Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies by Øyvind Thorsby [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2007.]

IFDB Page: Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies

Attack Of The Yeti Robot Zombies announces two facts right upfront. First, it is a “try-to-win-on-the-first-attempt game”, which means that while SAVE, RESTORE, and UNDO have not been disabled, players are honor-bound not to use them. Secondly, the game tells us that “Examine, look at, look inside, look under, look behind, look and search have not been implemented.” I was surprised to discover that the latter aspect threw me off much more than the former one did. It turns out that examining things is so ingrained into my IF approach that having that feature disabled made me feel like an amputee. Frequently, I would try to examine an item before being reminded: no, that limb is missing. Taken together, what these features present us with a game in which the crossword has decisively defeated the narrative, to use Graham Nelson’s terms.

AOTYRZ presents a world, but it’s only scraps of clothing over otherwise bare puzzles. The title monsters are a perfect example of this. What on earth could a “Yeti Robot Zombie” be? A cybernetic duplicate of an Abominable Snowman who was killed and then revived to be even more mindless than it was before? Is there any universe in which that makes sense? Aren’t “robot” and “zombie” mutually exclusive categories, since something that was never alive can’t be killed and brought back to life? The game doesn’t know, and it doesn’t care. It might as well be called “Attack Of The Generic Monster Placeholders,” because that’s all that the YRZs are. If you don’t believe me, just try examining one.

So, given that this is a puzzle game whose story is sputtering and gasping for breath, how are the puzzles? Mixed, I’m afraid. I took the “win-on-the-first-attempt” rule rather seriously, and ended up feeling quite disappointed at the number of times I had to learn the game’s mechanics by dying. Now, in its defense, AOTYRZ does go some reasonable distance towards making the game winnable on the first try. Similar to Wishbringer (though quite a bit cruder), it gives the player a resource which can be used as an alternative solution for all the puzzles. This resource can only be used a limited number of times — fewer than the number of puzzles — which means that some of the puzzles must be solved in order to win on the first attempt. That’s not too bad though, because some of the puzzles are pretty easy.

However, unlike Wishbringer, it is impossible to win the game (near as I can tell, anyway) without using that resource a couple of times. There’s no way to know this fact in advance without some outside information, which throws a serious obstacle into the path of anybody trying to win on the first attempt. The game chided me every time I used the resource rather than finding the cleverer solution, and after a couple of rounds of this, I felt the message was clear: there will always be a better solution available, so I should always figure it out and use it. Then, a few puzzles later, the game hit me with a situation for which there was no better solution. Even worse, this situation was so thinly implemented that it almost seemed to be a bug rather than a change-up. It was there that my first attempt at AOTYRZ ended in ignominious death.

From that point forward, since I had to restore, I tried some alternative solutions, and found that while some were rather nifty and scrupulously fair, others were impossible to use without either knowledge from a prior life or some pretty lucky guesses. Also, a note to game designers: if something is chasing me, and you block my path with something I can move, please allow me to use that something to block the door behind me. Thank you.

Once it wasn’t my first attempt anymore, I started having a lot more fun with AOTYRZ. Yeah, it’s a bare puzzle game, but some of the puzzles are pretty snappy, and the plot (such as it is) moves along at an enjoyable clip. In addition, while the game world’s implementation is necessarily sparse due to the absence of EXAMINE, what’s there is competently constructed — I didn’t find a single bug. The writing isn’t quite as flawless. There are a number of typos, some of which serve up some unintentional (but very funny) comedy. My favorite comes in a cutscene where the PC is receiving remote instructions from a guide:

“The teleporter worked.” you say in the phone.
“It did? Really? That’s great! Now walk up the stairs and you will find two doors. It doesn’t matter which one you take, both will lead to a roof.”
“Then what?”
“On each roof there will be a helicopter. I assume you know how to fly one?”
“Off course.”

Oh, well is there anybody there who can fly a helicopter without going off course? Anyway, those moments aside, the writing serves its purpose well enough. I can’t muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for AOTYRZ — it takes a pretty audacious approach and then fails to provide a sufficient follow-through. However, if you don’t mind an IF world with no depth and you don’t worry too much about really winning on the first attempt, the game can provide a pleasant diversion for an hour or two.

Bronze by Emily Short [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2006.]

IFDB Page: Bronze

Alloys and Allies

The unveiling of Inform 7 is hugely exciting for many reasons, not the least of which is a sudden bounty of new games by Graham Nelson and Emily Short. These example games are meant to show off various capabilities of the development system, but the designers being who they are, the games are likely to be eminently playworthy in their own right. This review begins what I hope will be a series [Welp, that didn’t happen. — 2021 PO] that illuminates the value of these example games to players, quite aside from what they demonstrate to authors.

First on the list is Bronze, an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and an old-fashioned puzzlefest, though only old-fashioned in the good ways. There are no mazes, no hunger puzzles, no expiring light sources; for such favors I thank the author sincerely. What we have instead is a large landscape (in this case the Beast’s castle), a well-paced plot punctuated by clever puzzles, and a variety of endings that allow for varying interpretations of the main character. The PC herself goes unnamed, but she is clearly the Beauty of the story, known as Belle in many versions, including both the Disney and Cocteau films. The tone of this game is much closer to the latter, pleasantly. In fact, Bronze reminded me often of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête — its gloomy, echoing chambers, its magical aura, and of course the wounded, romantic figure at its center.

