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.

>EXAMINE WRITING AND STRUCTURE

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.

>COMPARE SPELLBREAKER TO D&D

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.

>slaver
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.

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

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.

>WHAT IS MAGIC?

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.

Beyond Zork [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Beyond Zork
[This review contains many spoilers for Beyond Zork. I’ve written an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

To play the next game with the Zork brand, Dante and I jumped forward five years, from 1982 to 1987. By this time, Infocom was well-established and successful, but it also found itself reckoning with trends in the computer game industry that threatened interactive fiction, and prominent among those was the CRPG, the Computer Role-Playing Game.

>CONNECT IF TO RPG

As I said in the Zork I review, Zork was created in the shadow of Adventure, which itself was in the shadow of Dungeons and Dragons. Adventure co-creator Will Crowther was partly inspired by his experiences in a D&D group — one which apparently included Zork co-author Dave Lebling! — to combine his caving experiences with his gaming experiences. Zork, in turn, included randomized combat with the troll and thief, though it turns quickly away from the D&D model into something more static and puzzly.

In the meantime, game developers continued to make inroads on replicating the D&D experience via a computer. The Ultima and Wizardry series got their starts shortly after Zork I was released, mapping the initial territory of the CRPG. These games were much lighter on description and puzzles than Infocom’s work, but they offered the joys of hacking and slashing your way through hordes of monsters, and gradually increasing in power as you do so. It took quite a while for a game to surface with the actual D&D license, but the way having been paved by the CRPGs of the early and mid-Eighties, it was only a matter of time before two of the big geek trends of the era combined.

That first D&D game was called Pool of Radiance, which brings us in a rather roundabout way to Beyond Zork. This game is Infocom’s attempt to bridge the gap between IF and CRPG, and in fact it includes an actual pool of radiance. The connection seems far too on-the-nose to be coincidental, but it’s true that the D&D game didn’t come out until 1988, whereas Beyond Zork was released in 1987. Perhaps Brian Moriarty, the author of Beyond Zork, knew the D&D game’s title in advance and decided to write an anticipatory homage? In any case, while Beyond Zork tries to bridge a chasm betwen two genres, it also itself features a chasm whose bridge cannot be crossed. Moriarty’s subconscious may have been telling him something, because the connection between IF and CRPG is a pretty uncomfortable one, at least in Beyond Zork.

Like most RPGs, this game starts out by asking you to build a character, and Dante and I obligingly did so. We named him Azenev. (If you know Dante well, you might guess that this is an N.K. Jemisin reference, and you’d be right. It’s a backwards spelling of a character name from Jemisin’s The City We Became.) We built Azenev from six attributes: endurance, strength, dexterity, intelligence, compassion, and luck — a pretty close mapping to D&D‘s strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. Here’s where Problem Number One surfaced: we had no idea which attributes would be important. We tried to make him pretty balanced, though Dante felt like luck could make a big difference in everything, so we poured some extra points into that.

Well, it turns out that luck doesn’t seem to make a substantial difference in very much of anything, so Azenev version 1 met his demise almost immediately. One would hope that with a balanced character you’d be able to survive and thrive in an RPG, but not in this one. Apparently endurance is the key stat, given that attacks reduce it and you die when it runs out. So we rebuilt Azenev with more endurance and less luck, but still didn’t fare much better, because of Problem Number Two: monster mismatches.

In a typical RPG, be it computer or tabletop, your character starts out weak — level one. With a character like this, you can’t go out and fight dragons or ogres, so a well-designed game throws you some monsters you can handle — maybe big spiders, or little goblins, or medium-sized rats. When you conquer those, eventually you level up, and can face the next tier of danger, continuing through that cycle until you finally can smite mighty dragons.

Image from the Beyond Zork feelies, describing the cruel puppet and the dust bunnies.

Beyond Zork allows players no such accommodation! You start at level 0 (even weaker than level 1!), but you can encounter powerful adversaries at any time, with no real way to tell how powerful they are, except how fast they kill you. One of the first monsters we ran into is called a “cruel puppet”. It’s an entertaining enough creation — a marionette-looking thing that drains your endurance with vicious insults. But it is in no way appropriate for a zero-level character to face. Dante and I died over and over and OVER to the cruel puppet. We died after using a healing potion. We died after figuring out how to wield our weapon. We died after leveling up our character. We died after upgrading our weapon. We died after retreating to heal and then coming back. We just. Kept. Dying.

This is not fun, but I think I understand why Moriarty designed the game this way. He was wrestling with the tension between Infocom’s bias towards large-world exploration and the RPG’s tendency to tailor the story and encounters towards the character’s level. In addition, he was trying to reconcile IF’s narrative qualities against “crunchy” RPG mechanics that show you things like the level, attack power, defense strength, and health of everybody in the fictional world. Getting to explore the whole world right off the bat meant that we could easily and quickly wander way out of our depth, and leaning towards IF narrative meant that we had none of that crunchiness available to tell us that we’d need to be much more powerful before venturing in.

Defining the problems suggests the solutions. Maybe the game could have scaled encounters to character level, so that any monster you meet is just powerful enough to present a reasonable challenge. Maybe it could have shown more stats on monsters — as it is, the only way to tell a monster’s health is by examining it, and not only does that cost you a turn where the monster can attack you, it also gives vague descriptions like “gravely wounded” and “seriously wounded” — which is worse? Or maybe it could cordon off areas of the game until you’re powerful enough to face them. The trouble is, Infocom likes to cordon off game sections with puzzles, and your ability to solve a puzzle has little bearing on the power of your character.

There is an area where Moriarty blends all these things quite successfully: the cellar of the Rusty Lantern inn. You enter this cellar in search of a particular bottle of wine, and the cook slams and locks the door behind you. In the course of exploring the cellar, you’ll encounter low-level monsters that can be defeated by a weak character, treasures that can be sold to buy better gear, magic items that also upgrade you, and a means of improving one of your character’s stats, in this case dexterity. Staying alive in the cellar and getting out of it require puzzle-solving, and when you emerge you’ll likely have leveled up, improved your stats, and acquired some good loot. It’s very satisfying!

I’m inclined to think that maybe Beyond Zork should have forced that sequence first, or at least steered us toward it much more emphatically, rather than letting us traipse around a bunch of set pieces that were much too hazardous for us. In fact, if the entire game had been structured as a series of these compact mini-games, with interconnections between them and a common landing place to buy gear, that would have gone a long way toward settling the conflict between the IF and RPG conventions.

However, that on its own wouldn’t have been enough to deal with Problem Number Three: challenges that depend on stats. In trying to meld RPG mechanics with traditional IF, Moriarty runs into serious friction between the two, created by basing story barriers around the character’s attribute scores. In a tabletop RPG, each character has strengths and limitations, but multiple characters bind themselves together into a party who balance each other out. In IF, the character is solo, but typically not bound to attribute scores, so they are a purer proxy for the player’s puzzle-solving. So in a solo RPG, the PC’s limitations remain unchecked, which risks making certain barriers difficult or impossible to pass. Solo CRPGs typically manage this by adding numerous NPCs to the player’s party. Solo tabletop RPGs are certainly possible, but they require a DM or an adventure that is flexible enough to shape the story around that one player’s character. Beyond Zork does neither of these things, and therefore the elements never quite jell.

For example, if your intelligence score is too low in Beyond Zork, you’ll be unable to read the magic scrolls that are critical to solving certain puzzles. There’s no brainy wizard in your party to help out, so a low score in that stat means you’re just out of luck. (Your luck stat does not help.) Now, there are ways to possibly make up these deficits, and in the case of intelligence, one gets provided for free, though Dante and I still lost access to it, for reasons I’ll explain later. For other attributes and weaknesses, though, the improvements tend to cost money, and the game’s major source of money is locked behind its worst puzzle. More about that later, too. Other times, the improvements are locked behind layers of puzzles, none of which are terrible but due to the interwoven nature of everything, it’s very difficult to get past those puzzles until you’ve defeated the enemies that you needed the improvement for in the first place. The strength-enhancing morgia root is a perfect example of this — only available after large portions of the game have already been conquered, by which point it makes little difference.

Cover of Beyond Zork

There’s a Problem Number Four, or perhaps Problem Number Zero, because it’s fundamental to the others: hidden mechanics. If you’re playing a tabletop RPG, the rules are available. Sure, the DM may have some nasty surprises in store for you, but everybody is playing from the same set of books. Now, there’s a discussion about metagaming to be had here. Metagaming, for those who don’t know, is the term for when a player makes decisions based on information that would be unavailable to that player’s character, such as, “I’ve read the Monster Manual, and I know that the cruel puppet has 200 hit points, so my character runs away.” This sort of thing is emphatically frowned upon in RPG circles. So it’s fair enough to say that the game master (or game designer as the case may be) must keep some things hidden in order to keep the narrative’s boundaries logical. However, at least for Dante and I, understanding the mechanics behind this game’s pronouncements would have saved us a lot of frustration.

For instance, there’s a scrystone (read: crystal ball), about which we’re told: “Visions of things yet to be lie within its depths, for those with enough wit to see them.” When we look into it, we just see an “unintelligible swirl.” Well that sure sounds like we need to boost our intelligence stat, and hooray, we know just what to do — let’s buy that Potion of Enlightenment and drink it. So we do that, it boosts our intelligence stat, we look in the scrystone again, and… our boosted intelligence makes zero difference. Now, behind the scenes, it turns out that the scrystone requires an extremely high intelligence, and there is only one item in the game that provides that kind of massive boost. Without understanding that requirement, though, we were left to feel that the game simply misled us, and that improved intelligence is not the way to solve the puzzle.

>KILL INVENTORY LIMIT

For our entire playthrough, we found ourselves frequently guessing blindly at how our stats were affecting gameplay. For example, would this game’s extremely annoying inventory limits have been relieved had we had more strength or dexterity? Because if so, boy oh boy would I have maxed those stats. I ran into more infuriating inventory limit nonsense in this game than in any other Infocom game before or since in this >RESTART series. Here’s a prime example — we’re wandering through the market when somebody drops a “fish cake”. We’ve read in the feelies that eating fish increases intelligence, so we want that thing. But…

>n
"Oof!"
The street hawker you just bumped into glowers. "Watch where I'm goin', will ya!" You clumsily help to pick up her spilled wares; she stomps away without a word of thanks.
As you dust yourself off, you notice something lying in the dust.

