After playing the ten games I’d initially mapped for our Infocom journey, Dante and I did play one more. This time, we were following a chain of interest for him. I’ve mentioned before that Dante’s favorite author is N.K. Jemisin. At the time of our Infocom odyssey, Jemisin’s latest book was The City We Became, which is a riff on (among many other things) H.P. Lovecraft, taking into account not just his otherworldly imaginings but also his racism, sexism, and general paranoia.
To help Dante understand the broader context behind Jemisin’s work, I gifted him a volume containing all of Lovecraft’s fiction. After he’d cruised through that, I just happened to mention that there was a Lovecraft-y Infocom game, should he be interested. He was!
Thus, we dove into The Lurking Horror, Infocom’s alchemical combination of a college game and a Lovecraft homage. I have strong, scary, and wonderful memories of playing this game myself, freshman year of college. I was at NYU, sick with a bad cold on Halloween night, and therefore alone in my dorm while everybody else was out at the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. I wasn’t tired enough to sleep, and I’d never gotten that far in The Lurking Horror, so I fired it up and played for hours, orange letters glowing against black on my 1988 monochrome monitor. I vividly remember encountering its eerie scenes, and how the game salvaged my otherwise disappointing Halloween.
Returning to the game with Dante in 2021, we saw almost immediately how the passage of time had warped some of its initial atmosphere:
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.
Oh how this passage rings with unintentional comedy now. I mean, when I was playing in 1988, a color monitor still seemed pretty fancy, but now? Not so much. Same with a mouse, an “attached” hard disk, a local area network, and a 1024 by 1024 pixel display. That display also prompted this exchange:
Dante: Isn’t that a square?
Me: Yes, computer monitors used to be squares.
And yes, I did say 2021 above. It’s taken me so long to get to this post that Dante himself is now in college!
The Lurking Horror is a Dave Lebling creation, and as with Spellbreaker, it’s a clinic on interactive fiction writing and design. In particular, this time around I was deeply impressed by Lebling’s use of objects to bind and further threads of the game at various layers, from tone to theme to puzzles.
Take the smooth stone, for instance. I’d argue that it’s one of the best, most effective objects in any Infocom game, doing multiple kinds of work at once. First, it’s a vital weapon against some of the otherworldly threats that the PC faces. As such, it’s useful at several different points in the game, cropping up in the plot rhythmically, like a heartbeat.
We’re trained in the very beginning of the game that there’s a connection between freaky monsters and this stone, but we don’t get to actually throw the stone at the monster in that initial dream sequence. Thus, when we actually do get to throw it at a monster, the action is that much more satisfying. For us, that was the maintenance man — we knew the stone was powerful when it left a burn mark on his forehead. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually vanquish him.
Next was the dark flier that attacks us in the weather observation dome. Here, the stone doesn’t leave a mark — in fact it goes through the creature entirely — but the monster reacts nevertheless, retreating when we throw the stone inside, and following the stone over the edge when we throw it outside. For the first time, the stone is the answer to a puzzle, and thus its significance builds further.
Threats like the rats and the professor aren’t otherworldly, so the stone doesn’t work on them, which further helps define its purpose, and also sets up one of the game’s best one-off jokes:
>throw stone at professor
You miss. (Now you know why few technical schools make it to the Rose Bowl.)
Finally, at the climax of the game, it’s the smooth stone that is the key to victory — and perhaps a sequel? Thus Lebling uses the smooth stone object to create a unity, tying the beginning of the game to its end.
That’s not all, though. There’s a symbol scratched on the stone, described in Lebling’s signature combination of evocation and understatement: “The symbol, on close examination, appears to have been carved into the smooth stone, perhaps with a claw. The symbol is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and yet somehow you know it has meaning.” Lebling uses the power of text here in just the same way Lovecraft did — evoking “the undescribeable” in a way no illustration could possibly manage. That symbol is also a recurring theme, appearing in such places as the Chinese food carton, the rat brand, the altar, and the tattoo on the mummified hand.
Every time we find one of these symbols, there’s a sense of the walls closing in, as whatever unholy truth it signifies invades our world from another direction. The COMPARE verb is golden here, though sometimes there can be a bit of awkwardness getting the game to understand what we mean. When it does, though:
>compare carved symbol to tattoo
Allowing for the different media in which the symbols are executed, they are identical.
That’s good for a chill.
Most important of all, the stone functions as a symbol itself. We slip into an eerie dream, find the stone, and then when we wake up, the stone is there in our hand. Thus it represents the intrusion of the unconscious world of dreams into the waking world — our first definitive evidence that something uncanny is happening. That’s the essence of Lovecraftian horror — the sense that the dimensional barriers have become weak, and that unspeakable abominations from beyond are creeping into our ordinary world.
