Spellbreaker [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of the Infocom grey box for Spellbreaker

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

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

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

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


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

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

You do that very well for such an inexperienced grue.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

The final screen from a winning playthrough of Spellbreaker.

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

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

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

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

Future Boy! by Kent Tessman [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2005.]

IFDB Page: Future Boy!

Hugo’s Heroes

Kent Tessman is both a filmmaker and a game author, and his latest game, Future Boy!, seems to have started life as a screenplay. I say “seems to” because while there are a lot of references to the “original Future Boy screenplay,” I never found any place in the game or its accompanying documentation that actually explained the story of how it came to be, why it didn’t get produced, and how it morphed from a movie idea into a game idea. Instead, the game just cruises along as if we know what it’s talking about, which we don’t. At least, I don’t.

So the characters and story started out aimed at the silver screen. How do they survive the transition onto the monitor screen? Pretty well, I’m happy to say. There’s plenty of fun to be had in Future Boy!‘s rich and well-implemented world, and the game’s multimedia content is easily the most impressive I’ve ever seen in an independently produced text adventure. If Future Boy! were free, it would be one of the best amateur games ever. However, it isn’t free — Tessman sells it for $25 (or $20 if you’re willing to forego the CD jewel case and booklet), and for me, that price tag demands a higher standard of testing and design, a standard that the game doesn’t always meet. I feel uncharacteristically reluctant to level any aspersions whatsoever at Future Boy!, since it’s so obviously the product of immense craft and dedication by a small cadre of artists. However, the fact remains that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it, especially its later sections, and despite all the care and attention it obviously received, this game is still a flawed gem.

Still, I come to praise Future Boy! before I bury it (or maybe just toss a few shovelfuls of criticism onto it), so let’s talk about the multimedia, which is just awesome. Future Boy! splits the screen horizontally, with the bottom half dedicated to traditional text output, and the top half occupied by various hand-drawn pictures, some animated and some not. These pictures can be of the current location, as is the case with most multimedia IF, but they also serve to illustrate important objects and NPCs, and they sometimes show animated cut-scenes as well. The art feels enjoyably comic-booky, though amateur — artist Derek Lo is no John Romita, but his drawings do a nice job of evoking both the comedic and the adventuresome elements of the game, effectively strengthening its tone. Moreover, Tessman enhances the comic-book feel by displaying these pictures as independently floating panels rather than trapping them in static frames. The animations are especially cool, combining moving images with sound to marvelous effect, and providing a real reward for the act of puzzle-solving or exploration that triggers them.

Speaking of sound, the game’s sound design is as solid as its visual appeal. There’s zippy original music, written by the multitalented Tessman, who also does voice-acting for one of the characters. All the NPC voice-acting is pretty good in general, and occasionally inspired. Future Boy! reinforces the voice actors’ character-building with color-coded dialogue — red for the red-haired woman and so forth. These multimedia touches lend the NPCs much more distinctiveness and nuance than appears in the typical text game. The one minor quibble I’d make with the game’s sound is its insistence on inserting odd little musical cues and stings at scattered points throughout the interaction, sometimes seemingly at random. These cues make for an interesting experiment in mood-building, but they’re distracting as often as they’re dramatic. Still, they can be turned off, so no real harm done there.

In fact, Future Boy! provides a wealth of options like that, allowing player control over not only traditional things like verbose or brief descriptions, but also over its use of color, images, sounds, conversation menus, footnotes — virtually every special feature it provides. Controls like these are emblematic of the care that went into this game’s implementation, which is quite thorough overall, especially in the earlier sections of the story. One way in which the game wisely supports its location-depicting graphics is to implement all the objects shown in those graphics but not mentioned in the room description, even if only with a “that’s not important” type of message. Loads of other good ideas are put into action here, such as the entertaining plot recap provided after every SCORE and RESTORE command. I also appreciate the friendly “you can’t go that way” messages, which make sure to tell you what exits exist in the current location, and the nifty change in look and feel that occurs during a section of the game that involves hacking into a computer. Perhaps the coolest feature of all is the DVD-style “commentary” option which allows you to play through a version of the game where Tessman and Lo interject various musings and anecdotes on the making of the game at various points in the play session. If any question still remained, Future Boy! should eliminate all doubt that Hugo is absolutely a top-tier system for creating IF, possessing a solid world model and parser, and capable of achieving some really cool effects.