>get fish cake
Your hands are full.

>put all in pack
The scroll of Fireworks: Done.
The potion of Forgetfulness: Done.
The rabbit's foot: Done.
The staff of Eversion: Done.
The scroll of Mischief: Done.
The bit of salt: Done.
An alley cat races between your legs, snatches the fish cake and disappears into the crowd.

ARGH! Tightly timed object availability plus clunky inventory mechanics equals super frustrated IF player. (Also, I wonder how it is that I help her to pick up her spilled wares if my hands are so full?) By this time in our play session, Dante and I had made a fair bit of progress but hadn’t saved recently; we just didn’t have the appetite for replaying through all of it just to make sure we bumped into a totally sudden and arbitrary encounter with our hands free. We decided to just forego the intelligence boost, since we were at least able to read. That did make for a moment, though, after the potion of Enlightenment failed to help us read the scrystone, where I wondered through my curses if we had been blocked from winning the entire game due to a frickin’ inventory limit early on.

You may note that the game provides a pack. This is very helpful! However, Infocom never quite got to the point that Graham Nelson reached in the Inform libraries, where not only does the player carry a sack object, but the game automatically handles all the tedium of putting something old into the sack when the PC picks up something new. Consequently, we’re unable to grab that fish cake even though we know exactly how to do it.

We ran into this very same issue when trying to accept the goblet from the Implementors. A group of gods tries to hand us a holy object, and Beyond Zork is hitting us with, “Your load is too heavy.” By this point, we were carrying enough around that even the pack didn’t help. (That’s right, it too has a limit.) The Implementors get more and more annoyed at our “contrariness” in not picking up the goblet, and they eventually force it into our hands, only for it to immediately clatter to the ground again. The hilarious part is that if anybody should understand why we can’t pick it up, it should be the Implementors! God how I would have loved it if one of them had said, “Oh hey, looks like his load is too heavy. Let me just do away with that problem forever so he can take this nice goblet.”

Instead, the pack helped just enough with the problem of carrying things that we weren’t using our previous Zorky method of leaving a bunch of stuff at one location, but it didn’t help so much that we didn’t still find ourselves unable to pick up things in timed situations. In fact, about three-quarters of the way through the game, we did resort to our old Zorky ways, leaving a pile of objects at the Hilltop starting location.

Part of what made our inventory so dang full was the profusion of items in this game. Magic items abound — scrolls, potions, and all manner of point-and-enchant doohickeys. There’s a cane, a wand, a rod, a stick, and both a staff and a stave. The identity of these items changes from one playthrough to the next — you might find a stave of Sayonara in one game, but if you restart you could end up with a stave of Dispel. That’s one of several ways that Moriarty brings in the RPG trope of randomness.

The "Southland of Quendor" map from the Beyond Zork feelies

Of course there’s the randomized combat — get lucky enough with your hidden dice rolls and maybe you can overcome that strong monster in your way. (Not the cruel puppet, though. Never the cruel puppet.) But even beyond that, items are randomized, and the very landscape is randomized. Though the general layout of regions in Beyond Zork is a constant, the internal geography of those regions varies by playthrough. The geographical randomization works pretty well, thanks in part to the handy onscreen map provided. For each region (forest, swamp, jungle, etc.) Moriarty provides a grab-bag of locations with evocative names and descriptions, and then the game decides randomly (within set parameters) how they’re laid out in relation to each other in that region. Then within those locations, items and monsters are also placed randomly. This can sometimes affect difficulty, such as when two key areas that interact in a puzzle get randomly placed far apart, but for the most part it just adds flavor.

Randomization of items can be a little more frustrating, as it can determine whether a certain item is just lying on the ground, or whether it costs money in a shop. In the latter case, you have to defeat some monsters and gain some treasures in order to purchase said item. As I’ve mentioned, that’s not always so straightforward a task with an under-leveled character.

>CRY ABOUT TEAR

Now that we’re back to the topic of purchasing, let’s dig into the puzzle that nearly ruins this game: the Crocodile’s Tear. In my first encounter with Beyond Zork, as a teenager in the 1980s, this puzzle really did ruin the game for me — I abandoned the whole thing after a long struggle. Abandoning a game was quite a last resort in those days, as it had cost a lot of money to acquire, and I had pretty much unlimited time to spend on it. But after a year (not exaggerating) of on-and-off struggling against this puzzle, I simply could not find a way through it, and there was no Internet full of answers to consult. By that point, I was too disgusted to consider buying Invisiclues. I felt like somehow the game wasn’t playing fair with me, and I turned out to be correct.

When Dante and I encountered the puzzle, there was no question that we’d get through it, just a question of whether we’d need to consult hints — easy enough to do in the 21st century but still a sign of failure on someone’s part, either the game’s or ours. But like my teenaged self, Dante could not solve the puzzle on his own, and I must have repressed the solution, because I needed a hint too.

I’ll break this puzzle down, but first a little digression to give some background. Recall that one of the PC’s attributes is a compassion score. This seems like a bit of an odd stat for an RPG — it’s certainly not any good in a fight, and it doesn’t seem to help with using magic or solving puzzles. (Turns out it matters in the endgame, but there’s obviously no way of knowing that until you reach it.) You can boost your compassion score, though, by doing compassionate things, like rescuing a unicorn locked in a stable, or saving a minx (cute cat-like creature) from a hunter. These scenes are written and constructed beautifully, particularly the minx. Rescuing these poor creatures and raising our compassion is far more heartstring-tugging than anything in the original trilogy. (It helps that we have a very fluffy cat at home, who does not say “minx” but might as well.)

Keep all that in mind as we talk about the Crocodile’s Tear. The Tear is a legendary sapphire, found in Beyond Zork‘s jungle section. It’s worth much more money than all the other treasures in the game put together. You find it attached to a huge stone crocodile idol, at the back of the idol’s gaping maw. Trouble is, when you climb the lower jaw to get to the jewel, the jaw tilts like a seesaw, making it so that you can’t quite reach the treasure, and when you lean too hard, the jaw tilts backward and drops you into the idol’s interior.

So far, so fair. Maybe we need a stick to reach to the gem, or a projectile to knock it loose, or a counterweight to allow us to keep climbing the jaw after we pass its fulcrum. We tried all these things, in many permutations. We were especially hopeful when we acquired a sea chest, which is definitely both heavy and bulky — I’ve got the painful inventory management transcripts to prove it. We set that sea chest on the maw — which the parser allows without complaint — but it did absolutely nothing to counterbalance us. Sigh. Finally, after lots of failed attempts at getting this jewel, we turned to the hints, and were shocked at the intended solution.

Pages from the Beyond Zork feelies describing the hungus and spenseweed.

See, nearby the idol (well, nearby or a ways away, depending on how the jungle region was randomly laid out) is a heart-rending scene. A mother hungus (part hippo, part sheep) is with her baby. The baby is trapped in a pool of quicksand. The mother gazes anxiously at the baby. She bellows impotently, and the baby responds. If you should walk away, the baby hungus bellows mournfully. Well, the answer to this one is obvious. We’ve got a stick of Levitation, so we point that at the baby hungus, and this happens:

The baby hungus bellows with surprise as he rises out of the quicksand! Sweat breaks out on your forehead as you guide the heavy burden over the mud and safely down to the ground.
The ungainly creature nuzzles you with his muddy snout, and bats his eyelashes with joy and gratitude. Then he ambles away into the jungle to find his mother, pausing for a final bellow of farewell.
[Your compassion just went up.]

Fantastic! We’ve raised our compassion again. What does this have to do with the Crocodile’s Tear, you may be asking? Well, it turns out that the solution to that puzzle is to attack the baby hungus while it’s stuck in the quicksand. (Strangely, attacking the baby hungus does not make your compassion score go down, though it surely should.) That gets the mother mad enough that she’ll chase after us, and if we climb onto the stone maw, she’ll stand on the other end, counterbalancing it so we can get the jewel.

We found this outrageous. The notion of attacking a baby animal in peril is so completely against the grain of everything else Beyond Zork asks us to do, and so generally repellent, that it absolutely should not be the solution to anything. Not only that, doing the compassionate thing actually makes the game unwinnable! Let me say that again: saving a baby animal from dying (or at least, doing so before attacking it first) ensures that you cannot win the game, because the hunguses disappear from the game after you rescue the baby. This might be the worst puzzle in the entire Infocom canon. It’s all the more surprising coming from Moriarty, who had already done such brilliant work in Trinity exploring player complicity and moral culpability with an animal-killing puzzle. Here, instead of a metaphorically freighted moment of tragedy, the animal cruelty is treated as a mere mechanical device — it’s both disappointing and baffling.

If you’ve read other entries in this series, you might recall that every Zork game so far has forced Dante and I to restart, for one reason or another. Well, this puzzle forced us to restart Beyond Zork, because of course it did. Who attacks a baby animal before saving it? Actually, this was the second time we’d had to restart. The first was caused by a different sort of inventory limit — magic items that only had a limited number of uses. Certain areas of the game are unreachable except via these items, and if you run out of “charges” for them before you’ve solved everything in the area, it’s off to restart-land you must travel.

>ENJOY GAME

So, that was a lot of ranting. I’m out of breath. Let me wind this up by talking about some of the things we really enjoyed in Beyond Zork, of which there were really quite a few, despite all my complaints above. I haven’t spoken at all about the game’s primary technical innovation, a multi-windowed display which always shows a boxes-and-lines map and relevant information such as inventory contents, room description or character stats alongside the game’s main text. That’s how, in the text above, we knew to say “get fish cake” even though the transcript only said “you notice something lying in the dust” — the room description window identified the fish cake. This display was very slick for an Infocom game at the time, and still works pretty well. I think my favorite thing, though, is the way you can use the number pad to navigate — for instance, pressing 8 on the number pad automatically enters “NORTH” and a carriage return into the parser. Combined with the map, this was an awesomely fast and easy way to get around. I wish more IF games did it now.

