What is it?
Mystery House is a primitive interactive fiction created by Ken and Roberta Williams for the Apple II, one of the first highly successful mass-produced home computers introduced in 1977. In interactive fiction, the player has the ability to influence the outcome of the story. This type of fiction was particularly appealing to the program’s creators. They first conceived the idea for the Mystery House after playing a text-adventure game called Colossal Cave Adventure. Roberta liked the concept of a text-based interactive story, but thought that players would enjoy seeing images to go along with the text. She designed the Mystery House, basing it off Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None while her husband Ken developed the software.
When Mystery House was released in 1980, the game was extremely popular. It was the first adventure game to use computer graphics, rather than just text. On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line) sold more than 10,000 copies in a niche and burgeoning market for home computer software. In 1987, Mystery House became public domain and modifiable versions of the interactive fiction, known as Mystery House Taken Over, have been placed in the public domain as well.
A Few Brief Comments on Downloading and Playing
Downloading and playing Mystery House is challenging. At first, I attempted to play online by clicking the link on the Mystery House Taken Over webpage.
The directions indicate that you will be able to play the game online with a Java update. When that didn’t work, I attempted to download it. In order to download, you have to download a Glulx interpreter in order to run the program. A Glulx interpreter allows the game to be played on any device, mac or windows, without having to alter the original source code of the game. Unfortunately, my attempts to download the interpreter failed. Instead, I was able to demo the game on the Internet Archive.
After a brief set of instructions, the game begins outside a Victorian mansion.
As Laura has walked us through the purpose of the game and the various walkthroughs and maps that exist to guide players, I will discuss a few challenges I faced when playing. I began first without a walkthrough but soon realized how difficult it was to navigate using only two word commands containing a single noun and verb. I took an embarrassingly long time just to navigate up the stair and into the hallway because the noun and verb used must match one of the 70 preprogrammed commands. For example, in many cases, you can’t move forward unless you first type the command “open door” or you indicate which direction you wish to travel in. You also have to give very specific commands to interact with items. If you want to pick an item up, you must use the word “take” and you must recognize and name that item correctly. For example, there is a knife in the sink but you must say “take butterknife” rather than the simpler “take knife.”
Compared to video games today, Mystery House leaves a lot to be desired. But at the time, the game was an innovation. While the game itself fascinated novice home computer owners, the underlying programming attracted the attention of both programmers and hackers. Kirschenbaum will similarly find interest in the underlying components of the Mystery House disk.
Kirschenbaum’s Forensic Walkthrough
The author’s walkthrough of the Mystery House is “a media-specific analysis” or “a close reading of the text that is also sensitive to the minute particulars of its medium and the idiosyncratic production and reception histories of the work” (129). In simpler terms, he examines the Mystery House disk like a bibliographer or a paleographer might examine a fifteenth century manuscript. Kirschenbaum uses the hex editor to examine the foundational binary data that makes up Mystery_House.dsk and discovers that there is more to the disk than just the game itself. For example, he ascertains that prior to the game being downloaded onto the disk, evidence from two other games could be found underneath it. From this information, he can extrapolate information in the same way that a historian can extrapolate information from handwriting or ink type on a material object.
He concludes that while computers give the “illusion of immateriality” with their ability to correct themselves within a millisecond of a discrepancy in data being discovered, the mathematical precision of measurements, and impression of infinite space (unlike material texts such as newspapers, TV, and records), the digital environment is one of formal materiality. This has important implications for the way scholars conduct research on digital material. Kirschenbaum describes it as difference: using the hex editor gives the researcher a different view or perspective on an object that a simple textual analysis would not reveal. The use of the hex editor on the Mystery House disk was to “serve as a primer for bibliographical or forensic practice in future studies” (158). Not only will understanding the foundational materiality of a disk assist in preserving and storing digital information, it will be just as important as more traditional methods like paleography in analyzing materials.