To throw these supernatural elements into sharp relief, Lebling employs a deep naturalism throughout many other parts of the game. Settings like the elevator, the computer lab, and the snowy streets are utterly ordinary, setting us up to be that much more shocked when we encounter eerie presences that don’t belong.
That naturalism works through to the puzzles too, such as the very satisfying and logical puzzle of the maintenance man. There’s glass you can’t safely shatter and reach through without some kind of protection — thus the electrician’s gloves, which themselves quite reasonably crop up in a technical storage area. There’s a cord that must be severed — hence the fire axe behind the glass. To stop the zombie you must take advantage of its clumsiness — hence the floor wax, which of course the janitor would have. All of it feels perfectly natural and logical, letting us use the ordinary objects of our world against something that shouldn’t be in it.
Just as we use the maintenance man’s floor wax against him, so too do we find other objects that strike ironic counterpoints as they become puzzle solutions. There’s a sacrificial knife which helps save us from becoming a sacrifice. The urchin steals bolt cutters, which we liberate and then use to free the other urchins. Sure, they’re puzzle solutions, but they also deepen the theme and the mood when they tie story elements together, feeling not just correct for the puzzle but incredibly apt for the entire fiction. These marvelous grace notes show the hand of the master at work.
It’s also a brilliant choice to make the PC explicitly a technology-oriented student at a technology college. In contrast to the fantasy trappings of the Zork and Enchanter games, this PC-as-techie feels very grounded in our world, carrying around things like a crowbar and a flashlight. A tech focus helps solve many of the puzzles, and it also throws into sharp contrast the deeply non-technological Lovecraft aesthetic, providing a background against which the slithering and undulating monstrosities feel even more alien.
Speaking of the crowbar, can we just give a shout-out to the crowbar for a second? I love having a crowbar in an IF game. Moments like this made us cheer:
>remove manhole cover
You can't get a good grip on it; it's heavy and in a steel ring; impossible to just drag it away.
>pry cover with crowbar
You lever the manhole cover aside, and crusted dirt falls into a dark, partly obstructed hole below.
Same with opening the steam valve at just the right time to cook the attacking rats. But by far my favorite use of the crowbar is in my favorite puzzle of the game: the elevator/chain puzzle. This is a beautiful piece of IF design — so well-done that it’s one of the main things I remembered, 30 years on from my first playthrough of The Lurking Horror.
In that playthrough, I figured out how to get into the elevator shaft pretty early on — using the crowbar not just to open the doors but to hold them open, which is what makes this puzzle such a great use of that object. Once that was done, though, it took me for-EVER to figure out how to secure the chain. I seem to recall having a conversation with my dad that helped light the way. In our playthrough, it took a very long time for Dante to think to pry open the elevator doors, but once he did and found the chain, the notion of padlocking it occurred to him in pretty short order.
Again, the entire thing is a highly mechanical solution, engineering a combination of tools in conjunction with each other to achieve the desired effect. I’ve written in the past about how location descriptions inevitably act as a determining factor for the viewpoint character, but here’s an instance where well-crafted puzzles are doing the same. The kind of applied scientific and mechanical knowledge necessary to traverse this game seems like just the sort of thing
MIT sorry, GUE Tech would want to be teaching.
While the PC is clearly a techie, the hacker is probably the best emblem in the game of tech school culture. At first, he seems pretty much like a stereotype, albeit a funny and well-implemented one. He sets up the initial narrative drive by telling the PC to search for the Lovecraft server in the Department of Alchemy, and enacts a typical IF NPC function of “give x to get y”.
However, the hacker appears again at the climax, and this time he has agency. He’s pursued his own investigation, having a parallel adventure that begins… whenever the player last left the computer lab. He becomes heroic in this scene, which makes his subsequent possession all the more horrifying. What’s more, he’s discovered that the stakes are much higher than just GUE Tech: “That thing there, whatever it is, and those wires, are interfaced to the whole campus net. And that means it’s tied into all the nets, commercial, government, even military, potentially.” The threat is now a synthesis of eldritch and modern — the horrors from beyond infecting the levers of power in our world.
Consequently, the solution must combine magical and technical elements as well. The PC hacks apart a power line with an axe, but only because a magically animated hand has shown the underwater location of the line. We use electricity from that power line to damage the beast, but its final defeat comes from the mystical smooth stone. And we were happy to see the hacker back on his feet in a final moment, rationality and science triumphing (albeit exhausted) over irrationality and the demon-haunted world at last, just as it did in the end of Spellbreaker.