A screenshot from Beyond Zork, showing the onscreen map, the description window, and the parser interaction below both.

Another highlight of the game is its humor. Moriarty knows his way around a joke, such as this bit from a gondola conductor, which continued to amuse us throughout the game, despite how many times we saw it:

“Thirsty?” asks the conductor. “Stop by the Skyway Adventure Emporium for a tall, frosty Granola Float.” He smacks his lips dispiritedly. “Mmm, so good.”

Moriarty also does a lovely job of tapping into the general joy of Infocom’s tone and culture. By 1987, a whole lot of love had gone into the Zork universe — although this was the first game to carry the “Zork” name since Zork III, there were several intervening games set in the milieu that filled the gap, namely the Enchanter series and Moriarty’s own Wishbringer. With all this history established, Moriarty can draw on quite a few sources for references, jokes, and general explanations of what’s going on.

Now, we hadn’t played all those other games at the time we ran through Beyond Zork, so many of the references were lost on Dante, and sometimes only dimly recalled by me. But writing this review now that we’ve played them all, I can appreciate the game’s easy command of Enchanter-ese, such as “yonked a girgol just in time.” There’s another mailbox, with another leaflet, this one yielding a burin, which is a co-star of Spellbreaker, the game at the other end of the Zork spectrum. The unicorns all wear gold keys around their necks, a la Zork II. The boot crushed by the farmhouse is quite reminiscent of the Boot Patrol in Wishbringer, and the platypus recalls that game’s feelies, not to mention being emblematic of Moriarty’s sense of humor. All these allusions gave us (especially me) that warm insider feeling of, “Hey, I understood that reference.” Similarly, the scenes of recent or future Infocom games visible in the scrystone (Hitchhiker’s Guide, Zork Zero, Shogun) are a delight.

There are plenty of good puzzles in the game, too — it isn’t all attacking babies. This was our first game with copy protection via feelies, and it was a lot of fun leaning on The Lore and Legends of Quendor to help solve puzzles. The dust bunnies and dornbeast were particularly successful examples of this. The gray fields area is another pretty successful puzzle box. We appreciated the way it unfolds in layers — first entry, then understanding the scarecrows, then figuring out the use of the sense organ, and finally the Wizard of Oz sequence, relying on what you’d learned in the other parts. The subtle changes with the corbies and the corn are the kind of thing that work gangbusters in text but would be very hard to pull off with the same nuance in graphics.

Overall, we had a lot of fun with Beyond Zork despite its flaws, and I looked forward to replaying the next Infocom Zork game — the most technically sophisticated of them all, and certainly the biggest. Ahead of us was final Zork game from Infocom as an actual artistic ensemble rather than just a brand name, though in another way, it was the first: Zork Zero.

Interactive Fiction And Reader-Response Criticism (academic paper) [Misc]

[As I mentioned in the previous post, I wrote a paper about IF for a graduate class in literary theory, circa 1994. I think it’s the first thing I ever wrote about interactive fiction — before I knew anything about the indie IF scene or the int-fiction newsgroups at all. Below is that paper, HTML-ized and with various links added, but otherwise identical to what I turned in.]

>examine the map
The map shows a network of boxes connected by lines and arrows, with many erasures and scrawled additions. Something about the pattern is maddeningly familiar; but you still can’t put your finger on where you’ve seen it before.

>examine the book
The open book is so wide, it’s impossible to touch both edges with your arms outstretched. Its thousands of vellum leaves form a two-foot heap on either side of the spine; the rich binding probably required the cooperation of twenty calves.

The magpie croaks, “Then stand back! ‘Cause it go BOOM. Awk!”

>read the book
It’s hard to divine the purpose of the calligraphy. Every page begins with a descriptive heading (“Wabewalker’s encounter with a Magpie,” for instance) followed by a list of imperatives (prayers? formulae?), each preceded by an arrow-shaped glyph.

The writing ends abruptly on the page you found open, under the heading “Wabewalker puzzles yet again over the Book of Hours.” The last few incantations read:

>EXAMINE THE MAP
>EXAMINE THE BOOK
>READ THE BOOK
Trinity with Paul O’Brian

An electronic fiction is not only a fictional universe but a universe of possible fictions.

–Jay David Bolter (Tuman 34)

The long passage above is from a fictional text about an adventurous individual who discovers the secrets of a magical land in order to avert nuclear annihilation on Earth. It has all the qualities of a traditional1 fantasy narrative — fantastic setting, magical transportation, eerie symbolism — but it is not a traditional fantasy narrative. It has no pages, no hard covers, in fact it isn’t a book at all. It is a piece of computer software, an adventure game entitled Trinity, one which boasts no graphics or fancy features — just text and a “parser” programmed to understand simple sentences typed by the player. Its makers, a company called Infocom, call it “interactive fiction,” and the sentences following the “>” sign were typed by me, accepted into the computer, and processed for a response. The scene I chose was a rather metafictional one, where the player/reader comes across a book within the context of the game which records every move that he or she types at the prompt (“>”).

Interactive fiction (hereafter shortened to IF) is an extremely new form, the most primitive incarnation of which surfaced only about 20 years ago, but already it challenges deeply entrenched notions of narrative, authorship, and reading theory. It demands (and helps to enact) new theories of subjectivity, and presents us with a narrative form which is familiar in some ways, but which in other ways is utterly alien. Its novelty and its radical differences from print narrative make it difficult to theorize, but I hope to make a few definite steps in that direction here. As I see it, literary criticism of traditional texts, especially reader-response criticism, can help us in an endeavor to understand this new form. Theorists like Wolfgang Iser, Norman Holland, and Stanley Fish have created theories aimed at traditional texts which seem custom-made for interactive fiction. In this paper, I will attempt to theorize the computer text through the lens of their theories, and to explore the avenues opened by interactive fiction which offer both a better understanding of this tremendously potent literary form and a fresh perspective on literary theory itself. Before this is possible, however, we need a clearer understanding of the subject at hand.

WHAT IS IF?

Previous critical approaches to IF have had to concern themselves so much with explaining how it came to exist that by the time they got to theorizing, they had largely run out of steam. I hope to avoid that trap by providing an extremely brief history of the evolution of IF, and referring the curious reader to Anthony Niesz and Norman Holland, who provide the best concise narrative of IF’s development.

IF developed in the early 1970s on large university mainframe computers, at which point it was little different from the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels of print fiction (“If you want to get in the helicopter, turn to page 12. If you want to go home, turn to page 16”). David Lebling and Marc Blank, working on the mainframe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, co-authored Zork, the first game whose parser could understand complete sentences (“Get all but the dagger and the rope”) rather than simple two word commands (“look frog”). The game, a sword-and-sorcery treasure hunt in the Dungeons and Dragons pattern, spread rapidly to other mainframe systems and was such a tremendous success that when personal computers began to proliferate, Blank and Lebling transposed Zork to the PC format and founded a company, Infocom, from which to sell it. Again, it was successful, and Infocom followed it with four sequels (a fifth is forthcoming) and more than 25 other works of IF in the literary traditions of mystery, science-fiction, adventure, romance, and others. Many other companies created programs which followed this trend, but Infocom remained the publisher not only of the highest quality software, but that most dedicated to textual IF rather than graphics or sound-augmented games; for the purpose of clarity and simplicity, this paper will deal only with Infocom programs.2

As indicated by the passage quoted from Trinity, the text of interactive fiction comes in rather short blocks, interrupted by prompts. At a prompt, the program will wait for the player to input her next move. The narrative will not continue until the player responds. Input can consist of anything from the briefest commands (“yell”) to fairly complex sentences (for example, an instruction manual lists “TAKE THE BOOK THEN READ ABOUT THE JESTER IN THE BOOK” as a possible command). The program addresses the player in the second person singular (“you still can’t put your finger on where you’ve seen it before”), a mode which raises interesting questions about the reader’s subjectivity.

IF also calls into question the basic notion of narrative linearity. An Infocom advertising pamphlet reads:

you can actually shape the story’s course of events through your choice of actions. And you have hundreds of alternatives at every step. In fact, an Infocom interactive story is roughly the length of a short novel in content, but there’s so much you can see and do, your adventure can last for weeks, even months. (Incomplete Works)

If the shape of a traditional narrative is a line, an interactive narrative is better conceived of as a web.3 Each prompt, each location in the story, is a nexus from which hundreds of alternate pathways radiate, each leading to new loci. This is not to say that IF destroys linearity, but rather that it removes the responsibility for creating linearity from the author and hands it over directly to the reader. Readers of an IF create their own line through the text, a line which can be different at every reading.

IF AND TRADITIONAL TEXTS

Though it is highly divergent, IF is not completely divorced from traditional texts. For one thing, most IF themes, settings, and structures are drawn directly from literary traditions established by traditional print authors. This extraction can range from simple genre duplication, as in the generalized science-fiction feel of Starcross, to the direct appropriation of character and setting, as in Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels, a mystery based in Arthur Conan Doyle’s London.

Moreover, the programs often incorporate traditional texts into their packaging, texts which frequently contain clues to the puzzles contained within the game. Trinity, for example, includes a comic book dealing with the themes of the text. A Mind Forever Voyaging, which Infocom calls its “entry into the realm of serious science fiction such as 1984” (Unfold), contains an initial chapter in print which sets the scene for the computer narrative and introduces the player to his “role” within the game.

The line between interactive fiction and traditional print texts becomes further blurred when the player uses the SCRIPT function. SCRIPT commands the computer to print out a transcript of the game as it is being played, so that players can have a hard copy of the text they produce in collaboration with the game. Because of its radically different configuration, IF disrupts many of the characteristics often taken for granted in print fiction. For example, as Niesz and Holland point out, “Because the fiction is inseparable from the system that enables someone to read it, one cannot, as it were, hold the whole novel in one’s hand… One cannot look back at what went before” (120). One way to address these differences is through the SCRIPT function. Indeed, a game like Infidel, which includes a complex system of “hieroglyphics” for the reader to decipher, almost demands some type of transcription if the player is to be able to put the pieces of the code together. Furthermore, most players of IF make maps on paper in order to keep track of the complex web of locations the story. Though IF is essentially a computer-bound form, its readers often find themselves taking pen (or printer) to paper in order to resist the evanescence of screen scrolling.