Future Boy!‘s story is pretty cool too. It shouldn’t give away too much to say that you play the roommate of a superhero living in Rocket City, a sort of stylized fictional mixture of New York and L.A. Future Boy (or Frank, as he’s known to you) has powers that are never quite defined but are vaguely Superman-like. However, he acts more like a typical roommate than a typical superhero, sometimes preferring to hang out on the couch watching TV rather than motivate to get the bad guys. So when supervillain Clayton Eno (who seems to have no powers at all besides a host of goofy Get Smart-ish devices and the ability to raise his eyebrows ominously) goes on a rampage, you find yourself drawn like Jimmy Olsen into the plot, and eventually it’s up to you to save the day, with a little help from some NPCs you meet along the way.

These NPCs are an entertaining bunch, with some very funny lines and incidental business for each. I particularly like Gorrd, a giant green — well, play the game and you’ll see. Dialogue occurs via a hybrid conversation system that combines menus with Infocom-style ASK and TELL commands. This system works pretty smoothly for the most part, though I did get seriously tripped up by it once, when a plot trigger was nestled in a menu option; I was forgetting to use the menus due to my old ASK/TELL habits. If the game seems to want to proceed but you can’t figure out how to nudge it along, my advice is to TALK TO everybody. Then TALK TO them again.

Future Boy!‘s heroic (or maybe sidekicky) premise makes for a fun world, and Tessman’s writing helps the fun along. The prose doesn’t particularly call attention to itself, though it’s certainly pretty good adventure game writing — adequate description with a hint or two smuggled in, as well as some good jokes. What makes it such a pleasure is the tone, which stays pretty much perfect throughout the game. Future Boy! is neither high drama nor low comedy, but a pitch-perfect funny adventure in the LucasArts tradition, with aliens who act just like cranky film noir characters, a superhero who spends most of his time slacking, and a villain whose ridiculousness never stops, from his name to his nefarious plans. One of my favorite Eno lines, after he gets knocked to the ground:

Mess with my evil plans, will you? What, did you think I was just going to lie down there on the sidewalk whistling the theme to Three’s Company? Mess with my evil plans, Future Boy. Come and knock on *my* door.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the spelling and grammar are almost flawless; what errors remain seem like typos rather than genuine mistakes.

The game’s design does an excellent job of gradually opening up new plot and world terrain, and of introducing new complexities as the story goes on. The terrain itself feels convincingly urban — Future Boy! provides the feel of a large city without implementing a thousand locations by setting up several different areas of the city, linked by taxi and subway rides. Also, there’s an optional introductory section, which is very good at establishing the world and giving a sense of how the puzzles will go. In fact, Future Boy! contains a number of newbie-friendly features, such as a GOALS verb to list the PC’s current objectives, and the occasional parenthetical cueing that pops up when the PC seems to have wandered too far afield of those objectives, along the lines of “(Shouldn’t you be getting to work?)” Of course, that cueing can be frustrating if you know what you need to do but not how to do it, but it’s still a nice touch.

Should you find yourself thus stuck, Future Boy! provides an excellent set of in-game hints. These hints are in the classic InvisiClues style, starting with gentle nudges and advancing to outright solutions, depending on how many hints the player chooses to reveal. Also following the InvisiClues style, the hints are liberally strewn with red herrings; in this, they mirror some excesses in the game itself, about which a bit more later. For now, it’s enough to say that the hints are generally well written — with only one exception (when a subject heading wasn’t clear enough, leading me to ignore the hints that I needed) they gave me just enough help to get me unstuck. In any case, I tried to use them as little as possible, so that I could derive maximum enjoyment from the puzzles.

Many of these puzzles are quite enjoyable indeed. Most of the obstacles in Future Boy! offer a reasonable challenge without unreasonable frustration, and a few of them are highly pleasurable and original. Bypassing the security camera and getting the antidote formula are good examples of this, but I think my favorite was obtaining the helicopter key. This was one of those puzzles that I worked on for about a half-hour, set the game aside for a while, then had a flash of inspiration at 2am, fired up the laptop, tried my solution, and it worked. The IF experience doesn’t get better than that.

Other puzzles weren’t so hot, though, and generally the problem was down to a lack of feedback. There’s one puzzle where a critical item for the solution is never mentioned directly in its location’s room description. It’s possible to infer that the item is there, but it was rather too far a logical leap for my tastes. This issue would be solved by just a bit more suggestion in the room description (or possibly an action description) that the item is present. Another puzzle frustrated me by failing to account for some overlaps in its design — there’s an item that demonstrates a particular and significant behavior when taken to certain locations or placed in certain containers. However, placing the item in one of the special containers while standing in one of the special locations should produce another message about that behavior, and it doesn’t. This flaw led me to conclude that the container was ordinary, when in fact it wasn’t. Again, simply providing more sophisticated feedback would eliminate this problem.