Bronze‘s castle is less wildly inventive and evocative than Cocteau’s, though of course this is a rather rarefied standard to apply. What it does have over any other adaptation I’ve seen, however, is dimensionality. This game cannily exploits the strengths of IF to use its landscape for multiple ends. At the most basic level, it arranges the map in three dimensions, and at several points forces us to think not only of what is around us but what is above and below. A further (and more interesting) depth accretes as the PC’s memories surface in connection with certain rooms and objects. This is not a new trick in IF, but it’s very well-wrought here. Later in the game, we are shown yet another dimension via a magical item that allows us to hear the memories that other characters attach to various places. In addition, the game lays in a great deal of history to the castle, the Beast, the Beast’s family, and so forth — indeed, learning this history is essential for completing the game. The historical information is nicely woven, mostly avoiding infodumps and cutscenes in favor of memory-freighted objects and consultable items.

On the down side, though, the need to CONSULT X ABOUT Y so often was perhaps Bronze‘s greatest weakness for me. I got rather impatient with having to plumb so many sources about so many topics, especially when only one of the sources was portable. No doubt I’m rather spoiled by small competition games. Perhaps more to the point, I squeeze IF into the corners of my life and thus am not only unable to remember many details from one play session to the next but also reluctant to take notes while playing. I’d imagine that someone in a different mindset would find all the research opportunities quite rewarding. I did not.

Another choice that stymied me was the structure of the endings. My first attempt at Bronze terminated rather abruptly, at a less-than-optimal ending, and it was not immediately apparent why I couldn’t keep proceeding to complete the other goals that would have led to a more satisfying conclusion. The answer had to do with my failure to consult a particular item about a particular topic before that item disappeared, but I did not put this together until after I had turned to the walkthrough. Even after I understood the problem, it still felt a little unfair to me — I wish there were a bit more space in the design to prevent such accidental losses. Finally, there were one or two aspects of the magic system that took me a long time to figure out. Some of this may have been due to haste on my part, but I think they were also a little underdescribed.

Enough whinging. An area where Bronze really shines (uh, no pun intended) is in its technical prowess. Its blurb text promises “a number of features to make navigating a large space more pleasant,” and those features are lovely. GO TO <location> navigates the best path from the player’s present location to the target room, a godsend for the many, many occasions when one has to trudge from one end of the castle to the other. Similarly, FIND <object> takes the PC directly to the target object’s location via the same pathfinding method. Bronze also implements LOOK <direction> to let the PC investigate adjacent rooms without traveling to them. Other great features include an adaptive hint system accessed via the THINK ABOUT verb, and a status bar that shows not only what exits are available but also color-codes those directions according to whether they have been explored or not. Finally, I must mention the very newbie-friendly, context-sensitive “novice mode” that gently injects instructions for how to deal with the IF interface throughout the game. In fact, Bronze is a game I’d recommend for newcomers to the form, since its story is a familiar one, its help system is extensive, and its writing is rich and enjoyable.

A few more words about that writing. Short’s style is a familiar one by now: elliptical but densely packed, full of arresting images and subtle wit. At times, devoting so few words of description to so large a map can make the game feel a bit sparse, but more often it achieves a lovely mystique, showing us just enough to intrigue and enchant. Many sentences are striking in both their economy and power, such as this description of a door:

The work of the hinges and handle, the color of the wood, the point of the arch: all malevolent.

In addition, the imagery of the castle’s fixtures is pure Short, such as the giant hourglass whose sands never stop pouring, or the cherry-wood floor in which is carved an expansive map of the Beast’s kingdom. Another authorial trademark that will be familiar to fans of Savoir-Faire is the game’s detailed working-out of a magic system and its implications not only for puzzles but for character and story as well. Bronze is no masterpiece, but it is a well-crafted, fun, and satisfying game. I recommend it not only to people wishing to learn Inform 7 but to all fans of quality puzzle-laden text adventures.

Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bête noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

Lock & Key by Adam Cadre [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2003.]

IFDB Page: Lock & Key

Death Becomes You

[NOTE: Lock & Key has a twist right at the beginning, and I’m going to give it away because it’s not practical to discuss the game without doing so. So if you haven’t played it yet and you want to be surprised, go play it before reading this, at least up to the twist anyway.]

I love editing SPAG, but the job does have its down-sides. For instance, I’m frequently obliged to read reviews of games I haven’t played yet. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since SPAG reviews are required to be spoiler-free. However, there is a small, occasional section of the ‘zine called SPAG Specifics, wherein reviewers are allowed to spoil as much as they like in the interest of promoting specific, detailed discussion about particular games. When I get a review for this section, I need to read it whether I’ve played the game in question or not.

That’s exactly what happened to me with Lock & Key — I’d played the game enough to get beyond the initial twist, see the setup, say “Cool”, and vaguely resolve to play it whenever I found the time. Shortly afterward, Eytan Zweig submitted a thoughtful, fairly critical review of the game for SPAG Specifics, and I decided that I wanted to wait a while to play the game after that, so that the review would fade enough in memory that it wouldn’t color my perceptions. Now it’s been about a year since that issue, Lock & Key has just won a handful of XYZZY Awards, and I have a new laptop I needed to test this past weekend; the stars were aligned, and I finished the game.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cadre’s writing shines as usual, as does his knack for giving every game a fresh angle. In this one, you play a prison designer and security expert in a mildly jokey pseudo-medieval milieu. Your job is to craft the perfect sequence of death-traps for the King’s dungeon, enough to defeat even the hardiest adventurer who might try to escape it. If you succeed, you’ll make a fortune and be able to retire. If you fail, well, you get beheaded. Those medieval managers really knew how to motivate their employees.