However, IF’s removal from traditional texts is also one of its greatest advantages. In fact, I would argue that without computer technology, creating interactive fiction would be extremely difficult if not impossible. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels not only demand an arduous amount of page-flipping, the options they provide are only of the multiple-choice variety, as opposed to the much greater vocabulary-oriented option locus of IF. As Stuart Moulthrop and Nancy Kaplan argue, “the more intricate page-turning a text demands, the more conscious its reader is likely to become of the native sequence that he is being made to violate” (12). The computer’s advanced ability to handle high-speed calculations allows the text to become more truly interactive without any of the alienation produced by the print text which violates its own conventions. This makes the computer a necessary tool for IF; it is the only medium which allows the type of interactivity at issue here.

Finally, it is important to remember that although IF differs radically and in many ways from traditional texts, it is still a text. Its sentences and paragraphs may be interspersed with and guided by player input, but those sentences (as well as the sentences typed by the player) are still units of language susceptible to theories designed to analyze all such units. Literary theory is not obviated by the interactive text; rather it is pushed into new arenas.

THE NARRATIVE CURTAIN

Neil Randall’s analysis of IF includes a lucid explanation of one of its most noteworthy features: “interactive fiction disrupts the concept of the novel’s ‘last page’… an interactive fiction work’s only indication of ending… is the story’s announcement that the quest has been solved” (189). This effect is part of what I call the narrative curtain. IF allows its reader a certain initial area to explore, but draws a metaphorical curtain around its boundaries, a curtain which promises further expansion at the same time as it blocks the way. The reader’s task is to find the tools necessary to draw back the curtain and continue her progress through the narrative.

This curtain also operates at the level of player input. A player encountering an IF text for the first time has no idea of the limits of the program’s vocabulary, and must discover these limits by trial and error. Even after lengthy interaction, the player is always unable to construct a definitive list of words the parser understands — there always remains the possibility that the program understands words that the player hasn’t attempted. Thus, the curtain remains, promising expansion but blocking the reader’s vision of that expansion. This curtain is again made possible by the computer’s ability to hide parts of the text from the reader, a capability which print simply does not have, unless the narrative is serialized and forcibly withheld from its reader. It is this curtain which allows Niesz and Holland to conclude that “writing and reading as processes replace writing and reading as products” in IF (127).

“In general, the structure [of IF texts] is the Quest” (115), assert Niesz and Holland, and I would argue that this structure has been dictated by the power of the narrative curtain. Without a quest for the player to complete, the narrative curtain becomes more frustrating than satisfying. If the curtain is a puzzle to be solved, then passing through it is an achievement, but if it is simply an arbitrary barrier, the desire to cross it decreases along with the reader’s interest in the story. However, I would argue that without the narrative curtain, a player’s desire to make a line of IF’s web suffers serious attrition. If the text simply sprawls out before the reader with no particular narrative thrust, IF becomes less powerful and engaging than traditional fiction. However, the curtain still remains on the level of input, and if the text presents a world for the player to explore, the reader’s desire to discover the intricacies of that world erects yet another form of the narrative curtain — the allure of textual frontier, of undiscovered country. I would argue that the barrier of the narrative curtain is IF’s analog to the element of conflict in traditional narratives — a text can exist without it, but that existence is a dull one indeed.

A further effect of the narrative curtain is its impact on narrative time. The reason why an IF text can take “weeks, even months” to complete is because it takes time to discover how to pass through the various curtains it constructs for its reader, and the program won’t allow its reader to continue until she has discovered the secret of its puzzle. In other words, unlike readers of a traditional narrative, IF players can’t turn the page until they “deserve” to, that worthiness being earned by puzzle-solving. Computer fictions can adjust narrative time not only through forcing the reader to wait for blocks of text, but by challenging him to pass tests before the story can continue.

This brings up another salient point about IF — the frustration it causes when its reader finds herself unable to solve the puzzle. Nearly every player of Infocom games has experienced the sensation of being “stumped.” In the practical arena this has translated into hint book sales for Infocom, Inc. But what of IF theory? I would suggest that when the narrative curtain becomes impenetrable, IF is in its greatest danger of becoming unfriendly to the reader. The player is likely to simply stop playing if the obstacles become too difficult, allowing the curtain to become permanent and leaving the reader with a frustrating sense of lack of closure. However, there are important caveats to this point. Randall articulates the first:

Even when the reader cannot formulate a solution to advance the interactive text, she can usually back-track to a previous screen or side-step to another… In backtracking, the reader re-reads portions of the text, often many times over, in an effort to find a clue that will allow the barrier to be breached. By side-stepping, the reader hopes to return to the barrier with a new sense of how to surmount it. In either case, what is continuous is not the plot but rather the development of the reader’s knowledge of the world in which her character is travelling. (190)

The other point is that even when the reader leaves the program, the narrative curtain still possesses power. Players often return to a puzzle which is stumping them after weeks or months of inactivity, whenever a new approach occurs to them. When these are the circumstances and the curtain finally is pierced, the satisfaction of achievement is proportionally heightened.

The notion of the narrative curtain brings out one of the most interesting features of IF, its casting of the reader as bricoleur. The closest analog to this casting in traditional texts is in the mystery novel, where the reader often watches actively for clues in order to beat the textual detective to the solution of the crime, gaining thereby a certain sense of satisfaction and even superiority. However, in a mystery novel the answer will be revealed as long as the reader keeps reading. IF, on the other hand, forces the player to collect and combine pieces of the text and recontextualize them in order to pass through the narrative curtain, even if that bricolage is as simple as finding a key for a locked door. Until the player makes the connections the program wants, the Quest simply will not progress, though the line of the story may continue.

THE INTERACTIVE SUBJECT

The question of reader subjectivity is already incredibly complicated, and the advent of IF only adds more questions rather than answering any of those already extant. Thus, this section can only scratch the surface of this intriguing question, but I hope to address some of the main points.

Georges Poulet addresses questions of subjectivity in his essay “Criticism and The Experience of Interiority,” and brings up a point which is useful to the analysis of IF: through the medium of language, both author and reader are forced by the limited nature of their communication to exclude their actual lives and take on the “roles” which the language demands. Of course, the reader’s adjustment is greater because the author is choosing the words while the reader is making sense of them. IF texts complicate the assumption of such “roles.” Since the player is the direct agent of action in the story, one could argue that he is more himself than when reading a traditional text. However, this argument has a complicated flip side.

First of all, the reader’s subjectivity is constrained by the inevitable limits of the parser. Thus when I engage with Zork I am forced into the role of someone who cannot use certain words (the vast majority of words, actually). Moreover, the Quest structure demands that its readers assume the role of someone who cares about completing the task at hand. Thus, Zork asks me to become someone who would kill trolls and remove treasures from an underground labyrinth. Further, IF settings are often quite removed from reality, demanding another role adjustment, belief in hyperspace or magical mushrooms, for example. Finally, the text sometimes forces the player into a more specific persona. In Infidel, for example, the reader’s character is a ruthless, greedy archaeologist who is deserted at the narrative’s outset by his underpaid and overworked crew. Plundered Hearts, an interactive romance set in the 18th century, casts the player as a young woman who is captured by pirates. This role-casting can become highly specific, as in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, where the player is cast as Arthur Dent, the protagonist of the Douglas Adams novel from which the game is adapted. Other games however, allow interactive adjustment of the player’s role. Beyond Zork, for example, allows the player to create a “character”, which she names and for which she chooses the degrees of six different attributes (strength, compassion, etc.) from a fund of percentage points. Bureaucracy asks the player to fill out a form listing certain vital statistics (name, address, boy/girlfriend, age, etc.) and then further confounds that player’s subjectivity by forcing him into a specific situation with little or no bearing on reality and using the statistics provided to torment the player’s persona (The boy/girlfriend runs off, etc.)4

I would argue that no matter what the level, the player of IF texts is forced to some degree to assume the type of role which Poulet asserts for traditional texts. This role is further enforced by the program’s second person singular mode of address. When a typical sentence of IF is “You can’t go that way,” it’s clear that the text enacts an enforced recontextualization on the reading subject. This is where postmodern theories of subjectivity present themselves as useful tools for examination of the interactive subject. Postmodern theory generally accepts the subject as already fragmented, a fragmentation which is easy to see in the interactive subject. I would suggest that readers of IF texts, especially while they are in the process of reading, are excellent examples of “cyborgs,” as Donna Haraway uses the term. In “A Manifesto For Cyborgs” Haraway argues that the distinction between human and machine has already become so blurred that we experience day to day life as cyborgs, thinking of mechanical devices as extensions of our own subjectivity. For the IF player, reading a computer screen and typing English commands on a keyboard in order to direct a mystery narrative in the persona of Dr. Watson, this assertion isn’t difficult to accept.

INTENDED, IMPLIED, AND IDEAL READERS

The nascent stages of the formation of reader-response criticism were characterized by theorists like Walker Gibson and Gerald Prince, who constructed theories of readership which attempted to complicate the idea of reader reception by suggesting that texts ask readers to adjust their own perceptions of reality in order to conform to textual paradigms. We have already seen that IF forces a complicated and fragmented subjectivity on its reader, and examination of Gibson’s and Prince’s theories can help us to better understand this process.

Gibson, in “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers,” postulates a “mock reader,” arguing that “every time we open the pages of another piece of writing, we are embarked on a new adventure in which we become a new person — a person as controlled and definable and as remote from the chaotic self of daily life as the lover in the sonnet” (1). IF seems to literalize this process, while complicating it with the question of player agency. Although the player does assume a certain role, she also directly controls the actions of that persona. Thus, like traditional texts, IF constructs a niche into which the player must force herself, but within that niche she is allowed a freedom of movement unheard of in traditional texts.

