The Lurking Horror [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: The Lurking Horror
[This review contains many major spoilers for The Lurking Horror. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

After playing the ten games I’d initially mapped for our Infocom journey, Dante and I did play one more. This time, we were following a chain of interest for him. I’ve mentioned before that Dante’s favorite author is N.K. Jemisin. At the time of our Infocom odyssey, Jemisin’s latest book was The City We Became, which is a riff on (among many other things) H.P. Lovecraft, taking into account not just his otherworldly imaginings but also his racism, sexism, and general paranoia.

To help Dante understand the broader context behind Jemisin’s work, I gifted him a volume containing all of Lovecraft’s fiction. After he’d cruised through that, I just happened to mention that there was a Lovecraft-y Infocom game, should he be interested. He was!

Thus, we dove into The Lurking Horror, Infocom’s alchemical combination of a college game and a Lovecraft homage. I have strong, scary, and wonderful memories of playing this game myself, freshman year of college. I was at NYU, sick with a bad cold on Halloween night, and therefore alone in my dorm while everybody else was out at the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. I wasn’t tired enough to sleep, and I’d never gotten that far in The Lurking Horror, so I fired it up and played for hours, orange letters glowing against black on my 1988 monochrome monitor. I vividly remember encountering its eerie scenes, and how the game salvaged my otherwise disappointing Halloween.

Returning to the game with Dante in 2021, we saw almost immediately how the passage of time had warped some of its initial atmosphere:

>x terminals
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.

Oh how this passage rings with unintentional comedy now. I mean, when I was playing in 1988, a color monitor still seemed pretty fancy, but now? Not so much. Same with a mouse, an “attached” hard disk, a local area network, and a 1024 by 1024 pixel display. That display also prompted this exchange:

Dante: Isn’t that a square?
Me: Yes, computer monitors used to be squares.
Dante: WHAT?!?

And yes, I did say 2021 above. It’s taken me so long to get to this post that Dante himself is now in college!


The Lurking Horror is a Dave Lebling creation, and as with Spellbreaker, it’s a clinic on interactive fiction writing and design. In particular, this time around I was deeply impressed by Lebling’s use of objects to bind and further threads of the game at various layers, from tone to theme to puzzles.

Take the smooth stone, for instance. I’d argue that it’s one of the best, most effective objects in any Infocom game, doing multiple kinds of work at once. First, it’s a vital weapon against some of the otherworldly threats that the PC faces. As such, it’s useful at several different points in the game, cropping up in the plot rhythmically, like a heartbeat.

Cover to The Lurking Horror

We’re trained in the very beginning of the game that there’s a connection between freaky monsters and this stone, but we don’t get to actually throw the stone at the monster in that initial dream sequence. Thus, when we actually do get to throw it at a monster, the action is that much more satisfying. For us, that was the maintenance man — we knew the stone was powerful when it left a burn mark on his forehead. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually vanquish him.

Next was the dark flier that attacks us in the weather observation dome. Here, the stone doesn’t leave a mark — in fact it goes through the creature entirely — but the monster reacts nevertheless, retreating when we throw the stone inside, and following the stone over the edge when we throw it outside. For the first time, the stone is the answer to a puzzle, and thus its significance builds further.

Threats like the rats and the professor aren’t otherworldly, so the stone doesn’t work on them, which further helps define its purpose, and also sets up one of the game’s best one-off jokes:

>throw stone at professor
You miss. (Now you know why few technical schools make it to the Rose Bowl.)

Finally, at the climax of the game, it’s the smooth stone that is the key to victory — and perhaps a sequel? Thus Lebling uses the smooth stone object to create a unity, tying the beginning of the game to its end.

That’s not all, though. There’s a symbol scratched on the stone, described in Lebling’s signature combination of evocation and understatement: “The symbol, on close examination, appears to have been carved into the smooth stone, perhaps with a claw. The symbol is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and yet somehow you know it has meaning.” Lebling uses the power of text here in just the same way Lovecraft did — evoking “the undescribeable” in a way no illustration could possibly manage. That symbol is also a recurring theme, appearing in such places as the Chinese food carton, the rat brand, the altar, and the tattoo on the mummified hand.

