Enchanter [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Enchanter
[This review contains lots of major spoilers for Enchanter, plus spoilers of various sizes for lots of Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Having finished all the Infocom games with the word “Zork” in their names, Dante and I turned our attention to the game we glimpsed when Zork III‘s Scenic Vista let us see the future, the game that would have been called Zork IV but instead became Enchanter. Infocom made a great call by keeping the Zork brand off this game, because its primary mechanic fundamentally separates it from the original trilogy.

That basic mechanic — spellcasting — is dynamite. Instead of accumulating more and more objects, the PC of this game accumulates skills, sometimes even superpowers. Sure, some of these skills are comically puzzle-specific, but even so, every new spell added to the spell book makes the PC feel more capable and powerful. Rather than just some wandering kleptomaniac who knows how to put rod A into slot B and goes around doing various versions of that again and again, the Enchanter protagonist feels like an organically growing and improving being.

That sense of growth and improvement works well in tandem with the plot, too. That’s right: plot. There’s more story in Enchanter than in all the original trilogy games put together. Yes, wisps of story had started to appear with the Wizard of Frobozz and the Dungeon Master, but this game gives us a full-fledged quest plot with dramatic stakes, not just a shambolic treasure hunt.

As plots go, it’s fairly rudimentary and rather logically flawed — we’re really placing the fate of the realm in the hands of someone with almost no skills? Okay, I guess there’s a prophecy or something, but it’s all a little pat and strains credulity. (Comp99’s Spodgeville Murphy ably parodies this notion with its line, “Another champion must be sought; an idiot unskilled in anything but adventuring…”) Still, compared to the Zork trilogy, a plot framework like this is a quantum leap forward. And having established that the PC starts with very few skills makes the skill-building experience that much more exciting and rewarding.


So Enchanter distinguishes itself from Zork both by its level of character specificity and its level of narrative drive, and it’s clearly well aware of the comparison, because it plays up the contrast to hilarious effect via its inclusion of the adventurer NPC. He’s the source of most of the game’s best jokes, and we were exactly the right audience for them, having just played through five Zork games. Some of our favorite lines:

  • The adventurer stares at his possessions as if expecting a revelation.
  • The adventurer pulls out his map, a convoluted collection of lines, arrows, and boxes, and checks it briefly.
  • The adventurer asks for directions to Flood Control Dam #3.
  • The adventurer waves at you and asks “Hello, Sailor?” Strange, you’ve never even been to sea. [Even better, if you respond to this by giving him something, say your loaf of bread:] A wide smile comes over his face as he takes the loaf of bread, as though your action resolved for him some great mystery.
  • The adventurer offers to relieve you of some of your possessions.
  • [If the enchanter follows you onto the illusory stairs, which support you but not him:] The adventurer seems to have dropped out of existence. In a voice that seems to recede into the void, you hear his final word: “Restore….” You muse about how a mere adventurer might come to possess a spell of such power.
  • The adventurer attempts to eat his sword. I don’t think it would agree with him.

So this is clearly the Zork adventurer, and even the way you acquire him — from the other side of a magical mirror — has a wonderful resonance with the teleportation mirrors of Zork I. But in case you thought perhaps he’d warped in from another universe or something, the details of the Gallery location dispel that idea immediately:

The east-west corridor opens into a gallery. The walls are lined with portraits, some of apparently great value. All of the eyes seem to follow you as you pass, and the entire room is subtly disturbing.

>examine portraits
The portraits represent a wide cross-section of races. Elves, gnomes, dwarves, wizards, warlocks, and just plain folk are all here. Some of them are known to you, such as Lord Dimwit Flathead of the Great Underground Empire, depicted here in excessive detail, and the Wizard of Frobozz, shown in a typical pose of anguished bewilderment.

The adventurer himself has a satisfying reaction if you happen to catch him wandering into this location:

The adventurer stops and stares at the portraits. “I’ve met him!” he gasps, pointing at the Wizard of Frobozz. He doesn’t appear eager to meet him again, though. “And there’s old Flathead! What a sight!” He glances at the other portraits briefly and then re-checks his map.

