Everybody thought feelies were cool. Yet as the game market moved to emphasize graphics and Infocom's star fell, feelies declined in originality and production values. George Collins, who ported games for Infocom in its latter days, recalls: "Return to Zork, Activision's first Zork title after they bought Infocom, included an envelope with a letter that you won a sweepstakes [prize trip] to the Valley of the Sparrows. I think it was the last time Activision tried to do that Infocom thing. Only the first few editions had the actual letter."

The decline of game feelies echoes a similar vanishing act in productivity software. Word processors and spreadsheets used to include thick manuals, workbooks and plastic keyboard templates. Why did publishers abandon these physical adjuncts? Game packaging historian and collector Bill Loguidice believes elaborate packaging appealed primarily to the hardcore gaming hobby, and declined because games started reaching a broader audience uninterested in such fripperies. Yet Infocom games, the apex of the feelie aesthetic, sold in huge numbers in their day to an audience larger than that of many un-feelied games today. It's hard to think of Infocom fans as hardcore.

The real problem was, feelies were a tremendous amount of work. Dornbrook's description of the Infocom feelie creation process serves as an unwitting epitaph: "We were spending a fortune on package design ($60,000 each on average in 1984 - just for design!), so we eventually decided to bring it in-house." Acquiring unusual items like scratch-n-sniffs "was often an incredibly difficult task" and involved several people for three to four months. "I would estimate that each Infocom package had 1.5 man-years of effort invested in its creation."

In mainstream games, the feelie art survives today principally in collector's editions. Bethesda's collector's edition of Oblivion includes a Cyrodiil coin (shades of the zorkmid!). Blizzard's Diablo II collector's set has polyhedral dice, a tabletop roleplaying rulebook based on the computer game and a DVD of past Blizzard cut scene movies. LucasArts' Jedi Knight 2 offered what one fan called "this crazy strobing lightsaber key chain. The thing could be used to host your own personal raves." Other games deliver books of concept art, making-of DVDs, T-shirts, figurines. But even today's premium-priced collectible editions feature trinkets that are, by past standards, unimaginative. At best, they're an opportunity for cross-promotion, like the HeroClix miniatures in the City of Heroes box.

Imaginative feelies, those intended to enhance the game experience, are now lovingly crafted by amateurs. Feelies.org, "your one-stop shop for interactive fiction feelies," was founded in 2002 by hardy interactive fiction enthusiasts to create all-new doodads for their own and others' text games. The Feelies.org catalog includes posters, maps, antique paper, a "rephasia pill" (in three colors) and a soundtrack. Still sporadically active, the group is working on its greatest challenge: a teddy bear.

But this is demanding work, beyond the reach of many amateurs. Feelies.org co-founder Emily Short, herself an interactive fiction author, said in an Armchair Arcade interview, "There are very few items that didn't cost more and take longer than I thought, even though I thought I was estimating carefully based on good information. I think I've finally learned most of the things I should have known when we started this." She wasn't the first to discover this; witness Infocom fan Robin Lionheart's abortive plan to mint new zorkmids.

A modern, less stressful phenomenon is the seemingly self-contradictory idea of "virtual feelies" - that is, .PDFs. Feelies.org and other interactive fiction fans offer downloadable setting-related documents in Adobe Reader format, and we're also seeing new .PDF wonders in other gaming fields, notably live-action roleplaying games (LARPs).

Comments on