Hitchhiker’s Guide to TinyTIM (1991-1996)

The following story is a personal one, about a game that I played and a project that I worked on many years ago. I want to tell it here, in this format, as something of a time capsule for those of you that played it with me and for those of you that did not. As I have been spending weeks now researching the Hitchhiker’s Guide books and series (for The Adventure Gamer), I could not help but to think back of my own small contribution to HHG fandom: the Hitchhiker’s Guide to TinyTIM. It was, in short, an occasionally funny collaboration by a bunch of kids who played a particular online game in the mid-1990s about the game itself and about life. Some of its short articles were brilliant and others were plagiarism, but it was all done with heart. Before I can explain the “guide”, I need to talk about the game that inspired it.

In the earliest days of the Internet, there were online games. A full history of them would be incredibly fun to research and write, but for our story the key date is 1980: the launch of “MUD”, the first “Multi-User Dungeon”. This system and its dozens (eventually hundreds) of clones, acted like a multi-user version of a text adventure game. In fact, early text adventures such as Colossal Cave were sometimes reimplemented in a MUD context. You moved around using commands like “go west” and talked to people by “say”ing and “whisper”ing. Basic programming languages were implemented inside the games, allowing young programmers to collaborate and extend the game as they played it without having to tinker with the source code. These systems predated Minecraft and modern open-world creation games by decades.

At some point, some of these “games” stopped being “games”. They still looked and felt like games and had game aspects, but the content became increasingly social.  Players might have puzzles to solve or areas to explore, but they also might just hang out in a few central rooms and talk with their friends. These social-focused games tended to be developed on a fork of the original MUD software, now called “MUSH”. (Supposedly for “Multi-User Shared Hallucination” although I suspect the acronym was created well after the fact.)  This is a tremendous simplification as the ecosystem of MUDs and MUSHes were as varied as you can imagine. Some of them simulated fantasy worlds like Pern, while others catered to less innocent pursuits. The game that I felt in love with was arguably one of the oldest and most famous, a fairly abstract and imaginative place called TinyTIM. This was around 1994.

Trying to describe TIM to someone that was never there is like trying to explain the Andy Warhol museum to someone using finger puppets. The game was random with themed areas spread around a central “nexus” where most of the players liked to hang out. You were encouraged to build and program your own space and populate it with objects of your design. For newbies, this would usually just be through artful (or terribly misspelled) description, but for players willing to learn the language you could create simple “robots” that could respond to things you were saying, follow you around, or do simple tricks. New players would often spend too much time building their space, giant “McMansions” of interconnected rooms that no one would visit but them. I, for one, lived in a lighthouse.

I’m not sure I want to admit this in a public blog post, but the truth is that I became more than a bit obsessed. At the height of my time on the game, I remember getting online Christmas morning caring more about talking with my friends than seeing my family. This could also be related to the fact that I was a teenager. I coveted the “bot spot“, the recognition that you were the player logged on for the longest continual time that day. I had plenty of  “real life” friends, but a good chunk of my social circle was through the game.  I even had a short parade of online girlfriends. To this day, some of my oldest and best friends are former TIM people. As I transitioned to college and went through some difficult times, TIM transitioned from being a bedrock of social support to a place that I couldn’t disconnect from. The story has a happy ending: I eventually got my head back on straight, landed my first professional writing jobs, then got my start in IT. Some aspects of growing up were slower than others, but I grew up. These days, I recognize my potential for obsession and avoid games that do not have endings, for fear I will become hooked and sink in too much time. I still have many friends from my TIM days, but actually playing the game (which is still up) is something that I do not do.

As an aside, I also ended up as a “wizard” (administrator) on two or three games, plus I ran a MUSH-hosting service on a server I rented in a Pittsburgh (later Baltimore) server room. I do not want to give the impression that I was single-minded or didn’t still do too many hobbies at once, but a non-trivial portion of my self-worth was tied up in a game rather than more real-world accomplishments.

Some of the original guide source code.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because one of my passions on TIM was programming. I can say without too much exaggeration that I was one of the better programmers, helped in large part because most of the players were on it for social rather than technical reasons. I and some friends created a slew of programmed objects that had different and “useful” functions like telling you when your friends logged on, the time around the globe, and that sort of thing. My favorite object that I collaborated on wasn’t even my idea: a “teleport” ring that would send you zooming around to fixed jump points in the game. People would use them to record their favorite locations (often for private chatting) and then teleport back there without having to memorize the commands to do so. Since the game had a very basic economy, I ended up mass-producing some of these “products”  and sold them in a little store out of a programmed vending machine. One of the most popular items that I sold for pretend money was a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to TinyTIM“, a guide that included articles submitted by many of the other players on the game. I actually wrote the second version of that guide; “Macavity“, a programmer who had left shortly after I joined, created the first version and bequeathed it to me when he quit. I expanded it, allowed users to submit their own articles, and even rendered HTML-like syntax to make the articles prettier than his version. As much as I came to love writing, I’m shocked now to see that I only wrote four fairly poor articles myself. I was much more interested in building the system than contributing to it.

What I want to share with you is the 242 articles created for the Guide, written by the players of TinyTIM over a six-year span from 1991 to 1996. Most of you have never played the game, but I hope this captures a tiny spark of the spirit of the glory days. I present these in a very basic HTML; I really need to copy them into a nicer format, but it is better to get them out there than get them out there perfectly. Besides, TIM was a text-only medium. We were used to minimalism. Many of these articles were written before HTML or the first web browsers were invented!

For those of you interested in checking out TIM itself, you can still get there at “yay.tim.org” port 5440, but you’ll need a “telnet” or similar client to do so. This isn’t a “web” game. There are still people that play to this day, including some of the old-timers. Say “Hello!” for me. Not all of my stuff (including the guides) work properly anymore. My main collaborator left in a huff many years ago for reasons that I no longer remember, and erased much of his stuff. Some of that was connected to my stuff through “function objects” (shared libraries) and so things broke when he left in ways that I no longer have the ability or time to fix. While researching this post, I did stop in again and saw some old friends. It really is a lovely place, both a place out of time as well as a real game that people still play and enjoy. I will probably be back on again, but never the way that I once was.

Without further ado, here are the entries that I was able to salvage from the system:

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