The meat of the game is its one and only puzzle, the one for which it earned the XYZZY for Best Individual Puzzle: setting the traps. It’s not that setting the traps themselves is all that difficult, but choosing the right ones… ah, that’s another matter. See, once you’ve finished constructing your ideal dungeon, it is put to the test by Boldo, a thick-thewed adventurer who, in the best IF fashion, seems to have an endless inventory of items that happen to counteract your traps perfectly. Every time he encounters a death-trap, you get to see exactly how he defeats it, and this in turn allows you to begin scheming about how you might deprive him of that method. Like Varicella, the game is highly iterative — the chances you’ll beat it the first time through are virtually nil, and this is by design. Instead, Boldo’s many triumphs allow you to make your own advances towards building the perfect dungeon upon restarting.

It’s a deeply rewarding puzzle of marvelously interlocking elements. Not only does it operate on several levels to begin with, it builds on itself to make lots of little “aha!” moments combine into a greater experience of overall insight. In addition, the game’s use of graphics do it a great service, presenting a clean and attractive game board to help players to see exactly what choices they’ve made.

My favorite part of the puzzle, though, is the hinting. The prose that describes Boldo conquering your traps is funny and enjoyable to read on its own merits, but it also frequently contains wonderfully subtle hints about how the dungeon might be better constructed. For the sake of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t quote any of those hints here, but I will say that they capture the feel that Infocom at its best was able to provide, of prose that is just as good on a game level as it is on a story level.

So Lock & Key wholly deserved its XYZZY for Best Puzzle. The other awards, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the XYZZYs, Lock & Key went away with the prizes for both Best Individual NPC (Boldo) and Best NPCs in general. The fact that it won these accolades for NPCs with whom (for the most part) the player cannot directly interact AT ALL is rather astonishing. I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps writing is just much, much more important than coding when it comes to NPCs, at least as far as the XYZZY voters are concerned. Certainly Boldo reacts to the traps placed by the player, and the descriptions of his reactions are all great and funny, but that’s a very limited sort of interaction, nothing at all like the dozens and dozens of responses that make up the typical fully-fleshed IF NPC. I wonder: can great writing alone make a great NPC?

Maybe sometimes it can, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly this game’s excellent writing didn’t make Boldo an excellent NPC. He’s simply a cipher, an intentionally broad cliche whom the PC never meets, instead only watching cut-scenes of him on a sort of magic TV. He’s entertaining enough for the purpose he serves, but he hardly feels like a deeply implemented NPC, though he’s the deepest of the bunch. The other NPCs — the King, a gladiator named Musculo, and a host of others who appear in brief cameos — are present only in cut-scenes. The only exception to this, the only NPC who even responds to “ASK”, is the guard at the beginning. His response: “No talking in the dungeon!”

I would contend that the really remarkable character in Lock & Key is the player character. What’s remarkable about him? [1] Why, his cleverness, of course — his ability to string together just the right combination of traps to defeat Boldo. More to the point, what’s remarkable is the way in which the game constructs this cleverness. Like Primo Varicella, the PC of Lock & Key is what I’ll call an accretive PC, meaning that he becomes more and more himself with each iteration of the game, as the player’s knowledge accretes.

In most IF games, your character will never live up to you — it will never be able to do most of the things you can think of, nor say most of the things you can say. This is still true of Lock & Key and Varicella, but in an important way, what’s also true of those games is that you must live up to your character. You’re told a salient quality about the PC at the outset of the game — his expertise in dungeon design, or his Machiavellian plan to take over the regency — and then you must take him through one iteration after another until you yourself have attained enough of that quality to guide the PC to a successful conclusion. When you finally do reach that conclusion, it’s as if you’ve finally learned the real story, and all the failed attempts leading up to it exist only in shadowy parallel universes. This is who the character was all along — it just took you a while to catch up with him.

Of course, the case could be made that all IF PCs are like this to some degree. That may be true, but then again it’s de rigueur in most other IF to avoid game designs in which the PC must learn something by dying. Graham Nelson even made it Rule Number Three in his Player’s Bill Of Rights. [2] Of course, when a player must be able to step successfully into the PC’s viewpoint without any previous knowledge whatsoever, it becomes rather hard to give that PC any sort of expertise in the game world, which is why we so frequently see PCs who suffer from amnesia, or are fish-out-of-water, or other such tricks. Lock & Key and Varicella break this rule so brilliantly that it doesn’t even seem like a valid rule anymore. Why shouldn’t the player learn from past lives? After all, unless the PC is placed in some sort of contrived situation to deprive her of all her natural knowledge, she’ll inevitably know more than the player does the first time that player begins the game.

After a while, the requirement to match the PC’s knowledge with the player’s can begin to feel like a bit of a cage, and the most common contortions an IF game goes through to live inside it (such as amnesia) have long since lost their appeal. Even the freshest ones can still feel a bit tired and gimmicky unless done exactly right. The accretive PC is one key to this cage — it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a character who’s really good at something, and even better to become good at it yourself. Of all the jail-breaks that happen in Lock & Key, this one is the most satisfying.

[1] I’m referring to the PC as a male for convenience’s sake — I don’t recall its gender ever being specified in the game.

[2] See his excellent article The Craft Of Adventure, available in the info directory of the IF Archive.

Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[I wrote this review when the book was released, and also posted an abbreviated version at Amazon.]

Book cover for Twisty Little Passages
Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder‘s Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort’s book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort’s prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it’s an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you’re an IF aficionado like me, you’ll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there’s anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book’s other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort’s personal connections. It’s peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort’s ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I’ve seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort’s extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far — it’s what you do with that authority that counts. That’s what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he’s talking about when it comes to IF, he’s got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book’s first chapter is not only to expose the topic’s theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term “interactive fiction”) and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience. For example, according to the book, a session is “what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates”, while a traversal is “a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation” — thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience — they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more “a crossword at war with a narrative” (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.

