When I first set out to purchase a computer in the spring of 1982, I expected to get an Apple II. But I was put off by its high cost, and even more by the salespeople at CompuStore who insisted that the text analysis I wanted to do with it just wasn’t possible. I knew they were wrong, and so I’ve never paid much attention to the salespeople in computer or electronic stores since. And instead of an Apple II, for a fraction of the price, I got a Commodore VIC-20.
At the time I was in my graduate program at UCLA. I wanted a computer to help me analyze some ancient texts. Having already been involved with converting some of the Ebla texts from Tel Mardikh into formats readable by the computers then available at UCLA, I knew that the inputting of the texts would be labor intensive and time consuming, but in the long run I also knew that once they’d been entered into the machine my life would be much easier. I was in the middle of a class that required me to analyze the Tel Amarna letters—a cache of cuneiform texts from fifteenth century BC Egypt.
The computer I purchased, a Commodore VIC-20, was not a powerful machine by modern standards—but in its day, its capabilities were not significantly less than the old Apple II. It had an 8 bit microprocessor and 5 kilobytes of RAM, though only about 3.5 of that was available for use. It used a cassette tape drive to store programs and data.
My Tel-Amarna letters course concluded before I finished entering all the ancient texts. In that antique period, rather than going out and purchasing programs and games, it was common to find the BASIC or machine code for a program printed in a magazine. Then it was a simple matter of typing the program into the computer, command by command, line by line. This was much less expensive than going out and purchasing a program: an important consideration for a graduate student. Additionally, it made me familiar with how programs functioned. It wasn’t long before I learned how to program in BASIC.
There was a downside, of course. The process of typing in a program was incredibly tedious. Besides the effort of typing code for hours, I inevitably made typos that prevented the program from running—necessitating more hours of debugging and figuring out where I’d messed up. Getting the word processor working ate up so much time that I couldn’t get the ancient Tel-Amarna letters copied before the class ended. So I ended up doing all the textual analysis by hand, afterall.
On my summer break, I filled my days when I wasn’t at work finding games in the magazines and typing them in. One of the first games I copied into the Commodore VIC-20 was a baseball game. It consisted of a diamond with square blocks on each of the four points for the bases. The ball was a round dot that slowly moved from the center of the diamond to the home plate. To hit the ball I had to punch a key on the keyboard just as it slowly passed over the home plate. To make the batter—also a large dot—run for first, I had to punch other keys rapidly. He made a blooping noise as he moved down the baseline.
The computer industry did not stand still; the power of the machines and the complexity of the games increased rapidly. A year after we were married, my wife bought me a Commodore 64 for my birthday: an enormous step up from the VIC-20. Instead of the old cassette tape machine, it came with a five and a quarter inch floppy disc drive. And the programs for the machine got cheaper and better. Instead of spending all my time copying programs, I spent my time performing tasks—or playing games.
My favorite games turned out to be the text adventure games produced by Infocom. And the one I liked best was the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglass Adams novel. The puzzles in the game were notoriously difficult. My wife and I spent hours figuring out how to progress through the story. In fact, we spent weeks on it.
It is now difficult to find any of those old text adventures. Infocom has long since gone out of business. Most of today’s gamers have never even seen a text adventure. But, not so long ago, for the thirtieth anniversary of the game’s release in 1984, the BBC put the full Infocom game for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on their website, where it can be played for free. It is exactly like it was the first time I ran it on my Commodore 64—except I already know the solutions for all the game’s puzzles.