About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

>INVENTORY started as a pandemic project. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to get my many comp reviews, and various others, off of my student website, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that I found myself with the time and motivation to get this site started. My son Dante was 14 at the time, and all these new reviews, brought into the light, piqued his interest.

So he started reading, and learning about the 1990s IF cast of characters — Graham, Zarf, Rybread, and so forth. He also learned about IF history as it stood up to that point, and in particular how Infocom loomed large for all of us at that time. We’d talked about Infocom before — in fact, when he was five we played Zork together for about 45 minutes, resulting in much cuteness.

Meanwhile, revisiting those old reviews started to give me a hankering to spend some time in the Infocom worlds again. So I decided to replay some Infocom games, and Dante decided he’d like to join in. Because we (and a whole lot of IF-ers) started with Zork, I thought that’s where we could restart. I listed out what I think of as the 9 Zorkian Infocom games:

  • Zork I
  • Zork II
  • Zork III
  • Beyond Zork
  • Zork Zero
  • Enchanter
  • Sorcerer
  • Spellbreaker
  • Wishbringer

Then, to make it a nice even list of 10 games, I added Moonmist, more or less at random. It was a game I’d never finished, it seemed like it was going to be on the easier side, and it had a little historical significance, apparently, for being one of the first games featuring a lesbian character. Dante is an LGBTQ+ activist, so I liked that connection, though as it turns out the depiction is very slight indeed.

Even before I embarked on this replay project, Dante had been exploring newer corners of the IF world — Lock & Key, Counterfeit Monkey, Steph Cherrywell’s games, and some others. So he was familiar with the basic idiom and mechanisms of these games. Essentially, he was right about where I was at his age in 1984, except that his primary text game experiences had been with 21st-century interactive fiction. Plus, he’d been playing video games of all sorts pretty much since he could talk, as opposed to me whose only other video gaming came at the pizza parlor, skating rink, or occasional arcade. Oh, and those friends’ houses lucky enough to contain an Atari 2600.

A vintage Infocom advertisement, with an image of a brain and the caption "We unleash teh world's most powerful graphics technology".

So our Infocom odyssey was a combination of me revisiting childhood memories, with dim recollections of puzzles and landscapes, and him seeing these vintage games through fresh eyes, his expectations shaped by a far more evolved version of text games and computer games in general. I’m still the faster typist between us, so I sat at the keyboard and read aloud, while he directed the action. We transcripted all our interactions, so that I could remember how they went when I wrote the reviews. We also used the invaluable Trizbort to map our progress, generally starting out with the automapping and then inevitably abandonding that when some mazy thing confused its relatively simple algorithm.

If I remembered a puzzle’s solution, I’d try to keep my trap shut and give him the pleasure of solving it for himself, though sometimes if we crossed the line between fun flailing and ragequit flailing, I might drop a subtle hint. More often than not, I didn’t remember the puzzle either, so we could genuinely collaborate on solving it. When we got really stymied we’d turn to the invaluable .z5 Invisiclues at the Infocom Documentation Project, but that wasn’t terribly often.

So as I write about these games, I’m writing about that experience. I’m not trying to write the definitive history of an Infocom game — for my money Jimmy Maher has got that territory 100% nailed down. Instead, I’m presenting an idiosyncratic and personal account of how Dante and I experienced those games — how I felt upon returning to those oft-trod trails and how Dante’s insights illuminated them for me like a trusty brass lantern.

We started Zork I on August 5, 2020, and finished Moonmist on December 20. Given sufficient time and interest, there may be more to come! Note that all of these reviews will be spoiler-laden — they aren’t written to promote a game but rather to analyze an experience, so I won’t shy away from getting specific.

Sylenius Mysterium by Christopher E. Forman as “whomever wrote it” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sylenius Mysterium
Final placement: 18th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are present for Freefall and Robots. You have been warned.]

There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew Plotkin‘s “Freefall”, a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others have followed, including Torbj√∂rn Andersson’s “Robots”, which recreates one of the earliest video games, and a DOOM implementation which I haven’t played. I have to say that this notion baffles me. When I first saw “Freefall”, I thought it was good fun. It struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn’t become an arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to see what it could do, then deleted it. “Robots” I kept, but I don’t play it.

Now here’s Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and-jump game, a la Pitfall or Super Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a real game. Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason that those games were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it’s silly to implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. (“You begin walking right.” “You execute a running jump.” “Beneath you is a low wall.”) These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and they were being done 15 years ago. It’s both more fun and less confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even ancient computers are capable of doing so, what’s the point of making a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics. Hell, even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience than one long room description reading “A panoramic landscape, parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your movements.” It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s great to know that the z-machine has realtime capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those capabilities can be put to better use.

SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at friends’ houses playing Missile Command or Donkey Kong or Pitfall. In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its “arcade” section was nothing more than realtime text.

Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the game’s elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the almost exaggerated “skate punk” main character, to the loving descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style that I found quite rich and absorbing.

Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think) extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds.

Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and those inside the arcade section can’t really be called “puzzles” in the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles — the two are closer than they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles themselves.

Technical (writing): The writing was technically excellent.

Technical (coding): Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I’m willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as ambitious (even though I personally don’t find it to be very interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from game-killing bugs of the “FATAL: No such property” variety (or at least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken to create them.

OVERALL: A 6.8