Every time we find one of these symbols, there’s a sense of the walls closing in, as whatever unholy truth it signifies invades our world from another direction. The COMPARE verb is golden here, though sometimes there can be a bit of awkwardness getting the game to understand what we mean. When it does, though:

>compare carved symbol to tattoo
Allowing for the different media in which the symbols are executed, they are identical.

That’s good for a chill.

Most important of all, the stone functions as a symbol itself. We slip into an eerie dream, find the stone, and then when we wake up, the stone is there in our hand. Thus it represents the intrusion of the unconscious world of dreams into the waking world — our first definitive evidence that something uncanny is happening. That’s the essence of Lovecraftian horror — the sense that the dimensional barriers have become weak, and that unspeakable abominations from beyond are creeping into our ordinary world.

To throw these supernatural elements into sharp relief, Lebling employs a deep naturalism throughout many other parts of the game. Settings like the elevator, the computer lab, and the snowy streets are utterly ordinary, setting us up to be that much more shocked when we encounter eerie presences that don’t belong.

Image from the back cover of the game, showing the disk and feelies including the GUE ID card and the "GUE at a Glance" guide.


That naturalism works through to the puzzles too, such as the very satisfying and logical puzzle of the maintenance man. There’s glass you can’t safely shatter and reach through without some kind of protection — thus the electrician’s gloves, which themselves quite reasonably crop up in a technical storage area. There’s a cord that must be severed — hence the fire axe behind the glass. To stop the zombie you must take advantage of its clumsiness — hence the floor wax, which of course the janitor would have. All of it feels perfectly natural and logical, letting us use the ordinary objects of our world against something that shouldn’t be in it.

Just as we use the maintenance man’s floor wax against him, so too do we find other objects that strike ironic counterpoints as they become puzzle solutions. There’s a sacrificial knife which helps save us from becoming a sacrifice. The urchin steals bolt cutters, which we liberate and then use to free the other urchins. Sure, they’re puzzle solutions, but they also deepen the theme and the mood when they tie story elements together, feeling not just correct for the puzzle but incredibly apt for the entire fiction. These marvelous grace notes show the hand of the master at work.

It’s also a brilliant choice to make the PC explicitly a technology-oriented student at a technology college. In contrast to the fantasy trappings of the Zork and Enchanter games, this PC-as-techie feels very grounded in our world, carrying around things like a crowbar and a flashlight. A tech focus helps solve many of the puzzles, and it also throws into sharp contrast the deeply non-technological Lovecraft aesthetic, providing a background against which the slithering and undulating monstrosities feel even more alien.

Speaking of the crowbar, can we just give a shout-out to the crowbar for a second? I love having a crowbar in an IF game. Moments like this made us cheer:

>remove manhole cover
You can't get a good grip on it; it's heavy and in a steel ring; impossible to just drag it away.

>pry cover with crowbar
You lever the manhole cover aside, and crusted dirt falls into a dark, partly obstructed hole below.

Same with opening the steam valve at just the right time to cook the attacking rats. But by far my favorite use of the crowbar is in my favorite puzzle of the game: the elevator/chain puzzle. This is a beautiful piece of IF design — so well-done that it’s one of the main things I remembered, 30 years on from my first playthrough of The Lurking Horror.

In that playthrough, I figured out how to get into the elevator shaft pretty early on — using the crowbar not just to open the doors but to hold them open, which is what makes this puzzle such a great use of that object. Once that was done, though, it took me for-EVER to figure out how to secure the chain. I seem to recall having a conversation with my dad that helped light the way. In our playthrough, it took a very long time for Dante to think to pry open the elevator doors, but once he did and found the chain, the notion of padlocking it occurred to him in pretty short order.

