You wake up. The room is spinning very gently round your head. Or at least it would be if you could see it which you can't.
Each version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has its own unique charm. The five novels let you revel in Douglas Adams' gloriously strange writing, while the radio show lets you hear what a Vogon actually sounds like. Even the disappointing 2005 Hollywood film has its moments, most notably the clever scenes involving the guide itself. But none of them will put you through the roller coaster of emotions that the text-adventure game does. At times you'll be laughing out loud, at others you'll be cursing at your computer, trying to figure out just what the game wants you to do. It's a lot like taking a sip of a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
A lot of weird things happen
First released in 1984, five years after the debut novel, the game was developed by Infocom, a pioneering force behind the text-adventure genre thanks primarily to its Zork games. The studio partnered with Adams himself to help create the Hitchhiker's Guide experience. The game largely follows the same story as you'll find in the books: at the outset, you play as Arthur Dent, who has just woken up to the realization that his home is about to be demolished. Soon he learns that his close friend is an alien and that the Earth, much like his home, is set to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Eventually he ends up in space and a lot of weird things happen.
Like virtually all of Adams' work, including not only the Hitchhiker's Guide but also the Dirk Gently series of detective novels, the game feels more like a series of loosely connected events than a real story. Things happen, you react, and then more things happen. You never really know why you're doing something — it just generally seems like the thing to do. The game gets away with this, of course, because it's downright hilarious. Every description is slathered in Adams' absurdist sense of humor, making you want to push forward just to see what strange thing will happen next. Even ordering a sandwich at a pub can be a surreal experience:
The barman gives you a cheese sandwich. The bread is like the stuff that stereos come packed in, the cheese would be great for rubbing out spelling mistakes, and margarine and pickle have performed an unedifying chemical reaction to produce something that shouldn't be, but is, turquoise. Since it is clearly unfit for human consumption you are grateful to be charged only a pound for it.
But you really have to work to find those funny bits. Not because they're infrequent, but because figuring out how to do just about anything in the game is incredibly challenging. Just getting Arthur out of his bedroom in the opening scene is hard (hint: take the pill, it will make you feel better). Hitchhiker's Guide is mechanically the same as just about every text-adventure game, meaning you interact with it by typing commands: you write out when you want to pick up an item or move to another location, all using very precise language. But there are only a limited number of actions available to you in any given scene, which often turns situations into a guessing game where you're trying to figure out what the game wants you to do, as opposed to the next logical step. And when Douglas Adams is the writer, there are no logical steps.
It feels like Douglas Adams trolling players
One scene early on, for instance, requires you to get a Babel fish (an animal that can translate any language if you put it in your ear) out of a vending machine. In order to do so, you'll need to use a strange array of objects — a bathrobe, a hook, a satchel, and some junk mail — in ways that, even in retrospect, make very little sense. In other instances, what you're actually supposed to do is nothing; the game just wants you to wait until a thing happens. These moments can be immensely frustrating, especially in an age before game walkthroughs were readily available. But in a way, it's endearing: even failure can be funny, and experiencing countless forms of death becomes entertaining, even if it means restarting from the beginning of the game. In a lot of ways, the game simply feels like Douglas Adams trolling players, and that's not really a bad thing.
While text adventures have since become a tiny niche, Hitchhiker's Guide has remained remarkably accessible. The BBC, which produced those early radio shows, has hosted a browser-based version of the game for years, complete with an updated interface and even simple graphics. And today, for the game's 30th anniversary, the BBC is releasing yet another updated version of the game, complete with high-definition art, sound effects, and built-in social features, so that you can share the experience with friends. It's not any easier 30 years later; it's still a trial-and-error game about figuring out just how Douglas Adams' brain works. But its charm hasn't aged at all.
Just remember: don't panic.