The cover of the Enchanter folio package

So while the contrast between the enchanter and the adventurer makes it clear that Enchanter isn’t Zork IV (despite what the Scenic Vista suggests), it is an extension of the Zork universe. Dante and I, having skipped around in time a bit, had already seen the union of spellcasting-Zork and treasure-hunting-Zork in the later games, and in fact some of our discoveries here helped explain throwaway references in those games, such as Beyond Zork‘s casual mention that “Aggressive ad campaigns and the deregulation of ZIFMIA spells have made Miznia’s Jungle Skyway the fifth biggest tourist attraction in the Southlands.” In Enchanter, Zifmia can only summon beings of great magical power or beings you can see, but apparently later the rules loosen up enough that it can be used for casual travel. The idea that spell restrictions are largely the product of bureaucratic regulations is a funny one, considering that they’re really the product of technical limitations and the necessity to constrain combinatorial explosions in game design.


If only Infocom had done a little deregulation of their other limits. For whatever reason, designers Marc Blank and Dave Lebling decided to impose three different timers in this game: one for hunger, one for thirst, and one for sleep. That’s on top of the never-stops-being-annoying inventory limit, which felt particularly draconian here. Infocom’s previous game, Planetfall, also inflicted these three timers on players, so I guess Enchanter just had the misfortune to fall into the period of IF evolution between, “Hey, these timers make the game more realistic!” and “Hey, these timers make the game a lot less fun.”

The thirst timer isn’t terrible — there’s an endless source of water available, though occasionally you may have to trundle over to it. Still, it’s mostly just an annoyance. Food, on the other hand, has a hard limit — there’s a loaf of bread that lasts something like 7 meals, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Enchanter continued Infocom’s streak of making us replay games, and that hunger timer was a big part of how it did so. (The other part was finding out we’d locked ourselves out of victory in our first few moves — more about that in a moment.)

Then there’s the sleep timer. While not as unforgiving as the hunger timer, it did introduce a whole new way to suddenly lose — you can get robbed while you sleep! Apparently this is the best use for the Blorb spell, but you have to learn that the hard way. Incidentally, Dante and I played a bit of Enchanter together when he was much younger, and this bedtime theft (combined with me saying, “We’ve been robbed!”) upset him so much that he dropped the game completely.

On the other hand, Enchanter does a few things with its sleep timer that make it almost worth having. For one, there’s a puzzle that flat-out requires sleep. Fall asleep on a beautiful bed, get rewarded with the location of a new scroll you’d never have found otherwise. That’s easy enough. Even more enticing, though, are the hints you get while dreaming. These dreams make perfect sense with the character, a novice spellcaster with the potential for greater power, and a connection to the mystical forces of the universe. Plus, they can help get you unstuck — always appreciated. One of those dreams brilliantly hinted us toward the solution to a puzzle:

After a while, your sleep is disturbed by a strange dream. You are wandering in a darkened place, for you have no light or other possessions. You feel that you are being watched! You are surrounded by faces, their eyes following you. They drift in and out, staring at you with proud indifference. One face, brightly lit (unlike the rest), draws you closer and closer. As you touch it, you wake.

It took a few repetitions of this before we caught on — and the game gets increasingly insistent about signaling that this is a hint — but finally we understood that it referred to the Gallery, and further understood what we had to do, given that a nearly identical puzzle appears at the end of Zork II. Unfortunately, that was also when we realized that we’d locked ourselves out of victory.

See, one of the most satisfying parts of Enchanter is the way it obviates some of the recurring frustrations of earlier Zork games. For a player who has struggled with one lock after another, possessing a Rezrov spell feels marvelously empowering. Never again, locks! (Not true, but it still feels great when Rezrov pops something open.) Similarly, the Frotz spell meant that our days of struggling against light limits were over at last! “Frotz me” was one of the first commands we typed once we understood that the PC could finally be its own light source. Which is great… except when you need darkness. It wouldn’t be until Spellbreaker that Infocom would allow the “Extinguish” verb to undo a “Frotz me”, so… RESTART!