Again, the entire thing is a highly mechanical solution, engineering a combination of tools in conjunction with each other to achieve the desired effect. I’ve written in the past about how location descriptions inevitably act as a determining factor for the viewpoint character, but here’s an instance where well-crafted puzzles are doing the same. The kind of applied scientific and mechanical knowledge necessary to traverse this game seems like just the sort of thing MIT sorry, GUE Tech would want to be teaching.

While the PC is clearly a techie, the hacker is probably the best emblem in the game of tech school culture. At first, he seems pretty much like a stereotype, albeit a funny and well-implemented one. He sets up the initial narrative drive by telling the PC to search for the Lovecraft server in the Department of Alchemy, and enacts a typical IF NPC function of “give x to get y”.

Cover of G.U.E. at a Glance: A Guide for Freshmen.

However, the hacker appears again at the climax, and this time he has agency. He’s pursued his own investigation, having a parallel adventure that begins… whenever the player last left the computer lab. He becomes heroic in this scene, which makes his subsequent possession all the more horrifying. What’s more, he’s discovered that the stakes are much higher than just GUE Tech: “That thing there, whatever it is, and those wires, are interfaced to the whole campus net. And that means it’s tied into all the nets, commercial, government, even military, potentially.” The threat is now a synthesis of eldritch and modern — the horrors from beyond infecting the levers of power in our world.

Consequently, the solution must combine magical and technical elements as well. The PC hacks apart a power line with an axe, but only because a magically animated hand has shown the underwater location of the line. We use electricity from that power line to damage the beast, but its final defeat comes from the mystical smooth stone. And we were happy to see the hacker back on his feet in a final moment, rationality and science triumphing (albeit exhausted) over irrationality and the demon-haunted world at last, just as it did in the end of Spellbreaker.


How about the engineering of the game itself? Well, it has its moments. I was quite impressed in the opening scene that even though there’s an assignment in the PC’s inventory, “click paper” knows just what to do:

>click paper
You click the box for your paper, and the box grows reassuringly until it fills most of the screen. Unfortunately, the text that fills it bears no resemblance to your paper. The title is the same, but after that, there is something different, very different.

Of course, I figured out later that this is because you can’t call the assignment a paper, even though it’s specifically described as “Laser printed on creamy bond paper.” (Another funny moment of what was cutting-edge in the 80s feeling quaint now.) Not to mention, the text implementation of the of the computer’s GUI, with its many boxes, leads to this awesomely anticlimactic moment in the final scene, a tightly timed scene which demands so much repetition that you may forget to step into the right room before trying to open the electrical panel box:

>open box. unscrew coax.
You see no YAK editor.
You can't see any coax here.

Another great bit of unintentional comedy came up when we tried to get ourselves out of the forklift:

>turn on lights
You can't reach the light from within the forklift.

Please use compass directions instead.

You can't go that way.

You are now on your feet.

Good thing we remembered our lessons from the boat in Zork I! Okay, I guess I said “it has its moments” and then went straight into bloopers. So let’s look at some genuine hits.

The Lurking Horror was mid-to-late-period Infocom, and we can see some notes of kindness creeping into the house style, even in this horror game. For example, the door south from the Infinite Corridor warns us before going through:

Remember, this is one of the doors that's always locked at night. You won't be able to get back in if you go out.

This could have been handled by a sign on the door, but instead the parser itself intervenes, with an “are you sure?” style message. Of course, we can still go through! And then freeze to death. But that’s fair enough, given the warning, and much fairer than earlier games would have been.

The game also features some nice object description handling, to adjust to interactions that change their state:

>cut slime with knife
The knife touches the curtain, and immediately some of the slime attacks, flowing almost intelligently onto it. The knife is now covered with slime.

>x knife
First, it's covered with slime. This small knife is clean, sharp, and has a long, thin blade and a wooden handle. Only the tip of the blade appears at all dull or used.