This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF’s similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It’s an entertaining journey, and Montfort’s encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin — practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre’s Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we’ll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

Paul O’Brian
11 January 2004

Zork Zero [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork Zero
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork Zero, as well as at least one for Zork I. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

The earliest game in the Zork chronology was one of the latest games in the Infocom chronology. Zork Zero emerged in 1988, two years after the company was bought by Activision, and one year before it would be shut down. Zork was Infocom’s most famous franchise by far, and this prequel was the company’s last attempt to milk that cash cow, or rather its last attempt with original Implementors on board. Activision-produced graphical adventures like Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Zork: Grand Inquisitor were still to come, but those were fundamentally different animals than their namesake. Zork Zero, written by veteran Implementor Steve Meretzky, was still a text adventure game.

However, there was a little augmentation to the text this time. Along with a few other games of this era, Zork Zero saw Infocom dipping its toe into the world of graphics. The text window is presented inside a pretty proscenium arch, one which changes its theme depending on your location in the game, and also provides a handy compass rose showing available exits. Some locations come with a thumbnail icon, many of which are pretty crudely pixelated, but some of which (like the Great Underground Highway) are rather memorable. Most crucially, several important puzzles and story moments rely upon graphics in a way that hadn’t been seen before in a Zork game, or any Infocom game for that matter. In order to make these nifty effects work in Windows Frotz, our interpreter of choice, Dante and I had to do a bit of hunting around in the IF Archive — thus it was that we solved our first puzzle before we even began the game.

>EMBIGGEN ZORK. G. G. G. G.

Once we did start, we found that graphics weren’t the only way Meretzky found to expand on the Zork legacy. He also expanded on it by… expanding it! Over and over again, we were knocked out by the scope of this game. It’s enormous! Our Trizbort map had 208 rooms, and that’s not even counting ridiculous location “stacks” like the 400-story FrobozzCo building or the 64-square life-sized chessboard. By contrast, our map for Zork I had 110 rooms, and Zork III had a meager 59. So many locations. So many puzzles. So many objects. So many points! You’ll score a thousand hard-won points in a successful playthrough of Zork Zero. Dimwit Flathead’s excessiveness is a frequent butt of Meretzky’s jokes in this game (e.g. a huge kitchen that “must’ve still been crowded when all 600 of Dimwit’s chefs were working at the same time”), but if Dimwit were to design an IF game, it would definitely be this one.

The largesse still doesn’t apply to writing noun descriptions, though. For example:

>X CANNONBALL
There's nothing special about the cannonball.

>X UNICORNS
There's nothing unusual about the herd of unicorns.

>X FJORD
It looks just like the Flathead Fjord.

Even this late in Infocom’s development, they still hadn’t adopted the ethos that the most skilled hobbyists would take up later, of enhancing immersion by describing everything that could be seen.

Similarly, inventory limits are still around to vex us, and they hit especially hard in a game like this, which is absolutely overflowing with objects. Because of those limits, we followed our tried-and-true tactic of piling up all our spare inventory in a single room. In the case of Zork Zero, we knew we’d be throwing a bunch of those objects into a magic trophy case cauldron, so we stacked them in the cauldron room. By the time we were ready for the endgame, that room’s description was pretty hilarious:

Banquet Hall
Many royal feasts have been held in this hall, which could easily hold ten thousand guests. Legends say that Dimwit's more excessive banquets would require the combined farm outputs of three provinces. The primary exits are to the west and south; smaller openings lead east and northeast.
A stoppered glass flask with a skull-and-crossbones marking is here. The flask is filled with some clear liquid.
A 100-ugh dumbbell is sitting here, looking heavy.
Sitting in the corner is a wooden shipping crate with some writing stencilled across the top.
A calendar for 883 GUE is lying here.
You can see a poster of Ursula Flathead, a four-gloop vial, a shovel, a box, a spyglass, a red clown nose, a zorkmid bill, a saucepan, a ring of ineptitude, a rusty key, a notebook, a harmonica, a toboggan, a landscape, a sapphire, a glittery orb, a smoky orb, a fiery orb, a cloak, a ceramic perch, a quill pen, a wand, a hammer, a lance, an easel, a wooden club, a bag, a silk tie, a diploma, a brass lantern, a notice, a broom, a funny paper, a stock certificate, a screwdriver, a gaudy crown, a ticket, a dusty slate, a treasure chest, a blueprint, a saddle, a fan, a steel key, a walnut shell, a manuscript, an iron key, a package, a T-square, a fancy violin, a metronome, a scrap of parchment, a proclamation, a cannonball, a sceptre and a cauldron here.

That certainly wasn’t everything, but you get the idea.

In fact, this game was so big that its very size ended up turning into a puzzle, or at least a frustration enhancer. Dante and I flailed at a locked door for quite a while before realizing that we’d had the key almost since the beginning of the game. We forgot we’d obtained an iron key by solving a small puzzle in one of our earliest playthroughs, and the key itself was lost in the voluminous piles of stuff we had acquired. When we finally realized we’d had the key all along, it was nice to open up the door and everything, but it also felt a bit like we should be appearing on the GUE’s version of Hoarders.

