ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Feelies —

An occasional surprise or insight has come out of my interviews for GET LAMP that’s unlikely to get the amount of depth it deserves in the final work. I could be wrong and it’ll be prominent, but let’s assume for today’s entry that this isn’t the case. I’d like to talk a little bit about feelies, but specifically, the Feelie that started it all, which appears to be Murder Off Miami.

To explain what I mean by “Feelies” in this context: Infocom packaging (and really, a bunch of other software packages of the 1980s era) came with additional knick-knacks wrapped in, accompanying the disk or cassette and the manual. Sometimes these knick-knacks were simply copy protection items, like a code wheel or a map with information you’d need to refer to to go far enough in the game. Other times, they were neat stuff that provided you with an additional dimension to the game. I’ve interviewed a lot of people who have said this was what set an Infocom game ahead of other similar products for them; you opened the box, and stuff fell out, and even before you played the game you were part of the game, if that makes sense.

There are exhaustive galleries of all the contents of the Infocom boxes; they range from plastic rocks to a map with pieces to Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses (always opaque).

The term “Feelies” harkens back to the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which was his term for a movie which provided tactile feedback. In other words, it could be claimed that the Infocom games were providing tactile feedback in each game with stuff you could hold in your hand while playing. I should mention this term was not 100% beloved within Infocom, but it has persisted and everyone at least knows what you’re talking about.

And what else I found out was that nearly everyone I talked to who had something to do with Infocom’s feelies had owned or knew of this interesting property, Murder Off Miami, which had originally been published in… 1936.

1936! Of course, that’s not the edition that everyone owned at the time of the dawn of Infocom… they owned the 1979 re-issue, which did its best to recreate the original work. This was, in fact, an edition I owned myself, because my dad got it for his kids and we did our best to honestly solve the mystery within.

The “book” was basically a bound folio, with what seemed to be a massive sheaf of papers inside, including photos, maps, telegrams and even pieces of evidence like hair. You were basically being given the “case file” of a sensational murder case, and as you browsed through the writings and clues, you were to come to the conclusion of who committed the murder and why, and at the end you would open a sealed portion of the book to see if your answer was correct.

It’s very well done. Here’s some shots of the inside:

You might imagine the feeling, especially as a youth, opening this treasure trove of items to pick through, this pile of evidence towards a crime that might help you solve a case, and there’s really no narrative in the strictest sense. Stuff is happening and there’s dates, and some of the essays within this collection read like prefaces, but generally we’re talking a big non-linear story. Right at home, one might say, with the sort of interactivity the later computer games would display.

As an adult you would likely recognize this for what it is, a fulfillment nightmare. Trying to imagine how much it cost to put together this collection of oddly-shaped items, bound by a string, means you really get a sense for how out of this world this thing was. There are a variety of websites describing the process of putting this item together, this one being the best. You really understand what a monumental undertaking and risk this was.

I must also stress, this item is worth getting, still. You can go to Amazon and pick up a used copy elsewhere, and you can read this thing and it will still have the same punch, 70 years after its initial creation.

The impression I got from the Infocommies was that this book was a real eye-opener of what “could” be done in printing. While the industry moved from the baggie-and-disk approach and did some basic cardboard printing, Infocom shot ahead with their package design, including the Starcross saucer and the Suspended plastic mask, and all the feelies inside. And it all comes back to this odd little book and its 1970s reprinting.

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  1. Ben Combee says:

    McSweeny’s literary journal has been doing things like this recently. Issue 17 was a bundle of mail items including a issue of Yeti Researcher, a sausage-basket catalog, a flyer for garments that are worn by more than one person at a time, and a lot of fiction. Issue 16 came with a deck of cards that could be dealt in any order to make a story and a comb.

  2. Ryan Russell says:

    My favorites were the Ultima series (yet one more step from Get Lamp material) that included maps, ankhs and such.

  3. Daniel Auger says:

    Feelies are still out there in the video game world, but unfortunately they are usually only in collector’s editions that companies charge you an arm and a leg for.

    I had never heard of the Wheatley dossiers before this blog. I managed to snag a copy of Murder Off Miami for $8 on ebay. Hopefully it will arrive intact. It looks like an interesting diversion.

  4. ross k says:

    i really think this technique could be plumbed much deeper. i still use it for my main art project, machinebook.

    thanks for linking to that book.. reminds me of

    the columbine docs which i read, upon release, in their entirety. at least worth skimming through.