“First, it’s covered with slime” is an accurate — and amusing — way to keep the game’s object descriptions consistent with the change in state enacted in the previous command. Also, hat tip to the evocative description indicating that only the tip of the blade is used — a fantastic way to convey “this is a stabber”.

Finally, there are some nice little touches with randomized text. The elevator graffiti is a great example — various snippets that convey the university’s culture, including “I.H.T.F.P.”, which I had to look up. Also, there’s a bit in the death message that says, “something gnawing on your nose thinks it’s pretty wonderful”, except that the body part changes at random — ears, tongue, fingertips, and so forth. That’s kinda fun.

We saw that death message an awful lot, because there are a couple of pretty tightly timed and unforgiving action sequences in the game: the attempted sacrifice with the professor and the aforementioned final scene. I’m of two minds about this approach. On the one hand, it can be very tedious to run through the same scene over and over again, making tiny adjustments each time. On the other hand, making the timing so unforgiving created a huge sense of triumph when we were actually able to thread the needle. Given the horror genre, this might still be the best way to pull off the “narrow escape” trope in IF.

And because this is a horror game, I’ve saved the most horrifying parts for last. Behold, if you dare:

  • There’s a sleep timer. And going to sleep kills you. Granted, there’s a mitigation available — the Coke bottle — but that’s a finite resource that only delays the end.
  • There’s a light limit, without any mitigation. You run out of light, you gotta start over.
  • There are TWO kinds of inventory limit — the typical Infocom double whammy of “you’re carrying too many things” and “your load is too heavy.” And of course, getting low on the sleep timer makes the latter limit even stricter. This was especially painful in the final scene, when we kept figuring out things we needed, and had to trundle all the way back through the maze to pick up whatever item from the room where we’d piled everything up.
  • Did I mention that there’s a maze? There’s a maze.

As is pretty much always the case with these Infocom games, we had to restart in order to optimize our playthrough against the game’s timers, in this case both light and sleep. Who know that when I named this the “Infocom >RESTART project”, it would play out so literally? Not a fun way of extending the game’s playtime.

Speaking of “not a fun way to extend the game’s playtime”, a maze — no matter how thematic or atmospheric — is still a goddamned maze. There is no intellectual pleasure to solving this kind of puzzle, just sheer bloody-mindedness. Now, it turns out that there’s a mitigation for this one as well, and I found it when I played the game as a college student. However, Dante and I did not find it, and in the meantime I’d forgotten about it, so we had to map the maze the grueling, old-fashioned way. Both tortuous and torturous.

These are artifacts of old-school IF, the kind that Infocom was evolving through during their history. It’s too bad they were still lingering on for the creation of this game, because otherwise it is absolutely stellar. Still, what’s a Lovecraftian tale without an infestation from things that simply SHOULD NOT BE?

Spellbreaker [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Spellbreaker
[This review contains many major spoilers for Spellbreaker and some mild to moderate spoilers for Zork and Enchanter series games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

When I first started listening to the Beatles as a kid, I listened to the hits, and to me they were all just Beatles songs. Before too long, I could feel the differences between the early stuff (i.e. the red album) and the later stuff (the blue album.) From there I moved away from hits collections into regular releases, and my ears began to pick up the Paul songs, versus the John songs, versus the George songs, versus the Ringo songs. Sufficient listening, reading, and attention got me to the point of fine discernment, understanding the subtle but unmistakable differences between Rubber Soul Paul vs. Revolver Paul, or between Let It Be George and Abbey Road George.

Where am I going with this? The voices within Infocom, pretty clearly the Beatles of interactive fiction, reveal themselves similarly given sufficient attention. At first they all feel like just Infocom games, but we can start to pick out the styles after a while. There’s the brash, prolific, and eclectic Meretzky, the cerebral Blank, the ambitious and enthusiastic Moriarty, and so on. Spellbreaker belongs indelibly to the voice of Dave Lebling, possibly the finest writer of the lot, and a creator who lovingly balanced sober themes with dry humor, biting understatement with mathematical intricacy. Not only that, this is classic mid-period Lebling, a flowering of IF’s potential before the chillier days of commercial retrenchment set in.


