Wishbringer [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Wishbringer
[This review contains many major spoilers for Wishbringer, medium-level spoilers for Beyond Zork, and some details that might technically be considered spoilers for Trinity and other Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Brian Moriarty is responsible for only three Infocom games, but what a trio it is. There’s Trinity, often hailed as the best game in the entire catalog, and pretty much always in the consensus conversation about the cream of Infocom’s crop. There’s Beyond Zork, which in many ways is a hot mess but which was also one of the most ambitious Infocom titles ever, in the ways it attempted to improve the text adventure interface and marry the IF tradition to the emerging CRPG. Then there’s Wishbringer, Moriarty’s debut and a charming work of quasi-Zorkian lore that mostly succeeds in its attempt to provide a friendly doorway into the world of interactive fiction.


What I didn’t realize, at least not until playing Beyond Zork and Wishbringer in close proximity, is how many threads tie them together. It first occurred to me when we encountered the umbrella. You know the one — its handle is carved like a parrot’s head, I assume in homage to the one in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Trinity gets cred for the way it references Travers, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, and others, but this particular Travers reference predates Trinity by a year. I saw it in Wishbringer and thought, “Is this umbrella in every Moriarty Infocom game?” Yep, sure is.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the ties between Wishbringer and Beyond Zork. Look at this:

  • A Magick Shoppe where “a concealed bell tinkles merrily.”
  • For that matter, funky spellings like “magick” and “shoppe”
  • Hellhounds and eldritch vapors
  • A lighthouse
  • A cat that you can pick up, but which squirms out of your arms in a few turns
  • Anthropomorphic platypi belonging to royal courts
  • A whistle connected with transportation
  • Connections from the fairy tale in the Wishbringer documentation — fields of Frotzen, a coconut of Quendor, hungry Implementors
  • A horseshoe for luck
  • Chocolate in your inventory

Dante and I played these games out of order, but having played through Wishbringer it became clear how much Beyond Zork was in part a project to solidify the connections between Moriarty’s first game and the Zork universe. That said, Wishbringer is clearly a Zork game even without those connections forward. For one thing, it’s got the grues. By this point Dante and I had dressed up like a grue, repelled grues, even become a grue. Wishbringer let us comfort a baby grue and get milk out of a grue fridge — a fittingly adorable grue variation for this beginner’s game.

Even more on-the-nose was the “shimmering trail” to a location called “West of House”, complete with mailbox and leaflet. In keeping with the game’s less-austere tone, this mailbox pops out of the ground and follows you around, like a mute echo of Planetfall‘s Floyd. The game’s messaging is a little muddled around this Zorky callback, though. When we first walk the path, we get a “shock of recognition” upon arriving West of House — seemingly we’ve been here before, and perhaps this mail clerk is even the Zork adventurer somehow? When we leave, though, it says:

As the house disappears into the distance, you get the distinct feeling that, someday, you will pass this way again.

Which is it, Wishbringer? Were we there before or will we be again? I guess, given the number of games that have quoted that location, both could be true. In fact, Zork Zero, both a future and a past game depending on your perspective, even had its share of ties to Wishbringer — an ever-burning candle, some granola mines, and even the trick of transforming a landscape, at least in its prologue.


That transforming landscape trick is one of the best things Wishbringer does. Experiencing a landscape, then re-experiencing it after a fundamental change, is a powerful technique in IF, and a fantastic way to create emotional resonances for the player and the character. Steve Meretzky would later take this approach to its apotheosis in A Mind Forever Voyaging, but Moriarty lays wonderful groundwork here.

The cover of Infocom's grey box for Wishbringer. Two hands are cupped around a bright purple light. Text above reads"Through strange, savage zones your way will be shown by the magical stone called WISHBRINGER".

Cleverly, the game’s design forces us to cross Festeron before it transforms, so that we can’t avoid seeing a variety of different locations that will then take on a different cast in Witchville. I wonder, though, if the time limit in the early game serves this design very well. With Mr. Crisp and the game itself urging us to hurry hurry hurry, we’re led to not only take the most direct path, but to rush through locations without noticing their features.

I think I’d rather the game had made the Magick Shoppe a little harder to find, so that we must traverse and pay close attention to more of Festeron, and therefore feel the creepiness of its change all the more strongly. In addition, sometimes a message in Witchville will clearly reference a change from Festeron, but if the player hasn’t visited that location prior to the switch, that message pretty much goes to waste. An example is the broken speaker in the church when you pick up the candle.

I shockingly failed to mention in my Spellbreaker review that it was the very first Infocom game that Dante and I played in this entire project that didn’t force us to restart. Hooray for Lebling and his excellent design, breaking away from one of the most tedious IF traditions! I mention this because Dante and I voluntarily restarted Wishbringer due to the time limit discussed above. It wasn’t that the game became unwinnable without this restart, but that we wanted to experience more of Festeron so that we could better appreciate Witchville.

