Mystery_House.dsk: What It Is and Why It Matters

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.

4 Replies to “Mystery_House.dsk: What It Is and Why It Matters”

  1. I’m surprised that I have never heard of Mystery House, but by reading your experience, I’m reminded of the Oregon Trail, which also lets users choose between options that would either kill them and their family, or lead them to fortune (although, almost always, you would die). The game also had, and continues to have, an impact on culture at large.
    As a transition to our video games class, Twine is a great open-source tool for creating these kinds of interactive fiction games!

  2. Thanks for sharing. Honestly, Mystery House as a game is not that exciting compared to what we’re used to now. The graphics are rudimentary and the storyline is cliché. I think what was so fascinating about it at the time was that it was the first interactive fiction to incorporate graphics and the design was really intriguing to programmers and hackers interested in the game’s code.

    To Kirschenbaum, it’s what lies underneath the game that matters, not the game itself. He chose to use Mystery House because, compared to software made more recently, it is simpler. He mentions that the disk is only 140 kilobytes with 35 tracks and 560 actors. “It is therefore possible to study it in its entirety, as a complete artifact.” Unlike modern hard drives which have tens of thousands of tracks.

    What value do you think Kirschenbaum’s forensic walkthrough of Mystery House has for historians such as ourselves?

  3. Great post! I may never have heard about this game had it not been for this class or post. From the perspective of someone trained to conduct archival research, I completely agree with Kirschenbaum; researchers and preservationists need to understand the materiality and functionality, the construction and design of digital and electronic sources. This means that computers have a dimension that written sources lack. In a slightly different vein, conservationists need to understand the material components of documents in desperate need of preservation. And the act of preservation is twofold. The penned word carries meaning with it and provides hints as to the context and purpose of its making. The content and interpretation of that content is just as important as the production of the written word and of the paper, parchment, or vellum on which the content is written.

    Yet I am left with the following question: Is it accurate to liken the hex editor to traditional historical methods? Do different questions lead a researcher to use the hex editor just as different questions drive historians to adopt, for example, social, economic, or counterfactual methods of inquiry?

  4. Jonah, your comments are really intriguing.
    I was thinking about his investigation more like a forensic team at a crime scene. You have a unnamed disk and an unidentified hand written letter. How do you find out information about these two items? For the letter, we might be able to analyze the handwriting to determine that that particular style was taught in the 1830s in America, etc. We can do something similar for the disk. Using the hex editor, we were able to determine that the game was probably downloaded in the mid 1980s because it over-wrote a game which still appears on the disk that came out in 1982, etc. In this sense, both paleography and the hex editor are used to find out information that isn’t known about the text in order to make historical inquiries. However, in neither case are the historical methods being used to interpret the content of the piece using such methods as you listed above. I saw it more as the “material” object being analyzed in both cases rather than the content. I don’t know enough about the hex editor to say whether it can be used for those purposes, but I’d be interested to hear others thoughts.

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