Gerald Prince’s article “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee” introduces (appropriately enough) his concept of the narratee, “the narratee being someone whom the narrator addresses” (7). Prince goes on to use this concept to subdivide the types of readers. He distinguishes the real reader, the individual with the book in his hands, from the virtual reader, the intended audience of the author. He also posits an ideal reader, who would theoretically have a perfect understanding of the text in all its nuances. This ideal reader is, of course, a fiction. The narratee is separate from of these, though it incorporates elements of each. Like Gibson’s “mock reader” the narratee is someone who the real reader becomes in the process of reading. Since the narratee is the person to whom the narrative is directed, the text itself dictates the narratee.

These classifications are intriguing, but IF demands not only new categories but new scrutiny of the old ones. I would suggest three basic categories which have the mnemonic advantage of all starting with the same letter: Intended, Implied, and Ideal readers. The Ideal reader of an IF text is just as fictional as the one Prince stipulates. An Ideal reader would know the entire vocabulary of the parser, understand immediately how to pass through each narrative curtain, and appreciate every aspect and nuance of the interactive text. The Intended reader, on the other hand, while still a fictional construct, is more firmly within the realm of possibility. Intended readers are who the author of the IF text had in mind as average consumers. They would be able to appreciate the text and solve the puzzles, and would hit on some of the IF’s features, but would still leave some narrative curtains standing, and may miss some textual nuances. Implied readers are analogous to mock readers and narratees; they are the reader-personas to whom the narrative is directed. The text makes certain assumptions about them, such as their fluency in English and their basic grasp of textual conventions, but none about their ability to pass through narrative curtains or to grasp textual nuances. Each of these readers is a fictional construct, and together they form a continuum, from Ideal to Implied, into which the real reader necessarily must fall.

The advantage of this system of classification is not so much in its accuracy, but in its utility for further complicating questions of authorship and intentionality. For example, one problem with the Ideal reader is that, although she would grasp textual nuances perfectly, her perfect ability to instantly pierce narrative curtains would detract from her overall interactive reading experience. I would argue that part of the pleasure of the text lies in the challenge of bricolage which it issues the reader, and if solving the puzzles is no challenge, then that pleasure is drastically decreased. The Implied reader, on the other hand, while he may be familiar with basic conventions of IF, may also be immediately stumped or may disagree violently with the ideological content of the text. Thus, the “narratee” of IF may in fact be alienated by the text to an even greater degree than he would be by a traditional fiction.

Furthermore, the idea of intentionality is a highly dubious one, and even more so in IF. If we accept that traditional fictions are created by readers in conjunction with texts, as reader-response critics assert, then the author drops out of the picture. IF encourages this process through the tendency of computer software publishers to elide the names of programmers. More importantly, however, the notion of intentionality receives a staggering blow from the basic form of the text: one which refuses to acknowledge itself as complete until the reader fills in its gaps.

FILLING IN ISER’S GAPS

The notion of the narrative gap was first articulated by Wolfgang Iser. In “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” Iser asserts that “a literary text must therefore be conceived in such a way that it will engage the reader’s imagination in the task of working things out for himself, for reading is only a pleasure when it is active and creative” (51). If this sounds remarkably like IF theory, the reason is that Iser conceived of reading as an active, creative process, whose agent is continually filling in the blanks for the text. Iser finds these blanks, or “gaps”, in areas of the text which somehow thwart our preconceived expectations: “whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections — for filling in the gaps left by the text itself” (55). I would argue that this description still applies to IF — the blocks of text in an IF program are just as capable of producing such moments of unexpectedness as any in print fiction.

However, IF obviously adds another level to the notion of gaps in a text. As Randall points out, “interactive fiction displays two types of narrative gap: the traditional type filled unconsciously by the reader, and a manifest type shown on the computer’s screen” (189). Every time the reader sees a prompt, she is expected to input some command, without which the story is simply halted. This prompt, this halting, is clearly a new type of narrative gap, one which the reader fills in more literally than Iser ever imagined.5 Iser assumes that readers of traditional texts always imaginatively fill in the gaps left by the text at its unexpected moments. IF, however, goes one step further, by forcing an active reading. It is this forceful narrative gap which makes IF so friendly to analysis in reader-response models. Far more than in a traditional text, the reader must respond if the text is to continue to reveal itself. Moreover, that response must consist of elements which the text can parse, or else the reader receives a message like “I don’t know the word ‘deconstruct'” (for example) and is returned to the prompt.

Iser uses the metaphor of constellations to clarify his theory: “two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The ‘stars’ in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable” (57). Iser’s stars are the printed units of language, and his lines are the conscious or unconscious connections drawn by the reader. I would contend that IF adds even more resonance to this metaphor. The reader of IF not only draws the connections Iser refers to, but activates explicit connections between textual blocks at every prompt, creating her own unique “constellation” of narrative, one whose shape clearly manifests itself in the line of the story under her guidance.

IDENTITY THEMES IN IF

If IF indeed helps to extricate and document the ways in which readers fill in narrative gaps, what can we learn from the differences in the constellations they create? One theory which presents itself as useful for answering this question is the one presented by Norman Holland in “UNITY IDENTITY TEXT SELF”. In that essay, Holland argues that unity and text have an analogous relationship to identity and self, the former term in each pair being an abstraction from patterns evidenced by the latter term. He argues further that because we are each possessed of and immersed in an identity, we extrapolate textual unity according to certain themes inherent in that identity (and the same applies to our extrapolations of the identities of others). For Holland, reading is a process in which, the pieces of self interlock with the pieces of text to form a reading, an interpretation of text which is inevitably stamped with the reader’s “identity theme.” Under this paradigm, interaction with an Infocom game operates like zipping up a zipper — the self and text interpenetrate to form a seamless narrative line, the direction of which must indicate elements of the reader’s identity theme.

However, there is a definite danger of oversimplification in this model. For one thing, no two readings of an interactive text, even by the same reader, are exactly the same. This fact calls into question the notion that identity themes can be traced even when the reading process is made more visible. In fact, it seems entirely plausible to me that the varying narrative lines of the interactive process are part of another binarism analogous to those Holland discusses. Rather than a pattern which shows itself in one reading, the visible identity theme evoked by IF is more accurately (I would argue) an extrapolation of tendencies within a grouping of several narrative lines from the same reader. Thus, as identity is to self and unity is to text, so the visible identity theme is to the group of narrative lines.

Moreover, Holland’s model allows no room for change. I would argue that the experience of interactive fiction has a direct effect on the reader, and that the crossing of a narrative curtain drastically affects the next reading of that same situation. Once I’ve discovered, for example, the secret of the Echo Room in Zork, I am highly unlikely to spend as much time there as when I was trying to puzzle it out. Conversely, the crossing of narrative curtains often allows the text to expand, showing the reader new locations or new features. It seems plausible to me that the text and player of IF can be read as providing growth stimuli for each other. Thus interactive fiction is a mutual growing experience, not only for the reader, but for the text as well, and the result of such a reading is not a text imprinted with the reader’s identity theme or a reader stamped with the themes of the text, but a unique collaboration of reader and text, one which partakes from both in order to create an unprecedented result.

READING AND WRITING: OBSOLETE CATEGORIES?

As we progress further and further into theorizing IF, it becomes increasingly clear that notions of authorship and readership are becoming more and more difficult to define. It is at this point when the theories most useful to us are those of the paradigmatic theorist of reader-response criticism, Stanley Fish. “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics” was the article which announced Fish’s perspective on the reading process, a perspective which has come to be identified almost programmatically with reader-response criticism. In it, Fish posited meaning as an event, a “making sense” enacted by the reader. By closely reading sentences, and analyzing their capacities for forming meaning in a temporal dimension through the succession of words, Fish showed that meaning is not extracted from a text as if every word in it were received simultaneously. Fish analyzed the dynamics of expectation to demonstrate meaning as a sequence of mental events. His article attempted to change the typical critical question “What does this sentence mean?” to “What does this sentence do?”

I would argue that in the creation of an IF narrative, both the author and the reader are continually asking themselves this crucial question. Authors of interactive fiction write with the consciousness of their medium. They are aware of the narrative’s enforced gaps, and of the narrative curtains they are constructing, and this awareness inevitably affects their writing. For example, text in IF often contains hints about how to pass through certain narrative curtains. The magpie in the passage from Trinity I quoted at the beginning of this paper is squawking part of a formula by which the player may pass through a crucial narrative curtain. Without the magpie’s help, the bricoleur/player would have no idea how to cross this juncture in the narrative. Those sentences were clearly constructed with a mind towards what function they would serve, what they would do. Players of IF texts confront the same question at every prompt. The player typing commands into the computer is forced to continually ask herself “What will this sentence do?” so that she may better communicate with the program. The experience of writing for a parser provides constant reminders of authorship, audience, and action of units of language. It forces upon us the question which Fish only asserts.

The answers to this question seem to show up more clearly in interactive fiction, but this appearance itself is highly dubious. Though authors discover the effect of their sentences on game testers, they obviously cannot learn this effect for every player at every juncture. In fact, since meaning is created through the interaction of player and text rather than player and author, the author’s thoughts become irrelevant. It is the text which ultimately asks the crucial questions. Conversely, though the player always sees the results of his commands, they are not always clear or easily interpreted. While the text usually guides or blocks input, it occasionally does both, and sometimes does neither, producing a response like “Try to phrase that another way.” Though both player and text are asking “What will this sentence do?” the answer is neither easy nor clear.

This is where Fish’s notion of interpretive strategies comes into play. In “Interpreting the Variorum,” Fish asserts that “Texts are written by readers, not read, since, the argument now states, the formal features of the text, the authorial intentions they are normally taken to represent, and the reader’s interpretive strategies are mutually interdependent” (Tompkins xxii). Fish’s argument for traditional texts must be modified a little for IF, because the form muddies the distinction between author and reader. Not only is the reader utilizing interpretive strategies, the text is as well, and furthermore those strategies must coincide if the narrative is to progress. For a narrative curtain to be drawn, the reader needs to have a strategy which will allow her the correct pieces for her bricolage, and the text must have a strategy with which to interpret the player’s input. In this paradigm, the player and computer together fit rather well into Fish’s concept of the “interpretive community,” “made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions” (“Variorum” 182).