Photo from the Enchanter package showing the disk and feelies

Unfortunately, there was no spell that improved our carrying capacity, which meant that we were frequently told that we were carrying too many things already. Usually an annoyance, this behavior became downright infuriating with a grabby fellow like the adventurer around — when we opened up a new location, he would charge right in and take everything we hadn’t been able to pick up, which tended to be most things, given the game’s insistence on inventory limits. One silver lining: there was a lot of comedy value to be had from checking out the adventurer’s inventory, which besides his own sword and lamp was generally made up of our castoffs:

There is a bedraggled and weary adventurer standing here. He is carrying a sacrificial dagger, a lighted portrait, a dusty book, a purple scroll, a sword, and a brass lantern.

He’s like a sillier version of the Zork I thief, or maybe a deranged magpie who doesn’t restrict himself to just the shiny objects.

The adventurer focuses entirely on objects, while the enchanter cares much more about scrolls, whose physical presence is ephemeral, but whose contents can be used over and over. Put another way, the adventurer’s power comes from having things, while the enchanter’s power comes from knowing things. For kids whose knowledge greatly outstrips their wealth, this is a pretty appealing formulation.

The mind-body split between these two characters also figures into the game’s puzzles, in which the adventurer can ignore mental barriers such as illusions, breaking through with a basic physicality that can pave the way for the enchanter. On the flip side, the enchanter can use a spell (not an object) to change the adventurer’s mood, so that he’s willing to cooperate. I would totally play a game (or for that matter, watch a TV show or movie) in which these two team up for a whole story to solve problems.


The puzzles in Enchanter overall are quite clever and fun on average. We particularly enjoyed the Unseen Terror puzzle, with its ASCII art and its multi-step luring and trapping mechanic. Figuring out the right combination of spells and objects to get the sacrificial dagger was another favorite. Oh, and the rainbow turtle! That one was a little awkward with its syntax, but once we understood how to tell the game our idea, it was quite a thrill seeing it work.

The final puzzle, however, stymied us for quite some time, and here is where Enchanter‘s spell-specific puzzle gimmick shows its weakness. See, when there’s one spell and only one spell that can resolve a situation, you’re at an impasse unless you’ve found that spell, but you likely don’t even know you’re at that impasse. Now, one could argue this is really no different than a Zork game, in which there is often one and only one object that can unlock a puzzle, but I think there’s a qualitative difference.

Because objects are concrete items that tend to have very specific or limited capabilities, it’s more clear when you’re missing one. Say you find a bolt that needs turning — it’s pretty certain that a sword or a hot pepper sandwich is not going to do the job. You clearly need a wrench. Now say you find a fire-breathing dragon. Could you make it your friend, or change it into a newt, or talk to it? Well, why not? Those all seem like reasonable solutions to the problem, and if they don’t work, it’s only because the game rather arbitrarily decides that they don’t. When it turns out that you must have a “quench an open flame” spell, you might justifiably cry foul, especially when a dragon is much more like a hostile creature than an open flame. By building the skills and powers of the PC, Enchanter comes closer and closer to risking logical breaks by deciding that those powers are only allowed to apply to some situations and not other, very similar situations.

The other weakness of this scenario is that the Gondar spell (the open-flame-quenching one) is only available from searching a second-level noun — that is, an object mentioned in the description of another object rather than the description of a room. Given how many first-level nouns go undescribed in Enchanter and all its predecessors, expecting that kind of search behavior seems a little beyond the pale. We needed a hint to get there.

Once we got that hint, and were sufficiently Gondared, the climactic sequence of the game became finishable, and we finished! Banishing Krill was as satisfying as we’d hoped, and we were excited to know that much more IF with this fun spellcasting mechanic awaited us!

Ruined Robots by Nicholas, Natasha, and Gregory Dudek [Comp04]

IFDB page: Ruined Robots
Final placement: 34th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, I’m not sure how to review this game without sounding like an ogre. Per the credits and a quick perusal of the web page, it looks like Ruined Robots was written by two kids and one adult, so I hardly want to come off like a big bully, but there’s just no getting around the fact that this game is terrible. Being charitable, it feels like a child’s drawing that’s been taken off the refrigerator and entered into a competition filled with talented painters and sketch artists. In one context, it’s something to be proud of, but in the other, it can’t be anything but bad. I mean, there are a couple of cool features — some of the ambient sounds are nice, and the little “common commands” toolbar could be useful to players with a different style from mine. But the crux of the game — the writing and the coding — is just really poor.