We volunteered for something else, too. Wishbringer, as I said, is a game for newcomers to interactive fiction, and therefore tries not to be too forbidding in its puzzles. Consequently, many of the game’s puzzles can be solved either the old-fashioned way, or alternately via the magic(k) wishes of the title stone. Dante and I, playing our ninth Zorky game, felt like experts at this point, so we set out to solve the game without using any wishes at all.

It’s a sign of Wishbringer‘s craft that this path felt challenging but not daunting. We were able to complete the game in nine sessions, ranging from 30 to 90 minutes each, and the one time we got really stuck it was our own fault, because we’d failed to take a pretty obvious action. (For the record, we didn’t read the love note once it was out of its envelope.) Once we got over that hurdle, it was pretty smooth sailing to the endgame.


I don’t have the greatest sense of how various tropes and techniques developed in 1980s interactive fiction outside of Infocom — for that you’d have to turn to Aaron Reed or Jimmy Maher. But at least within the Infocom canon, Wishbringer was the first to thoroughly integrate a sensibility of multiple puzzle solutions. Sure, these date back as far as Zork I, though that game’s version of “multiple solutions” generally involved one that made sense and one that was a cutesy (or nonsensical) magic word. Its commitment to multiple solutions was as haphazard as the rest of its aesthetic.

Wishbringer, on the other hand, puts multiple solutions at the core of its design, and the result is a world that not only feels more welcoming to beginners but also feels richer and more real. After all, we don’t have wish-granting stones in our world, but we generally do have multiple approaches available when confronted with a problem, so when a game world offers multiple paths through the same barrier, it’s easier to believe in that world, even when some of the paths are magical. Let’s not forget — some of the problems are magical too!

Even better, just as the protagonist has multiple ways of solving problems, so too do the antagonists have multiple ways of causing problems. Wishbringer is the rare mid-80’s game in which enemies learn from their mistakes. Find a hole that lets you out of the prison cell? Well the next time you get thrown into that cell, that hole has been patched with concrete. Escape again? Nevermind — they’ll just throw you into the ocean.

The opening screen of Wishbringer, including a prompt preceded with "Okay, what do you want to do now?"

Playing a beginner’s game as experts, it was hard for Dante and I to judge just how easily an IF newbie would accustom to it, but we could certainly see that Wishbringer was doing its best to be welcoming. Even beyond the multiple puzzle solutions, there’s friendly text like “Okay, what do you want to do now?” before the first few prompts, gradually tapering off so that it doesn’t become tedious. There’s also this friendly death message:

Looks like the story’s over. But don’t despair! Interactive fiction lets you learn from your mistakes.

We looked at each other after our first time seeing this message, and agreed with a smile that for accuracy’s sake, “lets you” should probably be replaced with “often forces you to”.

Even so, we found Wishbringer a charming experience, and a very pleasant end to our journey through Infocom’s Zork titles. As cat lovers, we especially appreciated that the point of the story is to rescue a cat, and in an even more satisfying way than Beyond Zork had allowed. With nine games down, we had only one remaining in our list, and it would be a new experience for both of us, given that I’d never played it to completion. Moonmist awaits!

MythTale by Temari Seikaiha [Comp02]

IFDB page: MythTale
Final placement: 11th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

MythTale is a mixed bag, with weaknesses alongside its strengths in every area. The writing, for instance, can be effective — the opening scene, of a PC struggling up a freezing cold mountainside, works well, involving the senses and evoking the feeling of numbed exhaustion. There are a number of good jokes, and several places where well-chosen words made me smile in appreciation.

In other areas, the prose is far worse. Punctuation seems to be a particular problem, with comma splices rampant and periods frequently missing from the ends of sentences. There are plenty of other mechanical errors, too. Then there are those troubles that may be cultural, but are quite confusing nonetheless. Foremost in my mind among these is this sequence, found outside the PC’s house in a vegetable patch.:

You can see a bonfire and a metal barrel here.

>x bonfire
A tumbled pile of hawthorn branches. Odd though, in the middle of the
bonfire is something that appears to be your coolbox!

Now, for me, a bonfire is a big, raging fire, used to burn lots of items or to light up the night in a celebration of some sort. Consequently, I was quite surprised that the PC left a huge fire burning just outside his house. Then I read the description, and figured that the “coolbox” was either a freezer or an air-conditioner of some sort, and that it had shorted out and set fire to the pile of branches. Strangely, though, even though the metal barrel is full of water, pouring water on the fire doesn’t seem to put it out, just dampen the branches.

After a while, I finally figured out that when the game says “bonfire”, what it actually means is “pile of fuel for a bonfire, not actually burning.” For me, it was one of those instances when a game’s language is so opaque that figuring out what the heck the words meant became a puzzle in itself. I don’t really enjoy those sorts of puzzles too much.

The coding was similarly uneven. For one thing, the game is full of cats, but it doesn’t understand the command PET. This may be another cultural difference, because it does understand STROKE. Nevertheless, I hereby serve notice that I am officially sick of games that offer dogs and cats that can’t be petted. Game authors, if you’re going to give us a cute, fuzzy animal, let us pet the animal. Thank you.