However, to truly accept this concept, it is crucial that we absorb one final ideological prop, the notion of self as text as advanced by Walter Benn Michaels in “The Interpreter’s Self: Peirce on the Cartesian ‘Subject'”. In Michaels’ interpretation of the pragmatic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, “our minds are accessible to us in exactly the same way that everything else is. The self, like the world, is a text” (199). Once we accept this dictum, several previously unsettling aspects of IF finally fall into place. First of all, if we can read the self as a text, we can just as easily read the text as a kind of self, especially the text of IF, which actively seeks input. With this understanding, interactive textuality is thrust into a new light. In the interaction of the computer program’s self/text with the player’s self/text, there is no reader and writer. They read and write each other. In the radical realm of interactive fiction, the theories of reader-response critics become facts, and in fact are surpassed. Not only does the reader actively fill in textual gaps, but the text fills gaps in the reader, plants seeds for ideas which haven’t come yet. Human and computer, when both are understood as both self and text, become a true interpretive community, each community producing its own unique fictions.

“Reader” and “text” become provisional terms. The text is a reader just as the reader is a text. Even “player” and “program” are problematic. The IF is, after all, attempting to program its human reader into certain responses, and is doing so with a significant element of playfulness. Interactive fiction, by enacting reader-reception theory, has stripped the most basic terms of literature of their apparent meaning, and cast us into a new location. It is one which is alien and unfamiliar, but it is also a nexus from which radiate thousands of branches of possibility.6

Endnotes

1 Because of its utility and clarity, I here reprint and appropriate for my own use Neil Randall’s definition of a “traditional” text:

Throughout this article I will use the term “traditional” to refer to literature printed on paper, usually in book (rather than magazine) format. I considered such terminology as “book fiction” or “Gutenberg literature” to avoid collocating such diverse novels as Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and Barth’s Sabbatical, which have in common only the fact that they are written by Americans and printed on paper, but such terminology proved more cumbersome than it was worth. “Traditional”, therefore, says nothing of the degree to which a work is or is not avant-garde; it is simply a reference to medium. (190)

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2 The sources of the programs I refer to are two anthologies of Infocom programs, The Lost Treasures Of Infocom volumes I and II. Since these packages contain a total of 31 texts, I find it easier to simply cite the collection than each individual text.
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3 My analysis of the shape of IF owes much to theories developed for hypertext, a type of computer construction related, but not identical to, IF, the primary difference being that hypertext’s method of branching involves “clicking” with a mouse on a significant word or phrase rather than typing words for a parser. Discussions of hypertext which are useful for analysis of IF are included in my list of references.
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4 Other games vary the persona of the reader even within the context of the program. Border Zone, for example, is divided into “chapters,” each of which casts the reader in a new character.
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5 However, even this literalization is problematic due to the fact of the parser. I would argue that Fish’s notion of societally mediated boundaries to interpretation comes in handy here. Just as the reader’s imagination is not free to fill in the gaps in just any way, so the player’s input is restricted by certain ambiguous boundaries.
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6 This paper only attempts to examine IF as it looks through the lens of reader-response criticism. A more complete discussion of IF would include sections on the idea of the varying levels of code inherent in reading an IF text, some system for evaluating quality, a consideration of the political implications of simulation, questions that still remain open, and of course the obligatory “speculation on the future” section. I had originally planned on these, but the project simply became too large. When I revise this paper to turn it into an article, those sections will be included. [LOL Yeah, right. That never happened. –PO 2000]
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References

Bolter, Jay David. “Literature in the Electronic Writing Space.” In Myron C. Tuman (ed.), Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Writing With Computers. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992: 19-41

Campbell, P. Michael. “Interactive Fiction and Narrative Theory: Towards An Anti-Theory.” New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 10.1 (1987): 76-84

Fish, Stanley. “Interpreting the Variorum.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 164-184

Fish, Stanley. “Literature In The Reader: Affective Stylistics.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism:From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 70-100

Gibson, Walker. “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 1-6

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto For Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107

Holland, Norman N. “UNITY IDENTITY SELF TEXT.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 118-133

Infocom. The Incomplete Works of Infocom, Inc. (advertising pamphlet) Cambridge: Infocom, 1985

Infocom. The Lost Treasures Of Infocom. Cambridge: Infocom, 1992

Infocom. The Lost Treasures Of Infocom II. Cambridge: Infocom, 1992

Infocom. You Are About to See The Fantastic Worlds Of Infocom Unfold Before Your Very Eyes. (advertising pamphlet) Cambridge: Infocom, 1984

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 50-69

Kelly, Robert T. “A Maze of Twisty Little Passages, All Alike: Aesthetics and Teleology in Interactive Computer Fictional Environments.” Science Fiction Studies 20 (1993): 52-68

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992

Michaels, Walter Benn. “The Interpreter’s Self: Peirce on the Cartesian ‘Subject’.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 185-200

Moulthrop, Stuart. “Reading From The Map: Metonymy and Metaphor In The Fiction of ‘Forking Paths’.” In Paul Delany and George P. Landow (eds.), Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991: 119-132

Moulthrop, Stuart and Nancy Kaplan. “Something to Imagine: Literature, Composition, and Interactive Fiction.” Computers And Composition 9.1 (1991): 7-23

Niesz, Anthony J. and Norman N. Holland. “Interactive Fiction.” Critical Inquiry 11.1 (1984): 110-29

Poulet, Georges. “Criticism and The Experience of Interiority.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 41-49

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction To The Study Of The Narratee.” In Jane Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 7-25

Randall, Neil. “Determining Literariness In Interactive Fiction.” Computers and the Humanities 22 (1988): 183-91

Tompkins, Jane. “An Introduction To Reader-Response Criticism.” In Jane
Tompkins (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism To Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: ix-xxvi

Ziegfeld, Richard. “Interactive Fiction: A New Literary Genre?”. New Literary History 20.2 (1989): 341-372

When Help Collides by J.D. Berry [Comp02]

IFDB page: When Help Collides
Final placement: 18th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I already knew that J.D. Berry is funny. Even setting aside his sardonic posts to the IF newsgroups, who could forget The IF Chive? For those of you who have, in fact, forgotten (or never knew), the Chive was an IF-themed version of satirical newspaper The Onion, full of wacky features like an editorial by an impassable steel door, and headlines like “IF-Comp author feels own work should have finished several places higher.” (It’s currently archived at http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/humor/chive/, and is worth checking out.) I also knew, from games like The Djinni Chronicles and Sparrow’s Song, that Berry is a skilled game author, too.

What I hadn’t yet seen was a really funny Berry game. Oh sure, there are some humorous bits in all his games, and no, I’m not forgetting Chico And I Ran — it’s just that the humor in that game was specifically targeted to song and TV show parodies, and much of it fell rather flat for me. So I hadn’t yet seen the game where I felt Berry unleashed his full comic powers… until now. When Help Collides is a strange, exuberant, wildly funny piece of work that hits the ground running and then sprints into some places that are very weird indeed. Actually, that’s not quite accurate — it’s pretty weird from the beginning.

It seems you’re the consciousness of a hint system, or something like that. People come to you for hints with various games, and you use some very simple technology at your disposal (like pressing a button labeled (H)ELP, which broadcasts the hint) to aid them. However, your easy job has recently been made less easy by the fact that your Help Ship (yeah, I’m not sure I understand either) has recently collided with a Self-Help Ship, resulting in exchanges like this:

A beautiful woman looks up and asks, "Is there a better ending that
the one I achieved?"

>h
"Another idiotic thing women do is questioning if they could have
done better. Hello? Where were you before you got married? Did you
not ask yourself such questions? You've made your ending, and now you
have to lie in it."

or this:

A man in a 19th century suit looks up and asks, "How do I get past
the prospector?"

>h
"Early in my career, I spent much of my time getting past people who
want to talk your ear off and waste your time. I call such people
prospectors. They have tunnel vision. They have an axe to grind. They
know exactly what they want, but they don't know exactly where to
find it, so they'll dig wherever's closest.

It was a tiring game, going out of my way to avoid these people.
Usually, my ten-mile bypass left me worse off than if I had just
talked with them.

I complained about this to my mentor.

He said, "there are going to be prospectors in everyone's life. The
trick is to make them realize early that there's no gold inside you.
Once they realize you have nothing to offer, they'll ignore you."

And then it hit me. My mentor was mocking me."

Each terrible hint is followed by the asker reacting in disgust, and leaving negative feedback for the hint system. Too much of this negative feedback can result in the hint system’s immediate demise, which lends a strong sense of urgency to the sequence. I cannot express how much I loved these bad hints. Some of them parody adventure game hints. Some of them parody self-help books, and self-help culture. Taken together, they deliciously skewer not only those two things, but IF conventions as well. Even facing the destruction of the PC, I had a difficult time actually getting motivated to fix the problem, because I found the results so extremely funny.

I’m glad I did fix it, though, because after this sequence the game becomes something entirely else. It’s rather difficult to talk about, because When Help Collides turns out to be several games in one, of which I only played one-and-a-half (in addition to the starting game puzzles). Those separate games are worthy of their own reviews, and I can’t help wondering how they would have done had they been released separately. Still, from what I saw they were thematically tied, if rather loosely so.

There is a problem, though, with the structure that presents these interconnected games. They’re quite sealed off from the initial game, so much so that in fact it isn’t obvious at all that other games even exist until the initial game ends. The feelies suggest the presence of multiple scenarios, but the method for accessing these is obscure enough that I ended up having to go to the walkthrough for it. I find it easy to imagine someone missing the boat entirely, and therefore missing out on a great deal of the fun. Something a bit more straightforward to introduce these other scenarios would have been welcome. The subgame that I finished, a parody of a Dungeons And Dragons tournament, was also very funny, and an interesting game in its own right. Like the initial game, it has some problems here and there, but is overall a lot of fun.

I seem to have written quite a bit already, and I need to wrap it up, so: lest I forget, I do have some complaints about When Help Collides. First, as I mentioned above, the method for accessing the subgames is too obscure. Second, it does that thing where it pauses waiting for a keystroke, but doesn’t tell you it’s doing so, and consequently I ended up missing a bunch of text several times because I was already typing my next command. I don’t like when games do that. Finally, it’s too big for the comp. Sort of. It’s like three or four smallish comp-sized games in one. I got a little more than halfway through in two hours. Individually, the games are an appropriate size, but together, they’re far too much for the judging time. Those quibbles aside, When Help Collides is a clever, innovative, and fiercely funny joyride.