Detailed analysis of everything wrong with Ruined Robots would be belaboring the point, and though point-belaboring is one of my hobbies, I’ll try to steer clear of it this time, and instead just mention a few ways in which this game could be improved:

  • Get rid of the hunger timer. It is pointless. (By the way, what is it with TADS and hunger puzzles? Are they the default in the TADS library or something?)
  • Figure out what’s causing the freaky line of double-strikethrough letter Ys next to all the room titles, and fix that.
  • It’s = it is. Its = belonging to it.
  • Proofread in general. Pretend you’re turning it in for school and will get marked down for every English error or something.
  • Get your game beta-tested. If your testers can’t figure out the puzzles, decipher the prose, or finish the game without your help, fix whatever’s confusing them.
  • Try to have the puzzle-solving actions make sense. You can’t expect players to perform some random action you’ve given them no reason to try.
  • Speaking of randomness, cut it out with the million-and-one random objects that break mimesis and serve no purpose. If there’s a snowman on the lawn in the middle of spring, for instance, there’d better be a good and interesting reason for that. I don’t want to hear, “The snowman isn’t important.”

Finally, if you’re going to provide a walkthrough, please make sure it actually works to solve your game with. Otherwise, you’ll have judges who decide that your game is totally unplayable and deserves a 1.

Rating: 1.0

Redeye by John Pitchers [Comp04]

IFDB page: Redeye
Final placement: 28th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, before I launch in, let me just say this: Redeye seems like a well-intentioned game. It’s seriously burdened with problems, but it makes a reasonable attempt at story, writing, puzzles, and so forth. Moreover, it does one thing that I thought was really cool, which is to take advantage of my adventure game sensibilities for a crucial scene. The PC witnesses a shooting, and on examining the victim’s body, finds a gun. Because of my ingrained “pick everything up” IF habits, I added the gun to my inventory, and then went outside… to be greeted by the police, shouting at me to drop the gun. Oh yeah. Guess it’s not a good idea to pick up a gun right after a murder. Looks kinda suspicious. Of course, as it turns out, making that mistake is the only way the story can continue, which is not so good. Still, things like this help me believe that this game can be improved, and that authors can learn from its mistakes for the sake of future games.

In that spirit, then, allow me a few suggestions for how to make IF better than Redeye. First of all, put some thought into presentation. The first thing this game did was assault me with an “angry fruit salad” melange, blocks of text in no less than eight different colors. I found all these colors pointless and distracting — they add nothing to the game. Worse than this, the game set the background to black but somehow failed to set the color for the foreground text, and consequently I couldn’t see what I was typing, since it was black-on-black. Even the most minimal testing would have found this problem, which leads me to believe that the colors were changed at the last minute.

Presentation is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Another pointer is to proofread your grammar and spelling, and have some people who are good with words look at it, too. In particular, learn how apostrophes work. “The suns rays” doesn’t mean “the rays of the sun”, it refers to multiple suns and multiple rays. “Tell her your OK” doesn’t mean “tell her that you are okay”, it means “tell your okay to her.” “Your” means “belonging to you.” “You’re” is short for “you are.” Learn grammar or your writing will suck. While you’re at it, learn the difference between sentence fragments and complete sentences. Avoid the former, and cleave to the latter. Next: pick a voice and stick with it. Second-person voice is “you”, and first-person voice is “I.” Do not mix them, like so:

You have absolutely no idea where you are or how you got here…

Hmmm. Where is Arthur? I hope nothing has happened to him…

You open your eyes. Crikey. Where in hell am I? It looks like the
middle of the bloody desert!!

Crazy seesawing between voices like that makes no sense and is very annoying to read.

Well, that gets us through the intro. Now some tips for the game. First of all: please, please, PLEASE no hunger puzzles. They are just lame. They are especially, excruciatingly, super-duper lame when there is NO FOOD IN THE GAME! Secondly, please allow for reasonable actions. Plots on rails (and this one most certainly is one of those) are fine, but you have to find a good reason to turn down the player’s actions, not just fail to implement them. If the PC witnesses a murder, many players’ first instinct will be to CALL THE POLICE. “I don’t know the word ‘call'” is not a sufficient response to this.