Not only did the scope of Zork Zero obscure the answers to puzzles like that, it also functioned as a near-endless source of red herrings. It’s possible to waste immense amounts of time just checking locations to see if you’ve missed anything, because there are just so many locations. The FrobozzCo building was of course an example of this, but even more so was the chessboard, which soaked up tons of our time and attention trying to figure out what sort of chess puzzle we were solving. Not only was exploring the whole thing a red herring, but so was making moves and doing anything chess-related!

The cover of Zork Zero

On the other hand, the game’s sprawling vistas can also evoke a genuine sense of awe, somewhat akin to seeing the Grand Canyon from multiple viewpoints. There was a moment in the midgame where we’d been traversing a very large map to collect various objects, and then the proper application of those objects opened up a dimensional gateway to an entirely new very large map. Shortly afterward, we realized that in fact, the puzzle we’d just solved had in fact opened up five different dimensional gateways, some of which eventually connected to our main map but many of which did not! Moments like that were breathtaking, not just because of all the authorial work they implied, but also because of the gameplay riches that kept getting laid before us.

Sometimes, to make things even sillier, the effects of the giant inventory would combine with the effects of the giant map. One of those offshoot maps mentioned above contained a special mirror location, which would show you if there was anything supernatural about an object by suggesting that object’s magical properties in its reflection. Super cool, right? Well yeah, except that inventory limits, combined with incredible object profusion, required us to haul a sliver of our possessions during each trip to the mirror, and each trip to the mirror required a whole bunch of steps to accomplish. (Well, there was a shortcut through a different magical item, but we didn’t realize that at the time, and in fact only caught onto that very late in the game, so didn’t get much of a chance at optimization.)

So yes, the mirror location was a wonderful discovery. Less wonderful: hauling the game’s bazillion objects to the mirror in numerous trips to see if it could tell us something special. But then when we found something cool that helped us solve a puzzle: wonderful! This is quintessential Zork Zero design — an inelegant but good-natured mix of cleverness, brute force, and sheer volume. The capper to this story is that there’s one puzzle in particular that this mirror helps to solve, but we fell prey to Iron Key Syndrome once again and somehow failed to bring that puzzle’s particular objects (the various orbs) to the mirror, obliging us to just try every single one orb in the puzzle until we found the right one.

>RECOGNIZE ZORK TROPE. G. G. G. G.

Those orbs felt pretty familiar to us, having just recently palavered with Zork II‘s palantirs. (Well, the game calls them crystal spheres, but c’mon, they’re palantirs. Or, as Wikipedia and hardcore Lord of the Rings people would prefer, palantíri.) However, familiar-looking crystal balls were far from the only Zork reference on hand. As I said, Zork Zero appeared late in Infocom’s history, and with the speed at which the videogame industry was moving, Zork I had for many already acquired the reflected shine of a bygone golden age. Thus, nostalgia was part of the package Infocom intended to sell with this game, which meant Zork tropes aplenty.

One of the best Zorky parts of the game concerns those dwellers in darkness, the lurking grues. In the world of Zork Zero, grues are a bygone menace. As the in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica puts it:

Grues were eradicated from the face of the world during the time of Entharion, many by his own hand and his legendary blade Grueslayer. Although it has now been many a century since the last grue sighting, old hags still delight in scaring children by telling them that grues still lurk in the bottomless pits of the Empire, and will one day lurk forth again.

Oh, did I fail to mention that this huge game also contains an interactive Encyclopedia Frobozzica, with dozens of entries? Yeah, this huge game also has that. In any case, “the bottomless pits of the Empire” might sound familiar to longtime Zork players, or to readers of Infocom’s newsletter, which was for several years called The New Zork Times, until a certain Gray Lady‘s lawyers got involved. As NZT readers would know, there was a time before Zork was on home computers, before it was even called Zork at all. It was called Dungeon, at least until a certain gaming company‘s lawyers got involved.

In Dungeon, there were no grues in the dark places of the game, but rather bottomless pits — a rather fitting fate for someone stumbling around in a dark cave, but the game was more than just a cave. As the NZT tells it:

In those days, if one wandered around in the dark area of the dungeon, one fell into a bottomless pit. Many users pointed out that a bottomless pit in an attic should be noticeable from the ground floor of the house. Dave [Lebling] came up with the notion of grues, and he wrote their description. From the beginning (or almost the beginning, anyway), the living room had a copy of “US News & Dungeon Report,” describing recent changes in the game. All changes were credited to some group of implementers, but not necessarily to those actually responsible: one of the issues describes Bruce [Daniels] working for weeks to fill in all the bottomless pits in the dungeon, thus forcing packs of grues to roam around.

Sure enough, in Zork Zero prequel-ville, when you wander into a dark place, you’ll get the message, “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit.” In fact, at one of the lower levels of the enormous map, we found a location called “Pits”, which was “spotted with an incredible quantity of pits. Judging from the closest of them, the pits are bottomless.” Across the cavern, blocked by those pits, was “an ancient battery-powered brass lantern”, another major Zork nostalgia-carrier. Fittingly, to get to the traditional light object, we had to somehow deal with the even-more-traditional darkness hazard.

Lucky for us, yet another puzzle yielded an “anti-pit bomb”, which when thrown in the Pits location causes this to happen:

The bomb silently explodes into a growing cloud of bottomless-pit-filling agents. As the pits fill in, from the bottom up, dark and sinister forms well up and lurk quickly into the shadows. Uncountable hordes of the creatures emerge, and your light glints momentarily off slavering fangs. Gurgling noises come from every dark corner as the last of the pits becomes filled in.

