It wouldn’t be an On the Stick extravaganza if I wasn’t late posting my entries, but I’m happy to be writing about Infocom’s The Lurking Horror for our second entry in the 31 Day History of Horror Games. Being the elder statesman of the group (read: I’m way older than the rest of these punks), I felt that I was well-placed to write about this text adventure. Some of my first gaming experiences came about when I would go into work with my father as a young lad. While he was off doing boring office stuff, I was given free reign of one of the office word processors (built by Wang Laboratories – insert obvious joke here) to explore the Colossal Cave in an implementation of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s Adventure. I was a big reader, so the text-based style struck a chord with me, and the problem solving was right up my alley as well.When Infocom started publishing games, I was excited to learn that there were more games in this vein for me to sink my teeth into. I vaguely recall having played Zork I in some form, but I can’t recall for sure where that was. It certainly wasn’t on a computer that my family owned. The initial problem for me in trying to play any of Infocom’s games at home was that the computer we had at the time was a Heathkit H-89 that my father and I had built which ran CP/M. In 1982, I was able to get hold of a copy of Deadline in a CP/M version. Sadly, the game came on 8” floppy disks, but our computer had 5 1/4” drives. I tried various shenanigans with the 8” drives that were available at the Heathkit store near us, but I was never able to get it sorted out.
A year or so later, though, due to the availability of a more standard home computer, I was finally in a position to start devouring the Infocom library. Zork I, II, and III, Enchanter, Sorcerer, Planetfall, Starcross, Infidel, and more went through my hands. Their “lavish” packaging were just as inspiring and intriguing as the text descriptions and puzzles in the games themselves. Late in the 80s, Infocom’s star was dimming and the graphical adventures that were killing text adventures were on the rise. I had no patience for those games having long since learned that none of the pixel work they contained could ever match the pictures that were created in my mind.
Infocom’s output was varied from the initial offerings in the text adventure genre, which were often fairly similar to the Colossal Cave dungeon crawl that most had played first. The Zork series worked in that vein, although with a much better sense of humor, but they also tackled mysteries (Deadline, The Witness, Suspect), Science Fiction (Planetfall, Stationfall, Starcross), or even more ambitious concepts like those in Suspended (where the player is in stasis and can only operate through a series of robots that only have one sense to report) and Trinity (a rumination on war and the atomic bomb). The Lurking Horror came along near the end of Infocom’s life, but it also took on a little-used theme to this point: horror and more specifically, H. P. Lovecraft-influenced horror.
Say what you will about my adolescent dismissal of graphical adventures, but in this case, I definitely believe I have the right of it. Horror is a tricky thing in the best of circumstances, but it’s pretty much always the case that what you don’t see is way more terrifying than what you do. Your brain is the best special effects house in the world, and the best horror movies and stories are those that don’t spend a lot of time explaining exactly what is going on. Lovecraft, in particular, was at his best when he kept things vague. A protagonist opening a door and going insane due to the unspeakable, alien horror behind it hits you a lot harder than something like the terrible creature effects at the end of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness.
Dave Liebling, the designer of the game, was responsible for quite a few of the significant Infocom games including the Zork series, Starcross and Spellbreaker. He did a really good job in this particular game of marrying the spooky “horror from another dimension” strain of Lovecraft with the puzzle solving of text adventures and the setting of an Infocom-ized version of M.I.T. (which was the alma mater of many of the crew). The game opens near the end of the term with you finding yourself in the computer lab with the deadline for an assignment bearing down on you. The school (G.U.E. Tech – a reference to Zork’s Great Underground Empire) is socked in due to a blizzard, which helps explain the limited locations available for the player to explore as well as the relative lack of other people roaming around. Anytime you try to venture outside, you’re told how bitterly cold it is, and if you spend too much time outside, you’ll suffer one of the game’s many horrible deaths.
If you follow the “expected” path at the beginning of the game, you’ll quickly find that things are not what they seem. You can login to the computer with you in the lab to start working on your paper. However, it quickly becomes evident that your paper isn’t there and that what it has been replaced with is something you’d rather not contemplate. As you advance through the text that is there, the computer screen displays stranger and stranger things. First, it’s a bit of what I suspect is a playful shot at Lovecraft’s Byzantine writing style when the text is described as a sort of “Olde English” and a combination of incomprehensible gibberish, latinate pseudo words, debased Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and an occasional disquieting phrase in English+. The second page is _almost readable when you look around the edges, but not when you look at it straight. Eventually, you end up transported to another dimension and stumble onto a ceremony (as well as a crucial stone with a mysterious symbol carved into it) before being devoured by a dark creature of slimy, tentacled horror.
Wandering about the halls (and steam tunnels, basements, roofs, catwalks…), you encounter strange things (a rope that you climb that turns out to be a slimy tentacle, wires that when cut turn out to be living tissue that re-knit immediately) and menacing people and creatures. A maintenance man that blocks your way via a riding floor waxer is described as looking at you “menacingly”. If you succeed in stopping the waxer in order to get past, he jumps off and comes after you. If you don’t deal with him quickly enough, he’ll kill you. This being an adventure game and a horror game, one might think that a fire axe would serve you well in that situation, but if you hit him with it, he’ll just pull it from the gaping wound and keep coming. The maintenance man (who breaks into component parts when killed) is not the only thing to worry about: a huge group of rats assault you in the sewers, an Alchemy professor has special plans for you involving pentagrams and creatures that need to be “bribed”, and various other alien presences that must be dispatched. Even when not actually being confronted personally, you sense that all is not well at good old G.U.E. Tech. You find a tomb in one location, and an unholy altar in another (which also has a steel hatch that appears to have been deformed by something trying to get through it from down below). One starts to wonder if a good, old slavering Grue might not be such a bad thing to run into.
The puzzles in the game (which is what most people are going to be playing it for), are pretty well done. Clever without having too many of the crazy IF logic pitfalls that some games (graphical or not) fell prey to. You can also end up in a number of unwinnable situations, but it always seemed to me to be obvious when you ran into those. Liberal use of saves is always advised in these kinds of games. In fact, back in the day, one of the funniest things that I ran into in an Infocom game concerned this practice. In Planetfall, there was a happy robot sidekick named Floyd. If you saved the game in his presence, he’d excitedly ask if you were about to do something dangerous.
While not my favorite Infocom game (that would be Trinity with Planetfall a close second), I still had a lot of fun playing The Lurking Horror. It’s not scary so much as creepy, but it does creepy pretty well. If H.P. Lovecraft’s stories give you a thrill, then Dave Liebling’s homage via text adventure is a worthwhile use of your time.
- Released: 1987
- System: PC
- Publisher: Infocom