Something else that makes Future Boy! more irritating than it should be is its abundance of red herrings. To some degree, these are a side effect of the game’s thorough implementation. Rocket City is a rich environment, with lots of fun jokes and easter eggs, and Future Boy! is designed like an old-style adventure game, meaning that your inventory quickly fills with tons of objects that might or might not be useful. However, there are plenty of purposeful red herrings inserted as well, throughout the game, and because the story is large, by the final scenes it really is too much. The problem becomes especially clear in those final scenes, because the game clearly seems to want a fast-paced climactic conflict, but the overwhelming number of misleading things to try and false trails to follow built up by that point makes it rather unlikely that the endgame will move along quickly.

Similarly, locations can change throughout the game, displaying new properties or objects as the plot moves along, and while this is a fine technique, it later begins to function as another burdensome red herring, when a stuck player travels desperately from one location to the next in hopes of finding something new. I’m not an anti-red-herring guy — I think a few blanks left unfilled at the end of the game lends a pleasing verisimilitude, but as I played through Future Boy! the second time, I was dumbfounded at just how many parts of it ended up having no function in the game’s true solution. In my opinion, scaling back on these would have brought a greater feeling of balance to the game, and made it more fun to play, especially towards the end.

Other weaknesses in the game spring from infelicities in Hugo’s world model and parser. Don’t get me wrong — for the most part, these things are on a par with the best in the genre, and I don’t hesitate to put Hugo on the same level with Inform and TADS for world model and parser quality. However, all systems have their quirks, and one of Hugo’s seems to be a peculiar disregard for scope. I frequently had interactions like this:

>x trash
You don't see him.

or this:

>turn around
You don't see him.

or this:

>ask coop about fire
Coop doesn't seem to have anything to say about van stuff.

What seems to be happening here is that Hugo’s parser is taking the noun it’s given and comparing it to every noun in its dictionary. When it finds a match, the parser gives the response appropriate to the noun matched, even if that noun’s object is nowhere near the player at the time. For instance, “ask coop about fire” is meant to be a question about a concept or event, but the game sees that “fire” is a synonym for “fire extinguisher”, one of the nouns it implements as scenery in the van location, and responds as if I were asking Coop about the fire extinguisher in the van. The problem isn’t quite as clear in the “You don’t see him” responses — all I can surmise is that “trash” and “around” must be synonyms for some NPC. “X traxh”, for instance, gives the response “You don’t need to use the word ‘traxh'”, which is Hugo’s standard response for a word it doesn’t recognize, so it must be that it thinks I’m trying to refer to some character. While I applaud this game’s efforts to provide lots of synonyms for everything, when that technique combines with Hugo’s strangely global scoping rules, the results can be quite disconcerting.

Another parser gripe: the disambiguation could be smarter, though perhaps this problem is just another permutation of the scoping issue. For instance, here’s a response I got while in Frank’s bedroom:

>make bed
Which bed do you mean, Frank's bed or the bunk bed?

It's Frank's bed -- you don't have to make it. Frank probably wouldn't recognize it if you did.

>x bunk
You don't see that.

There’s no bunk bed in the room. There’s a bunk bed in the game, but it’s in a totally different location and plot section. Hugo should be smarter than to ask a question disambiguating between one thing that’s present in the current location and another thing that isn’t. If there’s only one object in the area that matches the noun used, the parser should just assume that this is the object intended.

These points are quibbles compared to the game’s most significant problem: it just falls apart towards the end. Well, maybe “falls apart” is too strong, but there’s a noticeable drop in quality in the later parts of the game. For instance, the first two-thirds of the game is roughly broken into chapters, and the appearance of a new chapter title is always cause for excitement, and a feeling of accomplishment. However, in the final sections, the chaptering just stops, with even major accomplishments going unmarked. In addition, the bugginess quotient is considerably higher in the last half of the game than it is in the first half. For that matter, I found it rather too high in the first half, at least for a commercial release. What it feels like to me is that Future Boy! just runs out of steam a while before it ends. As a game author, I can relate to this syndrome (boy, can I ever), but it’s still quite disappointing, especially (again) in a game I’m paying for.