Thereafter, when the PC moves into a dark place, the game responds with a very familiar message: “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” Luckily, the game provides an inexhaustible source of light in the form of a magic candle, so there are no terrible light timers to deal with. Some things, nobody is nostalgic for.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing the message "You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit."

Lack of a light timer made it easier to appreciate this game’s Wizard of Frobozz analogue, the jester. Like the Wizard, this guy pops up all over the place at random times, creating humorous magical effects which generally block or delay the PC. Sometimes those effects are themselves Zork references, such as when he sends a large deranged bat swooping down, depositing the PC elsewhere as it shrieks, “Fweep! Fweep!” Also like the Wizard, his effects get less funny the more they’re repeated. And also also like the Wizard, he figures prominently into the game’s plot.

However, unlike the Wizard, he functions in a whole bunch of other capacities as well. He’s the game’s primary NPC, appearing to deliver jokes, adjudicate puzzles (especially riddles), occasionally help out, congratulate solutions, and hang around watching the player struggle. He’s not quite an antagonist but certainly not an ally, and you get the sense he’s controlling far more than he lets on. In other words, he’s an avatar for the game itself, and in particular the twinkling eyes of Steve Meretzky.

>LAUGH. G. G. G. G.

Meretzky’s writing is witty and enjoyable throughout — it’s one of the best aspects of the game. He clearly revels in tweaking Zork history, as well as in reeling off line after line about the excessive Dimwit, e.g. “This is the huge central chamber of Dimwit’s castle. The ceiling was lowered at some point in the past, which helped reduce the frequency of storm clouds forming in the upper regions of the hall.” Probably my favorite Zork reference was also one of my favorite jokes in the game:

>HELLO SAILOR
[The proper way to talk to characters in the story is PERSON, HELLO. Besides, nothing happens here.]

Meretzky is also not above retconning previous bits of Zork lore that he disagrees with, such as his Encyclopedia Frobozzica correction of a detail in Beyond Zork‘s feelies: “The misconception that spenseweed is a common roadside weed has been perpetuated by grossly inaccurate entries in the last several editions of THE LORE AND LEGENDS OF QUENDOR.”

Speaking of feelies, this game had great ones, absolutely overflowing with Meretzky charm. Infocom was still heavily into copy-protecting its games via their documentation, and in typically excessive fashion, this game did that many times over, providing a map on one document, a magic word on another, and truckloads of hints (or outright necessary information) in its major feelie, The Flathead Calendar. This calendar called out to yet another aspect of Zork history, the wide-ranging Flathead family, with members such as Frank Lloyd Flathead, Thomas Alva Flathead, Lucrezia Flathead, Ralph Waldo Flathead, Stonewall Flathead, and J. Pierpont Flathead. The game’s treasures are themed around these figures, which was not only a lot of fun but also allowed me to do a bit of historical education with Dante, who still references Flatheads from time to time when mentioning things he’s learning in school.

The feelies establish a playful tone that continues through to the objects, the room descriptions, and the game’s general landscape. There are also great meta moments, such as the “hello sailor” response above, or what happens when you dig a hole with the shovel you find: “You dig a sizable hole but, finding nothing of interest, you fill it in again out of consideration to future passersby and current gamewriters.” Also enjoyable: the response to DIAGNOSE after having polymorphed yourself, e.g. “You are a little fungus. Other details of health pale in comparison.”

Meretzky even brings in a trope from Infocom’s mystery games, in probably the most ridiculous joke in the entire thing. There’s a location containing both a cannonball and a number of “murder holes”, “for dropping heavy cannonballs onto unwanted visitors”. This is obviously an irresistible situation, and the results are worth quoting in full:

>DROP CANNONBALL THROUGH HOLE
As you drop the cannonball through the murder hole, you hear a sickening "splat," followed by a woman's scream!
"Emily, what is it!"
"It's Victor -- he's been murdered!"
"I'll summon the Inspector! Ah, here he is now!" You hear whispered questions and answers from the room below, followed by footsteps on the stairs. The jester enters, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a large pipe.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to order Sgt. Duffy to place you under arrest, sir." You grow dizzy with confusion, and your surroundings swirl wildly about you...
Dungeon
A century's worth of prisoners have languished in this dismal prison. In addition to a hole in the floor, passages lead north, southeast, and southwest.

None of these characters (except the jester) occur anywhere in the game outside this response. Sergeant Duffy, as Infocom fans would know, is who you’d always summon in an Infocom mystery game when you were ready at last to accuse the killer. By the way, the Dungeon isn’t locked or anything — it’s a gentle joke, not a cruel one. The only real punishment is having to traverse the huge map to get back to wherever you want to be. I’ll stop quoting Meretzky jokes in a second, but I have to throw in just one more, because of the surprising fact that it establishes:

>EAT LOBSTER
1) It's not cooked. 2) It would probably bite your nose off if you tried. 3) You don't have any tableware. 4) You don't have any melted butter. 5) It isn't kosher.

Turns out the Zork adventurer (or at least the pre-Zork adventurer) is not only Jewish, but kosher as well! Who knew? Though, given that the kosher objection comes last, after lack of cooking, tableware, and butter, their commitment may be a bit halfhearted after all.

The cover of Zork Zero's Flathead Calendar feelie

Amidst all the humor, Meretzky hasn’t lost his touch for pathos either, with a design that themes several puzzles around the sense of ruin and decay. For example, we found an instruction to follow a series of steps, starting from “the mightiest elm around.” In Zork Zero, this is an enormous tree stump. Meretzky has learned some lessons from Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging about how to make a landscape that inherently implies its bygone better days. Even in the Zork prequel, the adventurer is traversing a fallen empire.