To avoid problems like this, have your game tested by a number of people and enhance your code in recognition of the actions they attempt. I’d have thought that one was bloody obvious, given that the comp organizer sends out emails with specific instructions to do so, but perhaps not. Also, please implement descriptions for nouns mentioned in room and object descriptions. If I’m told I can see a highway, a store, and a hotel, I want to be able to examine them. I do not want to be told that the game doesn’t know those words. (Yes, that’s a lot of work. Writing good games is a lot of work.)

In addition, provide all the synonyms you use in your descriptions. For instance, if there’s a group of bikers alternately described as a “horde” and a “crowd”, X HORDE, X CROWD, and X BIKERS should all result in the same response. Implementing only one of them is… bad. Also, this thing:

>x urinal
Which urinal do you mean, the toilet, or the toilet?

Please avoid that. On another note, recognize when you are cueing the player and respond accordingly. For instance:

>x motorcycles
The motorcycles are predominantly Harley Davidsons. Low, sleek and
highly modified. I wouldn't touch them if I were you.

>touch motorcycles
Touching the harleys doesn't seem to have any effect.

That is anticlimactic and disappointing. Again, at least one tester probably would have caught this. Okay, there are certainly plenty more changes that would significantly improve the game, but that’s enough for now. Redeye is quite a poor game, but it’s quite a good cautionary example. If you play it, you’ll probably come up with your own list of what not to do in creating IF.

Rating: 4.0

Evacuate by Jeff Rissman [Comp02]

IFDB page: Evacuate
Final placement: 19th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I wanted to love this game. Oh man, did I want to love this game. And there’s really a lot to love, too. It’s got a classic storyline: you’re a passenger on a luxury starship which has been attacked, and having just returned to consciousness after everyone else has evacuated, you must find your way to safety. There’s also a great feel to Evacuate, a combination of writing and implementation that evoked Infocom for me more than any game since Comp2000’s YAGWAD. Room and object descriptions are very nicely judged, and some of the puzzle clueing is just superb.

In the course of my two hours with the game, I had several moments where I would look more closely at an object, or really notice a particular word for the first time, and a crucial piece of information would click into place. That feeling is such a pleasure, on a par with those times where inspiration would hit in a flash, I would try my idea, and it would work. Evacuate provided me with both those experiences, and although there are a few spelling mistakes here and there, after my first hour with the game I was feeling buoyant, sure I would finally be able to give a game in this comp a score in the high 9s.

Then came the second hour. Early in the second hour, I discovered the starvation timer. The game kills you after 400 moves if the PC hasn’t eaten yet. I hate this. It’s pointless, unrealistic, and really adds no challenge. But if food is readily available, or if the time limit is generous enough, a starvation puzzle alone isn’t enough to kill the fun of a good game. In Evacuate, the time limit was much too short, and food isn’t available until after you’ve done a bunch of stuff, most notably navigate the maze.

Yes, the maze. As mazes were falling out of fashion in adventure games, the genre went through a period where games would still include a maze, but there would be some special gimmick that would make the maze solvable outside the normal, painstaking methods. This wasn’t a bad compromise, since it retained the nostalgia appeal of an adventure game maze, but allowed an escape from the tedium of drop-and-map maze navigation. After a while, though, even gimmicked mazes became a cliché, and they fell out of fashion too. Evacuate goes the opposite direction, adding a gimmick to its maze that actually makes the maze harder rather than easier. Yes, there’s a way around this gimmick, but even when you’ve found that, you’re still in a maze puzzle.

I didn’t enjoy this, and I especially didn’t enjoy it when there are several things to accomplish in the maze, none of which involved any food. I’d be very impressed if anyone got past the hunger timer without hints or restoring/restarting at least a half-dozen times. When I finally looked at the walkthrough, I was gobsmacked at how much of the game I still needed to get through before I could get anywhere near the food, and that brings up another problem, which isn’t really a problem with Evacuate itself but did affect my experience: for me, this just was not a two-hour game. Even without the incessant restores and restarts brought about by the hunger puzzle, there’s just too much here to squeeze into a two-hour space.