Spellbreaker was one of my favorite Infocom games when I was playing them in the ’80s, and I was particularly excited to share it with Dante. Looking at the game now, I think it holds up quite well, though I do have some critiques here and there. In particular, Lebling’s writing really shines. Just in the introduction alone, there are so many artful touches. For instance, when Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers complains about the gradual failing of magic:

>examine sneffle
Sneffle is a small doughy gentleman whose person is splotched here and there with flour.

“Doughy” is a rich word to describe a person, and using it for the baker, without piling on the puns, evokes a strong visual, especially combined with his comical flour-splotches. Then there’s the subtle evocation of Shakespeare when: “In the blink of an eye there stands at the podium, not the orator, but rather a large orange newt.” Eye of newt indeed, and something wicked this way comes.

This game also has some of Infocom’s most vivid imagery, and memories of playing it as a teen have stuck with me strongly through the years. In particular, the “beautiful blue carpet with a strange design of cubes” is something I’ve always wished would manifest in this world. I would buy it in a snap. (Though I’d probably want to haggle the price.) Etsy carpet-weavers, make me an offer. Here’s your product description:

>examine blue carpet
This is a carpet of unusual design. It is blue, beautifully woven and has a pattern that looks different each time you look at it. Sometimes, for example, it's an array of cubes pointing upward, and other times it's the same array pointing downward. There is a jaunty fringe around the outer edge.

In Spellbreaker, which by certain lights is Zork VI, Lebling finds himself in the position of finishing a second trilogy, and tonally he makes some similar choices to what Zork III did. Not that this game is anywhere near as bleak and radical as Zork III was, but it shares a similar feeling of somber grandeur. The ruins and the abandoned castle, in particular, give the same sense of desolation. The Ouroboros snake and the rat-idol, like the Royal Puzzle and the Technology Museum, are once-important landmarks left mouldering and forgotten.

Compared to the “fight the Big Bad” plots of the previous two Enchanter-series installments, this a darker and more adult finale, with richer textures and deeper pleasures than the other two. I’ll have more to say about the plot-level comparison with Zork III when I discuss the endgame, but for now I’ll leave it with the observation that the notion of magic slowly failing is a wonderful metaphor for coming of age, and this game moves IF from innocence to experience in a beautiful and gentle way, which encompasses the seriousness of Zork III but leaves much more room for playfulness than that finale did.

The cover of the Infocom grey box for Spellbreaker

Much of the fun in an Enchanter-ish game is the way that you can use your magic to make changes to yourself and the world around you, and Spellbreaker is no exception. Usually, when an IF game wants to surprise and delight, the author needs to anticipate actions that the player wouldn’t expect to see implemented, and give some fun response to those actions. However, Spellbreaker (and the Enchanter series broadly) gets mileage out of a different technique, which is to allow harmless alterations of the world that enrich the player’s experience without requiring any foresight on the part of the author.

One example of this is how you can frotz various things — the loaf of bread, the roc, et cetera — to make a lantern out of some unassuming object or imagine a puzzle component glowing uncharacteristically. This sort of pleasure was available in previous games, but Lebling adds another layer in Spellbreaker — the ability to label objects with arbitrary names, injecting your own sense of order or humor into the game’s world. Beyond Zork copied this quality but with less success, because (aside from the convenience factor of not having to type out “pterodactyl” all the time) its use was totally superfluous to the game.

Spellbreaker, by contrast, gives us a load of identical items — the cubes — which must be distinguished from each other in order to accomplish a successful playthrough. The ability to label these cubes in whatever way makes the most sense (or seems the most fun) to the player allows us to inject our own personalities into the game’s world. It’s such a pleasure that the Invisiclues even included a section titled “What did we name the cubes here at Infocom?”