>REMEMBER PUZZLE. G. G. G. G.

Zork Zero isn’t just a prequel in narrative terms. As we kept finding old-timey puzzles like the rebus or the jester’s Rumpelstiltskin-esque “guess my name” challenge, Dante had the great insight that as a prequel, this game was casting back not just to an earlier point in fictional universe history, but to puzzle flavors of the pre-text-adventure past as well. Relatedly, as we ran across one of those vintage puzzles — The Tower of Hanoi Bozbar — he intoned, “Graham Nelson warned us about you, Tower of Bozbar.”

He was referencing a bit in Graham’s Bill of Player’s Rights, about not needing to do boring things for the sake of it: “[F]or example, a four-discs tower of Hanoi puzzle might entertain. But not an eight-discs one.” Zork Zero‘s tower split the difference by having six discs, and indeed tiptoed the line between fun and irritating.

However, if we’d been trying to do it without the graphical interface, the puzzle would have vaulted over that line. The game’s graphics are never more valuable than when they’re helping to present puzzles rooted in physical objects, like the Tower or the triangle peg solitaire game. Clicking through these made them, if not a blast, at least bearable. Those interactions do make for an amusing transcript, though — hilarious amounts of our game log files are filled with sentences like “You move the 1-ugh weight to the center peg” or “You remove 1 pebble from Pile #3” or “You are moving the peg at letter D.”

Just as some concepts are much easier to express with a diagram than with words, so are some types of puzzles much easier to express with graphics. Infocom had long been on the record as disdaining graphics, and indeed, I still think text has a scene-setting power that visuals can’t match. Meretzky’s descriptions of Dimwit’s excessive castle have more pith and punch than a visual representation of them could possibly muster. However, a picture is so much better than a thousand words when it comes to conveying a complex set of spatial relations. Even as early as Zork III‘s Royal Puzzle, Infocom leaned on ASCII graphics to illustrate those spatial relationships, because that just works so much better. Once they had more sophisticated graphics available, the range of Infocom’s puzzles could expand. It’s ironic that the first thing they did was to expand backwards into older puzzle styles, but then again it’s probably a natural first step into exploring new capabilities.

Going along with the overall verve of the game, those old chestnut puzzles revel in their old chestnut-ness. Zork Zero is a veritable toy chest of object games, logic challenges (e.g. the fox, the rooster, and the worm crossing the river), riddles, and other such throwbacks. Of course, there are plenty of IF-style puzzles as well. (There’s plenty of everything, except noun descriptions.) Sometimes these could be red herrings too — all the Zorky references kept leading us to believe we might see an echo of a previous Zork’s puzzle. Hence, for example, we kept attempting to climb every tree we saw, fruitlessly.

The IF parts of the game don’t hesitate to be cruel, either. I’ve mentioned that every single Zork game made us restart at some point — well Zork Zero was no exception. In this case, it wasn’t a light timer running out or a random event closing off victory, but simply using up an item too soon. We found a bit of flamingo food early in the game, and fed it to a flamingo… which was a mistake. Turns out we needed to wait for a very specific flamingo circumstance, but by the time we found that out, it was far too late. This flavor of forced-restart felt most like the experience we had with Zork I, where we killed the thief before he’d been able to open the jewel-encrusted egg. The difference is that restarting Zork Zero was a much bigger deal, because we had to re-do a whole bunch of the game’s zillion tasks.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing Peggleboz, its version of the triangle peg solitaire game

On the other hand, while this game does have a maze, it is far, far less annoying than the Zork I maze. In general, the design of Zork Zero does a reasonably good job of retaining the fun aspects of its heritage and jettisoning the frustrating ones. Except for that inventory limit — interactive fiction wouldn’t outgrow that one for a while longer. And while there are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles (I’m thinking of the elixir, which is a real guess-the-verb, and throwing things on the ice, which is a real head-scratcher), for the most part they’re entertaining and fun.

Before I close, since I’ve been talking about old-fashioned puzzles, I’ll pay tribute to a moment in Zork Zero which beautifully brought together old and new styles. As one of several riddles in the game, the jester challenges the PC to “Show me an object which no one has ever seen before and which no one will ever see again!” Now, we tried lots of solutions to this — air, flame, music, etc. — but none of them worked, and none of them would have been very satisfying if they had worked. Then, at some point, we realized we had a walnut with us, and if we could open it, the meat inside would certainly qualify as nothing anyone had seen before.

Then, after much travail, we were able to find a magic immobilizing wand, then connect that wand with a lobster, which turned into a nutcracker. After that it was a matter of showing the walnut to the jester to solve the riddle. That was a satisfying moment, made up of connecting one dot to the next, to the next, to the next. But it wasn’t quite over:

>SHOW WALNUT TO JESTER
"True, no one has seen this 'ere me -- but thousands may see it in years to be!"

>EAT WALNUT
"I'm very impressed; you passed my test!

That final capper turned a good puzzle into a great one — a solution that felt smart and obvious at the same time. Unfortunately, eating that walnut wasn’t enough to defeat Zork Zero‘s hunger puzzle. (Not a hunger timer, mind you — a reasonable and contained hunger puzzle.)

For that, we needed to become a flamingo, and eat the flamingo food. RESTART!

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.

Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[This is a review I wrote in 2004, of the first book-length academic study of interactive fiction: Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. I also posted a version of this review on the Amazon page for that book.]

Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort’s book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort’s prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it’s an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you’re an IF aficionado like me, you’ll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there’s anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book’s other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort’s personal connections. It’s peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort’s ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I’ve seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort’s extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far — it’s what you do with that authority that counts. That’s what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he’s talking about when it comes to IF, he’s got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book’s first chapter is not only to expose the topic’s theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term “interactive fiction”) and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience.

