The Lurking Horror

PR-IF Lurking Horror flier

Our latest outing was the Infocom horror classic The Lurking Horror, from 1987. To add to the fun, we were joined by the game’s author, Dave Lebling.

Lebling introduced the game by talking about its genesis. My notes are sparsely scribbled (tapped, rather) but he talked about Infocom’s desire to cycle through literary genres — fantasy, then detective fiction, science fiction, thriller, romance, and (with this title) Lovecraftian horror.

His story concept was simple: if you were an ancient unspeakable horror trying to seep through into the mundane world, who would you want working for you? A bunch of inbred villagers (as Lovecraft too often portrayed) — or an MIT student? Thus, horror at a tech school.

(Modern science fictional horror has reinvented this combination. Lebling cited two examples: China Miéville’s weird-fantasy stories, and Charles Stross’s horror-espionage fusions. For a taste of the latter, you can read “A Colder War” online for free.)

Lebling also injected his undergraduate experiences in MIT tunnel-hacking. (He used an older period term that I managed to not write down.) A representative anecdote: an area in which you could enter a disused corridor, walk some fifty feet, and then emerge through a door which was labelled “DO NOT ENTER — RADIATION HAZARD” on the other side. He also filled in some of the unwritten backstory. Apparently the notion was that Miskatonic University, that dusty and venerable (but not very profitable) institution of Arkham, went into receivership in the 1940s. A bright young tech school bought up its assets, and thus GUE Tech was born.

Lurking Horror box Lurking Horror projected screen

Finally he described some of the marketing efforts (such as a promotional scavenger hunt based on The Lurking Horror and Stationfall), and marketing failures — such as a gooey worm feelie which leaked so much goo that it stained the instruction manual. They wound up having to wrap it in plastic. (I remember this, in fact: the first copy of TLH that I saw had a stained manual.)

With that we dove into the game itself. An audience of around 25 people played for most of three hours. (Nearly 50 people if you include remote videostreamers.) With some prompting from veteran players, the group explored much of the GUE campus and progressed through a large chunk of the plot, including the Department of Alchemy scene. Then, facing certain doom from caffeine withdrawal, we called a halt.

Department of Alchemy Nick Montfort and Dave Lebling

(I had the honor of handling the chalkboard mapping, only somewhat impeded by my long-standing tendency to confuse left and right. Matthew Weise‎ videotaped the session; he hopes to get some video online eventually.)

Read the transcript of the game session.

Following the game, Lebling led a bunch of us on a brief (and conservative, that is to say, probably not illegal) tour of the MIT underworld. We were unable to find the Tomb of the Unknown Tool — I think it’s been boarded up in the past few years, or at least made harder to see. But we did find some nicely satisfying basements with dripping water and throbbing machinery.

MIT basement stairs MIT basement signs

Thanks to all the interactors and performers of the day; to Clara for organizing; and to Dave Lebling for introducing, guiding, creating the game, and coming out to hang with IF fans.

All photographs are courtesy of Ellen Jackson-Mead. See many more photographs of the afternoon.