Structurally, too, the game feels mature. Rather than a big, sprawling dungeon (like the Zork trilogy games) or a compact trunk full of puzzles (like Enchanter and, to a lesser extent, Sorcerer), Spellbreaker incorporates many dimensions and many sub-maps, which sometimes link into larger maps. Lebling themes these dimensions around fundamental elements, forces, and concepts, allowing players to feel that their travels are not only traversing a map but encompassing, via metaphor, the full universe of the game. Each new discovery not only expands the world but enriches it as well — rather like the mapping version of how the spell mechanic deepened the Zork game model. The ability to travel via cube gives us new angles on previously visited locations, as well as new locations, just as the ability to cast spells gave us new angles on puzzle-solving, along with all the old ones that were still available to us.


One of those spells, “snavig”, proves particularly entertaining. This spell allows the PC to transform into any nearby creature, which not only underpins several puzzles but is also an imaginative delight. In particular, Spellbreaker breaks the trend of grue avoidance and lets us become a grue at last! This in turn enables one of the most fun Easter eggs in the game:

>snavig grue
You feel yourself changing in a very unpleasant way. Your claws feel odd, and you have an uncontrollable tendency to slaver. You gurgle vilely to yourself, worrying about the presence of light. Directly in front of you, a horrific creature recoils with a look of shocked surprise. It scuttles off, perplexed.

You do that very well for such an inexperienced grue.

It’s fitting that Lebling, the inventor of the grue (for IF purposes), got to flesh them out with such panache here. Spellbreaker would be Lebling’s last grue-infested game.

“Snavig” feels indebted to the “polymorph” spell from Dungeons and Dragons, and it’s one of a few clear D&D tributes in this game. I’ve written before about IF’s connections to the classic tabletop RPG, and it’s worth mentioning again that Dave Lebling was a member of Will Crowther’s D&D group, which influenced Crowther’s genre-founding cave-exploration simulator. Besides polymorphing, the game strikes another D&D note when it lets you pry a gem out of the eye of a giant idol, a clear homage to the classic painting on the cover of the first edition Player’s Handbook.

The painting on the cover of the first edition AD&D Player's Handbook, by David Trampier. Two burglars are prying a gem from the eye of a huge demon statue, while various adventurers wait in the foreground by the body of a slain lizard-man.

The game’s biggest and best D&D tribute, though, is the magic zipper — a Bag of Holding in all but name. Just as frotz removed light source puzzles and rezrov removed locked door puzzles, so does the magic zipper remove inventory limit “puzzles” by allowing the player to carry a functionally infinite number of items. (How I wish it had been in Beyond Zork!) And just as these games found ways to create light and lock puzzles despite frotz and rezrov, this game finds a way to make the removal of inventory limits a detriment to the player, by including a puzzle that requires an inventory object to be sitting on the ground.


This puzzle — the gold box — has a great concept, but in practice it’s just underclued. In case it’s been a while: each cube has an exit that seems impassable, but it turns out that it really goes to wherever the gold box is if the gold box is keyed to that cube. However, because it’s counterintuitive adventurer behavior to not carry around everything you can, Dante and I never had occasion to find this out without turning to the hints, despite the fact that we knew the gold box was important and we understood it could be tuned to different cubes. The puzzle feels reminiscent of those puzzles in Zork II and Enchanter where you need to not have a light source.

However, those light source puzzles were hinted at — perhaps obliquely (especially in the case of Zork II), but hinted nonetheless. No such luck in Spellbreaker, and consequently it stumped us. Maybe if the opened “impassable” exit felt a little less rigid, even when you’re holding the box? Or if the phrasing when trying to put anything other than a cube in the box was a parallel to trying to go through the impassable exit? There needs to be something more to link the box to what it does — otherwise it’s hard to imagine many people actually figuring this out rather than stumbling upon it by flailing blindly. Perhaps I’m overstepping in that speculation, but it was certainly the case for us. Ironically, an inventory limit might have helped here, but what would have helped much more is better cueing.