For example, according to the book, a session is “what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates”, while a traversal is “a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation” — thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience — they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more “a crossword at war with a narrative” (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.

This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF’s similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It’s an entertaining journey, and Montfort’s encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin — practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre’s Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we’ll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

Temple of Kaos by Peter Gambles [Comp03]

IFDB page: Temple of Kaos
Final placement: 15th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Much to my dismay, Temple Of Kaos has nothing to do with Maxwell Smart or Agent 99. I mean, sure, getting permission from whoever owns the rights to the show would probably be an insurmountable hurdle, but legal problems aside, wouldn’t Get Smart make a fantastic IF milieu? The Shoe Phone, the Cone Of Silence… I can just picture it. This Temple of KAOS, however, isn’t the stronghold of a nefarious organization of evil spies whose efforts must be thwarted by the agents of CONTROL, but rather a bizarre otherworld, where rules of time, space, and spelling (it’s called KAOS for no discernible reason) don’t apply.

Basically, the two salient features of this game are its disregard for making sense, and its propensity to express itself in verse, sometimes free, sometimes blank, and usually with end rhymes. As such, it’s a highly experimental game, and while I think both of the experiments fail in this instance, they illuminate some remarkable territory along the way.

Let’s tackle the nonsensical part first. In the ABOUT text, the author states that part of his intention with the game is to “interfere, out of sheer mischief, with some of the normal perceptions / causal relationships of IF space-time.” Mission accomplished, and in some parts of the game, the technique works well. The first section in particular contains a puzzle which utterly confounds standard expectations of how the world ought to work, but it’s possible to figure out the alternate system of reality at work in the puzzle, and thereby defeat it. The process of doing so is really fun, reminiscent of the flavor of The Gostak or For A Change. More specifically, the reason the puzzle works is that even though the PC’s actions don’t produce the expected results, they do produce some results, and from these results it’s possible to deduce what’s really going on. The same can’t be said of most of the other puzzles in the game.

Even for IF set in a much more mundane universe, feedback design is one of the toughest parts of puzzle creation — you don’t want to be so obvious that the puzzle becomes a non-puzzle, but your feedback also mustn’t be so obscure (or nonexistent) as to leave the player shaking her head in confusion even when the solution is revealed. Most of the puzzles in TOK err on the latter side of this line. I think that for every puzzle after the first one, I looked at the hints, and for most of them even the hints were insufficient. (Thankfully, the author provided a walkthrough.)

For some puzzles, the solution made a tortured kind of sense once I’d looked it up, but for many, I found myself just following the walkthrough’s instructions with a shrug. Sufficient feedback is very important in any IF puzzle, but in a world where the normal rules don’t apply, feedback becomes utterly crucial — how are we supposed to figure out the rules without the ability to gather any evidence about them? TOK usually (though not always) fails to provide enough feedback to make its puzzles solvable, which takes a lot of the fun out of playing.

What does provide some fun is the game’s tendency to present its room and object descriptions in a shaky kind of poetry. For instance, the first room description:

In the North Chamber

Chamber of the north, so empty, still, all noise grates
Black as night the chest your thought awaits.
The other chamber southward lies
Cloaked in mystery's disguise.

Most, but not all, of the game’s verse rhymes like this — sometimes the lines lack rhyme or even consistent meter. Moreover, there’s a fair bit of prose mixed in, as conversation, library responses, or descriptions of action, and the presence of these rather ordinary bits of writing juxtaposed with the more elevated verses tends to drain the effectiveness of each. The other problem with the poetry is reminiscent of what happened in Graham Nelson‘s final game, The Tempest. That is, it’s tough enough to craft IF prose that communicates clearly and concisely, and that also provides enough information to the player, but to do so in verse is much, much harder. TOK‘s poetry isn’t at as great a disadvantage as The Tempest, which forced itself to use prewritten lines as room and object descriptions, but it can still be rather opaque.

Usually the lines aren’t pure gibberish, and they sometimes even manage to pack a few clues in, but nevertheless it does take some time to translate, for instance, “Black as night the chest your thought awaits” into “There’s a black chest here.” The poetry technique is ill-chosen in combination with the game’s nonsensical laws of time, space, and causality, since either one by itself is confusing enough but together they can be utterly impenetrable. However, TOK does give some glimpses of how compelling an IF game in pure verse could be, and of how fascinating it might be to play in a universe with a completely different set of basic rules. Play it for these glimpses, but don’t be afraid to reach for the walkthrough.

Rating: 6.5

The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky by Somebody [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky
Final placement: 29th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Call this game “Insultatron.” Its purpose is to insult you in as many ways as possible, though not with a great deal of creativity. If that sounds like fun to you, than you’ll probably love the game. If not, then you’re like me.

Well, actually, there’s a minute or two of fun to be had. I kind of enjoyed the way the game got more and more exasperated with describing the setting, and finally just gave up on the whole thing. Also, a couple of the library default replacements were a bit funny, though most were just dumb and vile, sometimes extremely vile, so searching through for the funny ones isn’t a very rewarding activity. It is a bit amusing to see the genteel Graham Nelson library responses poking through on occasion — they sound very odd in this context.

In the end, this game is pretty dull. Actually, it’s pretty dull all the way through. Also, insults don’t really carry the same punch when they’re misspelled. But at least the game knows it’s stupid. Doesn’t that count for something? Actually… no.

Rating: 1.8