How about the engineering of the game itself? Well, it has its moments. I was quite impressed in the opening scene that even though there’s an assignment in the PC’s inventory, “click paper” knows just what to do:
You click the box for your paper, and the box grows reassuringly until it fills most of the screen. Unfortunately, the text that fills it bears no resemblance to your paper. The title is the same, but after that, there is something different, very different.
Of course, I figured out later that this is because you can’t call the assignment a paper, even though it’s specifically described as “Laser printed on creamy bond paper.” (Another funny moment of what was cutting-edge in the 80s feeling quaint now.) Not to mention, the text implementation of the of the computer’s GUI, with its many boxes, leads to this awesomely anticlimactic moment in the final scene, a tightly timed scene which demands so much repetition that you may forget to step into the right room before trying to open the electrical panel box:
>open box. unscrew coax.
You see no YAK editor.
You can't see any coax here.
Another great bit of unintentional comedy came up when we tried to get ourselves out of the forklift:
>turn on lights
You can't reach the light from within the forklift.
Please use compass directions instead.
You can't go that way.
You are now on your feet.
Good thing we remembered our lessons from the boat in Zork I! Okay, I guess I said “it has its moments” and then went straight into bloopers. So let’s look at some genuine hits.
The Lurking Horror was mid-to-late-period Infocom, and we can see some notes of kindness creeping into the house style, even in this horror game. For example, the door south from the Infinite Corridor warns us before going through:
Remember, this is one of the doors that's always locked at night. You won't be able to get back in if you go out.
This could have been handled by a sign on the door, but instead the parser itself intervenes, with an “are you sure?” style message. Of course, we can still go through! And then freeze to death. But that’s fair enough, given the warning, and much fairer than earlier games would have been.
The game also features some nice object description handling, to adjust to interactions that change their state:
>cut slime with knife
The knife touches the curtain, and immediately some of the slime attacks, flowing almost intelligently onto it. The knife is now covered with slime.
First, it's covered with slime. This small knife is clean, sharp, and has a long, thin blade and a wooden handle. Only the tip of the blade appears at all dull or used.
“First, it’s covered with slime” is an accurate — and amusing — way to keep the game’s object descriptions consistent with the change in state enacted in the previous command. Also, hat tip to the evocative description indicating that only the tip of the blade is used — a fantastic way to convey “this is a stabber”.
Finally, there are some nice little touches with randomized text. The elevator graffiti is a great example — various snippets that convey the university’s culture, including “I.H.T.F.P.”, which I had to look up. Also, there’s a bit in the death message that says, “something gnawing on your nose thinks it’s pretty wonderful”, except that the body part changes at random — ears, tongue, fingertips, and so forth. That’s kinda fun.
We saw that death message an awful lot, because there are a couple of pretty tightly timed and unforgiving action sequences in the game: the attempted sacrifice with the professor and the aforementioned final scene. I’m of two minds about this approach. On the one hand, it can be very tedious to run through the same scene over and over again, making tiny adjustments each time. On the other hand, making the timing so unforgiving created a huge sense of triumph when we were actually able to thread the needle. Given the horror genre, this might still be the best way to pull off the “narrow escape” trope in IF.
And because this is a horror game, I’ve saved the most horrifying parts for last. Behold, if you dare:
- There’s a sleep timer. And going to sleep kills you. Granted, there’s a mitigation available — the Coke bottle — but that’s a finite resource that only delays the end.
- There’s a light limit, without any mitigation. You run out of light, you gotta start over.
- There are TWO kinds of inventory limit — the typical Infocom double whammy of “you’re carrying too many things” and “your load is too heavy.” And of course, getting low on the sleep timer makes the latter limit even stricter. This was especially painful in the final scene, when we kept figuring out things we needed, and had to trundle all the way back through the maze to pick up whatever item from the room where we’d piled everything up.
- Did I mention that there’s a maze? There’s a maze.
As is pretty much always the case with these Infocom games, we had to restart in order to optimize our playthrough against the game’s timers, in this case both light and sleep. Who know that when I named this the “Infocom >RESTART project”, it would play out so literally? Not a fun way of extending the game’s playtime.
Speaking of “not a fun way to extend the game’s playtime”, a maze — no matter how thematic or atmospheric — is still a goddamned maze. There is no intellectual pleasure to solving this kind of puzzle, just sheer bloody-mindedness. Now, it turns out that there’s a mitigation for this one as well, and I found it when I played the game as a college student. However, Dante and I did not find it, and in the meantime I’d forgotten about it, so we had to map the maze the grueling, old-fashioned way. Both tortuous and torturous.
These are artifacts of old-school IF, the kind that Infocom was evolving through during their history. It’s too bad they were still lingering on for the creation of this game, because otherwise it is absolutely stellar. Still, what’s a Lovecraftian tale without an infestation from things that simply SHOULD NOT BE?