Along with some critical bugs in the final puzzles, at least one of these puzzles has, in my opinion, and extremely implausible solution. Elsewhere, game-logic that has held since the beginning suddenly deteriorates or even reverses itself at the end. These bugs and design flaws, combined with the game’s wide and open geography and its severe propensity for red herrings, created a real flail-a-thon for me as I struggled toward its conclusion. Needless to say, the excitement that should have been racing through me as I reached the story’s climax and conquered the last obstacles was drained and deflated by the time I finished them.

I guess the bottom line is that I expect more when I pay more. If I downloaded a game like this from the archive, I would be both more impressed and more forgiving, because this would be one hell of a game to get to play for free. When I’ve paid, though, I find myself looking through “customer’s eyes,” and I expect to see no bugs or serious design flaws. As good as this game is, it doesn’t reach those standards. It’s probably true that Future Boy! is superior to many games that were commercially released at twice the price, but that doesn’t let it off the hook. (It just means that those other games deserved, and probably got, even sharper criticism.) But because the author of this game belongs to a small, friendly community of which I’m a part, I find myself asking whether it’s fair to apply those standards in this case.

In the end, I’ve decided that it is, but I hope I’ve drawn enough attention to this game’s many strengths to make it clear what an impressive accomplishment it is, despite its problems. Tessman continues to release patched versions of the game, which makes me hopeful that many of its bugs will eventually be squashed. For adventure game fans, Future Boy! may be a little pricey, but it is worth playing.

Order by John Evans [Comp04]

IFDB page: Order
Final placement: 24th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

At this point, I feel like I could really save myself a lot of time and energy by just writing up a template for reviews of John Evans games. The basic gist of the template would be “This game has some cool ideas and a lot of potential, but it’s not really finished and it seems untested, so it sucks.” Then I could just fill in the blanks with some specifics about the game, and be done. Evans has submitted games to the last five IF competitions, and they’ve all fit this mold, so why shouldn’t I just keep writing the same review over and over again? I kinda have to.

I mean, I guess they’re improving. The first couple (Castle Amnos and Elements) were way too big for the competition, and that problem got corrected. Unfortunately, it got corrected by switching to total unfinishability due to scores of heinous bugs. I gave a rating of 1.0 to Evans’ last couple of games because they were just totally incomplete. Order isn’t as bad as that. It’s the right size for the comp, and it is finishable. But it is still not finished. See, if you’ve got a command called BUGS that lists out the bugs in the game, your game’s not finished. Actually, one of the funnier parts of Order is that even the BUGS list is buggy, as some of the things listed actually do work (though plenty don’t.) Also, if a crucial puzzle in your game rests on a piece of scenery that you don’t mention anywhere, your game’s not finished. A tester would catch that. That’s, y’know, what testers are for. Use them.

Actually, beta-testing seems particularly critical for a game like Order, because the game revolves around coming up with actions quite spontaneously, and the better sample you have of what actions people are going to come up with, the better you’ll be able to implement them. (Here’s where I start filling in the “cool ideas” part of the template.) I love the basic concept of this game — you’re some kind of magical spirit, and you’ve been set a series of tasks by your summoner. So far, still pretty bland, and strongly reminiscent of J.D. Berry’s The Djinni Chronicles. But the nifty twist that Order puts on things is that you have a CREATE verb at your disposal, and you must use it to solve every puzzle.

So, for instance, you find yourself faced with a locked door, and must CREATE a key. Done right, this could be an amazingly powerful device, giving the game a feeling of almost limitless possibility. And indeed, there are times when Order feels like that. Of course, there are way more times that it’s disappointing, and not just because I was trying crazy commands like CREATE PHASER and CREATE WETSUIT. Lots of much more reasonable attempts aren’t implemented, and I can’t help but think that some beta-testing would have greatly improved the game’s range of options. Still, there are multiple solutions to each puzzle available from creating various objects, and that aspect of the game is really fun. Too bad the other parts are such a drag.

Oh, there is one more good part — the hint system. These hints are nicely implemented, InvisiClues style, and it’s a good thing too, because nobody is finishing this game without the hints. As I alluded earlier, there’s a critical puzzle in the game’s midsection that is simply not solvable without hints, because its main components aren’t mentioned anywhere. Remember Bio, from Comp03, the game that starts out with gas seeping into your room and you have to get a gas mask out of an armoire, except the only place that says anything about an armoire is the walkthrough? Pretty tough puzzle, right? Well, Order takes inspiration from it with a puzzle where you must perform an action on an orb encased in a steeple. Problem is, nowhere in any room or object description are the orb and steeple mentioned. There is a dome mentioned, but like many of the scenery objects in room descriptions, it’s not implemented. Actually, even for some of the objects that are implemented, the descriptions aren’t exactly superb:

You are carrying a set of white robes (being worn).

