Woohoo! Just look at all the cool stuff in these game boxes:
” Full-color cloth maps of Britannia, setting for Origin’s Ultima roleplaying games.
” An antiqued bronze coin, a “zorkmid,” in Infocom’s Zork.
” A Japanese cloth headband from the Origin RPG Moebius; also, a booklet of the I Ching from the sequel, Windwalker.
” From the text adventure adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, lots of stuff taken from Douglas Adams’ bestselling book/radio/TV series: opaque peril-sensitive sunglasses; a permit to demolish Earth; a microscopic space fleet; and the nonexistent “no tea.” (“No tea” is an item in your game inventory.)
” From the second Douglas Adams text adventure for Infocom, Bureaucracy, a three-sheet G-IC2-FIT form – a white original with yellow and salmon-colored copies – for a “Fillmore Better Beezer Card.” The blanks on each sheet were the same, but the labels changed. The “Own condo/co-op” checkbox on the top sheet became, on the salmon sheet, “I wear ratty underwear.”
All these games date from the 1980s. That golden era of game packaging popularized the non-game items generically called “feelies.” You kids today [raps cane on floor] can’t imagine the creativity designers and publishers once expended not just on their games, but on their packages and contents. Feelies enhanced the mood and impact of their games, back when graphics were at best simple sprites. Often, feelies also provided a relatively graceful vehicle for authentication-word copy protection.
If you’re old enough to remember feelies, you’re already murmuring “Infocom.” Infocom text adventures were the state of the art, swag-wise: pens, postcards, calendars, photos, maps, comics, fiction – a feelie catalog showroom. Interactive fiction fans dutifully preserve photographic proof at sites such as the Infocom Gallery and the Infocom Documentation Project.
According to Infocom “Marketeer” Mike Dornbrook, “The first exotic package was for Deadline (the third game, after Zork I and II). It was created because [designer] Marc Blank couldn’t fit all the information he wanted to include into the 80K game size. Marc and the ad agency, Giardini/Russell (G/R), co-created the police dossier, which included photos, interrogation reports, lab reports and pills found near the body. The result was phenomenally successful, and Infocom decided to make all subsequent packages truly special. (A big benefit was the reduction in piracy, which was rampant at the time.)”
Other publishers liked feelies, too. Origin prompts nostalgia (check the online Origin Museum) for those cloth Britannia maps and clever game-world-based documentation. Richard “Lord British” Garriott, mastermind of the Ultima games, and other Origin designers pushed hard for non-game trinkets in their games. Dallas Snell, Vice President of Product Development (PD) at Origin in the 1980s, recalls the inclusion of trinkets “was always driven by PD. Publishing sought to minimize COGS [cost of goods], whereas PD wanted lots of interesting support material, trinkets and doohickeys. The cloth map and the metal ankh in the Ultimas were a source of debate every single time. Publishing would always remind us the product could be played just as well with a paper map and a plastic ankh (or no ankh at all). Richard was consistently adamant about this, and always stood his ground – even if it couldn’t be financially justified.
“I am a fan of Ultima‘s cloth maps,” Snell says. “Can’t say it really facilitated game play versus a paper map, but it sure added an ‘experiential’ quality to the product that is seldom encountered. [And] I liked the actual film canister we shipped the deluxe version of Wing Commander III in. That was really cool!”
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).
An active Call of Cthulhu/Cthulhu Lives LARPing group, the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, sells an impressive range of 1920s-era .PDF documents and Lovecraftian period fonts the group created as props for their live games: an Arkham bank checkbook, bank statements and passbook, library card, news clippings, a full newspaper, toe tag, asylum record, auto registration, luggage tags, burial permit, driver’s licenses for four states plus London, dues stamp, hunting license, insurance documents, matchbooks, Miskatonic University letterhead and diplomas, police documents, press passes, private eye license, pulp magazine covers, stock certificates, streetcar transfers, telegrams, airplane and zeppelin tickets, union card, Army ID cards and secret messages, U.S. and British passports circa 1923-1937, a Brazilian visa, and membership docs for the Ku Klux Klan. Many of these props and fonts are displayed in the terrific HPLHS fan-produced silent film adaptation of Lovecraft’s signature story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Still, reading .PDFs printed on your laser printer can’t match the – not to sound overwrought – palpable pleasure of handling an actual feelie. If publishers won’t create them, the next frontier is custom fabrication. One interesting option for the future is OGLE, “an open-source software package by the Eyebeam OpenLab that allows for the capture and reuse of 3-D geometry data from 3-D graphics applications running on Microsoft Windows.” In other words, you can pull your World of Warcraft gnome out of the game and cast it in plastic using a “fab,” a 3-D printer such as the Dimension BST 768.
Don’t get excited yet; OGLE still has quirks. Programmer Michael Frumin’s candid list of OGLE’s shortcomings confesses, “So far, none of the data captured from any application has been clean and well-formed enough to go right into our 3-D printer. We have, however, achieved meatspace with manual cleanup of some models.”
Meanwhile, it would be nice to see feelies back in our games. By neglecting them – not even offering a .PDF or two on the game disc – today’s developers are missing an opportunity. Feelies lend dimension to a setting. They establish atmosphere and locale in ways unmatched by even the most realistic graphics. Interactive fiction author Peter Nepstad, whose historical murder mystery 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery has sold over 3,000 copies – a remarkable number for text games these days – included a wide array of feelie-style .PDFs on his game’s disc. “Quality feelies help transport the player to the world you are trying to create,” he explains. “I remember with Infocom games, I used to read every word of their packaging and feelies before even booting up the game for the first time. These things were an important part of the game experience for me, and so naturally, as a writer, I want to carry on that tradition.
“All of that said, I wouldn’t say feelies are a must-have. If they aren’t there, well, that’s sort of to be expected, and not really a big deal. But if they are there, then that’s better. Feelies are always better.”