The gold box puzzle is one of a few places where it felt like the game was trying to live up to its “Expert” difficulty rating. The last third (or so) of Spellbreaker has several puzzles which require quite a bit of patience — the octagonal rooms, the flat plain, and worst of all the cube piles. As you can probably tell from that summary, Dante and I found them a mixed bag. There was a certain elegance and satisfaction to the first two, but we face-planted completely on the last one. According to the Invisiclues, those cube piles are “a variation of a classic coin-weighing puzzle” — one coin may be heavier or lighter than 11 identical others, and you have to figure out which with only three weighings — but we never did solve it. We just got through it with dumb luck (and a lot of save and restore). None of these math/mapping/logic puzzles were as enjoyable for us to play through as the first two-thirds of the game, but that may be mainly a matter of taste. Except for the coin puzzle, at which I shake my fist one last time.


As I’ve mentioned, the cubes tie the game together and thematically traverse numerous fundamental concepts. As you progress through the game, you move from exploring the classical world of material elements — fire, earth, air, water — into an immaterial realm of concepts — connectivity, time, mind, life, death. Further, while the classical elements may make up our world, some of those more conceptual elements underpin the virtual world of the game. Connectivity suggests pointers in code, and the “No Place” of the mind cube is like a null pointer, or a null value. Connections between nodes run underneath the game at the code level, and within the game at the map level, not to mention that the title “String Room” is itself a string within the game’s code, along with every other snippet of language it contains. The binary oppositions (light/dark, life/death) evoke the ones and zeroes underneath it all.

Finally, there is magic, which is what happens when creatures like us from the material world use life and mind over time to interact with the virtual environment. Immersion is the closest we get to magic, and Spellbreaker is a masterfully immersive game — Dante and I made the fewest notes of any Infocom playthrough, because we found the experience so involving.

But startlingly, our final aim (it emerges) is to eliminate magic. There’s another interesting parallel with Zork III here. In that game, you become the owner of creation, by gathering the elements that distinguish its ownership. Here, you become responsible for creation by gathering the elements that define its existence, and what you must protect it from is yourself, or at least the worst version of you. Then, rather than safeguarding a dungeon of wonders, you must create a universe of mundanity.

The final screen from a winning playthrough of Spellbreaker.

The notion of a literal, magical shadow self echoes Zork III once again, wherein you must strike your shadow self down with a magical sword, then show compassion to it. Here, rather than a mystical test imposed by a godlike figure, your shadow is the result of magic itself, an “evil twin” that grows in power every time you cast a spell. Thus, if you eliminate the magic, you eliminate the evil.

It’s a nice thought, and Spellbreaker sells it skillfully, but it’s pretty problematic on inspection. The magical shadow only literalizes a truth — that the exercise of power is itself a creator of potential corruption. In 2022 it is painfully evident that even in a world without magic, we must regularly contend with humans controlled by their shadow sides in their desire to obtain and retain power. If only we could so simply remove the element of our existence that creates this quality, but we would have to remove ourselves. The problem isn’t magic — it’s humans.

There’s a less allegorical way to interpret this, though. In the end, what your shadow does is to create — implement — a universe. Your job is to remove the magic from the center of that universe. (We replaced it with a chunk of rye bread (providing light), a slyly still-a-little-bit-magical keystone.) The idea of turning a miraculous universe into an ordinary one (replacing mages with scientists) feels on one level like a counterintuitive, anti-creative notion. But it is an intriguing one for a magical world running on a scientific platform.

Also, there is this: perhaps solving puzzles unwinds the magic. Once you’ve played through Spellbreaker, it’s done. Sure, you can explore nooks and crannies here and there, but it has been dismantled for you. A solved puzzle is like a deconstructed hypercube — mysterious and compelling in its original form, but just a set of lines once it’s been taken apart. We can appreciate the elegance of what it was, but to solve it is to take the magic from the center of it. That is, until you allow sufficient time to pass, and revisit it with someone new along. Then it malyons back to life, ready to dance its enchanting little jig once more.