flathead axe lie by your bed. Before you have a chance to move, Mongol hordes sweep magnificently across the plains of central Asia. They knock down your shack and burn the
    remains with you inside. You lose interest in the rest of the game.

    **** You have died ****

  5. Using the thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is is never required for any puzzle solutions. The whale can be escaped by fixing the hitchhiking device. Pushing the red button calls an engineer robot. Yes, the robot claims your device is out of warranty, but the device also has a lifetime guarantee. Show the guarantee to the robot and it will fix the device.

    As others noted, using tea instead of ATS with the Improbability Drive gives you an improved version of Dark where the location you will reach changes every time you wait, and you can discern which location it is based on the missing sense and the message you receive when trying that sense. If I recall correctly, consulting the Guide about tea, ATS, the Drive, and/or Brownian Motion offers a clue that tea is a much better source of Brownian Motion than ATS.

    You are absolutely correct that finishing a Drive scenario only partially (e.g., by not retrieving fluff or another key item from it) means you are softlocked.

    Douglas Adams himself described the game as, not user-friendly, but rather "user-mendacious."

    1. Confirmed that showing the guarantee to the robot works. It makes me wonder if the "thing" solution was unintentional, because this one makes so much more sense.

      Tea also works, and though the Guide doesn't seem to give any clue that it would work better, examining the tea does inform you that it has even more Brownian Motion than ATS.

      Knowing that makes me wish the game actually required the tea to unlock scenarios past the Bugblatter Beast. Infocom games are so stingy with conveniences that when one discovers any solution, one tends to assume it is the only solution.

    2. Yeah, the only scenario that requires you be using the tea instead of the ATS is the whale scenario (because the events that create the tea are also the events that create the whale).

    3. "Infocom games are so stingy with conveniences that when one discovers any solution, one tends to assume it is the only solution."

      I'm reminded of the alternate solution to the loud room in Zork I that, according to Steve Meretzky, "was put in as a response to hordes of angry people complaining about how amazingly stupid the "Echo" solution was. (I was about 10 of those angry people.)"

      (I found the "echo" solution, and only read about the alternate solution long after.)


    4. You can also bypass the fluff by shoving all the tools in the Thing to sneak them past the inventory limit. You do still have to collect every tool, though, since Marvin will ask for a tool you didn't retrieve if you missed any

    5. Do you mean moving the tools into the Access Space by using the thing? I thought that room was one of the places where the thing wouldn't magically reappear, and that the restriction on number of carried objects when entering included objects inside containers.

      Of course, there were several releases of the game so there could have been bugfixes around this part. Or I could be misinterpreting.

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  7. You definitely can feed the sandwich to the dog as Ford, though I know there are other constraints that can ruin that.

    The thing that got me, all those years ago, was that I didn't figure out the timing window for getting Arthur's towel. If you take it as soon as Ford offers it, he just leaves and you're stuck in the mud, but he puts it back in his satchel shortly after you alert him to the situation, and you can't open the satchel as Arthur to get it back. That kept me from solving the babelfish puzzle and locked me out of the second half of the game.

  8. As a side note, if you manage to go through the game without any typos or ineligible commands, it will take "put bit in tea" as the galactic war starting comment. I played and replayed this when I was young and satisfied my curiosity on that point.


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