The really amazing thing is that even after Evacuate squarely hit three of my biggest comp game peeves (starvation timer, maze, too big for 2 hours), I still want to give it something around an 8. That’s a testament to how much is outstanding in this game, how many wonderful moments it offers up in exchange for its annoying characteristics. It’s so close to greatness.

Just add a few more custom responses for sensible actions (prying something with a screwdriver, using a scarf as a rope.) Just remove the hunger puzzle (it’s entirely non-essential anyway). Just, at the very least, tone down the maze to eliminate the constant randomizing elements. Just release it outside the bounds of a structure that dictates a limit on playing time. If these things happened, Evacuate could be a cracking good piece of IF. Right now, for all its wonderful qualities, it falls tantalizingly, achingly short of the mark.

Rating: 7.9

Stranded by Rich Cummings [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stranded
Final placement: 37th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The opening screen of Stranded bears the legend “A game written and designed by Rich Cummings, 1988/2001.” I didn’t pay much attention to these numbers when I started the game, but when I looked back at the transcripts to write this review, they started to make a lot of sense. The idea that this game was begun in 1988 would explain many of its more aggravating features. Take, for instance, the sudden death rooms. I found numerous spots where just entering the room would kill the PC. To make matters even more irritating, these deaths don’t happen as soon as the room is entered, because that could be remedied with a simple UNDO. Instead, the death occurs upon exiting. It’s a bit like those nasty jungle traps that catch your foot in a circle of downward-angled spikes — it’s not the stepping in that hurts you, but the extrication.

Back in 1988, freeware IF was still in its infancy, and in those ancient days, sudden death traps like these weren’t so terribly uncommon. Nowadays, we like to think that the art of IF game design has evolved, and traps like these are frowned upon as unfair and annoying. The same can be said for strict inventory limits and the inventory management problems that accompany them. Does Stranded have these? Yep, sure does. Let’s see, what else? Maze? Check. Near as I could tell, solving it doesn’t even yield anything good, either. Starvation time limit? Check, and several puzzles must be solved before the game even makes any food available. Size way too large for the comp? Check.

In fact, this game even somehow managed to break some aspects of the standard TADS parser so that it behaved more primitively, like so:

> shoot alligator
What do you want to shoot it with?

> gun
There's no verb in that sentence!

I doubt this feature was disabled on purpose, but its absence just makes the game feel like that much more of a throwback. About the only old-school feature I couldn’t find was a light source puzzle, and given that I couldn’t finish the game in two hours (could anybody?), for all I know there may have been one of those too. The IF competition has now been in existence for seven years, and yet we’re still seeing games designed before the advent of TADS, Inform, and the new wave of freeware IF. When will it end? Nobody can say, I suppose, but it can’t come too soon for me. It’s not that I object to old fashioned puzzlefests, or that I need every game to be Photopia, but darn it, we have learned some things in the past 13 years. Sudden death rooms are not challenging, not fair, and not fun. Mazes are dull. The idea that a PC could starve to death within a few hours, or even a few days, is silly.

More’s the pity, because Stranded has some strong features. It provides photos with every location and many of its objects, and some of this photography is really lovely. Of course, some of it is a little suspect — the photo of a large insect appears actually to be an electron microscope magnification of a very small insect. Still, even if one can’t help but wonder whether some of the game was built around what photographs the author was able to find, they still do an excellent job at enhancing the setting.

What’s more, this setting — a marshy, swampy island — is one we haven’t seen much of in IF, and I was intrigued by its possibilities, many of which the game included. As is typical of games designed before the competition existed, this one is way too large to be completed in 2 hours, even with help from the walkthrough. Consequently, I didn’t see the whole thing, but I didn’t need to. Stranded has lots of pretty pictures, some of which are even worth the effort to see. Its writing, while fairly bad in some places, does have its moments. But at bottom, it’s a game from 1988, gussied up and presented as new, but still unable to disguise its decaying roots.

Rating: 5.0