Rating: 9.4

Fort Aegea by Francesco Bova [Comp02]

IFDB page: Fort Aegea
Final placement: 8th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I have more thoughts about Fort Aegea than I’ll be able to fit into these few paragraphs, and I’m a little concerned about it. See, I think this game’s shortcomings may be more interesting than its successes, but if I spend more time talking about flaws than strengths, I may give the mistaken impression that I didn’t enjoy it. So let me clear that up right now: I liked Fort Aegea quite a bit. Most of the game is really fun — it has several good puzzles and action sequences, a nice propulsive plot, and some surprising and well-drawn details.

In addition, the game employs spellcasting, which is a kick — there are lots of moments that measure up to anything in Enchanter, and the spells have the added virtue of being particularly well-suited to the character and thus helping to further define her. The game felt quite well-tested and proofread to me — I found a few syntactical errors here and there, and maybe one or two bugs, but on the other side there are a number of rather complicated effects that the game produces with admirable smoothness.

Oh, and lest I forget, Fort Aegea has some of the most gorgeous feelies I’ve ever seen with an amateur game, hand-drawn maps that positively exude Tolkien. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who enjoys Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy IF, especially games in the Enchanter vein.

Very well then, now that that’s out of the way, I want to look more closely at a few things that tarnish this game’s shine. First, let’s talk about that D&D influence. I’ve been on a yearlong Bioware jag, so the D&D rules are fresh in my mind, and this game hews so closely to them that it may as well have a Wizards Of The Coast logo in its banner. The main character is a druid, with spells like “Entangle” and “Warp Wood”, who cannot use edged weapons but carries a mace and plate armor into battle. The game explains the philosophy of her order as one that strove to be “one with the world and viewed good and evil, and law and chaos as balancing forces of nature which were necessary for the continuation of all things.”

For anyone familiar with AD&D rules, this material will ring a churchful of bells. This, in itself, is not a terrible thing, though it feels a bit boilerplate, as if the story’s characters don’t really live and breathe in their own fictional universe but are cookie-cut from prefab templates. Where things really break down is when the characters start speaking as if they themselves are D&D players:

“He’s the fabled Green Dragon, and he’s not been seen or heard from
in over a century! What we know of him we’ve gathered from the Great
Book of the Dragons and here are the specifics: He’s vicious and he
has a ferocious breath weapon; one that unfortunately we don’t have a
defence for.”

It strains the limits of my belief to think that a person who actually coexists with dragons would talk about their “breath weapons” — it’s just a little too close to saying something like “take a look at this fine sword — it’s +2!”. In addition, there are linguistic anachronisms sprinkled throughout the text, such as the adventuring expedition that a history book characterizes as a “public relations nightmare.”

The net effect of these choices is to drain the scenario of fictional credibility. Every D&D reference, every anachronism makes the game feel less like a story and more like an exercise — instead of drawing us into its world, Fort Aegea keeps reminding us of ours. Instead of breaking, mimesis simply stretches thinner and thinner until it’s nearly transparent.

Here’s another way that happens: for much of the game’s plot, the PC’s objective is to stay alive until nightfall, while being hunted. In the course of trying to do this, she finds several spots that would make outstanding hiding places, where one could easily wait out a day, emerging victorious after the sun sets. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t allow any actual time to pass while the PC sits in these places, no matter how many times the player may type “z.” I know, because I tried.

It was one of the slowest mimesis breaks ever — the more I saw the “Time passes” message, the more convinced I became that no time was passing. Once I knew that I needed to conform to the game’s puzzly expectations in order to complete the scenario, my emotional involvement evaporated — probably a good thing given that several horrible, unstoppable events occur in the course of play. Fort Aegea has a great deal of fun to offer as a game, but as a story, I found it a pretty inhospitable place.

Rating: 8.5

Zork I [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork I
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork I. I also wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want a little context.]

Legends grow in the telling, and so it was with Zork in Dante’s mind. He had seen so many references to it, so much appreciation for it, that he had begun to think of it as some kind of platonic ideal for IF. Within minutes of playing, that expectation crashed against the reality of a vintage text game.

Instead of typing “X”, you have to type the full word “EXAMINE”. (Well, technically only “EXAMIN”, or even just “LOOK”, but nevermind — this was about 1980 IF breaking modern expectations.) Locations are almost immediately mazy, with pieces of the forest connecting in unexplained nonsensical ways to each other. The status line sports no handy exits listing, and when travel in a direction is blocked, it’s often blocked with no explanation. For every “Storm-tossed trees block your way”, there are dozens of “You can’t go that way”s.

In what became a running joke for our playthrough, many incredible things have the description, “There’s nothing special about the [incredible thing].” A non-exhaustive list of things about which Zork I claims there is nothing special: an elvish sword of great antiquity, a pile of mangled bodies, a painting of unparalleled beauty, Neptune’s crystal trident, a sceptre (possibly that of ancient Egypt itself), a beautiful jeweled scarab, a golden clockwork canary, and a solid rainbow complete with stairs and bannister. I had to explain to him that Zork was operating under a draconian space limitation — they simply didn’t have room to include descriptions for anything that didn’t directly contribute to a puzzle. For him, this limitation was almost unthinkable. I mean, it’s just text! How could they not have room for it?

Space limitations also show up in a lack of scenery objects, a problem that can manifest in a fairly benign form or a fairly malign one. For instance, in the Shaft Room, one sentence of the room description reads, “Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached.” Try EXAMINE FRAMEWORK and you’ll get the response, “I don’t know the word ‘framework’.” Fair enough, the framework apparently wasn’t implemented as an object. On the other hand, try EXAMINE METAL and you’ll get the much more problematic response, “You can’t see any metal here.”

This happens because elsewhere in the game, there are objects that legitimately can be referred to as “metal” — the metal ramp in the Cellar and the metal bolt in the Dam, for example. The framework isn’t implemented, though, so while it’s described as “metal” in the room description, there’s no game object in that room for the word “metal” to reference. This has the story-breaking result that you’re told there’s a metal framework in front of you, but also that there is no metal in the room. Our favorite manifestation of this:

Land of the Dead
You have entered the Land of the Living Dead. Thousands of lost souls can be heard weeping and moaning. In the corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers less fortunate than yourself. A passage exits to the north.


>EXAMINE DEAD
You can't see any dead here!

Another modern feature that we missed awfully: UNDO. For instance, when you type OPEN EGG WITH WRENCH, and get a response which begins:

The egg is now open, but the clumsiness of your attempt has seriously compromised its esthetic appeal. There is a golden clockwork canary nestled in the egg. It seems to have recently had a bad experience…

…the natural response is to type UNDO. Oh how painful to receive the reply, “I don’t know the word ‘undo’.” Again, the microcomputers of 1980 couldn’t really have supported such a state-management function, at least not without sacrificing too much text and parsing capability. Instead, games of that era tried to make a virtue out of compulsive SAVEing, and called their game-closing responses part of the challenge. Seen from today’s perspective, they simply invoke the tedium of forcing a RESTORE, or worse yet a RESTART. Replaying up to the game-closing point isn’t challenging, just time-consuming.

Zork I logo, with the caption "Your greatest challenge lies ahead -- and downwards."

In what became a running theme of our Infocom replays, we had to restart Zork I. In fact, we had to restart it twice — the first time because our light source ran out and we hadn’t yet found a permanent one, and the second time, very far into the game, because we realized that we’d killed the thief early on through a “lucky” fluke, but we still needed him to open the jewel-encrusted egg. I ran both of these replays on my own — Dante had no patience for retreading miles of known ground just to get to something new.

All of these pain points served to illustrate clearly the distance that text adventures have come since 1980. I sometimes hear it argued that IF isn’t really all that different now from how it was in the Infocom days, but Dante’s experience with playing modern IF and then going back to Infocom puts the lie to that claim. I mean, yes, it’s still essentially getting a parser of limited vocabulary to cooperate with your traversal of a fictional world. Some of the parsing innovations we might have imagined arriving in 40 years have not come to pass — there’s no intelligent computer DM to respond reasonably to anything you type as it takes you through the dungeon. But as far as the moment-to-moment experience of playing a text game, the state of the art has improved a great deal.

The same is true of the puzzles, at least when it comes to the damned mazes. This was another area that I ran on my own — Dante was interested in the first few rooms of maze-mapping, where we’d drop an object, go a direction, and see whether we’d found a new room. But it just. Kept. Going. Hundreds of moves’ worth of this, painstakingly updating our Trizbort map as we went. This is a test of bloody-mindedness, not complex thought. Luckily, the thief didn’t confound us, due to his aforementioned dumb luck defeat. Still, the Zork maze was another perfect example of something that may have passed as fun in 1980, but could make no such claim today. Actually, make that the Zork mazes, as there’s another one in the Coal Mine, albeit not nearly so tortuous.

On the other hand, many of the puzzles have lost no sheen whatsoever. Flood Control Dam #3, for instance, is just as marvelous as always. There’s an aspect to it that is simply mechanical — figure out how to unlock it for changes, and then figure out what tool is needed to make those changes happen. But then once you make those changes, they imply new relationships and new attributes to various parts of the landscape. I was impressed to see that Dante intuitively grasped these implications, moving quickly not only to the emptied reservoir, but also to the quieted Loud Room, for instance.

In general, I was fascinated to see how he reacted to puzzles I remembered. He immediately grasped puzzles I remember struggling with, like the Loud Room, the Cyclops Room, and the deranged bat. On the other hand, we were quite a ways into our playthrough before he figured out to tie the rope to the railing, which I remember doing pretty immediately.

Dante’s intuition and experience led him more astray on the combat-style puzzles. He’d already embraced a different branch of retro gaming, having logged dozens of hours on Angband, but while Zork is no Angband, the inclusion of D&D-style combat very near the beginning of the game makes it seem as though there’s going to be quite a bit of overlap. Consequently, Dante snapped into the mode of looking for weapons and armor, evaluating the axe vs. the sword vs. the knife, etc., when that’s not really what Zork is designed for. This becomes especially apparent when you find what seems like a magic trident, except it can’t even be used as a weapon at all.

