The Iconoclasts

The Iconoclasts
Sign of the Crab

Susan Arendt | 19 Aug 2008 12:00
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Steve Meretzky is kind of a crabby guy. Not gloomy or excessively negative, but rather in the world-weary way of someone who's been around the block a time or two not by choice, but because he couldn't find a parking space. He might complain about how expensive the coffee is at Starbucks, or how he doesn't have the time or reflexes to play modern games, yet you can't help but find yourself nodding along in agreement as he makes his grumpy observations. He may be crabby, but talking to him, you also get the impression that he's often right.

Now a Senior Designer at Blue Fang Games in Massachusetts, Meretzky's induction into the videogame industry began more than 20 years ago at his kitchen table. He was sharing an apartment with Mike Dornbrook, who at the time was the sole game tester for a small software company called Infocom. The company was so tiny, in fact, that it didn't have office space, which is why Dornbrook was testing the company's first game, Zork, on an Apple II in the kitchen. Curious, Meretzky eventually began playing the game himself, keeping track of the bugs he encountered and becoming Infocom's unofficial second tester. Once Dornbrook went off to business school, Infocom founder Marc Blank made Meretzky a tester in earnest; in 1982, after Infocom had finally made the jump to genuine office space, Blank asked Meretzky if he'd like to try his hand at actually writing a game.

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Infocom specialized in interactive fiction, a genre that relied on clever and expressive writing to bring its text-based adventure games to life. Meretzky's first effort, Planetfall, became one of Infocom's most well-known and beloved titles, thanks largely to his sharp sense of humor and well-crafted puzzles. Meretzky showed an uncanny ability to transmogrify bits of scrolling text into an adventure as enthralling as any blockbuster movie, forming a strong connection with the player. "It felt like you really were engaging in a one-on-one contest of wills with the player," Meretzky says of his time designing the interactive fiction games of his early career. "It really was kind of this mano-y-mano battle of wits between author and player."

The key to that one-on-one relationship was maintaining a delicate balance of frustration and reward, something at which Meretzky was particularly skilled. "You obviously didn't want to completely stump the player, but if you stumped them for that exact right amount of time, they'd have this big 'a-ha!' when they finally figured it out."

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