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.

Zork I [Infocom >RESTART]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can't see any dead here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opening screen of Zork I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hello, Sailor!

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

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

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

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

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