Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy
4
Game Name: Bureaucracy
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): Infocom
Developer(s): Infocom
Genre(s): Text Adventure
Release Date: 1987

I recently (as part of that damnable “growing up” routine) purchased a house. I keep receiving mail from a large insurance company for a previous tenant, for whom I have no forwarding address. When the first letter arrived, I simply wrote “No longer at this address” and stuffed it back in the mailbox, figuring the postal service would return it to the sender, where it would get sorted out. Instead, more arrived over the coming weeks. It became obvious this woman wasn’t receiving her important insurance notices, and I was going to have to contact this company to get them to update their database. A search of the web revealed no way to contact the corporate office – by design, apparently. They insisted you call your local agent. Opening the letter to find the case agent’s name is right out – being a felony, and all. A call to the nearest local agent proved fruitless, as that was not the agent who has this lady’s account – “Can you tell me who her agent is?” “Sorry, that’s not my account.”

Yes, it’s good old bureaucracy. Everyone’s had to deal with it. Everyone despises it. The idea of a game based on it might not sound much fun, but those fears should be allayed with the mere mention of Douglas Adams. Though history isn’t clear on how much Adams actually wrote here (Michael Bywater is often cited as doctoring up the script) the delightfully snarky British tone comes through clear. This means that, while bureaucratic annoyances will form the basis for the game’s puzzles, they will be blunted by some rapier wit, and a healthy serving of succulent satire.

Yes, you really do have to do it all over again.

So, if you like Douglas Adams and you like text adventures, this should be a solid win. You’ll notice, though, that I did say “text adventures” and not simply “adventures.” Reason being, this is a damn difficult game, and one seemingly designed for veterans of the genre, as it plays off of some IF conventions as part of its gags. If you’re not used to, and at least tolerant of, IF and its interface, then most of the jokes will appear to be at your expense. The game won’t be fun if you’re struggling to put up with it, no matter how clever the writing is.

You star in a story based loosely on Adams’ own experience with trying to move. You’re beginning a new job with the Happitec Corporation, which includes a new house and an all-expenses-paid vacation to Paris. But standing between you and your trip is undelivered furniture, incorrectly delivered mail, canceled credit cards, a bank’s change-of-address form, and some incredibly loony neighbors. You’ll need to work out the situation with your mail and your bank before you can even withdraw the money to take a cab to the airport, at which point the adventure trails into more standard territory; full of exotic locales and in-flight shenanigans.

The game wastes no time in getting its point across. The first screen instructs you to “register” your software by filling out personal information that will get referenced later inside the game (be honest here, as you’ll get extra enjoyment out of playing the game as “you”). You fill the form out in a random and illogical order, while the game makes snide comments about your entries. After completion, it will already have your information wrong – fill out “John Smith, Male,” and the next screen will say “Thank you for registering, Ms. Smith.” It perfectly sets the tone for the harassment to come.

Gameplay is standard IF, with directional movement, items to pick up, and a limited inventory to carry them in. The major addition is Adams’ clever blood pressure system. Your current blood pressure is shown in the upper-right corner, starting at a healthy 120/80 and increasing in response to stressful situations. At a whopping 242/141, you’ll die of an aneurysm. Don’t worry too much about the gameplay ramifications, as soaring that high will require an intentional desire to see what happens, and will never happen naturally in the course of the game. Your blood pressure will settle back down after “stress-less” moves, and the ones that actually do cause a spike usually only do so for comedic effect.

One potential downside is that incorrect words, misspellings, or anything that would trigger an “I don’t understand the word ____” message (rewritten appropriately for this game, of course) cause your blood pressure to rise. I think it’s a little unfair to penalize you for interface mistakes, especially if you really can’t figure out what to do next, or how to properly phrase an action. But again, stress-less moves will bring your BP back down (even just walking back and forth will do the trick) and you’ll have to go far out of your way to make the death happen. I had to type “fuck” (with a hilarious response from the parser) eleven consecutive times to invite the sweet release of death. I think by about five, you’d realize you need to try a new approach.

By the way, Douglas Adams is a funny guy.

You will get graded at a game over by a combination of your number of moves, current BP, and points awarded for completing key tasks. It’s the standard system, and invites some replayablity if you’re massively into IF. And don’t let the maximum 21 points fool you, this is a fairly long game. Most responsible are the wild solutions and creative thinking required to defeat many of the puzzles (the bank withdrawal form rides high as a shining example). It can also be unclear as to what you’re expected to do next – not in solving puzzles, but what your overall goal is. I initially didn’t understand that I needed to figure out the mail’s pattern of incorrect delivery, and I definitely didn’t expect to break into all my neighbors’ houses and steal their mail in the course of this task. Perhaps you’re less likely to naturally consider vandalism, because the game wears the visage of following real-world rules. Throw those notions out, as this game’s all for laughs.

The quality of the writing is strong, and descriptive without being overly so. The narrator comments are where the writing will shine the most, while dialogue from characters is pretty straightforward. Each character you meet will just be an extension or focal point of a puzzle, with lines designed to get their specific point across, and stonewall you in a most bureaucratic way if you deviate from the expected interactions. There are no sounds except for PC speaker tones highlighting alerts for points and rises in blood pressure.

If I had any real complaint, it would be that the ending is weaker than the beginning. Bureaucratic puzzles get thrown out for more “standard” (but still tricky) adventure challenges. While trying to remain vague for those that might want to play, the last two scenes have more than a bit in common with the ending of Larry 2, and little with the administrative challenges of the title, and almost feels like it was written for another game entirely. The final puzzle is fairly neat and executed well, but it’s never the ultimate battle against the corrupt head of the corporation/government/world that you might expect. It seems like lost opportunities for humor, traded in for “let’s get this done.”

Back to what I said at the beginning, love of Douglas Adams and love of interactive fiction should translate easily to love of this game. The puzzles can be overly tricky, you’ll need to maintain your saves, and you’ll need to be a little too reliant on the “try everything” approach to decipher Adams’ insane world. Otherwise, a satisfying adventure, and a fitting follow-up to Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

The Good

Frequently hilarious satire with trademark wit.

The Bad

The game’s crazy take on reality makes for some solutions that are very difficult to predict. Story loses steam as it wraps up. I can see it being easy to get annoyed by the many jokes at your expense.

 

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