>x robes
A set of white robes.

Ooo, spellbinding. So okay, I’ve almost got my template ready. The only thing left is to figure out how to wind it up. I’m leaning towards a plea for the future: please help your cool ideas reach their fullest potential by finishing and testing your games! Please! I may have to edit that part out though, as its refusal becomes more and more certain.

Rating: 4.9

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

>INVENTORY started as a pandemic project. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to get my many comp reviews, and various others, off of my student website, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that I found myself with the time and motivation to get this site started. My son Dante was 14 at the time, and all these new reviews, brought into the light, piqued his interest.

So he started reading, and learning about the 1990s IF cast of characters — Graham, Zarf, Rybread, and so forth. He also learned about IF history as it stood up to that point, and in particular how Infocom loomed large for all of us at that time. We’d talked about Infocom before — in fact, when he was five we played Zork together for about 45 minutes, resulting in much cuteness.

Meanwhile, revisiting those old reviews started to give me a hankering to spend some time in the Infocom worlds again. So I decided to replay some Infocom games, and Dante decided he’d like to join in. Because we (and a whole lot of IF-ers) started with Zork, I thought that’s where we could restart. I listed out what I think of as the 9 Zorkian Infocom games:

  • Zork I
  • Zork II
  • Zork III
  • Beyond Zork
  • Zork Zero
  • Enchanter
  • Sorcerer
  • Spellbreaker
  • Wishbringer

Then, to make it a nice even list of 10 games, I added Moonmist, more or less at random. It was a game I’d never finished, it seemed like it was going to be on the easier side, and it had a little historical significance, apparently, for being one of the first games featuring a lesbian character. Dante is an LGBTQ+ activist, so I liked that connection, though as it turns out the depiction is very slight indeed.

Even before I embarked on this replay project, Dante had been exploring newer corners of the IF world — Lock & Key, Counterfeit Monkey, Steph Cherrywell’s games, and some others. So he was familiar with the basic idiom and mechanisms of these games. Essentially, he was right about where I was at his age in 1984, except that his primary text game experiences had been with 21st-century interactive fiction. Plus, he’d been playing video games of all sorts pretty much since he could talk, as opposed to me whose only other video gaming came at the pizza parlor, skating rink, or occasional arcade. Oh, and those friends’ houses lucky enough to contain an Atari 2600.

A vintage Infocom advertisement, with an image of a brain and the caption "We unleash teh world's most powerful graphics technology".

So our Infocom odyssey was a combination of me revisiting childhood memories, with dim recollections of puzzles and landscapes, and him seeing these vintage games through fresh eyes, his expectations shaped by a far more evolved version of text games and computer games in general. I’m still the faster typist between us, so I sat at the keyboard and read aloud, while he directed the action. We transcripted all our interactions, so that I could remember how they went when I wrote the reviews. We also used the invaluable Trizbort to map our progress, generally starting out with the automapping and then inevitably abandonding that when some mazy thing confused its relatively simple algorithm.

If I remembered a puzzle’s solution, I’d try to keep my trap shut and give him the pleasure of solving it for himself, though sometimes if we crossed the line between fun flailing and ragequit flailing, I might drop a subtle hint. More often than not, I didn’t remember the puzzle either, so we could genuinely collaborate on solving it. When we got really stymied we’d turn to the invaluable .z5 Invisiclues at the Infocom Documentation Project, but that wasn’t terribly often.

So as I write about these games, I’m writing about that experience. I’m not trying to write the definitive history of an Infocom game — for my money Jimmy Maher has got that territory 100% nailed down. Instead, I’m presenting an idiosyncratic and personal account of how Dante and I experienced those games — how I felt upon returning to those oft-trod trails and how Dante’s insights illuminated them for me like a trusty brass lantern.

We started Zork I on August 5, 2020, and finished Moonmist on December 20. Given sufficient time and interest, there may be more to come! Note that all of these reviews will be spoiler-laden — they aren’t written to promote a game but rather to analyze an experience, so I won’t shy away from getting specific.