Also, just a little reminder here to Inform authors: turn off the debugging verbs. To do this, compile with -~S -~X -~D set. Otherwise, your game will do things like this:

What do you want to tie?

[game lists out every single fricking object it contains]

Speaking of tying, if you implement a rope that you want me to use to tie something to something else, please implement the syntax “TIE <object> TO <object>.” This seems only sensible, especially compared to MythTale‘s method, “TIE ROPE TO <object>. TIE ROPE TO <other object>.”

Glitches like this aside, the game seemed pretty well-tested, and there was a good hint system for the inevitable times I got stuck. I didn’t find anything that was just broken, and lots of nicely judged custom responses were present, especially when dealing with the cats.

Those cats provided some of the game’s best design moments. There were a couple of puzzles that were both logical and entertaining, and the entire conceit of searching the house for items hidden by the cats was one I enjoyed quite a bit. Also, some of the re-enactments of Greek myths were good IF vignettes, bringing the stories to life in an exciting way. I liked the concept of the multiple endings, too, though the game’s implementation underwhelmed me enough that I wasn’t interested in exploring them.

Predictably, alongside these good design choices, there were some pretty bad ones too. One puzzle is just excruciating, a fiddly device whose workings are not only boring to test and extremely tedious to solve, but which also requires some pretty farfetched guesswork to even arrive at the correct answer. You’ll know the one I mean when you get to it — I recommend turning to the hints without hesitation. Also, some of the puzzles require fairly unmotivated actions, forcing the player to get in a text-adventurey frame of mind rather than acting in character. Overall, despite the fact that it has some fun moments, MythTale is pretty much hit or (must… resist… cheesy… pun…) miss.

Rating: 6.3

A Day For Soft Food by Tod Levi [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Day for Soft Food
Final placement: 4th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, I suppose it was inevitable. Ever since the 1996 competition entry Ralph, which was narrated from the point of view of a family dog, the idea has been just sitting out there, waiting to be used. Actually, I’m surprised it took this long. But it’s finally here: a game written from the point of view of a family cat. As far as the writing goes, Soft Food actually does its job rather well. Its mood is quite different from that of Ralph — there is no jokey blundering about, no excretion gags. Instead, the tone is serious, even formal, as befits the dignified feline. Descriptions are well-turned; your owner is “the Provider”, the sofa is a “lumpy mountain”, cars are “glinting beasts.” The game also provides responses to most logical kitty verbs like “meow”, “purr”, and “jump on “. Unfortunately, the response to “purr” is “You’re not especially happy” — the game’s protagonist is not a contented cat. Its owner is suffering from an illness, and has been surly and unhelpful. The food bowl is empty, and the world outside deadly with oncoming traffic and a powerful Rival. Sickness, injury, and even death have roles in this game. The writing does a fairly good job of conveying the seriousness of this cat’s world, and the starkness of the dilemmas it faces.

I’m sorry to say that the coding is not quite so strong. I stumbled across a number of outright bugs in my two hours with the game. For example, you can get inside an open cupboard, and when you try to close it, the game responds “You lack the dexterity.” Fair enough, but when you try to leave, the game protests “You can’t get out of the closed cupboard.” Look around, and the room description has somehow evaporated, leaving just “The cupboard.” Another problem occurs with a pile of similar objects, from which you may take one and drop it anywhere in the game. However, if you return to the pile and take another, you’ll find that the one you dropped has disappeared, which stretches the bounds of plausibility. Moreover, there are a number of commands in the game (for example, “examine me”) to which the parser does not respond at all.

These are all fairly basic errors, nothing fatal, and I expect that they will be cleaned up in the next release of Soft Food. However, the problem that will be more difficult to fix is that of the puzzles. My Lord, these puzzles are difficult. They’re not so much “guess-the-verb” — I rarely found myself in a situation where I knew what to do but just couldn’t figure out how to phrase it. Instead, I found that most of the time I hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do, and the game kept ending in unpleasant ways as I stumbled about trying to figure out the solution. One puzzle in particular rivaled the Babel fish in complexity, but where the latter puzzle was enjoyable because of the absurdity of necessary actions piling atop one another, this game’s equivalent seemed frustratingly arbitrary, and the game’s serious tone did little to make the puzzle’s fiendishness more bearable. A disturbingly high percentage of the puzzles felt like members of the “guess-what-I’m-thinking” genre. I’m willing to concede that perhaps I wasn’t in a properly feline state of mind for them, and certainly I’ll admit that I’m not the world’s greatest puzzle solver, but I don’t think that’s sufficient to explain the problem. I think they’re just way too hard, and that the writing isn’t specific enough to give the player all the nudges necessary to solve them. It’s a good lesson in puzzle design though — if lots of players experience the same frustration I did, Soft Food will give designers an example of what to avoid in gonzo puzzle-crafting. I may even be able to use the lesson myself. See, I have a great idea for the 2000 comp: you play this pet goldfish…

Rating: 6.4