It makes historical sense to me why this randomized combat is in here — IF at the time was still in the shadow of Adventure, which in turn sat in the shadow of D&D. But the combat sits uneasily against the rest of the game, and Zork I‘s commitment to it is pretty half-hearted. The only fightable “monsters” in the game are the troll and the thief. Moreover, the fights with these monsters don’t expose any of the typical RPG mechanics — you can’t see numerical representations of attack, damage, or defense, and consequently you may not know that randomization is happening behind the scenes. The first time we fought the troll, we knocked him out immediately, which seemed like just what the game had “intended” — imagine Dante’s shock when next time around, the troll killed us! Unlike the elegance of most Zork puzzles, the randomized combat can contribute both to sudden losses out of the player’s control and to “lucky” wins that cut off victory. Both happened to us.

The opening screen of Zork I

Then there were those puzzles that we both had trouble with. I have a strong memory of playing Zork I as a kid and flailing around at the Entrance to Hades. I rang the bell, mostly out of sheer desperation, but could make no sense of the response. I was talking through the problem with my Dad when he asked me, “Hey, do you happen to have a book and a candle as well?” Well yes, but how on earth did you even come up with that question to ask? He explained to me then the cultural reference of “Bell, Book, and Candle”, which was entirely lost on me as a kid. Now I can report that the passing of a generation has made that reference no clearer, and Dante’s dad had to explain it to him.

Of all the Zork I puzzles, the gold coffin gained the most in my estimation from this revisit. The puzzle, for those who may not remember, is this: you’ve descended from a rope into a temple chamber. You cannot ascend back up the rope, as you drop from it into the temple and it ends several feet above your reach. The only exit from the temple is through a small hole in the floor, next to an altar. Within the chamber you find (among other things), a gold coffin. You can get through the hole with the other treasures you find, but if you try to take the coffin, Zork says, “You haven’t a prayer of getting the coffin down there.”

What to do? The failure message, along with the religious trappings of the room, hint towards the solution: PRAY. When you do that, this happens:

>PRAY
Forest
This is a forest, with trees in all directions. To the east, there appears to be sunlight.

The command instantly teleports you out of the underground altogether, along with all your possessions — including the coffin. Besides the puzzle being well-cued, it also has a quality of awe, possibly deriving from the suddenness with which everything changes from dark to light. There is no sweeping transition text, which almost any author (including me) would be tempted to put in today — just an instant shift with no explanation. That shift prompts a more mysterious feeling of religious wonder, at least in me — it’s immediately apparent that there are greater powers at work in this world than simply an adventurer manipulating mechanisms, and those powers do not care to explain or announce themselves.

That’s one of the magic moments of Zork I, and there are many. Another, for us, came at the Mirror Room, where we had visited many times and looked at our bedraggled image. That night, there was a thunderstorm outside while we played, and as we reached out to TOUCH MIRROR for the first time, two things happened simultaneously: Zork I said, “There is a rumble from deep within the earth and the room shakes” while outside there was a loud CRACK of thunder. I felt aligned with the universe at that moment.

In replaying this game and its successors, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two fundamental things that make Zork special, and that are reliable sources of delight in subsequent Infocom games: moments of humor and moments of magic. Sometimes they are one and the same, or at least right alongside each other.

Consider, for example, inflating the boat. There’s a moment of satisfaction when you realize that the hand-held air pump connects to the valve on the pile of plastic, like finding two jigsaw puzzle pieces that connect to each other. That satisfaction turns to magic with the appearance of the boat, which suddenly recontextualizes parts of the landscape you’ve already seen. Rivers, streams, and lakes that once seemed like scenery have become pathways to traverse in this new vehicle, opening up new vistas of the map for exploration.

A partial map of the Zork I landscape, including the Frigid River

This is one of the best tricks that IF can pull — revealing a new dimension within a familiar situation, one which expands the possibility space of the entire game world. Previously ordinary aspects of the scenario jump to life with vibrant new potential, and the player sees everything fresh. In the case of the Zork boat, this exciting development comes with a laugh, as the boat contains a label reading:

!!!! FROBOZZ MAGIC BOAT COMPANY !!!!

Hello, Sailor!

[…and then some instructions for how to use the boat.]

Aside from the comical quality of the exclamation points and the capital letters, this label squeezes in two different running gags that thread through most of the series — “Frobozz Magic” products and the phrase “Hello Sailor”, introduced by the prayer book on the altar.

This the other source of pleasure in Zork and its progeny: unexpected unity. Both drama and comedy use the basic structure of a setup leading to a payoff, and that structure finds its place in text adventures as well. The very first underground location in Zork I, the Cellar, contains the bottom of a metal chute, too slippery to climb: setup. Many hundreds of moves later, we find a Slide Room — part of a coal mine containing “a steep metal slide twisting downward.” Of course, enter the slide and you find yourself back in the Cellar: payoff. In that moment, the game unifies two pieces of itself, yielding the satisfaction of a question answered.

In the case of Frobozz Magic products, the structure is more like a single setup leading to a series of payoffs, each building on the last through the long series of games. Each new appearance of these products, especially as they grow in ridiculous specialization, is a comedy callback that enriches the joke. Sometimes, as in the case of HELLO SAILOR itself, the payoff occurs several games away from the setup, and contains both drama and comedy. But more about that in a later post.

The ultimate (meaning both final and best) example of such unity comes when all the treasures are collected, and a voice whispers that there is one final secret. The map we find brings us back to the very first location of the game, encircling the experience in a great dramatic unity. I found the appearance of the secret path to the stone barrow unexpectedly moving, probably because it was a thrilling moment that I was getting to re-experience alongside Dante, while he saw it for the first time. As Zork I both wrapped itself up and invited us to further adventure, I couldn’t wait to continue delving further with him.

Temple of the Orc Mage by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: Temple of the Orc Mage
Final placement: 26th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Temple of the Orc Mage does not bring new meaning to the term “dungeon crawl”. It’s a generic, Dungeons & Dragons style quest for a magical gem. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and Temple doesn’t do it exceptionally badly. However, it doesn’t do it exceptionally well, either. The game occupies a sort of limbo between a bland interactive story, with little plot (besides “find the treasure”) and character development, and a bland RPG, with arbitrary magic items and valuables strewn around a dungeon setting so conventional that anyone who’s read a few D&D prefab modules could recite its elements before ever seeing the game (an underground river, a ruined bedchamber, deep pits, tapestries).

This is not to suggest that the game is altogether bad. In fact, it often succeeds at some of the things that an RPG is best at: creating a sense of atmosphere, providing the thrill of vicariously handling fabulous wealth and magic, and giving the feeling that each obstacle overcome simply draws one’s character deeper and deeper into the difficulties. However, there are many important things missing as well, not least of which is any sense of logic to the dungeon and the items found within. For example, how is it that you find fresh meat in a kitchen strewn with cobwebs? How is it that you are the first one to seek after this treasure? Or if you’re not, what happened to everyone else? The game starts with a strong sense of story, and several nice narrative touches, then rapidly devolves into a sort of “just because” logic that poisons any sense that the eponymous Temple is anything more than an arbitrary collection of rooms and magic items. It’s as if the game wants to be a hybrid of IF and RPG, but adopts the least interesting conventions of each category while ignoring the best, making itself a rather dull concoction.

I think that there’s a place for such a hybrid. I’ve always liked Rogue and Rogue-like games, and I think that there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s much easier to find a computer game to provide an immersive RPG experience than it is to find a lot of like-minded peers to provide it. I can envision an IF/RPG game which combines the best elements of IF, including strong story, interesting puzzles, and the feeling of “being there”, with the joys of Rogue — abundant magic and mystery, a strong sense of score, ever-increasing risk and reward, and the feeling that there’s always a possibility of finding some ultra-rare artifact, hidden away in the code for discovery by the lucky and the strong. Recent discussions about RPG-style combat in IF have even tempted me to believe that such a system could exist without being boring or pointless. Now, I admit that I’m much more of an IFer than an RPGer, so there may be such a product out on the market right now which I’m missing simply because I never sought it out. However, one thing is quite clear to me: Temple of the Orc Mage is not it.

Prose: I thought that the prose was actually one of the best features of Temple. More often than not it succeeded in drawing vivid portraits of places and items. The intro is captivating (though it could stand to be broken up a bit), and some of the room descriptions have nice atmospheric touches, bringing in temperature or quality of light to engage the senses. Sometimes the style can become a bit overly utilitarian (listings of exits) or terse (“The ceiling is low and wet. Light filters in from cracks in the wall and ceiling. Water drips slowly from stalactites above. The air is cold.”), but overall I didn’t find it too jarring.

Plot: There was only the most rudimentary of plots: you have decided to brave the scary dungeon to find big money and become a hero! This is a tried-and-true IF convention, so much so that it has become a bit of a cliche. Sometimes cliches can work to an author’s advantage. Not this time.

Puzzles: Too often, the puzzles were either simple (try all your keys until you find the one that opens the locked chest/door) or required just examining the right object. OK, well, maybe those two are the same thing. Still, I generally felt that the puzzles had no rhyme, reason, or thought behind them. They felt generally tacked-on, and on the few times I got stuck, I discovered that the solution to the puzzle is something I would never have guessed, because there were no hints to suggest it. Example: [SPOILERS AHEAD (highlight to read)] There’s a twenty-foot wide pit blocking your way. The solution? Jump over it, and the game tells you “Propelled by the boots, which you now believe to be magical…”[SPOILERS END]

Technical (writing): There were a number of technical errors in the writing, but many (though not all) of these are attributable to typos rather than actual ignorance.

Technical (coding) I found no serious bugs in the game, but there was a distinct lack of implementation for nouns and synonyms. For example, the game describes water in at least a third of its rooms (in fact, there’s a room called the Dry Room, notable simply for its absence of water), but doesn’t know the word “water.” Also, a number of times in the game “examine” will turn up a hidden artifact while “search” returns “You find nothing of interest.”

OVERALL: A 6.0